Road to Dunkirk:
British Anti-Tank Guns

By Jason Rahman
February 2019

At the beginning of World War Two anti-tank guns were small weapons pushed about by their crews, but by the end of the war anti-tank guns could weigh as much as 12 tons and needed a huge tractor to move them about the battlefield. The British were no exception. They started the war with the tiny 2-pounder and when the war ended a huge 32-pounder gun was in development. By the end of the war anti-tanks guns were no longer practical because of their huge size and unwieldiness. Here are just a few of the anti-tank guns used by the British Empire during the early part of World War Two.

The 2-Pounder

Canadian gunners sight a 2-pounder.


The origins of the 2-pounder began in an early 1930's request for an anti-tank gun with a maximum range of at least 1000 yards that could also be fitted in a tank turret. While the requirement that the gun fit in a tank turret reduced its effectiveness, the 2-pounder was still the best of its time when introduced in early 1936 even though it was a heavier than the other pieces of its generation. That summer an improved carriage was introduced and the new piece was known as the QF 2-pounder Mk 2. It was this improved version that was the main model of the 2-pounder.

The gun was mounted on a three-legged carriage that allowed 360 degrees of traverse. To deploy the gun for action, the five-man crew first removed the wheels, then lowered the two front legs and the gun was ready to fire. Often the 2-pounder was transported on the back of a truck to reduce unnecessary wear on the carriage. It was only a matter of time before the gunners decided to fire the gun off the back of the truck to make it more mobile. Guns mounted like this, known as portees, were very effective despite the lack of protection. In fact, before the war began, there were numerous experimental portee designs based on the Bren and Lloyd carriers, but these projects never finished development.

The 2-pounder was originally provided with an armor-piercing (AP) shell with a small explosive charge in the base much like other AP shells. However the fuse and explosive didn't work well so this shell gave way to a solid steel shell. Later the 2-pounder was provided with an AP shell with both ballistic and penetrating caps to increase its effectiveness against the face-hardened armor of German tanks. Contrary to popular belief, the 2-pounder actually had a high-explosive shell but it wasn't issued in great numbers to the anti-tank gunners and even less to tank crews. It was the low usage of the explosive shell that causes many to believe that no such shell existed.

During the desert campaigns of 1941 through 1942 the 2-pounder was so outclassed by its German rivals that its crews had nicknamed it the "popgun" among other things. Despite its ineffectiveness, it still was able to kill Axis tanks if it could get a good shot. For example, the anti-tank gun of Sergeant Gould was able to kill six German tanks by hiding and waiting for the enemy tanks to pass by before firing. During the desert war of 1941 and 1942, anti-tank gunners began developing new tactics to counter enemy tanks that proved very useful when the newer 6- and 17-pounders came into service. Until those improved guns came into service the 2-pounders were supplemented by 25-pounders firing AP ammunition.

By 1942 the 2-pounder was finally replaced by the 6-pounder in anti-tank units and was handed over to infantry and home guard units. Eventually by late 1943 even many infantry units had their 2-pounders replaced by 6-pounders. The 2-pounder saw service for the rest of the war in the Asian Theater until 1945 at which time it was finally declared obsolete and removed from service. The 2-pounder appears in Road to Dunkirk.

The 6-Pounder


Troopers of 2nd Ox and Bucks Light Infantry load a 6-pounder aboard a Horsa glider, June 1944.

By 1938 it was clear to the British that the 2-pounder was becoming obsolete and the 6-pounder was designed as its replacement. In 1939 several prototypes of the 6-pounder were built and tested. Plans for production were even being drawn up, but then came Dunkirk. The loss of as many as five hundred 2-pounders caused the British to delay the production of the 6-pounder to build as many of a known gun as possible until there were enough to satisfy the Army's needs before production could begin on the new gun. Production finally began in November 1941 and the first models began to arrive at field units in early 1942.


A Territorial Army crew with their 6-pounder, post-war.

The 6-pounder was originally equipped with a mechanical traversing gear, but during the development process it was deleted and replaced by the gunner pushing the gun left and right to traverse it. Two of the features that were added to the 6-pounder during its life was the addition of a muzzle brake and a longer barrel, both of which were introduced in the Mk IV model. There was also an airborne version with various lightening measures as well as trail legs that could be taken apart into two pieces. During the war twelve 6-pounders were equipped with an autoloader and mounted on Mosquito fighter-bombers for anti-submarine work. A modified 6-pounder was also produced by the Americans as the 57mm M1, which saw extensive service throughout the war.

The 6-pounder was supplied with regular AP and HE shells, but soon the improved APC and APCBC shells were issued and took the place of the regular AP shell, giving it even more punch. For a short time around the fall of 1943 it was supplied with an APCR round that dramatically increased penetration at ranges shorter than 1000 meters. In June 1944 it became the first gun to have an APDS round as its service round.

When the 6-pounder arrived at the front, anti-tank gunners finally had something that could kill German tanks at a reasonable distance. It was capable of penetrating any German tank in service; in fact the 6-pounder even claimed the first Tiger tank knocked out in North Africa. A wide variety of experimental self-propelled 6-pounder designs were produced, but none were accepted in quantity because of the British Army's reluctance to adopt the tank destroyer concept. However, like the 2-pounder, there were still plenty of portee guns mounted on the back of a truck.

The 6-pounder continued in use throughout the entire war and even after the war before finally being removed from service. During the war the 6-pounder was mounted on a wide range of tanks just like the 2-pounder before it. At one point it was the standard gun for all British tanks. The 6-pounder appears in Liberation 1944.

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