4 Incredible Wartime Uses of Wood

Ever since the dawn of time human beings have been looking for ever more devious and cunning ways to bash each other’s heads in. Casting around them for materials to produce weapons from blood thirsty ancient humans would have quickly seen the benefits of wood; easy to get your hands on and to work it was the perfect material in those early days.

Some of the earliest human made objects ever found are weaponry, like these spears from Schöningen in Germany, but as human society developed, new and more devious ways of dispatching enemies needed to be found.

Sharpened sticks were no longer enough and more complex weaponry made of metals took over, though their wooden cousins continued to pop up throughout history in some surprising ways. So without further ado, let’s begin our list of some of the most ingenious ways that wood has been used to make the process of murdering one another more expedient.

Wooden Cannons

For as long as they have existed cannon have always had a great effect on the tide of battle. The terrifying roar of artillery, its great range and sheer destructive power made it the must-have toy for self-respecting despots and freedom fighters alike throughout the middle ages and into the modern period. For well-heeled kings and dukes, the process of having a cannon cast was very expensive, but not prohibitively so; the average peasant uprising however, needs to get a slightly better ratio of bang to buck.

Fancy metal cannons were out of the question, but trees were plentiful and free, so the solution was to cut down the tire swing, hollow out the trunk and hope for the best. Only ever designed to fire once or twice before they became unusable, examples of wooden cannon are numerous but the results were generally the same, big explosion, lots of splinters flying about; mayhem and carnage abound. Such was the case of the town of Paks in medieval Hungary, but this class of weapon was also used extensively in the Bulgarian uprising, the Cochinchina campaign in Vietnam and the Boshin war in Japan with varying degrees of success.

Sometimes, the gods of desperate invention smiled down favourably and through sheer dumb luck one of these weapons managed to kill its intended target, though arguably the most effective wooden cannon were never designed to fire at all. So called “Quaker guns” were false cannon made out of wood and painted to resemble real artillery pieces to trick the enemy into believing that a fortification was bristling with guns, discouraging a direct assault. Named after the pacifist religious organisation, Quaker guns saw extensive use in the American civil war, where both sides utilised subterfuge to try and get the upper hand.

Wooden War Planes

By the time that America entered the Second World War it was obvious that supply lines, particularly over the wide expanse of the Atlantic Ocean, would be critical to the success or failure of the war effort. U boats, the wolves of the sea, stalked beneath the icy waves on the hunt for shipping liners and troop transports to bring down, hampering the war effort and endangering thousands of lives. The problem was simple, but intractable; how to move thousands of tons of food, tanks, guns and ammunition half way around the world whilst avoiding the predations of Hitler’s subaquatic legions: the solution was not to sail through the waves, but to fly over them.

Whilst routine today, transatlantic flight was still very new in the 1940’s, with the first crossing being made in 1919 and Charles Lingbergh’s famous trip in the ‘Spirit of St. Louis’ only 12 years before the outbreak of the war. These pioneering journeys had proved that flight from Europe to America was possible for state-of-the-art machines, but the cash strapped allied powers could hardly afford state-of-the-art. In the true “wacky racers” style that defined many of the technological innovations of the Second World War the boffins put their heads together and decided to build the plane out of something a bit cheaper than aeronautical grade aluminium… plywood.

The brain child of Henry J. Kaiser (industrialist and ship builder) and Howard Hughes (aviation pioneer) the Hughes H4 Hercules was designed to carry 2 fully equipped Sherman tanks or 750 troops from one side of the pond to the other. These lofty ambitions meant the machine had to be huge, literally vast, with an as yet unbeaten wingspan of 98 metres. Sadly development was mired by problems, so by the time that the Hercules (or spruce goose as it came to be known) was completed the war was over. Whilst its successful maiden flight in 1947 proved that the “Spruce Goose” could be set loose, the recent truce meant the project was for the noose.

Wooden Aircraft Carriers

What was I just saying about wacky racers? Either the horrifying prospect of losing the war to the Nazis got the imagination going like nothing else, or someone was putting something in the water. Imagine the scene; a dimly lit cabinet war room, cigar smoke hanging in the air whilst the radio charted the roller coaster fortunes of the allied powers, a letter is passed to Churchill from the desk of Lord Mountbatten proposing a new top-secret project, Habakkuk, that will have the troops back in Blighty by Christmas… sounds like the setup to a taut spy thriller doesn’t it? Benedict Cumberbatch would probably be in it.

Similar to the spruce goose, this was an idea born of necessity. The allies needed more aircraft carriers, but they didn’t have the material they needed to make them. The solution came from scientist Geoffrey Pyke, who proposed that pykrete, ice with sawdust mixed into it, would make a cheaper alternative to costly metals. It might still win an Oscar, but watching a man pour sawdust into water and freezing it would be a very different kind of film. There would probably be a lot less dialogue and I imagine they’d struggle to get Cumberbatch on board.

The project was green lit by no less a towering figure of history than Winston Churchill who was so enthusiastic about its chances of success that he suggested it be named Habakkuk after the verse “be utterly amazed, for I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told,” from the book of the bible named after the prophet, an appropriate choice given the circumstance. Though initial scale tests proved successful, Portugal’s agreement to allow the British and Americans to operate air strips in the Azores meant that air craft could now be scrambled to intercept U-boats in the mid-Atlantic, the principle purpose for which Habakkuk was devised.

Wooden Armour

Long before the cowboys and Indians of the Wild West a battle raged on a different American frontier. In the far flung wildernesses of Alaska ruthless Russian merchants and their mercenary gangs battled against the native Tlingit and Haida peoples, whose centuries of conflict against one another had left them well used to making war. Alaska’s coasts and waterways were rich with fish and fur bearing animals, particularly sea otters whose thick and water resistant pelts were in high demand in Europe and the emerging markets of Asia. The Russians had access to gunpowder weaponry, and this conveyed a significant advantage, but the Tlingit were keen to level the field and after the first few skirmishes had guns of their own.

The Russians were less keen to avail themselves of their opponent’s weaponry, which included incredible suits of wooden armour. More than capable of protecting the wearer from clubs and blades, there is some suggestion that the slatted alder lathes that protected the body were capable of stopping the bullets fired by the Russians early fire-arms. Certainly the helmets that they wore, often carved from a single piece of hardwood, look as though they could give a musket ball a run for its money.

Perhaps the most useful thing about this armour was the way it looked, with its high plate protecting the lower part of the face and the helmet carved and painted to look like a terrifying face, it could add nearly two foot to a warrior’s height!

Blog | 8 years AGO