Necessity is the mother of invention. Few things create greater necessity than war. Consequently, some of the greatest innovations in technology have arisen out of military conflict. World War II generated great leaps forward in aviation, communication, and rocketry.
It also produced one of the most comically horrible weapons of all time: the Great Panjamdrum.
As Allied commanders prepared for D-Day, one of the biggest challenges was how to clear the beaches. Germany had fortified the coasts of France with landmines, barbed wire, and barriers. If the Normandy landing was to be successful, soldiers would have to make their way past these obstacles while defending themselves from enemy fire.
As the top military engineers grappled with this problem, someone came up with the brilliant idea for the Great Panjamdrum. It was basically two large wheels straddling a large drum wheel filled with explosives. It was propelled by rockets attached to the wheels’ rims.
In theory, the unmanned contraption would roll rapidly across beaches, detonating mines and blowing up barriers. What worked on paper, however, did not pan out quite so well in practice.
If you have ever watched Looney Tunes, you know something bad is going to happen when Wile E. Coyote resorts to using rockets to try to catch Roadrunner. His best-laid plans invariably blow up in his face every time. The designers of the Great Panjamdrum must have felt a certain sympathy for ol’ Wile E. Coyote when the day arrived to put their device to the test.
The place chosen for trials of the Great Panjamdrum was a seaside resort known as Westward Ho! near Devon, England. In other words, this highly classified, top-secret project was tested in full view of a large crowd of civilian sunbathers. As odd as this choice may seem, the results of the trials took everyone’s mind off of the peculiar breach of secrecy. In the first test, one of the wheels failed to turn at the same speed as its twin. This sent the whole contraption zooming wildly out of control, nearly killing the cameraman who was filming the spectacle.
After a hasty modification in the design, it was back for another audition. It, too, failed to produce the desired effect. The problem arose from the difficulty in getting all of the rockets to ignite at the same time or to remain ignited.
Another redesign found the Great Panjamdrum with a third wheel to add to its stability. The engineers’ hopes were dashed when this design was tested. Upon firing the rockets, the device shot toward the beach before it seemed to have second thoughts. It did an abrupt about-face and started a return route to the launching vessel. While this was happening, some of the rockets came loose and flew in unpredictable patterns, with some of them exploding dangerously close to the observers.
Not to be discouraged, the designers went back and added a steering system in the form of a metal cable. When this was tested, the cable caught and snapped, nearly removing the head of one of the operators.
Everyone associated with the project when back to the blackboards and started from the beginning. Several modifications to the design looked promising. After a lot of hard work, the engineers were convinced they finally had all the bugs worked out. They were so convinced that they invited generals and admirals to witness the Great Panjamdrum’s final demonstration.
If you are hoping all the design flaws were resolved, you are going to be disappointed. A BBC documentary described the final test:
“At first all went well. Panjandrum rolled into the sea and began to head for the shore, the Brass Hats watching through binoculars from the top of a pebble ridge […]Then a clamp gave: first one, then two more rockets broke free: Panjandrum began to lurch ominously. It hit a line of small craters in the sand and began to turn to starboard, careering towards [cameraman] Klemantaski, who, viewing events through a telescopic lens, misjudged the distance and continued filming.
Hearing the approaching roar he looked up from his viewfinder to see Panjandrum, shedding live rockets in all directions, heading straight for him. As he ran for his life, he glimpsed the assembled admirals and generals diving for cover behind the pebble ridge into barbed-wire entanglements. Panjandrum was now heading back to the sea but crashed onto the sand where it disintegrated in violent explosions, rockets tearing across the beach at great speed.”
There would be no further trials for the Great Panjamdrum. The project was scrapped for obvious reasons. Despite the grand hopes that it would blast through German defenses and send the Nazis running, it only succeeded in scaring the spectators and chasing a stray dog across a beach.