Possibly one of the most terrifying and
demoralising infantry weapons ever produced is the portable
flamethrower. As the introduction to the 1944 Australian Army
training pamphlet for flamethrowers states: " ... flame has a
powerful psychological effect in that humans instinctively withdraw
from it, even when their morale is good. In addition, it is a
casualty producing and lethal agent."
Although first used by the German Army during
WW1, the Australian Army's experience with flamethrowers really
began during WW 2 when a need for this type of weapon was
identified. Experience showed that a stubborn enemy, when well dug
into extensive bunker systems, was extremely difficult and costly to
dislodge using the more conventional small arms and grenades.
WW1 French troops using
Operational and experimental reports about the
development and use of flame throwers were available to Australia
from our Allies and demonstrated just how effective this weapon
could be, particularly in clearing out enemy from fortifications
with overhead cover.
As a result, the
Australian Army saw a requirement for two types of flamethrowers: a
"man-pack" or portable model for the infantry and a larger
"mechanised" model for mounting in armoured vehicles.
However, the then
standard US Army issue flamethrower, the M1A1, was not available in
quantity so, in January 1944, design work on a local-pattern
flamethrower was commenced. A pilot model, manufactured mainly by
British Tube Mills (Australia) Pty Ltd, was completed by the
designated the Flamethrower, Portable, Ferret (Aust) Mark 1, the
name Ferret being suggested because it would be used to ferret out
enemy from bunkers.
- Badge worn by German
flame-thrower troops in WW1.
- They were despised
and were never taken prisoner.
Despite encouraging results from the
initial trials, development was slowed when it was learnt that
sufficient quantities of American flamethrowers would become
available shortly. Nevertheless, the Ferret was further developed,
with Mk2 and MC (Improved) experimental models produced. Although
never accepted into service with the Australian Army, the Ferret's
fate was not finally sealed until early 1947, when a series of
comparative tests against the American M2‑2 flamethrower were
carried out by the School of Infantry. These tests showed that the
performance of both types was near identical at optimum working
pressure and that there was no advantage to be gained by adopting
the local-pattern Ferret.
The American man-pack flamethrower which
initially became available about April 1944 which used compressed
nitrogen as a propellant, compressed hydrogen an ignition gas and a
battery–powered ignition system. All up, it weighed about 30kg (80
pounds) fully loaded. Only six are known to have been officially
supplied before being superseded by the improved M2-2
with an important local modification. was a type officially
adopted for service with the Australian Army. The
the incorporation of a special non-return valve which
prevented the expulsion of fuel under pressure in the case
of a rupture disc failing. Spare
pressure tanks were also manufactured in Australia, on the
basis of six tanks per flamethrower.
1945, 162 M2-2 flamethrowers had been allocated to Australia
under lend lease, allowing an issue of 36 per jungle
division plus a reserve. These were supported by special
truck-mounted, Rix Type K, three-stage air compressors which
were allocated to each division to provide a supply of
Flame fuel was another item which was
manufactured locally. Although most mechanised and man‑pack
flamethrowers could be satisfactorily operated using diesel fuel,
extensive experimentation showed that there was an optimum
combination of operating pressure and thickness of fuel. The optimum
combination for a particular type of flamethrower was considered to
be the one which gave the maximum range
and most burning fuel onto the target.
While variations to the working pressure were not
such a problem finding the best fuel type took a considerable of
experimental effort. The result was Geletrol which was formally
accepted by the General Staff as fuel thickener in October 1944. It
was made by combining various weights of the dried chemical compound
Aluminium Oleate with petrol, diesel or a petrol‑diesel mix. The
type of fuel used and the percentage mixture depended on the
Although Aluminium Oleate had previously been
used in relatively small quantities for the manufacture of
specialised paints and greases, its use in flame warfare was
entirely new. As a result, the sudden increase in demand stretched
production facilities in Australia to the limit. Not only had the
Army found a use for it in both man‑pack and mechanised
flamethrowers but both the RAAF and the Royal Navy (operating in the
Pacific) had also found it useful for making drop‑tank incendiary
Local manufacture was carried out by two
companies: Fletcher Chemical Company of Melbourne, and Robert Corbet
Pty Ltd of Sydney. By early 1945, they were supplying specially
scaled tropic proof packs of the light brown, granular chemical in
either 20-pound tins for mechanised flamethrowers or 2-pound tins
for man-pack flamethrowers.
The man-pack flamethrower proved a very effective
weapon, being used on many occasions in the later stages of the war.
Just how effective can he illustrated by the actions on Tarakan of
the flamethrower team from 2/48th Infantry Battalion who, on May 5,
1945, attacked a bunker from a range of about 10m. The flame went
over the first bunker and into three well-camouflaged bunkers in the
rear, from which the Japanese troops hastily withdrew without firing
14,000 M1A1s were produced, and the model was eventually
replaced by the M2-2 Flamethrower.
The M1A1 Flamethrower used
thickened gasoline as a fuel, and required two men to
operate; an operator to wield the flamethrower itself, and
an assistant to open the fuel source valves and carry extra
fuel, tools, and weapons for the both of them.
battalions reported similar experiences.
Australian Infantry Battalion Flamethrower Section, made up
of 111 volunteers, was particularly successful during May
1945, when it used a pair of flamethrowers on several
occasions to overcome well-fortified Japanese positions.
Statements in the after-action reports sum up the attacks:
"... patrol reported enemy were demoralized by flame.." and
"... Japanese sentry was highly surprised .... ran back
screaming!" Such encounters often resulted in large gains
for very few casualties.
New Guinea. 1942-08.
Flame throwers used by the
Japanese against Australian troops at Milne Bay.
Following the end of the war, the M2-2 remained
on the inventory as the Australian Army's only man-pack
flamethrower, although trials were carried out from time to time
with equipment from other sources, including the British
The M2-2 was eventually modernised by upgrade or
replacement, to M2A1 and M2A2 standard during, the 1950s. These
remained in service until 1964, when a further upgrade to M2A1-7
standard took place.
Photo courtesy NARA
A U.S. flamethrower operator
in Vietnam during Operation New Castle -- the weight and
size of the fuel tanks made the soldier extremely vulnerable
to enemy fire, and troops had to be assigned to protect him.
Man-pack flamethrowers were again
used operationally by Australian troops on several occasions during
the war in South Vietnam. The fighting around Fire
Support Bases Coral and Balmoral, for
example, saw assault pioneers use flamethrowers to successfully
subdue Viet Cong bunkers. Not only were they used on foot but on one
occasion, from the rear deck of a Centurion Armoured Recovery
Photo courtesy NARA
Flame tanks of the 1st (US)
Tank Battalion attack No-name Village, in the Quang Ngai
province of Vietnam, during Operation Doser.
The M2A1-7 was the last man-pack flamethrower to
be listed on the Australian Army's inventory. By late 1987, with
local stocks of spare parts running low and additional parts no
longer available from the United States, the type was declared
obsolete. A few were retained on an official basis for museums such
as the infantry and engineer museums but the majority were scrapped.
Despite its demonstrated effectiveness and some
rumours about purchasing the M2A9 version, there is apparently no
intention at this time to re-introduce a man-pack flamethrower into
the Australian Army.