Anti-tank 101 Part I



Tanks always create a morale effect on infantry, however often they have seen tanks, or have been told by officers that they will be quite safe if they take cover and let the tanks pass on. It is recognised that infantry can do nothing against tanks. The troops themselves will await a tank attack with calmness. The first essential for the infantry is that they should keep their heads. Anti-tank defence is nowadays more a question of nerves than of material. The German infantry still considers that as soon as the tanks have broken through their line, further resistance is useless. A German Corps order: “Messages concerning tanks have preference over all other telephone calls, including messages regarding aeroplanes.”

—from The Tank in Action by Captain D.G. Browne, MC

When the tank first entered military service with the British Army in World War I, its primary mission was to break through the enemy defenses and enable British infantry elements to penetrate the German line and engage the opposition in open battle. The early successes caused the Germans to think about ways to defeat the new mechanical threat. Since then the world’s armies have concentrated great resources on the design, development, production and utilization of both tank and anti-tank weaponry. Each new, seemingly invincible, tank design has ultimately been countered or seriously threatened, by anti-tank weaponry, whether gun, rocket, grenade, mine or other device.

It was initially thought that a heavily armored tank was more easily put out of action through wounding or killing the crew than through damaging the vehicle itself. The early tank was armored with a form of boiler plate, protecting the crew from rifle and machine-gun bullets and small shrapnel fragments. The driver operated the vehicle while peering through a narrow vision slit at the front of the tank, leaving him somewhat vulnerable to fire from German infantry ahead. Even though the likelihood of the enemy actually hitting the driver through that slit was slim, he and the eight other crew members were extremely vulnerable to metal fragment splash from rounds hitting near the slit. They soon adapted chain-mail visors or steel masks to protect against the splash effect.

Next to killing or seriously wounding the crew of a tank, the objective of the opposing force was to stop the vehicle by any means available, making it a stationary target and thus easier to destroy or eliminate as a threat. When a slow-moving tank of 1916 managed to breach the enemy line and advance into the open, it often became relatively easy game for opposing artillery which was likely to stop it.

The First World War brought other anti-tank concepts. Enemy infantry tried lobbing grenades onto the hulls of tanks as they approached, in an effort to injure the crew and cause damage within the vehicle by blowing a hole through its roof. Tank designers were quick to protect against this threat by putting a sloped, triangular “roof” of wood and wire netting over the tank. When a grenade landed on the roof it either exploded away from the hull itself, or fell off and exploded on the ground, doing little or no damage to the tank. Infantry personnel also tried, with varying success, to explode set charges beneath tanks as the vehicles crossed them. Attempts to stop enemy tanks with ditches or trenches often failed as the tanks were designed to cross such gaps.

In its infancy, the tank was probably its own worst enemy, being slow, underpowered and unreliable. More often than not, it bogged down in mud, succumbed to some insurmountable obstacle or simply broke down mechanically, becoming an easy mark for enemy gunners.

As tanks became faster, more maneuverable, more reliable, better armed and better armored during the 1920s, the efforts to find an effective counter intensified. The designers of anti-tank weaponry now focused on the most vulnerable aspects of their target. Apparent weaknesses in the tank structure such as the tracks, suspension and hatches were quickly exploited. The tank crew was re-targetted with new emphasis put on burning them out of action by attacking the inflammable fuel and ammunition carried in the vehicle. The use of rifle and machine-gun fire to kill the driver either in his open hatch, or through his vision block was also emphasized. Greater attention was paid to finding weak points in a tank’s armor as it became clear that the tank planners of the day were utilizing the heaviest armor on the turret and front of the hull, with thinner plating on the sides, rear and top surfaces.

In 1936 the Spanish Civil War provided a unique opportunity for the testing and evaluation of a wide variety of weaponry, from bomber and attack aircraft through tanks (both light and heavy) and anti-tank systems. Italian and German light tanks were proved highly vulnerable to the relatively small-calibre anti-tank guns of the time, and to an early form of Molotov Cocktail, used by the Soviet-supported Republican forces. The most interesting tank-related lesson of the conflict, in terms of the approaching Second World War, was a German experiment in which their gunners employed a small number of 88mm anti-aircraft guns against a few hapless Soviet BT-4 tanks. So devastating was their effect on the tanks that the future development of German tank armament was dramatically influenced by the experiment.

By the end of the 1930s a new sophistication had invaded the field of tank design. The previous flat-slab look began to give way to a somewhat contoured shape as the advantages of a sloping surface came to light. It was realized that the probability of an enemy round deflecting off such a sloped surface was far greater than was the case with a slab-sided structure. Soon a combination of this “ballistic shaping” and a new welded and cast type of armor was defining the tank weapon for the 1940s. The use of welded seams in place of rivets increased the protection factor for tank crews substantially by eliminating the possibility of rivets being turned into potentially lethal missiles when the tank hull was struck by incoming rounds.

Tanks were now more powerful and faster, making them more difficult targets for enemy gunners to hit, but new anti-tank guns were able to fire larger, higher-velocity rounds with improved penetration which increased their lethality when a tank was hit. The new rounds soon reached a point of diminishing return, however, when it was discovered that beyond a certain velocity, they actually shattered on impact with the new tank armor, leaving the vehicle relatively undamaged.

As the armor grew in thickness, strength and resistance to penetration, industrialists working on ways to defeat the tank turned their attention to the problems with their ammunition. Part of the trouble with existing anti-tank rounds was the steel of which they were made. The search for a harder, denser, more shatter-resistant material was on in earnest. The solution seemed to be tungsten carbide, but this, although affordable, was considerably heavier than steel and projectiles made of it therefore achieved much lower velocities than comparable steel rounds. At this point a German idea from the 1920s resurfaced when the Rheinmetall company succeeded in building a light anti-tank gun with a tapered bore. The new gun fired a shell with a tungsten core and a soft steel body mounted with “skirts” which were compressed around the body of the projectile as it travelled through the barrel of the gun. The effect gave both the high velocity and increased penetration power that the makers wanted. The new weapon proved quite effective in the North African desert engagements of 1942.

By 1943 work was under way in Britain on one of the most important anti-tank concepts ever: the Armor-Piercing Discarding Sabot (APDS). A sabot is a lightweight carrier in which a projectile of a smaller calibre is centered so as to permit the projectile to be fired from within a larger calibre weapon. The carrier fills the bore of the weapon from which the projectile is fired and is normally discarded a short distance from the muzzle. The result of this effort, a 3 1/4-pound (at loading) round capable of achieving a muzzle velocity of 1,234 meters per second and penetrating 146mm of armor at a range of 915 meters, made its combat debut in Normandy during June 1944. This was progress and an impressive achievement. But the Germans, whose own supplies of tungsten were so limited that they were unable to allocate any of the precious material for further use in ammunition, had managed to develop and field vehicles in the form of the Tiger II and Jagdtiger (the latter a tank destroyer) with armor capable of standing up to the APDS. Additionally, the 88mm gun of the Tiger II was an overmatch for any tank at a range of 1,500 meters or more, while the 128mm gun of the Jagdtiger could deliver a round able to smash through armor of 200mm thickness at a 1,000 meter range. Their ammunition was developed without the use of tungsten.

In World War II, several techniques were devised to attack and defeat tanks—methods which often relied on daring, skill, and rather unsophisticated weaponry and which frequently placed the tank-killers at considerable personal risk. A lone soldier might, for example, attempt to sneak up on a tank to toss a grenade at it, or drop one into it through an open turret or hatch. The turret itself would sometimes be targetted in an effort by an enemy gunner to hit the turret ring, jamming or disabling the turret, and possibly the tank through injury to the crew. With the turret disabled, the tank was often a sitting duck, unable to offer much fight or defend itself. Another choice target was the engine compartment. It was sometimes attacked with explosive charges placed or attached appropriately, but this generally involved an heroic action on the part of the attacker at extremely high risk to himself.

The use of fire as a means of halting a tank by destroying or severely injuring the crew was thoroughly explored in that war. Many approaches to firing tanks were tried, with particular emphasis upon those which would ignite the ammunition and fuel supplies in the vehicle. The fear of being burned to death while trapped inside must have caused many a tank crew to operate their vehicle in a completely buttoned-up condition in combat, to minimize the threat from such attacks. Opposing soldiers facing such closed-down tanks had to lob their Molotov Cocktails above the vehicle’s vents in an attempt to fire the interior and either kill the crew or force it to evacuate the tank.

Among the most difficult of targets for the tank attacker were the tracks. These could theoretically be broken or damaged through the use of explosive charges or mines. If the charge failed to immobilize the tank by causing it to throw a track, sufficient damage to the suspension might still halt the vehicle.

It was the Soviets who, in the 1960s, determined to get the very most out of a tank gun by mounting a smooth-bore weapon on it. The idea involved reducing friction and thus gaining greater velocity by eliminating the barrel rifling. Of course, it was the rifling that stabilized the round in flight and added considerably to its accuracy on target. In time the Soviets solved the problem of how to have both velocity and accuracy by what became known as fin-stabilization. It enabled them to use the highly effective Armor-Piercing Discarding Sabot in the form of a long dart with a tungsten core surrounded by a sabot designed for the smooth gun bore. The result was greatly improved penetration and accuracy. In the ’60s and ’70s, all nations operating tank forces became devotees of the Armor-Piercing Fin-Stabilized Discarding Sabot (APFSDS). The weapon itself was soon enhanced by the replacement of the tungsten core with one of depleted uranium. This nuclear by-product offered significant advances over tungsten, not least being its greater density and punching power.

The next important achievement in the tank v anti-tank competition came with the early ’70s British development called “Chobham Armor,” a still-secret compound believed to contain steel, plastic and ceramics, with tungsten blocks and rods embedded in it. It is considered most efficient in defeating both the APFSDS and the shaped-charge of HEAT (High Explosive Anti-Tank) weapon. A shaped-charge is one in which explosives are “shaped” around the outside of a copper cone. With the explosion of the warhead, the resultant energy is directed inwards and forwards, which creates a stream of gas and molten metal, forcing a metal slug to the front, which then melts through the tank armor. At the same time, Israel was creating Explosive Reactive Armor, a system which has become standard with most major tank users since the 1980s. There is no more remarkable example of tank versus tank action than that of Hauptsturmführer Michael Wittman against the tanks of the British 7th Armored Division near Villers Bocage, Normandy, on 13 June 1944. Born in Vogelthal, Upper Pfalz on 22 April 1914, Wittman had entered the German Army in 1934 as a regular soldier before transferring to the Waffen SS in 1936. In September 1939 he participated in the Polish campaign as the commander of an armored car and was promoted to Untersturmführer. After his participation in the invasions of France and Yugoslavia, he became a member of an SS Panzer Division and in November 1942 began training on the Tiger E heavy tank. On the Eastern Front he served with 13 Company of SS Panzer Regiment 1 Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, fighting in the Battle of Kursk, followed by service in Italy and another stint in Russia. Promoted to Obersturmführer in January 1944, he was transferred to Belgium, and then to France in time for the Allied invasion of Normandy.

As commander, 2 Company, SS Heavy Tank Battalion 101, he led a unit credited with destroying 119 Russian tanks and was heavily decorated for his achievements to June 1944.

At dawn on 13 June, only four of the six Tiger tanks led by Michael Wittman were serviceable. They lay in thick cover on a hill above the village of Villers Bocage, perfectly positioned to observe the tanks, personnel carriers and half-tracks of the 7th Armored Division’s A Squadron, 4th County of London Yeomanry and A Company, 1st Rifle Brigade as they rolled through the village and halted in a column.

Wittman acted immediately. His lead Tiger emerged from its cover and took up a firing position adjacent to the village main road. His first shot destroyed a British half-track and the wreck lay blocking the road. With his Tiger rolling slowly along a lane parallel to the road, he fired round after round, methodically picking off the enemy tanks and other vehicles. The British tanks returned fire but the majority of their rounds made no impression on the heavily armored Tiger. Now Wittman’s tank moved onto the village road itself and travelled into the village where he encountered and destroyed a number of artillery observation Sherman tanks along with a Cromwell attempting to position itself for a shot at the German. Satisfied with the morning’s work, Wittman withdrew from Villers Bocage, returning to the cover of the nearby hill.

In renewed tank fighting at the village that afternoon, the panzers faired less well, losing three Tigers and having three immobilized, including Wittman’s. But the Germans had clearly won the day, having destroyed twenty-five 7th Armored Division tanks, fourteen personnel carriers, and fourteen half-tracks. The British were forced to withdraw to the west of the village. As a result of this engagement, Michael Wittman was promoted to his ultimate rank of Hauptsturmführer and received the swords to his Knight’s Cross. He was also offered an appointment to a German Officers’ Tactical School, which he declined, preferring to remain with his unit. It is generally believed that he was killed on 8 August near Caen while engaged in combat with British Sherman Firefly tanks, but this has been disputed in recent years. It has been claimed that his tank and crew were actually the victims of a rocket attack by an RAF Typhoon fighter-bomber. Other reports indicate that his demise resulted from an attack by heavy artillery.

In the summer of 1983, members of the German War Graves Commission, assisted by French and British volunteers, found the remains of Michael Wittman and his crew. These remains were later buried in a communal grave at the German war cemetery near La Cambe in Normandy.

Stopping tanks isn’t always about weaponry. The weapons are the tools required and when one side has superior weaponry, the odds are that it will triumph. But frequently, what tips the odds is human judgement, intelligence, and opportunism. Wittman’s Tiger was indeed superior in many ways to the tanks of the 7th Armored Division that June day in 1944, but the factors which led to such a one-sided victory for the Germans were more human than mechanical. The decision on the part of the British armored commander to bring his tank column to a halt at Viller Bocage in a tight nose-to-tail column that morning effectively trapped all of his vehicles where they sat. They were left with no possibility of escape and little ability to defend themselves, much less take up an offensive role against an enemy tank force that was known to be in the area. Wittman, on the other hand, observed, intelligently assessed and seized his opportunity, taking the fullest advantage of its possibilities. It is conceivable that he might have achieved a similar result had he been in command of a tank less formidable than the Tiger.

Anti-tank 101 Part II


German Army MILAN equipped with an AGDUS combat simulator.


The idea for the tank destroyer stemmed from the assault gun, a weapon originally intended by the Germans to accompany advancing infantry and support them by knocking out anything likely to impede their further progress. Conventional wisdom suggested that mounting such a gun on what essentially was a tank chassis provided increased mobility and protection for the crew, as well as a more economical alternative to the tank. This less costly, highly capable vehicle was simple in concept and construction. Lacking a rotating turret, it was easier to build and, with proper armament, proved extremely effective on the offensive as an anti-tank weapon, particularly when employed in an ambush position.

Little good can be said about the results of American and British efforts to build effective self-propelled tank destroyers in the early 1940s. It was not until late 1944 that the U.S. Army became fully operational with its evolved M-36, which mounted a 90mm gun firing a twenty-four-pound armor-piercing shell able to penetrate 122mm of armor at a range of 915 meters. It was also capable of using a tungsten core round which had nearly twice the armor penetration capability of the standard round. The U.S. 2nd Armored Division was quite successful with the M-36 against various panzers in the final assault on Germany in early 1945. U.S. Army enthusiasm for offensive, highly mobile tank destroyer vehicles able to aggressively hunt and kill enemy tanks culminated in the best American example of the war, the M-18. Considerably smaller than the M-36, it weighed far less, had a better gun, and was the fastest tracked vehicle of the war. With relatively light armor protection, M-18 crews counted on their maneuverability, speed and firepower to get the vehicle out of trouble in combat situations. It served with the U.S. and other armies into the 1960s.

Russian efforts to develop an effective counter to the newly introduced German PzKpfw V Panther tank produced an important result in 1943, the SU-85, a clever modification of the very successful T-34 tank. In the SU-85, the T-34 turret was replaced by an armored compartment mounting an 85mm anti-aircraft gun. It was a competent, useful weapon which was eventually redeveloped to accept a Soviet 100mm gun, making it more than a match for any German tank.

The impressive German Panther led directly to development of the Jagdpanther, a tank destroyer of great size (103,000 pounds) and capability. The Jagdpanther, with its 88mm gun, was able to kill any other tank at a safe range of 2,500 meters.

Of the various types of anti-tank vehicles devised since the 1950s, the best is probably the Austrian SK 105 Jagdpanzer, a light tank design with a 105mm gun. It is equipped with an automatic loader, eliminating one crew member, and fires a shaped-charge round capable of penetrating armor of 360mm thickness at a range of 1,000 meters. Another noble anti-tank vehicle is the Swedish Stridsvagn 103 (S-tank) developed after WWII. An indigenous heavy tank without a turret, its 105mm gun was fixed to the chassis and was aimed by turning the vehicle and adjusting the suspension height.

Following their involvement in the Spanish Civil War, when they provided Polikarpov aircraft to the Republicans and saw the planes used effectively against Italian-supplied tanks, the Soviets directed their Ilyushin design bureau to go to work on a new anti-tank aircraft in 1937. The product of this effort was the Shturmovik ground-attack aircraft. More than 36,000 Shturmoviks were produced in World War II, and it was perhaps the best anti-tank aircraft of the war. The initial version carried only a pilot, but his vulnerability to attack from the rear led to a two-seat version in 1942 which accommodated a rear gunner for the protection of pilot and plane. Still, the attrition rate of Shturmoviks was terribly high. But their effectiveness against German tanks and other armored vehicles was such that, coupled with Soviet industry’s ability to produce the plane in numbers far surpassing the losses incurred, the Shturmoviks ultimately overwhelmed their adversaries. They pioneered successful aerial rocket attacks on German tanks while braving intense anti-aircraft fire.

Certainly, the British Hawker Typhoon ground support fighter-bomber, which suffered a number of early developmental problems, came into its own as a very good and high-achieving machine by the time of the Normandy landings in mid-1944. Armed with four 20mm Hispano cannon in the wings and eight rocket rails under them, the 400 mph Typhoon became a near-perfect firing platform, excelling in ground attack and pounding German tanks in a performance second to none.

The main American aerial tank-killer in the final year of the Second World War was the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, a big, heavy, escort fighter that could dive much better than it could climb. The Thunderbolt carried eight .50 calibre machine-guns and two three-tube rocket clusters and was on a par with the Typhoon in its ability to seek out and destroy enemy tanks, trains and other vehicles. But the greatest achievement of the Americans in the field of aerial anti-tank warfare is undoubtedly the Republic Fairchild A-10 Thunderbolt II, also known in the U.S. Air Force as the Warthog. Like its WWII P-47 ancestor, the 1970s A-10 is a rugged aircraft, able to absorb and survive substantial battle damage. It brings a unique, amazingly powerful armament to the combat zone; a 30mm General Electric seven-barrel Gatling-style cannon able to shoot at a rate of up to 4,000 rounds a minute. It carries up to 1,350 rounds of either high explosive, incendiary or armor-piercing shot, the latter having a depleted uranium core with exceptional armor penetration capability. The A-10 delivers sixty-five of these rounds in a two-second burst, a barrage that has devastating effect on most modern tanks. The A-10 is the universally acknowledged king of the aerial tank-killers.

With the coming age of the combat helicopter in the 1960s and 1970s Vietnam War, it became possible to mount a sighting unit on the rotor mast of such an aircraft, together with a small video camera, giving the crew the ability to hide low behind trees or hills while stalking a tank, sight, aim and rise briefly to launch a fire-and-forget missile before departing without ever having been a target themselves. What would become the state-of-the-art attack helicopter of the 21st century, the Boeing McDonnell Douglas AH-64 Apache, an awesome anti-tank weapon, entered development in 1976 armed with the American AGM-114 Hellfire (Helicopter-borne Fire and Forget) missile. With a semi-active laser guidance system, the Hellfire can be launched either directly at its target, or indirectly, when the weapon will seek and find the target. It can follow the Apache laser designator to the target over a range of up to five miles. For the modern tank crew the Hellfire is the most fearsome of threats.

In 1916, German soldiers began using anti-tank rifles and machine-guns, both of which fired armor-piercing (AP) bullets in an effort to cause bullet splash fragments to enter the British tanks and injure their crews. Such weaponry was only marginally successful and, in the early 1930s, a British Royal Artillery Lieutenant-Colonel named Blacker began work on a design for a small, high explosive anti-tank bomb which could be placed over a rod or spigot and launched to a range of about ninety meters. In trials, his “Baby Bombard” failed to impress, but later, in the hands of Major Mills Jefferis, Blacker’s notion was revised and reinvented as the Projector Infantry Anti-Tank (PIAT) weapon, an awkward, cranky, extremely demanding device with the reputation of being almost as intimidating to the shooter as it was threatening to the target. Despite its quirks, the PIAT was used effectively by the British Army through much of the Second World War.

Another significant method of attacking tanks in that war was the 60mm anti-tank rocket launcher known as the “Bazooka.” The ultimate evolution of work by scientists Robert Goddard and Clarence Hickman, the bazooka was intended to provide the individual American infantryman with an appropriate way of defending against or attacking an enemy tank. It was simply a shoulder-supported steel tube for launching a rocket. It had two grips for aiming and the rear grip housed the trigger. Its rocket was capable of penetrating three inches of steel. It became the Bazooka when U.S. Army Major Zeb Hastings decided to name it after the “musical instrument” used by Bob Burns, the Arkansas Traveller, a radio comedian of the time. The improved M-9 version could be broken down into two sections, making it easier to carry. A larger, 88.9mm version followed which was an excellent anti-tank weapon in the Korean conflict from 1951. It was known as the Super Bazooka. Nearly half a million bazookas were used by the U.S. Army and Allied armies in World War II.

The Germans also developed a bazooka-type weapon, an 88mm adaptation called Panzerschreck (Panzer Terror) and it was even more effective than the bazooka. But they had an acute shortage of the required nitrocellulose rocket propellant and began development of a shaped-charge alternative. The result was the Panzerfaust (Armored Fist), a disposable anti-tank launcher capable of firing a round that could penetrate 140mm of tank armor and ruined the day of many an Allied tank commander. The Panzerfaust contained a hollow-charge bomb at one end, which was propelled by a small charge of gunpowder and the firing was nearly recoil-less. The early version was difficult to aim and was soon replaced by the Panzerfaust 30, whose warhead had a substantially larger diameter than that of the launch tube. The new bomb had four flexible fins which were wrapped around the boom. The tin section fitted into the tube and the shooter held the launch tube under his arm, aimed and fired. The range of the weapon was about thirty meters. It entered full production in late 1943 and was followed in mid-1944 by two advanced versions offering increased ranges of sixty and 100 meters.

After the war, the Allies learned that the Germans had been making important progress in their development of an anti-tank missile known as the X-7. It was to be the forerunner of all such future weapons. The X-7 could be directed onto its target and deliver a far more destructive payload than that of any anti-tank gun. A French derivative of the X-7 was first used in combat by the Israelis in 1956. They later found themselves on the receiving end of a Soviet version called the Snapper in their 1967 conflict with the Egyptians.

Little was achieved in the area of individual anti-tank weaponry after World War II until the 1960s when the Russians came out with the RPG-2, a weapon similar in style to the Panzerfaust, having a tube which launched an oversized grenade with fins and did so without recoil. While the range of the RPG-2 was just 150 meters, the shot could penetrate up to 180mm of armor. The weapon was later cloned by the Chinese who reworked it to fire a High-Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT) warhead which could go through 250mm of armor. Then the Russians went one better with the RPG-7, in which the grenade was now powered by a small rocket motor. The warhead was still fired initially by the old recoil-less charge, but once it left the tube its little motor ignited and dramatically accelerated it to the target up to 500 meters away. On arriving it could penetrate 320mm of armor and do appalling damage to the interior of a tank. The secret of its success lay in a new recipe for the explosive and a new way of “packaging” it. The Americans first experienced the effects of the RPG-7 when hit with it by the Viet Cong in 1966. The RPG-7, and an American one-man anti-tank weapon developed at about the same time, the M-72 LAW (Light Anti-Tank Weapon), were also significant in that they caused many nations to re-focus on the need for a really effective advanced one-man anti-tank weapon system. During this period the RPG-7 became the standard type for all Soviet-bloc countries, while the M-72 was adopted by the NATO alliance and some other Western nations. The M-72 was most effective at 300 meters and was able to penetrate 300mm of armor at that range. It was a 66mm rocket launcher made up of two concentric tubes which fired a shaped-charge warhead with a small rocket motor. It was shoulder-fired and was used to great effect in Vietnam and in the 1982 Falklands War.

Among the most interesting weapons of that era is the Swedish Carl Gustav, an 84mm recoil-less anti-tank gun that is fired from the shoulder and can utilize a range of ammunition types to tackle a variety of combat tasks. Another superb weapon is the BILL (Bofors, Infantry, Light and Lethal), which is also a Swedish design. The BILL is a truly revolutionary missile system. It contains a thermal imaging (TI) sight to detect heat from such sources as tank and armored fighting vehicle engines. Wire-guided, the BILL is specifically intended to target the vulnerable upper surfaces of tanks, which it attacks by overflying the target at low-level. When its guidance computer senses that the missile is in proper position, it detonates a downward-firing shaped-charge which then penetrates the thinner upper surface armor of the tank with deadly effect.

As impressive as the various shoulder-launched shell and rocket projectiles were, they made relatively little difference to the heavy tanks of the day with their massive front armor. Furthermore, in some conditions they could be hazardous to their users. These limitations and drawbacks, together with significant advances in shaped-charge technology, led directly to the development of one of the best weapons yet devised, the British LAW-80 94mm rocket. Incredibly, the LAW-80 warhead can penetrate more than 700mm of armor at an effective range of 500 meters. This amazing weapon is part rocket launcher and part 9mm aiming rifle. The operator simply fires a tracer / explosive bullet from the aiming rifle at the target tank. If his shot is accurate, he selects “rocket” and fires again, this time sending a 3.7-inch missile to the same aiming point hit by his tracer round. If his aiming round missed the target, he fires another tracer, and another, until he hits the tank. He then shoots it with a rocket.

Of the so-called “smart” weapons, two are quite special: the TOW and the MILAN. The TOW (tube-launched, optically tracked and wire guided) is a 1960s product of the American Hughes company and has been steadily upgraded and improved since the initial model whose range was 2,750 meters. It is the best anti-tank guided missile there is. The current version is able to penetrate armor plate of 800mm or thirty-one inches. The missile, in a sealed tube, is clipped to the back of a launcher tube which is equipped with the sight and guidance system. Refinements have included a shaped-charge warhead version designed to defeat explosive reactive armor, and one which is dedicated to attacking the thinner and more vulnerable upper surfaces of tanks, utilizing special sensors and charges that can fire downward while the warhead overflies the tank. Since establishing itself as the king of sophisticated anti-tank missiles when operated by Israel in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, it has become the anti-tank weapon of choice in the inventories of many armies the world over. MILAN (Missile, Infanterie, Légere, Anti-char, or infantry, light, anti-tank missile) is the product of a French / German consortium, Nord Aviation and Bölkow, later joined in the effort by British Aerospace. It is a wire-guided infantry missile fielded by two men. It can be set up and ready to fire in seconds and, once fired, a hit is assured as long as the shooter keeps his sight aligned on the target. The advance MILAN 3 carries a warhead with two shaped-charges. One charge is on an extended probe ahead of the main warhead charge. This “precursor” charge hits and destroys any reactive armor that is protecting the main armor of the target tank. This action is followed instantly by the detonation of the main warhead charge, which can penetrate more than a meter of armor. MILAN 3 has both day and night thermal imaging capabilities, is efficient at overcoming countermeasures, such as pyrotechnic flares, and is not fooled by distractions such as the heat source of a nearby burning vehicle.

Even though anti-tank weaponry has become more and more sophisticated, there is still a place for the basic tank stoppers: fixed barriers and mines. The tactical minefield became a defense against enemy tanks with the development of contact and pressure mines which were set off by the track pressure over the mine. The most common tank obstacles appeared before World War II at the Maginot Line in France, along the German frontier with Czechoslovakia, in the Low Countries and, later, in England. They were called “Dragon’s Teeth,” made of concrete, often pyramid-shaped (some rectangular) and usually about one meter high. They were laid across probable tank routes, six ranks deep and virtually guaranteed to stop any tank that dared try to cross them. Simple and effective.

Sturmgeschütz 1943–1945





Along the entire Eastern Front the situation was dire. In Army Group Centre and Army Group North German forces were trying desperately to hold the Soviets back from breaking through their lines. Replacements continued to trickle through to help bolster the under strength Panzerwaffe. But in truth, the average new assault gunner that was freshly recruited was not as well trained as his predecessors during the early part of the campaign in Russia. Nevertheless, as with many StuG men they were characterized by high morale and a determination to do their duty.

In almost three months since the defeat at Kursk Army Centre and South had been pushed back an average distance of 150 miles on a 650 mile front. Despite heavy resistance in many sectors of the front the Soviets lost no time in exploiting the fruits of regaining as much territory as possible.

As the winter of 1943 approached there was a further feeling of despair and disbelief that the war had turned against the Germans. During this period there was an exasperating series of deliberations for the Panzerwaffe. Much of its concerns were preventing the awesome might of the Red Army with what little they had available at their disposal. Yet, the quality of the German infantry in late 1943 was no longer comparable to that at the beginning of the Russian campaign in June 1941.

Whilst drastic measures were made to ensure that infantry defended their lines the assault gun forces were still being frantically increased to help counter the massive setbacks. In 1943 some fifty-five percent of the Panzerwaffe comprised of assault guns. They were now found in numerous units. The divisions and brigades of the Waffen-SS which even had their own battery or even an entire unit. There were also a number of Luftwaffe divisions that had their own assault gun units like the famous Herman Goring Panzer-Korps. In the Wehrmacht for instance there were divisions with their own assault gun unit or battery. By the beginning of September 1943, Panzerjäger units of the various divisions also received their own assault gun units. This was undertaken in order to compensate for the lack of tanks and many of the Panzer and Panzergrenadier divisions began absorbing many of the artillery assault gun units into the Panzer troops. However; although the assault guns continued to prove their worth within these units, equipping some of the Panzer units with assault guns did not operate well alongside the tank. Although commanders were well aware of the situation, they knew they had no choice. Instead, they continued using assault guns extensively in the Panzer units until the end of the war.

During this period they pushed the StuG further and deeper into the combat zone as an effective tank killer. In late 1943 and early 1944 the assault guns were increasingly equipping the Panzerjäger companies. The StuG continued to fight very effectively, in spite the ovewhelming resistance of the enemy. In many areas the front could not be held for any appreciable time and a slow withdrawal ensued much to the anger of Hitler.

Throughout January and February 1944 the winter did nothing to impede the Soviet might from grinding further west. During February the organization of an assault gun battery was changed consisting of four platoons, one of which had three 10.5cm assault howitzer 42 units. Three platoons each equipped with three 7.5cm assault cannon 40 units. Together with two assault guns of the battery leader, there were fourteen vehicles in each battery.

The alteration was supposed to make the gun batteries more effective on the battlefield. Whilst it increased the fire power crews still found they were numerically outnumbered and as a direct consequence still suffered heavy losses.

Yet, despite the setbacks, by the time the spring thaw arrived in March and early April 1944, there was a genuine feeling of motivation within the ranks of the assault gun units. There was renewed determination to keep the Red Army out of the Homeland. In addition, confidence was further bolstered by the efforts of the armaments industry as they begun producing many new vehicles for the Eastern Front. In fact during 1944 the Panzerwaffe were better supplied with equipment during any other time on the Eastern Front, thanks to the armaments industry. In total some 20,000 fighting vehicles including 8,328 medium and heavy tanks, 5,751 assault guns, 3,617 tank destroyers and 1,246 selfpropelled artillery carriages of various types reached the Eastern Front. Included in these new arrivals were the second generation of tank-destroyers, the Jagdpanzer IV, followed by the Hetzer and then the Jagpanther and Jagdtiger. In fact, tank-destroyers and assault guns now outnumbered the tanks, which was confirmation of the Panzerwaff’s obligation to performing a defensive role against overwhelming opposition. All of these vehicles would have to be irrevocably stretched along a very thin Eastern Front, with many of them rarely reaching the proper operating level.

By the spring of 1944 there was yet again a feeling of renewed confidence in the East. But by the summer as news reached the forward units that the Allies had landed on the northern shores of France on 6 June 1944, deep concerns began to fester on how they would be able to distribute their forces between two fronts. The problems became far greater during the third week of June when a new summer offensive by the Russians called ‘Operation Bagration’ was launched with its sole objective to annihilate Army Group Centre. Opposing the massive Russian force was three German armies with thirty-seven divisions, weakly supported by armour, against 166 divisions, supported by 2,700 tanks and 1,300 assault guns.

By the end of the first week of Bagration the three German armies had lost between them nearly 200,000 men and 900 tanks and assault guns; 9th Army and the 3rd Panzer Army were almost decimated. The remnants of the shattered armies trudged back west in order to try and rest and refit what was left of its Panzer units and build new defensive lines. Any plans to regain the initiative on the Eastern Front were doomed forever.

Although German commanders were fully aware of the fruitless attempts by its forces to establish a defensive line, Panzer and assault gun units followed instructions implicitly in a number of areas to halt the Soviet drive. Again and again the units fought to the grim death. Despite the huge losses and lack of reserves many still remained resolute stemming the Soviet drive east, even if it meant giving ground and fighting in Poland, which was regarded as the last defensive position before Germany.

During the summer of 1944 the Germans began defending Poland against the Soviet might. By September 1944, the whole position in Poland was on the point of disintegration. Action in Poland had been a grueling battle of attrition for those German units that had managed to escape from the slaughter Fortunately for the surviving German forces, the Soviet offensive had now run out of momentum. The Red Army’s troops were too exhausted, and their armoured vehicles were in great need of maintenance and repair. It seemed the Germans were spared from being driven out of Poland for the time being.

By late 1944 it became increasingly obvious that the assault gun, although built in huge numbers, were no longer as effective on the battlefield. Whilst the 7.5cm 40 L/40 gun was still regarded as a lethal weapon, the Russians had already developed newer and larger anti-tank killers of their own with greater armoured protection and better fire power. As a result the Russians continued pushing forward.

On 12 January 1945, the Eastern Front erupted with a massive advance as the 1st Ukrainian Front made deep wide-sweeping penetrations against hard-pressed German formations. The Russian offensive was delivered with so much weight and fury never before experienced on the Eastern Front. Two days later on 14 January, the 1st Belorrussian Front began its long awaited drive along the Warsaw-Berlin axis, striking out from the Vistula south of Warsaw. The city was quickly encircled and fell three days later. The frozen ground ensured rapid movement for the Russian tank crews, but in some areas these massive advances were halted for a time by the skilful dispositions of Panzer and Panzerjäger units. By this time the action strength of the Sturmgeschütz units had fallen to an all time low. Losses of equipment too had increased markedly in the course of the retreat combat. Often assault gun crews would abandon their vehicles when they ran out of fuel and were seen regularly running on foot or hitching a lift onboard other StuG vehicles.

In early 1945, production figures dropped, and as a result of this decline units no longer had any reserves on which to rely on. When defensive fighting began in Germany there was a severe lack of fuel, spare parts, and the lack of trained crews. When parts of the front caved the remaining assault gun units were often forced to destroy their equipment, so nothing was left for the conquering enemy. The Germans no longer had the manpower, war plant or transportation to accomplish a proper build-up of forces on the Oder Commanders could do little to compensate for the deficiencies, and in many sectors of the front they did not have any coherent planning in the event of any defensive position being lost.

During the last days of the war most of the remaining assault guns continued to fight as a unit until they destroyed their equipment and surrendered. At the time of surrender, the combined strength of the entire Panzerwaffe was 2,023 tanks, 738 assault guns and 159 Flakpanzers. Surprisingly this was the same strength that was used to attack Russia in 1941. But the size of German Army in 1945 was not the same; it was far too inadequate in strength for any type of task. Although the war had ended, the Panzerwaffe still existed, but not as the offensive weapon they were in the early Blitzkrieg years.

Nobody could deny that the assault gun proved itself to be a decisive weapon on the battlefield. In the first years of the war it had been an effective offensive weapon protecting the infantry from enemy tank units and clearing a path for them to advance. However, as the war changed the assault gun was compelled to evolve into that of a tank destroyer. Despite great success in action, the StuG was unable to overcome the huge array of Russian armour, and as a consequence incurred high losses.

But in spite the massive losses sustained the assault gun crews had won a reputation for daring and professionalism in combat. The titanic struggles which had been placed upon them during the war in Russia and on the Western Front provided the very backbone of Germany’s armoured and infantry defence until the very end of the war.

Imperial Roman fleets

At the end of the civil wars, Octavian had nearly 700 warships of all types, far more than would ever be needed; the numbers were reduced by laying up, scrapping or simply burning surplus ships. Octavian adopted the title Augustus in 27 BC and with Agrippa reorganised naval forces to form the imperial fleets. There followed a period, unequalled before or since, of approximately three centuries during which that navy was to exercise unchallenged supremacy over the whole Mediterranean basin, extending its influence in time to encompass the Black, Red, North and Irish Seas, the English Channel and north-west Atlantic seaboards, as well as the great river frontiers of the Empire, the Rhine and Danube (Danubius). These forces reigned supreme until in the late second century AD, when the first barbarian raiders from across the North Sea were noted, but they were not then enough to provide any serious challenge.

The fleets, apart from policing the seas, were also engaged in offensive operations, starting in 25 BC, with the transfer of a fleet of eighty warships to the Red Sea to support 130 transports and a military expedition to Sabaea (probably modern Yemen). In 17 BC Agrippa commanded a fleet which landed marines in the Crimea to resolve a dynastic problem in the Bosporan kingdom, a client state. Between 17 and 15 BC Augustus advanced the Roman border to the line of the Danube, forming river fleets for it. Fleets operated along the Dutch and German coasts as well as into the rivers of Germany after 12 BC in support of Augustus’ short-lived province there. With peace and security in the Mediterranean came an increase in maritime trade, reaching in the first two centuries AD, a level not surpassed until the nineteenth century. Merchant ships grew in size as well as in numbers and regular sailing schedules for cargo and passengers became the norm.

The next major challenge for the navy was in AD 43 with Claudius’ invasion of Britain; for the invasion army of four legions plus auxiliaries (about 40,000 men in total) a fleet of over 300 warships and transports was assembled. Apart from ferrying the army, it would be the sole means of supply, the invasion forces not planning to live off the land at all. The fleet was also to accompany the army’s advance along the south coast and up the Thames (Tamesis) guarding the flanks, outflanking any opposition and supplying the troops. These formations, which would later become the Classis Britannica, continued the process of keeping the flanks of the Roman advance secure throughout the invasion, with fleets on both east and west coasts of Britain.

The navy supported Claudius’ annexations of Mauretania (the coastal regions of Algeria and Morocco) in AD 41 and 42, Lycia (southwest Turkey) in AD 43 and Thrace in AD 46, giving Rome control of the whole Mediterranean seaboard. The extension of Roman naval power in the Black Sea was completed by the founding of a major naval base at Chersonesus (near Sevastopol, Crimea) in AD 45 and the annexation of the kingdom of Pontus (on the north Turkish coast) in AD 64. By this time also, Roman warships were operating in the North and Irish Seas. As a portent of things to come, however, in AD 41 tribesmen from the north German coast, using small open boats, raided the coast of Belgium before being driven off. They repeated the exercise in AD 47, burning an auxiliary fort at the mouth of the Rhine but were caught by ships of the Classis Germanica and destroyed.

In AD 59 Nero (emperor AD 54–68) conspired with his prefect of the Misene fleet, Anicetus, to murder his domineering mother, Agrippina. The first attempt using a collapsible boat failed when she proved to be a strong swimmer. Anicetus then had his sailors simply batter her to death. Anticipating unrest to come, Nero formed two legions, I and II Adiutrix, from loyal marines of the Misene and Ravenna fleets respectively, but committed suicide in AD 68. This triggered the events of the so-called Year of the Four Emperors, which involved the Italian and Rhine fleets. Nero’s ‘navy’ legions surrendered to his successor Galba but suffered casualties at the hands of his men. By January 69 Galba was dead, succeeded by Otho, who regained the loyalty of the Misene fleet and naval legions. He moved north to oppose the advance of Vitellius, proclaimed emperor by the Rhine fleet and legions. Otho sent the Misene fleet to secure southern Gaul for him but with poor morale and lax discipline, the fleet took to raiding and plunder. After two fierce battles against Vitellius’ forces, the fleet withdrew. Otho, relying heavily on naval personnel, was defeated at the battle of Cremona in April AD 69, leaving Vitellius emperor.

In the east, in July AD 69, Vespasian was proclaimed emperor and an army supporting his claim, proceeded to Italy, supported by the Classis Pontica, gathering further support as it advanced. Vitally the Ravenna fleet declared for Vespasian, securing his forces’ flank and lines of supply and tipping the balance firmly in his favour. Vitellius was defeated at the second battle of Cremona in October AD 69, but with his remaining supporters, continued the struggle until killed that December. For the Misene fleet it was a time of confused loyalties, following their ignominious support of Otho. Factions pulled the fleet between Vitellius and Vespasian until the latter’s cause prevailed.

In the meantime, there arose a serious revolt led by Iulius Civilis, a commander of Batavian auxiliary troops (from north-eastern Belgium), who seized some of the German fleet’s ships and occupied the mouth of the Rhine. With the ships, augmented by the boats of German tribesmen from east of the Rhine, he pushed upriver against garrisons weakened by troops having left to support Vitellius. Defections by other auxiliary crews and troops, forced the remains of the fleet and legionaries to withdraw to Bonn (Bonna) where they were beaten by the rebels, again joined by Germans from east of the river. Xanten held out and although the fleet sallied successfully against the rebels, it had insufficient strength to be decisive. The Romans fell back on Trier (Augusta Treverorum) with their fleet at Koblenz (Confluentes).

With the end of the civil war, forces could be sent to restore order: the Classis Britannica landed troops in Belgium, pushing the rebels back but in the process, losing a lot of their ships to an attack by tribesmen from what is now Friesland. The Rhine fleet remained in poor condition and lost some moored ships to German raiders. With increasing Roman success, it recovered and sailed against Civilis’ fleet. Although coming close to each other and exchanging missiles, conditions did not permit an engagement. Civilis surrendered shortly afterwards.

The navy resumed its normal ‘peacetime’ duties and operations. The Classis Pontica secured the south-east Black Sea area and in AD 79 the Misene fleet assisted in rescue attempts during the great eruption of Vesuvius that buried Pompeii and the surrounding area. Ships of the Classis Britannica circumnavigated Britain in AD 80 and reconnoitred Scotland and Ireland two years later. The Classis Germanica was in action repelling Germanic incursions across the Rhine and the Classis Moesica had helped in stopping a Dacian invasion across the Danube in the late eighties AD.

The beginning of the second century AD was marked by the Dacian Wars (AD 101–106) of Trajan (emperor AD 98–117). The Danube fleets were augmented by ships seconded from other, seagoing fleets. From the frequency with which and the number of ships shown on Trajan’s Column in Rome, which recounts his campaigns, it is clear that they relied principally upon ships operating on the Danube and up its tributaries on both banks for their supplies. Trajan also restored the Nile-Red Sea canal and sent a fleet into the Red Sea to support his annexation of the Nabatean kingdom in AD 106. The Classis Alexandrina expanded its remit to include occasional patrols in the Red Sea, although it does not appear that any permanent naval presence was stationed there. This fleet also took over policing of the River Nile from the former Ptolemaic river force.

The reign of Hadrian (emperor AD 117–138) was marked by comparatively minor activity, the ferrying of troops by the German fleet to assist in building his wall in Britain in AD 122; an expedition to bolster the Bosporan kingdom; assisting in suppressing a revolt in Judaea. Comparative peace continued through the reign of Antoninus Pius (emperor AD 138–161). A Parthian offensive through Armenia and Syria in AD 161, led to a realignment of the eastern fleets, with the Classis Pontica moving west to Cyzicus and the Classis Syriaca being greatly strengthened.

In the latter half of the second century AD the Danube fleets were in constant action dealing with the irruptions of barbarians across the upper and middle Danube and supporting the wars of Marcus Aurelius (emperor 161–180) against them. Between AD 170 and 171 the Misene fleet operated off the Atlantic coast of Mauretania (Morocco), helping to put down tribal unrest. The end of the century saw the British fleet join a punitive expedition to Scotland (AD 185), the start of barbarian sea raiding along the northern shores of the empire and the building of forts to oppose them. It also saw another civil war from which Septimius Severus (emperor AD 192–211) emerged as emperor. The murder of his son and successor, Caracalla, in AD 217 initiated a period of instability in government with no less than twenty-two emperors and many usurpers. This period of turmoil, when barbarian pressure from beyond the borders, allied to a rejuvenated and aggressive Persian empire and coupled with internal instability and dissention, started to threaten the integrity of the empire and provided the first serious naval challenge for nearly three centuries. Further this was at a time when, once more, the Romans, lulled into a complacency by long secure and peaceful sea lanes and with a navy that had for too long been resting on its laurels, had it seems, allowed that navy, or at least large parts of it, to deteriorate. An increasing incidence of raids from across the North Sea was coupled with ventures by Goths from North of the Black Sea across that sea against Roman shores, even extending their activities into the Aegean; once again, the neglect had also permitted a resumption of that old scourge of the seaways, piracy.

Roman control of the Black Sea weakened and by mid-century Goths had occupied its northern littoral and were raiding by boat. In AD 259, a Goth fleet of as many as 500 boats, penetrated into the Aegean. They repeated the feat in AD 268 but were intercepted by Roman naval forces and twice defeated. Yet another Goth fleet attacked Thessaloniki in AD 269 but having had to abandon their siege of the city; their fleet was destroyed in a series of running battles, by the classes Alexandrina and Syriaca. In the north a system of extensive coastal defence works, allied to naval squadrons was formed along the coasts of Britain and France, to oppose increasing barbarian seaborne activity and ability. Pressure on the river frontiers taxed those fleets as the empire tottered. The navy’s formations struggled to maintain their presence in the face of declining resources and increasing enemy activity.

By the time of the accession of Diocletian (emperor AD 285–305) and the re-establishment of stability at the very end of the third century AD, a very different navy remained; the grand Imperial fleets were no more and the service was reorganised into a number of smaller squadrons, each allotted to a particular area. The formula was successful and for another century the Imperial navy, in all of its various dispositions, again kept the peace in the Mediterranean and minimised barbarian activity in the North and Black Seas although, with the probable exception of the ‘British’ fleet in the north, the service never again reached the size and strength that it had previously enjoyed. Without the large and strong central Italian fleet organisations to give it a strong separate identity, the scattered squadrons of the navy seem to have lost much of their former independent nature as each squadron was placed under the command of and seen as subordinate to the local senior military commander.

In AD 286 a local commander, Carausius, was appointed to command the Classis Britannica. He built up the fleet, improved efficiency and successfully attacked barbarian sea raiders. Noticeably the loot recovered was not always returned and the emperor Maximius (emperor AD 286–305) sentenced Carausius to death, he promptly declared himself emperor and withdrew his fleet and forces to Britain, retaining Boulogne (Gesoriacum) and Rouen (Rotomagus) in Gaul. An attempt by Maximius to end the secession in AD 288 failed when his scratch fleet was defeated by the veteran Classis Britannica. In AD 290 a treaty was made acknowledging Carausius’ position. He strengthened the economy in Britain, the fleet and further extended the shore defence system.

In AD 293 Carausius lost his holdings in Gaul, whereupon he was assassinated and succeeded by Allectus. In AD 296 the Caesar Constantius with a larger and much improved fleet, evaded Allectus’ fleet and landed troops, defeated him recovering Britain for the empire. Constantius’ ships then ranged widely, even carrying out a punitive raid on the Orkneys (Orcades). The Classis Britannica was brought back to duty and the shore defence system further extended. The result was a notable decline in barbarian activity for nearly half a century.

The role played by the river fleets on the Rhine, Danube and their tributaries when they were not engaged supporting military campaigns into barbarian lands was unrelenting. The crews had to be constantly vigilant. Not for them the luxury of spotting a ship on the horizon, and thus probably hours away; on the rivers enemy craft could emerge from a bank and be in contact in minutes. If they sailed closer to the barbarian bank, a shower of arrows could come suddenly from behind the trees and bushes; they could look upriver and see a swarm of raider’s boats cross long before they could turn and row against the current towards them. The borders had never been absolute barriers but the increasing numbers and frequency of barbarian activity severely taxed the river fleets, ultimately they would be overwhelmed.

Civil war returned in the fourth century AD and with it the first great fleet battle since Actium, between the fleets of Licinius (emperor of the East, AD 308–324) and Constantine (emperor in the West, AD 307–324; sole emperor AD 324–337) in the Dardanelles (Hellespont) in AD 323. Licinius is said to have had a fleet of 200 or more triremes, with which he sought to block the Dardanelles against Constantine’s fleet of eighty or more ‘triaconters’. This was an archaic term which, from the result, appears to have been used to describe a new, more powerful type of warship, the result being that Constantine’s fleet won a battle after which the remaining enemy ships withdrew from the war.

The empire remained reasonably strong for the rest of the fourth century AD despite the continual barbarian pressure and incursions across the river frontiers and North Sea. A change of strategic emphasis from defending the borders to having mobile forces to destroy invaders meant that more of the fighting was done on Roman territory, to its detriment, while the river forces were only expected to deal with minor incursions and only delay larger ones, their morale being affected accordingly.

There were still successes, such as in the winter of AD 357 when a band of Franks seized an old Roman river fort; the future emperor Julian (emperor AD 361–363) surrounded it and the lusoriae of the river fleet patrolled to keep the ice broken and prevent escape; the Franks surrendered. In AD 386 a huge number of Goths tried to force a crossing of the Danube and migrate to Roman territory, using a vast number of boats and rafts. The Romans concentrated their Danube squadrons, augmenting them with seagoing warships and totally destroyed the invasion.

By the end of the century, control of the North Sea had been lost and in the winter of AD 406 the Rhine froze solid, immobilizing the fleet and permitting the mass migration of barbarians into Gaul. Twenty years later the Vandals had obtained ships in Spain and crossed to North Africa. In AD 429 they took Carthage and set about creating a navy, the first non-Roman navy in the Mediterranean for four centuries. Large tracts of the western empire became barbarian kingdoms and the Rhine and British fleets disappeared. The Danube and eastern fleets remained but in the west, growing Vandal power gained them Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica. A fleet sent against them was defeated in AD 440 and they destroyed a western fleet fitting out in Spanish ports in AD 457. In that same year, the Vandal fleet was defeated at Ostia.

The final act for the Roman navy was in AD 467 when, with an eastern fleet, it drove the Vandals from Sardinia. There followed an attempt by the joint fleet to convey an army to recover Africa. The army was landed near Cape Bon but delayed their attack. Five days later, with a favourable wind, the Vandals launched an attack with fireships against the tightly packed Roman ships, anchored against a lee shore, following it up with a ram attack. They destroyed half of the Roman fleet, thwarting the invasion. It was to be the last action by a Roman fleet from the western half of the empire that would end with the abdication of its last emperor (Romulus Augustulus) in AD 476. The Eastern part of that Empire would survive for another thousand years as a body politic that for convenience, we refer to as Byzantine and would continue to operate a navy, but which is as such, part of another story.

Roman Navy High Command


From its inception the fleet was a consular command. Under the Roman Republic, two magistrates were appointed each year, the consuls, who were the supreme officers of the Republic and who led the army in the field and also therefore, by extension, the naval forces. The weakness of the system was that a consul only served for one year in office and there was thus no continuity of command. To alleviate this problem, especially once Roman forces’ operations became more widespread, a consul, on retiring from office could be appointed as a proconsul and could continue in command, as indeed could other ex-consuls, (always under the aegis of the current consuls) all of whom by definition were senior, respected and with any luck experienced and competent officers.

The consul, as supreme commander, appointed military tribunes to be his subordinate officers, from among officers having five to ten years experience of military service. The tribunes in due turn appointed centurions to command each century of fighting men and centurions appointed an optio to be their lieutenant.

In the early days, with just a small number of ships acquired and operated in an ad hoc way, the navy was seen as little more than an adjunct to the army, whose command structure was adequate to handle them. Thus a consul could appoint a tribune to command the ships, who in turn appointed officers to command each ship. There is no evidence of the manner of organisation of these earliest naval forces but these assumptions are made from known military practice. No doubt the system evolved further by itself in a way dictated by practical considerations, but by 311 BC, it had proven insufficient to furnish adequate and efficient naval forces.

In that year two officers, the duoviri navales were appointed by the Senate. These were senior appointments, charged with providing, equipping and keeping in repair a fleet. In short they were a ‘board of admiralty’ responsible for the administration of a navy, a service which thereupon became in fact distinct from the army. Operations remained the province of the consuls and their officers, but were tempered by the navy’s own officer corps. The navy could now operate in an organised fashion: dedicated shipyards for building and repairs could be provided; stores for all the paraphernalia that the ships required could be set up and stocked; provision for the proper laying-up and maintenance of ships during the winter closed sailing season could be overseen; victualling could be arranged and suited solely to the requirements of the ships.

In 267 BC, just before the outbreak of the First Punic War, four praefecti or fleet prefects were appointed and entitled quaestores classici, quaestors of the fleet, presumably in addition to the duoviri and each was posted to a particular area, one at Ostia at the mouth of Rome’s river, the Tiber and one in Campania, the Bay of Naples area; the locations of the other two are not known (after the War, one was posted to Marsala in western Sicily). It is clear that while the duoviri continued to handle the central administration of the navy, the praefecti dealt with the operation of the squadrons of ships in their respective areas, including the organising of local facilities for the building, repair and victualling of ships and the housing and training of their crews. They thus expanded and built upon the start made by the duoviri over the preceding forty-four years. This basic infrastructure would be of increased importance in the expansion of the service towards the Punic Wars period, especially with the influx during that time of greater numbers of non-citizen recruits. The size and scale of fleets and operations in this war, far beyond the Roman’s previous experience, demanded more diversity in command structure and from 264 BC, the Senate could appoint a praetor to command a detached squadron; this was a senior rank, equivalent to that of a governor of a province, for which a man of the senatorial class was required, unlike the tribuneship which drew its men from the lesser equestrian class. These commissions would only last until the end of the particular mission for which it had been granted.

This command structure worked well throughout the First Punic War, operational command of the fleets at sea remaining with the consuls and their tribunes. For the wider-ranging Second Punic War, in addition to the main fleets in Italy, other fleets were sent for service in Spain and Greece. As before, command of these detached forces was entrusted a praetor, such as Marcus Valerius Laevinus, who was sent in 214 BC, with twenty-five ships to Brindisi to assume command of the forces there and support Rome’s allies in the First Macedonian War.

This system remained unchanged until the war against the pirates waged by Pompeius in 67 BC. Pompeius divided his intended area of operations, in effect the whole Mediterranean, into thirteen sectors and appointed a legatus to each as its overall military commander for sea and land forces. A legatus (legate) was the rank to command a legion. Eleven more were appointed for the forces Pompeius had with him and in addition, he appointed a praefectus classis et orae maritimae (prefect of the fleet and the coast). Nothing further is heard of the duoviri and praefecti and perhaps their office and functions were merged with or subordinated to that of the new praefectus. This would seem unlikely as the newly created appointments are not mutually exclusive. The existing administration system had matured and worked well and it was the neglect and consequent weakness of the navy that had permitted the growth of piracy, rather than any failing in its organisation. As the navy continued to function after the war against the pirates and no more is heard of Pompeius’ special appointments, it must be concluded that the extra appointments were provided for that purpose only and that the former organisation continued afterwards. While at the close of these operations, surplus ships were laid up and the extra forces recruited for them were stood down, permanent squadrons were kept in commission and posted to various areas, each continuing to be commanded by a legate.

Imperial high command

After 30 BC a new high command structure was adopted reflecting the division of the service into various permanent fleets. There was no centralised navy high command although a staff officer from each of the Italian fleets was with the military staff attending the emperor, together with a staff officer from any of the other fleets in whose area the emperor might be. All responsibility for command of each fleet and everything to do with it was vested in the praefectus classis (fleet prefect), who was appointed by and answered to the emperor; the duoviri navales were dispensed with. Given the distances and the time that communications took at that time, this was the only practical method for the command of widely separated forces. The command of each of the two Italian fleets was entrusted to a praefectus appointed by the emperor and of at least equestrian rank and rated equivalent to Praetorians, i.e. guards; these posts would be held by ex-legionary tribunes and under Claudius by imperial freedmen. The consular and senatorial appointments ceased. Provincial fleet commanders, again appointed by the emperor, but under the local overall command of the provincial governor, were now also classified as praefectus classis. Under the praefectus was his subprefect as executive officer and aide-de-camp, a cornicularius as next-ranking officer and a number of functionaries who were probably leading rankers rather than officers, of various types, called beneficiarii (appointees), actuarii (clerks), scribae (writers) and dupliciarii (this last as senior or leading ratings, on double pay), all of whom made up the Prefect’s administrative or office staff. One position from Republican times that was continued into the Imperial navy was that of quaestores classici for each fleet: a quaestor was primarily a financial officer, hence these were fleet treasurers.

Claudius replaced the fleet prefects, traditionally of equestrian or even senatorial rank, with appointees who were professional bureaucrats, with procurators who were usually imperial freedmen, i.e. ex-imperial slaves and non-military men. Vespasian (emperor AD 69–79) reverted to the appointment of experienced military men. The Italian fleet prefects were now second in rank only to the Praetorian prefect, and once more of at least equestrian class.

These command structures continued through the time of chaos in the third century AD, when much of the navy itself ceased to exist. The naval forces that survived continued to be commanded by a praefectus for each of the squadrons that succeeded, each based on a local centre under the overall command of the dux, a new rank for the overall district military commanding officer. There were thirteen such squadrons but no indication that social rank was a continuing requirement for senior officers. A further rank was added from the third century AD, namely that of praepositus reliquationis; this was a temporary flag rank for an officer commanding a detachment or in the absence of the praefectus rather in the manner of the old republican appointment of a praetor for a similar purpose.

The emperor Constantine greatly reformed the armed forces, in most cases appointing local area commanders who had both troops and fleets under them and with no separate naval command, high or otherwise. Senior military officers in the late period of the Empire were rated as magister militum or magister equitum (for cavalry) but there is no record of a magister classis and fleets continued to be commanded by praefecti, who were again subordinate to their local duces or military commanders. The exception was probably the British Fleet which retained more of its old, early empire structure, due to its particular area of operations in that the ‘frontiers’ of the province were of course, mostly sea. In AD 364 there is a mention of a comes maritimae’in Britain, a supreme naval commander, but this is the sole mention of this post and it may well be a one-off commission for a particular purpose.

For the remaining life of the Imperial navy it seems that military commanders were appointed largely on a provincial basis to include whatever naval forces fell under their sway, there being no mention of any separate ranks that refer to naval forces alone. Roman naval squadrons enjoyed a brief resurgence in the early fifth century AD, before being finally lost in the abortive attack on Vandal-held Carthage in AD 467. No details survive of the organisation of these last Roman fleets, the command of which resided with the military commander of land forces, appointed by the emperors and there is no record of a strictly naval command structure, beyond the captains of individual ships.



The Tornado Bomb


Zippermeyer Wirbelwind Kanone.

Dr. Mario Zippermayr, an eccentric Austrian inventor working at an experimental establishment at Lofer in the Tyrol, designed and built a series of highly unorthodox anti-aircraft weapons that were observed very closely by the Reichsluftfahrtamt (Office of Aeronautics) in Berlin. Due to the overwhelming numerical air superiority of the Allies every effort was made during the last year of the war to find ways of exploiting any known phenomenon that could bring down the heavy bombers of the USAAF and RAF. Dr. Zippermayr constructed both a huge Wirbelwind Kanone (Whirlwind Cannon) and Turbulenz Kanone (Vortex Cannon). Both had the same goal – to knock down enemy bombers through clever manipulation of air.

To achieve this, the “Wind Cannon” used a detonation of hydrogen and oxygen to form a highly compressed plug of air that was channeled through a long tube that was bent at an angle and fired like a shell towards enemy aircraft. Impossible as this may seem the Wind Cannon did particularly well on the ground – breaking one inch thick wooden boards from a range of 200 yards! This promising development, however, meant nothing against the Allied bombers that were flying at 20,000 ft! Nevertheless, taken from the Hillersleben Proving Grounds the Wind Cannon was used in defense of a bridge over the Elbe River in 1945. Either there were no aircraft present or the cannon had no effect because it was still intact where it was found.

The Turbulenz Kanone, by comparison, was a large caliber mortar sunk into the ground with fired coal dust and slow burning explosive shells to create an artificial vortex. This also worked well on the ground but again the problem was the same – how to generate a large enough effect to reach the aircraft. Zippermayr did not know if the pressure changes of this device would be sufficient to cause structural damage to an aircraft but the vortex would definitely have an effect on the wing loading as even clear air turbulence had brought down civilian airliners.

Even though Zippermayr could not make either of these weapons any more potent, three outcomes came from his research. The first was the coal dust shell application used with light artillery in the Warsaw Ghetto which involved nothing more than shortening the barrel of the artillery piece and detonating the shells in flight. The improvised weapon was named “Pandora” and was sadly used to deadly effect against the Jewish freedom fighters.


A special catalyst had been developed by the SS in 1943 and the following year Zippermayer turned his energies to a heavy air (Schwere Luft) bomb. Encouraging results were obtained from a mixture consisting of 60% finely powdered dry brown coal and 40% liquid air. The first trials were carried out on the Döberitz grounds near Berlin using a charge of about 8 kg powder in a tin of thin plate. The liquid air was poured on to the powder and the two were mixed together with a long wooden stirrer. The team then retired and after ignition everything living and trees within a radius of 500 to 600 metres were destroyed. Beyond that radius the explosion started to rise and only the tops of trees were affected, although the explosion was intense over a radius of 2 kilometres.

Zippermayer then conceived the idea that the effect might be improved if the powder was spread out in the form of a cloud before ignition, and trials were run using an impregated paper container. This involved the use of a waxy substance. A metal cylinder was attached to the lower end of the paper container and hit the ground first, dispersing the powder. After 0.25 seconds a small charge in the metal cylinder exploded, igniting the funnel-shaped cloud of coal dust and liquid air.

The ordnance had to be filled immediately prior to the delivery aircraft taking off. Bombs of 25 kgs and 50 kgs were dropped on the Starbergersee and photographs taken. SS-Standartenführer Klumm showed these to Brandt, Himmler’s personal adviser. The intensive explosion covered a radius of 4 kilometres and the explosion was felt at a radius of 12.5 kilometres. When the bomb was dropped on an airfield, destruction was caused as far as 12 kilometres away, although only the tops of trees were destroyed at that distance, but the blast flattened trees on a hillside 5 kilometres away.

These findings appear in the British Intelligence Objectives Sub-Committee Final Report No 142 Information Obtained From Targets of Opportunity in the Sonthofen Area. Although one suspects initially that the radius of the area allegedly affected as described in this report had been worked upon by the Propaganda Ministry, the fact is that this bomb is never heard of today. Furthermore British Intelligence published the report without comment and what tends to give the description weight is the fact that the Luftwaffe wanted aircrews flying operationally with the bomb to have knowingly volunteered for suicide missions. The idea that the bomb had unusual effects was hinted at not only by the head of the SS-weapons test establishment but also possibly by Goering and Renato Vesco. On 7 May 1945 in American custody, Goering told his captors, “I declined to use a weapon which might have destroyed all civilization”. Since nobody knew what he meant, it was reported quite openly at the time. The atom bomb was not under his control, although the Zippermayer bomb was. Vesco reported that the supreme explosive was “a blue cloud based on firedamp” which had initially been thought of “in the anti-aircraft role”. On the Allied side, Sir William Stephenson, the head of the British Security Coordination intelligence mission stated:

One of our agents brought out for BSC a report, sealed and stamped This is of Particular Secrecy telling of liquid air bombs being developed in Germany of terrific destructive power.”

A 50 kg bomb was said to create a massive pressure wave and tornado effect over a radius of 4 kms from the impact point, a 250 kg bomb for up to ten kms. A sequential disturbance in climate for a period after the explosion was reported. Radioactive material added to the explosive mixture was possibly to give it even better penetration and distribution. Zippermayer’s device fits the idea of a high pressure bomb which Professor Heisenberg seemed to know about and to which he alluded in his eavesdropped conversation at Farm Hall. The bomb would have been the equivalent of a tornado but covering a far wider diameter, sucking up in its path everything but the most solid structures and scattering radioactive particles over the wide area devastated by the initial explosion. The survivors of the explosion would be suffocated by the lightning effect at ground level burning up the surrounding air.

The head of the SS-Weapons Testing Establishment attached to the Skoda Works was involved in the destruction of the catalyst at the war’s end. He had personally witnessed it being tested at Kiesgrube near Stechowitz on the Czech-Austrian border. These must have been the first tests, since he describes the astonishment of the observers at the force of the blast and tornado effect. Various other smaller tests were carried out at Fellhorn, Eggenalm and Ausslandsalm in the Alps. After these a larger experiment was made at Grafenwöhr in Bavaria described by the SS-General in the following terms: “We were in well-constructed shelters two kilometres from the test material. Not a large amount, but what power -equal to 560 tonnes of dynamite. Within a radius of 1200 metres dogs, cats and goats had been put in the open or below the ground in dug-outs. I have seen many explosions, the biggest in 1917 when we blew up a French trench complex with 300,000 tonnes of dynamite, but what I experienced from this small quantity was fearsome. It was a roaring, thundering, screaming monster with lightning flashes in waves. Borne on something like a hurricane there came heat so fierce that it threatened to suffocate us. All the animals both above and below ground were dead. The ground trembled, a tremendous wind swept through our shelter, there was a great rumbling, everywhere a screeching chaos. The ground was black and charred. Once the explosive effects were gone I felt the heat within my body and a strange numbness overcame me. My throat seemed sealed off and thought I was going to suffocate. My eyes were flickering, there was a thundering and a roaring in my ears, I tried to open my eyes but the lids were too heavy. I wanted to get up but languor prevented me.” An area of 2 kilometres was utterly devastated. Several observers on the perimeter were seriously affected by the shock wave and appeared to suffer from a kind of intoxication effect which lasted for about four weeks. That the weapon failed to make its debut on the battlefield in 1943 arouses the suspicion that very real fears existed regarding its knock-on effect on the climate. Within sight of Gernany’s defeat, it was tested again at Ohrdruf in the Harz in early March 1945.

Martin B-26 Marauder


A twin-engined bomber that experienced severe handling problems, and a phenomenal accident rate in its early days, was the Martin B-26 Marauder. One of the most controversial Allied medium bombers of the Second World War, at least in the early stages of its career, the Glenn L. Martin 179 was entered in a US Army light and medium bomber competition in 1939. Its designer, Peyton M. Magruder, placed the emphasis on high speed, producing an aircraft with a torpedo-like fuselage, two massive radial engines, tricycle undercarriage and stubby wings. The advanced nature of the aircraft’s design proved so impressive that an immediate order was placed for 201 examples off the drawing board, without a prototype. The first B-26 flew on 25 November 1940, powered by two Pratt & Whitney R-2800-5 engines; by this time, orders for 1131 B-26A and B-26B bombers had been received, and training establishments had been set up at MacDill Field, Tampa, Florida and Barksdale Field, Louisiana.

The first unit to rearm with a mixture of B-26s and B-26As was the 22nd Bombardment Group (BG) at Langley Field in February 1941. Early in 1942 it moved to Australia, where it became part of the US Fifth Air Force, attacking enemy shipping, airfields and installations in New Guinea and New Britain. It carried out its first attack, a raid on Rabaul, on 5 April 1942. During the Battle of Midway in June, four B-26As of the 22nd and 38 th BG attacked units of the Japanese fleet with torpedoes.

Meanwhile, at the B-26 training bases in the United States, all was far from well. Many of the pilots reporting for training on the B-26 had no previous twin-engined experience, and soon the accident rate had reached such a level that the Marauder’s future was placed seriously in jeopardy. Most of the accidents occurred during the take-off or landing phase; the increases in weight that had been gradually introduced on the B-26 production line had made the wing loading of the Marauder progressively higher. This resulted in higher stalling and landing speeds, which novice twin-engine pilots found difficult to master. Before long, the B-26 had earned itself an unenviable reputation as a ‘widowmaker’ and a ‘flying coffin’. Early in 1942, the accident level at MacDill had become so serious that the expression ‘one a day into Tampa Bay’ became commonplace.

Such was the concern about the Marauder’s accident rate in senior USAAF circles that there was discussion about ceasing production of the type and withdrawing it from service. The US Senate’s Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program (better known as the Truman Committee, after its chairman, Senator Harry S. Truman), which had been charged with ferreting out corruption, waste and mismanagement in the military procurement effort, also began looking into the Marauder’s safety record. By July 1942, the committee had heard so many Marauder horror stories that they recommended production be stopped. However, combat crews in the South Pacific, who were more experienced, were not reporting any particular problems with the aircraft, and they campaigned for the Marauder. They exerted pressure, and the USAAF decided to continue production of the Marauder.

The situation at the training establishments, however, continued to worsen, with accidents becoming even more frequent. By September 1942, the B-26 had acquired such a bad reputation that even civilian crews under contract to ferry the type to its various destinations were refusing to fly the type, often losing their jobs as a consequence. A full investigation into the Marauder’s disastrous loss rate was initiated by the USAAF’s Air Safety Board, and in October the Truman Committee recommended that production should cease. By no means convinced that this decision was the right one, General H.H. Arnold, Commanding General of the USAAF, stepped in at this juncture. He turned the investigation over to Brigadier General James H. Doolittle, who in April 1942 had led sixteen B-25 Mitchell bombers, flown off the carrier USS Hornet, in a daring raid on Japan.

Doolittle was exactly the right man for the task. One of the leading pioneers of American aviation, he had learned to fly with the US Army in 1918. In the years after the First World War his flying career had been marked by a number of notable ‘firsts’. He had become the first man to span the American continent with a flight from Florida to California; the first American to pilot an aircraft solely by instruments from take-off to landing; the first American to fly an outside loop; and in 1925 he had won the coveted Schneider Trophy for the United States. He had also been a test pilot for the Army Air Corps, had demonstrated American fighter designs overseas, and – of vital importance to his new assignment – he had obtained the degree of a Doctor of Science in aeronautical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. During 1941, General Arnold, an old friend, used him as a kind of troubleshooter to deal with the hundreds of problems that arose as the US aircraft industry strove to gear up its resources to meet the growing demand for modern aircraft by the armed forces. Doolittle now had a personal interest in the Marauder, as he had recently been given command of the B-26-equipped 4th Medium Bombardment Wing, which was scheduled to take part in the invasion of North Africa.

Doolittle’s conclusion, supported by the Air Safety Board, was that there was nothing intrinsically wrong with the B-26, and there was no reason why it should be discontinued. They traced the problem to the inexperience of both aircrews and ground crews, and also to the overloading of the aircraft beyond the weight at which it could be safely flown on one engine only. Almost immediately after the Marauder had entered service, it had been found necessary to add more and more equipment, armament, fuel and armour, driving the gross weight steadily upwards. By early 1942, the B-26 had risen in normal gross weight from its original 26,625 lb to 31,527 lb with no increase in power. It had been found that many of the accidents had been caused by engine failures, which were in turn caused by a combination of poor maintenance by relatively inexperienced mechanics and a change from 100 octane fuel to 100 octane aromatic fuel, which damaged the diaphragm of the carburettors. Many of the B-26 instructors were almost as inexperienced as the pilots they were trying to train, and did not know themselves how to handle the B-26 in asymmetric configuration – in other words, on one engine only. Consequently, they were in no position to pass on the necessary technique to their pupils.

Doolittle sent his technical adviser, Captain Vincent W. “Squeak” Burnett, to make a tour of OTU (Operational Training Units) bases to demonstrate how the B-26 could be flown safely. These demonstrations included single-engine operations, slow-flying characteristics, and recoveries from unusual flight attitudes. Captain Burnett made numerous low-altitude flights with one engine out, even turning into a dead engine (which aircrews were warned never to do), proving that the Marauder could be safely flown if you knew what you were doing. Martin also sent engineers out into the field to show crews how to avoid problems caused by overloading, by paying proper attention to the aircraft’s centre of gravity.

The efforts of the Army and the Martin Company to improve training soon began to pay dividends. Within a few weeks B-26 accidents at the training establishments had been reduced to about the same level as that experienced by other combat types. Despite this, inevitable rumours persisted that the B-26 was a death trap, and new crews were extremely wary of it. It took the Marauder’s prowess in action to prove that it was, in fact, a superb fighting machine. It excelled itself in New Guinea, making fast, low-level attacks on Japanese airfields and installations that left the enemy dazed and bewildered.

The original operational Marauder group, the 22nd BG, used B-26s exclusively until October 1943, when some B-25s were added. In February 1944 it became a heavy bombardment group, equipped with B-24s. The next variant, the B-26B, had uprated engines and increased armament. Of the 1883 built, all but the first 641 aircraft featured a new extended-span wing and taller tail fin.

The B-26B made its debut in the European Theatre with the 322nd BG in March 1943. After some disastrous low-level daylight attacks, all B-26 units in the European Theatre were reassigned to the medium-level bombing role. They fulfilled this role magnificently until the end of the war in both north-west Europe and Italy. The B-26C, of which 1210 were built, was essentially similar to the later B-26B models. These were succeeded by the B-26F (300 built), in which the angle of incidence (i.e. the angle at which the wing is married to the fuselage) was increased in order to improve take-off performance. The final model was the B-26G, which differed from the F model in only minor detail; 950 were built.

The B-26 saw service in the Aleutians in 1942, and in the Western Desert, where it served with the RAF Middle East Command as the Marauder Mk I (B-26A), Marauder Mk IA (B-26B), Marauder Mk II (B-26F) and Marauder Mk III (B-26G). Only two RAF squadrons, Nos 14 and 39, used the Marauder. The total number of Marauders delivered to the RAF included 52 Marauder Mk Is and Mk IAs, 250 Marauder Mk IIs and 150 Marauder Mk IIIs. The Marauder was also used extensively by the Free French Air Force and the South African Air Force. Many Marauders were completed or converted as AT-23 or TB-26 trainers for the USAAF and JM-1s for the US Navy, some being used as target tugs. Production totalled 5175 aircraft.



The Harrier Jump Jet, one of the most famous and successful fixed-wing single-engine VTOL aircraft.


The Soviet Union’s VTOL aircraft, the Yakovlev Yak-38

It was a French engineer, Michel Wibault – whose company had built a range of commercial aircraft during the 1930s – who came up with a possible solution. Wibault envisaged a turbojet using vectored thrust, whereby rotating nozzles could be used to direct exhaust gases either vertically downwards or horizontally aft. Seeking funds to develop his theme, he approached the Paris office of the Mutual Weapons Development Team, which at that time was headed by Colonel Bill Chapman. This was in 1956, at the time when Bristol Siddeley was working on the Orpheus engine to power NATO’s lightweight fighter, so Chapman approached Dr Stanley Hooker, Bristol’s Technical Director, and sought his views on the Wibault project. Hooker was enthusiastic, and one of his project engineers, Gordon Lewis, was briefed to investigate the possibilities. After preliminary studies, in January 1957 Wibault and Lewis applied for a joint patent covering the design of a vectored-thrust engine known as the BE.52, this was further developed into the BE.53 Pegasus I, which was based on the Orpheus.

In the summer of 1957, details of the proposed engine were passed to Sir Sydney Camm at Hawker Aircraft, who made a preliminary design for an aircraft to go around it. The design was allocated the project number P.1127. It bore no resemblance, at this stage, to the amazing combat aircraft that was ultimately to be developed from it – the Harrier – but it was a firm beginning.

In June 1958, the Mutual Weapons Development Team agreed to pay 75 per cent of the development costs of the Pegasus engine. Funding the airframe, however, proved a tougher obstacle, for research funds had been eaten up by other projects. Hawker had no alternative but to proceed as a private venture while the Air Staff set about drafting an operational requirement to cover the concept. This emerged in April 1959 as GOR345, and Specification ER204D was issued to cover the P.1127, but it was not until October 1959 that Hawker received a preliminary contract for the building of two prototypes. It was fortunate that Hawker recognised potential when they saw it, or there might never have been a Harrier.

In Hawker’s opinion, the P.1127 was the ideal design to meet a new NATO requirement, NBMR-3 (NATO Basic Military Requirement No. 3, which was issued in 1961 after several revisions and called for a VTOL strike fighter with a sustained capability of Mach 0.92 at low level and supersonic speed at altitude). The P.1127 was not supersonic, but it had a vast amount of development potential ahead of it, and so Sir Sydney Camm proposed a modified version, the P.1150, which was to have a thin wing and an advanced Pegasus engine. Hawker could have progressed with the building of a prototype almost immediately, but yet another revision to NBMR-3, requiring greater range and load-carrying capacity, meant that the P.1150 would have been too small. Camm and his team therefore set about designing a scaled-up version, the P.1154, which was to have a BS.100 engine of 33,000 lb thrust.

However, the P.1154 had a formidable challenger, at least in theory, in the shape of the Dassault Mirage IIIV, whose forerunner, the Balzac VTOL research aircraft, was then under construction. The Balzac used the wings and tail surfaces of the Mirage III-01, married to a fuselage that was completely redesigned except for the main frames and the cockpit section. French research into VTOL, in fact, pre-dated both the Hawker P.1127 and NBMR-3, having been initiated in response to a French Air Force requirement. However, the French chose to pursue their experiments with a combination of lift jets and propulsion engines, rather than vectored thrust. Even then, the engines they chose to power the Balzac were British, consisting of eight lightweight Rolls-Royce RB.108 lift engines and a Bristol Siddeley Orpheus B.Or.3 turbojet for forward propulsion. Ironically, the use of British engines of proven design led to a strong lobby in both the Ministry of Aviation and the RAF that favoured concentrating on the development of the Balzac/Mirage IIIV as the standard NATO strike fighter, at the expense of the P.1154.

The Balzac made its first tethered flight on 12 October 1962 in the rig once used by the ill-fated Coléoptère at Melun-Villaroche, and initial tests were made with a non-retractable landing gear. The aircraft made its first free vertical take-off on 18 October 1962 and the first transition to horizontal flight on 18 March 1963. The test programme continued until 27 January 1964, when the aircraft suffered a critical divergent lateral oscillation during hovering descent. It dropped out of the sky like a falling leaf, crashing and killing its pilot. It was rebuilt, but crashed again on 8 September 1965, killing another pilot. This time it was beyond repair.

Meanwhile, the first flight of the Mirage IIIV had been delayed because of problems in selecting an appropriate propulsion engine. The prototype eventually flew on 12 February 1965, when hovering trials began; at that time the aircraft was fitted with a SNECMA TF104 turbofan, but this was subsequently replaced by a more powerful TF-106. The lift engines were eight Rolls-Royce RB.162-1 turbojets. During flight testing, the first prototype Mirage IIIV reached a speed at high altitude of Mach 1.35. The second prototype, which flew for the first time on 22 June 1966, was fitted with a Pratt & Whitney TF-30 turbofan rated at 11,330 lb thrust (18,520 lb with afterburning), and on 12 September the aircraft reached a speed of Mach 2.04. However, it was destroyed in an accident on 28 November, resulting in the cancellation of plans to build further prototypes and develop the aircraft to production standards. In fact, the Mirage IIIV programme had been under critical review for some time, not only on grounds of escalating costs but also because the programme had slipped badly. Originally, it had been expected that the prototype Mirage IIIV would fly late in 1963, and that the first squadron would form in 1966, if trials were successful. Ironically, another Dassault design, the Mirage F, which had been built solely to test the Mirage IIIV’s armament system and the TF-306 engine that was to have powered the operational version of the VTOL fighter, was found to have enormous potential in its own right as an operational strike fighter. It eventually entered service as the Mirage F-1, and did everything the Mirage IIIV was expected to do except take off vertically.

In Federal Germany, the design teams of Bölkow, Heinkel and Messerschmitt had joined forces in 1959 at the suggestion of the German Defence Ministry to develop a Mach 2 VTOL interceptor. The design they adopted involved an aircraft of conventional configuration, but with turbojet engines mounted in swivelling wing-tip pods to provide both lift and control in vertical and low-speed flight, together with fuselage-mounted lift engines. A bedstead-type test rig was built and had made 126 flights by April 1965, fitted with a single RB.108 lift engine. The consortium, known as the Entwicklungsring Süd Arbeitsgemeinschaft, produced two prototypes of an experimental single-seat VTOL aircraft, the VJ-101C, which were fitted with six RB.145 engines developed jointly by Rolls-Royce and MAN Turbomotoren. Tethered trials of the VJ-101CX-1 began in December 1962, the first free hover being made on 10 April 1963. The aircraft made its first horizontal take-off on 31 August 1963, and its first transition on 20 September 1963. During further trials the following spring the VJ-101CX-1 exceeded Mach 1 in level flight on several occasions, proving the viability of the concept; unfortunately, the aircraft crashed after a normal horizontal take-off on 14 September 1964, the pilot escaping thanks to his Martin-Baker Mk GA7 zero-zero-ejection seat.

Hovering trials of the second prototype, the VJ-101CX-2, began in the spring of 1965, and it made its first free flight on 12 June that year. By this time, Heinkel had dropped out of the consortium, and the resources of Bölkow and Messerschmitt were being channelled into other programmes. Plans to produce an operational version of the VTOL research aircraft, the VJ-101D, were therefore never implemented.

Nevertheless, the two VJ-101Cs had provided a wealth of knowledge about VTOL techniques, and it formed a sound basis for other German companies involved in the field. Foremost among them was the former Focke-Wulf company, which had produced a design study to meet a German Defence Ministry Requirement – VAK 191B – for a subsonic VTOL tactical fighter to replace the Fiat G.91. The initial design study was designated FW 1262, and in 1964 VFW and Fiat agreed to collaborate in development work under a Memorandum of Agreement signed by the German and Italian Defence Ministers. The Italians later dropped out of the programme, but VFW found another partner, Fokker of Holland, and Fiat agreed to carry on as sub-contractor.

Work proceeded with Federal German Government funding, and the first VAK 191B was rolled out in April 1970. It made its first conventional flight on 10 September 1971, and this was followed by a period of tethered hovering trials. By this time the other two prototypes had also joined the test programme, and on 26 October 1972 one of these made the type’s first vertical-to-horizontal transition. During this test the aircraft reached a speed of 276 mph, and its RB.126 lift jets were shut down and restarted in flight for the first time. At the end of 1972, however, German Government funding of the VAK 191B was terminated, and no further development was undertaken. By this time, RAF Harriers were being deployed to Germany, and their presence more than adequately filled the V/STOL (vertical/short take-off and landing) requirement in NATO’s front line. Hawker’s earlier faith had paid dividends, and the Harrier remained Western Europe’s only operational V/STOL combat aircraft.

Meanwhile, Soviet experiments with VTOL had resulted in an experimental prototype, the Yakovlev Yak-36, dubbed ‘Freehand’ by NATO. The Freehand was powered by two non-afterburning Soyuz Tumanskiy/Khatchaturov R-27-300 turbojet engines of 11,000 lb thrust each, mounted forward of and below the cockpit. They were fitted with louvred nozzles, which could be vectored through about 90 degrees and exhausted at the centre of gravity. Engine bleed air was used for reaction control nozzles at each wingtip fairing, on the tailcone, and at the tip of a ten foot long nose probe. The Yak-36 made its first untethered hover on 9 January 1963. From there, the flight envelope was slowly expanded, with a double transition from vertical take-off to forward flight and back to vertical landing performed on 16 September 1963. The Yak-36 was, in effect, a technology demonstrator that led to the development of the Yak-38 (NATO reporting name ‘Forger’), an operational strike aircraft that served on the Soviet Navy’s Kiev-class aircraft carriers.

Russia’s last venture into the V/STOL field was ambitious, involving the supersonic Yakovlev Yak-41 (NATO reporting name ‘Freestyle’). The Yak-41 programme was initiated in 1975, about the same time that the Yak-38 was first being deployed. The supersonic Freestyle was optimised for air defence with an attack capability as a secondary role. The first conventional flight was made on 9 March 1987 and the first hover on 29 December 1989. The first official details were not released by the Soviet Union until the 1991 Paris Air Show, by which time the two flying prototypes, now redesignated Yak-141, had accumulated about 210 hours’ flying time. A dozen FAI-recognised Class H. III records for V/STOL were set in April 1991, consisting of altitudes and times to altitudes with loads. During flight testing, the ‘Freestyle’ achieved a maximum speed of Mach 1.7. Flight testing was originally intended to continue until 1995, but development was stopped in August 1991 because of the shrinking Soviet military budget. Yakovlev funded the development from its own resources for a while, in the hopes of attracting a foreign investor. The second prototype was destroyed after a hard landing on the aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov on 5 October 1991. The following year, the surviving prototype was demonstrated at the Farnborough Air Show, but the design bureau was still unable to find a market for the design. The Yak-141 was claimed to be as manoeuvrable as the MiG-29, which is doubtful.

The operational use of V/STOL aircraft, by the very nature of the concept, was always going to be dangerous. Between 1961 and 2000 the RAF lost 100 Harriers, including P.1127 and Kestrel development aircraft, to non-combat causes. In addition, the US Marine Corps had lost 143 examples of its versions, the AV-8A and AV-8B, since V/STOL operations began in 1971 and up to 2004. This is a high price to pay for combat versatility. Because of its complexity, the Harrier remains one of aviation history’s most unforgiving aircraft, and it will ‘bite’ the unwary at the slightest pretext. It remains to be seen whether its supersonic successor, the Lockheed Martin F-35, will have gentler habits.