The Origin of the Sticky Bomb – Great Weapon or a Piece of Junk?


It’s the final sequence of Saving Private Ryan. They were short on numbers and had little variety of weaponry to choose from.

Captain Miller, his squad, and a handful of men of the 101st Airborne had to use their initiative if they wanted a hope in hell of staving off the advance of the German battalion.

“You take a standard issue GI sock, cram it with as much comp B [TNT] as it can hold, rig up a simple fuse, and you coat the whole thing with axle grease. That way, when you throw it… it should stick,” explains Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) in the film.

And so, the first man runs up to the passing Tiger tank and takes a little too long. Bang. He’s blown to pieces.

In reality, the primary risk wasn’t that you would run out of time. In fact, the sticky substance coating the bomb was the real threat.

Bill Miles, a member of the British Home Guard, remembers his training with the Sticky Bomb:

“It was while practising that a H[ome] G[uard] bomber got his stick [sic] bomb stuck to his trouser leg and couldn’t shift it. A quick-thinking mate whipped the trousers off and got rid of them and the bomb.”

Saving Private Ryan was noted for its recreation of the Omaha Beach landings.

“The real hazard was… you pull the pin, you move back to throw it, and what do you do? It’s stuck to you,” said explosives expert Will Fowler.

After the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940, a German invasion of Britain was imminent. But the British Army was far from ready. As well as their lack of man-power, anti-tank guns were also in short supply.

A close-up view showing the protective casing being clipped into place around the glass flask of a sticky bomb at a workshop, somewhere in Britain.

There was a desperate need to find other ways of combatting the terrific force of German armaments. So the task was entrusted to Robert Stuart Macrae and Major Millis Jefferis. It was Macrae who took on the challenge of designing the “Sticky Bomb.”

Trial and error was the key with this weapon. As with many inventors, past and present, the repetition of success followed by failure followed by success must have got infuriating at times.

Sticky bomb diagram. British explosive ordnance, NAVORD OP 1665, Naval Ordnance Systems Command (1946)

First, Macrae had to tackle the shape. Initially, he wanted a bomb that could adapt to the shape of its target for maximum damage.

Using a flexible bag holding an explosive gel, the idea was that once the bomb made contact with a tank, it would mold itself to any part of the armor. Unfortunately, the prototype didn’t work.

Speaking loudly in his office, Macrae complained to a colleague about the failed tests and how the bomb was difficult to throw. Gordon Norwood, an outsider to the project, overheard and decided to offer his two cents.

A boxful of glass flasks, which form the main body of the sticky bomb, are inspected and approved at the workshop where the bombs are assembled, somewhere in Britain.

Norwood’s suggestion was that they use a frangible container. The team set about building a test model by covering a glass sphere with a woolen sock and soaking it in an adhesive. A handle was attached and a detonator with a five-second delay placed inside it.

In October 1940, Winston Churchill wrote in a memo: “Sticky bomb. Make one million.” Having witnessed tests first-hand, he saw the value in the design, especially having seen the poor effects made on tanks by Molotov Cocktails and SIP Grenades (incendiary grenades).

At that time, Churchill was pre-occupied by the threat of a Nazi invasion and this form of street-fighting weaponry was exactly what he had in mind.

A close-up view showing knitted woolen jackets being fitted the glass flasks of sticky bombs at a factory workshop, somewhere in Britain.

Time passed, and arguments continued over failed trials and complications in design: leakages, not sticky enough, easily broken during transportation.

But the money was spent, and Churchill was convinced they would work. Training commenced and men were told to hide in a trench and spring out as a tank passed. They were then to attach the bomb to the weakest part of the machine’s armor.

Sticky Bomb- the Production of the No 74 Grenade in Britain, 1943.

As well as serving a purpose in battles around the globe during the war, partisan groups and militia saw its usefulness. The French Resistance were supplied with plenty to aid them in their sabotage tactics.

Read another story from us: 7 Innovative Explosives from Britain’s Eccentric WW2 Experts

Around 2.5 million bombs were made between 1940 and 1943.

The German’s invented their own sticky bomb but using magnets. Interestingly, in 1939 Robert Stuart Macrae invented the limpet mine, designed to attach to naval ships using magnets.

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