Strange Weapons of WWII (4) Cathernie Wheel


Mi General
MI.Net Member
Feb 29, 2004
Panjandrum, known also as the The Great Panjandrum, was one of a number of highly experimental projects, including Hajile and the Hedgehog, that were developed by the Admiralty's Directorate of Miscellaneous Weapons Development in the final years of World War II.

The DMWD had been asked to come up with a device capable of penetrating the ten-foot high, seven-foot thick concrete defences that made up part of the Atlantic Wall. It was further specified that the device should be capable of being launched from landing craft since it was highly likely that the beaches in front of the defences would act as a killing ground for anyone attempting to deliver the device by hand. Sub-Lieutenant Nevil Shute calculated that over one ton of explosives would be needed in order to create a tank-sized breach in such a wall. The delivery method for such a quantity of explosives posed a significant problem, and one of the concepts discussed ultimately resulted in the construction of the prototype "Great Panjandrum". The proposed device was composed of two gigantic wooden wheels, ten feet in diameter with steel treads a foot wide, joined by a central drum fitted with the explosive payload. It was to be propelled by sets of cordite rockets attached to each wheel. It was predicted that when deployed with a full 4,000 lb load, Panjandrum would achieve speeds of around 60 mph, simply crashing through any obstacles to reach its target. The name "Great Panjandrum" was chosen by Shute as a reference to Samuel Foote's poem of the same name, in particular the closing line "till the gunpowder ran out at the heels of their boots".

The prototype was secretly constructed at Leytonstone and transported by night to the testing grounds at Westward Ho!, Devon. However, once there the secrecy surrounding the project broke down, as the beach chosen as a test site was also a popular destination for holidaymakers and from the first test on September 7, 1943 onwards, every trial was witnessed by large citizen audiences despite the DMWD's warnings concerning the safety of the weapon. Since nothing remotely resembling the Panjandrum had ever been constructed before, the trials began with a good degree of trepidation — only a handful of cordite rockets were attached to the wheels, and the payload was simulated by an equivalent weight of sand. When Shute gave the signal, 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 before a number of the rockets on the right wheel failed and the weapon careened off course. Several further attempts were made with more and more rockets, but on every occasion the Panjandrum lost control before reaching the end of the beach.

After tinkering with the project for a further three weeks, the Department returned to the beach. Panjandrum was now equipped with over seventy cordite rockets and a stabilising third wheel. When launched, it hurtled towards the coast, skimming the beach before turning back out to sea. A number of the 20 lb rockets detached and whipped wildly above the heads of the gathered audience or exploded underwater. Despite these failures, Shute and his team persevered, removing the third wheel and attaching steel cables to the remaining two wheels as a basic form of steering. Panjandrum proved to be too powerful however, snapping the cables and whipping them back across the beach when they were used. More weeks were spent testing every conceivable variable from thicker cables to heavier rocket-clamps without success before the DMWD received notification that the weapon was only required to be consistently able to travel in the general direction of the enemy. With some degree of confidence, a final trial was scheduled to be performed in January, 1944, in front of a number of Navy officials and scientists, as well as an official photographer.

The whole idea of the panjandrum was flawed, and it never could have worked. It is typical of the waste of scientific and engineering effort that was wasted by the british in the second world war trying to perfect an idea that a school kid could see could not and should not work. The reasons why I say it could never have worked have been discussed before on another forum, here is the link.
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