In the realms of top-secret projects of world war 2 there are a couple which most people will have heard of, the development of the Atomic bomb and Radar but there was another that was ranked as equally secret and important and its effect on the war could be said to be greater than the atomic bomb and yet few outside of the military knew about it until after the war.
This is the story of the proximity fuse, one of the best-kept secrets of World War 2 and regarded by some as the 3rd most important technological development after the Atomic bomb and Radar. This is they worked and how this simple principle changed the outcome of the war.
During the early German air raids on Britain, an anti-aircraft gunner is reported to have said that shooting down an aircraft in the night sky was akin to trying to hit a fly in a darkened room with a peashooter.
According to reports of the time, early on in the war, it took about 1000 shells to bring down one aircraft, with the advent of radar fire control and variable time fuses this was said to be around 500 shells but these are very low estimates, some sources say it could be as high as 20,000 shells, either way it was very inefficient and seen by some as just harassment of the german bombers rather than an effective weapon.
The device that controls when the shell, rocket or bomb explodes is a called fuse and on a shell for example is fits into the top of the shell and different types were available depending on how you wanted the shell to operate.
At the beginning of the war anti-aircraft shells used either direct contact fuses which only worked if they hit the target or mechanical variable time or VT fuses, these triggered a timer once the shell was fired and then detonated after a predetermined time. This allowed the gunners to place the detonations at a specific altitude, one which would be determined through observation and radar and where the enemy aircraft were flying in at.
This was far from ideal because each one had to be set by hand to the correct time before use and then 10 – 15 would need to be fired to confirm the altitude settings. These could be seen by the enemy which could move up or down to avoid them. If the timing of the fuse was out by a second either way it would result in the shells detonating harmlessly hundreds of meters above or below the target.
The problem wasn’t new and various ideas were put forward in the 1930s for ways of getting shells to detonate when they got close to a target.
The British had worked on radar-guided shells which could be exploded by a radio signal when they were seen to be near an aircraft on a radar screen but this proved was too difficult to accurately control.
What was needed was a way for the shells themselves to sense the aircraft and then detonate when they were close enough. Another idea the British came up with the idea of using a tiny transmitter in the fuse of the shell.
This would transmit a constant radio signal, this would radiate outwards and be reflected off of anything like an aircraft that came within range.
The reflected radio waves would be picked by the body of the fuse which was the antenna, the difference between this and the transmitted signal creates a beat frequency which increases as the shell and fuse get closer to the target. This is amplified, filtered and when it reached a preset amplitude it triggered an electronic switch, a thyratron which started the detonation process.
As the amplitude of the thyratron trigger signal was proportional to the distance from the target it could be tuned for a certain distance, usually about 6 – 20 meters before it detonated the shell, showering the target in shrapnel.
There was just one problem, the acceleration forces experience by a shell at setback or when it fired are in the region of 20,000 G but that’s not all, the shells are also fired along rifled barrels which imparts a spin to them which could be up to 30,000 rpm creating very large centrifugal forces.
Now today this wouldn’t be a problem with our modern solid-state transistors but back then all they had were glass vacuum tubes which were large and delicate and could break easily if you dropped a radio on the floor, let alone exposing them to 20,000 G.
Although the British did develop miniature ruggedised tubes, this was still a major problem so most of the British work was moved towards fuses for rockets and bombs which had G forces of less than 100.
The British plans for the fuses were also part of the Tizzard mission which gave the US many top-secret British project plans for further development and production in case England was invaded by Germany.
Over in the US, in 1940, scientists at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory working with both the Navy and Army research labs had come up with a new modified design with separate transmitter and receiver circuits but crucially they had access to miniature vacuum tubes which were initially made for hearing-aid amplifiers that could fit into a top pocket.
To test the effect of the acceleration, they placed a fly into an empty shell and fired it vertically. When they recovered the shell, the fly was nowhere to be seen, it was only when they inspected it very carefully they found a slight residue left on the inside of the shell and that was all that remained of the fly.
With such extreme accelerations, the mass of the electronic components became the limiting factor, the smaller they were the better. Together with the miniature tubes and smaller ruggedised resistors and capacitors, the total mass reduction was in the order of ten times that of a convention tube design.
Even things like the solder for the joints which would normally be made from lead and tin could become an issue with such G forces so special solder was used that was only available from England.
Four vacuum tubes were used in the design to both transmit and receive the signal, amplify it and then trigger the detonation, some of the tubes were optimised with a planar electrode designs which made them more sturdy.
You might well have thought that wrapping the glass tubes & electronics in a shock-absorbing layer would be enough but this could induce vibrations with multiple harmonic resonances which could shatter the glass so the whole assembly would need to be as solid as possible so they were potted with a special wax that set hard.
Now having an electronically controlled fuse that was sensitive to almost anything around it would be a major problem when being handled on the battlefield, the last thing you want was it detonating in the gun barrel or if it were dropped, so there were five safety features built-in to the design.
Firstly normal dry cell batteries would be a problem, they had a limited shelf life and fuses needed to be ready for use without any further work required once they left the factory. Instead of a normal dry cell battery, they used an ampule of acid which broke on firing and activated the battery, the spin imparted by the rifled barrel then made sure that the acid was distributed within the battery.
The squib, a small electrical operated explosive that triggered the detonator was shorted out with a mercury switch so that it wouldn’t work until the fuse started rotating at speed as travelled along the gun barrel and an out of line powder train between the squib and the detonator only came into line once the shell was spinning.
To stop premature detonation in the barrel or as the shell passed over friendly forces, a time delay was incorporated into the capacitor discharge circuit that fired the squib. This gave it enough time for the shell to be far enough away before it could detonate.
To stop the fuse which was top secret at the time from falling into enemy hands a mechanical spin switch was activated by the rotation of the shell. If the squib discharge capacitor was charged and the shell had not come near an enemy target, the spin would slow down and this would trigger the switch to self destruct the shell and fuse.
In fact, up until the D-day landings, the use of proximity fuses was only allowed over water so if any did fail they would be lost in the sea.
After the Japanese attack at Pearl harbour in 1941 testing and production of the fuses were given a top priority and work continued through 1942. Although up to 20% of the shells fired failed to work, the others proved to be very effective against target drones, so much some that range commander where the tests were being performed complained they were destroying too many of his drones.
After a great deal of testing and refinement, they were ready to be used in the Pacific against Japanese aircraft.
On the 5th of Jan 1943, the cruiser Helena using 5-inch shells with proximity fuses was the first to shoot down a dive bomber as it was approached the ship with two salvos of shells. Soon they were being used by many of the ships in the region with spectacular results.
In May 1945 the destroyers Evan and Hadly were off the coast of Okinawa when over 150 kamikaze aircraft attacked both ships. Using proximity fuses all the attacking aircraft were shot down with just 6 partially destroyed aircraft or parts of them getting through to hit the ships. According to the official report, the horizon from the east to the northwest was filled with burning planes.
After the war, the Japanese stated that the uncanny accuracy of the US anti-craft guns to destroy their dive-bombers without actually hitting them was one of the reasons why they started using Kamikasi attacks and though they suspected something like a proximity fuse was being used they didn’t know how the Americans were doing it.
The proximity fuses also work at low altitudes as they would detect the ground just as well as an aircraft as they fell to earth so they could be used to detonate above the heads of the enemy on the battlefield.
This removed the safety provided by trenches and fox holes. With a normal artillery barrage, the shells exploded when they hit the ground, expending most of their energy and shrapnel upwards. Troops would be protected if they were dug in even they were quite near a shell blast.
The Japanese on many pacific islands withstood huge artillery bombardments for weeks using this method. But now with shells that could be set to detonate just 5-10 meters above the ground, troops in open trenches or fox holes would be hit by the shrapnel exploding just above them.
This was used by the Allies during the Battle of the bulge when the Germans used the dense forests in the area for cover during the attack.
One report stated that after an artillery barrage with proximity shells, the forest looked like a giant scythe had cut the tops of the trees off, destroying everything above 40 feet or 12 meters and killing many of those under the barrage.
On the open battlefield, that same tactic was used with lines of synchronised artillery fire. Smaller mortars at the front then larger guns behind and then howitzers from the rear, firing staggered barrages over allied troops to all explode above the german positions at the same time. They could also be used to attack the far side of a hill where enemy forces would be hiding with similar results.
This was so terrifying that many of the Germans abandoned their positions because of the effectiveness of the airbursts above them.
Bombs dropped from planes using proximity fuses were used against anti-aircraft batteries to great effect to demoralise the gun crews over Italy, silencing the guns allowing the US Airforce to proceed uncontested.
As the allies advanced through Germany, from the Rhine to Berlin, allied anti-aircraft fire with proximity shells downed over 1000 enemy aircraft.
Proximity fused shells were also used with great effect against the V1 flying bomb attacks on London. In one day, of the 104 V1’s launched, 68 were shot down with Proximity shells, 14 by the RAF, 2 by barrage balloon cables and 16 suffered a mechanical failure during their flight.
After the war and during the trials that followed, the Germans like the Japanese revealed that they had no idea that proximity weapons were being used against them. The Germans did develop a variety of different types of proximity fuses for bombs and rockets but few went into production and no one considered making them for shells which the allies used to such a great advantage because they didn’t believe the electronics could survive the forces involved.
Over 20 million proximity weapons were used during the war. The effect that proximity fuses had on the outcome of world war 2 both in the pacific and in Europe was one of the best-kept secrets of the war until they were eventually revealed several years later and the technology would go on to create the guided missiles like the Sidewinder we looked at previously.
Afterwards and about the Battle of the Bulge, US General George S. Pattern who called it the funny fuze said “The new shell with the funny fuze is devastating…I think that when all armies get this shell we will have to devise some new method of warfare.”, I’m just glad we thought of them first.
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