Project Iceworm

According to the documents published by the Kingdom of Denmark in 1997, the U.S. Army’s “Iceworm” missile network was outlined in a 1960 Army report titled “Strategic Value of the Greenland Icecap”. If fully implemented, the project would cover an area of 52,000 square miles (130,000 km2), roughly three times the size of Denmark. The launch complex floors would be 28 feet (8.5 m) below the surface, with the missile launchers even deeper, and clusters of missile launch centers would be spaced 4 miles (6.4 km) apart. New tunnels were to be dug every year, so that after five years there would be thousands of firing positions, among which the several hundred missiles could be rotated. The Army intended to deploy a shortened, two-stage version of the U.S. Air Force’s Minuteman missile, a variant the Army proposed calling the Iceman.

Project Iceworm was a top-secret United States Army program of the Cold War, which aimed to build a network of mobile nuclear missile launch sites under the Greenland ice sheet. The ultimate objective of placing medium-range missiles under the ice — close enough to strike targets within the Soviet Union — was kept secret from the Government of Denmark. To study the feasibility of working under the ice, a highly publicized “cover” project, known as Camp Century, was launched in 1960. Unstable ice conditions within the ice sheet caused the project to be canceled in 1966.

One of the most well-known US military bases in the Arctic is Thule Air Base, in Greenland’s frigid northwest. Less well-known is the now-defunct Camp Century. Just 150 miles from Thule,  the area surrounding Camp Century is bitterly cold. Nighttime temperatures dip to -70°F and wind whips ice and snow through the air at 125 miles per hour.

Camp Century was opened in 1960 rather openly— the US Army released a short documentary film outlining the new construction techniques used to build the camp. Publicly at least, the camp was supposed to be used for conducting scientific research in the Arctic.

In reality, Camp Century was cover for a top-secret weapons project. The Danish government was opposed to housing nuclear weapons on their soil, and was thus not informed about Camp Century’s true purpose.

At Camp Century, engineers developed and improved subterranean Arctic building techniques. Modified tractors cut deep trenches nearly 30 feet into the ice. These trenches were then covered with steel semicylinders and topped with snow and ice that froze them firmly into place, providing shelter for the small underground city.

Transporting or airdropping diesel to fuel power generators would have been prohibitively expensive, and impossible during extreme weather conditions. The solution was to install a portable nuclear reactor that addressed all of Century’s electricity needs.

Heating Up:

Building upon lessons learned from Camp Century, Project Iceworm was to be built on a massive scale. Iceworm would have been the world’s largest ICBM launch site— over 52,000 miles of tunnels cut deep into the Greenland ice sheet. Iceworm’s footprint would cover an about the size of the state of Indiana, and a whopping three times the size of the host country, Denmark.

600 modified “Iceman” Minuteman missiles would be transported underground on large road-sized tunnels via railcar to launching sites cut even deeper into the ice. The Iceman missiles would be constantly shifting to other sites to keep their exact locations a secret. The subterranean placement and a mandatory 4-mile distance between launch sites would offer a degree of protection and increase survivability in the event of an attack by the Soviet Union.

Greenland’s proximity to the Soviet Union would have given American Minuteman missiles an enormous strategic advantage. Greenland is much closer to Russia than the continental United States, and the Iceman ICBMs would have been able to strike almost any target within the Soviet Union at a moment’s notice. The sheer size of the planned Iceworm complex and the missile’s relatively wide distribution would help to ensure the United States’ second-strike capability and to strengthen the land-based leg of the US nuclear triad.

Doomed to Die:

Alas, Project Iceworm was not practically feasible. Initial surveys had indicated that the Greenland ice sheet was rigid and ideal for tunneling. Later data gathered during the Camp Century experiment showed that the ice sheet was actually very elastic. Tunnels would have to be constantly maintained and be in danger of collapse every few years.

The extreme weather conditions also made steel building materials brittle and prone to cracking. Communications problems between the Pentagon and Camp Century were also an issue: sending or receiving messages during extreme weather events was problematic.

Ticking Time Bomb

In the 1960s global warming was not a part of Pentagon strategic thinking. After shuttering Camp Century in 1967, The Army Corp of Engineers left behind thousands of gallons of radioactive water used to cool the portable reactor, and an unknown amount of sewage to be forever entombed in Greenland’s ice shelf.

In 1997, the Kingdom of Denmark conducted an inquiry into Camp Century, revealing the deceptive nature of the camp and the remaining hazardous waste enclosed in the ice.

Estimates from the scientific community predict that by 2090, the ice under Camp Century will begin to melt, releasing radioactive and human waste into the ocean. It remains to be decided if either the United States or Denmark, or perhaps even the now-autonomous Greenland will be responsible for cleanup.

Armed and Armoured Willys MB-Jeeps

Much work was carried out in the USA and Britain to design special airborne vehicles to drop behind the enemy lines. Willys MB-Jeeps engaged in helping the Infantry by clearing snipers and other commando tasks. Generally manned by a sergeant and a trooper this vehicle was modified in many respects. It was armed with no fewer than five machine guns and had additional tanks for 135 l. of fuel.

The most frequent combination encountered in the field. They were fitted with medium-range radios, and armed with the M1919 air-cooled Browning placed on the central pintle mount (fired by a standing gunner), but in some occasions, a heavier M1917A1 liquid-cooled was placed above the engine hood and fired by the co-driver. The M1920 often replaced the M1919 for added firepower. Usually the crew was two or three, the spare seat being utilized for ammo racks and gasoline jerrycans, allowing extra range. In practice, a large blackout headlamp was also mounted on the left front fender. 

Machine-gun armed jeeps

Two of the initial missions of the jeep were to serve as a reconnaissance vehicle and to carry infantry machine-gun teams. These roles led to the development of methods to mount machine guns in firing positions on the jeep. The first effort in March 1941 was the T47 pedestal mount, which was a simple tubular pedestal that could be fitted with either the .30-cal. or .50-cal. machine gun. Trials revealed that the pedestal was not rigid enough during fire with only a single brace, so triple bracing was adopted prior to series production as the M31 pedestal mount. This was the most common official jeep machine-gun mounting during the war, with 31,653 produced. It was followed by the improved M31C in March 1945, though this was not widely used in combat in World War II. Besides the official pedestal mounts, units in the field often created their own pedestal mounts or adapted other types of pedestal mounts, and some examples are seen in photos here. The most common pedestal mounts were for the .30-cal. and .50-cal. machine guns, though other weapons were mounted.

In 1943, the M48 bracket mount was accepted for use to attach the .30-cal. machine gun or .30-cal. Browning Automatic Rifle in front of the passenger seat. As in the case of the pedestal mount, there were numerous field-improvised bracket mounts used by US troops in World War II. In 1943, Ordnance tested the D76272 assembly as an improved alternative to the M48 bracket mount, but it was not commonly used in World War II.

The jeep was used widely for trials of various weapons mounts during World War II, but in many cases these were not intended for actual use on the jeep, the jeep serving merely as a convenient platform for testing various type of ring mounts, multiple machine mounts, and other weapons.

Because of the widespread use of the jeep in other armies, there were many variations in armament. The most systematic efforts were undertaken by Britain. Perhaps the best known of these were the jeeps modified by the SAS in Egypt in 1942 for use in desert {aiding. These jeeps had a variety of armament fits, commonly using a twin Vickers K gun on the passenger side. Some of these served as a pattern for later armed British jeeps, notably the airborne jeeps that were armed with single Vickers K guns.

Gun-armed jeeps

In early 1941, the US Army’s Tank Destroyer Command was urgently in need of a method to make its antitank guns more mobile, the better to fulfill its new tactical doctrine. There had been articles published about the success of the French Army in using light antitank guns mounted on the rear of trucks during the 1940 campaign, so Ordnance began considering possible designs. One of the most obvious solutions was to mount the standard 37mm gun on a Y4ton truck and the first of these, designated the T2 37mm gun motor carriage (GMC), placed a 37mm gun in the rear-bed of a Bantam 40 BRC with the gun pointing over the hood. Seven of these were built, starting in May 1941, but the configuration was awkward and so the pilots were rebuilt to normal truck configuration. This was followed by the T2E1 37mm GMC, which reoriented the gun to fire over the rear of the vehicle, and 11 were built for trials. Although better than the T2, the T2El was difficult to employ since it was hard to service the gun in such an awkward configuration. Most of the T2El GMCs were converted back t9 trucks, but at least one was rebuilt by removing the rear bodywork to lighten the vehicle. The idea was that in this configuration, the gun would be oriented to fire over the front and the crew could service the gun from behind the vehicle. Once again, the configuration was awkward, to say the least, and this project was abandoned.

In July 1941, the QMC had considered developing a lengthened Y4ton truck with a 6×6 configuration for specialized roles; one of its original missions was seen as being a gun carrier for the 37mm gun. In July 1941, Willys was contracted to develop the T13 and T14 37mm GMC based on a stretched MA chassis. The T13 had the gun pointed forward but, as a result of earlier experiments with the T2, this configuration was dropped before the pilots were constructed. Instead, two pilots of the T14 were built and the first was delivered to Aberdeen Proving Ground in January 1942. Although the T14 was judged to be the most satisfactory of several 37mm tank destroyers tested by the Army, the Tank Destroyer Command had already decided to manufacture the M6 37mm GMC based on the 1/4ton truck. This marked the end of considerations for a jeep-based tank destroyer, but the 6×6 jeep continued development in various configurations as the “Super Jeep”, which is described below.

There were a number of other attempts to develop armed jeeps late in the war. The 82d Airborne Division actually mounted a 57mm antitank gun on the rear of a jeep in March 1945, but the war ended before it could be used. In 1944, Ordnance developed a mount for the large 4.2in mortar with a large hinge in the rear compartment that permitted the heavy base-plate to be folded up for travel, and then deploy behind the jeep for firing. Although a pilot was tested, there was never enough demand for such a weapon to justify production. The jeep was regularly used to carry infantry mortars, though these were not usually fired from the jeep. Some units developed racks for 81mm mortar ammunition for these mortar jeeps.

Armored Jeep

In reconnaissance operations, the Jeep proved fast, but clearly unprotected. This led to field adaptation of armored plates and, after some time, formulated and officialized as the “1/4 ton 4×4 armored truck”. This was an attempt by the army to set regulations of field modifications, consisting of adding a kind of “armored box” made of three plates (actually a single plate folded in three) protecting the front and sides of the driver compartment, with two small sight openings. The front plate replaced the windshield. The protection was sufficient against small arms fire.

Since the jeep was intended to be used for reconnaissance, there was interest almost from the outset in an armored version for the scout role. The Smart Engineering Company offered an elementary armor kit for the jeep in 1941, but trials at Aberdeen Proving Ground found that the extra weight adversely affected automotive performance.

The Army had already sponsored the development of a lengthened jeep for the T14 tank destroyer mentioned above, so there was some interest in whether this chassis might be more suitable for an armored jeep to satisfy a Tank Destroyer Command requirement for a lightly armored reconnaissance car. Starting in April 1942, the second T14 prototype was converted into the T24 scout car. Although the T24 was deemed successful in trials, the project was cancelled in the autumn of 1942 as part of an effort to quash the excessive number of armored car programs that had been undertaken by Ordnance in favor of concentrating on a single design, the M8/M20 light armored car.

In parallel to the T24 project, Ordnance was pushed into further work on a 4×4 scout car based on the jeep, owing to interest by Army Ground Forces. Starting in June 1942, Ordnance sponsored development ·of the T25 scout car, which used different configurations of armor in the T25, T25E1, T25E2, and T25E3 models. The added armor plate overloaded the chassis 785-1,265Ib beyond its rated load and, as was discovered earlier, badly affected automotive performance. The program was terminated, but a number of US Army units developed their own improvised armor kits in the European theater in 1944-45.

Rocket jeeps

The jeep was too light to mount any substantial guns, but it could mount some of the newer rocket artillery weapons that did not have the same debilitating level of recoil as conventional tube artillery. Under Navy direction, the California Institute of Technology developed two 4.5in launchers for the jeep, the Type 2 Mod 1 ten-rail barrage rocket launcher with a rail launcher over the roof of the jeep, and the Type 8 (Army designation: T45) with two racks on either side of the rear of the jeep with a total of 24 rockets in a cascading frame launcher. The Type 2 underwent a limited combat test with the Marines in 1944. The Type 8/T45 was first used by US Marine Rocket Detachments mounted on the J! 4ton truck during the Saipan campaign in the summer of 1944, but there are some Marine accounts that suggest that they were also fitted to jeeps. The Army tested jeeps with the T36 eight- tube launcher built by McCord Radiator and Manufacturing, and the Navy’s T45 launcher for 12 4.5in rockets. Ordnance units in Europe built a small number of field expedient launchers using aircraft 4.5in rocket launchers that resembled the T45. None of the jeep-mounted rocket launchers were manufactured in any significant number, as it was more efficient to use larger trucks that could carry more rockets.

The Red Army used rocket-armed jeeps in small numbers. Twelve of these were created in December 1944 by mounting a small 12-rail “mountain launcher” version of the M-8 82mm rocket launcher in the rear bed of the jeep. They were used by the 2nd Guards Mortar Battalion (Mountain) during the fighting in the Carpathian Mountains in the winter of 1944-45.

A more fruitful direction for research was in the new category of recoilless rifles, which offered the firepower of conventional direct-fire guns but in a lighter weapon. There were a number of experimental mountings of recoilless rifles on jeeps in 1945, but while these proved a practical weapon, it was not until after World War II that they saw any extensive use.

The Jeep in action

About 144 Jeeps were provided to every infantry regiment in the U.S. Army, so it was the most currently available vehicle. This explains why it was used for so many tasks and so extensively, marking a deep and durable imprint on simple soldiers. Since it was involved in every possible operations performed by the US Army and Marines in Europe, Africa and the Pacific, it would be pointless to detail specific assignations. It was used as personnel carrier, staff transportation, medevac, liaison, reconnaissance, patrol, spearheading advanced columns or deep into enemy territory. It was used as light artillery tractor, ammo, water, food, fuel supply vehicle, mortar tractor, infantry support vehicle and even fast antitank vehicle, armored and equipped with bazookas. 30% of the production, mostly Ford GPAs, were turned to the Lend-Lease effort, largely distributed among British & Commonwealth, Free French, Free Polish forces and the Soviets, which ultimately derived a vehicle from it, the GAZ-67B. The production of this Soviet version started in September 23, 1943, and lasted until 1953, after 92,843 had been delivered.

Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) Vehicles

One of the most thrilling uses of the Jeep, was performed by British and Allied LRDG units, “Long Range Desert Group” in North Africa. Often paired with Chevrolet WB trucks, they were heavily armed and received a lot of extra fuel. Their task was to navigate deep and far into enemy territory, gathering intelligence and operating covert reconnaissance. But they also hit depots, camps or even airbases, sometime at night or dawn, striking hard and fast, and creating havoc in rear line sectors reputedly “quiet”, and therefore weakly defended. They made such an impression on the Italians in particular (which called it the “Pattuglia Fantasma” or “Ghost Patrol”) that they developed a special vehicle, the AS-42 Sahariana, derived from the AB-41 armored car for the same tasks and missions. 

The AS-42 Sahariana

Willys MB/Ford GPW Jeep

Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) Vehicles

Artist Christophe Camilotte

Long Range Desert Group

Motto: Non vi sed arte – Not by strength, but by guile (unofficial)

Formed in June 1940 by Major Ralph Bagnold and General Archibald Wavell as the Number 1 Long Range Patrol Unit, the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) operated as part of Britain’s Eighth Army and was an intelligence gathering, reconnaissance and raiding unit ranging across the Western Desert and the Mediterranean area during the Second World War. Never numbering more than 350 personnel, the LRDG included men from Britain, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and New Zealand, all of whom were volunteers; the LRDG was best known for the considerable damage that it was able to inflict on the operations of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Corps.

In May 1943 the LRDG changed its role and was moved to the eastern Mediterranean, where it was tasked with missions in the Greek islands, Italy and the Balkans. Despite a request to move to the Far East in mid-1945, the LRDG was disbanded in August of that year.

The Long Range Desert Group (LRDG), which might be considered to be the first modern Special Forces unit, chose to operate modified Chevrolet civilian trucks, but it was the stripped-down Jeeps of the SAS that established the norm for this type of operation. When these Jeeps wore out they were replaced by Series I Land Rovers, which in turn were superseded by the iconic Series IIA Land Rover ‘Pink Panthers’. These were the first vehicles to be constructed by an outside contractor – in this case Marshalls of Cambridge – to the requirements of the SAS Regiment and they remained the pattern for Special Forces’ vehicles until the appearance of dune buggy-based fast-strike vehicles in the early 1980s; in Afghanistan, these have subsequently been replaced by larger, armoured vehicles such as the Jackal.

During the Second World War the SAS was equipped with a fleet of much-modified Jeeps. Typically the machines were stripped of all unnecessary items before being stowed with fuel, water, ammunition and personal kit in every available space to allow the vehicles to act as a self-contained base for operations. These Jeeps were replaced by similarly modified Series I Land Rovers in the 1950s and then by the iconic `Pink Panthers’, the Series IIA-based Land Rovers that have effectively established the basic design for the modern Special Forces vehicle.


When the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) started operating inside enemy-held territory in Egypt in 1940 it did so using a fleet of modified Chevrolet WA, WB and VA 30cwt 4×2 civilian trucks procured in Alexandria; there were also a number of cut-down Ford C11ADF station wagons. None of these trucks was entirely successful, and from March 1942 the LRDG standardised on the Canadian Chevrolet 1533×2 as a patrol vehicle, eventually acquiring a total of 200 of these vehicles which were heavily modified to the Group’s requirements. Each truck was operated by a crew of three or four men.

As deployed by the LRDG, the 1533×2 was a 30cwt civilian truck powered by a six-cylinder overhead-valve petrol engine producing 85bhp from 3,540cc, and driving the rear wheels through a four-speed gearbox and two-speed axle; there were live axles, mounted on semi-elliptical multi-leaf springs, with large-section (10.50–16) sand tyres fitted front and rear. All non-essential items were removed to save weight, including the cab, and the front grille was cut away to improve the flow of air through the radiator; the cooling system was also modified to reduce water loss by including a condenser in a closed circuit. Folding aero-screens were often fitted to the scuttle, and a heavy bumper was fitted at the front, generally incorporating a pusher bar. At the rear the height of the body sides was raised using timber in order to increase the carrying capacity, and radio trucks were fitted with a cabinet to house a British Number 11 radio set.

Each vehicle was fitted with multiple gun mounts, and a machine gun was invariably mounted on a pedestal in the rear. Typical weapons carried included Vickers K light machine guns (actually designed to be mounted on an aircraft), water-cooled Vickers .303in machine guns, Lewis machine guns, Boys anti-tank rifles, Vickers heavy machine guns and American Browning M2 0.50in machine guns. External stowage facilities were provided for fuel and water, personal weapons, ammunition, spare parts for the vehicle, rations, sand channels, personal kit, etc.

The trucks were extremely reliable and were apparently able to withstand considerable abuse without sustaining damage.

SAS Jeeps

By early 1942 the regimental strength of the SAS was up to 130 men; now equipped with twenty Bedford 3-ton trucks and sixteen Jeeps, the unit was sufficiently large to no longer need to rely on the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) for transport. At the time one of the standard operational tactics of the SAS was to infiltrate a small, lightly armed reconnaissance group into place carrying radio equipment, to be subsequently reinforced by additional, more heavily armed, troops usually travelling in specially equipped Jeeps. Stripped of all non-essential equipment, and bristling with heavy automatic weapons, these Jeeps were modified to provide a well-equipped and well-armed patrol vehicle, capable of carrying two or three men, together with sufficient fuel, rations, ammunition and supplies for extended missions deep into enemy-held territory. Curiously, there does not seem to have been a standard set of modifications and examination of period photographs shows that, although there were features common to all the SAS Jeeps, essentially each appears to have been modified according to the needs of the mission, and with the overriding intention of reducing superfluous weight.

The vehicles were almost invariably heavily armed: the standard equipment seems to have been a pair of twin-mounted Vickers K .303 observer’s machine guns on a pintle ahead of the front passenger’s seat – this was originally an aircraft-mounted gun and, with a rate of fire of more than 3,000 rounds per minute from a drum magazine, it was a formidable weapon, offering twice the hitting power of the Bren. There was often a third Vickers, or a .303 Bren gun, on a pedestal mount to the left of the driving position, and a standard infantry-issue water-cooled Lewis machine gun was sometimes carried for use in static firing. Other variations included the use of an M2 0.50in heavy machine gun ahead of the passenger seat, with the twin Vickers units relegated to the rear area ahead of the back seat; other examples show a 0.50in machine gun at the rear. Other weapons were carried to suit the particular mission. The normal 2-inch and 3-inch mortars usually proved useful for destroying enemy targets, as did the PIAT (projectile, infantry, anti-tank) gun. Most SAS raiding parties would also have carried a plentiful supply of number 36 Mills bomb grenades, plus other grenades such as the number 69 Bakelite grenade and the Gammon anti-tank bomb.

The most distinctive of the modifications to the vehicle itself included ad-hoc ‘improvements’ to the cooling system where, for desert operations, most of the bars of the front grille were cut away to provide optimum airflow through the radiator and thus ensure maximum cooling efficiency. Whether or not it was necessary, this seems to have become something of an SAS trademark, and even Jeeps operating in northwest Europe were normally seen with the distinctive cut-away grille. The open, pressurised cooling system of the standard Jeep was modified to a sealed system using a version of the desert cooling modification kit. A small cylindrical expansion tank was fitted at the front and connected to the radiator overflow via a small pipe, and the system was sealed in such a way that water was allowed to expand into this tank as the engine heated up, but could be drawn back into the main system via the same pipe when the water cooled down and contracted – a process that has subsequently become standard on all motor vehicles.

In the interests of maintaining a low profile, the standard windscreen, hood and hood frame were generally removed and discarded altogether. Even in colder latitudes, the standard windscreen was not fitted, but on some examples heavy bullet-proof glass shields were provided for the front-seat gunner and occasionally the driver, as part of the gun mount. Occasionally the front bumper was also discarded or cut back in the style of the airborne Jeeps in an effort to save more weight. Some vehicles were protected underneath using armour plate, so as to reduce the effects of mine blasts.

A large amount of the available storage space was used to carry fuel, water or ammunition – even the bonnet was pressed into service, often with four jerrycans strapped across the flat surface. Some vehicles also carried additional fuel tanks over the wheel arches in the rear, ‘borrowed’ from a standard 3-ton truck. During some operations certain Jeeps were assigned to the support role, and armaments were omitted in favour of additional jerrycans – since the Jeeps were relatively fast compared to other trucks of the period, the use of Jeeps in the supply role meant that the operation was not held back by the presence of slower vehicles.

All things considered, the SAS Jeep made a formidable battle wagon and it is hardly surprising that the vehicle effectively became the role model for Land Rover ‘Pink Panthers’ and today’s long-range Special Forces Defenders.

Popski’s Private Army Jeeps

Modified Jeeps were also deployed by Popski’s Private Army, operating in patrols consisting of six vehicles and sixteen men. The vehicles were stripped of non-essential items, including the windscreen and top, and, as with the LRDG Chevrolets and the SAS Jeeps, most of the radiator grille bars were removed to increase the flow of cooling air through the radiator. Water condensers were also fitted to the radiator so that any water that boiled off was not lost. At the front the standard military bar-grip tyres were generally replaced by road tyres, since these were less likely to break through the crust that forms on desert sand. Armaments included Vickers K or Browning 0.30in and 0.50in machine guns, sometimes on a twin mount, together with a smoke generator. Racks were fitted to carry twelve 4-gallon petrol cans, giving the vehicles a range of between 600 and 700 miles.

At least one of Popski’s Jeeps was experimentally fitted with flame-thrower equipment taken from a Canadian Wasp carrier; during trials the equipment apparently singed the eyebrows of the operator and it is believed that it was never used in action.

Byzantine Fire on the Water

The low state of medieval maritime technology ensured that battle tactics were just as basic. They had hardly progressed since Roman times. Confrontations at sea remained messy affairs that almost invariably devolved into unpredictable ship-against-ship mêlées. This helps explain why large-scale naval engagements were rare during the Middle Ages. Few naval commanders were willing to risk all in a single battle subject to so many uncontrollable variables. As on land, clashes at sea normally occurred only when one side or both could not avoid it.

The fact that there was no reliable ship-killing weapon compounded the uncertainty surrounding the outcome. The waterline ram or rostrum of the classical era was ineffective against the sturdier, frame-first hull construction which began to develop in the Mediterranean as early as the seventh century and found full implementation by the eleventh century. It proved utterly futile against the more robust ship architecture of the northern seas, even in Roman times. In his Commentarii de Bello Gallico (‘Commentaries on the Gallic War’), Julius Caesar said of the dense oak vessels of the Gauls, ‘Our ships could not damage them with the ram (they were so stoutly built).’ As a result, no warship in either the north or the south was known to have sported a ram by the seventh century. It was replaced on the Byzantine dromōn by a spur, a sort of reinforced bowsprit used to assist in seizing and boarding an enemy ship. The only weapon developed in the medieval period capable of destroying an entire vessel was ‘Greek fire’, a secret petroleum-based incendiary invented by a Syrian artificer named Kallinikos in the seventh century. Documentary and graphic sources indicate that it was spewed from specially constructed siphon tubes mounted on the bows of dromōns. Unfortunately its utility was extremely restricted. It had limited range and could only be deployed in calm or following winds.

Siphons for spewing ‘Greek fire’ were eventually mounted on protected platforms at the bow and possibly amidships. The parapeted forecastle (xylokastron) housed the main siphon, called the ‘raven’ (katakorax), while the castle amidships was the kastelloma. The aftercastle contained the kravatos, a structure to shield the kentarchos or captain.

The First Siege of Constantinople and the Advent of ‘Greek Fire’ (672–7)

Once Muawiyah had moved his capital to Damascus and consolidated his grip on power, he began preparations for an enormous expedition against Constantinople itself. In 672 he was ready. The caliph unleashed at least two separate fleets on the south coast of Asia Minor. Their activities must have kept the Karabisian fleet fully occupied. Both Crete and Rhodes were raided. One Arab fleet wintered in Cilicia (the southeastern coast of Anatolia) and the other in Lycia (on the south-central coast). Word of these incursions galvanized Constans’ son and successor, Constantine IV, into action. According to Theophanes, the emperor ‘built large biremes bearing cauldrons of fire and dromones equipped with siphons and ordered them to be stationed at the Proclianesian harbour of Caesarius [Constantinople’s Theodosian harbour]’. In 673 Muawiyah’s fleets surged into the Sea of Marmara and ravaged the Hebdomon district just southwest of Constantinople, then captured Kyzikos on the south shore of the sea. Here they established a base camp for incessant attacks on the city.

Constantinople would endure this maritime assault for the next several years, but the emperor was in possession of a terrible new weapon which would finally – and precipitously – end it. Residing in the city at that time was a Christian refugee from Heliopolis in Syria (modern Baalbek in Lebanon) named Kallinikos. Theophanes described him as an ‘architect’ or ‘artificer’ who had ‘manufactured a naval fire [or sea fire]’ which floated on the surface of the sea and could not be extinguished by water. Its precise ingredients were kept a closely guarded state secret and remain a mystery to this day. This has led to endless speculation through the ages and repeated attempts at replication. A similar Muslim concoction of the twelfth century was said to have included ‘dolphin’s fat’ and ‘grease of goat kidneys’. Early scholarly conjecture centred on saltpetre as the main component (as in gunpowder) or some form of quicklime, but recent empirical investigations, particularly by renowned Byzantinist John Haldon, have revealed that its primary ingredient was probably petroleum-based – most likely naphtha or light crude oil. The Byzantines had access to the oil fields of the Caucasus region northeast of the Black Sea where crude seeped to the surface. The theory is that Kallinikos may have distilled this into a paraffin or kerosene, then added wood resins as a thickening agent. The mixture was then heated in an air-tight bronze tank over a brazier and pressured by use of a force pump. The final step was the release of the flammable fluid through a valve for its discharge from a metal-sheathed nozzle, affixed with a flame ignition source. In a 2002 clinical test of this theory, Haldon and his colleagues, Colin Hewes and Andrew Lacey, were able to produce a fire stream in the neighbourhood of 1,000 degrees Celsius that extended at least 15m (49ft).

It was very probably a compound similar to this that Constantine caused to be loaded onto his dromōns in the autumn of 677. The fearsome new weapon was unleashed from swivel-mounted siphons in the forecastles with horrific results. Theophanes testified almost matter-of-factly that it ‘kindled the ships of the Arabs and burnt them and their crews’. To the Arab victims of his frightful invention, it must have seemed like some early version of ‘shock and awe’. The fact that they would have had no idea of how to combat the weapon must have compounded their panic. Water would have been ineffective. At that point they could not have known that the only way to extinguish the ‘liquid fire’ was with sand, vinegar or urine. The siege soon collapsed. What was left of the Arab armada withdrew, only to be severely mauled by a violent winter storm while passing abeam Syllaem in Pamphylia (on the south coast of Asia Minor between Lycia and Cilicia). Theophanes said, ‘It was dashed to pieces and perished entirely.’

The Second Siege of Constantinople and the Fall of the Umayyad Dynasty (717–50)

The continuing turmoil in Constantinople could not have gone unnoticed in Damascus. Earlier that same year Sulayman ibn Abd al-Malik assumed the caliphate and inaugurated his rule by propelling his brother, Maslamah ibn Abd al-Malik, into Asia Minor at the head of 80,000 troops, while a huge armada of reportedly 1,800 vessels made its way around the south coast. Constantinople was about to experience its most dire confrontation with Islam until its final fall over seven centuries later.

The details of the ensuing epic engagement are discussed in a separate section at the end of the chapter as an example of sea combat in the period, but it suffices to say here that it unfolded in a manner similar to the siege of 672–8, with much the same result. As the Arab forces approached Constantinople in the spring of 717, Leo the Isaurian, the strategos of the Anatolikon Theme, engineered a coup to replace the ill-suited Theodosios III on the throne. Under his inspired leadership as Leo III, the Byzantines then used dromōns spewing ‘Greek fire’ to break up an Umayyad attempt to blockade the Bosporus. The besieging Arab army fared even worse. A particularly harsh winter ravaged it with deprivation and disease. And the following spring offered little relief. Nearly 800 supply ships arrived from Egypt and Ifriqiyah, but their Coptic Christian crews switched sides en masse. Without the precious provisions which these ships carried, Maslama’s troops fell easy prey to the Bulgars of Khan Tervel, with whom Leo had formed a propitious alliance. The Bulgars butchered some 22,000 of the Arabs. Umar ibn Abd al-Aziz, the new caliph, had little choice but to recall his forces. It was a battered Umayyad army that retreated across Asia Minor in the autumn of 718 and only five vessels of the once massive Muslim armada managed to run the gauntlet of autumn storms in the Hellespont and Aegean to reach their home port.

It was a disastrous Muslim defeat, which should have put Islam on the defensive for decades to come, but inexplicably Leo chose this time to delve into the religious controversy that was to be the bane of Byzantium. In 726 he inaugurated Iconoclasm (literally, ‘the smashing of icons’) by ordering the removal of the icon of Christ over the Chalke entrance to the imperial palace in Constantinople. In 730 he followed up this action with an imperial decree against all icons. This polemical policy was to rend the fabric of the empire for the next fifty-seven years. It proved particularly unpopular in Italy and the Aegean areas. In early 727 the fleets of the Hellas and Karabisian Themes revolted and proclaimed a certain Kosmas as emperor. Leo managed to devastate and disperse these fleets with his own, again using ‘Greek fire’, the secret of which was apparently restricted to Constantinople at the time.

The episode, nonetheless, prompted the emperor to dissolve the troublesome Karabisian Theme and restructure the provincial fleets in order to dilute their threat to the throne. Leo placed the south coast of Asia Minor, formerly a responsibility of the disbanded Karabisian Theme, under the authority of the more tractable droungarios of the Kibyrrhaeot fleet, whose headquarters was transferred to Attaleia (present-day Antalya). Land-based themes, like the Hellas and Peloponnesos, were also allowed to maintain fleets of their own. These modifications to fleet organization were probably intended to help defuse naval power and make it more subservient to the emperor.

Despite their humiliating failure before the walls of Constantinople, the Umayyads took advantage of continued Byzantine upheaval both in the palace and in the Church to nibble away at the edges of the empire. A long period of raid and counter-raid ensued between Damascus and Constantinople, mostly involving either Egypt or Cyprus. But ultimately the Byzantines’ advantage in naval organization, possession of ‘Greek fire’ and virtual monopoly of such critical shipbuilding materials as wood and iron ensured they would prevail, at least in the eastern Mediterranean. The climax of the contest came in 747, when the Kibyrrhaeot fleet surprised an enormous armada from Alexandria in a harbour on Cyprus called Keramaia (exact location unknown). ‘Out of 1,000 dromōns it is said only three escaped,’ professed Theophanes. This was undoubtedly a chauvinistic exaggeration, but Umayyad naval power was evidently broken by the outcome of the battle and never again posed a serious threat to the Byzantine Empire. The Umayyad Dynasty came to an end just three years later when the Abbasids led by Abu al-Abbas as-Saffah crushed Caliph Marwan II at the Battle of Zab (Mesopotamia) in late January 750. The subsequent Abbasid Caliphate moved its capital from Damascus to Baghdad and focused its initial attention on the East.

War Winner: ASDIC

This pictorial illustrates the shape of the detection area for the 144 ASDIC, the ‘Q; attachment and the 147 Asdic.

Asdic dome, oscillator and housing equipment The oscillator, a quartz crystal disc which converted electrical impulses into sound and echoes back to electrical impulses , was lowered into the water under the ship’s hull, protected from extraneous sounds by a streamlined dome which allowed operation at speeds of up to 20 knots . At full speed or in rough seas the dome and oscillator could be retracted into the hull.

The ultimate solution to sinking more U-boats depended not on listening for the sounds that U-boats themselves emitted, but on generating a pulse of sound that could be bounced off a U-boat’s hull to give an echo that could be picked up by the transmitting ship. This was the principle of the device that the British called Asdic (after the Allied Submarine Detection Investigation Committee that sponsored the development). It involved a transducer that could be made to send out a fan-shaped pulse of acoustic energy through the water. If this struck a submerged object, enough of the energy would be reflected towards the transmitting ship to be picked up as a sound echo. The ship’s heading gave the bearing of the submarine (later, the transmitter head of the detector could be turned by the operator to cover any direction from the ship carrying the equipment) and the delay between the original pulse and the receipt of the echo gave the range of the submarine.

Like the hydrophones, Asdic had its disadvantages, but they were less restrictive. It could only be used when the transmitting ship was moving at less than fifteen knots, and it tended to produce echoes from many different kinds of submerged objects, only some of which were submarines. It could give little indication of depth, and as the ship closed in on the target, it lost contact when the range dropped to less than 100 yards. It was no use at all against submarines on the surface.

Finally, it was too late for the war – only seven ships were fitted with the equipment by the Armistice, and none used it against U-boats. The result of this last-minute development of the one weapon that would have made a genuine difference was that up to the end of March 1917, British destroyers had made 142 attacks on U-boats, but had only succeeded in sinking half a dozen of them. The chances were therefore 23 to 1 in favour of the U-boat escaping its attackers, though simply forcing it to dive would usually make it lose contact with potential targets.

Yet Asdic promised much for the future. In time, skilled operators could learn to distinguish between echoes reliably enough to be sure when a U-boat was in their sights. They could also estimate its depth well enough for accurate attacks. It could also cause severe damage to the morale of the U-boat crews: the shrill ping of the Asdic pulses travelling through the water and striking the submarine hull told them escorts were searching for them and very probably knew exactly where they were; crippling depth charge explosions could be expected at any moment.

It would be 1920 before warships were equipped with Asdic in quantity. In fact, it was developed at exactly the wrong time for British ASW operations. Too late for the First World War, it was still early enough in service to cause immense and crippling complacency over its effectiveness during the inter-war years. The Royal Navy came to assume that if submarines could not be abolished at the stroke of a pen in the clauses of the postwar treaties, then any resurgent threat could quickly be seen off by Asdic and depth charges. Had there been a chance to use these weapons to a larger extent before the end of the First World War, it would have become clearer how difficult it remained to sink U-boats, even with the aid of these powerful new weapons.

While this undoubtedly promised well for the future, the Germans were already working on tactics of their own to reduce the advantages conferred by Asdic. Since a U-boat’s speed and endurance while on the surface were so much greater than when submerged, more and more skippers were choosing to carry out attacks in darkness, when all the enemy would see was the small silhouette of the conning tower against the blackness of the night. At the time, this was advantage enough: when Asdic came into general use, it would be even more powerful a tactic, since Asdic could not pick up the echo of a surfaced submarine.

The fashion spread quickly, even among as individualistic a group as submarine commanders. During the final year of war, more than a third of U-boat attacks in the Atlantic and British home waters were night surface attacks, and in the Mediterranean the proportion was almost doubled. Like Asdic, this was a development that would prove even more effective when the fighting resumed after the uneasy peace.

Because Asdic had been developed just too late to come to the rescue in the First World War, its effectiveness had never been tested under combat conditions, which would have revealed its very real limitations. As a result, it had come to be regarded as the panacea for future ASW; sound location and the depth charge were assumed to have virtually rendered the submarine obsolete as a threat.

Nevertheless, some work had been done to develop tactics to use this new combination to sink submarines, and these had been tested at sea, using Royal Navy submarines as targets. The anti-submarine warfare specialists at HMS Osprey at Portland, under the direction of ‘that devoted father of the Asdic, Professor Jack Anderson’, had devised what came to be known as the ‘pounce’ and ‘MRCS’ tactics, which set out to reduce the freedom of a submarine to take evasive action during the last stage of a depth-charge attack, when Asdic effectively became deaf. The ‘pounce’ attack involved the attacking warship moving at slow speed to avoid being picked up on the submarine’s hydrophones. In the meantime another escort monitored the submarine’s movements. When the time was right, the first escort would accelerate to full speed for the attack, being homed in on the target by its sister ship.

At first this seemed to work quite well, until the skippers of the target submarines realised how the tactic worked and became adept at outwitting it once they realised the high-speed dash had begun. The next step was the Medium Range Constant Speed, or MRCS attack, which involved shadowing a submarine at low speed from half a mile away, and then accelerating to the limiting speed at which Asdic could still hold the echo of the submarine, adjusting the escort’s course to match the submarine’s movements. This succeeded in reducing the area of uncertainty between the point at which the echo was lost and the dropping of the depth charge pattern to some 250 yards, but this was still ample for a skilled submarine skipper to take successful evasive action.

One of the Royal Navy’s particularly strong suits was in the field of training aids, and before the war they introduced an Asdic mobile target and a depth-charge attack analyser, which could be used to assess the success or failure of anti-submarine exercises. The Admiralty Research Laboratories also developed a course plotter as a navigational aid, but it also proved valuable when plotting the course of an antisubmarine attack.

The first attack teaching aid for training officers and ratings in anti-submarine tactics and drills was set up at the Portland Anti-Submarine School by 1925, and consisted of the control equipment of an Asdic set together with a glass-topped attack table covered with a sheet of thin plotting paper. Two spots of light were projected on to this representing the positions of the escort and the submarine, and these were moved independently under the orders of the pupil and the instructor. Each Asdic pulse was represented by beams of light corresponding with the settings of the Asdic controls, and if one of these struck the submarine the sound of the echo was triggered through the pupil’s headphones. Other aids trained operators in the techniques of sweeping for a possible target and what to do if a target was lost.

However, the greatest defect of this sound practical training is that so few of the people who would use the equipment in wartime were ever persuaded to specialise in ASW before the war. In spite of the lessons of 1917–18, ASW remained more of a career backwater in the Royal Navy than U-boats in the Kriegsmarine. Captain Donald Macintyre, who became one of the Royal Navy’s foremost sub-killers and who sank the U99 and captured the ace Otto Kretschmer, spent the pre-war years flying with the Fleet Air Arm and commanding fleet destroyers (apart from a stint running HMS Kingfisher, the experimental ship of the Anti-Submarine School). The greatest submarine hunter of all, ‘Johnny’ Walker, suffered being passed over for both promotion and command for selecting to specialise in ASW in a navy still dominated by the battleship and the big gun.

Ironically, the Germans themselves were to prove they had their blind spots. Since the end of the First World War, they had concentrated much more on passive developments like hydrophones because for several years active sound location methods were seen as being linked to attack rather than defence and were therefore proscribed by the Versailles Treaty. As a result, they had little knowledge of what Asdic and the other ASW weapons could do. Doenitz was firm in his conviction that the British were too complacent regarding Asdic’s value and capabilities. Werner Fürbringer disagreed, on the grounds that the Royal Navy’s defences would be too formidable to risk wasting U-boats and their crews on a blockade campaign. The problem, from Doenitz’s point of view, was that Fürbringer was a rear-admiral, was responsible for submarine planning at the Naval High Command, and was effectively his boss.

All Royal Navy destroyers were fitted with ASDIC during the early 1930s. This underwater detection device to locate U-boats using sound echoes was refined before and during World War II by British and other anti-Nazi scientists. Improved hydrophones had long been able to detect a U-boat’s bearing. When grouped to receive echoes of sound pulses, they also determined range. ASDIC worked by sending out acoustical pulses that echoed off hulls of U-boats, but also sometimes off the sides of whales or schools of fish. The echoes were heard by grouped hydrophones on the sending ship, so that an ASDIC screen and operator provided the escort’s captain with estimated range and position of the enemy submarine. It was limited by the sounds of other ships’ screws, rough seas, and onboard machinery of its host ship. Such interference enabled U-boats to hide from escorts inside the “noise barrier” created by a convoy. More importantly, even in optimum conditions early ASDIC could not determine a U-boat’s depth.

British and Commonwealth ASDIC operators could locate U-boats to a distance of 2,000 meters by 1940. However, from 200 meters range to source, pulse and echo merged. That meant U-boats were lost to detection before the moment of attack, just as a destroyer closed on its position. Because forward-throwing technology for depth charges had not been developed, the explosives were dropped astern of the charging destroyer across the last known position of the U-boat. Loss of contact, stern attack, and the time it took charges to sink to explosive depth combined to permit many U-boats to escape destruction simply by turning hard away from the closing destroyer or corvette. Admiral Karl Dönitz, head of the Kriegsmarine U-boat arm, countered the threat from ASDIC by instructing U-boat captains to attack only on the surface and at night. That countermeasure was lost to U-boats once the Western Allies deployed aircraft equipped with Leigh Lights. Dönitz next ordered research into absorbent coating and rubber hull paints to reduce the ASDIC signature of his U-boats, but with little success. Similarly, release of a Pillenwerfer noise-maker only tricked inexperienced ASDIC operators. An advanced Type 147 ASDIC set was developed later in the war that tracked U-boats in three dimensions, giving readouts of bearing as well as range and depth. Note: All Western Allied navies adopted the U. S. Navy term for ASDIC in 1943: sonar.

Major wartime sonar developments attempted to address these deficiencies. Power rotation and improved displays enhanced operating rates, and streamlined steel domes raised useful search speeds. Dual-frequency sets (operating at either 14 or 30 kilocycles) enhanced ranges, and tilting transducers eliminated the dead zone. Britain also developed a specialized sonar (Type 147B) for accurate depth determination. A simultaneous line of development, the scanning sonar using an omnidirectional transmitter coupled to an array of fixed receiving transducers, offered a possible solution to the search problem. Such equipment required greater power to maintain its range but could be larger (since rotation was eliminated) and hence could operate at lower frequencies, enhancing performance.

Wartime submarines also carried sonar. Most navies relied on active sets for target detection, but Germany pursued a different course with its Gruppen-Horch-Gerät (GHG) equipment, a standard installation from 1935 on. An array of sound-receiving diaphragms on each side of the bow connected to a pulse-timing compensator provided bearings of received noise. This apparatus could detect single ships out to 16 miles and large groups to 80 miles, but the bearings it provided were insufficiently precise for accurate attacks. At short ranges, however, a supplemental swiveling hydrophone (Kristall-Basisgerät) generated bearings accurate to within 1 degree. Finally, to obtain ranges U-boats carried an active sonar (SU-Apparatus) developed from surface warship sets, although this device was rarely used because its emissions would reveal the submarine’s presence. Late-war trials, however, using GHG together with SU-Apparatus demonstrated that as few as three active impulses sufficed to determine target distance, course, and approximate speed.

Fixed-array scanning formed the basis for active sonar development after World War II, while passive systems evolved from the original German GHG. In the process the two types converged; most modern ship-mounted sonars operate in both active and passive modes, often simultaneously.


WWII Air-to-Ground Special Purpose Weapons

‘Mistel’ (mistletoe) was the name the Germans gave to their combination system whereby a fighter aircraft was attached to an old bomber loaded with explosives. The fighter, in this case an Me 109, flew its charge to the target, broke contact and guided the bomber to impact by radio control.

The ‘Weary Willie’ idea of packing old B- 17s with explosive and crashing them on to a target was abandoned in favour of more modest plans involving these Grumman F6F Hellcats. Too late for service in 1945, they saw action in the Korean War.

The Förstersonde consisted of a pair of 77-mm recoilless guns mounted vertically in the wing of an FW 190 and triggered by the electro-magnetic field created by the mass of metal in a tank. It was successful in penetrating the armour of a captured T-34 tank. Very little is known of this project except that trials were made in early 1945 on the fire control system which proved that it was feasible if not immediately perfect, but the weapon never got into service.

Many of today’s air-to-ground weapons can trace their ancestry back to munitions designed in World War II. Most nations experimented with guided weapons, the Germans deploying some to great effect. There were also unique ideas such as the Dambusters’ ‘Bouncing Bomb’ produced for special operations.

Weary Willie and ‘ Tired Tim’ were a couple of much-beloved strip cartoon characters in the days before World War IL , and it was probably the America custom of describing time-expired operational airframes as ‘war weary’ that led to the name Weary Willie for the Boeing B-17s modified for remote-control crashing onto targets such as the underground lairs (No-ball targets) of weapons like the V-1 flying bomb . The relegated bombers were never in the event used for such work, but would have been packed with explosive and taken under radio control on their last mission.

But if such outsize flying bombs as these represent the larger of the special purpose weapons, the other end of the scale is surely and ably represented by the tiny Razzle (and the larger Decker). These were incendiary devices intended for use against enemy crops and forests and consisted of a small piece of wet cotton wool wrapped round a phosphorus pellet and enclosed within two sheets of celluloid about 7.6 cm (3 in) square. Some 450 such devices were carried in a drum of liquid and dropped over enemy territory, to lay on the ground undetected until they dried out and ignited

Yet undoubtedly the most famous special device of the entire conflict is the cylindrical bomb used to destroy the vital Ruhr dams.

Simple in concept, this Barnes Wallis design was little more than a cylinder, set spinning by means of a VSG Hydraulic motor via a ‘V’ belt. With 2994 kg (6,600 lb) of RDX explosive making up, the greater part of the 4196 kg 2994 kg (9,250 lb) total the bomb was capable of skipping total the over the protective booms at 500 rpm once released by the parting of the pair of suspended trusses, to sink against the target wall and be fired by the hydrostatic fuses set to operate at a depth of 9.14 m (30 ft).

Another special Weapon of similar concept was that intended to sink the Tirpitz. This preceded the larger bomb, and was codenamed ‘Highball’. Of spheroidal shape, it was intended to be carried in pairs by an adapted de Havilland Mosquito. The delivery journey and dash back to base would be carried out at 4572-m (15,000-ft) altitude which, although probably alerting the enemy radar, would permit an enhanced range and improved flexibility of the actual attack. Unfortunately all came to naught although tests had been satisfactorily concluded, political pressures finally winning the day so that not even the squadron of special Mosquitoes despatched to operate against the Japanese fleet was ever used.

The supply of special weapons was not in any measure confined to the Allies. For example , the Luftwaffe boasted that its largest convention 5,511-lb SC 2500 nicknamed ‘Max’ which was 3.895 m ( 12 ft 9.3 in ) long and had a diameter of 0.829 m (2 ft 8.6 in), was too large to fit in the internal bay of any German bomber and thus had to be carried externally.

One of the special weapons associated with the night raids against the UK was that popularly known as the ‘land mine’. This was an adapted device that was commonly spoken of in some awe because of its high blast effect; this was partly the result of the weapon’s lack of penetration, since it was dropped under a large parachute of coarse green material secured to the thin-walled casing with plaited lines some 12.7-mm (0.5- in) thick. These weapons were frequently dropped in company with a percentage of ‘oil bombs’, fire-raising devices distinct from the normal thermite incendiaries of which an explosive version was introduced. The oil bombs carried both fuel-oil and phosphorus within a single casing. Another contemporary special weapon was the so-called Molotov cocktail, which consisted in the main of a high-explosive bomb with an attached container for conventional incendiaries which opened before making impact and thus scattered its load.

But perhaps the most dangerous special weapon to come from the German aerial armoury was quite small, the ‘butterfly-bomb’ or SD-2 which consisted of a cylinder no more than a few centimetres in diameter. Semi-circular wings so that the bomb spun to the ground in the manner of a sycamore seed. These weapons proved particular value against soft-skinned vehicles or troops in the open, detonation taking place on impact or after a delay; the weapons could also act as ‘booby-traps’, lying in undergrowth etc. until disturbed. Fighters or Junkers Ju 87s could lay a trail of up to 96 of these SD-2s, while twin-motor bombers could deposit some 360, a contrast in size and scope with such special weapons as the explosive-laden Grumman F6F Hellcats earmarked to fly unmanned against targets in the Pacific area.


Without doubt, though, the glide bomb to end all glide bombs was Mistel (`Mistletoe’). It is said that this idea was put forward by the chief test pilot of the Junkers company in 1941 as a method of putting war-weary Ju 88 bombers to some practical use. In the 1930s Britain’s Imperial Airways had proposed an air mail service on the Atlantic and other routes by using a seaplane mounted on top of a flying-boat. The flying boat took off, carrying the seaplane, transported it some distance along its route, and then the seaplane released itself and flew off to continue the trip while the flying boat returned to base. The object was to use the greater power of the flying boat to get the heavily laden (with fuel and mail) seaplane into the air, as well as carry it some distance without using any of its fuel.

The proposal that now came forward in Germany was a reversal of this. The Ju 88 bomber was stripped of its interior fittings and had the cockpit space filled with a gigantic shaped charge weighing about 3,500kg. A fighter aircraft was attached above the bomber and the controls connected. All engines were started and the fighter pilot flew the combination off. On approaching his target he put the whole combination into a dive calculated to deliver the bomber to the target, then disconnected himself. He then flew an accompanying course, correcting the bomber’s flight by radio until he had steered it into impact with the target, after which he flew home satisfied with a job well done.

As might be imagined, such a revolutionary concept in 1941 was promptly thrown out, but in 1942 it re-appeared but as a means of lifting a glider into the air and then releasing it. This appeared to work successfully, then somebody in the Reichsluftministerium remembered the fighter/bomber combination and brought the idea forward again. In 1943 it was put into development and a combination Ju 88A/Messerschmitt Bf 109 flew a series of tests, leading to an order for 15 sets to be built under the code-name Beethoven. The shaped-charge warhead was built and tested, first against a redundant French battleship and then against reinforced concrete, against which it could defeat 18 metres thickness.

Once the design was perfected and made operational, it became Mistel 7, and the machines were operated in 1944 from a base in France against Allied shipping in the Bay of Biscay. It is reported that several hits were made, though no ship was sunk as a result. Now a crash programme was begun to assemble 100 units, to be called Mistel 2, which were to be used in Operation Iron Hammer against the advancing Allied forces nearing Germany. The order was then increased to 250, and several other combinations of fighter and bomber, according to what machines could be rounded up and converted, were put in hand, but, as with so many other last-minute schemes, the war ended before the force could be built and assembled.

Gliding Torpedoes

Blöhm und Voss, being primarily a firm with naval interests, became involved in the development of a gliding torpedo in the middle 1930s. Dropping torpedoes from aircraft was by that time a commonplace, but it was a rough and ready technique which simply took a standard naval torpedo and dropped it in the water from as low as the pilot dared to go. The Blöhm & Voss Luft-Torpedo (LT F5b) began with a standard 750 kg fleet torpedo and added tail surfaces and apparatus for setting the steering and depth controls from the aircraft. This worked well and improved the accuracy of the aviators, and it was followed by the LT 10 Friedensengel (Angel of Peace’) which used the same torpedo but added wings and tail-planes so that it could make a long glide before entering the water at the proper speed and angle. About 450 of these appear to have been manufactured during the war years, though accounts of their employment are certainly very scarce. Production was halted in 1944 and changed to the LT 11 or Schneewittchen (`Snow-white’), a rather more advanced model, but few of these were ever made.

The German bouncing bombs

There was an immediate response to the bomb by the Germans. After the Lancaster crashed from hitting high-tension power lines, the intact mine was removed from the wrecked plane by the local troops, who initially thought that it was a reinforced auxiliary fuel tank. Once its true nature was realized it took just ten days for the German engineers to draw up detailed blueprints of all the design features and they set out to build a bouncing bomb of their own. The first constructed was code named Kurt and was a 850lb (385kg) bomb built at the Luftwaffe Experimental Centre in Travemünde. The initial trial was from a Focke-Wulf Fw-190 but the importance of backspin was not recognized by the designers, and the bomb leaped high in the air after release, posing a danger to the aircraft.

To obtain more range, and thus provide safer conditions for the dropping aircraft, which, it appeared, would usually be above the bomb when it detonated, a rocket rail unit was fitted. This increased the range but also showed a tendency to push the bomb off course if it happened to be yawing at the instant of ignition. To cure this a gyroscope stabilising unit was designed, which would have been run up before the bomb was dropped but while the aircraft was aimed at the target, and which would subsequently detect any tendency to veer off-course and apply the necessary corrections to the tail unit to steer it back again. But, in November 1944, before this could be built and tested, the project was closed down. The one thing that remains to be discovered about Kurt is what target the Luftwaffe planned to use it against?

The fact that the Germans found an intact bomb was due to a vital factor overlooked by the British designers. As we have seen, these were essentially mines fitted with depth charges. The bomb that overshot – because it was never immersed in water – was never going to explode, and so it was recovered intact. A conventional time fuse should have been fitted, and then the weapon would have functioned as conventional bomb if it overshot the dam. And the Germans missed something equally crucial – the fact that the bombs were spinning. It was the backspin that gave the bouncing bombs their awesome ability to ricochet so far across the water. This remained a military secret long after the war; indeed, you will note that there is no mention of spin even in the movie of the Dambusters. Although Barnes Wallis advised on the film, and it is painstakingly accurate in many respects, he was prohibited from releasing this vital piece of information and the public never knew.

The drawings and diagrams were ultimately all lost, and little technical detail remained. In 2011 Ian Duncan, a director with the British documentary company Windfall Films, recreated a scaled-down version of the bouncing bomb, with Dr Hugh Hunt of Cambridge University in charge of the experiments. They began logically (as did Barnes Wallis) with small spheres leading onto increasingly large projectiles, ending up with a half-size bouncing bomb with which they successfully targeted a purpose-built dam. The physics proved interesting: just as Barnes Wallis had calculated, the lower the bomb was dropped, the further it travelled.

The Americans had tried to make use of this principle immediately after World War II. Because they were sent every British military secret, their designers were aware of the need for backspin, and they also knew that a low launch altitude helped maximize the trajectory of the spinning mine. They copied the British design of the Highball weapon, renaming it Baseball. Initial investigations were promising, so – to maximize the distance the bomb would travel – they decided to launch it at 25ft (7.6m), less than half the altitude of the British Dambusters. This was such a success that the officials reckoned the pilot should fly even lower and see how far the bomb went this time. As the plane sped above the water at the perilously low level of 10ft (3m) the bomb was dropped and bounced perfectly – so much so that it smashed up through the fuselage, completely severing the aircraft’s tail. The plane flew on momentarily and then smashed into countless fragments as it hit the water at speed. The surviving film of the incident makes the whole event so obviously predictable, and one can only sympathize with the compliant pilot who either thought it would be good idea at the time or was simply following orders.

Meanwhile, Guy Gibson’s 617 Squadron remained together and they were subsequently given the opportunity to deliver Barnes Wallis’s later weapons. The Cookie 5-ton bomb was carried by Lancaster bombers and used with great effect to attack submarine pens in France and German warship bases in the fjords of Norway. Although it proved a success, it was no more than a vast, conventional blast bomb. Barnes Wallis had in mind a very different secret weapon which would penetrate the ground and deliver such powerful shockwaves that it would bring down buildings and bunkers for a considerable distance around. Whereas a conventional bomb (no matter how large) did its damage through air-blast, Barnes Wallis’s revolutionary new bomb would generate a miniature earthquake, by setting up huge ground waves of energy. These could demolish a building from below.

Other solutions were sought to increase the penetrating power of high-explosive bombs. Towards the end of the war, a rocket-assisted high-impact bomb was conceived by the Royal Navy’s Captain Edward Terrell as an alternative answer. The rocket could give a smaller bomb the velocity needed to penetrate thick concrete. The weapon weighed only 4,500 lb (2,000 kg) and could be dropped from a safe altitude of 20,000 ft (about 6,000 m). When it had descended to 5,000 ft (1,500 m) a barometric fuse would fire a rocket motor in the tail. This accelerated the bomb to give it a final speed of 2,400 ft/s (730 m/s). This secret weapon was first carried under the wings of B-17 Flying Fortress bombers used by the 92nd Bomb Group on 10 February 1945 against the S-boat pens at IJmuiden, Netherlands. Altogether, 158 of these so-called Disney bombs were used operationally by the end of the war in Europe.

Barnes Wallis scaled down his proposals for his gravity-assisted penetrating bomb, and in 1944 designed instead the 12,000 lb (5,400 kg) Tallboy bomb, which could be carried by the current bombers. Later in the war, the Avro Lancaster improved to such an extent that it could just support a 10-ton payload and so, as we shall see, the 22,000 lb (10,000 kg) Grand Slam bomb was finally put into production. It was a secret weapon of unprecedented power. As in the case of the Tallboy bomb, the Grand Slam was spin-stabilized by its fins and was built with a thick, heavy steel case to allow it to penetrate deep layers of the ground unscathed. Dropped from high altitude, it would impact at nearly the speed of sound. During manufacture, hot liquid Torpex explosive was poured in to fill the casing and this took a month to cool down and solidify. Torpex (named because it had been developed as a TORpedo EXplosive) had more than 150 per cent the force of TNT. The finished bomb was so valuable that aircraft that could not drop their weapon in an abortive mission were ordered to return to base and land with the bomb intact, instead of jettisoning it over the open sea. Barnes Wallis had planned to create a 10-ton weapon in 1941, but it was not until June 1944 that the bomb was ready for use. It was first dropped on the Saumur rail tunnel from Lancaster bombers of 617 Squadron. No aircraft were lost on the raid, and one of the bombs bored 60 ft (18 m) through the rock into the tunnel, blocking it completely. These massive ‘earthquake’ bombs were also used on the great concrete structures that the Germans were building to protect their rocket storage bunkers and submarine pens, and caused considerable damage. The Valentin submarine pens at Bremen, Germany, were made with reinforced concrete roofs some 23 ft (7 m) thick yet they were penetrated by two Grand Slam bombs in March 1945.

Ultimate penetration bombs

These ground-penetrating bombs are among the secret weapons that have gone on to give rise to present-day developments. Remote guidance was added to the Tallboy bomb by the United States during the Korean War. The resulting weapon was the 12,000 lb (5,400 kg) Tarzon bomb, used with devastating effect against a deep underground control room near Kanggye. Bunker buster bombs were also dropped at the Ali Al Salem Air Base, Kuwait, in 1991 as part of Operation Desert Storm. At the outbreak of the First Gulf War none of the NATO forces possessed such a weapon, so some of the original Barnes Wallis bombs were brought out of museums and used as templates for the construction of 2-ton bombs. They were laser guided by the United States forces and proved highly effective.

During the late 1990s a nuclear bomb was being designed by the United States for use in tactical warfare. Known as the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator it underwent extensive design and development even though the use of nuclear weapons was prohibited by international agreement. Work on the project continued until it was finally cancelled by the Senate in 2005. Meanwhile, in 2007 the Boeing Company announced that they had carried out successful tests of their Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP) weapon at the White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. This bomb, also known as the Big Blu and Direct Hard Target Strike Weapon, is a 30,000 lb (14,000 kg) penetration bomb designed to be delivered by a B-52 Stratofortress or a B-2 stealth bomber against heavily protected subterranean targets. This is a project for the United States Threat Reduction Agency, and is designed to hit the ground at supersonic speeds so that it can penetrate deeply prior to detonation. Most of the mass is in the casing, not the explosive component. All of his stems from the work of Barnes Wallis during World War II, so once again the legacy of these secret weapons remains with us to this day.

USA guided missiles

One of the first guided missiles designed in the United States was the Dragon, a radio-controlled aerial torpedo with a television camera mounted in the nose. Development proved difficult, however, when private television and electronics related firms attempted to merge their designs with the air- frames developed by the military. To overcome some of the ensuing technical difficulties involved in systems integration, the NDRC enlisted the aid of the National Bureau of Standards, which formed a special research group for the project. But before development advanced to the production stage, the project became sidetracked when the navy requested the National Bureau of Standards to design an effective antisubmarine guided missile. Using a scaled- down version of the Dragon, late in 1944, the National Bureau of Standards produced the Pelican, a radar-guided antisubmarine missile.

By this time, however, the German U-boat threat had subsided greatly, and despite its excellent performance in flight tests, the navy scrapped the Pelican, declaring that the missile was of “no operational use.” The technical knowledge gained from the development of the Pelican was subsequently applied to a more advanced model, the SWOD Mk 9 air-to-surface guided missile, also known as the Mk 57 Bomb, or Bat. The Bat, developed by the Navy Bureau of Ordnance in cooperation with the Radiation Laboratory at MIT, was a low- angle glide bomb equipped with a radar bombsight for active homing. The Bat entered service in January 1945 and was first used on 23 April 1945 at Balikpapan, Borneo. Although the Bat was the only completely automatic target- seeking missile developed during the war, its efficacy in combat proved less than satisfactory.

The R4M rocket

Me 262 with R4M underwing rockets on display at the Technikmuseum Speyer, Germany

The 5.5cm R4M aircraft rocket; drawn from a British report on its discovery. This is the air-to-air version with a shaped-charge warhead for antiaircraft use.

The R4M had two shaped-charge warheads: PR-3 for aerial fighting and the larger PB-2, used for attacking tanks.

The R4M rocket – from the German Rakete (rocket), 4-KiIogramm, Minenkopf (mine-head) – was nicknamed the Orkan (Hurricane) missile. It weighed 8.51b (3.85kg), measured 32in (812mm) in length and 2.16in (55mm) in diameter. It was developed in 1945 and a few were fitted to Me-262 and Fw-190s aircraft. It was highly effective and in April 1945 a squadron of Me-262 jets are reported to have brought down 30 American B-17 bombers in a single mission.

The fighter version of the Me262 could fly at 540 mph – it could far outstrip the Mustangs, and it could reach 30 000 ft in seven minutes. It could fly for only an hour, which was a drawback, but its 30-mm guns could pack an awful punch. Later it added the new R4M rockets to its armament, being able to carry 24 of these high-velocity air- to-air rockets which were ripple-fired to form a dense pattern. Fired at a B17 formation, a single rocket was usually more than enough to cause lethal damage.

The tactic used by Me262 pilots when attacking US bombers was generally to place themselves about three miles behind the bomber `box’ and about 6000 ft above. From this position they began a dive to reach a speed of over 540 mph with which to penetrate any fighter screen. Continuing down to 1000 to 1500 ft below the `box’ the German pilot would then pull up, throttle back in order to lose some of this forward speed, then level out some 1000 yards behind the target at about 100 mph, firing rockets (if carried) at 650 yards’, then following up with his 30-mm from closer range. The pilot would accelerate away and over to avoid flying debris, as his target bomber disintegrated.

Produced by the Rheinmetall Company, the Rakete 4 Minenkopf (R4M) air-to-air rocket, nicknamed Orkan (Hurricane), was developed to deal with Allied heavy bombers. The projectile was composed of a simple steel (later cardboard) tube with eight flip-out fins for stabilization. It was 82 cm (32.2 in) in length and 5.5 cm (2.16 in) in diameter. It was powered by a diglycol, solid-fuel, fast-burning rocket propellant. It mounted a 0.50 kg (1.1l b) war- head, either high-explosive for anti-aircraft use or armor-piercing against tanks. It was usually used in a battery of twelve or twenty-four, mounted and fired from a wooden launch rail attached under wing. The projectiles were unguided and aimed by a cockpit gunsight. They were provided with enough fuel to be fired effectively from 1,000 m, thus beyond the range of bombers’ defensive weapons. The rockets were serially fired in four salvos of six missiles each, at intervals of 0.07 seconds, from a range of about 600 m to 1,000 m and at a speed of 1,700 ft/s. One single hit often meant a kill, but it was not an easy task to take accurate aim on a target which was taking evasive action. Simple and easy to manufacture, the R4M was used operationally only for a brief period just before the end of World War II.


In their early years at Peenemünde, the German rocket researchers had no difficulty in attracting the funds they needed. Money was printed in large amounts and military expenditure for the Army now seemed to have no limits.

Von Braun was in his element at Peenemünde, and the design of the great A-4 rocket proceeded apace. It was to be based on the successful design of the A-5, with a redesigned control system and updated construction. The A-5 had reached an altitude of 35,000ft (10,000m) in tests during 1938, and the A-4 was designed with the benefit of the results of these pioneering tests. But things changed when Hitler began to anticipate an early end to hostilities, with Germany reigning supreme across Western Europe, and as a result research at Peenemünde was reduced. In a scaled-down programme of research, the engineers contented themselves by designing improved servo-control systems and new, high-throughput fuel pumps were systematically developed. Rocket development had essentially been put on hold.

Within two years the tide was turning, and the need for rocket research began to re-emerge. Work on the A-4 picked up again and on 13 June 1942 the first of the new monster rockets was ready for test firing. The rocket was checked and re-checked. Meticulous records were maintained of every aspect of its functioning. It stood 46ft 1.5in (14.05m) tall, weighed 12 tons, and was fuelled with methyl alcohol (methanol). The oxidant, liquid oxygen, was pumped in just prior to launch. The pumps were run up to speed, ignition achieved and the rocket rose unsteadily from its launch pad. In a billowing cloud of smoke and steam it began to climb, rapidly gaining speed, and then – at just the wrong moment – the propellant pump motor failed. The rocket staggered for a moment and crashed back onto the launch pad, disintegrating in a huge explosion. The technicians were terrified and were lucky to escape.

On 16 August 1942 a second A-4 was tested. Once again, the fuel motor pump stopped working but this time it failed later in the flight, after the rocket had already passed through the sound barrier. The third test was a complete success. It took place on 3 October 1942 and this rocket was fired out along the coast of Pomerania. The engine burned for over a minute, boosting the rocket to a maximum altitude of 50 miles (80km). It fell to earth 119.3 miles (192km) from the launch pad. The age of the space rocket had arrived, and the ballistic missile was a reality. The design of the A-4 rocket could now be fine tuned and – given time – the complex design could be optimized for mass production. The Nazis now had their new Vergeltungswaffe (‘retaliatory’ or ‘reprisal’ weapon). The term was important; although Hitler saw these as weapons of mass destruction, he hoped that the world – instead of seeing him as the aggressor – would regard him as simply responding to Allied attacks. The ‘V’ is sometimes translated into English as ‘vengeance’, but that is not right as the term in German connotes reprisal. The first of such weapons was their V-1 cruise missile, the ‘buzz-bomb’ and now they had the V-2. It would surely strike terror into the hearts of those who challenged German supremacy.

Aspects of the design were refined and developed by teams in companies including Zeppelin Luftschiffbau and Heinkel, and the final production version of the V-2 was a brilliantly successful rocket. Over 5,000 would be produced by the Germans. The production model stood 46ft (14m) tall, was 5ft 5in (1.65m) in diameter, and weighed over 5 tons of which 70 per cent was fuel. The tanks held 8,300lb (3,760kg) of fuel and just over 11,000lb (5,000kg) of liquid oxygen at take-off. The combustion chamber consumed 275lb (125kg) per second, emitting exhaust gases at a velocity of 6,950ft/s (2,200m/s). The missile was steered by vanes in the exhaust and could land with an accuracy better than 4 per cent, or so claimed the designers. No metal could withstand the intense heat, so these internal fins were constructed from carbon. They ablated in the heat, but could not burn away rapidly due to the lack of free oxygen and lasted long enough for the entire rocket burn. For the time, the V-2 was – and it remains – an extraordinary achievement made in record time.

Dörnberger tried to take full advantage of the success. Ever since the United States had declared war on Germany on 8 December 1941, the balance of power had begun to tip against the Nazis and Dörnberger knew the time was ripe for official endorsement of his teams’ progress. Hitler had been to see static tests of rocket motors at Kummersdorf but he had not been greatly impressed by the noise, fire and smoke. These were so exciting to the rocket enthusiasts – it was what rocketry was all about – but Hitler could not imagine how these ‘boys’ toys’ could transmute into agencies of world domination and he was reluctant to give the rocket teams the high priority they sought.

Dörnberger was frustrated by the bureaucracy and the lack of exciting new developments. Some of the pressure had been temporarily relieved from Dörnberger on 8 February 1942 when news reached him that the Minister for Armaments and Munitions, Fritz Todt, had died at the age of 50. Todt was aboard a Junkers Ju-52 aircraft on a routine tour when it crashed and exploded shortly after take-off. Albert Speer was supposed to have been on the same flight, but cancelled at the last minute. Speer was immediately appointed by Hitler to take Todt’s place, and he was far more interested in what Dörnberger had to say. Speer was a professional architect and had joined the Nazi party in 1931. He had soon become a member of Hitler’s inner circle and had gained the Führer’s trust after his appointment as chief architect. Speer clearly felt that Hitler could be reconciled to the idea of the V-2 as progress continued.

As luck would have it, the new committee was put under the charge of General Gerd Degenkolb, who disliked Dörnberger intensely. Von Braun said at the time: ‘This committee is a thorn in our flesh.’ One can see why. Degenkolb exemplified that other German trait, a talent for bureaucracy and administrative complexity. He had been in a group including Karl-Otto Saur and Fritz Todt, who espoused Hitler’s policy of being ‘not yet convinced’ by the rocket as a major agent in military success. Degenkolb immediately began to establish a separate bureaucratic structure to work alongside Dörnberger’s. Details of the design of the V-2 rocket were reconsidered in detail by Degenkolb’s new committee, and some of their untried new recommendations were authorized without Dörnberger’s knowledge or approval.

Progress remained problematic even following the successful launches. The Director of Production Planning, Detmar Stahlknecht, had set targets for V-2 production which were agreed with Dörnberger – but which were then unilaterally modified by Degenkolb. Stahlknecht had planned to produce 300 of the V-2 rockets per month by January 1944 – but in January 1943 Degenkolb decreed that this total be brought forward to October 1943. Stahlknecht was aiming for a monthly production target of 600 by July 1944; Degenkolb insisted the figure be raised to 900 per month, and the date brought forward to December 1943. The success of the rocket was encouraging the policy makers to raise their game, and their new targets seemed simply unattainable.

The Capitalist dream

At this point, Dörnberger was presented with a startling new prospect. He learned of a bizarre idea to capitalize on the sudden enthusiasm for the new rockets. He was told that it was being proposed to designate Peenemünde as a ‘land’ in its own right. It would be jointly purchased by major German companies like AEG and Siemens who would pay more than 1,000,000 Reichsmarks for the property and then charge the Nazi government for each missile produced. AEG, in particular, were highly impressed by the telemetry developed for the V-2 rocket and recognized that it had far-reaching implications and considerable market potential.

The guidance systems were remarkably advanced. They had been developed by Helmut Gröttrup, working alongside Von Braun, though there was little friendship between the two. Dörnberger fought to have Peenemünde maintained as an army proving ground and production facility, and won the battle only after bitter negotiations. This had been a narrow victory for Dörnberger, and was one that he would have been unlikely to win without the support of Speer.

Three sites were immediately confirmed for the production of the new rockets: Peenemünde, Friedrichshafen and the Raxwerken at Wiener Neustadt. Degenkolb issued orders at once, but he failed to see that the senior staff were not available in sufficient numbers to train and organize production on such a rapidly expanding scale. Degenkolb refused to be challenged and insisted that production begin immediately – and, when the engineers explained the impossibility of the task at such short notice, Degenkolb issued orders that they be imprisoned if his schedule was not met. Clearly, he meant business.

Although Degenkolb saw Von Braun as a personal rival, and someone he disliked, he recognized that his participation was crucial to the success of the rocket development. Others knew this too. At one stage, Von Braun had even been arrested by the authorities under the suspicion that his covert purpose was not the bombardment of foreign cities for the benefit of the Fatherland, but that he was secretly planning to develop rockets for space exploration at government expense. At first, Von Braun’s protests came to nothing and a lengthy bureaucratic enquiry seemed inevitable, until Dörnberger intervened to say that, without Von Braun, there could be no further progress. At this, Von Braun was released and sent back to his work. Dörnberger reported his frustrations with a lack of progress towards full production. Speer understood that the heavy-handed administrative interference of Degenkolb had introduced an unnecessary hold-up (reckoned by Dörnberger to be a delay of 18 months) and promised to remove him if it would help.

In the event, Degenkolb survived because of the influence of Fritz Todt’s long-standing friend, Karl-Otto Saur. Saur himself had a remarkable instinct for survival and, after the war, he was used as a key witness for the prosecution on behalf of the American authorities and was subsequently released. The fact that Karl-Otto Saur was designated by Hitler to replace Speer as Minister for Armaments was not a sufficient crime for him to be tried as a war criminal, and he eventually set up a publishing house back in Germany named Saur Verlag. The company survives to this day publishing reference information for librarians – a curious legacy from World War II.

Wernher von Braun (center), the technical director of the Peenemünde Army Research Center with German officers at Peenemünde, March 21, 1941. The British attempt to incapacitate the leadership of the German rocket program was unsuccessful. Von Braun and most of the important German scientists survived Operation Hydra.

The remaining serious challenger to the V-2 was the Luftwaffe’s buzz-bomb, the V-1. Its proponents pointed out that it was cheap to fly, economic to fuel, easy to produce in vast numbers and surely a far better candidate for support than the costly and complex V-2. Dörnberger argued strongly in favour of his own project. The V-1 needed a launch ramp, whereas the V-2 could be launched from almost anywhere it could stand. The flying bomb was easy to detect, shoot down or divert off course, whereas a rocket was undetectable until after it had hit. In the end the Nazi authorities were persuaded by both camps and the two weapons were ordered into mass production. Nonetheless, the delays remained an obstacle to progress, and by the summer of 1943 – with Degenkolb’s production target of 900 per month looming ever closer – the engineers protested that their highly successful engine was still not ready for manufacture in large amounts by regular engineers.

Once again there were conflicting interests and opposing policies. Adolf Thiel, senior design engineer on the V-2, protested that mass production was not likely to be achieved before the war had come to its natural conclusion. Friends of Thiel reported he was close to a nervous breakdown, and wanted to stop work at Peenemünde and retire to an academic career at university. However, Von Braun remained obdurately convinced that they were close to success and, on balance, Dörnberger sided with that view.

Watching from London

Meanwhile, British Intelligence was watching. A major breakthrough for the British came on 23 March 1943. A captured German officer, General Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma, provided timely information that the Allies would find of crucial importance. Back on 29 May 1942 the Nazi Lieutenant-General Ludwig Crüwell had flown to inspect German operations in Libya when his pilot mistook British soldiers for Italian troops and he landed the plane alongside them. Crüwell was taken prisoner and on 22 March 1943 he was placed in a room with General Von Thoma. The room was bugged, and their muffled conversation was partly overheard by the eager British agents, listening in the next room. The notes were recorded in the secret Air Scientific Intelligence Interim Report written up on 26 June 1943, and now held in the archives at Churchill College, University of Cambridge, England:

No progress whatsoever can have been made in this rocket business. I saw it once with Field Marshall [Walther von] Brauchitsch. There is a special ground near Kummersdorf. They’ve got these huge things which they’ve brought up here… They’ve always said that they go fifteen kilometres up into the stratosphere and then … you only aim at an area. If one was to … every few days … frightful! The major there was full of hope – he said, ‘Wait until next year and the fun will start. There’s no limit [to the range]…

Further substantiation came in June 1943, when a resourceful Luxembourger named Schwaben sent a sketch of the Peenemünde establishment to London in a microfilm through a network of agents known as the Famille Martin. This fitted well with the other reports that had been arriving, including eye-witness accounts and notes smuggled out from secret agents about activity at Peenemünde. The intelligence service kept meticulous records of the reports of vapour trails, explosions and occasional sightings that were relayed back to London from those witnesses who were anxious to see an end to Nazi tyranny. Churchill appointed his son-in-law, Duncan Sandys MP, to head a committee to look further into the matter and on 12 June 1943 an RAF reconnaissance mission was sent to fly over the site at high altitude and bring back the first images of what could be seen at Peenemünde. The unmistakable sight of rockets casting shadows across the ground could be picked out in the images. Measurements suggested to the British that the rocket was about 38ft (11.5m) long, 6ft (1.8m) in diameter and had tail fins. The intelligence report estimated the mass of each rocket must be between 40 and 80 tons. It was guessed that there might be 5 or 10 tons of explosives aboard.

This was partly right, and partly a gross exaggeration. The V-2 was actually 46ft (14m) long and 5ft 5in (1.65m) in diameter, so the measurements calculated by the British were reasonable estimates. But the weight of the missile was wildly over-estimated – rather than 40 tons or more, it weighed just under 13 tons and carried 2,200lb (980kg) of explosive rather than ‘up to 10 tons’ of the British estimates. A ‘rough outline’ drawing of the rocket was prepared for this report and it looks more like a torpedo. Perhaps the missile as drawn lacked its 7.5ft (2.3m) warhead nose cone. In that case, the dimensions were surprisingly accurate – though there is no accounting for the gross over-calculation of the weight.

Although the guesswork about the rocket’s weight was wrong, the comments that R. V. Jones added to the secret intelligence report of 26 June 1943 show a remarkably clear analysis of Germany’s position at the time.

The evidence shows that … the Germans have for some time been developing a long-range rocket at Peenemünde. Provided that the Germans are satisfied with Peenemünde’s security, there is no reason to assume the existence of a rival establishment, unless the latter has arisen from inter-departmental jealousy.

Almost every report points to the fact that development can hardly have reached maturity, although it has been proceeding for some time. If, as appears, only three rockets were fired in the last three months of 1942, with two unsuccessful, the Germans just then have been some way from success and production.

At least three sorties over Peenemünde have now shown one and only one rocket visible in the entire establishment and one sortie has perhaps shown two. Supposing that the rockets have been accidentally left out in the open or because the inside storage is full, then the chances are that the rocket population is less than, say, twenty. If it were much greater, then it would be an extraordinary chance that this number should always be one greater than storage capacity. Therefore the number of rockets at Peenemünde is small, and since this is the main seat of development, the number of rockets in the Reich is also likely to be relatively small…

Since the long-range rocket can hardly have reached maturity, German technicians would probably prefer to wait until their designs were more complete. If, as seems very possible, the genius of the Führer prevails over the judgement of the technicians, then despite everything the rocket will shortly be brought into use in its premature form.

Jones drew this conclusion: ‘The present population of rockets is probably small, so that the rate of bombardment [of London] would not be high. The only immediate counter measure readily apparent is to bomb the establishment at Peenemünde.’

Jones was right, and plans for a massive bombing raid began at once. Three days later, on 29 June 1943, a meeting was convened at the Cabinet War Room at which Duncan Sandys revealed the contents of the photographs. He had short-circuited R. V. Jones’s connections with the photo labs and insisted that they all be sent first to him. One of those attending the meeting was Professor Frederick Lindemann, Viscount Cherwell, who immediately poured scorn on the idea of a rocket base. Lindemann was a German-born physicist and Churchill’s chief scientific adviser. He said at the meeting that a rocket weighing up to 80 tons was absurd. The rockets, he insisted, were an elaborate sham; the Germans had mocked them up to frighten the British and lead them on a false trail. It was nothing but an elaborate cover plan. After his analysis, which left the officials in the room sensing that a dreadful mistake was being made, Churchill turned to R. V. Jones and said that they would now hear the truth of the matter. Jones was crisp and to the point. Whatever might be the remaining questions over the details of these missiles, said Jones, it was clear to him that the rockets were real – and they posed a threat to Britain. The site must be destroyed. The idea of sending further reconnaissance flights was quickly dismissed, for it could alert the Germans to the fact that the Allies had discovered the site.

Peenemünde was too far away to be in contact by radio, and out of range of the fighters; so the Allied bombers would be completely unprotected. German fighters would soon be on the scene, and heavy Allied losses were likely. The conclusion was that the heaviest bombing would be arranged, and it would take place on the first night that meteorological conditions were suitable. The attack was code named Operation Hydra.

Aerial photograph of Peenemunde (AIR 34/184) – Transcript Peenemunde Site Plan/Target Map, (AIR 34/632)

Operation Hydra, the raid on Peenemünde. Targets shown are

    A: Experimental station

    B: Factory workshops

    C: Power plant

    D: Unidentified machinery

    E: Experimental establishments

    F: Sleeping and living quarters

    G: Airfield

Date: April 1943

Operation Hydra

On 8 July 1943 Hitler was shown an Agfacolor film of the launch of a V-2 and was finally convinced that the monster rocket could win him back the advantage. Having been sceptical, Hitler was now an enthusiastic supporter. He immediately decided that new launch bases would be needed across the northern coast of continental Europe in order to maximize the range of the rockets and the number of launches that Germany could make against Britain. He also ordered that the production of the V-2 was now to be made a top priority. Hitler believed that with these rockets he could turn the tide of war against the Allies. The Germans were busy working to comply with orders to construct a production line at the Peenemünde Army Research base just as the Royal Air Force was instructed to launch Operation Hydra to destroy the establishment.

The planning of Operation Hydra was meticulous. Bombing would be carried out from 9,000ft (about 3,000m; normally bombing raids were from twice as high), and practice runs over suitable stretches of British coastline were quickly arranged. The accuracy improved greatly during the practice sessions, an error of up to about 1,000 yards (900m) improving to 300 yards (270m). None of the aircrew were told the true nature of their target; they were informed that the installation was a new radar establishment that had to be destroyed urgently. By way of encouragement to be thorough on the first raid, they were also told that repeat attacks would be made, regardless of the losses, if they did not succeed first time. Meanwhile, a decoy raid was arranged, code named Operation Whitebait. Mosquito aircraft were to be sent to bomb Berlin prior to the raid on Peenemünde in the hope of attracting German fighters to the area. Further squadrons were meanwhile sent to attack nearby Luftwaffe airfields to prevent German fighters taking to the air over Peenemünde. As the attack began, a master bomber, Group Captain J. H. Searby, would circle around the target to call in successive waves of bombers.

On the night of 17 August 1943 there was a full moon, and the skies were clear. At midnight the raid began, and within half an hour the first wave was heading for home. Over the target, however, there was some light cloud and the accuracy of the first bombs was poor. Guns from the ground were returning fire, and a ship off-shore brought flak to bear on the bombers, but no fighters were seen. The second wave of Lancasters was directed at the factory workshops and then at 12.48am the third and final wave attacked the experimental workshops. This group of Lancaster and Halifax bombers overshot the target and most dropped their bombs half a minute late, so their bombs landed in the camp where conscripted workers were imprisoned. By this time German fighter aircraft were arriving, but they were late and losses to the British bombers were less than 7 per cent.

However, the laboratories and test rigs were damaged – and the Germans now knew, with dramatic suddenness, that their elaborate plans were known to the Allies. On the brink of realization, the plans to manufacture the V-2 at Peenemünde had to be abandoned. The Germans decided to fool the Allies into thinking that they had caused irreparable damage, so they immediately dug dummy ‘bomb craters’ all over the site, and painted black and grey lines across the roofs to look like fire-blackened beams. Their intention was to fool any reconnaissance flights into believing the damage was much worse than it was, thus convincing the British that further raids were unnecessary. The British still had one further element of retaliation, however; a number of the bombs were fitted with time delay fuses and exploded randomly for several days after the raid. They did not cause much material damage, but the continued detonations delayed the Germans from setting out to move equipment from the site.