The Nebelwerfer is often seen in photographs and newsreel footage as a multiple barrelled rocket launcher. The term ‘Nebelwerfer’ is best described misleadingly as meaning ‘smoke-thrower’ this ambiguous title was of course purely a cover name to camouflage the true nature of the weapon under the Treaty of Versailles. This was because rocket development amongst other things was prohibited after the First World War so the cover word ‘smoke’ was employed to disguise further project development.
The actual rocket ammunition itself was designated Wurfgranate (thrower-shell) and was interestingly spin-stabilized during flight and not fin stabilized as with typical rockets of the period. Each being electrically-fired singly in ripple formation and carrying typically high-explosive warheads designed to saturate the target area.
A range of launchers were used by the Wehrmacht which can be classed into two categories. The first are the steel tubular pipe assemblies of the 15cm NbW 41 six barrelled launcher with a range just under 7km and the 5 barrelled 21cm NbW 42 launcher type with a range of 8km . The rockets could be fitted with either impact or delay fuses as necessary and liner rails could be fitted to allow the larger 21cm launchers to use 15cm Wurfgranate 41 rockets with their High Explosive, smoke and poison gas warheads to choose from. Both launchers were mounted on a towed carriage of the same design used for the Pak 37/38 albeit with the adaptation of a forward stabilising leg to help hold the arrangement steady during the sequenced firing stage. The identical carriage arrangement does cause confusion at first glance making it difficult to discern between the two types but the simplest feature to recognise between the two models is the number of barrels, five or six.
The second type used metal rectangular frames as in the case of the 28/32cm NbW 41 and 30cm NbW 42 type. The frames were of a very simple open box like construction made from angular steel. The 28/32cm Nebelwerfer 41 mounted a steel angular frame containing six rockets on a two-wheeled single axel carriage. Two stabilizer arms and a spade under the towing ring served to steady the carriage while firing and used rather confusingly rockets of two different calibres. The open metal frames of the launcher were sized to fit the 32 centimetre rocket, but adapter rails were provided to allow the 28 centimetre rockets to fit.
The 28cm Wurfkörper Spreng (Explosive missile) rocket weighed 82 kilograms and carried a 50 kilogram high-explosive warhead. The 32cm Wurfkörper Flamm(Incendiary missile) was normally filled with 50 litres of incendiary oil (Flammöl), but could also carry poison gases or decontamination fluids. The oil could cover up to 200 square metres, however both rocket types performed poorly with just a range of a little over 2.2km and was never seen as satisfactory.
The 30cm Nebelwerfer 42 (30cm NbW 42) was another frame type with six rocket racks to be introduced to the front in 1943 this was the replacement for the unsatisfactory 28/32cm NbW 41 as they simply converted all the existing towed launchers with the addition of adapter rails for the 30cm Wurfkörper 42 Spreng (explosive missile) which were far superior in range covering over 4.5km. In 1944 just to cause further confusion the almost identical 30cm Raketenwerfer 56 was also introduced, again with the distinctive square shaped open metal rack launcher frame capable of launching six rockets but mounted on a two-wheeled carriage of the same type used for the 5cm Pak.
The Schwere Wurfrahmen 40 (sWu.R.40) (thrower frame 40) was part of a series of vehicles mounting a rudimentary rocket system. Six of these individual sWu.R.40 launcher fames were mounted on to the side of an Sd.Kfz.251/1 Schützenpanzerwagen three quarter track personnel carrier (three on each side). Each frame hanging from a swivel plate that would indicate the degree’s at which the launch rack was set. Some captured French and American built light tanks also received these racks usually four in total, two each side. Another more advanced vehicle based rocket launcher system was the Panzerwerfer 42 auf Maultier Sd.Kfz.4/1 that first went into production in April of 1943. The rocket launcher was on a truck chassis referred to as "Maultier", meaning "Mule". Opel was the main manufacturer, with some 300 Panzerwerfers produced in total with another 289 of its variant; the Munitionkraftswagen Sd.Kfz.4 which was the exact same vehicle, just without the rocket launcher and was mainly used for ammunition re-supply.
The Panzerwerfer had a 15cm 10-barrel roof mounted rocket launcher, which traversed 270 degrees and could be elevated up to 80 degrees.
It was guided with the RA35 optical sight operated by a crew of three, a commander, who was also the driver, a radio operator and a gunner.
Imaginatively the wooden transit packing frames the rockets were delivered to the front in could also be used to launch the rockets directly off the ground with the use of two wooden supporting legs or slid directly into the open metal racks. They could also be mounted on the ground in groups of four with the addition of a heavy metal support frame Schweres Wurfgerät 41 (sW.G. 41) with two fully adjustable front legs to give the rocket the appropriate angle of trajectory. These frame launchers were commonly referred to as ‘Stuka zu fuss’ (Stuka on foot) with troops labelling them ‘Heulende Kuh’ (Bellowing Cow’s)!
As already mentioned all German rockets of every type were spin stabilized, this effect was carefully created in the rocket nozzle assembly which contained 22 orifices evenly spaced around the rim of the exit nozzle each of the orifices being set an angle of 16° from the axis of the rocket, thus giving the rocket a clockwise rotation under powered thrust. What was even more unusual with the 15cm rockets in particular was that the rocket motor was set towards the head of the rocket with the exit nozzle approximately two thirds of the way down the body. The theory being that with the warhead towards the rear of the body most of the resulting detonation on impact would be above ground and thus cause more ground effect. This method however made production difficult and costly and in practice it gained little effect; with the adoption of the 21cm rockets this design characteristic was greatly simplified as in the case of 30cm Wurfkörper 42 Spreng which placed the motor in the tail pipe giving rise to their rather unusual barrel looking shape. The rockets when fired left a very prominent exhaust smoke trail in the sky which could be seen for miles around even with changes to the chemical composition of the solid rocket fuel in the later versions to try and reduce this visibility it was always a problem. They kicked up substantial amounts of dust and debris on launch forcing the crews to seek shelter before firing and meant that launch sites were easily spotted and had to relocate quickly if they were to avoid counter-battery fire. The rockets were fired one at a time, in a timed ripple using a Glühzündapparat firing box, launchers had no capability to fire single rockets, having to be fully loaded.
As usual multiple adaptations of calibres arose during the course of the war - for example the larger 21cm Wgr. 42 rocket being originally envisioned as an improvement aerodynamically over the 15cm Wgr. 41, however in the field it proved to have similar accuracy dispersion problems; generally covering an area 500 metres long and 130 metres wide. This problem was likely caused by uneven burning of its propellant during the accent phase and was never resolved during the war, one could perhaps conclude that the overall design of the rocket motor was at fault and maybe using the more traditional fin guides could have eliminated such problems as in the case of the Russian ‘katyusha’ or ‘Stalin’s Organ’ which incidentally is still in use to this day.
The NbW crews were recognisable by their Bordeaux wine red waffenfarbe and were typically organized into batteries of six launchers with three batteries per battalion. These battalions were concentrated into independent Werfer-Regiments and Brigades of the Nebeltruppen and they saw service on all fronts from 1942—45 with all armies including the SS who had their on formations. Panzer Grenadier Division Grossdeutschland as part of its own organic Artillery Regiment incorporated 6 Nebelwerfer’s to form its 12th Battery.
The following series of pictures depicts the loading and firing of the ‘Stuka zu fuss’ using the heavy metal support frame Schweres Wurfgerät 41 (sW.G. 41). Note how some of the rockets never leave the wooden transport packing crates whilst others are already in metal frames. One can also witness the extreme violence of the burning rocket motor and understand why crews had to seek shelter! Judging by the amount of discarded transport crates many rockets have been fired from this position indicating the secure location that these crews are operating from indeed these photos are believed to be from the Warsaw uprising.
Article submitted by Simon Garner.