While the use of fire as a weapon dates back
to antiquity, the first modern mechanical flame-throwing weapons
originated in the First World War. The first such weapon was used by the
Germans in Feb 1915 at Verdun against French troops, and then at Hooge in
Jul 1915 against British trenches. Allied armies experimented with, but
never adopted, flame weapons.
The Canadian Army first
used modern flame weapons during the Second World War.
Lance-Corporal J.E. Cunningham
of The Essex Scottish Regiment practices firing a Lifebuoy
flamethrower near Xanten, Germany, 10 March 1945. LAC Photo.
- Man Portable - Lifebuoy
The Flamethrower, Portable,
No.2 (nicknamed "Lifebuoy" from the shape of the fuel tank, and not after
the popular brand of soap), was a British design of flamethrower for
infantry use and was used extensively in the Second World War.
Over 7,000 units were
produced from 1943-1944.
A harness carried a
ring-shaped fuel container with a capacity of 4 Imperial gallons (18
litres) of fuel, which was strapped to the operator's back. In the centre
of the ring was a spherical container holding propelling gas pressurized
to 2,000 lbf/in³, sufficient to propel burning fuel 120 feet. A hose from
the fuel tank passed to the nozzle assembly which had two pistol grips;
one to assist holding and aiming the nozzle, and the other with a trigger.
The nozzle was fitted with a 10-chambered cylinder containing ignition
cartridges, and each could be fired only once. In practice the operator
usually fired in 10 one-second bursts. It was also possible to spray fuel
without igniting it, in order to provide combustibles to the target before
using the flame.
The unit weighed 64 lbs
fully loaded, making the weapon both heavy and cumbersome. During the
attack on Kapelsche Veer, a number of Lifebuoy operators were killed due
to difficulties moving over snow and ice with the weapons. The drawbacks
of the weapons were many, including limited range and reduced mobility of
the operators. Optimum conditions for their employment included close-in
terrain and a covered approach to the target, either by concealing terrain
or by supporting fire.
However, a Hollywood myth
perpetuated by films like Saving Private Ryan bears some scrutiny
It should be noted
that flame thrower operators did not usually face a fiery death from the
slightest spark or even from having their tank hit by a normal bullet as
often depicted in modern war films. The Gas Container is filled with a
non-flammable gas that is under high pressure. If this tank were
ruptured, it might knock the operator forward as it was expended in the
same way a pressurized aerosol can bursts outward when punctured. The
fuel mixture in the Fuel Containers is difficult to light which is why
magnesium filled igniters are required when the weapon is fired. Fire a
bullet into a metal can filled with diesel or napalm and it will merely
leak out the hole unless the round was an incendiary type that could
possibly ignite the mixture inside. This also applies to the flame
thrower Fuel Container.(Weapons of the WWII Tommy)
Research by John D. Salt at
the Public Records Office in the United Kingdom has unearthed other
interesting operational research of flamethrowers in action with British
forces in the Second World War.
Document WO 208/2112,
"Translation of German flamethrower manual", states:
In order to give the
men a greater sense of security attention should be drawn to the fact
that should the weapon be struck by an infantry bullet or shell splinter
it will not explode.
Salt's research also finds
that operational research conducted during the Second World War found that
the main effects of flame weapons were on enemy morale as opposed to
physical effects. According to Salt:
between prisoners and casualties resulting from flame attacks is
mentioned in WO 291/308, "Effect of flamethrowers on military
personnel", which says that information from flame actions showed an
average expenditure of 270 gallons per death, 9 gallons per prisoner.
Physical effects are
discussed in WO 231/32, "Notes on Wasp and Lifebuoy"
An attack by flame
depends largely on its terrifying effect for its success. Troops
familiar with Flame Throwers will offer greater resistance than those
It is difficult to get
large quantities of burning fuel in through the slits in a pill box.
Anti-ricochet slits and flaps afford additional protection.
The occupants of a
pill box are fairly safe if they retreat behind the partition wall.
As a counter measure to
flame weapons, the report (according again to Salt) "advises that woollen
blankets and greatcoats, especially if wet, give good protection against
radiant heat, but should be easy to remove in case they do catch fire."
Another PRO document, WO
291/986, entitled "The operational effectiveness of the flamethrower tank
a) Flame was most
effective against houses and fortified buildings. There were invariably
set on fire and gutted.
b) Open defences among
woods, hedges and undergrowth provided good targets as the vegetation
was easily set on fire.
c) As would be
expected, flame was least effective against pillboxes and the like; only
if it could be projected through apertures to the inside did the
Salt further comments on
The difficulty of
using flame against entenchments is commented on in WO 291/1060, "The
A45 flame gun versus the Panzerfaust". This report refers to earlier
research using the Wasp flamethrower, which it says shows that "a
frontal shot of ignited fuel does negligible harm to men in a
slit-trench providing they keep their heads down." The trench should
either be enfiladed, or an unignited ("wet") shot fired first. Because
of the different ballistics of ignited and unignited fuel, it is likely
that two unignited shots may be needed. It is also stated that, if wind
conditions are such as to affect shooting, the first shot will usually
be wasted, used for indicating wind direction.
The number of manpack
flamethrowers required to reduce a pillbox or bunker seems considerable.
WO 232/70, "Flame throwers – Exchange of information with Red Army" says
"The number of flame throwers allotted to an assault group formed to
attack a pillbox depends on the number of embrasures. On an average 3–4
flame throwers are allotted per pillbox."
Nonetheless, WO 232/35
"Reduction of Japanese bunkers" says that "At Tarawa M3 tank flame
throwers reduced pill boxes when all other attempts had failed."
...effectiveness against AFVs was known to be poor. WO 291/1139, "Drop
tank incendiary bombs used in the anti-tank role", mentions that trials
of flamethrowers against AFVs showed that it was difficult to get fuel
inside the AFV. An open driver's hatch would admit fuel; an open
commander's hatch with more difficulty, as it was harder to "loft" the
fuel to turret height. Hits on the (internal) mantlet area of the
Churchill admitted fuel. Vehicles with engine louvres on the rear deck
could be disabled by flaming from the rear, which ignites fan-belts and
damages ignition wires. It is pointed out that attack from above, as
with an air attack, seems to be the most favourable aspect when using
The disadvantages of the
man-packed flamethrower were largely redressed by the introduction of
vehicle mounted flame weapons. The first combat use of a vehicle-mounted
flamethrower by Canadians was at Dieppe.
Wasp - Universal Carriers
equipped with flame weapons were widely used in North-West Europe
beginning in late 1944.
Badger - a conversion of
the Ram tank.
Oke - first used at
Dieppe, the Oke was a Churchill tank fitted with a flame gun
Crocodile - a very
successful adaptation of the later Churchill Mk. VII tank; not used by
Canadians, but used on occasion by units of the British 79th Armoured
Division in support of Canadians.