Artillery in Canada: Congreve Rockets

Congreve Rockets - Canadian Connections

(Congreve Rocket replica, Leipzig, Author Photo)

My father, Aage C. Skaarup, joined the RCAF in 1954 and during his 20 years of service our family had the good fortune to be with him when he was based at No. 3 Fighter Wing, RCAF Station Zweibrucken, Germany from 1959 to 1963. We had come from a farm in Carleton County, New Brunswick, and Dad being a Leading Aircraftsman (LAC) at the time, funds were scarce. That didn’t stop us from traveling over much of Europe in a tent, and during those four years we saw a lot of castles, battlefields and places of historic interest.

The travel bug has been enjoyed by my family many times since then; I served with HQ Canadian Forces Europe based in Lahr, Germany from 1981 to 1983, and again with 4 CMBG in Lahr from 1989 to 1992. The travel opportunities widened, and my family and I toured Roman Campsites from the 2nd century, Alemani centres from 600 BC, prehistoric sites from Switzerland to Denmark and many places in between. We could not cross the border into the former East German area until the wall came down late in 1989, and there is much we felt we missed – so we have gone back a few times.  We chose to spend some time in the town of Erfurt, located in the historic centre of Germany, not far from the Teutonic Knights Castle, the Wartburg, just West of the City, and the terrible Camp of Buchenwald to the East.

Napoleon reviews the Imperial Guard before the Battle of Jena, 1806, painting by Horace Vernet.  (palace of Versaille Collection, MV 2768 ; INV 8367 ; LP 2246)

One of our first stops was at the sites of the twin battlefields of Jena and Auerstädt, which were fought on 14 October 1806 on the plateau west of the river Saale in today's Germany, between the forces of Napoleon I of France and Frederick William III of Prussia. The decisive defeat suffered by the Prussian Army subjugated the Kingdom of Prussia to the French Empire until the Sixth Coalition was formed in 1812. The coalition suffered from internal squabbles, and Napoleon cut through their disruption sharply and decisively. Several figures integral to the reformation of the Prussian Army participated at Jena–Auerstädt, including Gebhard von Blücher, Carl von Clausewitz, August Neidhardt von Gneisenau, Gerhard von Scharnhorst, and Hermann von Boyen.

Battle of Leipzig, Russian, Austrian and Prussion troops, 1813, two paintings by Alexander Zaureweid.

The losing side did not make the same mistake when the Battle of Leipzig or Battle of the Nations was fought from 16 to 19 October 1813, at Leipzig, Saxony in what is now the unified area of former East Germany. The coalition armies of Russia, Prussia, Austria, and Sweden, led by Tsar Alexander I of Russia and Karl Philipp, Prince of Schwarzenberg, decisively defeated the French army of Napoleon I, Emperor of the French. Napoleon's army also contained Polish and Italian troops, as well as Germans from the Confederation of the Rhine. The battle was the culmination of the 1813 German campaign and involved nearly 600,000 soldiers, making it the largest battle in Europe prior to the First World War.

Battle Map of opposing forces, Leipzig, 1813.

Alexander I of Russia, Francis II of Austria and Frederick III of Prussia meet after the battle.  Painting by Johann Peter Krafft, Deutsches Historisches Museum Berlin.

Being decisively defeated for the first time in battle, Napoleon was compelled to return to France while the Coalition hurried to keep their momentum, invading France early the next year. Napoleon was forced to abdicate and was exiled to Elba in May 1814.

Sharpe's Rifles, Internet Poster.

I am often surprised when checking into these events by the discovery of Canadian connections, and there are two significant ones here. I had thoroughly enjoyed Sean Bean’s performance as Major Richard Sharpe in the British Napoleonic television episode of “Sharpe's Enemy”, where Congreve rockets were used and which proved to be instrumental in the victory at the end of the story. I was reminded of this when I discovered a reproduction Congreve Rocket on display in the Leipzig Museum, located beside the massive monument to the coalition victory.

The Congreve rocket was a British military weapon designed and developed by Sir William Congreve in 1804, based directly on Mysorean rockets found in India. The rockets were used effectively during the Napoleonic Wars and in North America during the War of 1812. Congreve used his own money to design, test and launch various types of rockets with early version ranging out to 1,500 yards. By the spring of 1806, he was producing 32-pounder rockets ranging 3,000 yards.

The initial rocket cases were constructed of cardboard, but by 1806 they were made from sheet iron. The propulsion was of the same ingredients as gunpowder, the mixture of which varied with the different sizes of rocket. The warheads had side-mounted brackets which were used to attach wooden sticks of differing lengths, according to the sizes of rocket. By 1813, the rockets were available in three classes: Heavy – being carcass/explosive rockets, the largest weighing three hundred pounds; between five and six feet in length, with a stick length of 25–27 feet; Medium – being from 42- to 24-pounders; two to four feet in length, with a stick length of 15–20 feet; and Light – being from 18- to 6-pounders; 16-25 inches in length, with a stick length of 8–14 feet.

The medium and light rockets could be case shot, shell, or explosive. The 32-pounder was generally used for longer range bombardment, while a 12–pounder case shot was generally used for support of infantry and cavalry, with an extreme range of some 2,000 yards. The rockets could be fired from a wheeled bombarding frame, from a portable tripod, or even from a shallow trench or sloping bank. One in three horse artillerymen carried a launching trough for ground firing. Rockets could not out-range the equivalent smooth bore guns of the period. In real terms, the maximum effective range for the 12-pounder rockets and for the six-pounder gun was some 1,400 yards or about 1,280 meters. However, the rate of fire with rockets could be higher than the equivalent muzzle loading ordnance. The absence of heavy ordnance meant that fewer horses were required to move them.

Their lack of specific accuracy with the larger rockets at long range was not a problem if the purpose was to set fire to a town or a number of moored ships. Congreve warned, however, they were of little use against fortified places, such as against Fort Henry, because of the lack of combustible structures.

The main user of Congreve rockets during the Napoleonic Wars was the Royal Navy, and men from the Royal Marine Artillery became experts in their use. The navy converted HMS Galgo and HMS Erebus into rocket ships. This is the second connection to Canada, with the recent discovery of HMS Erebus. The 372-ton ship was armed with two mortars – one 13 in (330 mm) and one 10 in (250 mm) – and 10 guns. The ship took part in the Ross expedition of 1839 to 1843.  It was abandoned during the Franklin Expedition in 1848 and rediscovered in a submerged state in September 2014 after a long search.  HMS Terror has also been found submerged as of Sep 2016.

The British army became involved with rockets with reluctance, but was eventually represented by various rocket detachments that changed into two Rocket Troops within the Royal Horse Artillery on 1 January 1814.

In May 1813, a detachment which had been training with rockets at Woolwich under Second Captain Richard Bogue RHA was inspected by a committee of Royal Artillery officers who recommended that it be tried in combat. On 7 June 1813, Bogue’s unit was designated the "Rocket Brigade". At the same time as being granted its new title, The Rocket Brigade was ordered to be augmented and to proceed on active service, with orders to join the Army of the North commanded by Bernadotte, the Crown Prince of Sweden. Using the modified 12-pounder rocket at low trajectory from ground firing-troughs, the brigade was successful at the Battle of Gohrde and spectacularly so at the Battle of Leipzig on 18 October 1813.

The Royal Marine Artillery used Congreve rockets in several engagements during this conflict. Two battalions of Royal Marines were sent to North America in 1813. Attached to each battalion was a rocket detachment, each with an establishment of 25 men, commanded by lieutenants Balchild and John Harvey Stevens. Both rocket detachments were embarked aboard the transport vessel Mariner Rockets were used in the engagements at Fort Oswego, and at Lundy's Lane in Ontario.

A third battalion of Royal Marines arrived in North America in 1814, with an attached rocket detachment commanded by Lieutenant John Lawrence, which subsequently participated in the Chesapeake campaign. During this campaign, the British used rockets at the Battle of Bladensburg to rout the militia (which led to the burning and surrender of Washington, D.C.), and at the Battle of North Point.

HMS Erebus and HMS Terror.

It was the use of ship-launched Congreve rockets by the British in the bombardment of Fort McHenry in the US in 1814 that inspired the fifth line of the first verse of the United States' National Anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner": "and the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air". HMS Erebus fired the rockets from a 32-pound rocket battery installed below the main deck, which fired through portholes or scuttles pierced in the ship's side.

(NMM PAH744)

Fireships firing rockets and details of storage and launch (Misc 34) Plate to The Details of the Rocket System, back and watercolour pen & ink by Colonel Congreve, 1814.

Also in Canada, rockets were used by the British at the Second Battle of Lacolle Mills, on 30 March 1814. Rockets fired by a detachment of the Royal Marine Artillery, though inaccurate, unnerved the attacking American forces, and contributed to the defence of the blockhouse and mill. Rockets were used again at the Battle of Cook's Mills, on 19 October 1814. An American force, sent to destroy General Gordon Drummond's source of flour, was challenged by a contingent of infantry which was supported by a light field cannon and a frame of Congreve rockets. The rockets succeeded in discouraging the Americans from forming lines on the battlefield.

Captain Henry Lane's 1st Rocket Troop of the Royal Horse Artillery embarked at the end of 1814 in the transport vessel Mary with 40 artillerymen and 500 rockets and disembarked near New Orleans. Lieutenant Lawrence's rocket detachment took part in the final land engagement of the War of 1812 at Fort Bowyer in February 1815.

...and for an interesting ending, a retired Canadian Gunner advised that Canadian Honest John Rocket Batteries wore black scarfs with their combat clothing - the Congreve rocket detachments wore black stocks on their uniforms.

( Library and Archives Canada Photo, MIKAN No. 4235075)

1st Surface-to-Surface Missile Battery, with Canadian Honest John Rocket.

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