On an English Beach September 7, 1943

On this date in 1943, on a popular beach near a sea­side vil­lage in South­west England, the British mili­tary not so secretly tested a giant rocket-pro­pelled, explo­sive-laden con­trap­tion called the Pan­jan­drum, known also as The Great Pan­jan­drum. The highly experi­mental vehicle con­sisted of a pair of 10‑ft-high steel tread wooden wheels mounted on an axle. Its purpose was to breach Adolf Hitler’s Atlan­tic Wall defenses in North­ern France and permit an amphib­i­ous landing force to suc­cess­fully stake out a beach­head during Opera­tion Over­lord, the battle to liber­ate Europe from the scourge of the Third Reich. To that end each vehicle was designed to carry a 2,200‑lb pack­age of explo­sives in the wheel’s hub. The vehicle would storm across the invasion beaches, deto­nate on hard impact against con­crete or wooden beach defenses, and blast a tank-sized breach in such a wall. The contrap­tion, had it proven its worth the year before, might have found good use during the failed amphib­ious landing at Dieppe on France’s Normandy coast on August 19, 1942, when hun­dreds of Cana­dian and British soldiers and dozens of tanks were stopped short by German machine gun, rifle, and anti­tank fire between the water’s edge and the town’s seawall.

In August 1943 construction of a Pan­jan­drum prototype began in East London. Within a month the proto­type was ready for testing in a beach setting. On the day of the test, the 18‑rocket vehicle cata­pulted out of the landing craft used as a launch pad and trundled a short way up the sandy terrain, chased by a dog no less, before a num­ber of the rockets on the right wheel failed and the weapon careered off course. Several more trials were con­ducted as late as January 1944, during which the vehicle, aug­mented by more rockets, a set of steering cables, and in one test a third wheel, some­times fell dan­ger­ously on its side, cor­dite rockets exploding or breaking off and flying in all directions, terrifying the VIP spectators.

The Panjandrum never made it up the beach or, fortu­nately, into battle. Other, equally experi­mental wea­pons managed to pass muster and enter the Allied armed ser­vices. Among them were some Hobart’s Funnies, a series of inven­tive tank modi­fi­ca­tions the brain­child of India-born Maj. Gen. Percy Cleg­horn Stanley “Hobo” Hobart (1885–1957). Hobart was a Royal Mili­tary College grad­u­ate, Bengal sapper (engi­neer in the British Indian Army), dec­o­rated World War I vete­ran, and long­time and force­ful pro­po­nent of mobile armored war­fare. Most famous of his “Funnies” was the duplex-drive, or DD, twin-propeller amphib­ious 33-ton M4 Sher­man tank nick­named “Donald Duck” that grew out of the failed Dieppe (France) Raid; the “Cro­co­dile,” a con­ver­sion of the Churc­hill Mark VII tank that had a terror­izing flame gun in place of the hull-mounted machine gun; the “Bobbin,” a special adap­ta­tion of the 39-ton Churc­hill tank that laid a canvas or wire carpet from a roller on its front that was capa­ble of supporting most mili­tary vehicles tra­versing soft sand; and the “Crab,” an M4 Sher­man tank mounting a 10‑ft-wide rotating roller with metal flails that pounded the ground to deto­nate mines in its path, destroy barbed-wire obsta­cles, and in at least one case pul­verize a German gun posi­tion. Unfor­tu­nately, the “Crab” flail tank was not used by Amer­i­can soldiers on Omaha Beach, where U.S. com­bat engi­neers gave their lives defusing mines the old-fashioned way, by hand. Conse­quently, Amer­i­can progress through the German obstacles and off the beaches was markedly slower than that of British and Canadian forces on Sword, Gold, and Juno Beaches.

Apart from Hobart’s lumbering mechan­i­cal con­tri­vances, there were two novel anti­sub­marine mor­tars, the Hedge­hog and the Squid. Indeed, Squid salvos proved so effec­tive in crushing the hulls of enemy sub­marines that the weapon system was still in use by Royal Navy as late as April 1977.

Wartime Research: Some Experimental Weapons Passed Muster and Entered Service, Some Didn’t

World War II Experimental Weapons: Great Panjandrum 1Experimental weapons: Great Panjandrum 2

Left: The British Admiralty’s Depart­ment of Miscel­laneous Wea­pons Develop­ment (DMWD) was respon­sible for a num­ber of devices of varying practi­cality and suc­cess. Their out­put encom­passed both resounding suc­cesses and sub­limely comi­cal fail­ures. Among the latter was the lum­bering Great Pan­jan­drum rocket-propelled beach defense demolition weapon shown here.

Right: The Great Panjandrum, or simply Panjandrum, revolved using pro­pul­sion from rockets arranged around its cir­cum­ference. Sadly, tests in the months before the Normandy inva­sion revealed the wea­pon was too un­stable, repeatedly careering off course as its rockets mis­fired and it hit bumps and small craters in the beach at its North Devon testing ground.

World War II Experimental Weapons: Hedgehog antisubmarine mortarWorld War II Experimental Weapons: Squid antisubmarine mortar

Left: The Department of Miscellaneous Weapons Devel­op­ment also devel­oped suc­cess­ful and impor­tant wea­pons. The Hedge­hog anti­sub­marine wea­pon was a ship-mounted 24‑barreled mortar. It was deployed on convoy-escort war­ships such as destroyers to supple­ment the depth charge. The wea­pon fired a num­ber of small spigot mortar bombs from spiked fittings up to 280 yards from the ship. The 30- to 35‑lb bombs exploded on con­tact rather than using a time or depth fuse as depth charges did. They achieved a higher kill rate against submarines than conventional depth charges did.

Right: Another DMWD success story was the Squid anti­sub­marine mortar. It replaced the Hedge­hog. The Squid con­sisted of a three-bar­reled mortar that launched depth charges up to 275 yards ahead of the ship. Carrying a 207‑lb charge, the wea­pon was auto­ma­tically fired in a tri­an­gular pat­tern from the sonar range recorder at the pro­per moment. The Squid’s first suc­cess­ful use was on July 31, 1944, when a British frigate sank U‑333 in the North Atlantic, followed on August 6, 1944, with killing U‑736 in the Bay of Biscay west of St. Nazaire, France. The Squid system, nine times more effec­tive than con­ven­tional depth charges, was credited with sinking 17 German submarines in 50 attacks.

Mulberry Harbor, Omaha Beach, June 1944Destroyed Mulberry Harbor, Omaha Beach, late June 1944

Left: Mulberry “A” pontoon cause­way with supply truck. The DMWD played an instru­mental role in devel­oping parts of the two arti­ficial Mul­berry har­bors used in the Normandy landings. Built over eight months by 20,000 workers in England, they served as tem­porary entry ports for fighting equip­ment, supplies, and troops needed to keep the Allied inva­sion moving forward. Towed in pieces by tug­boats 100 miles across the treach­erous English Chan­nel, by June 9, 1944, just 3 days after D‑Day, Mul­berry “A” and “B” har­bors were re-con­structed off Omaha and Gold beaches, the Amer­ican and British inva­sion beaches, respec­tively. Measuring two miles long by one mile wide, each harbor roughly the size of Dover harbor in England could unload seven ships simultaneously.

Right: Wrecked Mulberry “A” pontoon cause­way, the result of a huge 3‑day gale on June 19–22, 1944. The gale, the worst in 40 years, destroyed the Mulberry har­bor at Omaha Beach before the whole of the break­water had been laid, leaving only the British harbor at Gold Beach mostly intact, the damage repair­able using salvage­able parts from Mul­berry “A.” Mul­berry “B” came to be known as Port Winston, named after British Prime Minis­ter Win­ston Chur­chill. Port Winston saw heavy use for 8 months—despite being designed to last only 3 months. In the 10 months after D‑Day, it was used to land 4 mil­lion tons of supplies (its ini­tial raison d’être), over 2.5 mil­lion men, and 500,000 vehi­cles, pro­viding much-needed rein­force­ments in France. The cap­tured Bel­gian port of Antwerp eliminated the need to maintain Port Winston.

Experimental (and Funny) British Weapons of World War II