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Incendiary Weapons - History

Flame and incendiary weapons are the oldest weapons known to man. According to a recent threat assessment conducted by the National Ground Intelligence Center, the use of incendiaries in battle dates back to biblical times. One of the first flame projectors consisted of a hollow tree trunk which had an attached basin full of glowing coals, sulfur and pitch. A bellows blew the flame in the form of a jet, setting fire to enemy fortifications. Other weapons include early firebombs hurled from catapults and incendiary arrows.

Incendiary chemicals were used as early as 1200 BC. The employment of liquid fire is represented on Assyrian has-reliefs. In Thucydides's History of the Peloponnesian War, the 4th-century BC war between Athens and Sparta, we find the earliest description of chemical warfare. At the siege of Plataea, (429 BC) the Spartans attempted to burn the town by piling up against the walls wood saturated with pitch and sulphur and setting iton fire (Thuc. ii. 77) Thucydides describes how the Athenians were defending a fort at Delium in 423 BC, when the allies of Sparta attacked: "The Boethians took the fort by an engine of the following description. They sawed in two and scooped out a great beam from end to end and fitted [it] together again like a pipe. They hung by chains a cauldron at one extremity, with which communicated an iron tube projecting from the beam, and this they brought up on carts to the part of the wall composed of vines and timber and inserted huge bellows into their end of the beam and blew with them. The blast passing closely confined into the cauldron, filled with lighted coals, sulfur and pitch made a great blaze and set fire to the wall."

Aeneas Tacticus in the following century mentions a mixture of sulphur, pitch, charcoal, incense and tow, which was packed in wooden vessels and thrown lighted upon the decks of the enemy's ships. Later, as in receipts given by Vegetius (c. AD 350), naphtha or petroleum is added, and some nine centuries afterwards the same substances are found forming part of mixtures described in the later receipts (which probably date from the beginning of the i3th century) of the collection known as the Liber ignium of Marcus Graecus. In subsequent receipts saltpetre and turpentine make their appearance, and the modern "carcass composition," containing sulphur, tallow, rosin, turpentine, saltpetre and crude antimony, is a representative of the same class of mixtures, which became known to the Crusaders as Greek Fire but were more usually called wildfire.

Similar to modern napalm, Greek Fire would adhere to surfaces, ignite upon contact, and water alone would not extinguish its flames. Greek Fire was an excellent naval weapon because it would float on water and set fire to the wooden ships of the era. Greek Fire would readily ignite other combustible materials and was difficult to extinguish. It is said that in the reign of Constantine Pogonatus (648-685) an architect named Callinicus, who had fled from Heliopolis in Syria to Constantinople, prepared a wet fire which was thrown out from siphons. One version of the story claims that in AD 660 a man named Kalinkos, who was either a Greek architect or a Syrian alchemist, invented Greek fire. According to another account, the Syrian engineer Callinicus, a refugee from Maalbek, invented it in the seventh century (673 AD). Its formula was kept secret and the exact composition was never identified. The formula probably consisted of resin, pitch, sulfur, naphtha, lime, and saltpeter. It may have been a mixture of distilled petroleum (similar to modern gasoline) that was thickened with resins and sulphur. This would have prevented it from being quickly extinguished or washed away by water. The secret of Greek Fire was handed down from one emperor to the next for centuries. In the 9th century, Leo IX of Byzantium, writing on warfare, described "vases filled with quick-lime which were thrown by hand. When broken, the vase would let loose an overpowering odor which suffocates those who are near." Greek Fire was the secret weapon of the Eastern Roman Emperors, and the defenses of Constantinople were greatly bolstered by Greek Fire. The weapon was most commonly used against the Muslims. The Byzantines destroyed two Saracen fleets with Greek fire, in 678 and again in 717-18. Inexplicably, the Byzantines forgot the recipe, and the city fell in 1453. The term "Greek fire" was coined by Western European crusaders in the 13th century - long after the method of producing the original weapon was lost. One of its original names was actually "Roman fire," since the Arabs, Russians, and Bulgars against whom it was used saw the Byzantines as Roman rather than Greek.

Flame and incendiary weapons dominated the battlefield for many centuries until the introduction of gunpowder in the fifteenth century. A form of Greek fire was employed by General Patrick Gilmore during the American Civil War. When the American Civil War started in 1861, the use of Greek fire was threatened but, in fact, never used. Flame and incendiary weapons have been used in virtually every war since that time.

The Germans first employed flamethrowers during World War I against the French at Malencourt, and by 1916, Britain and France had fielded flamethrowers as well. Prior to the armistice and during the inter-war period, the U.S. remained aloof from chemical weapons development. Not until 1940, after the Germans employed flamethrowers in Poland, Belgium, and France, did the Secretary of War direct the development of flamethrowers for the US military.

Following the flamethrower's debut on Guadalcanal in 1943, the Marine Corps found the effectiveness of spewing streams of fire into well-fortified enemy positions so great that the number of flamethrowers authorized for a division grew from 24 in 1943 to 243 in 1944. On Iwo Jima, Marine flamethrowers served in demolition teams. Tactically, when combating a Japanese stronghold, a Marine "pin-up" team consisting of a bazooka, 2 automatic riflemen, and an M-1 rifle would direct heavy fire against a target. Once a base of fire was laid, the demolition was laid, the demolition teams were sent in. One team was armed with various explosives or bangalore torpedoes; the other team had 2 flamethrowers, which in turn was protected by two riflemen. The infantry tactic became known as the "corkscrew and blowtorch" method. However, the assignment as a flamethrower operator was understandably not popular and many suffered psychologically thereafter.

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Page last modified: 07-07-2011 02:51:26 ZULU