No announcement yet.

Naval Rockets -beginnings

  • Filter
  • Time
  • Show
Clear All
new posts

  • Naval Rockets -beginnings

    The rocket may today be seen, in the form of a submarine launched nuclear missile, as the most infernal of infernal devices. The rocket has a long history as a naval weapon, when patriotic Americans sing about “the rocket’s red glare” they are referring to the naval use of this weapon, in this case by the Royal Navy against an American fort during the War of 1812. Long before this Chinese war junks were often armed with rockets for use as anti personnel weapons. It was not until the end of the eighteenth century that William Congreve when serving in India observed the use of rockets by various local Indian armies and saw the possibilities of a lightweight recoilless weapon that could deliver a substantial punch. By 1804 he had developed a complete weapons system based on the rocket. Congreve rockets are usually associated with land based artillery but the majority of fired in anger during the Napoleonic period were actually used as naval weapons. The use of rockets allowed small vessels, with limited draught, to attack places that larger ships could not reach. France was assembling an invasion fleet of small ships and barges and the Royal Navy sought to destroy or disperse these vessels. The French kept these well inshore in harbours or in protected anchorages behind protective systems of booms, one such major accumulation of invasion shipping being in the port of Boulogne. In 1806 an attack was made on Boulogne by the Royal Navy using specially equipped small vessels firing Congreve rockets fitted with incendiary warheads, the intention being to set as much of the invasion fleet on fire as possible. Congreve rockets were not weapons that could be used with pinpoint accuracy and were particularly prone to being blown off course by wind. This happened at Boulogne when instead of falling on the ships in the harbour the majority of rockets landed on the town itself causing wide spread fires and destroying large amounts of civilian property. A year later there was a similar outcome when Congreve rockets were used to attack French shipping at Copenhagen and a substantial part of the Danish capital was set on fire. When it came to causing widespread collateral damage the Congreve rocket had to be a weapon of choice. This characteristic was noted and when offered substantial numbers of rockets for his campaigns in Spain the Duke of Wellington’s somewhat acid response was “as I have at present no towns that I wish to set fire to I cannot see what use I could make of them”.

    The Congreve rocket presented dangers to the user as well as the bystander. The gunpowder propellant produced a considerable exhaust of burning particles and, when used in the vicinity of large amounts of tarred rigging, canvas sails and seasoned wood (as when fired from a ship), created a major risk of fire. This was especially the case when salvos of rockets were being fired from frames. There was a strict drill to be applied when using bombardment rockets on ships and this included the thorough wetting down of sails, decks etc. before and during firing. Eventually specialised rocket firing ships were designed and built (in much the same way as bomb ketches had been developed to contain the risks of using explosive shells). HMS Erebus and HMS Terror were two such ships that were used during the War of 1812. In these rockets were fired from a specifically protected lower deck area through specially designed ports. HMS Erebus took part in the bombardment of Fort McHenry, Baltimore, this being the event giving rise to the writing of the American anthem. In truth Fort McHenry was much more at risk from the mortar bombs fired by other ships and, its casemates and magazines being adequately protected against such overhead fire, there was little damage that the rockets could do. Their firing at night would, however, have been extremely spectacular.

    One cause of the Congreve rocket’s aberrations during flight was its long stick. This was essential (just as it is on a July the 4th or Bonfire Night rocket) for the maintenance of any stability at all but wind pressure on it could cause the missile to gradually veer off course. William Hale solved this problem in 1840 by developing rockets with three curved metal vanes placed in the exhaust thus spin stabilising the missiles and eliminating the need for the stick. Hale rockets were employed by US forces during the Mexican War (1846-48) and by the Royal Navy during the Crimean War (1853-56). In fact both British and Russian forces used rocket firing small vessels in the Crimean War. The use of rockets by the Royal Navy during the 19th century declined as improvements in artillery both increased the range of the big guns (reducing the need to get close inshore to bombard) and the power and portability of smaller weapons. Ironically one area in which they were used in some quantity was in operations against Chinese war junks.

    In the autumn of 1862 the inventor Pascal Plant demonstrated a rocket-propelled underwater torpedo to US Navy officials including the Navy Secretary Gideon Welles. During tests in the Potomac River off Washington City two firings were made; the first torpedo flew across the river and exploded in the opposite bank. Plant had claimed that his torpedo could sink a ship and so the second one did, regrettably it wasn’t the target but the unlucky schooner Diana moored nearby and containing the press corps. A third torpedo tested some days later rose out of the water and flew through the air for 100 yards, causing some concern amongst the watchers. He found no takers in the US Navy.
    This was not the last American attempt to produce a successful rocket propelled torpedo. In 1873 Lt. F. M. Barber (an early collaborator of Holland’s) of the Newport Naval Torpedo Station at Goat Island, produced an underwater rocket. This was 7 ft. long and 1 ft. in diameter and weighed 287 lbs. The warhead consisted of 48 lbs. of gunpowder and the 51 lbs. of rocket fuel (presumably also gunpowder based) were stored inside a cast iron tube wrapped in asbestos and having an outer casing of oak. What, if any, development or testing was carried out remains unknown; certainly it was not adopted for service.

    Produced in 1885 The Berdan (sometimes called the Borden but not connected with Lizzie) was an overly complex weapons system consisting of a rocket propelled floating component towing another small missile containing the warhead. The powered portion did not use a simple rocket but rather a form of turbo prop as the exhaust from the rocket passed through a turbine that in turn drove a series of small propellers. There seems to have been some form of remote steering mechanism using ropes. The idea seems to have been devised specifically to cope with torpedo nets so that when the towing unit struck the net this would cause the warhead to dive down underneath and strike the ship’s keel. How the system worked if there was no torpedo net is not recorded. It would seem that an attempt was made to sell the system to the Turkish Navy but that demonstrations proved unsatisfactory.

    An eccentric American shoemaker named Cunningham from New Bedford built a number of rocket torpedoes in the1890s and once celebrated the 4th July by firing one of his torpedoes up the town's main street (the opinion of his fellow citizens of this piece of patriotic fervour remains unrecorded). It shot off and eventually wrecked the butcher's shop setting fire to the icebox. A photograph of the torpedo shows it to have been a substantial weapon about 18 feet long. Its streamlined body appears to have a number of angled strakes along its length, presumably to impart a stabilising spin. The US Navy tested the device but found it to be lacking in accuracy.

    The Royal Navy was to look at rockets again in World War Two when they were seen as the answer to a desperate shortage of short range anti aircraft weapons. Some new battleships were equipped with a number of launchers capable of launching a salvo of five rockets at a time. When fired they released an explosive charge attached to a parachute and a line, these were supposed to act like a sort of aerial minefield in front of the oncoming bombers. In practice they proved completely useless and were replaced with heavy calibre machine guns as soon as possible.

    Other efforts sought to use rockets for the defence of smaller ships and a team led by Neville Shute Norway (better known as Neville Shute the novelist) spent many fruitless days trying to get a number of weapons to work. Two devices called the Radiator and the Pill Box were devised to allow a remote operator to aim and fire multiple anti aircraft rockets. These suffered from two problems, firstly they would work perfectly when tested on land but when transferred to sea failures occurred in the laying equipment and, secondly, they had a tremendous back blast. On ship the layer would raise the rockets to the appropriate angle for firing but as they were being ignited the elevating arms on the projector framework would sag so that the missiles blasted out horizontally in a broadside, this would be disconcerting to any accompanying vessels to say the least and highly undesirable if sailing in convoy. The back blast from the rockets was powerful enough to hurl heavy balks of timber across the deck and destroy lifeboats or other deck fittings. On one occasion it destroyed a ships galley and the captain ordered the test crew off his ship as he regarded the weapon more of a threat to safety than the enemy. Eventually in 1941 a simplified device known as a Harvey projector was deemed suitable for sea trials on an operational patrol vessel, this was attacked by a German bomber which the Harvey projector succeeded in shooting down (this probably being the first successful use of a sea to air anti aircraft missile) but not before it had fatally damaged the ship which sank. By this time supplies of light cannon and heavy machine guns were becoming sufficient to remove the need for less conventional weapons. The work with rockets was not wasted however as it created the core knowledge used to develop the rocket firing bombardment vessels that played a key role in the D Day landings.

    Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe (H G Wells)
    Mit der Dummheit kaempfen Goetter selbst vergebens (Friedrich von Schiller)

  • #2

    If your interested in Congreve's rockets and the Red Glare from the Star Spangled Banner, then this link is a good reference point:-


    Andy H
    "You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life." Churchill

    "I'm no reactionary.Christ on the Mountain! I'm as idealistic as Hell" Eisenhower


    Latest Topics


    • casanova
      by casanova
      Adolf Hitler in München, Germany, 1931 ...
      Today, 00:25
    • casanova
      by casanova
      Heavy airattacks by Syrian and Russian battle jets to the Syrian city Idlib, the last of the Al-Kaida conquered city. Erdogan, the turkish president,...
      Today, 00:10
    • casanova
      by casanova
      The Russian president Putin wants to.change the Russian constitution in that way, that he could reign Russia still many years. He wants to found a statecouncil...
      Today, 00:01