Panjandrum: A Wacky WW2-Era Failed Weapon

Jul 5, 2024 0 comments

In 1941, the Government of the United Kingdom established a temporary wartime body called the Department of Miscellaneous Weapons Development (DMWD) to find new and unconventional ways to kill the enemy. Efforts from this department led to such useful inventions such as the Hedgehog anti-submarine weapon and Squid anti-submarine mortar, as well as the Holman Projector—an anti-aircraft rocket battery—and a system of degaussing used to protect ships against magnetic mines. It also led to the invention of the bouncing bomb that could skip across water to avoid torpedo nets and was used in the very successful Dambusters Raid of 1943. Above all, it played an important role in developing parts of the Mulberry harbour used in the D-Day landings.

The Great Panjandrum at Westward Ho!

Despite these successes, not all of the DMWD's projects were fruitful. An attempt to conceal the River Thames from German bombers by covering it with soot failed due to the effects of wind and tides, although it did cause some confusion when the coal-covered waters were mistaken for tarmac during blackouts. The most disastrous project, however, was the Panjandrum.

With a name inspired by a character in a nonsensical piece of prose from the 18th-century British dramatist Samuel Foote, the Great Panjandrum was doomed from inception. Constructed as a pair of large wheels, each approximately 10 feet in diameter, it featured a central steel drum carrying over a ton of explosives. Around the rims of the wheels were cordite rocket charges designed to spin the entire device, propelling it towards the concrete beach defenses along the French coast with the intent of creating a substantial breach. The designers estimated that a fully loaded, 1,800-kg Panjandrum could reach speeds of around 60 mph (100 km/h), with enough momentum to crash through any obstacles between its launch point and target.

In late 1943, a prototype of the Panjandrum was constructed in London and secretly transported by night to a small village called Westward Ho! on the southern coast. However, the choice of testing ground proved poor. Westward Ho! was a popular seaside resort, and on the morning of 7 September 1943, when the device was rolled onto the beach, it was teeming with beachgoers. Local residents and holidaymakers crowded around the device with bemused interest.

Trials began with only a handful of cordite rockets attached to the wheels, and the payload was simulated by an equivalent weight of sand. The rockets were ignited, and the Panjandrum catapulted itself forward, out of the landing craft used as a launchpad, and a fair distance up the beach. However, a number of rockets on one of the wheels failed, causing the weapon to careen off course. Despite several further attempts with more rockets, the Panjandrum consistently lost control before reaching the end of the beach.

To solve the stability problem, project lead Nevil Shute Norway fitted a third wheel to the Panjandrum. Upon launch, the device hurtled towards the coast, skimming the beach before turning back out to sea. Rockets detached and whipped wildly above the heads of the gathered audience or exploded underwater. Further trials were arranged, this time removing the third wheel and attaching heavy cables to each end of the hub, secured to two winches, in hopes of steering the contraption safely up the beach. However, the Panjandrum proved too powerful, snapping the cables and whipping them back across the beach.

By then it had become obvious that the Panjandrum was highly impractical, but the Directorate pressed on, and after tinkering on it for a few more weeks the engineers readied a supposedly improved version. In January 1944, a number of senior government officials and several senior members of the Armed Forces were invited for a high-profile test run.

Brian Johnson describes how the test went in the 1977 BBC documentary The Secret War:

At first all went well. Panjandrum rolled into the sea and began to head for the shore, the Brass Hats watching through binoculars from the top of a pebble ridge [...] Then a clamp gave: first one, then two more rockets broke free: Panjandrum began to lurch ominously. It hit a line of small craters in the sand and began to turn to starboard, careering towards Klemantaski, who, viewing events through a telescopic lens, misjudged the distance and continued filming. Hearing the approaching roar he looked up from his viewfinder to see Panjandrum, shedding live rockets in all directions, heading straight for him. As he ran for his life, he glimpsed the assembled admirals and generals diving for cover behind the pebble ridge into barbed-wire entanglements. Panjandrum was now heading back to the sea but crashed on to the sand where it disintegrated in violent explosions, rockets tearing across the beach at great speed.

After this pathetic exhibition, the project was finally scrapped. The only time the Panjandrum ran with some success was in 2009, when a 6-feet replica of the futile weapon was constructed. It was deployed on the same Westward Ho! beach, and after going straight for about 50 meters, mostly moving at walking pace, the rockets fizzled out a good 450 meters short of the hoped for distance.


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