Antitank Warfare in the Spanish Civil War

German Artillerymen of the Condor Legion prepare to fire a Flak 18 88mm cannon onto Republican lines at the Battle of Amposta during the Spanish Civil War; Catalonia, Autumn 1938.

Italian 47mm M-35 antitank guns were supplied for the use of the Italian Volunteer Corps only.

Spanish troops with a proto-Molotov.

“Out-gunned, out-maneuvered, and hard-pressed, the Spanish had no effective answer to the tank, in desperation they resorted to hand-to-hand fighting”


The Spanish Civil War was the war which produced the “Molotov cocktail,” but Spain also witnessed the first widespread use of antitank weapons, especially guns and most notably the German Rheinmetall 37mm Pak 35/36 and its Russian copy, the Model 1932 45mm antitank gun. These weapons, when skillfully used, proved very effective against tanks. The light tanks were extremely vulnerable to them, and learning from this lesson, production of medium and heavy tanks began in several major European armies. Combat in Spain proved that better armor was needed, even if the main tank contributors—Germany, Italy, and the USSR—did not initially show much haste when it came to making new and more effective tanks.

Since the early days of armored warfare, improved artillery was seen as the quickest solution for antitank defense. In Germany, the Rheinmetall corporation commenced the design of a 37mm antitank gun in 1924, and the first guns were produced in 1928 as the 37mm PanzerabwehrkanoneL/45, later adopted by the Wehrmacht as the Pak 35/36. It made its first appearance during the Spanish Civil War, and the Soviet Army soon upgraded the design to a higher-velocity L/45 Model 1935, while also making a licensed copy of the German gun. However, the Red Army was taught several hard lessons about antitank warfare when many tanks sent to aid the Republican Army were destroyed in combat engagements with German guns.

At the time, the predominant ammunition used against tanks was the armor-piercing kinetic energy shell that penetrated armor by direct pressure, spiking or punching through it. In Spain, the antitank defense of the Nationalists was organized by German Condor Legion officers. The antitank guns were incorporated into a system of obstacles created to stop an armored attack, slowing tanks down, isolating them from the supporting infantry with machine-gun and mortar fire, and forcing them to conduct deliberate head-on assaults with engineer support or to seek a less-defended area to attack. The time thus gained for the defenders meant that Nationalist field artillery could also engage the Soviet tanks.

The only change to German World War I antitank tactics was that an effective antitank weapon was now available to support the defending infantry. However, the Soviet tanks armed with 45mm guns easily destroyed the German light tanks in Spain, establishing an urgent need for antitank guns to be included in mobile tank-led units due to the strong possibility of encountering enemy tanks. To many analysts, the Spanish Civil War reconfirmed the importance of defense over the offensive and of antitank weapons over tanks.

Poorly trained Spanish tank crews among both Nationalist and Republican forces proved undisciplined and prone to attacking heavily defended positions even when equipped with antitank weapons. Tank attacks occurred with little prior reconnaissance and without coordination with supporting infantry and artillery. Too often, tanks made themselves vulnerable to destruction by moving on their own through village streets or remaining on open roads. It was the poor tank tactics that made antitank warfare so successful.

A report presented in Berlin on September 12, 1936, by Lieutenant Colonel Walter Warlimont pointed out that antitank defense was one of the main weaknesses of the Nationalist Army. Consequently, the first German antitank guns came with the first tank shipment the following month, comprising 24 Pak 35/36 37mm guns. An antitank company with 15 guns was formed immediately, with the remaining nine guns kept for training purposes under the supervision of the Drohne group at the German base in Cubas de la Sagra.

A further 28 guns of the same model arrived with the second shipment of tanks in November. With these new guns and four more from the Drohne group, making a total of 32 guns, the Nationalists organized their first three antitank companies. At the end of May 1937, another shipment of 100 37mm Pak 35/36s arrived at Vigo’s harbor for the Nationalist Army, which organized 10 antitank batteries with 10 guns each within the artillery branch, while 50 more guns were delivered in August. On April 14, 1938, the last shipment of antitank guns was received by the Nationalists, with 100 more Pak 35/36s delivered at Cubas de la Sagra, making a total of 352 Pak 35/36 antitank guns supplied to the Spanish Nationalist Army by Germany.

A problem arose when it was established that the antitank gun supplied by the Germans to the Nationalists had a maximum range of 900 meters, whereas the guns in Russian tanks could engage targets at up to 3,000 meters. The Nationalists, under German guidance, were forced to attach at least five antitank guns to each light tank company to provide some effective protection against Soviet tanks. However, the effect was minimal as understanding and coordinating the new tanks and antitank guns proved extremely difficult for the Nationalist forces. Despite much training, and to the dismay of German instructors, Nationalist troops often began shooting wastefully at targets far over 1,000 meters away.

The Condor Legion also made extensive use of the excellent 88/56mm Flak 18 antiaircraft gun in the civil war, where its usefulness as an antitank weapon and general artillery gun exceeded its antiaircraft role. The first four of these guns came to Spain even before the formal organization of the Condor Legion on August 6, 1936, landing with the first shipment of aviation equipment from the Usaramo cargo ship at Seville. They were part of the first heavy air defense artillery battery and arrived with a full complement of men and accessories. The battery was under the command of Luftwaffe First Lieutenant Aldinger, and the guns were to be used in Spain for the first time. The battery was soon combat-ready and was deployed at Seville’s military airfield as protection against Republican raids.

The air defense artillery unit of the Condor Legion was named Flak Abteilung 88 and was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Hermann Lichtenberger, with Lieutenant Colonel Georg Neuffer as second in command and chief of staff. All air defense artillery personnel belonged to the Luftwaffe and not to the Army. Initially, four batteries—16 guns—of Flak 18 88/56mm guns were sent to Spain as air defense artillery for the Condor Legion in 1936, but they were soon used in antitank, antibunker, and even antibattery roles. Further guns were sent later, and more 88mm guns were also supplied to Spanish units. At the end of the war, the Spanish Army took over five batteries— 20 guns—from the total of 71 Flak 18 guns sent for the Condor Legion.

Soviet tank superiority was clearly shown in combat around Madrid, where, by the end of November 1936, the Nationalists lost a total of 28 Panzer Is plus several Italian L3s, resulting in a stalemate. Here, the Spanish People’s Army made the major mistake of not going on the offensive but remaining in a defensive posture. It was here around Madrid where the Nationalist forces employed for the first time in an antitank role, and with great success, their Flak 18 88mm guns. Such was their effectiveness that the Germans later turned the “88,” with some modifications made for ground-to-ground combat, into one of the most dreaded weapons of World War II. The “88” gun literally obliterated T-26 tanks in Spain at the first hit. Luckily for the Republicans, the 88mm guns were not supplied to the Nationalists in large numbers.

Not much is known about the first combat actions of Flak units in Spain, but unconfirmed reports point at 88mm guns entering combat in early 1937 during the fighting around Malaga, when a battery of Flak 18s was assigned to support an infantry column. Bad weather had grounded the main bomber force, but the assault succeeded, mainly because of the concentrated and accurate fire of the supporting 88mm guns.

The Flak 18 guns were deployed mainly to protect airfields and bases used by the Condor Legion. However, the nature of war in Spain, with its wildly fluctuating front lines and the presence of Russian tanks, forced the Germans to employ the Flak 18 guns in a direct-fire role against ground targets. Furthermore, the initial scarcity of Nationalist Spanish artillery and the general low proficiency of its crews soon forced the use of the Flak 18 gun as a direct-fire infantry support weapon. The Flak 88 group fought at the battle of Jarama, in February 1937. The following month, the unit moved northwards and took part in all the battles along the Northern front, where their tasks were divided between antiaircraft duties and field artillery employment. Flak 18 guns took part in the assault against Bilbao’s line of fortifications, the so-called “Iron Belt” (Cinturon de Hierro), and following the battle of Brunete, went north again to contribute to the Santander and Asturias campaign.

Flak 18 batteries were also employed by the Nationalist Army in the Aragon offensive and at the battle of Ebro in 1938, being used for direct fire against pillboxes and indirect fire in the advance towards Barcelona during the final campaign in Catalonia. During the battle of Ebro, Flak 88 batteries took up positions in the neighborhood of the main bridgehead as direct support to the ground forces.

By the end of the war, the 88mm guns had performed far more missions as an antitank and direct-fire field artillery gun than as an antiaircraft gun. In total, German 88mm guns were involved in 377 combat engagements, and only 31 were against enemy aircraft. On the other hand, the use of the 88mm guns in close vicinity to the enemy made them vulnerable to infantry fire. Casualties among the Legion’s 88mm gun batteries in the Spanish Civil War were second only to those of bomber pilots and crews. According to two different sources, which provided information to U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Waite, the Germans alone manned their antiaircraft weapons. No one was allowed within a few hundred yards of them, especially the Spanish soldiers. The French War Department verified that “great secrecy surrounded the operation of these weapons.”

In May 1939, the Flak 88 unit returned to Germany, leaving practically all its equipment in Spain for the Nationalist Army. After the civil war, in 1943, more improved Flak models were sent to Spain—almost 90 88/56mm Flak 36s—and in the same year they were manufactured under license by the Spanish artillery factory at Trubia, near Oviedo, under the name FT 44. These remained in active service with the Spanish Army until the early 1980s.

Italy also sent various antitank guns to Nationalist Spain; however, these were only used by the Italian Volunteer Corps. They were mainly the Breda 47mm Model 35 antitank gun, but there were also some 37mm Models 36 guns, a copy of the German Pak 35/36 made in Italy under license from Rheinmetall.

The Republicans used a similar antitank gun to the German Pak 35/36, the Russian Model 19323 45mm gun. The first shipment of these guns took place on April 29, 1937, when the Republicans received just 15 guns. However, they later received 100 additional guns in May that year, and another 20 in December. In January 1939, the Republicans received through France the last three Soviet guns. The total number of Model 1932 guns delivered to the Republican Army was 138; however, throughout the war, the Republicans received a total of 494 guns of various calibers capable of antitank use. The Soviet Model 1932 45mm gun was a copy of the German Pak 35/36 after the Soviet Union purchased the rights for production from Rheinmetall in 1930 and began a small-scale procurement for the Soviet Army. However, the Soviet General Staff wanted a more “universal” gun able to fire both antitank and high explosive rounds, so the gun was scaled up to 45mm, entering production in 1932, created by Soviet artillery designer Loginov. Towards the end of 1937, the Model 1932 was pushed out by the Model 1937 45mm antitank gun. The new gun had better ballistics, a higher rate of fire, and was more reliable. The new wheels were also made of metal rather than wood (the Model 1932 also received metal wheels in 1937). However, due to insufficient armor penetration against the newest German tanks, it was subsequently replaced by the long-barreled Model 1942.

The Italian M35 47mm gun was a dual-purpose gun able to fire a high explosive round as well as an antitank projectile. It was originally an Austrian artillery piece produced under license in Italy. It was used both as an infantry assault gun and antitank gun, proving to be very successful, especially when equipped with HEAT (High Explosive Antitank) rounds. Due to its shape, the 47mm gun was commonly called the “elefantino” (little elephant) by Italian troops.

The British Major General Fuller wrote an interesting letter published in the London Times following a visit to Spain:

I have referred to the antitank gun several times. On the Nationalist side, the German 22mm gun, mounted on a small wheeled vehicle, has proved to be very useful. It is the gun that I saw in use with the German Army. Other German models are also reported to be in Spain, a 37mm and an Italian 47mm. From all the information that can be gathered, the German antitank gun is a very efficient weapon.

In May 1937, U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Lee quoted an article by Liddell Hart, who said that “the defense against tanks has been developed and perfected more quickly and more effectively than the tank itself.” The antitank weapons used in Spain were clearly a threat to the tankers. As Colonel Fuqua, the U.S. Army attaché in Madrid, concluded, an infantryman with an antitank gun had no need to fear tanks.

The British antitank battery was formed within the International Brigades in May 1937 from 40 volunteers and was issued with three Soviet Model 1932 45mm guns, capable of firing both armor-piercing and high explosive shells that, at the time, represented state-of-the-art of military technology. Well led, trained by Russian instructors, and comprising a high proportion of students and intellectuals, they represented somewhat of an elite unit, and quickly became a highly efficient force in the 15th International Brigade.

After cutting its teeth at Brunete in July 1937, the battery was heavily involved in the battles at Belchite in August, where, according to Bill Alexander, the battery’s political commissar, the antitank guns fired 2,700 shells in just two days. During October 1937, the 15th International Brigade took part in the disastrous operation at Fuentes de Ebro, where the new BT-5 tanks were mauled. Initially, the antitank battery was held back from the main battle until the panicked brigade staff ordered it to advance on the Nationalist lines. None of the guns were able to fire and the battery’s second in command, Jeff Mildwater, was injured before the battery was eventually wisely withdrawn.

During the Aragon front retreat in the spring of 1938, the antitank battery was virtually surrounded and forced to fall back swiftly from Belchite, to avoid being cut off. The battery had to destroy one of its guns that could not be moved, while low-flying Nationalist aircraft destroyed another. With the battery no longer in existence, the men were incorporated as riflemen into the British battalion of the International Brigades.

The remark that antitank weapons had surpassed tank development was perhaps the most important conclusion reached about the use of tanks and antitank weapons in Spain. And if the trend was toward heavier tanks trying to overcome the threat of antitank weapons, there was also a trend for more powerful antitank guns.

In an article sent by American Lieutenant Colonel Lee to the Military Intelligence Division in the spring of 1937, Liddell Hart had argued that light antitank weapons had the advantage of being easily shifted from location to location and quickly brought up to the front lines. Other sources observed that antitank defense needed to be coordinated and that antitank guns were only part of the defensive plan. The U.S. Army attaché in Paris, Lieutenant Colonel Waite, commented that antitank weapons worked most effectively when they were used in combination with obstacles.

All tanks employed in Spain often faced antitank weapons that could immobilize or destroy them at any moment. The tank, that was supposed to return maneuver and offense to the battlefield, was countered with modern antitank weapons that gave the advantage back to the defense. To overcome the threat of antitank weapons, military attachés, observers, and their sources stressed the need for tanks to be employed en masse, not as separate weapons or in small groups. They also recommended that tanks be combined with infantry, which could hold the ground gained, and with artillery and aviation, that could protect the tanks by destroying or suppressing enemy antitank fire.

Although little technical data about antitank and antiaircraft weapons was gathered, there was general agreement on antitank weapons being effective in meeting their enemies in Spain. However, with the trend toward heavier tanks, there was an implied corresponding trend toward more powerful antitank weapons, as has been mentioned. With clouds of war gathering all over Europe, some countries looked to Spain to see what, if anything, they could learn. Unfortunately, most of the lessons were misleading, especially those relating to tanks being defeated. The issue seems to have been that whereas the designers of tanks saw clearly that they had to improve armor and gunnery, those whose specialty was antitank weaponry were quite happy with what they had achieved and took few active steps to improve anything. Such thinking was to work to the detriment of the German Wehrmacht when World War II began, as the Pak 36 was no longer as effective.

Regarding the war in Spain, when expectations about tank performance was not met, it was concluded that circumstances were so specific to the Spanish situation and its kind of war that battles fought there were unlikely to provide useful lessons for most European armies. Others, who had their predictions fulfilled, pointed to specific incidents as evidence that the testing ground of war had proven them right. Nowhere was this more apparent than regarding the efficacy of antitank weaponry. Officers who did not like the tank argued that combat in Spain clearly demonstrated the superiority of antitank guns over tanks. Tanks in Spain had proven themselves as less than the decisive force that some battles of World War I had promised, while antitank weapons now had an advantage in development over tanks.

Yet while the war on the ground was similar in its trenches and infantry battles to World War I, it was also a signal of changes to come in a future European war. Each country was confident that it had in service an adequate antitank defense. Yet, by 1939–40, before a year had passed, each was to find how over-optimistic these predictions had been, how vulnerable troops were, and how poorly the designers had prepared for the onset of the German blitzkrieg.

The War of the Engineers I

The French engineers who designed the forts were well aware that the rifled, breech-loading guns that were increasingly coming into use in the 1870s were far superior to the cannon that Vauban and his followers had in mind when they designed and built their forts. The difficulty men like Séré de Rivières faced was unprecedented, however. In the decades between 1871 and 1914, there were three successive revolutions in gunnery.

These dramatic and sweeping changes transformed the nature of warfare in a fundamental way. This shift can be seen quite clearly, because, starting with the wars of the 1860s and 1870s, the medical services of many of the combatants began to keep records of their woundeds’ cases. As most of us would expect, the vast majority of wounds were caused by standard infantry weapons: rifles and sidearms. The only surprise revealed by these reports is the extremely low incidence of wounds caused by edged weapons—bayonets, knives, and swords. As the American summary of the Civil War data points out, there was very little hand-to-hand combat: “The bayonet and saber were military weapons of little significance,” is how the United States surgeon general put it. The contrary idea is a myth. But then, as Jean-North Cru pretty much established, a great many battlefield accounts are fictional.

The point is germane, suggests a certain healthy skepticism about stories of intense hand-to-hand fighting in the trenches. That is particularly the case given the dramatic shift in the causes of wounds that occurred in the First World War. Abruptly, the vast majority of wounds now came from artillery shells of various kinds. And this was true despite all the attention given to the power of the machine gun. In studying the data recorded by the medical services of the combatants, one comes to the conclusion that very few soldiers fell victim to rifle fire.

Another way of looking at what happened is to see it as a paradigm shift, as indeed it was. The successive revolutions in artillery transformed the nature of warfare. Some armies adapted to it much more quickly than others, which is why they were more successful in combat. As with armies, so with their chroniclers: A good many military historians continued to write about this war as though it were of a piece with the wars of Napoleon, with the Crimea, or South Africa. Nor is it fair to blame them. Stories of marksmanship and man-to-man combat are inherently more satisfying than Bernier’s image of human bodies being transformed into a ghastly confiture.

Moreover, just as gunners and engineers were always better educated than their counterparts in the cavalry and infantry, understanding their concerns, like mastering understanding their craft, requires delving into technical areas. But without a certain understanding of those areas, it is basically impossible to understand grasp both the battlefield successes of the Germans during the war, and the complicated sequence of events that led to the battles for Verdun. Besides, the story of these revolutions is intrinsically interesting.


As Séré de Rivières and his colleagues at the defense committee worked out their plans in the 1870s, they were well aware of how recent developments in the weaponry available both to the infantry and the artillery had impacted the battlefield. But to their way of thinking, the most recent advances would work to the advantages of the forts, with their prepositioned heavy artillery, safely shielded from view.

Up until the 1860s, or about the time of the American Civil War, the standard infantry weapon was a smoothbore musket. Although sturdy and durable, these weapons were highly inaccurate, and with a very short range. Forty meters was about the optimal, and even then the chances were pretty good that musket fire would miss.

In consequence, gunners who were one or two hundred meters back were basically invulnerable, could fire directly at their targets. So rifling, the practice of grooving the insides of the barrel of the gun tube, was a rude shock. A projectile fired from a rifled gun tube was vastly more accurate, and over a much longer range, particularly if it was a breech– as opposed to a muzzle-loading weapon.

Muzzle-loaded rifled muskets had been around for more than a century. But soldiers using rifles (as opposed to smoothbores) were specialists. Their weapons were finicky and fragile, and reloading them was a laborious process. The rifled weapon only became truly practicable on the battlefield when the technology improved to the point that a breech-loading weapon firing a metallic cartridge became cheap and reliable. By the mid-1860s, both the French and the Germans were equipping infantry with such rifles. These early weapons were a far cry from the rifles of 1914, but they were also a long way from the muskets of 1815.

Suddenly gunners realized that their traditional positions during battle turned them into so many targets. A volley of decently aimed rifle fire from a platoon of ordinary infantry could wipe out a whole battery of gunners, so the sensible response was to move out of range.

But that led to a problem: the gunners could no longer see their targets. So artillery fire became a much more complicated affair. The gunners needed observers to watch the fall of the shells and relay back corrections. This relatively new idea of not being able to see your target was called indirect fire.

Now it seemed to the committee, logically enough, that when it came to indirect fire, fortifications would give the defenders a great advantage. The observers were protected by the forts, would be looking out of small observation slits, or be in armored cupolas. The guns would mostly be well behind, but the beauty of the idea was that since both observers and guns were fixed in place, it would be an easy matter to dial in the exact location where you wanted to land your shells.

By contrast, the attackers would have to get into position to figure out what to do, and all the while they’d be under fire from the defense. Trying to attack a fort would be tantamount to suicide.

Producing infantry rifles was a much simpler process than producing rifled artillery, because the forces expended when the projectile was fired were so much less. Of course, the breech-loaded projectile fit much more snugly than the old muzzle-loaded one, so in consequence the forces generated were much greater, as there was hardly any leakage. But still, in order to make this principle workable for the ordinary soldier, the bullets themselves became lighter, even as their velocity increased.

Now the difficulty for artillery designers lay in scaling up the weapons. The forces required to propel a 75-millimeter-diameter shell were not simply ten times greater than what was required to propel a 7.6-millimeter shell, because the artillery shell weighed numerous multiples more than the bullet. And this was made all the more difficult if the gun was a breech-loader, since all rearward force was directed against this end of the barrel, which, in order to operate properly, had to have a mechanism that allowed it to open and close—otherwise the shell couldn’t be loaded into the rear.

But by the mid-1870s, about the time that fort building was well launched all over France (and Germany and Belgium and Austria and Russia), European gun designers began to close in on the problem. In Germany and Austria, this was done by private firms working on their own: Krupp and Skoda. In France the situation was slightly more complex, with individuals working for both government and private arsenals.

The key breakthrough for the French was made by a military officer, Charles Ragon de Bange, who figured out how to design a breech mechanism that would handle the forces involved. By 1878 his guns were in production, and in recognition of his abilities, French gunners referred to almost all the guns designed during this period by his name, even though some were actually designed by someone else. But De Bange became the generic designation for all French artillery designed right up until 1897.

Thus far—by, say, 1881—the engineers weren’t worried, because although the De Bange guns had more hitting power and longer range, they had factored all that into their designs. Even a direct hit from one of the new De Bange guns wouldn’t do any serious damage to their forts.

That was because there was a trade-off involved with these new guns. Since the expanding gases were so much more powerful, the gun tube and its mount had to be considerably sturdier. And although advances in metallurgy meant that immensely stronger metal could be employed, a certain mass was still necessary, and that mass meant weight.

Practically speaking, then, if an artillery piece was going to be mobile, able to accompany troops in the field, its weight was restricted to what could be pulled by a team of six horses. That worked out to a sort of constant; that is to say, everybody’s standard field gun turned out to be a weapon that fired a shell of around 80 millimeters over a relatively flat trajectory, with a usable range of about 6,000 meters at most. The shells fired by these guns could do horrible damage to infantry, but their explosive payload was too feeble to do anything much against fortifications, and indeed gunners mostly carried only shrapnel shells—effective only against masses of troops in the open.

Heavier weapons were thus not simply those firing larger (heavier) shells, but guns that weighed considerably more. To the extent that the armies all divided their artillery into two categories: field artillery, described above, and siege artillery. The latter was not really designed to be transported into the field and sent into action immediately. So the fort builders, eyeing their hundreds of batteries of heavy weapons, already in place, their magazines securely protected, naturally felt that the advantages were all on their side. The guns directed by the forts could destroy any enemy artillery before they could even get set up to fire.

Besides, there was no need for the fort to be invulnerable. It had to do its duty for only a week to ten days, by which time the armies would have been deployed, the battle joined.


Unfortunately for the engineers, their great project was only just winding down when they received some truly frightening news. Between 11 August and 25 October 1886, French gunners conducted a series of experiments on the fort of Malmaison, outside of Laon. Malmaison was a 36,000-square-meter rectangle, and had been selected because of its relatively exposed position. While a delegation of delighted gunners and apprehensive engineers watched, the fort was bombarded.

The gunners fired 167 155-millimeter shells and 75 shells from 220-millimeter mortars, all system De Bange guns dating from 1878.

The results were very bad news for the engineers. To their consternation, the shells, particularly those from the mortars, smashed in the carapace of the fort, pretty much destroying it completely.

The guns hadn’t changed, but the explosives used in the shells had. The new explosive was substantially more powerful than what everyone had been using before. The forts had been designed to withstand the older version, but the new shells were devastating.

Now, by the 1870s, everyone involved understood the chemistry of high explosives. There was a whole family of trinitrates, including trinitrophenol (TNP) and trinitrotoluene (TNT), and any competent chemist could make them in a school chemistry lab—provided he had the raw materials. Assuming he didn’t blow himself to glory, since TNT in its pure state is an extremely volatile compound, and TNP is even worse—or better, in terms of explosive energy.

The difficulty is that the trinitrates are extremely volatile: any sort of shock will set them off, such as heat or vibration. Firing an artillery shell involves both of these factors, so the difficulty was figuring out how to adulterate the explosives so they could be used in shells. In modern parlance, this is called weaponizing, and by the mid-1880s the French succeeded in weaponizing trinitrophenol, which they called melinite, in a rather feeble attempt to disguise what it actually was.

A kilogram of this new material contained three or four times as much energy as what gunners had been using. So much so that the new melinite shells were promptly dubbed les obus torpilles, or torpedo shells, since, compared to the older shells, the new ones were more like naval torpedoes.

De Bange was no fool: His weapons, particularly the 120 – and 155-millimeter guns, were massively overbuilt, could easily fire the new shells. Prudently, the defense committee realized that the Germans probably weren’t far behind, and that in consequence everything built before 1885—which was basically everything—was now obsolete.

For the engineers who had been beavering away with fortifications, the system of De Bange weapons firing melinite shells was a horrifying development. As they saw with the Malmaison, the new shells were capable of destroying the masonry of their forts. Gloomily, they reckoned that everyone else would soon be filling their shells with some version of melinite, and they were right. Within a few years all the major powers were using some local variant of one of the trinitrates. The Germans, prudently, went for weaponized trinitrotoluene, which was less nasty to handle, but the end result was pretty much the same.

The 220-millimeter mortar shell was a particularly obnoxious development. Historically, siege artillery aimed to blow holes in the walls of a fort or castle. There were several practical reasons why gunners confined themselves to that function, the most significant being that, generally speaking, fortifications tended to be on higher ground, so the besiegers had to contend with steep angles of fire if they were going to get a shell over the wall. Before the advent of melinite, the actual explosive force of a typical shell was such that there wasn’t much damage to be done by one that simply flew over the walls and landed . . . somewhere.

Mortars were guns with very short barrels, capable of near-vertical fire over short ranges (one being a function of the other). They had been around for a long time, but, aside from naval uses, they weren’t very effective, precisely for that reason: the shells didn’t have enough explosive force to be worth the difficulties of aiming and firing, and, of course, gunners preferred to be able to see their targets.

But a 220-millimeter melinite shell was a different matter entirely. The relatively short range of the mortar meant less stress, because less explosive was needed to force it out of the barrel. Since the shell was less stressed, it could have a higher explosive payload. Drop one of these shells onto the roof of some part of the fort, and it would do enormous damage.

What made the situation truly distressing was that both of these new guns were, comparatively speaking, portable. Not in the sense that the standard field guns used by all the major powers were, but the weight and size of the shorter version of the 155-millimeter gun meant that it could be pulled along the same roads as its smaller brethren, albeit at slower speeds and with more effort. But it was light enough that you could mount it on a regular wheeled gun carriage, which meant that it could be pulled up and brought into action just like a field gun.

Now, the engineers had never claimed their fortifications were invulnerable, only that they could withstand the artillery that an army was likely to bring up during its advance. By the time it got its siege guns into place, mobilization and deployment would have been completed, and the traditional battles would begin.

So the Malmaison demonstration was the complete reversal of the basic suppositions that had led to the forts. The keystone of the national defense policy that Séré de Rivières had lobbied for was now dangerously obsolete.

The War of the Engineers II

Fort Douaumont (Illustration from Neil Demarco’s The Great War)


On the other hand, now that the engineers knew what the new shells could do, coming up with a way to counter them was not all that difficult, at least in theory. Basically, the material that formed the carapace of the fort simply had to be made stronger. As with the development of melinite, the trick was figuring out the way to put the theory into practice.

The polygon basically had three components. The walls and the dry moat were simply there to protect the garrison and its weapons and supplies. Inside the walls, therefore, were various storage facilities. Then there were the positions for the guns and for observers to direct the fire, as well as positions enabling the defenders to beat off an infantry assault.

In the original design, hardly any attention had been paid to the structures that were inside the fort. The only exception was where the ammunition for the guns was housed, since an explosion there could be catastrophic. But now, faced with the possibility of highly destructive shells landing inside the fort itself, the engineers were forced into some serious rethinking.

Actually, they were faced with a whole set of problems. On the one hand, they had to figure out what to do with the hundreds of forts that had already been constructed, while on the other they had to make fundamental design changes in the new ones that the defensive scheme called for.

Moreover, each of the three components required a different approach. Without going into even more tedious technical details, the engineers employed a mix of three basic techniques. They developed a sturdier and more resistant concrete, generically referred to as reinforced concrete, that they could test to see that it was proof against the new shells.

Wherever possible, however, they used a much cheaper and even more effective technique: either digging down into the ground or sandwiching earth and masonry. Although the most visible sign of this was thicker walls, what was really going on was that more and more of the structure was subterranean, as that was the easier and most efficient way to protect the interior structures of the fort.

Gradually, therefore, the polygon became simply an enormous hulking mound whose most visible feature was the entrance (at the rear), and the dry moat and wall configuration marking the perimeter.

So far, so good, but there still remained the rather more difficult matter of protecting the guns and their observers. Simply making the walls thicker was not a solution, since the thickness would severely limit the mobility of the gun. So gradually, over the next twenty years, the engineers began to rely more and more on thick iron plates.

In fact, as time passed, the visible surface of one of the newer forts (or one that had been extensively renovated) was beginning to look more like some sort of bizarre naval vessel, with round humps scattered over its surface, some of them looking like squat iron chimneys, others simply bulges.

But upgrading a fort was an expensive proposition, and there was only so much money available for national defense. The parties of the left were more amenable to spending money on fortifications than on arming a professional military, but as the years rolled by, and the modernization of the forts consumed more and more money, the competition increased, with a growing cadre of officers questioning whether the money couldn’t be better spent on weapons, and members of the government wondering whether it was necessary to spend anything at all on national defense.

Given the horrific nature of the war, we sometimes forget the extent to which the elected representatives who formed the governments of the major powers were increasingly of the opinion that wars were obsolete, or impossible, or anyway to be avoided at all costs. And as is usually the case with parliamentary democracies, the result was generally a patched-together compromise that didn’t satisfy anyone. The engineers got enough money to upgrade some forts, and the gunners got enough money to develop a new gun—a compromise that left both groups at odds with each other, and with the government.


As if the widespread adoption of TNP as the preferred explosive material for shells was not enough of a challenge for the beleaguered engineers, by 1897, they were faced with yet another innovation, one that fundamentally transformed the nature of artillery, and had an impact on the battlefield that was even more dramatic.

Although Sir Isaac Newton didn’t work it out as a law until 1687, every gunner realized that when he fired his cannon, the expanding gases generated by the explosion did much more than hurl the cannonball at the enemy. The gases, confined by the cannon barrel, also pushed back. This was a practical example of Newton’s third law, that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Gunners called it recoil. Fire the gun and it moved backward, shifted position.

Over the centuries the recoil phenomenon got worse, first as the fit of the projectile in the barrel became tighter, and then, with the advent of rifling, breech loading, and TNP, a serious problem.

At first, navies largely were immune, because their guns were mounted directly to the ship itself. Most of us have at least a passing familiarity with the squat four-wheeled gun carriages of sailing vessels. When one of them was fired, it rolled back, was slowed down by its own weight, by the friction of the wheels on the deck, and by cables attached to the carriage.

Much the same principle applied to cannon mounted in forts. The gun mounts connected the carriage directly to a mass of stonework embedded in the earth, and the sheer disproportion of the mass absorbed the energy of the recoil. Provided the gun mount was sturdy enough to take the stress, the gun would remain firmly in place.

But gunners who were required to move their weapons from battle to battle had a bit of a problem. The most practical way to transport a cannon was to mount the gun carriage on wheels and pull it behind a team of horses. But then, when you fired it, those same wheels worked against you, as the gun would move backward, or jump wildly.

As the problem became more acute, gunners came to depend more and more on mechanical devices to keep the gun from moving around each time it was fired. Not only was the movement dangerous to the gunners, but it meant that they had to manhandle it back into position after each round, and aim all over again. The more potent the gun, the worse the problem.

To dampen the recoil, gunners used mechanical wedges, ramps, and dirt—anything and everything that would absorb the energy. But as the range of the guns increased, as indirect fire became the norm, the inherent weakness of mechanical recoil devices became more noticeable. As long as the gunners were aiming directly at the target, simply sighting the gun as if it were a giant musket, the fact that it moved after each round was fired was not much of a problem.

But in indirect fire it was. Even at a relatively short range of, say, 5,000 meters, a one-degree shift in the position of the gun tube from one round to the next would mean that the second round would land nearly 100 meters from the first—and that was assuming the gunners could reposition the gun to within one degree of the initial position. So in actual practice, the margin of error was significant.

So the gunners in a fort had a terrific advantage. They had a fixed field of fire, and could figure out the precise aim necessary to hit any given target well in advance. Or, in other words, they could, through practice, master the terrain, while their opponents couldn’t. Besides, getting a heavy siege gun in position would take a great deal of time. The potency of an explosive like melinite meant that although there had been serious advances in metallurgy over the course of the nineteenth century, gun carriages still had to be extremely heavy, so they could withstand the shock of being fired and absorb some of the recoil. It would hardly do to block the wheels of the gun carriage so it couldn’t move, only to have the barrel fly off when it was fired. Nor would the gunners be enthusiastic about firing such a weapon.

But by 1897, French artillery designers had come up with a truly elegant solution to the problem. The gun tube was resting on a trough, attached to the gun mount by hydraulic cylinders. When the gun was fired, the barrel moved back, the cylinders absorbed the forces generated, and then recoiled, moving the barrel back to exactly the same position.

There were all sorts of advantages to this scheme. The gun tube remained in exactly the same position, indispensable for indirect fire. The gun mount and carriage could be much lighter, since the hydraulic rams absorbed the shock of firing. And since nothing moved, the rate of fire increased dramatically. The new French field gun, the justly legendary 75, could in theory fire 15 rounds per minute, whereas the gun replaced could only manage three.

Suddenly, everybody’s artillery was obsolete. The new French gun, on account of the size of the shell, was the best field gun in the world. And the French army had it: it was lighter and hence more mobile, it had a much higher rate of fire, and its explosive shells had a significantly higher payload of high explosive.

The 75 really was the perfect gun of its type, and neither the Germans nor the Austrians were able to match it. Although by 1914 their standard field gun used the same principle, their weapons were markedly inferior. The 75 is really a fascinating piece of machinery, because generally speaking, devices relying on new technology always have teething problems, and rarely deliver immediately on the claims of their inventors, one reason being a failure on the part of the user to understand what he has.

But here, almost uniquely, was a weapon that sprang forth in perfection, more or less like Athena from the forehead of Zeus. So by 1900, the attitude of French artillery officers, basically, was that they had the perfect weapon, and there was no need to develop more.

The superiority of the 75 was not mythical. It was better than its German counterpart, the 7.7-centimeter field gun, in two key respects: It had a 1,400-meter range advantage firing shrapnel shells, and although the range was the same for both guns when firing high-explosive shells, the French shells contained five times as much explosive as did the German ones (0.650 kilograms as opposed to 0.160 kilograms). The first advantage evaporated fairly quickly, as both sides discovered that high-explosive shells were more effective, but this only emphasized the advantage of the French gun in firing explosive shells, owing to the considerably greater amount of explosive carried.

Had the armies of 1914 and after relied exclusively on fieldpieces of less than 80 millimeters, the French would have had a tremendous superiority, and a good many analysts seem to believe that this was the case, writing as though these guns were the mainstays of German and French divisional artillery. Unfortunately for the French, the battlefields of 1914–1918 would be controlled by a combination of heavy artillery, field howitzers, and infantry guns, principally mortars.

But the French put all their faith in the 75. In 1914, a French army corps had 120 of them. A German army corps had only 108 7.7-centimeter field guns. But in addition it deployed 36 10.5– and 16 15.0-centimeter howitzers. When the American army began doing tests, they found that at distances from two to three thousand meters, the howitzer was two and a half times as accurate as the 75-millimeter field gun, and that over the practical range of both weapons, the howitzer would always do significantly more damage than the field gun. Multiplying out the values obtained by the American experiments suggests that each German infantry division had as much killing power in its 105-millimeter howitzers as did all the artillery of a French division. Given that enormous advantage, a German army corps simply outgunned its French (or British) counterpart.

The War of the Engineers III


In order to understand how that came to happen, and why it continued for the first part of the war, it is unfortunately necessary to peer into the labyrinth of the Third Republic, where basically, the army was run by a committee called the Conseil Supérieure de la Guerre. Although at first glance this seems a tedious detour, it helps to explain much of what was going on once the war began, and why the army was so woefully unprepared to fight it.

The CSG was composed of the five or six officers who would become army commanders if a war broke out. The chair, or president, was the minister of war. If there was an actual war, the vice chair would then become commander in chief of the general staff.

Given the revolving door at the ministry, this was a most unsatisfactory solution, one made all the worse by the fact that the vice chairmanship was almost as unstable as the ministry itself, as a brief account of the changes in 1910–1911 makes clear. In June 1911, Adolphe Messimy became minister of war, replacing François Louis Goiran (and not, as is sometimes said, Jean Brun).

The vice chair of the CSG was General Trémeau. But Trémeau was succeeded by General Michel, who was also president of the Haute-commission des Places Fortes, and thus presumably more interested in the continuous renovation and modernization of the forts than in dealing with the army’s many problems.

A month after becoming minister of war, Messimy tried to reorganize the command structure, although it was in such a bureaucratic muddle that it would be more correct to say he tried to create a command structure. He realized, correctly, that in order for the army to function properly, it needed an actual head, a chief of staff, not a rotating committee head. So Messimy was proposing the same model that existed in Germany and Austria-Hungary (and elsewhere). The chief of staff would be an actual position, held by a senior officer on a quasi-permanent basis. If there was a war, that man would become the overall commander in chief of the army.

Better late than never, one might say; at least Messimy was trying to create a coherent system of command and control for the army. Given the distrust and even fear that the parties of the left had for the army, this was a major step. The difficulty was finding a senior officer who would take the job, because the government was adamant that whoever this man was, he would not have the authority to recommend officers for promotions at the higher levels, that is, from colonel to general and thence on up the ranks to the level of the army commanders.

This demand was a considerable sticking point. The parties of the left had controlled the government since 1871, and they had never been enthusiastic about the army, an institution that in their view was controlled by generals whose politics were an anathema. Professional officers were monarchists, Roman Catholics, fundamentally opposed to the values of the Third Republic. The army had been the instrument that raised the two Napoleons to power, had massacred the Communards.

The somewhat mythical and certainly grossly exaggerated rise of General Georges-Ernest Boulanger in the 1880s had turned their fears into a sort of obsession. The idea of Boulangerisme, a military coup, haunted them, and, as a logical result, the government had insisted on making a political orientation the litmus test for promotion. Under Louis André, minister of war from 1900 to 1904, there was a real inquisition mounted to root out practicing Roman Catholics, as it was felt that those were the most politically unreliable.

Unfortunately, the four years of the André ministry was the most long lived of the group. From the end of the André ministry in November 1904 until the war began in August 1914, France had no less than fourteen ministers of war. André’s successors had hardly located their desks before they were out, so his policies had a much longer life than is suggested even by his comparatively long tenure: Of his 40 predecessors between 1871 and 1900(!), only one, Charle de Freycinet, had a longer tenure (nearly five years).

The politicization of promotion would have catastrophic consequences for the army, and for the country, once the fighting started. The process of promotion in peacetime armies is always suspect, because it tends to favor skills that have nothing much to do with fighting and winning wars. But demanding that only officers with certain political beliefs be put into leadership positions stacks the deck still further, not to mention destroying morale.

And in fact, Messimy had difficulty finding a senior officer who would take the job, given those conditions. The logical choice was General Paul Marie Pau, who, since he was born in 1848, was a safe choice, since at the age of 63, he’d be headed for retirement shortly, and wouldn’t cause any difficulties politically.

But Pau wasn’t about to accept the conditions imposed by the government, and turned the offer down. So Joffre, who was amenable, was given the post instead. The Third Republic wanted a politically aware general as chief, and they got one with a vengeance, as once the war began the one talent Joffre unquestionably had was in knowing how to get rid of possible rivals. It’s interesting how many of the senior generals whom Joffre sacked also happened to be men who in the normal course of things would have been in the group of possible replacements. Those who were too politically connected to sack, like Maurice Sarrail, Joffre managed to dispose of rather cleverly: Sarrail, who was the poster general for the left, was shipped off to command the Anglo-French expedition to the Balkans. A better dumping ground could hardly be imagined.

As a result, it took a very long time to force Joffre out, even after the unmitigated chain of setbacks and disasters of 1915. But at the same time, the generals who emerged, the few really successful men, like Pétain and Fayolle and even Foch, had all spent years watching helplessly as the government meddled and interfered in the army. As a result, they had no great love for their civilian overlords. One can imagine, for instance, how Ferdinand Foch, whose brother was a Jesuit, felt about André’s anti-Catholic inquisition. And when the time came, he repaid the favor with interest.

As chief of the general staff, Joffre would also serve as vice chair of the CSG, while General Auguste Dubail would continue his job as chief of the army staff, a confusing distinction. But Dubail was basically Joffre’s head of personnel, although without any actual authority (when the war began Dubail received an army command, and was then—according to him—made a scapegoat for one of the many failed offensives).

But Joffre soon found that his authority in peacetime was severely limited, not restricted just to promotions. He had no authority over the various bureaus overseeing the development of weapons, or for that matter any of what the ministry of war called the directions des armes du ministère. These were the specialists who decided what equipment the army needed. Given the revolving door at the ministry, they pretty much operated independently, as Joffre promptly discovered.

He had noticed what one would think was a rather blindingly obvious defect. On the one hand, the specialists at the artillery bureau had decided, along with a good many gunners, that the 75-millimeter gun was the only weapon the army needed. But as we have seen, geography dictated that the Germans would be forced into the Meuse valley, either above or below Verdun, or both. But in that case, the 75 was basically useless. That was because the barrel could be elevated to only 16 degrees from the horizontal, a typical design constraint for field guns of the period. But for the intended theater of operations, this was a serious drawback.

Because the defense of the heights of the Meuse posed a problem that could not be resolved by the flat trajectory of the 75: there existed, all along these steep heights, considerable numbers of dead angles that it would not be able to reach.

So Joffre, sensibly enough, suggested the need for a 105– or 120-millimeter howitzer like the Germans had. But General Michel, who was at that time still the vice chairman of the CSG, thought the older 155-millimeter Rimailho gun was fine, despite its limited traverse, so the matter was buried. But once he became chief of staff, Joffre brought the matter up again, and this time he got his way.

Sort of: The specialists at the bureau managed to delay the matter indefinitely. There were plenty of good designs, but for some reason none of them met the specifications—a dodge that everyone who has worked with a bureaucracy understands. Nor was there any money available. Eventually the French firm of Schneider came up with a design that was approved. But production, such as it was, proceeded at a dilatory pace.

The 155-millimeter gun that Michel had been so keen on hardly existed in any quantity: There were only 84 of them in service in 1912, hardly enough to equip an army corps, and by 1914, the army only had 104 of them.

Nor was it much of a weapon. As it weighed over 10,000 kilograms, it was hardly a mobile weapon; by contrast, its German counterpart, the 15-centimeter howitzer, weighed roughly a fifth of that, had a much greater angle of fire (43 degrees), and outranged the Rimailho by 2,500 meters. All in all, not much of a weapon.

Production of the 105-millimeter howitzer was going at a glacial pace. The army was supposed to begin taking the gun into service at the rate of 16 guns a month, with deliveries slated to start in October 1914. As the official British Army handbook issued to its officers in July 1914 put it, “it is probable, however, that the artillery of an army-corps will be eventually increased by 2 batteries of 4 guns each of 105 millimeter guns.”

Moreover, to add insult to injury, the Schneider howitzer, like the Rimailho, was not all that successful a design. The equivalent German gun was lighter, fired its shells at a higher angle, and its range was nearly the same. It was far too heavy and bulky for the projectile it fired. The impression one gets from these two weapons is that the French designers had failed to grasp a basic point about howitzer design: that to be useful as divisional artillery, they had to be just as mobile as the field guns.

Nor was this a difficult task. Since howitzers have a shorter range, the stresses exerted on the shell are much less, so not only can it contain more explosive, but the same gun carriage used for the standard field gun can handle the howitzer. In consequence, the German 10.5– and 15-centimeter howitzers used basically the same gun carriage as the 7.7-centimeter field gun. Fitted out for the field, the 10.5-centimeter howitzer weighed only 190 kilograms more than the field gun, and its explosive shell contained roughly ten times as much high explosive. So they were equally mobile, and could be deployed at the divisional level, as indeed they were.

The Schneider, however, was either deliberately designed so as not to be as mobile as the 75, or, perhaps more reasonably, was conceptualized as being a piece of heavy artillery, as the French simply refused to give the army corps anything besides the field guns; such heavy weapons as they had were all hoarded at the army group level.

General Fayolle noted in his diary how this worked out in practice, in his typically cheerful and nonjudgmental way.

One of the great faults that is clung to obstinately is the duality of the command of the artillery. The heavy guns are under the orders of the Army group; that is to say, of a general who is some kilometers from the field of battle and knows nothing of the realities of the locale. . . . It is completely insane.

Not only did the French not have the right weapons, not only did they refuse to adopt them until well along in the war, but they absolutely refused to parcel them out to the control of the combat commanders, the divisional generals who were actually conducting the fighting.


After the two successive revolutions caused by the introduction of melinite and the creation of the long-recoil field gun, one faction in the army began to argue that technology had neutered the forts. That argument resonated with a gradual shift in the way the army was regarding its basic posture in the event of war.

Now, it is a capital error to assume that by August 1914 the army was committed to the principle of the offensive at all costs; it would be considerably more accurate to say that the professional officer corps, divided into various chapels, was unable to agree on any one doctrine. The situation was exacerbated by the relative powerlessness of the new chief of staff, and the newness of his position.

What actually happened in the fifteen years preceding the war was the rise of a chapel arguing for a fundamental change: that the army should move away from its late-nineteenth-century notion of strategic defense, to the idea of strategic offense. To them, the adoption of the 75-millimeter field gun, and the successful planning for a speedy mobilization, all seemed to point toward this idea. The idea of taking the war to the enemy, rather than waiting for him to invade, became more and more practicable.

But at the same time, the engineers who had built the forts continued to grapple with the problems caused by the new high-explosive shells. The committee charged with overseeing the forts was now firmly enshrined in the military bureaucracy of the Third Republic. It will be remembered that General Michel, who was chairing that committee, had also been the vice chairman of the CSG before the Messimy reform that resulted in the creation of an actual chief of staff. So as a result, the engineers continued to get money, and they continued to grapple with the problems posed by the new high-explosive shells.

The problems boiled down to two: how to armor the forts so they were proof against the new shells, and how to protect their guns.

These were two entirely separate issues. To simplify the problem considerably: The first simply involved pouring more concrete, covering over the largely brick and stone walls with a sandwich of earth and concrete, and then enclosing what lay inside the walls. So when a fort was upgraded, or modernized, it increasingly started to look like a quadrilateral mound, with very little of it being exposed.

There was not enough money to upgrade every fort, but then the engineers realized that the new shells meant that some forts were no longer doing their job, while others would clearly be in a secondary role.

Earlier, in tracking the construction of the forts at Verdun, their positions were explained by asking the reader to envision an imaginary circle, with the ancient citadel at the center. Invoking that same imaginary circle, all the forts in the northeast quadrant (0 to 90 degrees) and those in the northwest quadrant (270 to 360 degrees) were all upgraded. And, of course, the structures built after 1885 were already constructed according to the new principles.

But the forts in the southern half were largely left alone. So too with the two initial forts that were on the right bank nearest the city: Belleville and Saint Michel. And hardly anything was done to the forts de rideau, the line of forts running from Verdun down to Saint-Mihiel.

The reason seems fairly obvious: Given the heights of the Meuse below Verdun, it was hardly likely that an invading army would be able to get the 220– or 270-millimeter mortars close enough to the forts for their shells to reach them. These weapons all had a range of roughly 5,000 meters, and the terrain around those forts was such that it hardly seemed likely that it would be possible to wrestle a weapon weighing six or seven thousand kilograms up the steep slopes that were the norm in the southern reach of the heights, and get it within the required range.

So the first problem was relatively easy to solve simply by throwing money at it. But the other problem was more complicated. Forts were essentially protected gun platforms. But in order for its guns to be useful, they had to be sufficiently protected from enemy shell fire. Prior to the introduction of melinite, this had hardly been much of a consideration. The forts looked quite different from their seventeenth-century ancestors, but the gun emplacements were pretty much the same: large openings in the outer walls through which the gun fired, the only addition increasingly being that the gun was protected above as well as in front.

But a high-explosive shell exploding close by the opening would probably wreck the gun, even if it was a near miss.

The theoretical solution to the problem was to mount the weapon in a steel turret. Now that the forts were all going to be largely enclosed structures, you could envision one as being analogous to a battleship, where, increasingly, the guns were mounted on the deck in turrets, as opposed to the older, slab-sided approach.

So between 1885 and 1910, the engineers went through a whole series of progressively more sophisticated designs, as they created the perfect mechanism. What emerged by the start of the century was a truly ingenious system.

The turret was basically a steel cylinder with a rounded steel hat as a roof. When the fort was under fire, the turret was retracted down into the body of the carapace, so that all that was visible was the rounded top, a sort of flattened tortoise shell made of thick steel. When you needed to fire the gun, the cylinder was elevated, so the basic principle was what the French engineers called the tourelle à éclipse, the disappearing turret.

The engineers experimented with various configurations, and quickly discovered that although a spherical turret was better able to withstand shells than a cylindrical one, the best solution was to retract the turret entirely.

The principle is simple, but the technology involved is anything but. First of all, the barrel of the gun has to be contained completely inside the steel cylinder. A turret that would contain the entire gun—and its crew—would be impossibly large, so enormous, so heavy, it would be impossible to retract it and then raise it up again.

The engineers got around this problem by the simple expedient of sawing off a piece of the barrel, a sort of aftermarket modification that enabled them to take the existing (at the time) 120– or 155-millimeter gun and fit it entirely inside the turret. That, of course, reduced the range of the gun considerably, but given the range of the heavy mortars, they reckoned, sensibly enough, that 5,000 meters was perfectly adequate.

But protecting the gun tube was only half the battle. Since the turret had to be raised and lowered, the recoil of the gun had to be absorbed somehow. Otherwise, the first time the gun was fired, the relatively delicate mechanism that raised and lowered the turret would be damaged.

The solution to that was simple as well: a hydraulic buffering system. So, although the 75-millimeter gun was the first field gun using this principle, it was already being employed in the guns mounted in the turrets—some ten years, roughly, before the advent of the field gun.

The gun the engineers picked was the 155-millimeter weapon from 1878. So the army could have easily converted this gun, put a wheeled carriage on it, and had reasonably modern heavy artillery. The system De Bange guns were excellent weapons, in terms of range and hitting power. Their only defect was the lack of a recoil mechanism, something that the fort engineers had already solved.

So basically, one branch of the army was developing a weapon that would have been a perfect fit for another part of the army—but the two sailed along in perfect disharmony. The artillery bureau had no interest in developing any other gun, or in modernizing any of their existing weapons, just like the army commands had no intention of giving heavy artillery to the local commanders.

This was, as Fayolle pointed out, crazy. Particularly because, as we shall see in the next chapter, the Germans did precisely that. Superiority in combat is not simply a function of having weapons that are better or the same as your enemy possesses. Using them efficiently on the battlefield is the key. To do that means decentralization, delegating command down to lower levels, which in turn requires highly trained officers farther down the chain of command. In another bitter passage, Fayolle writes why he believed the Germans were better. “They don’t have as many mediocre and ignorant company officers as we do,” he confided to his diary, and, much later in the war: “The great superiority of the German army is in training and instruction.”

But the two groups proceeded in immaculate independence and mutual disdain. Although the disappearing turrets were expensive propositions to build and mount, the French built some 60 of them, some with one 155-millimeter gun, others with two.

The chief difficulty with the turrets was that the gun was fixed. The gunners could make changes in elevation, but, by comparison with other mounts, their field of fire was extremely restricted. Think of the field of fire as being a triangle, with the apex sited at the point where the gun barrel was attached to the mount. The greater the angle of the apex, the more useful the gun. Of course, guns mounted in a fort by definition had a smaller field of fire—i.e., a narrower angle—because of the embrasure, but the disappearing turret restricted that angle enormously.

The engineers were well aware of this, and came up with various solutions. In certain angles of the forts, those where they judged the emplacement would not be susceptible to enemy artillery fire of the sort that would destroy the position, they placed pairs of guns in protected casemates, called casements de Bourges.

Although the new 75-millimeter gun had basically the same range as the older 155-millimeter weapon, it had a much smaller footprint. It weighed only about a third as much, had a lower profile, and was smaller all the way around, so it made these installations much more practicable. The 75 became the basis for all the fixed armaments of the forts designed after 1904 (although the older gun turrets were still being built and put in place right up until the start of the war).

The smaller size meant that the guns could sit comfortably back inside the protecting wall, shielded to a certain extent by an overhang, and their position made the openings extremely hard to hit. But the embrasure was such that the guns had a wide field of fire.

So the next logical step was to design a turret that not only could be raised and lowered, but also be rotated on its mount. In theory, this turret was the ideal solution, and the lighter 75-millimeter gun, coupled with its more compact shape, made the notion of a rotating turret much more practical. The smaller the weapon, the smaller the turret; the smaller the turret, the less weight, and that in turn reduced the motive power required to move it. In the years before 1914, motive power was a major issue, as the idea of diesel-powered generators was still simply an idea.

The idea was even more practicable if machine guns were used instead of field guns, so those were built as well. So now the engineers felt they had devised a set of complete solutions to their original problem. The upgraded forts were basically shellproof. The new turrets and casemates gave them integral firepower that would largely be immune to enemy bombardment. Meanwhile, the emplaced batteries that were shielded by the forts would be able to shatter the attacking forces.

Now, since almost everyone who has any familiarity with the opening of the First World War knows that the Germans overpowered the Belgian forts rather quickly, an account of these expensive engineering efforts seems pointless. And indeed, as we noticed earlier, at the same time as the engineers were solving the problems posed by the new shells, other factions in the army were increasingly restive about the whole concept of the forts.

La Spingarda

The drawings depict minors two shells with gunpowder, top «wants the bag inside the bullet“; a queue of bombs “that does not come back to dirieto to take in galley” (the galley was the typical warship used in the Mediterranean from the ninth to the eighteenth century.); Other casing with two types of powder a – b, “mode of foil – to – fine powder, – b – fluffy powder and bombards‘; especially a dart with feathers for spingarda “these pens want to jump fuora spring, when and dart out of spingarda»

Leonardo in another note says it can build a spingarda composed of various sections for better transport and reassemble where necessary, “once, Because of this make a bomb of 40 pieces, and remains as one piece. Female–Male–Male–Femena »

The name Spingarde was used to indicate a kind of war machine that was used to throw stones. The development of gunpowder changed the way in which the Spingarde was fired but the name stuck for a while.

The Leonardo design for the Spingarde cannon typically brings together many existing features into one device – firstly a cannon mounted on a carriage with wheels for mobility. He then brings to it the ability to be aimed whilst the frame is staked to the ground to control the recoil. It does this by having a secondary carriage  gimbal mounted on the fixed frame so that the cannon can be adjusted in yaw (side to side) and Pitch (up and down).

It has breech-loading of the powder and cannon ball, a feature used to increase the rate of fire in battle as these breech blocks can be pre-loaded. Cannon of this type was generally known as Breech-loading swivel guns.The open space at the back end of the barrel was where the breech block would be fitted, and held in position by a wedge. Leonardo has brought some more precision to this design by introducing a screw connection between the barrel and the breech, a similar system used in modern weapons.

Finally, it has protection for the artilleryman loading and operating the cannon, a roof has been added and fixed to the barrel at the front and the pitch mount at the rear.

All of the features were in existence around Leonardo’s time but he has developed some more detail into these features. 

The Final Siege: Antwerp 1914 Part I

42 cm M-Gerät

On Saturday, 10 October 1914 Admiral von Schroeder, Antwerp’s new military governor, and General von Beseler, commander of the siege troops that had captured the fortress, watched as the siege corps marched in review, celebrating the capture of the Belgian National Redoubt. The most noteworthy thing about that day was the absence of civilian bystanders. Antwerp was practically empty of its citizens, most of them having fled before the fall of the city. Buildings were smashed and the smoke from the petroleum tanks burning at Hoboken could still be seen rising above the city to the west. Antwerp had become a dead city.

The forts were also dead and empty, their defenders having either escaped to the west, surrendered to the Germans or fled to Holland, where they would be kept in internment for the remainder of the war. It seemed as if it was all over for Belgium. Since 4 August Belgium’s three fortresses had been crushed by German siege guns and the remnant of the Belgian army was fleeing to the French border. But the loss of the city and the forts was not the end. In fact, the Belgian army escaped to the west only because the forts and defenders held out long enough for them to do so. Thanks to the Belgian and British defenders of Antwerp, the Belgian army would live to fight on and to hold a small piece of west Flanders that would cost the Germans (and the Allies) hundreds of thousands of casualties over the next four years. The Germans captured the city but they lost the Battle of Belgium.

On 16 August the last forts of Liège fell. In short order the German First and Second Armies advanced across Belgium. On the 17th the Belgian government fled from Brussels to Antwerp. The following day King Albert moved his army headquarters from Louvain to Mechelen, 25km from Antwerp. On the same day the Belgian army, minus the 4th Division at Namur, withdrew from its concentration point on the Gette and headed to Antwerp. When it seemed as though Namur was about to fall, General Michel pulled the 4th Division out of the fortress and it eventually made its way via France to Antwerp. The Germans marched triumphantly through Brussels on 20 August and began to move south into France. General von Kluck detached and left behind III Reserve Corps, along with the German Naval Division, to keep watch on the Belgian forces at Antwerp, and to guard his lines of communication to Liège.

King Albert and his commanders ordered a number of sorties from Antwerp to disrupt the German forces guarding the city. If they succeeded, perhaps the Belgians could move further across the country and disrupt the German lines of communication. Regardless, the goal was to cause havoc. The first sortie occurred on 24 August in the direction of Mechelen. The Germans easily held their position and pushed the Belgians back. On 9 September a second sortie was launched towards Vilvoorde and met with greater success, this time reaching a point 16km from the fortress line. On that same day, realizing the danger Antwerp posed to the German flank, and needing to remove the obstacle blocking the seizure of the channel ports, Kaiser Wilhelm II ordered its capture. A relatively ineffective third sortie took place on 27 September, at the same moment as the siege of the fortress began.

On 27 September the Battle of Antwerp began, just as the other fortress sieges had, with a heavy bombardment. The following day King Albert received reports that this wasn’t just a demonstration of strength but an all-out offensive to capture the city: large bodies of German reserves were observed assembling at Liège to move towards Antwerp.

There was a general belief among those in the army and the government, and perhaps also the Belgian population, that Antwerp would never fall to a besieger. It was one of the largest fortified places in the world, with numerous forts. On the map the defences seemed to be formidable and impregnable, but the only map that mattered to the Germans was the one that told them the distance between their heavy siege artillery batteries and their targets: Antwerp’s obsolete ring of forts.

Fortress Antwerp was built by the Spanish in 1567, as the northern bastion and major port city of the Spanish Netherlands. The Spanish surrounded the city with a bastioned wall fashioned with lunettes to the north, east and south, the Scheldt river acting as a major obstacle to the west. A large crown work called in later years the Vlaamsch-Hoofd or Tête de Flandres defended the left bank of the Scheldt. Two large citadels flanked the eastern and western ends of the enceinte where it met the river. This was what King Leopold’s commission of government and military officials found when he ordered a study of Belgium’s defences. In 1859 the decision was made to create a national redoubt and to improve the defences of Antwerp so it could serve as a place of refuge if Belgium were attacked. The army would retreat, along with the government, into the city, safe behind the ring of forts, and await rescue by the allied powers according to their terms of guaranteed neutrality.

Between 1861 and 1871 General Brialmont directed the construction of eight large forts along the southern flank of the city, between the outskirts of Wijnegem and Hoboken. These were simply called Forts I to 8. Their purpose was to extend the fortress perimeter in order to keep enemy guns out of range of the city. Flood zones were developed to protect the outlying portions of the perimeter. However, after the Torpedo Shell Crisis of 1885, and because the town had outgrown Brialmont’s inner ring, these defences had become obsolete. To counter the increased range of enemy guns, a second ring of forts was built further out from the city.

Due to financial constraints, only a few works were actually constructed. Two forts were built to the south at Walem and Lier, and a defensive dyke that could be controlled to create a flood zone was added on the left bank of the Scheldt, covered by Forts Zwijndrecht and Kruibeke. To the north Fort Ste-Marie was built and Forts St-Philippe and La Perle were modernized. Each of these forts was built of brick. Fort Steendorp was the first to be built using brick with a layer of concrete added on top. As funding became available in the late 1880s, Fort Schoten was built to the northeast, along with the small Fortin of Duffel to guard the Brussels–Antwerp railway. These were built entirely in non-reinforced concrete. The ring was completed in 1893 with the construction of Forts Oorderen, Berendrecht and Kapellen.

A new round of construction was planned in 1900 but was delayed for funding reasons until 1906. Thirteen new forts and twelve permanent interval redoubts were added. The forts were polygons, surrounded by a water-filled moat, with the entrance reached by a bridge across the moat. These forts more closely resembled the configuration of Brialmont’s earlier models, Forts 1 to 8, than the more modern Forts of the Meuse at Liège and Namur. The latter forts were built on high ground and had a central redoubt surrounded by a dry ditch. The terrain around Antwerp was flat and low-lying, with a high water table, so no ditch would stay dry for long.

By 1914 Antwerp was one of the largest fortresses in the world, with a circumference of some 95km. It consisted of thirty-five forts and twelve redoubts. The guns in the older forts were placed in open air batteries, but the new forts were equipped with 15cm, 12cm and 7.5cm guns in revolving steel turrets. The approaches to the forts were defended by 5.7cm rapid-fire guns in turrets. Like the forts of Liège and Namur, the Antwerp forts were built to withstand shelling from 21cm siege guns. Unfortunately the German siege corps brought much larger guns to use against the forts in 1914, including the 42cm and 30.5cm howitzers. Many of the forts were incomplete when the Germans approached in early September 1914.

The Opposing Forces at Antwerp

Belgium had six divisions to defend the fortress: a total of 80,000 men. Four divisions were tasked with defending the perimeter, with one division in reserve; the weakest division – the remnant of the 4th Division from Namur – was placed at Termonde to guard against a German crossing of the Scheldt. One cavalry division with 3,600 men was located southwest of Termonde to guard the lines of communication between Antwerp and Ghent. Finally, the forts were garrisoned with 70,000 fortress troops. General de Guise, who had left Liège in July, was in charge of the entire force.

The German siege corps was commanded by General Hans von Beseler and had a total strength of about 125,000 men. It consisted of III Reserve Corps, IV Ersatz Division, one division of Marine Rifles from Marine-Korps-Flandern, one Bavarian Division, the 26th and 27th Landwehr Brigades, one brigade of siege engineers, one brigade of light artillery and nine extremely powerful heavy siege mortar batteries. The heavy artillery batteries included the following:

•  KMK Battery 2: Hauptmann Becker with two 42cm Gamma

•  KMK Battery 3: Hauptmann Erdmann with two 42cm M-Gerät (which saw action at Liège)

•  SKM Battery 1: Hauptmann Neuman with two 30.5cm mortars (which saw action at Liège)

•  SKM Battery 4: with two 30.5cm mortars

•  SKM Battery 5: Hauptmann Sharf with two 30.5cm mortars

•  SKM Battery 6: Hauptmann Buch – one 30.5cm mortar

•  Festungsartillerie-bataillon Batteries 7 and 9, each with two 30.5cm Austrian mortars.

The Battle for Antwerp

Great Britain played a significant role in the battle for Antwerp. In fact, had it not been for the assurances of Sir Winston Churchill, there might not have been a battle in the first place. In support of his promises, the British sent a Royal Naval brigade and a brigade of Royal Marines – a total of 10,000 men under the command of General Archibald Paris – to Antwerp, although they were mostly raw recruits, poorly equipped and trained, with few, if any combat skills.

On 2 October, a few days into the battle for Antwerp, things were not going well for the Belgians. King Albert notified the British government of his intentions to pull out of Antwerp immediately to prevent his army from being trapped, as it was apparent that the fortress line was breaking and the Allies didn’t appear to be coming to the aid of the Belgians. General Kitchener, the British secretary of state for war, had planned to send British troops to relieve Antwerp, and the French had promised the same, but these forces were still a few days away and would not reach the area in time. Winston Churchill, Lord of the Admiralty, replied that the British would send a brigade of marines to arrive on 3 October. Churchill himself decided to make a visit to Antwerp to reassure his ally, not least because it was in Britain’s best interests that Antwerp hold out as long as possible so the channel ports were not seized by the Germans. Their loss would be a severe blow to the allied efforts.

Churchill worked out an arrangement with the Prime Minister of Belgium, Charles de Broqueville, under which the Belgians would hold out until the Allies arrived from the south. De Broqueville told Churchill he was confident they could hold for at least three more days, possibly more. Churchill assured him that if, in three days, they were not confident they could hold, they were under no obligation to stay and could retreat with Britain’s help: ‘If we can’t help them hold, we’ll help them get out.’ Thus, on the evening of 3 October some 2,000 marines were dispatched by train to Antwerp.

The fortress was far from complete at the start of the battle and the defences were still being organized. Concrete protection around the turret cylinders was not yet in place, and the engineers were obliged to use sandbags instead. Many of the turrets were without guns, and several of those that had guns were missing their firing sights. The forts also had other major construction flaws, in particular the quality of concrete used in their construction. They had been built to withstand 21cm shells, but the Germans had brought 30.5cm and 42cm guns to the front with an unlimited ammunition supply. Even if all the fortress guns had been available, the forward observation posts had not yet been set up so the guns would be firing blind. They also lacked an adequate supply of munitions. Worst of all, the Belgian guns did not have the range to reach the German batteries.

The engineers worked to overcome numerous geographic challenges presented by the region. The city had continued to expand outward, and obstacles blocking the guns’ lines of sight had to be cleared. Churches, farms and trees were levelled to the ground with explosives – nothing that stood in the way was spared. Because the land was flat, once the surrounding structures were cleared away, the outlines of the forts were easily visible to enemy observers. Worse, when the guns fired, they produced black smoke that could be seen for miles.

Principal targets of the German guns

•  below the Nethe river:

Fort Lier (10), Tallaert Redoubt (h), Fort Koningshoyckt (11), Boschbeck Redoubt (i), Dorpveld Redoubt (j), Fort Wavre-Ste-Catherine (12), Duffel Redoubt (k), Fort Waelhem (13);

•  to the west of the Willebrouck Canal:

Fort Breendonck (14), Lettereide Redoubt (l), Fort Liezele (15), Puers Redoubt (m), Fort Bornhem (16);

•  north of the Scheldt:

Fort Ruppelmonde (17), Lauwershoek Redoubt (n), Landmolen Redoubt (o), Fort Haesdonck (18), Fort Cruybeke (19), Fort Zwyndrecht (20); and

•  northwest of Antwerp, on either side of the Scheldt:

Fort Ste-Marie (21), Fort St-Phillippe (22).

Preparation of a 100km defensive perimeter line was a monumental task. Interval trenches were dug along most of the perimeter, but they tended to be shallow and poorly organized, and had no bomb-proof shelters. In some places they were little more than gullies. Obstructions were placed across the access roads. Paving stones were pulled up and used as barricades. Miles of barbed wire was stretched along the perimeter and around the defensive strongpoints. Infantry parapets were built up along the streams and canals. Bridges and viaducts were strewn with explosives, ready to be destroyed at a moment’s notice.

The outer ring of fortifications extended three-quarters of the way around the city, beginning on the right bank of the Scheldt north of the city and ending on the left bank to the northeast. The outer perimeter consisted of large forts with permanent redoubts built between the forts to serve as rallying points for the interval defence. The outer ring, beginning on the right bank northeast of Antwerp, below the Netherlands border, was arranged as follows: Berendrecht Redoubt (a), Oorderen Redoubt (b), Fort Staebroek (1), Staebroek Redoubt (c), Fort Ertbrand (2), Fort Cappellen (3), Fort Brasschaat (4), Dryoek Redoubt (d), Fort Schooten (5), Audaen Redoubt (e), Fort St Gravenwezel (6), Shilde Redoubt (f), Fort Oeleghem (7), Massenhoven Redoubt (g), Fort Broechem (8), Fort Kessel (9). The inner ring consisted of Forts 1 to 8 (23 to 30) and Fort Merxem (31). The Vlaamsch-Hoofd (32) was located across the Scheldt from the town centre.

The fortress was divided into five defensive sectors:

•  Sector 1: north – Forts St-Phillipe, Merxem, Cappelen

•  Sector 2: east – s’Gravenwezel, d’Oelegem

•  Sector 3: southeast – Nethe line near Lier and Duffel

•  Sector 4: along the Rupel – Bornem, Liezele

•  Sector 5: left bank of the Scheldt and in the area of Waes.

The Belgian army ordered the 1st and 2nd Divisions to Sector 3, while the 3rd and 6th Divisions were kept in Sector 4; the 4th Division occupied Termonde and the 5th Division remained as the general reserve.

The Final Siege: Antwerp 1914 Part II

The bombardment of the Belgian army headquarters at Mechelen had started on 18 October, as a result of which King Albert moved the headquarters to Antwerp. Once Mechelen was taken, the Germans moved their heavy guns forwards and began shelling the forts. The first German attack was directed against Sector 3. The strategy was to punch a hole in the defences of Sector 3 with the heavy guns, followed up by an infantry attack to cross the Nethe and Scheldt rivers. After that, the breach would be widened by the destruction of the forts in Sectors 2 and 4.

After the capture of Mechelen, the Germans advanced all along the line of Sectors 1, 2 and 4. They occupied Alost on the extreme left and Heyst-op-den-Berg on the right. The siege cannon were moved up into place and would concentrate on the forts in Sectors 1 and 3.

The first targets on 28 September were Forts Waelhem and Wavre-Ste-Catherine, using the 30.5cm and 42cm guns emplaced at Boortmeerbeek, about 10km south of the fortress line, at their maximum optimum range, as well as smaller-calibre guns. The effects were felt immediately in the forts, as the concrete cracked and fumes from the explosives spread throughout the tunnels. The 15cm turret of Fort Waelhem was put out of action and the telephone lines to the fort were cut.

On Tuesday, 29 September the Germans attacked Sector 4, pushing back elements of the 3rd and 6th Divisions some 1,500m from the main line. Then 30.5cm shells started falling on the entry bridge at Fort Breendonck. A German column reached Blaesveld bridge on the Willebroek Canal but was driven back by the defenders.

The bombardment of Fort Waelhem continued at the rate of ten shells per minute. The garrison fought to restore communications with headquarters, and all the fort’s guns remained operational (apart from the 15cm turret destroyed the previous day). The second 15cm turret was targeting the Mechelen–Louvain railway, where enemy activity had been spotted. At 1600 this turret was also damaged and put out of action. The ammunition magazine in the fort was hit and exploded, and seventy-five men inside the fort were badly burned. At 1830 the armoured observation post was struck, meaning the guns had to fire blind. During the night the guns were repaired and they continued firing in what they perceived to be the correct direction.

Fort Wavre-Ste-Catherine also suffered on the 29th. The turrets were destroyed one by one, and the garrison driven out of the shelters. At 1800 the fort was evacuated but the garrison would return later.

Captain Becker, commander of KMK 2, described the effects of the shells on Forts Koningshoyckt and Wavre-Ste-Catherine:

As shown by many photographs, the 42-cm shell was effective against the heaviest armour and concrete of the Belgian forts. As typical of this effect, I recall in particular two hits made by my own battery on the Fort of Wavre St[e] Catherine, in the outer line of forts of Antwerp, on 29 September 1914. On the morning of the 29th I fired with the second piece, the more accurate, at the heavy guns in the armoured cupolas, while using the first piece against the concrete casemates. On this day, I saw my eleventh shot strike fair upon the top of the cupola, where the enemy’s guns were actively firing. There was a quick flash, which we had learned at Kummersdorf [artillery proving grounds] to recognize as the impact of steel upon steel. Then an appreciable pause, during which the cupola seemed uninjured; then a great explosion. After a few minutes the smoke began to clear, and in place of the cupola we saw a black hole, from which dense smoke was still pouring. Half the cupola stood upright, 50 metres away; the other half had fallen to the ground. The shell, fitted with a delayed fuse action, had exploded inside.

The outlying defences also suffered terribly from the shelling. The interval redoubts and trenches were hit with the same violence as the permanent works. The forts provided supporting counter-battery fire whenever possible, but the forward observers were driven from their positions throughout the day and were no longer able to direct fire against the enemy. It appeared the Belgian defenders in the trenches would suffer the same fate as at Namur: pounded by unseen guns without any means of reply, and driven off their positions by unseen troops.

Despite Churchill’s promises, the Belgian leadership were not confident of rescue by the Allies, who were still 200km away. On the night of the 29th they concluded that since Antwerp was not as impregnable as they had originally thought, the field army should be quickly withdrawn, and saved to fight another day. The field troops were to be pulled back to the Dendre river to await the Allies, who were now approaching Arras. The evacuation was scheduled to begin on 2 October. The army supplies from the Antwerp warehouses would be transported first by rail to Ostend. The rail journey began at the Tête de Flandre on the left bank of the Scheldt, passed through St Nicholas and Ghent, and finally arrived at Ostend. The transports had to cross the railway bridge at Tamise, and to reach that they needed to cross the Willebroeck bridge – within range of the German guns. Despite the danger, the operation was completed under conditions of absolute stealth between 29 September and 7 October. The lines of retreat were defended by the 4th Division, deployed at Baesrode, Termonde and Schoonaerde. The cavalry was moved to Wetteren to guard the left bank of the Dendre, where the field army would take up position on 3 October.

The outlying defences also suffered terribly from the shelling. The interval redoubts and trenches were hit with the same violence as the permanent works. The forts provided supporting counter-battery fire whenever possible, but the forward observers were driven from their positions throughout the day and were no longer able to direct fire against the enemy. It appeared the Belgian defenders in the trenches would suffer the same fate as at Namur: pounded by unseen guns without any means of reply, and driven off their positions by unseen troops.

Despite Churchill’s promises, the Belgian leadership were not confident of rescue by the Allies, who were still 200km away. On the night of the 29th they concluded that since Antwerp was not as impregnable as they had originally thought, the field army should be quickly withdrawn, and saved to fight another day. The field troops were to be pulled back to the Dendre river to await the Allies, who were now approaching Arras. The evacuation was scheduled to begin on 2 October. The army supplies from the Antwerp warehouses would be transported first by rail to Ostend. The rail journey began at the Tête de Flandre on the left bank of the Scheldt, passed through St Nicholas and Ghent, and finally arrived at Ostend. The transports had to cross the railway bridge at Tamise, and to reach that they needed to cross the Willebroeck bridge – within range of the German guns. Despite the danger, the operation was completed under conditions of absolute stealth between 29 September and 7 October. The lines of retreat were defended by the 4th Division, deployed at Baesrode, Termonde and Schoonaerde. The cavalry was moved to Wetteren to guard the left bank of the Dendre, where the field army would take up position on 3 October.

On 1 October there was no let up in the heavy shelling. Fort Breendonck was shelled. Fort Kessel became a new target and the bombardment of Fort Lier continued with heavy shells falling every six minutes. The concrete around the 15cm turret was struck, displacing the turret and putting it out of action. The shells also produced heavy fumes that inundated the corridors and tunnels of the fort. The men could only sit and wait for the end. This time, however, the Germans were launching a pre-attack barrage. All along the Sector 3 line the Germans advanced, moving into the fortress line west of Wavre-Ste-Catherine and getting behind it and Fort Waelhem, forcing the final evacuation of Fort Wavre-Ste-Catherine. The 1st Division troops moved to reoccupy their evacuated trenches but the Germans were too strong. The 2nd Division was driven back to the Nethe river by artillery fire. Fort Koningshoyckt survived the attack but the Boschbeek redoubt was evacuated and at 1700 the central part of Dorpveld was seized. The Belgian garrison of Dorpveld became trapped in another part of the work.

The 1st Division was sent to the vicinity of Fort Lier to support the garrison’s riflemen. The men inside the fort, practically exhausted mentally from the effects of the bombardment and the destruction of the fort, were suddenly galvanized into action when they heard of the arrival of reinforcements and the news that the Germans were attacking. They rushed to the parapets and into the turrets and poured fire into the approaching Germans. An attack at 2100 was stopped, and two hours later a second attack was broken off. Attacks continued throughout the night in front of Fort Lier and on the Tallaert redoubt and between Forts Koningshoyckt and Lier. The fighting for the trenches was furious but the Germans retreated at 0200, having failed to break through the line. On 2 October the 1st and 2nd Divisions launched a counter-attack to retake positions lost along the trench line.

The garrison of Fort Waelhem continued to occupy the fort. They made repairs on 1 October and their guns remained operational, but the Germans believed the fort had been put out of action. A patrol approached the moat to see if anyone was left in the fort. They soon found out when Commandant Dewit ordered his men to open fire, scattering the Germans. The bombardment of the fort then resumed with greater intensity, destroying the bridge across the moat to the entrance. The defenders escaped across the rear moat using ladders. Fort Waelhem, despite a heroic defence, was finally in German hands.

In a frightening game of cat and mouse, the Belgian defenders of Dorpveld redoubt remained trapped in the wreckage while the Germans, in control of another section, hunted them down. Once they had located them, the Germans set off a mine in an attempt to finish off the garrison. Some of them escaped through a breach caused by the mine and fled across the fields. A second mine destroyed the redoubt, killing the remaining defenders.

At 1430 the magazine of Fort Koningshoyckt blew up, and the fort was finished. The Tallaert redoubt also exploded. The shelling of Fort Lier continued until it too was completely useless. Around noon the last turret was destroyed and at 1800 the garrison fled across the Nethe.

The Duffel redoubt had been pounded for four days, during which time the garrison made repairs whenever possible. The Germans, thinking that no further resistance was possible, set up a machine gun in the Wavre-Ste-Catherine railway station 700m from the fort and fired on the redoubt. They were surprised when a 5.7cm gun returned fire, driving the gunners away.

Most of the works on the south bank of the Nethe river had been destroyed. General de Guise decided to organize the defences to the north of the river. At this point the Belgian government notified the British of their intention to evacuate the field army from Antwerp and to use the fortress troops for the city’s defence. Winston Churchill immediately set out for Antwerp with the British Marines to persuade the Belgians to hold out a little longer.

On 3 October the Germans made another attempt to silence the Duffel redoubt. A German officer approached the redoubt with a truce flag. The defenders ceased firing but the officer was there simply to report his observations to the artillery batteries and the guns opened fire again. Duffel still held out but at 2200 the garrison ran out of ammunition and fled across the Nethe. Moments later the redoubt exploded. Likewise, the German batteries had continued to fire on Fort Kessel. Earlier in the day the three turrets were put out of action and the fort was evacuated.

Once all of the forts south of the Nethe had been destroyed or abandoned, the Germans prepared to cross the river. One attack was made on the Mechelen road at the railway bridge near Waelhem. Three attempts were made by German infantry against the approaches but each was repulsed. German engineers then decided to construct a temporary bridge across the Nethe near the village of Waelhem. They succeeded in putting together one bridge, but when the infantry advanced across it all the available Belgian guns were directed on it, causing major casualties. The bridge fell apart and the Germans retreated.

That evening the city’s spirits were lifted by the arrival of the first brigade of British marines, accompanied by Mr Churchill. The British troops included a brigade of Marine light infantry, approximately 2,200 strong, with several heavy guns. They had arrived by train from Ostend and were sent out to the Nethe front, where they were placed between Lier and Duffel. They relieved the Belgian 1st Mixed Brigade and supported the men of the 7th Belgian Infantry Regiment.

The morning of 4 October, the seventh day of the siege, was relatively quiet, but at around midday the German guns opened fire. The German artillery was being moved up towards the Nethe. The Belgians still held the trenches south of the Nethe, despite having lost the forts and redoubts. German shells now fell on these vulnerable positions, forcing the Belgians to flee across the Nethe, until the southern side of the river was completely in German hands.

The bombardment of the Nethe sectors continued all night and into Monday, 5 October, signalling an imminent infantry effort to cross the Nethe. The Belgian outposts were driven back and the Germans moved to the Nethe crossing points. German artillery fire pushed the defenders back even further from the river banks. Three German regiments crossed the Nethe at Lier but ran into the British troops defending the north side of the town. The British casualties were high but they held their ground and kept the Germans pinned inside the town. Here and there the Germans gained small bridgeheads on the north bank. In other locations they were pushed back by Belgian guns and infantry counterattacks. At around noon the 7th Line Regiment on the right flank of the British Marines was forced to fall back, exposing the British flank. A counter-attack by the 2nd Chasseurs, assisted by the British, regained the position.

The rest of the British reinforcements arrived on Monday, comprising two naval brigades with 6,000 men. Unlike the first group, these were mostly new recruits with little infantry training. Each brigade was composed of four battalions, and General Archibald Paris was in command.

In Sector 4 the 6th Division troops launched a counter-attack towards St-Amand. They reached and passed through the village but were met by a large German force and had to fall back. The Germans, meanwhile, bombarded Termonde and attempted a crossing of the Scheldt at Schoonaerde. A detachment of the 4th Division, guarding the approaches to the river, with artillery and cavalry support drove the Germans back, but the 4th Division’s position was becoming critical. A collapse would open the door for the Germans to march south of Antwerp and outflank it from the west, sealing in the Belgian and British defenders.

At 0200 on 6 October a surprise attack was launched by the Belgian 21st Line Regiment and two chasseur regiments from the 5th Division, making a bayonet charge against the German-held trenches. After the attack started, the Belgians heard cries of ‘Friend, English,’ coming from the trenches and they halted, unsure of what to do. Finally figuring out it was a ruse, they rallied and moved forwards. Hand-to-hand combat ensued in the dark and the Germans were pushed back to the Nethe. The Germans replied all along the line with machine guns and by daybreak the battle was over. The Belgians pulled back beyond Lier. This was the last allied offensive of the battle.

During the day German troops poured across the Nethe and moved towards the city. The Belgians pulled back to their secondary lines of defence. The British had mounted their heavy guns in the Brialmont forts and their shells now began to fall on the Germans. In the afternoon Fort Broechem fell, widening the gap to 20km. German attempts to cross the Scheldt were relentless. The Belgian command realized that the evacuation must begin now, and had to be done quickly.

Meanwhile, the French and Germans continued to move towards the channel ports. In early October the Germans had reached Lille and were moving rapidly to cut off the Belgian army. They were just 60km from Nieuport, while the Nethe was some 140km away. It was important for the Belgians to move as quickly as possible to Ghent to guard the lines of retreat to the west. They requested British reinforcements at Ghent as quickly as possible and the British government promised to send the 7th Infantry Division. The French also marched to the area at full speed.

On the night of 6 October King Albert ordered the Belgian field army to move to the left bank of the Scheldt. As we have seen, the army supply trains had already successfully reached Ostend. The Belgian army was to cross over the bridges at Tamise, Hoboken and Burght, and then move westwards. The defence of Antwerp would then be handed over to the 30,000 fortress troops, plus the 2nd Division and the three British brigades. The retreat began at midnight. The 1st and 5th Divisions moved first across the Scheldt near the Antwerp docks; 3rd Division crossed further north. The troops that were left to defend the city after the withdrawal of the field army quietly pulled back to man the defences adjacent to the inner circle of forts. The Germans had by now moved their guns north of the Nethe and began to shell the old forts, beginning with Fort 1.

On 7 October the Belgian government left the city by boat for Ostend; Churchill left at the same time. When the Belgian citizens of Antwerp discovered that the government had left, there was widespread panic, which resulted in the mass exodus of civilians from the city by all means available, both to the west and to the north into Holland. King Albert left at 1500 with his army. The 2nd Division, the fortress troops and the British forces continued to hold the second line of defence.

The Germans finally crossed the Scheldt at Termonde, Schoonaerde and Wetteren in the afternoon. At Schoonaerde the crossing was in force. The vanguard of three cavalry regiments advanced as far as Nazareth, 12km from Ghent.

On the night of the 7th the bombardment of Antwerp began in earnest, in order to compel the governor to surrender the rest of the operational forts. The Germans used incendiary bombs, and buildings all across the centre of town went up in flames. The Belgians set fire to the petroleum tanks at Hoboken, sending thick oily smoke 200ft into the air. Bombs fell all night long and the destruction was terrible. Belgian engineers contributed to the destruction by sabotaging everything in sight that could be useful to the Germans – gas pipes, electrical lines, warehouses and bridges – and ships were scuttled to block the harbour.

On the 8th the German III Reserve Corps, reinforced by the 26th Landwehr Brigade, occupied the ground in front of Forts 1 to 6 and the forts’ defenders were swept by German machine guns. At around 1730 General Paris decided it was time to move his troops out under cover of darkness. General de Guise agreed. The British moved first, followed by the Belgian 2nd Division. The naval brigade left last, at around 1930. Several units passed through the city and crossed the Scheldt. One battalion of the 1st Naval Brigade, the 2nd Brigade and the Marine Light Infantry covered the retreat and then marched west all night, finally catching a train to St-Gilles-Waes. Further along, the rails had been cut and these units, harassed by German patrols, fled across the Dutch border. Some made it to Ostend.

Three battalions of the 1st Naval Brigade, together with the Belgian fortress troops in front of Forts 1 to 4, received the news of the retreat much later than the others, and it wasn’t until 9 October that they passed through Antwerp towards the river. The bridges had already been destroyed. Some of the units found rafts to cross the river; others headed north to Holland.

On the evening of Thursday, 8 October General de Guise finally left the city and crossed the river to Fort Ste-Marie. He would eventually surrender to the Germans there on Saturday morning. The Belgians were the last to leave Antwerp, despite offers from General Paris for the British to guard the retreat. On Friday, 9 October most of the remaining forts of the first line gave up. Fort Merxem was sabotaged, as was the Dryhoek redoubt. The guns and electrical generators of Fort Brasschaat and Audaen redoubt were destroyed and those works vacated. Fort Liezele and Breendonck also surrendered.

Later in the day a delegation from the town sought out the Germans to surrender the town. At around noon the first Germans entered Antwerp: it was the start of a four-year occupation. The forts still remaining in Belgian hands were sabotaged and evacuated: Forts Schooten and s’Gravenwezel at 1430, followed by Fort Ertbrand, the Smoutakker redoubt and Fort Stabroeck. The commander of that last fort refused to leave and was killed in the explosion to sabotage the fort. The garrison troops in Sector 5 moved towards Holland. In all, 400 officers and 35,000 men of the Antwerp garrison were interned in Holland. The British lost 37 killed, 193 wounded and 1,000 missing, of whom 800 were captured by the Germans. Some 1,560 were interned in Holland. Of the 1st Naval Brigade, only one-third of the men returned to England.

In the evening of Friday, 9 October the mass of the allied army crossed the Terneuzen Canal and the British divisions arrived at Ghent.

Artillery: Toward a New Century

Saudi Arabia — February 1991 On 2 August 1990, the forces of Iraq invaded Kuwait. From the first days of the world’s response to the Iraq’s invasion, Army National Guard soldiers reacted, initially as volunteers, and later as members of mobilized units. During this period, the Guard went through its largest mobilization since the Korean War. The response of Guard soldiers and their families vindicated the trust that the nation had placed in them. Many support units – transportation, quartermaster, command and control headquarters, military police, medical and others answered the call and served in the desert, providing less-heralded but very necessary functions. More than 62,000 Army National Guard soldiers were mobilized, and of these, nearly 39,000 deployed to Southwest Asia. Tensions erupted into a fighting war on 17 January 1991, when Allied air forces initiated a devastating air campaign. The scope of the conflict widened in February when, after a series of skirmishes and battles along the borders of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq, the Allied ground offensive began. Six Army National Guard field artillery battalions supported the advance into Iraq. One of these battaions, the 1st Battalion, 158th Field Artillery, Oklahoma Army National Guard, was armed with the Multlple-Launch Rocket System (MLRS). Field artillerymen of this battalion supported the ground attack by firing salvos of MLRS rockets into Iraq, and continued to support the massive ground offensive with responsible, accurate and devastating fire throughout the campaign. The MLRS rockets were so deadly that the Iraqi soldiers called them “steel rain.” The dedicated and selfless service of the Army National Guard in Operation Desert Storm carries on the 355-year National Guard mission of defense of the nation.

The decade of the 1990s ushered in myriad regional threats to the security of the United States. By May 1991, the INF Treaty had contained the nuclear threat of the superpowers, and the official disintegration of the Warsaw Pact in July and the Soviet Union in December reduced the number of superpowers to one—the United States. Army commanders realized that Europe would not necessarily be the only battlefield, and they became increasingly concerned about other likely trouble spots, such as the Middle East and Latin America.

The first sign of the new challenges to come had occurred in October 1983 in Grenada. Field artillery played only a minor role in Operation Urgent Fury , chiefly because planners did not consider enemy artillery a threat and because they wanted to keep the deployed force light. Also, the desire to limit collateral damage and civilian casualties, requiring positive identification of a hostile enemy force, mitigated the use of indirect fire. Operations there did, however, point out the need for more planning at the joint level.

The next involvement in Latin America came in 1990 during Operation Just Cause in Panama. Here too the mission, enemy, terrain, troops, and time available also restricted artillery fire, although the presence of field artillery had a strong deterrent effect. For example, artillery in the 7th Infantry Division fired intermittently, discouraging sniper attacks, and similar positions at roadblocks and checkpoints enhanced security.

Operation Desert Storm

Full-scale warfare reappeared in early 1991 with the offensive in the Persian Gulf region against the Iraqi Army, which validated the U.S. Army’s twenty-year effort to reform and modernize its forces. To be sure, for Operation Desert Storm , the United States and its coalition partners possessed air superiority; had a six-month period to build up their formations during Operation Desert Shield; enjoyed terrain and weather excellent for conventional fighting; and, most importantly, were highly trained and technologically sophisticated compared to the unmotivated, undisciplined, poorly trained and equipped Iraqi soldiers. Both sides employed a considerable amount of artillery, with the Iraqis having the advantage in the number of mostly towed pieces that outranged comparable American models and were extremely well dug in and camouflaged. Yet, in battle, the Iraqi artillerists were no match for their well-trained counterparts. When it became clear that the enemy could not locate opposing artillery, allied batteries ceased their “shoot ‘n scoot” tactics, remaining in position or closing in to deliver their devastating fire. And the coalition forces overcame the numbers gap by employing the multiple-launch rocket system (MLRS) as well as radar and aerial reconnaissance to acquire targets.

For the Southwest Asia campaigns, the Army deployed two corps artillery headquarters, seven division artillery headquarters, and seven field artillery brigade headquarters, comprising forty-three battalions in all. Two of the seven brigades and their six battalions, including the only multiple-launch rocket battalion in the reserve components, were Army National Guard units that performed with distinction. Both artillery brigades were nearly fully trained in gunnery, and, unlike maneuver brigades, they were able to deploy without first going to the National Training Center in California.

Although the 100-hour ground war was short for testing all aspects of field artillery, several conclusions were self-evident. The precision-munitions revolution made forces vulnerable throughout the battlefield, and any firing system that could be detected risked being detected, engaged, and destroyed within minutes. Commanders at all levels praised the global positioning system (GPS), which freed soldiers from land navigation in a largely featureless area. The system was crucial in providing accurate and timely fire support. The MLRS, or “steel rain” to the enemy, contributed significantly to counterbattery efforts and the suppression of enemy air defenses. Limitations included the rocket’s 30-kilometer (18.6-mile) range; long-range communications that proved cumbersome and, at times, unworkable during long movements and rapid displacement; and maintenance and logistical support, especially ammunition resup-ply. Five MLRS battalions and six divisional MLRS batteries supported the ground offensive and were particularly effective against preplanned targets and in attacking fixed targets of opportunity using the Army tactical missile system (ATACMS), with self-contained positioning and laying capabilities. But the ATACMS’s use along with other weapons systems also created problems, especially in coordinating deep fire; its high trajectory could put aircraft at risk. To be more effective, the fires of artillery, gunships, and air strikes had to be better integrated. Nevertheless, precision-guided systems, such as the ATACMS, greatly enhanced the Army’s field artillery capabilities.

Operations also highlighted the need for an organic rocket battalion rather than a battery in the division artillery. The battery had an insufficient number of launchers to cover the division area and inadequate capabilities for command and control. There were simply not enough launchers to support the division aviation brigade and reconnaissance squadron, to suppress enemy air defenses, and to provide adequate counterfire. Additional rocket firepower was also deemed necessary because of the limited range and firepower of the M119 105-mm. howitzer and the lack of mobility of the M198 155-mm. howitzer. A wheeled rocket system, with the ability to be transported on C-130 aircraft, was needed for light and early deploying contingency forces, and an extended range beyond 45 kilometers (28 miles) for the rocket itself was vital. An extended range for the Army tactical missile was also desired.

Desert Storm saw the first use of Copperhead precision-guided munitions in combat. Rounds fired by the 1st Battalion, 82d Field Artillery, scored successfully. Such an accomplishment, however, involved a large investment of resources and significant overhead and a great deal of coordination to put the observer with the laser designator in position and to survey the target if the observer did not have a reliable global positioning system. The fire-support teams also needed better equipment. The FIST vehicle used in the heavy divisions lacked mobility and sustainability to keep pace with the maneuver elements, and the weight of the laser designator in the light forces caused difficulty in acquiring targets with speed. Other combat-support vehicles also needed to become more mobile. Likewise, the 155-mm. self-propelled howitzer served well but did not have enough power to keep up with the M1 Abrams tank or the Bradley fighting vehicles.

As in previous operations, Army doctrine for fire support above the corps level did not exist, which affected operations at the joint level. The number of fire-support elements was inadequate. As a remedy, the Field Artillery School recommended placing additional fire-support elements at echelons above corps, including a new 31-man fire-support element for Third, Seventh, and Eighth Armies, as well as staff elements at the Army component and joint forces headquarters. Manning levels for the existing fire-support elements at brigade, division, and task force echelons also appeared inadequate for continuous and split operations.

Other problems appeared in the area of target acquisition. The Firefinder radars— AN/TPQ-36 (countermortar) and the larger AN/TPQ-37 (counterartillery)—had been introduced in the 1980s utilizing technology from the 1960s. The radars could locate hostile indirect-fire weapons 20-25 kilometers (12.4-15.5 miles) away within a 100-meter (328-foot) accuracy, but lacked sufficient range, mobility, and processing power; the AN/TPQ-36, in particular, often acquired false targets.16 Many thought that in addition to the counterfire radars unmanned aerial vehicles, such as those used by the British, would have provided artillery the ability to acquire targets before enemy guns fired. Operations also substantiated the need for field artillery observation helicopters to acquire targets and mark them for Copperhead munitions. But helicopters in Desert Storm were almost always in use for division aviation to designate targets with the laser-guided HELLFIRE (helicopter-launched fire and forget) missile system, thus limiting their use by field artillery.

Elements of a forward corps support battalion provided supplies and maintenance, as well as other support, for field artillery brigades during Desert Storm . Problems appeared in repairing equipment as the battalion had had limited experience in supporting artillery brigades in peacetime. Also the battalion was usually positioned too far to the rear to provide adequate timely support. In short, new systems that allowed for greater dispersion on the battlefield and that increased firepower (more ammunition required) and mobility also placed greater demands on the support system.

Reorganizing the Force

A by-product of the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact in 1991 was numerous regional threats from the emerging nations. Where the United States once faced a unified threat with a policy of containment, the focus became one of responding to a broad variety of contingencies. To fight a major land war, the Army’s forces had been forward deployed and structured for conventional warfare under a doctrine of attrition and annihilation. The reduction of the Soviet threat, as well as competition with domestic requirements for declining resources, dictated an Army for the 1990s much smaller than that of the previous decade based primarily in the continental United States. National strategy changed from one based on a European scenario to one of power projection in contingency operations requiring a broader spectrum of forces than ever before. Deterrence remained the primary objective, with deployment forces to be tailored not only from the Army but also from the other services. New emphasis was placed on joint and multinational operations to achieve quick decisive results under any conditions. Coalition forces, such as those used in Southwest Asia in 1990-91, were projected to be the norm. The doctrine shifted from deep attack to simultaneous attacks throughout the depth of the battlefield. Until 2003, the precision weapons used by artillery forces in Desert Storm were rarely employed. Instead, humanitarian and peace operations in northern Iraq, Somalia, Haiti, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Macedonia became more common, using deterrence and local diplomacy to ease tensions rather than engaging in combat.

With the loss of a creditable enemy, the Army faced substantial reductions. As the size of the Army decreased, so did that of the field artillery. The elimination of nuclear requirements precipitated the replacement of 8-inch howitzers by the MLRS and the retirement of nuclear ammunition for the 155-mm. howitzer. Force reductions also included the elimination of signal personnel in field artillery battalions, which resulted in the requirement for artillerymen to operate all communications and automation equipment—tasks that also included laying wire, installing telephones, and operating all switchboards as well as radios. Field wire terminals and devices formerly installed, operated, and maintained by signal personnel also became the responsibility of the artillery. All other signal soldiers in the line batteries and service batteries were reassigned to headquarters batteries.

A total of 218 field artillery battalions (96 Regular Army, 17 Army Reserve, and 105 Army National Guard) and 38 batteries, including the batteries in armored cavalry regiments (27 Regular Army and 11 Army National Guard), existed in 1989 prior to the war in the Persian Gulf. By the end of the decade, only 141 battalions (50 Regular Army and 91 Army National Guard) and 22 batteries (12 Regular Army and 10 Army National Guard) remained. Army Reserve field artillery was reduced by 100 percent as a result of the “bottom-up” review by Secretary of Defense Les Aspin in 1993, which in fact eliminated all Army Reserve combat arms units, allowing that component to focus on support and service organizations.

Further reductions were made in conjunction with fielding the 155 -mm. Paladin self-propelled howitzer to the heavy divisions, beginning in 1995; each firing battery was reduced from eight to six howitzers per battalion for a total of eighteen rather than twenty-four howitzers per battalion. The number of howitzers in the heavy divisions thus fell from seventy-two to fifty-four. The six-gun batteries allowed the Army National Guard to modernize its artillery with the Paladin in a more timely fashion, and it allowed more Paladin battalions to be organized. At the same time, the MLRS battery and target acquisition battery were replaced in the heavy division by a “command and attack battalion,” each containing a combined headquarters and service battery, two rocket batteries (each with nine launchers), and a target acquisition battery equipped with Firefinder radars. The new battalion increased the division’s organic fire support and provided more control to the formerly separate batteries. Another advantage of doubling the number of rocket launchers was that the division artillery could provide the direct-support battalions with reinforcing rocket platoons and still have rockets available for general support.

These changes were in line with the interim Division XXI designs. While the Army of Excellence (AOE) division had been structured to conduct separate deep and rear operations to defeat the enemy in a close maneuver fight, Division XXI was organized to attack the enemy simultaneously throughout the battle space. The AOE division was designed to fight in mass, Division XXI to fight in a decentralized pattern. The division as a whole was to comprise 15,820 soldiers and have two reinforcing field artillery brigades supporting it, at least one of which was to come from the National Guard. Each brigade was to have one battalion of eighteen 155-mm. self-propelled howitzers and two MLRS battalions, each with twenty-seven launchers. Thus thirty-six 155-mm. howitzers and one hundred eight rocket launchers would reinforce each heavy division.

Return to Iraq

After the attacks of 11 September 2001, the United States and its allies invaded Afghanistan, relying on special operation forces and airpower with precision-guided munitions rather than field artillery. Many, however, felt this was a serious error, and two years later during Operation Iraqi Freedom field artillery troops were included as part of the force. The Army followed traditional practice, with direct-support battalions fighting alongside their respective brigades. Battalions from corps and division levels provided general support.

Nevertheless, some qualitative differences were evident. The ratio of artillery pieces to U.S. tanks and infantry fighting vehicles was the same or higher than in Desert Storm, for the initial phase of Iraqi Freedom was won with fewer divisions. In fact, the Army used the lowest ratio of field artillery pieces to troops in combat since World War I. In the main combat operations of March and April 2003, the Army field artillery contingent consisted of one corps artillery headquarters, two division artillery headquarters, three brigade headquarters, and eleven battalions. Each of the cannon and rocket launchers delivered a greater volume and higher rates of fire than in Desert Storm. Field artillery once again proved itself, operating in the worst weather, including a severe sandstorm that stopped most other means of fire.

Following Desert Storm, the Army had made concerted efforts toward digitization in its Force XXI designs. Field artillery had previously led the way in its adoption of a computerized tactical fire control system, referred to as TACFIRE, and by 2003, Army units were interconnected with digital networks allowing for much improved communications and situational awareness. Using digital means, field artillery units could routinely deliver firepower within two minutes.

The battle saw the debut of the ATACMS’s unitary missile, a missile using GPS for guidance, having a maximum range of 270 kilometers (167.8 miles) and a low circular error probable, and dispersing over 400 improved conventional munition bomblets over a wide area. The missile was effective against personnel and lightly armored targets, as well as in attacking long-range command-and-control targets. Other “firsts” were the combat use of the M109A6 Paladin 155-mm. self-propelled howitzer, the high-mobility artillery rocket system (HIMARS), search and destroy armor munitions (SADARM), and the Bradley fire-support vehicle, all earning high marks from artillerymen in Iraq. Although Iraqi artillery systems compared reasonably well with those of the coalition forces, they rarely were effective because the Iraqis were deficient in their ability to acquire targets. With their superiority in this area, the coalition forces were often able to destroy enemy artillery before it could be a real threat.

Room for improvement existed, however. Alternatives were needed for the dual-purpose improved conventional munitions, as unexploded bomblets proved a problem for both civilians and friendly forces. Aerial systems delivered most precision-guided munitions, a problem in close combat where their explosive radius made them too dangerous to use. Artillery systems, with few exceptions, were still area fire weapons, their imprecision limiting use in close combat. Field artillery needed more precision to be effective in the close fight. Better communications equipment also proved necessary, as well as more detailed maps and improved command-and-control vehicles. Troops were reliant on close air support for counterfire, believed to be timelier. In practice, however, the usual response time proved too long, and the use of artillery could have been more effective. In addition, artillery could fire a variety of munitions, including illuminating rounds. Clearance procedures for using MLRS and ATACMS also often proved cumbersome.

At the same time the Army was deployed in Iraq, the institution was undergoing a major reorganization. The traditional twentieth-century concept that field artillery was never in reserve had resulted in pooling resources at the division level and above, allowing flexibility in supporting operations as required and enhancing branch training. Divisions normally had attached a direct-support field artillery battalion to each of its combat brigades, but the practice became formalized with the modular transformation of the Army. Although there are benefits in training for combined operations in the fixed brigade organization, commanders may find less flexibility designing task organizations for specific operations.