How do Mysorean Congreve missiles work

Mysoric missiles: India's deadly rain of fire and iron

They were completely inferior, but soldiers from the princely state of Mysore massacred thousands of British people using rockets in 1780. Excavators have now discovered specimens of the fiery killers.

At the Battle of Pollilur, death rained from the sky. On September 10, 1780, the soldiers of the British East India Company and the Mysore ruler Hayder Ali faced each other there. It should have been an easy game for the 7,000 or so British, only 2,000 to 3,000 soldiers from the southern Indian princely state of Mysore faced them.

Suddenly, however, whistling noises tore the air, then spinning, fire-breathing blades fell on the British soldiers. One of them hit their ammunition depot. The huge explosion split the ranks of the Europeans apart; they had no chance against the rain of blades. At the end of the day, 3,000 British lay dead on the battlefield, smirking at the French allied with the Mysors: "There has never been an example of a similar defeat in all of India."

Find in a well

What fell from the sky that day were so-called "mysterious missiles". Hayder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan had developed the devastating weapons themselves. The British wanted something like that too. When they conquered Tipu Sultan's capital Shrirangapattana twelve years later, their main booty included 700 rockets, 600 rocket launchers and 9,000 empty cartridges. They were quickly shipped to England, where they formed the basis for rocket research in the Empire. Two of these historical loot could be admired in the Royal Artillery Museum in London until the exhibition closed last year.

The location in South India: The rockets were discovered in a well that had fallen dry. (Source: Asst. Director R. Shejeshwara Nayaka)

However, the British did not loot the entire arsenal of Tipu Sultans at the time. Indian researchers from the Department of Archeology, Museums and Monument Protection in the southern Indian district of Shivamogga have now found more mysterious rockets in a well in the village of Nagara. "We expected to find maybe 100 or 200 pieces, but then we discovered more than 1,000," said excavation director R. Shejeshwara Nayaka, speaking to India's largest English-language newspaper, the Times of India. It was the smell that put the archaeologists on the trail of the ancient missiles: "Where the dry well was, it smelled of gunpowder."

The roughly 23 to 26 centimeters long, heavily corroded metal tubes date back to the reign of the Tipu Sultan. But whether they actually come from the arsenal of the Mysore ruler remains to be seen for the time being. "Even if he developed the technology, that doesn't mean those missiles were his," notes Shejeshwara. "We have to do more research to confirm that."

Rain of fire and death

By the end of the 18th century, the British were already familiar with rocket technology and occasionally used it themselves. But the British bullets were made of paper. Hayder Ali and Tipu Sultan had further developed this ancient Chinese invention by filling the necessary black powder tightly into metal tubes, one end of which was closed. They attached the tubes to bamboo sticks up to three meters long, which functioned as a tail unit and gave the projectile stability. With this construction, the Mysorian missiles flew up to two kilometers into the middle of the ranks of the enemy.

At one end sat long, sharp blades that made devastating wounds. Some of the missiles exploded when they hit the ground, others hissed fire-spitting like wild snakes through the ranks of the enemy. And they always came in en masse. Tipu Sultan assigned 200 missile specialists to each Mysoric brigade who were able to calculate trajectory and launch angle effortlessly and at lightning speed.

Investigation of the rocket finds: In contrast to the British rockets, the Indian rockets were made of metal. (Source: Asst. Director R. Shejeshwara Nayaka)

In total, around 5,000 of these specialists were part of his armed forces. Specially built batteries fired five to ten rockets at the same time, the British were covered in a hellish rain of fire and sharp blades, from which there was no escape. A young British soldier named Bayly described the horror: "No hail could be denser. Each flash of blue fire was accompanied by a shower of rockets, some of which hit the head of our platoon and then made their way to the end, killing, wounds and caused terrible amputations. "

Use against the USA

In the end, the English won the war anyway and Tipu Sultan died defending his capital. The victors adopted the missiles that had hit them so badly. The inventor William Congreve further developed the technology of Mysore missiles. During the Napoleonic Wars, the French were exposed to his flying incendiary devices, known as Congreve missiles.

The British also used this weapon against the still young USA. In September 1814, during the British-American War, the poet Francis Scott Key saw Congreve rockets raining down on Fort McHenry in the port of Baltimore. The sight inspired him to write a line in his poem "The Star Spangled Banner", which is still sung today as the American national anthem: "And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air ... "

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