Missiles and missile rocket technology is a mainstay in the modern military. In fact, most modern fighter aircraft have dispensed entirely with guns and typically are armed with various offensive and defensive rocket powered munitions. While we are all familiar with the Chinese invention of fireworks, it was actually the INDIANS who turned these interesting curiosities into lethal weapons as they fought the East India Company in the 1780’s.
Military rockets were first deployed by the Chinese in the 13th century. These early rockets, known as ‘fire arrows’, were similar to bottle rockets we use today in firework celebrations, only larger. A short tube was filled with gunpowder, closed at one end and attached to a long stick. When the powder was ignited, hot gases and smoke escaped out of the open end producing a thrust that carried the rocket across no man’s land and towards the enemy. As weapons of destruction, these flaming arrows didn’t have much impact, but the psychological scarring was remarkable. Rocketry also reached India via the Mongol Empire in India by the 13th century and this is where the rocket became a weapon that could be targeted lethal.
Hyder Ali, the 18th century ruler of Mysore, and his son and successor, Tipu Sultan began using exploding and sword tipped rockets against the British East India Company during the 1780s and 1790s. At the Battle of Pollilur (1780), during the Second Anglo-Mysore War, the East India Company’s Army ammunition stores were detonated by a hit from a barrage of rockets, contributing to a humiliating British defeat. Later, these ‘missiles’ were fitted with swords and traveled several meters through the air before coming down with edges facing the enemy generally breaking the well disciplines British line. Unlike cannon shot which is not visible until it hits the line, these rockets ascended to great height then fell upon the enemy like a rapidly moving bayonet charge from above. The result is terror and chaos and the soldiers of the East India Company began to call these rocket propelled swords “flying plagues”.
Unlike the Chinese who launched their rockets individually (often en mass but individually targeted), the Mysorean rocket corps were specially trained in the use of rockets and could quickly calculate the necessary angle of fire from the diameter of the cylinder and the distance to the target. These rockets also had ranges more than a kilometer allowing them to reach the army in locations they thought themselves safe.
The Indian rockets were constructed from hammered soft iron rockets so the bursting strength of the container of black powder was much higher than the Chinese paper and bamboo construction. This meant the Indian rockets flew higher, faster, and when they exploded, they were much more devastating.
These experiences eventually led the Royal Woolwich Arsenal to start a military rocket research and development program in 1801, based on the Mysorean technology. Captured rocket cases were collected from Mysore and sent to Britain for analysis. Their first demonstration of solid-fuel rockets came in 1805 and was followed by publication of A Concise Account of the Origin and Progress of the Rocket System in 1807 by William Congreve, son of the arsenal’s commandant. Congreve rockets were systematically used by the British during the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812. They were also used in the 1814 Battle of Baltimore, and are mentioned in The Star Spangled Banner, the national anthem of the United States: And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air.