Katyusha – the legendary Russian weapon of World War II.
Despite notable inaccuracy of fire, the massive barrages of rocket missiles launched from Katyushas proved devastating to the enemy, both physically and psychologically. Their concentration of fire on a relatively small area and the distinctive, terrifying sound of rockets leaving en masse launch rails, invariably struck terror among German infantrymen.
Katyusha owns its name to a popular wartime song of the same title. It’s a Russian diminutive of a female name Katherine. Germans called the feared weapon the “Stalin’s Organs”. Katyusha was a common name of all Russian launchers of unguided rocket missiles, including BM-8 launchers firing 82 mm projectiles, BM-13 with 132 mm missiles, and BM-31 armed with powerful rockets of 310 mm in calibre. These launchers were coupled to a variety of mobile carriers, or even fired from the ground, from simple launching racks.
The design work on the new type of rocket weapon commenced as early as 1938. The finial prototype was finished three years later. The ZIS truck-mounted launcher was armed with 24 missiles of 132 mm in calibre, arranged in two rows and held on studs fixed to the rocket bodies. Initially the launcher was mounted crosswise to the longitudinal axis of the vehicle and the missiles loaded from the front of the rack. Many subsequent improvements were incorporated to the design, notably providing it with a certain arc of fire and aligning the launcher with its carrier’s longitudinal axis. The improved version had its rockets loaded from behind.
So modernised weapon was designated BM-13 (BM-Bateriejnyj Minomiot: battery mortar) and went into production in the spring of 1941. Further development of the original concept led to creation of BM-8 launcher fitted with three rows of much shorter launch rails, which could be loaded with up to 48 M-8 type 82 mm rocket missiles. In 1942 Russians developed a version of the M-13 rocket with a larger, bulbous warhead – the M-30. Unlike the other two types, the M-30 was fired from static rama (frame) launchers, which also served as the packing crate. In 1944 they phased out in favour of self-propelled BM-31 launchers.
The first battery of Katiushas, commanded by Capt. I. Flerov and comprising seven mobile launchers, was despatched to the front on 1st July 1941. They were first committed to battle on 14th July 1941 near Orsha in Belarus. They remained in active service throughout the WWII and beyond. In the Polish Army BM-13 launchers equipped independent rocket artillery regiments and brigades.
The BM-13 launcher was adaptable to just about any chassis, and it was mounted on both Soviet and Lend-Lease trucks with a cargo capacity over a ton and a half, including ZIS-5 and ZIS-6 trucks, T-60 light tank chassis, STZ-5 artillery tractors, armoured trains, gunboats and a variety of Lend-Lease trucks: Studebaker, Chevrolet, GMC and others. Elevation was limited to a maximum of 45 degrees. Traverse was either 10 or 20 degrees depending on the chassis used. The sight was a MP41 type, used for mortars.
In April 1943 an improved BM-13N (N-normalizovanniy: standard) version was developed, which also became the most numerous one. It was produced in Komitern factory in Voronezh and in Moscow plant “Kompressor”. Also the high explosive fragmentation M-13 projectiles underwent some modifications. By the end of the war two more versions were pressed into service, namely M-13-UK – which gave an increased dispersion to cover a wider area – and the later M-13-DD, which gave the rockets a range of up to 11 kilometres. Projectiles with fragmentation-incendiary warheads were also in use.
The BM-13 launcher was capable of firing 16 missiles in 10-12 seconds. It could be prepared to fire in 2-3 minutes after arriving at the assigned location and re-loaded in 5-10 minutes. Katyushas, moving around at the speed of 50-60 kph, were also a highly mobile weapon.