Backpack Flamethrowers

It seems a contradiction in terms to talk of 'humane' weapons; by their very nature they are things of torment, so any such machine must surely be an 'inhumane' one?  Yet there remains something uniquely horrific about the flamethrower.  It is no surprise that it was born amid the carnage of the Great War, when chemical weapons were used en masse and there was even room for metal darts to be dropped from aircraft to spear the infantrymen below.  Yet this modernised version of medieval boiling oil still had a terrible part to play in the Second World War.

The flamethrower is one of those weapons which relies almost as much on reputation as results.  Its primary use was against men who could not be effectively engaged by artillery or small arms, who were fighting from emplacements or fortifications.  To them, huddled in a cellar or pillbox, the dread knowledge that a flamethrower had been summoned to squirt liquid fire into their haven was usually enough to prompt surrender. 

The simple mechanics of the flamethrower belie its dreadful nature.  Two tanks were needed, mounted side by side.  One contained the fuel, naturally flammable, while the other contained compressed gas.  The two substances were mixed as they passed through a valve, the force provided by the compressed gas.  The mixture was directed through a pipe and out through a nozzle.  At this point the concoction was ignited and the sheet of flame produced.  The flammable material was mixed with an adhesive which meant it would stick to whatever it hit, flesh included.

Despite appearances, the backpack flamethrower actually declined in use during the course of the war.  The vulnerability of the operator was compounded by the need to close to within pistol range of the enemy to be of effect.  It was usual for a rifle armed escort to accompany the flame gunner, both to act as guard and assist him in the operation of the awkwardly placed gauges.

British, German and American forces all reached the same conclusion that the most effective means of deploying flame was not by backpack but by vehicle, ideally armoured.  This at once removed the obvious vulnerability of the individual soldier and simultaneously increased the duration of fire that could be produced, as well as the range.  Backpack models did not disappear from use though, being retained for use in street and jungle fighting where vehicles could not always follow and also in airborne units. 

Below are detailed the main types of backpack flamethrowers deployed by the major combatant nations.

The British Army

Flamethrower, No.2, Mk II (Lifebuoy)

Weight 29 kg
Capacity 18 litres (approx)
Range 30 to 40 m
Duration 10 seconds (approx)

Where possible I've tried to use photographs of weapons but was unable to find a suitable one for the Lifebuoy.  I hope the artist will forgive this instance 

Remi Frederix kindly forwarded this picture of the Lifebuoy in use, probably on the practice range

The British Army was never very taken with the flamethrower for any number of reasons.  They were of little use in the desert where the Army had spent most of its time fighting up to 1943, but for the upcoming invasion of Europe it was realised that they would be needed.

The Number 2 replaced its unsuccessful predecessor during 1944 and saw some limited service.  The British Army greatly valued their armoured 'funnies' and it was the Churchill based Crocodile and the carrier converted Wasp which were the more usual platforms.  The backpack flamethrower concept was not pursued further by the British.

The United States Army

Portable Flamethrower M2-2

Weight 32 kg 
Capacity 18 litres (approx)
Range 25 to 40 m
Duration 10 seconds (approx)

An M1 or M2 flamethrower at work in the Pacific.  The USMC became the primary users of this weapon as the only way to evict Japanese defenders from their boltholes, without resorting to costly infantry attacks

The United States, like the British, had problems with their first portable weapon.  The M1 shared roughly the same statistics as the M2, but suffered from reliability problems, especially in the crucial area of ignition.  The M2-2 overcame these defects, which were known to require troops to light the flame with matches in action.

The US Army used them little in Europe, but with the Marine Corps it was different story.  The war being fought against the Japanese in the Pacific, where every cave and emplacement became a battle in its own right, required large numbers.  Each Rifle Squad was to have access to one M2-2 pack at the height of its use during 1944.  The appearance of Sherman tanks fitted with Ronson based systems saw the use of the M2-2 decline even among the Marines.

The Red Army

ROKS-2 (ranzewuj ognemjot KS-2)

Weight 23 kg
Capacity 9 litres (approx)
Range 35 to 45 m
Duration 6 - 8 seconds (approx)

Same artist, same indiscretion, same apology.  The rifle shape flame gun marks the Russian model apart from any other

Good 'action' shot of the ROKS in use with Red Army pioneers (note the body armour of the soldier on the right).  Kindly donated by Mike Jorgensen from a gaming forum.  Thanks Mike 

The use of the flamethrower in Red Army service is particularly difficult to gauge.  The weapons were initially issued to infantry units but were gradually pulled back into specialist formations.  As these were not necessarily assigned to each Division, quite how many would be on hand is difficult to say, though it seems reasonable to suppose they were attached to units leading the assault.

The ROKS-2 was joined in service by a simplified ROKS-3 model.  Both types disguised the usual pipe and nozzle arrangement as a rifle to deter enemy snipers from picking off the operator.

The German Army

Flammenwerfer 41/42

Weight 22 kg (41) 18.5 kg (42)
Capacity ? litres 
Range 25 to 35 m
Duration 10 seconds (approx)

A German flame team, identified in the accompanying text as on manoeuvres.  The Germans used the flamethrower a good deal early on but its use soon faded.  It was a prime target for retribution and operators were sometimes selected as a form of field punishment 

The German Army made good use of their flamethrowers during the lightning campaigns of 1939-41.  Specialist Assault Pioneers accompanied the Infantry, deploying the weapons against fortifications that would otherwise have slowed the advance.

The change from offensive to defensive actions against the Red Army in 1942 saw the demise of the flamethrower in German service.  There were several armoured vehicles which could carry out the role more effectively, converted Panzer IIs and IIIs and the halftrack mounted SdKfz 251/16.  

The harshness of the Russian winter in 1941/42 led to an unforeseen problem with the original model 41, in that it was too cold to light.  The model 42 incorporated a revised system which eliminated the problem.  The fuel capacity of the original model 35 was almost 12 litres, which was reduced in the subsequent types but I am unsure as to what level.  The model 35 weighed in at a hefty 36 kg.

Einstossflammenwerfer 46

Weight 3.6 kg
Capacity 1.7 litres 
Range 25 to 30 m
Duration 1 second (approx)

Nice shot of the unique single use Eintossflammerwerfer, showing the ease with which it could be carried by comparison to the backpack designs featured above.  Both picture and specifications kindly donated by Mike Jorgensen

As Germany began to run ever lower on raw materials, its weapons designers, ironically, increasingly devised disposable delivery systems.  One of these was the Eintossflammenwerfer, which as the name implies was a single shot flamethrower.  Once used the empty weapon was simply discarded, akin to the Panzerfaust series.  

It was originally designed to meet a Fallschirmjager requirement, but its small size and weight made it a natural choice for urban warfare.  It entered service towards the end of the war, and its issue was probably quite limited as a result.

The Japanese Army

Type 100

Weight 25 kg
Capacity 14.75 litres 
Range 20 to 30 m
Duration 10 - 12 seconds (approx)

Good action shot of a flamethrower in action, though this does have the look of a staged picture for propaganda use back home.  Nevertheless, it does give an indication of how the weapon was used in action, with the riflemen waiting to follow up the initial assault (again courtesy of Mike)

While most nations increasingly turned to armoured fighting vehicles as a means to employ flame weapons, the Japanese Army continued to rely on the backpack version throughout the war.  The Type 100 was a slightly modified version of the pre-war Type 93, and both weapons saw extensive use in China, primarily as a way of destroying homes and villages.  The weapon was also used against fortifications during the rapid Japanese conquests of 1941-42, but thereafter as defence became the priority fewer applications could be found for it.


Infantry Weapons of World War Two

Published works and Websites

Site Map