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


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


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.

Exocet in Stanley


Exocet – Land-based firing by MM38 battery at Hooker’s Point, near Stanley, that hit and damaged HMS Glamorgan 12th June. Stanley airfield in the background. DANIEL BECHENNEC

By this time the general intelligence assessment was that Argentina had accepted that the military defence of the Falklands was inevitable and that Great Britain must be dragged to the negotiating table by staging a high-profile incident, for instance targeting HMS Hermes or Invincible. But the Argentinian Navy had lost the maritime battle. Strengthening its military presence on West Falkland to threaten San Carlos and sandwich the British between Stanley and West Falkland with the airborne Strategic Reserve was another option. The Air Force had sufficient transport with its C-47s Dakotas, F-27 Fellowships and C-130 Hercules for a mass drop. The Navy could help with its three L-188 Electras, as could the Army with its three G-222 transports. But the Air Force could not guarantee a lengthy period of air superiority unless the two British aircraft carriers were neutralized, either by the weather or attack.

Soon after the start of British attacks on 1 May the Argentine Navy evaluated the possibility of installing an Exocet surface-to-surface system at Stanley to deter the Royal Navy from bombarding military positions. Transporting a shipboard system would take at least forty-four days and when a simple system needed to be devised, an engineering officer, Commander Julio Perez, and two civilians were tasked to come up with a solution, which they did within ten days. Christened the ‘Do-It-Yourself Firing Installation’, Perez’s development consisted of a generator, supporting hardware and two ramps for the Exocet box launchers all mounted on two trailers. The launchers themselves were cannibalized from two of Argentina’s A-69 corvettes. Perez’s team designed a firing sequence from a box with four telephone switchboard switches; these were manual to save time. Each had to be thrown in specific order timed by a stopwatch. This land-based system was ready in mid-May, but an attempt to fly it and Perez to Stanley on 24 May was thwarted by British air activity. Eventually, in early June, the system was landed, but by this time very wet weather had set in and since there was a danger of the Firing Installation trailer becoming bogged down in the mud, a short stretch of the tarmac road between the town and airport was selected as the firing point. Each night at 6pm the system was dragged from beneath camouflage netting and placed behind a 16-foot high bunker. It had to be ready by 8.30pm when British ships tended to begin their bombardments. The Air Force Westinghouse radars with the 2nd Air Surveillance and Control Group swept a 60-degree arc to the south of Stanley Common for long-range search. The Army provided fire control with its AN-TPS 43 Early Warning radar. Three Exocet missiles were sent. The first one proved to be defective, the second was wasted when a connection to the transformer was incorrectly fitted and veered to the right, as opposed to the left. The third was more successful.

On the night of 27/28 May a large projectile hurtled across the flight deck of HMS Avenger while she was on the gun line south of Port Harriet and out of range of conventional artillery. It was then correctly assessed that Argentina might well have installed an Exocet system on the Falklands and to minimize the risk, Rear-Admiral Woodward created a 25-mile sanitized circumference from the suspected launch pad that no ship was to enter. It is significant that Exocet is a sea-skimming missile and therefore it is suggested that the Argentinians would have some difficulty hitting anything to the west because of the landmass. The problem for the Royal Navy was that Exocet was a weapon widely used by NATO and consequently a counter-measure had not been developed. The sinking of HMS Sheffield and the Atlantic Conveyor led to some Royal Navy commanders becoming pre-occupied with it almost to the exclusion of risk-taking.

Four more missiles arrived by C-130 during the night of 5 June, but it was not until about 2.35am on the night of 12 June that a target presented itself. At 2.15am HMS Avenger and the County-class destroyer HMS Glamorgan had both completed the night’s mission of providing naval gunfire support to 3rd Commando Brigade attacking Mount Longdon, Two Sisters and Mount Harriet and left to return to the Carrier Battle Group. Unfortunately for her Commanding Officer of HMS Glamorgan, Captain Michael Barrow, his destroyer clipped the sanitized area and when her radar footprint was detected by the Exocet launch team, a missile launched. Originally mistaking it for a 155mm shell, HMS Avenger recognized the radar configuration to be an Exocet and the target to be HMS Glamorgan. Barrow held his fire and then, when the missile was within a mile and half, he opened up with a Seacat but missed. However, the incoming missile was deflected sufficiently upward to miss the hull of the destroyer, but it slithered across the pitching deck into the hangar and exploded. Burning fuel from a wrecked Wessex helicopter spilled down a hole in the deck into the galley area, causing a major fire, and a fireball ripped into the gas turbine gear room. An officer, six air maintenance crew, four chefs, a steward and a marine engineer, totalling thirteen men, were killed and fourteen injured. Very many of those ashore witnessed the glow of the missile and the tiny explosion on the horizon as the Exocet exploded. Although HMS Glamorgan had an 8-degree list from the weight of water needed to fight the fires, she maintained a steady 18 knots and remained fully operational in spite of the damage.

Japan’s interest in acquiring German uranium


Johann Heinrich Fehler’s U-234.

Japan’s interest in acquiring German uranium was fueled by necessity. Early efforts to locate deposits of uranium within the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere had revealed only marginal amounts of usable ore; the Japanese army’s procurement director, Gen. Kawashima Toranosuke, recalled that upon witnessing the minuscule amount of uranium produced by the promising Kikune mine in Korea, he “wanted to cry.” Meanwhile, in Europe, Germany had acquired substantial stocks of uranium oxide through the seizure of over 1,000 tons of uranium oxide ore from the Union Minière warehouse in Belgium as well as rich ore deposits in Czechoslovakia. Japan’s wartime industry needed uranium oxide for the extraction of radium, and Japanese physicists also required the ore for experimentation with isotope separation and uranium enrichment. Therefore, on 7 July 1943, Japanese Imperial Army headquarters in Tokyo requested that the Japanese attaché in Berlin, Oshima Hiroshi, approach the Germans concerning “the possibility of exporting to Japan pitchblende (uranium) from the Czechoslovakia region.”

In September, Oshima notified Tokyo that negotiations with the Germans into the matter were progressing, but he needed a statement “showing [uranium’s] importance for purposes of study.” This was an alarming demand; Japanese officials were not used to revealing the exact reasons for their requests. Dr. Nishina Yoshio, Japan’s director of nuclear research, confided to his assistant Kigoshi Kunihiko that he did not wish to disclose his plans for using the uranium to the Germans, who would not stand for Japanese competition in the field of nuclear research. Nishina was investigating isotope separation and uranium enrichment and, if successful, would require substantial amounts of uranium oxide. His need for uranium was critical, and he did not want to jeopardize one of the few sources from which he could obtain the precious ore; any scarcity of uranium would bottleneck his research. Kigoshi suggested that Nishina tell the Germans that the uranium would be used as a catalyst for chemical reactions, thus diverting suspicions that Japanese research rivaled that of Germany. Convinced that the Germans would believe this story, Nishina authorized the formal request and forwarded it to the Japanese War Ministry.

Germany did indeed possess impressive quantities of uranium oxide, and a good deal of the ore was stored at Kiel. German naval munitions experts had discovered that the heavy atomic weight of the substance rendered uranium oxide ideal for the coating of large-caliber naval guns; later in the war the Luftwaffe followed suit and began using the ore in the manufacture of missile warheads. The clamor for uranium oxide for this use was so great that by 1943 the munitions industry’s requests for the ore competed with those of Germany’s atomic researchers in Berlin. Metallic uranium plates, vital for the construction of experimental atomic piles, became a rarity; German uranium suppliers such as Auer and Degussa often explained missed shipments by complaining that the military hoarded most of the readily available stocks of metallic uranium. While it is not difficult to imagine that Germany could have arranged uranium oxide shipments to Japan upon request, it is extremely doubtful that German military and armament officials would have parted with valuable metallic uranium. As a result, most experts agree with Dr. Helmut Rechenberg of the Max Planck Institute for Physics that, given the depleted capacity of German industry to produce metallic uranium during the late war years, it can be assumed “with great certainty that the uranium material [aboard U-234] was not metal but oxide.”

On 15 November, Japan’s Vice Minister of War J. Tory directed Oshima to obtain 100 kilograms (221 pounds) of uranium oxide and forwarded Nishina’s cover story that the ore would be used “as a catalyst in the manufacture of butanol.” Five days later Oshima reported that the Germans possessed substantial quantities from which they would able to supply the requested uranium and “its by-products at present.” However, Oshima was confused as to how much was required; he informed Tokyo that although the latest messages had requested 100 kilograms, “this is an error of one ton compared with the quantity [previously] mentioned. Therefore, please be advised that we will order one ton.”

In Berlin, Oshima forwarded the request to Maj. Kigoshi Yasukazu—who, coincidentally, was the brother of Nishina’s assistant Kigoshi Kunihiko—and directed him to acquire the uranium from the Germans. However, Reich officials viewed the request with suspicion. They did not believe that the Japanese intended to use the uranium solely for chemical experiments or the manufacture of butanol, and therefore refused to ship the ore. This reluctance infuriated General Kawashima, who sent an angry memorandum to German officials revealing that Japan actually desired the uranium for atomic research. In a footnote to his cable Kawashima admonished the Germans for their lack of solidarity and compliance with the Tripartite Alliance, asking, “What is going on here that you don’t want to cooperate?”

Kawashima’s indignation, and Oshima’s considerable diplomatic talents, finally persuaded Berlin to acquiesce. In late 1943 Germany agreed to ship the uranium oxide to Japan via two Japanese submarines. Kigoshi Yasukazu, who coordinated the uranium oxide acquisition, accompanied both consignments to Kiel and supervised the loading of both submarines. The initial shipment, which departed Kiel on 30 March 1944, was lost en route to the Far East when its conveyance submarine, Ro-501, was sunk. However, what happened to the second shipment remains somewhat of a mystery. Kigoshi himself could not verify the fate of the submarine. According to some reports, the boat never left Germany. However, in a May 1945 Associated Press interview, Adm. Jonas Ingram, commander of the U.S. Navy’s Atlantic Fleet, revealed that during the summer of 1944 two Japanese submarines were engaged by American forces off the coast of Iceland. One of these submarines was sunk; the other was only damaged and subsequently escaped. Both submarines had been attempting to access the Atlantic via the Iceland-Faroes passage, the traditional route of U-boats deploying from the North Sea to the Atlantic; it is therefore likely that these two submarines were Ro-501 and her sister boat, both of which had sortied from Kiel. In addition, in a 1953 article in the Japanese journal Dai-horin, Japanese army major Yamamoto Yoichi claimed that in 1944 Japan did receive 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) of uranium oxide from Germany by submarine. On the basis of this evidence, it appears that the 1943 uranium oxide request was loaded on board Japanese submarines at Kiel, and at least part of the original one ton arrived in Japan in late 1944.

Japan eventually developed reserves of uranium oxide throughout the various territories under its dominion. However, increased requirements from the scientific and military communities soon put a strain on this inventory. In 1944 the Japanese Army Air Technical Department (JAATD) initiated the extraction of 500 kilograms of uranium oxide from the Kikune mine in Korea; however, by the time serial mining began, the JAATD had already requested an additional 500 kilograms. In mid-1944 the Imperial Japanese Navy also asked the Ministry of Munitions for 500 kilograms of uranium oxide. And at the Kyûrikagaku kenkyûjo (Physics and Chemistry Research Institute) in Tokyo, where Dr. Nishina and Kigoshi Kunihiko were attempting to enrich uranium, the dearth of resources had prompted Nishina to request a consignment of uranium as well. Japan’s inventory being of neither the quantity nor the quality to meet these requirements, Germany once again received a request for help from its Axis partner.

In December 1944 Oshima received the request in Berlin and subsequently relayed it to officials of Germany’s overseas-shipping authority, the Marinesonderdienst-Ausland (MSD). MSD officials worked with Kigoshi Yasukazu to coordinate the logistics of gathering the uranium and delivering it to Kiel for loading onto one of three submarines scheduled for departure to Japan in the spring of 1945. In addition, the Marine Sonderstabsweigstellebeinat (Special Naval Home Substation Branch) in Kiel dispatched the MSD’s Commander Becker to various facilities throughout southern Germany to determine “what and how much was to be included in the cargo.” By February 1945 the procurement was complete, and Major Kigoshi met MSD officials in Kiel to organize and oversee the loading of 560 kilograms of uranium oxide onto the next submarine mission to Japan, Johann Heinrich Fehler’s U-234.

The loading of U-234’s uranium oxide is described in Wolfgang Hirschfeld’s memoirs. Hirschfeld stated that each container, “possibly steel and lead, nine inches along on each side and enormously heavy,” was inspected and labeled by the two Japanese passengers, Tomonaga and Shoji. The containers were then delivered to a loading party under the direction of Lt. (jg) Karl Pfaff and lowered into one of the (forward) vertical mine shafts. Hirschfeld also recalled that in addition to Pfaff, Tomonaga, and Shoji, Major Kigoshi was quayside at Kiel, directing the loading of “ten cases of uranium oxide” into the bowels of U-234.

Much of the confusion surrounding U-234’s cargo of uranium oxide arises from conflicting accounts of how the ore was handled once it arrived in America. In Portsmouth most of U-234’s cargo was immediately unloaded, processed, and dispersed to various facilities for testing and evaluation; however, the uranium oxide remained aboard the submarine for a time while American authorities pondered exactly how to dispose of it.

Cdr. Alexander W. Moffat, the surface unit commander of the Eastern Sea Frontier’s Northern Group, was present at U-234’s unloading. In his memoir Moffat stated that the uranium oxide was removed from the submarine the week following her arrival in Portsmouth. He claimed that “the first items to come ashore were the two saddle tanks [which had been] burned free of the deck by welders.” Once the saddle tanks had been secured on the dock, “technicians removed a sample of the contents for laboratory analysis. . . . It seemed to be an odorless granular powder. . . . Word soon spread that the saddle tanks contained uranium.”

The account Hirschfeld gave in his own memoir is vastly different from Moffat’s. Hirschfeld claimed that the uranium was not unloaded until July, when he witnessed six cargo containers lifted from the forward mine shafts and deposited on the dock. Once ashore, the tubes were examined by men “carrying small hand appliances,” which, Hirschfeld was informed, were Geiger counters. Apparently the six containers “were contaminated to such an extent with radiation” that the exact location of the uranium could not be determined. To aid in locating the uranium, Hirschfeld recalled, ONI officials decided to commandeer Karl Pfaff, who had directed U-234’s loading in Kiel.

The disparity between Moffat’s and Hirschfeld’s testimony cannot be easily explained away; in any case, it is certain that Pfaff played an important role in the navy’s disposition of the uranium. Although originally interned in the holding facility at Fort George G. Meade in Maryland, Pfaff had been transferred to the army’s interrogation facility at Fort Hunt in Alexandria, Virginia. On 27 May the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations alerted Portsmouth to information regarding U-234’s cargo that had come to light during Pfaff’s interrogation at Fort Hunt. Pfaff had disclosed that he had been in charge of the cargo in Kiel, both preparing the manifest and personally supervising the loading of all mine tubes. Pfaff had further informed his captors that they should ensure, when unloading the submarine, that the “long containers [were] unpacked in horizontal position and short containers in vertical position,” and he declared himself “available and willing” to aid in the unloading should the ONI desire his help. A return 28 May memorandum from Portsmouth to the CNO reported that the containers had already been unloaded and that Portsmouth was awaiting a CNO directive whether to open the containers there or ship them to Washington for disposition. In reference to Pfaff’s offer of help, the 28 May memorandum also specified that “Pfaff should be available where containers are opened.”

Although Germany and Japan were further advanced in their nuclear programs than first suspected, it is unlikely that the Axis partners had developed a critical-mass reactor or applicable bomb program by the spring of 1945. Stanford University professor Dr. David Holloway points out that in May 1945, when the NKVD’s Gen. Avraamii Zaveniagin’s Soviet scientific mission arrived in Germany to investigate the German atomic program, they found that German scientists “had not separated uranium-235, nor had they built a nuclear pile; nor had they progressed very far in their understanding of how to build an atomic bomb.” The devastation of war at home, the scarcity of essential raw materials, the lack of an extensive government-supported scientific infrastructure, and the absence of a substantial economic and industrial framework all combined to hinder progress. Germany simply could not compete with the United States.

Although the extent of Axis atomic research may not yet be fully understood, U-234’s consignment of uranium oxide was not indicative of any large-scale Axis program, nor did it provide American authorities with any substantial windfall of unique value. Richard Thurston correctly observes that “there is no reason to believe that [U-234’s cargo] contained any elements not readily available to the U.S. and British teams working at Los Alamos and other places.” In all probability, U-234’s cargo was examined, analyzed, and shipped to whichever department needed it; likely destinations might include reactor development, military use, or medical or research purposes. Or maybe, as Thurston offers, tongue in cheek, the cargo is “stored intact in the same cave in Kansas as the Ark of the Covenant.” In any event, U-234’s uranium oxide will continue to mystify and to spark debate. When the big Type XB slipped below the surface of the North Atlantic for the last time in 1947, she left an enduring legacy as one of the continuing controversies of World War II.




Albert Einstein signed the letter. Years later he would regret it, calling it the one mistake he had made in his life. But in August 1939, Adolf Hitler’s armies already occupied Czechoslovakia and Austria and his fascist thugs were arresting Jews and political opponents throughout the Third Reich. Signing the letter seemed vital. His friends and fellow physicists, Leo Szilard and Eugene Wigner, had drafted the note he would now send to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The scientists had seen their excitement over the recent breakthrough discoveries of the deepest secrets of the atom turn to fear as they realized what unleashing atomic energies could mean. Now the danger could not be denied. The Nazis might be working on a super-weapon; they had to be stopped.

In his famous letter, Einstein warned Roosevelt that in the immediate future, based on new work by Szilard and the Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, “it may become possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium, by which vast amounts of power and large quantities of new radiumlike elements would be generated.” This “new phenomenon,” he said, could lead to the construction of “extremely powerful bombs of a new type.” Just one of these bombs, “carried by boat and exploded in a port, might very well destroy the whole port together with some of the surrounding territory.” The Nazis might already be working on such a bomb. “Germany has actually stopped the sale of uranium from Czechoslovakian mines, which she has taken over,” Einstein reported. He urged Roosevelt to speed up American experimental work by providing government funds and coordinating the work of physicists investigating chain reactions.

Roosevelt responded, but tentatively. He formed an Advisory Committee on Uranium to oversee preliminary research on nuclear fission. By the spring of 1940, the committee had allocated only $6,000 to purchase graphite bricks, a critical component of experiments Fermi and Szilard were running at Columbia University. In 1941, however, engineer Vannevar Bush, the president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington and the president’s informal science advisor, convinced Roosevelt to move faster. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill also weighed in, sending the president new, critical studies by scientists in England.

The most important was a memorandum from two German refugee scientists living in England, Otto Frisch and Rudolph Peierls. From their early experiments and calculations, they detailed how vast the potential destructive power of atomic energy could be—and such power’s military implications. Their memo to the British government estimated that the energy liberated from just 5 kilograms of uranium would yield an explosion equal to several thousand tons of dynamite.

This energy is liberated in a small volume, in which it will, for an instant, produce a temperature comparable to that in the interior of the sun. The blast from such an explosion would destroy life in a wide area. The size of this area is difficult to estimate, but it will probably cover the center of a big city.

In addition, some part of the energy set free by the bomb goes to produce radioactive substances, and these will emit very powerful and dangerous radiations. The effects of these radiations is greatest immediately after the explosion, but it decays only gradually and even for days after the explosion any person entering the affected area will be killed.

Some of this radioactivity will be carried along with the wind and will spread the contamination; several miles downwind this may kill people.

The scientists concluded:

If one works on the assumption that Germany is, or will be, in the possession of this weapon, it must be realized that no shelters are available that would be effective and that could be used on a large scale. The most effective reply would be a counter-threat with a similar bomb. Therefore it seems to us important to start production as soon and as rapidly as possible.

They did not, at the time, consider actually using the bomb, as “the bomb could probably not be used without killing large numbers of civilians, and this may make it unsuitable as a weapon for use by this country.” Rather, they thought it necessary to have a bomb to deter German use. This was exactly the reasoning of Einstein, Szilard, and others.

Soon after the Frisch-Peierls memo circulated at the highest levels of the British government, a special committee on uranium, confusingly named the MAUD committee for a British nurse who had worked with the family of Danish physicist Niels Bohr, began assessing the two scientists’ conclusions. The MAUD report on “Use of Uranium for a Bomb” would have an immediate impact on the thinking of both Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt in the summer and fall of 1941. It concluded that a “uranium bomb” could be available in time to help the war effort: “the material for the first bomb could be ready by the end of 1943.” Upon meeting with Vannevar Bush and learning of the MAUD committee’s dramatic conclusions on October 9, 1941, Roosevelt authorized the first atomic bomb project.

Bush, then head of the newly formed National Defense Research Committee, asked Harvard President James Conant to direct a special panel of the National Academy of Sciences to review all atomic energy studies and experiments. Though Bush’s committee recommended the “urgent development” of the bomb, the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor gave other conventional military concerns greater precedence. It was not until a year later that work began in earnest.

The Manhattan Project, formally the “Manhattan Engineering District,” was created in August 1942 within the Army Corps of Engineers. The laboratory research now became a military pursuit, in part to mask its massive budget. Brigadier General Leslie Groves assumed leadership of the project in September 1942 and immediately accelerated work on all fronts. Historian Robert Norris says of Groves, “Of all the participants in the Manhattan Project, he and he alone was indispensable.”

Groves was the perfect man to direct the massive effort needed to create the raw materials of the bomb, having just finished supervising the construction of the largest office building in the world, the new Pentagon. He needed to find a partner who could mobilize the scientific talent already engaged in extensive nuclear research at laboratories in California, Illinois, and New York. At the University of California at Berkeley, Groves met physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer for the first time and heard his plea for a laboratory purely devoted to work on the bomb itself. Groves thought Oppenheimer “a genius, a real genius,” and soon convinced him to head the scientific effort. Together they chose a remote southwestern mesa as the perfect site for the greatest concentration of applied nuclear brainpower the world had ever seen.


When the young scientists recruited for the Manhattan Project moved into the stark buildings of Los Alamos, New Mexico, surrounded by barbed wire, they understood that they would be working on a top-secret project that could win the war. Most knew that they were there to build the world’s first atomic bomb, but didn’t know much more beyond that. To bring everyone up to speed, physicist Robert Serber gave five lectures in early April 1943 on the scientific and engineering challenges ahead. His lecture notes, mimeographed and given to all subsequent arrivals, became knows as The Los Alamos Primer. Today, it still serves as a valuable guide to the essentials of an atomic bomb.

Serber got right to the point: “The object of the Project is to produce a practical military weapon in the form of a bomb in which the energy is released by a fast neutron chain reaction in one or more of the materials known to show nuclear fission.”

The discovery of fission was new, but the idea of the atom goes back to the early Greek thinkers. In about 400 BCE, Democritus reasoned that if you continuously divided matter, you would eventually get down to the smallest, undividable particle, which he called an atom, meaning “uncuttable.” By the beginning of the twentieth century, scientists realized the atom had an internal structure. In 1908 Ernest Rutherford discovered that atoms had a central core, or nucleus, composed of positively-charged protons, surrounded by the negatively charged electrons detected by J. J. Thompson eleven years earlier. In 1932 James Chadwick discovered that there were particles equal in weight to the proton in the nucleus, but without an electrical charge. He dubbed them neutrons. This led to the atomic model that we are familiar with today, of an atom as a miniature planetary system, with a nucleus of hard, round balls of protons and neutrons with smaller electron balls orbiting around.

Familiar, but not quite right. Danish physicist Niels Bohr, among his many other contributions, found that a large nucleus behaved more like a water droplet. His insight led to a breakthrough discovery in 1939. German scientists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman, working with physicist Lise Meitner, had been bombarding uranium, the heaviest element found in nature, with neutrons and observing the new elements that seemed to form. Uranium has an atomic number of 92, meaning it has 92 protons in its nucleus. The scientists thought that the neutrons were being absorbed by the uranium atoms, producing new, man-made elements, but chemical analysis indicated that this was not the case. When Meitner and physicist Otto Frisch applied Bohr’s water droplet model to these experimental results, they realized that under certain conditions the nucleus would stretch and could split in two, like a living cell. Frisch named the process after its biological equivalent: fission.

Three events happen during fission. The least important, it turns out, is that the uranium atom splits into two smaller atoms (usually krypton and barium). Scientists had finally realized the dream of ancient alchemists—the ability to transform one element into another. But it is the other two events that made the discovery really interesting. The two newly created atoms weigh almost exactly what the uranium atom weighed. That “almost” is important. Some of the weight loss is attributable to neutrons flying out of the atom. These are now available for splitting other, nearby uranium nuclei. For every one neutron that splits a uranium nucleus, two more, on average, are generated. Splitting one nucleus can, under the right conditions, lead to the splitting of two additional nuclei, then four, then eight, on up. This is the chain reaction that can start from a single neutron.

The third event is the real payoff. Each fission converts a small amount of the mass of the atom into energy. The first scientists to discover fission applied Einstein’s famous formula, E = mc2, and quickly realized that even this small amount of matter m multiplied by the speed of light squared c2 equals a very large amount of energy E.

Energy at atomic levels is measured in electron volts. Normal chemical reactions involve the forming or breaking of bonds between the electrons of individual atoms, each releasing energies of a few electron volts. Explosives, such as dynamite, release this energy very quickly, but each atom yields only a small amount of energy. Splitting a single uranium nucleus, however, results in an energy release of almost 200 million electron volts. Splitting all 2,580,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 (2.58 trillion trillion) uranium atoms in just one kilogram of uranium would yield an explosive force equal to ten thousand tons of dynamite. This was the frightening calculation behind the Frisch-Peierls memo and Einstein’s letter to Roosevelt. One small bomb could equal the destructive force of even the largest bomber raid.





Understanding these calculations was the easy part. There wasn’t any great “secret” to atomic energy (and there isn’t now). Physicists at the time in the United States, Great Britain, Russia, Germany, Italy, and Japan all quickly grasped the significance of nuclear fission. The hard part, and this is still true today, is producing the materials that can sustain this chain reaction. Some concluded that the material could not be made, or at least not made in time to affect the course of the war. Others disagreed—among them the influential authors of the MAUD committee report. The crucial difference in the United States was not superior scientific expertise but the industrial capability to make the right materials. Groves used this capability to build by the end of the war the manufacturing equivalent of the American automobile industry—an entirely new industry focused on creating just one product.

To understand the challenge the United States faced then, and which other nations who want nuclear weapons face today, we have to delve a little deeper into atomic structures. Ordinary uranium cannot be used to make a bomb. Uranium, like many other elements, exists in several alternative forms, called isotopes. Each isotope has the same number of protons (and so maintains the same electric charge) but varies in the number of neutrons (and thus, in weight). Most of the atoms in natural uranium are the isotope U-238, meaning that they each have 92 protons and 146 neutrons for a total atomic weight of 238. When an atom of U-238 absorbs a neutron, it can undergo fission, but this happens only about one-quarter of the time. Thus, it cannot sustain the fast chain reaction needed to release enormous amounts of energy. But one of every 140 atoms in natural uranium (about 0.7 percent) is of another uranium isotope, U-235. Each U-235 nucleus has 92 protons but only 143 neutrons. This isotope will fission almost every time a neutron hits it. The challenge for scientists is to separate enough of this one part of fissile uranium from the 139 parts of non-fissile uranium to produce an amount that can sustain a chain reaction. This quantity is called a critical mass. The process of separating U-235 is called enrichment.

Almost all of the $2 billion spent on the Manhattan Project (about $23 billion in 2006 dollars) went toward building the vast industrial facilities needed to enrich uranium. The Army Corps of Engineers built huge buildings at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to pursue two different enrichment methods. The first was gaseous diffusion. This process converts the uranium into gas, then uses the slightly different rates at which one isotope diffuses across a porous barrier to separate out the U-235. The diffusion is so slight that it requires thousands of repetitions—and hundreds of diffusion tanks. Each leg of the U-shaped diffusion plant at Oak Ridge was a half-mile long.

The other system was electromagnetic separation. Again, the uranium is converted into a gas. It is then moved through a magnetic field in a curved, vacuum tank. The heavier isotope tends to fly to the outside of the curve, allowing the lighter U-235 to be siphoned off from the inside curve. Again, this process must be repeated thousands of times to produce even small quantities of uranium rich in U-235. Most of the uranium for the bomb dropped on Hiroshima was produced in this way.

Both of these processes are forms of uranium enrichment and are still in use today. By far the most common and most economical method of enriching uranium, however, is to use large gas centrifuges. This method (considered but rejected in the Manhattan Project) pipes uranium gas into large vacuum tanks; rotors then spin it at supersonic speeds. The heavier isotope tends to fly to the outside wall of the tank, allowing the lighter U-235 to be siphoned off from the inside. As with all other methods, thousands of cycles are needed to enrich the uranium. Uranium enriched to 3–5 percent U-235 is used to make fuel rods for modern nuclear power reactors. The same facilities can also enrich uranium to the 70–90 percent levels of U-235 needed for weapons.

There is a second element that can sustain a fast chain reaction: plutonium. This element is not found in nature and was still brand-new at the time of the Manhattan Project. In 1940, scientists at Berkeley discovered that after absorbing an additional neutron, some of the U-238 atoms transformed into a new element with 93 protons and an atomic weight of 239. (The transformation process is called beta-decay, where a neutron in the nucleus changes to a proton and emits an electron.) Uranium was named after the planet Uranus. Since this new element was “beyond” uranium, they named it neptunium after the next planet in the solar system, Neptune. Neptunium is not a stable element. Some of it decays rapidly into a new element with 94 protons. Berkeley scientists Glenn Seaborg and Emilio Segré succeeded in separating this element in 1941, calling it plutonium, after the next planet in line, Pluto.

Plutonium-239 is fissile. In fact, it takes less plutonium to sustain a chain reaction than uranium. The Manhattan Project thus undertook two paths to the bomb, both of which are still the only methods pursued today. Complementing the uranium enrichment plants at Oak Ridge, the Project built a small reactor at the site and used it to produce the first few grams of plutonium in 1944. The world’s first three large-scale nuclear reactors were constructed that year in just five months in Hanford, Washington. There, rods of uranium were bombarded with slow neutrons, changing some of the uranium into plutonium. This process occurs in every nuclear reactor, but some reactors, such as the ones at Hanford, can be designed to maximize this conversion process.

The reactor rods must then be chemically processed to separate the newly produced plutonium from the remaining uranium and other highly radioactive elements generated in the fission process. This reprocessing typically involves a series of baths in nitric acid and other solvents and must be done behind lead shielding with heavy machinery. The first of the Hanford reactors went operational in September 1944 and produced the first irradiated slugs (reactor rods that had been bombarded with neutrons) on Christmas Day of that year. After cooling and reprocessing, the first Hanford plutonium arrived in Los Alamos on February 2, 1945. The lab had gotten its first 200 grams of U-235 from Oak Ridge a year earlier and it now seemed that enough fissile material could be manufactured for at least one bomb by August 1945.

The Manhattan Project engineers and scientists had conquered the hardest part of the process—producing the material. But that does not mean that making the rest of the bomb is easy.


The two basic designs for atomic bombs developed at Los Alamos are still used today, though with refinements that increase their explosive yield and shrink their size.

In his introduction lectures, Robert Serber explained the basic problem that all bomb designers have to solve. Once the chain reaction begins, it takes about 80 generations of neutrons to fission a whole kilogram of material. This takes place in about 0.8 microseconds, or less than one millionth of one second. “While this is going on,” Serber said, “the energy release is making the material very hot, developing great pressure and hence tending to cause an explosion.”

This is a bit of an understatement. The quickly generated heat rises to about 10 billion degrees Celsius. At this temperature the uranium is no longer a metal but has been converted into a gas under tremendous pressure. The gas expands at great velocity, pushing the atoms further apart, increasing the time necessary for neutron collisions, and allowing more neutrons to escape without hitting any atoms. The material would thus blow apart before the weapon could achieve full explosive yield. When this happens in a poorly designed weapon it is called a “fizzle.” There is still an explosion, just smaller than designed and predicted.

Led by Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific teams developed two methods for achieving the desired mass and explosive yield. The first is the gun assembly technique, which rapidly brings together two subcritical masses to form the critical mass necessary to sustain a full chain reaction. The second is the implosion technique, which rapidly compresses a single subcritical mass into the critical density.

The gun design is the least complex. It basically involves placing a subcritical amount of U-235 at or around one end of a gun barrel and shooting a plug of U-235 into the assembly. To avoid a fizzle, the plug has to travel at a speed faster than that of the nuclear chain reaction, which works out to about 1,000 feet per second. The material is also surrounded by a “tamper” of uranium that helps reflect escaping neutrons back into the bomb core, thus reducing the amount of material needed to achieve a critical mass.

The nuclear weapon that the United States dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945, was a gun-type weapon. Called “Little Boy,” the gun barrel inside weighed about 1,000 pounds and was six feet long. The science was so well understood, even at that time, that it was used without being explosively tested beforehand. Today, this is almost certainly the design that a terrorist group would try to duplicate if they could acquire enough highly enriched uranium. The Hiroshima bomb used 64 kilograms of U-235.15 Today, a similar bomb could be constructed with approximately 25 kilograms, in an assembled sphere about the size of a small melon.

Gun-design weapons can use only uranium as a fissile material. The chain reaction in plutonium proceeds more rapidly than the plug can be accelerated, thus causing the device to explode prematurely. But plutonium can be used in another design that uniformly compresses the material to achieve critical mass (as can uranium). This is a more complex design but allows for a smaller device, such as those used in today’s modern missile warheads. The implosion design was used in the first nuclear explosion, the Trinity test at Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945, and in the “Fat Man” nuclear bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, on August 9, 1945.

The implosion method of assembly involves a sphere of bomb material surrounded by a tamper layer and then a layer of carefully shaped plastic explosive charges. With exquisite microsecond timing, the explosives detonate, forming a uniform shock wave that compresses the material down to critical mass. A neutron emitter at the center of the device (usually a thin wafer of polonium that is squeezed together with a sheet of beryllium) starts the chain reaction. The Trinity test used about 6 kilograms of plutonium, but modern implosion devices use approximately 5 kilograms of plutonium or less—a sphere about the size of a plum.

By Spring 1945 the Los Alamos scientists were franticly rushing to assemble what they called the “gadget” for the world’s first atomic test. Although they had spent years in calculation, the staggering 20-kiloton magnitude of the Trinity explosion surpassed expectations. Secretary of War Henry Stimson received word of the successful test while accompanying President Truman at the Potsdam Conference. At the close of the conference, Truman made a deliberately veiled comment to Stalin, alluding to a new U.S. weapon. The Soviet premier responded with an equally cryptic nod and “Thank you.”

Back in the U.S. the wheels were in motion, and the first atomic bomb, “Little Boy,” was on a ship headed to Tinian, an island off the coast of Japan. In the months leading up to Trinity, top government officials had selected targets and formed a policy of use. The eight-member Interim Committee, responsible for A-bomb policy and chaired by Stimson, concluded that “we could not give the Japanese any warning; that we could not concentrate on a civilian area; but that we should seek to make a profound psychological impression on as many of the inhabitants as possible . . . [and] that the most desirable target would be a vital war plant employing a large number of workers and closely surrounded by workers’ houses.” On August 6, 1945, Little Boy exploded with a force of 15 kilotons over the first city on the target list, Hiroshima.


To this day, the decision to drop the bomb on Japan remains controversial and historians continue to dispute the bomb’s role in ending the Pacific war. The traditional view argues that Truman faced a hellish choice: use the bomb or subject U.S. soldiers to a costly land invasion. Officials at the time did not believe that Japan was on the verge of unconditional surrender, and the planned land invasion of the home islands would have resulted in extremely high casualties on both sides. The months preceding the atomic bombings had witnessed some of the most horrific battles of the war in the Pacific, with thousands of U.S. troops dying in island assaults. Historians Thomas B. Allen and Norman Polmar write:

Had the invasions occurred, they would have been the most savage battles of the war. Thousands of young U.S. military men and perhaps millions of Japanese soldiers and civilians would have died. Terror weapons could have scarred the land and made the end of the war an Armageddon even worse than the devastation caused by two atomic bombs.

Immediately after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there was significant moral backlash, expressed most poignantly in the writings of John Hersey, whose gripping story of six Hiroshima residents on the day of the bombing shocked readers of the New Yorker in 1946. But the debate was not over whether the bombing was truly necessary to end the war. It was not until the mid-1960s that an alternate interpretation sparked a historiographical dispute. In 1965, Gar Alperovitz argued in his book Atomic Diplomacy that the bomb was dropped primarily for political rather than military reasons. In the summer of 1945, he says, Japan was on the verge of surrender. Truman and his senior advisors knew this but used the atomic bomb to intimidate the Soviet Union and thus gain advantage in the postwar situation. Some proponents of this perspective have disagreed with Alperovitz on the primacy of the Soviet factor in A-bomb decision making, but have supported his conclusion that the bomb was seen by policy makers as a weapon with diplomatic leverage.

A middle-ground historical interpretation, convincingly argued by Barton Bernstein, suggests that ending the Pacific war was indeed Truman’s primary reason for dropping the bomb, but that policy makers saw the potential to impress the Soviets, and to end the war before Moscow could join an allied invasion, as a “bonus.” This view is buttressed by compelling evidence that most senior officials did not see a big difference between killing civilians with fire bombs and killing them with atomic bombs. The war had brutalized everyone. The strategy of intentionally attacking civilian targets, considered beyond the pale at the beginning of the war, had become commonplace in both the European and Asian theaters. Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in this context, were the continuation of decisions reached years earlier. It was only after the bombings that the public and the political leaders began to comprehend the great danger the Manhattan Project had unleashed and began to draw a distinction between conventional weapons and nuclear weapons.

China and Firearms I



Sengoku Jidai: Shadow of the Shogun Collector’s Edition

In China the transmission of early firearms seems to have followed a similarly meandering and haphazard route. “European” weaponry appears in China with the Portuguese breech-loading culverins presented at the Ming court in 1522 (calledfolangii or “Frankish machines”) whose use to fight the Mongols was advocated in 1530 by Wang Hong. These small cannons, similar to culverins, , however, were not the first to reach China, as there is evidence that the Chinese were already making a similar cannon before 1522. In the southeastern province of Fujian the presence of a folangii is documented already in 1510; that is, even before the Portuguese reached Malacca in 1511. It is therefore possible that cannons known asfolangfi may have reached China, through a separate route. According to Pelliot the Chinesefolanji may have translated not “Franks” but the Turkish term farangi which the Moghul emperor Babur used shortly after 1500 to refer to those European cannons. Therefore, a cannon by that name may have reached China through anonymous carriers possibly from Malaya, before the Portuguese themselves (Pelliot 1948, 199207). There is also some evidence that the Muslim principalities of Hami and Turfan during the rebellion against the Ming in 1513 used Ottoman (R&ni) muskets, and one cannot lightly dismiss the possibility that the old “Silk Road” played an important role in the transmission of firearm technology to China, especially since during the first half of the sixteenth century there were several Ottoman diplomatic missions to the Chinese court. By the end of the sixteenth century, Ottoman muskets were copied and described in detail in Chinese military literature (Needham 1986, 441-9). Whether by sea or by land, the role played by the Ottoman empire seems to have been relevant to the diffusions of firearms in China.

In the sixteenth century the Ming began to deploy consistently firearms on the northern frontier, along the Great Wall, as a defence against the Mongols, but the actual effectiveness of fire power against nomads at this time is questionable. Qi Jiguang (1528-1588), possibly the most brilliant Ming general and strategist of the time, devised a way of usingfolangii cannons mounted on twowheel carts which worked as mobile artillery platforms. The se”battle wagons” included also protective screens to be raised as the battle started. Twenty soldiers were assigned to each battlewagon, ten of whom were in charge of the artillery pieces placed on the wagon, while the other ten – four armed with muskets – stayed on foot near the wagon. Tactically, the wagons were lined up next to each other to defend the army against cavalry charges. Heavier artillery pieces could also be used, such as the “generalissimo” cannon, which weighed more than 1300 pounds, but these were often found to be too cumbersome to be effective. The combined action of infantry and artillery theorized by Qi to counter Mongol cavalry assaults was never put into practice because the Mongol tribes bordering on the territory under Qi’s military jurisdiction reached a diplomatic agreement with the Ming court that brought hostilities to a halt (Huang 1981, 179-8 1). It is quite interesting to see that the concept of the battle-wagon, that is, a heavy wagon with cannon and arquebuses mounted on it, and the concept of chaining wagons together to form a barrier around the army was in use among the Ottomans in the fifteenth century, and by the sixteenth had been adopted by Babur via Turkish specialists in his employment (Inalcik 1975, 204). Was the battle-wagon developed by Qi also based on a Western Asian prototype? At present this question cannot be answered but the similarities raise doubts as to the originality of Qi’s tactical invention.

Finally, we should consider the development of firearms in Japan and their influence on China. In his writings Qi Jiguang, who was also involved for years in the protection of the south China coasts against the attacks of Japanese pirates, states that the Japanese introduced the musket known as niaochong (fowling piece) to China,(Huang 1981, 165; Needham 1986, 429) in the mid sixteenth century. The Japanese musket was made by copying Portuguese matchlocks, but soon Japanese gun-makers attained a high level of proficiency. Moreover, the Japanese adoption of the tactical use of firearms – the volley and the use of regular units of musketeers were already a reality in the sixteenth century – may have also influenced the wider indigenous use of these weapons in East Asia. Therefore, even if the earliest muskets might have been of Turkish origin, there is not doubt that the Japanese attacks along the southern coasts of China and other forms of contacts between the two countries also contributed to the circulation of muskets.

From these preliminary notes we can see that there were multiple routes in the transmission of firearms to China, whose departing points were western Europe and the Ottoman empire, and important intermediaries were Japan, and possibly also Malaya, India, and Central Asia. Therefore, the diffusion of firearms in Asia cannot be understood as the linear outcome of increased European mobility resulting from their progress in oceanic navigation. In order to model correctly the phenomenon of the spread of military technology it is necessary to keep into due account the parallel diffusion that was taking place across Muslim territories, and the genuine contribution that early on China and Japan made towards the improvement of firearms, both technically and tactically. Another observation concerns the specific use that firearms were intended for in the sixteenth century. While the efficacy of muskets was criticised in the fight against Japanese pirates in South China, their use was advocated by Chinese strategists for the defence of the northern frontier against Mongol incursions. Besides the aforementioned Wang Hong and Qi Jiguang, in 1541 the Governor-general of Shensi, Liu Tianhe, recommended that towers on the frontier be equipped with firearms (Serruys 1982, 32). Although the Ming government was often unresponsive or inefficient in dealing with these requests, the development of “fighting towers” on the northern frontier proves that the use of several kinds of fire-arms, from folangii to heavier cannons and muskets, were appreciated for in the defence of static fortifications.

Effectiveness of Chinese artillery against the Manchus

In 1583 the Jurchen chieftain Nurhaci’ began his political rise by affirming himself as a shrewd commercial operator and a fearless military leader. For thirty-three years he fought a long sequence of tribal wars, which led to the construction of a strongly centralized tribal confederation with the Aisin Gioro (i. e., Nurhaci’s) clan at its heart. In 1616 he moved to a new capital, called Hetu Ala (Flat Hill), and declared the founding of the Later Jin dynasty, so named after the Jurchen Jin dynasty (1125-1234), of which he felt he was the political heir. Two years later he pronounced the “Seven Grievances” against the Ming, a political declaration tantamount to an official declaration of war. This act of defiance towards the Ming dynasty, of which he had been till then a subordinate frontier chieftain, finally persuaded the Ming to send a massive expeditionary army to punish Nurhaci and annihilate the Manchu tbreat on the northeastern frontier. The opposite armies met in 1619 at Mount ~arhu, and the ensuing Manchu victory marked the true beginning of the ascent of Manchu power. On the plain at the foot of Mt. ~arhu, today at the bottom of an artificial water reservoir, Nurhaci defeated a mixed force of Chinese, Korean, and recalcitrant Manchurian tribes. Although the Ming army enjoyed superiority in terms of numbers and armament, the Manchus destroyed it thanks to their rapidity of movement,

1. Nurhaci belonged to the Jianzhou tribal confederation of the Jurchen people. The term “Manchu”was substituted to Jurchen when referring to the native people of Manchuria by imperial decree in 1635. For the sake of convenience I will use the term Manchu-to refer also to the people of Manchuria before 1635, even though, strictly speaking, this is anachronistic. brilliant tactical manoeuvring, and sheer bravery. Chinese and Korean troops carried light firearms and artillery pieces; in particular a Korean force of four hundred cannoneers was sent from P’yongyang (von Mende 1996, 115). These artillery pieces seem to have been used mainly to pin down Manchu cavalry in fortified areas and disrupt their movement (von Mende, 12 1). These tactics, however, proved ineffective in the context of a campaign that required high mobility and excellent coordination among the four columns into which the Ming army had been divided. According to the account of a Korean eyewitness, the Manchus also fired some artillery shots with Chinese cannons they had captured (von Mende, 123), which may indicate that Nurhaci had already obtained by then some firearms and might have used them to fortify his positions. However, if that is the case, artillery did not yet play an important role in the Manchu army, and firearms do not seem to have played a decisive role on either side.

After smashing the Ming army at ~arhu, Nurhaci launched a campaign to invade Liaodong, the prosperous northeastern province inhabited by Chinese agri cultural settlers, with a view to expanding its kingdom and giving it a more solid economic basis. The problem, from the military viewpoint, was that the cities of Liaodong were heavily fortified, and that their thick ramparts were protected with an extensive array of firearms. In De Bello Tartarico, an almost contemporary account of the Manchu conquest, the Italian Jesuit Martino Martini explained the tactics used by the Manchus when storming a city:

[The Manchus] were very afraid of muskets and bullets, in the face of which, however, they were able to find a strategy. They divided the army into three columns: the first column was armed with wooden shields and sent to the attack; the second was armed with ladders for scaling the city walls and the third consisted of cavalry. With such an array the Tartar king surrounds the city on all four sides. First the wall of wood advances against the volleys of the artillery, and in the blink of an eye, instantly the soldiers with the ladders have already climbed to the top of the walls, without it being possible for a soldier to fire a second time [ … ] The tartars are quick and violent, agile like no other people, and this is their great advantage,. They have the advantage to advance and retreat in the blink of an eye. In this type of attack the use of weapons by the Chinese soldiers has no great importance: they do not have time to open fire a second time and the Tartars, have already scaled and entered, and as [the Chinese] come out from all four sides they meet the fast cavalry. (Ma Chujian 1994, 3 10)

If we are to believe Martino Martini, then, the Manchu technique consisted in charging behind the protection of wooden screens, then quickly scaling the walls before fire-arms could be recharged and shot again. Once engaged in hand-to-hand combat the Manchu soldiers must have been superior fighters, since the Chinese troops, overwhelmed, attempted to flee the city, only to find the Manchu cavalry waiting for them outside the city walls. We should also recall that ever since the beginning of his military rise Nurhaci had devoted much effort to strengthening the Manchu military potential, and that Manchu armament, both armour and weapons, was made of iron and steel, and not inferior to the Chinese. At any rate, it was the Manchu quickness in charging and scaling the walls, and the slow rate of Chinese fire that accounted for the victories the Manchus obtained in Liaodong, where several cities fell one after the other. Thus Nurhaci temporarily overcame the disadvantage of having a cavalry army ill-suited to siege warfare.

In Liaodong the Manchus started to equip part of their army with firearms. The following decree was issued in 1622:

Ile Chinese officers in charge of four thousand people must produce 200 soldiers; ten large firearms (cannon) and eighty long firearms (muskets) must be prepared for one hundred of them; the other hundred can be employed as they wish. Those in charge of three thousand people, must produce 150 soldiers and equip [seventy-five soldiers] with eight cannons and fifty-four muskets; the other seventy-five can be used as they wish. Those in charge of two thousand people must raise 100 soldiers and equip [fifty soldiers] with five cannons and forty muskets; the other fifty can be used as they wish. The Jurchen [i. e., Manchu] officers in charge of 2,700 people must raise 135 soldiers; of them 67 should be made to handle 6 cannon and 45 muskets; the other 67 can be employed at leisure. Those [Jurchen commanders] in charge of 1,700 people should raise 85 soldiers and distribute four cannons and 36 muskets to 44 of them, while the remaining 41 soldiers can be employed as they wish. Those [Jurchen commanders] in charge of 1,000 people should raise 50 soldiers, of whom 25 must be equipped with two cannons and twenty muskets, while the other fifty can be used as they wish. Those in charge of 500 people should raise 25 soldiers; ten must be equipped with a cannon and eight muskets and the rest used as they please. (MBRT 11, 474-5)

From this edict we can see that a fairly extensive campaign was launched to raise troops armed with fire-arms. This edict referred to the newly conquered population of Liaodong, which had been placed under Chinese commanders who had defected to the Manchus or Manchu commanders put in charge of the occupied areas. It is quite remarkable that half of the troops recruited from Liaodong were supposed to carry firearms. Allowing a degree of latitude for the computational errors that can be found in the text quoted above, in general two men were assigned to each “large firearm”, which therefore might have beenfolanjis (culverins), while the “long firearms” were individual weapons, obviously muskets. According to a Chinese historian, the term dagilambi, which means “to prepare” in the text above refers to guns that had been captured from the Chinese and were being distributed among the troops.’ The implication is that at this time it is generally believed that the Manchus did not have a capacity to produce firearms (Hu 1986, 49). Given the quantity of weapons involved, however, one wonders whether local foundries had not been involved in the “preparation” of firearms.

There is no doubt that the incorporation of Chinese troops in larger numbers after the conquest of Liadong promoted a greater differentiation of military specializations, and therefore greater flexibility. At any rate, regardless of the edict he issued, it is uncertain to what an extent Nurhaci could invest in the production of firearms. The general consensus is that Manchu troops at this stage were only equipped with weapons taken from the Chinese arsenals in the cities they had conquered, while still lacking the capacity to manufacture firearms themselves.

On the Chinese side, however, efforts were being made to strengthen the defences of the cities that had not yet fallen. It is this connection that the work of European gunners acquires special importance. European intervention in the war against the Manchus was the result of pressures exerted by influential Chinese converted to Christianity, who sponsored Western military technology as a means to contain the Manchu threat. Around 1600 the Ming became acquainted with a much larger and more powerful cannon, first brought by the Dutch in 1604 and called by the Chinese the “hong-yi [Red (-haired) Barbarian] cannon” (Needham, 392). Larger guns of the same type were produced by the Portuguese in Macao in foundries operated by Chinese blacksmiths under the direction of European technicians. These cast-bronze cannon were approximately 20-feet long, 1800 kg. heavy, and were particularly effective in siege warfare, both offensively and defensively.