Nothing brings out the worst in humanity like war. Perversely, war also seems to exert an opposite if not equal force that leads to massive outbursts of creativity, the likes of which are not generally seen during times of peace. With inhibitions relaxed and national goals to meet, or in some cases where the very survival of a people is at stake, we always seem to find new and clever ways to blow each other to smithereens.
The run-up to World War II was a time where almost every nation was caught on its heels, and the rapidity of events unfolding across Europe and in Asia demanded immediate and decisive response. As young men and women mobilized and made ready for war, teams of engineers, scientists, and inventors were pressed into service to develop the weapons that would support them. For the British, these “boffins” would team up under a directorate called Ministry of Defence 1, or MD1. Informally, they’d be known as “Churchill’s Toy Shop,” and the devices they came up with were deviously clever hacks.
MD1 and the Limpet Mine
The roots of MD1 stretch back at least to 1939. As Hitler’s forces swept across Eastern Europe, newly appointed First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill could see that his country was a sitting duck. With nothing to rely on but a stockpile of outdated weapons left over from The Great War, he began a frantic effort to gear up for the inevitable. With few resources and little time, he knew that this would require ingenuity.
Tasked with research that could develop weapons for irregular warfare, the Military Intelligence Research department of the War Office was commanded by Lt. Col. Joe Holland of the Royal Engineers, a corps of sappers, or demolition experts. Holland brought along Major Millis Jefferis, also a sapper, as his second in command. Together they would assemble the team that would morph in MD1, as well as actively invent and test weapons themselves.
One of the earliest needs identified by MD1 was a mine that could be deployed against enemy shipping by special operations forces. Jefferis began thinking through the problems involved and decided that a powerful magnet would be used to stick an explosive charge to the hull of a ship below the waterline. The first job was to source magnets powerful enough to do the job, so he contacted Stuart Macrae, editor of a popular science magazine which had recently featured an article about magnets that seemed like they’d do the job. Macrae, a former sapper himself, already had a security clearance, which eased his integration into MD1. Originally a civilian contractor, Macrae quickly found himself back in uniform and a member of MD1 for the duration.
Macrae decided to contact an inventor acquaintance for help with the magnetic mine. Cecil Clarke, himself a sapper in World War I who never outgrew his enthusiasm for explosives, joined the team and threw himself into the work. With magnets procured, he and Macrae worked up a prototype casing for the mine using metal salad bowls from a five and dime store. They worked out a harness to allow the mine to be strapped to a very brave frogman, played with buoyancy using porridge as a substitute for the explosive, and practiced placing the mines in a local swimming pool, with a cooking griddle standing in for a ship’s hull. A spring-activated trigger was rigged with a slow dissolving ball of hard candy holding the plunger back, allowing the frogman time to get away. They dubbed the invention a limpet mine after its resemblance to the shellfish of the same name.
The limpet mine prototype was quickly engineered into a production device and farmed out for manufacture. With 4½ pounds (2 kg) of high explosive, limpets were used to sink 39,000 tons (35,800 tonnes) of shipping in Singapore harbor in 1943, and a smaller version dubbed The Clam was adapted for use against tanks on land.
The Sticky Bomb
Another nasty bit of hardware to spring from MD1 efforts was the sticky bomb, destined to be used against tanks and other armored vehicles. From his sapper days, Jefferis knew that spreading an explosive charge out over a broad area on armor plating would make it easier to rupture, so he set his team at the problem of building a powerful bomb that could be thrown against a surface, spread out evenly, and adhere firmly before detonation.
After Jefferis’ initial experiments with bicycle inner tubes filled with explosive and coated with glue proved fruitless, he turned the project over to Macrae. He realized that the grenade needed to be rigid when thrown but deform on impact, which he demonstrated with a lightbulb in a sock. These experiments eventually ended up with a glass sphere containing 1¼ pounds (½ kg) of nitroglycerine and wrapped in a fabric covering. The fabric was soaked in birdlime, a horrifically sticky substance made from boiled and fermented holly bush bark that was once used to trap nuisance birds. The sticky bomb was packaged in a shell with a handle to protect the adhesive and provide a means of tossing it.
The sticky bomb had flaws, including the tendency for its handle to fly back toward the thrower like a bullet when the bomb detonated. But it was still successful; produced in large numbers, it saw service in many of the theatres of the war, and was even provided to the French Resistance for guerrilla activities.
A Pencil for Hitler
The list of devious innovations that came from MD1’s workshops is substantial. Some were not offensive weapons per se; Clarke invented the “Great Eastern Ramp,” a bridging tool attached to a tank that used rockets to shoot ramps over obstacles. But almost everything that came from MD1 was designed to blow up, or to trigger something to blow up. The time pencil was a self-contained timer and detonator for larger charges, using either the action of acid on metal or the deformation of a lead alloy under spring tension as the delay mechanism. A time pencil was used in the plot to assassinate Hitler in 1944; it operated as expected, but Hitler was shielded from the brunt of the explosion and survived.
The lethal hacks from the fertile minds of Ministry of Defence 1 became products that were manufactured in the millions, and the lives taken by their explosions are probably uncountable. The grim playthings from Churchill’s Toy Shop and its equivalents on all sides of the war were engineering solutions to the awful problems presented by total war. Our hope is that now and in the future we can unlock the kinds of research and development leaps shown during these times to solve the world’s problems without having armed conflict as the motivation.