Purpose of this blog

Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
David Lister aka Listy, Freelancer and Volunteer

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Anti-Tank Squirter

I recently found a file in an archive that talked about a British anti-tank weapon that, so far as I can tell, hasn't been mentioned before. It was (eventually) known as the 'Projector, AT Portable, No1, Mk.1', although it went through several names in its time, such as the Jet, AT, Mk.1, Squirts, AT and the name that will give the game away, Projector, Gas, AT.

Yes, it's another one of those weapons designed to fire hydrogen cyanide, or HCN, that the British seem to have had such an obsession with. To date I've been unable to unearth a picture of this contraption, however, I do have a description of it.
To give an idea of scale this Italian flamethrower, carried by a Finn, has a 12L capacity tank.


The HCN was stored in a 11 litre tank, although this was only filled with 9L. This was, presumably, carried on the back, as at the bottom of the tank a pipe was attached which led to a nozzle which the operator held. This nozzle had a built-in battery which linked to a cordite charge inside the tank. There was an aluminium foil disk sealed over the bottom of the tank, between the pipe attachment and the gas storage. When the cordite charge was fired the massive increase in pressure would rupture the foil and allow the gas to be pushed through the nozzle, dumping the entire contents in one giant squirt.

ICI Cassel in Billingham, where the HCN was produced.


To reload you just replaced the cordite charge and the foil disk, then recharged the gas tank. The gas was not pressurised, indeed filling in ICI's factory was done by pouring the HCN into the tanks. There were considerable safety measures in place, however. In the filling room there was a constant exchange of air, and all the workers wore masks fed from external air.
Inside Cassel, although one of the less sensitive areas. Here the workers are splitting Brine into sodium and Chlorine
At least fourteen Squirts were produced, although the initial prototype run was to be 180. At least two, uncharged, equipment’s were sent to the No 2 Anti-Gas Laboratory in Canada, the others were sent to Porton Down. The Canadians immediately ran into a problem with their two equipment’s (with serial numbers 2a and 3a). On the first Squirt they charged it was found the aluminium foil became corroded. This was reported to the UK and investigations were carried out throughout 1942. These included a study by Dr U. R. Evans of Cambridge University. Dr Evans was an expert in the field of corrosion of aluminium. By 1943 it was determined that the corrosion effect had come from the HCN the Canadians used. They had used US Standard HCN, while the British used British Standard. The difference was the stabilizing element, consisting of just 0.2% of the mixture. The US used sulphuric acid, while the British used oxalic acid.
Men of the Royal Ulster Rifles armed with a 2" mortar
In mid to late 1942 twelve projectors were issued to the Royal Ulster Rifles for user trials. These turned up a number of minor defects that Porton Down worked into the final production of the Squirt. It is possible that the choice of the Royal Ulster Rifles gives us a clue as to how the British saw these weapons. The regiment were glider troops, and so expected to run into enemy forces, without the guarantee of heavier anti-tank weapons such as anti-tank guns. At the time the Boys Rifle would have been the only choice, and that was seen as pretty useless. Equally, the PIAT was still under development. The total production run of just a proposed 360 Squirts also indicates that it wouldn't have been for general issue.

A series of trials were held against a Churchill MK.III. In the first test the vehicle was fully closed down, which provided the most resistance against the Squirt, although the summary of the report doesn’t say if this would cause casualties. Opening either the commanders hatch, or the side doors would result in the crew being killed as this was when the tank was most vulnerable. Curiously opening both the commanders hatch and the side doors left the tank less vulnerable as it allowed a draft through the tank, which would clear out the gas quickly, at least from the turret. The forward hull would not benefit from this draft and so suffered lethal concentrations.

A Lifebuoy flamethrower during a demonstration
A suggestion was made to just use the Lifebuoy flame thrower. However, Porton Down pointed out that the range of such a weapon would be just 18 yards, and the flow rate so slow that it would be difficult to reach a dangerous concentration. 

The Squirt itself could be adapted to be a flamethrower by fixing an ignition device onto the nozzle and filling the container with diesel. This would have made a pretty poor flame weapon, unless the fuel was thickened.

In the end Porton Down suggested that fifty charged Squirts should be produced and held against operational need at Porton Down. This was because it would take six months before the Squirts would begin rolling off the production line should they be suddenly needed. However, the documents do not say if this occurred.

Image credits:
www.jaegerplatoon.net and IndustrialTside

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Germany's answer to D-Day

Just to let you know, articles for the next couple of weeks are going to be shorter ones than normal as I'm a bit busy.

On the evening of 26th of April 1944 a convoy of five Landing Ship, Tank left Plymouth harbour. On-route to their objective they linked up with another three LST's. This force was escorted by HMS Azalea, a Flower Class corvette. Their mission was to conduct a practice landing exercise at a place called Slapton Sands. This convoy was spotted by a Luftwaffe plane, and its position reported. That night a total of nine S-boot's, from the 5th and 9th flotillas at Cherbourg, were given the mission of attacking the convoy as it crossed Lyme Bay.
A US LST, in th background, at work
There should have been an additional escort, HMS Scimitar. However, she had been damaged in a collision the day before and was unable to take station. When this was reported to Naval Command HMS Saladin was dispatched but was unable to reach her station in time. Not that it mattered. Aware they might be attacked by S-boots the Royal Navy had planned several other defensive measures to protect the landing ships laden with troops. Other combat units were stationed as a screen further out, and three MTB's were dispatched to keep an eye on Cherbourg.
As darkness fell the S-boots slipped their moorings and proceeded to sea. Total radio and light control meant they were able to slip past the MTB's and the various warships screening the convoys undetected. About 0130 the first of the LST's were spotted. Keep in mind these LST's were not entirely defenceless, mounting several 20mm and 40mm AA guns, a burst from which would cause severe damage to an S-boot. The problem was identifying the S-boot before it was in position to launch a torpedo, and then hit it with the guns. The confusion of the battle can best be described by the following entries from the log of one of the LST's, in this case LST-58.

  • 0133: Gunfire directed at convoy. Probably AA to draw return fire. 0133.5 General Quarters sounded. No target visible. Order to open fire withheld to protect position of convoy.  
  • 0202: Convoy changed direction to 203 degrees. Explosion heard astern and LST 507, the last landing craft in the convoy, seen to be on fire.  
  • 0215: LST 531 opened fire but no target visible from LST 58. 0217 LST 531 hit and exploded.
  • 0218: Decision to break formation and to proceed independently. 0224 order given on LST 531 to abandon ship.  
  • 0225: E-boat sighted at 1500 metres. Four 40mm guns and six 20mm guns on LST 58 fired off 68 and 323 rounds respectively. The E-boat turned away and at "cease fire" was about 2000 metres distant when it disappeared from view.  
  • 0230: LST 289 was hit.  
  • 0231: LST 289 opened fire but target not seen from LST 58.  
  • 0237: Surface torpedo reported off bow of LST 58.  
LST 289 after the torpedo hit on her stern.
Some two months later those LST's would be heading for shore again, only this time it was for real, D-Day had arrived. Again, the S-boots sortied from Cherbourg, heading out to sea en-masse about an hour before dawn. As the sky began to lighten, they looked ahead, there was a solid wall of shipping. The two flotillas had put forth thirty-one boats, between them they could manage 124 torpedoes. Before them there loomed the silhouettes of the invasion armada. Over 1200 warships alone were deployed in this fleet. Lumbering slowly through the ships were several large masses that were too huge to be ships, and whose purposes were unguessable. These were the Phoenix caissons.
The commander of the S-boots knowing that a charge towards that firepower would be utterly un-survivable, especially with the impending daylight, ordered his boats to fire their torpedoes at maximum range, without aiming. With such a mass of ships some torpedoes would strike home. Some did. The USS Partridge,HMT Sesame, LST-538 were all hit. Another torpedo hit one of the Phoenix Caissons and sunk it. As the S-boots returned to base, at least one was attacked by the mass of Allied aircraft overhead. A bomb exploded near one boat, S-130 and injured five men.

S-130 is currently the only surviving S-boot in the world, having had a long an interesting career, including a spell landing spies into Soviet occupied eastern Europe.

Image credits:
devoninww2.weebly.comwww.exercisetigermemorial.co.uk, www.wrecksite.eu and www.strijdbewijs.nl

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Northover Projector (part 2)

Part one can be found here.

We left last weeks article talking about the glass projectile for the Northover Projector. As we are on the subject there were several developments in this field during the period. Around about June 1940 an American mining engineer named Chester Beatty approached the Prime Minister’s office with two types of weapon. The first was a very simple mortar in which a glass bottle could be fired from it using a 12-bore shotgun cartridge, out to a range of about 120 yards. According to the documents I have some 10,000 of these were ordered, and they were used in at least one trial. In this trial the target was a Vickers light tank that was actually being driven towards the mortar crew. Before hand the crew of the tank had been given the option to step out of the trial. However, after seeing the nature of the weapon to be used agaisnt them they happily agreed to man the vehicle. The first round missed, the second round hit the drivers vision port causing a spurt of flame to enter the tank, causing the driver a huge surprise so that he evacuated with some haste.
A young Chester Beatty

Another of Chester Beatty's ideas was a 1.25 pint glass bottle that could be fired from clay pigeon traps. Documents suggest that somehow Chester Beatty was tied into development of the Northover Projector, and one wonders how much influence Maj Northover and his knowledge of clay pigeon traps influenced Chester Beatty.
A typical Clay pigeon trap of the period. The large disk at the left rear is the Clay, which would have been replaced with the incendiary bottle. I just have this mental image of a country Gentleman armed with his shotgun bagging Fallschirmjagers as they fall out the sky, while his grounds keeper uses a trap to lob bottles at an approaching Panzer...


By October some 200 projectors had been completed, but production was coming on stream at Bisley Clay Target Co, and a rate of 1,000 per week was envisioned. The weapon was made entirely out of cast iron, and did not need proofing, a simple visual check and test of the hammer snap was all that was needed.
At the first demonstration Churchill had asked Maj Northover to design a rapid-fire version of the weapon. Offering no promises Northover said he'd try.

With production under way Maj Northover was asked take time out from his work, and to tour the country demonstrating this weapon to the Home Guard. In all he made 71 trips, each time he took an assistant from his Home Guard platoon along, whom he paid for out of his own pocket. These trips ranged from Torquay to Falkirk. The largest demonstration was at Lewis where he showed off his weapon to some 8,000 personnel. Northover was injured twice during these incidents, the first was when a No 76 grenade was dropped and hit a stone, this caused severe burns that left Northover in bed for three weeks (Note the No 76 grenade was filled with a fluid called 'Self Igniting Phosphorous' which also gave rather noxious fumes as well). On another occasion in order to prevent a serious accident, he slapped his hand over the beech of the gun as the trigger was pulled. The impact triggered the blasting cap and caused a serious cut to his hand.
Mk.I Projector

Mk.II Projector
By September 1941 a Mk.II had been designed. This was done by the Selection Manufacturing Company. The main difference was the base. The MK.I had four legs and the Mk.II had three legs. This was done to improve the robustness of the base, as several of the Mk.I versions had become fractured during transport and storage. While some of these could be welded up it was just a temporary fix, and they would likely break again. The Mk.II weapon itself was also different to the extent the parts could not be interchanged, although both weapons functioned identically. In total some 13,000 Mk.I's and 8,000 Mk.II's were built.

In service the projector could fire at a rate of about 15 rounds per minute, after which point the barrel would need swabbing. No equipment was issued for this, although there was advice on how to build a mop. The directions were to take a standard broom handle, cut it in half (thus providing two such mops one for a pair of projectors), and bind a cloth to one end. Then simply dunk in a bucket of water, open the breech and ram through.
What appears to be a double barrelled Northover Projector. It certainly uses No76 SIP grenades, as that is what the loader is holding. I suspect this is a local modification, which sort off demonstrates the ingenuity and sheer variety that Home Guard platoons applied to their defence duties. Indeed the crude nature of weapons such as the Northover Projector, which was essentially an antique cannon modernised, played into the strengths of the Home Guard.
By the 27th March 1942 Maj Northover was able to report back to Winston Churchill that he had perfected the prototype rapid fire Northover Projector. The rate of fire he had achieved with it was forty rounds per minute. It could be loaded with either No 76 SIP grenades, or the No 68 hollow charge anti-tank grenade. However, by this point the dire need for weapons for the Home Guard had abated and the rapid fire version was never taken up.

After the war, in 1948, Northover contacted the War Office, and enquired about royalties. After all he had patented both his projector and the means of firing glass bottles from it. At first there was some question if Northover should have approached the Royal Commission again, however, Northover pointed out he was now in his late 60's and had been told that he would only live for a few more years, so awaiting the Royal Commission's deliberations would mean he might die before they reached a verdict and an award. In the end the War Office agreed a payment of £4,800, which considted of covering his wartime expenses (£1,200), 21,000 projectors (£2,100) and around 1,500,000 cartridges (£1,500).
A home Guard unit poses with its weaponry, from Left to Right: a Lewis gun on a tripod, a M1917 browning machine gun, and a Mk.I Northover projector.
It seems that Northover did not stop work, as in 1950 he filed another patent, for an improved clay target trap, that would enable it to fire rabbits (note not the animal. A rabbit in clay target shooting is one that bounces along the ground). From there I haven’t found any other records from Harry Northover, and once again he disappears.

Image credits:
www.home-guard.org.uk, www.traphof.org and www.irishtimes.com

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Northover Projector (part 1)

 I'm going to two part this one, as it got a bit long, and I'm really busy this week. If you check my Facebook on Wednesday you'll see why

Born on 31st December 1882 Harry Robert Northover is a curious figure. He passes through history with very little wake, but at certain moments he leaves his fingerprints as he goes. What little we do know of him seems to suggest that before the First World War he was a gun maker, and expert in all things mechanical, that is at lest written on his wartime service record notes. During the First World War he was part of the British Army and rose to the rank of Sergeant. Then he transferred to the Canadian Army in January 1916 at the rank of lieutenant, ending up as part of the 90th Royal Winnipeg Rifles. Here he served as a Quartermaster Sergeant in their machine gun platoon, by 1918 it seems he might have been promoted to Captain. Northover also won the Military Cross at some point after January 1916, but there appears to be no record what for.

A picture of Harry Northover at the 1938 Bisley clay championship
During this time, he made several patented designs relating to machine guns. These included a flash absorber, that has at least one eye witness account of its use. These were fitted to Colt machine guns (likely the  M1895/14) and made the weapon hard to detect when firing. Equally as it increased the barrel pressure the attachment improved the performance of the guns rate of fire. It looks like a large tube mounted on the muzzle like a modern-day sound moderator but with the barrel offset to the top of the tube.

Northover also invented feed belt boxes for machine guns and a new improved Lewis Gun magazine filling machine. The Royal Commission for Inventions awarded Northover £200 for the flash absorber, £1500 for the feed boxes and £500 for the Lewis Gun filling machine. In 1919 the now Major Northover competed at Bisley where he won a silver cross. Then, once again, Northover slips into obscurity.

He re-appears on 21st of October 1938 winning a major clay target competition at Bisley. It is likely that in the inter-war years that Northover settled at Bisley, as he was the director of the Bisley Clay Target Company (and suddenly his 1938 win becomes slightly clearer), and later records have him living at Bisley House, Kensworth, Dunstable. In the inter-war years, he was also awarded a MBE.

Then the Second World War broke out. Now in his late 50's Northover continued with his life, until May 1940. At that time France was in the process of collapsing to the German assault, and Britain was preparing to carry on alone. On the 14th of May Antony Eden broadcast his call to arms for volunteers to the Local Defence Volunteers. Unsurprisingly as a crack shot, and a Major from the previous war, Northover joined up.
A very early parade for the LDV.
What happened next is remarkable simply for its speed. Keep in mind the Germans invaded France on the 10th of May. The LDV were formed on the 14th, and Dunkirk was on the 26th. Before the end of May Maj Northover had designed and built the prototype of a weapon that would become known as the Northover Projector. This weapon was exhibited to Winston Churchill at No 10 Downing Street. It had cost Northover around £330 to build, which likely included his time, as the final production version of the weapon would cost but £6. After viewing the weapon Winston Churchill ordered a demonstration on Hangmoor ranges, which he viewed personally. After the demonstration he immediately ordered 10,000 weapons.
 The weapon was designed to fire a Molotov Cocktail out to 200 yards. The charge was some five grains of black-powder in a cellophane cup. Over this cup are some wadding in the form of fibre boards and rubber padding. This would provide obturation and a cushioning effect on for the glass bottle. The bottle would be loaded first, followed by the charge. As the breech closes nipples on the breech face would finish ramming home the round and pierce the cellophane cup. When the hammer is released a blasting cap placed on the hammer would ignite the black-powder sending the Molotov Cocktail on its way. Opening the breech would automatically re-cock the hammer. At which point a new blasting cap is placed on the hammer, and new bottle and charge loaded.

During one test, in very poor conditions with a thick mist, the target consisted of two 60 gallon oil drums stacked on top of each other, Range for the trials was 60-200 yards. It was judged that around 70% of rounds would have hit a tank or truck sized target.

An improvised mobile mount (see the bottom of the page for more info)
The ammunition for the weapon also went through several versions. The first designs considered projecting a simple Molotov Cocktail, however in July 1940 Albright & Wilson demonstrated an incendiary grenade using white phosphorus. These were developed into the No 76 self-igniting phosphorus grenade. They were a ½ pint bottle which came in two versions, denoted by the colour of the bottle cap. Red was hand throwable, and green had a thicker wall that meant it could be fired by the Northover Projector. Even these thicker ones would sometimes burst and ignite in the breech or barrel of the gun. This was not seen as an issue as every time it happened the entire mass was thrown clear of the gun by the black-powder charge. The hand thrown ones were considered unreliable and needed a lot of force to be broken and could be safely dropped. If it was dropped on a stone, then it was considered dangerous.

Part two can be found here.

The improvised mobile mount:
That mobile mount is interesting because not so long ago I found the following two pictures in an archive:
There's a number of pictures of similar hand carts in use with the Home Guard, such as this one, which shows a Northover Projector broken down and loaded on a hand cart wheel base.
Image credits:
www.scienceandsociety.co.uk, www.staffshomeguard.co.uk and www.nevingtonwarmuseum.com

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Tornado Visit

Due to the recent announcement of the RAF's last flight of a Tornado as they retire, I felt it would be a good time for a Tornado related story. 

In the second half of 1990 the Gulf War broke out. The war would be won by the Allies, but many people missed one important point. The Allies won mainly because they fought the war exactly like they had planned to fight the Soviets in Europe. The NATO members had trained extensively together, and so when the Allies had to fight a large Soviet equipped enemy, they simply reverted to their training.
One of the training exercises was named Red Flag, it is run several times a year in the United States, with the sole aim to provide full scale training for aircrews from across NATO. In April 1990, as usual a Red Flag exercise was held, during which the RAF's Tornado's would play their usual role of airfield destruction.

On this particular scenario, the fourth in the exercise, the Tornado's would be leading a strike package to hit a dummy airfield. The lead Tornado, with the squadron code FG, was flown by an extremely experienced pair of aircrew, for example the navigator had been trained and served on Vulcan bombers, and had some 440 hours on the Tornado. The opening part of the sortie went according to plan, and the Tornado crew were soon at their holding point orbiting and awaiting for all the other strike packages to get into place.
Gratuitous Tornado shot!
While in their holding pattern they noticed a problem. Fuel was not transferring from FG's wing tanks to their fuselage ones. This could be a serious problem, in under three minutes the entire might of the Allies air forces would swing into action. Fighters to keep enemy aircraft suppressed, electronic warfare aircraft to hinder enemy radars and Wild Weasels to suppress enemy air defences. Literally hundreds of planes from across NATO would be in action to deliver the Tornado's to their target.
Then in the detailed debrief of the mission the strike leader would be aborting. The Tornado crew began to carry out their checklist of fixes for the fault, and it seemed to both crew that the problem had been solved. Then the show began.

One of the RAF's main missions during any war with the Soviet Union, and a mission they would fly against the Iraqi air force, was the destruction of enemy airfields. For this the Tornado would approach at low level, a skill that the RAF trained extensively for. There are stories from the Iraq war of RAF planes leaving skid marks in sand dunes as they were flying so low, or of RAF strike packages flying so low they would often fly underneath the other air forces planes. When the RAF Tornado's switched to carrying radar seeking missiles, they would often be flying below the planes they were protecting and when you launch an anti-radar missile the first part of the flight profile would be to climb, so the planes above the Tornado Wild Weasels would see missiles climbing towards them...
A RAF Jaguar pulling up slightly, over a Iraqi air base, underneath you can see a MIG-23, and an Iraqi who just got the shock of his life!
Either way at low level the Tornado's would be able to get into position, then attack the heavily defended airfield. One weapon used for these attacks was the Hunting JP233, an utterly unique weapon that consisted of two pods mounted under the fuselage of the Tornado. These pods would dispense mines and cratering charges as the Tornado flew along the length of the airfield’s runway. The cratering charge would render the runway unusable by aircraft, and the mines would prevent repair work being carried out.
This did mean that the Tornado would be flying straight and level, in one of the most concentrated areas of AA weapons, lit up like a Christmas tree for several seconds, an utterly scary thought for any pilot.
Because of this risk, and that each JP233 was only effective at destroying runways, Tornado's also trained to toss bombs at targets. It was this later tactic that FG was utilising to attack their dummy target
On their way out from their strike, the crew of FG noticed that the fuel issue they had thought fixed, had indeed continued. Calculations quickly showed they were too short of fuel to reach their home base. They were even short of fuel to reach one of the emergency divert airfields at Indian Springs. There was one airfield they could reach though, it went by the name of Tonopah.

Tonopah is home to one of the US's top secret research establishments called the 'Skunk Works'. It was also home to the Constant Peg Program, which flew and tested captured Soviet planes. At the time the latest super top-secret USAF plane at the airfield was the ultra top-secret F-117 stealth 'fighter'. It should be noted that the RAF aircrew were fully aware of the nature and existence of the F-117, as the information had been briefed out the year previously, indeed there was even an RAF Tornado pilot flying with the F-117 program. Which makes what happened next all the more peculiar.

When the crew of FG declared an emergency, and that they were diverting to Tonopah, they were questioned for some time about 'why they had to go there', 'what was wrong with their plane', 'why couldn't head to Indian Springs', and the like. Eventually the crew said they had two options, Tonopah or ejecting to let the Tornado crash.

After they landed, they were ordered to park up and shut down but not to leave the aircraft. Shortly afterwards their plane was surrounded by vehicles and armed guards. The crew of FG were taken to an enclosed room and interrogated for several hours, by both military and civilian personnel. When the navigator asked for a toilet break, he was escorted by a guard who remained with him inside the toilet.

Eventually the crew were informed that they would be returned to their base, but the Tornado had been confiscated and they would be told when they could retrieve it. The crew were hooded and driven to Tonopah's perimeter and then returned to their base.
The day after the crew were flown back to Tonopah, escorted to Tornado FG, and told they had 40 minutes to get airborne and clear the area. As they arrived at the aircraft, they found that it had been serviced by the ground crew at Tonopah, who had also, rather cheekily painted a F-117 on the tail, and inside the cockpit was a ticket for parking illegally on a US military base. The crew, and FG, returned to their home base without further incident.

"Was I a good Bomber?"


Image Credits:
www.vintagewings.ca

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Luftflammenwerfenzeug

Late in 1939 a young German officer approached his superiors with a new idea, a novel weapon that could defend their bombers from attacking fighters. The officer was (possibly) Lieutenant Karl-Heinz Stahl from Kampfgeschwader 51.  His bright idea was to fit a flamethrower in the tail of the bomber and when an attacking fighter closed up give it a dose of fire! This was presumably to force the fighter to break off its attack, or even set it on fire. Design and development continued until several test flights were carried out at Tarnewitz in February 1940.


A later flamethrower, in Romania in 1944.
The first versions of the device had a single nozzle, but later ones had a pair of nozzles. It was essentially a 1918 pattern flamethrower fed from a 24in long cylinder that was just 7in wide. This bottle contained 15 litres of fuel and was pressurised to 590lbs/sq.in. Hydrogen spark ignition was fitted. The fuel was nothing more advanced than oil. To fire the radio operator in the bomber pulled on a cable, which exited the cockpit, ran along the outside of the fuselage, and then attached itself to the firing mechanism. In tests a range of about 100 feet were achieved. It was in this guise the weapon was deemed ready for its first combat trial, over Britain.
British plans of the instillation.
On the 15th of September 1940, Eagle Day, the climatic day at the end of the Battle of Britain, nineteen Do 17's took off at 1000 from Cormeilles-En-Vexin, and headed towards London, their target was the marshalling yards at Clapham Common. These planes were all from KG76, and one, the rearmost plane was fitted with the flamethrower equipment. It was flown by Feldwebel Heitsch, with Fw Schmid as the radio operator, and thus in charge of the new weapon.
The formation of Dornier’s approached London at 16,000ft, before the first fighter was spotted. A lone Hurricane closed in from astern, exactly in the prime spot for the flamethrower to attack. This Hurricane was flown by Sergeant Ray Holmes. At a range of 400 yards he opened fire. Immediately Fw Schmid triggered the flamethrower.
HE-111 using the flamethrower during testing.
There was one tiny flaw in the design. All the testing had been done at lower altitudes. At 16,000 feet the air pressure was so low that the flame thrower failed to ignite the oil completely, and a small thin flame shot out the back of the aircraft. It did however spray the front of Sgt Holmes' aircraft with oil, momentarily covering his windscreen with oil and obscuring his vision. Sgt Holmes let the air stream clear his cockpit and as it did so he realised he was almost on top of the Do 17, so he pushed his stick forward and dived under the aircraft.

As Sgt Holmes hurtled through the formation of Dornier’s he lined up on the next in line, firing repeated bursts at it, the crew immediately began to bail. The first man out had his parachute caught on Sgt Holmes' wing, so Sgt Holmes began several gentle manoeuvres to see if he could get the parachute to slip off, which it did.
Sgt Holmes now found himself astern of a third Do 17, ahead of it lay Buckingham Palace, and the bomber was heading straight towards the King! Sgt Holmes opened his throttles, zoomed through the defensive gunfire from the bomber, extended out in front of it, and turned back in for a head on attack to try and force the bomber to break off.
As he opened fire the first rounds came out then his guns clicked empty. His attacks on the first and second Do 17's had used up all his ammunition. With nothing else to do, Sgt Holmes decided to ram the Do 17, he said he was aiming to cut through the tail, which he thought looked awfully weak, and rely on the sturdy reputation of the Hurricane. The impact destroyed both planes, Sgt Holmes and the German pilot both managed to bail out of their stricken planes, both were wounded in the chain of events. Sgt Holmes was hit by his own plane as he bailed out and survived, but the German pilot was not so lucky.
One of the iconic pictures from the Battle of Britain, a mangled Do 17 crashing to earth. This is actually the third Dornier that Sgt Holmes rammed.
Back aboard Fw Heitsch's Do 17, Sgt Holmes' first burst had hit the starboard engine, causing a loss in power. The Dornier began to descend. He was set upon by several fighters, and each time they approached the flamethrower was triggered, with no negative effect upon the enemy. Indeed, it made the Do 17 look like it was far more badly damaged than it was, and the huge black cloud of flame and smoke stood out serving to attract more fighters to her position.
Another shot from testing, this time in a Do 17.
 The Do 17 crash landed just after 1200 near Shoreham. Fw Schmid, the radio operator had been badly wounded in the repeated attacks and died shortly after the bomber landed. The other survivors of the crew were captured by the local Home Guard, and seeing the shocked nature of their captives they were taken to the nearest pub for a pint before being sent to captivity.
The Do 17's final resting place at Shoreham. You can see the flame throwing gear projecting out the tail. One would presume the casualty is Fw Schmid.
The flame throwing gear along with the aircraft was salvaged, and an attempt was made to test fire the device. However, the horribly complex firing system meant that despite several attempts to repair it the time and effort were not seen as useful. The gutted Do 17 was used as an attraction to raise money for the Lowestoft Spitfire fund.
An account from the official report on what went wrong with firing tests on the flamethrower.

Image credits:
British national archives, weaponsman.com and www.luftarchiv.de

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Halifax Rocket

In the late 1930s The Air Ministry started work on the Halifax bomber. The original specifications included the ability for the Halifax to be able to dive bomb. This was a requirement that was removed when the bomber was converted to its four engined version. However, for a lot of its life the Halifax retained the short wingspan and sturdy construction that was required for dive bombing. Thus, in late 1943 when the Air Ministry begun to look at rockets for its aircraft, one of the planes considered to carry such a weapon was the Halifax.
In October 1943 Halifax JD212 was modified by the Aeroplane and Armament Experimental Establishment at Boscombe Down in Wiltshire. Two four shot rocket racks were fitted between the fuselage and inner engine. The Halifax has bomb bays in its wing roots in the same location, so to avoid fouling these the rockets were held away from the wing and presented forward of the leading edge of the wing.
Halifax bomb bays, here you can see the wing bomb cells clearly.
A series of tubes formed a scaffolding to hold the racks. To protect the points where the scaffolding joined to the rocket racks fairings of very thin steel were constructed on the back and front of the rack. These fairings caused considerable difficulties during a maintenance trial. It took four men some 3.5 hours to remove the racks and re-install them. This was down to having to line up all the holes in the fairings with the scaffolding. As the fairings were such light steel, they had warped which meant that the holes no longer lined up. One of the recommendations of the final report was to use a thicker gauge of steel to prevent this issue.
A sight unit was installed in the cockpit. The sight unit was a standard Mk.III L reflector sight. It was fitted to an arm, that allowed it to be swung up out of the way so that it was lying along the roof of the cockpit. The pivot was fitted to the main cockpit arch and locking, and unlocking was done via a wing nut on the pivot. As the arm traversed along an axis that ran between the fore and aft, it meant that even if the sight was locked slightly out of position it would not significantly affect the accuracy.

The Halifax was flown with all the modifications fitted, and full performance data was obtained. Before taking to the skies and launching rockets, the trials team conducted a series of ground firings.
It was found, due to the height of the installation above ground it was easier to load the rockets in from the rear, instead of the more traditional loading from the front.
The traditional way of loading a RP-3 Rocket, tail first.
The first test, was logically, a salvo of two rockets, one from each rack. The entire eight were launched without problem in four salvos. The rockets fired from outboard to inboard. One curiosity was discovered, however. On a Halifax, in-between the inner and outer engines there are a few inspection holes in the underside of the wing. These have rubber covers on them. In each firing these were knocked off by the launch blast. This was made all the more remarkable due to the mass of the engine being between the rockets and the inspection holes, as well as being some 15 feet away.
The next firing was a salvo of four, this time with two from each rack. Again, apart from the rubber covers falling off no damage was encountered.
As it would turn out the salvo of six rockets was the last trial. After this the trials team halted work due to damage suffered by the aircraft. On the port side, one rocket did not function correctly, the resulting damage was a screw being knocked out of the engine fairing.

On the starboard side all rockets fired normally. The blast caused several rivets and screws to be blown out of the wing root, three rear wing bomb bays were blown open, and the control bar in the roof of the bay was snapped, the rear fairing on the engine was popped out and over the forward fairing which would have prevented the flaps being lowered. Finally, the flap itself was badly damaged, being bent upwards by a result of the blast. It was judged the damage was caused by the suction effect from the blast, magnified by the arch like nature of the fuselage, wing and engine.
It is likely that these would not have been insurmountable problems, however the Air Ministry had decided against fitting such weapons to a bomber and the project was dropped. These details all came from a file at the National Archives. There is another file on the Shorts Sunderland being fitted with rockets as well. 

JD212 was repaired, returned to service and served out the war in 419 Squadron, RCAF. The last record I've been able to find was of her being used was for laying mines in Fakse Bay in mid to late 1944.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Gas! Gas! Gas!

Some two years ago I posted an article which mentioned a Project D.30. This was an attempt to fit a WASP flame throwing equipment to a Sherman tank. In addition, it was considered for firing chemical agents as well. The link can be found here:

https://overlord-wot.blogspot.com/2016/08/vehcile-of-fire-part-two.html

Well I recently read some documents that discussed WASP flamethrowers using chemical weapons and the trials that were carried out. These seem to pre-date, or at least coincide with Project D.30, so it is possible the two were connected.

In early March 1944 Porton Down received a pair of Universal Carriers fitted with WASP flame-throwing gear. These were both a MK.I and a MK.II versions. Both were modified for the trials. They simply had the electrical spark ignition system on the flame gun disconnected, which would normally ignite the flame fuel. A further change was to the Mk.II which had a different nozzle put in place. As the Mk.I didn't have a nozzle it was left unmodified.


WASP Mk.I
WASP Mk.II


As well as the nozzle the other difference between the two marks was the Mk.II had a slightly lower operating pressure (280lbs/sq in vs 250lbs/sq in) and a sight for the gun. The two fuel tanks contained 60 and 40 gallons and were pressurised by carbon-dioxide cylinders.
The main and obvious difference between the two marks, however, is the flame gun mounting itself. The Mk.I had a boom attachment that the gunner moved to aim the weapon, the Mk.II had a weapon identical to the Crocodiles flame gun.

The Mk.I's mounting had an extra valve on it, which was located on the pintle mount. During the course of the trials this began to leak slightly so a drip tray was fitted. Equally after repeated shots with thickened liquids a film began to form on the valve preventing it from closing properly. The simple fix for this was to clean the valve each time the tanks were re-filled. The re-filling process was done exactly the same way for gas or flame, the tanks simply had the liquid poured in.

The ranges achieved were also remarkably consistent with those achieved by flame fuel. Maximum range for the Mk.I was about 60 yards, with 70 for the Mk.II. The optimum range was found to be about 40 yards for the Mk.I and about 15-20% further for the Mk.II, depending on the exact chemical mix. One curiosity was using a thickening agent only affected the liquid at closer ranges to the vehicle, unlike with flame fuels, which get improved range from thickening. When thickened the jet quality became less diffuse and the minimum range was decreased. But even without thickening no appreciable amount of liquid struck the ground within 20 yards of the firing vehicle.

After carrying out range trials a sandbagged bunker was created, with a lot of its mass below ground and a firing slit left open. This was used at a target with a range of 30-35 yards. Several shots were required to get a hit on the aperture, but when they did the results were quite lethal. 
In the first trial a gas identified as "MS" was used. I've been unable to identify which chemical this is exactly, so if anyone can answer that, let me know please. This was enough to cause 100% casualties from skin burns to anyone inside the bunker within twelve minutes. Even those wearing respirators would be killed.

In a second trail hydrocyanic acid (also known as HCN or "AC") was used. Within fifteen seconds a peak of measurement of 112,000 mg per cubic metre were recorded. This would have been fatal to anyone within the bunker, even if fully protected by respirators. This was still the case after two minutes when a hatch way was opened to allow the gas to evaporate. Even after some 19 hours measurements were showing a lethal dosage inside the bunker, although at this point it is likely that gas masks may have offered some protection.
The WASP Mk.I and its crew showing the heavy contamination...
...and the relatively uncontaminated WASP Mk.II and crew.
A final series of trials were carried out to test the contamination of the vehicle and crew. The liquid gasses had red dye added, and the crew and vehicle were covered with a white sheet. It became clear that both the vehicle and crew would become contaminated. If a persistent agent was used this would be quite an issue. However, with non-persistent agents such as "AC" the concentrations would be low enough that the crew could survive with protection.

Image credits:
National Archives.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Imposter's Bad Luck

Shortly after 1100 on the 14th of September 1914, Captain Noel Grant was peering through his binoculars at a vessel on the horizon. The vessel the British captain was staring at was carrying the Cunard Line's colour scheme, and was identified as the RMS Carmania, and she was making steam away from him.
RMS Carmania
Cpt Grant had reported aboard his ship, one of Cunard Line's passenger liners at the outbreak of the First World War. His ship had been equipped with eight 4.7" guns and dispatched from Liverpool to the South Atlantic to patrol the South American coast looking for merchant raiders. Cpt Grant had suspected that there was just such a commerce raider operating from Trindade Island, but all he had found was another of Cunard Line’s ships... There was only one problem, Cpt Grant was standing on the bridge of the RMS Carmania. Whomever the imposter was, she wasn't who she claimed to be. This was further reinforced by the fact she was making steam away from him, possibly to escape, possibly to gain manoeuvring room without the risk of finding the island in the way.
The imposter was actually the German ship SMS Cap Trafalgar. Entering service in April she was considered to be one of the most ornate and grandest cruise liners afloat. However, this lavishness had not been extended to her engines. The engines were triple expansion steam type, while the RMS Carmania had steam turbines. Despite being about 800 GRT heavier, the British ship was slightly faster.
Interior of the SMS Cap Trafalgar
The SMS Cap Trafalgar had departed Germany on a route that included Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. On the outbreak of war she had reached Buenos Aires. She then sailed to Trindade Island where she met the gunboat SMS Eber. The Eber had transferred its guns and a portion of its crew to turn the SMS Cap Trafalgar into Hilfskreuzer B. This refit had added two 4.1" guns and six 1-pounder pom-pom guns (other sources say it was six Hotchkiss revolver cannons), along with removing one of her funnels and gaining a new paint scheme which made her look almost exactly like the RMS Carmania.
SMS Cap Trafalagar with SMS Eber alongside on Trindade Island
Under the command of Capitan Wirth, she began her first cruise. This sortie resulted in no successes against the teeming shipping off the Brazilian coast, so Hilfskreuzer B returned to her base for more coal on the 13th September. A day later the real RMS Carmania broke the horizon and the German ship scrambled to get away.
After a short pursuit the German realised he couldn't escape the turbines of the British ship, and he turned sharply to starboard, and came about and begun to close. At around 8,500 yards the RMS Carmania opened fire, the German responded immediately, both ships missed. While the ships might well have been carrying naval grade guns, they lacked the aiming infrastructure and control gear that a normal warship would use. Shells were brought to the guns by hand, from stores in the cabins nearby. Equally they lacked the armour plate of a warship.
RMS Carmania's engine room
As the two ships sedately turned blazing away at each other the pom-pom guns of the German ship seemed to be the most effective. Easier to aim and score hits with, on a normal warship the effect would have been minimal, on the unarmoured and unprotected RMS Carmania the shots would sail straight through the structure of the ship.

At first both ships tried to sweep the decks clear of their opponents. Then the first real round impacted, the RMS Carmania managed to score a hit on the Hilfskreuzer B with one of her 4.7" guns. This caused the ornate German interior to burst into flames and started a small list to starboard. Shortly afterwards a German shell hit a stateroom forward of the RMS Carmania's bridge, and destroyed a water main. The stateroom burst into flames, with no water to fight the fire it quickly spread. The fire became so fierce it spread to the bridge and caused the captain and his command crew to have to abandon the area and fight the ship from an improvised bridge in the aft of the ship.
RMS Carmania's bridge after the fire.
Emboldened by their success the Germans continued their barrage of fire on the upper decks hoping to disable the crew of the guns, or even dismount the weapons. The British changed tactics and began to fire directly at the water line. Even without gun directors and range finders the huge wall of the Hilfskreuzer B's sides soon became riddled with shot, she began to take on water, and her list became worse. Even so the damage to the RMS Carmania was terrible, she too was listing, and with several raging fires. After about 90 minutes the two titanic ships separated, turning away from each other. The Hilfskreuzer B began to send distress signals, which were soon answered by German colliers from Trindade Island. The RMS Carmania steamed away, the day after she was barely afloat and luckily, she met a British cruiser.
 Meanwhile the Hilfskreuzer B was done for, as the list worsened she began to launch lifeboats and the crew abandoned ship. The German support ships managed to pull most of the men from the Atlantic. The Germans took the stranded sailors to Buenos Aires, where they were interred for the course of the war. Exact casualties for the German side are unknown, with estimates between 16-51 killed. The British lost just nine killed.

The RMS Carmania was repaired and continued patrolling around Portugal, until she was assigned to the Gallipoli campaign. She then was used as a troop ship, one of her final acts in service was returning Canadian soldiers to their home. Then she returned to her peace time job of cruise ship. Finally, in 1932 she was sold for scrap.