Nebelwerfers: The Germans’ “Screaming Mimi” Rocket Launchers

Nebelwerfer Photo Album

A screenshot photo of the 15cm nebelwerfer (a six-barreled German rocket launcher) from The Nebelwerfer Hunt in Medal of Honor: Allied Assault (MOHAA).

The 15cm nebelwerfer as it appears in Allied Assault.

Since the Chinese began launching fire arrows at attacking armies, rockets have been a part of warfare. While many other advances had been made in weaponry by World War II, rockets were still unguided barrage weapons. Though more advanced than their stick-launched black powder precursors, the German Nebelwerfers still filled the same role: to inflict physical and psychological harm upon the enemy.

Translated as “smoke launcher/thrower,” this weapon was not limited to its namesake ordinance. It was capable of launching not only smoke, but high explosives and incendiaries. The Allies also suspected (though it was never proven) that the Germans were violating the Geneva Protocol and using Nebelwerfers to launch poison gas.

The first Nebelwerfer, designed in the 1930s, looked nothing like its descendants – it was a mortar known as the 10cm Nebelwerfer 35. The 10cm Nebelwerfer 40 began replacing the older model in late 1941, but was still not a rocket-launching device. The 15cm Nebelwerfer 41 was introduced in 1940 and instantly made a name for itself (Allied soldiers in Sicily dubbed it the “Screaming Mimi” for its distinctive sound). Though the 15cm model was the most common, the Germans also developed a 28/32cm model, and also followed with the 21cm and 30cm Nebelwerfer 42. To improve mobility, the rockets were adapted to be carried on vehicles and even aircraft.

The model that appears in Medal of Honor: Allied Assault is the 15cm Nebelwerfer 41. According to this article from the Nov. 1943 issue of the Intelligence Bulletin, this weapon had six non-rotating barrels, each about three feet long, from which it launched rockets. The barrels were not rifled (which explains much of their inaccuracy), but each contained three rails which helped stabilize the rockets. The rockets were fueled by slow-burning black powder, and expelled gas through 26 angled jets behind the nose cap of the rocket. These jets caused the rockets to spin and accelerate during flight. The fuse was located at the base of the projectile, which allowed the payload to detonate above ground when the nose entered the soil.

A four-man crew operated each launcher, loading the barrels by hand, but firing from a distance. Because the exhaust from the rockets kicked up a substantial amount of debris, the crew took cover in foxholes about 10 to 15 yards to the side and rear as the rockets were launched via electrical ignition. The rockets were always launched in the same order, and in 10 seconds, a battery of six launchers could fire 36 projectiles at a target.

According to the Intelligence Bulletin, Nebelwerfer batteries were highly mobile and were often placed very close to the front lines (or at least, farther forward than most other artillery). The 15cm Nebelwerfer had an average range of about 7,000 meters (7,600 yards) and, though it was a barrage weapon, it could mass its projectiles on a small area. The fragmentation and concussive effects of the explosive rockets made them very effective against personnel and fortifications (the concussion alone could collapse enemy positions), and when equipped with a time-delay fuse, could penetrate reinforced cover.

A screenshot photo of the Nebelwerfer field from the Nebelwerfer Hunt level of Medal of Honor: Allied Assault (MOHAA).

The Nebelwerfer positions from Allied Assault.

The Allied Assault launchers look as they should, the rockets howl as they fly, and the ground shakes with every impact, so on the surface, it would appear as if the developers were spot-on in their representation. But, I’ve never been satisfied with taking things at face value, so I’ll critique a little further. The Intelligence Bulletin describes Nebelwerfer positions as “carefully built up,” and I’d describe the in-game position as average.

There is a trench system, two bunkers with MG42s, two more machine guns behind sandbags, and a minefield, all of which make it hard to reach the launchers. But, the weapons themselves are placed out in the open. Furthermore, the machine gun nests are situated closer than 10 to 15 yards from the launchers.

Since the first time I played through this game, it has bothered me that no one is ever seen operating the Nebelwerfers. They just seem to aim and operate autonomously. After learning that the crew had to fire the rockets from a safe distance, I accepted this prior annoyance for about five seconds before realizing that no one ever reloads the rockets either. There are soldiers in the trenches behind the weapons (presumably the crews), though there aren’t enough to operate all four (still two short of a battery).

Also, Lt. Mike Powell’s mission is to locate and destroy Nebelwerfers between Isigny and Carentan, and it appears as if no Nebelwerfers were in this area in the days after D-Day. According to this history of Nebelwerfer units, no launchers were in this area during this time. Only three brigades were even close. Werfer-Brigade 7 arrived in Beauvais, France on May 18, 1944, about 180 miles from Carentan, and on June 16, it supported an attack on the British bridgehead over the Orne River, about 50 miles from Powell’s approximate location.

On June 8, Werfer-Brigade 8 was ordered to Normandy, but didn’t begin assembling until June 28. Finally, Werfer-Brigade 9 was ordered to report to Normandy on June 12. So, while Powell may have eventually come across some Nebelwerfers in France, he certainly did not encounter any during the time frame described in the game.


~ by John on May 16, 2012.

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