The Great Panjandrum was supposed to be developed in secrecy in order to spring it as a surprise on the Germans. However, testing was conducted on a popular beach, so huge crowds gathered to gawk at the strange device. The design’s flaws emerged at the first trial run in 1943. When the rockets were ignited and the device was launched, it made its way up the beach before rockets on one of the wheels malfunctioned, causing the Great Panjandrum to careen wildly off course. The problem persisted in additional trials: it was impossible to get the rockets on both sides to ignite simultaneously or to keep firing simultaneously.
After weeks of troubleshooting, the developers returned to the beach, this time with a third wheel affixed to the device to increase its stability. That test proved more embarrassing yet, as the device hurtled toward the beach, only to double back and turn back to sea towards the launching craft. In the meantime, some of the rockets had detached from the Great Panjandrum’s wheels to launch themselves at the observers on the beach, whistling over their heads or exploding underwater nearby.
3. An Innovative Weapon Straight Out of Looney Tunes
The Great Panjandrum’s designers returned to the drawing board to work out the bugs. When they figured that they finally had it under control, they conducted a final demonstration in front of a gathering of admirals and generals. As described in a BBC documentary: “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 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 on to the sand where it disintegrated in violent explosions, rockets tearing across the beach at great speed.” Unsurprisingly, the project was immediately scrapped over safety concerns.
2. The Most Farcical Battle in the History of Warfare?
Among all the strange events in the history of war, few are more strange than the Battle of Karansebes, which took place in 1788. The battle – to the extent that it could be called that – was a farcical debacle in which an army killed up to 10,000 of its own ranks, routed itself, and scattered in panicked flight without an enemy present. It occurred during the Austro-Turkish War of 1787-1791, and was fought between an Austrian army of 100,000, and itself.
Austria ruled a diverse multiethnic empire, and its army was correspondingly diverse and multiethnic. Units were drawn from various ethnic groups, most of whom could not understand each others’ languages. During the night of September 21-22, 1788, Austrian hussars crossed a river to scout for the enemy. According to Webster’s Dictionary, the word hussar stems from the Hungarian huszár, which in turn originates from the medieval Serbian Husar, meaning brigand. They found no Turks, but found some Gypsies who sold them schnapps. Soon, the hussars were uproariously drunk. Back in the camp, the Austrian commander grew worried by the hussars taking so long to return. So he sent some infantry across the river to check. It was the start of a farcical chain of events that would end in disaster.
1. The Strange Battle That Was Fought – and Lost – Without an Enemy in Sight
The infantry found the missing hussars and demanded a share of their schnapps. The hussars refused, resulting in a brawl that escalated into an exchange of gunfire. During the fight, an infantryman pranked the hussars by shouting “Turci! Turci!” (“Turks! Turks!”). That caused the drunken hussars to flee in terror. However, they were accompanied in their panicked flight by many infantrymen, unaware that the alarm was a trick by a comrade. Across the river, the Austrian camp stirred uneasily at the sounds of distant gunfire and screams. When the panicked hussars and infantry neared the camp, shouting “Turci! Turci!“, they were challenged by sentries who shouted “Halt! Halt!”
That was misheard by non-German speaking soldiers as “Allah! Allah!” In the confusion, an artillery officer thought that the camp was under attack, and ordered his cannons to open fire. As startled and confused soldiers woke up to the sounds of combat, some began firing wildly. Within minutes, the panic and wild firing spread had engulfed the camp. Soon, entire regiments were firing volleys at each other, before the entire army dissolved and scattered in panicked flight. The Turks arrived two days later and captured the Austrian camp, where they found 10,000 dead and wounded.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading