The Secret Story Of The Ice Airfield


Geoffrey Pyke, better known for his ambitious proposals for a kind of floating mid-Atlantic airbase constructed of ice. His idea was first promoted in 1942 as an ice aircraft carrier, and magazines featured pictures of a conventional aircraft carrier of a translucent, glistening appearance looming like a ghost out of the mist. Pyke’s idea was rather different – it was for a floating raft to act as a fuel base. The concept was developed starting as Project Habakkuk, from the biblical text that includes the words: ‘Be utterly amazed, for I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told.’ Pyke consistently misspelt it Habbakuk, and that is how it is usually recorded. The idea was for the construction of a vast floating airbase made with a mixture of wood pulp and ice. The compound substance was slower to melt and more bullet-resistant than ice alone, and was named Pykrete. But in fact, although his name is forever associated with this grand design, neither the concept nor the substance were really Pyke’s. The first proposal for an ice airbase actually came from a German engineer, Dr Gerk, and was reported in 1932.

Gerk’s proposals from that time look very like the later magazine illustrations that Geoffrey Pyke promoted. What is more, Pyke was not even the inventor of what became known as Pykrete. The secret story behind this curious idea began when Pyke was shown a paper written, many years earlier, by Professor Herman Mark in Austria. Mark was a former professor of physical chemistry at the University of Vienna and an expert on the structure of plastic materials. For many years he studied X-ray diffraction, a technique in which the effect of a material on a beam of X-rays can be used to work out the molecular structure that lay hidden within the material. In 1926 he joined the chemical company IG Farben and worked on the development plastics that we now take for granted – PVC, polystyrene, polyvinyl alcohol and synthetic rubber.

Mark laid plans to leave Germany as Hitler was preparing for war. He had a huge store of platinum wire that he wished to take with him because it is a catalyst that is crucially important for his research. He knew the authorities would not permit him to remove such an important element from Germany, so Mark conceived a way of smuggling the wire with him. He bent the platinum wire into the shape of coat hangers, and his wife knitted neat covers for them all. When his suitcases were checked for contraband, the coat hangers did not even attract a second glance. The Canadian International Pulp and Paper Company in Dresden had asked Mark to come and organize research at their research headquarters in Canada, but the Gestapo arrested him, confiscated his passport, and gave him an official order not to contact any Jews. By bribing an official with a payment equal to his annual salary he secretly retrieved his passport, and – with the help of the paper company – he managed to obtain a visa to enter Canada. In April 1938 he mounted a Nazi pennant on the front of the family car, tied their skis to the roof of the vehicle, and drove across the frontier to Zurich, Switzerland, with the clothes (on their coat hangers) safely concealed in suitcases. From here they set off to reach London, England, where Mark boarded a transatlantic vessel to sail to Montreal.

He ended up carrying out research on paper pulp not in Canada, but in the United States at the Brooklyn Polytechnic where he set up the first course in the world for students of polymers and plastics. Mark was convinced that there was an important future for composite materials made from fibres held together in a mass by a plastic bonding agent. He was right, of course; the new Boeing Dreamliner is largely constructed from just such composite plastic materials. One of Mark’s early trials was an investigation of a wood pulp composite that was bonded, not with plastic, but with ice. The resulting material had properties rather like present-day fibreglass and was very strong.

In 1942, Mark sent a paper on his research to one of his former students, Max Perutz, who had escaped from Germany to England. Perutz is the scientist who coined the term ‘molecular biology’. I knew him later at Cambridge. When Perutz passed the papers to Geoffrey Pyke, it was Mark’s research on which Pyke set out to base his proposals for a floating mid-Atlantic airfield. His plan was for a top-secret ‘aircraft carrier’ made of ice and pulp that floated in the middle of the Atlantic; it would allow planes to stop and refuel, thus bringing Europe within easy flying distance of the United States. But would it work? Several practical trials were carried out in the summer of 1943, and a small prototype was constructed at Patricia Lake, Alberta, Canada. It measured 60ft (18m) by 30ft (9m) and was thought to weigh 1,000 tons. A 1hp (0.75kW) engine drove the freezer unit to keep the ice solid. Pyke himself was not permitted to join these trials, as he had already caused problems when the Weasel idea was being investigated in America, but he remained a persistent advocate of the concept.

Pykrete proved to be a solid material; buoyant, slow to melt, low in density and floating high in the water. In recent years television documentary producers have recreated Pykrete and there is no doubt that it works. But Pyke was not easy to work with, the scaling-up of the project would have cost prodigious amounts of money, and the sheer size of the project meant it was never tried on a larger scale. As a result, Pyke’s private experiments continued and he is, to this day, firmly associated with the strange saga of the aircraft carrier to be made of ice; but both the concept, and the material, had already been published years before. The secret origin of Pykrete was nothing to do with Pyke, and Professor Mark surely deserves his own place in the history of World War II.

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Chemical Weapons before 1900

In 1456 an alchemist who prepared a poisonous mixture saved Christian Belgrade from the attacking Turks.

Chemical weapons are not a new method of warfare, they have been in recorded use since about 2000 BC. However, science and technology have refined these weapons and now their potential is awesome. It was the rise of the modern chemical industry at the end of the nineteenth century that first made feasible the use of significant quantities of toxic chemicals on large-scale battlefields and, indeed, chemical weapons were first used on a significant scale by both sides in the First World War. They were then used immediately after the war by Britain in Iraq (1920), and Spain in Morocco (1921). They were also used by Italy during its invasion of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) in 1935-1936, Japan during its war against China in 1937-1943, and by the United States in Vietnam in 1965-1975. Both sides in the Iran-Iraq War used them in 1980-1988, and in a particularly high-profile attack they were deployed by Iraq against the Kurds at Halabja in 1988.

However, the use of poisons that could be considered chemical weapons dates back to antiquity. The wars of ancient India in about 2000 BC were fought with smoke screens, incendiary devices and toxic fumes that caused sleep. Thucydides tells of the use of gas during the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC); also the use of an incapacitating agent, one which caused incessant diarrhoea, is recorded by Polyaenus, Fronto and Pausanias. The Spartans used arsenic smoke, comprised of pitch and sulphur, during the sieges of Plataea and Delium. The pitch and sulphur were ignited and the consequence was `a fire greater than anyone had ever yet seen produced by human agency’, the Greek historian wrote. There is some debate concerning the effect of this new weapon on the final outcome, but it is unequivocally true that even the crudest chemical weapon will create fear and panic. Undoubtedly, this was exactly what happened during both sieges, making the way then clear for the Spartan Army to seize the advantage presented to them by the incapacity of their enemy, an opportunity they did not squander. Between 82-72 BC the Romans used `toxic smoke’ against the Charakitanes in Spain, causing pulmonary problems and blindness not dissimilar to the effects of phosgene centuries later. In this case the effects of this chemical weapon are clear – the Charakitanes were defeated in two days.

Almost a millennium later at the siege of Constantinople (AD 637), the Byzantine Greeks employed `Greek Fire’, a weapon invented by an architect, Callinus of Helipolis, which became decisive at this time and was used with success by the Byzantines in their campaigns up to the thirteenth century. Indeed, it can be argued, its effectiveness was a prime reason for the long survival of the Byzantine Empire. The exact composition of Greek Fire is still a mystery but naphtha or petroleum is thought to have been the principle ingredient, probably with sulphur or pitch and other materials added. Indeed, Greek Fire, it can be assumed, was the forerunner of Napalm. It is not clear, however, how it was ignited, but quicklime was probably used, mixed with the main ingredients at the last moment. Once lit, the substance was very hard to extinguish; water was useless, sand or vinegar was the only solution.

In the Middle Ages, chemical warfare was put to similar use as at the siege of Delium and such usage continued through to the fifteenth century. In 1456 an alchemist who prepared a poisonous mixture saved Christian Belgrade from the attacking Turks. The Christians dipped rags in the chemical and burned them, creating a toxic cloud that was not dissimilar to the chlorine clouds on the Western Front in 1915. This drifting cloud attack with an arsenical smoke is described by the Austrian writer, von Senfftenberg, with the comment: `It was a sad business. Christians must never use so murderous a weapon against other Christians. Still, it is quite in place against Turks and other miscreants.’

The `Notebooks’ of Leonardo da Vinci reveal a design for a chemical weapon which comprised a mixture of powdered arsenic and powdered sulphur packed into shells and fired against ships. Such a weapon was indeed developed and deployed, and as such is the first recorded usage of a chemical weapon. This use provided a precedent for the use of poison bullets against enemies and also led to the first attempt to prohibit the use of chemical weapons. This was elaborated in the Strasbourg Agreement (27 August 1675), a bilateral French and German accord which directed that neither side should use poison bullets and, as such, constitutes the first international agreement in modern history in which use of such weapons was prohibited.

As chemistry advanced during the nineteenth century, many new proposals for chemical weapons were made; for example, organoarsenical bombs and shells at the time of the Crimean War and a chlorine shell and other devices during the American Civil War. Indeed, Napoleon III is said to have put hydrogen cyanide to military use in 1865. An influential figure in the nineteenth-century history of chemical warfare was Thomas Cochrane. In March 1812 Britain’s prince regent, the future George IV, received from Cochrane a proposal aimed at undermining the power of Napoleon in a manner guaranteed to revolutionise the rigid customs of warfare. At that time the Duke of Wellington was struggling through Spain and the strength of the Royal Navy was being sapped by the need to maintain a tedious blockade of the key ports where Napoleon’s warships waited for an opportunity to escape into the Atlantic. Cochrane’s proposals, which the prince turned over to his advisors, offered a radical scheme by which a beachhead on the coast of France could be gained quickly and decisively. Cochrane detailed two new innovative weapons systems, the `explosion ship’ and the `sulphur ship’ or `stink vessel’. The plan stipulated that the two weapons were to be used in conjunction with each other. First, the explosion ship would be towed into place at an appropriate distance from anchored enemy ships, heeled to a correct angle and anchored. When detonated the immense explosion would cause debris to fall onto the enemy causing mayhem. Then the follow-up, the sulphur ship would be towed into place and when the wind blew windward charcoal covered with sulphur would be ignited. The resulting clouds of `noxious effluvia’, as Cochrane termed them, were expected to be pungent enough to reduce all opposition as the defenders ran away to escape the choking gas. A quick landing by the British could then secure an otherwise unattainable position and clear the way for the establishment of a beachhead. Thomas Cochrane had prefaced his plan thus: `To the Imperial mind, one sentence will suffice. All fortifications, especially marine fortifications, can undercover of dense smoke be irresistibly subdued by fumes of sulphur kindled in masses to windward of their ramparts.’ He had, in fact, been partly anticipated by a good two millennia. The Peloponnesians had attempted to reduce the town of Platea with sulphur fumes in the fifth century BC. At length, an expert panel decided there was merit in this unusual scheme, but fear of the implications that such radical devices would have on warfare stifled their enthusiasm. What would happen, they asked, if the enemy gained knowledge of this new technology and turned it against Britain’s defences? The proposal was rejected on the grounds, `It would not accord with the feelings and principles of civilised warfare.’

Nearly 40 years later, in July 1853, Cochrane, now 79 years old, urged the First Lord of the Admiralty, Sir James Graham, to reconsider the King’s 1812 decision and use the explosion and sulphur ships at Sevastapol as the possibility of war in the Crimea increased. Again, the idea was quickly dismissed. A year later, in July 1854, Cochrane again urged Graham to employ his vessels to force the Russian troops away from the fortifications of the harbour at Krondstadt. He said that once the ships had exploded and the enemy was scattered a British landing could be made and the enemy’s guns, once captured, could be manned and turned on the Russian ships anchored below the batteries. Once more, however, the scheme was rejected and the British sailed to the Baltic where they eventually failed to subdue Krondstadt.

Throughout the debate, the details of the scheme remained secret. In the boardroom at the Admiralty, the plan showed the sulphur ships with layers of coke and sulphur ready to emit their choking fog. Added to the scheme was the intention to create a smoke screen by pouring naphtha onto the surface of the harbour and igniting it with potassium, perhaps a nineteenth-century version of Greek Fire. Cochrane was convinced that a few hours would accomplish what months of debilitating conventional warfare had failed to achieve. Palmerstone’s government appeared to be close to sanctioning the strategy when Sevastopol was taken in September 1855, followed soon by the end of the war. All discussion of the revolutionary weapons was dropped, and the plans were sealed away on the shelves reserved for confidential matters at Whitehall. Cochrane died in 1860 and his secret war plan remained secure until 1908 when Palmerstone’s correspondence was published. Less than a decade later the sulphuric yellow clouds of mustard gas ravaged thousands in the trenches of France.

A few years after Cochrane’s death, as the American Civil War drew to an end, Ulysses Grant’s army was stalled outside Richmond during the siege of Petersburg, Virginia (1865). A plan was devised to attack Confederate trenches with a cloud of hydrochloric and sulphuric acids. This plan was not acted upon but this idea, along with Cochrane’s proposals, proved to be a prerequisite for the Declaration of St Petersburg (1868). This declaration renounced the use of explosive projectiles charged with fulminating or inflammable substances in war. Additionally, it prohibited `material of a nature to cause unnecessary suffering’. Twenty signatories participated of which Britain, France and Germany are still adherents.

The New Armies of the 1700s

The flintlock musket was the outward symbol of the new armies that were appearing in western Europe in the late 1600s; the weapon was expensive, but it was safer and more convenient than the old matchlock—it also allowed soldiers to stand closer together and thereby pour a heavier fire on opposing troops; it was also more easily fitted with the bayonet, which was soon considered the queen of battle.

Another symbol was the new uniform. Though the colour was far from uniform yet, the trend was toward outfitting the soldiers with identical shirts and pants, a stiff frock coat, heavy boots, and mitred hats. The hats made the soldiers seem taller, and they certainly required them to stand straighter—which made them more imposing to any enemy, and the improved posture gave them more self-confidence. Certainly they were better prepared for fighting in cold and wet weather, and when it was too hot, the frocks could be piled onto carts to be carried to the evening campsite, along with the knapsacks that soldiers carried until immediately before combat.

There were also more impressive fortresses, stout structures made of brick and stone, with successive lines of defence and well-protected cannon that could sweep each killing zone. Each fortress had barracks for soldiers and supply bunkers in case of siege or orders to outfit troops hurrying into the field. No commander in his right mind would order an immediate assault on such a place, and few wanted to leave his army half-unemployed and subject to disease and discontent while starving the defenders out. Still, since it was impossible to ignore fortresses, every campaign could easily end in a murderous assault on the most weakened part of the defences, a storm that might end in piles of dead and wounded attackers or the slaughter of defenders who were unable to escape or surrender.

Siege tactics were universally understood, so that once trench lines and tunnels had reached a point from which an assault was possible, any trained observer could judge whether or not the fortress could be defended successfully. At that time the defending commander would have to decide whether to sacrifice valuable soldiers in vain or to surrender the place and march away ‘with honours’. The attacking commander similarly wanted to avoid losing men, and an essentially intact fortress was more useful than one which had been heavily damaged in pitched battle.

Improvements in artillery were obvious—better gun carriages, mortars for sieges, and heavy cannon for battering static defences. The largest of these weapons still adorn military museums in Europe and the Americas, and are found at many of the historic sites maintained for visitors and school children. Field artillery tended to be melted down and the metal reused.

Roads, bridges and canals were better, too. Though many were constructed to facilitate military operations, civilians did not hesitate to use them as well. Trees planted on the south side of roads allowed for travel in the shade, and public wells kept men and beasts from dehydrating. As transport costs went down, general prosperity went up. Government officials and economists realised that this commerce could be converted into tax monies that would subsidise royal expenses—the military, palaces and mistresses.

There was also an equally significant change underway that Kenneth Chase described in Firearms, a Global History—a greater emphasis on discipline and drill. Earlier, few commanders had the time or money to train recruits fully—permanent forces were needed for road work, building fortifications, and guard duty; and when an army was needed, regular troops were supplemented by recruits and hurried to the battlefield with minimum additional drill. Training too often involved firing expensive gunpowder, exhausting horses, wearing out uniforms, and disrupting the peasantry. Therefore, as Robert Citino in The German Way of War and Christopher Clark in Iron Kingdom note, field exercises were rare. Even Friedrich Wilhelm von Hohenzollern (1620-88), the Prussian ruler known the Great Elector, was too budget-conscious to send his magnificently trained soldiers out to practise in the rain and mud.

There was also a new emphasis on developing a professional officer class. The most highly born nobles had always insisted on being given commands equal to those of their ancestors; even when still junior officers they were allowed to wear the most magnificent uniforms, prance on the best mounts available, and take their pick of the prettiest girls. Those who commanded regiments also received royal subsidies that allowed them to maintain their expensive lifestyles, even though this came at the cost of regimental preparedness; and kings looked the other way because they were dependent on the goodwill of the aristocracy. Often young nobles demonstrated great courage; however, they could be the despair of generals who wanted their orders obeyed, not merely followed when proud subordinates found them convenient and did not seem to be an affront to their status. Nobles tended to think for themselves on those occasions they chose to think, but they had a tendency to forget what they were supposed to think. Hence, when an opportunity presented itself for some damn-fool act of bravery, they did it. Self-control was rare. Moreover, it was not easy for them to identify with the soldiers—social classes did not mingle, partly because common soldiers tended to be, well, common; and partly because familiarity might breed contempt, making the soldiers doubt the officers’ ability. Still, nobles made the better officers than equally well-trained men from the gentry or commercial classes because they had grown up expecting to give orders and to be obeyed, and soldiers generally accepted that as the natural order of the world.

Leading the way in by-passing the upper nobility and mercenaries was Prussia, a state whose rulers had never been reluctant to hire foreign officers and integrate them into the minor nobility. The Great Elector had employed the minor aristocracy known as Junkers as officers and administrators, giving them little choice in the matter—no more than he did the apple-sellers in Berlin to choose whether to knit or not while waiting for customers. Work, work, work was his answer to the region’s lack of natural resources, just as hurry, hurry, hurry made the army formidable on the march and in the attack.

If middle-class youths or minor nobility in Germany or Russia had the potential to be good officers, this meant a potential lessened reliance on foreign mercenaries with military experience. There had always been an aura of suspicion about foreigners who were often both arrogant and ambitious, who did not speak the local language well and who did not understand the nuances of social conventions. This provided opportunities for young men such as Napoleon Bonaparte to receive the training they would then put to use after the noble officers fled France rather than risk a shave from the national razor—the guillotine.

Multinational Austria remained the most welcoming to foreigners, followed by the minor states in Italy where the rulers were often foreigners themselves, and Russia, where the boyars thought that every new idea was foolishness if not heresy.

Paralleling these trends was a growing awareness in all classes that everyone belonged to a nation rather than merely being subjects of a distant ruler. Historians tend to associate this process with the French Revolution, which made many Italians, Spaniards and Germans believe that they, too, were members of great nations. Oddly, in a sense, this awareness of national identity was appearing at the same time that a new international culture was spreading across Europe. As summarised in Matchlocks to Flintlocks, ‘As France came to replace Spain as the dominant nation in Western Europe, the French language and French customs spread rapidly into the neighbouring states. To hold one’s head up in polite society meant having it full of French ideas.’

This Lingua Franca made it easier for ideas to circulate. Some innovations in military theory and practice were widely accepted; some ideas, especially those connected with experimental science, were both exciting and safe; others, those associated with what we call the Enlightenment, had mixed receptions—traditionalists were outraged, while the younger set laughed at the humour without necessarily adopting the underlying philosophy. Life at the upper levels of society became less serious, even frivolous, to an extent unimagined before. Religion became formalised—with intellectuals and leaders of society making withering comments about institutionalised ignorance and superstition, the foolishness of the unwashed masses and ignorant country folk who still took miracles seriously, hypocritical priests and pedantic schoolmasters. Yet, when plagues raged through a kingdom, everyone prayed fervently and later raised monuments to God and His saints for ending the suffering. Superstition and credulity thus mixed easily with sophistication and cynicism.

To the extent that the Enlightenment meant abandoning old methods in favour of new ones to resolve practical problems, it had a profound impact on the military arts. First, there was the introduction of an effective supply system to replace foraging for food and fodder. Providing cooks and brewers assured that all units were fed, avoided dispersing soldiers every afternoon to look for food and fodder, and made it more certain that everyone would be present when roll was called the next morning. It also made the peasantry much happier, since there were fewer thefts and rapes; and villages which were not pillaged could be more effectively given lists of supplies to be delivered (or else).

John Lynn, in Women, Armies and Warfare, noted that this resulted in the almost total disappearance of camp followers. This made it possible for armies to become larger, since the resources once needed to feed and shelter women and children could support additional soldiers. Also, the sexual license that probably drew some men into military service was no longer present, making it easier to avoid quarrels over women and women’s quarrels with other women. Wives and whores (cohabiting women) gave way to prostitutes, a somewhat easier class to discipline.

Officers began to look upon their commands as a way to make money—charging soldiers for uniforms, medical care, retirement benefits and other costs that often ate up much of their slender incomes. Soldiers no longer found desertion easy, and while recruits were often still technically volunteers, in practice communities were expected to provide their quotas.

Regimental Histories

We have good information about the organisation of armies in this era, but less about the individual units. For example, were ordinary soldiers taking increased responsibility to deal with comrades who slacked duties and avoided exposure to danger? This seemed to be the case to the extent that earlier even prisoners-of-war could be forced into the ranks to fight against their former comrades. But no longer—unlike mercenaries of yore, recent captives took every opportunity to get back to their comrades. As the influence of cliques of thugs diminished, pride in being a member of an elite unit—or even an average one—seems to have increased.

This was a new experience. By the ancient practice of accepting recruits from wherever a unit passed, or even compelling young men to enlist, most regiments had once been composed of a wide variety of nationalities. Even in the Swedish army—often regarded as the best in the period 1630-1715—only elite companies were composed of native Swedes; the rest of any regiment could be Poles or Germans or other locally recruited youths. Now the tendency was to recruit units from only a few regions, a practice that resulted in more homogeneity and greater unit cohesion.

This presented the Austrian monarchs with a serious problem. How could they make their multinational army as loyal to the dynasty as competing monarchs were able to do by combining love of country with respect for the ruler? Since it was difficult to assure unit cohesion when soldiers might not even be able to speak to one another, they needed a common language of command. Only German qualified.

Prince Eugene, himself an Italian reared at the French court, discouraged the enlistment of Italians. It was not a question of courage or competence, but of commitment—Italians tended to see through the foolishness of military life and, worse, they had little enthusiasm for the Hapsburgs. Eugene wanted German soldiers, but he was quite willing to enlist Bohemians, with their rich military tradition, because most Czechs knew a bit of German and were Catholic. German as the language of command also made it easier to work with allies from the Holy Roman Empire. Pressure to make Hungarians equal came much later.

There was also the matter of morale. After 1730 the Austrian army was beaten too often to go into battle with much confidence. It had been very different earlier, when Prince Eugene commanded victorious armies, but after the wars with Louis XIV ended and his successful siege of Belgrade in 1717, he retired to a pleasant life in Vienna (his Belvedere palace overlooking the city and his impressive Stadtpalais inside the walls) to collect art and books. The luxury of his later private life contrasted strongly with his austere practices as field commander. His reforms of the army had been rigorously practical. Dressing soldiers in grey frocks made it easy to see which units were his and which were the enemy’s, even when thick white smoke obscured the battlefield, and the thickness of the frocks limited injury from spent projectiles; and since most soldiers reacted to incoming fire as if they were walking into heavy rain, concentrating on keeping their high hats from falling off prevented them from ducking their heads, a pose that was often followed by a panicked flight to the rear.

The Austrian army as a whole was weak, but some regiments were effective. This suggests that a study of armies at the regimental level might tell us much about the changes that were occurring in the 1700s. A good example of what can be learned is from the previously-mentioned Deutschmeister Regiment of the Hapsburg army.

The long-time grandmaster of the Teutonic Order, 1694–1732, Franz Ludwig, had little to do with the regiment beyond persuading his brothers to allow recruiters to raise troops in their lands in the Palatinate and Neuburg, but that was an important concession, because other, equally staunch Roman Catholic rulers would not have allowed recruiters to speak with their subjects. With the outbreak of war with France in the War of the Spanish Succession Franz Ludwig’s two regiments of foot and a regiment of dragoons were withdraw from the Croatian and Hungarian frontiers, returning only in 1717 for the campaign that captured the great fortress at Belgrade, far to the south where the Danube makes its turn east toward the Black Sea.

The Deutschmeister regiment eventually came under the command of Charles Alexander of Lorraine (1712-80), one of the most important field marshals of the War of the Austrian Succession (1740-48) and the Seven Years War (1756-63). Everyone knew that he was competent but not brilliant.

Charles Alexander was not a lucky general, but no Austrian general did any better against Frederick the Great and Maurice de Saxe; he lost four times to the former and once to the latter, but he always reformed his army quickly and limited the territorial losses. He could be considered successful in one sense, in that Austrian soldiers who had given up the fight quickly between 1740 and 1746 in the First Silesian War had become warriors by 1756, when the second war with Prussia began. Austrian regiments then fought with such determination that the Prussians hardly recognised them.

This may have had little to do with Charles Alexander, and more to do with the greater popularity of Empress Maria Theresa and a new determination not to be humiliated again. In any case, Charles Alexander’s position at the head of the army was secure. Maria Theresa was reluctant to give command to anyone outside the royal family, and even though he had only been married to her sister briefly, her only alternative was her husband, Charles Alexander’s brother, who had no military talent at all. The empress’s policy of concentrating power in the hands of the imperial family meant that there was little chance for another Eugene of Savoy to rise to greatness.

The office of grandmaster was a sinecure, to provide Charles Alexander incomes after he retired from imperial service, but it was also logical, since the new Deutschmeister Regiment had earned great fame under his command. This was officially the 4th regiment of the household troops, but its costs were covered by the Teutonic Order.

The Deutschmeister regiment was a well-dressed outfit. Standard gear for all infantry regiments included low-rimmed black felt hat with white brocade trim and regimental insignia, but the Deutschmeister soldiers were distinguished from other units by their pearl white overcoats with sky blue lapels and white buttons; they wore white neckbands, white shirts, white socks, white leggings (black in bad weather), black shoes, red leather cartridge case decorated with an eagle, backpack, flintlock, bayonet and sheath. Officers wore the same outfit—no gold or silver, and brocade permitted only when off-duty. They carried swords, daggers and pistols. Drummers and fifers dressed in red coats with blue shirts. The cavalry unit was also #4, the Archduke Max cuirassiers, with a proud heritage going back to the Thirty Years War; it was shot to pieces at the battle of Grocka in 1739, and during the Seven Years War was commanded by Johann Baptist Serbelloni (1696-1778), who was a member of the Knights of Malta and whose notoriously bad German was matched by his slowness in getting into the thick of the fight.

The regiment was ever more associated with the monarchy and less to the military order from which it sprang. Modern efforts to associate the Teutonic Order with Nazism run up against the fact that Hitler hated the Hapsburgs and nobles in general; he also hated the Roman Catholic Church, filling his earliest concentration camps with priests who objected to euthanasia; he mistrusted professional army officers, who repeatedly plotted to overthrow him; and his plans for National Socialism meant the creation of a new society that had no room for these artefacts of a culture that he declared were useless and dangerous.

Fighting with Hedgehogs

USS England off San Francisco, 9 February 1944.

Hedgehog thrower on HMS Westcott, November 1945.

Secretary Margaret Jackson was able to provide Colin Gubbins, Special Operations Executive, with remarkably accurate briefs on the success or failure of the sabotage missions that were by now taking place on a nightly basis. Wireless transmissions were received by the various country sections, where they were collated and forwarded to her. She, in turn, handed them to Gubbins when he arrived for work at Baker Street.

The situation at the first was rather different. It was a source of continual frustration to Stuart Macrae not to have any idea as to how and when their weapons had been used. In part, this was because they were too busy to enquire. As summer yielded to autumn that year, 1943, they found themselves working on ‘all manner of remarkable projects’. There were ‘bombs which jumped about on the ground, bombs which leaped in and out of the sea and rockets which fired bridges over roads’ – the latter being the latest invention from the drawing board of Cecil Clarke. Yet news of operations hardly ever reached the sheds and workshops at the far end of the lower lawn.

Macrae tried to keep tabs on successful limpet attacks, but even this proved difficult. Unlike Gubbins, he was not in regular contact with the army high command. As for Jefferis himself, he didn’t seem to care. Macrae increasingly found himself in the role of ‘a theatrical producer who had found an unwilling star’ – Jefferis – ‘and forced him to fame’. He felt rather guilty, for ‘whereas I had succeeded in making myself happy, it was obvious that I had done the opposite for Millis’. Jefferis wanted nothing more than to be left with his mathematics, his coloured chalks and the occasional tumbler of whisky.

His most complex invention, the anti-U-boat Hedgehog mortar, had started life when the two of them were still working in the War Office back in the early days of war. It had originally been intended as a sabotage weapon to be used in the event of a Nazi invasion of Britain, but had slowly been transformed into an instrument of such complexity that it had required more than two years of fine tuning. The principal difficulty had been to calculate the recoil accurately, essential to the stability of any ship. One newly recruited engineer who found himself travelling in the company of Jefferis said that he ‘spent most of one train journey between Bath and London sketching furiously on empty cigarette packets’. As the train pulled into Paddington, Jefferis gave the hint of a smile: the mathematics finally made sense. And by the time the sea trials took place, the Hedgehog was near perfect. The mortars dived downwards in their streamlined casings and then homed in on their underwater foe.

This all took time and it was not until the spring of 1943 that the first Hedgehogs were being installed on Royal Navy vessels. When Commander Reginald Whinney took command of the HMS Wanderer , he was told to expect the arrival of a highly secret piece of equipment. ‘At more or less the last minute, the bits and pieces for an ahead-throwing anti-submarine mortar codenamed “hedgehog” arrived.’

As Whinney watched it being unpacked on the Devonport quayside, he was struck by its bizarre shape. ‘How does this thing work, sir?’ he asked, ‘and when are we supposed to use it?’ He was met with a shrug. ‘You’ll get full instructions.’

Whinney glanced over the Hedgehog’s twenty-four mortars and was ‘mildly suspicious’ of this contraption that had been delivered in an unmarked van coming from an anonymous country house in Buckinghamshire. He was not alone in his scepticism. Many Royal Navy captains were ‘used to weapons which fired with a resounding bang’, as one put it, and were ‘not readily impressed with the performance of a contact bomb which exploded only on striking an unseen target’. They preferred to stick with the tried and tested depth charge when attacking U-boats, even though it had a hit rate of less than one in ten. Jefferis’s technology was too smart to be believed.

The Americans proved quicker at embracing the Hedgehog, equipping large numbers of their ships in the final months of 1943. Among them was the USS England, which went into service in the Pacific shortly afterwards. She was soon to find herself caught in the opening shots of Operation A-Go, the Japanese quest for the total destruction of the American Pacific fleet in the spring of 1944. It was an operation driven by Admiral Soemu Toyoda, who knew that submarines would play a central role in the battle ahead. Indeed he said that ‘the success or failure of Operation A-Go depends on the submarines’. What he didn’t know is that he would be pitting his fleet against Jefferis’s mathematical genius.

Admiral Toyoda issued his pre-battle orders to Rear-Admiral Naburo Owada on 3 May 1944. Owada was commander of the Japanese submarine force, Squadron Seven, and he was instructed to launch ‘a surprise attack against enemy task forces and invasion forces’.

The Americans were quick to intercept the Japanese wireless transmissions: one of the first intercepts revealed that a lone Japanese sub, I-16, was heading towards the Solomon Islands. The I-16 was an enticing prize, one of the largest submarines ever built in Japan. She was almost 350 feet long and heavily armed with eight 21-inch torpedo tubes. She was so big that she could carry a small supplementary sub in her deckhouse. Moreover, she was commanded by the brilliantly gifted Yoshitaka Takeuchi.

American intelligence discovered not only the sub’s destination, but also her intended route and speed. This was immediately forwarded to the USS England, which set out in hot pursuit.

The England ’s executive officer, John Williamson, was one of the new breed of navy men: savvy, clean-shaven and passionate about the latest gadgets. With his large ears and goofy smile, he looked like a typical college geek. But he was a geek who was hungry for victory. And in Jefferis’s Hedgehog, he smelled triumph. Long before his vessel set sail from San Francisco, he had instigated a series of test firings in the harbour. ‘If it hit,’ he noted, ‘the concentrated power of its thirty-five pounds of TNT was enough to blow a two- or three-foot hole in a submarine’s three-quarter-inch rolled-steel hull.’ Unlike the depth charge, the Hedgehog only detonated on making contact with the submarine. ‘You knew you had scored a hit, and a devastating one.’

Now, as Williamson went in search of the Japanese sub, he felt ‘a heady mixture of excitement, eagerness and trepidation appropriate to new boys on the block’. One slip on his part and the England herself would come under attack from Commander Takeuchi’s torpedoes.

At exactly 1.25p.m. on 18 May, the England ’s soundman, Roger Bernhardt, gave a shout from the bridge. ‘Echoes sharp and clear, sir!’ The echo detection equipment revealed that the submarine was just 1,400 yards away. The chase was now on and the vessel began to shudder as the engines were cranked to full throttle.

Williamson was impressed by Takeuchi’s reactions, for he proved a skilled quarry. ‘At four hundred yards, the target turned hard left and kicked his screws.’ Takeuchi was making his escape, using a procedure known as ‘kicking the rudder’. This threw up disturbances in the water, distorting the sonar echoes and making the sub’s position impossible to pinpoint with accuracy. But Williamson had made it his business to locate subs, even in turbulent water. He studied the Doppler machine intently as he tried to calculate the exact depth of Commander Takeuchi’s sub. At precisely 2.33 p.m., he got a fix. A split-second later, he fired his weapon and the Hedgehogs roared away from the ship and upwards into the clear blue sky, forming themselves into a perfect ellipse and then entering the sea in symmetry, just as Millis Jefferis had intended.

‘No one said a word. All eyes were fixed on the water’s surface, everyone imagining the huge steel fish below.’ Everyone knew that unlike the old depth charge, the Hedgehog would only explode if it hit the sub.

Silence. Tension. And then – ‘V-r-r-oom ! We heard it again and again, in rapid-fire succession, four to six hits coming so fast on top of one another as to seem almost simultaneous.’ Williamson had just one word in his mind: ‘Bull’s-eye!’

Deep below the surface, Commander Takeuchi had been engaged in a desperate struggle to evade the England when his submarine was hit by six shattering explosions. Jefferis had spent months calculating the mathematical equation that would ensure his Hedgehog would strike with deadly precision. Now, that mathematics reaped dividends. As the I-16’s steel hull was punctured by multiple spigots, the rigid hull instantly and violently crumpled in on itself like a tin can crushed by a giant fist. Commander Takeuchi and his crew were engulfed in a catastrophic decompression that sucked in a high-velocity avalanche of water, along with twisted shrapnel from the crippled outer shell. Death was mercifully quick. There was no hope of escape.

There was jubilation aboard the England at the sound of the underwater explosions. The crew ‘broke out in cheers, everyone jumping and slapping one another on the back like a team that had just won a tournament game’. The cheering continued for fully two minutes, ‘and was just beginning to die down when all of a sudden we heard a giant wham !’ The sea erupted into angry wavelets and the England ‘shuddered violently and started rocking and reeling’.

Williamson’s first thought was that they had been torpedoed. He feared that Commander Takeuchi had somehow detonated his on-board torpedoes as a final, desperate act of revenge. In fact, it was the violent implosion of the submarine that caused the shockwaves. The men on the England were nevertheless terrified. The fantail of the ship ‘lifted as much as a foot, plopped heavily back in the water, while men throughout the ship were knocked off their feet and deck plates sheared loose in the engine room’. Williamson concluded that the aftershock marked the ‘cataclysmic certainty that we had heard the last of the Japanese submarine’. It left the men ‘sobered and subdued’. The Hedgehogs had made their job of killing very easy.

The submarine had been sunk at more than 500 feet below the surface and almost twenty minutes were to pass before the first wreckage began to appear. Williamson was staring intently at the sea when he saw some shredded cork insulation pop to the surface. It was followed by deck planking and the remnants of a filing cabinet. Next to float up was a prayer mat decorated with Japanese characters, a lone chopstick and a large rubber container holding a seventy-five-pound bag of rice.

There was increasing excitement on deck as more evidence of their ‘kill’ started floating to the surface. Everyone was awaiting the inevitable appearance of human remains. Ten minutes passed, then twenty, but they never arrived. John Williamson peered into the water and was quick to see why. ‘Soon a dozen or so well-fed-looking sharks were milling around the vicinity.’ Commander Takeuchi and his crew had fallen prey to two different enemies, one above water and one below.

A small oil slick soon appeared on the surface, evidence that the Hedgehogs had ruptured the sub’s fuel tanks. ‘The slick grew steadily in size until profuse amounts of oil were bubbling to the surface, along with more debris.’

All the detritus needed to be collected, for the US Navy would only confirm a ‘kill’ if there was evidence. One of the England ’s whaleboats was lowered and a few of the crew began collecting relics of the sub. Williamson was concerned for the men’s safety, for ‘there were a dozen or more huge sharks swimming excitedly through the floating debris, looking for blood and shredded limbs.’

Over the course of the next twelve days, Williamson achieved a record unbeaten in the history of naval warfare. He and his men sank a further five submarines, all destroyed by Hedgehogs. Each time, the effect was the same: a deep-water vroom, an oil slick on the surface and dozens of marauding sharks. One young mariner aboard the England confessed to being upset at the ease with which their Hedgehogs were destroying the subs. Williamson had a ready answer. ‘Son,’ he said, ‘war is killing. The more of the enemy we can kill, and the more of his ships we can sink the sooner it will be over.’ He added that ‘we are in a war that we must win, for to lose it would be far worse.’ It was a sentiment that could have come straight from the mouth of Millis Jefferis.

At the naval headquarters in Japan, Admiral Soemu Toyoda was still unaware of the catastrophe that had befallen Squadron Seven. He was eagerly anticipating the onset of Operation A-Go, aware that his submarines had a unique role to play. At 9 a.m. on 15 June he gave the order for battle, using exactly the same words as Admiral Togo had used to address his fleet on the eve of the famous Battle of Tsushima, thirty-eight years earlier. ‘The fate of the empire rests on this one battle. Every man is expected to do his utmost.’

As part of the general deployment, he sent an urgent directive to Admiral Owada: ‘Submarine Squadron Seven is to be immediately stationed east of Saipan, to intercept and destroy American carriers and transports, at any cost.’ Admiral Owada’s reply was succinct. Squadron Seven, he said, ‘has no submarines’. Jefferis’s Hedgehogs had claimed the lot.

Stuart Macrae was delighted when he was brought the news: indeed, it would remain with him for years. ‘The hedgehog was an out and out winner,’ he wrote. ‘It went into service rather late in the day, but was credited with thirty-seven confirmed submarine killings.’ What had begun as a sabotage mortar for use against the Nazis in Kent had been transformed by Jefferis into a devastating weapon of destruction.

Livens Flame Projectors at Breslau Trench

Livens Flame Projector

British objectives for 1 July 1916 with front sector allocated to XV Corps.

The Livens Flame Projector was one of the most horrific weapons of the war, instilling terror and amongst those that faced it. It was deployed along the sector held by the 55th Brigade opposite Breslau Trench. Invented by Captain William Livens from the Royal Engineers these weapons were meant to shake the confidence of and terrorise the enemy. The aim was to keep German troops below the parapets long enough to enable British infantry to cross No Man’s Land and get into their trenches without being fired upon. Livens was in command of a secret unit known as Z Section, Royal Engineers, which focused its energies on designing long-range flamethrowers.

The Livens Flame Projector required seven men to operate and these devices were buried underground in shallow tunnels – Russian saps – where they would project burning oil from a nozzle a distance of 300 feet across No Man’s Land into the German trenches. At fifty-six feet in length and weighing two-and-a-half tons it was a logistical challenge getting this device in positions underground within shallow confines of these Russian saps. The weapon was powered by air pressure. Once the pressure had reached a certain level the nozzle attached to the tanks was pushed through the ground above the surface and then the diesel and kerosene mixture was ignited, shooting flame towards the enemy like a mechanical dragon. It took 300 men to assemble this weapon, then once underground the tanks had to be filled with oil. These horrific killing machines had to be assembled in secret to preserve the element of surprise for the moment they were unleashed on the enemy.

Z Section, Royal Engineers left Southampton in two troopships at 18:00 hours on 24 June 1916, bound for Le Havre. Lieutenant Bansal with another officer and sixty-six men accompanied four Livens Flame Projectors aboard SS Hunslet, while Captain Livens with nine officers and 153 men sailed on SS Copenhagen. After an overnight crossing of the English Channel they reached Le Havre at 09:00 hours on 25 June and spent the day transferring the weapons and equipment from these troopships to nearby trains that would take them to the Somme sector.

They reached Corbie the following day and then they had to make their way to the frontline where the weapons would be deployed. Under the supervision of Lieutenant Bansall the four Projectors were loaded onto three-ton lorries at Bronfay Farm, near Bray, on 27 June, together with large supplies of oil and compressed gas. They arrived at Ludgate Circus close to Mametz at 22.00 hours that night where they were met by a 200-strong party from the Devonshire Regiment which was detailed to assist them in carrying this equipment to the front line.

This process was delayed when at 02:00 hours on 28 June as they were moving through a communications trench named 71 Street German artillery opened up a strong barrage on this trench. Parts of the Livens Flame Projectors that was designated for use at Sap 14, positioned between Bois Français and Mansell Copse, were dropped as the Royal Engineers and Devons took shelter. When the bombardment stopped at 05:30 hours they collected parts of the flamethrower and assembled them in Sap 14. Thirty minutes later the German guns resumed their bombardment and a shell burst directly above Sap 14, burying parts of the Projector beyond recovery.

Three other Livens Flame Projectors were taken from Bronfay Farm and taken to the Montauban sector where they were to be installed in Sap 7, 10 and 13 dug by 183rd Tunnelling Company. The Projector intended for use at Casino Point from No 13 Sap was installed but was then damaged by enemy shellfire and was used for spare parts for the remaining two operational projectors.

These two remaining Projectors were to be used on the 55th Brigade’s sector in between the Carnoy Crater and east of the Carnoy–Montauban Road. They were positioned close to each other and would engulf Mine Trench with deadly flames of burning oil. The device could only be fired three times emitting projections of burning oil for ten seconds.

At 07:15 hours, fifteen minutes before Zero Hour, the Projectors at Saps 7 and 10 discharged their deadly rain of burning oil across No Man’s Land into the German frontline Mine Trench held by soldiers from the 6th Bavarian Reserve Regiment, who had recently been transferred here from Verdun for a rest. The Royal Engineers, Special Section War Diary reported:

One shot was fired from each gun in No 7 and No 10 saps; the flames reached well over the enemy’s trenches in each case. The moral effect on the enemy undoubtedly was very pronounced, for whom the infantry attack took place, the casualties were very much less in the width of front covered by the flame than in the flanks.

Clouds of black smoke and flame rose a hundred feet into the sky before descending upon the unfortunate Bavarians. It was a horrific death for those German sentries in Mine Trench who were incinerated by these jets of burning oil. Their charred remains were later found.

2nd Lieutenant R.W. Stewart, Royal Engineers, reported that soon after the Livens Flame Projector (here using the German term for these weapons) was deployed, fifty German soldiers immediately surrendered:

The large flammenwerfer on the west of the craters proved a great success and very little resistance was met on that side. Had there been another flammenwerfer on the East, possibly the assaulting party would have been able to get in equally easily.

The Livens Projector was used again in Belgium during 1917, but the weapon proved too cumbersome to use. It required large resources of labour in bringing the weapon to the front line and assembling it underground. There was also a great risk that it would be damaged by shellfire or buried underground before it could be used. Loading it with kerosene and diesel underground was dangerous and after all the effort of installing this weapon, it could only be used three times before being emptied. The use of this projector was abandoned and Livens and his team diverted their attention to the creation of the Livens Gas Projectors which was used in large numbers later in the war.

The First Incendiary Missiles


The first incendiary missiles were arrows wrapped with flammable plant fibers (flax, hemp, or straw, often referred to as tow) and set afire. Burning arrows of these materials could be very effective in destroying wooden walls from a safe distance. Indeed, Athens was captured by flaming hemp arrows in 480 BC, when the Persians invaded Greece. Xerxes had already destroyed many Greek cities with fire and, as the grand Persian army approached Athens, the populace was evacuated to the countryside. A few priests and poor and infirm citizens were left behind to defend the Acropolis. These defenders put up barricades of planks and timber around the Temple of Athena and managed to hold off the Persians for a time by rolling boulders down the slopes of the Acropolis. But, in the first recorded use of fire projectiles on Greek soil, the Persians shot fiery arrows to burn down the wooden barricades. The Persians then swarmed over the Acropolis, slaughtering all the Athenians in the temple and burning everything to the ground.

But simple flaming missiles of straw were “insufficiently destructive and murderous” to satisfy ancient strategists for long, notes Alfred Crosby. They were not much use against stone walls, and ordinary fires could be doused with water. “What was wanted was something that would burn fiercely, adhere stubbornly, and resist being put out by water.” What kinds of chemical additives would produce fires strong enough to burn walls and machines, capture cities, and destroy enemies?

The first additive was a plant chemical, pitch, the flammable resin tapped from pine trees. Later, distillations of pitch into crude turpentine were available. Resinous fires burned hotly and the sticky sap resisted water. Arrows could be dipped in pitch and ignited, or one could set fires fueled with pitch to burn the enemy’s equipment. Other mineral accelerants for making hotter and more combustible weapons were discovered, too.

The earliest evidence that flaming arrows were used by a Greek army appears in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. In 429 BC, the Spartans besieged the city of Plataia, an ally of Athens, and used a full panoply of siege techniques against the stubborn Plataians. We know the Spartans used fire arrows, because the Plataians protected their wooden palisades with what would later become the standard defense against flaming projectiles—they hung curtains of untanned animal skins over the walls. Then, the Plataians lassoed the Spartans’ siege engines, winching them into the air and letting them crash to the ground. With their machines smashed and with their archers unable to ignite the rawhide-covered walls, the Spartans advanced beyond mere flaming arrows, into the as-yet-unexplored world of chemical fuels. This event occurred just two years after Euripides’ play about Medea’s mysterious recipe for “unnatural fire.”

The Spartans heaped up a massive mound of firewood right next to the city wall. Then they added liberal quantities of pine-tree sap and, in a bold innovation, sulphur. Sulphur is the chemical element found in acrid-smelling, yellow, green and white mineral deposits in volcanic areas, around hot springs, and in limestone and gypsum matrix. Sulphur was also called brimstone, which means “burning stone.” Volcanic eruptions were observed to create flowing rivers and lakes of burning sulphur, scenes that corresponded to ancient visions of Hell with its lakes of fire. In antiquity, clods and liquid forms of sulphur had many uses, from medicine and pesticides to bleaching togas. Sulphur’s highly flammable nature also made it a very attractive incendiary in war. “No other substance is more easily ignited,” wrote Pliny, “which shows that sulphur contains a powerful abundance of fire.”

When the Spartans ignited the great woodpile at Plataia, the combination of pitch and sulphur “produced such a conflagration as had never been seen before, greater than any fire produced by human agency,” declared Thucydides. Indeed, the blue sulphur flames and the acrid stench must have been sensational, and the fumes also would have been quite destructive, since the combustion of sulphur creates toxic sulphur dioxide gas, which can kill if inhaled in large enough quantities. The Plataians abandoned their posts on the burning palisades. Much of the wall was destroyed, but then the wind reversed and the great fire eventually subsided after a severe thunderstorm. Plataia was saved by what must have seemed to be divine intervention against the Spartans’ technological innovation. Notably, this also happens to be the earliest recorded use of a chemically enhanced incendiary that created a poison gas, although it is not clear that the Spartans were aware of that deadly side effect when they threw sulphur on the flames.

Defenders quickly learned to use chemically fed fires against besiegers. Writing in about 360 BC, Aeneas the Tactician’s book on how to survive sieges devoted a section to fires supplemented with chemicals. He recommended pouring pitch down on the enemy soldiers or onto their siege machines, followed by bunches of hemp and lumps of sulphur, which would stick to the coating of pitch. Then, one used ropes to immediately let down burning bundles of kindling to ignite the pitch and sulphur. Aeneas also described a kind of spiked wooden “bomb” filled with blazing material that could be dropped onto siege engines. The iron spikes would embed the device into the wooden frame of the machine and both would be consumed by flames. Another defense strategy was to simply “fill bags with pitch, sulphur, tow, powdered frankincense gum, pine shavings, and sawdust.” Set afire, these sacks could be hurled from the walls to burn the men below.

During the grueling year-long siege of the island of Rhodes by Demetrius Poliorcetes (“The Besieger”) in 304 BC, both sides hurled resinous missiles—firepots and flaming arrows. On moonless nights during the siege, wrote Diodorus of Sicily, “the fire-missiles burned bright as they hurtled violently through the air.” The morning after a particularly spectacular night attack, Demetrius Poliorcetes had his men collect and count the fire missiles. He was startled by the vast resources of the city. In a single night, the Rhodians had fired more than eight hundred fiery projectiles of various sizes, and fifteen hundred catapult bolts. Rhodes’ resistance was successful, and Poliorcetes withdrew with his reputation tarnished, abandoning his valuable siege equipment. From the sale of his machines, the Rhodians financed the building of the Colossus of Rhodes astride their harbor, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Technological advances in fire arrows were reported by the Roman historians Silius Italicus and Tacitus, who describe the large fire-bolt (the falarica), a machine-fired spear with a long iron tip that had been dipped in burning pitch and sulphur. (The opening scene of the 2000 Hollywood film “Gladiator” showed the Roman falarica in action in a night battle in Germany). The burning spears were “like thunderbolts, cleaving the air like meteors,” wrote Silius Italicus. The carnage was appalling. The battlefield was strewn with “severed, smoking limbs” carried through the air by the bolts, and “men and their weapons were buried under the blazing ruins of the siege towers.”

Machine-fired fire-bolts and catapulted firepots of sulphur and bitumen were used to defend Aquileia (northeastern Italy) when that city managed to hold off the long siege by the hated emperor Maximinus in AD 236 (his own demoralized soldiers slew him in his tent outside the city walls). Later, incendiary mixtures were packed inside the hollow wooden shafts of the bolts. Vegetius, a military engineer of AD 390, gives one recipe for the ammunition: sulphur, resin, tar, and hemp soaked in oil.

Ammianus Marcellinus (fourth century AD) described fire-darts shot from bows. Hollow cane shafts were skillfully reinforced with iron and punctured with many small holes on the underside (to provide oxygen for combustion). The cavity was filled with bituminous materials. (In antiquity, bitumen was a catchall term for petroleum products such as asphalt, tar, naphtha, and natural gas.) These fire-darts had to be shot with a weak bow, however, since high velocity could extinguish the fire in the shaft. Once they hit their target, the fire was ferocious. They flared up upon contact with water, marveled Ammianus, and the flames could only be put out by depriving the blaze of oxygen, by smothering it with sand.

The fire-dart sounds similar to the Chinese fire-lance, invented in about AD 900. This was a bamboo (later, metal) tube with one opening, packed with sulphur, charcoal, and small amounts of the “fire chemical” (explosive saltpeter or nitrate salts, a key ingredient of gunpowder). The tube was affixed to a lance with a kind of pump, which Crosby describes as “a sort of five-minute flame thrower.” At first, they “spewed nothing but flame,” but soon the Chinese added sand and other irritants like sharp shards of pottery and metal shrapnel, and many different kinds of poisons, such as toxic plants, arsenic, and excrement, to the saltpeter mixture. As Robert Temple, historian of ancient Chinese science, remarked, “Bizarre and terrible poisons were mixed together” to make bombs and grenades. “Practically every animal, plant, and mineral poison imaginable was combined,” for “there hardly seemed to be a deadly substance unknown to them.”

In India, a military manual by Shukra, the Nitishastra (dated to the beginning of the Christian era) describes tubular projectiles thrown by devices used by the infantry and cavalry. The tube, about three feet long, contained saltpeter, sulphur, and charcoal, with other optional ingredients, such as iron filings, lead, and realgar (arsenic). The tubes shot iron or lead balls by “the touch of fire” ignited “by the pressure of flint.” Shukra remarked that “war with [these] mechanical instruments leads to great destruction.”

Soviet ZhDT-3 rail torpedo

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The actual physical destruction of the tracks is not desirable when one intends to use them for one’s own trains, notably during the phase of an advance into enemy territory, which of course is not the case for guerrilla forces who do not operate trains. In the 1930s the Russian Army perfected a type of rail torpedo capable of destroying, or at least derailing, an enemy train. Hence the value of safety wagons at the front of trains.

Soviet ZhDT-3 rail torpedo, designed in the Podolsk factory in 1938. This simple, cheap `fire and forget’ device could cause considerable damage with its 100kg (220lb) explosive charge, launched at 50km/h (30mph) with a range of some 10km (6 miles). Although five examples of this device were issued to each armoured train in 1941, it is not known whether any were actually used in action. Its principal tactical drawback would have been that in `Barbarossa’, the Germans attacked using tanks, whereas the rail torpedo was most useful against enemy railway traffic, armoured or not, using the Russian broad gauge.

Armoured Rail Torpedo Projects by Louis Gregori

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Detail from Patent No 350.169, submitted on 28 May 1904, granted on 13 September 1904.

In 1904, this inventor proposed a `land torpedo’, inspired by naval torpedoes, propelled by a motor preferably powered by compressed air, and protected from rifle fire by a metal casing. The armament consisted of four `warheads’, which from the patent illustration appear to be large-calibre artillery shells with nose-mounted impact fuzes, covering four planes and intended to inflict all-round damage: to track, stations, platforms, enemy trains etc. The first shell exploding when its nose fuze struck a target – most likely the front one but one of the others could be activated if the enemy derailed the device – would then set off the remaining shells.