Qing and Opium Wars I


China specialists Peter Perdue and Frederic Wakeman have both suggested, in separate publications, that the Qing were, in a way, victims of their own success. The period of Qing conquest, consolidation, and expansion had been exceedingly violent, with devastating wars that wracked East and Central Asia and corresponded with a significant decrease in China’s population. But once the Qing had established its dominance, expanding China’s borders to their largest extent in history, it remained virtually unchallenged until the mid-nineteenth century. In those generations of relative peace, 1760 to 1839, military leaders in China had little need to focus on innovation or incorporate new methods and technologies from beyond East Asia. Korea and Japan were also generally at peace during this period. East Asians had access to the new technologies and techniques of war that were being forged on the other side of Eurasia, but they had few incentives to adopt or incorporate them on a significant scale.

The resulting military gap became clear to observers before the Opium War. In 1836, an anonymous British correspondent prepared a report about China’s military strength and concluded that if the art of war was the most “infallible criterion of the civilization and advancement of societies,” then China was in the lowest state of civilization. Its gunpowder was coarse, uneven, and liable to spoil. Its cannons were old-fashioned, with uneven bores and primitive carriages, “mere blocks of wood, or solid beds on which the gun is lashed down with rattans, so that it must be impossible to fire any but point blank shots, and very difficult to direct the gun to an object, except that immediately in front of the embrasure whence fired.” For firearms it had only “ill-made” matchlock muskets and no flintlocks, pistols, or any of the other “tribes of fire-arm.” In fact, he observed, China’s soldiers still relied heavily on the bow and arrow, which, given how poor the rest of their weapons were, was “the most efficient of their arms.”

Chinese defenses were, the reporter noted, mere “samples of fortification in its infant state; without fosses, bastions, glacis, or counter defences of any kind; being, in fact, but such lines as the engineers of a disciplined army would throw up, as temporary defences and to cover their guns, in the course of a single night.” Chinese naval vessels were so laughable that they were “beyond the power of description or ridicule to portray.” Indeed, the correspondent wrote, he wouldn’t be surprised if a couple of New Zealand war canoes wouldn’t outmatch the entire Chinese navy. (Charles Dickens would later describe a Chinese junk, which he saw at the Crystal Palace in 1848, as a “ridiculous abortion.”)

But it wasn’t just technology and engineering that the Chinese lacked. The reporter discerned a marked deficiency in military readiness. When garrison troops in Guangzhou mustered for duty, he wrote, they

come in, one by one, undressed, unarmed, unprepared, and half asleep; while piles of brown felt caps, and heaps of shabby looking red and yellow long jackets, bearing the character “courage” … are brought through the gates, for the adornment of the heroes of the hour; by and bye, straggles in an officer, generally the largest sized man that can be found; some bows, sheaves of arrows, and rusty swords, make up the warlike show; evidently got up for the nonce to astonish and awe “the barbarians,” who might, did they please, be in the governor’s harem before the guard could awake from their slumbers.

On occasion European travelers had observed that Chinese swords were so rusty that the soldiers could scarcely draw them.

At the end of his report, the correspondent expressed surprise himself at the extent of China’s military backwardness. “We have now gone through the subject which we sat down to discuss, and although we were well aware that the military force of the Chinese empire was much overrated, we rise astonished at the weakness, the utter imbecility.… It seems indeed strange that the whole fabric does not fall asunder of itself. Of this we are convinced; that, at the first vigorous and well directed blow from a foreign power, it will totter to its base.”

He was wrong about how much the Qing would totter, but modern research corroborates his views about Qing military capacity. Historians Liu Hongliang and Zhang Jianxiong have conducted an exhaustive and detailed comparison of Chinese and European guns circa 1840 and conclude, “At the time of the Opium War, the difference between British and Chinese cannon technology and capacity is an objective fact.… The British military had made innovations and improvements in all aspects—design, ammunition, powder technology, firing mechanisms, and especially in the quality of the iron, the production, the finishing and other such key technologies—such that their cannons’ range, speed of firing, accuracy, and lethality were superior to Qing cannons.” The Qing had not made such improvements. As Liu Hongliang notes in a different work, “At the time of the Opium War, the Qing military’s front-loading cannon form was the same type as that of seventeenth century Europe, and … the design hadn’t seen any kind of change.” Qing cannons were heavier, clumsier, slower to load and fire, and far less efficient in terms of powder use. Indeed, many of the cannons deployed in coastal forts were actually forged or cast in the seventeenth or early eighteenth century. To be sure there were local exceptions. Artisans in coastal regions—particularly in Guangdong Province—could produce more up-to-date ordnance based on Western models, but they were still not as effective as the advanced guns of Britain, and in any case they were outliers.

Modern research also shows that Qing infantry forces were also backward. Liu and Zhang note that troops “were equipped with sixty or seventy percent traditional weapons, of which the most important were the long lance, the side sword, the bow and arrow, and the rattan shield, and only thirty or forty percent [of their armament consisted of] gunpowder weapons, of which the most important were the matchlock musket, the heavy musket, the cannon, the fire arrow, and the earth-shaking bomb and such things.” The Qing matchlock musket was constructed according to a design that hadn’t changed much since the seventeenth century. (It’s interesting to note that Qing armies weren’t the only non-European forces clinging to matchlocks. They were still in use in the Levant and Iran, for example.)

European armies had long since switched to flintlocks, and the British were undergoing a transition to percussion cap muskets, which required no externally applied sparks at all. In contrast, the Qing matchlock guns were slow, unwieldy, and dangerous, as British observers noted with empathy and derision. “Every soldier,” wrote naval officer William Hutcheon Hall, “has to carry a match or port fire to ignite the powder in the matchlock when loaded. Hence, when a poor fellow is wounded and falls, the powder, which is very apt to run out of his pouch over his clothes, is very likely to be ignited by his own match, and in this way he may either be blown up at once, or else his clothes may be ignited; … it is therefore not surprising that they should regard the matchlock with some little apprehension.”

Many Qing soldiers preferred to fight the British with bow and arrow, a matchup that did not usually end well, as this same William Hutcheon Hall found to his good fortune. One of Hall’s subordinates records how a Chinese officer, “with cool determination and a steady aim, deliberately discharged four arrows from his bow at Captain Hall, fortunately without effect. Had they been musket-balls, however, he could scarcely have escaped. A marine instantly raised his musket at the less fortunate Chinese officer: the aim was unerring, and he fell.” Someone tried to rescue the fallen Qing officer, “for his coolness and courage,” but the attempt failed because “in the heat of an engagement it is impossible to control every man.”

Historians have suggested that Manchu leaders privileged the bow because of its traditional role in Manchu culture. Indeed, Manchu banner forces devoted more time to archery practice than to firearms practice. Moreover, the Manchu court at times actively suppressed firearms, reserving them for hunting and prohibiting their use by fishing boats and coastal vessels. Firearms were even restricted within the military itself, as when Qing leaders at times tried to prevent Han Chinese divisions from using the most powerful types of handguns, reserving them for Manchu units. Similarly, provincial officials were sometimes even discouraged from arming local militias with firearms, fearing that those militias might rebel. In 1778, for example, the Qianlong Emperor severely rebuked the governor of Shandong Province for training militia forces in firearms. Another provincial official was instructed to take his militia units’ muskets, “and exchange them for bows and arrows.” This sort of suppression was only possible because the Qing Pax was so complete, just as in Japan the Great Tokugawa Peace supposedly made it possible to “give up the gun.” The Qing didn’t give up the gun, of course, and we mustn’t exaggerate the suppression of firearms. Indeed, sometimes Qing officials actively stimulated firearms use, as for example in the early eighteenth century, when the Kangxi Emperor encouraged the casting of Western-style cannons to combat pirates.

Yet the problem for the Qing wasn’t just antiquated weapons; its forces also suffered from ineffective drill. Historians have found that by the early nineteenth century, China’s once vibrant tradition of drill had withered, becoming “highly formalized and ritualistic, with little attention given to practical problems of warfare.” In Beijing’s banner armies, for instance, it seems that musketeers drilled only five times a month, and although they did perform volley fire maneuvers, their exercises were, according to an American observer named Emory Upton, “mere burlesque of infantry drill.”

Upton describes how twelve hundred musketeers formed themselves into a dense column and awaited a signal from their officers, who were not even on the training field but sat under tents to the side. When the signal was given, the troops arranged themselves into lines, but “there was no order, nor step; the men marched in twos, threes, and fours, toward the line, laughing, talking, and firing their pieces in the air.” They shot and then, to the clamor of gongs, drums, and cymbals, faced to the rear and shot again. This was repeated by another unit, with heavy matchlocks, and then the drill was over and the men, “individually and in squads, wandered back to the city.” Emory Upton’s description is from 1877, by which time some forces in China had improved drilling techniques, adopting Western practices and revivifying those of the past (Qi Jiguang’s drilling manuals were an inspiration), but Upton’s account is just one of many that indicates the feebleness of Chinese drill in the nineteenth century. By the eve of the Opium War, drilling standards had fallen well below those of the early Qing, even as European drilling patterns had altered to suit the more effective weapons being produced in the West.

Qing military readiness on the eve of the Opium War can be summed up in an image from our anonymous British writer of 1836: a sword so rusty it couldn’t be removed from the scabbard. The Europeans, of course, hadn’t had the luxury of such tranquility and order. During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the period of the Great Qing Peace, Europeans had continued fighting each other. Their eighteenth century wasn’t as warlike as their seventeenth, but conflagrations regularly rocked the subcontinent—the War of Austrian Succession (1740–1748), the Seven Years’ War (1754–1763), and, most devastating of all, the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1792–1815), which convulsed Europe from Madrid to Moscow and provided a massive stimulus for European warcraft.

This warfare spurred rapid and continuing improvement in gunpowder and associated technologies, but geopolitical friction wasn’t the only underpinning of Europe’s Great Military Divergence. Equally important was a strong tradition of experimental science, whose roots lay firmly in the seventeenth century.

Qing and Opium Wars II


HMS Volage and HMS Hyacinth confront Chinese war junks at Chuenpee, 3 November 1839.


The British repulse the Chinese advance in the city.

Today many prominent historians downplay the role of science in the rise of the West, and the topic has aroused considerable discussion. As usual most of this debate has focused on economic history, and it’s been hard for either side to sway the other, largely because the links between science and economic growth are difficult to pin down for the period when the Great Divergence was opening up, to wit the 1700s.

But if the links between science and eighteenth-century economies remain unclear, there’s no doubt about the links between science and the eighteenth century military divergence. European advances in gunpowder manufacture and gun design were based on discoveries from experimental science, and those advances played a key role in the British victory in the Opium War.

Before the mid-eighteenth century, people did not understand some very basic things about guns and gunpowder. What was the precise relationship between the amount of gunpowder used, the shape of the barrel, and the velocity of a projectile of a given mass and size? How much air resistance did the projectile face once it exited the barrel, and how did that resistance affect the trajectory?

In the seventeenth century, Galileo and others had developed a theory of ballistics and put together tables to help artillerists—Galileo had even developed instruments for aiming cannons, which brought him significant income. Over the ensuing generations, others had refined these tables and instruments, but by the mid-eighteenth century these tools were still inaccurate, useful for a limited range and only in certain conditions.

In order to develop more effective models one needed to know how fast projectiles came out of guns. It wasn’t an easy problem. Enter Benjamin Robins (1707–1751). A disciple of Isaac Newton, Robins developed an instrument that transformed the science of guns: the ballistic pendulum. It was a tripod the height of a tall man with a heavy pendulum hanging down from it. On the pendulum was affixed a target. The experiment started with the pendulum at rest. When struck by a projectile, the pendulum swung upward. By measuring how high it went one could determine the projectile’s momentum, and using Newtonian models one could calculate its velocity.

The ballistics pendulum revolutionized gunnery. The most exciting findings had to do with the effect of air pressure on projectiles. Galileo had dismissed the effects of air pressure in his work on ballistics, and Newton, too, underestimated it, or, rather, expected that its effects were linear at increasing speeds. But Robins showed that air resistance was incredibly significant. Whereas then-current models predicted that a twenty-four-pound cannonball should, at the muzzle velocity Robins had measured, fly sixteen miles, in actuality it flew only three. Air resistance was thus much higher than expected. Even more surprising was the nonlinearity of the results. The higher the muzzle velocity, the greater the effect, with extreme drag as you approached the speed of sound. His research thus revealed a hitherto invisible threshold: the speed of sound, at which air resistance increased greatly. No one could have predicted this phenomenon. Only careful experiment could have revealed it.

Robins’s slim book, New Principles of Gunnery, was translated and emulated. The great Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler (1707–1783) produced a German edition with the support of the Prussian king Frederick the Great, converting Robins’s hundred fifty pages into more than seven hundred and providing even more complex equations, which took into account such factors as the rate of the gunpowder reaction itself (Robins had postulated an instantaneous expansion of gas) and the effects on barrel pressure of the gas that inevitably blew through the touchhole or past the projectile.49 The result was a set of equations of unprecedented efficacy, which were quickly adopted by artillerists to compute new ballistics tables. Robins in turn responded to Euler’s work, further refining his own, and all over Europe dozens of other scientists, mathematicians, and artillerists built on Robins and Euler’s models: the Irishman Patrick d’Arcy (working for France), the Piedmontese Papacino d’Antoni, the Frenchman Charles de Borda, the Englishman Charles Hutton, the Prussian Georg Friedrich Tempelhoff, the Austrian Georg Vega, and the Frenchman Jean-Louis Lombard, to name a few of the most important.

Their research programs were often sponsored by governments, and the governments were motivated by war. The War of Austrian Succession (1740–1748) stimulated ballistics research in Austria, France, Britain, and, perhaps most notably, the Piedmontese state, whose leader Charles Emanuel III sought advice from Robins himself (Robins advised him to employ low muzzle velocities). During and after the war, the Piedmontese used the ballistic pendulum and other instruments to produce data that led them to develop new guns that optimized muzzle velocity. They also developed a method to estimate muzzle velocity in the field, without instruments: fire projectiles into compacted earth and compare the depths of penetration to the depths produced by a calibrated musket that fired pellets at a known muzzle velocity.

The new ballistics science revolutionized gun design. Artillerists had generally believed that faster projectiles led to greater power. But the new science indicated that air resistance was such an important variable that it made sense in many cases to lower the power of guns, to attain the lowest possible muzzle velocity necessary for one’s objectives. This meant that cannons could be made smaller relative to projectile weight.

Robins himself put the principle into practice. Working with the Royal Navy, he developed a proposal for a new gun with short barrel and thin walls, which would use smaller charges of powder to fire heavy rounds at low velocities. The Royal Navy’s adoption of the carronade in the late eighteenth century was based on these ideas. And the carronade proved enormously useful. A short, light cannon used for close range antiship combat, it was far more destructive than traditional guns of the same size. Moreover, its rate of fire was also higher because its walls were thinner and cooled quickly. In addition, it was light enough to sit on a sliding carriage that absorbed recoil, which meant that it kept its aim after each shot, whereas cannons on traditional carriages had to be wheeled back into place and re-aimed. A carronade also required fewer hands to operate.

The carronade played a major role in the Opium War from the very first battle. In early November 1839, two British sailing vessels were confronted by a Qing fleet of sixteen warjunks and thirteen fireboats guarding the river passage to Canton. HMS Volage carried twenty-six guns, of which at least eighteen were carronades, and HMS Hyacinth carried eighteen guns, of which sixteen were carronades. Taking advantage of the carronades’ quick-fire capacities, they sailed in close and shot devastating broadsides, destroying six junks and throwing the rest into flight, except for the Qing flagship, which the British decided to stop shooting after a good barrage. The Qing ships had guns, but they were older-style cannons. The two British ships sustained little damage.

The carronade played a key role in nearly all subsequent naval battles. For instance, in January 1841 it helped the British capture three fortified islands that guarded the approaches to Guangzhou. The British vessels in the battles carried far more carronades than traditional artillery: the Algerine carried ten guns, of which eight were carronades; the Conway carried twenty-eight guns, of which twenty-six were carronades; the Herald carried twenty-eight guns, of which twenty-six were carronades; and so on. The Qing defenders were overwhelmed by the fast and powerful barrages. It’s not that they lacked cannons; it’s just that theirs were old-fashioned, difficult to aim and fire (although they had managed to obtain one or two carronades). Surveying the guns captured in one fortress, for example, British naval lieutenant John Bingham wrote, “The guns were very long Chinese twelve and twenty-four pounders, with the exception of two carronades, evidently old English ship guns.” He also noted that the gun carriages were primitive: “Their carriages were of the most ordinary description, only a few of them having trucks, the others being merely beds of wood on which the guns rested.” Carronades, able to hurl massive amounts of iron at close range, in rapid succession, and with relatively little powder, were a key armament of the war.

The new ballistics science also underlay the development of new field guns, which, like the carronade, were shorter, thinner-walled, faster, and far more portable than previous models. Small field guns and related guns called howitzers transformed land battles in Europe, and, like the carronade, played key roles in the Opium War. The most striking example—and the saddest—was the Battle of Ningbo in March 1842. The British had captured Ningbo several months before, in October 1841, and the Qing were determined to take it back. After long preparations, the Manchu nobleman Yijing (1793–1853) led thousands upon thousands of Qing troops to attack from two directions at once. They scaled walls and began pouring through gates.

A British force of a hundred men, armed with muskets, four field pieces, and a howitzer, opened fire. “The slaughter,” wrote one British participant, “was quite horrible; the mangled bodies lay in huge piles, heaped one upon another; and old Peninsular officers present declared that, the breach of Badajos alone excepted, they never in a similar small space saw such a mass of slain.” (The Siege of Badajoz of 1812 was one of the bloodiest battles of the Napoleonic Wars.) Another account notes that “the howitzer only discontinued its fire from the impossibility of directing its shot upon a living foe, clear of the writhing and shrieking hecatomb which it had already piled up.” In the Ningbo battles, the British decisively repulsed the most important Chinese offensive in the war, losing only twenty-five men. As Scottish surgeon Duncan MacPherson noted, “the salutary effect produced by the above engagements was very evident, no further molestation being offered to us during our occupation of this city.”

Not only were the new field guns and howitzers powerful. They were also able to be transported by human beings, whereas traditional cannons of equivalent power required teams of horses or oxen. Sometimes the new guns were even pushed on wheelbarrows, “it being easier with these to transport guns over the narrow paths which intersect the paddy grounds, and which present such continual difficulties to the movement of troops through the entire cultivated districts of this country.” In many cases, the British simply made use of China’s excellent roadways. On approaching Nanjing, for example, British lieutenant John Ouchterlony noted, “the road was so broad and straight, that a field-piece could be run along it with ease until within a short distance of the gates.” For cases in which there were no good roads or paths, some pieces, like mountain howitzers, could be disassembled and the parts carried separately.

The evolution of carronades and light field pieces wasn’t of course due to science alone. A multitude of formal and informal experiments played a role, as did new methods of casting and boring. But the new science of ballistics provided the theoretical and mathematical basis, and the Chinese had no equivalent knowledge. They were unprepared for the overwhelming advantage the British had in terms of firepower.

The British also excelled in accuracy, because the new ballistics revolutionized the calculation of trajectories and times to impact. Such calculations were highly technical, requiring trigonometry and calculus, and so in the course of the eighteenth century, European states had increasingly funded military education systems focusing on the mathematics of artillery, such as the Piedmontese Royal Artillery and Military Engineering Academy (established in 1739) and, even more famously, the artillery schools of France.

Qing and Opium Wars III


Second Battle of Chuenpi. The Nemesis (right background) destroying Chinese war junks in Anson’s Bay


The Nemesis and boats of the Sulphur, Calliope, Larne, and Starling destroying the Chinese war junks in Anson’s Bay, 7 January 1841.


British forces advancing in Chuenpi. The storming of the forts and entrenchments of Chuenpee on 7 January 1841.

The French artillery schools, particularly the Ecole Royale d’Artillerie, were famous not just for their exacting curricula, but also because of their alumni, most notably Napoleon Bonaparte. As a student, he took detailed notes on Robins and Euler, paying special attention to air resistance and the fact that Robins’s work showed one could make effective field guns by shortening barrels and decreasing weight. As a student he even conducted his own research into ballistics, writing a treatise on the use of standard cannons to fire mortar rounds. In fact, Napoleon so enjoyed his studies that he later said that if his military career hadn’t worked out he would have been content as a math professor. Some have suggested that his mathematical background may have been key to his wider success, giving him a scientific understanding of warfare. That may be overreaching, but there’s no doubt that his mastery of scientific ballistics helped him in battle. His field cannons decimated enemies in precisely the way that British field cannons would later annihilate Chinese forces.

The British refused to be outdone by the French and invested in their own military academies. An academy at Woolrich was established in 1741, to instruct “the raw and inexperienced People belonging to the Military Branch of this (Ordnance) Office, in the several parts of Mathematicks necessary to qualify them for the Service of the Artillery, and the business of Engineers.” Robins’s New Principles of Gunnery became the basis of the curriculum and was even used as a textbook.

As a result of such education, the British artillerists who fought in the Opium War were able to use ballistics models that took into account the expansion of gas in the gunpowder reaction, the loss of pressure due to the leaking of gas through touchholes and past projectiles, and the effects of wind resistance. The Qing gunners had no such resources. Renaissance ballistics models had been imported into China in the late sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries, and data from the Sino-Dutch War of 1661 to 1668 suggest that Chinese artillerists were as effective as the Europeans, perhaps more so. (As the Dutch governor of Taiwan once lamented, during an artillery battle, “The enemy … is able to handle his cannon so effectively.… They put our own men to shame.”) But in the mid-eighteenth century, while Europeans were experimenting with the ballistic pendulum, the Chinese were making no significant investigations into ballistics, and this gave the British an overwhelming advantage. In fact, Qing gun carriages usually didn’t even allow for easy rotation or changing elevation, whereas British guns had all manner of aiming devices.

But calculations weren’t just for aiming. They were also about timing. The new ballistics science revolutionized the use of explosive shells. Chinese and Europeans had fired explosive rounds for centuries, but thanks to the new science of ballistics—and to considerable experimental data concerning the speed at which fuses burned—European artillery officers were able to time the explosion of shells with unprecedented precision. Success was measured in hundredths of seconds. When firing mortars, for instance, the object was to make the shell explode just after it had landed. When firing against human targets, the shell needed to explode in the air above the enemies’ heads. The new artillery manuals contained detailed tables classified by gun type, size of gunpowder charge, and so on, and these tables could be used effectively only if one possessed the requisite mathematical training.

Like carronades and howitzers, explosive shells played a key role in the Opium War. In the Second Battle of Chuanbi, for example, shells were lobbed into a Chinese fort, exploding “with great precision … much to the astonishment of the Chinese, who were unacquainted with this engine of destruction.… The Chinese could not long withstand the fire of the 68-pounder of the Queen, and the two 32-pounder pivot-guns of the Nemesis, the shells from which could be seen bursting within the walls of the fort.” Field pieces also used exploding shells, especially the dreade howitzers, which, as we’ve seen, caused so much carnage in Ningbo that its handlers had to stop shooting because the corpses piled too high. Howitzers, placed in batteries and fired in concert, to deadly effect, are referred to repeatedly in British sources on the Opium War. In general, explosive shells were one of the technologies most marveled at by Chinese.

The ballistics revolution may have been the most important scientific advance of the eighteenth century as regards war, but it was far from the only one. Europeans also conducted research into gunpowder. Perhaps the greatest innovations came after 1783, when William Congreve the Elder (1742–1814) was placed in charge of gunpowder manufacture at England’s Royal Powder Mills. He conducted systematic experiments and built dedicated testing ranges, new saltpeter refineries, and special proving houses. Among his findings was the discovery that charcoal made in sealed iron cylinders produced superior powder. During the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, this “cylinder powder” gave British gunpowder a reputation as the best in the world, nearly twice as powerful as traditional powders and far less vulnerable to spoilage.

In contrast, in the 1830s the Chinese were still using the same methods for producing gunpowder that had been used in the early Qing period. The British recognized its inferiority. Lieutenant John Elliot Bingham captured some Chinese powder in 1841 and wrote that “though the proportions in Chinese powder are very nearly ours, it is a most inferior article.” He and his comrades threw several thousand pounds of it into the ocean. Sometimes the British condescended to use Chinese powder to blow up captured ships or forts, but even then it was found wanting.

Even as European powder got better, it got cheaper and more plentiful. The Napoleonic Wars created demand for gunpowder and attracted funding for new equipment and personnel, which William Congreve the Elder used to increase experimentation and production.

He died in 1814, but his son, William Congreve the Younger (1772–1828), continued the experiments. He developed a machine that mixed the ingredients of powder in the correct proportions and another machine that could granulate powder, with toothed rollers and filters that sorted granules by size.

He was also good at the main task that scientists face: gaining financial support. A tireless lobbyist, he made his case on the basis of warfare. Napoleon, he wrote, controlled realms that were so vast that Britain had to invest in technology to even the odds: “England has now, with ten millions of population, to wage war against ten times that number—what man can do, Englishmen will accomplish! But there is a limit to all physical force; and when the difference in number is so enormous, it is no disgrace to have recourse to every aid that human ingenuity can support. He, therefore, that strives to supply the deficiency of real power by mechanical combinations, cannot but deserve well of his country.”

Congreve the Younger was particularly excited by rocketry. His famous “Congreve rocket”—whose “red glare” features so prominently in the USA’s National Anthem—was actually inspired by Indian rockets. In the late eighteenth century, the Sultanate of Mysore, located in what is today southern India, fought against Britain in a series of conflicts known today as the Anglo-Mysore Wars (1767–1792). Although the British eventually prevailed, the sultanate’s forces proved effective, and among their weapons were large iron rockets, which the British began trying to copy. Congreve didn’t like to admit this. He merely noted, in an aside, that rockets were invented by some “heroes of Chinese antiquity.”

His rockets, however, were unusually effective. By means of experiments he improved their range, accuracy, and power, and he lobbied the Royal Navy to use them as a lighter alternative to shipborne mortars. He had to overcome skepticism. As one naval commander wrote, “Mr. Congreve, who is ingenious, is wholly wrapt up in rockets, from which I expect little success.” Yet Congreve had powerful patrons. The Prince of Wales himself read Congreve’s plans at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, a mock Mughal temple whose interiors were decorated with Chinese dragons, miniature pagodas, and paintings of mandarins in official robes. The prince ordered expensive sea trials. They didn’t go terribly well, but Congreve was persistent, and eventually his rockets were adopted by the Royal Navy.

They played a devastating role in the Opium War. In the Second Battle of Chuanbi (1841), for example, a Congreve rocket helped defeat a Chinese fleet of fifteen warjunks (or perhaps eleven, depending on which source you believe). A British participant later recalled the flying body parts:

One of the most formidable engines of destruction which any vessel … can make use of is the Congreve rocket, a most terrible weapon when judiciously applied, especially where there are combustible materials to act upon. The very first rocket fired from the Nemesis was seen to enter the large junk against which it was directed, near that of the admiral, and almost instantly it blew up with a terrific explosion, launching into eternity every soul on board, and pouring forth its blaze like the mighty rush of fire from a volcano. The instantaneous destruction of the huge body seemed appalling to both sides engaged. The smoke, and flame, and thunder of the explosion, with the fragments falling round, and even portions of dissevered bodies scattering as they fell, were enough to strike with awe, if not with fear, the stoutest heart that looked upon it.

The effect was so terrifying that everyone paused for a moment, frozen with shock. The Qing abandoned the rest of their ships. Thirteen warjunks were destroyed.

Congreve rockets were also useful on land. On 27 February 1841, they helped the British capture an island guarding the approaches to Guangzhou. One British account notes that “operations commenced by throwing a few rockets into … the … custom-house, situated at the entrance of the North Wang-Tong fort; and such was the precision with which these were directed, that the place was soon in a blaze of fire, which rapidly communicated with the encampment, and presented an animating and inciting appearance.” Again, the precision and destructive power of the rockets created shock and awe: “The panic created by the bursting of the shells and rockets, which were quite new to them, evidently threw them into great disorder. It was reported, and there is reason to believe with truth, that the Chinese officers abandoned the place at the first commencement of the firing, and ran down to their boats.” At nearly every major engagement in the war, rockets proved enormously effective, and, as a British account noted, “amused the enemy.”

Examples of Britain’s deadly use of rockets, carronades, field cannons, explosive shells, and howitzers abound in Opium War sources, and all of these weapons were based on experimental science. Robins’s ballistics revolution, which developed from the work of Newton, Boyle, and Bernoulli, and which was carried forward by Leonhard Euler and dozens of other scientists, mathematicians, and artillerists, represented a deep transformation in the understanding of how guns worked. The experiments were painstaking, the results far from intuitive. Without the experimental culture and heritage that made them possible, the knowledge would never have been won, and it turned out to be a very practical knowledge, which directly influenced the work of war makers. When British observers noted how bad Chinese guns were, or how poor at aiming the Chinese artillerists were, they were drawing a clear and objective contrast. British gunnery was based on experimental science. Chinese gunnery wasn’t.

To be sure, the Opium War was also decided by more typical tools of industrialization. The steamer Nemesis was the war’s workhorse, paddling against the wind and towing sailing vessels upriver. Nor was steam power the Nemesis’s only edge. It also had a very shallow draft. In the 1500s and 1600s, the Chinese had used shallow-draft vessels against the Dutch and Portuguese, outmaneuvering them by sailing on flats and shallows. Such tactics didn’t work against the Nemesis, which drew only five feet (one-and-a-half meters) with keel retracted. In the Second Battle of Chuanbi, for example (1841), a fleet of warjunks took refuge in shallows. She maneuvered right up to them, and when they tried fleeing into an even shallower channel, she simply towed them away from their moorings and destroyed them. One British officer records the words of some Chinese who watched the Nemesis maneuver where, at low water, they were accustomed to wade: “He-yaw! how can! My never see devil-ship so fashion before; can go all same man walkee.”

The Opium War was an industrial war: steamers like the Nemesis played key roles, and industrial manufacturing techniques helped make steel, bore cannon, and mix powder, even as they made those products cheaper. Nonetheless, it was the science developed by Robins and others that played the greatest part in Britain’s Great Military Divergence vis-à-vis China, combined, of course, with the fact that China had undergone a long period of relative peace.

But now that the Great Qing Peace had been overturned, how would the leaders, statesmen, and scholars of China react? In the Ming and early Qing periods, China had adapted quickly and effectively, maintaining parity with European powers. The nineteenth century proved more challenging.



The Brederode off Hellevoetsluis. This famous ship was built in 1644. Vice Admiral Witte de With commanded the Brederode for most of her career, with the exception of 1650–1654. From early 1652 until August 1653 the Brederode was Lt Adm Tromp’s flagship, but by July 1654 the Brederode was again Witte de With’s flagship. The first significant operation that involved the Brederode was the convoying of a large fleet of Dutch merchant ships through the Sound without paying the toll to Denmark, a mission that succeeded. The next major operation was not until the relief expedition sent to Brazil in late 1647 and that returned in the latter part of 1649. The undertaking was doomed to failure from the start, as the ships were unsupported and without the resources and political leadership necessary to rescue the Dutch situation in Brazil. For that operation, Witte de With seems to have commanded his own ship, with Jan Janszoon Quack as his lieutenant. After Witte de With was imprisoned on returning from Brazil, the Brederode was given to Lt Adm Tromp for use as his flagship. The original plan had been to send the Brederode to the Mediterranean in 1652, but Tromp’s illness kept the ship in home waters until the point when there seemed to be an imminent threat of war with England.


The Dutch warship building industry had considerable advantages over its competitors in neighbouring countries, notably England and France. It could build ships more cheaply and more rapidly, thanks to superior technology (such as wind-powered sawmills) and to the presence in the immediate vicinity of the shipyards of both a large skilled workforce and naval supplies of all sorts. Raw materials could also be obtained relatively easily. The Dutch obtained oak for warship hulls from Poland, as well as from Westphalia, Brandenburg, and other parts of Germany, with the timber being shipped via the Maas and Rhine to Dordrecht in the south or to Zaandam, Edam, Hoorn and Enkhuizen in the north. Pine for masts and yards came from Scandinavia, Pomerania, Prussia and Poland; iron from Spain, Sweden and the Harz mountains; hemp from Russia or Riga; tar from Russia and Sweden, particularly Vyborg; pitch from Stockholm. Sailcloth was traditionally imported from Brittany, but from about 1660 onwards it was produced locally, in the villages adjacent to the shipyards along the River Zaan.

Bythe end of the seventeenth century, though, the Dutch were falling behind their rivals. Stubborn adherence to old methods meant that, until nearly the end of the seventeenth century, ships were still being designed principally by rule of thumb – on ‘the eye and the judgement of the master shipbuilder’, as one contemporary put it – rather than employing plans and models that could permit the production of repeat designs. Amsterdam and Rotterdam built ships in entirely different ways, and to an extent to different dimensions: Amsterdam ships were built in the Scandinavian fashion, with the lower part of the hull built ‘shell first’, while those in Rotterdam were built ‘frame first’, with planking then added to the frame (although it is unclear when and why both shipbuilding centres adopted these different methods). All Dutch warships were characterised by relatively high, square sterns, elaborately decorated with symbols of national or provincial loyalties, such as the emblem of a lion rising from the sea that adorned Zeeland ships.

Size of Warships

The size of Dutch warships was constrained above all by the shallow waters off the Dutch coast and in the approaches to the republic’s harbours. This also dictated hull form: Dutch ships were flatter-bottomed, and thus had a shallower draught, than their contemporaries in other countries. Until the 1590s, the republic operated ships that generally displaced less than 100 tons, and had few of more than 200. Seventeen much larger ships, planned to blockade Spanish ports, were built between 1599 and 1601, including two that displaced well over 1000 tons (or, by the measurement in use at the time – for which, see below – about 500 lasten). This experiment with very large ships was repeated in the early 1620s, but the ships in question were transferred to the VOC and no more vessels on a similar scale were then built for the Dutch navy until the 1650s and 1660s. Instead, the Dutch concentrated on smaller units, displacing roughly 300-700 tons, which were more suitable for convoying.91 The contrast with England was marked: When average sizes are considered, the discrepancy is even more marked. In 1620, the average displacement in tons of English warships of over 100 tons was 830; the equivalent figure for Dutch warships was 270. The gap closed in later years, but even by 1650 the figures were 680 and 470 respectively, and when the first Anglo-Dutch war began in 1652, the British state had at least eighteen warships that were larger than anything the Dutch could send to sea. The comparatively small nature of Dutch warships is well illustrated by Maarten Tromp’s two famous flagships: the Aemilia, from which he flew his flag during the Battle of the Downs, mounted 57 guns, while her slightly larger replacement, the Brederode, had a gundeck length of about 40 metres, mounted between 53 and 59 guns, and had a crew of 270. By contrast, the English Sovereign of the Seas, as first built in 1637–8, was over 51 metres long on the gundeck, was initially fitted for 102 guns, and, when she faced the Brederode, had a nominal crew of 700.

Increasing the size of Dutch warships encountered both geographical and political obstacles. When the decision was taken to order large new ships in 1652, Maarten Tromp proposed building vessels of at least 150 feet in length, but the Amsterdam Admiralty objected to anything longer than 140 feet, claiming, entirely spuriously, that this was the maximum size that could traverse the Pampus shoals which restricted access to its own harbour. Consequently, the new rounds of warship building which commenced in 1654–5 concentrated on larger ships, initially to ‘Charters’ of 130, 136 and 140 feet in length; the only exceptions that were permitted, following tortuous debate in the States-General at the end of 1652, were the 150-foot-long Eendracht, the new fleet flagship, and the Groot Hollandia, flagship of the Admiralty of the Maas. Even so, the great majority of these new ‘large’ ships were actually of a size roughly equivalent to the Fourth Rates under the British flag, with the two fleet flagships being about the same size as small Second Rates; there was still no equivalent at all of the vast First Rates that existed across the North Sea, like the Sovereign and the Naseby (later renamed Royal Charles) of 1655.

By 1664–5, however, Amsterdam’s objections had been over-ruled by experience, and orders were being placed for ships of between 145 and 170 feet, much closer in scale to those available to King Charles II and his Royal Navy. During the 1660s the Dutch added ten ships displacing 1400-1600 tons and mounting 72–84 guns, such as the Amsterdam-built Dolfijn of 1667, and another twenty of 1100 tons, mounting 60–74; it was a remarkably large and rapid programme of construction, which finally put the republic’s battle fleet on the same footing as those of its rivals. The dramatic change in Dutch warship size can also be seen when comparing average sizes, where the republic had lagged so badly for so long. In 1670, the average size of the 129 largest warships of the Dutch navy, measured by average displacement in tons, was 790, while the figure for Charles II’s navy was only marginally ahead at 810 (although both were now eclipsed by the French navy, which was dominated by large prestige vessels and had an average displacement of 950 tons). All of these larger vessels built for the Dutch navy from the early 1660s onwards were ordered by, and to the specification of, the States-General; however, the individual admiralties also continued to order smaller warships on their own accounts. Regardless of where they were built, the increase in size led to tremendous increases in cost, with obvious implications for the finances of the Admiralties and of the republic as a whole. A typical warship of 1632 cost some 19,000 to 22,000 guilders; the Eendracht, the flagship blown up during the Battle of Lowestoft in 1665, cost 60,000 guilders.


The constraints of Dutch coastal waters meant that even the largest of the new ships built in the 1660s were still only two-deckers carrying 80 guns, well short of the 100 or more on the largest English (and, increasingly, French) ships of the line; the Dutch finally began to build three-deckers with a complete upper gun deck in the 1680s. But simple numbers of guns provide a deceptive picture, for Dutch ordnance was also on a very different scale to that available to its enemies. In 1666, for example, the largest British ships carried cannon-of-seven which fired 42-pounder shot, while many others carried 32-pounder demi-cannon. By contrast, the Dutch had very few guns that fired more than 24-pound shot, so their broadsides were inevitably weaker than those of their opponents (even when one takes into account the fact that the two countries had different pound weights, as described below). Thus the new British 64-gun Third Rates Rupert and Defiance could fire at least 1334 pounds of shot, probably rather more, whereas the five Dutch 70-gunners built at roughly the same time could fire only between 924 and 1054 pounds. This was partly a result of the Netherlands’ inability to produce sufficient ordnance, notably the brass guns favoured by the English, and partly a deliberate consequence of different tactical conceptions. English shipwrights and admirals favoured packing in as many guns as possible with minimal freeboard, while the Dutch preferred higher freeboard, greater manoeuvrability, and a continued emphasis on boarding over artillery duels. The British regularly brought Dutch prizes into their own navy, but the Dutch found some of the larger prizes that they took during the Anglo-Dutch wars unsuitable both for service in their own waters and for their conception of how to fight a naval war: the Royal Charles, famously towed away from Chatham during the Medway raid in 1667, was simply laid up at Rotterdam until broken up in 1673. However, the Swiftsure, taken during the Four Days’ Battle of 1666, carried a large number of the brass guns which the republic lacked, so she was swiftly commissioned into the Dutch navy as the Oudshoorn.

Until about 1648, the most common shot weights employed by the Dutch were of 5, 10, 15 and 20 pounds. Thereafter, the standard weights were 3, 4, 6, 8, 12, 18, 24 and 36 pounds, although these figures are deceptive. For one thing, the Dutch ‘pound’ was not equivalent to that used for English ordnance: the Amsterdam pound was 494.1 grams, compared with its English equivalent of 453.6. Moreover, many guns were captured from foreign ships or purchased abroad: hence, perhaps, the 5-pounders carried prior to 1648 (possibly English-made sakers) and the 7-pounders carried by Zeeland hired ships in 1652, which were originally captured from the Spanish. As noted above, the Dutch were heavily dependent on importing ordnance, with many iron guns being supplied from the foundries at Finspång in Sweden that were run by the Walloon expatriate Louis de Geer. Shortages led to desperate expedients, such as stripping coastal fortifications and city walls of their artillery in order to fit out the ships. It also meant that, until the 1670s, the Dutch were rarely able to arm their larger ships with uniform tiers; instead, they mounted a smaller number of the largest guns on their lower decks, mixed with some of the next highest shot weight.

The Middelburg, Veere,Dordrecht and Vlissingen, all built by the Zeeland Admiralty in 1654-5, were designed to carry four brass 24-pounders, ten iron 18-pounders, four brass 12-pounders, eight iron 12-pounders, ten iron 8-pounders, and eight brass 6-pounders. The practice of mixed batteries (which, it must be said, was not exclusive to the Dutch) continued in some cases until the end of the century, with, for example, the Beschermer of 1691 carrying a mixture of 36- and 24-pounder guns on her lower gundeck.

Frigates, Galleys and Other Types of Warship

By the 1620s, the Dunkirkers were introducing relatively small, low-hulled, but broad and fast, warships that were given the name ‘frigates’. The Dutch swiftly emulated these, although the definition of the word ‘frigate’ changed over the years (as it did in Britain). By the late seventeenth century, the term was being applied to ships of between 20 and 36 guns, with one continuous gun deck; these were distinguished from the ships of the line with two or three gun decks, which were divided into four Charters that corresponded approximately to the Royal Navy’s First to Fourth Rates. The Dutch made some use of galleys during the Revolt, and in 1600 built the Black Galley of Dordrecht, a relatively large vessel with nineteen oars to each side and fifteen guns; this became famous, even in England, after taking part in a successful attack on Antwerp (7 November 1600). The republic’s galleys were discarded either before or at the truce in 1609, although one seems to have still been in existence at Schiedam into the 1630s. Other types of vessel included the hoy, the fluyt (which proved unsatisfactory when employed as a warship), the crommesteven (‘cromster’ to the English; a ketch, used extensively in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries), and the jacht, or yacht, which was used as a despatch boat and for other purposes. The Dutch also made considerable use of fireships. Tromp used them to good effect at the Battle of the Downs in 1639, where they fired the Portuguese flagship Santa Teresa. The most spectacular success came during the Battle of Solebay in 1672, when the fireship Vrede of the Maas Admiralty fastened herself to the Royal James, flagship of the Earl of Sandwich, Vice-Admiral of England. The great ship was destroyed, and Sandwich and somewhere in the region of four or five hundred men perished.

Military Glasnost


The Krasnoyarsk radar was designed for ballistic missile detection and tracking, including ballistic missile early warning, and violated the 1972 ABM Treaty. It was not located within a 150-kilometer radius of the national capital (Moscow) as required of ABM radars, or was it located on the periphery of the Soviet Union and pointed outward as required or early warning radars. It was 3,700 kilometers from Moscow and is situated some 750 kilometers from the nearest border – Mongolia. Moreover, it was oriented not toward that border, but across approximately 4,000 kilometers of Soviet territory to the northeast.
The Soviet Union claimed that the Krasnoyarsk radar was designed for space tracking, rather than ballistic missile early warning, and therefore does not violate the ABM Treaty. Its design, however, was not optimized for a space tracking role, and the radar would, in any event, contribute little to the existing Soviet space tracking network. Indeed, the design of the Krasnoyarsk radar was essentially identical to that of other radars that were known – and acknowledged by the Soviets – to be for ballistic missile detection and tracking, including ballistic missile early warning. Finally, it closed the last remaining gap in Soviet ballistic missile detection coverage. The Krasnoyarsk radar, therefore, was constructed in direct violation of the ABM Treaty.

By late 1988 and early 1989, just as Bush was taking office, Gorbachev may have reached the zenith of his powers as a leader. It would have been an ideal time to seize the initiative and lock in a 50 percent cut in strategic weapons, as well as reductions in other systems, such as tactical nuclear weapons. A strategic arms treaty also might have been easier because Bush was not dazzled by Reagan’s grand dream of a defense against ballistic missiles that had proven so contentious in earlier years. But Bush hesitated.

In Moscow, Gorbachev’s room for maneuver soon began to shrink. The forces of freedom and openness he had unleashed began to overtake him, creating obstacles and open resistance: new forces of democracy at home; a sweeping tide of change in Eastern Europe; the reawakening of old nationalist dreams in the Soviet republics. On March 26, the first relatively free election since the Bolshevik Revolution was held for a new Soviet legislature, the Congress of People’s Deputies. In the balloting, the Communist Party leadership in Leningrad was turned out, pro-independence parties won in the Baltics and Yeltsin, the radical reformer, triumphed in Moscow. The Communist Party establishment took a shellacking. When the new legislature met for the first time from May 25 through June 9, Gorbachev ordered the proceedings broadcast on television. People stayed home from work to watch the broadcasts; the country was transfixed by debates that broke new ground in freedom of speech. One result was that Gorbachev, the party, the KGB and the military were lambasted with open and often trenchant criticism. The virus of freedom seemed to be spreading fast.

In China, Gorbachev’s visit in May brought the student protests for democracy in Tiananmen Square to a new level of intensity. They were suppressed by the massacre a few weeks later. Across Eastern Europe, ferment spread, especially in Hungary and Poland, where the Solidarity movement came out from the underground and won in the elections to parliament. On July 7, Gorbachev affirmed to leaders of the Warsaw Pact that the Soviet Union would not intervene to stop the juggernaut, and they were free to go their own way. During the same week, Akhromeyev, in his new capacity as an adviser to Gorbachev, had a remarkable tour of U.S. military installations during which he and Admiral William Crowe, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, openly debated how to end the arms race. Bush’s trip to Poland and Hungary in July exposed him to the torrent of change there. In his diary, Chernyaev captured the madness and the drama of these months. “All around Gorbachev has unleashed irreversible processes of ‘disintegration’ which had earlier been restrained or covered up by the arms race, the fear of war …” he wrote. Socialism in Eastern Europe is “disappearing,” the planned economy “is living its last days,” ideology “doesn’t exist any more,” the Soviet empire “is falling apart,” the Communist Party “is in disarray” and “chaos is breaking out,” he wrote.

In September, Shevardnadze flew with Baker on the secretary’s air force plane to a meeting in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. In a long talk on the flight, Shevardnadze drove home to Baker the urgency of Gorbachev’s problems at home, especially the forces of disintegration pulling the republics away from the center. Baker had not realized in the spring that Gorbachev’s situation was so precarious and the window of opportunity was closing. “Our CIA was way, way behind the curve,” he said. Baker recalled the first hints came only that summer, and by September, on the flight to Jackson Hole, it “really became obvious.” One concrete outcome of the Baker and Shevardnadze meeting in Wyoming was an agreement to exchange data about chemical weapons stockpiles. However, the Soviet Union did not disclose the secret research on the new binary weapon, the novichok generation.

Chernyaev called 1989 “The Lost Year.” It was also the beginning of the crack-up. A gargantuan superpower was starting to come unglued, with nuclear, chemical and biological weapons strewn across the landscape.

As authority weakened in the Soviet Union, secrets leaked out of the military’s most carefully guarded citadels. Velikhov, the progressive physicist and Gorbachev’s adviser, personally exposed some of them in another amazing glasnost tour. In July, he brought a group of American scientists, led by Cochran of the Natural Resources Defense Council, to the Black Sea to conduct a verification experiment involving a Soviet cruise missile, armed with a nuclear warhead, on a navy ship. It was rare for Americans to get so close to a Soviet weapon. The point was to determine if radiation detectors could spot the presence or absence of a nuclear warhead. While some theoretical studies had been done, the experiment offered a chance to check the radiation detectors against a real weapon. The question was important because of the larger debate at the time about whether there could be effective verification of sea-launched cruise missiles. The United States claimed it was impossible to verify nuclear warheads on naval cruise missiles, and insisted they should be left out of the negotiations on strategic arms. The Soviets wanted to count them—and limit them—because of the American advantage. Velikhov wanted to pierce the veil of secrecy, in hopes it would reduce the danger of the arms race, just as he had done in 1986, bringing Cochran to the secret Semipalatinsk nuclear-testing site, and again in 1987 to the disputed Krasnoyarsk radar. This time, the KGB tried to stop Velikhov, but Gorbachev overruled them.

On a sunny July 5, 1989, the Americans, joined by a group of Soviet scientists, lugged their radiation detectors aboard the Slava, a 610-foot Soviet cruiser at Yalta on the Black Sea. At that moment, the ship held a single SS-N-12 nuclear-armed cruise missile, NATO code-named “Sandbox,” stored in the forward, exterior starboard launcher. The Soviets were so nervous about the visit that they had rehearsed it for weeks. They feared the Americans might learn too much about the design of the warhead. The sea was a sparkling blue, and Cochran wore shorts, a baseball cap and a T-shirt as he and his team wrestled the test equipment onto the missile tube to measure the radiation. The evening before the experiment, the Soviets had insisted that, by the plan, the Americans could take only a very short reading, but Cochran got a longer one and plenty of data. Soviet scientists carried out their own tests, too. In one extraordinary glasnost moment, the hatch was opened and the Americans took photographs of the dark, menacing tip of the cruise missile, lurking just inside the cover.

No sooner were the scientists back in Moscow on July 7 than Velikhov bundled them off to the airport to see another secret installation. They flew 850 miles east to Chelyabinsk-40, near the town of Kyshtym, a nuclear complex built in Stalin’s day, where reactors had churned out plutonium for nuclear weapons. The complex was top secret, but when Velikhov appeared at the gates, they swung open. “It was the first time foreigners were in a town whose whole existence was to destroy America,” Velikhov recalled. Von Hippel, the Princeton professor who had known Velikhov since the early 1980s, said that Velikhov wanted the Americans to see a plutonium reactor being shut down, fulfilling a promise Gorbachev had made earlier. After the tour, “We had a fairy-tale-like dinner on an island in the middle of this lake, with a long table with white tablecloth and silver laid out under the birch trees,” Von Hippel remembered. Boris Brokhovich, the seventy-three-year-old director of Chelyabinsk-40, stripped naked and plunged into the lake. Several of the Americans then followed him. Not far from the lake was the scene of a devastating accident more than three decades earlier, when a storage tank exploded, throwing 70–80 metric tons of waste containing 20 million curies of radioactivity over the surrounding area. The total release of long-lived fission products, almost comparable to Chernobyl, had contaminated thousands of square kilometers. The accident, September 29, 1957, was hushed up for decades, but revealed after the Soviet collapse.

The last stop on Velikhov’s glasnost tour was the most daring, the one he had first suggested to the Central Committee, and which they had rejected: the Sary Shagan laser test site. This was the facility the Reagan administration claimed “could be used in an anti-satellite role” and might also be used for missile defense. It was the subject of the ominous illustration in Soviet Military Power showing a beam shooting straight up into the heavens. The Soviet leadership knew the claims were untrue but had been embarrassed to admit it. Velikhov brought the Americans to see for themselves on July 8. Von Hippel quickly realized the U.S. claims had been vastly exaggerated. “It was sort of a relic,” he said of the lasers he saw there, which were the equivalent of industrial lasers, easily purchased in the West. There was no sign of the war machine the Reagan administration had conjured up. “These guys had been abandoned, a backwater of the military-industrial complex. It was from an earlier time. It was really pitiful.” The one “computer” consisted of transistor boards wired together—built before the personal computer. “They had been trying to see whether they could get a reflection off a satellite,” he recalled. “They never succeeded.”

Velikhov’s campaign for openness paid one of its most surprising dividends in 1989, when the Soviet leadership finally admitted that the Krasnoyarsk radar was a violation of the ABM treaty, as Katayev’s candid internal spravka had indicated in 1987. Shevardnadze acknowledged the treaty violation in a speech to the Soviet legislature, and claimed, “It took some time for the leadership of the country to get acquainted with the whole truth and the history about the station.” This was a dubious claim, since Shevardnadze had signed a document laying out the issues two years before. The larger point was clear, however. Gorbachev was coming clean.

German WWII Motorcycles

In 1938-39 the German Army were using a number of mainly civilian designed motorcycles taken into service. An example of this type was the NSU 201 ZDB ‘Light Motorcycle’ which was powered by a single cylinder two-stroke engine of 200cc. It produced 7hp and had a four speed, hand changer gearbox running on slim 3.00 x 19 tyres. Along with the lighter bikes were a number of heavier bike-sidecar combinations which steadily took over in production. The NSU 201 ZDB was only produced for about a year and yet NSU were soon to be engaged in producing one of the most unusual motorcycle projects of the 39-45 war –


Kleines Kettenkraftrad Type HK 101, Sd.Kfz.2 – ‘The Kettenkrad’

Originating from German pre-war experimentation the motorcycle hybrid known more commonly as ‘the Kettenkrad’ proved a popular vehicle on all fronts from North Africa to Russia with German Forces. It was a concept that came from the mind of Heinrich Ernst Kniepkamp in June of 1939, and the concept was developed further in trials by the NSU Motorenwerk company culminating in a production model of this small tracked motorcycle. Variants of the Kettenkrad were produced from 1940 throughout the war and continued until 1948. At first viewing, it does look like a motorcycle of sorts, but its purpose was intended to fulfil personnel and ammunition transportation rather than the despatch carrying and recce roles assigned to the heavy bike-sidecar combinations. Its first trials proved it to be a successful line layer, and so early production models (Sd.Kfz.2/1 & Sd.Kfz. 2/2) were fitted with brackets to hold telephone wire wound on drums. It could pull a small two wheeled trailer, and even towed the smaller anti-tank guns, often being used in difficult terrain to re-supply troops with ammunition and rations. Therefore it is probably most closely related to the allied Bren Carrier types in its actual intended field use. The Kettenkrad had excellent off-road ability, a range of 150 miles on one tank, climbing a 1-in-1 sloped terrain, with a wading ability of 18 inches in depth. The rider operated it from a rather exposed position however, and was seated between two fuel tanks! Rider comfort came in the form of a large padded pan saddle, and cushioning rubber pads were fitted to the interior of the bulkhead to protect his knees when traversing rough terrain. He was also able to provide transport for two passengers who sat at the rear of the vehicle on a rearward facing bench seat, their weapons stowed in vertical rifle racking, but close to hand. Officers needing to inspect front line positions would often jump aboard for a bumpy if assured tour of their forward defences.

However, study of the photographs of Kettenkrads in this chapter also suggest some of the problems encountered in this design when it was utilised in the arduous conditions of modern warfare, and there were plenty. It was un-armoured and unarmed for starters making it and its riders vulnerable to small arms’ fire in frontline positions. The front forks were the weakest part in the vehicle’s construction. On paved roads it did ride well, but the whole assembly was weakened by excessive cross-country use and would fracture, breaking away from the rest of the bodywork. The remedy for this was at first to strengthen the original spoked wheel, with a hardier solid version as seen in this chapter, and very soon removal of the wheel completely was the instruction given to riders when taking their vehicles cross-country for long periods. The wheel of course was not required for steering, as the track mechanisms worked as they did in tanks, braked left and right by a turn of the handlebars. This instruction even featured in later captured riders’ manuals. At the same time NSU were working on producing a sturdier front fork arrangement and investigating losing the front handlebar arrangement altogether. There was also the question of training riders to operate the Kettenkrad which required most skill cross country. Smaller turns could be made by using the conventional handlebars and the 19 inch diameter front wheel. Simply after applying the turn, a linkage would engage which connected to the front drive sprockets of the tracks. This applied differential braking common to wartime tracked vehicles. With some skill and variation of the turning of the handlebars the rider was thus able to control the turning radius. With one track totally locked up he was able to squeeze out a 12 foot turning circle, but with a high centre of gravity and across uneven terrain this sort of manoeuvre was hair-raising at the very least! On tarmac it was also incredibly loud, clattering along and certainly could not be used in a stealthy environment on the battlefield. The Kettenkrad with crew of three weighed one and a quarter tons, and could travel on tarmac at speeds up to 40mph powered by its Opel 1500cc water cooled engine. The engine had originated from the pre-war Opel Olympia saloon car, but was now mounted centrally in the Sd.Kfz. 2/1 & 2/2. A few of these remarkable machines survived the war into museum captivity and private ownership and they are always guaranteed to provide an interested crowd when fired up at the many restored military vehicle shows which take place around the world!


German forces were also famous for their use of bike sidecar combinations. In 1935 BMW began work on their R12 model. Intended as a touring design for the civilian market it featured for the first time on any bike telescopic front forks with hydraulic damping. The German motorcycle industry had long been prepared for the outbreak of worldwide conflict lead by innovation created in the world of motor sport. BMW, DKW and NSU competed in the 500cc racing class in the late 1930s, and in the smaller 250cc DKW dominated. Underlying these sporting successes was the propaganda pushing the image of Germany as world leader. On the home front in Germany large numbers of smaller motorcycles were being produced and made available to the public and thus in return the nation was gaining a populace experienced at both riding and maintaining these machines. In 1938 further preparations were stepped up with the rationalisation of manufacturing industries. The multiple motorcycle types and variants on offer numbered somewhere in the region of 150 and these were reduced to just 30 types; the array of engines on offer were standardised so that just a few were offered to power these thirty models. Many manufacturers had the type of motorcycle they would produce enforced upon them, but parts production saw the greatest reduction in surplus labour effort and over-complication. Items such as saddles, number plate stamping plants, and electric horns were reduced to a single design type of which chosen companies were allowed to produce. The process was successful, simplifying the stores management, the re-supply of parts quickly, and allowing saved funding to be redirected into the war effort elsewhere.

Like all the participants of the Second World War, the German army’s views towards two-wheeled warfare also covered several trends. Commencing the war with a vast majority of solo machines, from two-stroke torobust flat twins paired with sidecars a change of preference occurred after 1940. A move then leant toward the complex and expensive BMW and Zundapp combinations in the mid-war period but with industry pressed by the Allied bombing campaigns production of these machines was phased out through 1944 and Germany returned to production of 125cc and 350cc machines in the last year of the war, DKW being the sole German manufacturer to continue motorcycle production between 1939-1945. The following images depict the broad range of machines in use with the German Army in WW2.

The Tornado Bomb


Zippermeyer Wirbelwind Kanone.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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