Russian Rocket Projectiles – WWII

Il-2 attack aircraft of the 174th assault air regiment. Leningrad Front, 1942.  Armed with RS-82 rocket projectiles. The USSR pioneered the use of aerial rocket projectiles. Taken into service in December 1937, the RS-82 was used in combat for the first time at Khaikhin-Gol in August 1939. Only in 1942 did the USAAF and the RAF make use of similar arms, and the first operational use of rocket projectiles by the Luftwaffe did not take place until 1943. The RS-82 was outfitted with a 5.55-pound warhead containing a .99-pound explosive charge. Its combat range was 5,500 to 6,500 yards.


At the beginning of the war for ground attack even high-altitude MiG-3 fighters. The picture shows such a machine with launchers for the RS-82 under the wing of the 27th Fighter Regiment, Moscow region, winter 1941–42. The aircraft having been fitted with RS-82 unguided rocket projectiles on its underwing racks. Initially, aircraft were made rocket compatible by groundcrew in the field, but from October 1941 Factory No 1 began installing wing rails on new MiG-3s as they progressed along the production line.

The MO (Russian: Malyj Okhotnik; English: Small Hunter, nickname Moshka(Fly)) is a class of small ships produced before and during World War II for the Soviet Navy. Their primary function originally was anti-submarine warfare. During the war they carried out many additional roles from supporting landing operations to escorting convoys. Over 350 ships were built with launchers for 82 mm rockets in the bow.

Armored type BK-1125 with launcher M-13-MI.

The armored boat of the Volga military flotilla number 12 with a launcher for missiles.

Katyushas multiple-launch rocket system were inexpensive and uncomplicated to produce and easily mounted on many platforms, initially including only trucks but quickly progressing to tanks, tractors, armored trains, and even small naval vessels. Later in the war, many Lend-Lease tanks, which the Soviet specialists did not consider to be up to the task of armored warfare on the Eastern Front, were used as mounting platforms. However, American Studebaker two-and-one-half- ton trucks were highly regarded for their off-road performance, and thousands of them were used as mounting platforms for Katyushas.

Soviet Navy developed small gunboats to a science. The 1124 and 1125 classes were heavily armored and had tank turrets mounted on the hull. Some mounted “Katyusyka” multiple rocket launchers. They only drew 2’ of water and were used as landing craft for naval commandos.

BKA 1124

The old Imperial Navy gunboats and the converted merchant steamers had put in sterling service during the First World War and the Civil War. In the 1920s the surviving purpose-built gunboats were rebuilt as and when resources became available, and the converted steamers and tugs were returned to civilian use. In 1934 the navy issued a requirement for a new type of armoured cutter suitable for mass production. It was intended to use many of the components being produced for the tanks of the 1931 Programme. The navy wanted two turrets, light armour protection for the machinery, fuel tanks and magazines, and a shallow draught of just half a metre (1ft 7½).

Designer Yuliy Benoit advised that it would not be possible to build an armoured boat with two turrets on such a shallow draught, but that it could be possible to achieve the modest draught by producing a slightly smaller boat carrying just one turret. He also proposed to produce the original design with two turrets on a slightly increased draught. His Bureau’s proposals were accepted, and production began of the two different series, the BKA 1124 with two turrets and the BKA 1125 with just one.

The turrets originally used on the BKA 1124 were two from the T-26 tank, armed with 45mm guns. Following successful testing of the prototypes, the turrets were changed for those from the T-28 medium tank, mounting a short 76.2mm gun and a 7.62mm MG. When the T-34 tank went into production just prior to the German invasion, it was decided to standardise on its turret with the longer 76.2mm gun, to arm the Bronekater as well. This sensible solution would soon become the source of problems and delays, as with the start of Operation ‘Barbarossa’, all turrets were allocated to the desperately-needed T-34 tanks. The mass-produced BKA hulls were therefore fitted with turrets taken from obsolescent T-28 or even T-35 heavy tanks, or when the supply of these turrets, which were no longer in production, ran out, 76.2mm Lender AA guns on unshielded deck mounts taken from warships were fitted instead. Bronekater with tank turrets needed an AA capability, and this was provided by fitting the small turrets on the BKA 1124s with 12.7mm DShK heavy machine guns, which had a much higher effective ceiling than the 7.62mm calibre weapons.

Launched: 97 BKA 1124 built 1936–45 by various yards.

Dimensions: Displ: 49.7 tons, 52.2 tons full load; L: 25.3m/77ft; B: 4.1m/13ft 5½in; D: 0.9m/3ft 11½in.

Crew: 17.

Power/Speed: Twin screws; 2 × 750bhp or 900bhp petrol engines/18–19.4 knots.

Guns/Armour: As designed: 2 × 76.2mm tank guns; 2 × coaxial 7.62mm MG. Alternatively: 1 × tank turret + 1 × Katyusha rocket launcher; 1 × twin 12.7mm AA HMG; + 10 mines/T-34/76 turret front 60mm, side 52mm, rear 30mm, roof 16mm; Citadel 12mm, Hull 7mm.

BKA 1125

More than twice the number of the smaller BKA 1125 were produced, and like its larger cousin it went into combat on all the rivers and lakes where the Soviet Navy fought. It also went through the same permutations of various types of tank turret, or a 76.2mm Lender AA gun mount, and again a Katyusha rocket launcher could be mounted on the rear deck, providing devastating firepower in a bombardment role.

Launched: 151 BKA 1125 built 1938–45 by various yards.

Dimensions: Displ: 26.5 tons; L: 22.65m/74ft 3¾in; B: 3.5m/11ft 5¾in; D: 0.52m/1ft 8½in.

Crew: 12–13.

Power/Speed: Single screw; 1 × 750bhp or 900bhp petrol engine/19.7 knots.

Guns/Armour: 1 × 76.2mm + 1 × 7.62mm MG in tank turret; 3 × 7.62mm MG in small turrets. Alternatively rear turret replaced by: 1 × 12.7mm DShK AA HMG or 1 × Katyusha rocket launcher; + 6 mines/T-34/76 turret front 60mm, side 52mm, rear 30mm, roof 16mm; Citadel 20mm, Hull 4mm.

BKA S-40 with Katyusha launcher. Noted she lacks an MG turret in front of the T-34 main turret, and the turret on top of the bridge has only one MG, as on the type BKA 1125.

BKA S-40

Designed under the overall supervision of Yuliy Benoit, this variant of the BKA 1125 type was originally intended for the Amur Flotilla, but with the diversion of diesel engines to tank production, just seven units were built in 1942.

Launched: 7 units launched in 1942.

Dimensions: Displ: 31.9 tons; L: 24.7m/81ft; B: 3.85m/12ft 7½in; D: 0.60m/7ft 9in.

Crew: 13.

Power/Speed: Twin screws; 2 × diesel engines, total 800bhp/19 knots.

Guns/Armour: 1 × 76.2mm + coaxial 7.62mm DT MG in T-34 turret; up to 4 × AA MG or Katyusha rocket launcher + 2 × AA MG or 2 × 76mm L/30 Lender AA/T-34/76 turret front 60mm, side 52mm, rear 30mm, roof 16mm; Bulletproof plating 4-8mm thick.

Air-To-Ground/Air Rockets

In 1930, GDL [Leningrad Gas Dynamics Laboratory] achieved its first practical results during the range testing of 82- and 132-millimeter rockets. In 1932, Mikhail Tukhachevskiy, Revvoyensovet Deputy Chairman and Red Army Chief of Armaments, was present when the first official in-air firings of RS-82 missiles from an I-4 aircraft armed with six launchers successfully took place. By late 1937, RS-82 and RS-132 missiles had been developed under their leadership. The Air Force had accepted these missiles as standard armaments for I-16, I-15, I-153, and SB aircraft.

The 82mm and 132mm Katyusha rockets were originally developed as air-to-air rockets and were used as such at Khalkin-Gol in 1939 against the Japanese. Five 1-16s fitted with RS-82 unguided rocket launchers under their wings attacked a force of Japanese bombers escorted by Ki-27 fighters. A volley of the rockets, which had proximity fuses, was launched at the close formation of enemy fighters. Fortune this time favoured the brave and after two Japanese aircraft had been destroyed the rest promptly returned to base. This new weapon was extensively tested and claimed, in all, 13 aircraft.

In 1941 the Western Allies were intrigued to hear that Soviet aircraft were attacking tanks with rockets. Such weapons had been developed in the USSR ahead of all other countries, and by 1941 they had been made to fly in a predictable manner, stabilized by spinning about the longitudinal axis. The commonest pattern, the RS-82 (3.23in, 82mm, calibre), was used by the million. Most of the mass-produced Soviet fighters were cleared to launch these weapons, which were on occasion used against enemy aircraft.

In 1942 or 1943 a British delegation was shown a demonstration strafing/bombing/rocket attack by a unit of Il-2 attack aircraft, in which the Soviet planes failed to score a single direct hit with their rockets.

The Il-2 could carry small bombs in bomb bays in the wing roots, and rockets under the outer wing panels. The latter could be the 82 mm RS-82 or, from early 1942 onwards, the heavier RS-132. This rocket was powerful enough to defeat the armour of a medium tank, and later the Soviets produced improved versions of these rockets with shaped-charge warheads, the RBS-82 and RBS-132. But like the rockets used on the Western front, these were insufficiently accurate for use against point targets, although they could be fired at armour concentrations.

Initially the IL-2 was equipped with R0-82 launch rails for eight 82-mm (3.22-in) RS-82 rockets. Experimentally, early in 1942 the number of launch rails on some single seat IL-2s was increased, enabling them to carry 14 projectiles of the 132-mm caliber (RS-132) or a combination of eight 82-mm and eight 132-mm projectiles. Presumably, this was done at the expense of the bomb load. IL-2 pilots did not consider the RS-82 projectiles to be a very effective weapon and expressed their preference for the heavier 132-mm rockets; they were particularly impressed by the armour-piercing RBS-132 and high-explosive/fragmentation ROFS-132 projectiles introduced in the course of the war (from the spring of 1942 the armour-piercing RBS-82 and RBS-132 came into use, supplemented by the V-8 and M-13 projectiles later in the year. The last-mentioned two types were improved versions of the RS-82 and RS-132 respectively). An idea cropped up of using rocket projectiles for the protection against enemy fighters attacking from the rear; in August 1941 some IL-2s were fitted with a pair of launching rails for the rearward firing of rocket projectiles which proved useful in scaring away the attacking fighters. In mid-1943 a two-seat IL-2 AM-38F was fitted with eight (!) launch rails for rearward-firing rocket projectiles.

In October-November 1941, the Yak 1s were provided with rocket armament. Here note must be made of the initiative displayed by Major A. Negoda, commander of the 562nd lAP. He performed four to five sorties after one refuelling, strafing the enemy’s forward lines with the new 82-mm RS-82 rockets (RS – raketnyy snaryad, rocket projectile). This was possible because the forward line of defence passed about 10 km (6 miles) from the regiment’s airfield in Khimki near Moscow. The German anti-aircraft defences were hard put to it to repulse effectively the attacks of Soviet fighters which made a surprise appearance at extremely low altitudes.

By that time the 562nd lAP had accumulated appreciable combat experience. The regiment’s pilots downed eight enemy machines in aerial combat and destroyed one German aircraft on the ground during strafing sorties. The Soviet losses comprised 13 machines that were shot down or damaged, nine pilots were killed in action. Two Yaks made forced landings, but eight machines (including those from other regiments) were repaired by the technical personnel.

In all, 195 Yaks were fitted with rocket armament at the Plant by the end of 1941; another 953 fighters were retrofitted with this armament by the late spring of the following year. The installation of six RS-82 projectiles on the machine found a positive response from the flying personnel; as a result, rocket armament began to be fitted to the fighters directly at the front. Although the external stores increased the all-up weight by 65 kg (143 Ib) and decreased the maximum speed by some 30 km/h (18mph), firing these projectiles against aerial targets (especially during head-on attacks) produced a strong psychological effect on the enemy. In the event of a direct hit (which happened extremely rarely) the enemy aircraft simply disintegrated in the air.

In the course of combat it became clear that there was really no need to score a direct hit by all means. The projectiles were provided with fuses for self-destruction, and explosions at close range inflicted serious splinter damage on enemy machines. Even German bombers, despite their high survivability, were often unable to continue their mission after being damaged by splinters. However, the absence of a guidance system in the RS projectiles and imperfections in their design led to a great dispersal of the rockets and the probability of hitting a maneuvering air target remained low.



Yury Dolgorukiy on its way to the Russian Northern Fleet, October 15, 2015.

Yury Dolgorukiy, the lead vessel of the Borei-class submarine

Yury Dolgorukiy during sea trials

Named after the founder of Moscow, Yuri Dolgorukiy, K-535 is the first of ten planned Borei-class ballistic missile submarines.

The vessel was first laid down in 1996 and built by Sevmash in Northwest Russia, and was planned to enter service in 2001.

Initially it was planned for the submarine to be armed with the R-39M missiles but after indifferent tests, the submarine was redesigned to take the Bulava missile instead. The Bulava missiles are 40ft long and have a range of up to 5,000 miles.

In 2007, the vessel was moved from the construction hall into a launch dock in Severodvinsk even though she was only about 80% complete.

It was thought that the submarine would be rushed through the rest of its production in order to be ready for the 2008 Russian presidential elections, even though most of the vessel’s equipment was yet to be installed which would normally take well over a year to complete.

Nevertheless, on 13 February 2008, Yuri Dolgoruky was launched, and its reactor was first activated on 21 November 2008. The following year, it started sea trials and by July 2010, the submarine had passed several trials including the buoyancy control and navigation systems. By the end of September 2010, all company tests were complete.

The first torpedo launch planned for the December was postponed due to icy conditions in the White Sea.

Commissioning, due in early 2011, was also put on hold due to technical defects. In June 2011, more sea trials took place and on 25 June, the first Bulava missile was successfully launched.

After successful state trials in early 2012, Yuri Dolgoruky was expected to be commissioned later in the summer, but more software problems again put the ceremony on hold. Until finally, on 10 January 2013, she joined the Russian Navy with the traditional raising of the St. Andrew’s ensign, which marked her introduction into the Russian Navy.

The submarine is now fully operational in the Northern Fleet – the fleet of the Russian Navy in the Arctic Ocean.

SPECIFICATION Length, 558ft, beam 44.2ft, draught 32.9ft, surface displacement 14,750 tons, submerged displacement 24,000 tons. Surface speed 25 knots, submerged 32 knots. Propulsion, 1x OK-650B nuclear reactor with 1x AEU steam turbine delivering power to 1x shaft. The vessel has an unlimited range and carries 130 crew.

ARMAMENT 16x Bulava Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs). 6x SS-N-15 Cruise missiles. 6x 21in Torpedo tubes.

RSM-56 Bulava

January 2, 2013 — The first of a new fleet of eight Russian ballistic missile submarines is due to enter service in 2013. Each boat will carry up to 16 Bulava ICBMs — intercontinental ballistic missiles — each with multiple nuclear warheads. The new weapons system forms the cornerstone of Russia’s nuclear arsenal. Graphic shows facts and figures abouth the nuclear-powered submarine Yuri Dolgoruky and the Bulava missile system.

The Russian Navy is the only operator of the RSM-56 Bulava. As of 2017, 48 missiles are deployed on the Borei-class ballistic missile submarines:

    Yury Dolgorukiy

    Alexander Nevsky

    Vladimir Monomakh

Operation Backfire

A list of desired German scientists—“List I”—accompanied the memo. It included 115 rocket specialists. When the British learned about the U.S. Army’s intentions to hire the German rocket scientists, they asked to first be allowed to conduct two rocket exploitation projects of their own. The Americans agreed and released into British custody a group of scientists, engineers, and technicians including Wernher von Braun, Walter Dornberger, and Arthur Rudolph.

The first British project was called Operation Backfire, a V-2 field test that took place on Germany’s north coast, at a former Krupp naval gun range in Cuxhaven. Operation Backfire was designed to analyze technical data about the V-2 by having the Nazi rocket engineers fire four rockets, also taken piecemeal from Nordhausen, at a target in the North Sea. This would allow the British to evaluate various technical elements, from how the rocket was launched to its flight controls and fuels.

Operation Backfire, succeeded in examining and experimentally test launching, with the assistance of German technicians, three V-2 rockets. The Backfire launches took place in the British zone of occupation, at a former Krupp armament proving ground at Altenwalde, near Cuxhaven, Germany, on the North Sea coast. The launches were made on 2, 3, and 15 October 1945. The last launch was known as Operation Clitterhouse and included foreign (U.S., French, and Soviet) observers. The data acquired from all the launches and contained in five illustrated manuals was shared with the U.S.

Arthur Rudolph, the former Mittelwerk operations director, was considered an expert in launch techniques, and to his biographer, he later recalled a scene from Operation Backfire: “The V-2 ran on alcohol of the same chemistry as that appearing in say, Jack Daniels and Old Grandad [sic]. The people at the test site apparently knew that.” One night, according to Rudolph, a group of British and German V-2 technicians got drunk together on the rocket fuel. A British officer came upon the group arm in arm, “apparently comrades now, and lustily singing, Wir Fahren gegen England, or ‘We Will March Against England.’ ” General Dornberger was not part of the drinking and singing. The British kept him on a short leash, away from the test firing and always under a watchful eye. The British had alternative plans for Walter Dornberger. They were not interested in the knowledge Dornberger possessed. They wanted to try him for war crimes. After the test, he would not be returned to the Americans as the British had originally promised.

“The British pulled a sneaky on us,” explained Major Staver, who attended Operation Backfire. The Americans were not permitted to take Dornberger back after the Operation; instead, Dornberger was declared “on loan” and was taken to England. There, he and von Braun were “interrogated for a week by the British and then kept behind barbed wire in Wimbledon for four and one-half weeks while waiting to be picked up by the Americans.” Eventually, von Braun was returned but General Dornberger was not. Instead, he was issued a brown jumpsuit with the letters “PW” for Prisoner of War stenciled on the back. Under armed guard, he was taken to the London District Cage near the Windermere Bridge for interrogation. From there, General Dornberger was transferred first to a castle in Wales and then to Special Camp XI in Island Farm, South Wales, where he was an extremely unpopular prisoner.

“Walter Dornberger was definitely the most hated man in the camp,” Sergeant Ron Williams, a prison guard, recalled. “Even his own people hated him. He never went out to the local farms to work like other prisoners.” Wherever General Dornberger went while he was at Special Camp XI, he required an escort. The British feared that other prisoners might kill him.

Report of Operation Backfire


The drawing from the “Backfire” report shows the positions and the movements of the Artillery Regiment z.b.V. 901 during their use of the V-2 rockets at Hachenburg in the Westerwald in the spring of 1945

Von Braun

At the end of July 1945 von Braun’s group finally got word that the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington had approved a plan to bring the Germans to the United States. Under the secret “Project Overcast,” 350 German specialists were to be sent, with the nominal rationale being assistance for the war against Japan, although its surrender four weeks later changed little. But with that news came a shock: this number did not encompass only Ordnance’s Peenemünders. In fact Colonel Toftoy, who had been called back to Washington in late June to take over the rocket branch, was given a quota of one hundred; the USAAF and the navy had their own long lists of desirable specialists. Toftoy returned to Paris for meetings in late July and then visited Witzenhausen. He heard firsthand about the urgency of finding long-term family accommodations, especially as contracts were to be for a year only and family members were to stay behind. Ultimately, after another round of consultations with Staver, Porter, von Braun, and the leading Germans, Toftoy decided to accept about twenty extra, his orders notwithstanding. The first version of “List I,” as the Germans called it because they believed more would come later, had 124 names and was completed on 2 August. One of those names was Magnus von Braun, by then living in Eschwege.

One of the complications in drawing up a list was that, after a behind-the-scenes tug-of-war, the British had succeeded in getting the U.S. Army to lend some of its rocketeers to “Operation Backfire.” Based at the North Sea port of Cuxhaven, Backfire aimed to give the British Army experience with V-2 handling and launching. Dornberger was sent to Cuxhaven in mid-July, but he was soon shipped off to a POW camp in England for high-ranking generals, where he was threatened with a war crimes trial for the indiscriminate bombing of civilians. Hans Kammler was nowhere to be found and likely died near Prague at the end of the war, so Dornberger was the chosen scapegoat, but the whole idea ultimately foundered on its hypocrisy in the face of Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, and so on. Neither the British nor the Americans connected Dornberger, von Braun, Rudolph, or any of the others to the horrors found at Dora and Nordhausen, however. Allied officers and specialists automatically assumed it was the sole responsibility of the SS and that there was a fundamental distinction between technical experts and Nazi war criminals. In his 17 June report to Ordnance in Washington, Staver described the rocketeers as “top-notch engineers” no different from Allied “scientists” in developing weapons of war.

Wernher von Braun was on British lists as a desirable technical expert too, whether for Operation Backfire, for interrogation in England, or even for long-term employment. On 18 July the Backfire group asked the U.S. Army for the “apprehension” of von Braun, Rees, Schilling, and Steinhoff, “last reported as free civilians in area WITZENHAUSEN-ESCHWEGE.” This request went nowhere. A month later Sir Alwyn Crow, who headed missile projects in the Ministry of Supply in London, asked more realistically for the loan of von Braun, Axster, Steinhoff, and Rees for one week. As of 23 August this request was still under discussion by U.S. representatives. On the twenty-eighth von Braun wrote from Witzenhausen advising Dieter Huzel to marry his fiancée so that she would qualify as a dependent when he went overseas, and Wernher and Magnus together wrote a letter in the blind to their parents, promising them full support if they came to the American zone. They spoke in code of going to the United States: “In the near future we will probably move to Ntino [Constantine Generales] and his people.” Thus it appears that Wernher von Braun’s pleasant interlude in London, his first since his Christmas 1934 trip, probably did not occur until the very end of August or the beginning of September 1945.

He and the three others were flown to England and were interned in a special camp for German experts in Wimbledon, very near the famous tennis grounds. There he ran into Heinrich Klein, a leading designer of artillery and solid-fuel rockets for Rheinmetall-Borsig: “v. Braun, a little superior, let it be known that now the real work in the rocketry field could begin, as the land of unlimited possibilities was contemplating it.” He went on about the A-9 as the “first intercontinental rocket,” but it was only the initial step to a satellite that would orbit at 300 km (186 mi) altitude and 30,000 km/h (18,600 mph) velocity. Apparently nothing of the difficulties of the preceding months had dislodged him from his enthusiasm for, and rather unrealistic expectations of, working in the United States.

He was a little more anxious about how the British would treat him, but he found that as soon as he met Sir Alwyn Crow, “I was hardly inside his office before we were engaged in friendly shop talk.” Crow tried to get a list of people not going to the States whom von Braun might recommend to the British, and he may even have invited him to work for Britain—in both cases without success. One of the most memorable incidents of his London stay occurred during his morning ride between Wimbledon and the city center. The RAF driver silently pulled over and stopped in front of a building demolished by a rocket. “I was unable to tell the precise way in which the V-2 had done its damage, because the rubble had been cleared away,” von Braun later said, never giving any indication that the sight affected him more deeply. Soon thereafter he and his compatriots were flown back to Germany, and he was told of his imminent departure for America. It was time for the great venture into the unknown to begin.

Three A 4s started successfully during “Backfire”


The Russian R-1 rocket project

The Soviet option

It has been widely reported that the Germans unanimously decided to surrender to the Western Allies. This is not the case. Some of the scientists were more impressed by the Soviet system than they were by American capitalism, and Helmut Gröttrup was the most conspicuous of these. Gröttrup was an electronics engineer who no longer wished to ‘understudy’ Von Braun as he had done in the development of the V-2 rocket. Gröttrup decided to approach the Soviets and was offered a senior position in Russian rocket development. Between 9 September 1945 and 22 October 1946 Gröttrup with his loyal team of researchers worked for the USSR in the Soviet Occupied Zone of Germany (later to become the German Democratic Republic). His director of research was Sergei Korolev, Russia’s leading rocket scientist. In the autumn of 1946, the entire team was moved to Russia. Gröttrup had cooperated with Russia in bringing 20 of the V-2 rockets to the newly established rocket research institute at Kapustin Yar, between Volgograd and the deserts of Astrakhan. The base is known today as Znamensk and it had opened on 13 May 1946 specifically to offer facilities to German experts. In charge was General Vasily Voznyuk and on 18 October 1947 they launched the first of the V-2 rockets brought in from Germany.

Gröttrup worked under Korolev to develop the Russian R-1 project; these were in reality V-2 rockets built using Russian manufacturing and materials with the German designs. The People’s Commissar of Armaments, Dmitry Ustinov, requested that Gröttrup and his team of technicians design new missile systems, culminating in the projected R-14 rocket which was similar to the design of long-range missiles that Von Braun was developing during the war. The site at Znamensk developed into a top-secret cosmodrome and the small town itself was expanded to provide a pleasurable and civilized lifestyle for the families of the research teams working on the rockets. It was no longer included on Russian maps, and there were strict rules against disclosure of what was going on.

The value of the German expertise to the Russians proved to be limited and, in due course, the authorities allowed the research workers to return to their homes in Germany. The design of rocket motors in Russia by Aleksei Mikhailovich Isaev was already superior to the German concepts used in the V-2 rockets, and their lightweight copper motors gave rise to the first intercontinental ballistic missile, the R-7. It was this design advantage that gave the Russians technical superiority in rocketry and led to their launching the world’s first satellite Sputnik 1, and subsequently to the launch of Yuri Gagarin as the first man into space.

The same technology gave the Russians the capacity to launch the first lunar probe, and later the spacecraft sent out towards the planets. Indeed, this design of rocket is still in use today. Once it was recognized that there was little point in keeping the German rocket specialists in Russia, on 22 November 1955 Gröttrup was given leave to return to his native Germany. In cooperation with Jürgen Dethloff he went on to design and patent the chip card which was to become so important in modern banking systems, and so his post-war genius is with us today.


Ju Lang-2 submarine-launched ballistic missiles

The PLAN [People’s Liberation Army Navy] has begun replacing its small and aging fleet of nuclear-powered submarines, i. e., five Han-class nuclear-powered attack boats (SSN) and one Xia-class nuclear-powered ballistic missile-carrying submarine (SSBN). The first in a new class of SSNs, the Type- 093 Shang-class was launched in 2002 and commissioned in 2006; one additional Type-093 has since also entered service, and some sources estimate that up to eight boats in this class could be built, though other analysts expect that the PLAN will field more advanced Type-095s instead. The PLAN has also launched two new SSBNs of the Type-094 Jin-class, each intended to carry 12 JL- 2 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) with a range of 7,000 kilometers (three times greater than that of the JL-1 SLBM carried by the Xia) once the JL-2 enters operational readiness.

The Type 094 “Jin” class, is expected to be much more capable overall platform. Similar to other nuclear submarines of Chinese design, this class also experienced reactor problems at first. Four boats are reportedly operational, but are expected to remain without ballistic missiles until the ongoing trials of the intercontinental-range JL-2 ballistic missile system are completed. This missile is predicted to have a range of 7,000-8,000 km and could reach targets in Alaska or India from positions in the Yellow or South China Seas. However, due to the missile’s unknown operational status as of October 2014, it is not entirely clear whether China already has a fully functioning sea-based nuclear deterrent capability in place. Given the Cold War era SSBN requirements listed above, providing the necessary technologies is obviously only a minor part of the conditions that need to be fulfilled to reach this goal. Rigorous crew training, regular exercises, and extended global patrols would need to be continuously demonstrated in order for China to match the criteria set by the U. S. Navy.

Compared to other types of warships, reliable information about technical performance data on Chinese nuclear submarines is even harder to come by through open sources. In order to arrive at plausible estimations regarding the maximum level of quieting reached by a submarine design, photographic evidence can be used at least to some degree. Bell describes a method of `visual qualitative analysis comparison’ for making noise level estimations of the Type 094 class: The proper approach involves breaking down the images into separate hydrodynamic design categories. By looking at obvious design factors, including shape, skin friction (sail/surface), flood openings, and propellers a better assessment can be made. […] In addition, utilizing estimated speed to complement these factors would help narrow the sound estimate. Overall, many design features found on acquired technologies from advanced submarine builders, such as the French and Russians, should be considered in use on the Type 094. When discussing these features separately, Bell concludes that “[t]he additional height needed for the JL-2 missile certainly imposes noise penalties.” The shape of the submarine is not optimal as a result of a need to accommodate the missile. All in all, Bell expects the Type 094 class to be markedly more noisy than e. g. the U. S. Ohio class SSBN:

Overall, based on visual qualitative analysis comparison, the Type 094 is likely much louder than the super quiet Ohio. It has a large sail, deviates from the ideal shape, and includes vents. An advanced propeller will mitigate, but not eradicate these problems. However, this is not to say that the Type 094 is going to be a loud platform overall; it is likely a small step ahead of the Delta III SSBN. It is important to consider that the average speed of an SSBN on station is less than five knots; comparisons made in terms of attack boats, which travel in excess of 15 knots have limited applicability. According to reports, the Delta III registered between 125-130 dB at 4-8 knots, the likely speed of an SSBN on patrol. Considering modern propeller design, this correlates with certain Chinese reports, which argue that the Type 094’s acoustic signature was 120 dB (Bell 2009: 34-35).

Regarding a classification of noise levels, Bell notes: “According to E.V. Miasnikov, Senior Research Scientist [. . .] at the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, a very quiet submarine registers about 100 dB, a quiet submarine about 120 dB, and a loud submarine about 140 dB. If the Type 094 puts out 120 dB at sea, it will be very difficult to track. When the limitations of using one platform (SSNs) to track the Type 094 are considered, the United States Navy will have to make adjustments”

Given the practical difficulties of tracking SSBNs en route, the Type 094 class is thus likely to be a relatively capable and quiet submarine that will effectively provide China with a survivable sea-based nuclear deterrent if adequate training and mission competency can be achieved. Moreover, according to Bell, the submarine was “released at the opportune moment in United States anti-submarine warfare (ASW) decline”. After the end of the Cold War, ASW skills in many countries including the U. S. gradually deteriorated due to decreasing emphasis and practice. Citing Christopher McConnaughy, Chief of Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile Quality Assurance at the United States Strategic Command, Bell notes that nuclear attack submarines are the only platforms capable of continuously tracking SSBN at sea. He further adds:

Once at sea there are a limited number of platforms capable of finding and tracking an SSBN on patrol. There is no guarantee that these platforms will actually find the SSBN, only a probability. The more assets and efforts used, the higher the probability of detection and tracking.

Effective tracking, moreover, requires the integrated use of cues from very diverse sources of information such as “satellite imagery, antisubmarine aircraft, and fixed, passive underwater acoustic arrays”.

Under these circumstances, it is easy to see why the Chinese leadership decided to build a submarine base at Hainan island that provides nuclear submarines with direct access to deeper waters from underwater tunnels drilled into the rock. It is also apparent why China did not publicly announce the building of that base before it was discovered in satellite images published by Jane’s in 2008 (cf. `Secret Sanya’ 2008). The strategic advantages of such a base for China’s nuclear submarines are obvious: “[I]f China bases the Type 094 from this Island, in port satellite imagery becomes impossible”

According to latest source, 094 SSBN armed with JL-2 missiles began deterrent patrol in 2015. The United States Department of Defense believes the missile will give the PLA Navy “its first credible sea-based nuclear deterrent.”

As of 2017, 48 JL-2 launchers are deployed on submarines. As of 2018, China is developing the JL-3 as a future replacement.

China continues to produce the JIN-class SSBN, with four commissioned and at least one other under construction. China’s JIN SSBNs, which are equipped to carry up to 12 CSS-N-14 (JL-2) SLBMs, are the country’s first viable sea-based nuclear deterrent.

The problems resulting from China’s narrow and shallow territorial waters are most relevant for submarine operations but also affect naval surface vessels, at least to some degree. The defining characteristic of the submarine as a naval weapon system is, after all, its ability to hide from enemy view. This ability is compromised in shallow waters, at least for transiting submarines, because “[t]he deeper the submarine can go the bigger the volume of sea it can hide in”. Shallow waters are also difficult terrain to navigate safely, especially for larger submarines such as China’s giant new Jin class SSBN. At over 130 m in length, its hull diameter must be large enough to accommodate the JL-2 missile, which is about 13 m long. Shallow waters therefore not only make such vessels vulnerable to detection, but also to accidental grounding.

China’s next-generation Type 096 SSBN, reportedly to be armed with the follow-on JL-3 SLBM, will likely begin construction in the early-2020s. Based on the 40-plus-year service life of China’s first-generation SSNs, China will operate its JIN and Type 096 SSBN fleets concurrently.

The Bombing of Hiroshima

6 August 1945

Piloted by Paul Tibbets Jr, the US B-29 bomber Enola Gay approached the south-western Japanese city of Hiroshima. Six hours had passed since the plane’s take-off from the western Pacific island of Tinian – a base taken from the Japanese by US forces in the previous year and whose runways at the time were the world’s longest. On board was the bomb dubbed ‘Little Boy’ by the US military. The explosion occurred at 8.15 a.m. A flash of light, a wave of heat and then a profound roar preceded the rise of a ball of fire followed by a mushroom-shaped cloud. Explosive energy and heat released through nuclear fission reduced an entire city to dust and ashes. Fires spread over 4.4 square miles. One hundred thousand were killed immediately and more than 70,000 others were injured. Three days after Hiroshima’s destruction, Bock’s Car, another B-29 bomber, dropped ‘Fat Man’, another atomic bomb, on the city of Nagasaki, devastating an area of 1.8 square miles and causing an equivalent number of deaths and injuries. Women, children and elderly men comprised the overwhelming majority of the 200,000 killed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki: the survivors suffered from varying degrees of burns and the effects of radiation sickness. Cancers and tumours would develop among the two cities’ inhabitants in the next fifty years. The New York Times on 7 August reported the new US president Harry S. Truman as saying: ‘We have spent 2 billion dollars on the greatest scientific gamble in history – and won.’

US atomic bomb research started in February 1940 on a government budget of $6,000 allocated to a committee of scientists. But by 1942 the scale of the work required the direct involvement of the War Department and research was carried out in centres right across the US. The physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, of the University of California at Berkeley, had been committed to the democratic left ever since the Spanish Civil War. As soon as Germany invaded Poland in September 1939 he started work on separating uranium-235, the fissionable component of an atomic bomb, from natural uranium. Once given security clearance, Oppenheimer established a laboratory near Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he led a team working on nuclear fission and the manufacture of an atomic bomb consisting of fissionable material. He demonstrated the results before a small number of observers at 5.30 a.m. on 16 July 1945 at Alamogordo air base, New Mexico, when the world’s first atomic bomb exploded and generated power equivalent to more than 15,000 tons of TNT. The surface of the desert surrounding the point of the bomb’s detonation was fused to glass for a radius of 800 yards.

On 17 July seventy scientists working on the atomic bomb’s development, alarmed by its power, petitioned Truman not to use the bomb on Japan unless the terms of surrender had been both published and refused. These were now crucial points in relation to the morality of atomic warfare. Japan, under the weight of intensive aerial bombardment and suffering the effects of naval blockade, was on the point of collapse. On 30 July Japan refused to surrender unconditionally after the Allied leaders meeting at Potsdam had called on it to do so. The US government and its allies justified the detonations on the basis that so unsurpassed a horror would enforce a surrender and prevent a long and costly territorial invasion. It was fundamental to the Japanese that any surrender would not upset the constitutional status of their emperor whom they considered divine. Even after Hiroshima and Nagasaki the Japanese government, when suing for peace on 10 August, still sought a guarantee that the emperor’s sovereign position would be maintained. The surrender went ahead (14 August) after the Allies had given that assurance.

Both generals Eisenhower and MacArthur thought the bombings unjustified and harmful to the US’s moral standing. President Truman in his broadcast of 9 August described Hiroshima as ‘a military base’ and no more. This was false. His diary entry for 25 July recorded his view that atomic bombs should be used only on military targets, but the written order for the bombing, approved by him on the same day, made no such provision and specified the cities of Hiroshima and of Nagasaki as targets.

The 6th of August 1945 was in fact the planned culmination of a sustained US aerial bombardment. Some 124,000 civilians had been killed in Tokyo during the air attack of 9 March and from July the bombing of Japanese towns and cities intensified. The Allied bombing of Germany illustrated the same strategy of terror: Dresden was destroyed in one night and 135,000 civilians killed.

The main air attacks on Japan accompanied the progress of US land forces after the fall of Okinawa in June in a battle which claimed 50,000 American lives and 100,000 Japanese ones. The US military advances of the late winter and early spring in the Pacific also ran in parallel with the Allies’ thrust through both western and eastern Europe as they converged on a shattered Germany whose besieged army fought tenaciously throughout the last campaigns of 1944–45. Although the US won the race to develop an atomic bomb, Germany was ahead in the development of jet engines and rockets. A jet-powered Messerschmitt 262 first flew in 1942 and the Vergeltung or revenge rockets, the V-1 and V-2, were targeted on London from 1944 onwards.

By March troops of the US 5th Division had crossed the Rhine at Oppenheim and established a bridgehead on the river’s east bank. The Soviet army entered Austria at the beginning of April and occupied Vienna on 14 April. Nuremberg was taken by the US 7th Army on 21 April but by now the Soviets were on the outskirts of Berlin with many of their units running wild. The two invaders met on the River Elbe at a point just south of the German capital on 25 April and the final siege of Berlin was left to the Soviet army. Germany surrendered on 7–8 May. The true nature of Nazism also began to emerge in early 1945: in January the Soviets liberated Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, where a million Jews had been killed in the gas chambers; General George Patton’s 3rd Army liberated Buchenwald north of Weimar on 11 April; Dachau in Bavaria was liberated on 24 April by the Allies. By the spring of 1945 the German regime had killed some fourteen million ‘racial inferiors’, about six million of whom were Jews. Other victims included Slavs and Gypsies. By November the Allies had started their trials of war criminals at Nuremberg but confined the indictments to crimes committed by German officers, politicians and other civilians.

At Yalta in the Crimea between 4 and 11 February 1945, Roosevelt, who would be dead in two months, and Churchill, who would be voted out of office within six months, negotiated with Stalin – who promised that the post-war nations of eastern Europe would be allowed to be democratic. It was agreed that Germany would be divided into four separate zones of Allied occupation and the USSR was allowed to enter the Pacific war at a date soon after the end of European hostilities. Stalin’s declaration of war on Japan came two days after the bombing of Hiroshima when he sent his troops into Manchuria – the Chinese province invaded by Japan in 1931. The defeat of Japan meant that the USSR was denied a pretext for Asian expansion through war, but it still got a good deal in the terms of Japanese surrender signed aboard the battleship USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay on 2 September. Outer Mongolia, the Kuril Islands and south Sakhalin were ceded to the USSR; Inner Mongolia, Manchuria, Taiwan and Hainan were ceded to China. The US and USSR would occupy Korea pending the creation of democratic structures for the country; a US army of occupation under General Douglas MacArthur ruled Japan. The separate Japanese surrender to China at Nanking on 9 September ended a fourteen-year period of Sino-Japanese conflict. Five hundred and eighty-five thousand Japanese troops in south-east Asia surrendered to the British at Singapore on 12 September. This was the last formal surrender of a power involved in the global struggle and it marked the end of the Second World War.

Among the military personnel who served during the war, the USSR lost 7.5 million, Germany nearly 2.9 million, China 2.2 million, Japan 1.5 million, the UK 398,000, Italy 300,000, the USA 290,000, France 211,000, Canada 39,139, India 36,092, Australia 29,395, New Zealand 12,262, South Africa 8,681 and the remaining territories of the British empire 30,776. For the first time in armed warfare the combatant countries’ civilian populations had been attacked on a major scale and, although it proved impossible to produce a precise figure for civilian deaths, the total is unlikely to be less than forty million.

Nineteen fourteen to 1918 and 1939–45 were two phases of armed hostilities separated by a twenty-one-year armed truce during a thirty-one-year period of conflict whose origins were Asian as well as European and whose ramifications were global. Europe had annihilated itself. Britain, the only European country not to be invaded, was broke and war loans had turned it into the US’s debtor state. Across the corpse of old Europe two superpowers glowered at each other. Ideological communism met its match in an equally ideological anti-communism. Robert Oppenheimer became a victim of the new paranoia when, in 1954, he was accused of past associations with communists and had his security clearance revoked. In Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Romania, the USSR had acquired client states run by puppet regimes answerable to the Soviet politburo. The USSR had also re-absorbed the Baltic states and reasserted its control over the Caucasus.

The build-up of military alliances in defence of democratic powers together with the expense of modern weaponry led to the consolidation of Washington DC’s military bureaucracy. On 24 July, while the leaders were at Potsdam, Truman told Stalin that the US had ‘a new weapon of unusual destructive force’. That evening back at Stalin’s quarters he and his foreign minister Molotov resolved that work on the Soviet equivalent had to be speeded up. After Hiroshima, international relations were plagued by the dilemma of ‘mutually assured destruction’: the nuclear power which deployed an atomic bomb against another such power was ensuring its own destruction through retaliation. This abolished traditional warfare between major states. In its place came surveillance and calculation – a time to test the nerves of the great powers. The armed truce had returned. Meanwhile, on 1 January 1946, emperor Hirohito made a gesture which, in the circumstances, proved helpful. He renounced his divinity.

Russian Strategic Rocket Forces

RS-24 or Yars

The new ICBMs include the SS-27 Mods 1 and 2 (Topol-M and RS-24). The SS-27 Mod 1 is a single warhead missile, known in Russia as Topol-M, that comes in either mobile (RS-12M1) or silo-based (RS- 12M2) variants. Deployment of the SS-27 Mod 1 was completed in 2012 with a total of 78 missiles: 60 silobased missiles with the 60th Missile Division in Tatishchevo, and 18 road-mobile missiles with the 54th Guards Missile Division at Teykovo.

The focus of the current phase of Russia’s modernization is the SS-27 Mod 2, known in Russia as the RS-24 or Yars, which is a modified SS-27 Mod 1 (Topol-M) that carries up to four multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs). Following initial deployment in 2010-2012 of the first 18 missiles in two regiments with the 54th Guards Missile Division at Teykovo, deployment of the mobile SS-27 Mod 2 version is now well underway at the Novosibirsk and Tagil divisions, where the first regiments went on experimental combat duty in 2013-2014. Tagil now seems to have two operational SS-27 Mod 2 regiments and Novosibirsk one with a second under construction, while an upgrade to the first garrison has recently started at Irkutsk. An upgrade at Yoshkar-Ola is expected to begin in 2017. Finally, installation of the silo-based version of the SS-27 Mod 2 is well underway at the Kozelsk division, where the first regiment is operational and an upgrade to a second has begun.

Statements by Russian officials about the operational status of the SS-27 Mod 2 at the various divisions appear to be optimistic, and do not entirely correspond to what we observe in satellite photos. For example, after the first regiment was placed on experimental combat duty at Novosibirsk in late 2013, the Russian plan was for a second regiment to follow by the end of 2014 (TASS 2014). But as of January 2017, there was still only one upgraded regiment at Novosibirsk, with the second being in the very early stages of construction. A third regiment still appears to be armed with the old SS-25. Likewise, the Russian Ministry of Defense reported in December 2016 that the SS-27 Mod 2 had entered service at Yoshkar-Ola (Russian Federation Defense Ministry 2016a), but none of the known garrisons showed signs of having been upgraded yet.

In our 2016 FAS Nuclear Notebook on Russian nuclear forces, we estimated that Russia deployed 63 mobile and 10 silo-based SS-27 Mod 2s for a total of 73 (Kristensen and Norris 2016). Russian officials said the Strategic Rocket Forces received another 23 missiles during 2016 (TV Zvezda 2016b), which would bring the total to 96 SS-27 Mod 2s. But satellite photos at the end of 2016 only showed fully upgraded garrisons for 45 mobile launchers (two at Teykovo, two at Targil, and one at Novosibirsk), and perhaps 12 Kozelsk silos, for a total of 57 deployed missiles. The discrepancy might hinge on the number of launchers for the second Novosibirsk regiment, the first Irkutsk regiment, the first Yoshkar-Ola regiment, and the remaining missiles for the second regiment at Kozelsk, which may have been delivered to the Strategic Rocket Forces for integration but not yet fully deployed in the garrisons.

Russian officials have also described development of a compact version of the SS-27 Mod 2, known as YarsM or RS-26. The 29th Guards Missile Division at Irkutsk was supposed to be the first to be equipped with the RS-26, but deployment has been delayed. A scheduled flight test in 2016 was also delayed. The 7th Guards Missile Division at Vypolzovo was also rumored as a potential location for the RS-26, but officials now talk about the upgrades at Irkutsk and Vypolzovo involving Yars, which presumably refers to the original, non-compact SS-27 Mod 2.

Russian defense officials have stated that a rail-based version of the SS-27 Mod 2, known in Russia as Barguzin, is in early design development. A writer for Jane’s Defence Weekly speculated in early 2016 that the program might have been delayed or even canceled due to Russia’s financial crisis (Novichkov 2016), but Interfax reported an ejection test in November 2016 and the first flight is said to be planned for 2017 (Interfax 2016).

Missile Defense Project, “Missiles of Russia,” Missile Threat, Center for Strategic and International Studies, published June 14, 2018, last modified June 15, 2018,


‘Cor, look at the lyddite shells bursting along Jerry’s trench,’ a look-out in the trenches east of St Julien called down from the parapet to his pals below on the afternoon of 22 April. Lyddite was a novelty, a British-patented high explosive based on picric acid that emitted puffs of yellow smoke on impact, and it was good to see ‘our guns’ pounding the enemy lines. But, as he watched, the look-out was puzzled: there was something strange about those puffs. A few seconds later he gave a louder yell: ‘Blimey, it’s not lyddite, it’s gas!’, he warned; the 2nd battalion, Lancashire Regiment, discovered they were facing a new and terrible weapon. The Germans had released 168 tons of chlorine from batteries of 6,000 cylinders along more than 4 miles of front from the Yperlee canal at Steenstraat eastwards to the Ypres–St Julien–Poelcapelle road.

To those who lived through that first experience of gas warfare, the evening of 22 April was unforgettable. Lieutenant Louis Strange of No. 6 Squadron, RFC, had a unique view: ‘I was cruising up and down over the Salient . . . watching out for gun flashes in the fading light when suddenly my attention was attracted by what appeared to be streams of yellowish-green smoke coming from the German front-line trenches. This was such a strange phenomenon that we dropped to 2,000 feet to have a good look at it. At first I was completely puzzled but finally my brain connected it with rumours about poison gas,’ he wrote in his memoirs, adding: ‘We raced back full throttle to Poperinghe.’ From there he and his observer were taken straight to V Corps headquarters to make their report to General Plumer in person.

Down in the trenches south of Langemarck a Canadian officer watched with awed fascination as two ‘greenish-yellow clouds’ filled out and, carried westward by a light wind, became a ‘bluish-white mist, such as seen over water-meadows on a frosty night’. Another Canadian, Private Underwood, was to recall how ‘It was the first gas anyone had seen or heard of’; Sergeant Dorgan of the 7th Northumberland Fusiliers explained, ‘We’d no training for gas prevention, never heard of the gas business.’ Within minutes of the first alarm Lieutenant-Colonel Beckles Willson was appalled to see, sweeping down the road to Ypres, ‘a panic stricken rabble of Turcos and Zouaves with grey faces and protruding eyeballs, clutching their throats and choking as they ran’. The gas had enveloped the French colonial troops’ trenches, and all discipline was gone. Further west, a regiment of French Territorials was in little better shape, with those who had fled the toxic smoke staggering wearily on towards the Yserlee canal without guns or equipment.

The terror weapon created a gap of some four and a half miles in the allied line, achieving in little more than five minutes the decisive breakthrough that had eluded Falkenhayn throughout First Ypres. It swept down not only on the French and the Canadians but also on the British 28th Division and on the Belgian Grenadiers and Carabiniers defending the line of the Yperlee around Boesinghe. Behind the gas cloud the 45th, 46th, 51st and 52nd Reserve Divisions of the Duke of Württemberg’s Fourth Army advanced with impregnated gauze pads protecting their mouths and noses. The 45th Division soon took Steenstraat; the 40th crossed the canal at Het Sas; the 51st entered Langemarck and, half an hour after the gas’s release, the 52nd were in Pilckem, only two and a half miles from Ypres’s Menin Gate. Before nightfall these four advancing divisions – some 50,000 men – had captured 51 guns, mainly French 75-mms, and rounded up 2,000 dazed or wounded prisoners. Then to the relief of their adversaries the Germans began to dig in rather than continue to press forward on Ypres itself. Their orders stipulated that the immediate objective was the seizure of Pilckem Ridge, and this task was soon accomplished. The Duke of Württemberg was without reserves on hand to back up what Falkenhayn had regarded in the first place as essentially a strategic diversion embodying an experiment in weaponry.


Although the allied troops in the trenches were taken by surprise, the possibility of resort to chemical warfare had long been recognized by governments and by humanitarians seeking to limit the horrors of war. The Hague Convention of 1907 condemned the development of weapons capable of spreading poison among combatants or civilians; Britain, France and Germany were among the signatories. Nevertheless individual scientists continued research into chemical warfare. Among them was the 12th Earl of Dundonald, a retired cavalry general and friend of Sir John French, who revised proposals put forward by his great-grandfather during the Crimean War for the emission of sulphurous fumes to prise the enemy out of prepared fortifications. In 1854 the great Michael Faraday authenticated the feasibility of the Dundonald project, though it was never tested. Sixty years later the revised version aroused little interest. At French’s request, Haig received Dundonald on 12 March, at the height of the battle of Neuve Chapelle but was dismissive. ‘I asked him how he arranged to have a favourable wind,’ Haig commented contemptuously in his diary.

The Germans treated science with respect and took inventors more seriously. Research scientists at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin worked closely with IG Farben’s chemical experts, and the Prussian Ministry of War showed interest. Soon after the start of war, Pioneer Regiment No. 36 was established to develop weapons capable of discharging chlorine. Field howitzers fired shells containing lachrymatory gas against the Russians at Bolomow, near Warsaw, on 3 January 1915 but with no effect. As an alternative way of discharging gas, orders were given for the manufacture of cylindrical tubes, of small diameter and some 5 feet long. Training was then given to selected ‘gas pioneers’, serving soldiers who possessed some knowledge of science. The pioneers were to place the cylinders in position under cover of darkness, sited on their objective but concealed from prying eyes or cameras. Before the start of an infantry attack a pioneer wearing a primitive respirator would remove the cap on the cylinder, enabling the gas to be forced out of the tube by its own pressure and wafted into enemy lines by the prevailing wind. No explosive charge was required: all that was needed was a steady wind, fresh but not gusty and blowing from the right quarter.

Generals proud of the superior fire-power of Krupps big guns had no confidence in this bombardment by drain-pipe. Some 17 years later the Reichsarchiv history of the Ypres campaign recalled that officers and men ‘almost without exception mistrusted the still untried weapon, if they were not totally against it’.

But despite these doubts, the first cylinders arrived in Flanders in mid-March. Soon afterwards prisoners taken by the French blabbered carelessly about the new weapon, enabling General d’Urbal of France’s Tenth Army to circulate an intelligence assessment on 30 March that described the cylinders with remarkable accuracy. By then, however, d’Urbal and his Tenth Army had left the Salient and were 100 miles away, fighting in Artois. General Smith-Dorrien does not appear to have heard of the Tenth Army’s discovery until the second week of April, the news being followed by reports of a German captured in the Yserlee canal sector of the Salient who was carrying a protective gas pad. No. 6 Squadron, RFC, was ordered to search from the skies, but the gas-release batteries were so effectively concealed that neither pilots nor observers saw any signs of the cylinders. On 15 April, Smith-Dorrien noted in his diary that he had received information about ‘enormous tubes of asphyxiating gas’, adding the comment: ‘In case there is any truth in it, I have let all commentators know.’ General Plumer passed the report on to his divisional commanders ‘for what it is worth’, and Sir John French, who had also heard tales of a gas weapon, was no less scornful. When rumours of a German attack for the night of 15–16 April proved unfounded, this widespread scepticism seemed justified. Through the following week the fate of Hill 60 held the generals’ attention.

Falkenhayn originally contemplated no more than a limited offensive along the Menin Road, where he had been thwarted five months earlier, and the gas cylinders were stored near Gheluvelt. It was not a good site: Passchendaele Ridge acted as a wind shield, and promising north-easterlies – rare anyhow in western Belgium – tended to veer round unpredictably, threatening to blow back a gas cloud towards the attackers. In mid-April the cylinders were moved to the northeast sector, where the ridges were lower and ran for the most part parallel to the line of attack.

Poelcapelle, the pivotal village for the German assault, faced what was at that moment the most vulnerable defensive position in the Salient, for the Poelcapelle–St Julien road marked the northern boundary of the British Second Army’s sector. West of the road the line was held by the 87th French Territorial Division and the 45th Algerian Division, both under the command of General Putz. They had only recently moved up to the Front and were assigned some four and a half miles of trenches, reaching out to the Belgian Army’s southern posts along the Yserlee canal, slightly north of Steenstraat. The Territorials included elderly Breton reservists, les pépères (‘grandads’), while the 45th Division comprised Zouaves and a far from reliable ‘white’ punishment battalion as well as the so-called ‘Turcos’, native Algerian riflemen.

To the east and south of the road was the 1st Canadian Division, who had already seen action at Neuve Chapelle. Like Putz’s motley force, the Canadians were newcomers to the Salient, though they were troops of very different mettle. Their three infantry brigades formed part of General Plumer’s V Corps together with (from north to south) the 28th, 27th and 5th British divisions. The most experienced Canadian regiment, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry – the veterans who had landed in France shortly before Christmas – remained attached to the 27th Division until November 1915, and on 22 April they were too far south to be caught under the asphyxiating yellow cloud. But within a fortnight ‘Princess Pat’s’, too, were to be caught up in Second Ypres, fighting desperately around Frezenberg and Wieltje as the battle moved into its final phase.

The initial success of the German attack carried them forward almost 3 miles in less than five hours. Fortunately the Canadians, on the left of the allied centre, held firm throughout the night of 22–23 April. Smith-Dorrien realized that the Front could only be stabilized if the French found substitutes for the two divisions that had fled in panic. But Foch was slow to respond: GQG was engrossed with preparations for their own offensive in Artois, and Joffre could not spare more troops for Flanders. The best Foch could offer was General Putz’s reorganized Territorials, augmented by some ‘loose’ battalions from his 10th Division. There was, however, no prospect of effective French aid plugging the gap earlier than the evening of 23 April, and it was left to Plumer and to Brigadier-General Turner VC of the 3rd Canadian Brigade to douse the German dragon’s fire and fury throughout St George’s Day.

Plumer ordered the consolidation of a line already improvised south of the Bois de Cuisiniers, an extensive copse off the Menin Road near Hooge, soon anglicized as Kitchener’s Wood (but no longer extant). At a quarter past four in the afternoon the 6th Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry and the East Yorkshires pressed a counter-attack forward towards Pilckem. The Germans, however, had placed machine-gun nests on the slopes of the ridge, with tragic consequences. As soon as the attackers broke cover, they were mown down by machine-guns and suffered appalling losses. After three hours of heavy fighting the East Yorkshires, who had a nominal strength of 2,000 men at the start of the day, were left with only seven officers and 280 men alive and unwounded. Everywhere around the edge of the ground lost on the previous day Württemberg’s artillery rained down what was in effect a protective screen.

Next morning (Saturday, 24 April) the Germans turned their attention to the exposed apex of the Canadian trenches, releasing gas cylinders well before dawn. The artificial cloud on this occasion was some 15 feet deep and, caught by a strong wind, soon swept down on the Canadians. They had no respirators, but they gained some protection by taking advantage of the soluble character of chlorine and covering their mouths and noses with wet towels or handkerchiefs, sometimes kept damp with urine. Remarkably three-quarters of the defenders were fit enough to continue the fight after the gas dispersed, and the Canadian field guns gave the infantry steady support.

By nine o’clock the battle had become an artillery duel, in which the Germans possessed heavier howitzers, capable of shelling support roads and destroying signal wires. It was hard for Smith-Dorrien, and even Plumer, who was much nearer the fighting, to keep in touch with the balance of a battle that was constantly changing: it was harder still for Sir John French, studying the map out at headquarters in Hazebrouck, to appreciate the problems in the forward trenches. Yet, despite the difficulties of communication, GHQ accepted that a general directive was needed for commanders in the field. It came soon after four o’clock on that Saturday afternoon: Plumer received from French the laconic order, ‘Every effort must be made at once to restore and hold the line at St Julien.’

But St Julien was not, like Gheluvert and St Eloi, a village at a strategic crossroads. It was little more than a hamlet, 2 miles south of Langemarck and straggling along a road beside the Hannebeek, one of several small streams coming down from Passchendaele Ridge. A single day’s fighting had already reduced the line of cottages to ruin. When the 10th Brigade sought to fulfil French’s orders, in heavy rain early next morning, the 2nd Seaforth Highlanders and 1st Warwickshires were exposed to enfilade fire across the fields and shelling from the adjoining slopes, while also checked by machine-gun nests set among the rubble. Almost 2,500 of the brigade’s 4,000 officers and men were lost during the attack and to little purpose. The Germans remained firmly in control of the charred stones that had been St Julien, though the 10th Brigade succeeded in blunting the impetus of their assault. Later on that Sunday and 2 miles further east, a composite Landwehr division struck at the flank of the battle-weary Canadians and captured the village of Gravenstafel.

In the early evening most units of the 1st Canadian Division were pulled back from the forward trenches into reserve. The division, numbering some 10,000 men at the start of the battle, had lost 1,700 killed in the 72 hours that followed the first release of gas, with more than 2,500 wounded. But the Canadian casualties were not limited to the 1st Division. Today, Chapman Clemesha’s magnificent 35-foot high Brooding Soldier statue stands at Vancouver Corner, where the N313 to Poelcapelle meets the Zonnebeke–Langemarck road. The statue carries an awesome tribute as unadorned in its proud simplicity as the monument itself: ‘This column marks the battlefield where 18,000 Canadians on the British left withstood the first German gas attacks, the 22–24 April 1915; 2,000 fell and lie buried nearby.’

Individual acts of valour during the ordeal of the Canadians were subsequently recognized by the award of two Victoria Crosses, both posthumously. Lance-Corporal Frederick Fisher braved heavy artillery fire to cover troops in a support trench with his machine-gun; Sergeant-Major William Hall twice left his trench to bring back wounded men under heavy fire. The shelling persisted even as the division pulled back, adding more names to the long casualty list. On 25 April, Captain Francis Scimager, a doctor serving at an advanced dressing station in a farm, won a third Canadian VC for saving his wounded patients when the farm buildings became a target for the German guns.

A week later, in a neighbouring dressing station, the death of a Canadian officer inspired an enduring tribute to those who took ‘up our quarrel with the foe’. At Essex Farm, Colonel John McCrae was saddened by the fate of his friend, Lieutenant Helmer, who was receiving treatment when he was hit by a German shell. After the fighting died away McCrae mourned Helmer in an elegy for the thousands killed in the springtime of their lives and buried close to where they fell. Punch published ‘In Flanders Fields’ on 8 December 1915, to rekindle emotions aroused earlier in the year by the war sonnets of Rupert Brooke. McCrae immortalized the image of the blood-red poppies that ‘blow between the crosses row by row’. His deeply moving sincerity has survived changes of attitude towards war through four generations.

After less than three days of battle it seemed as if Württemberg’s troops had secured a potential victory of far greater value than Falkenhayn ever anticipated. They were across the Yserlee canal at Lizerne, though the Belgian Carabiniers continued to offer stiff resistance. Their field artillery maintained a steady bombardment of forward positions from three sides, and their heavy guns pounded the congested roads along which relief columns were making their way to the Front. There was, it appeared, no answer to the improved Maxim machine-guns, and the constant fighting exacted a heavy toll of the best troops. It was a harsh week for George V’s armies. Across Europe, the first landings had been made at Gallipoli on 25 April; the British at Cape Helles suffered 1,700 casualties on that morning, and further up the peninsula 1,252 Australians and New Zealanders (Anzacs) were killed over the next six days, one-in-four of those who landed.

Yet although the Germans in Flanders had prised the latch off the gate barring access to the Channel ports, they failed to press forward into the open country beyond. The unexpected always caught Falkenhayn off balance: he hesitated, and time overtook him. The French recovered Lizerne on 27 April and supported the Belgians in clearing the western bank of the canal by mid-May; though the British continued to suffer heavy losses in counter-attacks, their line was never broken.

On 1 May the 15th Brigade of the 5th Division thwarted a gas attack for the first time, made on Hill 60. The 1st battalion Dorset Regiment were among forward troops issued with gauze and flannel pads to be hung around the neck, ready to be wetted by means unspecified when a gas alarm sounded. The attack, launched at 7.15 in the evening, took the Dorsets by surprise, but a young subaltern, Second Lieutenant Kestell-Cornish had the enterprise to seize a rifle and, with the only four men in his platoon still able to stand, fired rapidly into the yellow cloud from the trench parapet checking the advancing Germans, who could reasonably assume a machine-gun post had remained unaffected by the gas. Reserves from the 1st Devons and 1st Bedfords brought support to the Dorsets, but for three hours there was close fighting in the trenches at the foot of the hill. Ninety men were fatally gassed in the trenches that evening. Of 207 wounded brought back to the dressing station, ‘46 died almost immediately and 12 after long suffering’. Kestell-Cornish spent two days in hospital, recovering from the effects of the gas, but he was back in the trenches within a week.

Sadly the Dorsets’ resolute defence was to no avail; a second German attack four days later could not be repulsed. The 1st Cheshires were brought up hurriedly from their billets in Ypres to bolster the Dorsets, 1st Norfolk and 2nd Duke of Wellingtons after the Germans discharged thicker gas from flank positions that ran the length of their trenches, causing heavy casualties. At one point the Cheshires were engaged for half an hour in a deadly exchange of hand grenades, their ‘jam tin variety’ bombs less effective than ‘those horrid little black grenades that the Germans fling so accurately’, complained Second Lieutenant Arthur Greg, a Rugbeian who cut short his studies at New College, Oxford, to enlist in the previous September. ‘An officer of the Dorsetshire Regiment had his head blown off just as he was handing me a new box of grenades,’ Greg wrote. ‘I felt very upset.’ For 48 hours the British tried to hold the hill or recover it by counter–attacks, but they could not dislodge their enemy. Hill 60 remained in German hands for the next two years.

By 27 April, Smith-Dorrien had become seriously alarmed at the exposed position of V Corps and angered by the commander-in-chief’s insistence on pressing ahead with inter-allied counter-attacks. It seemed evident that GHQ at distant Hazebrouck did not realize the Second Army was short of troops and that French support had proved limited in numbers and reluctantly given. Without consulting Sir John, Smith-Dorrien ordered all offensive operations to cease ‘forthwith’, and he sent an urgent 900-word letter to General Robertson, who had become the chief of French’s general staff in January. Smith-Dorrien respected Robertson, known as Wully, the Lincolnshire lad who 38 years back in time ran away from home to enlist as a private and rose to high command through natural intelligence. Over strategic issues Wully seemed a sensible realist, and the letter put forward a sound case for pulling back to the so-called ‘GHQ line’, a defensive semicircle 2 miles east of Ypres prepared by the French in January. But Robertson’s realism was compounded of ruthlessness and ambition; he expressed neither agreement nor doubt. In the early afternoon he telephoned Smith-Dorrien to say that ‘the Chief does not regard situation nearly so unfavourable as your letter represents’. Smith-Dorrien was told to co-operate with the French in a simultaneous combined attack with ‘due regard to previous instructions’. A letter would ‘follow’, brought by a staff officer.

No letter came. Instead, Smith-Dorrien received that evening a telegram sent en clair by a staff major ordering him to hand over to General Plumer ‘the command of all troops engaged in present operations about Ypres’. Smith-Dorrien remained in the Salient another ten days, still technically responsible for II Corps, out on Messines Ridge. On 6 May, Smith-Dorrien received by telephone the news he had anticipated: ‘’Orace, you’re for ’ome,’ Robertson allegedly told him. On this occasion formal, written instructions did ‘follow’ the call: he was to return to England; Plumer would succeed him in command of the Second Army. Thus was the most senior general serving in the British army dismissed at the height of a critical battle; no explanation was given. Ironically, Plumer had by then already retreated to the GHQ line or, more precisely, to forward trenches hurriedly dug ahead of it. Sir John French would accept proposals from the tactful Plumer that from his predecessor would have been anathema. A feud between choleric generals fighting the same battle was potentially disastrous, as the Russians had found at Tannenberg in August 1914.

The slaughter of Second Ypres dragged on into May, irrespective of the retirement to the GHQ line. During the second week of the month the German 53rd Reserve Division attacked the 27th and 28th Divisions in great strength along a ridge that runs west of Frezenberg southwards from Wieltje to merge imperceptibly into a higher ridge, covering the woods and lake at Bellewaarde, to the east of Hooge chateau on the Menin Road. Heavy bombardment and persistent infantry assaults killed nine officers and 382 men in Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry on 8 May, leaving the regiment only 154 survivors. At nightfall the 12th London Regiment, nominally 1,000-men strong, could muster a mere 53 other ranks and no officers. The German bombardment was so deep that one company (250 men), marching through darkened streets on the eve of the battle, suffered 80 casualties from falling masonry. Several eye-witnesses comment on the agonies of horses hit by shell splinters or by breaking their legs in potholes. A pitiful neighing backed the stench of rotting carcasses along the roads.

Four days later (12 May) the ‘Cavalry Force’, fighting as dismounted infantry, relieved the 27th Division. They had hardly reached the lines facing Frezenberg on that Thursday when the full fury of bombardment fell on them. The shellfire continued for eleven and a half hours, inflicting heavy casualties, particularly on the 1st Life Guards, whose trenches were destroyed. The Leicestershire Yeomanry lost 96 of the 282 men who set out from their billets on the previous day; of those killed, 83 had no known grave; their names are inscribed on the Menin Gate. Yet somehow the North Somerset Yeomanry’s trenches continued to offer some cover despite the bombardment, enabling a counter-attack with bayonets to be made later in the day. Renewed shellfire checked two other counter-attacks by the regrouped cavalry during the afternoon.

Personal tragedies abounded on that ghastly Thursday: one robbed England of yet another poet of budding talent. Julian Grenfell, a captain in the 1st Royal Dragoons, was gravely wounded in the trenches on the edge of the wood north of Hooge by a shell splinter that penetrated his skull. His ‘Into Battle’, completed a fortnight earlier, conveys the alternating emotions of fear and elation he had experienced five months previously during First Ypres, the contrast between the soldier’s ‘dreary, doubtful, waiting hours, before the brazen frenzy starts’ and that ‘burning moment’ when ‘only joy of battle takes him by the throat, and makes him blind’ to all things else. Premonition darkens his later stanzas: ‘In the air death moans and sings’; calmly the poet–soldier resigns himself to ‘Destined Will’. The wound proved fatal; Grenfell was taken fully conscious to a military hospital in Boulogne. There he lingered for 12 days until night could finally ‘fold him in soft wings’.

Officially Second Ypres ended on 24 May, when four German divisions made a final attempt to push forward from a line north of Bellewaarde Ridge along the Menin Road. More gas was released than in any earlier attack, but counter-measures were improving day by day; East Enders working overtime at Allen and Hanbury’s, the pharmaceutists of Bethnal Green, enabled primitive respirators fitted with eye-shields to be rushed out from London. But only strong shields for the body could have given protection from the thrust and counter-thrust with bayonet that followed when the infantry clashed once the gas cloud lifted. The fighting continued all day, until around eight o’clock in the evening the British 4th Division pulled back from Wieltje to newly dug trenches extending GHQ line to the northwest.

After 34 days of battle the Germans had trimmed the Salient drastically, though most of the territory was gained in the first two days. The British suffered almost 60,000 casualties, the French about 10,000 and the Belgians slightly more than 1500, a total of 71,500 allied dead, missing or seriously wounded. By contrast the Germans sustained 35,000 casualties, less than half their enemy’s number. On war maps printed in the newspapers the ground won seemed of little importance. Although Falkenhayn’s troops were in some places only 2 miles from the Grand Place, they had made little progress towards those elusive Channel ports: Dunkirk was still 30 miles ahead of them, Calais some 50. But the crests of the arc of ridges around Ypres were in enemy hands. From Bellewaarde and from Hill 60 the Germans enjoyed clear views extending well behind the British trenches. The roads to the French border had long come under haphazard shellfire. Now observers could sight the artillery on targets out at Poperinghe, Dickebusch and Vlamertinghe with ominous accuracy.