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Good Question: Did Flamethrowers From WW2 Explode When Shot?

Discussion in 'Allied Weapons Used thru out WWII' started by PzJgr, May 17, 2019.

  1. PzJgr

    PzJgr Drill Instructor

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    I was always curious about this but went along with Hollywood's portrayal.

    [​IMG]
    US Marine with an M2-2 flamethrower, lighting a pipe while gallons of gasoline and nitrogen are strapped to his back. Iwo Jima, February 1945. Colorized by Jecinci

    The flame-thrower came of age during World War One where it was pioneered by the German Army.

    Though regarded as a very inhumane and cruel weapon, it was also seen as being very effective at clearing trenches, buildings, and fortifications, especially bunkers.

    By the end of the war, it was in widespread use among combatant nations.

    By World War Two you there were two types of flame-thrower delivery systems:

    1) Motorized vehicles, normally a tank converted to carry a flame-thrower, like the Churchill Crocodile tanks or the Italian L3 tankettes.

    2) The other was a man-portable version, which normally consisted of one or two cylinders strapped to the operator’s back. They were usually heavy and cumbersome but effective at short range.

    A question often asked is: do flame-throwers from WW2 explode when they are shot?

    Well, to answer that question, first let’s set out some parameters.

    The flame-thrower in question is being shot at by a typical weapon of World War Two: the standard U.S. service rifle, the M1 Garand.

    Over five million Garands were made. It fires a .30 caliber round and for our scenario it is using the standard ammunition. For the sake of argument, our target is 100 feet (30 meters) away, just out of range of the average flame-thrower.


    [​IMG]
    Army War Show November 27, 1942.

    The Garand, with its muzzle velocity of 2,800 feet (853 meters) and an effective range of around 1,500 feet (457 meters) should be able to hit our target easily enough and with some significant kinetic force.

    In relation to the type of flame-thrower to be used in our experiment, there were two different common versions: the American M2 from the Allied inventory, and the German Flammenwerfer 35.

    [​IMG]
    US Marine Private Kenneth R. Hoger with his pin-up decorated flame-thrower pack, off Iwo Jima, February 1945.

    M2 Flame-thrower (US- First introduced in 1943)
    • Weight: 68lbs
    • Effective Range: 65ft
    • Fuel Capacity: 4 Gallons
    The American M2 was a one-man flame-thrower consisting of two cylindrical fuel tanks containing gasoline.

    On top was a smaller tank that was pressurized and contained non-flammable nitrogen gas or air. A hose connected the nitrogen/air tank to the fuel cylinders. A longer hose led to a nozzle with an ignition system and trigger, used by the operator to fire the weapon.

    [​IMG]
    A soldier from the 33rd Infantry Division uses an M2 flame-thrower

    Flammenwerfer 35 (German- Introduced in 1935)
    • Weight: 79lbs
    • Effective Range: 80ft
    • Gallon: 3 Gallons
    [​IMG]
    German soldiers with Flammenwerfen 38 in Stalingrad, Soviet Union. Photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-083-3371-11 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

    The FmW 35 was a one-man German portable flame-thrower. It consisted of a single cylindrical fuel tank containing three gallons of gasoline and tar mix, with a hose and trigger operated nozzle.

    Piggybacked to the fuel tank was the nitrogen propellant in a small pressurized tank. It was significantly heavier than its counterparts, being 11lbs heavier than the American M2 and 22Ilbs heavier than the Japanese Type 93.

    So it had the same basic layout as the American M2 flame-thrower. The propellant was fed into the fuel tanks then the pressurized mixture was forced through a heavy duty hose to an ignition built into a nozzle.

    The operator could then aim at a target and activate the weapon with the trigger.

    [​IMG]
    Riflemen lead the way as flame-throwing Marines of the Fifth Division, crouched with the weight of their weapons, move up to work on a concentration of Japanese pillboxes. Photo: USMC

    Conclusion:

    So we have established that the two weapons are sufficiently similar that being hit by a bullet would have the same outcome.

    If the Garand bullet hit the fuel tanks, it might not necessarily penetrate the thick metal wall of the cylinder. But if it did punch a hole through it, the most likely result would just be fuel leaking out.

    Since there is no ignition event, there would be no explosion.

    Although a bullet might be very hot for a few moments after it is fired (due to the friction and the explosion that propelled it in the first place), its temperature would be far too low to ignite anything.

    [​IMG]
    John Garand points out features of the M1 to army generals.

    And in the very unlikely event of the bullet causing a spark as it ruptured the metallic fuel tank, that the spark might not be sufficient to reach the spontaneous ignition point of gasoline which is just over 530 Degrees Fahrenheit (which is around 80 Degrees Fahrenheit higher than paper).

    Of course, if the weapon did by chance explode, it would do so with devastating effect, especially if the tanks were full of gasoline. The most likely outcome is that it would kill or seriously injure the flame-thrower operator.

    [​IMG]
    Resistance fighter armed with a flame-thrower, August 22, 1944.

    But the real danger was from the nitrogen pressurized tank. Though nitrogen is non-combustible, if the tanks were penetrated it would explode much like an aerosol can.

    The force of the explosion and the ensuing shrapnel could easily kill the operator of the flame-thrower.

    Of course, the real game changer would be if our Garand-armed shooter was using armor-piercing incendiary rounds such as the .30-06 Springfield M14 cartridge.

    [​IMG]
    German Soldier with flame-thrower, somewhere in Russia, 1941.

    This would result in it easily penetrating any of the tanks and would almost certainly ignite the gasoline as the cartridge is designed to be used against lightly-armored, flammable targets.

    So the answer to the question is that it is possible but difficult to cause a flame-thrower to explode using small-arms fire unless you have a lot of luck or special ammunition.

    [​IMG]
    U.S. Troops using flame-throwers to clear brush.

    But the real danger to the flame-thrower operator was that he had to get within a relatively short range of his target to use his weapon, giving the opposition ample time to shoot at him first.

    What made operators even more vulnerable was that they were slow-moving targets and had to stand up to use their weapon. Operators also found it more difficult to utilise cover due to the nature of the weapon.

    [​IMG]
    Marines Clear Japanese Cave with flame-thrower on Okinawa.

    However, in the right situation, flame-throwers could be devastatingly effective and psychologically terrifying, often clearing bunkers that seemed only moments before to be totally impregnable.

    And it is worth noting that flame-thrower operators were hated so much by all sides that they were rarely ever taken prisoner.

    Source: Good Question: Did Flamethrowers From WW2 Explode When Shot?
     
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  2. PzJgr

    PzJgr Drill Instructor

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    Um I posted this in the incorrect place. Admin would you please move to appropriate place. Thank you
     
  3. KodiakBeer

    KodiakBeer Member

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    A 30.06, or any of the rounds from main battle rifles in WWII, would penetrate those tanks at just about any range. I know this from fooling around with various metal 'gong' targets. You need specially hardened steel targets for rifles, and that steel is extremely thick and heavy. Even the steel pistol targets will be perforated like a tin can should you be unwise enough to shoot it with your rifle. If you tried to make a couple of flamethrower tanks of metal hard enough to withstand a FMJ spitzer from a battle rifle it would weigh far more than 86 pounds. My 12 inch metal rifle 'gong' weighs about 30 pounds. You'd need 5 or 6 times that much metal for those tanks.
    Otherwise, very interesting.

    .
     
  4. von Poop

    von Poop Waspish WW2|ORG Editor

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    Feeling lucky?

    If you want to release ten kilos of pressurised 'sticky' petrol onto a battlefield, using bullets, & be standing near it, then I don't want to stand near you...
    It's not just bullets, either. Grenades & artillery creating white hot shards, and fire in general hardly being uncommon. Lots of smokers back then too...

    I do know that Brian ('Sapper' here - Landed at sword with the RE) claims they buried all their 'doughnut' flamethrowers very soon after landing.

    While the subject of igniting fuel with smallarms is interesting (there were extensive British tests to see if external fuel tanks could be ignited on, I think, a Centurion, & they couldn't IIRC. The interior was also fine once the tanks were artificially ignited. Sadly the Bovington article on it is no longer online) & the Sovs have certainly got away with it on tanks for years, but the WHOL article seems predicated on a premise of proving 'a surprising thing', while avoiding certain aspects & underplaying that pressurised aspect.

    The article says 'fuel leak'. How big a cloud of ridiculously flammable gas does c.10kg of fuel create if released all at once? Is that 'a leak'.
    Does your Flamethrower have a 'pilot light', or is it electrically ignited?

    This pic's over-shared, but if you can light your fag off that mark of thrower - there's a flame.

    cig.jpg
     
  5. OpanaPointer

    OpanaPointer I Point at Opana Staff Member Patron   WW2|ORG Editor

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    [​IMG]
     
  6. gtblackwell

    gtblackwell Well-Known Member Patron  

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    I noticed the remark about the fuel being gasoline and tar, above, but the US model being just gasoline. I recall, somewhere, reading that flamethrowers use a fuel related to napalm. something, to me anyway, says the fuel was some mixture and not straight gasoline. Does anyone know?
     
  7. von Poop

    von Poop Waspish WW2|ORG Editor

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    Had the same thought earlier & stumbled onto this:

    flamethrower fuel.png

    I'd feel a lot happier with the engine oils on my back.
     
  8. gtblackwell

    gtblackwell Well-Known Member Patron  

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    Thanks for the report! I thought it appeared thicker. I used to wash car parts in gasoline and it seems it would drip too much for a flame thrower. I agree, that German light oil sounds better! :) I would hate to have the privilege of carrying one!
     
  9. OpanaPointer

    OpanaPointer I Point at Opana Staff Member Patron   WW2|ORG Editor

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    Has anyone else read that German flamenwerfer operators were listed as, say, engineers in their papers? This was, IIRC, because the Soviets had a practice of executing flamethrower operators in an unimaginative manner.
     
  10. RichTO90

    RichTO90 Well-Known Member

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    They were engineers, Pioniere, which is why it said so in their papers. German flamenwerfer were operated by Pioniere, except for the Flammpanzer, which were part of the Panzertruppen. In U.S. Army service they were serviced and issued by the Chemical Service, but were an item of issue to the combat and combat support arms as required, usually Infantry or Engineers, but also Armor, who actually operated them. I believe British service was the similar.
     
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  11. Terry D

    Terry D Active Member

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    In NWE the British greatly preferred vehicle-mounted flamethrowers (Crocodile & Wasp) to the man pack type. A flamethrower behind armor could certainly operate in greater safety, which may be part of the reason for the preference. Manpack flamethrowers were I think standard in the demolitions squads of late war USMC rifle companies, but the Marines also put a lot of effort into rigging Shermans as flame tanks.

    The key phrase is: "Of course, if the weapon did by chance explode, it would do so with devastating effect, especially if the tanks were full of gasoline. The most likely outcome is that it would kill or seriously injure the flame-thrower operator."

    Evidently the Royal Engineers didn't want to take that chance, and the Marines doubtless felt the same way.
     
  12. OpanaPointer

    OpanaPointer I Point at Opana Staff Member Patron   WW2|ORG Editor

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    The "fire-breathing dragons" on Iwo were certainly important.
     
  13. von Poop

    von Poop Waspish WW2|ORG Editor

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    Hard to deny the flame focus turned to vehicle mounted.
    Whether or not the danger to the infantry versions was real, they still had to expose themselves as a rather popular target.

    There's an excellent series of three articles on US Army Flame Vehicles out there by one Cpt. John Rinquist.
    Sadly the original site they were on is now giving a security warning. (A US army site, no less...) and pressing on reveals the Pdfs have gone.
    Bit of digging & re-found/resized.
    Well worth a read:
     

    Attached Files:

  14. CAC

    CAC Ace of Spades

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    "Although a bullet might be very hot for a few moments after it is fired (due to the friction and the explosion that propelled it in the first place), its temperature would be far too low to ignite anything." - My understanding is that the bullet continues to heat up as the friction of the air is sufficient to keep raising the rounds temp...
    My question is that if it was effective, what has taken its place nowdays?
     
  15. OpanaPointer

    OpanaPointer I Point at Opana Staff Member Patron   WW2|ORG Editor

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    The security notice thing could mean their certificate has expired.
     
  16. Terry D

    Terry D Active Member

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    I have read credible accounts of flamethrower operators turning into human torches, just like in the movies. One such is Alistair Horne's description of the battle for Fort Vaux at Verdun in The Price of Glory. In The Chindit War, Shelford Bidwell cites another such incident in the Chindit assault on Mogaung. It did happen.
     
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  17. Carronade

    Carronade Ace Patron  

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    One replacement was the M202 rocket launcher, firing a rocket containing an incendiary compound. I saw it demonstrated by Marines while on NROTC summer training.

    M202 FLASH - Wikipedia
     
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  18. KodiakBeer

    KodiakBeer Member

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    The flamethrower, when in actual combat use, has a flame at the muzzle and any pressurized gasoline spewing out under pressure in all directions would certainly get ignited by that. If not in actual use, then it becomes a matter of chance whether something in the immediate area ignites it, and it most cases that wouldn't happen. I don't think a bullet would do it or real life would be like a bad Hollywood movie where every vehicle explodes when shot by a cop or soldier.

    .
     
  19. OpanaPointer

    OpanaPointer I Point at Opana Staff Member Patron   WW2|ORG Editor

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  20. CAC

    CAC Ace of Spades

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    I remember a Mythbusters episode where they tried putting stacks of different rounds through a car’s fuel tank in an attempt to blow it up or ignite it...no luck.
     

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