How do you destroy an unwanted aircraft from the ground? The first anti-aircraft weapon, the Ballonabwehrkanone (balloon defence cannon) or BaK was deployed in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. It was a simple concept, consisting of a modified 37-mm cannon mounted on a horse-drawn carriage for the purpose of shooting down French communication balloons. Since then people have defended themselves from far more alarming aircraft, many hellbent on the destruction of cities, with a bewildering array of unlikely weapons. Here are ten of them.
7. Unrotated Projectile (1940) ‘Loony Lindemann’s lemon launcher’
In the late 1930s, Britain was sorely lacking in a medium to close-range anti-aircraft weapon to supplement the Quick-Firing 3.7in AA gun (the main land-based anti-aircraft gun of British land forces) and the Quick-Firing 2-pounder gun, (the main naval anti-aircraft gun throughout the War at sea). Winston Churchill was never one to let a lack of expertise in any subject stop him from contributing, and so it was with naval anti-aircraft weaponry, leading to an unfortunate diversion into the vaguely named ‘unrotated projectile’ (UP) that might just have ended far more Allied lives than enemy ones. Churchill had long had the ear of Professor Frederick Lindemann, a physicist, eugenicist and inveterate tinkerer in just about anything, who had developed an entirely amateur interest in aerial defence. Sadly, Lindemann was more Barnes Clueless than Barnes Wallis. One of his big ideas was an aerial minefield which could be laid in front of an oncoming raid. Lindemann latched onto solid-fuelled rocket research that had been conducted since 1938, with the notion of using the rockets to fling a barrage of floating ‘mines’ into the air, from where they would slowly descend, suspended on long cables beneath parachutes. The idea went that aircraft would run into the wire, then the drag of the parachute would pull the mine towards the aircraft and detonate when a proximity fuse was triggered.
Churchill forced the Committee for the Scientific Study of Aerial Defence (the Tizard
Committee), which famously promoted the development of RDF or radar, to include
Lindemann. He promptly attempted to sideline radar and push his own ideas, including the aerial minefield, to the extent that the Committee for the Scientific Study of Aerial Defence had to dissolve itself and form a new organisation just to get rid of him. Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, was however in a position to push the Royal Navy to develop the aerial minefield as an anti dive-bomber weapon before he became PM. The result was the Unrotated Projectile (UP), a name that was supposedly non-descriptive to avoid giving secrets away but was probably just applied out of embarrassment. The UP launcher was a battery of 20 smoothbore tubes for the ‘projectiles’ to be loaded into, and launched up to 3,000ft into the path of oncoming aircraft.
The UP took two minutes to load with a salvo of 20 rockets, and it needed many such 20-rocket salvos to lay a big enough ‘aerial minefield’ to have any chance of successfully catching enemy aircraft.This took an age to create, and the flock of parachutes descending gently in the breeze were highly visible to aircraft and easy to avoid. Bizarrely, the fuse could only work under certain light conditions. Furthermore, the launcher was large and heavy (4 tons), and needed large ready-use ammunition lockers nearby. The RN grudgingly fitted it to a few capital ships from June 1940, and in the short time it was in service, it was not known to have caused the loss of any enemy aircraft. Churchill was still convinced of its benefits, and when HMS Illustrious was bombed to near oblivion by Stukas in January 1941, he demanded to know if the RN had been driven out of the central Mediterranean due to the lack of adequate defences and insisted on further consideration of the UP. Just four months later, however, HMS Hood was sunk during the Battle of the Denmark Strait. She had five UP launchers mounted, four of them on the shelter deck, and the ready use ammunition was
seen to be on fire when catastrophic explosion that caused her loss with the most of her
crew took place. Some at the Admiralty blamed the UP ammunition for causing a fire that spread to the magazines. In truth, it was more likely that one of Bismarck’s shells simply penetrated the magazine, but the writing was on the wall and the UPs were removed from all other ships in their next refits. The truth was that the UP was a bad solution, though at the time the RN had nothing else between the 0.5in Vickers machine gun and the Pom Pom. More sophisticated ammunition for the Pom Pom, and later the 40mm Bofors and 20mm Oerlikon autocannon solved the problem. The rocket research led to the altogether more effective 60lb rocket projectile, the P Catapult, and RATOG. Lindemann ‘failed upwards’ and was elevated to the peerage.
Matthew Willis is a writer and historian of aviation and naval matters. Here is a link to his books.
6. Vickers QF 127/58 SBT X1 Green Mace (1956) ‘The Green Gobbler’
The Green Mace was a 28-ton monster, a 102-mm (some sources say 127mm) calibre cannon capable of firing 96 giant darts a minute that would have been able to shred aircraft eight kilometres away. It was developed in Britain in the 1950s, but by 1957 it was clear that longer range anti-aircraft defence was now the preserve of guided missiles.
5. SAM-N-8 (later RIM-50) Typhon (1961) ‘Cursed rimshot’
A radical effort to field a replacement to the US Navy’s Talos, Tartar and Terrier surface-to-air missiles that had been developed under the ‘Bumblebee’ programme, the Typhon (the name coming from a monstrous serpent from Greek mythology) ditched the earlier weapons’ clunky beam-guidance for a futuristic weapon-control system that – some 20 years later – would form the basis of the AEGIS.
Work on the SAM-N-8 (later RIM-50) Typhon began in the 1950s and centred on an active-radar-homing missile combined with a Westinghouse electronically scanned array radar – remarkable technology for the time. This would ensure that – unlike its predecessors – the Typhon would be able to engage multiple targets simultaneously. Equally ambitious was the missile’s planned quarry – high-altitude air-breathing targets as well as other rockets and missiles, travelling at up to Mach 4. On top of that, it was expected to take out Soviet warships if required – employing either a high-explosive or nuclear warhead.
Both medium- and long-range versions were planned, the latter reaching a maximum speed of Mach 5 on the power of its Bendix integral ramjet motor.
The Typhon was expected to be so good that it would need to be fielded aboard far fewer ships than the earlier T-series (thereby saving money), its multiple-target capability still ensuring protection against saturation attack. But the US Navy was not completely convinced. With an eye on the poor reliability and hefty price tag of the earlier ‘Bumblebee’ SAMs, penny-pinching Defense Secretary Robert McNamara decided to ditch the Typhon in late 1963. The money saved was spent trying to iron out the inadequacies of the earlier T-series SAMs.
4. Dr. Gustav Rasmus’ Hearing missile ‘The exploding ear’
Dr. Gustav Rasmus, a San Diego patent attorney, suggested the guided surface-to-air missile in 1931. Whereas real-world SAMs rely on optical, infra-red, radar or command guidance, Dr Rasmus’s weapons relied on sound: the missile was to have four ‘ears’ – accurate microphones that could locate an aeroplane and guide the rocket-propelled missile to destroy it. The weapon did not come to fruition, perhaps because of the technical difficulties of acoustic guidance.
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3. M247 Sergeant York (1979) ‘Shoddy shilka’
Take a tried-and-tested auto-cannon, fit it to a tried-and-tested armoured vehicle chassis, add a tried-and-tested radar and you’ll get an excellent weapon system for destroying low-level aircraft. The Soviets achieved this with the superb ZSU-23-4 ‘Shilka’, which entered service in 1965. The US wanted something similar and set about a competition in the 1970s. Prior to this they had been lacking in this crucial role, since anti-aircraft guns had gone out of fashion in the late 1950s. The overly ambitious Mauler failed and was replaced by the underwhelming Chaparral-Vulcan Air Defense System.
In 1977 the need was so desperate that it was announced that the new Division Air Defense (DIVAD) requirement should be met by a self-propelled artillery vehicle using as much off-the-shelf content as possible. Ford Aerospace combined the readily available M48 Patton chassis with two 40-mm Bofors cannon (a weapon that proved indispensable in World War II) with the radar of the F-16 fighter.
After a dodgy evaluation exercise, the Sergeant York (named for a World War I hero) was named the winner. It was awful. It was too slow to keep up with other armoured vehicles, too heavy, and the detection and targeting system proved unreliable and suffered massive cost overruns. Though it was made of tried-and-tested parts, they had not been adequately proven as a combined unit. Even for a late Cold War project, this was too bad a programme, and it was very sensibly cancelled in 1985.
2. Teleforce ‘Telsa’s steamy death slug dispenser’
The Serbian-American genius Nikola Tesla proposed a radical weapon that could have been used for the anti-aircraft role. The Teleforce proposal would have harnessed electrostatic repulsion in a vacuum chamber to propel pellets or ‘slugs’ at a great speed. Tesla noted, “Many thousands of horsepower can thus be transmitted by a stream thinner than a hair, so that nothing can resist.”
The idea of Teleforce ‘death-beam’ weapon was publicly revealed on Tesla’s 78th birthday, July 10, 1934, in the New York Sun. In this article he claimed a nation could deal shoot down massed aerial forces 250 miles away.
In a 1934 letter he noted,” I have made recent discoveries of inestimable value… The flying machine has completely demoralised the world, so much that in some cities, as London and Paris, people are in mortal fear from aerial bombing. The new means I have perfected afford absolute protection against this and other forms of attack. … These new discoveries, which I have carried out experimentally on a limited scale, have created a profound impression. One of the most pressing problems seems to be the protection of London and I am writing to some influential friends in England hoping that my plan will be adopted without delay. The Russians are very anxious to render their borders safe against Japanese invasion and I have made them a proposal which is being seriously considered.”
Britain considered paying $30 million for the device, hoping that the deterrent effect alone might be enough to discourage German aggression, but by 1938 they had lost interest. As with many of Tesla’s ideas, Teleforce was so advanced (and far-fetched) for its time it was hard to tell the plausibility of the device.
1. Gothaer Waggonfabrik Rammflugzeug ‘One-hit Wundes’ sticky stinger’ (1944)
A remarkable number of outlandish aviation-related patents were filed by Gothaer Waggonfabrik during the Second World War. From towed gunship gliders to armoured ground-attack rocket aircraft, Gotha had them all – but even among the company’s wilder ideas the ‘Rammstachel für Flugzeuge’ or ‘ram sting for aircraft’ stands out.
Design by prolific ‘wonder weapon’ inventor Oberingenieur Walter Wundes it was an anti-aircraft weapon like no other, combining a manned rocket-propelled rammer with a detachable explosive ‘sting’. Although Wundes’ patent outlining the device is undated, he produced a wide range of similar concepts during mid- to late-1944 and it shares many of their features.
At this time the American daylight bombing campaign over Germany was reaching its zenith and a multitude of unlikely concepts were formulated in a bid to destroy the seemingly endless formations of B-17s and B-24s. Wundes had already dreamt up a teardrop-shaped manned rocket-rammer intended to bludgeon its way through lightweight bomber airframes, but now he decided to add a spiky or possibly sticky pop-up explosive device to its back which could prolong its usefulness.
According to the patent: “A ramming aircraft should approach as close as possible to the aircraft it is attacking and destroy it by damaging flight-important airframe parts. Due to the collision, the ramming aircraft itself is usually so heavily damaged that another attack is no longer possible.
“In order to allow the destruction of the enemy aircraft without direct collision, it is proposed to attach to the ramming aircraft a protruding arm (spike) in which one or more explosive projectiles are installed, and which breaks off when touched with the enemy aircraft and with the help of barbs, a tack or ropes that loop around parts of the enemy aircraft, it remains hanging.
“The sting with the explosive bullets is now stuck to the enemy aircraft and it cannot shake it off or remove it. The subsequent explosion will bring the enemy plane to crash. The protruding arm is usually folded into the aircraft, so as not to cause drag, and deployed just before the attack. In addition, several arms can be provided, which are extended one after another, so that various attacks can be performed.”
The rammer would approach the enemy bomber stream, flip its explosive ‘sting’ up into a vertical position, then fly close enough to an individual bomber so that the ‘sting’ snagged on it and then became embedded – detaching as the rammer flew away. The explosives would then detonate, destroying the target. Assuming that the patent’s final provision was followed, the rammer would then simply flip up another ‘sting’ and perform another attack.
In practice, setting aside the ludicrously dangerous nature of such a mission, missing a target narrowly enough to embed the sting would have been extremely tricky even for a skilled pilot. Fortunately for all concerned, the idea went no further than the patent office.
— Dan Sharp, author of Britain’s secret projects 5.
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