The largest gun ever built had, an operational career of 13 day, during which a total of 48 shells were fired in anger. Taking 25 trainloads of equipment, 2,000 men and up to six week to assemble, it seems highly unlikely that such a weapon will ever be seen again.
The 80-cm K (E), for all its size and weight, to say nothing of its ‘overkill’ firepower, went into action on only one occasion. It was originally intended to smash through the extensive Maginot Line forts but when the campaign in the West took place in 1940 the 80-cm K (E) was still in the Krupp workshops at Essen and, in any event, the German army bypassed the Maginot Line altogether. Thus when the 80-cm equipment had completed its gun proofing trials at Hellersleben and its service acceptance trials at Rugenwalde there was nothing for the gun and its crew to do. To justify the Iabour and effort of getting the huge gun and its entourage into action, the potential target had to justify all the bother involved, and there were no really large fortification lines left in Europe for the gun to tackle. The two major fortification systems, the Sudetenland defences and the Maginot Line, were both in German hands and if seemed that the 80-cm K (E), or ‘Schwerer Gustav’ (heavy Gustav) as it became known, was redundant even before it had fired an aggressive shot.
During early 1941 one potential target appeared on the planner’s drawing boards and that was Gibraltar. It was planned to assault this isolated fortress at the mouth of the Mediterranean to deny the inland sea to the Allies but as Spain was neutral permission had to be obtained from General Franco to allow German troops to travel through Spain to make the attack. Operational planning for the assault (named Operation ‘Felix’) got to the stage at which German parachute and glider troops were actively training for the assault before a meeting between Hitler and Franco showed that the wily Spanish dictator was not going to allow himself or his country to become mixed up in a major European conflict. Thus another potential target for the ‘Schwerer Gustav’ came and went.
The invasion of the Soviet Union (Operation ‘Barbarossa’) took place during the second half of I94l without any assistance from the 80-cm K (E), but by early 1942 the advances of the German army were so rapid and deep that they were on the approaches to the Crimea. Ahead of them lay the naval base of Sevastopol, which was potentially a useful supply port and base for the southern German armies. The need for such a supply base was not very pressing, but what attracted the German operational planners was that Sevastopol was a heavily-fortified port. Around the perimeter of the city was a long chain of fortifications, some of them dating back to the days before the Crimean War of 1854-6 but others more modern, and near the sea coasts there were numerous heavy coastal batteries. The place looked ideal for an investment and siege in the old manner, to be followed up by a huge assault which would demonstrate to the world the power of the German army, Soon the relatively light forces that advanced into the Crimea were supplemented by more and more troops and the German planners started to scour Europe for heavy guns to form an old-fashioned siege train.
For centuries it had been the task of the siege train to bombard a besieged fortress into submission or else open a breach for attacking troops to storm, The Germans decided to repeat this performance on a massive scale. From all corners of Europe the German army assembled a massive gun park of all types of artillery from small-calibre field guns up to pre- World War I large-calibre howitzers. Some were German in origin but others were old captured weapons, and to these were added the modern embellishments of artillery rockets and super-heavy artillery, Into this category came the 60-cm (23.6-in) mobile mortars known as the Karl-Gerät, and it was realized that at last the propaganda coup could be topped by the first operational use of ‘Schwerer Gustav’.
Accordingly the 80-cm K (E) trundled to the Crimea on specially re-laid track. Well ahead of its progress a small army of labourers started to prepare the gun’s chosen firing position at Bakhchisaray, a small village outside Sevastopol. Well over 1,500 men under the control of a German army engineer unit dug through a small knoll to form a wide railway cutting on an arc of double track, and the sides of the cutting were raised to provide cover and protection for the gun. On the approaches railway troops laboured to re-Iay track and strengthen possible trouble points against the passing of the ‘Schwerer Gustav’. Work on the eventual firing site reached the point where the area behind the curve of firing tracks resembled a small marshalling yard over 1.2 km (0.75 miles) long. It resembled a marshaling yard, and that was exactly what it was. In the area the 25 separate loads that formed the gun and its carriage had to be assembled and pushed and pulled into the right position and order. Farther to the rear were the accommodation areas where the numerous men of the gun crew lived and prepared for their task.
The manpower involved in assembling ‘Schwerer Gustav’ was large. Each of the 80-cm K (E)s had a complete detachment of no less than 1,420 men under the command of a full colonel, He had his own headquarters and planning staff and there was the main gun crew which numbered about 500, most of whom were involved with the complicated ammunition care and handling. Once in action these 500 would remain with the gun, but the rest of the gun’s manpower was made up from various units including an intelligence section to determine what targets to engage. Quite a number of troops were involved in the two light anti-aircraft defence battalions that always accompanied the gun when it travelled and also supplied manpower for some assembly tasks. Once the gun was in position these AA battalions warded off unwanted aerial intruders. Two guard companies constantly patrolled the perimeter of the gun position (at one time these companies were Romanian), and at all times there was a small group of civilian technicians from Krupp who dealt with the technical aspects of their monster charge and advised the soldiers. Railway troops and the usual administrative personnel added to the manpower total.
Even using this small army of men it took between three and six weeks to assemble the gun, even using the two 110-tonne cranes that had been designed especially for the task. Just getting the right sub-assembly Ioad into position at the right time was a masterpiece of railway marshaling and planning, but eventually it was all sorted out and by early June 1942, ‘Schwerer Gustav’ was ready, along with the rest of the siege train with all their cumbersome carriages and ammunition emplaced ready to hand,
Firing commenced on 5 June 1942. ‘Schwerer Gustav’ was but one voice in a huge choir that heralded one of the largest and heaviest artillery bombardments of all time. By the time Sevastopol fell early in July 1942 it was calculated that no fewer than 562,944 artillery projectiles had fallen on the port, the bulk of then from heavy-calibre guns and howitzers, and this total does not include the noisy storms of artillery rockets and the extra weight of the infantry’s own unit artillery. How the civilians of Sevastopol survived it all can now be explained quite easily. They simply went underground. The city knew the bombardment was coming, for not only had their own party and other authorities told them what to expect, but the Germans constantly assailed them with radio broadcasts and other propaganda as to the wrath that was to befall them, By the time the real bombardment started they had already dug deep shelters both underground and in the walls of quarries and hillsides, and there they lived and remained for weeks. A surprising number survived it all.
14 rounds a day
‘Schwerer Gustav’ was not used against civilian targets. Its first targets were some coastal batteries that were engaged at a range of about 25000m (27,340 yards), and all shots were observed by a special Luftwaffe flight of Fieseler Fi-156 Storchs assigned to the gun. Eight shots were all that were required to demolish these targets, and later the same day a further six shots were fired at the concrete work known as Fort Stalin. By the end of the day that too was a ruin and preparations were made for the following day. It might be thought that 14 rounds in a day was slow going, but in fact it was good going for a gun with a calibre of 80 cm (31.5 in). At best the firing rate was one round every 15 minutes, and more often the interval was longer. The preparation of each shell and charge was considerable and involved several stages including taking the temperature of each charge, accurately computing the air temperature and wind currents at altitude, and getting the shell and the charge to the breech. Projectile and charge then had to be rammed accurately, and the whole barrel had to be elevated to the correct angle. It all took time.
‘Schwerer Gustav’ was in action again on 6 June, initially against Fort Molotov, Seven shells demolished that structure and then it was the turn of a target known as the ‘White Cliff. This was the aiming point for an underground ammunition magazine under Severnaya Bay and so placed by the Soviets as to be invulnerable to conventional weapons. It was not invulnerable to the 80-cm K (E), for nine projectiles bored their way down through the sea, through over 30m (100ft) of sea bottom and then exploded inside the magazine. By the time ‘Schwerer Gustav’ had finished its ninth shot the magazine was a wreck and to cap it all a small sailing ship had been sunk in the process.
The next day was 7 June, and it was the turn of a target known to the Germans as the Südwestspitze, an outlying fortification that was to be the subject of an infantry attack. After seven shots the target was ready for the attentions of the infantry, and the gun crews were then able to turn their attentions to some gun maintenance and a short period of relative rest until 17 June. On that day Port Siberia was the recipient of a further five shells, and then came another lull for the gun crews until 17 June, when they fired their last five operational shells against Fort Maxim Gorki and its attendant coastal battery. Then it was all over for ‘Schwerer Gustav’,
Once Sevastopol had fallen on 1 July the German siege train was dispersed all over Europe once more, and ‘Schwerer Gustav’ was taken apart and dragged back to Germany, where its barrel was changed. Including the 48 operational shells fired against the Crimean targets, ‘Schwerer Gustav’ had fired about 300 rounds in all, including proofing, training and demonstration rounds. The old barrel went back to Essen for relining.
There was nothing more for ‘Schwerer Gustav’ to do. It spent some time on the Rugenwalde ranges firing the odd demonstration projectile and being used for the development of some long-range concrete-piercing projectiles, and at one point there was talk of replacing the 80-cm (31.5-in) barrel with a 52-cm (20.5-in) barrel to provide the weapon with more range. That project came to nothing, as did a project to place the 80-cm (31.5-in) barrel on a tracked self-propelled chassis for street fighting. Considerable planning was spent on this outlandish idea before it was terminated, though the idea was no more impractical than the whole 80-cm K (E) project, which had absorbed immense manpower and facilities of all kinds, all to fire 48 rounds at antiquated Crimean fortifications.
By May 1945 ‘Schwerer Gustav’ was scattered all over central Europe. The carefully-planned trains had been attacked constantly by Allied aircraft and what parts were still in one piece were wrecked by their crews and left for the Allies’ wonderment. Today all that is left of ‘Schwerer Gustav’ and the second gun built ‘Dora’, are a few inert projectiles in museums.