Why Soviet Soldiers Boiled Their Bullets And Other Crazy Military Techniques and Tactics

Why Soviet Soldiers Boiled Their Bullets And Other Crazy Military Techniques and Tactics

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Imagine that you’re a Soviet  soldier during the early 1980s.  Your country is at war with Afghanistan,  and, like many thousands of your comrades,   you’ve been sent into a hot, arid, and unfamiliar  country to suppress the mujahideen. These Islamic   groups don’t like the Marxist and Leninist views  espoused by Afghanistan’s ruling Khalq and Parcham   parties, and it’s your job to ensure the spread  of communism continues amidst constant rebellion.  But you have a problem. Your leaders provide you   with absolutely horrendous rations to keep your  energy levels high during your fight. Dehydrated  

and condensed field rations – which taste a  little like feet – are all you have to keep   yourself going, and you get sick of it. Surely,  there’s better food out there. Something more   befitting of a soldier, even a Soviet one who has  come from poverty and has somehow found themself   in even worse conditions in Afghanistan. Plus, your army actively sent better food   to the frontlines, right? Strategic army food  supplies regularly headed into Afghanistan,   including canned meats, green peas, tea,  cigarettes, and even some delectable Polish   and Hungarian hams. Where did all of that food  go? Why are you left with the most awful rations  

available when you know your army is sending over  much more substantial—and better-tasting—food?  The reason was that much of the  food the Soviets sent to feed   their soldiers didn’t end up in Russian hands. It ended up in the hands of Afghani traders.  Still, that means there’s an  alternative source of food available.  There is a lot of it being sold at Afghan  bazaars, but that only makes your problems   worse. You have no money—certainly none that  Afghan merchants are willing to accept—but   there’s a glimmer of hope for your rumbling  tummy yet. The Afghan merchants may not   accept your rubles, but they’re willing  to barter for what they have to offer.  And there’s one very valuable  commodity you have that they want:  Bullets. What do you do? 

If you’re anything like the Soviet soldiers of  the 1980s, you know that you can’t simply hand   your bullets over to the Afghan merchants. Who  knows who those merchants support? By giving   them your bullets, you may be actively arming  the very mujahideen that you’re in Afghanistan   to fight. So, you come up with a plan. One  that might be just crazy enough to work.  Boil the bullets before you barter. Yes, in order to get around the moral   conflict that a Soviet soldier would have faced  when essentially bartering away ammo to the enemy,   they’d boil bullets before exchanging them. The question now is simple: 

Why? The idea   was to make the bullets completely inoperable. A  Soviet soldier would requisition ammo from supply   zones – which was easy enough to do in a warzone  – before grabbing a pot and some water. After   making a small fire, the soldier would pour the  water into the pot and place it over the flame,   bringing the water to a boil in the process. Then, he’d put the bullets in the water.  For the next four or five hours, the soldier  would leave those bullets to simmer before   taking them to an Afghan merchant to trade  for food. The technique arose because of a  

longstanding Soviet army tale that the bullets  they used would fail to function if left in   boiling water for a few hours. And the tale seems  to make sense. After all, boiling bullets expose   them to extremely high temperatures without the  risk of causing the ammo to detonate while it’s   in the pot. Boiling also doesn’t change  the look or feel of the ammo. Instead,   it supposedly did something to the bullet that  would make it unusable when loaded into a gun.  Plus, it had worked before. Bullets made during the 19th  

and early 20th centuries could fall victim to the  boiling strategy. Those early bullets used mercury   fulminate as a primer, which would ignite the  bullet’s propellant. When that fulminate reached   temperatures of around 212 degrees Fahrenheit  – the boiling point of water – it would undergo   thermal decomposition. The fulminate would fail to  function as the material had lost its integrity,   leading to a bullet that couldn’t fire. But there was a problem. 

The bullets the Soviets were using in Afghanistan  in the 1980s were a far cry from the ones they’d   used at the turn of the 20th century. They didn’t  use mercury fulminate anymore. Instead, they   were lacquer-coated and had primers made using  chemicals that had far higher heat tolerances   than the mercury fulminate of the past. By that  point, Soviet bullets were completely resistant   to heating, meaning the poor soldiers – who just  wanted a little food – ended up selling bullets to   Afghan merchants that may well have ended up being  used to kill their comrades or even themselves.  Desperate times lead to desperate measures. But the practice of boiling bullets was far   from the only relic of the past that Soviet  troops believed in for many years after the fact.  For our next example, we take you to  World War II and a strange practice   that the Soviets – and later even the  Russians – carried out for centuries. 

Not wearing socks on the battlefield. Before you start conjuring up images of   Soviet soldiers running around barefoot – that  would be a nightmare when fighting in Russia’s   snowy conditions – the Soviets did at least  have some form of foot covering. Only those   coverings weren’t socks. They were stinky rags.  Transport yourself to World War II and imagine  you’re an American soldier near the war's end.  

You’re working alongside Soviet soldiers –  who are part of the allied powers that would   eventually defeat Nazi Germany – and you have a  pretty good idea of what standard military wear   should look like. That’s especially the case for  your feet. You and all of your fellow American   soldiers get issued a pair of hefty boots that  lace up, along with long pairs of socks that   you wear underneath. It's all logical.  The boots protect your feet from anything on the  ground – such as rocks – that could cause damage,   while the socks provide protection from the  boots themselves. After all, you need something   to prevent the skin from being eroded from your  feet during the long marches you must endure.  Then, you see a Soviet soldier. And you take a look at their footwear.  Gone are the laced boots that are standard issue  for American soldiers, replaced by long leather   boots that have no laces at all. But what’s  far stranger to you is what lies underneath  

those boots. Scraps of smelly rags are used  in place of socks, and you’re left asking the   obvious question: Why?  The answer lies in the impoverished nature of  the average Soviet soldier during World War II.  During the 1940s and for much of Russia’s  history, socks were seen as a luxury item   that was essentially the reserve of the rich.  The reason dates back to Russia’s industrial   revolution when socks were surprisingly expensive  and time-consuming to manufacture. They were a   far cry from what they are today when they can be  manufactured by the millions using machinery and   are so cheap that you can easily find a couple of  pairs for less than $1. To Soviet soldiers – and  

their commanders – socks were a luxury that  diverted resources away from other valuable   equipment, such as bullets and food. Why waste money on socks when   nasty old rags would suffice? In truth, these footwraps,   known as “Portyanki,” were a little bit more  than rags. They were large pieces of cloth,   typically rectangular, that a Soviet soldier would  wrap carefully around their feet. Once applied,   the Portyanki would work in much the same  way as a sock – protecting the foot against   moisture and blistering. They also did a fine  job keeping dirt and rocks out of a Soviet boot. 

But even though they were functionally similar,  that doesn’t mean they weren’t strange in an era   when socks were plentiful for U.S. soldiers. Take putting them on as an example. We all   know how a sock works. Shove your foot in the  hole and pull up, and you’ll be wearing a sock.   A Portyanki had to be actively applied, wrapped  around the foot like a bandage or the hand wraps   a boxer wears, meaning a technique needed to be  perfected before a soldier could wear a Portyanki. 

The wraps also served a  minor disciplinary purpose.  Failure to apply a Portyanki properly would lead  to the Soviet soldier getting blisters. Plus,   soldiers were often timed on their ability to  wrap a Portyanki properly. If you were too slow,  

you received a punishment. Think of it  as being similar to the rifle dismantling   drills that soldiers today have to master,  and you’re on the right track. A Soviet   soldier had to be capable of being fully  dressed within 45 seconds, meaning they   had mere seconds to wrap the Portyanki properly. These interesting footwraps also had centuries of  

tradition behind them, dating back to the era  of Peter the Great and the legends that his   armies marched into battle wearing rags rather  than the knits that were customary during the   17th and 18th centuries. Russia had already won  many wars wearing Portyanki, almost making them   as much of a good luck charm as a practical way  to protect feet. And you could argue that the   good luck charm worked – the Soviet Union was  on the winning side by the end of World War II. 

But Portyanki had to be  replaced by socks eventually.  The craziest part is that this  change didn’t occur until 2007.  As military reforms took hold in Russia  that year, Portyanki was finally seen as a   relic of the past that Moscow needed to leave  behind. But it still took time to eradicate   them from the Russian military entirely.  Portyanki were still in minor use until 2013  

when they were finally abandoned for good.  The reason for that abandonment is as much   symbolic as it is practical. Portyanki had come  to symbolize the “old” Russian army. One powered   by peasants rather than a modern military  capable of standing with the world’s best.  Sergei Shoigu – Russia’s defense minister in 2013  – had the final word on Portyanki in a televised   briefing, ending their use once and for all.  “In 2013, or at least by the end of this year,   we will forget foot bindings,” he proclaimed.  “I’m asking you, please, if there is need, we will  

provide additional funds. But we need to finally,  fully reject this concept in our armed forces.”  By now, we’re perhaps seeing a pattern  emerge in Soviet techniques and tactics.  Rather than modernizing, Soviet soldiers seemed to  rely on outdated ideas and equipment. The concept  

of boiling bullets stemmed from an era when  mercury fulminate was used in Soviet rounds.   An era that had long passed by the time the  soldiers stationed in Afghanistan were boiling   bullets to exchange them for food and supplies.  As for Portyanki, they were a relic that dated   even further back than boilable bullets and one  that stuck with the Soviets as much for symbolic   reasons as practical ones long past the point  where socks were easy to manufacture in Russia. 

But these aren’t the only examples of the  Soviet Union relying on outdated equipment.  Our next example was far more  successful than it had any   right to be—the flight of the Night Witches. During World War II, Nazi Germany managed to   achieve aerial superiority throughout much of  the war thanks to the terrifying might of the   Luftwaffe. Officially formed in 1935 – though  it had been in development long before that  

year – the Luftwaffe boasted over 1,800 aircraft  and 20,000 personnel. But more importantly than   that, it was the most technologically advanced  aerial force the world had seen to that point.  And the jewels in the  Luftwaffe crown were immense.  The He 111H became the Nazi air force’s mainstay  bomber, raining fire down on many a city as Hitler   cut a destructive path through Europe. But  even more dangerous were the fighters that  

protected these bombers – the Messerschmitt Bf  109, or Me-109, and the Messerschmitt Bf 110,   Me-110. The former was a single-seater  with one engine, and the latter carried   two people and a pair of engines. But both  were fast, agile, and capable of battling the   best that the Allies could bring to the skies. The Soviets had nothing that could compare,   at least at the beginning of World War II. So, as you saw in the previous two techniques,   they looked backward. Yes, they would continue  trying to develop planes that could compete   with the Nazi’s ingenuity. But in the meantime,  they would battle the Me-109 fighters with the  

Polikarpov Po-2 biplane. The problem?  By the time World War II came around, those  biplanes were massively out of date. They were   relics of the previous World War and contained  far inferior technology to Germany’s new   fighters. Knowing this, the Soviets chose not  to entrust their best pilots to these planes. 

Instead, they chose women. There was just a hint of misogyny to   this decision, with women being chosen because the  Soviet Union knew the Po-2 wasn’t up to scratch.   Perhaps the thought was to use these outdated  biplanes – and the women piloting them – as cannon   fodder to distract with Me-109s and Me-110s,  giving other Russian planes a chance to attack.  What nobody could have predicted was  that the outdated technology in the   Po-2 made it a surprisingly good  match for Nazi Germany’s fighters.  Take the plane’s wooden frame as an example. The Po-2s were made using plywood and canvas,  

a construction method that led to some calling  the plane “a coffin with wings.” That plywood   was susceptible to tracer fire, as a single  bullet could lead to the Po-2 becoming a   flying inferno that would engulf the poor woman  sitting inside. But that wooden construction   also came with a key benefit: The Po-2 was undetectable by   German infrared sensors and radars. For that reason, the women who flew the   planes restricted themselves to flying under  the cover of night. When darkness descended,  

their slow-moving and low-flying craft were  far harder to see from the ground than they   were during the day. And thanks to being  undetectable by radar and infrared sensors,   they were able to get in close to a target and  drop the two bombs they could carry before German   fighters had any idea they were in the vicinity. The only sign came far too late for the target:  A whooshing sound—often described as similar  to the sound of a witch’s broom—could be heard   as the Po-2 glided over its target. Thus, the Night Witches were born.  And they weren’t only effective during nighttime  bombing raids on German targets. When stacked up   against the Me-109 – one of the most terrifying  fighters in the Luftwaffe – the Po-2 often came   out on top for a simple reason – it  was too slow for the Me-109 to catch. 

That may seem like a contradiction until  you realize that the Me-109 could reach a   top speed of nearly 350 miles per hour. To keep  pace with a Po-2, the Me-109’s pilot would have   to decrease their speed to 90 miles per hour  or lower, which presented a major problem:  The Me-109 stalled out at that low speed. When combined with the Po-2's surprising   maneuverability, that low speed led to the far  superior Me-109 sometimes dropping out of the   sky—assuming the pilot didn’t abandon the fight  altogether—as it tried to take on a Night Witch.  By the end of the war, the 588th Night Bomber  Aviation Regiment – the official name for   the Night Witches – had become one of the most  dangerous Soviet weapons. Decked in old uniforms,   which had previously been worn by men and  were extremely ill-fitting, the women of   this regiment numbered around 400 and collectively  flew around 30,000 missions. They dropped 23,000  

tons of bombs on the German armies attempting  to invade Russia, with most of the women who   piloted the Po-2s being aged between 17 and 26. It's crazy to think that such outdated planes   could present such a threat in the face of the  Luftwaffe. However, the Soviets’ use of old   technology to take on terrifying new threats is  far from the only example. For our next strange  

technique, we turn to the British and their  use of tools that have existed for millennia:  Hammers and bags. Where the Luftwaffe may have   been one of the most impressive technological  achievements that Germany brought to the table   in World War II, the First World War saw a naval  advancement that wreaked havoc on British, French,   and American troops—the Unterseeboots, or U-boats. Armed with powerful torpedoes that could sink a   ship in minutes, the German U-boats spent  most of World War I prowling the Atlantic   Ocean on the lookout for targets. They were  Germany’s chief naval weapon during the war,   especially given the British approach of  blocking German ports, and their goal was simple:  Take out as many ships  carrying supplies as possible.  They were extremely effective. In May 1915, the German U-Boat   U-20 sunk the Lusitania off the coast of  Ireland. A passenger liner, the boat sunk  

with 1,200 people on board – including  128 Americans – all of whom lost their   lives. The attack was a signal of intent from  Germany. It would attack ships indiscriminately,   claiming that any it sunk were legitimate wartime  targets because they carried war materials.  By the end of the war, the U-boats had sunk  around 5,000 merchant ships, claiming the lives   of around 15,000 Allied soldiers in the process,  and had even managed to bring a European war to   the shores of the United States. In fact,  you can still find several shipwrecks near   the North Carolina coast in an area dubbed  by some as the Graveyard of the Atlantic. 

So, what could the allies do  to combat this terrible threat?  That’s where the British  hammers and bags come into play.  The key to the U-boat’s success was that  it could submerge itself underwater during   a time when submarines weren’t commonplace  in naval warfare. Using periscopes, German   sailors could navigate undetected until they came  into range of an allied ship before firing their   torpedoes. The damage was done before the victim  could do anything about it, leaving the U-boat   free to sail away and find another target. The  approach proved massively effective. For instance,   SM U-9 managed to sink three British armored  cruisers – killing 1,500 people – alone in   about an hour on September 22, 1914. Still, the U-Boat had a weakness. 

Before the days of radar and electronic  navigational equipment, the periscope   built into each boat was essential. Without  it, the German sailors had no idea where they   were going. And, crucially, that periscope  had to emerge above the water’s surface,   giving the British a potential target. The initial ideas were strange in their own right.  For example, the British Board of Invention  and Research suggested training seagulls to   spot the periscopes. Once spotted, the seagulls  would swarm the periscope, indicating where the   U-Boat was while also obscuring the pericope’s  lens. There was also an idea to pour paint in  

the water where the British suspected U-Boats to  be, with that paint then covering any periscope   lenses that emerged. Neither idea worked.  The more effective idea was to treat the threat  as if it were a giant game of Whack-A-Mole. The   tactic was simple. The British sent out small  boats to search for U-boat periscopes. If the   British spotted one, they would cover it with  a bag before whacking the bag with a hammer,   destroying the periscope’s lens and  leaving the U-Boat unable to navigate. 

There’s no word on how effective  the technique proved to be.  However, it’s worth noting that at least  one senior officer—based on the HMS   Exmouth—enlisted the services of blacksmiths to  build large hammers that sailors on the patrol   boats could use to smash periscopes. Desperate times called for desperate   measures. And, just like the Soviets and their  Night Witches, the British found a way to use  

outdated tools to take on a technologically  superior threat. This streak of ingenuity for   the Allies continued into World War II, as they  were forced to find a novel way of transmitting   messages to the frontlines: Using carrier pigeons.  Parachuting carrier pigeons, to be exact. If you visit the National Air and Space Museum,  

you might have a chance to rummage through  its archives. There, sitting alongside around   75,000 technical manuals, you might find a  document called Handing and Release Home Pigeon   from Aircraft in Flight. Carrying a “Restricted”  security clearance label, the manual was first   given to American military personnel in August  1943 and contains some interesting instructions.  Detailed in the manual are methods for creating  paper messages that could be attached to homing   pigeons that a soldier would keep on their person.  There are also instructions on how to properly   release one of these pigeons from an aircraft,  whether that craft was in flight or on land.  The concept behind this  technique was simple enough. 

When a pilot needed to transmit a message – either  in an emergency or because they needed to sneak it   in behind enemy lines – they could strap it to  a carrier pigeon and send the bird on its way.   It wasn’t a new idea. Almost all armies involved  in World War I had used these pigeons, perhaps   the most famous example being Cher Ami. Used by  the famous “Lost Battalion,” Cher Ami delivered a   message from soldiers pinned down by German forces  to their allies, who had unfortunately started   accidentally shelling the battalion. The message  was simple: “Our artillery is dropping a barrage  

directly on us. For heaven’s sake, stop it!” Free from bombardment from their own side,   the Lost Battalion defended its position  long enough for reinforcements to arrive.  Still, by World War II, you might have thought  using carrier pigeons would be outdated.  You couldn’t be more wrong. In fact, not only were the   pigeons still used, but they received  equipment that they’d never had before:  Parachutes. The British pioneered  

an interesting use for homing pigeons during World  War II. In addition to using them to send messages   to the frontlines – in the same ways America did  – Britain also started loading carrier pigeons   into boxes before parachuting them into enemy  territory. The hope was that either Allied troops   or at least people who were friendly to the Allied  cause would find the pigeons, write messages,   and then send the birds on their way to take  the written notes back to the United Kingdom.  Pigeons were no longer restricted to  sending messages from command posts. 

They become intelligence operatives, gathering  information – however unwittingly – for the   allied troops to use in their attacks. According to the BBC, Britain dropped   around 16,000 of these parachuting pigeons  into France, though only 1,800 made it back   home. Many thousands more were either found  by Axis soldiers or died in their containers   while waiting for somebody to release them. Others  were killed over the English Channel, becoming the   victims of a squadron of German hawks explicitly  trained to take out any carrier pigeons they saw.  The unreliability of that technique led to  further evolutions in the ways that British   and American troops used carrier pigeons.  Paratroopers started wearing the pigeons on  

their chests – using specially designed “pigeon  vests” – so they could jump into enemy territory,   gather information, and then send the pigeon  on its way with a written note. When the vests   started to run out, some even resorted to stowing  their pigeons into socks, with holes cut into the   toe end so the pigeon could pop its head out. This approach proved far more successful,   with some reports claiming that 95% of the  messages these pigeon vest-wearing birds delivered   to the right hands were successfully delivered. And with that bird-brained idea, we come to the   end of our examination of some of the strangest  techniques and tactics used in modern warfare.   The clear thread running throughout is that  all were outdated at the time of their use,   whether due to a mistaken belief that  boiling bullets still worked or because   no better equipment was available. All of  this shows a surprising amount of ingenuity,  

even if the boiling bullets tactic that  opened this video never actually worked.  Now check out “Real Reason Why The Soviet  Union Collapsed.” Or watch this video instead!

2024-06-04 20:53

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