A U. S. Army 155-mm Howitzer M1 battery prepares for a firing mission in this post-World War II picture. Prior to a firing mission the crew of an M1 lowered a firing jack (pedestal) located under the center axle of the weapon. Once this device was in place, the two wheels were raised. This resulted in a three-point support system for the gun, one point of contact being the firing jack and the other two points being the spades of the trail. This arrangement improved both the stability of the weapon and its accuracy.
In recommending the development of a new 105-mm light howitzer for divisional use, the Westervelt Board had discounted the need for a divisional 155-mm medium support howitzer. The French Schneider 155-mm M1917 medium howitzer and its postwar American copy, the M1918, had proven unpopular during World War I, due to their heavy weight and resulting poor mobility.
After World War I, General John J. Pershing and others blamed the large-scale use of artillery for the static positional warfare that had developed in Western Europe. To prevent a recurrence, Pershing suggested that the army be organized into smaller, highly mobile divisions with tanks and machine guns. Artillery support was to be provided by guns or howitzers with a caliber of 75-mm or smaller.
The army studied the Westervelt Board and the Pershing recommendations and decided to reinstate the 155-mm howitzer in its infantry divisions in 1929. During the 1920s and 1930s the army began a modernization program for its aging M1917 and M1918 medium 155-mm howitzers to allow high-speed towing by trucks. Simultaneously, Brigadier General Lesley J. McNair began to suggest that the army had placed too much importance on artillery in close support of the infantry. He believed that modern long-range artillery pieces massing their fire together on important targets could be supremely effective on the battlefields of the future. McNair therefore urged that the army’s infantry divisions reduce the number of light guns and howitzers and increase the number of medium howitzers.
Field tests conducted by the army in 1937 had again confirmed McNair’s belief that the 155-mm howitzer, M1917 and M1918, was still superior to the new prototype 105-mm M2 howitzer, due to its ability to deliver more bang for the buck.
Additional tests in 1938 and information on foreign medium artillery development further pointed to the need for a 155-mm medium howitzer in its infantry divisional structure. A few days after the French-German armistice in June 1940, the army adopted a new infantry division structure with four artillery battalions; three direct support battalions of 105-mm howitzer (54 pieces) and one general support battalion of 155-mm howitzers (12 pieces).
The Ordnance Department had begun work in 1939 on a replacement for the aging M1917 and M1918 155-mm howitzer. That replacement arrived as the M1 155-mm howitzer in early 1942. It featured a new longer barrel as well as a new carriage.
The M1 155-mm howitzer was often referred to by American cannoneers as “the sweetest weapon on the front” due to its outstanding accuracy. By the end of the war American factories had built over 6,000 of the howitzers. They would see heavy use with Patton’s troops from July 1944 until the war ended in Europe. The older M1917 and M1918 155-mm howitzers would soldier on until 1943, when enough of the new M1 155-mm howitzers reached artillery units in the field. American artillerymen affectionately referred to the old M1917 and M1918 howitzers “as faithful old dogs.”
155mm Howitzer M1 (M114). The Howitzer M1 was upgraded after World War II as the M114 and was widely exported. Mounted on a split trail carriage, it was served by a crew of eleven and capable of a sustained firing rate of 40 rounds per hour.
The French industrialist Eugene Schneider began cannon production in 1870 and by the turn of the century commanded an arms empire to rival the German industrial giant Krupp. The Schneider concern employed some 14,000 employees and incorporated company- owned railways and mines as well as a huge factory complex. By the advent of the twentieth century, it could boast more than twenty-five powers across the globe as customers for its output of advanced artillery.
Ironically, the Germans’ confiscation of nearly the entire French artillery arsenal following the Franco-Prussian War forced France to rearm from scratch with the very latest cannon designs. Therefore, by 1875, France boasted some of the best artillery ever fielded. Although a national fervor to avenge the country’s humiliating defeat played no small role in its rapid modernization, France also benefited from the efforts of a number of talented designers. The culmination of these engineers’ experiments along various artillery avenues was eventually combined to create a masterpiece of artillery-the famous “French 75.”
Vechere de Reffye, the commandant of the Meudon Arsenal, played a critical role in the evolution of modern, rapidly loaded field pieces. Basing his efforts on an earlier U. S. model, Reffye worked extensively in perfecting a breech mechanism using the interrupted screw principle. Reffeye’s breech consisted of a heavy steel block threaded to mate with the rear of the gun barrel. The incorporation of a number of smooth slots milled through the screw threads of both the block and the breech of the piece then allowed the hinged block to fit snugly into the breech, where it was locked by a quick one-quarter turn of the breech handle. Reffye also advocated the use of metallic cartridges containing powder, primer, and projectile in one unit. The advantages of such a cartridge, he maintained, were numerous, including consistently measured and waterproof powder, as well as ease of loading. The brass cases he recommended also expanded when fired, providing effective obturation; also, as the cases incorporated a self-contained primer, there was no need to drill a vent in the breechblock, weakening it structurally.
During the 1870s, Colonel C. Ragnon de Bange, head ordnance engineer of the Société des Anciens Établissements Cail in Paris, built on Reffeye’s work in designing breech mechanisms more suitable for heavier artillery pieces. De Bange’s breech mechanism also relied on the interrupted screw principle yet did not employ fixed metallic cases, as the French saw them as overly expensive for use in heavy guns and howitzers. As de Bange’s system used powder bags, he addressed the obturation problem by using an asbestos pad on the breech face that compressed upon firing, thus sealing the gap between the block and rear of the barrel. During the last quarter of the century, General Hippolyte Langlois emerged as a visionary theorist who expounded on the possibilities of maneuverable quick-firing field artillery. In his 1892 book Field A rtillery in Cooperation with Other Arms, Langlois advocated the development and deployment of relatively small caliber rifled breechloaders using metal cartridges that could be deployed rapidly to deliver a rafale, or “squall,” of intense fire at decisive moments on the field.
Other technological breakthroughs also contributed to the French advances during the period that, when combined, would culminate in a true masterpiece of artillery design. These included the invention of a safer and more powerful nitrocellulose-based smokeless powder by Paul Eugene Vielle. Christened Poudre B in honor of France’s minister of war, General Boulanger, it was, in turn, followed by the improved BN, or Blanche Nouvelle (New White), powder. By 1898, General George-Raymond Desaleux had also developed a high-explosive, more aerodynamically stable “boat-tailed” projectile code-named Obus D, or “Shell D.” The combination of Poudre B with a metal case and the Shell D afforded the French a highly efficient round suitable for Langlois’s ideal field gun-the French 75.
Affectionately christened Mademoiselle Soixante-Quinze (Miss Seventy-five) by the French and later U.S. gunners who crewed it, the French 75 became one of the most famous artillery pieces of all time. It was adopted by France in 1897, by the United States in 1917, and remained in service with the former until that country’s fall in 1943; it was used by other, smaller nations into the 1950s. Having learned that recent Krupp recoil reduction experiments had proved unsuccessful, the French director of artillery, General Charles P. Mathieu, directed that a development program be set up to design a quick-fire 75mm gun as envisioned by Langlois. He subsequently assigned the project to Colonel Albert Deport, director of the Chatillon-Commentry Gunfoundry at Puteaux, where the development process was carried out in strictest secrecy.
Deport began by appropriating a number of features from an earlier 57mm gun developed in 1889 by Captain Sainte-Claire Deville. These included an improved caisson, seats for the crew, a steel gun shield to protect crewmen from small arms fire and shrapnel, a removable rear sight, and a collimator-a telescopic direct-fire sight. For the breech mechanism, the design team adopted a design incorporating a simple rotating eccentric disk-shaped breechblock designed by Thorsten Nordenfelt of Société Nordenfelt. The block itself was manufactured with a milled cutout that, when the unit was rotated up, allowed loading. A one-half turn downward then closed the breech, with the metallic cartridge providing self-obduration.
Although they had been ingeniously combined, the French 75 thus incorporated features that were already available and used in various other artillery pieces. The greatest obstacle facing the designers lay in neutralizing the gun’s recoil and automatically returning its barrel to its original position. They approached the problem with what came to be known as the “long recoil” system, consisting of a piston attached to the lower rear of the gun barrel and two gas and oil-filled piston tubes mounted to the carriage. Upon firing, the barrel and its piston moved violently rearward to compress the oil in the upper tube, or “buffer,” to force oil into the lower tube, or “recuperator,” and thus control its recoil. At the point of extreme recoil, the tapered “throttling rod” attached to the rear of the floating piston in the recuperator sealed a diaphragm to shut off the oil flow to the lower piston. This action also further compressed nitrogen gas contained under pressure in the recuperator, thus providing the energy to return the gun barrel to its firing position.
The first prototypes were finished in 1894, but tests revealed that their recoil systems did not perform as originally desired. Captain Emile Rimailho and Captain Sainte-Claire Deville, however, continued to perfect the recoil system until the project culminated in 1897. In addition to its many advanced features and recoil system, the new Model 1897 also incorporated carriage innovations that further lessened its recoil. Although still mounted on conventional wood-spoked, iron-tired wheels, its three-point suspension’s wheel brakes and trail spade (a blade attached to the end of the trail as an anchor) provided unprecedented stability. It was also capable of independent tube traversal and elevation.
The Schneider concern and the Bourges Arsenal, the primary French ordnance facility southeast of Paris, manufactured the French 75 for the French government and its allies. It entered service in 1898, and some 1,100 were in use by 1914. Its hydraulic long-recoil system virtually eliminated recoil, and with its eccentric screw breech it made possible a firing rate of up to 20 rounds a minute-a rate that increased to 30 when fitted with a semiautomatic breech mechanism. Moreover, the Model 1897’s maximum range approached 5 miles.
The French 75mm barrel was 106 inches in length, and the weapon’s overall weight was 2,560 pounds. It was capable of elevation ranging from -11 to +18 degrees and could traverse up to 6 degrees. It fired a 15.9-pound shrapnel shell at a muzzle velocity of 1,735 feet per second to a maximum range of 9,300 yards.
The French 75 was first used by French forces in China during the 1900 Boxer Rebellion and quickly proved its superior mobility and high rate of fire. Its success alarmed the other major powers, initiating an arms race that resulted in their development and adoption of quick- fire field pieces of 75mm to 77mm calibers by 1906. France and the United States later improved the original design by replacing its early stock trail carriage with a split trail and adding pneumatic rubber tires. These additions boosted the gun’s maximum range up to 7 miles.
From the very beginning of the war, the employment of railway batteries in the form of guns placed at the head of trains came into use at several different locations on the front line, either on the initiative of the high command or of especially inventive local commanders. For example, in May 1861, in order to protect the network of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, Union General McClellan ordered the mounting of artillery at the head of troop trains. The Dictator was another example, made famous during the siege of Petersburg between June 1864 and March 1865. This 13in coast-defence mortar lacked armour protection, and fired from a simple platform wagon. However, in this chapter we will confine ourselves to an examination of those armoured artillery batteries which demonstrated the modern aspects of the American Civil War, and which provided the inspiration for similar construction in many future conflicts, beginning with the Franco-Prussian War, until surpassed in ingenuity during the Boer War.
During the very first days of the war the Federal Government ordered the construction of an armoured wagon to protect the track workers on the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore Railroad. It was placed under the orders of General Herman Haupt, a renowned railroad engineer, but he refused to use it, considering the wagon to be a ‘white elephant’. Nevertheless, the idea of armouring railway vehicles had taken root.
The Union Army built several armoured wagons. In the Summer of 1862, General Burnside ordered the construction of armoured wagons to counter the incursions of guerrillas and Southern raiders, but they were not meant to resist artillery. These wagons were mainly built in the workshops of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.
In 1862 a captain in the 23rd Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment designed an armoured artillery wagon which was built by the Atlantic & North Carolina Railroad and used for patrolling the line to the west of Newberne, where the Confederates were posted in some force. Propelled ahead of an engine with an armoured cab, this wagon bore the name Monitor. The wagon front, sides and rear were all inclined vertically inwards by some 15 degrees, and were painted black, with red firing loopholes. Its front end, pierced by an embrasure for a small naval gun, was armoured with vertical rails, and the sides and rear by boiler plate. The sides were bulletproof, and the front armour resisted projectiles from field guns. The roof was left open for ventilation and light, and covered by a tarpaulin. One Confederate artillery lieutenant expressed puzzlement and alarm at the first appearance of what the Southerners called the ‘Yankee gunboat on wheels’.
Faced by the cottonclad wagon of General Finegan (see the chapter on the Confederate States of America) during the Confederate attempt to recapture Jacksonville, in Union hands ever since 10 March 1863, the Northerners built their own armoured railway battery, armed apparently with a 10pdr Parrott rifle. The fighting between the two was the first example of combat between armoured railway wagons. The siege of Jacksonville would be lifted by the Union forces on 29 March.
In the same year, the Scientific American described trials by the Northerners of an armoured engine named Talisman, on which the cab and connecting rods were protected by an iron plate four-tenths of an inch (10mm) thick, on the advice of General Haupt. However, the trials showed that only small-arms projectiles would be stopped.
A Union armoured train was built by the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad with the aid of the 2nd Maryland Regiment, and was given the task of protecting the region around Cumberland. The train was arranged symmetrically on either side of the engine, which had an armoured cab. At front and rear there was an armoured battery protected by rails on three sides, the roof and rear of the wagon being left open, and then an armoured van with firing loopholes. In spite of its armour, a projectile in the boiler of the engine followed by a second striking an armoured wagon led to its destruction by the Confederates in July 1864.
The siege of Petersburg (June 1864–April 1865) saw the employment of railway artillery by the Union forces who wished to seize this strategic railroad centre where five major lines converged. The United States Military Railroad (USMR) which was by this time fully operational, deployed these weapons to such good effect that the Confederate Army was gradually cut off from outside aid. The town fell on 3 April 1865.
The Dry Land Merrimac
In June 1862 the Union Army of the Potomac advanced on the Confederate capital of Richmond. General Robert E Lee looked for a means of countering the enemy’s preponderance in heavy siege artillery, which they would be transporting into position by rail. On 5 June he asked Colonel Josiah Gorgas, the Chief of Ordnance, if it would be possible to mount a heavy gun on a railway car. The challenge was taken up by the Navy, who already had experience of armouring the famous Virginia (ex-Merrimac), which had taken on the Union blockaders and fought the first ironclad battle with USS Monitor.
On 26 June, Captain M Minor reported to Lee: ‘The railroad-iron plated battery designed by Lieutenant John M. Brooke, C.S. Navy, has been completed. The gun, a rifled and banded 32-pounder of 57 cwt, has been mounted and equipped by Lieutenant R.D. Minor, C.S. Navy, and with 200 rounds of ammunition, including 15-inch solid bolt shot, is now ready to be transferred to the Army.’ The railway gun was manned by Lt James Barry CSN, Sergeant Daniel Knowles and thirteen gunners of the Norfolk United Artillery Battery, many of whom had previously served on the Virginia.
The Battle of Savage’s Station, fought on 29 June 1862, was a Union defeat, watched by Confederate Major General Magruder from the rail overbridge. The railway gun was propelled towards the Union lines along the track of the Richmond & York Railroad by an unarmoured steam engine, with obstacles being removed or pushed aside by the gun itself. Firing explosive shells as it advanced, it forced the Union troops to abandon their lines across the track and take up flanking positions beside it, which the gunners could not counter as they had no means of training the gun to one side. Eventually, the gun had progressed so far in front of the Confederate lines that it risked being lost due to the Union flanking fire, and Lieutenant Barry ordered it to pull back.
Fifty-nine years after the event, the Confederate veteran Charles S. Gates described from memory the famous ‘Dry Land Merrimac’, as the railway gun was called by Richmond newspapers in 1862. Later descriptions, and reconstructions in model form, have been based on his recollections,5 including the painting above.
Fortunately we also have an eyewitness to the action, who fixed the scene in a watercolour. Private Robert Knox Sneden of the Union Army was a topographical engineer, who produced maps for the Army of the Potomac. Among his almost 1000 watercolours, sketches and maps was a painting of the Battle of Savage’s Station, with the railgun as the centrepiece. While answering many questions, his depiction poses others.
Private Sneden may have painted this scene from memory afterwards, as the Army of the Potomac was forced to withdraw from in front of Richmond in some disorder. He certainly stretches the platform wagon to a unbelievable length, which would be too weak to support the weight of the gun, never mind withstand the recoil. As he obviously observed the event from a considerable distance away, his rendering of the moving flatcar may not be all that accurate. Nevertheless, what his illustration does reveal is the ‘Virginia-like’ armoured casemate surrounding the cannon and its gunners, with armour on the sides as well as the front. He has correctly depicted the Union force being obliged to take up position flanking the railway track, which would ultimately oblige Lieutenant Minor and his men to pull back, for fear of being fired upon from the rear.
There has been some confusion in the minds of railway enthusiasts between this gun and the Union railway gun used at the siege of Petersburg, mounted on a fourteen-wheel wagon (see the United States of America chapter). The latter gun, however, is clearly protected by timber baulks alone, even if they do cover the sides as well as the front, and there is no covering of iron as mentioned in all the accounts of the Confederate piece.
Accounts differed as to its effects in action, and certainly the Union commanders did not make much of it in their reports. But then, mentioning the attack of an unstoppable railway weapon adding to the debacle of the battle would be like rubbing salt in one’s own wounds. After the battle, presumably recognising its tactical drawbacks, the Confederate Navy retrieved their valuable gun and the platform would be returned to freight work.
Military technology is likely to be transferred to the enemy whenever it is used against them. Through battle the enemy at least learn of the existence and capabilities of the weapons and techniques used against them, and may attempt even on that basis to reproduce them. Thus Cato was said (by Pliny, NH pref. 30) to have been educated by Hannibal, as well as by Scipio. Or they may capture a specimen and/or people who know how to use it, and copy that with advice from the captive(s). If they do secure a specimen, they will also know more of its shortcomings (every weapon has some). The Nervii learned how to make siege-works by watching the Romans and being instructed by prisoners of war; Caesar elsewhere commented that they were very good at copying, and were inventive too, and some technologies could be transferred simply by intelligent copying. That, no doubt, was one method by which catapult technology was diffused, and would explain why some worked well and some did not.
The Romans were extremely adept at adopting technologies from peoples they conquered. In this process pragmatism was apparently unhindered by prejudice, and the best of ancient technology, wherever it originated, was absorbed into Roman traditions, where it met, modified, and was modified by other technologies, old and new. Their armor and weapons were in constant evolution because of contact and conflict with other peoples. For example, most forms of “Roman” helmet seem to have been based on Celtic designs, the pilum may have originated with the Etruscans, “Moorish” javelins came from Africa, and cataphract cavalry-archers were adopted from the Persian/Parthian tradition. The emperor Antoninos was nicknamed Caracalla after the Celtic or Germanic word for a type of cloak that he adopted and adapted—a full-length hoody. Sometimes the debt was explicit and acknowledged, for example, Polybios tells how the Romans first learned to build a fleet by copying a Karthaginian vessel that ran aground, and later copied Rhodian ships. Centuries later Vegetius added that experience in battle showed the Romans that their Liburnian allies’ warships were of a better design than anyone else’s, including their own, and as a result the Romans copied both the design and the name.
The Egyptians were reputed by Caesar so good at copying Roman tools and techniques that “no sooner had they seen what was being done by us than they would reproduce it with such cunning” that they seemed to be the originators. Away from the southern Mediterranean, in northern Europe, the Batavians, who were evidently much less skilled than the Egyptians at copying by sight, used deserters and captives to teach them how to make and use Roman siege engines and sheds. The Romans’ expertise with catapults meant that such “crude” machines were soon destroyed by Roman shot or firebrand, but the Batavians in due course became the Germans’ artillery experts, and other German tribal leaders asked them to build machines and siege works for later campaigns. It is likely that engineers, usually stationed by their machines, were captured if not killed whenever machines were captured; thus we are told that one of Pompey’s chief engineers, one L. Vibullius Rufus, twice fell into Caesar’s hands. Another method of technology transfer through battle was by accident, so to speak. Hanno moved Utica’s artillery to his camp, after (as he thought) chasing away the mercenaries who were besieging the town, but while he and most of his forces were celebrating in said town, the mercenaries came back and seized his camp, and thus obtained both his and the town’s artillery. Some Spaniards, after causing a Roman force to abandon its camp under cover of dark, entered the deserted camp and armed themselves with the equipment that had been left behind “in the confusion.” The Iapydes of the transalpine region used against Augustus Roman machines that they found lying around some years earlier, after a civil war clash in their territory between Brutus, on the one hand, and Antony and Octavian on the other. The tale of Bousas, who taught the Avars how to build helepoleis, siege towers, is another example.
Another vector is the arms dealer, moving either between allies, or between suppliers and customers whoever and wherever they may be. A negotiator gladiarius, procurer of swords, who pops up in the records of Mainz, was perhaps such an arms trader. This trade is notoriously secretive, as well as dangerous, and it would be naïve in the extreme to think that the paucity of evidence for arms traders in antiquity was an accurate reflection of the state of the business at the time. The largest businesses known from classical Athens were arms manufacturers (shield workshop and blade maker, respectively), and it is inconceivable that the arms trade was not flourishing in a world where warfare was more common and regular than tax collection. The Codex Theodosius laid down capital punishment for anyone caught teaching the barbarians how to build ships, but the Vandals (who had moved down from inland Eurasia) nevertheless had found out how to build a decent navy by A.D. 419. Cassiodoros meanwhile lamented that Italy (being governed by the Goths when he was writing) lacked a navy despite the abundance of timber.
To the victor went the spoils, and on surrender of a town, their catapults, along with their arms, ships, and money, were usually handed over. This could be a very effective method of acquisition of new technologies. Consider a comparative case from Hawaii. In 1790, the lightly armed American merchant ship Eleanor fired a broadside and killed about 100 natives. The natives responded by seizing the next American ship to reach the islands. They unloaded its weapons, and captured a white man (haole) who was able to teach them how to use the guns. Over the next few years they captured more ships and seized their weapons and gunpowder stores. By 1804, one of the chiefs could deploy 600 muskets, fourteen cannon, forty small swivel guns, and six mortars. Returning to antiquity, paperwork might be an asset to be exploited by the conquerors, or not, depending on the particular conqueror’s appreciation of the contents. Thus it appears that the Karthaginian libraries were given away by the Romans in 146 B.C., when they destroyed the city, making an exception only of Mago’s twenty-eight volumes on agriculture, of which the senate ordered a Latin translation be made. Polybios records that Philip V, not relying on another bout of such absent-mindedness by the Romans, kept his head in such an emergency and ordered the burning of his papers before the Romans could get their hands on them. Papers might include blueprints or other scientific or technological information of use to the enemy, as well as diplomatic documents. Certainly, Pompey recognized the value of Mithridates’ toxicology results, which arose from a program of research into poisons so successful that Mithridates was reputedly immune to all known venoms and toxins so that when he wanted to commit suicide he had to fall on his sword. Pompey ordered a Latin translation be made of them, apparently for his own use rather than that of the Roman reading public, since there is no hint that it was ever published either in its original Persian or in Latin.
Allies will copy good technology too, of course. Polybios’ belief in Greek superiority over the Romans leaks out through his text here and there. At one point he compares in detail the Greek and Roman methods of cutting and setting stakes around a palisade, and having concluded that the Roman way was better, said that if any military contrivance was worth copying from the Romans, then this was it. One could be forgiven for thinking (erroneously) that the phalanx had beaten the legion.
It is not just technology that is reproduced by enemies; fighting techniques are, too. Caesar observed that troops adopt the fighting techniques of the enemy if they fight them continuously over a long period. We are reminded of the Spartan Antalkidas’s criticism of his king, when he said that by persistently fighting the Thebans, Agesilaos had thereby provided them with the means necessary to defeat the Spartans. Agesilaos had apparently ignored a decree of the legendary Spartan lawgiver Lykourgos that forbade campaigning frequently against the same people, for that very reason.
Rome’s enemies did not always want captured ordnance, of course, and might destroy it instead. Thus the Parthians destroyed the siege engines apparently left behind by Antony in his haste through their country, including an eighty-foot-long battering ram and other equipment whose scale is indicated by the fact that it was being transported on three hundred wagons and protected by more than 10,000 troops. In the third to sixth centuries A.D., the Goths, Vandals, Huns, and sometimes even the Romans themselves destroyed more than they copied, and the western empire descended into the Dark Ages.
The Mark XI PR Spitfire relied on speed and agility for protection. Travelling at 400 miles per hour, the aircraft, which flashed low over the Merville Battery at 1,000 feet, had been ‘cottonized’. By stripping out their guns and radios, the weight of their airframes had been reduced to allow them to carry a configuration of photographic reconnaissance equipment. The sortie that flew over Rommel and his party were fitted with F.24 cameras with fourteen-inch focal lenses, which enabled them to take low-level oblique-angle photos. The aircraft could also carry F.52 cameras with larger lenses to take vertical pictures from altitudes of up to 30,000 feet, but the mission they flew over the Merville Battery required greater detail and that meant going in low.
Each Spitfire carried one sideways-looking F.24 mounted in a porthole behind the cockpit on the port side of the fuselage. Producing a five-by-five-inch negative, each exposure provided a coverage of 1,667 by 1,667 yards of ground. Once enlarged, the negatives produced a 1:12,000 scale image, with sufficient detail to pick out a single man, or a group of men running for cover. But it wasn’t just the scale that was important. Two additional F.24s, with smaller five-inch lenses, were fitted under the wings and angled towards each other so they could take overlapping photos of the same target. When consecutive photos were viewed with a stereoscope, they gave a three-dimensional effect, akin to looking at a still from a modern film with 3-D glasses.
Achieving the 3-D effect depended on the interval of exposures between frames being matched against the speed of the aircraft. Consequently, flying a low-level ‘dicing’ mission to get the necessary detail was a tricky and intricate business that required skill and entailed risk, as, lacking height, the pilots were more vulnerable to enemy aircraft above them and flak below them.
To capture the right image, the pilots’ navigation had to be spot-on; even a small deviation from the pre-planned flight path could lead to missing the target by several hundred yards. Flying close to the ground at high speed, the lead pilot had little time to line up his aircraft and aim the camera by aligning a tiny black cross etched on the blister of his bubble canopy with a small black strip painted on his aileron. At the same time he had to mentally calculate his speed and adjust the camera control box on his joystick to ensure it was set at the right exposure to start taking the pictures.
Trusting that his wingman was with him, the aviator glanced at his airspeed dial, checked his bearing and then focused on the crosshair and target alignment. He thumbed the camera control switch as the terrain of green fields and hedgerows flashed past beneath him; at the moment when all three points of reference lined up, he flicked the switch on his control column and the cameras started taking photographs at one-second intervals.
Surprise was also an important part of the aircraft’s protection and the pilot put more faith in it than in the single sheet of armoured plating in the back of his seat. He knew he had to get the alignment right first time. There would be no second chance. He had to bounce the target and get in and out fast, before the anti-aircraft gunners had time to react and fill the air around him with flak. If he missed the target, or his photos were not of the right quality, he would not be allowed to revisit the target for several days.
The pilot in the lead Spitfire was concentrating too hard to realize that the gunners of the single 20mm 38 Flak gun at the battery had failed to get their cannon into action against him or his wingman. He hoped he had got what he wanted as he flicked off the camera control switch and pulled back aggressively on his joystick to begin climbing hard for altitude.
The danger was far from over. The pair of reconnaissance aircraft may have been too fast for the crew of the 20mm gun mounted on the cookhouse bunker of the battery, but they still had to run the gauntlet of the nearby anti-aircraft positions stationed along the coast if they were get home safely with the information they had captured. By now the Germans were alerted to the presence of enemy fighters in the area and thick black puffs of exploding flak and tracer marked the air as the Spitfires pulled up steeply to reach a height of 5,000 feet to give them a chance of evading enemy fire as they crossed the coast. This is where the two-stage supercharged Merlin 60 engine, with its excellent climb rate, did its business.
The engines screamed for power, calling on the maximum performance of their 1,560-brake horsepower to get their aircraft out of trouble. Both pilots fought against the crushing effects of the G-force, as the horizon dropped away below them and their airframes surged upwards. They were not out of it yet. As the blood began to drain to their lower extremities, they struggled to remain focused. The need to keep scanning the skies above them and the rear-view mirror for enemy aircraft was paramount, as was checking that the aircraft’s fuel gauges, oil pressure and heading were all still good.
Within an hour of clearing the coast the two aircraft were back at their base at RAF Benson in Oxfordshire. As their props feathered and wound down at their stands on the apron of the airfield, the ground crews of the squadron’s photographic section were already waiting to meet them. While the crews switched off their engines, unstrapped and climbed out of their cockpits to head for debriefing by the intelligence officer in the operations room, the magazines of the cameras were being unloaded. The film was taken to a requisitioned manor house in the neighbouring village of Ewelme, where it could be developed. Within forty-eight hours the negatives had arrived at RAF Medmenham in Buckinghamshire for detailed analysis.
Medmenham was a sister organization of Bletchley Park and specialized in photographic intelligence and interpretation. Much of the work they conducted was in 3-D using a stereoscope. The stereoscope was a bi-optical viewing device, akin to a pair of magnifying spectacles mounted on a small four-legged metal frame. When positioned over an overlapping air photograph, it gave the 3-D image. Being able to view captured images in three dimensions was crucial, because it brought the enemy landscape and installations they studied to life, and allowed the interpreters to examine features of an object, such as the angles of shadows, to make assessments about the height of a particular structure or weapon types. It was a monotonous and painstaking task, but the photographic intelligence work at Medmenham was instrumental to the planning of D-Day in assessing enemy dispositions, strengths and capabilities.
In the run-up to the invasion, the teams of interpreters at Medmenham would study and file reports on 16 million photographs of enemy-occupied territory. It was an immense undertaking and the interpreters worked round the clock to provide those charged with planning D-Day with vital information. The majority of effort was concentrated along the coastline between Calais and Cherbourg, but no one area received particular attention so as not to give away the intended location of the invasion.
The stereoscope was Medmenham’s secret weapon; while the British and Americans worked in three rather than two dimensions, the Germans did not. Scouring the prints of the Merville Battery for every detail, the interpreters could give an appraisal of the progress of the casemates’ erection, noting that two had been completed and that two remained under construction. They could also provide an estimate of the thickness of the concrete protection, pick out the detail of perimeter defences and compare the progress of the work against later photographs. This was all important information, but the study of the photographs could not confirm the calibre of the guns at Merville. It was a vital piece of missing detail, as the position of the battery and the frantic work being conducted to improve its defences were of profound concern to the man responsible for planning the Allied invasion of France.
By January 1944, Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Morgan had been working on the planning for D-Day for several months. At a meeting in Washington in May 1943 the Combined British and American Chiefs of Staff had taken the final decision to invade Nazi-occupied north-west Europe and had set a provisional date of May 1944. Morgan had been selected as the Chief of Staff Supreme Allied Command. As COSSAC, he and a small team of Anglo-American officers were responsible for the joint planning of the largest, most complex combined arms operation ever to be mounted. They had decided to codename it Operation Overlord and had also decided that it would take place in Normandy.
COSSAC’s detailed planning had identified the advantages of landing in Calais, but their work also confirmed that it was heavily defended. The disaster of Dieppe highlighted the need to avoid landing in areas of main enemy troop concentrations and had been reinforced by the experience of Allied landings in Sicily and Italy. German troop dispositions in Normandy were more thinly spread and could be more readily isolated by bombing the bridges over the Seine, which the bulk of German reinforcing units would have to pass across. Intensive reconnaissance and intelligence analysis had also confirmed that the gently sloping beaches along the Cotentin Peninsula were suitable for a landing and were within the range of Allied fighter cover. Additionally, the terrain and inland road network were suitable for the logistic build-up of a beachhead and subsequent breakout towards Paris.
While Normandy offered clear advantages to Morgan and his planners, it also had its problems. One was a matter of logistics. Cherbourg was the nearest major port most suitable for the subsequent logistical build-up behind the main beach landing, but its heavy defences precluded a direct assault from the sea. This was overcome by the simple, but ingenious decision to take a port with them in the form of the Mulberry portable harbours and by laying fuel pipelines under the Channel. But the issue of neutralizing the gun battery at Merville was an altogether thornier problem, which could not be overcome by the application of physics and science alone.
On the other side of the River Orne from the Merville Battery lay the small seaside resort of Ouistreham, where the mouth of the river flows into the Bay of the Seine and the beaches of Normandy start their long curve west along the flat shelving shoreline of the Cotentin Peninsula towards Cherbourg. Codenamed Sword by the Allied planners, the beach at Ouistreham was at the eastern end of the Allies’ chosen landing area. It was also where the left-hand British assault division would touch down on the morning of D-Day.
Given their position, the guns at Merville were capable of sweeping the entire length of the beach with artillery fire. Drawing on the lessons from Dieppe, where British and Canadian troops had been caught out in the open shingle as they disembarked from their landing craft, Morgan and his team were in no doubt of the devastation that a well-defended battery could wreak on troops struggling to get ashore on Sword. Additionally, the position of the guns meant that they would be capable of engaging ships out to sea as well as the slow-moving landing craft as they ran into the beach.
Although it had not been confirmed by photo reconnaissance, the COSSAC planners suspected that the guns were 150mm-calibre field howitzers. While none of the artillery pieces had been captured on camera, when viewed under a stereoscope the shape and shadow at the rear of the casemates indicated that large entrances were being constructed. If they were naval ordnance, the guns would have been bolted permanently inside the bunkers and would have no need of large rear entrances. Consequently, photographic interpretation suggested that the casemates were designed specifically to take field guns, which could be manhandled in and out of the concrete shelters.
Given the extraordinary lengths the Germans were going to in order to protect the guns, it was logical for the planners to deduce that they would be one of the heavier and more valuable Wehrmacht field types. The largest standard field gun the Wehrmacht possessed was schwere or ‘heavy’ Feldhaubitze 18. It had a calibre of 150mm and could hurl a shell weighing sixty pounds over ten miles, a distance that brought every inch of Sword Beach within range and meant that vessels could be engaged several miles out at sea.
While the Allies placed a heavy emphasis on PR aircraft to gain intelligence on the Atlantic Wall defences, they were not their only source of information on the preparations being made on the other side of the Channel. The build-up of German troops at the beginning of 1944 and the frenetic building activity had not gone unnoticed by the French Resistance. Eugène Meslin was the Vichy government’s chief engineer in Caen and was responsible for handling relations with the Todt Organisation. Meslin was also the head of the Resistance’s intelligence section at their western headquarters based in the city and his job meant that he was ideally placed to conduct the principal Resistance task of spying on the German coastal defences and reporting on their progress to the Allies. Through his network of fellow engineers and artisans working for the Germans on the defences, the details of every pill-box, wire entanglement and gun emplacement were being reported back to London by Meslin’s outfit.
Louis Bourdet was a member of Meslin’s network and had been subcontracted to work on the gun position at Merville. When completing electrical work at the battery he had managed to slip his hand into the mouth of one of the guns. Once his shift had finished, Bourdet raced home and measured the span of his hand with the aid of a piece of paper and a ruler. The ruler showed 120mm and the information was duly fed back to London. The Germans did not possess 120mm-calibre field guns, but the measurement of Bourdet’s hand suggested that the guns in the casemates were definitely larger than the Wehrmacht’s other standard-issue field howitzer, the smaller leichte or ‘light’ Feldhaubitze 18, which had a calibre of 105mm.
By the early 1930s the Skoda works at Pilsen in Czechoslovakia were in a position to design, develop and produce entirely new artillery pieces that owed nothing to the old World War I weapons that had hitherto been the company’s main output. By 1933 they had produced, among other things, an entirely new 149-mm (5.87-in) range of howitzers known as the ‘K’ series. The first of these, the Kl, was produced in 1933 and the entire output of these vz 33 weapons went for export to Turkey, Romania and Yugoslavia. The Kl was a thoroughly modern piece with a heavy split trail, and was designed for either horse or motorized traction. For the latter the piece could be towed as one load, but for the former the barrel could be removed for towing as a separate load.
Despite the success of the Kl, the Czech army decided that the weapon did not meet its exact requirements and funded further development to the stage where a K4 model met the specification. The K4 had much in common with the earlier K1, but had a shorter barrel and (as the Czech army was making considerable strides towards full mechanization) the need for removing the barrel for separate horse traction was no longer required, The K4 also used pneumatic wheels (the Kl had solid rubber-rimmed steel wheels) and some other modifications to suit it for the mechanized tractor towing role.
With these changes the Czech army decided to adopt the K4 as its standard heavy field howitzer to replace the large range of elderly weapons remaining from World War I. The K4 was given the army designation 15-cm hrubâ houfnice vz 37, vz 37 (vz for vzor, or model) denoting the equipment’s year of acceptance for service, Skoda drew up production plans, but as always this took time and in the interim the Germans occupied the Czech Sudetenland. Plans for production became even more frantic, but with the Sudetenland line of defences in German hands Czechoslovakia was wide open to further German aggression and in 1939 they duly marched in to take over the rest of the country.
The Germans also secured the Skoda works at Pilsen, finding on the production lines the first of the full production vz 37 weapons. By that time only a few models had been produced, and these the German army tested on ranges back in the Reich, discovering that the vz 37 was a sound and serviceable howitzer with a good range of 15100m (16,515 yards) and firing a very useful 42-kg (92.6-lb) projectile. The Germans decided to keep the vz 37 in production at Pilsen for their own requirements, and thus the vz 37 became the German army’s 15-cm schwere Feldhaubitze 37(t), or 15-cm heavy field howitzer Model 1937 (Czech), the (t) denoting tschechisch, or Czech. With the German army the sFH 37(t) became a standard weapon of many divisions, forming part of the divisional artillery equipment and even being used by some corps batteries. It was used during the French campaign of May and June 1940, and later in the invasion of the Soviet Union during 1941. Some were still in service in the Soviet Union as late as 1944, but by then many had been passed to the various Balkan forces under German control and operating within what is now Yugoslavia; the Slovak army was one such recipient.
Calibre: 149.1 mm (5.87 in)
Length of piece: 3.60 m (11 ft 9.7 in)
Weight: travelling 5730 kg (12,632 lb) and in action 5200 kg ( 11,464 lb)
“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”
JOHN WEEKS, MEN AGAINST TANKS: A HISTORY OF ANTI-TANK WARFARE, 1975
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 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.
THE FIRST TRANSFORMATION
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.
THE GUNNERS STRIKE BACK
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.