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DateOriginal Topic
1st April 2004Rockets
By Neil Aspinshaw
I dont know why but I found myself watching the open university last night (probably stung into life by Julians qualification 9-0 victory to mine ha ha anyway I digress).
There was a programme trying out the military value of a Congreave's Rocket, which would have been very similar to those used at Isandlwana.
I read that they were more danger to the firer than the intended victim.
After 3 attempts, the first burned out on the trough (presumably to explode on its firer.) in a cloud of smoke.
The second barely left the trough, again to blow up on its firer.
The third shot off emitting clouds of sparks and shrieking, but just went off in a direction that it felt like. It can be supposed that the Rocket battery at Isandlwana had similar experiences, and now I am convinced that as a viable weopon that the rocket was a hinderance, rather than help.
Do any of the contributors know if these contraptions had been used before or during the campaign and if the results were any better?

1st April 2004Peter Ewart

Instability certainly seems to be the word. A year or so after the battle, one of these rockets lying in the grass (presumably where Russell had been overrun under the notch) apparently became ignited during a grass fire (probably the annual stubble-burning) and whizzed and zoomed off with a terrible racket, frightening all the local Zulu out of their skins.

Having survived its time in the grass, I suppose it simply behaved as it would have done had it been deliberately fired.

2nd April 2004John Young

The rocket system used in Anglo-Zulu War was invented by William Hale. Hale's system superceded the system invented by Sir William Congreave, which had been in use in the British Army from the early 1800's. One nation still sings about Congreave's rockets in their national anthem.

The Hale's system depending on a rotating device on the end of the rocket for its stability in flight, as opposed to Congreave's which used a stick. Shades of the 5th of November.

The Hale's rockets came in two sizes - the 9-pounder, which was fired from a trough, and the 24-pounder which was fired from a tube.

Hale's rockets first saw active service in the Asante campaign of 1874. They were first used in South Africa in the 9th Cape Frontier War.

As well as their use at Isandlwana, Hale's rockets were used at Nyezane, Gingindlovu & Ulundi. There was also a static 24-pounder tube deployed at Fort Pearson. There were also rocket parties present at Hlobane.

The 24-pounder tubes were used by the Royal Navy, when used ashore they were mounted on a tripod, but onboard ship there appear to have been firing positions on the hand-rail. If anything I would say that 'Jack Tar' was more use to the rocket than 'Percy Pongo', they were used in firing lines between ships etc.

The rocket was seen as a psychological weapon against "uncivilised races", and judging by Peter's comment it seems to have had that desired effect.

John Y.
2nd April 2004Peter Ewart
Neil & John

It seems that its effect was intended all along as purely psychological rather than physical, then. Poor Russell. Wonder what he thought at the critical moment: "If the psychology works, we'll be OK - if it doesn't ..."

The object which went off in 1880 was described by the witnesses as "a huge rocket which had been dropped by the rocket battery when that unit was cut to pieces by the Zulus ... caught fire from some burning grass, and came with a swoop and a roar right into the little camp."

This was into the group just gathering as the Sunday congregation, outside the grass hut school-church/store-room - virtually all that was there at that time. "The service was completely disorganised. The scanty congregation could be seen making its rapid way towards the far horizon [as] the missionary and his wife poured water on the resulting fire."

I've attempted to date this incident but not very exactly. It was undoubtedly during the first months of occupation on the site and during the same year as (and possibly just before) the visit of Empress Eugenie, Wood and their entourage, who camped within a mile of the mission overnight (4th,5th & 6th June?) & were provided with milk by the missionaries.

The grass fires were usually set off during mid-August onwards (someone correct me if wrong) as winter eased off, so it may have been after the pilgrimage and not before, but it certainly seems the rocket survived intact for about a year and a half.

Unless some local men or boys had messed around or played with it at some time (quite likely I suppose) it must have zoomed quite a distance to disturb the group, who were around NE or NNE of the old camp.

Had it hurt someone, I suppose they'd have been the last casualty of the battle! (Many bones and lots of junk and clothing still littered acres of the ground all around).

Much of the above taken from AW Lee's "Charles Johnson of Zululand." He doesn't quote his exact source but I'm pretty sure it is from Margaret Johnson's diary, which is in private family hands with a copy at Wits.

2nd April 2004Julian whybra
A bit of a damp squib really eh?
2nd April 2004Peter Ewart
Yes, but just a little a bit bigger than those squibs we used to chuck about during the weeks before the "fifth"!!!

5th April 2004Bill Cainan
Following on from John's comments of the 2nd, I would refer those interested to read the "Treatise on Ammunition - corrected up to December 1977" - this has recently been reprinted as a joint venture between the Naval & Military Press and the Imperial War Museum. It has a lot of interesting detail on both the 9pdr and 24pdr Hale's Rockets.

The Reports on Ammunition following the expedition to the Gold Coast had the following to say about the 9pdr Hale's Rockets used in the campaign: " .... their precision could not be compared to guns, yet owing to their portability and moral effect .... (I) would not be inclined to advocate their disuse". The RMA observer recommended that "they should be made explosive". The difficulties of transportation and dry storage of the rockets also came in for commentt.

It was perhaps unfortunate that the recommendation for explosive heads had not been acted on by 1879, as the Hale's Rockets then in service had neither shell or incendiary devices in their heads. Had they had such adjustments, their use in firing native villages would have been most useful. They were also considered useful ".... in seearching long grass where the natives used to be in ambush" - a favourite Zulu tactic.

The science of rocket warfare was subject to lengthy trials at the Shoeburyness Ranges and the various improvements in the rockets (the 9pdr went through seven Marks, and the 24pdr through six) testify to the seriousness in which they were held.

In the AZW their obvious advantage was that they could easily be transported (by mule) and could thus accompany mounted detachments - which is why Durnford's Column had a Rocket Battery. They were also fairly easy to use and could be manned by infantrymen under RA supervision.

The fact that they had little recorded success in the AZW was probably more the fault of their deployment rather than through any serious deficiency in their design (though explosive warheads would have been nice !).

As a Sapper, I am loath to defend anything used by the "long range snipers", but I do tend to think the "rocketeers" have had a bit of a bad press !


6th April 2004Neil Aspinshaw
Thank you chaps for another though provocking thread, as usual.
I had no idea that the Hale rocket had no warhead!, I suppose it was the equivalent of solid shot.
Bill's information is fascinating, it appears that the device was no more of an incendary peice either, or an offensive/defensive tool.

thanks again

12th April 2004John Young

I've been searching for a quote made by someone about a rocket exploding - I have at long last found it. Hence the belated response.

In his article published in Volume 4, Issue 4 of the South African Military History Journal, Major D.D. Hall stated that a rocket fired from a rocket tube 'exploded' on a target - full text of the article see:

I then checked the report alluded to by Major Hall, I could find no mention of the explosion of a rocket, this is what Campbell wrote:
'I particularly recommend Lieutenant Hamilton, whose company was in front during the action. Sub-Lieutenant Fraser also did good service in command of the Reserve, being under fire the whole time. Boatswain Cotter was most successful with the rockets I placed in his charge. Lieutenant Cragie, Gunnery Lieutenant, rendered valuable services as Acting Adjutant.'

Commodore Sullivan wrote of Boatswain Cotter:'Mr. Cotter, boatswain, also, as stated by Colonel Pearson in his despatch, 'contributed to the success of the day with the rockets under his charge.' He is an old and valuable officer, and did good service with the pontoons at the Tugela Drift. He also served in the trenches during the Crimean war before Sebastopol. I commend him to their Lordships' favourable consideration.'

What Pearson actually wrote was: 'The practice made by Lieutenant Lloyd's guns, and by the rockets of the Naval Brigade, directed by Mr. Cotter, boatswain of H.M.S. Active, was excellent, and no doubt contributed materially to the success of the day.'

I checked a number of recorded accounts in 'The Red Soldier' & 'The Red Book', none of these mention any 'explosion' of rockets. Bearing out Bill's comments, made above, about the lack of explosive heads in the Hale's rockets.

Now I'm searching for the reference which states that huts were set on fire by rockets, also in operations by the one of the coastal columns.

John Y.