Mysorean rockets were the first iron-cased rockets successfully deployed for military use. Hyder Ali, the 18th century ruler of Mysore, and his son and successor, Tipu Sultan used them effectively against the British East India Company during the 1780s and 1790s.
Their conflicts with the company exposed the British to this technology, which was then used to advance European rocketry with the development of the Congreve rocket in 1804.
Hyder Ali’s father, the naik or chief constable at Budikote, commanded 50 rocketmen for the Nawab of Arcot. Tipu Sultan brought the concept of using sword and blade thrust rockets in their military force to fight the advancing British army. There was a regular rocket corps in the Mysore Army, beginning with about 1,200 men in Hyder Ali’s time. At the Battle of Pollilur (1780), during the Second Anglo-Mysore War, Colonel William Baillie’s ammunition stores are thought to have been detonated by a hit from one of Hyder Ali’s rockets, contributing 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 meters through the air before coming down with edges facing the enemy.
The British took an active 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). Although rockets existed also in Europe, they were not iron cased, and their range was far less than that of their East Asian counterparts.
While these hammered soft iron rockets were crude, the bursting strength of the container of black powder was much higher than the earlier paper construction; thus a greater internal pressure was possible. In battles at Srirangapatam in 1792 and 1799 these rockets were used with considerable effect against the British”.
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 capable of launching five to ten rockets almost simultaneously were used in war.
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 of powder could travel almost 1,000 yards (~900 m). In contrast, rockets in Europe, not being iron cased, could not take large chamber pressures and as a consequence, were not capable of reaching distances anywhere near as great.
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.
In 1792, during the Third Anglo-Mysore War, there was mention of two rocket units fielded by Tipu Sultan, 120 men and 131 men respectively. 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 5000 in Tipu Sultan’s army. Mysore rockets were also used for ceremonial purposes. When the Jacobin Club of Mysore sent a delegation to Tipu Sultan, 500 rockets were launched as part of the gun salute.
During the Fourth Anglo-Mysore War, rockets were again used on several occasions. One of these involved Colonel Arthur Wellesley, later famous as the First Duke of Wellington. Wellesley was defeated by Tipu’s Diwan, Purnaiya, at the Battle of Sultanpet Tope. Quoting Forrest,
At this point (near the village of Sultanpet, Figure 5) there was a large tope, or grove, which gave shelter to Tipu’s rocketmen and had obviously to be cleaned out before the siege could be pressed closer to Srirangapattana island. The commander chosen for this operation was Col. Wellesley, but advancing towards the tope after dark on the 5 April 1799, he was set upon with rockets and musket-fires, lost his way and, as Beatson politely puts it, had to “postpone the attack” until a more favourable opportunity should offer.
The following day, Wellesley launched a fresh attack with a larger force, and took the whole position without losing a single man. On 22 April 1799, twelve days before the main battle, rocketeers worked their way around to the rear of the British encampment, then ‘threw a great number of rockets at the same instant’ 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. Others, called ground rockets, would rise again on striking the ground and bound along in a serpentine motion until their force was spent. According to one British observer, a young English officer named Bayly: “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.
During the conclusive British attack on Srirangapattana on May 2, 1799, a British shot struck a magazine of rockets within Tipu Sultan’s fort, causing it to explode and send a towering cloud of black smoke with cascades of exploding white light rising up from the battlements.
On the afternoon of 4 May when the final attack on the fort was led by Baird, he was again met by “furious musket and rocket fire”, but this did not help much; in about an hour’s time the fort was taken; 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