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British Rocket Artillery -- if only

By David Shaw

A few weeks into the war and the Master Gunner of the British Army is a worried man. The Royal Artillery is by far and away the most professional arm of the British Army, but it way below establishment in modern guns and it's going to take a long delay before the ordnance factories can catch up on the demand.

One day the MG is lunching with General Pile, the head of the Royal Artillery Anti-Aircraft units, and he discusses his empty gun parks. General Pile reminds the MG that the AA branch is also short of modern guns, and is introducing rockets as a substitute for heavy AA guns. In fact an experimental batch of the new three inch AA rockets have just finished firing trials in Jamaica and the weapon has been passed for service. Might there not be a possibility of using the three inch rocket as a artillery weapon? Rockets can never be as accurate as guns of course, but they're cheap and easy to produce and can carry a heavy payload.

Intrigued by the idea the MG returns to his office and asks for any intelligence reports on foreign armies which might be developing rocket batteries. The information which comes back is scanty. There are rumours that the Russians are showing some interest in artillery rockets, but there are always rumours about the Russians and never any hard facts. What is known is that the German Army is supposed to be developing rocket projectiles for smoke laying purposes. It's believed these German rockets are spin stabilised, with carefully machined and angled venturi. The rocket gases exhaust through these venturi and spin the projectile to keep it as accurate as possible.

The MG ponders over this report. The British don't have the production capacity to spare to produce the complex German style rotating rockets and fin stabilised rockets are certainly inaccurate. But would it be possible to design a launcher which could give a certain amount of spin to a finned rocket and thereby improve its performance?

The MG orders an effort to be made to produce an artillery field rocket based on the 3" AA rocket. During the winter there are strange and fearful noises from a test range in North Wales and by the spring the "Tulip" is a flourishing weapon. Nobody quite knows why the 3" field rocket was christened Tulip -- probably because it was a hybrid, with a five inch warhead grafted onto a 3" rocket body with shortened and canted fins.

Naturally, the apparatus from which it was fired was called a Tulip Bed.

A bed weighed just over a ton, had 32 barrels each 58 inches long, with a pitch of half a turn in the barrel length, the pitch coming from internal rails into which the Tulip's fins fitted. The bed was given mobility by being mounted on a standard Bedford three ton lorry. With the usual canvas cover erected on the lorry and covering the launcher it looked just like any other supply vehicle. A battery establishment is drawn up based on ten Bedfords: four launchers, four re-supply lorries, a communications lorry and a specially fitted out HQ lorry. There were also two Daimler scout cars on the establishment for forward spotting officers. A complete battery could therefore expect to fire 128 Tulips in one salvo and carried 9 complete salvos for immediate use.

The Tulip itself weighed sixty seven and a quarter pounds, the five inch warhead weighed twenty nine pounds, with an high explosive filling of seven pounds. The rocket motor was eleven pounds of cordite, cruciform in cross section and it burnt for 1.6 seconds. The projectile's maximum velocity was 1100 ft/sec and it was spinning at 660 rotations per minute when it left the launcher.

Of course the major concern to the Master Gunner was the operational capabilities of the Tulip. He was quite pleased with a maximum range of eight thousand yards but the accuracy figures gave him pause. At maximum range half the rockets landed in a strip of land 240 yards long by 240 yards wide. Which wasn't so bad, but what was worrying was where the other fifty per cent of the Tulips might land.

The MG went through the figures again on the back of an envelope. A single salvo of field rockets from a one battery delivered the same high explosive content as a full broadside from two hundred and fifty 4.5 medium field guns. That was quite incredible, but it would be vastly preferable if all this devastation landed on top of the enemy and not on his own army. How to control the aiming and use of such massive but unpredictable firepower?

The Master Gunner thought he knew the answer. It could best be done by a light aircraft which would be attached to the battery and devoted exclusively to providing the battery commander with the information he needed to use his firepower in the right place and at the right time. In fact, in the MG's opinion, such observation aircraft should be available at all times and on all fronts to carry out spotting duties for all RA batteries. What was needed was for the Army to have its own small air arm, a suggestion which the RAF would certainly fight tooth and nail. However . . .

The MG arranged a test firing of the experimental Tulip battery in front of a group of Very Important People. The battery firing was impressive -- so impressive in fact that one member of the Cabinet had an involuntary bowel movement in his immaculate Saville Row trousers as the rockets began shrieking off. Despite that official orificial hiccup the watchers unanimously agreed that it would be far better if these infernal devices were dropped on and around German heads rather than British ones. It was further agreed that under these special circumstances each Tulip battery could have a light aircraft as a permanent part of its establishment.

The next problem was to find a suitable aircraft for the job. The MG asked for advice and was told that the closest to ideal aircraft for Army liaison and spotting duties was the Fiesler Storch. Unfortunately Britain and Germany were now at war, which rather put the Storch out of the running. And then the Master Gunner received some help on his aircraft problems from a rather unlikely source, His Grace the Duke of Richmond.

In fact the Duke had been a keen pre-war pilot and aircraft enthusiast. Somehow he heard about the Royal Artillery interest in a light aircraft and decided to drop by Horse Guards parade for a chat with the Master Gunner. In a nutshell, he said, he and a friend, a Mr. Edmund Horden, had in 1936 constructed and flown a light aircraft which might be suitable for what the artillery wanted. It was called the Hordern-Richmond Autoplane, it had flown over three hundred hours with complete success and it was presently stored on the Duke's estate at Goodwood. Would the MG and an experienced pilot care to stop by and take a look at it?

The Master Gunner said he would, and quickly did. The Autoplane was sitting in a shed with its wings folded back underneath its tail. A common feature of small aircraft in those days to conserve hangar space, but useful as it would be easier to hide a folding wing aircraft underneath a camouflage net.

When rolled out into the open and the wings spread, the Autoplane turned out to be a very neat looking low wing twin engine cabin monoplane with wing span of forty two feet and a fixed undercarriage. What was an immediate surprise was that the two engines seemed very diminutive. The Duke explained that they were American Continental A-40's, each producing forty horsepower. But the total horsepower of eighty horsepower was quite sufficient because the loaded weight of the Autoplane was only 1,400 pounds and it could maintain height quite easily on just one engine. Normal performance was a top speed of 100 mph and a cruising speed of 85 mph. Stall occurred at 35-40 mph, with no adverse wing dropping. Indeed, the Duke assured his visitors, the Autoplane's handling qualities were delightful.

The cockpit was opened and examined. The pilot and passenger sat side by side with an excellent view in all directions except to the rear. The control column was centrally mounted between the two seats, with an extension on each side to allow the aircraft to be flown from either seat. What raised the examining pilot's eyebrows was the small wheel mounted on each extension. The Duke explained that the Autoplane had no rudder pedals or bar: the rudder was instead controlled by the wheels on the control column. The Duke assured them that there was no problem becoming used to the arrangement, especially as the Autoplane was such a stable and docile aircraft.

When asked why he'd wanted such a departure from normal practice, the Duke explained that in other light aircraft he'd often wished on cold days that he could fly with a motoring rug spread over his legs and in the Autoplane he could!

The Master Gunner pondered on this point. It seemed to him that any controls which allowed a pilot to fly with a large map board resting on top of his legs might be an excellent idea for an artillery spotting aircraft. The further thought occurred that if the Army aircraft had a different set of controls from standard aircraft, then that would be an excellent excuse for telling the RAF to sod off if they tried to take over the Autoplane. The Duke then demonstrated the hatches which opened up the ample luggage space behind the cockpit. So ample in fact that a jump seat had been installed in it for a third passenger, if required.

The Autoplane seemed to be just what was required. It was a proven design, it had plenty of space to fit a radio set, it was conceived with ease of manufacture in mind and the airframe only required five hundred pounds of wood. The engines could be directly imported from America without interfering with the production of any RAF or Fleet Air Arm aircraft. Furthermore, the dual controls meant that the Army pilots can be trained from scratch in the aircraft they would fly on operations. And, naturally, if the pilot was wounded and the passenger another pilot, then the dual controls enabled him make an emergency landing.

The MG asked the Duke about the blueprints and jigs. The Duke said they still existed, in fact he and Edmund Hordern had started a company called Hordern-Richmond Aircraft Ltd to manufacture the Autoplane, but the onset of the war had forced the abandonment of that idea. The Master Gunner told him the company was now back in business. They returned to the estate Mansion where the Duke called for his secretary and his butler. The butler was ordered to open a bottle of champagne, the secretary to type out a one page authorisation for the Army to buy the Hordern-Richmond Autoplane for flight tests with a view to beginning production immediately if satisfactory.

The only snag is that 'Autoplane' didn't sound martial enough. Suggestions are called for. The butler -- an ex-green jacket -- won by suggesting the Hordern-Richmond Sharpshooter.

One month later, it's spring in Europe and the first experimental rocket battery is being unloaded in Calais. Their Sharpshooter, the original and so far the only one, has already flown over the Channel. Apart from fitting a radio set, other modifications have been made to it. A rubber self sealing lining has been fitted to an enlarged petrol tank which now provides an endurance of three and a half hours. The danger of attack by enemy fighters has been considered and several rear vision mirrors have been mounted at the top of the cockpit Perspex to provide the best possible view of the sky behind and above the tail. For the same reason four ten pound smoke dischargers are now mounted underneath the fuselage, in a row between the undercarriage legs.

The intention is that, if attacked, the pilot can electrically fire each smoke discharger in sequence. Each canister releases a stream of green coloured smoke which is intended to make it as difficult as possible for high speed fighters to get their sights on a tiny green aircraft flying a few feet above green fields with a green mist trailing behind it. In fact, fighter affiliation trials with a Hurricane almost ended in the Hurricane crashing by flying into a tree it didn't see in the smoke. A further refinement has been the fitting of a length of aluminium one inch tubing across the back of the smoke dispensers, with the open ends of the tube behind the propellers. Thus the smoke is drawn out into the prop wash and instantly dispersed as widely as possible.

So, the Sharpshooter and the Tulip battery are ready to go to war. Only they don't have to bother because this is May 11th, 1940, and the war is already coming towards them. Coming towards them very, very quickly. Guderian is leading his Panzer Divisions forward in avalanche of dust, blood and hot steel like Genghis Khan in a homicidal rage.

Unlike Guderian, the allied generals are not inside their tanks with their radios switched on -- very few allied generals have ever been inside a tank or used a radio in their lives. They are sitting in offices, dictating their orders, waiting for them to be typed, checked, re-typed again onto duplicating skins, run off, filed and finally sent off by despatch riders. It's not a war between armies, it's a war between two different nervous systems, and one of them is in an advanced state of senility.

Ten days later and the British have decided not to march to the sound of the guns anymore but to the sound of the waves. Unfortunately the Germans are already on the beach, because it's now the 21st of May and the leading Panzer crews are paddling in the English Channel at Noyelles. They've travelled 200 miles in ten days and the operation has been about as difficult as a bunch of Al Capone's gangsters turning over an old folks' home. All the Panzers need to do now is make a smart right turn, drive north along the coast and cut the British Army's access to the coastal ports. And then to march the entire British order of battle off to their prison camps in the Third Reich. It's a great day.

But Lord Gort, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force, has decided to make the 21st of May his day as well. Scraping together whatever forces he can, he launches a counter attack into the flank of the Panzer corridor at Arras. The French are supposed to be taking part as well but never show up. Unfortunately there are more Germans than expected. Fifty eight British Matilda Tanks supported by two battalions of infantry run straight into the Seventh Panzer Division and part of the Third Waffen SS "Death's Head" Division.

It's the opening surprise in one of the oddest encounters in military history. The British get the first surprise at finding out the strength of the opposition they've run into, the Germans the second one when their 37mm anti-tank guns prove useless against the thick armour of the Matildas. Very quickly the Germans become infected with the same 'tank fear' which has infected some many allied units and begin to fall apart in confusion and a rising tide of panic. Even the SS turn and run, for the first and last time in their history.

Now it's the German divisional commander's turn to play an unexpected card. He lines up the 88mm flak guns of his anti-aircraft regiment and begins to fire down on the advancing British tanks from a wooded crest line. And every time an 88 gun is fired another Matilda shudders to a halt, the formerly invulnerable armour as useless as bird feathers against a shotgun blast. And overhead, two men and a radio inside a tiny wooden plane prepare to throw in the last and biggest surprise of the day.

The Sharpshooter was overlooking the advance on Arras that afternoon because Lord Gort had suggested that if the rocket battery had something useful to contribute to the war, that was the place to do it. The Tulip convoy had driven all night and half the day a through a tangle of conflicting road movements to get to Arras in time to support the counter attack, and only managed it because Gort's Chief of Staff had given them a priority movement order to show to the Military Police on point duty. A letter reinforced in daylight by the circling presence of the Sharpshooter overhead as visible proof of the importance of their mission.

In fact it was the Sharpshooter which located the HQ of General Franklyn, the officer commanding the counter attack, and guided the Tulips to it. Just in time to join in the operation. As the tanks advanced and outran their artillery support the Tulip lorries followed up closely in case they were needed. Until they were suddenly needed very badly indeed.

Seeing the slaughter going on below the pilot of the Sharpshooter carried out a previously agreed emergency procedure for calling in fire support. He climbed to 1,000 feet above the German gun line and began circling. Then he switched on a smoke dispenser. The Germans looked up in puzzlement at the spreading trail of green smoke above them with the sound of tiny engines buzzing away inside it as though they were being pestered by some overgrown model aircraft. But whatever was happening it didn't seem to be doing them any harm.

Meanwhile the Tulip battery commander had deployed his launchers and ordered them to aim at the windward edge of the spreading smoke trail. Since it had already been agreed that the smoke would only be released at 1000 feet he already knew the height of the Sharpshooter. Measuring the distance in degrees between the smoke and the artificial horizon on his theodolite gave him an exercise in simple applied trigonometry which supplied the range to the target. And, above all, the urgent appeals over the radio showed how badly and quickly the battery's help was needed. The launcher crews huddled in ditches for cover as the launcher captains armed their firing circuits and the battery commander advised the Sharpshooter pilot to get his arse out of the line of fire.

One and a half minutes later 128 rockets were fired in the space of seven seconds. It was the first use of war rockets by any combatant in the Second World War. Seventeen seconds later the rockets began falling on and around the German positions on the crest line. Trees were shredded into splinters, half tracks blew up like boxes of fireworks, most of the gun crews disappeared into the clouds of pounded dirt which partially buried their dismembered remains. Of the Divisional commander supervising their fighting, nothing was ever definitely identified but a ripped and scorched gold braided hat with the name 'Erwin Rommel' neatly printed inside it. Those few Germans who were still capable of it ran like hares, terrified out of their wits.

Two of the rockets had also found British targets. One Matilda suffered a direct hit and had its turret blown off, another Tulip landed close enough to a British tank to shatter a track. But since both of the tanks had already been knocked out by 88's, this was little loss. The crews of the surviving Matildas finally recovered their wits and moved forward again. The Tulip crews worked in a frenzy to reload the launchers. From the Sharpshooter the pilot and the observer watched with glee as the soft vehicles belonging to 7th Panzer and the SS tried to flee back towards the Fatherland as fast as their wheels could turn. All they achieved was to create a massive traffic jam on which another salvo of rockets landed. Along the rest of the front the Germans might be winning hands down but at Arras, today, they'd had the snot kicked right out of them.

Of course it couldn't last. The Jerries would soon recover and become their usual truculent selves. The Luftwaffe was already on the way to help retrieve the situation. There was still no possibility of any co-ordinated action with a French Army that was showing all the agility of a dinosaur trapped in a tar pit. But at least those Panzer crews on the coast had been turned around and were racing back to Arras to deal with the five British divisions the German staff seriously believed were responsible for the pounding Rommel's division had been given. A belief mixed in with panic stricken reports of some new kind of a secret weapon which was destructive beyond belief. There was going to be no sickle sweep behind the British lines now, or not for several days at least, and Gort could withdraw his divisions towards Dunkirk with little fear of being taken in the flank.

The Tulip battery became Army HQ troops, to be used as Gort himself directed, firing occasional salvos in widely dispersed positions to bluff the Germans into thinking the British had many rocket batteries instead of only one. And if the British were being forced out, at least they could go with the consolation that the German army was suddenly treating them with a great deal much caution and respect after the Arras attack.

As for the Germans officers picking over the wreckage on the Arras battlefield, they had ample time to reflect on what a British beach crowded with invading troops might look like after a similar bombardment.

The End Author's note: technical details are taken from the actual "Land Mattress;" rocket projectors first used in November 1944. All the information about the Hordern-Richmond Autoplane is also factual.

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