Ordnance, QF, 4.5-in Howitzer

The 4.5-in (114-mm) field howitzer was one of the best of the British Army field pieces, as it was light, handy and fired a useful shell. Its design was to remain virtually unchanged from its first use in 1914 until World War II, when it once more was taken over to France. Many were sent to Russia in 1916 and more were used by Commonwealth armies.

The two main projectiles ­ red by the 4.5-inch ­field howitzer with the high explosive (HE) on the left with a yellow body and the Smoke on the right with a pale green body.

Another service manual illustration, this time of the barrel assembly for a 4.5-inch Field Howitzer Mark 2.

The Ordnance, QF, 4.5-in Howitzer used by the British army throughout World War I was another weapon developed in the aftermath of the Boer War, During that colonial conflict the Royal Artillery learned the hard way that its field howitzers were too heavy, too slow in action and generally too cumbersome, so they asked for something better. For some reason the usual state arsenals were asked to submit their new designs at the same time as private manufacturers, and in the end a private manufacturer, the Coventry Ordnance Works, was awarded the contract. This welcome change from what had up till then been a virtual state monopoly meant that when the BEF went to France in 1914 it took what was then thought to be the best field howitzer in the world. It was able to outperform all its contemporaries, and yet was handy enough to operate alongside the 18-pdr guns in a normal field artillery regiment. This result was achieved mainly by making the basic design simple and robust, and the weapon was so sound it required only one modification throughout its long service life: the rounding off of some of the sharper corners of the breech mechanism to prevent cracking after prolonged firing.

The design encompassed another assumption: that shrapnel would be the key munition. (The actual weapon of artillery is the shell: guns, howitzers, mortars and rockets are simply delivery mechanisms.) Shrapnel lost effectiveness as the shell’s velocity dropped, and since the Royal Artillery believed so heavily in shrapnel the lack of long range hardly bothered them. Indeed, so strongly did they believe in shrapnel over high explosive (HE) that the 4.5-inch field howitzer had its HE shells designed to match the ballistic performance of shrapnel, although that reduced their bursting charge and thus effectiveness.

Along the way the 4.5 gained the general accolade of being the ­ finest ­ field howitzer in its class anywhere, being sturdy, relatively easy to handle and highly effective on target. However, prolonged ­ ring could lead to small cracks appearing in the sharply machined corners of the horizontal breech-block slides, giving rise to the possibility that the entire breech ring could be blown off. This was overcome by machining gradually curved radii at the affected stress points, leading to the Howitzer Mark 2, this being the only change of mark throughout the 4.5’s long service career. Also introduced at the same time (1917) was the replacement of a complex variable rifling system that was dif­ficult (and expensive) to machine by a uniform twist (one turn in 20 calibres) system that made no difference to ballistic performance or accuracy.

The Mark 2 changes were con­fined to the barrel. No changes were needed to the sound and sturdy box trail carriage which travelled on Number 25 wooden spoke wheels with a diameter of 1.42m. Teams of six or eight horses were used for towing (six being the norm), the load including a Limber, QF 4.5-inch Howitzer Mark 1. Each battery also had a number of ammunition resupply wagons. Each 4.5 had a crew of ten, about ­ five of whom actually served the gun in action; the rest were either ammunition handlers or looked after the horse team. As with most other howitzers of the period, loading had to be carried out with the barrel horizontal so a quick-action device was incorporated in the elevating mechanism to allow the barrel to return rapidly to the required elevation angle for ­ ring without disturbing the No 7 dial sight. The hydro-spring recoil system appears never to have given any trouble, unlike the equivalents on the early marks of the 18-pounder. To protect the gun and its crew a curved shield was provided.

Being a howitzer the 4.5 employed a variable propellant charge system; there were ­ five possible charges to be inserted in a stubby brass case. High explosive was by far the most often ­ red, the payload being about 2kg of Trotyl (TNT), Amatol or Lyddite. Also available were two types of Smoke (base ejection or bursting) and Star (Illuminating). Fuzes could be either Percussion or Time.

The 4.5-inch howitzer was deployed by the British Army throughout the Great War, originally organised into a single brigade but eventually distributed so that each Royal Artillery Field Regiment had one 4.5- inch howitzer battery and three 18-pounder gun batteries. During the accounting period following 1918 it was estimated that some 25,326,276 rounds had been ­ red from 4.5-inch howitzers, a total only exceeded (by some four times) by the 18-pounders.

As with the 18-pdr the 4.5-in (114-mm) howitzer was also issued to many Commonwealth armies including those of Canada, Australia and New Zealand. During the war the 4.5-in howitzer was also passed on to Russia, as by 1916 the Tsarist armies were in a rather poor state, and the British government handed over 400 4.5-in howitzers, These were destined to have an eventful life, for they took part in the Russian defeats of 1917, and also played their part in the events surrounding the revolutions of 1917 and the subsequent civil war, Many were still on hand when the Germans invaded in 1941, captured examples being designated 11.4-cm leichte Feldhaubitze 363(r).

During World War I the 4.5-in howitzer was towed into action by a team of six horses. The full gun team was 10 men although fewer actually served the gun in action, the rest acting as ammunition and horse handlers, In common with most other weapons of the period the 4.5-in howitzer was supposed to make great use of shrapnel, but high explosive was soon found to be much more useful, though it was in short supply in 1914 and 1915, a shortage that lead to a political storm known as the ‘shell scandal’, The ammunition also featured in another political uproar, this time after World War I, for the fuses used on the shells were a clockwork type first produced by Krupp in Germany, After the war Krupp took the British government to an international court to extract royalties due on every fuse fired, and won the judgment!

By the time World War I ended, 3,177 4.5-in howitzers had been produced in addition to the 182 completed before 1914. After 1918 these howitzers were retained in British army service to be used again during the early campaigns of World War II. By then their original wooden spoked wheels had been replaced by new items with pneumatic tires for powered traction, The Germans used 96 captured equipments in the Atlantic Wall with the designation 11.4-cm leFH 361(e). The last 4.5-in howitzers to be used as service weapons were those of the Irish army, the final examples not retired until the late 1970s.

Specification Ordnance, QF, 4.5-in Howitzer

Service date: 1908

Calibre: 114.3 mm (4.5 in)

Length: of barrel 1,778 m (70 in)

Weight: complete 1365 kg (3,010 lb)

Elevation: – 5* to +45*

Traverse: 6*

Muzzle velocity: 308 m (1,010 ft) per second

Maximum range: 6675 m (7,300 yards)

Shell weight: 15.876 kg (35 lb)

British 4.5inch QF Howitzer

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