When Britain's fortunes were at lowest ebb in 1940 when the Army had returned almost weaponless from Dunkirk and the full furry of Hitler's hordes threatened this country Ramsgate beach saw the first active steps taken towards the development of amazing new weapons which are now searing great paths through the enemy's most formidable defences.
At dusk on July 14, 1944, a Scottish regiment launched an attack on a German position north of Esquay in Normandy. Strongly entrenched in the edges of woods and along the hedgerows, the enemy could not easily be overcome by any ordinary plan of engagement. But this assault was to hold surprises for the Germans against which they could not hope to stand.
Astride a roadway the attack went in one troop of tanks on each site of the road, each troop followed by a platoon of the infantry, one section keeping close up to the armour. Suddenly through the half-light enormous flames roared out and licked fiercely at the hedgerows and forward undergrowth of the woods. Bushes and saplings were wrapped in fire. In that fiery, crackling inferno no man could live.
From this awesome threat of being consumed the Germans turned and ran, presenting their backs as targets for the bullets of the Scottish infantry. Some stayed, and were burned. And the position was taken without loss to the attackers. Subsequent interrogation of prisoners left no shred of doubt in the minds of the questioners as to the devastating and utterly demoralizing effect of this flood of liquid from our Crocodile flame-throwers.
For this section of the enemy it was the first (and for many the last) experience of Britain's new device for blasting a way into Normandy and so through France. Others had already made its fearsome acquaintance. Thirty-five minutes after our landing on D-Day (June 6) our Crocodiles went into action, and they led the British 2nd Army in the advance to Crιpon (9 miles N.E. of Bayeux). Our flame-throwing Crocodiles, Wasps and Lifebuoys took part in almost every operation, fighting with every British and Canadian formation in the Normandy bridge-head.
"The Churchill Crocodile is the most powerful flame-thrower in the world today", declare Mr. Geoffrey Lloyd who, as Minister of Petroleum, formed in 1940 the organization known as the Petroleum Warfare Department. "With its special fuel it shoots a flame that is truly terrifying and deadly. We designed this weapon to burn out the strongpoints of the Atlantic Wall and Hitler's 'Fortress-Europe' and to save the lives of our infantry carrying out the assault. All this has developed form our first crude experiments of improvise burning oil defences on the beach at Ramsgate on a June afternoon in 1940. All of us who were there became keen believers in the effectiveness of flame warfare. That band grew and included people with the most varied, and indeed unorthodox, qualifications."
From those first hasty experiments, undertaken in every circumstance of personal danger, our three flame-throwers have developed. The Germans, who had used flame-weapons in the last war, were well provided for this war with new equipment on improved lines. We started from scratch, but fortunately we were possessed of ample stock of oil. Not until the Dieppe raid did our troops go into action with anything of the sort; then the Commandos used flame-throwers of an early type to such effect that a German coast battery was put out of action.
Our Ramsgate beach experimenters suffered painful burns and injuries, but the research went on with all possible haste, for there was every likelihood of an attempted landing on our shores by the enemy, and our immediate objective, in the event of that happening, was to fling a protective curtain of flame over Britain from the beaches, the harbours, the lanes and the highways.
A satisfying measure of success was achieved in these preparations, and it became possible to switch from thoughts of defence to assault. In due course there rolled from the factories (the Ministry of Supply being responsible for production) these mighty weapons whose use has been attended with such tremendous success.
Immense efforts were called for on the part of the firms concerned, varying from foundrymen to footwear manufacturers and from racing car builders to laundry engineers! The workers, pledged to secrecy, were given a glimpse of the result of their labours by films and demonstrations. Discouragements, inevitable in the evolution of any novel weapon, were many; types were changed, modifications were introduced, older attempts outmoded. There came the final call for a last lap sprint for D-Day. The Crocodiles were needed 35 minutes after the Normandy landing. Nobly the workers responded. They even collaborated in the special and urgent training of the troopers who were to man the flame-throwers.
That early work of the Petroleum Warfare Department had indeed borne striking fruit. Speaking of the later work on the mobile flame-throwers in Bren Carriers, Mr. Geoffrey Lloyd said, "We owe a great debt of gratitude to General Macnaughton and the Canadian Army, particularly the Engineering Corps. Their enthusiasm matched our own. The Canadian Army carried out the first practical trials with the new weapon and the Canadian Government placed the first large order."
Fitted to the heavily armoured Churchill tank, the most powerful and effective of these flame-throwers is the Crocodile. The armoured trailer which carries the fuel is towed by the tank, and the fuel is led forward through an armoured pipe. Should need arise, the trailer universally articulated so that it can move in any direction can be jettisoned by means of an ingenious device.
The trailer itself is controlled from inside the tank, and its movements are indicated by pilot lights mounted on a panel in front of the tank commander. This makes it unnecessary for the commander to expose himself to enemy fire in order to see just what is happening at any given moment. One specially useful and interesting point about the new type of fuel that is used it can be projected to distances of over 150 yards is that it can be fired around corners, so that it will ricochet and produce persistent flame in every cranny of pillbox and trench.
The Lifebuoy flame-thrower, deriving its name from its appearance, has a ring-shaped tube as a container for the fuel, with a spherical container for compressed gas, the device being carried on the operator's back. The flame is projected from a "gun" which incorporates an igniting mechanism. The range is about 50 yards, and the Lifebuoy has been used with outstanding success by our parachute-troops, and Commandos, and Canadian infantry. For dislodging the enemy from otherwise "awkward" positions and exposing them to the small-arms fire of the infantry it is in all ways admirable.
where more devastating and "frightening" action is required, the Wasp intermediary between the Lifebuoy and the Crocodile is available. Its larger fuel supply and greater mobility render it more suitable than the Lifebuoy for big operations. This thrower is fitted on a Universal Carrier. Tanks containing the liquid fuel and compressed gas are mounted on the carrier, the flame-gun projecting through the front armour.