Using the “Eighty-Eight”

In the shimmering morning heat on 15 June 1941, the slow-moving British Matilda “infantry” tanks were waved forward towards the Halfaya Pass, which guarded the Libyan border from British attack. Soldiers of the 11th Indian Brigade were walking behind the Matildas, confident the heavily armoured tanks would provide protection from anything the Germans could throw at them. The British Operation Battleaxe appeared to be going to plan.

Waiting for the 11th Indian Brigade and Matildas were 13 88mm flak guns dug into undulating desert terrain and camouflaged with netting. When the first Matildas hit a hidden minefield and started to have their tracks blown off, the time was ripe for the German gunners to open fire. One squadron of the 5th Royal Tank Regiment was destroyed in the first salvo and the rest of the regiment was soon in retreat. Further attacks by the British 4th Armoured Brigade fared little better. The Matilda’s 2-pounder cannons did not have the range to reach the German guns, which were easily picking targets off at more than 1500m (1640yd) range. Even if they could have closed on the German position, the British tanks lacked high-explosive shells because their primary task was to deal with enemy anti-tank gunners by using their machine guns.

In the space of four days the British lost 123 out of 238 of their tanks and failed to budge the Germans from Halfaya Pass. The battle forever destroyed the Matilda’s reputation for invulnerability, and soon Allied tank crews came to fear the weapon they called the “Eighty-Eight”. To their German crews, they were nicknamed the “Acht-Acht” and their presence on the battlefield was a great morale booster. Not only did they keep Allied aircraft at bay, but it was very reassuring for German soldiers to know that they were protected by a weapon that could also defeat any Allied tank. For a gun that was supposed to be an anti-aircraft weapon, the fact that the “Eighty-Eight” should achieve fame as an anti-tank gun was no surprise to its designers.

Under the terms of the 1919 Versailles Treaty that ended World War I, Germany was denied the right to possess anti-aircraft artillery. The army of the new Weimar Republic, the Reichswehr, was not going to let such legal niceties get in the way of its plans to develop new weapons. It started to fund the famous armaments firm, Krupp, to set up a secret research base in Sweden in cooperation with the Bofors company. In return, Bofors was invited to set up a branch office in Berlin that was manned solely by Germans. Throughout the 1920s the German designers worked away, preparing for the day when they could openly return to business as usual. Krupp and Rheinmetall were asked towards the end of the decade to design a new anti-aircraft gun, but it was not until 1931 that a satisfactory product was ready. This experimental 88mm gun featured many of the characteristics of the weapon that would be famous in World War II: it had a cruciform wheeled carriage and an 85-degree elevation to fire at aircraft. To fire, the cruciform carriage was lowered to the ground and two elevating side legs dropped to form a firm base. The gun also had a 360-degree rapid traverse. After the rise of Hitler in 1933, Germany reneged on the Versailles armaments restrictions and Krupp was ordered to begin production of its weapon, designated the 88mm Flak 18.

The Flak 18

The Flak 18 was a hardy design. It was transported on the Sonderanhänger 201 limbers (two two-wheeled sets), and when deployed for firing stood on a cruciform platform comprised of four legs horizontal legs meeting at the central gun pedestal. This design gave the gun a 720-degree traverse; elevation was from minus 3 degrees up to 85 degrees. The gun itself had a single barrel held within a jacket, and also a novel “semi-automatic” breech system that automatically ejected spent shell cases. This latter features, along with the unitary cartridge design of the 88mm’s shells, meant that over 15 rounds a minute could be fired by an experienced crew in action – heavy firepower indeed.

The Flak 18 fired armour-piercing or high-explosive shells at a muzzle velocity of 820mps (2690fps) to a maximum ceiling of 9900m (32482ft). However, it didn’t take long for artillery officers to realise that tha gun could also perform well in an anti-tank role, with a maximum ground range of 14.8km (9.25 miles). Operational experience in the Spanish Civil War (1936–39) bore this out, and the Flak 18 began its career as an anti-tank weapon.

Improvements were soon made to the Flak 18 and its carriage, resulting in the Sonderanhänger 202. This received identical front and rear limber sections, each axle having four tyres set in double-wheel arrangements. A barrel support was added to each end of the limber (the Sonderanhänger 201 had only one barrel support) so the gun could be towed facing either direction. Performance was unchanged, but a new three-section barrel was designed. This allowed worn out parts of the barrel to be replaced, rather than the entire barrel itself, hence saving time and materials (rear rifled sections tended to wear out more quickly than muzzles, for example). This design modification also made it possible for units to replace barrels in the field; Flak 18s had to be shipped back to workshops behind the lines to have their heavy one-piece barrels replaced. There were various other changes affecting the sighting systems and other parts of the gun. The new gun and its mount was called the Flak 36. However, it should be noted that Flak 18 barrels often ended up on Flak 36 guns and vice-versa.

It was not long before further refinements were introduced to produce the Flak 37. The changes were mainly concentrated on the fire-control system, and allowed the gunlayer to more easily follow instructions supplied to him from a battery fire direction post. The barrel liner was also replaced with a two-piece unit, rather than the Flak 36’s three-piece barrel.

The Flak 18, 36 and 37 were the bulk of the 88mm gun variants deployed by the Wehrmacht in World War II, though there were a number of attempts to improve on this tried and tested design. Rheinmetall, the designers of the original Flak 18, developed the Flak 41; a version with a longer, five-part barrel. A few hundred were built, but technical problems and production delays meant they never replaced the older models in widespread use. It is thought that few, if any, Flak 41s were ever deployed outside of Germany. The Krupp design bureau also attempted to improve on Rheinmetall’s original design in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Krupp’s engineers drifted from their original brief and ended up effectively redesigning the entire weapon from scratch, though their final product – called the 8.8cm Gërat – was by most practical criteria identical to the Flak 37.

The success of the 88mm in the anti-tank role in North Africa and Russia, and the appearance of heavily armoured Soviet T-34s and KV-1s, made the Weapons Office look to producing a specialist anti-tank version. This was a pressing requirement because the existing 50mm and 75mm anti-tank guns were unable to deal with the new Soviet tanks. An important requirement was to reduce the silhouette of the weapon to make it easier for their crews to camouflage and conceal them. Krupp modified their design for the 8.8cm Gërat, adapting it for a purely anti-armour role and reducing the size of its recoil mechanism. The result was the PaK-43, which retained the cruciform carriage of the old 88mm, though this was soon superseded by the PaK-43/41 which was mounted on a single axis carriage, like a traditional artillery piece. While crews liked the killing power of the new anti-tank gun, they were less impressed by its size and weight – more than 6 tonnes (5.9 tons) – and soon nicknamed it the “barn door”.

The basic 88mm Flak 18 weapon weighed 7.1 tonnes (7 tons), which meant it was not easily manhandled once the crew had lowered it from its wheels. Just as famous as the weapon itself was its Kraus-Maffei SdKfz 7 halftrack prime mover, which could carry the gun’s crew and a basic load of ammunition.

Operating the weapon was a very labour-intensive process. A single gun was served by a crew of nine, which included a commander, layer to elevate the gun, layer to traverse the gun, a loader, four ammunition handlers, two fuse setters and a tractor driver.

Some of the first guns were sent to Spain with the German Condor Legion to protect the airfields used by General Franco’s fascist forces. When they ended up being used against ground targets, the Luftwaffe High Command realized that it needed to order armour-piercing rounds for the weapon and armoured shields to protect their crews from shell fire. These improvements were in hand when war broke out in 1939.

The weapon’s high velocity – 820m (2690ft) per second – was the key to its success in both the anti-aircraft and anti-tank roles when supplied with the correct ammunition. For anti-aircraft work, it was provided with time- and pressure-fused high-explosive shells to allow the crew to set the altitude at which the shells exploded. In the ground role, three main types of round were available. The Pzgr 39 armour-piercing, capped, ballistic cap (APCBC) round was the first round used and was later supplemented by the Gr 38HI high-explosive anti-tank (HEAT) round, and Pzgr 40 armoured-piercing, composite rigid round, which had a tungsten core. With this ammunition an “Acht-Acht” could punch through 99mm (3.8in) of armour at 2011m (2200yd), which meant no type of Allied tank was safe until the arrival of the Soviet Josef Stalin tank in early 1944. Poorly armoured tanks, such as the Sherman and T-34, which had only 51mm (2in) and 47mm (1.8in) frontal armour respectively, were easy prey for the 88mm at ranges in excess of 3000m (3282yd).

Although a large number of “Flieger-Abwehr-Kanone” or flak units had been formed in World War I, Germany was banned from possessing air defence artillery by the Versailles Treaty. In secret the Reichswehr reformed its flak units in 1928, and disguised them as transport detachments and elements of the German Air Sports Union. Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 was quickly followed by the establishment of the German Air Ministry, which was a cover for the secret formation of the Luftwaffe. Responsibility for flak units was soon passed from the army to the Luftwaffe, because of the need to integrate anti-aircraft artillery with fighter defences. In only four years the flak branch was expanded to some 115 units, which had the job of defending airfields, key strategic locations and the field army. Two years into the war this number had expanded to 841 units. The flak artillery were divided into static units committed to the defence of the Reich and self-propelled units that accompanied the army into battle. The battalions of self-propelled flak artillery were the elite of the branch and were in the thick of the action throughout the war.

The Army High Command had never been happy with the Luftwaffe having total control of the flak branch, and in 1941 both the Army and Waffen-SS were allowed to form their own flak battalions to be assigned to infantry, panzer, motorized and panzergrenadier divisions. These units had a mixture of 88mm and 20mm or 37mm light flak weapons to protect their divisions from enemy aircraft. However, all matters relating to flak weapons, ammunition and equipment, as well as tactics, doctrine, training and organization, still remained the responsibility of the Luftwaffe flak branch.

While fighter pilots and paratroopers received public adulation as the Luftwaffe’s war heroes, the flak gunners were elite non-flying units of the German air force. Operating weapons, such as the “Acht-Acht”, in the anti-aircraft role, was very demanding because crews had to be able to understand the complex fire solutions needed to set fuses to explode at high altitude. They also had to work as part of a complex air defence organization so friendly aircraft were not mistakenly engaged. The firing crews had to be fit and determined, firstly, to manhandle their guns into position, dig firing pits and maintain the supply of shells to the gun. Each shell weighed in at more 9kg (20lb) so this was no mean feat.

Gun and battery commanders were highly trained to get the most out of their weapons in the anti-tank role. Once committed to battle the “Acht-Acht” were virtually immobile, so the difference between success or failure depended on the siting of the guns and their concealment until the time came to engage the enemy. Once battle was joined with enemy tanks, flak commanders required strong nerves and faith in the capabilities of the guns and their crews. Outside the cockpit of a fighter or combat as a paratrooper, being a flak gun commander was the quickest way in the Luftwaffe to die for the Führer.

In the first two years of the war, Luftwaffe fighters ruled the skies over Europe’s battlefields, relegating flak gunners to relatively straightforward point defence tasks. The brunt of these tasks fell to divisional or corps flak battalions or regiments, which travelled close behind the panzer spearheads. During the Blitzkrieg in France, the Balkans and Russia, divisional “Acht-Acht” batteries were often called upon to engage pockets of enemy tanks that could not be dealt with by the panzer regiment. These were small-scale engagements, involving one or two flak guns being called upon to knock out handfuls of British, French or Soviet heavy tanks that had broken through the German front.

Massed Flak Batteries

As the Allies and Soviets started to boost their airpower and challenge the Luftwaffe, the Germans began to take air defence more seriously and major resources were put into building up flak batteries. Soviet offensives in the winter of 1942–43 also saw the massed employment of hundreds of T-34s along narrow fronts. In response, the Germans saw the need to field anti-tank defences capable of countering this threat. Massed flak guns were one answer to the growing tank and air threat. Rommel showed what was possible with his use of massed 88mm batteries in the North African desert, and the Germans looked to repeat this success in Russia.

By the summer of 1942, the bulk of 88mm guns in frontline areas had been concentrated in 10 Luftwaffe motorized flak divisions, which were raised to provide air defence for army groups. The divisional flak commander was responsible for the organization of all air defence activity – flak guns, radars, searchlights and fighters – in the army group area. A flak division possessed awesome firepower, usually between 12 to 30 heavy flak batteries, each of four 88mm guns, and a similar number of medium and light batteries, each with a dozen quad 20mm or 37mm cannons.

He, in turn, posted his motorized flak regiments and battalions to key sectors of the front to support a particular army or corps. In times of crisis, they could be concentrated to provide either blanket protection against enemy air forces or a powerful anti-tank emergency reserve against an armoured breakthrough. If necessary, they could also supplement army artillery battalions in general fire support tasks. Unlike the majority of army artillery units, which were still horse-drawn, the Luftwaffe generously ensured all its flak battalions were fully motorized. With a typical motorized flak regiment mustering more than 20 “Eighty-Eights”, in effect they were a highly mobile tank-killing force, available to rapidly concentrate firepower at a crucial point on the battlefield if the going got really desperate.

Flak regiments were not committed to the emergency anti-tank role without prior planning and reconnaissance. As a standard procedure, flak commanders would survey their sector of the front for possible firing positions in case enemy tanks broke through. Guns were to be sited to make maximum use of their long range, so clear fields of fire were a must. Overlapping fields of fire were also allocated to individual guns and batteries, so the whole of the front could be swept by fire, creating killing zones. The high silhouette of the 88mm flak gun meant weapons had either to be dug into pits, or hidden in woods and buildings to prevent them being spotted. Good concealment was essential to stop the attackers spotting the flak guns until they were well inside the kill zone and unable to escape. If the enemy spotted the flak guns too soon, then their artillery would fire on the flak batteries with deadly effect.

The pre-positioning of anti-tank ammunition near to the gun line was very important to ensure that a rapid rate of fire could be maintained for as long as necessary. Flak commanders also liked to have friendly infantry close at hand to protect their guns from enemy ground troops, who might try to infiltrate and destroy them.

Flak commanders identified key points to be defended and concentrated their guns there, to ensure that the defence line held whatever happened. They had to juggle their mission to provide air defence, with the need to counter breakthroughs of enemy armour. Often the requirements of both missions overlapped: for example, defending strategic bridges, railway lines or high ground. Movement to other key sectors on the battlefield was regularly rehearsed so flak units could rapidly move on receiving an accepted codeword.

In emergency situations, a flak commander was usually the first officer on the scene with battle-winning equipment, so they assumed command of the action against the rampaging enemy tanks. Any infantry or troops on the scene subordinated themselves to the flak commander as part of ad hoc battlegroups. No matter how much forward planning had occurred, this was when the flak commander got to show his mettle. They often had to bring order to a chaotic situation, ensuring their guns were in position and fire discipline was maintained until the vital moment. This was a time for iron nerves.

The Battle of the Meuse

The first decisive intervention by “Acht-Acht” guns occurred in May 1940. Heinz Guderian’s panzer corps raced to the River Meuse at Sedan to build the bridgehead needed to open a breach in French lines, allowing the panzers to race to the English Channel. Guderian, the father of the German panzers, had the Luftwaffe’s Flak Regiment 102 attached for this operation, and gave it a key mission. Colonel von Hippel’s regiment had been specially reinforced and trained for its part in an operation that was to turn the battle for France in Germany’s favour.

Once the panzers had reached the river, infantry were ordered across in rubber assault boats to seize a bridgehead. French troops and guns emplaced in concrete bunkers high on the far bank were turning the German assembly areas into killing zones. Guderian had already thought about dealing with the French defences, and he had sent his flak gunners to Poland to practice putting shells directly through the firing ports of abandoned Polish bunkers. Covered by panzers, the 88mm crews rolled their guns up to firing positions on the river bank opposite the bridgehead, and started to pick off the French bunkers. In some places the flak gunners were less than 100m (109yd) from their targets, and the 88mm proved to be superbly accurate.

This impressive display of firepower was just the morale boost the assault troops needed as they dropped their boats in the Meuse on 13 May. By the end of the afternoon Guderian had his bridgehead, and during the night the engineers had built the first of several pontoon bridges. The flak gunners moved two 88mms across the river just behind the first panzers and they were soon in action, knocking out French tanks sent to counterattack during the night.

When morning broke, the French and British realized the danger posed by the German bridgehead. Within hours, hundreds of bombers were on their way to put it out of action. Colonel von Hippel’s gunners were the only defence available to protect the key bridges. Luftwaffe fighters took on the covering RAF Spitfires, but the bombers pressed home their attacks on the bridges with fanatical bravery. The flak gunners elevated their 88mms and started to pick them off. Wave after wave of bombers were met by a wall of exploding shells. The aircraft that were not hit were forced to abort their bomb runs. By the end of the day, Guderian’s bridges were still intact and 112 Allied bombers had been shot from the sky. The panzer general commented that, “our anti-aircraft gunners proved themselves on this day, and shot superbly.” A grateful Führer awarded von Hippel with the Knight’s Cross.

Erwin Rommel already had experience of using his 88mm flak batteries as an emergency anti-tank force during the Battle of Arras in June 1940, knocking out eight Matildas. At Sidi Rezegh in November 1941, Rommel’s flak front stopped the British 7th Armoured Brigade in its tracks, after its commander had rashly ordered his tanks to charge headlong across the desert directly at the Germans. Only four 88mm guns were dug-in on the first day of the battle and they devastated the British brigade. For reasons best known to the British brigadier, he repeated the exercise over four successive days and some 300 British tanks were left destroyed by the “Acht-Acht” and a group of 50mm anti-tank guns sent to reinforce the flak battery.

Gun crews had to be ready for action at a moment’s notice, against unexpected threats. During the battle for the Gazala Line in June 1942 Rommel used his flak guns aggressively, placing batteries close behind the head of his panzer columns. If British tanks were encountered the panzers were to fall back and leave the “Acht-Acht” to deal with them at long range. On the opening day of the battle, the 21st Panzer Division found itself up against 40 of the new American-supplied Grant tanks for the first time. With their 75mm cannon, the Grants out-ranged the German Panzer IIIs and so the latter began a hasty withdrawal away from the new threat. Rommel was close at hand to direct Colonel Wolz’s 135th Flak Regiment to steady the German line. Four 88mm guns were quickly formed into an improvised gun line to protect the Afrika Korps’ supply trucks. As the Grants got to within 1500m (1640yd), the 88s roared into life. The British tanks started “brewing up”, forcing the rest to pull back. Rommel’s aggressive use of the 88mm in North Africa established its reputation as a “bogey weapon” in the eyes of British tank crews.

On the Russian Front, German flak units increasingly took on more anti-tank duties as the weight of Soviet offensives increased. The summer of 1943 saw a rejuvenated Soviet armoured force take the offensive after the German Kursk Offensive had been checked. Pre-positioned Soviet tank reserves were unleashed just as the German panzer spearheads had been worn down by anti-tank defences and minefields. With great skill, the Soviet High Command struck at the weak flanks of the German front and, within days, it had been shattered in several places north of Orel. Four Soviet tanks corps smashed through the German Second Panzer Army’s front and raced towards the key rail junction at Khotynets. Luftwaffe tank-busting planes and 88mm guns of the 12th Flak Division were the only things that could stop the hundreds of tanks surging southwards. Unless the rail junction was held, panzer reserves would be unable to reach the crisis zone.

Flak Against T-34s

Although the German fighter-bombers were able to shoot up an entire Soviet tank brigade, more T-34s continued the offensive. A battalion of 88mm guns, already on the move under the cover of darkness, was able to set up a gun line outside Khotynets. When the Soviets tried to stage a coup de main raid on the town they drove into a firestorm of 88mm shells and fell back. More attacks continued over a three-day period, but more “Acht-Acht” batteries arrived to bolster the German defence. Casualties were heavy among the flak gunners, who had to fight off the Soviets virtually unsupported by artillery or armour.

During this desperate battle the division claimed 229 tanks knocked out and ensured the safe arrival of panzer reinforcements, allowing the breaches in the front to be restored. The success of the 12th Flak Division validated the mass employment of the “Acht-Acht” as emergency anti-tank forces.

The next major test of the 88mm came in the summer 1944 on the Normandy Front. In late July the British massed almost 800 tanks around the city of Caen to punch a hole through I SS Panzer Corps’ front. A mix of Army, Waffen-SS and Luftwaffe 88mm flak and anti-tank battalions, with some 78 guns, were concentrated in this key sector. In spite of being on the receiving end of saturation bombing by 1000 Allied heavy bombers, the German defences were ready when the first wave of British tanks kicked off Operation Goodwood early on 18 July. The British 11th Armoured Division was sent forward through a 4.8km (3-mile) wide bridgehead. Backed by Tiger and Panther tanks of the Waffen-SS Leibstandarte Panzer Division, the surviving “Acht-Acht” gunners emerged from the ruins and started firing into the huge column of British Shermans. By the end of the day more than 300 British tanks were burning in front of the German lines, many of which fell to 88mm flak and PaK-43/41 guns. A renewed attack the following day only resulted in 100 more British tanks being destroyed.


Multi-barrel Miscellany

In 1786 the leading London gunmaker Henry Nock devised one of the most satisfactory of all flintlock breechloaders. A reloadable cartridge which forms part of the breech is pivoted on a slide. When the slide is drawn towards the butt, the cartridge hinges upwards to a vertical position for loading. In the Firing position, in line with the barrel, it is locked by a vertical peg attached to a short chain which also serves as the handle when opening the breech. An example in the Tower Armouries shows that this was an efficiently-made arm, and much less complicated to use than its appearance would suggest. However, it had little success, although it was a considerable improvement over Guiseppi Crespi’s design of 1770, itself so like Bicknell’s breechloader of c. 1660.

Nock volley gun in the Charleston Museum. These guns were made 1779-1780 for the British Royal Navy. Nock’s Volley gun – 7 barrels brazed together with the outer 6 having their breeches plugged. The central barrel screwed on to a hollow spigot which formed the chamber and was connected to the vent. This chamber fired through smaller vents to ignite the charges in the outer barrels. At first, the barrels were all rifled but this led to loading difficulties and most were later made smooth bored. This improved the rate of fire but reduced range and accuracy.

The gun was made by James Wilson 1779 and named after Nock. Nock was contracted to manufacture the gun and 635 examples were sold to the Royal Navy. A flintlock mechanism fired through a vent that led to the central chamber. Firing cause dignition in the central chamber and resulting flash passed through and ignited the other 6 so all 7 fired more or less simultaneously. The gun was intended for the fighting tops of warships to fire down on the deck of the enemy vessel as it closed alongside. However recoil was so strong and the weapon so difficult to control that a smaller lighter version had to be produced. This made it shorter ranging but still effective as Admiral Howe’s fleet showed in relief of Gibraltar in 1782. Nevertheless, it was still unpopular because of the danger of a ship’s sails and rigging catching fire from the muzzle blast.

Overall length 37in, barrel length 20in, calibre 0.52in.

Henry Nock was also closely involved in the production of a volley gun offered by James Wilson to the British Board of Ordnance in 1779, when the inventor described it as “a new Invented Gun with seven barrels to fire at one time.” When the version with rifled barrels was recommended for use from ship’s rigging, Nock, who had made Wilson’s prototypes, supervised the manufacture between 1780 and 1788 of 655 at £13 each. Perhaps inspired by the interest shown by Colonel Thomas Thornton, several of London’s leading gunmakers made versions for game-shooting. The most distinctive survivor was the colonel’s own, an 11.5-lb (5.2 kg) sporting encumbrance by Dupe and Company with fourteen barrels in two sets of seven placed side by side. The gun is now in the Musee d’Armes, Liege. With the development of percussion ignition, the inventive Forsyth and Pauly designed neater seven-barreled sporting arms, and as late as 1900 the Belgian Henri Pieper made a rolling breech rifle firing seven .22-inch (5.6 mm) cartridges from seven barrels on a single pressure of the trigger. Pieper’s design was the last hand-held example of a series that began soon after the introduction of fire-arms and proceeded by way of a seven-barreled handgun mentioned in a Bastille inventory of 1453; sporting guns with several barrels drilled from a solid block; pistols with two, three or more barrels-of which the “duck’s foot pistol” is perhaps the best known -through J. Lillycrap’s patent of 1842, which shows a belt set with five pistol barrels that were fired simultaneously.

The appeal of the same idea to some artillerists resulted in the so-called “partridge mortar” of c. 1700, which had a large central bore surrounded by a ring of thirteen smaller bores firing one standard mortar shell and thirteen grenades. The vent of the parent barrel also gave fire to the smaller ones to produce an almost simultaneous discharge. Although never common or especially successful, they were used by the French in defense at Bouchain in 1702, and in attack at the siege of Lille six years later. One survives in the Museum fur deutsche Geschichte, Berlin.

Nebelwerfer trio werfing nebel. Company of Heroes computer game – I think not!

The psychological effect of these coveys of explosive shells must have been much the same in their day as the much more devastating clusters of rockets from the 5.9-inch (15 cm) Nebelwerfer 41 and its 8.3-inch (21 cm) successor, respectively six- and five-barreled, that rained down on the Allied armies at Cassino and later at the defensive complex occupied by the Wehrmacht east of the Orne. There, almost three hundred of these rocket-mortars were emplaced, each capable of discharging six rounds every 90 seconds at targets up to 7,700 yards (7,041 m) away.

Canon de 90 mm CA Modèle 1939

Canon CA 90 mm Mle1939 (Schneider) – 9.0 cm Flak M39(f) –

Caliber: 90x673R mm

Barrel length: 4500 mm (3780 mm rifling)

Battle-station weight: 5760 kg

Rate of fire: 15 rpm

Muzzle velocity: 810 m/s (projectile of 9.5kg)

Traverse: 360°

Elevation: -4° to 80°

Maximum range: 11000 m

French 90 mm Schneider AA guns, which were planned to be used in Polish Army thanks to the “Rambouliet credit”. Polish aim was to buy about 60 pieces of 90 mm guns in France plus license agreement.

A land based mobile heavy anti-aircraft version called the Canon de 90 mm CA Modèle 1926. In 1939 a modified (shortened by 1 m) version was produced as the Canon de 90 mm CA Modèle 1939. Both were produced in limited numbers and it is estimated that only seventeen were built before 1940. Both had a two-wheeled single-axle carriage with three folding outriggers. Guns captured by the Germans were given the designation 9 cm Flak M.39(f).

Used on the ground but mainly by the French navy, in single and twin mount. Five mobile batteries were deployed around Paris and had shells enabling them to be used in direct AT fire. Some were used in direct AT fire in North Africa initially against the landing US troops in November 1942.

The heavy FlaK battery of Oorderen near Antwerp

German Luftwaffe anti-aircraft (FlaK = Flugzeugabwehr Kanone) batteries were installed in the Antwerp agglomeration to protect the harbour area against allied bombing raids by the Royal Air Force (RAF) and later on also by the USA Air Force (USAAF). One of these batteries lay near the Brandstraat in Oorderen. In November 1940 the Germans commenced construction of the heavy FlaK site. On the site there was a firecontrol tracking radar, a Würzburg (FuMG 39 T) that by means of an analogue computer (Kommando Gerät 36) aimed the guns on the target. This Würzburg with its limited range (30 Km) was put on the target by a Freya search radar (FuMG 401) which was located elsewhere and had a range of 300 Km. The unit that was located here from April 1943 onwards was the ” Gemischte FlaK-Abteilung 295 (v)” and it stayed there until the liberation in September 1944. The guns were captured French guns. The emplacements were initially earth banks with the straight sides inside and the entrances reinforced with wooden shelves. Later during the war, the emplacements were constructed in concrete with concrete blocks (Formsteine). Inside there were niches for ammunition. Initially wooden barracks were built to house the crews and to store ammunition and supplies.

Later on a wall of Formsteine was built straight to the wooden walls (protection against bomb fragments). Somewhat later again, roofs of reinforced concrete were laid on these barracks. A layer of asphalt was laid on it, protection against damp penetration. Then the wooden shelves were removed and windows were cut down in the concrete. Ammunition storages were concrete bunkers or Formsteine half buried in the ground and protected with earth on the outside.

On the site there were also brick buildings with variable sizes, constructed with bricks of 20x10x5cm. The walls were 65 cm thick the roof was reinforced concrete. On several roofs there were small towers with slits for rifles for defence of the area.

Hess and Goebbels Gun Batteries at Dieppe

19 August 1942

One of the most controversial raids of the Second World War was the raid on Dieppe, which took place on 19 August 1942. By the end of the day, thousands of Allies were dead, wounded or taken as prisoners of war. The Dieppe Raid has since been the subject of much debate, but within the overall operation there were countless acts of great bravery, including those of British commandos at two mighty gun batteries that simply had to be silenced.

The origins of the Dieppe raid were to ease the pressure on the Eastern Front and prevent Germany from committing more resources to the east. The Americans and Russians had both urged Britain to open a second front, but Britain, already heavily engaged in North Africa, the Mediterranean and the Far East, did not have the resources to conduct and sustain a large-scale offensive in north-west Europe. Nonetheless, Winston Churchill had made it clear that he wanted to conduct a major operation during the summer of 1942. Senior military commanders agreed. If the Allies were to eventually carry out a full-scale invasion of mainland Europe, it was essential for a division-size operation to be carried out against a German-held port on the northern coastline of France. To do so would not only help gain a better understanding of large-scale amphibious landings, but would also determine whether the Allies were capable of maintaining forces ashore once a landing had taken place.

A number of ports were considered, but while most were rejected for one reason or another, Dieppe was accepted as a possible target. A coastal town built along a cliff overlooking the English Channel, it was a relatively short distance for raiding forces and so it was possible to make the crossing under the cover of night. Dieppe was also within range of RAF Fighter Command and so raiding forces could be given significant cover from the air.

In April 1942, Mountbatten gave the order for his staff at Combined Operations to commence planning for the raid, which was to be supported by a large array of naval and air assets. One option drawn up was to land a mix of tanks and infantry either side of Dieppe and to then capture the town using a pincer movement over the two headlands flanking the port. Another option was to land tanks and infantry directly onto the beach at Dieppe in a frontal assault, supported by landings on either side of the town. Two heavy artillery gun batteries protecting the approaches to Dieppe – the Hess Battery at Varengeville to the west and the Goebbels Battery at Berneval-le-Grand to the east – would be captured by airborne troops landing ahead of the main attack.

After much discussion it was decided to proceed with the second option, the frontal assault, which would be preceded by a heavy aerial bombardment. Codenamed Operation Rutter, the attack was planned for early July when tidal conditions would be just right for the assault. It would test the feasibility of capturing a port in the face of opposition, understand the problems of operating the invasion fleet, and test the equipment and techniques of the assault.

The scale of the operation meant there were insufficient resources amongst the British Army’s commando units to carry out the raid. Therefore, regular army troops would need to be involved, and because there had been increasing pressure from the Canadian government for its troops to take part in operations, the Canadian 2nd Infantry Division was selected as the main attacking force.

Intelligence reports suggested that Dieppe was not heavily defended and the beaches were suitable for the landings. The plan was for two Canadian battalions to assault the main beach, supported by Canadian tanks and engineers, after two other Canadian battalions had landed earlier to attack German gun batteries overlooking the main beach. The British 1st Battalion of the Parachute Brigade were to be dropped to attack the two coastal batteries at Varengeville and Berneval-le-Grand, with a further Canadian battalion acting as a reserve to be committed when and where necessary.

The date for Rutter was narrowed down to the first week of July but, after weeks of training, the combination of unsettled weather and the fact the Germans had spotted and attacked the large gathering of ships required to transport the assault troops across the Channel, resulted in the operation being cancelled.

Although Rutter had been cancelled, its planning was not entirely wasted. The decision to remount the raid, this time called Operation Jubilee, meant plans were resurrected. The main objectives remained largely unchanged, with the only difference being that the large German coastal batteries would be attacked and captured by a seaborne assault, rather than from the air: 4 Commando was tasked to destroy the Hess Battery at Varengeville while 3 Commando was to destroy the Goebbels Battery at Berneval-le-Grand.

Along stretches of the south coast of England the commandos began training for the raid. They would be required to assault the two coastal gun batteries at dawn while the main landings took place on five different beaches along a 10-mile stretch of the coast. A total of 5,000 Canadians and a further 1,000 British troops, including the army commandos and a unit of Royal Marine commandos, and 50 American Rangers were to be supported by more than 230 Royal Navy ships and landing craft and nearly 70 RAF squadrons. It would be the largest amphibious raid of the war.

Tasked with capturing and then destroying the Goebbels Battery, codenamed Operation Flodden, 3 Commando was to be led by Lieutenant Colonel John Durnford-Slater, who had led his men in the raid at Vaagso the year before. His plan was for his force of just over four hundred men to land in two groups on two beaches, codenamed Yellow-One and Yellow-Two, either side of the battery and near the village of Berneval-le-Grand. The Goebbels Battery was known to house three 170mm and four 105mm guns and, situated half a mile inland, it was protected from the sea by steep cliffs. Durnford-Slater would lead the main element ashore on Yellow-One while his second-in-command, Major Peter Young, another veteran of Norway, would land with two troops plus a mortar section on Yellow-Two. The two groups would then carry out a co-ordinated pincer attack against the battery using gullies to conceal their position.

Meanwhile, 4 Commando, led by Lieutenant Colonel Simon Fraser, the fifteenth holder of the title Lord Lovat, who had also served in Norway, would be carrying out an assault on the Hess Battery under Operation Cauldron. The Hess Battery consisted of six 150mm guns in a concrete emplacement just over half a mile inland from the coastal cliffs. Intelligence reports had estimated there were around two hundred men at the battery, with a further two infantry companies in support nearby. The emplacement was surrounded by concrete defences, landmines, concealed defensive machine-gun posts and layers of barbed wire, and was also protected from air attack by an anti-aircraft gun emplacement.

With less than three hundred men, Lovat had a smaller force than Durnford-Slater but he also decided to land his force on two beaches. One group, consisting of C Troop and one section of A Troop, plus a mortar detachment, would be led by his second-in-command, Major Derek Mills-Roberts, and land on the beach at Varengeville. The beach Mills-Roberts had been allocated, codenamed Orange-One, was overlooked by a cliff, but offered two gullies leading to the top, although these were known to be full of barbed wire and other obstructions. The commandos were to scale the cliff in front of the battery and take up a holding position in a wood, half a mile inland, ready to mount a continuous barrage of fire against the front of the battery while the second group, led by Lovat, carried out the assault on the battery. His group, consisting of B and F Troops, was to land on the beach at Quiberville, called Orange-Two. The beach was just over a mile to the west and at the mouth of the small River Saane. It was further away from the battery but the commandos were expected to move quickly inland along the river and then eastwards to the top of the cliffs, where they could attack the battery and its garrison from the rear, although this line of approach was known to be protected by machine-gun posts and barbed wire. The remaining section of A Troop was to be held as a mobile reserve between the two beaches and used as required. Once the battery had been destroyed, the commandos would withdraw using the landing craft at Orange-One.

Having left their temporary bases in Sussex and Dorset, the commandos were transported to their embarkation ports for crossing the Channel; 3 Commando at Newhaven and 4 Commando at Southampton. While 4 Commando’s crossing passed uneventfully, the same was not true for the men of 3 Commando. Shortly before 4.00 am, and still about an hour from the coast of France, their landing group was illuminated after being spotted by an armed German convoy in the Channel. The commandos immediately came under intense fire. Their landing craft quickly scattered as they came under attack by fast German S-boats that had been escorting a German tanker. Some of the landing craft were forced to turn back, while others were sunk, effectively halting 3 Commando’s main attacking force. They had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time and had been unfortunate to have been spotted.

Remarkably, though, not all of the landing craft of this group had been sunk or had turned back. Six managed to regroup and continued towards their landing beach. Furthermore, the chance encounter mid-Channel seems to have gone unreported to the coastal defences. To the crews of the German patrol boats, they assumed they had come across a planned raid against their convoy and nothing more. The landing craft of Peter Young had also survived intact and completed the crossing on its own. Determined to press on with the attack, the commandos landed just to the west of Yellow-Two slightly before 6.00 am.

Making their way quickly across the beach, Young then located a gulley leading to the top of the cliffs. Undeterred by the barbed wire and other obstructions that filled the gulley, the commandos reached the top. The Goebbels Battery was already firing on the main landing force, now just a few miles away, but with only eighteen men there was little Young could do. The commandos managed to reach a position within 200 yards of the battery, but a full frontal assault was clearly out of the question; it would have meant certain death.

Young decided the best they could do was to harass the battery as much as possible and to prevent it from inflicting serious damage on the attacking forces. Splitting his men into three small groups, he directed his commandos to cut telephone wires to disrupt communications and continue to fire on the battery for several hours as a constant distraction to the gunners. This seemed to have some effect as no Allied forces were believed to have been lost to the battery. After a couple of hours and hopelessly outnumbered, as well as being all but out of ammunition, Young finally gave the order to withdraw; all his men would make it off the beach and safely back to England.

Meanwhile, the group of six other landing craft that had survived the encounter mid-Channel, a total of around a hundred men, including a handful of US Rangers, had landed on a beach to the east of Yellow-One and opposite Le Petit Berneval. But it was now 5.30 am and they were half an hour behind schedule. The delay of thirty minutes had made all the difference between darkness and first daylight, and the landing craft had been spotted by the German defences. As enemy rounds clattered against the landing craft, causing a number of casualties on board, the commandos were quick to get ashore and reach the safety of a nearby gulley. Having then scrambled to the top, Captain Geoff Osmond had contemplated making a limited assault on the battery as planned, but German reinforcements had already arrived in the area. With such a small force it would have been a suicidal attack but the commandos did manage to take out German defensive positions at Le Petit Berneval. However, as they made their way towards the battery the commandos came under a devastating attack and casualties started to mount.

The survivors of 3 Commando had now been ashore for just over an hour but any hope of continuing the attack was abandoned. The order was given to withdraw to the beach and re-embark. But that was impossible. The commandos were now pinned down. Although the landing craft had managed to return to the beach to pick up the survivors, none of the commandos arrived. Eventually, after waiting as long as they dared, the crews of the landing craft left. Unbeknown to them at the time, the commandos they had come to pick up were still pinned down. Those commandos that were still alive were unaware that there was now no chance of getting away. Although some did make a break across open ground in an attempt to reach the beach, many were cut down. Those that did reach the beach arrived to find their only chance of escape had gone; only burnt-out landing craft were there waiting for them. With no option, Osmond surrendered his men to the surrounding forces.

Although 3 Commando’s raid had been disastrous, their colleagues in 4 Commando had been more fortunate. They had set sail from Southampton in the landing ship HMS Prince Albert and although they had heard 3’s mid-Channel encounter a few miles to the east, their crossing had been uneventful. Having then transferred to their landing craft for the assault as planned, the first group of 4’s commandos, led by Mills-Roberts, landed unopposed on Orange-One at around 4.50 am and just before daybreak. They were then able to quickly scale the cliffs and take up their positions, where they were to wait until 6.15 am before commencing their barrage of fire against the battery from the front – the second group were to commence their main assault from the rear fifteen minutes later.

Meanwhile, Lovat’s second group had not been quite so lucky. Their landing was met by heavy machine-gun fire from two pillboxes overlooking the beach. Calling for support from the mobile reserve section of A Troop to deal with the enemy positions, Lovat quickly led his two troops off the beach and towards the rear of the battery, where they took up their positions ready for the assault. Behind him, the commandos of A Troop soon dealt with the pillboxes and quickly made their way towards the first group, where they were to join up with the rest of their troop.

For Mills-Roberts and the commandos of the first group, the peace and quiet of the early summer morning was suddenly shattered and the ground shook when the battery unexpectedly opened fire. The convoy carrying the main assaulting troops had been spotted a few miles away and the battery was now engaging the ships. Mills-Roberts decided to wait no longer. Although it was not yet time he decided to engage the battery immediately. Mortars, Brens and rifle fire – everything the commandos had – rained down on the battery; it was the first the Germans knew that the commandos were even there.

A short distance away, Lovat and his group heard the firing. They were making their way towards their assault positions but the going was tough across heavy ground. Leading F Troop was Captain Roger Pettiward. One of 4 Commandos’ true characters, Pettiward was a complete gentleman by nature. From a privileged background, and educated at Eton, he had been an adventurous and well-travelled artist before the war, achieving much fame as the cartoonist Paul Crum. Alongside him was his second-in-command, Lieutenant John MacDonald, and 24-year-old Major Pat Porteous, the son of an army brigadier and a former artillery officer, who was acting as the liaison officer between the two assault groups carrying out the attack.

As the commandos of F Troop moved quickly between cottages and an orchard towards their assault position, they were suddenly caught by a heavy burst of enemy machine-gun fire. Pettiward and MacDonald were both killed instantly. As Porteous continued the advance towards the guns he was hit, the bullet passing through his palm and entering his upper arm. Undaunted, he continued until he reached his assailant, disarming him and then killing him with his own bayonet; thereby saving the life of one of the sergeants on whom the German had now turned. With Pettiward and MacDonald dead, and the troop sergeant major wounded, Porteous took command. Without hesitation, and in the face of overwhelming enemy fire, he dashed across the open ground to take command of the remaining commandos of F Troop. Rallying them, he then led them to their forming-up position where they fixed bayonets ready for the assault.

A pre-planned strike by Allied fighters arrived exactly on time to strafe the battery. It was now 6.30 am and Lovat signalled the assault. The covering fire then ceased and the commandos of the second group attacked. While Captain Gordon Webb led B Troop towards their objective of the battery’s buildings, the wounded Porteous led F Troop’s charge towards the guns, now less than a hundred yards away. Porteous was immediately wounded for a second time, shot through the thigh, but despite his wounds he continued to lead the men straight to the guns. He was one of the first to reach their final objective, but he was then hit again and finally collapsed from the loss of blood just as the last of the guns was captured. His most gallant conduct, brilliant leadership and tenacious devotion to duty was supplementary to the role he had been given for the assault and was an inspiration to his unit. It was later announced that Pat Porteous was to be awarded the Victoria Cross, one of three VCs to be won during that day.

Demolitions experts then destroyed the six guns with explosive charges while the commandos of B Troop searched the battery buildings and gathered anything of interest for intelligence. The commandos had been ashore for two hours and it was now time to leave. Carrying their wounded, the commandos withdrew to Orange-One where they were evacuated from the beach by landing craft under the cover of a smokescreen. It was still only 8.30 am. Then, having crossed the Channel without incident, apart from some ineffective enemy fire on leaving the beach, the men of 4 Commando arrived at Newhaven shortly before 6.00 pm. It had been a very long day.

As for the main assault on Dieppe by the Canadians, it was a total failure. The naval bombardment had not supressed the enemy defences, the tanks were unable to advance over the shingle beach and the infantry had suffered heavy casualties. Of the main assault force of 6,000 men, over 1,000 were killed and more than 2,000 were captured and taken as prisoners of war (a total casualty figure of some 60 per cent of the attacking force). Naval losses were also severe, with more than 500 casualties, plus the loss of a destroyer and over 30 landing craft. Allied losses in the air were also significant, with around a hundred aircraft lost, more than on any other day of the war. Furthermore, none of the objectives had been met: the assault by 4 Commando on the Hess Battery at Varengeville had been the only success of the whole operation. Even so, 45 commandos had not returned, 17 of whom had been killed, although German casualties were estimated to be around 150.

The assault by 4 Commando was later described as ‘a classic example of the use of well-trained troops and a thoroughness in planning, training and execution.’ For his leadership of the raid, Lord Lovat was awarded the DSO and his second-in-command, Major Derek Mills-Roberts, was awarded an MC, as was Captain Gordon Webb.

The men of 3 Commando had also fought with courage, aggression, resilience and dogged determination at Dieppe, but the fight had proved costly, with 140 killed, wounded or taken as prisoners of war; the majority of whom had been killed or captured trying to make it back to the beach. Amongst those killed was 22-year-old Lieutenant Edward Loustalot, a US Ranger attached to 3 Commando. He was the first American to be killed on European soil during the war and one of three rangers killed at Dieppe; Loustalot had been cut down by enemy crossfire while attacking a machine-gun post at the top of the cliff.

For his courage and leadership of the eighteen commandos of 3 Commando, who had landed in the single landing craft to the west of Yellow-Two and had then harassed the battery for some three hours before withdrawing safely back to England, Peter Young was awarded the DSO. His action was later described by Vice Admiral John Hughes-Hallett, the naval commander of Jubilee, as perhaps the most outstanding action of the whole operation.

Although the raid had ended up in a disastrous loss of life, the events at Dieppe would influence Allied planning for later landings in North Africa, Sicily and, ultimately, in Normandy on D-Day. The losses at Dieppe were claimed to be a necessary evil and Mountbatten later justified the raid by arguing that lessons learned were put to good use later in the war: stating that the success at Normandy was won on the beaches of Dieppe, and every life lost at Dieppe in 1942 spared at least ten more in Normandy in 1944. Churchill also claimed that the results of the Dieppe raid fully justified the heavy loss. To others, however, especially the Canadians, it was, and remains, a major disaster.

A Gun Called… ”Bruce”

British long-range, hyper-velocity gun. ‘Bruce’ was nicknamed after Admiral Sir Bruce Fraser, Controller of the Navy in 1942. The gun was developed largely as a ballistic research tool and consisted of an 8-in (203- mm) calibre barrel, 18.3 m (60 ft) long, inserted into the outer jacket of a standard naval 13.5-in (350-mm) gun. The 13.5-in chamber and breech mechanism were retained. The bore was rifled with 16 deep grooves, and the shells were made with exterior ribs which engaged in these grooves to spin the projectile. The shells weighed 1 16 kg (256 lb) and the propelling charge was 66.7 kg (147 lb) of cordite, giving a muzzle velocity of 1378 m/sec (4520 ft/sec).

Two guns were built by Vickers, the mountings being made in the Great Western Railway workshops at Swindon. The first gun was installed on the Isle of Grain in 1942 and used for test firings, aimed northward so that the flight of the shell and its fall could be tracked by instruments on the Essex coast. Towards the end of 1942 installation of the second gun began at the Royal Marine Siege Battery, St Margarets, near Dover, with the intention of using it as a long-range gun to bombard German positions on the French coast.

This gun was the one which was nicknamed ‘Bruce’. It was fired several times in 1943, but not with warlike intent. The line of fire was southwesterly, across Beachy Head, and the firings were all concerned with studying the performance of shells and fuzes at high altitude and long range. The maximum range achieved was 100.6 km (62.5 miles) but the enormous propelling charge wore out the gun barrel with such rapidity that no more than 30 shots could be fired before the bore became unserviceable. Since this was of little use as a service weapon, the experiments were closed down in 1944 and the weapon was scrapped.

Calibre: 8-in (203-mm) Barrel length: 18.3 m (60 ft) Shell weight: 116 kg (256 lb) Muzzle velocity: 1378 m/sec (4520 ft/sec) Range: 100.6 km (62.5 miles)

Royal Marine Siege Battery

The two 14″ Guns were one battery of the RM Siege Regiment at St Marys at Cliffe near Dover. They were never handed over to the Royal Artillery. In addition this battery also used an experimental gun called Bruce which was a 13.5″ Gun Breech with an 8″ gun barrel making it a super High Velocity weapon.

The second Battery used three `WW! 13.5″ Railway guns, which had been stored at Chilwell and recovered in 1939, these were eventually handed over to the RA in late 1943.

In addition the siege regiment had anti aircraft guns at all gun sites as well as MG and ATG’s for local defence. The RAF also had a spotter baloon section attached to the Regiment

There were numerous artillery exchanges with German batteries throughout the war including the one mentioned below..


There were two 14” coastal guns at Dover. These had a range of 24 miles and they could fire heavy shells across the English Channel. They were normally used against shipping in the Channel, either firing on German coastal convoys or firing on German coastal batteries which interfered with British convoys. However they were used briefly in support of 3 Canadian Division during operations in the Pas de Calais area in September 1944. An Auster AOP spotted for them and 189 rounds were fired.

These guns were reserve guns for the King George V class battleships. They were originally manned by Royal Marines but were handed over to the Royal Artillery. The first gun to be emplaced was named Winnie after Churchill and its partner was named Pooh.

The standard shell weighed 1,586 lb and the maximum range was 47,250 yards.

Also available were two 15” guns which had been intended for Penang but were installed at Dover. These fired a 1,938 lb shell to a range of 42,000 yards. This was just enough to reach the French coast.


War Establishment III/313/1. March 1944.

No3 Detachment is listed on the 21 Army Group Order of Battle. Presumably it was to direct the fire of coastal batteries.

12 X operator, fire control including



lance bombardier

9 X gunner

A Marine’s Tale Part 1

The Hellenistic Period – Weapons 400–150 BC III


Light cavalry of the Hellenistic period were generally mercenaries, called Tarentines. Although originally from Taras in south Italy, the name came to mean just a type of light cavalry armed with javelins and a small shield (Head 1982, pp. 115–16). The small shield of Macedonian style from Olympia, mentioned in connection with Cretan archers, could equally have been used by a Tarentine cavalryman. It is a moot point as to whether they wore helmets. We might presume that those who could buy their own helmet would have done so, but that they were not essential. Apart from battles, these soldiers were used chiefly for scouting by all the Hellenistic kingdoms and many Greek states.

A final type of cavalryman, who appears to have been used only by the Seleucid and Bactrian kingdoms, is the cataphract. This was a very heavily armoured cavalryman, who was covered from head to foot with armour, and who rode a horse that was also armoured. They were probably developed by the Parthians, and adopted by the Seleucids and Bactrians, the Greek kingdoms to their west and east in the later third century. Antiochus III had none at the Battle of Raphia in 217, but he did have 6,000 at the Battle of Magnesia in 190. He probably first recruited them following his travels through the eastern provinces in the late third century. There are no clear illustrations of cataphracts from this period, but there are illustrations of their armour on the Pergamum friezes, and an important find of actual armour has been made in Afghanistan (Bernard et al. 1980, passim).

The cuirass for the cataphract could have been of any of the metal types we have already looked at, no doubt fitted with pteruges, but the example from Ai Khanum in Afghanistan, which dates to the second century, is most unusual in that it is made of iron scales. The surviving shoulder piece is made of iron lamellar strips and came down onto the chest with a stud attachment, just like earlier shoulder-piece corslets and the Prodromi cuirass, to be secured with a thong. Various pieces of leather, linen and felt seem to have formed a separate arming jack, and were not directly attached to the cuirass as has been surmised for other metal cuirasses (Bernard et al. 1980, p. 61).

As for helmets, it seems that cataphracts wore a masked helmet which completely encased the head. An example is shown on the Pergamum frieze, and a possible Hellenistic example is in Belgrade’s Archaeological Museum (Russell Robinson 1975, pp. 107, 112). Such helmets were also apparently worn by chariot drivers (Sekunda 1994b, plates 4–5). Whoever wore them, they must have restricted vision dreadfully.

For arm and leg protection, tubular laminated guards were worn. These arm guards are depicted on the Pergamum friezes, and the Ai Khanum find has produced a leg guard made of iron. This guard was for a left leg, with the strips of iron overlapping upwards for greater flexibility like later Roman guards (Russell Robinson 1975, plates 502–4). The topmost part of the thigh was protected by a semi-circular plate, and there was a further plate covering the foot. Earlier arm and leg guards could well have been made of bronze. A small statuette from Syria also exists, which seems to show both arm and leg guards of this style (Sekunda 1994b, figs 32–3).

The Pergamum reliefs also show horse armour in the form of a chamfron (face guard) and plastron (chest guard) and these too are likely to have been for cataphracts, or perhaps for scythed chariots (Sekunda 1994b, fig. 54, plates 4–5). A further piece of armour from Ai Khanum, made up of very thin iron lamellae in a rough square shape, appears to be a horse plastron, although the excavator thought it might be a parameridion or thigh guard (Bernard et al. 1980, p. 61). Given the fact that the rider’s legs were already protected by the tubular leg guards and possibly pteruges, I think a plastron is more likely. It is highly unlikely that cataphracts used a shield as well as all this armour, and most probably they were armed with a spear for frontal assault. The Battle of Magnesia saw the cavalry and cataphracts of Antiochus III’s right wing break through the Roman line and pursue the fugitives to the camp. They were unable to return in time to salvage the collapse of the infantry phalanx, and one reason must surely have been that the cataphract horses would have been exhausted after one charge. The weight of armour, especially if much of it was in iron (not necessarily the case until well after Magnesia), would have protected rider and horse from missiles, and made them a formidable strike force, but must also have exhausted the cataphracts very quickly. The timing of their charge needed to be exact, as they probably could not have been manoeuvred again for any further action.


The chariot had gone out of use among the Greeks when horses had been bred that were big enough and strong enough to be ridden as cavalry. The same had happened in Persia, where chariots no doubt continued in use for ceremonial purposes; but, sometime before 400, the chariot made a comeback as a weapon of war. This new chariot was very different from those of former times. It was a four-horse chariot, whose horses and drivers were heavily armoured. The chariot itself was covered with scythes, and was designed to smash through enemy formations. Scythes projected in front of the chariot from the yoke poles, and also sideways from the yoke, one pointing horizontally, the other downwards. Two more scythes were attached to the axle, again horizontally, and pointing downwards. This latter probably revolved with the wheel to catch both ‘duckers’ and ‘jumpers’ (Livy XXXVII, 41). Persian chariots mentioned by Xenophon in his Anabasis had scythes projecting from under the box of the chariot, but these are not mentioned by Livy describing the Seleucid version and may have been dropped by then. It seems likely that they would have often got caught in the ground if the surface was at all uneven, and that may have been the main reason why Darius III had to level the ground for his chariots before the Battle of Gaugamela. It seems that the horses and drivers of these chariots were armed in much the same way as cataphracts.

Scythed chariots have usually been dismissed as a gimmick that did not work. Livy (XXXVII, 41) describes them at the Battle of Magnesia as ‘farcical’, but they remained in use by Persian and Seleucid armies for over 200 years. Their first known appearance at Cunaxa in 400 failed against disciplined Greek hoplites, who moved aside to let them pass, but in 395 at Dascyleum they scored a victory against hoplites who were panicked by the sight of them. Alexander the Great managed to break up the Persian chariot attack at Gaugamela with light troops, and this became the standard defence. Molon, a Seleucid rebel, used them against Antiochus III in 220, but Antiochus himself never used them against other Greek armies because he thought they could be easily countered. Against Rome at the Battle of Magnesia he thought the element of surprise would count in his favour, but Eumenes, King of Pergamum, was on the Roman side and told them how to deal with the chariots. They were again broken up using light troops. At the Daphne parade in 166, Antiochus IV had 100 six-horse scythed chariots and only 40 four-horse versions, so it is possible he was trying to make them more effective by increasing their size. It is difficult to be sure because this was a parade and not a battle (Sekunda 1994b, p. 26). Chariots continued to be used by the Seleucids until after 150, but are unlikely to have lasted into the first century BC, when the Seleucid Empire had been reduced to a Syrian rump. There is no evidence for scythe-chariot use by other Greek states. Livy (XXXVII, 41) states that Eumenes of Pergamum knew about how they worked in war, but does not suggest that he actually had any himself. There is a slight possibility that they were used by the Bactrian kingdoms in the east, but the terrain there is not really suitable for chariotry.


Elephants were used by the Indian army of Porus, which fought Alexander the Great in 326. Although Alexander was victorious, the elephants had caused heavy casualties among his men. It was rumours of larger elephant armies in India that caused the army’s revolt soon after. Alexander saw the advantages of the elephant, and began to recruit an elephant corps into the Macedonian army. Originally the elephant itself was the weapon, and it was made as imposing as possible. The elephants of Eumenes and Antiochus III had purple trappings, and Antiochus decorated his elephants with gold and silver and awarded them medals for bravery (Scullard 1974, pp. 238–9). If elephants were wounded they had an unfortunate tendency to run amok so, as well as the driver, a soldier or two was mounted astride the elephant’s back, armed with missiles to help protect it.

Later on, elephants were issued with armour, consisting of head pieces like horse chamfrons and leg armour similar to that worn by cataphract troops, although perhaps leather rather than metallic (Sekunda 1994b, plate 7). Livy (XXXVII, 40, 4) mentions headpieces with crests on them. Scale body armour for elephants was also used and features on a damaged statuette of uncertain provenance (Sekunda 1994b, figs 52–3). For offensive purposes the elephants’ tusks could be sheathed in iron (Arrian, Punica IX, 581–3).

As well as breaking up elephant charges with light troops and missile weapons, elephants could be disrupted by weapons placed in front of them. The elephants of Polyperchon (regent in Macedonia after the death of Antipater in 319) were once disrupted with planks lying on the ground, with nails pushed through them from underneath (Scullard 1974, p. 248). Ptolemy improved on this at the Battle of Gaza in 312 by attaching a series of caltrops (sets of spikes) to chains. These could then be quickly moved to where an elephant attack might come.

The best tactic was to make sure you had more and bigger elephants than the enemy. At Magnesia in 190 the Romans had sixteen elephants, but did not bother to use them as Antiochus III had fifty-four. Ptolemy’s elephants at Raphia in 217 were defeated because he had only 75 to Antiochus’s 102, although Ptolemy won the battle in the end. Ptolemy’s elephants were also defeated because they were African bush elephants, which are much smaller than the Indian elephants used by Antiochus. (Connolly 1998, p. 75). After Raphia, Ptolemy captured some Indian elephants, which he used in his army, and in 145 Demetrius II of Syria captured some African elephants from Egypt, which he also used in his army. Generally, however, early Hellenistic kingdoms – including Pyrrhus of Epirus – used the Indian elephant; only the Ptolemies of Egypt, cut off from supply by the Seleucid Empire, were forced to rely on smaller African elephants.

The idea of defensive troops sitting on elephants’ backs was enhanced in the early third century by placing small wooden towers on the animals’ backs. These enabled more men to be carried, and gave those men greater protection. As well as elephant defence, these men now became part of the offensive capability of the elephant. The mahout, or elephant driver, still had to sit outside the tower, astride the elephant’s neck. The earliest representations of towers are both from about 275. A plate from south Italy shows an Indian elephant with a tower containing two soldiers and may represent one of Pyrrhus’s elephants (Connolly 1998, p. 75, fig. 2). A statue of similar date shows an elephant attacking a Celt, and has been dated to the ‘elephant victory’ of the Seleucids against invading Celts in 273. The towers may well have been first used by Pyrrhus at the Battle of Heraclea in 280, but were soon adopted by other Hellenistic kingdoms (Scullard 1974, p. 104).

There are two basic types of tower: the original large tower for the Indian elephant, and a smaller type devised by Ptolemy IV for his African elephants. The Indian-elephant tower, as used by Antiochus III at Raphia in 217 and Magnesia in 190, is as wide as it is high and has three merlons per side in the crenellations. The early plate, sculpture, and an elephant medallion in the Hermitage all show this (Connolly 1998, p. 75, fig. 3). The African-elephant tower has a much smaller base to enable it to sit on the smaller elephant, but is twice as high as it is wide, to make up for the lesser height of the elephant, and it has only two merlons per side (Connolly 1998, p. 75, fig. 1). Livy (XXXVII, 40, 4) states that the elephants at Magnesia had four men in each tower and this is supported by the ‘elephant victory’ statuette, which has two shields attached to each side of the tower. Four armed men in a wooden tower is certainly possible, but was probably the maximum allowed. The statuette of the African elephant shown by Connolly has only one shield each side and suggests a crew of only two.

Ptolemy’s elephant crew at Raphia were armed with sarissas to poke at the opposition, but Antiochus III’s elephant crew probably had two sarissa men and two archers or javelineers. Large amounts of missile weapons could certainly be stored in the tower (Scullard 1974, p. 240). Fear was the elephants’ strongest weapon, but they did have other uses. Perdiccas used his elephants to assault the Camel fort of Ptolemy where they tore up palisades and threw down parapets (Diodorus, XVIII, 34, 2), but they were ineffective against stonework. Horses could not stand the sight or smell of elephants unless they were specially trained. After Demetrius the Besieger had been victorious with his cavalry on the right wing at the Battle of Ipsus in 301, he found himself cut off by Seleucus’s screen of elephants and unable to return to the battle (Diodorus XX, 113–XXI, 2). At the Battle of Magnesia, Antiochus had his horses trained to work with elephants, and each cavalry wing was supported by sixteen of them. To try and prevent light troops from getting close to an elephant and hamstringing it, each elephant was provided with a guard of forty to fifty men, usually archers or slingers (Polybius XVI, 18, 7). Also at Magnesia pairs of elephants and their guards were stationed in between blocks of the pike phalanx, to try and add some flexibility to this formation and to protect the flanks.

After Magnesia, Antiochus III was required to have all his elephants destroyed, but at the Daphne parade in 166 Antiochus IV still had thirty-six elephants equipped for war, as well as a four-elephant chariot and a two-elephant chariot – these last two items surely for parade purposes only (Sekunda 1994a, p. 27). Whether the Romans had not got around to making sure the elephants were destroyed, or whether Antiochus IV had been able to obtain more from Demetrius of Bactria, is uncertain. In 162 Gnaeus Octavius was sent out by Rome and he did destroy the elephants, although it cost him his life at the hands of an outraged elephant lover (Green 1990, p. 437). Further elephants do continue to appear in the sources, although some sources are unreliable. It seems unlikely that either the Seleucid or Ptolemaic Empires used them after c. 140. By then Parthia had blocked off supplies from India, and the African bush elephant was on its way to extinction. Pyrrhus of Epirus had famously used elephants against the Romans in the 270s, but there is no evidence for Epirote use after this time, and none for their use by Macedonia, Pergamum or any of the southern Greek states. It is almost certain that the Greek states of Bactria and India used them throughout their period of existence (down to perhaps AD 10), but their coins show only elephants, elephant heads and elephant scalps on helmets. They do not show elephants with towers or soldiers, which would prove the case.

As has been said earlier, surprise and the fear they caused were the greatest weapons of the elephant. These were the main factors in the elephant victories of the early third century. But when soldiers knew how to deal with them, they were easily managed and became an expensive liability. Once enraged or wounded, they were just as likely to inflict heavy casualties upon their own side as on the enemy. Neither the Romans nor indeed the Parthians ever really bothered with them.


Nearly all of our evidence for Hellenistic artillery – that is, bolt-throwers and stone-throwers – is literary. We have surviving Hellenistic manuals and descriptions in Arrian, Polybius, Livy, etc., of the equipment in action at the various sieges. Parts of some catapults have been found, mostly dating to the Roman period, and these also help with reconstructions. The main archaeological finds are the projectiles. At Rhodes and in other places, round boulders of specific weights, fired from catapults, have been found, and catapult bolts inscribed with Philip II’s name are also known (Connolly 1998, pp. 282–3).

According to Diodorus, the catapult was invented in 399 for Dionysius I of Syracuse (Campbell 2003, p. 3). Unfortunately, we don’t know quite what this machine was. The forerunner of the earliest catapult was the gastraphetes or ‘belly-bow’ devised by Ctesibius, probably towards the end of the fifth century. This was a large, composite bow mounted sideways on a stock, rather like a large crossbow. The arrow or bolt rested on a slider, which moved up and down the stock. The slider was pushed forward until a catch on it was fastened onto the bow string. The end of the slider was then rested on the ground, and the operator pushed with his stomach into the crescent-shaped end of the stock, using his weight to force the slider back, thus drawing the bow. An arrow could then be fitted and the catch released to fire it. It was a very slow and cumbersome effort.

The machines probably presented to Dionysius were similar but mounted in a base, with the slider being drawn back by a winch system. Biton describes four of these machines in his treatise, the first two designed by Zopyrus. The first, still called a gastraphetes, had a 9ft-long bow, and fired two 6ft bolts simultaneously. The second was a smaller version for easy transport to sieges and was called the mountain gastraphetes. The third machine was a stone-thrower, designed by Charon of Magnesia, which could fire a 5lb stone. The last, by Isidorus of Thessalonika, could fire a 40lb stone, using a 15ft bow. These stone-throwers had a sling fitted with a pouch, instead of the normal bowstring. All four machines were mounted on the base by a universal joint, which allowed the machine to be traversed, depressed and elevated with relative ease by one man.

These bow catapults, or ballistas, developed during the first half of the fourth century into the torsion catapult. In this design the bow was replaced by two wooden frames on either side of the stock, each containing twisted bundles of hair or sinew. A wooden arm was inserted into each bundle, and these formed the arms of the bow. After a few shots the elasticity of the bundles slackened, and iron levers were inserted top and bottom in order to retighten them (Marsden 1969, p. 81). It seems that machines of this type, capable of throwing stones, were not developed until the time of Alexander the Great. The last development seems to have been the use of curved arms for extra springiness. The first evidence for this is on the Pergamum frieze, so an introduction date of c. 200 seems likely. The earlier bow catapults continued to be used down until about 240.

The range of bolt-throwing catapults was about 500 yards, with the bolts being 2–5ft long, but they were really accurate only up to about 100 yards. Stone-throwers had a range of about 300 yards – perhaps only 200 yards for the largest – and came in a variety of sizes. The most popular engines seem to have been ten minas (4.4kg), thirty minas (13.1kg) and one talent (26.2kg) machines, these weights being the weight of the projectiles. Stones larger than that have occasionally been found, but they were probably for lifting and dropping by cranes, as Archimedes did at Syracuse in 212 (Polybius VIII, 5). Further developments, mentioned in the treatises we have, never seem to have got off the drawing board. Ctesibius mentioned a catapult with bronze springs, which did not slacken like the sinew or hair in the torsion catapults, but they seem to have proved to be too expensive to manufacture. He also designed a catapult operated by compressed-air-powered springs. This was fine on the drawing board, but could not be accurately manufactured with the techniques available at the time. The final invention in this field was a repeating catapult designed by Demetrius of Alexandria, but this machine was a failure because it was too accurate; all the bolts hit the same target and did not disperse. Its range was also somewhat limited.

Although these machines were designed principally for attack and defence during sieges, they were occasionally deployed on the battlefield. At Mantinea in 207 Machanidas the Spartan stationed catapults, probably bolt-shooters, all along his line in an experiment to counter greater Achaean numbers. Philopoemen and the Achaeans charged the catapults as soon as they saw them and, since they were difficult to move, they were almost immediately destroyed or overrun and played no further part in the battle. In 198 and 191 Philip V and Antiochus III, respectively, used catapults in defensive positions against the Romans at the Aous Gorge and at Thermopylae. In both cases, the Romans found it hard to approach these defences from the front, but they were easily outflanked and captured. These would have been expensive losses, since the price for these machines appears to have been about 500–2,500 drachmas each (Philon 62, 15). For the most part the machines were installed in fortifications for defensive purposes, and could also be used in attack against such fortifications. The best-known Greek attack was that by Demetrius the Besieger against Rhodes in 305–4, at which he used a huge tower filled with catapults and ballistas of all sizes (Connolly 1998, pp. 281–5). The best-known defence was that of Archimedes at Syracuse in 213. Apart from a vast array of bolt-throwers and stone-throwers, Archimedes also had cranes which dropped huge boulders on the attacking Romans, and giant grappling hooks which pulled Roman ships out of the water and then dropped them (Connolly 1998, p. 294).


The Hellenistic warfare we have been describing in this chapter, principally the pike phalanx and the heavy cavalry, was an effective form of warfare that lasted successfully until 168. In that year, the Romans annihilated the army of Perseus, King of Macedon, at the Battle of Pydna. The legionary army proved itself more effective on the day, and this has led Sekunda (1994b, 1995, 2001) to suggest that the remaining Ptolemaic and Seleucid kingdoms in Egypt and Syria remodelled their armies on Roman lines. The evidence for this is actually slim.

A stele from Hermopolis describes new ranks and names for formations, which Sekunda (2001, p. 21) argues is the adoption of the Roman maniple or double century, but the top and bottom of the stele are broken and we do not know what sort of soldiers these are. The semeia which is mentioned could simply be a new word adopted for the syntagma or speira, words previously used to describe a phalanx block of 256 men. The later tacticians like Asclepiodotus and Aeneas use the word semeia, but they are still describing a Hellenistic pike phalanx. The use of the word semeia does suggest, however, the use of standards, so it may be that military standards were introduced into the Ptolemaic army at this time.

Further evidence for this ‘reform’ is provided by the Kasr-el-Harit shield and various stelai from Sidon. The Egyptian shield has already been mentioned by me as a descendant of the Greek thureos, and the soldiers depicted on the stelai are also mercenary thureophoroi, who have no relation to the regular Hellenistic phalanx (Sekunda 2001, pp. 65, 80).

The evidence for the Seleucid Kingdom is almost entirely contained in a sentence of Polybius (XXX, 25, 3), where he is describing the Daphne parade of 166. Here he says that there were 5,000 men equipped in the Roman manner with chain mail. These marched separately from the 20,000 men of the phalanx, and were clearly a different unit. Some commentators have suggested these men were just a bit of a gimmick, like the elephant chariots that also featured in the parade, but Sekunda is surely right when he states that they were a genuine military component. They were not armed as Roman legionaries, however. Apart from the chain mail, there was nothing to suggest that these men used the Roman pilum or shield, or fought in maniples. A unit of 5,000 men could easily be part of the phalanx, but the fact that they were placed at the front of the parade with other obviously mercenary troops – Mysians, Thracians and Galatians – suggests that these men were mercenary thureophoroi, armed with the thureos shield and spears.

A final pointer which seems to confirm that the Seleucid and Ptolemaic kingdoms did not reform along Roman lines was that the Macedonian-style pike phalanx continued to be used, both in the later campaigns by the Seleucids against the Jews and in Mithridates of Pontus’s campaigns against Rome. Mithridates did arm half his army in Roman fashion, but he also seems to have been the last man to employ the Hellenistic pike phalanx.


Further mention should be made of chain mail as a form of body armour, as it was clearly used by some soldiers in the Seleucid Kingdom. Apart from the Daphne parade mentioned above, some or all of the Seleucid phalanx was armoured with chain mail at the Battle of Beth-Zacharia in 162 (Maccabees I, 6.35). Appian (Syrian Wars 30–6) also suggests that cataphracts may have worn chain mail at Magnesia in 190, but he seems to confuse Celtic cavalry with cataphracts, so this idea is perhaps best ignored.) One of the stelai from Sidon mentioned above also has a soldier in chain mail, which may indicate use by the Ptolemaic Kingdom as well (Sekunda 2001, front cover, p. 69).

Chain mail was a Celtic invention of about 300, consisting of rows of interlocking iron rings, each ring passing through two above it and two below it to give a strong but flexible defence. Rows of punched rings usually alternated with rows of butted or riveted rings (Connolly 1998, p. 124), the latter being stronger. Each ring is usually 8–9mm in diameter. The shape of the later mail cuirasses adopted by both Romans and, presumably, Greeks was similar to the shoulder-piece corslet, with two shoulder flaps coming over the shoulders and being fastened down onto the chest. Chain mail corslets appear on the Pergamum frieze, where they probably represent armour captured from the Galatians. The date of c. 170 for this monument shows that this would have been the type of cuirass adopted by the Seleucids in the 160s. Wealthier Roman soldiers wore this form of cuirass, and it seems likely that all legionaries were issued with chain mail in c. 123, after Rome had inherited the wealth of the new province of Asia. It would have been very expensive for Antiochus IV to equip 5,000 soldiers in chain mail for the Daphne parade, which is one reason why Polybius remarks upon it.

Chain mail is an excellent defence, combining the flexibility of leather with the resilience of iron plate, and it lasted as a defence until the Middle Ages. It was even revived as a defensive material for tank crew in the First World War. It would have been quite heavy to wear a knee-length corslet of mail, but the defensive capabilities were excellent. Pointed weapons would be caught in a ring and held, while edged weapons also would not have much penetrative power, especially as the mail would have been worn over a leather jack. As far as the Greeks go, however, it was the last innovation before impotence led to a gradual absorption into the Roman Empire. Macedonia and Greece were annexed in 148, Seleucid Syria in 64 – although it had ceased to be any sort of power since the 120s – and Egypt in 30, although it too had existed since 168 only by the will of Rome.

Spiking of Cannon

The vent being the only means of firing with such celerity as the service of cannon requires. it is evident that to render this weapon useless, it is sufficient to choke up its vent. This operation is called to nail, spike, or cloy cannon, and in French enclouer le canon.

When circumstances make it necessary to abandon cannon, or when the enemy’s artillery is seized, and it is not, however, possible to take them away, it is proper to nail them up, which is done by driving a large nail or iron spike into the vent of the pieces of artillery, which is a momentary business and renders them unserviceable, at least for awhile.

A 24-pounder, can be nailed with a square nail 8.52 inches long and .27 inch square, with a swelling at the head: one minute is sufficient to drive it into the vent.

The same can be nailed with a nail 8.52 inches long, .36 inch square in the middle and .44 or .56 inch at the head: it is not easy to drive this nail up to the head.

The same can be likewise be nailed with a steel pointed nail, cut in the form of a male screw, .48 inch diameter, and 7.46 inches long; and tempered in its whole length, exclusive of the point, that it may be riveted inside. This method is by far the best but it is long and requires two hours and a quarter to perform it.

In order to increase the obstacles, after the cannon is nailed, the bottom is filled with potter’s clay or with a cylinder of hard wood, and a calibre shot, muffled in felt, or in a piece of old hat, is strongly rammed above it.

There are various contrivances to force the nail out. In the two first instances, it is sometimes possible to remedy this accident, by loading the gun with a charge somewhat more than one-third the weight of the shot, for instance ten pounds and a half for a 24-pounder, ramming on the charge a wad mixed with powder and matches: then putting one shot, or a wooden cylinder. We would rather advise a cylinder of fat clay to increase the resistance to the explosion, and consequently, render the action of the powder greater in the vent. In all cases a strong wad should be rammed on the shot or cylinder. The fire is communicated to a match, which from the mouth of the cannon, reaches the charge; but sometimes this operation is to be renewed more than once, before the nail can be forced out. Great attention must be paid that no sand or small stones remain in the rammer, before making use of it.

But all attempts in general are useless when the piece is well spiked as in the third instance; and the piece must either be melted again, or, if it be worth the trouble, repaired in the same way as damaged vents.

If the nail be screwed in, the best method is to drill a new vent next to the other.

When the nail is forced out, or a new vent drilled, it becomes as easy matter to disengage the bore of all internal obstacles, by introducing a sufficient quantity of powder through the vent, in these cases the spiking of cannon is but a temporary accident.