TCS Daily

Rocket Man

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - January 6, 2005 12:00 AM

"...and the rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air..."
-- The Star Spangled Banner

Israeli tanks and troops swept into Gaza this past Sunday in an attempt to deter Palestinian terrorists from firing rockets into southern Israel, something they have been doing with growing frequency. The rocket weapon, called the Kassam, first appeared in 2002 as a modest 2.4 inch diameter cylinder about the length of a yardstick, carrying a one pound warhead to a range of a little less than two miles.

Later versions of this crude home-built rocket have grown until the present "Kassam III" is almost 7 feet long and 6.7 inches in diameter. You see some of them being carried on two men's shoulders in Palestinian parade/demonstrations. They pack a much bigger warhead (up to 44 pounds) and have a reported range of over six miles.

You don't have to be a rocket scientist to turn out these unguided missiles. Palestinian engineers and technicians have plenty of access to materials on how to build a rocket. A variety of "fuels" and warhead explosives are smuggled in, probably from Egypt, with relative ease.

Once delivered from some clandestine Gaza factory they can be simply "aimed" in the general direction of the target and fired. About 400 of them have been fired at Israeli military installations and civilian settlements in the western Negev desert. They have killed four people - not a terribly successful ratio for a weapon.

But there is real concern that the Kassam, steadily improving in range and lethality, will be smuggled into the West Bank, where it can be fired into more thickly populated areas, thus upping chances for a random hit.

This latest grass roots development of a rocket as a sort of cheap auxiliary artillery comes as we are approaching the 200th anniversary of the formal introduction of rockets as military weapons in the West. And although he had many ancient precursors, the man we have to thank is an Englishman, Sir William Congreve, the original rocket man. (For those of a literary bent, he is not to be confused with the playwright and poet of the same name a century earlier.)

No time here to go into all the fits and starts of previous eras - the Chinese "fire arrows" of the early 13th century (the Mongols used a version of them to help conquer Baghdad in 1258) or the tube-fired rockets proposed by the Frenchman Jean Froissart in the 14th century. But we should note one name - a German named Leonhart Fronsperger, whose 1577 book on gunpowder weapons included a device with a tightly wrapped paper cylinder stuffed with saltpeter, sulphur and charcoal.

Fronsperger called it a "roget" and most weapons historians believe this was the basis for the term "rocket." Mike Wright, historian at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, tells us that about a century after the appearance of that book, a Polish artillery officer with a very German name (von Geissler) built and fired a 120 pound rocket generally employing Fronsperger's formula.

By 1687, when Sir Isaac Newton published his Principia Mathematica, rockets had long been crudely proving his Third Law of Motion. In 1696, another Englishman, Robert Anderson, published a two-part treatise, "The Making of ROCKETS," which covered not only those of "meanest Capacity" but also missiles "to 1000 pound Weight or higher."

But while rockets were being treated mainly theoretically and somewhat amateurishly in the West, their military use was being advanced rapidly in India, where fireworks, learned from the Chinese, had been in use for centuries. The British army found this out to its surprise and discomfiture during the Anglo-Mysore wars, in India in the last half of the 18th century.

The Muslim ruler of Mysore, Tipu Sultan, had an established rocket corps in his army when it faced the British. His rockets were not just overgrown fireworks, but quite sophisticated for their day, with iron casings, well-packed black powder propellant and a range of almost a mile.

Tipu Sultan's rocket units even had a wheeled cart from which three or four rockets could be fired almost simultaneously, dramatically anticipating the multiple launchers used in World War II.

One British commander whose troops were put to flight by Tipu Sultan's rockets in a chaotic night engagement was a certain Col. Arthur Wellesley, who would later become the Duke of Wellington and the victor over Napoleon at Waterloo.

Wellesley would later prevail, conquering Mysore, but he was shaken by the rockets' effect on his troops. Some of these rockets were returned to England after the war and taken to the famed Royal Woolwich Arsenal for examination. It was William Congreve, son of the arsenal's commandant, who led the meticulous study of the Indian weapons.

Chinese rockets, mainly used for elaborate fireworks, had used bamboo tubes. The few made in Europe had used wood or pasteboard for their tubular casings. But the tubes of Indian rockets were made of a soft hammered iron that allowed the propellant powder to be very densely packed and provided greater thrust.

Congreve tested, adapted and greatly improved the Indian rockets and worked on formulations of the primitive "solid fuels" that would propel a missile with their "slow" explosions. He eventually developed rockets of various sizes with sheet-iron casings and conical or ogival warheads. They were not very accurate. Stability and "guidance" were achieved by a 15-foot stick protruding from the rear (the weight of this "guidestick" was supposed to keep the rocket pointed skyward). But the biggest had a respectable range of almost 2 miles - just about the range of the first generation Palestinian Kassams.

In a fascinating confluence of military technology, yet another Englishman had been perfecting a new type of artillery shell during the 1780s and '90s, designed to explode in the air over the heads of troops, raining down shot or deadly shards of metal. The shell was tested and finally adopted by the British Army in 1803, and the last name of the young army officer, Henry Shrapnel, would become a standard military term to this day.

Congreve immediately adapted Shrapnel's shell as a warhead for his rockets along with explosive and incendiary types. Congreve believed his rockets would provide the same "punch" as artillery but in a much more mobile and articulate way, allowing a fluid movement of firepower without the necessity of moving and siting heavy guns. Every soldier would be a potential "rocket man."

He believed the inaccuracy of his rockets could be compensated for by firing masses of them in frightening barrages. He advanced the idea of multiple launchers much larger and more sophisticated than the Indian ones. But this was rejected by the British army.

Most launching in the field or from boats was from a collapsible frame that looked very much like a stepladder, or from a copper sheath planted in the ground or laid on some incline. The first attempt to use masses of Congreve's rockets was an attack in 1805 on barges massed by Napoleon (for a contemplated invasion of England) in the harbor at Boulogne. Stormy weather was partly to blame for the poor results of this first attempt. But the following year the rockets set fire to the barges and the town of Boulogne in a successful attack.

In 1807, a huge rocket attack on the French fleet at Copenhagen burned a large part of the city and destroyed Napoleon's warships. Rocket brigades began appearing in the other armies of Europe.

But Congreve's rockets were to receive their most lasting fame in a failed action - against the United States, in the War of 1812. In a bombardment that started on September 13, 1814 and continued through the night into the next day, a British fleet including the ship Erebus, specially equipped to fire rockets, lay siege to Fort McHenry guarding Baltimore harbor.

Fort McHenry gave better than it got, inflicting heavy casualties on the British and forcing them to retreat, while suffering only 28 killed and wounded. But the bombardment was a frightening spectacle, and the red glare of the Congreve rockets as they arced over the fort and the bursting of their warheads above it were witnessed by Francis Scott Key, a temporary prisoner aboard one of the British ships.

He, of course, immortalized the attack in the words of his "Star Spangled Banner," which eventually (act of Congress in 1931) became the official national anthem of the United States.

Congreve continued to improve his rockets. One big step was sheathing the guidestick in copper (to keep it from burning) and placing it in the center of the rocket cylinder instead of fastening it to the side of the casing. But eventually, yet another Englishman, William Hale, perfected a system of vanes and holes in the end of the rocket that caused the escaping gases to set the missile spinning along its "longitudinal axis" like a well-thrown football. Relative accuracy and range were increased and the guidestick with its deadweight was eliminated.

Hale eventually sold his rocket patents to the United States and some were used in the Mexican War but to no great effect. A few were used in the Civil War, too, but by that time advances in artillery had overshadowed the rockets, although they would be employed in various ways right up until World War II, when a resurgence began.

Multiple rocket launchers were a staple weapon for both the Axis and the Allies in World War II. And a highly effective "personal" rocket weapon, the American bazooka, would make its mark.

Today there is a dizzying array of rocket weapons available to armed forces on air, land and sea. Their range, speed, lethality and accuracy (thanks to innovative electronic guidance systems) is something beyond anything ever conceived by Billy Congreve as he tamped black powder into the cylinders of his experimental rockets two centuries ago. But Newton's Third Law still holds true, and no matter how exotic the solid fuel may be the same fiery principle still propels these modern rockets to their targets.


TCS Daily Archives