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Technology and deployment
There was a regular rocket corps in the Mysore Army, beginning with about 1,200 men in Hyder Ali’s time. Colonel William Baillie’s ammunition stores are thought to have been detonated by a hit from one of Hyder Ali’s rockets at the Battle of Pollilur (1780) during the Second Anglo-Mysore War, which contributed to a humiliating British defeat.
Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan deployed them effectively against the larger British East India Company forces during the Anglo-Mysore Wars. These missiles were fitted with swords and traveled several metres through the air before coming down with edges facing the enemy. The British took an interest in the technology and developed it further during the 19th century. The Mysore rockets of this period were much more advanced than what the British had seen, chiefly because of the use of iron tubes for holding the propellant; this enabled higher thrust and longer range for the missile (up to 2 km range). Rockets also existed in Europe, but they were not iron-cased and their range was far less than their East Asiancounterparts. These hammered soft iron rockets were crude, but the bursting strength of the container of black powder was much higher than the earlier paper construction, and a greater internal pressure was possible. These rockets were used with considerable effect against the British in battles at Srirangapatam in 1792 and 1799.
Tipu Sultan wrote a military manual called Fathul Mujahidin in which 200 rocket men were assigned to each Mysorean cushoon (brigade). Mysore had 16 to 24 cushoons of infantry. The rocket men were trained to launch their rockets at an angle calculated from the diameter of the cylinder and the distance to the target. In addition, wheeled rocket launchers were used in war that were capable of launching five to ten rockets almost simultaneously. Rockets could be of various sizes but usually consisted of a tube of soft hammered iron about 8 inches (20 cm) long and 1.5 to 3 in (3.8 to 7.6 cm) in diameter, closed at one end and strapped to a shaft of bamboo about 4 ft (1 m) long. The iron tube acted as a combustion chamber and contained well-packed black powder propellant. A rocket carrying about one pound (~500 gm) of powder could travel almost 1,000 yards (~900 m). In contrast, rockets in Europe could not take large chamber pressures, not being iron cased, and were consequently not capable of reaching such distances.
The entire road alongside Jumma Masjid near City Market and Taramandalpet, Bangalore was the hub of Tipu’s rocket project where he had set up a laboratory.
Use in Mysorean conflicts
Two rocket units were fielded by Tipu Sultan in 1792 during the Third Anglo-Mysore War, one of 120 men and the other of 131 men. Lt. Col. Knox was attacked by rockets near Srirangapatna on the night of 6 February 1792 while advancing towards the Kaveri River from the north. The Rocket Corps ultimately reached a strength of about 5,000 in Tipu Sultan’s army. Mysore rockets were also used for ceremonial purposes. The Jacobin Club of Mysore sent a delegation to Tipu Sultan, and 500 rockets were launched as part of the gun salute.
Rockets were again used on several occasions during the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War. One of these involved Colonel Arthur Wellesley, later famous as the First Duke of Wellington. Wellesley was almost defeated by Tipu’s Diwan Purnaiya at the Battle of Sultanpet Tope.
Wellesley launched a fresh attack with a larger force the following day, and took the whole position without losing a single man.Rocketeers worked their way around to the rear of the British encampment on 22 April 1799, 12 days before the main battle, and fired a great number of rockets at the same moment to signal the beginning of an assault by 6,000 Indian infantry and a corps of Frenchmen, all directed by Mir Golam Hussain and Mohomed Hulleen Mir Mirans. The rockets had a range of about 1,000 yards. Some burst in the air like shells, while others (called ground rockets) would rise again on striking the ground and bound along in a serpentine motion until their force was spent. A young English officer named Bayly observed: “So pestered were we with the rocket boys that there was no moving without danger from the destructive missiles”. He continued:
The rockets and musketry from 20,000 of the enemy were incessant. No hail could be thicker. Every illumination of blue lights was accompanied by a shower of rockets, some of which entered the head of the column, passing through to the rear, causing death, wounds, and dreadful lacerations from the long bamboos of twenty or thirty feet, which are invariably attached to them.
A British shot struck a magazine of rockets within Tipu Sultan’s fort during the conclusive British attack on Srirangapattana on 2 May 1799, causing it to explode and send a towering cloud of black smoke with cascades of exploding white light rising up from the battlements. Baird led the final attack on the fort on the afternoon of 4 May and was again met by “furious musket and rocket fire”, but this did not help much; the fort was taken in about an hour’s time. Perhaps within another hour Tipu had been shot (the precise time of his death is not known), and the war was effectively over.
British adoption of the technology
After the fall of Srirangapattana, 600 launchers, 700 serviceable rockets and 9,000 empty rockets were found. Some of the rockets had pierced cylinders, to allow them to act like incendiaries, while some had iron points or steel blades bound to the bamboo. By attaching these blades to rockets they became very unstable towards the end of their flight causing the blades to spin around like flying scythes, cutting down all in their path.
These experiences eventually led the Royal Woolwich Arsenal to start a military rocket research and development program in 1801, based on the Mysorean technology. Several rocket cases were collected from Mysore and sent to Britain for analysis. Their first demonstration of solid-fuel rockets came in 1805 and was followed by publication of A Concise Account of the Origin and Progress of the Rocket System in 1807 by William Congreve, son of the arsenal’s commandant. Congreve rockets were systematically used by the British during the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812. They were also used in the 1814 Battle of Baltimore, and are mentioned in The Star Spangled Banner, the national anthem of the United States: And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air.
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