M1 / M1A1 Flamethrower
Portable Infantry Flamethrower
The M1 / M1A1 series of flamethrowers saw widespread us by American forces in the Pacific Theater.
Authored By: Staff Writer | Last Edited:
There are many ways in which to decimate one's enemy - arguably one of the most terrible being fire. Fire has remained a feared battlefield element since ancient times when it was used to both severely maim an individual or group, frighten those under its reach and bring about destruction to flammable structures. By medieval times, "liquid fire" was in the fold, perhaps most notably utilized by the Byzantine Navy, and continued fire's dominance for centuries thereafter.
Modern day "flamethrowers" were first unveiled by the German Army in World War 1. These cumbersome machines could require up to three soldiers to move the system about the battlefield and, while the psychological effect was there, it was hardly practical in the heat of an offensive. Nevertheless, the these weapons saw first use in the Argonne forest against the French Army as early as 1914 and saw much publicized use against the same enemy in the 1916 campaign at Verdun. Despite the global disgust towards these new weapons of war - perhaps no worse than the chemical agents being lobbed against trench adversaries throughout the conflict - the flamethrower was here to stay, generally accepted by all sides and soon developed (or outright copied) by other nations. World War 1 ultimately ended in November of 1918 and the flamethrower had more or less seen its day in the sun.
Within time, the rebuilding German Army under Adolf Hitler had begun replacing the large World War 1-era systems with man-portable components known under the family name of "Flammenwerfer" throughout the 1930s. The "flamethrower", as we know it today, had officially arrived. After their use in the opening salvos of World War 2 (seeing ever-improved forms), the British Army brought back into the fold their old World War 1-era flame-throwing developments. Likewise, the Australians put financing into a similar indigenous product all their own. The Japanese Army was also keen on the prospects of the flamethrower as a weapon through use of their Type 93 and Type 100 series. The Soviets had already been developing flamethrowers themselves by 1941. Before America had officially committed to the war effort, plans were already underway to design and develop an indigenous flamethrower system.
In 1940, the United States Army came down with a requirement for a new man-portable flame-throwing system. The department in charge for the design and development of the new weapon was the "Chemical Warfare Service". However, the department had little-to-no knowledge of how to proceed with the program and nothing of which to go by in beginning their endeavor. As such, they focused their efforts upon the flamethrowers utilized by the Wehrmacht (German Army). A prototype model - the "Flame-Thrower E1" was quickly developed and eventually evolved into the "E1R1" developmental model. Progress was deemed far enough along to send the E1R1 into trials. The E1R1 featured two large vertically-set tanks, each containing the needed fuel and a third, slimmer tank mounted atop and between the two fuel tanks contained the required propellant. The tanks were worn on the back of the operator as a backpack and fed to the "flame gun" dispenser (essentially a pipe) through a flexible tube line. The flame gun was held with two hands, one on the handle-grip type appendage and the other along the forend of the dispenser. A thin hydrogen tank was fitted laterally across the length of the flame gun and supplied the needed ignition. A battery pack was used to ignite the hydrogen by way of a spark, the hydrogen in turn igniting the outgoing fuel supply. A valve located at the aft end of the flame gun - the portion seeing the hose line connecting to the gun - was controlled by the operator.
Operation was such as that found on a rifle, though most often times fired from the hip as opposed to the shoulder. The firing action brought about a stream of "liquid fire" from the muzzle of the flame gun, the liquid fuel ignited at the nozzle end as it exited the gun. The pressurized tank allowed for a steady stream and the operator could "spray" an area in much the same way a person could spray a garden bed with a hose. Most trial images of the M1-in-training showcased the operator down on one knee, the M1 flame gun aimed upwards for arcing fire. In reality, this stance was not always possible.
The need for a flamethrower for the US Army was such that even some of these evaluation models were featured in operational assaults in Papau before the type was officially approved for active service. The operational evaluation did the project some good, though, for several key shortcomings were soon revealed in the American design. The E1R1 system was prone to breakdowns in the field and proved relatively unreliable in the harsh battlefield conditions. The controls were noted for their ill-placement and the machine was generally not a trusted weapon in the heat of battle. As such, the board took to refining the base design - attempting to produce a more robust and reliable system - and the new weapon was therefore accepted into service as the "Portable Flame-Thrower M1". American was fully committed to World War 2 after December 7th, 1941 following the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii and the M1 would soon be put to dastardly use.
The M1 differed only subtly from the E1R1 developmental model, retaining the same basic shape and configuration of the tanks. Production of the M1 began in March of 1942 and the weapon was soon to see action the following January in the Guadalcanal action. In theory, the M1 was a solid design effort with several key ingredients ironed out during its refinement process. However, once in practice, the M1 continued to fail its operators, sometimes at the worst possible times. One of the major drawbacks of the M1 became its ignition system which relied on electrical power supplied to the flame gun via batteries. In testing, this ignition method proved adequate but when pressed into the grimy, violent and unpredictable world of war, this solution was far from perfect. The construction material of each tank was also liable to develop small, unseen holes from general metal corrosion which ultimately allowed both pressure and liquids to unknowingly escape. As such, a special service was opened by the United States Army to specifically manage, repair and inspect all outgoing M1 throwers before their use in combat.
In June of 1943, American was engulfed in World War across two separate fronts - one to the East throughout North Africa/Europe against the forces of Italy/Germany and the other to the West in the Pacific against the Empire of Japan. Development for an improved M1 model was ongoing and deliveries of the new M1A1 soon began. Napalm was now being used as an additive in the tanks to produce a "thicker" fuel store thus increasing the flamethrower's operational range and damage effect. This thicker fuel differentiated the M1A1 from the M1 in that the M1 was categorized by it using "light" fuel. While range of the original M1 was roughly out to 30 yards, the M1A1 could now yield a flame burst out to 50 yards. The operational weight of the M1A1 was also reduced to a more "manageable" 65lbs. Despite the inadequacies of the ignition system inherent in the M1, it remained unchanged in the improved M1A1. By this time, however, American troops had learned to overcome its deficiencies and resorted to lighting their throwers by whatever means they had available - burning paper, matchsticks and even personal cigarette lighters were just some of the published methods. Some 14,000 M1A1s were ultimately produced and delivered to awaiting infantry platoons. Their operations took them across Italy and Germany though their use was severely limited throughout Europe following the end of the Normandy Campaign in 1944. Use of the M1/M1A1 continued throughout the Pacific however.
The M1/M1A1 in the Pacific
The M1/M1A1 were found to be highly relied upon in weeding out the fanatic Japanese defenders on through the required island campaigns of the Pacific Theater. The flamethrower served American Marines well in engaging dug-in foes in foxholes, tunnels and bunkers. Additionally, the flamethrower worked extremely well for clearing out dry cover brush as found throughout the islands. In some instances, the mere appearance of the flamethrower led some enemy soldiers to surrender - such was the psychological power of "liquid flame", even centuries after the Byzantines.
If there were limits to the reach of the flame-throwing unit, it was in range, inherent danger and portability to the operator himself. The 30- to 50-yard range was an impressive range on the testing and training courses of America. But in the field of combat, this often involved the operator to expose most of his body when engaging suspected enemy positions. This led to the use needlessly putting himself in harm's way. The size of the tanks and general stance of the infantryman called to bear the M1/M1A1 system also made for a tempting target to the enemy in which a solid shot could force the compression tanks to rupture, sending the operator in any direction and possibly spraying fuel about. Incendiary rounds held the possibility to ignite spraying fuel. Each M1/M1A1 system also weighed as much as 70lbs fully fueled - the infantryman called to carry the weapon would have to do so under combat conditions, trudging himself, his gear and the weapon through mud, rocky terrain, woods and humid jungle settings.
Values Despite the Drawbacks
Despite the drawbacks, the flamethrower proved to still have some value. The sheer psychological effect was second to none for there were few enemy soldiers willing to die in a blast of hot liquid flame. There was little escaping fire too, for its crevice-finding ways were similar to that of water - if there was a will, there was a way. And if the flame itself did not reach the intended target, perhaps the heat would - and intense heat has a way of moving a man out from hiding.
By the middle of 1943, the Chemical Warfare Service had developed more of sense of what the infantryman needed out of his flamethrower, based on after-action reports and feedback. This ultimately led to the development of the much-improved M2 flamethrower series with its new rotary cartridge ignition system. The M1 series was soon-after replaced by the M2 and production surpassed that of both M1 and M1A1 models combined.
End of the Road
Ultimately, all portable flamethrowers were more or less given up in favor of tank-mounted flame guns. This offered better range and protection for the crew and made for a more imposing target to the enemy.