Rockets Employed by the Naval Brigade during the Zulu War
By Tom Hyde
The Naval Brigade that was landed in South Africa for the Zulu war brought with them their own crew served weapons, including rocket launchers. HMS Active landed two rocket tubes; HMS Tenedos landed one; HMS Shah’s contingent brought along two, as did HMS Boadicea’s contingent.
The rocket used by the Naval Brigade was the 24 pounder Hale’s rocket. It had been adopted by the military in 1867, although experimental versions were used in earlier conflicts. The Hale’s rocket was an improvement on the Congreve rocket which was stabilized in flight by a long stick. The Hale’s rocket’s stabilization was produced by a rotation of the rocket itself. This was accomplished by three metal vanes that deflected the rocket’s exhaust, causing the rocket to spin in a manner similar to a bullet leaving a rifled barrel.
The Hale’s 24 lb Rocket had a length of 23” and a diameter of 3 ¾”. The rocket was painted red with black lettering.
Unlike the Army’s 9 pounder rockets which were fired from troughs, the Navy’s 24 pounders were fired from a tube. In 1869 Lt. John Fisher, RN, had invented a ‘sea service rocket tube Mark II.” This was designed to be bracketed onto the side of a ship, but by 1879 a modified version replaced the bracket with a tripod for land service, and it was the Fisher tube which saw service in Zululand. The tube was used by the Navy because they were less dangerous to use aboard ship, where care had to be taken to prevent uncontrolled sparks and flames from setting light to rigging and flammable stores.
The head of the rocket was of cast iron plugged with wood. In all Hale's rockets when the composition burns out there is no further explosive effect.
Rockets were issued in wood cases, that for 24-pr. holding 6 (3 for sea service.)
The Fisher Mark II Tube’s length was 8’, with a width of 4 ¼ inches and weighed 64 lbs 12 oz. The tube was painted black, mounted on a tripod for field use, and was lanyard operated, which when pulled ignited a friction tube that had been placed in one of the exhaust nozzles thus firing the rocket.
The maximum elevation for the Fisher Mark II was 25 degrees. At 15 degrees the rocket had a range of 1546 to 2226 yards.
Rockets were popular with both the Army and the Navy due to their light weight and ease of firing. A rocket tube was easier to transport over the rough terrain of South Africa than the heavier 7 lb or 9 lb field guns. It was capable of firing up to four rockets a minute, and did not take a highly trained gun crew to operate.
The rockets of the Naval Brigade were present in each of the battles they participated in,
On January 18 the Naval Brigade contingent from HMS Active, with their two 24 pounders, accompanied Column One into Zululand.
On January 21 during Colonel Pearson’s march to Eshowe, half of the Naval Brigade accompanied the force sent by Pearson to destroy a military kraal a few miles to the east of their track. A couple of rockets were fired by the Naval Brigade which quickly set fire to the closely packed huts and destroyed the kraal.
The following day at the Battle of Inyezane the two rocket tubes, which had been near the front of the column when the battle began, were placed on a knoll along with the Royal Artillery’s two 7 pound guns. The rockets were under the command of Boatswain John Cotter. During the battle rockets were fired at Zulus in the valley to the east of the knoll, and one well aimed rocket was fired through a kraal to the front, where a large force of Zulu were gathered, setting the kraal on fire and driving off the Zulu. During the battle the Naval Brigade fired a total of 11 rockets. When the column moved on after the battle Staff Surgeon H. F. Norbury of “Active” reported that “On the top of the hill we passed the corpses of several Zulus, some of which were terribly burned, probably by the Naval Brigade rockets.”
After Fort Eshowe was constructed the rocket tubes were mounted together at the southeast angle of the wall. The Zulu never attacked Eshowe, and the rockets were not fired.
On the 2nd of April Lord Chelmsford’s forces which were attempting to relieve the men at Eshowe fought the Zulu at the Battle of Gingindlovo. Chelmsford forces include a large contingent of men from HM Ships “Shah”, “Boadicea” and “Tenedos”. The 2 rockets of the “Shah” contingent were placed at the Southeast corner, while the 2 of the “Boadicea” contingent were stationed in the Northwest corner. The rocket from “Tenedos” had been left with a small contingent remaining back at the Lower Tugela. During the attack on the laager by the Zulu’s left horn the rockets of “Boadicea” were used against the Zulu, and according to one source “Much execution was done by the rockets. Fourteen Zulus were killed by one charge alone.” As the attack continued, the Zulu’s right horn moved against the south face of the laager and was met by the Gatling and the rockets of the “Shah” contingent in the southeast corner.
On the following day Chelmsford’s flying column set out to relieve Pearson’s men at Eshowe. The two rockets of “Boadicea” were sent along with a group of sailors and a marine escort.
Firing rockets at the Zulus was not left to just the Naval Brigade ashore. HMS Forester which was patrolling the Zulu coast, looking for a future landing place to bring ashore supplies and reinforcements, fired rockets at Zulus on the beach. This was done in response to the Zulu having opened fire on two of her boat crews that were taking soundings near the coast on April 24. Later, on the 13th of May, HMS Forester fired another rocket into the brush along the shore where a large group of Zulu had been seen earlier in the day.
The four rockets that were used at the battle of Gingindlovu remained with that portion of the Naval Brigade that was at the camp at Gingindlovu, and later at Fort Chelmsford. The two rockets that were with the Naval Brigade continent from HMS Active at Fort Eshowe returned with them to Fort Pearson on the Lower Tugela. The 7th rocket returned to HMS Tenedos when her crew returned to ship in early May.
In the middle of June the second invasion of Zululand began. All six of the rockets accompanied the Naval Brigade that was part of General Crealock’s column, but saw no action for the remainder of the war.
“Ammunition for Rifled Ordnance,” by Captain Charles Orde Brown, Royal Artillery)
“British forces in Zululand 1879” by Ian Knight
“Military History Journal, Vol. 4, No. 4, Centenary Issue – January 1979, “Artillery in the Zulu War – 1879,” by Major D. D. Hall
Scientific American Supplement, Vol. XVI, No. 392)
“The History of the Battles and Adventures of the British, the Boers, and the Zulus in Southern Africa, from 1495 to 1879, Including every particular of the Zulu War of 1879” by Duncan Campbell Francis Moodie
“The Naval Brigade in South Africa During the Years 1877-78-79”, Fleet Surgeon Henry F. Norbury