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Munitions Manufacture in WW2 - Part 1 : 'Rocket Heads'
(Click on each photo for an enlarged image.)
(And if you wish to skip the iterative process by which we learned what these objects really are; read the STOP PRESS at the end of this page.)
In the village of Kingham, not far from where Jeanne Preston lived,
was a firm of agricultural engineers called Lainchbury and Sons.
It was well known for the elevators it made for use in building ricks
in the days before combine harvesters.
During World War Two, its management decided to start producing munitions alongside
its more traditional agricultural products.
Many local women and others evacuated to the area were employed on two shifts to machine a variety of parts
for ordnance of various kinds.
People were brought in from outlying villages by car and bus.
Among them were two young ladies who lived next door to Jeanne Preston.
The works used to be a magnet for some of the local American soldiery
who came in to watch the girls at their lathes, until there were too many
and the boss chased them out.
On view in the Chipping Norton Museum is a large model of an elevator by Roberts,
a company that Lainchburys took over.
Less prominently displayed are a couple of items of munitions made there
called 'rocket heads', the name they were known by in the works.
The cylindrical steel component was the part machined at Kingham but it was cast
at the Hub Ironworks in Chipping Norton.
This foundry is also featured in the 'Chippy' museum along with examples
of their products.
Before the war, Hub used to make the finger-posts giving place name directions
at road junctions.
When war was declared, these were deemed of possible use to an invading enemy
and were all removed.
Consequently, with this trade now gone, Hub diversified into munitions.
No doubt along with other workers at Lainchburys,
Win, one of Jeanne Preston's neighbours, spent hours machining these steel
rocket head components and would turn out a hundred or so in a day.
It was believed that the finished product was used on merchant ships
but little other information about them survives.
Probably later, after the war and perhaps back at Hub,
they were fitted with a brass nose cone and issued to Lainchburys' staff
as mementoes of their wartime service.
Whether brass was the original material for the nose cone is uncertain.
The brass cones polish up very well and, as they were intended for souvenirs,
this may have influenced the choice of material used after the war.
What material was used during the war has not been discovered.
The component as illustrated weighs 856g or 1 lb 14 and 1/4 ounces. The diameter of the steel part is 56mm or 2 and 3/16th inches. The overall length of the cone and steel base is 167mm or 6 and 9/16th inches. (I suspect there may have been more than one version and therefore some slight variation in the dimensions and weight. 52mm has been quoted as the diameter too.)
For a long time it remained unclear exactly what they were, and it was to be hoped that someone out there would be able to enlighten us.
My first guess had been that they were heads for two-inch (diameter) 'practice rockets'. The shape appears to match diagrams of the period. I had thought that the weight of steel in the head was to balance the rocket by simulating the weight of the explosive head in the live version. However, it seems that this was normally accomplished by simply substituting the explosive with an inert filling material of the same weight. But these nose cones seem hollow, with no possibility of their being explosive. So they remained perplexing.
I have investigated various WW2 era two-inch rockets
and the closest I've come is the two-inch rocket launched parachute flare.
Externally, the shape is extremely close but internally the one I've seen is different.
For this I'm indebted to Steve Johnson whose extensive knowledge of rockets
and some wonderful website photos have been of great help.
(Photo of 2 inch rockets, whole and sectioned
I have also seen a wartime photograph of a DeHaviland Mosquito aircraft with under-wing racks that appear to hold two-inch rockets. However, like the Hawker Typhoon, I believe they normally carried three-inch rockets. They had a variety of heads and most of them were explosive. But the archives at the RAF museum at Hendon hold drawings of three-inch air-launched parachute flare rockets, and these three-inch aircraft rockets have the same internal layout as the two-inch parachute flare I studied, suggesting that it, too, was air-launched. Both have the parachute folded up inside or below the hollow steel nose cone which separates and falls away from the parachute. Could it be that the naval two-inch parachute flare rockets were different? And we know our rocket heads were apparently destined for use at sea on merchant ships.
One possible marine use for these rockets would have been on DEMS - Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships - like those produced in Canada and similar to the American 'Liberty Ships'. On DEMS, rockets were housed in 'pillar boxes'. I had believed those ones had live explosive heads but now I'm not sure. Recently, a former Chief Gunner (RCN) who had served from 1940 to the end of the war on DEMS took a look at the photos of the rocket heads and immediately identified them as PAC (Parachute Aerial Canopy) flares. He said that there were at least two flare launchers on the DEMS, mounted on the port and starboard sides of the bridge. I'm not certain but I think the rocket flares may have been launched first to illuminate attacking aircraft and then other cable carrying rockets launched to deter or entrap these aircraft. The FAM (fast aerial mine) had mines attached to the cable but in appearance these are very different. Two inch rocket flares were also used on the Royal Navy's 'Flower' class corvettes and 'Captain' class frigates of WW2, but whether these were the same I've not yet discovered.
So, it seems we now have a greater understanding of what these rocket heads were and their purpose. But how did they work? My guess is that, once launched and with the head separated from the rocket body, the parachute would be deployed and the heavy nose would sink to hang below the open canopy by thin steel or other heat proof wires. There might have been an ignitable flare candle fitted into the steel part with the four holes, thus allowing the flames to burn through them and illuminate everything below and around. Being surface launched might suggest that a much smaller flare candle that burned for only a short period would be adequate while the longer duration burn from the larger candle in air launched rockets would be needed when fired from a high altitude. The additional weight of the steel section in our rocket head might also help it cope with winds and stop it being blown off target. But all this is conjecture on my part and so there remains an element of mystery; and one I'd like to solve. I know that still, after all these years since she regularly worked on them at her lathe, my friend Win would also like an answer to the puzzle.
STOP PRESS !
A recent foray into the Airfield Information Exchange web forum, while researching the US Kingham AAF ammunition depot, put me in touch with some very helpful guys. One of them, Paul, very kindly looked up our rocket head in a 1946 US Navy Ordnance Pamphlet of British explosive ordnance and identified this component as part of a target rocket. It was used by anti-aircraft artillery as an aiming mark for practice shooting.
This 'NAVORD OP 1665' document contains
which identify our component as the ballistic cap and weight of a MK1 target head on a two inch U.P. ('unrotating' projectile) Target Rocket. So it was indeed part of a rocket flare, but not of the parachute type. Our forward weight was joined to the rest of the head by the container holding the pyrotechnic. When separated from the tail propelling section, the flare ignited and emitted light from both ends; through the four holes in the head weight and the corresponding four holes in the steel part of the lower end of the target head. The whole head travelled at speeds of 250 to 400 knots and had a range of about 5000 yards. It could be used by both night and day and either ashore or aboard ship. The combined length of the rocket head and tail sections was 36 inches.
It's been a long haul but the puzzle is finally solved. Thanks to all who've helped en-route and especially to Paul.
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