Category Archives: The Past is Another Country

New Halifax Explosion Images

On 6 December 1917 the largest manmade explosion in the history of the earth (to that point) took place, not along the lines of battle, but in a busy Canadian seaport, Halifax, Nova Scotia. The blast came from munitions materials contained in a single average-sized (for 1917) freighter, and have been calculated to have been about equivalent to 2.9kt — larger than some nuclear warheads, and one of the top five known conventional explosions in history. (The Daily Mail has a table of seven big ones).

Ground zero of the Halifax Explosion. The shattered tug is the former minesweeper Stella Maris; she took the abandoned, burning Mont Blanc under tow. All but five of her crew died. (Old photo. Source).

Ground zero of the Halifax Explosion. Pier 6 was located at this point; it has vanished without a trace. The shattered tug is the former minesweeper Stella Maris; she took the abandoned, burning Mont Blanc under tow. All but five of her 25 officers and men died. (Old photo. Source).

Recently, long-lost images from the aftermath of the explosion that destroyed or seriously damaged nearly 14,000 buildings, leveled the shipyard, and killed perhaps 2,000 people, surfaced in England. Here’s a half-minute look at the devastation on video:

The “new” pictures were taken by Lieutenant Victor Magnus, RN (or RNR/RNVR?), about 27, whose w ship was docked in the port city at the time of the event. The Daily Mail explains how the pictures were recently rediscovered in an old album by the photographer’s daughter, nearly 100 years after they were taken. The Halifax Chronicle-Herald notes that Magnus was standing watch in HMS Changuinolawhose log notes, among many other entries:

Other: 8.50 Explosion in docks followed by fires

Other: 9.15 Cutters away with officers ~~ to help ashore

Changuinola was an “Armed Merchant Cruiser” — a term for merchant ships put to military use in the RN. Specifically, she was a seized German ship pressed into service as a patrol and escort vessel, and apparently also to train RNVR officers or ratings (training these men frequently recurs in the ship’s logs). From her decks, Magnus took pictures like this:

Some of Magnus's photos show the explosion's pillar of smoke.

Some of Magnus’s photos show the explosion’s pillar of smoke. No pictures from so soon after the blast were imagined to exist.

Then he went ashore. There he took more images of the appalling destruction.

Near Ground Zero, Halifax side looking towards Dartmouth side, Magnus photo.

Near Ground Zero, Halifax side looking towards Dartmouth side, Magnus photo.

Magnus was an avid photographer, and worked in maritime insurance before and after the war.

Victor Magnus in his naval uniform.

Victor Magnus in his naval uniform.

Historic Background (and more old photos)

The French ship Mont Blanc had just been loaded with a cargo of high explosive in New York: over five million pounds of explosives and inflammables, most of it highly unstable picric acid (Benzol, an octane booster then used in aviation fuel, and guncotton, a primitive explosive, were also aboard). Mont Blanc intended to join a convoy from Halifax to England, but on its way in to the harbor collided with an empty vessel, Imo, that normally ferried humanitarian aid to Belgium. Imo, with a Norwegian crew, was wrong-side-driving out of the harbor as Mont Blanc stood in, on the normal inbound side of the channel.

SS Imo. The foreground is not only devastated by the blast, but also by tsunami. Source.

SS Imo. The foreground is not only devastated by the blast, but also by tsunami. Old photo. Source. There’s no post-disaster photo of the hazmat ship SS Mont Blanc; pieces of her fittings landed miles away.

The crew and harbor pilot of Mont Blanc abandoned ship and fled when their hazardous cargo took fire; the ship drifted to land, drawing curious onlookers, then exploded. The city was devastated, especially the shoreline, the shipyards and docks, and other ships making ready for the next England convoys on the 7th and 11th (a single convoy would leave on the 11th).


Most of the convoy ships were in Bedford Basin, the most  protected part of the harbor when Mont Blanc blew up in what locals call The Narrows. Fortunately, Mont Blanc was not near any of the other explosives-laden vessels when it went up.

SS Curaca was loading horses. She was thrown across the harbor. Of her 46-man human crew, 45 (and the horses) perished. Source.

SS Curaca was loading horses for the war. She was thrown across the harbor. Of her 46-man crew, 45 humans (and the horses) perished. Old photo. Source.

At least 1,500 hundred lives were snuffed out in the blast and the following tsunami, and hundreds more died in the days ahead. Hundreds of remains were never identified. Some lasting results of the accident were standardization of fire hydrant and hose threads (responding fire departments found that the decimated Halifax department’s hydrants didn’t match their gear), more advance warning required for hazmat transits, and stricter maritime rules of the road in the harbor. There was a long series of saboteur hunts, enquiries, criminal trials, and private lawsuits, but in the end no one was singled out as solely to blame, or punished. It was a terrible accident, but in the end, just an accident.

There are several excellent sites on the blast.

The Technical Side

The manifest of the ill-starred Mont Blanc bares the spoor of the probable cause of the disaster — picric acid. This chemical was the first high explosive; its name comes from the Greek for “bitter.” Discovered and initially developed in the 18th Century, it became a dominant explosive and shell filling in the late 19th, when it was discovered initially by British scientist Sprengel. Picric acid was more powerful than the explosive that would come to replace it in most nations’ armories, TNT. The Japanese developed a picric acid derivative called Shimose, which they credited, in part, for their victories over Russia in naval and siege warfare; an American version was called Dunnite. Other terms for picric acid variants were Mélinite and Lyddite (these were the WWI French and British versions respectively). The Times wrote on 9 September 1898 of the British Army’s first use of Lyddite shells, in the Siege of Omdurman on 2 September:

Through Reuters Agency, Khartoum, September 5.

The breaching power of the Lyddite shells fired from the howitzers at the citadel of Omdurman prove to be enormous. The wall was a solid stone structure, 10 feet high by 4 feet thick, built of material brought from dismantled Khartoum. The accuracy of the howitzer fire is tested by the absolute havoc which was made of the Mahdi’s tomb at great ranges. (Nearly 2 miles).

This was a substantial improvement over the performance of the artillery of previous wars, but it came at the price of handling, storing, and stockpiling shells laden with this first (and fearfully unstable) high explosive.

Because unlike fairly stable TNT, picric acid and its salts — which form spontaneously on contact with common bases — are highly unstable; they tend to detonate when exposed to shock, friction, or flame. Picric acid corrodes metals and becomes more unstable in their presence, making it impossible to contain in metal cans or drums, and requiring special procedures for shell filling.

Before World War I, the German military had begun to shift to TNT. It was made by the same process that yields picric acid, just using a different feedstock; it’s only a little less explosive; and it’s vastly more stable. Over time all armies would follow suit, and fear of a repeat of the Halifax Explosion would be one reason (there were many other industrial and military accidents worldwide with picric acid that soured militaries on the chemical). Later, better HEs would be developed, both from the standpoint of stability and of energy, but it says something that TNT, which the Germans first put into shells in 1902, still is practically useful today.

The reason for going backwards in the power of explosive fillings was safety, and the far more stable TNT would have been unlikely to yield the Halifax Explosion. Even today, found Lyddite or Mélinite shells from WWI pose a threat. Even lab picric acid that dries out (of which more in a minute) requires an EOD call-out (small quantities of the acid are useful in biology).

Compounding the problem was that the material shipped in Mont Blanc was only partially shipped as wet picric acid, in which immersion in water reduces the material’s reactivity. Thousands of pounds were ultra-sensitive dry picric acid (the ship also contained large quantities of shock-sensitive guncotton).

Knowing the properties of their cargo, the actions of the crew of Mont Blanc — taking to the lifeboats, trying to warn everyone away from their burning ship — make a lot of sense. The actions of America, British and French ordnance in persisting in the use of this unstable chemical when stable alternatives were readily available are more puzzling to someone looking back at the destruction of Halifax by an a-bomb sized blast, from a vantage point a century ahead.

The 1968 LRRP Conference on Weapons: Vol. II.

Since we knew you were going to ask, here’s the weapons stuff out of Vol. II., which was the Recondo School presentation. But it’s notable that before they discussed weapons, they discussed two more crucial elements — helicopter support (both logistics, in terms of slicks, and fires, in the shape of a Light Fire Team of attack and scout helicopters). But they did get to weapons in due course.

Weapons – The type of enemy positions, type of operation planned and the AO requires a supply of varied weapons. Most of the time a major commander will make weapons available regardless of the MTOE. However. to solve the problem. a weapons pool at the company or detachment headquarters with some of each type of weapon should be created. This would include such items as the M-79 grenade launchers, M-l6 machineguns, silenced pistols and rifles and other special purpose weapons.


Straightforward enough. We have always struggled agains the Big Green bureaucracy, in our efforts to maintain a pool of foreign and obsolete weapons, as well as other low-density US weapons, for training and operational purposes. Conventional officers, especially logistical types, tend to come from way out on the left tail of the bell curve, and have a really hard time understanding this. They really hate it when sensible preparations for combat interfere with their systems of orderly and regular inventories.

Next, the report addresses the patrol member’s dream date, the CAR-15 (which is very, very rarely called “XM177E2,” its real Army name, in period reports. Of course, some were XM177s and XM177E1s, and others were combat tested with just a Colt model number, or a Colt GX — “Government Experimental” — model number).

The CAR-15 appears to be a popular and desirable weapon and should be available. However, it is questionable as whether every man should have one. Much of its popularity is due to its newness and novelty. The point man and radio operator should have them to reduce the welight they must carry and because of the convenience offered by their shorter length. Sometimes the accuracy at long ranges of the M-16 is needed and the M.16 rarely malfunctions; therefore, it must also be available.

Of course, Colt’s whole production run of CAR-15s was, according to Colt records, 10,000 weapons. Not counting odd lots and rarities like this “GX” model (“Government Experimental,” usually indicating a toolroom prototype).

Colt GX-5857


When the Son Tay Raid was standing up, there were none in the Army’s inventory in new condition, so Task Force Ivory Coast acquired a stock of either Air Force or Export guns. The handful of existing Son Tay photographs show that the carbines resemble Colt Model 639/XM177E2 “submachine guns,” but lack the characteristic forward assist.


Even though airborne insertions were never used in RVN by Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol or Long Range Patrol teams, the conference concluded it was valuable:

The group was unanimous in desiring airborne qualification. First of all they felt LRP’s had to be considered on an army wide basis and not just on operations Vietnam. They felt units in Europe would be hindered if this capability was taken away. As a bonus the group contended the airborne qualification increases a man’s ability and confidence. It is not that being a jumper is so important: it is the mere fact that a man has proven to himself that he can go through the training and overcome a natural fear, the fear of leaving an aircraft. He has accomplished something that he had probably felt was beyond his capability. He also has learned to pay attention to detail. You have to see a new jumper or a halo jumper check his equipment to see attention to detail.

An LRP team requires this meticulousness in preparing their weapons and equipment, in planning for the patrol, and in intelligence collecting and reporting. In the CIDG program all of the MIKE forces, Mobile Strike Forces and recon units are sent through jump training. The man who is cocky enough to jump out of an airplane will probably be more willing to move into that hole in enemy territory. Some felt the graduation from Recondo School should be a prerequisite for airborne pay but the majority were opposed to this since there are only a limited number of spaces at the Recondo School.

Interesting thoughts. Even today, 46 years later, most of the world’s elite forces undergo parachute training even if they will never, ever make an airborne insertion. And recent events have proven that an airborne insertion is still a useful capability.

The documents are worth the study, if you’re interested in these things. Part I is the conference, 50 pp: LRRP Conference 1968 Part 1.pdf; Part II is a presentation on Recondo School, 10 pp:LRRP Conference 1968 part II Recondo School.pdf.

The 1968 LRRP Conference on Weapons: Vol. I.

usarv_conference_coverA great deal of mythology about the M16, CAR-15 and other weapons in Vietnam continues to circulate. Here are real lessons-learned as discussed in a period document, the 2-part USARV Long Range Patrol Conference Summary, which discussed a conference held from 9-12 August 1968, in other words, at the height of the US Army’s combat involvement in the Vietnam War. While those attending were primarily officers in grades of 2LT through MG, they clearly brought the experience of the units most involved in running long-range patrols, including the “letter” Ranger companies then of the 51st Infantry Regiment, the greek-letter projects, Mike Forces, MACVSOG, the SAS from OZ, and the Special Forces-run RECONDO school, where LLRP leaders from many US and Allied units trained.

So what did they say about weapons (with, maybe, some operational and equipment digressions)?

f_51 LRP ScrollII Field Force Vietnam (Co. F., 51st Infantry (LRP)), p. 22-23:

Equipment carried by the patrol includes as little food and water as possible, M-16s, a Light Antitank Weapon (LAW), an M-79, and an M-60 MG with 700 rounds. The patrols remain in the area for five days and are extracted only if they have wounded personnel. If the wounds are slight, they will be treated and then reinserted.

Note that this is a 5-6 man patrol. F Company Rangers practiced what they called “saturation patrolling,” where 10 to 14 of these teams would be on the ground seeking the enemy. The heavy firepower assisted in breaking contact by “impersonating” a larger unit. Unlike some other long range patrol elements, they would not be extracted unless a member was wounded; their instruction, and ethos, was “break contact, continue mission.”

Harassing and interdictory (H&I) fire continues in the AO even while teams are being inserted or on the ground. To stop the fire signals the enemy something is happening. The teams move between the fires. The fires are plotted 800 meters from the team, except at night when defensive concentrations are as close as 300 meters or closer if desired.

Details like this, which would have been extremely useful to the enemy, are why the report was classified. It would not be declassified until 31 December 1974, long after the withdrawal of American forces.

In the III CTZ operation areas where shots are heard in the jungle all day, the teams snipe at close ranges. A noise suppressor would be beneficial to assist the sniping.

Another tactic especially effective at night is to set up a trip flare behind a team that is being pursued. If gunships are on the scene, they can fire at the trip flare when the enemy trips it.

Some of these TTPs would work just as well today as they did 50 years ago. Case in point.

The teams use the starlight scope and have found it effective. The LAW is used mainly as a psychological weapon to make the enemy think twice before assaulting a team. The weapon deceives the enemy as to the size of the team. Time pencils and fragmentation grenades are used, especially at night to mislead him on the location of the team. Claymores are used extensively. Wrist compasses are used also. .It saves the man from fiddling with the lensatic and getting it caught in the brush.

Many of these small defensive possibilities have been eliminated since then, by unilateral anti-mining decisions taken by American political leaders. No more grenades with a time fuze, or tripwire Claymores on your back trail. Note that these less-well-resourced patrollers didn’t get toe-poppers and minigrenades like SOG elements did. They didn’t even have CAR-15s:

Survival knives are on the MTOE but extremely hard to obtain. The M-l6, while a good weapon, is not as suitable to LRP operations as the CAR 15 because it is too long and catches in the brush. The present camouflage uniform tears easily and mosquitoes bite through the material. The CIDG tiger suit is better.

It was complaints like these about the ripstop ERDL camouflage uniform that led to the sweat-bag first edition of the abominable BDU — 12-15 years or so later. The survival knives were, of course, pilfered in the supply chain. That still happens; team guys would stop in at Camp Vance and see every clerk in the S4 wearing the high-speed gear intended for the teams but mysteriously never issued.

SAS CrestSpecial Air Service Regiment (Australian Army), pp. 24-25.

The XM 148 is used extensively by the Australians. The trigger arrangement is dangerous as issued–it catches on vines and fires unexpectedly–so it is cut off and the sear is used to fire the weapon. The sights are removed also. Since contact range is normally five to ten meters, the sights are not needed. One XM 148 is carried per patrol.

Another piece of equipment is an anchor device for the McGuire rig or for rappelling ropes. It can be fitted to the UH-l series helicopter in about five minutes and deploys six ropes, three on each side. A pull of a lever releases the rope in an emergency. The UH-IH can extract a six-man patrol with full equipment using this rig. The present McGuire rig lifts only three people and cannot be cut· away in an emergency.

The XM-148 was a Colt-designed grenade launcher (Colt nomenclature was CGL-1 through -4) that preceded the M203. AAI’s M203 would, a few years later, provide the same capability, but without any of the 148’s problems.

Yes, SASR really did roll with XM148s. Three troopers on right have them (left hand guy has an M203) on M16s and L1 FAL. Image source.

Yes, SASR really did roll with XM148s. Three troopers on right have them (left hand guy has an M203) on M16s and L1 FAL. Image source.

The SF STABO rig ultimately adopted that Australian innovation which was, as SAS Major Wade noted, quite superior to the improvised (but working) McGuire rig.

25th Infantry Division, Company F, 50th Infantry (LRP), p. 35:

75th ranger 25th ID scrollThe old AR belt is a very useful item of equipment. It has numerous pouches for ammunition or grenades, which distributes the weight and does not have to be taped. The wrist compass could replace the lensatic if it had a sighting device on it. It is accurate and handy, and is immediately available not in a pocket. Light weight web gear made from CS cannisters [sic] is being experimented with at the present time and also the M-16 noise suppressors. The new face camouflage made by Elizabnth Arden that is used by the SEAl.s seems better than our issue camoufhLge. The time pencils are very useful but hard to get.

The “old AR belt” that Captain Dawson of the 25th mentioned is the BAR belt. The then-standard Army issue equipment, the M-56 field gear, had metal buckles and snaps and, without a liberal application of green tape or duct tape, would make a patrol jingle like Santa’s reindeer. (Garrison-oriented commanders and especially sergeants major and first sergeants tended to oppose addition of tape to issue web gear, and it was a constant source of friction between combat troops and chairborne REMFs, until the M-56 and its equally shoddy successor, ALICE, passed out of service).

101st Airborne Division (Airmobile), Company F, 58th Infantry (LRP), pp. 37-38:

This is actually the later L/75th Ranger scroll. All these scrolls come from this site,

This is actually the later L/75th Ranger scroll; we didn’t find one for F/58. All these scrolls come from this site:

The 101st’s program seemed particularly mature and well-thought-out to exploit the Division’s copious helicopter mobility. While their notes on operations and ARVN integration were most personally interesting, they had some interesting observations on weapons and equipment, too:

The use of CS dropped by helicopters has proven successful but required the team to take a gas mask along. This is deemed worth the extra effort. …

Air support is preferred to artillery in the AO due to triple canopy vegetation. It is difficult to observe and adjust ar tillery and a LFT can respond in 10 to 15 minutes.

The first light insertion is utilized most frequently. It allows reaction in case of contact on or near the LZ and an air relay, a U-1A Otter from Phu Bai. can standby during insertion or until the team establishes communication with the base camp or ground relay station. The teams do not move during the noon period or when another team is in contact because a team is less likely to be discovered when it is stationary.

The standard 65-foot Chinook suspension ladder cut in half and strung through a UH-1 model helicopter so that about 12 feet hangs down on each side is effective for insertion and extraction in stumpy areas, thickly vegetated areas, over uneven ground or where rotary clearance is needed. Rappelling is used also but its use makes McGuire rig extraction required, and this is avoided when possible. However, one McGuire rig wHh handcuffs on the riser is used to extract prisoners.

The company has three British Sten guns with silencers which are extremely quiet. They have not been fired in the course of an operation although they were taken along.

36th Mobile Strike Force Command, Vol. 1, p. 42:

(probably fake) mike force patchThe patrols carry one AN/PRC-25 radio with two headsets per patrol (the headset has proven to be the most likely part of system to fail). Their base station has an RTT capability and single side band in addition to the AN/GRC-46 radios. The Americans armed with the CAR-I5 and the Cambodians carry the M-16. There are Sten guns and two pistols, all with silencers, available in the unit. Three of the American members carry the Swedish K submachinegun.

“Swedish K” was the Special Forces nickname for the Swedish Carl Gustav M45B submachine gun, which was commonly carried with 36-round box magazines but could also use 50-round Suomi magazines by removing a retaining pin and magazine housing. We think they could also use the Suomi drum but never tried it ourselves!

The Swedish M45B was copied in Egypt as the "Port Said." It is a typical 2nd-Genrration SMG.

The Swedish M45B was copied in Egypt as the “Port Said,” which is the version seen here (file photo). It is a typical 2nd-Genrration SMG.

The MACV Recondo School, p. 49:

recondopatchPersonal appearance is deemed important by the school. While a student is at school, the individual is required to maintain a high standard of personal hygiene and appearance. Mustaches must be nearly trimmed, haircuts must be short, and the normal appearance ·of an elite l.RP trooper does not include rings in ears Qr bracelets. The school is a MACV school and these standards must be maintained.

The school had previously mentioned some problems they were having with unmotivated students (definitely a problem as Recondo school used the enemy as a training aid). It attributed these woes to poor selection and neglect of published selection standards by sending unit. The school listed the goodies each student got, as well as some problems with what he was expected to bring along:

… provide each graduate with six Recondo patches and a diploma. Honor graduate receives a
special knife purchased from the fund.

USARV Regulation 350-2 contains a list of equipment that the individual should bring to the school with him. Many students do not realize this and the school does not have enough facilities to provide this equipment for every student. Critical items are camouflage fatigues and M-16 magazines.

So as early as 1968, the training base and the troop units were already scamming M16 mags (in those days, 20-rounders) from one another.

One little detail: everywhere in this report M16 (which is the weapon’s actual designation, although the Army model was always the XM16E1/M16A1) is rendered as M-16. This instantiates the well-known idea that, even though an item’s official nomenclature is one thing, the troops may call it something different — even in official reports.

IIIrd Marine Amphibious Force (1st & 3rd Recon Battalions), p. 45.

Once again, the Marine contribution was most interesting for their tactics and operation art, very different from any of the Army approaches. But they did have this to say about weapons, and interesting take on CS gas (non-lethal tear gas):

One way of using CS is to employ it by fixed wing. A ton of it can be placed in the napalm tanks with sand to get it through the jungle canopy. It can saturate 4,000 square meters :in five minutes. It is a good technique for taking prisoners but an extra gas mask must be taken along for the prisoner or he will die.

So, even with normally non-lethal gas, the dose makes the poison. One suspects that was learned at the expense of some fellow named Nguyen.

Note well: these comments are all from Volume I of the Conference proceedings. There’s more cool stuff in the shorter Volume II but we’re already knocking on the door of 2,000 words, awfully long for a web article.


The documents, if you please: Part I is the conference, 50 pp: LRRP Conference 1968 Part 1.pdf; Part II is a presentation on Recondo School, 10 pp:LRRP Conference 1968 part II Recondo School.pdf.

World War I as a Bar Fight

This came in email. I wish I knew who the original creator was, because he’s worth following, whoever he is:

imageThe best lines?

“Australia punches Turkey, and gets punched back. There are no hard feelings because Britain made Australia do it.”


“America waits till Germany is about to fall over from sustained punching from Britain and France, then walks over and smashes it with a barstool, then pretends it won the fight all by itself.”

Any mook can write Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August. To write the same thing as a 21-paragraph allegory is an elevated level of brilliant.


Weapons Term that Stumped Us: “Pronock”?

We don’t often run into a word referring to weapons that’s completely unfamiliar to us. Even more rarely, we can’t even track the word down. That’s what happened to us in reviewing a 1952 document by the Operations Research Office, a now-defunct FFRDC1 operated by the US Army at the time.

Even generals got in on the tank killing. Of course, this one wound up a POW, out doing a corporal's job with a bazooka.

Even generals got in on the tank killing. Of course, this one wound up a POW, out doing a corporal’s job with a bazooka.

The document reviews the performance of US tanks and tank units in the first year of the Korean War. It was originally classified as SECRET, and the second of two volumes does not seem to have survived. The lost (?) second volume comprised Appendix K to the fundamental document: surveys of some 239 North Korean T-34 tanks examined by American ordnance experts. Fortunately, some conclusions from those surveys made it into the first volume.

But the original document is full of fascinating insights. One of them was that napalm was hugely successful against Nork T-34/85s, and was potentially a threat to American tanks. Napalm is mentioned nearly 60 times in the 308-page report. The mechanism of destruction wasn’t completely certain, but it appeared to be that the nape set the tanks’ solid rubber road wheels on fire, and the burning wheels got hot enough to cook off the rounds in the tanks’ sponsons. FOOM! End of tank, or as tankers say now, “catastrophic loss.” In 1952, the term was “loss, unrecoverable.” That described the situation where the burnt-out hull was here, the insinerated turret was there, and both of them had small, carbonized cinders of what had been the crewmen.

Unknown what killed this tank, but napalm is a possibility. It appears to be buttoned up, but still burning. Tough luck for the Norks inside.

Unknown what killed this tank, but napalm is a possibility. It appears to be buttoned up, but still burning. Tough luck for the Norks inside.

On the basis of limited evidence, air attack accounted for 40 percent of all enemy tank losses in Korea, and 60 percent of all enemy tank losses caused by UN weapons.

On the basis of limited evidence, napalm was the most effective antitank air weapon thus far used in Korea. (p.2).

The difference between all enemy tank losses, and enemy tank losses caused by UN weapons is presumably the same thing that caused a lot of US/UN losses: mechanical failure. A table on p. 36 bears this out, and is discussed on p. 35:

On the basis of this record, the greatest single cause of loss in NK T34’s would seem to be UN air attack, which accounted for 102 out of 239, or about 43 percent of the total losses.

Napalm appears to be the most effective weapon of all, accounting for 60, or about 23 percent of the total count. Abandonments, in most instances without any visible evidence of cause, accounted for 59, almost another 25 percent of the total count. Tank fire was the third largest single cause, knocking out 39 tanks, or about 16 percent. (p. 35).

This led to a discussion of napalm’s effects:

Napalm as a weapon to defeat armor must be given rather special consideration. It is essentially a weapon of an accidental nature. With the possible exception of the relatively rare occurrence of a direct hit, napalm does not of itself destroy or seriously damage a tank. However, it is fully capable of starting a chain of events which may bring about the loss of the vehicle. A napalm bomb, if a hit is registered sufficiently close to the tank, will splash its burning fluid on the tank. Because of the fire, the crew may suffer burns or be induced to abandon the tank. However from the prisoner of war interrogations it appears that tank crews usually had sufficient time to get clear before the fire had spread (see Appendix D). However, the abandonment of the tank ultimately led to its destruction, for the napalm from the first or successive strikes had sufficient time to ignite the rubber on the road wheels, heat the ammunition to the point of detonation, and set fire to the fuel. Any or all of these factors brought about the loss of the tank. (p. 37).

Amplified, and considered in terms of US tanks in this partly redundant passage:

From a general examination of US tanks, the Air Force Operations Analysis tests of napalm against T34 tanks (FEAF Operationr Analysis Office Memo No. 27, prepared jointly with Deputy for Operational Engineering, FEAF, 30 October 1950) and the ORO tank survey (see Appendix K), it is belleved that napalm- caused tank fires are essentially “accidental” in nature, i.e.,
the napalm itself does not have enough energy to set ammunition or fuel afire by bating a tank, but it does have enough effect to set afire rubber bogie wheels , which In turn can fire the tank bilge or amnunition and thus kill the tank. Also, napalm entering through the air intake of a tank can set the bilge afire, again firing ammunition and killing the tank. It appears that both of these “accidents” can be eliminated by minor tank redesign or by fire extinguishing techniques. (p. 59).

Not clear what killed these tanks, but our guess is that the Nork crewman in the foreground suffered a terminal case of amall-arms projectile sickness.

Not clear what killed these tanks, but our guess is that the Nork crewman in the foreground suffered a terminal case of amall-arms projectile sickness.

The USSR may conclude on the basis of the Korean campaign that napalm is a very effective antitank weapon. This possible conclusion can be vitiated by minor redesign of US tanks to reduce effectiveness of “accidental” fires. In future attack on Soviet-manufactured tanks, napalm may remain effective, but the types of fluid filler–such as “G” agents, chlorine trifluoride, or pronock — in improved napalm-type tanks may be even more effective. (p. 60).

There’s the word “pronock.” What is it?

But first, let’s continue our digression into the Korean War tank effectiveness report. The unexpected effects of nape on tanks got the ORO thinking. Some of the thoughts probably explain why the report was classified so highly in the first place:

On the basis of the burning of the rubber on tank road wheels with napalm, resulting in the destruction of the tank, tanks appear vulnerable to 40-kt atomic-weapons attack up to a distance of 2,500 yards on a clear day, and 2,000 yards on a hazy day. (p.3).

Er… yeah. T-34s were vulnerable to destruction by nuking. We’ll accept that.

Original caption: Napalm Bomb Victims.  Mute testimony of accuracy of close support missions flown by Fifth Air Force fighters are these Red Korean tanks, blasted out of the path of advancing 24th Infantry Division units near Waegwan, Korea. AIR AND SPACE MUSEUM#:  77799 AC

Original caption: Napalm Bomb Victims. Mute testimony of accuracy of close support missions flown by Fifth Air Force fighters are these Red Korean tanks, blasted out of the path of advancing 24th Infantry Division units near Waegwan, Korea.

And then there was a list of things that the US ought to develop, based on combat experience with tanks in Korea:

Support a vigorous and expanded research and development program to provide a balanced family of antitank weapons without, however, either overemphasizing or neglecting the role of heavy gun tanks such aa the US T43. This program should emphasize:

a. Development of an effective long-range antitank gun for use by the infantry. This gun should be capable of being moved over rough and unfavorable terrain, preferably in a light, highly mobile vehicle.

That, of course, is the paragraph that gave birth (by a circuitous route, it’s true) to the US M40 106mm recoilless rifle. The M40’s immediate ancestor, the M27, would be rushed to Korea and tested in combat.

b. Development of a family of lethal, influence-fused antitank mines s with sterilizing and arming devices, suitable for remining by rockets, artillery, and air.

Simultaneous development of corresponding mine-detection &vclearing devices.

That stands to reason.

d. Research and development on new types, of air and ground munitions utilizing liquid fillers, such as napalm, chlorine trifluoride, pronock, and G-agents.

That’s the strange use of the strange word, “pronock.” What is it? Napalm is well known. G-agents are nerve agents originally developed by the Germans: Tabun, Soman, Sarin, and Cyclosarin, known in the US/NATO coding system as GA, GD, GB and GF respectively.

Chlorine trifluoride is less well-known, but was a remarkable German “twofer” that produced both incendiary and toxic effects, and that was produced by the Third Reich’s chemical-warfare directorate as “N-stoff” or “Substance N.” The incendiary effect of ClF3 is pretty remarkable — it’s hypergolic not only with normal fuels, but also with water. And it can set asbestos on fire. It does bad things to human beings. It’s never actually been used in warfare (or in most other applications) because containing and handling it is a challenge; Rocketdyne once developed rocket engines that used this stuff as oxydizer with Hydrazine Hydrate as fuel. Hydrazine (N2H4), another Nazi product (as the fuel in the mixture “C-stoff”) used in the V1 and Me163, still has some uses (in the ACES ejection seat, IIRC), but is itself among the nastier things in the hazmat catalogue.

For completeness’s sake, the last of the list of recommendations:

e. Continued development of special amunition, such as shaped-charge and squash-head ammunition, together with improved bazookas and recoilless rifles.

But what in the name of science is “pronock?” It clearly is something that can be used as a tank filler, like napalm, like chlorine trifluoride, like the G-agents. And something that, like those substances, one would rather not have fall on him. Beyond that, we’re stumped. Google was not our friend, either.


Looking for some photos of tank kills definitely attributed to napalm, we found this period article on napalm in Korea which depicts — unfortunately, in a very horribly reproduced half-tone — one of the tests of napalm on a captured T-34. It also describes the thickened gasoline’s composition, and effects on the enemy:

Red tankmen weren’t afraid of diving planes at first, their tough armor would repel 20 mm fire, it was hard to hit the maneuvering tank with rockets, and bombs had to be right on to kill a tank. Napalm was another story. Pilots drop the fire bombs short from low altitude, let it skip to the target. Accuracy is not at a premium. The napalm bomb will cover a pear-shaped area 275 feet long and 80 feet wide. A solid sheet of 1500° fire envelops everything , Killing personnel, exploding ammunition. It is not a flash fire like gasoline alone would be but clings and burns and burns.

… As fast as the Reds moved in tanks to stop the retreat, napalm was dropped on them. They ran out of tanks and weight of phases of the war have seen far fewer communist tanks in action.

The article noted two indirect effects of napalm on the enemy: tanks would be found with the crews inside, unmarked but dead of suffocation, the napalm fires having stolen the very oxygen from the air they breathed. And the psychological effects of the weapon induced many surrenders.


1. FFRDC: Federally Funded Research and Developmant Corporation. The most famous are probably RAND, which was sponsored by the USAF. The ORO was an Army/Johns Hopkins lashup, that the Army grew tired of and pulled the plug on in the 1960s.

The Walther PPK/S: Gun Built by Ban

It’s no secret that we are big fans of the Walther PPK. This pocket pistol, introduced in 1931, was a compact version of Walther’s excellent PP, whose initials stand for Police Pistol in its native German. Walther, which had previously made several models of high-quality but otherwise unremarkable small pocket pistols, introduced the PP in 1929. It was the first shot of a revolution; it became the model for most double-action/single-action auto pistols that would follow it, using a trigger bar that runs along the right side of the frame to activate its sear, and containing a then-patented decocking safety.

The PPK was the inevitable compact version; its German name, Polizei Pistole Kriminal, essentially means Detective’s Police Pistol. (You would not be the first student of German to laugh at the idea that regular beat cops are called a name that translates literally as Order Police, and detectives are Criminal Police, Kripo for short. We’ve known a few criminal police, too, but that’s what linguists call a “false cognate.” End of digression).

Even though both are pocket pistols by American standards, and were manufactured primarily in .32 ACP, the PP was normally carried by beat cops in a flap holster, and the PPK carried concealed. Both the PP and PPK were popular with German military officers, who until 1945 were allowed (and sometimes required) to privately purchase personal sidearms. Staff officers and aviators and others who didn’t really have a need to haul around a big 9mm horse pistol checked the pistol box with a little PPK. The Carl Walther firm in Zella-Mehlis, Thuringia (a suburb of the gunmaking center of Suhl), prospered.

This is an original WWII-era PPK. Note the short grip frame and the fragile wraparound grip.

This is an original WWII-era PPK. Note the short grip frame and the fragile wraparound grip. It was banned from importation to the USA in 1968, despite being an extremely rare crime gun.

The PPK was the same width as the PP, but its length (and sight radius) was reduced, and its height (and magazine size) was also reduced (the PPK held six rounds, then considered perfectly adequate). This made it as small as some of the more sloppily engineered .25s of the day. Instead of a solid backstrap with grip scales, the PPK has an open backstrap that is covered with a plastic (bakelite, originally) grip. The original grips are extremely prone to cracking and many PPKs today sport replacement or reproduction grips, but they made for a lighter and more concealable gun when new.

A number of PPs and PPKs were imported into the USA before the war, where the technical advancement of the pistol and its high price compared to domestic arms or cheap Spanish imports won it a very selective user base, and relatively few sales.

After the war, the wave of captured PPs and PPKs increased their popularity, and new ones began to be imported. With Zella-Mehlis and Suhl bombed flat and, after an American withdrawal to a mutually agreed line, behind the Iron Curtain, Walther produced guns at a former licensee in Alsace (Manurhin) beginning in 1952, and at a new factory in West Germany.

(Time for another digression of sorts. You can find pistols from 1952-1985 or so production marked Walther and marked Manurhin. The Walther marked pistols received roll marks, heat treatment of the slides, and final assembly in Ulm, Germany, and were proofed and inspected there, with German marks. The Manurhin pistols were finished, proofed and inspected in Haut-Rhin, Alsace, France, with French marks. Yet Alsace (Elsaß) was German from 1870-1918 and 1940-45 — maybe 1944. Because Walther and Manurhin used different heat treating methods, the slides of Walther pistols often don’t color-match the frames very well, and Manurhin ones match perfectly, usually).

As a result of this strange history and the usual churn of importers here in the USA, PP and PPK pistols are found with a very wide range of slide markings and proof marks, but except for 1940s production guns, which may have been sabotaged by slave labor, all are sure to be of high quality.

How a Gun Law Attacked the PPK

In the 1960s, Interarms of Alexandria, Virginia was the importer of the PP series and all was going swimmingly, until two political assassinations (Martin L. King and Robert F. Kennedy) led to a wave of gun-control legislation. American politics at the time was very different from politics today — gun control’s adherents were found in both parties, with opposition largely restricted to Southern Democrats and Western Republicans; and Democrats controlled, and had for years, both Houses of Congress and the White House. Two bills passed, the Gun Control Act of 1968 and the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act. (So, giving bills Orwellian names is nothing new).

The new laws were supported by the NRA and American gun manufacturers, because they also gave the manufacturers something that they wanted: protectionism. It was no skin off Colt’s or Smith & Wesson’s nose if foreigners wanted to sell their cheesy little guns here, but it was a major threat to high-cost, low-quality manufacturers like Harrington & Richardson or Iver Johnson. Rather that write the transparent ban on imports the manufacturers wanted, instead imports were subjected to a Sporting Purpose test (something drawn by Connecticut Senator Thomas Dodd from Nazi and Weimar gun control laws, which he had come to admire, and placed in early drafts of the bill — before Dodd was censured by the Senate for his unrelated (we think) but legendary corruption, which would end his career this same year.

The Sporting Purpose test, as it was conceived, made it an object of US law that only hunting and organized target shooting are legitimate reasons to own firearms, and by implication, defense of self, others or property explicitly is not. As originally passed and signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, these laws banned the import of military surplus weapons of all kinds (one objective of the manufacturers), and applied a “points test” to the importation of pistols. These laws have been modified by subsequent legislation (and by ATF regulation; the ATF Office of Chief Counsel holds that the “sporting purpose” test invalidates the 2nd Amendment), but the sporting purposes test and the pistol points test survive. (The law also banned the import of Class III weapons for private sale, under the sporting purposes test. The weapons in the market called “pre-May” or “pre-86″ dealer samples were brought in between October 1968 and May 19, 1986, under provisions of this law).

ATF_Form_4590_-_Factoring_Criteria_for_WeaponsThe points test was applied by ATF Form 4590. This image is a vintage form. The current version is ATF Form 5530.5.

Note that, while the ATF has taken up the cudgel of this law with great joy, the cudgel itself was crafted by the legislature, and signed into law in due course; it was upheld rapidly by 1960s liberal courts, and so only can be disposed of the same way it was spawned.

The sponsors of the law meant to come back and apply the points test to domestic production, but they never had the votes — some of the nation’s most anti-gun politicians shrank from voting to shutter factories in their home states of Massachusetts and Connecticut. (And some, like Senator Edward M. Kennedy and Dodd, who would be replaced by his equally crooked son after a brief interregnum, didn’t).

Now, the lip-service the gun bansters paid to just wanting to ban the bad guns would seem to have excepted the jewel-like PPK, but the little gun was caught on the horns of the points system. The points test counts: length, width, depth of the gun (larger is better); caliber (larger is better); target-shooting gingerbread like adjustable sights and thumb-rest grips; and safety mechanisms (more, and more fiddly, seems to please the Bubbas at Firearms Technology Branch better). The dimensional requirement from Form 4590 was (and on 5530.5 is):

The combined length and height must not be less than 10” with the height (right angle measurement to barrel without magazine or extension) being at least 4” and the length being at least 6”.

So the PP just barely sneaked through (especially in .380; the .32 version was borderline on points). But the PPK was hopeless as its overall dimensions were too small. The term used by the bansters at the time for a small handgun, implying a cheap and disposable nature, was
“Saturday Night Special,” but the application of the law didn’t affect any of the domestic shoddy pot-metal  .32S&W revolvers, but did catch the safe-as-houses PPK.

With Continued Demand for a Suddenly Banned Gun, What’s Next?

By this time, the James Bond books, favorites of the late John F Kennedy, and the hugely successful movies had given the PPK new cachet, so Interarms was sitting on a stack of wholesale orders for guns it couldn’t bring into the country. It had a few potential courses of action, not including smuggling the guns and everybody going to jail (that was ruled right out).

  • They could send the checks back to the wholesalers. If you ever met Sam Cummings of Interarms, you knew this was not on. Indeed, smuggling probably didn’t get dismissed as quickly as this approach.
  • They could make the PPK in the USA. Walther wasn’t keen on this COA, and Interarms would have been taking a huge risk even if they could talk their German partners into it. Because Dodd, LBJ and others have sworn to come back and extend the “Saturday Night Special” ban (which is how they thought of the silly points system) to domestic production. Interarms did produce PPKs in the late 1970s, as this image from a 1979 catalog shows, but by then it was clear that the “Saturday Night Special” ban threat had passed. The failure of the gun control acts to influence crime was already patent.


  • Or, they could modify the PPK to pass the points test, maybe.

It turned out that modifying the PPK wasn’t all that hard. It only needed about half an inch of height to pass the points test. The vast majority of Americans preferred the .380 caliber, which gave them a little headroom, although in time . (Hint: if you just want a PPK for some fun shooting, the .32’s a lot more pleasant to fire, even though the ammo’s more expensive, usually). And the half inch was easily come by: simply adapt the PP frame to the shorter PPK slide. As a side benefit, buyers of the new version would get an extra round in their mags.

A more imaginative marketer might have tried to get a Bond tie-in, or named it after Dodd, who indirectly created it, and sent the crooked ex-Senator a penny of graft for each one, in his involuntary retirement. It would have been publicity gold, but the industry was intimidated and more shy about controversy in those days, and the launch of the gun called it the PPK/Special or PPK/S. It was a US-only model of the already venerable gun (not many pocket pistols were still popular after their 35th Anniversary. Especially in a nation still in love with revolvers). The marketing materials played up the “Special” and played down the fact that this was merely a natural reaction to a dumb law.

Typical stainless US-made PPK/S up on GunBroker right now.

Typical stainless US-made PPK/S up on GunBroker right now.

At first, to a Walther fan, the PPK/s didn’t look right. The PP was familiar; the PPK was familiar; the S looked sort of deformed. Over time it grew more common. Nowadays, people have many options of smaller, lighter guns that pack a bigger punch, so the PP series has faded from actual employment as a defensive handgun. And they’ve been produced in many more variants in Germany, France and the USA, blued, stainless, and two-tone, engraved and plated, and copied even farther afield. But of all the variations, the PPK/S was the one created by a gun ban.

Guest Post: Across the Berlin Wall, 1988 | Marty Kufus


Twenty-five years ago, on Nov. 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall—the hated, lethal Mauer—fell.  The world has never been the same.  A cherished memory from US Army service in the relatively peaceful 1980s is my time on the ground in communist East Berlin.

Having transited the Wall, passing through Checkpoint Charlie on a chartered bus scrutinized by rifle-toting, East German border guards, a few dozen of us GIs soon were strolling around like green-suited tourists in the “economic showplace” of the Warsaw Pact.  The bus had pulled up in front of a large department store at Alexanderplatz. The building had three or four floors of public commerce; above them were that many floors of big, mirrored windows: likely surveillance perches for Soviet KGB or GRU military intelligence or—bottom of the barrel—the Stasi, East Germany’s secret police. The paranoia was delicious.

It was 1988, a time of Nena’s “99 Luftballons,” Falco’s “Der Kommissar,” and my man Ronnie’s  “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

Immediately after World War II, under the Four Powers’ Agreement,  the “Allies”—Britain, France, America, and the Soviet Union—carved up war-torn Berlin into four sectors. In the following decades, the US Army encouraged GIs (the better-behaved among us, that is) to visit East Berlin to exercise the right of access. Soviet troops, however, weren’t so privileged. The only Soviets who passed westward through Checkpoint Charlie into the US sector were military, perhaps GRU, officers in little marked cars: the Soviet Military Liaison Mission—the “Smell-um” guys who were followed at a polite distance by our counterintelligence personnel.  (My photo album contains a shot I took from the tiny kaffee shop in the Museum am Checkpoint Charlie: two Soviet officers sitting in their car at the traffic light, necks swiveling to ogle a young, slender, well-dressed woman as she crossed the West Berlin street. Truth is, I was watching her, too.)

I made two half-day treks into East Berlin. It was so cool; if I had had any hair on the back of my clean-shaven neck, it would’ve been standing up the whole time. This was, after all, the Checkpoint Charlie—the cross hairs of the Cold War. Being there was a hoot for this ex-farmboy from Oklahoma!

You see, the crazy thing was that for these East Berlin excursions, we American soldiers by regs wore our class-A uniforms—minus name tags, of course—which told an informed observer not only our rank (I was a sergeant) but also our unit (I was in the Intelligence and Security Command: INSCOM), approximate time in the Army (my hash stripes said 6 years), branch of service (I wore Military Intelligence brass), medals (an underachiever, I didn’t have many ribbons), marksmanship rating (Expert badge, rifle and pistol), and additional skills (Ranger-qualification tab, jump [paratroop] wings, and Egyptian jump wings).

Being a Russian linguist who also spoke German—and, unafraid to open my mouth for short, polite conversation—I figured I probably was being watched as I strolled around gray, shabby East Berlin, a copy of Pravda conspicuously tucked under my arm. (You think?)  I also made a point of paying my respects at the Treptow war memorial: a mass grave for 5,000 Red Army troops who died in 1945 in the Battle for Berlin. I left with a lump in my throat.

At a smog-stained street corner I quietly joined a handful of Soviet soldiers (in their best uniforms) waiting for traffic to stop for the crosswalk. In my peripheral vision I detected the one on the end leaning forward slightly, slowly turning his head to the right to look out the corner of his eye at me—so very Russian. I was a wise guy at that stage of life, so I leaned forward and slowly looked to the left. Our eyes met. The young Russian looked away and stood upright. Traffic stopped, and we all walked away. I think I smirked.

Twenty-seven years later, I have this odd thought: Was then-KGB counterintel spook Vlad Putin following me in East Berlin, watching for an undiplomatic misstep or suspicious act? I have to laugh.

©2014 Martin Kufus.

The 25th Anniversary of the fall of the thought-it-would-be-forever demarcation line between Soviet slavery and all the chaos and disorder of freedom has a lot of us thinking about our own interactions with the inter-European border. Marty, an old friend who served on the SOT-A teams in 5th Special Forces Group whilst your host here did similar duty in 10th Group before attending SFQC and graduating from MI into the Army, sent a draft of this to a couple of us superannuated SFers, then posted an updated version — with a period photo — to his LinkedIn. It’s posted here with his permission. 

How an Original Tiger Wound up in Fury

One of the most remarkable things about Fury is the presence of a real, running, Panzerkampfwagen VI Tiger 1 on screen. This is the first time a real, live, Tiger, and not a mockup on some other chassis, a scale model, or a CGI digital emulation, was used in a feature film. Here’s a video of how a high-strung thoroughbred war machine from most of a century ago performed before the cameras:

As Tigers belonged to an empire that was crushed to rubble some 70 years ago, the few of them that have survived have mostly come to nest in museums. But one that was captured in 1942 in the Western Desert nation of Tunisia has been running (occasionally) and entertaining visitors at the Royal Armored Corps’s Tank Museum in Bovington, England for some years now. Tiger 131 was shipped to the set (along with some doting caretakers), and the Museum also provided the title character, Fury the Sherman tank.

The Museum now has a temporary exhibit dedicated to the movie, including some of the props they didn’t originally provide, and wargaming stations that let visitors get creamed by Tiger tanks themselves — at least, in the digital realm.

The Tank Museum also posted this video explaining some of the other lengths the movie makers went to, to make Fury as grimly accurate as they did.

We did note the absence of anachronisms on the screen, at least in terms of props and settings. (Some of the language and human expression is more 21st Century than 1945, but what can you do about that?) If you’re planning to see the movie (about which we remain uncharacteristically ambivalent), these videos contain no real spoilers and may help you look for details you’ll enjoy seeing.

Handgun Ownership, German Reunification, and a Unique Wall Weapon

This pretty heat-map of pinks and blues shows legal handgun ownership in today’s (well, 2013’s) Germany. What’s interesting is that you can clearly see the inter-German border that existed during the period from 1949-1992, caused when the Soviet Occupation Zone stood up as the Soviet satellite (slave) state of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany), and the three Western Allies’ (FR, UK, US) Occupation Zones joined as the Federal Republic of Germany. In 1989 the Soviets lost control of their East German subjects and the long process of German reunification began. Here’s the map, from a feature on the lasting divisions in unified Germany in the newspaper Die Zeit.


In the former East Germany, even though the gun laws originally followed those of East Germany, replacing the Soviet-era complete handgun ban, the limited gun culture of West Germany has not taken root. This is not entirely surprising, as many of the more malleable youth of the eastern Bundesländer have migrated West in search of jobs and adventure, and the East is heavily populated by older residents who grew up under the Hammer-and-Dividers symbol of the East German Communist party, the SED.

One wonders what happened to the inter-German border, which as late as the 1980s was characterized by guard towers, dog runs, plowed earthen areas to expose any footprints, free-fire zones, and several types of land mines (on the inner-German border only; they were removed from the Berlin Wall by 1980).


General Arrangement – Construction of the Steel Border – Plan for 1990. Confidential restricted material! (reads the German title). W. Germany on left. SM-70 mines are on the inside of the fire 3m-high fence or wall.

All East Germans living within a certain distance of the wall (100 meters, in Berlin) had to register with the Volkspolizei, and were subject to removal if background checks showed them to be insufficiently enthused by the Workers’ and Peasants’ Revolution imposed at the point of Russian bayonets. An intensive network of informants were the Vopo’s eyes and ears. Even the VoPos were kept out of the border zone, though; there were special GrenzPolizei, Border Police, selected for political reliability — and absence of any personal connection to the West or to the borderlands. Maps of the DDR were blank on the BRD side, and were even blank on the DDR side, for the last 5 kilometers from the border.1

Mines deployed along the border included a variety of Russian military types (most lifted by 1985) and a home-grown Claymore equivalent, the Splittermine 1970 or SM-70.A German legend attributed the design of the SM-70 to an SS officer intent on securing concentration camps. That’s possible, because East Germany was all about giving brutal Nazis a second chance as brutal Communists, but doesn’t seem to have documentary support.

The SM-70 contained a hollow charge of TNT, but where a typical hollow-charge weapon like an RPG’s PG-7 warhead would be lined with a copper, aluminum alloy or exotic-metal alloy lining to explosively-form a plasma armor-penetrating projectile, the SM-70’s cone comprised preformed metallic fragments. It could be fired by electrical command wire, tripwire, or both. (Tripwire installations were most common). The mines were monitored; if an SM-70 fired, a display panel would inform the guard force where to collect the dead or wounded would-be escapee.

General arrangement of an SM-70. They were typically mounted in rows of three, at ankle level, at about 1.45 m, and about 5 CM below the top of the wall or fence, on the East German side of the last wall (or chain-link or expanded-mesh fence) before freedom.

General arrangement of an SM-70. They were typically mounted in rows of three, at ankle level, at about 1.45 m, and about 5 CM below the top of the wall or fence, on the East German side of the last wall (or chain-link or expanded-mesh fence) before freedom.

The SM-70 was installed on the DDR side of the border fences. At least 60,000 SM-70s were deployed, 13,000 of them in a single 40-km long field. When the mines were tested in 1970, wildlife that were collaterally killed by the machines were left lying in the border strip as a warning to would-be “Border violators.”

This shows the innards of the SM-70 and how it works. They were never observed outside of East Germany.

This shows the innards of the SM-70 and how it works. They were never observed outside of East Germany.

The end of life of the SM-70 is to a degree uncertain. Officially, they were all removed by the end of 1984, but some seem to have persisted longer. Reportedly, they were replaced by monitoring systems that led to response by human and canine patrols. Had East Germany continued, its border authorities planned an even richer sensor environment. Given their political reliability problems with their police and military, the more they could automate the Wall, the better.

So we wondered, what has become of that death zone, that grim barrier that in practice turned an entire nation into a concentration camp? As it happens, the Germans wasted no time tearing it down, and now there is barely any remnant of it left to memorialize the hazards and the many victims of Communism’s need for captive populations.

The inter-German border was the strongest and most sophisticated of these Cold War fortifications, but some version of it did indeed extend “from Stettin on the Baltic, to Trieste on the Adriatic.” (The most futile and least well-imagined of them was further East, in Communist but anti-Soviet Albania). But they couldn’t, in the end, keep the people in and freedom out. In the end, like the Maginot Line, or Hadrian’s Wall for that matter, these walls fell less because of their own weaknesses (they had plenty; US and Allied intelligence agencies and SOF could play them like a Stradivarius), but because of the vulnerabilities in the humans that operated them.

The Die Zeit page has a video; unfortunately we can’t embed it here, but it is a Google Earth flyover of what much of the inner-German border has become: greensward, zigging and zagging along a now-erased border. Now, environmentalists are resisting redevelopment of the area, which has become host to many rare flora and fauna. Quite a remarkable thing, to those of us who looked on it, from whatever side, and expected it to be permanent.

Ozymandias was not available for comment.


1 Rottman, Gordon L. Berlin and the Intra-German Border 1961-89. Botley, Oxford, UK: Osprey Publishing, 2008. pp. 37-40.

2. Rottman, op.cit., pp. 17-23.

Additional References

SM-70. Grenades, Mines and Boobytraps website. Retrieved from:

DDR Grenzsperranlagen: Grenzzaun u. Selbstschußanlage. Website. Retrieved from:

(the whole Grenzsperranlagen website is good, but it’s all in German).

Fred the Great: On Duty, and On General Order Nº1

Frederick II "The Great's" sarcophagus was hidden in a mineshaft by Nazis who feared it would be destroyed by the Allies. It wasn't (his peripatetic corpse finally was buried on his lawn where he'd originally requested -- in the 21st Century).

Frederick II “The Great’s” sarcophagus was hidden in a mineshaft by Nazis who feared it would be destroyed by the Allies. It wasn’t (his peripatetic corpse finally was buried on his lawn where he’d originally requested — in the 21st Century).

Frederick II, “the Great,” of Prussia was one of the most brilliant generals that ever lived. His strategy, his tactics, and his relative attention to logistics and mobility were all ahead of their time, and enabled the relatively small principality of Prussia to kick ass and take names all over Europe.

Frederick is also remembered for his correspondence: a witty writer, he was fortunate to live at the time of the Enlightenment, and exchanged pithy and deep letters with Voltaire. He encouraged immigration to Prussia, but particularly skilled immigration: he cared not if one was a Huguenot farmer, Jesuit scholar or a Jewish trader, but if you had something to bring to Prussia the door was open to you. At the same time he accepted Protestants fleeing Catholic pressure in some countries, and Catholics fleeing the Protestants in others — as long as they could bring something to Prussia.

He is less remembered for his artsy personality; he may indeed have been queer as a three-mark coin, and he wrote four symphonies and scores of concertos in the baroque style as well as military marches; he sponsored CPE Bach and received a sonata as a gift from Bach’s father, Johann Sebastian Bach (that’s “the” Bach to you musical ignorami). He preferred French to his native German, but was fluent in both, and functional in several other European languages.

The National Archives calls these swords of Frederick the Great, but says in the same article they were from the coronation of Frederick I.

The National Archives calls these swords of Frederick the Great, but says in the same article they were from the coronation of Frederick I, so they may predate the great general-king.

But in military arts, he is remembered for what he said as much as for what he did (which laid the groundwork for Bismarck’s unification of the German states under a Prussian king a century on).

He won battles and lost them; he came within a hair of losing Berlin to a Russian and Austrian alliance that fortuitously fell apart after the death of Elizabeth of Russia and the ascension of her nephew Peter the Great (Peter III, the not-so-great1, see the footnote and correction in comments), an admirer of Frederick, to the throne.

But he was a master of, not exactly the pithy aphorism like those for which Napoleon was deservedly legendary, but a well-turned entire paragraph, of which we have a couple of examples to offer you today.


He had this to say (in a letter to Voltaire, who was critical of Frederick’s militarism), about the military life and its attractions, or lack thereof, for him:

Do you think I take any pleasure in this dog’s life, in seeing and causing death in people unknown to me, in losing friends and acquaintances daily, in seeing my reputation ceaselessly exposed to the caprices of fortune, in spending the whole year with uneasiness and apprehension, in continually risking my life and my fortune? I certainly know the value of tranquility, the charms of society, the pleasures of life, and I like to be happy as much as anybody. Although I desire all these good things, I will not buy them with baseness and infamy. Philosophy teaches us to do our duty, to serve our country faithfully at the expense of our blood and of our repose, to commit our whole being to it.

You may believe him or not — we suspect that he took rather more pleasure in campaigning than that, at least while he was winning. We also suspect Voltaire didn’t buy it for a minute.

The next aphorism is also one that deserves reflection almost 240 years after its utterance. While today’s abstemious (sometimes to the point of asceticism) American officers revel in the purity of the Temple they have made of their bodies, Frederick’s words, from 1777, rise from his grave at Sans Souci to condemn General Order One:

It is disgusting to notice the increase in the quantity of coffee used by my subjects, and the amount of money that goes out of the country as a consequence. Everybody is using coffee; this must be prevented. His Majesty was brought up on beer, and so were both his ancestors and officers. Many battles have been fought and won by soldiers nourished on beer, and the King does not believe that coffee-drinking soldiers can be relied upon to endure hardships in case of another war.

Yeah. What Fred said.

The only reason we haven’t actually lost yet is that the pathetic hadjis are coffee-drinkers, too.


1 Re: Peter the not-too-great, read Max’s comment and check the bios at and at Russian state-controlled broadcaster Russia Today for the short and unhappy reign of this guy, who was most important in Russian history as the way that Catherine the Great (who really was great) rose to the throne. The problem with kings and nobles is, of course, the tendency to regression to the mean (or beyond) in their posterity.