Hacking when it Counts: GI Ingenuity

For most of us, hacking is a hobby, a pleasant diversion from reality. Yes, a lot of us work on projects which have the potential to change the world – witness the 2015 Hackaday Prize semifinalist list. But in general, almost any of us could walk away from the shop at any time without dire consequences. Indeed, that’s the reason a lot of our work benches are littered with projects started with the best of intentions but left unfinished for lack of funds, lack of interest, or lack of time. We’re free to more or less willingly shelve a project and come back to it whenever we please, or not at all.

But not everyone has that luxury. For some people, hacking is much more than a hobby – it’s a means of survival. Sometimes people are thrown into situations where they have to cobble together a solution to an immediate problem with whatever is at hand, when the penalty for failure is much higher than a cluttered bench and a bruised ego. I’ve already covered one such case, where biohacked insulin saved hundreds of lives in occupied Shanghai in WWII.

In this occasional series I’ll explore historical cases where hacking really counted; cases where lives were saved or improved by a hack performed under desperate conditions.

A Bustle in the Hedgerow

Unsurprisingly, war offers a lot of opportunities for field expedient solutions under dire circumstances, and battlefield conditions might be the most extreme example of hacking when it counts.

In the early days of the Invasion of Normandy during WWII, Allied forces were having a difficult time dealing with the bocage terrain of northern France. A mixture of pasture and woodland, the Normandy bocage was a natural killing field for Allied tanks because the woodlands took the form of hedgerows – earthen dikes topped with thick tangles of brush. Hedgerows separated pastures and kept livestock controlled, but also made things tough on infantry and mechanized cavalry alike. Climbing the steep hedgerows exposed the vulnerable bottom hull of the tanks to enemy fire, and waiting for engineers to demolish the hedgerows with explosive made them sitting ducks for German artillery. The Allied advance was seriously hampered by the hedgerows, and both men and materiel were being winnowed down from fixed German positions chosen specifically to take advantage of the bocage terrain.

curtis cullin
Sgt. Curtis G. Culin (source: Cranford (NJ) Patch)

Enter Sgt. Curtis Grubb Culin III. Sgt. Culin, a tanker himself, was acutely aware of how vulnerable he was in his Sherman M4. The hedgerows were the problem, one apparently known to Allied command prior to the invasion for which no provision had been made. In the tradition of soldiers at the front of every battle throughout history, Sgt. Culin and his fellow tankers had to improvise a solution.

While kicking around ideas, one of the men suggested setting saw teeth on the front of a tank to cut through the hedgerows. He later attributed the comment to “A Tennessee hillbilly named Roberts”, and it was met with general laughter from the group as a crackpot scheme. But Sgt. Culin saw the potential in the idea, and began to develop it into a prototype.

Yanks_of_60th_Infantry_Regiment_advance_into_a_Belgian_town_under_the_protection_of_a_heavy_tank._-_NARA_-_531213
Rhino-equipped tank (source: Wikipedia)

Raw materials for his prototype were not hard to come by. Czech hedgehogs, giant anti-tank barriers made of crossed steel beams, still littered the Normandy beaches. The failed German defenses were harvested with a cutting torch and welded to the underside of a tank to form a series of “tusks” across the hull between the tracks. Equipped with these tusks, the tank could now blast through the tangled roots of the brush-covered earth of the hedgerow dykes.

When demonstrated for General Omar Bradley, he was impressed enough to order them built in quantity for the tanks. Eventually the prototype became an engineered product (dubbed the “Culin Rhino Device”) that was fitted to many tanks before being shipped over from England. Rhino-equipped tanks ripped across Normandy and shredded the German battle plan, which assumed the hedgerows would funnel Allied forces through heavily defended chokepoints.

Without Sgt. Culin’s battlefield hack, and his inspiration by a hillbilly named Roberts whom history otherwise forgets, the invasion of Europe might have taken a very different course. The fact that he did the hack while under fire makes it all the more impressive, and is a perfect example of hacking when it counts.

Know of any more examples of hacking when it counts? Send us a tip for use in a future Hacking When it Counts article.

[Main image of Czech Hedgehog by Jesse CC-BY-SA 3.0]

59 thoughts on “Hacking when it Counts: GI Ingenuity

  1. For some reason, The pentagon sent 3d printers to the main bases in Afghanistan during the US offensive there…
    Sometimes a small adapter can make the diference between life and death. And nobody better than those that are on the problem to solve it, while “the experts” would still be trying to understand what was happening on the field …

    1. Yeah, we were using the newest iteration of Rhinos in IRQ and AFG to set off PIR IEDs. They waited until an engine heat sig was in front of them to go off, so we stuck a glow plug in a metal box in front of us. Set off the bombs before we were in front of them.

    2. Interesting to hear the attackers use PIR activated bombs, showing that they have their share of hackers too.
      Mind you I’d certainly power it up from a distance, you never know with PIR when it goes off, so I wonder how many, if any, died developing that.

  2. When I was a kid, the Rabbi that taught Hebrew was from Israel. He’d done his military service as a mechanic during the ’73 war on a base that flew unarmed scout helicopters. As enemy tanks approached, they were ordered “Stop or at least delay the tank column at all costs. ”
    They had 2 guys with rifles, a scout helicopter, and a junkyard/landfill to work with.
    One of the mechanics got the idea of cutting valve stems out of inner tubes, gluing them inside the neck of glass coke bottles, then pressurizing them.
    They used the helo to put the 2 riflemen on hill tops on either side of the valley the tank scouts were going to be coming down. Then the helo flew over the lead tanks, and dropped the coke bottles.
    He said the sound of the glass breaking and the air exploding out was “like an a-bomb going off”, and the glass went everywhere… pinging on the hull of the tank, doing no damage at all.
    But the tank would stop, as the crew wondered, “WTF?”
    The helo would fly off…. and the tankers would become increasingly curious about what damage the tank took until they got out to inspect.
    At which point the riflemen opened fire.

    1. Back in the late 1970’s, the Israelis learned the hard way that they had to modify their US-built tanks.
      They isolated/removed? the hydraulic lines inside the crew compartment, because a pierced hydraulic hose
      spewing hot oil on the occupants after a shaped charge pierced the compartment was detrimental to operational readiness.

      1. No, this is an urban legend that promotes how much smarter the Israelis supposedly are over the dumb Americans. When a shape charged warhead penetrates the turret armor, the crew has to worry not about hydraulic fluid spewing out but the flaming hot jet of molten metal coming into the compartment hitting them-NOMEX coveralls are not going to save you. IF by a miracle you avoid being set on fire by this jet of hot metal, sitting in the turret of 1970s tanks were the ready rounds on the loading tray for the main gun, they get hit and then you will have a total incineration of the crew. EVEN THEN IF that doesn’t happen and you are still “mechanically operational” you are going to have such a whiplash and headache that your combat effectiveness is going to be zero for quite awhile-movies not withstanding. Just imagine having your head in a bell when it is struck. This is what it is like to be in a tank turret when it is hit by a non-penetrating round. 11th ACR “BLACKHORSE!”

        1. Well, you have to give Israelis some credit – for placing the engine in front of the crew compartment, not behind like in every(?) tank before Merkava. This protects the crew quite well. Merkava also has a mortar and even a compartment for soldier transport, I believe. So … combat experience against technically more or less equal opponent matters.

          1. russian bmp-series APC:s have engine in front and the AP mortar is actually a nazi invention (“nahverteidigungswaffe” atleast in king tigers) , but israelis are excellent in combining ideas into a working real world solution

        2. I had heard the IDF ordered their tank turrets changed to electric operation from hydraulic, just for the odd few times an otherwise survivable accident caused red-hot hydraulic fluid to spray everywhere, spraying away flesh like a firehose.

          The idea was the expense of saving just a few lives is justified for the IDF, since they have a shortage of soldiers to put in the tanks, conscripting from a small population for a never-ending war. The Arab nations surrounding them have plenty of people with nothing much to lose but little money, so they use the low-tech method of human-delivered bombs.

      1. I wonder if they’ve learned from that, do the ISS / Shuttle / whatever use interchangable LiOH cartridges now?

        The oxygen-generating candles they sometimes had to rely on on Mir are pretty amazing too. A candle, that generates oxygen, yet doesn’t blow up!

  3. the ANZAC troops had some great hacks in WW1, after the beach landings at Gallipoli stalled and turned into trench warfare the Australian and New Zealand troops “made do” with what was at hand.

    https://www.awm.gov.au/blog/2013/12/12/anzac-voices-improvisation-gallipoli/

    – Jam tin bombs, basically grenades made just behind the front lines
    – periscopes for looking over the edge of trenches made from whatever shiny metal was at hand, shaving mirrors, mirrors from landing craft and ships
    – periscope rifle sights
    – the drip rifle, a set up to time delay trigger rifles so the Turks thought trenches were still occupied, which hid the “secret retreat”

    One British general said “As long as the Australians have some wire and other bits and pieces they can keep things repaired and running”

    In WW2 the German siege of Tobruk was basically one big hack, using “unconventional tactics”, captured and modified weapons.

    Pretty much any theatre of war Australians have entered has turning into a “hackathon”, Korea, Vietnam, the middle east, Afghanistan.

    I think it comes from living in a country that is so damn big, where once you leave the coast, towns and services are so far apart you really learn to “make do” with what’s at hand.

  4. I’m a descendant of hackers. My grandfather was a machinist on a US destroyer escort in WWII. The ship was running out of fuel and the only refueling ship close by was not US and had different fittings. Grampa took a hollowed-out shell to the shop and hacked an adapter out of it. Wasn’t under fire, but still earned him a medal.

    1. My uncle served on two subs during WW2 (Cuttlefish, then Toro) He had similar experiences, once he had to fix some gear while under fire, so they could dive. He rarely spoke of his experience though. After the war he was a maintenance engineer, and was one of the reasons I went into engineering.

      1. @Steven-X
        My granddad is the same way. He surely has stories, but he *never* talks about the war. It’s totally understandable, but it still makes me a little sad that all those memories will die with him (like tears in rain).

  5. During WW2 Britain was a floating island of oil. Just no one was able to get it out fast enough, so they brought in some Texas oil men. They looked at what the Brits were doing and laughed. The Brits were trying to save their drill bits, so when they would stop drilling and change the bits with a new one so they could repair it. Obviously this took days. The Texans showed up and they drilled until the bit was destroyed, and then threw it away, and put in a new one. It wasn’t long before the UK had oil rigs everywhere, and just in time to supply the war effort. http://www.amazon.com/The-Secret-Sherwood-Forest-Production/dp/080613433X

    1. we it would be silly to trip a string every 30 feet to change out a bit that doesn’t need turns out the Oklahoman crews. Turn out the American would use bit until it stopped “making hole” to destroy( that’s still SOP) and throw something that could be recondition in country would be stupid during war time. Appear that weeks was use to compare how long it was taking the British to drill a well as compared the American crew taking a week. Although shallow and found this is a relative term, I’m surprised to read it taken the Americans a week to punch down a well, unless that include rig move time. I was unare of this story unto I read your comment. Because your recollections from the book didn’t sound API I looked into it and discovered this web content http://aoghs.org/editors-picks/roughnecks-of-sherwood-forest/ on the subject

  6. Probably one of the biggest hacks ever was the ‘Second Paris’ built towards end of First World War to fool German bomber into bombing a field instead of Paris.
    Then probably the second biggest hack was Operation Fortitude. This was to fool the Germans into thinking the invasion was coming from elsewhere in not Normandy Beach.
    On the smaller scales and back to the tanks was the DD Tank or floating tank, the Sherman flail tank, mat layer. All part of Hobarts Funnies.
    I left out the interesting parts so you can do your own research.

    1. This. The Allies had a credible answer to this problem before the invasion, but the American general chose not to utilize them, for which they were critisized for.
      Hobarts funnies had specialized tanks for barbed wire entanglement clearing (the onion and double onions), mine clearing (the crab), centaur and d7 amoured bulldozers, the AVRE with fascine or the Churchil Ark for ditch bridging on the fly etc. All designed to deal with not being ducted into a killing zone by the German defences.
      Very innovative thinking went into the 79th, a bit TOO innovative for quite a few people’s tastes.
      Worth a read up, fascinating insite into the thinking of the british army and its reluctance to change at the build up period too.

    2. It’s funny how so long after WW2 everybody here (more specifically english language speakers) are only familiar with the western allied hacks, but I know for sure the germans also had their shares of hacks, and I assume the italians and japs had too.

      .

    1. In case anyone else has trouble getting the provide link to load up, that episode can be seen here. Might be on the PBS or NOVA YouTube channels as well. I seen this when it was first broadcast.

    2. The bouncing bomb exploit was a one off. However equally important was his development of the huge Tallboy and Grand Slam bombs capable of penetrating metres of concrete or underground bunkers

    3. I dunno that it was a hack, took TONS of maths and simulations in tiny scale-models of the dam. Lots and lots of difficult research, and specially-made equipment. Opposite of a hack really. Still a work of genius, though.

  7. Look like tank with a hair clipper catchment to give the jolly green giant a trim.One that would tug at his scalp like mother. I would think that the operation of this would create an activity the Germans would have notice and learned to train their guns at that location for when the allied tank broke through. Evidently not. Be great to see some close up video of it and it in action.

  8. There were a thousand hacks during WW2, R V Jones’ book Most Secret War is packed full of them:

    During the British defense of Malta, the Germans jammed the British radar on the island. The British signals organization on Malta asked the Air Ministry what to do, and the ministry contacted Jones:

    I knew that the Germans judged the success of their jamming by listening to our radar transmissions to see whether, for example, they ceased to scan, as well they might well do if they could not be used. I therefore signalled Malta to go on scanning as though everything were normal and not to give any kind of clue that they were in difficulty. After a few days the Germans switched their jammers off.

    Also worth looking at the CIA Technical Aids book “Spycraft”, they came up with some amazing stuff that could be considered hacks.

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