A Bridge Too Far (1977) is undoubtedly a classic of the war film genre, massively ambitious it attempts to tell the story of Operation Market Garden. One of the key stories told is that of 2 PARA besieged in Arnhem awaiting relief from XXX Corps.
Perhaps one of the most enduring scenes sees Anthony Hopkins, portraying 2 PARA’s commanding officer Johnny Frost, spot an enemy tank approaching and bark the order: “Bring Up The PIAT!”
The scene itself is actually quite authentic. The PIAT gunner misses, and that isn’t too surprising as despite being a platoon weapon not everyone had a lot of training on them. While the PIAT misses twice – this is because the gunner was firing from an elevated position. This makes judging the range and lead which should be given to an advancing tank all the more difficult. It is something we see in contemporary accounts, including in Arnhem Lift: Diary of a Glider Pilot, by Louis Hagen. Hagen describes firing a PIAT at a self-propelled gun (likely a StuG) from an attic during the fighting in Arnhem: “The direction was perfect, but it fell about twenty yards short.” Similarly, there are accounts from Home Army members fighting in Warsaw during the Uprising which describe exactly the same thing.
While the flash we see in the scene might be excessive the recoil is quite authentic. While writing my book on the PIAT, I did a lot of research into the cultural impact of the PIAT and the numerous films it appeared in since World War Two. I recently wrote an article about the numerous films it has appeared in, you can read that here.
Perhaps the most important and realistic appearance was its first, in the fascinating 1946 film ‘Theirs Is The Glory‘. It’s a unique film that was filmed entirely on location with from veterans of the battle making up most of the cast and help from the British Army’s Army Film and Photographic Unit.
The PIAT appears twice in the film, scene some PARAs are trying to fight through to Arnhem but have been pinned down by what appears to be a French Char B. As a sidenote captured Char B1’s in German service were present in Arnhem).
The PIAT team are seen to move to the flank to get a good shot at Char B. The short scene gives a good indication of how the No.2 would load the PIAT as well as showing the rate of fire possible – a good team could get off five rounds a minute. Theirs Is the Glory also features another brilliant PIAT scene with Corporal Dixon seen knocking out a Panther
I would highly recommend both films as they are both interesting depictions of the battle and both good representations of the PIAT in action.
Al Murray and James Holland discussed my new book about the PIAT on a livestream for their great podcast ‘We Have Ways‘, please do check them out – here.
Massive thanks to Al and James for their enthusiasm about the book (and the PIAT!) and for their kind words about it! Al gives a nice short rundown of some of the areas I cover in the book. [You can watch the entire livestream here]
The book explores the design, development and operational history of the PIAT. If you’d like a copy, you can pick a copy up at HistoricalFirearms.info/shop
The transfer of rifles began in the autumn of 1940, with the training pamphlet ‘The Home Guard .300 Rifle P.17 (American Manufacture)’ published in September by the government. Which began “it now appears that all ‘Home Guards’ will ultimately be equipped with this rifle…”
In May 1941, the Home Guard’s .303 rifles began to be withdrawn and reissued to Regular Army units. These rifles were steadily replaced by American M1917s arriving from US stockpiles. This particular rifle was built by Remington in August 1918.
By the spring of 1942, 80,000 M1917s had arrived, the first of 500,000 that were to be transferred. These would go some way to arming the over 1 million Home Guard members who needed weapons.
The Home Guard were stood up in May 1940, initially known as the Local Defence Volunteers, they were a sort of armed citizen militia made up of men ineligible for regular military service. They were formed into local platoons and companies and were initially poorly armed and equipped. But in time became a well-equipped home defence force.
The M1917 has a somewhat complicated origin. The story began with the British Army’s pre-World War One attempts to replace the SMLE. The Pattern 1913 was developed, based on a modified Mauser action and chambered in a new .276 round. Before the P13 could be fully evaluated and adopted – war were declared – and the British government placed contracts with US manufacturers to produce the Pattern 1914, the P13 adapted to chamber the standard .303 round. Due to a lack of parts interchangeability between the P14s which reached Britain it did not see front line service. In 1917 the US entered the war and found themselves in need of rifles quickly. With the production lines for the P14 already in place at Winchester, Remington and Eddystone the decision was made to produce the P14 chambered in .30-06. This was adopted at the Model 1917.
The per unit manufacturing cost of the US M1917 rifle in 1917-18 was only $26.00, they almost certainly cost Britain much more to purchase in 1940. Despite the M1917s being more plentiful in 1918, than the M1903 the US Army opted to retain the M1903 as their primary service rifle. As such the rifles sold to Britain had been in storage, often in cosmoline, for two decades and were in good shape.
As the M1917 was chambered in .30-06, or as the British referred to it .300, the rifles were painted with a red band around the wooden forend furniture to prevent the wrong calibre being used. The same measure was taken with the various Browning M1917 medium machine guns and M1918 Automatic Rifles also chambered in the American round. Some rifles also had a .300 stencilled on the butt.
Home Guard riflemen were to be each issued with fifty rounds of .300 ammunition, but in the early stages of the war ammunition was extremely limited. While this hindered familiarisation with the rifle somewhat, it didn’t hinder rifle training completely as many Home Guard units would have practiced with .22 rifles on miniature ranges and with rifles and ammunition provided at Regular Army Ranges. In this clip from some footage of Warwickshire Home Guard men, we see a corporal happily posing with a .22 Martini rifle.
The M1917 is an excellent rifle and the Home Guard were lucky to have them. While those lucky enough to have received an SMLE may have been disappointed when they were given an American rifle in its place many appreciated the rifle. It was certainly better than the smattering of shotguns, civilian rifles, older service rifles and Canadian Ross rifles some units found themselves armed with during the Home Guard’s early days.
One Home Guard Unit In Denbighshire, Wales was initially issued 100 Canadian Ross rifles between 500 men until, in the spring of 1941, they received M1917s. One rifle for every two men.
Clifford Shore, a member of the Home Guard who later became an officer with RAF Regiment, recalled in his post-war memoir that the M1917s:
“were really splendid weapons; I never came across a bad one. In certain quarters they were not popular, but that can be primarily and summarily dismissed with the one word ‘ignorance’. …The higher velocity .300 cartridge gave slightly improved ballistics than the .303 cartridge in the P14, and I should say that the M17 was probably the most accurate rifle I have ever used.”
The Warwickshire Home Guard In Action
The video features footage of a Warwickshire Home Guard unit. In it we get a rare glimpse at the men at the range with their M1917s. They’re paired up with spotters and instructors and we also get to see the men in the butts running the targets for the shooters.
In another piece of footage of the same Home Guard platoon we see them drilling with their rifles. they’re carrying out muscle exercises. The manual for the ‘.300 Rifle P.17’ lays these out.
The 1st practice trained men how to lift the butt of the rifle into their shoulders and how to level the rifle quickly for aiming. The second was to strength the grip of the hands and the 3rd laid down in the manual trained the soldier to hold the rifle steady while aiming building strength to increase stability.
Examining The M1917
The rifle weighs 9.2lbs (or just under 4.2kg) unloaded, it was 46.25in (117cm) long and had a fixed, internal double stack magazine, which because of the lack of a rim on the .30-06, could hold 6 rounds.
The rifle has a Mauser-style bolt release on the right, pull back on that and slide the bolt out. The rifle has an aperture rear sight, zero’d for 200 yards, with a peep also mounted on a ladder giving graduations out to 1,600 yards.
The bolt of course has the dog-leg handle which was carried over from the P14, which in turn emulated the SMLE’s bolt handle position – falling nicely under the hand.
Unlike the earlier P14, the 1917 dispensed with the volley sights seen on the British rifles. The action is cock on close and the bolt itself is based on the Mauser 1898’s.
This rifle was manufactured by Remington in August 1918. By the end of production Remington along had produced 545,541 rifles. At peak output almost 10,000 rifles were being produced per day, with the final number built standing at 1,727,449.
I’m very excited to say that my second book has been published! It looks at the much maligned and much misunderstood PIAT – Projector, Infantry, Anti-Tank.
The book is available from retailers from the 20th August in the UK/Europe and the 22nd September in the US – but you can order a copy from me now regardless of location. I filmed a short video to show you the book and talk a bit about the process of writing it, check that out above.
The PIAT was the British infantry’s primary anti-tank weapon of the second half of the Second World War. Unlike the better known US Bazooka the PIAT wasn’t a rocket launcher – it was a spigot mortar. Throwing a 2.5lb bomb, containing a shaped charge capable of penetrating up to 4 inches of armour. Thrown from the spigot by a propellant charge in the base of the bomb, it used a powerful spring to soak up the weapon’s heavy recoil and power its action.
With a limited range the PIAT’s users had to be incredibly brave. This becomes immediately obvious when we see just how many Victoria Crosses, Military Medals and Distinguished Conduct Medals were awarded to men who used the PIAT in action.
The book includes numerous accounts of how the PIAT was used and how explores just how effective it was. I have spent the past 18 months researching and writing the book and it is great to finally see a copy in person and know it’s now available.
The book includes brand new information dug up from in-depth archival research, never before seen photographs of the PIAT in development and in-service history and it also includes some gorgeous illustrations by Adam Hook and an informative cutaway graphic by Alan Gilliland.
It’s immensely exciting to know the book is out in the world for all too enjoy. If you’d like a copy of my new book looking at the PIAT’s design, development and operational history you can order one directly from me here!
Thanks for your support and if you pick up a copy of the book I really hope you enjoy it!
In this very rare footage we see a Free French Air Force officer, possibly training as a member of the SOE, place a limpet mine on a substantial piece of metal plate.
The mine seen in the footage is clearly much smaller than the Limpets used against ships. The Limpet mine was developed by Military Intelligence (Research) in late 1939-40. Stuart Macrae and Cecil Vandepeer Clarke developed a mine with enough magnetic strength to attach an explosive charge to the hull of a ship. The initial design seen here was quite large but the design was refined as the war went on with various types and marks. Here’s a Type II limpet, a MkIII and here is a Type 6 MkII.
The idea was that divers or saboteurs in small boats could quietly attach the mines to enemy shipping while at anchor. However, the usefulness of magnetic charges was clear and it appears that smaller versions, like that we see in the footage here, were developed for use against armoured vehicles and other substantial armoured targets.
It’s unclear from the film what the explosive charge was, how big it was or how it was laid out inside the mine but from the damaged plate displayed at the end of the footage it may have been a ring of plastic explosive held in place by the four magnets. This would blow the characteristic round hold in the plates.
Interestingly, the limpet mine seen in the film is very similar to a Japanese design, the Type 99 anti-tank mine, however, it has a different fuse design and the four magnets are blocky rather than rounded. Whether the Japanese magnetic mine influenced this design developed by SOE is unknown.
I’ve been unable to find out these mine’s designation, it may not have been given one but it does appear to be fairly well developed. In this photograph we can see that a metal plate carrier has been developed to allow a soldier to carry 4 mines on his back. Perhaps these mines were developed for a specific mission. The magnetic Clam charge, which we have covered in an earlier video, would have done a similar job for smaller task
Destroying railway infrastructure was a key mission for the Resistance groups and SOE agents active in occupied Europe. Numerous methods of damaging or destroying railways were developed, including Exploding Coal, which we have covered earlier in this series. In this 16mm colour footage, believed to have been filmed in 1940, we get an early look at the methods the SOE were developing to destroy track. The ultimate aim was to derail the locomotive and wreck the train with minimal effort and explosive.
In the footage we see two charges have been placed on the piece of track, with detcord attached to both. A soldier, with what appears to be a lever-action Winchester 94, is then seen taking aim. It seems he’s aiming at a striker board attached to ignite the detcord. He fires, we see a puff of smoke and a second later the charges detonate.
The footage then cuts to several men collecting the debris of the shattered piece of track. The track appears to have two large chunks blown out and the top edge, between the two charges, completely blown off.
Later in the war more testing was done and more refined techniques were developed. In their book SOE: The Scientific Secrets Boyce & Everett note that trials of devices and techniques for destroying railway lines carried out at Longmoor where the British Army had extensive sections of track and samples of rails used in different European countries. Trials to find the right quantity and positioning of explosive charges were carried out in late December 1943, these tests would inform later operations.
The SOE’s Descriptive Catalogue of Special Devices and Supplies includes a pair of illustrations demonstrating two methods of laying and detonating these charges. A so-called ‘French’ method with a pair of what the catalogue terms ‘Igniters, Fuze, Fog Signal, MkIA’ ahead of the charges in the direction the train was expected from. The train would crush these Fog Signals firing them and igniting a length of detcord linked to a pair of 3/4lb explosive charges fixed to the track as we see in this film.
The alternative ‘Polish’ method had the same sized and located explosive charges but placed a Fog Signal either side of the charges to ensure that no matter which direction the train came from the charges would be detonated. This method was used on single track stretches of railway. Both of these methods were rated to ‘remove about one metre of rail.’
In this photo we see a member of the French Resistance setting an explosive charge on a railway line. While likely a posed photo we do see the pair of Fog Signals which will stet the charge off. These photographs show a pair of trains reportedly derailed by explosive charges.
Boyce & Everett in their book SOE: The Scientific Secrets suggest that as many as 48,000 ‘Railway charges’, presumable a kit, were produced by the SOE. From the footage we can certainly see this method of destroying rails was effective.
The footage, believed to have been filmed in 1940, is part of the Imperial War Museum’s collection, it shows plastic explosive being demonstrated in a number of different applications. It was filmed by Cecil Vandepeer Clarke, a British engineer and sabotage expert who was a member of the Special Operations Executive and worked at a number of weapon research and development centres during the war.
The clip features a number of men preparing and shaping plastic explosive charges, adding fuses and detonators. The explosive is then seen being applied to a steel plate in a ring shape, before being detonated. The resulting explosion punches a round hole through the plate. The film also includes demonstrations of what plastic explosive pressed against a tree trunk can do. Once detonated the roughly 1 foot thick trunk is splintered in two. Metal girders are also shown being prepared with a substantial block of explosive being pressed into its seams.
The SOE’s 1944 Descriptive Catalogue of Special Devices and Supplies lists the ‘Standard Charges’ of 1.5lbs or 3lbs of plastic explosive with an integrated central primer available in rectangular blocks inside a rubberised fabric. Of course SOE agents were taught to use as much or as little explosive as was needed for the task and they were taught to be able to improvise in any given situation.
Given the date of the footage the explosive being used is likely and early form of plastic explosive produced at Woolwich arsenal, possibly PETN or Cyclonite better known as RDX, which would have been mixed with a plasticiser to make the explosive malleable.
Today, we’re lucky enough to have some colour footage showing the of testing of a magnetic bomb which could be attached to the petrol tank of vehicles. The footage comes courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.
From the film we can see that the bomb consisted of a small block of plastic explosive, a pair of strip magnets (or possible a horseshoe-shaped magnet) and a Switch No.10 time pencil delay detonator. The explosive block itself looks to be slightly smaller than the SOE’s standard 1.5lb charge.
In the film we see the bomb placed on the boot (or trunk) of a saloon car before various civilians and a corporal experiment with various ways of covertly attaching the bomb to the underside of the car. At one point the corporal allows himself to be dragged along behind the vehicle before making his escape.
Luckily the 16mm footage, filmed by Major Cecil Clarke, also shows us the effect of the explosive charge mounted on a petrol tank full of fuel. According to the details listed for the film by the Imperial War Museum the footage was filmed in 1940, at SOE Station XVII, located at Brickendonbury House in Hertfordshire.
This configuration of the bomb doesn’t appear in the Special Operations Executive’s Descriptive Catalogue of Special Devices and Supplies published in 1944. However, Colonel Leslie Wood, Station XII’s commanding officer, described the demonstration put on during a visit by Brigadier Robert Laycock of the Commandos and William Donovan, the head of the American OSS in June 1942. One of the scheduled demonstrations was the “Effect of small ‘magnet’ charge of explosive on petrol tank of car.”
It appears that this ad hoc magnet charge evolved into ‘the Clam’, which was a smaller, version of the magnetic Limpet mine. The Clam evolved through a number of marks with the MkI having a stamped sheet metal casing and the later MkIII using a bakelite, plastic casing. Both were made up of a plastic explosive charge inside a rectangular, rounded case with a pair of magnets at either end. They were detonated by either a Time Pencil or an L Delay fuse attached to a No.27 detonator. The MkIII had 8oz (226g) of high explosive filler, such as TNT/Tetryl 55/45.
While unlike the larger Limpet they weren’t developed for under water use but the Clam could be mount onto any vaguely flat magnetic surface including engine blocks, fuel tanks, crank cases, cylinder blocks, rail tracks and steel plate.
At just 5.75” x 2.75” x 1.5” they were easily concealable, could be carried in a pocket and were non-descript enough not to draw attention. An estimated 68,000 Clams were made under supervision at Aston House according to Des Turner’s book on Station XII.
We’re lucky enough to have some unique colour footage showing the of testing of some of these explosive devices and in this article we will examine an incendiary-filed case.
In this piece of 16mm colour footage, filmed in 1940 by Captain Cecil V. Clarke, we see what appears to be an attaché case containing three medium-sized bottles, which likely contains a mix of petrol and paraffin or some white phosphorus, prepared for testing at the bomb range at Brickendonbury in Hertfordshire, a Special Operations Executive training and research centre codenamed Station XVII. It’s believed that these films may have been produced as teaching aids for the agents trained at Station XVII and this film may have been shown during a lecture.
While incendiary briefcases, attaché cases and even suitcases are listed in the 1944 SOE Descriptive Catalogue of Special Devices and Supplies they were quite different from this case. They were primarily designed for the quick destruction of documents and items carried inside them. They used sheets of potassium nitrate to burn the case’s contents.
The incendiary case seen in this footage on the other hand appears to be designed to be clandestinely placed and detonated with a delay fuse, to set nearby flammable objects on fire. What was described as a ‘Delayed Action Incendiary’.
In this footage of another separate test we get an idea of the destructive capability of just one of the bottles.
It’s possible that this incendiary case was a proof of concept test for the later cases or perhaps a demonstration of a concealed incendiary device Station XVII were working on. SOE developed a large number of bespoke explosive devices for various missions, so while this device may not have become ‘standard issue’, it may have been developed for a specific purpose.
During the Second World War Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) developed a whole series of sabotage devices for use behind enemy lines. Using unique archival footage this series of short videos examines some of the weapons developed for use by SOE agents in occupied Europe. We begin the series with a look at the history and development of Explosive Coal. Explosive coal was designed to explode inside fireboxes, furnaces and coal stores hampering enemy infrastructure.
I came across this footage while doing some research in the Imperial War Museum’s online catalogue. This piece of 16mm film was filmed by Cecil Vandepeer Clarke, a British engineer and sabotage expert who was a member of the Special Operations Executive and worked at a number of weapon research and development centres including MD1 at Whitchurch and SOE Station XII at Aston.
SOE or Special Operations Executive were a clandestine force tasked with conducting irregular warfare behind enemy lines including sabotage, assassination, intelligence gathering an small scale raiding. One of the sabotage methods developed was introducing an explosive charge into the boiler firebox of a ship or a locomotive or a power station or factory’s furnace. This achieved by disguising the explosive as either a piece of fuel like coal or wood or even as a dead rat – which might be tossed into a firebox or furnace to be disposed of.
The idea of ‘Explosive Coal’ wasn’t new. The idea originated from the US Civil War, when Confederate Captain Thomas Edgeworth Courtenay designed a piece of cast iron, with a cavity which could be packed with gun powder, that looked like a lump of coal. The Courtenay described them as ‘Coal Torpedoes’, their aim was to damage a steam ship’s boiler enough to cause a catastrophic secondary explosion. While several vessels may have been damaged or sunk by these Coal Torpedoes, the claims are difficult to confirm.
It seems the idea of a coal bomb was resurrected in 1940 and initially a ‘Coal Borer’ was developed and available for use in theatre by mid-1940. The borer could be used by agents to make holes in lumps of coal which could be filled by plastic explosive and a detonator. This was soon superseded by an Explosive Coal Kit which included moulded fake coal and paints to allow agents to match the colour of local coal. The kit included instructions on how to prepare and use the coal bomb.
Arthur Christie, a lab assistant at Station XII, is quoted at length in Des Turner’s book on Station XII. Christie remembered being asked to drill large holes in some coal:
“Another task was collecting the biggest lumps of coal that I could find in the storeroom and taking them to the lab. I had no idea what they wanted them for; it was seldom explained to me and, when it was, it was often as clear as mud. My instructions were to try to drill a large hole in each piece of coal without shattering it. I tried with a brace and a six-inch long tube that had a serrated end. I found that, if too much pressure was applied, the coal would disintegrate. I thought, I wonder what the hell they want this for? Don’t ask, just do it, and I did manage to drill three lumps of coal. I placed the drilled coal on the table of the MI room and set off for the officers’ dining room to inform the CO that I had been successful. I was told to insert about a quarter of a pound of PE and a detonator into the hole and glue the coal dust back over it. The mud in my brain now began to clear. The lump of coal could be placed in the coal tender of a locomotive and find its way into the firebox, or perhaps into the furnace of a factory. Later the PE was dyed black, which was better than using coal dust and glue. This idea led to plastic explosive being moulded into a multitude of objects and colours to fool the enemy.”
Frederic Boyce & David Everett, in their book SOE: The Scientific Secrets, credit Station XV with the development of a moulded clam-shell design using dyed Herculite plaster and coated with real coal dust. A photograph of this can be seen in the SOE’s Descriptive Catalogue of Special Devices and Supplies, along with ‘Explosive Wood’, or as it was officially known ‘Wooden Logs, Explosive’.
Eventually this was replaced by a bomb based around a charge in a metal casing that allowed liquid plaster to be poured around it, simplifying production and removing any sign of a seam. The coal bombs were detonated by a No.27 Detonator to which either a match headed safety fuse or a time delay fuse was attached.
Once the danger of coal bombs was discovered by the enemy it was also believed that they would have considerable a psychological impact and also cause the enemy to expend considerable resources on protecting and checking coal supplies.
The ‘Explosive Coal’ we see in the footage appears to actually be an incendiary bomb, producing a large amount of flame and heat. This would have been ineffective in a boiler but with a time delay or other sort of fuse it may have been very effective in causing a coal bunker fire aboard a ship, in a factory store, at a coal depot or in a locomotive’s coal tender. Coal fires are extremely difficult to contain and put out.
How effective Explosive Coal was is unclear but it is believed that coal bombs were used by both the SOE and their American counterparts the OSS. Boyce & Everett estimate that about 3.5 tons of explosive coal was made between 1941 and 1945. I’m unsure how many of these were explosive and how many were incendiary, like that seen in the footage here, but it’s a fascinating asymmetric method of targeting enemy infrastructure at the most basic level.