Saturday, 30 April 2016

World of Tanks History Section: Ersatz Artillery

There is a simple rule: cheap, good, fast, pick two. AT guns are long and expensive. What do you do when fighting enemy tanks with a log is foreseen in the near future?

British Ersatz Grenade Launchers

When the British were expecting the Germans to invade the British Isles, Major Harry Horthover came up with the so called Northover Projector. This solution was cheap indeed: only 10 Pounds Sterling apiece.


This weapon consisted of a pipe 2.5" (about 80 mm) in diameter with a simple screw breech, set up on a tripod. The loading process consisted of loading a round, then a pouch of black powder. The grenade launcher could fire a rifle grenade or grenade #76, a vessel filled with incendiary fluid that the British prepared 6 million of by the end of the summer of 1941.

What can be said about the Northover Projector? First, separate loading is a slow process. Second, black powder reveals the gun. Finally, hitting something with the weapon at a range of over 140 meters was almost impossible. In a real battle, it was doubtful that this wonder-weapon could fire more than once, and yet 19,000 Northover Projectors came off the assembly line.

Nortover was only a Major, but even the higher ranks were bitten by the invention bug. For example, Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Blacker proposed a bombard of his design which he was working on since before WWII. In his opinion, the bombard combined the best features of the 40 mm AT gun and 81 mm mortar. His invention was a spigot mortar (the caliber of the round was bigger than the caliber of the barrel) 10 kilogram shells. It could fire from either a stand or a concrete foundation. The range of this gun was miserly: only 50 meters.


The British build the first Blacker Bombards in the end of 1941 when it was already obvious that the Wehrmacht was bogged down fighting the Soviets and that German landing craft are unlikely to cross the Channel. However, the inertia of the war machine resulted in about 22,000 bombards being built. Looking at this Blacker Bombard and the Northover Projector once might wonder if the metal would have gone to better use in the production of a few hundred real AT guns.

By the way, the British did not limit themselves to these two weapons. Another design was proposed by Major William Smith. His design stood out due to its transportation method: the grenade launcher was wheeled around on a two wheeled cart, equipped with a shield. In combat, the grenade launcher was tipped on the side. In order to make it clear to the Home Guard which end was up, one wheel was made concave and the other convex. The range of "Smith's Gun" was about 150 meters. 3000 units were build by 1943. The British militia did not like this weapon: it was too heavy to push around. Towing it was forbidden as it might break.


 Ampulomet - A Picky Pipe on Wheels

Soviet engineers were also tempted by the cheap and quick. In the 1930s, 125 mm glass and later tin ampoules filled with incendiary fluid were developed for dropping from aircraft. It is unknown who decided to bring this weapon down from the skies. It is only known that the development of the ampulomet began at the Moscow Kirov factory #145.

The result was a pipe on wheels, officially accepted into service under the index "125 mm ampulomet mod. 1941". The ampoule was projected by a 12 gauge blank.


Initially, the ampulomet was not considered an anti-tank weapon, but in 1941 the situation demanded that everything that could theoretically destroy a tank must fire at them. The impact from a 125 mm ball of flame was considered more impressive than a lesser sized bottle of incendiary fluid.

However, "must be" and "is" are two different things. Usually when historians discuss the effectiveness of ampulomets in anti-tank roles, they recall a story from D. Lelyushenko's 30th Army in early December of 1941. An engineer arrived in one of its battalions with 20 ampulomets. Lelyushenko decided to personally try out this novelty. Lelyushenko replied to the engineer's description of how to load the ampulomet: "too complex and too long, the German tanks will not wait".

On the first shot, the ampoule burst in the barrel and the ampulomet burned up. Lelyushenko demanded a second attempt, and the situation repeated itself. The enraged general prohibited the use of this unsafe weapon by his troops and had the remaining ones crushed with a tank. It is hard to say how accurate this story is, but Dmitriy Danilovich Lelyushenko had a rather difficult character.

Lelyushenko was not the only one to encounter the problem of premature bursting. In April of 1942, the 370th Infantry Division attempted to use ampulomets. Use in combat did not pan out, as the soldiers were unable to get within the required 100-150 meters of the enemy, and the results of training exercises were not encouraging:

"
  1. Out of the 12-15 burst ampoules at training exercises in the 307th division, 8 did not ignite.
  2. 10-15% ampoules fired at exercises at the HQ burst in the barrel. 
  3. Out of 52 ampoules tested, taken from various crates stored at warehouse #1801, 19 burst in the barrel, which is a failure rate of 36.5%.
The cause of the premature bursting is due to low quality manufacturing: ampoules are not properly welded and were presumably not checked for robustness when produced. Without firing, it is impossible to determine a faulty ampoule visually."

It is not difficult to understand the soldiers that did not want to go to battle with such a weapon. The attempt at a fast and cheap solution harmed the quality of the weapon. Yes, it was used on several parts of the front, but the ampulomet was not destined to end up among the weapons of victory. It remained a symbol from difficult times when even a pipe on wheels had to be taken into battle.

Original article available here.

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