View Full Version : Flamethrowers

02-05-05, 11:10 AM


A Brief History

The flamethrower, which brought terror to French and British soldiers when used by the German army in the early phases of the First World War in 1914 and 1915 (and which was quickly adopted by both) was by no means a particularly innovative weapon.

The basic idea of a flamethrower is to spread fire by launching burning fuel. The earliest flamethrowers date as far back as the 5th century B.C. These took the form of lengthy tubes filled with burning solids (such as coal or sulphur), and which were used in the same way as blow-guns: by blowing into one end of the tube the solid material inside would be propelled towards the operator's enemies.

The flamethrower was inevitably refined over the intervening centuries, although the models seen in the early days of World War One were developed at the turn of the 20th century. The German army tested two models of flamethrower - or Flammenwerfer in German - in the early 1900s, one large and one small, both developed by Richard Fiedler.

The smaller, lighter Flammenwerfer (the Kleinflammenwerfer) was designed for portable use, carried by a single man. Using pressurised air and carbon dioxide or nitrogen it belched forth a stream of burning oil for as much as 18 metres.

Fielder's second, larger model (the Grossflammenwerfer), worked along the same lines but was not suitable for transport by a single person, but whose maximum range was twice that of the smaller model; it could also sustain flames for a (then) impressive forty seconds, although it was decidedly expensive in its use of fuel.


Having tested the Flammenwerfer in 1900 the German army deployed it for use in three specialist battalions from 1911 onwards.

It was put to initial wartime use against the French in the south-eastern sector of the Western Front from October 1914, although its use was sporadic and went largely unreported.

The first notable use of the Flammenwerfer came in a surprise attack launched by the Germans upon the British at Hooge in Flanders. Springing forward at 0315 on 30 July 1915 the Germans made effective use of the portable Flammenwerfer, with gas cylinders strapped to the back of the men responsible for using the instrument, a lit nozzle attached to each cylinder.

The effect of the dangerous nature of the surprise attack proved terrifying to the British opposition, although their line, initially pushed back, was stabilised later the same night. In two days of severe fighting the British lost 31 officers and 751 other ranks during the attack.

With the success of the Hooge attack, at least so far as the Flammenwerfer was concerned, the German army adopted the device on a widespread basis across all fronts of battle. The Flammenwerfers tended to be used in groups of six during battle, each machine worked by two men. They were used mostly to clear forward defenders during the start of a German attack, preceding their infantry colleagues.

They were undeniably useful when used at short-range, but were of limited wider effectiveness, especially once the British and French had overcome their initial alarm at their use. The operators of Flammenwerfer equipment also lived a most dangerous existence.



02-05-05, 11:12 AM
Quite aside from the worries of handling the device - it was entirely feasible that the cylinder carrying the fuel might unexpectedly explode - they were marked men; the British and French poured rifle-fire into the area of attack where Flammenwerfers were used, and their operators could expect no mercy should they be taken prisoner. Their life expectancy was therefore short.

The British Army also experimented with flame-throwers. However, they found short-range jets inefficient. They also developed four 2-ton throwers that could send a flame over 30 yards built directly into a forward trench constructed in No Man's Land a mere 60 yards from the German line. These were introduced in July 1916 but within a couple of weeks two had been destroyed.

Each was painstakingly constructed piece by piece, although two were destroyed by shellfire prior to 1 July 1916 (the start of the Somme offensive). The remaining two, each with a range of 90 yards, were put to use as planned on 1 July. Again highly effective at clearing trenches at a local level, they were of practically no wider benefit.


Although these large flame-throwers initially created panic amongst German soldiers, the British were unable to capture the trenches under attack. With this failure, the British generals decided to abandon the use of flame-throwers.

Similarly the French developed their own portable one-man Schilt flamethrower, of a superior build to the German model. It was used in trench attacks during 1917-18. The Germans produced a lightweight modified version of their Flammenwerfer, the Wex, in 1917, which had the benefit of self-igniting.


During the war the Germans launched in excess of 650 flamethrower attacks; no numbers exist for British or French attacks.

By the close of the war flamethrower use had been extended to use on tanks, a policy carried forward to World War Two. Flame-throwing equipment, albeit somewhat refined, continues in use to the present day.

Guy Chapman, From his book, A Passionate Prodigality: Fragments of Autobiography (1933) Describes the attack by flammenwerfer;

"The enemy were attacking under cover of flammenwerfer, hose pipes leading to petrol-tanks carried on the backs of men. When the nozzles were lighted, they threw out a roaring, hissing flame twenty to thirty feet long, swelling at the end to a whirling oily rose, six feet in diameter. Under the protection of these hideous weapons, the enemy surrounded the advance pill-box, stormed it and killed the garrison."

Backpack Flamethrowers

It seems a contradiction in terms to talk of 'humane' weapons; by their very nature they are things of torment, so any such machine must surely be an 'inhumane' one? Yet there remains something uniquely horrific about the flamethrower. It is no surprise that it was born amid the carnage of the Great War, when chemical weapons were used en masse and there was even room for metal darts to be dropped from aircraft to spear the infantrymen below. Yet this modernised version of medieval boiling oil still had a terrible part to play in the Second World War.


french flamethrowers WWI


02-05-05, 11:15 AM
The flamethrower is one of those weapons which relies almost as much on reputation as results. Its primary use was against men who could not be effectively engaged by artillery or small arms, who were fighting from emplacements or fortifications. To them, huddled in a cellar or pillbox, the dread knowledge that a flamethrower had been summoned to squirt liquid fire into their haven was usually enough to prompt surrender.

The simple mechanics of the flamethrower belie its dreadful nature. Two tanks were needed, mounted side by side. One contained the fuel, naturally flammable, while the other contained compressed gas. The two substances were mixed as they passed through a valve, the force provided by the compressed gas. The mixture was directed through a pipe and out through a nozzle. At this point the concoction was ignited and the sheet of flame produced. The flammable material was mixed with an adhesive which meant it would stick to whatever it hit, flesh included.

Despite appearances, the backpack flamethrower actually declined in use during the course of the war. The vulnerability of the operator was compounded by the need to close to within pistol range of the enemy to be of effect. It was usual for a rifle armed escort to accompany the flame gunner, both to act as guard and assist him in the operation of the awkwardly placed gauges.

British, German and American forces all reached the same conclusion that the most effective means of deploying flame was not by backpack but by vehicle, ideally armoured. This at once removed the obvious vulnerability of the individual soldier and simultaneously increased the duration of fire that could be produced, as well as the range.

Backpack models did not disappear from use though, being retained for use in street and jungle fighting where vehicles could not always follow and also in airborne units.

Below are detailed the main types of backpack flamethrowers deployed by the major combatant nations.


The British Army was never very taken with the flamethrower for any number of reasons. They were of little use in the desert where the Army had spent most of its time fighting up to 1943, but for the upcoming invasion of Europe it was realised that they would be needed.

The Number 2 replaced its unsuccessful predecessor during 1944 and saw some limited service. The British Army greatly valued their armoured 'funnies' and it was the Churchill based Crocodile and the carrier converted Wasp which were the more usual platforms. The backpack flamethrower concept was not pursued further by the British.

The USMC became the primary users of this weapon as the only way to evict Japanese defenders from their boltholes, without resorting to costly infantry attacks.

The United States, like the British, had problems with their first portable weapon. The M1 shared roughly the same statistics as the M2, but suffered from reliability problems, especially in the crucial area of ignition. The M2-2 overcame these defects, which were known to require troops to light the flame with matches in action.

The US Army used them little in Europe, but with the Marine Corps it was different story. The war being fought against the Japanese in the Pacific, where every cave and emplacement became a battle in its own right, required large numbers. Each Rifle Squad was to have access to one M2-2 pack at the height of its use during 1944. The appearance of Sherman tanks fitted with Ronson based systems saw the use of the M2-2 decline even among the Marines.




02-05-05, 11:18 AM
The use of the flamethrower in Red Army service is particularly difficult to gauge. The weapons were initially issued to infantry units but were gradually pulled back into specialist formations. As these were not necessarily assigned to each Division, quite how many would be on hand is difficult to say, though it seems reasonable to suppose they were attached to units leading the assault.

The ROKS-2 was joined in service by a simplified ROKS-3 model. Both types disguised the usual pipe and nozzle arrangement as a rifle to deter enemy snipers from picking off the operator.

The German Army

The Germans used the flamethrower a good deal early on but its use soon faded. It was a prime target for retribution and operators were sometimes selected as a form of field punishment.

The German Army made good use of their flamethrowers during the lightning campaigns of 1939-41. Specialist Assault Pioneers accompanied the Infantry, deploying the weapons against fortifications that would otherwise have slowed the advance.

The change from offensive to defensive actions against the Red Army in 1942 saw the demise of the flamethrower in German service. There were several armoured vehicles which could carry out the role more effectively, converted Panzer IIs and IIIs and the halftrack mounted SdKfz 251/16.


Portable Flamethrower M2-2


Flammenwerfer 41/42


British Crocodile


02-05-05, 11:21 AM
The harshness of the Russian winter in 1941/42 led to an unforeseen problem with the original model 41, in that it was too cold to light. The model 42 incorporated a revised system which eliminated the problem. The fuel capacity of the original model 35 was almost 12 litres, which was reduced in the subsequent types. The model 35 weighed in at a hefty 36 kg.