German Artillery 1914

Field Artillery

The mission of the field artillery was to support the infantry. The objective was also to bring a superior number of guns into action at the decisive place and time. In German doctrine the priority of fire was directed against the targets that were most dangerous to the infantry. At the beginning of an engagement, priority of fire was normally given to counter-battery fire, to cover the infantry approach march. The intent was to gain fire superiority over the enemy artillery. During the infantry firefight, priority of fire was generally given to fire on the enemy infantry, but counter-battery fire would continue to be conducted. Given the increased use of the terrain for cover and concealment by all arms, targets for the artillery would often be fleeting and there would not be enough time to eliminate the target entirely.

The French Model 97 75mm gun was the first to incorporate a recoil brake. Since the gun was now stable, the gun aimer and loader could remain seated on the gun, which allowed an armoured shield to be added protect the gun crew. The new French gun could fire up to twenty rounds a minute, against eight or nine for the German Feldkanone 96, which had just been introduced. Given this increased firepower, the size of the battery could be reduced from six guns to four. The French also introduced the armoured caisson. The 75mm caused a sensation and the French imagined it to be practically a war-winning weapon. French tactics prescribed that the 75mm would provide the firepower necessary to support the infantry attack with rafales, intense bursts of fire, to shake the enemy infantry. This was area fire, which made up in volume what it lacked in accuracy.

German divisional field artillery consisted of two weapons: a 7.7cm flat-trajectory gun (Feldkanone 96 n/A) and a 10.5cm high-trajectory light howitzer (leichte Feldhaubitze 98/09). The maximum effective range of the 7.7cm gun is a subject of some controversy; there were frequent complaints that the French 75mm considerably outranged the German gun. In fact, the theoretical maximum range was rarely relevant. In practice, the maximum effective range was variable, depending on the ability of the battery commander to acquire targets, see the fall of shot and adjust his shells onto the target. The author of the FAR 25 regimental history said that 4,400m was long range, and targets at 5,000ms were out of range, even though the maximum range of the shrapnel fuse for 7.7cm gun was 5,300m, and for the contact fuse 8,100m.

The light howitzer was provided with a recoil brake and the tube could be elevated to a high angle, which allowed it to fire easily from covered positions. The parabolic arc taken by the shell made it very effective against targets behind cover and in field fortifications. The howitzer was a German specialty: the French army did not possess any. Instead, the French developed a shell for the 75mm had fins that gave it a curved line of flight supposed to mimic that of the howitzer shell. This expedient was unsuccessful in combat and the French were to regret the lack of a howitzer.

A wartime-strength German battery included six guns or howitzers, 5 OFF, 188 EM and 139 horses, the battery commander’s observation wagon, two supply wagons, a ration wagon and a wagon for fodder. Each regiment had six batteries divided into two three-battery sections, which were commanded by majors. A field artillery regiment included 36 guns, 58 OFF, 1,334 EM and 1,304 horses, including two light ammunition columns, each with 24 caissons. There were 4 OFF, 188 EM and 196 horses to each ammunition column. Ammunition columns were formed only at wartime and for a few training exercises. The field artillery did not have mobile field kitchens, which was found to be a severe problem in mobile operations. In each active army corps there were three gun and one howitzer regiments: one division had two gun regiments, the second a gun and a howitzer regiment. Reserve divisions had only one gun regiment.

A German field artillery piece was drawn by six horses and consisted of the gun, its limber and a six-man gun crew, and an ammunition caisson, with its own five-man crew. The gun and caisson were provided with armoured shields that protected the crews against small arms fire and shrapnel. The gun could be operated even if 50 per cent of the crew were casualties. Artillery batteries could immediately replace losses in personnel and horses by drawing on the regimental ammunition columns, which took replacements from the divisional ammunition columns and so on.

The gun commander rode on a horse, ‘drivers’ rode on the gun team horses, the gunners rode on the limber or the gun itself. The German field artillery battery of six guns would generally deploy in firing position with 20 paces (about 13m) between guns. The caisson and two of the caisson crew would deploy to the right side of the gun. The gun and caisson limbers with the horses, ‘drivers’ and the two remaining caisson crew would pull back 300m to the rear so that they would not be engaged by counter-battery fire directed at the guns. In practice, this proved to be too close and the horses and limbers were often hit by fire aimed at the guns. When the battery needed to move, the horses and limbers would be brought forward. The light ammunition columns would deploy 600m behind the gun line and move forward based on flag signals.

The horses were the vulnerable point in an artillery battery. The guns could not unlimber and go into position, or limber up to withdraw, without significant horse casualties if they were in infantry fire at medium range (800m to 1,200m). Under close-range infantry fire (under 800m) the vulnerability of the horses immobilised the battery.

There were two types of battery positions. In the open firing position the guns were not covered or concealed. The gunners could see to their front and directly aim the guns over open sights. The guns were also visible to the enemy. A battery could occupy an open position easily and could fire quickly and effectively, especially against moving targets. It could rely on the gun shields for protection against small arms fire, but in an open position it was visible to enemy artillery and vulnerable to counter-battery fire. Open positions would be used in a mobile battle.

In a covered (or defilade) firing position, the guns went into battery position behind cover or concealment (frequently on the reverse slope of a hill). The guns were aimed by the battery commander, who set up his command wagon in a position where he could observe the enemy; the guns were then laid in for direction from the battery command wagon using an aiming circle (similar to a theodolite) and firing commands (deflection and elevation, type and number of rounds, fuse setting) were usually transmitted by field telephone from command wagon to the guns. Covered battery positions were nearly invulnerable to counter-battery fire, unless the dust thrown up by the muzzle blast betrayed the gun’s position. Frequently the enemy would be reduced to attempting to suppress guns in a covered position by using area fire based on a map reconnaissance of likely covered positions, a procedure that demanded large quantities of time and ammunition. The disadvantage of covered positions was that occupying them was time-consuming, because of the extensive reconnaissance needed to find a suitable position in the first place, followed by the time necessary to lay the battery using the aiming circle. Adjusting fire would take more time than in an open position. Covered positions would be used at the beginning of an engagement, in artillery duels, and against stationary targets and dug-in positions.

There was also a half-covered position, in which the guns were defilade, but could be aimed by the gunners standing on the gun. Such positions were preferable to open positions while at the same time allowing a more rapid support of the infantry that completely covered positions.

Guns could also occupy an overwatch position. The battery was then deployed in a covered position, laid on an azimuth in the general direction of the expected target. When the target was observed, the battery was manhandled into firing position.

If the time and suitable positions were available, the artillery would initially occupy covered positions, but in the course of the battle, the artillery would almost always be forced to displace and fire from half-covered or open battery positions. If necessary the artillery, like the infantry, was to advance by bounds. Some batteries might be moved forward to provide close-range direct-fire support. When the infantry began the assault, the artillery would fire on the enemy defensive position for as long as possible, until the danger of friendly fire became too great (usually 300m) and then shift its fire to the rear of the enemy position. When the enemy withdrew, he would be pursued by fire, with the artillery moving forward at a gallop and on their own initiative, if necessary, to keep the enemy in range.

Prior to the introduction of long-range quick-firing artillery around the turn of the century it was common to employ artillery in long continuous lines. In order to use the terrain effectively and avoid counter-battery fire, artillery was now to be employed in groups. Enemy counter-battery fire was rarely able to destroy a gun or caisson; its usual effect was to suppress the guns by forcing the crews to take cover. For that reason, the crews were to dig revetments around the gun positions as soon as possible, even in the attack.

If the guns came under effective fire, the artillery commanders had to decide, on the basis of the overall situation, whether the gunners could cease fire and take cover, which involved the crews’ retreating several hundred metres, leaving the guns and caissons in place, or if the artillery had to continue to fire, even if it meant that the crews were destroyed or the guns were overrun. Under overwhelming fire the artillery commanders down to battery level were authorised to order the crews to take cover.

It was the responsibility of the artillery to maintain liaison with the infantry through the use of forward observers (FO). The FO would communicate with his battery through field telephones or signal flags. His most important mission was to keep the guns informed as to the relative locations of the friendly and enemy troops, so that as this distance was steadily reduced, the guns could place fire on the enemy for the longest possible time. The artillery also regularly sent forward officer patrols, frequently in conjunction with cavalry patrols, in order to develop targets for their batteries.

The standard shell for gun artillery was shrapnel with a time fuse. The shrapnel shell exploded above and in front of the target, covering the target area with metal balls. In practice, setting the time fuse was difficult and shrapnel often burst too high. There was also a high-explosive round with contact fuse, which was used by howitzers and also by guns.

Beginning in the 1890s the German artillery underwent a profound transformation. In 1890 the cannons were not provided with recoil brakes and gunnery practice took place from open positions at ranges of less than 3,000m. Firing from covered positions was inaccurate and slow. Then the improvements came fast and furious. FAR 69 recorded receiving the light howitzer in 1899, with aiming circle and field telephones to facilitate firing from covered positions. In the spring of 1906 FAR 69 received the cannon with recoil mechanism and gun shield. In 1907 a new artillery regulation introduced a doctrine commensurate with the new equipment and made combat effectiveness the sole standard for training. Firing with time fuses became normal, the field guns received stereoscopic battery telescopes, field telephones (1908) and aiming circles, and armoured observation wagons. Reservists were recalled to active duty to receive training in the new equipment. The German field artillery in 1914 had good equipment and had plenty of time to train with it.

Heavy Artillery

For over twenty years prior to the First World War, the German army worked to perfect its heavy artillery, which involved constructing a mobile 15cm schwere Feldhaubitze 02 (sFH 02 – heavy field howitzer 1902) for the corps artillery and a 21cm mortar for the army-level artillery, and then creating the techniques and doctrine to use them. Originally, the impulse for this development was the need to be able to quickly break the French fortress line, and in particular the Sperrforts located between the major French fortresses. This mission shifted to one which emphasised destroying French field fortifications and finally to counter-battery fire. Particular emphasis was also laid on integrating the sFH into combined arms training, including live-fire exercises. By the beginning of the war, the German heavy artillery was fully proficient in all three missions. No other country in Europe possessed such combat-effective heavy field artillery. French heavy artillery was not so numerous, nor so mobile, nor as technically and tactically effective as the German.

Every German active-army corps included a battalion of four batteries of schwere Feldhaubitze, each battery having four guns, sixteen guns and thirty-two caissons in total. The battalion also had an organic light ammunition column. The reserve corps did not have this battalion, which significantly reduced its combat power.

The 15 cm gun was characterised by the destructiveness of its high-explosive shell (bursting radius 40m to the sides, 20m front and rear), combined with its long range (most effective range 5500m, max effective range 7,450m) and high rate of fire. It was particularly effective against enemy artillery, which was otherwise protected by its gun shield, and against infantry in field fortifications (the shell came down nearly vertically and was capable of penetrating 2m of overhead cover) or in defilade behind masking terrain. It was less effective against moving targets than the field artillery. The heavy field howitzer was less mobile than the field gun, but nevertheless was able to move long distances at a trot. The sFH battalion normally fought as a unit, firing from covered positions.

The 7.7cm gun fired a 6.85kg shell at a rate of up to 20 per minute. The 10.5cm howitzer fired a 15.8kg shell at a rate of four per minute; the heavy howitzer fired a 39.5kg shell at a rate of three to six per minute.

The German army also possessed a mobile 21cm mortar, which was principally intended for assignment at the army level, to be used against permanent fortifications. A mortar battery had four mortars; each battalion consisted of two batteries. The mortar could move only at a walk, the gun being separated for movement into three sections: gun carriage, barrel and firing platform.

The German field army began the war with 808 15cm sFH, 112 21cm mortars, 196 10cm canons and 32 13cm canons; 1,148 mobile heavy guns in total. It had a store of 1,194,252 shells, that is, about 1040 shells per gun.

The French field army, in contrast, had only 308 heavy guns, which were older and technically inferior to the German guns, mostly 155cm ‘Rimailho’ canons that had to be broken down in two sections for movement, with a maximum range of 6,300m. The Germans therefore had 4–1 superiority in heavy artillery. The French also had 380 ‘de Bange’ heavy guns in siege artillery units.

Each French division had nine four-gun batteries; the corps artillery consisted of twelve more batteries. Heavy howitzers were an army weapon; a French corps could not expect to receive more than four guns. The Germans thought that the French would augment each corps with another six reserve batteries, which was not the case. A French corps therefore at best had 120 guns versus 158 (including 16 heavy howitzers) for the German corps. The French began the war with about 1,300 shells for each 75mm.

General Heer, one of the leading authorities on French artillery, wrote a perceptive comparison of French and German doctrines. Heer began by saying that both armies expected the war to consist of manoeuvre battles, and both armies emphasised the offensive. However, the French laid particular emphasis on movement, especially the decisive advantages that accrued to forward movement. The Germans, on the other hand, recognised the importance of firepower and understood how to use it better than the French. The German leadership was convinced that infantry could not advance in the face of modern firepower, and especially not against artillery fire. They considered it essential that the battle begin with systematic counter-battery fire. Live-fire exercises taught the Germans the value of heavy artillery in mobile battles in general, but especially in counter-battery fire. Finally, the Germans decentralised the control of artillery down to division level. There were no corps and army artillery commanders. Thomasson said that the German optical fire control was outstanding, and unknown to the French. It permitted the Germans to be able to adjust artillery fire ‘magnificently’.

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The V-3

Actual V-3 Projectile

Few commentators seem to be in any doubt but that the V-3 was the “High Pressure Pump” or “England Gun”. Paul Brickhill recorded in The Dam Busters:

the greatest nightmare of all was the great underworld being burrowed under a 20-foot-thick slab of ferro-concrete near Mimoyecques (between Calais and Boulogne). Here Hitler was preparing his V-3. Little has been told about the V-3, probably because we never found out much about it. The V-3 was the most secret and sinister of all – long-range guns with barrels 500 feet long!”

The V-3 was probably based on the 1885 unsuccessful ballistic principle of the Americans Lymann and Haskell and Baron von Pirquet’s concept of sequential, electrically activated, angled side chambers to provide additional velocity to a shell during its passage of an immensely long tube.

In mid-1942 August Cönders, chief engineer of the Röchling Iron and Steel Works, Leipzig, rediscovered the principle while reading through technical dossiers captured by the Germans in France in 1940. He worked out an improved design and approached Armaments Minister Speer with the idea. Hitler was enthusiastic and demanded that the development should proceed immediately.

The design was for a gun consisting of numerous lengths of smoothbore metal tubing bolted together to form a barrel up to 124 metres long. Every 3.65 metres along its length was a lateral combustion chamber set at from 45° to a right angle. The shell and main propellant were loaded into an sFH18 heavy field howitzer breech. When the gun was fired, the projectile would be impelled forward by pressure from a gas cartridge, and on passing each chamber it triggered electrically another cartridge positioned there which gave the shell further velocity. This was repeated throughout its transit of the barrel. The electrical activation solved a detonation problem which had been caused by expanding gases detonating the auxiliary chambers before the arrival of the shell. The muzzle velocity was around 1500 metres/sec which was significantly greater than that of standard artillery and provided a range of about 160 kilometres. The original 10-inch calibre projectile was over nine feet in length and weighed 140 kilos with a 25-kilo warhead. Six wings opened in flight for stability. Twenty-five guns were projected which at full output would have enabled London, 150 kilometres distant, to be subjected to a persistent rain of up to 200 ten-inch calibre shells per hour. For this reason the project was nicknamed fleissiges Lieschen, Busy Lizzie. The Heereswaffenamt, or German Army Weapons Office, contracted with firms such as Skoda, Krupp, Röchling, Witkowitz Iron and Steel, Faserstoff, Fürstenberg and Bochumer Verein for various calibres of ammunition. Towards mid-1944 20,000 shells were completed or under production.

Even before the gun trials had begun, work was started in the late summer of 1943 on a vast, well camouflaged underground gun battery to house twenty-five barrels of the HPP on the Channel coast at Mimoyecques. The barrels were to be sunk in shafts at a 50° angle 150 feet down into the ground. A slave labour force of 10,000 persons was involved in the construction and information was soon passed to London about a new mammoth “underground V-1 site”.

The initial tests were carried out using barrel lengths between 50 and 130 metres, first at Hillersleben and then from a range at Misdroy near Peenemünde at the beginning of 1944. Various permutations of barrels and chambers were tried without much success. Shells were supplied by numerous manufacturers. In tests between 21 and 23 March 1944 it was found that at muzzle velocities above 1100 metres/sec the tubes lost stability and developed metal stresses. General Leeb recommended that the project be stopped for investigations. By May 1944 the gun had an acceptable range of 95 kilometres and experiments were stepped up to find ways of increasing muzzle velocity. Before any guns were delivered, the Mimoyecques emplacement was destroyed on 6 July 1944 by RAF aircraft using a 12,000-pound Tallboy bomb. This signalled the end of the project for the long-range bombardment of London and put the entire V-3 project in question.

Nevertheless further trials with the HPP with shorter barrels were undertaken at Misdroy and eventually the whole project was placed in the hands of SS-Obergruppenführer Hans Kammler, head of the V-weapons project. Under his supervision the V-3 project was accelerated for an operation in the late autumn of 1944 and, with the help of General Dr (Ing) Erich Dornberger, military commander at Peenemünde, a battery of two 50-metre long 15-cm (5.9-inch) calibre barrels with twelve right-angled side chambers was completed. An emplacement had been excavated at Bürderheidermühle on a wooded slope of the Ruwer at Lampaden, about 13 kilometres south-east of Trier, where the battery was installed under the supervision of Hauptmann Patzig and his 550-strong Army Artillery Detachment 705.

The two HPP barrels rested on thirteen steel girders anchored to buried wooden foundations and were laid to the west with a 34° elevation. 43 kilometres along the firing line was target number 305, Luxemburg City. Calculations showed that the two guns had a maximum range of 65 kilometres with a shell dispersion radius of from 2.5 to 5 kilometres.

Between the two barrels were three bunkers for the gun crews plus either side of the barrels ten smaller bunkers which served as shell and powder magazines.

The Lampaden emplacement was part of the plan for the Ardennes offensive. Ammunition supply was poor because of disruption to the railways and in view of the critical time factor it was decided to use a 95-kilo shell of 15-cm calibre with a warhead of 7 to 9 kilos. The propellant was a 5-kilo main cartridge and twenty-four additional chamber charges, a total of 73 kilos of Ammon powder per shell.

Neither gun was operational when the Ardennes offensive began on 16 December 1944. Hurried preparations were being made to support the German offensive from Lampaden. Luxemburg City, liberated by the Americans in September 1944, was finally chosen as the target for diversionary fire. Although the battery was only operational to a limited extent on 20 December, Kammler was told by High Command West to have it ready before New Year.

On Saturday 30 December 1944 No 1 Gun opened fire. The flight of shell from Lampaden to Luxemburg was 42.5 kilometres. Because of muzzle velocity variables and the variety of propellants being used it was estimated that the target zone was from 40.6 to 43.6 kilometres, giving a dispersal of salvoes of about 3 kilometres. The exact barrel elevation was set at 36° and the muzzle velocity 935 metres/second.

Two ‘warmers’ were fired at 2145 hrs and 2205 hrs before Oberleutnant Bortscheller ordered the gun to open fire in earnest at 2216 hrs in the presence of SS-Obergruppenführer Kammler, the battery commander and officers from a neighbouring artillery detachment. Fire ceased at 2343 hrs. Five shells exploded more or less in the city centre but what effect they had is unknown.

According to German sources, these were 95-kilo shells, probably the six-winged Röchling type numbered 32, 29, 47, 15, 28 (firing sequence). On 31 December twenty-three more were fired between 0007 hrs and 2333 hrs from No 1 Gun, while No 2 Gun was still being adjusted, this not being completed until 3 January.

Following round 17 fired at 0944 hrs the pressure tube was found to have shifted by 4 millimetres and had to be realigned. After two ‘warmers’ the remaining shells were fired without incident between 1943 and 1958 hrs.

4 January 1601–2007 hrs. No 1 Gun, 16 rounds. No 2 Gun ready but did not fire.

11 January 2016–2351 hrs. Both guns fired, total 20 rounds.

12 January 1847–2224 hrs. Both guns fired, total 20 rounds.

13 January 0757–1238 hrs. Both guns fired, total 22 rounds, after which both barrels were checked and adjusted. Because of ammunition shortage, fire was not resumed until 15 January.

15 January Early afternoon, six shells exploded in Luxemburg City.

16 January Late afternoon, six rounds fired. The tower of the cathedral was hit and four persons attending mass were killed.

18 January 1421–1638 hrs. Both guns fired 19 rounds. Most of these exploded north-east of the city in the suburbs of Clausen, Neudorf and Hamm injuring 13 persons.

20 January 0808–1353 hrs. Both guns fired a total of 24 rounds.

Preparations had been taken in hand to transport and mount two more barrels with selected lines of fire into Belgium and France and existing HPP ammunition was rationed out between the four guns. By now the Americans were counter-attacking successfully in the Ardennes region and as it was obvious that Lampaden would soon be under threat, Kammler ordered the detachment to be prepared to dismantle the two pressure tubes for a withdrawal east of the Rhine in due course. The lack of ammunition remained severe.

15 February 0908–1735 hrs. No 1 Gun fired 20 rounds at Luxemburg. These all fell in unpopulated areas near Hamm and Sandweiler east of the city.

16 February 1020–1405 hrs. No 1 Gun fired four shells which fell near Fetschenhaff causing little damage. According to German sources the battery had now only six rounds left.

22 February 1745–1858 hrs. Six shells were fired, all off-target and landed in open country near Merl. This terminated the V-3 programme and the guns were dismantled for transport across the Rhine.

On 26 February US armoured units advanced to within 3 kilometres of Lampaden where they captured guns and replacement parts. A quantity of ammunition was also confiscated and tested later at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. The V-3 HPP was considered to have limited value and needed further development. Operationally 183 rounds had been fired from Lampaden towards Luxemburg of which 143 (78%) exploded within the territory or very close to it.

The V-3 suffered from lack of development due to the pressure of time. Had the Mimoyecques battery been operational against London in 1943, delivering 200 6-inch shells per hour, Paul Brickhill’s fears might easily have been justified.

130-mm (5.12-in) KS-30

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One of the standard antiaircraft guns of the Soviet army during World War II was the 85-mm (3,35-in) M1939, replaced in production by the M1944 which had a longer barrel and fired ammunition with higher muzzle velocity for increased range. In 1985 the M1939 and M1944 were still used by almost 20 countries, although in the Warsaw Pact they have been replaced by surface-to-air missiles. After the end of the war the Soviet Union introduced two new towed anti-aircraft guns, the 100-mm (3.94-in) KS-I9 and the 130-mm (5.12-in) KS-30; by 1985 neither of these remained in front-line service with the Soviet Union, although some 20 countries did still use the KS-19 and two or three the much heavier KS- 30.

The Soviet 130mm anti-aircraft gun KS-30 appeared in the early 1950s, closely resembling the German wartime 12.8 cm FlaK 40 antiaircraft gun. The KS-30 was used for the home defense forces of the USSR and some other Warsaw Pact countries. Recognition features are the heavy dual-tire carriage, a firing platform which folds up to a 45 degree angle when the piece is in travel, and the long clean tube without a muzzle brake. The breechblock is of the semi-automatic horizontal sliding wedge type, and the piece is fitted with a power rammer and an automatic fuze setter. Fire control is provided by the PUAZO-30 director and the SON-30 radar. The ammunition is of the fixed-charge, separated type. It is not interchangeable with that of the 130mm field or coastal guns. The KS-30 is now held in war reserve since it was replaced by surface-to-air guided missiles.

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Soviet Artillery – Cold War 1970-89

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While the tank became the public and political symbol of an army’s military prowess, overshadowing other battlefield weapons systems, within armies the importance of the artillery arm remained undiminished and, despite the advent of missiles and rockets, the gun remained the weapon of choice in the tactical battle.fn1 Provided targets were within range, guns were capable of producing extremely accurate and very destructive fire at virtually any spot selected by battlefield commanders. Further, artillery command-and-control systems enabled the guns to switch targets quickly and to increase the weight of fire by bringing additional batteries into action as required.

Artillery was of great importance in the Second World War, and this continued in the many smaller wars between 1945 and 1990, when the tactical value of artillery was demonstrated repeatedly, although never more convincingly than at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu during the First Indo-China War. During that prolonged siege, which lasted from December 1953 to May 1954, Viet Minh artillery occupied the hills overlooking the French base and from there they totally dominated the battlefield, closed the airfield, cut off supplies, and eventually bludgeoned the garrison into defeat.

In the early 1950s there were only a small number of self-propelled guns, all in open mounts on converted tank chassis, which supported armoured divisions in some armies (e.g. the British and US). The great majority of guns were wheeled pieces, towed either by a specially designed artillery tractor or, in some cases, by an ordinary general-purpose truck. At a US army conference held in Washington in January 1952 it was decided that the speed of modern warfare was increasing to such an extent, particularly with the infantry planning to be mounted entirely in armoured personnel carriers, that wheeled guns would no longer be able to keep up with the speed of movement. Also, the threat of nuclear weapons made it necessary to place the crews inside closed gun-houses (turrets) for protection. Furthermore, tracked vehicles were more capable of moving into temporary fire positions, getting into and out of action quickly, since there was no need to separate the gun from its tractor and set it on a base-plate. Then, after firing, they could move out rapidly – the so-called ‘shoot-and-scoot’ tactic – before enemy artillery could determine the source of the rounds and fire a counter-battery mission.

Soviet artillery had established an awesome reputation during the Second World War, but for the next two decades it experienced a conservatism unusual in the Soviet armed forces, which not only adhered to towed artillery, but also invariably deployed it in rows of six guns in uncamouflaged fire positions. Well-established Second World War guns therefore remained in service throughout the 1950s, and their replacements in the 1960s were also towed. It was only in the 1970s that self-propelled guns came into service, in which existing tracked chassis were matched to modified versions of existing guns, producing systems of 122 mm, 152 mm and 203 mm calibre. Although long overdue, these proved to be of excellent quality, with the usual Soviet combination of practical design, simplicity and long range, and caused considerable alarm in the West.

Czechoslovakia made a notable contribution to artillery design with its DANA system, which entered service in 1981. This featured a 152 mm gun in a split turret mounted on a modified 8 × 8-wheeled truck chassis. Although the wheels reduced its cross-country capability in comparison with a tracked vehicle, its performance was more than adequate for service in central Europe with its excellent road systems, and any tactical disadvantages were offset by its high road speed, long road range, considerably reduced capital cost, and ease of maintenance.

As with tankmen, gunners pursued the goal of first-round accuracy. Accuracy on target depended upon knowing the precise location of the guns, and manual methods of surveying gun positions gave way to much faster and more accurate electronic systems. In addition, movements became so frequent and time in any one position so brief that the traditional method of ascertaining meteorological conditions by visual and manual methods was no longer adequate and fully automated systems were introduced.

The introduction of SP guns with the crew housed in a turret meant that visual methods of control on the gun position were superseded by radio. Ever-expanding artillery communication systems also enabled artillery commanders to exercise much greater co-ordination and control of their units, and to respond much more rapidly to requests for fire support. Many national artillery arms were also quick to latch on to the potential of computerized fire-control systems.

Counter-Battery fire

Every military system inevitably preys on its own, and, as artillery became more effective, so too did the duel between artillery systems (known as ‘counter-battery’ fire) intensify. In the early 1950s there were two, fairly primitive, methods of locating enemy artillery. One used analysis of craters to estimate the direction and range of the gun. The other, called ‘sound ranging’, used sensitive microphones placed along a line (the ‘sound base’) and connected by radio; the sound of gunfire was detected by operators, who used the time of detection at the different microphones to compute the point of origin.

In the 1970s, however, the scale and efficiency of Soviet artillery systems, coupled with the ever shorter time spent in any one position, forced NATO to develop more accurate, more rapid and less manpower-intensive systems, such as the US army’s Firefinder, which consisted of two radars: one to detect mortars, the other to detect guns and missile launchers. On detecting a projectile, the radars tracked it briefly and then used the trajectory to compute the point of origin, presenting the precise location of the launch site to the operator before the incoming projectile had hit the ground. The operator then passed the co-ordinates of the enemy position to the fire-direction centre, for it to be included in the counter-battery fire plan.

Artillery: NATO and Warsaw Pact

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Soviet Tactical Nuclear Surface-To-Surface Missiles

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Like those of the USA, the Soviet Union’s first post-war missile was a development of the German A-4; this led to the SS-1A (NATO = ‘Scunner’) with a range of 300 km and a 750 kg high-explosive warhead. The first nuclear battlefield missile to enter service (in 1957) was the Scud-A, which was mounted on a converted JS-3 heavy-tank chassis and carried a 50 kT warhead over a range of some 150 km. This was later supplemented by the Scud-B system, which carried a 70 kT warhead over a range of 300 km. Although Scuds were supplied to many other countries, nuclear warheads were only ever issued to the Soviet army and the system served throughout the Cold War, as plans to replace it with the SS-23 were cancelled as part of the INF Treaty.

The SS-12 (‘Scaleboard’) was a road-mobile, solid-fuelled ballistic missile, which was first fielded in 1962, followed by a modified version, the SS-12B (initially designated SS-22), in 1979. The missile had a maximum range of 900 km and a CEP of 30 m, carrying either a high-explosive or a 500 kT nuclear warhead, and system reaction time was estimated at sixty minutes. The SS-12B was withdrawn under the terms of the INF Treaty, and all missiles were destroyed.

One of the significant features of both the SS-1 and the SS-12 was that later versions were transported by 8 × 8-wheel TELs. These were highly mobile for off-road driving, were air-conditioned, accommodated the full crew and all necessary equipment, and even had an automatic tyre-pressure-regulation system. All these features enabled the missile detachment to move into a new location, set up the missile quickly, launch, and then move to a resupply point – the so-called ‘shoot-and-scoot’ tactic.

All Warsaw Pact exercises made use of battlefield nuclear weapons in support of attacks. A typical scenario, used some 233 weapons in the first strike, followed by 294 in the second strike. As used in these exercises, the intended purpose was to eliminate NATO forward troops – Area B, for example, coincided with the North German Plain. Following such a strike, the Warsaw Pact tank and motor-rifle units would have been able to advance rapidly into NATO rear areas.

The Soviet equivalent of the Honest John was known to NATO as the FROG (for Free Rocket Over Ground). The last model, the FROG-7, had HE, chemical, and nuclear warheads and a range of 42 miles. The SS-1C, known to NATO as the SCUD-B, was a guided missile with a range of 180 miles. During the Persian Gulf War, Iraqi-made crude versions of the SCUD proved widely inaccurate but were a tremendous nuisance to the Coalition, especially when Iraq fired them at Israel in a failed attempt to broaden the conflict. The Soviet SS-21 guided missile was a divisional-level system with a range of only 60 miles.

The SS-23 was an army-level system with a range of 300 miles. The SS-12 was a theater-level system with a range of 540 miles. All these Soviet systems carried nuclear warheads. Under the provisions of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, the United States agreed to eliminate the Pershing and the Soviets agreed to eliminate the SS-12 and SS-23.

Summit meeting between U. S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev held in Moscow during 29 May–2 June 1988. It was the fourth such meeting between Reagan and Gorbachev since 1985. For Reagan, the conference coincided with congressional hearings on the Iran-Contra Affair. Because of this, some critics speculated that the president was trying to divert attention from the scandal by creating a newsworthy achievement at the meeting. The major accomplishment of the summit was the signing of the already-ratified 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty on 1 June 1988. It did not represent a breakthrough in arms control.

From the Soviet perspective, the 1988 summit greatly enhanced Gorbachev’s domestic and international prestige. This was because of the obvious close relationship between the two leaders and Reagan’s international reputation as an anticommunist hard-liner. Gorbachev’s heightened prestige gave him important political capital, which was needed as he continued to move forward with his perestroika and glasnost reforms.

The meeting was carefully crafted to focus on the INF Treaty. The treaty had been forged at the December 1987 Washington summit meeting between the two leaders and was approved by North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) leaders in March 1988 and by the U. S. Senate on 29 May 1988. The treaty called for the destruction of 2,611 intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) with flight ranges of 300–3,400 miles. Included in the treaty were U. S. Pershing II missiles and ground-launched cruise missiles as well as Soviet SS-4, SS-12, SS-20, and SS-23 missiles. It also specified very detailed on-site inspection and verification procedures. In accordance with the treaty, by 1991 both countries would have eliminated all intermediate- range nuclear missiles.

Verdun: The Mill on the Meuse I

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The German plans for Verdun appear to have entirely abandoned the idea of a breakthrough, Falkenhayn himself describing such a full-scale assault as a ‘doubtful operation … which is beyond our forces’ and which might lead to German forces being trapped in untenable salients that could be pounded from both flanks. Verdun was chosen as the objective since it was perceived both as a base from which the French could launch a potentially decisive offensive and because it had acquired an almost mystical significance during the Franco-Prussian War. Ironically, the Germans underrated their own fascination for the fortress city. The ever-aggressive General Charles Mangin noted that ‘Verdun has always exercised a singular fascination upon the German imagination, and its capture, which seemed relatively easy, could in itself be celebrated as a great victory in Germany and in neutral countries.’

On the French side the success of German heavy artillery in 1914 had convinced GQG’s theorists that fortresses were potential death-traps which might enable the enemy to isolate and capture large numbers of men. The capitulation of forts on the Eastern Front in 1915 appeared to further confirm the lessons of 1870 and Joffre had ordered the remaining forts to be stripped of their guns in late 1914 to reinforce the army artillery. The theory was that fortresses supported the defensive system but were too fragile to function as a strong-point upon which the entire system could succeed or fail. Placing valuable artillery in a position that the enemy could easily target seemed akin to placing too many eggs in one basket. General Herr protested that there was a difference between an isolated fortress and a fort in a defensive system but his memoranda were ignored. Herr’s problem was exacerbated by the relative inactivity seen in the Verdun sector since the Marne. With major assaults being planned elsewhere and the rumours of an attack assumed to presage a limited assault, GQG assigned Verdun territorial units and concentrated on offensive planning.

Oblivious to their unintended assistance from GQG, the Germans deployed vast quantities of equipment and ammunition and began to construct bomb-proof stollen (shelters) for the assault troops being moved into the line. Infantry units were given strict instructions not to push out ‘parallels of departure’ or Russian saps that might give away the on-going preparations for the offensive. Artillery units were moved forwards and carefully concealed. Most batteries were under orders to hold their fire until Operation Gericht had commenced so that the French would be surprised by the 306 field guns, 542 heavy guns and 152 minenwerfer directly behind the assault units and the 400 additional guns supporting the offensive on the flank. Entirely fooled by the German deception plan, the French artillery was outnumbered by a ratio of 4:1 and French military intelligence had identified only 70 gun emplacements before the battle. Most dangerously, they totally missed the larger guns assigned to smash the forts, including the 420mm and 380mm heavy howitzers; the latter could drop 40 shells a day on almost any target in the Verdun sector.

In General Schnabel’s fire-plan, the 210mm batteries were assigned to pulverise the front line then place a curtain barrage to block any potential counter-attack as the leading assault units consolidated their hard-won objectives. Strong-points would be reduced by both the heavy guns and minenwerfers and the 150mm batteries would then be assigned to both counter-battery missions and to interdict the supply network and rear areas. ‘No line is to remain unbounded and no possibilities of supply unmolested, nowhere should the enemy feel safe.’ The 150mm batteries assigned to counter-battery work would use zone-fire, deluging entire areas instead of trying to hit individual targets, adjusting rapidly with the aid of air observers, instead of relying on more precise methods of adjustment. This required substantially more ammunition but the use of asphyxiating and lachrymatory agents delivered by gas shell successfully enabled the German gunners to neutralise the French batteries. The lighter guns would move forwards as soon as the assault began so that the heavy guns could be shifted to new positions capable of covering the new front line. The Germans stocked 2. 5 million rounds alongside the batteries, and intended to fire the bulk of them in only 9½ hours on a 22-kilometre stretch of front before an infantry attack only 7 kilometres wide. It would be an unprecedented demonstration of the power of modern artillery.

The bombardment was delayed by poor weather but finally began on 21 February. It was initially general, with batteries concentrating on key objectives only after the French defensive communication system was judged to have been sufficiently disrupted. In the final stages of the fire-plan, patrols were filtered into the gaps between the main target zones to assess the remaining defences. A horrified French air observer saw no evidence of a gap in the carnage and reported that ‘there are gun batteries everywhere. They follow each other non-stop; the flames from their shells form an unbroken sheet.’ Another described the fire as ‘a storm, a hurricane, a tempest growing ever stronger, where it is raining nothing but paving stones’. Fire jumped to the second line and continued on into the rear areas and out on to the flanks as the infantry advanced and the Germans surged forwards, only to halt as soon as they reached their primary objectives. They had been instructed not to push beyond these locations and new units moved forwards methodically to assault the second line; the General Staff had seen the effect of artillery barrages on attacks that were unsupported by counter-batteries and were wary of repeating what they saw as Gallic over-enthusiasm. ‘The mission of infantry units is generally as follows: to seize a part of the hostile fortified system on a front and to a depth which has been delimited in advance; and then to hold it against intense artillery fire, and resist hostile counter attacks.’ A note written by a staff officer in the same division (the 20th Bavarian Brigade) summarised the official view on initiative:

It is possible that the enemy situation may be such as to permit the attack to be continued beyond the line that has been designated, and to capture certain points which the subordinate may consider of secondary importance. Do not forget that our artillery will not be in condition, if progress is made beyond the designated line, to immediately execute a new preparation and to quickly support the operation … The decision made by a subordinate commander to extend the attack beyond the objective is a very serious one and should be the exception. Furthermore, the responsibility of the leader is affected, if a position which has been taken be retaken by the enemy, even though the adversary thus gains only a moral success.

The highly regulated approach to securing the first line of objectives (although this theoretically abandoned any chance of a coup de main) enabled the Germans to exploit along the flanks of the initial penetration of the defensive system. German units that secured the initial objectives instinctively sought out opportunities to assist other units still struggling on their flanks. The French defensive system was severely ruptured but the combination of inflexible assault timetables and the leadership and defensive innovation displayed by the redoubtable if doomed Colonel Driant, in the section of the line dominated by the Bois-de-Caures, bought the French enough time to stabilise the front line before the Germans could realise how close they had come to a breakthrough. Driant’s simple but effective tactic was to scatter his men among the shell-holes so that the German lifting barrage, designed to ‘lift’ just before the assault infantry swarmed over the defences, fell on his empty trench line and not on the men of his beleaguered command.

During the first stage of the Verdun offensive General Fayolle noted:

The Boches have captured the front-line trench and the support trench. How do they do it: all their attacks succeed … they knock over everything with a horrifying bombardment after concentrating superior means. Thereby they suppress the trenches, the supporting defences and the machine guns. But how do they cross the barrage? Probably their infantry infiltrate, and since there is no one left in the fire trenches they get in, and when they are there to get them out we need to have the same artillery superiority.

The effect of the German heavy bombardment, involving a rate of fire that the French simply could not match, soon earned the mordant nickname trommelfeuer (drumfire). An officer of the 243rd Infantry was stunned by the destruction: ‘by three o’clock in the afternoon, the section of the wood which we occupied which, in the morning, was completely covered in bushes, looked like the timber-yard of a sawmill; a little later, I had lost most of my men.’ Kronprinz Wilhelm was delighted by the apparent destruction but was quick to note the relatively low casualties inflicted during the bombardment:

The enemy, surprised by the annihilating volume of our fire, only shelled a few villages at random. At 5 p. m. our barrage jumped on to his second line, and the skirmishers and shock troops of all corps left their trenches. The material effect of our bombardment had been, as we discovered later, rather below our expectations, as the hostile defences in the wooded country were in many cases too well concealed; the moral effect was immense.

Mangin was rather less impressed with their initial moves in the battle:

The offensive of 21st February was both terrible and stingy at the same time; it was staged on too narrow a front, which while it widened out slightly, again contracted, in spite of the great array of artillery with which it was provided, and the limitless use of infantry in deep formations, it advanced only with great effort and did not know how to profit by the gaps which were in front of it on certain days. When it was decided to extend it to the left bank of the Meuse, it was too late; the defence had got a new hold on itself and had been organised.

As Mangin had noted, the first assaults were focused on the right bank of the Meuse and ignored the defensive positions on the left bank; for planning purposes, it was assumed that the counter-battery artillery would deal with any batteries flanking the main assault. Considering that the German plan was intended to maximise French casualties by retaining complete air and artillery dominance of the battlefield, the decision to leave the French batteries on the left bank almost completely unmolested by infantry seems to have been a major error in the planning for the first phase of the operation. As successive assaults went in, the obsolete but cunningly emplaced 155mm batteries on the left bank shrugged off the increasingly desperate attempts to silence them and poured fire into General von Zwehl’s VII Korps every time they recommenced their advance. In spite of a spirited defence and an overly methodical fire-plan, the Germans still drove deep. Their overwhelming superiority in both guns and tactics enabled them to consolidate most of their initial objectives but as soon as the French threw in reserves, they launched vigorous counter-attacks and casualties on both sides began to mount. What Mangin bitterly described as the age of ‘mechanical’ battle had begun.

After the under-garrisoned and ill-armed Fort Douaumont fell, isolated by a near-constant barrage that gradually drove the supporting units to positions from where they were unable to cover the entrances to the fort, the Germans commenced a series of remorseless assaults on positions on both banks of the Meuse. Stunned by the initial reverses, Joffre sacked all the officers he saw as responsible for the débâcle and assigned Pétain to command the sector. Colonel Driant’s tactical success with dispersed defences in the Bois-de-Caures during the first day of fighting was extended into a broader operational concept based upon ‘an advanced line of resistance’ consisting of forward outposts and observation positions backed up by ‘a principal line of resistance’ where localised reserves could gather and retake any lost positions with the assistance of attached artillery units. The concept of the easily identified defensive line was being aban-doned in the face of increasing firepower. Counter-battery and curtain barrages by the heavy artillery units delayed the enemy while creeping barrages supported counter-attacks.

Pétain, ably assisted by the slippery but brilliant Nivelle and the implacable Mangin, stabilised the Verdun sector by creating a position de barrage behind the front line, then using the old forts as armoured bastions in a defensive system that served as a protective zone in which the reserves could gather and launch counter-attacks. Unsurprisingly the artillery was seen as the key to this enhanced system and Pétain demanded additional artillery. The continuing carnage forced Joffre to confront the consequences of years of mismanagement at GQG. The French artillery was still outclassed and outranged by the Germans, giving Kronprinz Wilhelm a priceless advantage in a battle where artillery was the key to victory. The evidence was conclusive enough to convince Joffre, who demanded that 960 medium and 440 heavy guns should be produced as quickly as possible. Even with better weapons, French supplies were being brought along a narrow-gauge railway and the one forlorn, wreckage-strewn road into the salient and Army Group Centre could not hope to equal the near-continuous German barrage even if they wanted to. An American, working as a volunteer ambulance driver, asked about the rumble of thunder he heard as they approached the city and wondered if there was a storm coming. The driver shook his head in despair. ‘If it were thunder the noise would stop occasionally. The noise is constant. It’s Verdun.’

Verdun: The Mill on the Meuse II

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Pétain and his staff drafted a new artillery programme and it was disseminated in May 1916. The roles assigned to each type of artillery and their proportions were adjusted in recognition of the new realities revealed by the battles around Verdun. Divisions gained additional medium howitzers while all the 155mm howitzers and heavier, bunker-busting mortars went into the corps and army artillery groupes. Once again it was the Second Army’s training pamphlet that was circulated to the entire army as accepted doctrine, outlining advances in support, counter-preparation, communications, liaison, counter-battery techniques and the rapid concentration of fire from dispersed batteries. Pétain also set up a Centre of Artillery Studies to coordinate research into new technologies, techniques and doctrines and to disseminate the most effective approaches to artillery operations. The new programme changed production schedules and increased the French artillery regiments from 115 to 247: a radical increase in dedicated manpower at the very point at which the French were beginning to run out of fresh reserves.

Pétain took a personal interest in the activities of his hard-pressed gunners and often started meetings by asking corps liaison officers ‘What have your batteries being doing? We’ll discuss other points later.’ Coordination was to be their new watchword and they were instructed to ‘give the infantry the impression that [the artillery] is supporting them and that it is not dominated’. Such a policy increased artillery casualties but heartened the infantry, who were increasingly seeing the artillerymen as rear-area troops who had found a way to avoid genuine combat. One of the key innovations was the artillery offensive, a series of coordinated artillery raids on rear areas designed to disrupt movement and cause casualties. The Germans quickly noted the effectiveness of such tactics, observing that the French ‘began the flanking fire on the ravines and roads north of Douaumont that was to cause us such severe casualties’.

Even antiquated guns could make an impression if properly sited and, as noted above, the obsolete 155s placed to flank any German assault on the right bank of the Meuse inflicted horrific casualties during VII Korps’ attempts to breach that sector during March. The French guns were concealed among the fortress lines on the Bois Bourrus ridge and there was nothing that General von Zwehl’s gunners could do to prevent the French from slaughtering his men. The wounded streaming back to their start lines were described as ‘a vision of hell’ by one commander while another officer shouted ‘What … battalion? Is there such a thing!’

The next series of attacks focused on the left bank of the Meuse, centring on the grim slopes of the all-too-appropriately-named hill, Le Morte Homme. The terrain gave the attacking infantry considerable cover but the complex topography also favoured aggressive counter-attacks and the entire region was soon covered with blackened craters – one airman described the Verdun sector as appearing like ‘the humid skin of a monstrous toad’. The German preparatory bombardments were horrifying and one description of an attack on Côte 304 creates a strong impression of both the improvements to artillery preparation being made by the Germans and the stubborn tenacity of their Gallic opponents:

The pounding was continuous and terrifying. We had never experienced its like during the whole campaign. The earth around us quaked, and we were lifted and tossed about. Shells of all calibres kept raining on our sector. The trench no longer existed; it had been filled up with earth. We were crouching in shell-holes, where the mud thrown up by each new explosion covered us more and more. The air was unbreathable. Our blinded, wounded, crawling and shouting soldiers kept falling on top of us and died while splashing us with their blood. It really was a living hell. How could one ever survive such moments? We were deafened, dizzy and sick at heart. It is hard to imagine the torture we endured: our parched throats burned, we were thirsty, and the bombardment seemed endless …

Pétain’s new system was based upon building up a detailed record of all enemy artillery missions and battery locations and then centrally co-ordinating his forces to maximise his own guns’ disruption and destruction. Petain ensured that units spent only a few days in the front line before being relieved, the noria system, and this combination of fire-power and a realistic understanding of what the infantry could withstand gave the French the edge they needed. The army buckled but it did not collapse, even after the Germans launched eight frontal attacks on the defensive system around the heroic stronghold of Fort Vaux, finally taking its exhausted and parched garrison on 7 June. Undaunted, the Germans experimented with creating artillery corridors for assaults and the French found these extremely frustrating as it was difficult to predict the objective and resist the concentration of firepower. As Pétain noted, ‘In effect, ignorant of the points threatened by attack, the defenders are obliged to be strong everywhere and to place in the front line increased numbers of personnel who must be replaced often.’ While the new tactic was successful in increasing French casualties, it could not win the battle without forming part of a wider operational plan; it proved to be yet another example of the Germans’ inability to use their advanced tactics to achieve strategic objectives. In contrast, they ignored French logistics and throughout the battle ammunition and reinforcements flowed up the road from Bar-le–Duc to Verdun, endless lines of soldiers and 2, 000 tonnes of ammunition a day moving towards ‘the everlasting rumble of the guns’. For reasons that are still difficult to understand, neither the German artillery batteries nor the Luftstreitkräfte made a concerted effort to cut this vital artery and thus doomed both sides to a level of attrition that drained the fighting power of both armies.

Pétain, ‘the master of scientific tactics’, was promoted to command Army Group Centre in June and Robert Nivelle took over the defence of Verdun, ‘the kingdom of the guns’. A new German offensive, led by the elite Alpenkorps and supported by a three-day bombardment that utilised large quantities of phosgene (a new asphyxiating gas), understandably described by Mangin as ‘the most important and most massive attack that Verdun had to withstand’, greeted Nivelle’s appointment but the French artillery had reorganised and restructured since February. The precise German timetable of fire-missions and assaults that had worked so effectively in February fell apart in the face of a devastating series of counter-barrages that enabled French counter-attacks to retake all the key points. Another offensive in July ran straight into Mangin’s veteran gunners and was pushed back to its start line by a series of savage counter-attacks. Verdun had become an open ulcer that threatened to swallow Germans as fast as it slaughtered Frenchmen. The German phase of the battle had ground to a halt and now the French could demonstrate what they had learned in the first six months of fighting.

It would take time to fully reorganise the French army to suit Pétain’s vision of total war but most of the key concepts would be in place when their primary creator was placed in supreme command. The proof came when Nivelle and Mangin finally launched a successful attack to retake Fort Douaumont, after a number of costly but instructive failures, overwhelming the battered fortress with relentless fire from super-heavy guns – including two 400mm pieces which Joffre brusquely dismissed as being ‘chiefly for the diversion of the public and the press’. Nivelle dedicated enormous resources to the assault and a number of innovations helped the advancing French infantry. Every unit was thoroughly briefed on their objectives, a creeping barrage was used to keep the defenders under cover until the assault was on top of them and all communication wires were laid in 6-ft deep trenches to ensure continuous communications. The barrage moved 100 yards every 4 minutes, the 75s firing a hail of shrapnel only 70 yards ahead of the advancing infantry and the 400 heavy guns methodically pulverising the line with high explosive another 80 yards further forwards.

The supremely confident Mangin, described by one observer as literally licking his lips in anticipation, even briefed Allied journalists on the morning of the attack:

My 75s will engage the Boche trenches and I have an abundance of large calibre shells to smash every shelter … At H-hour, in two hours, the infantry will leave their own trenches and take the trenches before them; preceding them, at a distance of 70 or 80 metres, will be a blanket of 75 shells … When the creeping barrage catches up with it, the heavies will shift targets and hammer the reserves … We will continue towards the [German] reserves using the same method and they will be beaten by our troops … It will be an affair of at most a few hours …

One officer saw the lines of guns being deployed and understandably snarled at the belated arrival of France’s full military potential: ‘If only we had been thus provided at the beginning of the war, we should not now be fighting in France.’

Mangin ordered a continuous preparatory bombardment to prevent the Germans from improving their defences, a process he gleefully described as ‘not burying the hatchet’ and the Germans assumed that the French intended a series of localised attacks. One French unit even withdrew to avoid being hit by any shorts from their own side during the massive barrage and some audacious Mecklenburgers on the other side of no-man’s-land had the audacity to dash over and take cover in the abandoned French front line! The larger guns focused on Douaumont itself and as the 400mm shells began to smash into the fort’s already shattered carapace, the German garrison withdrew to the interior – then, after the water was exhausted, all but a few men abandoned the fortress entirely.

The bombardment started on 15 December and lasted three days; when the French guns at last fell silent the Germans emerged from their stollen and dashed to their assigned positions just as their own guns commenced counter-preparatory fire. To the amazement of the front-line infantry, there were no enemy troops in sight – but then Nivelle’s reserve of heavy guns commenced counter-battery fire against the freshly unmasked German batteries. The French 155mm guns pounded the German positions for an additional 36 hours, silencing or destroying 68 of the 158 batteries, before the creeping barrage began its relentless progress towards the main French objectives. The stunned Germans were completely over-whelmed as the French emerged from the morning mist and poured across the shell-scarred landscape, seizing positions that both sides had bitterly contested for months. In the foggy chaos Mangin and his staff soon lost contact with the assault regiments – a foretaste of disasters to come – but the key objectives were taken. French casualties were higher than hoped but the defenders suffered an even greater mauling and the Verdun sector was finally deemed to be secure.

Joffre’s influence faded during the battle for Verdun. His aggressive prewar doctrine had simply collapsed in a battle where superior artillery played the decisive role. Heavier guns, indirect fire and greater range gave the Germans a valuable advantage but their strategic errors allowed the French to survive, a victory of sorts. With Papa Joffre politely kicked upstairs, the Young Turks were dispersed to field commands and the artillery was finally able to take full advantage of the increasing numbers of heavy pieces being supplied. Planning began to focus around the artillery instead of the furia francese. The problem with such revolutions is that they occasionally lead to grand assumptions about the utility of the technical innovations forged during the collapse of the old system and tend to forget that the enemy has an even greater reason to monitor such changes.