Frag Out! High Explosive Snowballs

The scale of destruction wrought during the Second World War was unprecedented. Such carnage is literally unimaginable today.

It’s tough for the modern mind to comprehend the scope of the Second World War. During those six years, the combatant nations produced enough bullets to shoot every human being on the planet forty times. 12.2 million Americans served. 407,316 died.

The industry of death was perfected during WW2.

The final planetary death toll was somewhere between 70 and 85 million people. That’s roughly 3% of the world’s population. Nearly one-fifth of the Soviet population perished.

The world’s nation states threw all they had into the war.

WW2 touched almost everybody on earth. If you didn’t have a loved one serving you certainly knew someone who did. My friend enlisted in 1940.

My buddy fought past Monte Cassino, shown here after extensive Allied aerial bombardment.

He fought in North Africa before heading to Sicily for Operation Husky. He then landed at Salerno in September of 1943 as part of Operation Avalanche. Afterward, he fought past places like Rome and Monte Cassino. Nearly 70,000 Allied soldiers died in the Italian campaign.

For the most part, WW2 was a war of mobility. However, things still got bogged down on fairly frequently.

By the mid-1940s warfare was a very dynamic thing. The advent of the tank and, more importantly, the military truck ensured that battle lines ebbed and flowed with the vagaries of fate, strategy, and logistics. The Italian campaign, however, lasted nearly two years. This gave the combatants time to get to know each other.

Steep ridged terrain favored the defender. Foul weather made things hugely worse.

Italy was a grunt’s nightmare. Steep natural defiles impeded maneuver while minimizing the effectiveness of air power and artillery. When combined with cold, wet, miserable weather this all conspired to create a relatively static battlefield, particularly in wintertime. In 1944 with the offensive temporarily stalled my friend’s unit dug in and made itself at home.

German and American forces exchanged both profane epithets and the errant hand grenade as the opportunity allowed. This staged photo of a German Landser prepped to throw a stielhandgranate stick grenade on the Eastern Front has been widely reproduced.

Things then got a bit weird. In some areas, the German and American positions were within shouting range, sometimes for days on end. In my buddy’s unit, nobody spoke German. However, a few of the corresponding Germans did speak English. The two sides would pass the time by hurling insults at each other punctuated by the occasional hand grenade. My friend acquired a decent repertoire of German profanity.

The Germans and Americans shot at each other as the situation demanded, but neither side really wanted to be noticed unduly.

In this particular area, the Americans held the ridgeline, while the Germans occupied the valley. Each side would sporadically exchange rifle and machinegun fire as necessity dictated. However, most grunts on both sides just wanted to live long enough to go home.

German courier and supply vehicles like this Kubelwagen transited within sight of American positions.
A surprising lot of the German Wehrmacht in WW2 still relied upon horses for transportation. Hard to believe shooting like this was ever a real thing.

A modest road snaked through the valley at the base of my buddy’s ridge. Fairly frequently German troops would cruise down the road, sometimes in vehicles like trucks or Kubelwagens, occasionally on horseback, and often on foot. The road was at the limits of effective rifle range but oriented directly underneath the American positions.

These guys generally got activated in response to sniper fire. This kept an effective damper on Infantry mischief.

My friend said neither side was in any real hurry to shoot at the other. Small arms fire invariably precipitated mortars or artillery in response. Nobody likes being on the receiving end of the field artillery. One frigid evening as my buddy sat shivering in his foxhole he had an epiphany.

The Mk 2 hand grenade was the standard American grenade of WW2.

The next afternoon late he and his pals took a bunch of Mk 2 hand grenades and packed snow tightly around them before pouring water over the whole frozen mess. The water froze in short order, locking the grenade spoons in place. The US troops then gently removed the safety pins from the grenades and gave these high explosive snowballs a gentle shove down the mountainside.

The frozen Italian winter offered these particular GIs a novel way to employ their hand grenades.

By the time these frosty bombs reached the bottom of the hill, they were thoroughly encased in ice and ample accumulated snow. The geography of the situation was such that each diabolical frozen snowball came to rest in the road below. Then they just waited.

The Grenades

I guess a pomegranate does look a bit grenade-like.

The English word “grenade” dates back to the 1590s and is derived from the French word “pomegranate.” The hand grenade’s obvious similarity to this poly-seeded fruit was the overt inspiration. The concept of the hand grenade dates back much farther, however.

These are early Byzantine grenades shown alongside period caltrops. Caltrops were area denial weapons designed to damage horses’ hooves. No matter how they’re dropped there is always a pointy side facing up. Ouch.
The earliest grenades were ceramic fuse-fired affairs that were likely not terrifically effective.

Simple incendiary grenades were used by the Byzantines as far back as the 8th century. Byzantine troops found that they could fashion glass and ceramic containers filled with Greek Fire and use them to visit chaos upon a nearby enemy. Greek Fire was some fascinating stuff indeed.

Experts still disagree on the chemical composition of Greek Fire. I just know you wouldn’t want to get any of it on you.

Even today nobody is completely sure what made up Greek Fire. The stuff was most typically expelled from a device similar to a modern-day flamethrower and was used in ship-to-ship naval battles. Greek Fire was rumored to continue burning once in contact with water. Some suggested components included quicklime, naphtha, pine resin, sulfur, niter, and calcium phosphide.

This early Chinese “Thunder Crash Bomb” was excavated from a 13th-century shipwreck.

True explosive grenades as we appreciate them really arose in China about a thousand years ago. They were rather theatrically called Zhen Tian Lei or “Sky-Shaking Thunder.” These rudimentary devices consisted of gunpowder packed into metal or ceramic containers. Fuse-fired cast iron versions first saw service in Europe in the mid-1400s.

The Ketchum Grenade was relatively widely used by Union forces during the American Civil War. The fins supposedly kept the bomb flying nose forward for reliable detonation. Confederate troops were known to catch these things in Army blankets and then vigorously return them to their original owners.

The Ketchum Grenade was fin-stabilized and featured a nose-mounted impact fuse. These weapons were first used by Union forces during the American Civil War. Confederate counterparts were simpler spherical things that weighed up to six pounds and used sensitive paper fuses.

The British Mills Bomb was compact, reliable, and effective. Most of the world’s modern hand grenades followed its general pattern.

In 1902 the British War Office declared hand grenades to be obsolete. However, nobody bothered telling the Germans so they started churning out stick grenades by the zillions in 1915. In that same year, the British saw the light and began producing the Mills Bomb, the world’s first truly modern fragmentation grenade.

This WW1-era photograph shows a British officer demonstrating the proper technique for delivering a Mills Bomb.

The Mills Bomb was a product of the fertile imagination of one William Mills and was deeply serrated. In theory, this was supposed to create predictable fragmentation. In practice, these knobs made very little difference to exactly how the grenade burst. The typical British Tommy was expected to be able to throw a Mills Bomb at least thirty meters, though the danger zone was advertised as being closer to 100. By the end of WW1, the warring nations had produced about 75 million hand grenades.

The Mk 2 Pineapple Grenade

The WW1-era American Mk 1 grenade was a flawed design, but it laid a foundation for more effective things to come.

The Mk 1 grenade was one of the world’s first time-fused grenades. However, deploying the Mk 1 was a fairly convoluted chore, and many were thrown without being properly lit. The Germans were frequently all too willing to light these things up and toss them back. This led to the definitive Mk 2.

The Mk2 Pineapple grenade was an iconic weapon among American troops in WW2.

The classic Mk2 Pineapple grenade was first introduced to US forces in 1918 just as the First World War was winding down. Despite orders for some 44 million copies very few of these handy little bombs saw service before the armistice. By the onset of WW2, however, the Mk 2 was ready for prime time.

The knobby design of the Mk2 made it easier to grip but didn’t much enhance its tactical effectiveness.

The Mk 2 hand grenade featured a cast iron body with a grooved surface divided into forty prominent knobs in five rows of eight columns. Like the Mills Bomb, these knobs actually did very little for controlling fragmentation but did make the grenade easier to grip. The obvious similarity to the pineapple fruit forever associated the two terms.

Though they all looked similar on the outside, Mk 2 hand grenades came with a variety of explosive fillers.

The Mk 2 typically sported a time fuse with a 4 to 5-second delay. Fillers included TNT, Grenite, a 50/50 combination of amatol and nitrostarch, a proprietary explosive called Trojan comprised of ammonium nitrate, sodium nitrate, and nitrostarch, or smokeless EC powder.

Some Mk 2 grenades had a 3/8th-inch threaded plug in their base for loading the explosive. Those charged with EC powder were typically left solid on the bottom and filled through the fuse well.

EC powder was a 19th-century formulation of potassium nitrate, barium nitrate, and nitro-cotton gelatinized with ether alcohol. This same stuff was sometimes used as a propellant in shotgun shells. The Mk 2 weighed about 21 ounces depending upon the particular filler and was most unpleasant up close, particularly in enclosed spaces.

The Rest of the Story

The broadly fluctuating temperatures allowed my friend and his buddies to improvise a bunch of low-cost time-delay IEDs with which to harass German forces in the valley below.

By late winter, the snow was thick on the ridgeline, but the temperature fluctuated from sunny and warm in the daytime to well below freezing at night. My friend and his buddies would liberally seed the German road below with frozen snowball grenades at night and then go about their business. The following day the sun would come up and gradually melt the ice-encased bombs.

This is the original movie prop Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch from the inimitable British comedy Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It was crafted from a toilet bowl float with some fake plastic pearls glued on. The original screen prop sold at auction in September of 2019 for 55,000 pounds. That’s about $67,000. Wow.

The end result was a steady stream of random detonations along the German road throughout the day. My friend said he had a clear conscience as he was effectively harassing the enemy without exposing himself or his men to any incremental danger. After the first few days of random grenade explosions, the Germans lost their enthusiasm and stopped running couriers and supply vehicles within sight of American positions.

All major combatant nations in WW2 fielded their own unique hand grenade designs.

My pal told me that, as near as he could tell, they never killed anybody with their curious explosive snowballs. However, they did effectively deny the enemy use of a handy supply and communications route while suffering no casualties in the process. Eventually, the weather improved and Allied forces resumed pushing the Germans back up the Italian peninsula.

Yesterday’s Mk 2 (left) and today’s M67 grenades are philosophically similar.

Like most heroes of his generation, my friend came home from the war ready to create and to build. He went decades without discussing his wartime experiences with anybody, preferring to focus on more pleasant stuff. I was blessed with this story sitting on a porch swing with him soon after I finished Airborne School back in the 1980s.

Though the campaign in Normandy still gets most of the press, the Germans fought like lions in Italy. This Panzerkampfwagen VI Tiger 1 is shown guarding a road intersection in Rome.

Our friendship blossomed, and I got to hear many such tales. Along the way, I also married his granddaughter. He was and remains one of my heroes.

We will never fully appreciate the profound debt we owe those old guys who fought in World War 2.
These old grenades still show up from time to time unexpectedly. The dirt-covered live specimen shown here was discovered underneath an American McDonalds parking lot by workmen expanding the facility.

Special thanks to www.worldwarsupply.com for the cool reproduction support gear used in our pictures.

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About the author: Will Dabbs was born and raised in the Mississippi Delta, having been immersed in hunting and the outdoors since his earliest recollections. He holds a degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Mississippi and is the product of a traditional American nuclear family. Where most normal American kids get drunk to celebrate their 21st birthday, Will bought his first two machineguns. Will served eight years as an Army Aviator and accumulated more than 1,100 flight hours piloting CH47D, UH1H, OH58A/C, and AH1S helicopters. He is scuba qualified, has parachuted out of perfectly good airplanes at 3 o’clock in the morning, and has summited Mt. McKinley, Alaska–the highest point in North America–six times (at the controls of a helicopter, which is the only way sensible folk climb mountains). For reasons that seemed sagacious at the time he ultimately left the Army as a Major to pursue medical school. Dr. Dabbs has for the last dozen years owned the Urgent Care Clinic of Oxford, Mississippi. He also serves as the plant physician for the sprawling Winchester ammunition plant in that same delightful little Southern town. Will is a founding partner of Advanced Tactical Ordnance LLC, a licensed 07/02 firearms manufacturer and has written for the gun press for a quarter century. He writes solely to support a shooting habit that is as insensate as it is insatiable. Will has been married to his high school sweetheart for more than thirty years and has taught his Young Married Sunday School class for more than a decade. He and his wife currently have three adult children and a most thoroughly worthless farm dog named Dog.

{ 8 comments… add one }
  • Big Al 45 January 28, 2021, 11:22 am

    The pic of the Kubelwagen is interesting, based on the plate ‘Feldgendarmerie’, it looks to be a Military ‘Cop’ with signs for traffic control on the front of the vehicle.

  • Frank January 26, 2021, 11:30 am

    Think I may have met your friend (Grandfather-in-law) when I worked on a certain NWR in Bolivar County, back in the early 90s. He spoke to me of his days as a rifleman under Patton. He went all the way from North Africa to Berlin if memory serves. He also told of the long slog through Italy, and remembered the regular townspeople’s fondness of red wine. After all these years I can remember him smiling as he exclaimed “They drank that stuff like water”! That was many years ago, but I still remember him as an honorable man and wish I had taken notes from his stories. Glad you did.

  • mrpski January 25, 2021, 12:35 pm

    In 2012 I took a contract job through the EPA on the island of Saipan, where the evidence of the brutal Marine take back of that island in 1944 is still very evident. Being somewhat of a jungle trail explorer remanents of WW II ordinance, including GI grenades, were found often. You were supposed to not touch and notify the local governement but quite a few decorated the outside of my little cabin I rented there. Fascinating place even though more a Japanese and Russian tourist spot than American.

  • Papa Lilburn January 25, 2021, 11:33 am

    Dr. Dabbs has become my favorite writer of gun stuff! His ability to craft a story has been sorely missed since the passing of those akin to Skeeter Skelton. He’s as skillful with the english language as i’m sure he is with a surgical scalpel.

  • Alan S January 25, 2021, 11:21 am

    Mr. Dabbs another outstanding article. The insights you provide via your friendship is amazing. Please keep it up.

  • Mike in a Truck January 25, 2021, 10:08 am

    My uncle was an Italian Alpine Trooper fighting the Americans. A standing joke in the family: towards the end of a grueling winter campaign with increasingly defeats and disappoint the battalion Sargent Major decided he would boost the morale of his men. He assembled what was left of his battalion and informed them: Men today I have some good news. Every man will be issued new underwear. “Yeahhhh” they all yelled. The SM continues..ok heres the drill: Giovanni you switch with Joseppe, Joseppe you swith with Luigi, Luigi you switch with Antonio….

  • Texas Twostep January 25, 2021, 8:03 am

    Great article, and thank you for sharing your historical insights and experiences. Your articles are some of the best, blending history with firearms (or in this case grenades) without shoving a political agenda down people’s throats. Keep up the great writing!

  • Andrew Hughes January 25, 2021, 7:19 am

    An excellent historical account, but even a better testament to your special friendship and the man who told you his stories. Many people these days get upset if they get slow service at a restaurant. They simply do not know what the people who suffered through WW2 endured. We cannot forget what was sacrificed defeating Hitler’s evil empire. Thanks.

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