Flamethrowers! For Ellie
March 22, 2015 by Thomas Wictor
A post about flamethrowers dedicated to Ellie Kesselman, who brought my attention to this.
The flamethrower was first used by the Greeks in AD 673 to burn Muslim warships besieging Constantinople.
This weapon consisted of a metal tube that sprayed what was called Greek fire, an incendiary material that was impossible to put out. Hand pumps were used to pressurize the liquid. The recipe for Greek fire was such a closely guarded secret that it’s been lost. What we know is that it was sticky and burned on the surface of water.
After the fall of the Byzantine empire, the flamethrower was rediscovered several times. Arab armies of the thirteenth century deployed portable tubes with a range of thirty feet (nine meters). With names such as the “Dart of Cathay” and the “Chinese Flower,” these weapons seem to have originated in the Far East. The Chinese of the same period had their own flamethrowers: the pao that belched flaming powder, and the fie-ho-tsing, the “spear of fire that flies.” Only the names survive.
The Prussian artillery experimented with a flamethrower in 1702. Called the Serpentine Fire Sprayer (Schlangenbrandspritze), it used hand bellows to blow an incendiary substance through a wheeled tube. The project was eventually abandoned because the compound was so viscous that it set the flamethrower itself on fire.
In 1849 Representative Abraham Lincoln and Senator H. Hamlin presented to both houses of the United States Congress a flamethrower invented by Professor B. F. Greenough of Boston. It consisted of a metal pipe three-sixteenths of an inch (.47 centimeters) in diameter connected to a small pump by twenty-five feet (7.6 meters) of rubber hose. A nozzle at the end of the pipe was fitted with wire gauze through which flammable liquid was sprayed. Newspaper articles reported that the ignition of the fluid took place several feet beyond the nozzle, but the process was not described. My guess is that the wire gauge was pyrophoric or combustible metal.
Congress showed little interest. Although no drawings have been located, the device would’ve operated like this one.
During the American Civil War, Greenough resumed research on his flamethrower under the direction of a military board that included the Assistant Secretary of the Navy. During an 1862 demonstration at the Washington Navy Yard, the apparatus produced a flame fifty yards (forty-six meters) long and two feet (sixty centimeters) in diameter, the jet accompanied by a dense, suffocating cloud of smoke. Greenough’s liquid fire was said to be inextinguishable, burning readily on the water and consuming the wooden targets. No reason is given why such an impressive weapon never saw service.
In 1901 German mechanical engineer Richard Fiedler patented the first modern flamethrower.
He was trying to design a paint sprayer when it occurred to him that pressurized liquid could be set on fire. Six years later, Bernhard Reddemann—the fire inspector of Posen—demonstrated to the German army that a steam-powered firefighting pumper could be converted into a flamethrower.
Both Fiedler and Reddemann continued working independently on their ideas until World War I broke out in August of 1914. By that time the German army had both portable and static flamethrowers designed by Fiedler.
The static model required three men to handle the massive lance and hose, due to the powerful kick.
Though the Germans had the weapons, they hadn’t developed tactics for them. The introduction of flamethrowers in combat was a disaster: Men sprayed buildings, bouncing the burning oil back all over themselves; they filled the propellant tanks with oxygen, which made the oil explode; they put out each others’ eyes with the automatic igniters, devices that were essentially miniature blank artillery shells mounted over the lance nozzles; and they scared their own infantrymen into flight.
So many soldiers were killed or injured that flamethrowers were withdrawn from service. In October of 1914, Bernhard Reddemann—now a captain in the army—went to Berlin and suggested to the supreme command that a flamethrower detachment be formed. His idea was accepted, and he spent the next four months modifying the weapons and training men in his own tactics. He recruited mostly older firefighters because they were familiar with equipment used for spraying, they had no fear of flames, and they were far more physically fit than the average man.
This is the flamethrower platoon of the most top-notch assault battalion in the German army.
Four men are in their forties or even fifties.
The first mass flamethrower attack was carried out against the French on February 26, 1915. It shocked the world with its success. The Austrians, French, Italians, British, and Russians immediately began creating their own flamethrower units. However, only the Germans understood that the flamethrower alone was almost worthless. Flamethrower operators had to be protected by riflemen, hand-grenade throwers, machine gunners, grenade-launcher squads, and mortar crews.
One of the first French flamethrowers was designed to be carried into combat on a stretcher.
The French didn’t protect their flamethrower operators, so the men assigned this heavy, sloshing device were mowed down. Also, the French never figured out how to make automatic igniters, the way the Germans had. The French threw incendiary grenades at the target and then sprayed unlit oil on it. Another method of ignition was to attach a fuse to the lance nozzle. These fuses resembled giant sparklers and were often too damp to work.
Austrian weapons accidentally allowed the flame to race back up the hose and into the oil tank, causing the weapon to explode. Therefore Austrian flamethrowers were usually fitted with very long hoses so that the operators could disconnect them in time.
If long hoses weren’t available, the flamethrower would be buried, with just the lance sticking out of the ground.
The Russians developed a tiny flamethrower pressurized with a hand pump and fitted with a bayonet for when the oil ran out.
It was like a sadistic practical joke. Atmospheric air mixed with flammable oil in a steel container is known as a “bomb.” Propellant gases have to be inert, which is why nitrogen was generally used.
In World War I the Russians also invented the explosive-piston flamethrower, a weapon that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army retains. The propellant is a piston instead of pressurized gas.
No. 1 is the oil, No. 2 is the piston, No. 4 an explosive charge, and No. 8 the nozzle. When you pull the trigger, you set off the explosive. This propels the piston forward, which pushes the oil through the nozzle.
It’s a really dumb idea, because the flamethrower operator is limited to three bursts of less than one second each.
Although the British were exceptionally skilled warriors, they created two of the most suicidally deranged flamethrowers of World War I. The first is the Livens Semi-portable, which weighed 150 pounds (68 kilos) and was carried on poles by two men.
The poles were used to brace the weapon, because it did a backward somersault when fired. Another problem was that the curved lance was attached to the oil tank with friction clamps. This resulted in the lance popping off and spraying the squad with burning oil.
And then there was the Livens “Large Gallery” flamethrower.
It was fifty feet (fifteen meters) long, assembled underground in mining tunnels (galleries) dug in front of the German lines. When fired, the lance head was thrust up through the earth with a hydraulic jack, the nozzle automatically traversing from side to side as it sprayed several tons of oil a distance of 300 feet (91 meters).
Germans being Germans, they created the aircraft-mounted flamethrower.
It was used in combat in late 1918. The aircraft flew low over enemy troops, dousing them with burning oil.
The French had so much difficulty recruiting men into their flamethrower companies—due to extremely heavy casualties—that the army officially changed the role of the units. From late 1916 they were used only in mopping up, after regular infantry had done all the heavy fighting. This French flamethrower operator is very highly decorated, and since the photo was taken in 1919, it means he survived the war.
After World War I, the victorious Allies banned Germany from manufacturing flamethrowers, but the Germans got around this by calling their flamethrowers “insecticide sprayers.” Bernhard Reddemann had been Europe’s most respected firefighter before the war. Because he invented the tactics of flame warfare—reviled by the world—he became a social pariah, was never hired again, and died embittered at his fate. His widow lived nearly forty more years and never mentioned his name once. Reddemann’s grave site is unknown.
Between the wars, every nation except for the United States continued improving flamethrowers. The secret was adding a gelling agent to petroleum or gasoline, which made napalm. Thickened petroleum or gasoline has a much greater range than the oil mixtures used in World War I. Also, napalm burns for much longer.
In the US, the head of the Chemical Warfare Service was General Amos A. Fries.
Fries (pronounced “freeze,” not [French] “fries”) had a pathological hatred of flamethrowers—not for moral reasons. Fries was a huge fan of poison gas, which was why he denigrated incendiary weapons. He co-wrote a book called Chemical Warfare in 1921, which contains outrageous lies about the German flamethrower regiment of World War I. For example, Fries says that it was a penal unit used to execute criminal soldiers. Instead of shooting them, the Germans put them in the flamethrower regiment so they’d die.
In reality the German flamethrower regiment was the world’s first special-forces unit. Bernhard Reddemann’s tactics are still used today. The regiment was so elite that it was bankrolled personally by the German Crown Prince, who allowed the men to call him by his first name. It was an all-volunteer regiment, as far from a penal unit as can be.
At the start of World War II, the US Army had to embark on a crash program to get flamethrowers to its troops as quickly as possible. The middle-aged salesmen of the companies that built the flamethrowers were sent to the Pacific to train engineers how to use the weapons. Because of Amos A. Fries, it was several years before the US Army had workable weapons that didn’t fail due to humidity or pressure leaks.
All sides during World War II deployed portable flamethrowers two to eight at a time. It was different in World War I. On November 9, 1916, the Germans used 240 flamethrowers along a front 2.5 miles (four kilometers) wide, at Skrobowa, Russia. They took 3400 prisoners in an hour, at a cost of sixteen flamethrower operators killed.
By the end of World War I, every Italian infantry regiment and alpine battalion had a flamethrower section of twelve portable devices.
It was just another weapon to the Italians. They trained over 90,000 flamethrower operators in less than three years.
The US military unilaterally banned flamethrowers in 1978. Flamethrowers are not internationally outlawed, but due to public misconceptions, most armies no longer have them in their arsenals. As a result, more soldiers have been killed than would’ve been necessary if flamethrowers were still used. During both world wars, the combatants often simply fired a jet of flame into the air where the garrison of a bunker could see. The men in the strong point generally surrendered without a fight.
As is so often the case, people argued from uninformed emotion. The result was that the situation became worse, not better.
I’ve been asked a very pertinent question.
“If flamethrowers scare soldiers into surrendering without a fight, doesn’t that mean Israel should use weaponized white phosphorous?”
The problem is that weaponized white phosphorus is fired from standoff weapons, so it kills you without warning. If it doesn’t kill you, all you’ll see is a big white cloud. It could be smoke, steam, or dust. The only way you know it’s weaponized white phosphorus is when it hits and burns you.
Flamethrowers get close, and there’s no mistaking the sight and sound of this.
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