Today, the weapon we didn't know about. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Thursday, November 26, 1943.
British troopship Rohna is under way from
Oran to Port Said in an Allied convoy. She carries
two thousand American soldiers. At four-twenty that
afternoon, German bombers find the convoy, and they
begin circling it.
Troops on the Rohna are puzzled by several
smaller airplanes flying below the bombers. Are
they allied fighters, there to protect them? Then a
couple of those small planes attack the ship ahead
of the Rhona. Moments later another comes
directly at Rohna. First it falls away from
a mother plane, then it accelerates. At 5:30 PM, it
strikes the Rohna's port flank at enormous
The device blows open a huge hole, killing hundreds
outright. The burning ship sinks, and, when the
smoke clears, 1135 troops and crew have died. The
images of burned and damaged bodies are a horror
that will remain etched on survivors and rescuers
alike. One of the least-known weapons of WW-II has
just inflicted the greatest American death toll on
any ship that went down.
As a pre-teenager, I followed the aerial war
closely, yet this is news to me. For the
Rohna disaster was hushed up. Its survivors
were bundled off to the war in Asia without so much
as the chance to grieve. We at home didn't hear
about it at all.
What'd struck the ship was something called a
glide bomb. Glide bombs had first been used
in WW-I. Dirigibles had tried dropping bombs with
stubby wings that could glide into the side, rather
than the top, of a target.
That idea came back in WW-II. The Germans,
Russians, English, Japanese, and Americans all
worked on it, but only the Germans and Americans
made usable weapons of it. The Germans were first.
They realized that such a device had to be
radio-controlled, and it needed a rocket booster to
get it past enemy fire.
By 1943 the Germans were using glide bombs in
combat. The Henschel-293
that destroyed Rohna was a small unmanned
airplane with stubby wings and an 1100-pound bomb.
Pilot Hans Dochterman dropped it from his Heinkel
bomber at about four thousand feet. The rocket
kicked in as it fell, and Dochterman's bombardier,
Georg Zuther, steered it into the Rohna from
a safe distance. It may've been moving over five
hundred miles an hour when it struck.
America was developing its own glide bombs by then,
and we imposed secrecy on the whole business. Soon
after that we'd gained air superiority in Europe,
and German glide bombs were no longer a threat. We
went on to create our own glide bombs and were soon
using them with murderous effect against enemy
bridges. By war's end, the Japanese had developed
an even more sinister version of the technology. It
was the human-flown Kamikaze bomb.
And so the cold waters of the Mediterranean closed
over that terrible November day. Rohna went
down, and we in America never knew. Secrets had to
be kept. And a war had to be won.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds