“The Prince of Hades” introduced a terrifying new weapon to World War I battlefields.
The small groups of gray-clad soldiers dis- mounted from wagons on February 26, 1915, and trudged under cover of darkness across the shell-cratered battlefield, just behind the front at Malancourt, near Verdun, France. They lugged unfamiliar equipment: heavy iron tanks, apparatus, and hoses. Upon reaching the rear trench, they continued lumbering to the front lines through communication trenches. The men were members of an experimental unit called the Flammenwerfer-Abteilung Reddemann, and they were about to test a frightful new weapon, the Flammenwerfer, or flame thrower, for the first time in combat.
In this area of the front, the French trenches were only about 15 to 30 yards from the German forward trench—just within the 30-yard range of the heavy flamethrowers’ fire stream. Along a 750- yard section of the German trench, and at the ends of some saps (specially dug extensions toward the French line), the men quietly set up 10 large experimental Flammenwerfer with hand pumps, and two with gas projection. The operators then remained out of sight and waited for orders to attack.
At exactly 1200 hours, the Germans unleashed hissing streams of liquid fire, accompanied by great clouds of black smoke, on the unsuspecting French troops. In the first terrifying seconds, the streams of fire turned many French soldiers into gruesome flaming torches, and caused injured men to run, shrieking in agony, into dugouts and bunkers.
According to a German account, the surprise attack with this fearsome new weapon sent survivors fleeing head over heels to the rear in complete panic. Some terrified survivors immediately surrendered. A battalion of German troops charged forward and easily captured the French position, but since this was merely a test, no larger force was on hand to exploit the collapse of the forward defensive line. Even seasoned veterans were shocked by the results of the flame attack as they viewed the victims, still sizzling and smoldering in grotesque positions, and gagged at the nauseating stench.
The remarkable success of this test led to German assault troops immediately adopting the flamethrower as an important weapon. The apparatus required modifications, but soon two types, a heavy and a portable version, were placed in production. Allied authorities denounced the use of liquid fire as inhuman, and included it in their propaganda campaign against the barbaric “Hun.”
However, the Allies immediately ordered their troops to obtain one of the devices. When one was eventually captured, the French army produced a modified version, the Schilt, for its own use. The British followed in 1916. In the decades since, nearly every major army has employed some version of the flamethrower to kill, flush out, and terrorize enemies.
Humans have long used fire as an offensive and defensive weapon. Ancient cultures used torches and fire arrows; early armies, including those of Greece and Rome, used catapults and ballistas to hurl pots of burning pitch and oil over the walls of towns and fortresses. So-called Greek fire, which probably included naphtha as well as pitch and sulfur, was reportedly used to destroy the Saracen fleet that attacked Constantinople around 678 AD. The flaming concoction is said to have been discharged by using large bellows to shoot flames that set fire to the sails and wooden hulls of the enemy ships. Since ancient times and as recently as the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905, armies employed devices to squirt flaming liquid during sieges, though with limited success.
Richard Fiedler, a German pyrotechnics expert, is credited with the basic design of the modern flamethrower. He first proposed this radical new weapon to the German war ministry in 1900. He demonstrated a crude prototype in 1905 as a possible weapon for attacking fortresses in the event of another war with France.
In 1907 during army maneuvers at the fortress at Posen, Bernhard Reddemann, a reserve officer in an engineer company who also happened to be the local fire chief, was defending the fort in a mock battle. As a last resort, and to everyone’s surprise, he turned fire hoses on the attacking troops. When Kaiser Wilhelm II, who was observing the training exercise, inquired about the tactic, Reddemann explained that in a real battle he would have sprayed flaming oil on the attackers. The kaiser asked his staff if this would be possible and when he learned that, in theory, it could work, he arranged funding for experiments using fire to attack and defend fortresses.
Reddemann began by experimenting with flammable substances and devices for projecting flaming liquid. He determined that gasoline alone was too thin and required a thickening agent such as graded oil. The fuel developed included hydrocarbon, tar oil, and carbon disulfide. Reddemann did not meet Fiedler until just before the outbreak of war, but by 1914 the two had tested a practical flame – thrower prototype and formed a small experimental unit from 48 volunteers. Most, ironically, were professional firefighters. After the war began in August 1914, Germany sent the Flammenwerfer-Abteilung Reddemann, with several large prototype flamethrowers, to the front in France.
The success of the initial flamethrower attack in February 1915 impressed the German high command. A battle-ready flamethrower unit, the 3rd Guard Engineer Battalion, was organized with four companies, and Reddemann, commissioned as a reserve captain, was appointed its commander. After intensive training with the new equipment, the battalion went into action in support of army units. By the end of 1915, detachments had successfully made more than 32 small attacks against strongpoints and trenches.
Among the lessons learned was that the splattering fire could penetrate viewing slits and air ducts in bunkers and even kill around corners, and that wind increased the effectiveness by spreading the fire. Furthermore, the surprise use of the flamethrower had a remarkable shock effect.
The Germans developed three flame – thrower variants. The Grosserflammenwerfer (large flamethrower) consisted of a four-and-a-half-foot-tall tank with the mechanism on top, a flexible hose up to 20 feet long, and a tube with a nozzle at the end. The tank had two compartments: one for fuel and one for nitrogen gas, compressed at 15 atmospheres. The flame had a range of about 30 to 40 yards and duration of about one minute. Three men worked the large flame – thrower as a team. One man carried a firebrand on a short pole to ignite the fuel being expelled under pressure. (A device for automatic ignition was later introduced.) One aimed the hose. Combat experience showed that this heavy apparatus was best suited for use in static positions, such as defending trenches and strongpoints.
The Kleifapparate–Kleiner Flammenwerfer (smaller flamethrowers, various modifications), or Kleif, was a portable backpack apparatus introduced in 1915. It consisted of a two-and-a-half-foot-tall tank with carrying straps on the back and an operating mechanism on top. It could shoot flame effectively 20 to 25 yards. Originally, the jet of fuel was ignited by holding a firebrand at the nozzle, but later models were fitted with a pressure gauge and an electric battery with an induction coil. Two wires ran to the nozzle, with a spark gap between the ends, and when the compressed nitrogen forced out the fuel under high pressure, the sparker ignited it. Two men normally operated the Kleif as a team, with one man carrying the tank and the second holding the nozzle and directing the stream of fire. The flame could be projected in one long burst or several short ones for up to a minute.
The Wexapparate, short for Wechselapparate (alternative apparatus), or Wex, was an even lighter and more portable flamethrower introduced in 1917. It was shaped like a round life preserver with a spherical gas container in the center of the ring that held the fuel. The Wex was ignited automatically like the Kleif, but had a range of only 15 to 20 yards. Carried on the back, it was designed to be fielded by one man, but as with the other German flamethrower types, two or three men usually operated it as a team.
The continued success of the Guard Engineer Battalion during 1915 resulted in its expansion into a regiment, the Guard Reserve Engineer Regiment. Three thousand men were organized in three battalions, led by 80 officers. Since a regiment was usually commanded by a colonel and Reddemann was just a reserve captain, a lieutenant colonel from the combat engineers was assigned as commanding officer and Reddemann was appointed technical officer. The popular Reddemann retained considerable authority, however, and it was during this time that he earned his nickname, “Der Prinz von Hades” (the Prince of Hades).
Unlike most regiments, the Guard Reserve Engineer Regiment did not enter combat as a unit, but served mainly as a training and testing organization. Instead, detachments of various sizes joined assault battalions and units on the western front, the Russian front, and in Romania, Macedonia, and Italy.
In a typical flamethrower assault on an enemy strongpoint, two combat engineers cautiously worked their way across the battlefield, through gaps blown in the belts of barbed wire. Artillery would lay down a smoke screen to conceal their movements. Their objective was to get within 20 yards of a concrete blockhouse and attack it with the portable Kleif flamethrower. It didn’t take the Allied soldiers in the fortification long to learn that the artillery barrage and smoke screen meant an attack was imminent. Typically, they would defend by firing short bursts from a Hotchkiss machine gun in one embrasure into the murk.
Moving quickly from the cover of one shell hole to another, the Germans reached a position within range of their objective and then took cover until the designated assault time. The first man had the flamethrower tank strapped to his back and the second man, armed with a carbine and hand grenades, helped him with the heavy cylinder and took over if anything happened to his partner. It was usually his job to hold the nozzle and direct the stream of fire on the target. Time seemed to drag as the two men crouched in the shell hole beside what was in effect an incendiary bomb capable of a massive explosion that could incinerate them.
The German attack on the Allied blockhouse would typically begin with a barrage of shells from heavy trench mortars. When the barrage ceased, the flamethrower operator would stand up, aim the nozzle of his hose, and send a stream of liquid fire into the machine gun embrasure. The searing flame would burst into the interior of the casemate and swirl around, setting fire to the hapless Allied soldiers and cooking off the 8mm machine gun cartridges.
The German operator might then direct a stream of fire at the muzzle of a 75mm field gun protruding from a second embrasure. Again the flames and intense heat would engulf the inside of the casemate, the artillerymen suffering an agonizing death. Any men able to take cover suffocated, as the flames immediately exhausted the oxygen in the closed concrete chamber. Their fuel expended, the combat engineers then took cover until their tank could be refilled, or they withdrew while German assault troops attacked the fortification.
By 1916 flamethrowers were also being used successfully against Allied tanks, and sometimes in concert with poison gas attacks. But flamethrower operators soon learned that theirs was a truly dangerous occupation. In addition to the dangers from the occasional accident, such as a blowback, every flamethrower unit learned that every enemy soldier at the front was on the lookout for flamethrower teams, and immediately directed a hail of gunfire at any they spied.
After the Guard Reserve Engineer Regiment’s 150th flame attack, on July 28, 1916, its members received special Totenkopf (death’s head) insignias, worn on field gray ovals on the left arms of their uniform coats. They were often called the Totenkopfpioniere (death’s head engineers).
Captain Reddemann and the other officers learned that not everyone had the steady nerves and strong stomach required of a flamethrower operator. Unlike aviators flying high above the enemy and dropping incendiary or explosive bombs, flamethrower troops were up close and personal with the enemy and could see, hear, and smell the horrific results of the conflagrations they caused. Many suffered from what at the time was called “shell shock,” with lasting psychological effects.
The Prince of Hades and his men participated in 653 flame attacks during World War I—300 in the final 10 months. Rushing back and forth to crisis points at the front, they were in essence a “fire department,” always on call but igniting fires instead of extinguishing them.
When hostilities ceased in November 1918, the Treaty of Versailles prohibited Germany from possessing most offensive weapons, including flamethrowers. After Adolf Hitler came to power in January 1933, Germany ignored the treaty. The Flammenwerfer 35 was among the many new weapons developed for the German war machine. Similar to the Kleif, it weighed a hefty 79 pounds and its flame had a range of about 25 yards. A single trigger valve on top of the flame gun both released the fuel and ignited it for a burst of up to 10 seconds.
Germany followed that with a succession of improved models. Introduced in 1940, the Flammenwerfer klein verbessert 40 was very similar to the old Wex of 1917. It carried less fuel but weighed only about 50 pounds. Yet another model, the Flammenwerfer 41, mounted two tanks horizontally, the smaller above holding the propellant gas.
The Flammenwerfer 42, a modified version introduced in late 1942, used a flash cartridge ignition system with 10 incendiary cartridges. Each flame – thrower weighed about 42 pounds and had a range of just over 30 yards.
In 1944 the Germans introduced one last portable flamethrower, the Einstossflammenwerfer 46, a lightweight cylindrical tube with a trigger device near the front end, firing an explosive cartridge to provide gas pressure. It projected a single burst of flame for less than a second to a distance of about 30 yards. (Today, the German army is equipped with a similar, disposable, one-shot flamethrower.)
The Germans also developed larger flamethrowers, such as the mittlerer Flammenwerfer, a 30-liter tank mounted on a low-wheeled cart. Two soldiers were needed to tow it, by means of a double harness. Its lack of portability proved impractical and most of the units manufactured were installed as beach defenses along the English Channel. They copied a more practical defensive one-shot flamethrower from the Soviets.
The Abwehrflammenwerfer 42 had a range of more than 50 yards and the flame a duration of up to 10 seconds. Many were installed on the seacoast, in harbors, and at other key locations. They were operated by tripwires or by remote control.
The last specialized flamethrower in the Wehrmacht arsenal, the Flammenwerfer Anhaenger consisted of a 180-liter tank on a two-wheeled, vehicle-drawn armored trailer. It could project a jet of fire more than 40 yards for 24 seconds. It was seldom used, though, perhaps due to its high fuel consumption and vulnerability in combat. However, both the Germans and the Allies employed tanks equipped with flame throwers.
The Japanese army used flamethrowers against the Chinese in the 1930s and in April 1942 against the U.S. Army defenders of Corregidor. The Soviet Red Army fielded both portable and static types, and British forces were among the Allied armies that used portable flame – throwers of conventional design.
The U.S. Army tested foreign static and portable flamethrowers in 1917– 1918. They designed experimental models, tested three, and approved a backpack type, the Mark I, on December 9, 1918. With World War I ended, however, the army never placed it in production. The U.S. military did not field a flamethrower until World War II.
U.S. Army leaders were impressed by the Germans’ successful use of flame – throwers against Belgian and French forts in May 1940, and Secretary of War Henry Stimson ordered immediate development of the weapon for use by the army and marine corps. The result was the E1R1, standardized as the M1 in August 1941.
The M1 held five gallons of fuel in two tanks, enough for about five two-second bursts. It had a smaller tank for nitrogen propellant, a battery-powered electric ignition system, and was similar in operation to the German Flammenwerfer 35. The M1 weighed about 68 pounds and had an effective range of 40 yards. An improved model, the M1A1, was standardized in June 1943, with an increased range using thickened fuel of the napalm type.
Marines used the M1A1 extensively in the Pacific theater against Japanese lurking in bunkers and caves—the image most often associated with the flame – thrower. It was eventually superseded by the advanced M2-2, with a waterproof, chemically operated ignition system.
The M2-2 saw action during the Korean War and was followed in the 1950s by the improved M2A1 and M2A2 versions. In Vietnam, American troops frequently used the updated M2A1-7, along with napalm, with horrifying results. Due to humanitarian concerns, the army placed these lethal weapons in reserve status and eventually retired them in 1978. Using napalm has also been discontinued, with the last stocks destroyed by the navy in 2001.
Today, along with other incendiary weapons, the U.S. military fields the lightweight M202A1 Flame Assault Shoulder Weapon, or FLASH, which fires four M74 66mm rockets containing a powerful incendiary similar to white phosphorus. The FLASH delivers a more precise effect on the target at much longer range, without the collateral damage of conventional flamethrowers.
The device first fielded by Bernhard Reddemann and his fellow combat engineers opened a grisly, perhaps endless, chapter in the history of modern warfare as even more destructive weapons of fire continue to be invented and used to the present day.
Originally published in the Summer 2009 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.