The 38cm S.K. L/45 ‘Max’ railway gun

The 38cm S.K. L/45 ‘Max’ was Germany’s largest-calibre railway gun. It could fire from the rails as a rolling mount, but only when the barrel was elevated less than 18 degrees. This gun was captured by the Belgian Army.

For long-range fires the German 38cm S.K. L/45 ‘Max’ operated from a fixed ground platform. Here, the carriage is raised on its jacks with the rear bogies removed. After the front bogies are taken away, the crew will lower the carriage and bolt it to the platform.

German Turntable Mount for 38cm S.K. L/45 ‘Max’. German firing platforms permitted railway guns to rotate on the mount, providing a wide field of fire and, in some cases, all-around fire. The most sophisticated of these mounts was a structural steel turntable mount built for the 38cm S.K. L/45 ‘Max’ and later used by the 21cm Paris Gun. Because nearly three weeks were needed for installation, the platforms were constructed well before a railway gun arrived at the position.

In the winter of 1917–18, Krupp built several new models of E.u.B. railway guns for the German Army’s upcoming spring offensives. Most of the barrels used for the guns came from fixed platform artillery or decommissioned warships. Four 24cm K. L/30 ‘Theodor Otto’ guns were made by mounting old 24cm cannons onto the ‘Theodor Karl’ carriage design adapted to accept the older model barrel, and six 28cm K. L/40 ‘Kurfürst’ guns were built by placing old 28cm cannons onto a new carriage design. Both ‘Theodor Otto’ and ‘Kurfürst’ had ‘K.’ barrels, which had a slower rate of fire than the fast-loading ‘S.K.’ cannons of other railway guns, but the difference did not appreciably affect performance. Krupp also converted five 21cm cannons, used by the navy as fixed foundation guns since 1915, into railway pieces designated as the 21cm S.K. L/45 ‘Peter Adalbert’. Despite design differences, all these railway guns were functionally similar, having lifting jacks and a pivot mechanism for attaching the gun to its ground platform. The guns also had an equivalent range of about 18,500m.

Krupp also constructed eight 38cm S.K. L/45 ‘Max’ railway guns, which were much larger in calibre and size than its other railway artillery pieces. The genesis of these guns dated back to 1915, when the army successfully employed 38cm ‘Lange Max’ naval cannons on fixed foundations at Verdun, the Somme and in Flanders. At the end of 1917, when construction of several battleships was deferred in favour of U-boat production, a number of 38cm naval cannons became available for use as either ground or rail-mounted artillery. Krupp put eight of these barrels on E.u.B. mounts and delivered the first gun in January 1918. The 38cm ‘Max’ was the largest-calibre railway artillery gun fielded by the Germans and was employed by both the army and the navy. When fired from railway tracks it had a range of 24,000m, but from a ground platform the maximum range was 47,500m. Because of its weight – 273 tons – ‘Max’ needed a different ground platform than those used for the smaller 21cm, 24cm and 28cm railway guns. Instead of a pivot mechanism, the platform for ‘Max’ had a steel turntable. The first platforms had concrete foundations for the turntables. Later, by May, a more versatile all-steel platform that could be removed and installed at another firing site was provided for the guns.

In 1913, the German shipbuilding industry began construction of Bayern type battleships. In total, it was planned to build four such ships, distinguished by powerful protection and weapons. Two battleships were completed and transferred the fleet, while the third and fourth ships were only launched. Soon it was decided to stop construction, which, among other things, led to the release of a large number of various equipment and weapons. The main caliber of ships in the form of 38-cm guns, it was decided to use on land as weapons of special power.

According to some reports, for the first time, 38 cm SK L / 45 tools were used in the interests of the ground forces at the beginning of 1916. For this purpose, quite complex firing positions were equipped, equipped with massive concrete pedestals and corresponding means of guidance. Such a complex made it possible to attack targets in the entire allowable range of firing ranges, but was extremely difficult to operate. The construction of the stationary artillery complex took several weeks.

The characteristic flaws of the existing system have led to the emergence of a new proposal. An idea emerged to significantly improve the mobility of guns through the use of rail transportation systems. It was originally planned to use the railways only to deliver the gun to the position, but later it was found that a conveyor could be used as a mobile unit capable of firing from the wheels. According to various sources, work on the rail version of the artillery system began no earlier than 1916-17.

A promising railway cannon project was given a designation similar to that used with other developments in this field – 38 cm SK L / 45 (“38-cm fast reloading cannon with a barrel of 45 gauge”). The project was also given the additional name Max (“Max”) or Lange Max (“Long Max”). It should be noted that only an additional name allows to distinguish the railway version of the gun from the base ship. The development of the project was entrusted to the concern Krupp

Transportation of a large and heavy gun was quite a challenge, which required creating an entirely new conveyor with the appropriate characteristics. It was decided to use the already developed version of the transportation and deployment type Bettungsgerüst. In this case, a special complex with a dismantled artillery installation was to be moved along the railways. The undercarriage was required only for delivery to the place of combat work, after which the gun had to be deprived of it. This architecture provided all the required characteristics, but at the same time it allowed to accelerate the process of deploying weapons to the position in comparison with a full-fledged fixed installation.

Later it was decided to recycle the conveyor in accordance with the concept of Eisenbahn und Bettungsgerüst. Now the gun could not only shoot from a previously prepared stationary position, but also be used on any part of the track. In general, this installation option could solve all the tasks, however, it differed with some features. First of all, he had to have serious restrictions on the angles of guidance and firing range associated with the design features of the weapon and associated units.

Artillery installation “Max” was to be built on the already established scheme. Four trucks with four and five wheel pairs on each became its basis at once. Trolleys were locked in pairs and equipped with pivots for connection with the central element of the conveyor. The latter was a large and solid beam of complex shape and design, having all the necessary devices to be placed on the position and installation of the gun. The central beam of the conveyor was a unit of frame construction with a gap between the side elements. This space was proposed to be used for partial placement of the instrument in certain circumstances.

Due to the large mass and power, the gun was proposed to be equipped with a combined recoil damping system. The barrel was to be connected to hydropneumatic recoil devices, which, in turn, were placed on a movable cradle. The latter had the ability to move along the central beam of the conveyor and partially extinguished recoil. On the swinging cradle suspended between the side elements of the beam, placed a large and heavy counterweight. Used long-barreled gun had a tendency to lower the barrel. The installation of equilibrators was considered inexpedient, which is why a counterweight appeared over the trunk, next to the trunnions. It was made of two separate halves, pinned pivotally. In the transport position, they lay on the upper surface of the trunk; in the combat position, they converged and formed a rectangular structure.

As part of the new artillery installation was used naval gun 38 cm SK L / 45. It had a rifled barrel caliber 380 mm long 16,1 m. The total mass of the gun in the ship’s performance reached 80 t. Used wedge gate, moving in the horizontal plane. The gun was charged separately using a variable propellant charge. The latter consisted of a sleeve with the main charge and the required number of additional cards. The gun could accelerate the projectile to a speed of more than 1000 m / s and send it to a distance of 55 km. At the same time, the railway implement could have some limitations on the range characteristics.

380-mm gun could use shells of several types. The largest and heaviest was a fragmentation total weight of 750 kg. It contained 67 kg of explosive and could leave the barrel at a speed of 800 m / s. The firing range of such a projectile reached 32,4 km. Maximum speed and range were achieved using ballistic-cap munitions.

Due to the large mass of projectile and liner, the Max project involved the use of cranes and special vehicles. With their help, the ammunition was fed under the conveyor, behind the breech of the gun, and climbed the dismounting line. Depending on the firing position used, different devices could be used to work with projectiles.

Concern “Krupp” developed two options for the combat use of railway guns, differing from each other in equipping the firing position. The first, Bettungsgerüst, implied a long position preparation, which required up to three weeks. During this time, builders had to dig a pit with a diameter of 22 m and a depth of 3,5 m, and then build a special concrete structure in it. After this, a cylindrical pedestal for the instrument appeared on the position, surrounded by a stepped wall. On the pedestal there was a shoulder strap for mounting a gun mount.

Upon arrival, the calculation of the railway implement, using additional tracks and cranes, was to hang the conveyor platform over the constructed position, and then lower it onto the epaulet. Next, the carts were removed, the cranes were removed, and some other operations needed to start the combat work were performed. In particular, transport carts for projectiles were installed on the corresponding rail tracks.

The 38 cm SK L / 45 Lange Max gun in the Bettungsgerüst version could show the highest possible performance. Tumbovaya installation and epaulet allowed to direct the gun horizontally in any direction. The installation was raised above the bottom of the excavation, so that the elevation angles could vary from 0 ° to + 55 °. The maximum rise of the barrel allowed attacking targets at ranges over 45-50 km. Thus, the full potential of the gun could only be revealed at the cost of lengthy preparation of the firing position.

Work on the method of Eisenbahn und Bettungsgerüst was not so difficult and did not require lengthy preparation. For such shooting, one had only to arrive at the firing position, put the boots under the wheels and prepare the weapon for firing. For horizontal pickup when shooting from the railroad, a special mechanism was used, placed on the front carts. The presence of a movable support connecting them with the central beam, as well as a hinge connection with the rear carriages, allowed the transporter to move within the sector width 2 °. At the same time there were serious restrictions on the angles of vertical pickup: no more than + 18 ° 30 ‘. This restriction was introduced because of the length of the rollback, since at high elevation angles the breech could hit the way. The German military considered it inappropriate to disassemble the rails and cut a hole in the embankment: this method of increasing the pickup angles did not allow the complex to quickly leave the position. By reducing the maximum elevation angle, the firing range dropped to 22,2 km.

Complex Max turned out large and heavy. The total length of the system in the transport position reached 31,6 m. Mass – 268 t, without taking into account various additional means, such as ammunition, trucks for them, transport, cranes and, of course, building materials for the preparation of the position.

The assembly of the first transporters for a new type of railway complex began in 1917. Krupp companies delivered eight ship guns to fulfill the order. Initially, these guns were made to install on new ships, but the construction of carriers was canceled, which forced the commanders to look for a new use for them. The number of rail systems planned for construction was limited by the number of guns available.

In the winter of 1917-18, the army received the first samples of new weapons. In the same period, the construction of future fixed positions began. Flanders was chosen as the first theater of war for the new guns. The weapons were proposed for use in the course of the future Spring Offensive. Preparation of positions had to begin in advance, given the long construction time of concrete structures. Such structures were built until the end of the spring 1918, when a new version of the Bettungsgerüst installation appeared. Now some elements of the position had to be made not of concrete, but of metal, which made it possible to speed up construction work.

For the first time, 380-mm naval guns were used on land in February 1916, at the beginning of the Battle of Verdun. Complexes “Long Max” went to war only two years later. Interestingly, only one such system was transferred to the army, while the others formally remained naval. Nevertheless, despite such an organizational structure, the navy helped the ground forces in their battles. The operation of special-power weapons was conducted only on land as part of army operations.

Due to the high firing characteristics and the available power of the 38 cm SK L / 45 Max shells, they could show the required efficiency even without mass use. Usually no more than 2-3 guns acted on one front. Among other things, this made it possible to disperse railway artillery into several remote areas and use it in various operations. The presence of only a few railway guns on a stationary or mobile base made it possible to cause serious damage to the enemy at great depth without serious risk of destroying the guns by a retaliatory strike. However, only a few months remained until the end of the war, because of which special power tools simply could not participate in a large number of operations.

Probably for this reason, in November 1918, one of the guns was on the territory of Belgium, where it was captured by local troops. The remaining seven units were previously assigned to Germany, where they were planned to be transferred to the coastal defenses. At these places, eight guns met a truce, which accordingly affected their future. Seven guns, planned for the transfer of coastal artillery, could not be saved from disposal: they were dismantled in accordance with the conditions of the Versailles peace. The eighth gun went to Belgium and therefore did not go for recycling.

For several years, the Belgian troops studied and used the captured sample, after which it was decided to sell this instrument to France. In 1924, the only remaining “Max” changed owner. French specialists conducted full-scale tests, during which all the main characteristics of the gun were established. After testing the gun was sent to storage. As far as is known, it was not used by the army. In 1940, Nazi Germany attacked France, and she soon capitulated. Together with other available weapons and equipment, the German troops got the 38 cm SK L / 45 Max complex. Probably, the German troops were glad of such a trophy, but the operation of the captured gun was not planned. The subsequent fate of the sample is unknown.

In 2014, the Lange Max Museum was opened in Belgium, dedicated, as its name implies, to the Long Max tool. The museum exhibits a preserved instrument, dismantled from its installation. In addition, not far from the buildings of the museum is one of the surviving firing positions with a concrete base for the gun.

As part of the 38 cm SK L / 45 Lange Max project, the designers of the Krupp concern were tasked with creating a conveyor belt for transporting existing 380-mm ship guns. As in the case of other similar projects, this task was successfully solved, and the armed forces received the required equipment. Nevertheless, it happened late – in 1917-18, which is why new tools of special power could not have a noticeable impact on the course of the war as a whole, although they showed their capabilities in individual battles. But the late appearance did not allow Germany’s most powerful railway cannon to reach its full potential.

Breech-Loading Heavy Guns at Sea

Ordnance experiments in the 1870s involving testing pressures in gun bores revealed that performance could be significantly enhanced by utilizing slower-burning gunpowder and longer barrels. Slow-burning large-grain powder, known as prismatic powder, prolonged the length of time that the charge acted on the projectile and thus increased both muzzle velocity and range. The problem with this was that the projectile left the barrel before all the powder was consumed. This could be solved by longer barrels, but that made muzzle-loading next to impossible. The slower-burning powders also required a powder chamber of diameter larger than that of the bore. All these factors, and the need to protect gun crews during the loading process, prompted a renewed search for an effective breech-loading gun.

Although breechloaders had been tried at sea in the modern era, beginning in 1858 in the French Gloire and later in the British Warrior, problems led to them being discarded. In 1864 the Royal Navy reverted definitively to muzzle-loading ordnance, but other nations, especially the French, moved ahead with breechloaders.

The old problem of ineffective sealing at the breech was only slowly overcome. In 1872 a French Army captain named de Bange came up with a “plastic gas check” that helped prevent escape of gases at the breech, and in 1875 France adopted the breechloader. At the same time brass cartridge cases, already used for small arms, came into use for the smaller breech-loading guns.

An accident aboard HMS Thunderer in the Sea of Marmora in January 1879 helped prompt the Royal Navy’s return to breechloaders. Simultaneous firing was under way, with the main guns fired in salvo; during this, one of the battleship’s 12-inch muzzle-loading guns misfired. This was not detected from the force of the discharge of the one gun, and both guns were run back in hydraulically to be reloaded. When they were again fired the double-charged gun blew up, killing 11 men and injuring 35 others. This could not have happened with a breech-loading gun, and in May the Admiralty set up a committee to investigate the merits of breech-loading versus muzzle-loading guns. In August 1879 after a committee of officers examined new breechloaders built by Armstrong in Britain and Krupp in Germany, the Royal Navy decided to utilize the breechloader in three battleships entering service in 1881-1882.

Another change in the period was to guns of steel, which accompanied enormous increases in gun size. Krupp in Germany began producing cast steel rifled guns in 1860. The change to steel guns was made possible by the production of higher-quality steel. At the same time that the Royal Navy went to the breechloader it adopted the all-steel gun, in which a steel jacket was shrunk over a steel tube and layers of steel hoops were then shrunk over this. The system of jackets and hoops over an inner steel tube was followed by one in which steel wire was spun on under tension varying with the distance from the bore. This helped eliminate barrel droop. Such “wire guns” continued in British service until the 1930s. Bore lengths of the guns increased from 35 to 45 calibers and even from 40 to 45 calibers.

The larger guns of the period required mechanized ammunition hoists and complex breech-loading gear. Their metal carriages recoiled on inclined metal slides that pivoted under the gun port. The slides were trained laterally by means of transverse truck wheels moving on racers, iron paths set into the ship’s deck.

Naval Gun Turret

Following the decision to arm ships with a few large-bore pivot-mounted guns as their principal armament, the next step was an armored turret to protect the guns and their crews, especially during the lengthy reloading process. During the Crimean War (1853-1856), Royal Navy captain Cowper Coles designed two floating batteries to engage Russian shore batteries at close range. The second of these mounted a 68-pounder protected by a hemispheric iron shield, which during action proved largely impervious to hostile fire.

In March 1859 Coles patented the idea of turrets aboard ship. He advocated guns mounted on the centerline of the vessel so as to have wide arcs of fire on either side of the ship and halving the number of guns previously required for broadsides fire. Coles’s persistence, coupled with the powerful support of Prince Albert, led the Admiralty in March 1861 to install an experimental armored turret on the floating battery Trusty. The test was a success, for 33 hits from 68-pounder and 100-pounder guns failed to disable it.

The Coles turret turned on a circumferential roller path set in the lower deck, operated by two men with a hand crank. Its upper 4.5 feet of armor came up through the main or upper deck and formed an armored glacis to protect the lower part. The crew and ammunition entered the turret from below through a hollow central cylinder.

The first British seagoing turreted ship was the Coles-inspired Prince Albert of 1864. It mounted four 9-inch muzzle-loading rifles, one each in four centerline circular turrets, turned by hand; 18 men could complete a revolution in one minute. The problem of centerline turrets in a ship of high superstructure and sail rig and very low freeboard (the latter the result of a design error) contributed to the disastrous loss at sea of the Coles-designed HMS Captain in 1870. Most of its crew drowned, Coles among them.

In the United States, John Ericsson’s single revolving turret the Monitor entered service in March 1862. The Monitor and many follow-on types all had very low freeboard. This lessened the amount of armor required to protect the ship, allowing it to be concentrated in the turret. Unlike the Captain, however, the Monitor had no high superstructure or sail rig.

Ericsson’s turret was all above the upper deck, on which it rested. Before the turret could be turned, it had to be lifted by rack and pinion from contact with the deck. A steam engine operating through gearing turned the turret around a central spindle. The Monitor was the first time that a revolving turret had actually been employed in battle, in its March 9, 1862, engagement with CSS Virginia.

Sharp disagreement continued between those who favored the revolving turret and supporters of broadside armament. Renewed interest in the ram-in consequence of the 1866 Battle of Lissa-and larger, more powerful guns helped decide this in favor of the turret. The ram meant that ships had to fire ahead as they prepared to attack an opposing vessel; heavier guns meant that ships needed fewer of them and that these should have the widest possible arc of fire. The elimination of sail rigs and improved ship designs heightened the stability of turreted warships.

Turrets continued to undergo design refinement and received new breech-loading guns as well as heavier armor, indeed the thickest aboard ship. Relatively thin top-of-turret armor on British battle cruisers, however, led to the loss of three of them to German armor-piercing shells in the Battle of Jutland (May 31-June 1, 1916). The battle cruiser turrets also lacked flash-protection doors and the means of preventing a shell burst inside the turret from reaching the magazines. The largest battleship ever built, the Japanese Yamato had 25.6 inches of steel armor protection on its turrets.

Further Reading

Hogg, Ivan, and John Batchelor. Naval Gun. Poole, Dorset, UK: Blandford, 1978.

Lambert, Andrew, ed. Steam, Steel & Shellfire: The Steam Warship, 1815-1905. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1992.

Padfield, Peter. Guns at Sea. New York: St. Martin’s, 1974.

Tucker, Spencer C. Handbook of 19th Century Naval Warfare. Stroud, UK: Sutton, 2000.

Hawkey, Arthur. Black Night off Finisterre: The Tragic Tale of an Early British Ironclad. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1999.

Hough, Richard. Fighting Ships. New York: Putnam, 1969.

Self-Propelled Mortar Carriers I

M21 81mm Mortar Carrier at tests

Half-track carriers were one of the most versatile designs of all armoured fighting vehicles to be used during the Second World War. The Japanese Army had this type of vehicle, as did the French Army, but it was the German and American armies which developed their half-track vehicles to serve in a whole range of roles, from mounting anti-tank guns and field guns to serving as carriers for mortars. One of the first types to be developed for the mechanised infantry battalions of the US Army was the M4, which entered service in October 1941. It carried an M1 81mm mortar in a fixed mounting to allow it to fire rearwards from the back of an M2 half-track vehicle. Unfortunately this layout was not favoured, probably because the carrying vehicle had to be manoeuvred into firing position instead of simply being driven forward to open fire on targets, like standard self-propelled guns such as the M7 ‘Priest’ with its 105mm gun. A modification was made so that the crew could dismount the mortar in order to fire it on a baseplate from prepared weapon pits. The modified mounting corrected the drawback and fitted the mortar to allow it to fire forward from within the vehicle. It was operated by a crew of six men and carried ninety-six rounds for the M1 mortar, which comprised mainly HE but with some smoke and illuminating bombs. Between late 1941 and December 1942, the White Motor Company of Cleveland, Ohio, produced 572 of these vehicles, which went on to serve in mainly the European theatre. The design weighed 7.75 tons, had an overall length of 19.72ft and could reach speeds up to 45mph on roads. It measured 6.43ft in width and 7.4ft in height and carried a .30in calibre machine gun for self-defence with 2,000 rounds of ammunition. Some vehicles were armed with the heavier .50in calibre machine gun, and the crew also had personal weapons.

Another variant was designated as the M4A1, and from May 1943 the White Motor Company built 600 of these vehicles. This was slightly larger and heavier weighing 8 tons but still carrying ninety-six rounds of ammunition for the M1 81mm mortar, which was mounted to fire forward. A crew of six operated the vehicle and weapons, which included a .30in calibre machine gun with 2,000 rounds mounted for self-defence. The M4A1 was 20.3ft overall in length, 7.44ft in height and 6.43ft in width. It could reach speeds of up to 45mph on roads. Together with its M4 counterpart, these mortar carrying vehicles served with armoured units such as the 2nd Armoured Division, nicknamed ‘Hell on Wheels’, from 1942 and later served across Europe after June 1944. Despite the successful development of these two types of mortar carrier, the Ordnance Department decided to re-evaluate the layout and develop a third type of mortar-carrying half-track based on a modified M3 half-track and conduct experiments with an 81mm mortar mounted to fire forward over the driver’s cab.

Field trials and firing tests proved this new layout to be superior to the M4 design in some respects, and in June 1943 it was standardised as the M21. The White Motor Company, with its experience in developing such vehicles, was awarded the contract to build the new design, and between January and March 1944 produced 110 units. Meanwhile, trials were continuing using an M4 half-track to mount a 4.2in (107mm) mortar for use with the chemical mortar battalions. Mobility and firing trials were conducted to assess the feasibility of this combination to lay smoke screens. The mounting was the same as that used on the 81mm mortar but the recoil forces of this heavier weapon proved too great for the vehicle’s chassis, the trials were suspended and the project dropped. Two other projects, known as T27 and the T27E1, using the M1 mortar mounted in the chassis of tanks, were examined, but these were terminated in April 1944. The T29 to mount an 81mm mortar into a converted chassis of an M5A3 light tank was another short-lived project which never got off the drawing board. The Ordnance Department then tried mounting the 4.2in mortar on the M3A1 half-track, and this proved much better. For some reason the design team appears to have reverted to mounting the mortar to fire rearward out of the vehicle and the configuration was designated T21. A change of design to mount the mortar to fire forward resulted in the designation T21E1, and even mounting the weapon into a the chassis of an M24 light tank was considered, but it was not pursued and the complete project was dropped shortly before the end of the war in Europe in 1945. Two other proposals for self-propelled mortar carriers were the T36 and T96 projects. The T36 suggested mounting a 155mm mortar in the chassis of an M4 Sherman tank and the T96 a 155mm mortar onto the chassis of the M37 gun carriage. They were good ideas but by the time these proposals were put forward the war was coming to an end and the projects were dropped.

The M4, M4A1 and M21 mortar carriers were based on the M2, M2A1 and M3 half-tracks respectively, of which some 60,000 of all types were built. They served in various roles, including self-propelled gun and anti-aircraft gun platform with quadruple-mounted .50in calibre heavy machine guns known as the M16. There were also communications vehicles in this range. The White Motor Company built the prototype of the M21 in early 1943 as the T-19 and, following successful trials, it was standardised in July the same year. It was accepted into service in January 1944 and among the units to receive the vehicles was the 54th Armoured Infantry Regiment of the 10th Armoured Division, which later saw heavy fighting during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. The M21 had a crew of six to operate the vehicle, mortar and the machine gun for self-defence, while frames on the side of the vehicle allowed mines to be carried which could be laid for defensive purposes in an emergency. The vehicle had a combat weight of 20,000lbs (almost 9 tons) with an overall length of almost 19ft 6in. The height was 7ft 5in and it was almost 7ft 5in at its widest point. The barrel of the M1 81mm mortar was supported with a bipod and a special baseplate mounting which allowed it to be fired from the rear of the vehicle. A total of ninety-seven rounds of ammunition were carried and included smoke, illuminating and high explosive rounds. A store of forty rounds of ammunition was kept in lockers either inside the hull where the crew could access it easily ready to use. A further fifty-six rounds were kept in storage lockers, twenty-eight rounds either side of the hull, which could be loaded into the rear of the vehicle to maintain levels of ammunition ready to fire. This arrangement was the same on the M4 and M4A1 vehicles. The mortar of the M21 could be traversed 30 degrees left and right; for greater changes the vehicle had to be manoeuvred to face the direction of the target. The mortar could be fired at the rate of eighteen rounds per minute to engage targets at ranges of almost 3,300 yards with the high explosive rounds. The barrel could be elevated between 40 and 85 degrees to alter the range. The .50in calibre machine gun was fitted on a pedestal mount to the rear of the vehicle and a total of 400 rounds of ammunition were carried. From there the firer could traverse through 360 degrees to provide all-round fire support. The vehicle was only lightly armoured up to a maximum 13mm thickness.

The M21 was fitted with a White 160AX six-cylinder petrol engine which developed 147hp at 3,000rpm to give speeds of up to 45mph on roads. Fuel capacity was 60 gallons and this allowed an operational range of 200 miles on roads. The front wheels were operated by a standard steering wheel and the tracks were fitted with double sets of twin bogies as road wheels, larger ‘idler-type’ wheels at the front and rear of the track layout and only one return roller. The open top of the vehicle could be covered by a canvas tarpaulin during inclement weather and this could be thrown off quickly when going into action. Although only few in number, together with the more numerous M4 and M4A1 mortar carriers, the three designs provided excellent mobile fire support to infantry units wherever required. All three designs were equipped with radio sets to communicate and receive orders as to where to deploy if needed to fire against targets. Some units of the Free French Army were supplied with some fifty-two examples of the M21 self-propelled mortar vehicles, which were used during the European campaign.

One armoured unit, the 778th Tank Battalion, recorded of the mortar carriers attached to D Company in December 1944 that the fire support they provided was ‘instrumental on several occasions in assisting the advance of the infantry by placing fire on enemy gun positions and strongpoints that could not effectively be fire upon by other weapons’. The account continues by stating how ‘the two … mortar platoons, from advantageous positions on the west side of the Saar River placed harassing fire on the city of Bous, on the east side of the river. The platoon fired an average of 350 to 400 rounds per day into the city’. Continuing in their support of D Company, the mortar carriers fired from elevated positions at Bisten from where they suppressed German positions. Another armoured unit, the 746th Tank Battalion, was provided with fire support from mortar carriers and the unit recorded how these vehicles were able to ‘fire support to [cover] advance infantry elements in many instances when tank fire cannot be employed successfully’. This account continues by recording how self-propelled mortar carriers ‘were attached to an infantry regiment and further attached to one battalion and the assault company thereof. By following closely behind the advancing infantry, the mobile mortars lay down covering fires within their maximum range before displacing to the next bound. In some actions, the mortar carriers have backed down the axis of advance from one bound to another.’ Yet despite the mortar carrier’s effectiveness in supporting advances at very close quarters and keeping up with the advance, by the end of the war some officers in armoured units dismissed their usefulness. There were plans to develop the M21 vehicle to carry the larger 4.2in calibre mortar but it never entered service.

During its rearmament programme the German Army investigated the possibility of using half-tracked vehicles, and the way in which they could be developed into a variety of roles to support troops on the battlefield. By the time Poland was attacked, the German Army was equipped with several versatile designs of armoured half-tracked vehicles, mostly serving in the primary role of transporting troops on the battlefield and a secondary role as communications vehicles. Production of these designs continued so that several months later, when the blitzkrieg was launched against Western Europe in May 1940, the fleet of half-track vehicles was even larger. The two most widely-used types were the SdKfz 251 and the smaller SdKfz 250, which went on to prove itself to be no less versatile than its larger counterpart. In fact, by the end of the war in 1945; the SdKfz 250 had been developed into no fewer than twelve different configurations.

The German Army was quick to realise that light armoured half-track vehicles could be used on the battlefield as flexible workhorses. Of all the designs to enter service, it was the SdKfz 251 series, weighing 8.7 tons in its basic APC version and capable of carrying ten fully-equipped infantrymen as well as the driver and co-driver, which would prove invaluable in many campaigns, including North Africa. From the very beginning it complied with the requirements calling for an armoured vehicle capable of transporting infantrymen on the battlefield. Known as the Gepanzerter Mannschraftstran-portwagen (armoured personnel carrier) when it was first proposed in 1935, the vehicle quickly took shape and in 1938 the prototype was ready for field trials. It was produced by the companies of Hanomag and Bussing-Nag, which built the chassis and hulls respectively, and the vehicle was given the title of Mittlerer Schutzenpanzerwagen (medium infantry armoured vehicle) with the designation of SdKfz 251. The first vehicles were in service in 1939 and some were used during the campaign against Poland. Production was low at first, in fact only 348 were built in 1940, but there were enough numbers to be used during the campaign in the west in 1940. The SdKfz 251 was fitted with a Mayback HL42 TKRM six-cylinder water-cooled petrol engine which developed 100hp at 2,800rpm to give road speeds of up to 34mph, which was more than sufficient to keep up with the tanks in the armoured divisions.

The APC version was 19ft in length, 6ft 10in in width and 5ft 9in in height. The vehicle could cope with vertical obstacles up to 12in in height, cross ditches 6ft 6in in width and had an operational range of 200 miles on roads. Armour protection was between 6mm and 14mm, but the rear crew compartment where the infantry sat had no overhead protection, which exposed the troops to the elements and also the effects of shells exploding overhead. Two machine guns, either MG34 or MG42, were fitted to allow one to fire forwards from behind a small armoured shield and the weapon at the rear was fitted to a swivel mount to provide fire support for the infantry as they exited the vehicle. Being open-topped, the infantry could jump over the sides to leave the vehicle or exit through the double rear doors. The machine guns, for which 2,000 rounds of ammunition was carried, could be taken from the vehicle when the infantry deployed.

Self-Propelled Mortar Carriers II

SdKfz 251/2 Mortar Carrier

The SdKfz 251 was developed into a range of different purposes, from ambulance duties to anti-tank roles. By late 1944, around 16,000 vehicles had been built to serve in no fewer than twenty-three different roles. Depending on the role, each version had a different length of service life, but if they were capable of continuing to operate they remained in use. In fact, examples were still in operation right until the last days of the war at a time when fuel was extremely scarce. One of the earliest variants to be produced was the Sdkfz 251/2, which was the mortar-carrying version, weighing 8.64 tons and equipped to carry the 8cm GrW34 mortar. Being open-topped, the weapon could be fired from within the vehicle, firing forward, and a separate baseplate allowed it to be dismounted for use from prepared positions. The vehicle in this role was operated by a crew of eight, available in the heavy platoon and known as Great 892 (Equipment 892). It carried sixty-six rounds of ammunition ready to use and was supported in turn by the SdKfz 251/4 version, which could carry resupplies of ammunition or even tow the heavy GrW42 12cm mortar.

The other half-track vehicle developed into a mortar carrier was the SdKfz 250, which was built by the company of Bussing-NAG, which developed the armoured body, and several other manufacturers including Weg-mann and Deutsche Werke. Although the design had been thoroughly tested in the field throughout 1939, there were insufficient numbers ready to enter full operational service on the outbreak of war. In fact, the SdKfz 250, originally referred to as Leichte Gepanzerte Kraftwagen, did not enter service with the German Army properly until 1940, by which time it was known as the Leichte Schutzenpanzerwagen (light infantry armoured vehicle). Although it was not in service for the Polish campaign, there were sufficient numbers in service to be used during the attack against Holland, Belgium and France, where they were used in roles such as reconnaissance, command and communications. After this initial battle-proving deployment, the SdKfz 250 went on to see service on all fronts during the war, including North Africa, Italy and Russia.

The basic model was an armoured personnel carrier designated as the SdKfz 250/1, operated by a crew of two (driver and commander). In this role it was capable of carrying four fully-equipped troops with support weapons, such as crew for mortars or machine guns. This version was armed with two machine guns, such as the MG42, for which some 2,000 rounds of ammunition were carried. The basic version SdKfz 250 was almost 15ft in length, 6.4ft in width, but the height varied according to the role in which it was serving and the armament carried. The standard version had a combat weight of 5.5 tons, but, again, this varied according to armament and other equipment, such as the mortar carrier which weighed 5.61 tons. The armour thickness was from 8mm minimum to 15mm maximum.

The vehicle in all its variants was powered by a Maybach HL42 TR KM six-cylinder water-cooled inline petrol engine, which developed 100hp at 2,800rpm and gave a top speed of just over 40mph on roads. The vehicle had an operational range of over 180 miles on roads and it could negotiate vertical obstacles up to 15in, ford water obstacles shallower than 27in and scale gradients of 40 degrees. The front wheels were not ‘driven’, being used for steering purposes only. The automotive power was to the front drive sprockets on the tracks and the suspension was of the FAMO type, and whilst the vehicle was itself efficient it was somewhat complicated to maintain. This was a telling point in the sub-zero conditions on the Russian Front after 1941. In total, twelve variants were developed from the basic version and included an antitank gun version, specialist engineer versions, signals vehicles, ammunition carrier with ordnance troops and was even used by the Luftwaffe. Most, but not all, versions of the SdKfz 250 were open-topped, which was perfect to allow fire support weapons such as the GrW34 8cm mortar to be mounted and create a variant known as the SdKfz 201/7 or Great 897 (Equipment 897). These were operated by a crew of five and available to the fourth platoon of the Leichter Panzer Aufklarungs, or light armoured reconnaissance vehicles. A total of forty-two rounds of ammunition were carried on the vehicle ready to use and the mortar could be dismounted to be used to provide fire support in prepared positions. It was supported by a version termed munitionsfahrzeug (ammunition vehicle), which was operated by four men and carried sixty-six rounds of ammunition to resupply the mortar carrier. It was armed with two machine guns for self-defence with 2,000 rounds of ammunition.

In addition to using its own standard mortar-carrying vehicles, the German Army also converted a number of captured French armoured vehicles to the role of self-propelled mortar carriers. These they armed with either German service 8cm sGrW34 mortars or captured French-built Brandt weapons. French tanks such as the AMR35 had their turrets removed and the chassis converted to other roles such as self-propelled guns and mortar carriers. In May 1940, the French Army had about 200 AMR35 tanks in service, mostly armed with a 37mm gun in a fully traversing turret, but there were also other variants. After the French surrender, all surviving examples and variants captured by the Germans were converted into other uses, which included carrier vehicles for the standard German Army 8cm sGrW34 mortar. In this role they were designated as 8cm schwere Granatewerfer 34 auf Panzerspahwagen AMR35(f), which identified it as a heavy armoured self-propelled mortar carrier.

The conversion was achieved by first removing the upper superstructure including the engine covering, and this was replaced by an open-topped fighting compartment into which was mounted an 8cm GrW34 mortar fitted on a race-ring mounting to allow it to be fired in any direction without having to manoeuvre the vehicle. The rear of the compartment was open but could be closed off with a door to protect the crew. The conversion gave it a larger profile than the original design but the engine and all other automotive parts and road wheel layout remained unchanged. This gave the vehicle a road speed of 31mph and an operational range of 120 miles. It was operated by a crew of four, which included the driver, and a secondary armament of a single 7.92mm calibre MG34 machine gun was fitted for self-defence. A supply of ready-to-use ammunition was carried on the vehicle and resupply vehicles would have brought forward replenishment stocks. Records show that around 200 such vehicles were converted to this role and used only in France, where they could be deployed in response to threats. The conversion would have been completed at workshops in France, but it is not clear if any of these vehicles participated in the fighting after the Allied landings in Normandy from 6 June 1944 onwards.

It would seem likely these would almost certainly have been deployed at some point against the Allies because it would make no sense to develop such weapon systems and not use them. It may be that some of these self-propelled mortar vehicles were used in the fighting during the Normandy campaign, but due to the low production numbers they have been overlooked in favour of the more widely-used vehicles such as the true self-propelled guns and tanks. The person responsible for developing these systems and other selfpropelled weapons was Major Alfred Becker, who was a professional soldier, having served in the First World War. He was an engineer who excelled in developing hybrid systems such as these, using captured stocks of enemy equipment. He commanded the Sturmgeschutz-Abt 200, equipped with selfpropelled guns of his design, as part of the 21st Panzer Division, seeing much action in Normandy. He served with distinction and developed other systems until his capture in December 1944.

One of the most unusual conversions to serve as a mortar carrier was based on the French SOMUA MCL half-track personnel carrier, which became known as the Mittlerer Schutsenpanzerwagen S307(f), work on which began in 1943. The vehicle was modified to its new role by mounting two rows of eight barrels of 81mm captured French Army mortars stacked on a mounting to the rear of the vehicle. The tubes were pre-loaded and could be fired simultaneously to produce an instant bombardment. Reloading the tubes would have taken time and rate of fire would have been a lot slower than using a conventional mortar firing from a prepared position. In total some sixteen of these vehicles were available in 1944, but their fate is not known. A heavier version was produced, also based on the SOMUA MCL, which mounted twenty barrels of 81mm Brandt mortars in a similar array, and this was known as the Schwerer Reihenwerfer auf SPW SOMUA S303(f). These vehicles served in France, but, again, it is not known conclusively if they were deployed in action against the Allies after June 1944.

Captured armoured vehicles were dispatched to various theatres of operations, including Finland and Norway. Others such as the French Char B-1 bis, known in service with the German Army as the Panzerkampfwagen B-2 740(f), were sent to the Channel Islands and the Eastern Front, which represented the opposite extreme edges of the territory under German occupation. In the Channel Islands, some French tanks had their turrets removed to be incorporated into defence plans. Other vehicles which could have been converted to use as mortar carriers included the UE630, which the French Army used as a transport vehicle for supplies, and the Unic-Kègresse half-track, yet despite their suitability neither these nor apparently any other French vehicles were armed to serve as self-propelled mortars carriers.

The French Army had never deemed it necessary to develop a self-propelled mortar system using any of the weapons in service; after all they had good artillery and armoured units. The Italian Army did not develop a selfpropelled mortar system and relied on artillery and the mortars used by the infantry units. After 1943, when Italy capitulated to the Allies, the German Army seized many armoured vehicles and took these into service. Unlike the French vehicles which they converted to other uses, the Italian vehicles were used in their primary roles. The Soviet Red Army did not develop a selfpropelled mortar system either and relied on self-propelled guns and vehicles which towed the heavy calibre mortars on wheeled carriages. The Japanese Army did experiment with self-propelled mortars for a while and developed the Type 4 Ha To. This used a Type 4 Chi-To medium tank which was converted to allow a 300mm calibre Type 3 heavy mortar to be mounted to fire forward. It could fire a 374lbs HE bomb out to ranges of 3,300 yards, but the design was unstable and the vehicle proved liable to toppling over due to its height. In the end only three prototypes of the Ha To were produced and these never saw combat service.

Type 4 Ha To

British and Commonwealth forces did not show much interest in developing a self-propelled mortar version based on an armoured vehicle design. Some feasibility experiments were conducted to examine the viability of producing such a variant, but ultimately the research did not lead to the introduction of a vehicle-mounted mortar in the same way as used by the American and German armies. One experiment which did lead to the production of a self-propelled version of the British 3in mortar was based on the Universal Bren Gun Carrier. This was developed by the Australian Army, which had already modified some Universal Carriers to mount 2-pdr anti-tank guns, and using this as a starting point they fitted a 3in mortar to the vehicle. The weapon could be fired directly from the vehicle or dismounted and used from a prepared defensive position. The mortar had a full 360-degree traverse capability if required, which meant the vehicle did not have to manoeuvre to alter the range of traverse beyond the angles which could be achieved in the bipod mounting. In terms of range, this configuration was comparable to the standard infantry mortar and fired the same bombs. In the end it was never taken into service with the Australian Army, but around 400 examples are understood to have been produced and these were sent as part of the military aid to support the Nationalist Chinese Forces of Chiang Kai Shek in the fighting against the Japanese.

It seems strange that the British Army should not pursue the development of a self-propelled mortar vehicle, especially when it developed a range of specialist vehicles for other roles to clear minefields and close support tanks armed with large calibre guns. These were developed in the build-up for the invasion of Europe to support the landings. They were known as ‘Hobart’s Funnies’, after Major General Percy Hobart who thought up some of the designs. Hobart was a military engineer who had served in the First World War, seeing action in France. During the 1920s, he developed an interest in tank designs and armoured warfare tactics. He retired in 1940 under duress, following a conflict of opinions concerning his designs for armoured vehicles and their role. Hobart initially joined his local Home Guard unit, but in 1941 he was re-instated and given the job of training the 11th Armoured Division. Further positions followed and in 1942 he was given the role of training the newly-created 79th Armoured Division. After the disastrous failure of Operation Jubilee, the Allied attack against Dieppe on 19 August 1942, where none of the tanks were able to get off the beach, he set about developing a series of specialist armoured vehicles designed to support future amphibious landings. What Hobart developed included bridge-laying vehicles, flails to breech minefields and flame throwers. These were to prove vital during the D-Day landings and campaigns across Europe. For some reason self-propelled mortars were not developed. One can only conclude that with SPGs such as the Sexton, with its 25-pdr field gun, and the M7 ‘Priest’, with its 105mm gun, Hobart did not feel it necessary to build a design around the British 3in mortar.

8.8-cm FlaK 18 and Flak 36 Part I

Although initially hampered by the restrictions imposed by the Versailles Treaty, Germany rapidly developed a system of highly effective antiaircraft weapons. An early attempt, adopted in 1928, the 75mm FlaK 38 fired a 14-pound shell to a maximum ceiling of 37,730 feet. In the decade following World War I, Krupp arranged with the Swedish arms giant Bofors to allow its engineers to work secretly on new designs in Sweden. One of the most successful artillery pieces of all time came about as a result of that arrangement-the famous German Eighty-Eight. Originally designed as an antiaircraft gun, combat experiences in the Spanish Civil War and early World War II proved the Eighty-Eight’s versatility in other applications. By war’s end, German designers had also adapted it to antitank, tank, and conventional field applications. The first test model was assembled in 1931, and after trials the new gun went into service in 1933 as the caliber 88mm FlaK 18. With a veteran crew it achieved a firing rate of 15 rounds per minute. The FlaK 18 fired a 21-pound shell to a maximum ceiling of 26,247 feet, and in a ground role it achieved a range of 9.2 miles.

Krupp engineers continued to improve the FlaK 18 and also redesigned it to ease its manufacture. The redesigned Eighty-Eight entered service in 1937 as the Flak 36 and saw considerable service with Germany’s Condor Legion in the Spanish Civil War. Having proved the gun’s effectiveness as a ground weapon in Spain, Krupp again improved the Eighty-Eight, by adding ground sights and providing high-explosive shells for field use. Firing high-explosive and armor-piercing ammunition, the Eighty-Eight further proved itself against British armor in North Africa in 1941-1942. As the war progressed, it became increasingly necessary to increase German tank armament to match the heavy guns and armor of the new Soviet tanks on the Eastern Front. That necessity resulted in slight modifications to the basic Eighty-Eight design, which resulted in the Kwk 36 (Kampfwagen Kanone) and the Kwk 43, for use in Tiger tanks and self-propelled guns.

Anti-tank

For all its many successes the 8.8cm FlaK 18 and 36 were not suited to the anti-tank role for four main reasons: the guns were high, bulky, heavy and difficult to hide. For ideal protection each gun required a great deal of effort to dig in and conceal as when pressed into action in the open the gun crews were highly vulnerable to in-coming small arms and artillery fire. Even the addition of a shield (some with hinged sides) could not protect the crew from artillery air bursts. The crews therefore had to become experts in getting their guns in and out of action in a minimum of time. In this they were helped by the introduction of the Sonderanhänger 202, which meant that the gun muzzle pointed away from the towing vehicle, towards the rear and facing the enemy.

Another problem encountered when attempting to utilise the 88 as an anti-armour weapon was that, in the normal course of events, the guns were unlikely to be anywhere near where they were needed. The normal location of any heavy anti-aircraft gun supporting field units would have been in rear areas to defend combat support and supply facilities rather than covering a combat area. If an 88 was to be deployed in the anti-armour role it made sense to select carefully and prepare a firing position well before action commenced, rather than rush to a position when an enemy threat developed. Many of the most emphatic 88 successes were from pre-selected ambush positions. The drawback to this pre-preparation was that once emplaced as anti-tank weapons the guns involved could not be available to fulfil their prime function of air defence. However, it was particularly noticeable on the Eastern Front that more 88s were employed as anti-armour weapons than for air defence.

Other shortcomings of the 88 in the anti-armour role included the fact that the gun itself was far from user-friendly. Designed for an anti-aircraft gun that was meant to be loaded with the barrel in an elevated position, the breech was high and awkward to load with the barrel in the horizontal position, the physical effort necessary to repeatedly raise and load a round weighing up to about 15kg to almost head height being considerable. The aimer was not well served either, for little thought had been given to the direct-fire role at the design stage so his position was awkward and far from comfortable. Perhaps the most unwieldy aspect of the gun was its all-round weight which made even limited handling tedious and strenuous for the crew.

The 88 had to be forced into the anti-armour role for the first time in 1940, when the Germans discovered the hard way that Allied tanks such as the British Matildas and the French Char B1 had armoured protection that the then-standard German anti-tank guns could not defeat. In 1940 the little 3.7cm PaK 35/36 proved to be inadequate against all but the lightest of the British and French armoured vehicles, while the larger calibre field artillery pieces lacked suitable armour-piercing ammunition. The pressing of 88s into the anti-armour role was, in 1940, very much a field improvisation, but the lesson was learned that the Germans had a potent anti-tank asset to eke out their anti-armour inventory until something better suited to the task could be developed and supplied. In addition, the 88 proved to be very useful against field fortifications and concrete bunkers.

It was in the North African deserts that the 88s came into their own. The generally flat and open terrain enabled the 88s to take full advantage of their prime combat asset, namely range. British tanks encountering emplaced 88s were frequently fired on at ranges far beyond those from which they could retaliate, while at ranges of 2,000m or more the relatively light-armoured protection of most of the Allied tanks then fielded could be penetrated. As an extra morale depressant the first intimation (and last) that an Allied tank crew often had of an encounter with an 88 was a high-velocity, base-fused, armour-piercing projectile exploding inside their vehicle.

Eventually the British Eighth Army abandoned their ‘cavalry charge’ tank-attack tactics and learned to be wary of German feints that drew their tanks on to carefully emplaced 88s. By then the German 88s were reaping a new crop of unsuspecting tanks in the Soviet Union and were later to gather a fresh harvest against the inexperienced (and over-confident) American armoured units that tried to defeat the Germans during the early battles of the 1942–1943 Tunisian campaign.

As well as being employed in the anti-armour role, the FlaK 18 and 36 were also deployed as indirect-fire field pieces on occasion. While this was rather a waste of their potential, their range was often useful to reach deep into assembly and supply areas with time-fused high-explosive projectiles. When this role was undertaken the fuse setter abandoned his machine and set the time fuses by hand with a setting key. The layer had a rather unenviable task as the dial sight involved in indirect artillery fire was mounted in a clamp on top of the recuperator cylinder. To gain access to the sight the layer had to clamber up and over the gun and expose himself to any counter-artillery fire that may have been directed against their position. The sight was also used to align the gun with the battery’s fire-control Kommandogerät once the guns had arrived at a new air-defence fire position.

After late 1943 the introduction of the 8.8cm PaK 43/41 and PaK 43 largely overcame the difficulties encountered by the earlier FlaK-based guns. Lower, well protected and relatively easy to conceal, as well as possessing a higher all-round ballistic performance, the new guns proved to be a great and immediate success, even if the bulk and weight of the ungainly PaK 43/41 was a disadvantage on occasion. Their one weakness was that, as far as the German ground forces were concerned, there were never enough of them.

The dedicated 88mm anti-tank guns were usually allocated to FestungsPaK Kompanies as part of a FestungsPaK Battalion, of which there were several in any Army Sector under the control of a local FestungsPaK Verband. This latter unit answered direct to the local Army Command.

War year users

During the Second World War 88s served with several user nations other than Germany. Between 1936 and 1945 it was felt necessary to hand out or sell 88s to various nations that were either allied to or sympathetic to Germany’s war aims, despite the ever-increasing need to equip the German armed forces with as many anti-aircraft guns as could be manufactured.

One of the very first transfers of 88s came with the sale of a batch of about eighteen 8.8cm FlaK 18s to Argentina. This was a commercial sale negotiated directly with Krupp AG, which delivered the guns to Buenos Aires in about 1938. Once in Argentina, the guns defended the national capital for many years up to and after 1945 but apparently never fired a shot in anger.

Another pre-1939 transfer involved the guns taken to Spain by the German Condor Legion of ‘volunteers’ fighting alongside the Nationalists during the civil war. They initially took with them four four-gun batteries of 8.8cm FlaK 18s and a fifth battery arrived soon after to form what became known as the FlaK Abteilung 88, or F/88. Contrary to general belief these German-held guns were retained primarily for the air-defence role and rarely fired at ground targets.

More 88s arrived for issue direct to the Spanish Nationalists as the war progressed. It was the Nationalists, always short of up-to-date artillery, who pioneered the use of the 88 against ground targets – German observers duly made note of the fact and reported back to Berlin accordingly. When the Germans left Spain in 1939 they left all their guns in Spain to be adopted as one of the mainstays of Spain’s air defences. By 1945 their numbers, including 88 examples of the FlaK 36, had grown to 140. More were to be added later.

Once Italy entered the war alongside Germany in 1941 it was found necessary to pass large amounts of German war materiel to their new combat ally since the equipment levels of the Italian armed forces were dangerously low and often of poor quality. This particularly applied to anti-aircraft guns for although the Italians already had a gun as good as the German 88 in production, they did not have enough of them and their ability to manufacture more was limited. The Italian gun was the Ansaldo Cannone da 90/53 CA, which was ordered into series production in 1939 but by mid-1943 only 539 had been delivered in static, towed, armoured vehicle and truck-borne forms. Once in service the guns were added to the array of somewhat ancient and varied guns already in the Italian anti-aircraft gun inventory and some were diverted to coast-defence duties. While numbers of Cannone da 90/53 CA did see field service in North Africa, the Germans saw fit to eke out their numbers by handing over a number of 88s to the Italians, who took them over as the Cannone da 88/56 CA modello 18-36. The exact number is not known but all remaining examples still in Italy reverted to German ownership after the Italian armistice of July 1943.

Once the German take-over of Czecho-Slovakia was completed during 1939 the new state of Slovakia came into being already aligned with Germany. The new state assumed their share of the old Czecho-Slovak military inventory, the heavy anti-aircraft gun park being largely made up of Škoda 8.35 cm kanon PL vzor 22/24 pieces from a previous design generation. As the Slovak Army was assigned to duties in support of Operation Barbarossa, the Germans decided to hand over 24 8.8cm FlaK 36 and 37 guns (along with a wide array of other military equipment), the first 4 of them arriving during March 1941, together with the first batches of what would become a total of 17,280 rounds of ammunition. By March 1944 the outstanding twenty guns, all of them /2 carriage static guns, had been added to the original four. Most of these guns were retained for home defence, and served on with the restored Czecho-Slovakian state after 1945.

Finland had a somewhat confusing war posture between 1939 and 1945, at times being allied with Germany and at other times being hostile. In 1941 Finland was on the side of Germany because of their desire to redress their defeat and loss of territory following the 1939–1940 Winter War with the Soviet Union. Germany’s 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union gave Finland the opportunity to participate in what they termed their Continuation War. Over the years the Finnish air-defence arm had managed to accumulate a motley collection of anti-aircraft guns from all over Europe. During 1943 these were supplemented when the Finnish state purchased 18 towed 8.8cm FlaK 37 guns from Germany to equip 3 6-gun, anti-aircraft batteries defending Helsinki. These three batteries were controlled by three imported Kommandogerät 40 fire-control predictors, known locally as the Lambda.

A further seventy-two FlaK 37s were acquired during 1944, this time on /2 static mountings. Of these, 36 guns were assigned to the defence of Helsinki, with Kotka, Tampere and Turku each receiving 2 6-gun batteries. There was also a twelve-gun battery at Kaivopuisto, another part of the defences of Helsinki. All these guns served on until well after 1945. The Finns knew their guns as the 88mm: n ilmatorjuntakanuuna vuodelta 1937 mallia Rheinmetall-Borsig (ItK/37 RMB), for some reason allocating their provenance to Rheinmetall-Borsig (although reference has been found to an alternative RT).

Perhaps the most unusual end-users of the 88 during the war years were the Allies. By late 1944 the Allied land forces in Europe had advanced so far from their cross-Channel supply resources that front-line supply stocks often ran dangerously low during bad weather or when shortages of transport arose. Those supplies included artillery ammunition so it became a common expedient for front-line units to turn the considerable quantities of captured artillery equipments against their former owners and use up any available stocks of captured ammunition.

Both British and American batteries employed such measures, the US Army going as far as forming ‘Z Batteries’, specifically to utilise captured artillery and ammunition, within their field artillery battalions. At one stage, in November 1944, the US First Army’s 32nd Field Artillery Brigade created two provisional battalions that were fully equipped with captured German artillery equipments. Included in the captured haul were 8.8cm FlaK and PaK guns, 10.5cm and 15cm field howitzers and French 155mm GPF guns previously adopted by the Germans. This impressment of captured 88s by the Allies was a battlefield expedient that usually lasted only as long as the captured ammunition stocks lasted. However, as early as June 1943 the US Army did go to the extent of preparing and issuing a service manual for the 8.8cm FlaK 36 (TM E9-369A) following extensive technical studies carried out on equipments captured in Tunisia.

Post 1945

Once the Second World War was over most German 88s were either scrapped or relegated to being war trophies or museum pieces. Yet some European nations, having inherited heaps of weapons once the German armed forces had left the countries they had formerly occupied, decided to arm their newly emergent armed forces with German weapons, at least until something better could be obtained (usually via American military aid). These weapons included the 8.8cm FlaK 18/36/37 series – no PaK 43 series weapons seem to have been adopted by any nation after 1945, although many of their technical innovations were studied and often utilised.

Numerous nations fell into this category. This included Norway, which took over no less than 360 88s out of a total of 505 left behind when the Germans departed, the balance being mostly scrapped before the Allies decided that they might be useful to defend post-war Norway. The Luftwaffe had organised these guns into four FlaK Brigades headquartered at Oslo (173 guns), Stavanger (86 guns), Vaernes (86 guns) and Tromsø (158 guns). Some of the guns involved had a dual air-defence/coast-defence role and where possible the Norwegians simply took over the existing installations.

The Norwegian total of 360 guns included 141 towed FlaK 36, plus 15 in static installations. There were also 55 towed FlaK 37s and 139 static. These guns served on until the early 1950s when they began to be supplemented and then replaced in the air-defence role by numbers of American 90mm Gun M1A1 and M2s. Even then the 88s soldiered on because in 1957 125 88mm guns were transferred to the coast artillery. In this role they lasted only until the mid-1960s when they were withdrawn as part of a policy to limit Norwegian coast-artillery equipments to those with calibres of 105mm, 127mm and 150mm (all former German naval guns) to ease the training and logistic situation. Norway investigated the adoption of the 8.8cm PaK 43/41 (possibly for employment as a coast-defence gun) but it does not appear to have been accepted for their service.

Other post-war user nations included Yugoslavia, where some guns were assigned to coast defence installed in specially constructed concrete bunkers having overhead protection. Another post-1945 user was Czecho-Slovakia, which took in any remaining FlaK 41s in addition to the other FlaK models; all were eventually replaced by Soviet equipments. A few Yugoslav 88s reportedly survived to see limited action during the Balkan Troubles of the 1990s.

Fábrica de Trubia Mod 1944

An initial order for fifty-six guns was issued during 1941 but progress was at first slow. Orders for components and sub-assemblies were distributed to numerous contractors around Spain, the final assembly centre and prime contractor being the Fábrica de Trubia at Oviedo, from which came the designation of the Spanish 88s, namely FT-44, or Fábrica de Trubia Mod 1944 (the full designation was Cañón Antiaéreo de 88/56 millímetros modelo FT-44).

The FT-44 emerged as a hybrid model comprising the one-piece FlaK 18 pattern barrel, the Sonderanhänger 202 of the FlaK 36 and the fire-control data-transmission system of the FlaK 37. The first FT-44 appeared during June 1943 but it was not until 1946 that any degree of series production commenced and then only at a leisurely rate of about twelve a year. The production rate increased to twenty-four a year between 1948 and 1950 before settling back to twelve a year until 1955. Production then ceased for a while before a few more were completed by 1962, the final plan being to produce 250 complete equipments. This final total appears never to have been reached, a total of 226 being the more likely. In 1958 there were 204 FT-44s in service with the Spanish Army and land units of the Spanish Navy.

8.8-cm FlaK 18 and Flak 36 Part II

France also adopted 88s abandoned once the Germans had left France, sending numbers of FlaK guns to be used in their post-war Indo-China campaigns along with an array of ex-Second World War (and even First World War) artillery relics, including former Japanese artillery pieces. The French 88s had nothing to do with air defence once they got to Indo-China as the local opposition did not have any aircraft assets, so the guns were employed in the direct- or indirect-fire artillery role. As such they were probably the last 88s to take part in a full-scale, live shooting war.

Other nations adopted the 88 as a long-term measure, one of them being Finland. By 1945 that nation had accumulated numerous types of anti-aircraft gun but they regarded the ninety FlaK 37s they had acquired during 1943 and 1944 as the best in their inventory. The guns emplaced around various Finnish cities were retained until 1969 as air-defence weapons (the last personnel assigned to them were trained during 1967) and even then their service careers continued. The guns were passed to the Coast Artillery arm where they soldiered on until the end of the twentieth century. At first they were installed as mobile, low-trajectory coast-defence weapons but gradually they were relegated to training duties and eventually to simply firing during exercises to conserve ammunition that would otherwise have been fired by more modern weapons, a role an ever-decreasing number of 88s is still performing to this day. Many guns are still held in storage as reserve weapons, although their possible utility as such seems more unlikely as the years progress. Ammunition for these guns was manufactured locally by the concern that, after several name changes, became Patria Vammas.

Perhaps the most involved user nation of the 88 after 1945 was Spain. By 1945 the numbers of FlaK 18 and 36 guns sent to Spain, in attempts to keep Spain’s General Franco at least sympathetic to the Germany cause, had reached 140. An additional ploy to keep Spain on the German side was to offer manufacturing licences for various German weapon designs, among them being the 8.8cm FlaK 18. Licence negotiations commenced as early as May 1941 but it took time to establish the required manufacturing facilities, not the least difficulty being obtaining the necessary raw materials and machine tools at a time when Europe was at war.

One attempt was made to boost the all-round performance of the FT-44 by the development of a 72-calibre barrel placed on a suitably modified FT-44 mounting. The Pieza de 88/72 remained a prototype.

Another attempt to boost the FT-44’s performance came with the development of a 70mm sub-calibre projectile developed by the Centro de Estudios Técnocos de Materiales Especiales (CETME). When fired this saboted sub-calibre projectile had a muzzle velocity of 1,050m/s, resulting in a maximum ceiling of 13,500m compared to the 10,600m of a conventional projectile. The sub-projectile weighed 5.4kg on firing, reducing to 4.6kg after the sabots had fallen away. The high-explosive payload weighed 490g.

Another project that did not leave the prototype hardware stage was the Pieza de 88/56 mm ‘Galileo’, an attempt to adapt the power-laying system of the Bofors 40/70 anti-aircraft gun to allow the rapid on-carriage laying of the FT-44. The fire-control system, based on an Italian Officine Galileo design, enabled a single layer to aim and fire the gun using a joystick control arrangement that actuated electro-hydraulic powered controls to achieve rapid barrel movements in both elevation and traverse. With the prototype, aiming relied on a simple cartwheel sight, although the barrel could be pointed towards a potential target by a No. 3 Mark 7 search radar. No doubt some form of reflex sight coupled to a computerised predictor unit would have eventually replaced the ‘iron’ cartwheel sight. While such a control system may have had numerous advantages for a more responsive automatic gun such as the Bofors 40/70, its employment on a non-automatic gun such as the FT-44 was more questionable. A single prototype was converted to the Galileo configuration but it did not progress very far.

By the late 1960s the air-defence value of the FT-44 against modern high-speed aircraft was becoming debatable so they were gradually withdrawn and placed in reserve storage. Beginning in 1972, some conversions were made to allow FT-44 carriages to be utilised as missile launchers for a coast-defence guided missile based on a scaled-down Hawk air-defence missile, the main modification being the replacement of the barrel and its associated subcomponents by two short lengths of missile launcher rail to launch two missiles. Although hardware examples of the missile system were produced, the project was terminated.

By the early 1990s the remaining FT-44s were gradually being sold off to film companies and military equipment enthusiasts, many ending up as gate guardians at locations all around the world. Many of the 88s to be seen today will be revealed as Spanish FT-44s.

Any account relating to the German 88s must make mention of why, even now, the gun is still regarded in what are almost legendary terms. Numerous accolades continue to be showered upon the reputation of the 88, usually along the lines of ‘The Most Famous Gun of the Second World War’, ‘Germany’s Secret Weapon’ and so on, but it is hoped that the descriptions and accounts given in these pages will have revealed that the 88 was, in gun design and ballistic terms, nothing very special for its time.

This somewhat bland statement does not intend to denigrate the fearful effect the 88 had on many battles between 1940 and 1945. As has been described, in its heyday the armour-penetration capabilities of the 88 were prodigious, while its effect on Allied bomber crews was such that it grew to be understandably respected by them as well. Yet the simple fact remains that the 88 was only one anti-aircraft gun among many others of the same design generation. Other contemporary anti-aircraft guns could match or excel its all-round performance relating in terms of muzzle velocity, projectile weight, operational ceilings and so forth. Where they could not match the 88 was in its tactical handling and mobility, topics that will be dealt with below.

One of the reasons for the 88’s continuing fame is connected with approach rather than anything else. To the Allies an anti-aircraft gun was an anti-aircraft gun and nothing else. Both the Allied guns mentioned above had been designed to shoot at aircraft and with nothing else in mind. The entire design approach had therefore been to make the guns as effective in that role as could be achieved. That entailed all manner of technical accessories, such as powered carriage drives, powered rammers, fuse-setting machines, stable firing platforms and even ammunition-handling devices. The end result was that both the Allied guns mentioned above emerged as suitable for little other than their intended role, that of anti-aircraft guns.

Not surprisingly this dedicated-role approach extended to the Allied gunners who had to utilise the guns in action. They employed their guns for what they were designed for, namely shooting at aircraft. They were not equipped, trained or inclined to use their cherished guns for any other purpose. Consequently, both the British and US Armies retained their anti-aircraft guns to defend their rear areas and important-point targets likely to attract the attention of enemy aircraft. The mere thought of towing their bulky guns into forward areas to engage land targets was quite simply not an option. Dragging towed loads the size of a 3.7in gun or 90mm M1 across open battlefields within visual and artillery range of the enemy was something most gunners would not care to think about. Only rarely were Allied anti-aircraft guns employed in a ground-to-ground firing role and that was mainly confined to adding their fire to the ‘pepper pot’ indirect artillery barrages conducted during the latter stages of the 1944–1945 land campaigns in north-east Europe when no airborne targets were likely to appear. One notable exception occurred as early as May 1940 when a single 3.7in anti-aircraft battery destroyed four German tanks approaching the Channel port of Boulogne. This isolated incident seems to have gone unnoticed at the time, no doubt due to other more pressing events in progress and the fact that the battery itself became a casualty of the action.

It should not be overlooked that the Germans started the Second World War with the same set of conceptions as the Allies. While their participation in the Spanish Civil War may have provided them with many insights into the nature of modern warfare, the deployment of their FlaK guns in Spain remained firmly in Luftwaffe hands and, being air-minded, their prime remit was to provide air defence. They did observe the Spanish Nationalist forces employing their 88s (and many other types of artillery weapon) in the direct-fire role against armoured vehicles and field fortifications but only rarely did the German ‘volunteers’ indulge in such practices, and then only in emergencies – they belonged to an air arm, not land combat forces. But they did report their direct-firing observations back to Berlin, where the reports were duly noted. A few adventurous staff officers then decided to take matters further and carry out numerous field trials of their own, usually with the fortified defences of the French Maginot Line in mind.

It was at this point that the German and Allied philosophies diverged. The German approach to war was entirely pragmatic and flexible. When British and French tanks were encountered during the Battle for France in mid-1940 the German method of engaging the enemy armour was to utilise whatever was to hand, from mortars to field artillery pieces, together with light and heavy FlaK guns, including the 88. The effectiveness of the 88 against heavily armoured British and French tanks was soon appreciated and from then onwards the 88 was regarded as a dual-purpose weapon. But this role change could not have been successfully achieved without the seemingly inherent tactical flexibility of German soldiers and their ready acceptance of new challenges and change. Despite the numerous tales of iron discipline and strict adherence to orders relating to the German soldier, usually promulgated by Allied propaganda, the truth was often very different. German combat personnel, including those of the Luftwaffe, were encouraged to use their personal initiative and improvisation to the full in whatever tactical circumstances they found themselves. Thus if an improvised combat ploy or unusual approach to a tactical situation was demonstrated to be effective, it was often adopted, broadcast and employed until its utility either vanished or could be improved upon.

Thus it was with the hasty deployment of a line of 88s during the Arras fighting in 1940, a deployment that ultimately formalised and drove home the effectiveness of the 88 against tanks. From then onwards the 88 was frequently used in the anti-armour role, despite the shortcomings of the gun for the task. As described elsewhere, the 88 was too high, bulky, heavy and difficult to hide, all important drawbacks for the anti-tank role, but that did not bother the Germans. They simply adopted the fact that firing their 88s against tanks was effective, even at long ranges. Recognising that their other specialised anti-tank guns had become inadequate, details such as weapon handling, concealment and tactical deployment relating to the 88 were worked out and converted into standard operational techniques. Only rarely did the Allies display a similar flexibility of approach towards similar tactical challenges, hence their adherence to utilising their anti-aircraft guns simply as anti-aircraft guns – and nothing else.

At one stage during 1941 the British in North Africa did indeed follow a path similar to the German adoption of the anti-armour 88 but it was with their 25-pounder gun-howitzers. These field pieces were pressed into the anti-tank role in North Africa for the same reason that the Germans turned to their 88. The standard British anti-tank gun, the 2-pounder with a calibre of 40mm, had demonstrated that it was virtually useless against the latest generation of tanks. As there was apparently nothing else to hand, according to the contemporary way of thinking, the 25-pounder had to assume a role for which it had never been intended. The 3.7in anti-aircraft guns guarding the Suez Canal and other rear areas were not even considered as potential anti-tank weapons.

While the 25-pounder may have had a calibre almost identical to that of the German 88 (namely 87.6mm), being a gun-howitzer it had a much lower maximum muzzle velocity (only 518m/s) and had to rely on firing high-explosive projectiles only until a solid-shot, armour-piercing equivalent could be hurriedly developed and issued.

There was also the problem of range. Tank targets had to approach to ranges of less than 900m for the British (and Commonwealth) gunners to be sure of a hit and significant resultant damage. Gunners therefore had to stand their ground until their targets came into effective range which, in the open deserts of North Africa, exposed them to hostile long-range tank-gun and machine-gun fire, usually resulting in guns and their crews being knocked out of action before they could usefully open fire. In addition the 25-pounder’s times in and out of action were dangerously long and not helped by the prime mover, the lightly armoured Quad tractor, being notoriously prone to catching fire when hit. During 1941 casualties among guns and gunners were horrendous but the crews persisted in their anti-armour role for if a 25-pounder (11.34kg) high-explosive projectile did strike a tank the results could be devastating. One saving grace for the 25-pounders was the circular firing platform that formed one of the main design features of the piece. Once the carriage wheels were on the platform one member of the gun crew could lift the trail and introduce rapid traverse movements of up to 360° with ease, enabling the barrels to be pointed towards new targets within seconds. The ordeals of the 25-pounder crews lasted into 1942 before the replacement for the 2-pounder, namely the 6-pounder anti-tank gun, arrived in sufficient numbers to allow the 25-pounders to reassume their primary role.

Comparisons between the 88 and the 25-pounder may be invidious as they were very different artillery weapons, yet they pressed home the reasons why the German 88 proved to be such a relative success, while the 25-pounder anti-tank era proved to be an expensive improvisation that many gunners of the time did not wish to experience again

There was another reason for the fame of the 88 and it arose from an incorrect initial premise. All the early participants in what became the Second World War commenced operations with some accepted ideas regarding armoured warfare that turned out to be erroneous, most of them relating to vehicle armour, its penetration and their main armament. In 1939 tanks on all sides were still relatively lightly armoured (apart from a few specialised infantry support vehicles) and their gun calibres were too small. Generally speaking, all sides developed tank armour and anti-tank guns that could be effective only against what they themselves possessed. If a nation’s tank was proof against the fire of the nation’s standard anti-tank gun that was deemed acceptable and the tank itself did not need to arm itself with anything heavier in the main armament line. Combat experience was to demonstrate the hazards of this approach, the ultimate recognition only occurring when German anti-tank gunners watched their carefully aimed projectiles bouncing off British and French tank armour in 1940. The most numerous German tank gun of that period was still the same ineffectual 37mm gun as used by the German anti-tank gunners. (In 1940 nearly all American tanks carried a similar 37mm main gun.)

That the 88 was to have such a dramatic influence on the tussle between tank armour and anti-tank guns should therefore now come as not too much of a surprise. The firepower, projectile weight and combat range of the 88 made a tremendous impact on all who had to undergo the experience, but that experience was on such a lethal scale that terms of ‘secret weapon’ or ‘wonder weapon’ began to be bandied about, not only in soldiers’ conversations but in media accounts that attempted to disguise the reasons why the 88 was having such an impression. The fact was that the British, French and, to a marginally lesser extent, the Germans had badly underestimated the basic requirements of armoured combat-vehicle design.

Any successful combat vehicle still has to display three basic and balanced design factors, namely firepower, protection and mobility. Ignoring or neglecting any one (or more) of these factors results in an unsatisfactory solution to providing a viable combat vehicle. For instance, the British focused heavily on mobility and tended to neglect firepower and (in most cases) protection, relying on mobility alone for a degree of protection, such as with their Cruiser tank series. When they did emphasise protection, as with their infantry support tanks, firepower was neglected, while the same vehicles proceeded only at the speed of a marching soldier.

Even if they were way ahead in tank tactics, the Germans were little better off in tank-design terms in 1939, but they did manage to stay just one step ahead in almost every aspect of tank technology until 1945. Compared to their Allied counterparts, German tanks were seemingly always better armed, better protected and more mobile throughout the war years, the heavy Tiger I and Tiger II being notable exceptions as they lacked mobility. The Allies lauding the 88 as a ‘wonder weapon’ helped in some degree to disguise that fact. In the process they completely overlooked the corresponding reality that British and American tank designers were just as inherently capable of turning out similar combat vehicles and guns had they utilised a concentrated, ruthlessly determined approach similar to that of their German counterparts, an approach that free-thinking civilians in uniform could never adopt.

When the war ended in 1945 the 88 was still a potent weapon, while the arrival of the specialised tank and anti-tank 88s only served to prolong the ‘wonder weapon’ identity. So good was their all-round performance that 88s served on for years with many nations after 1945 – but so did the British 3.7in Anti-Aircraft Gun and the American 90mm Gun M1A1.

Heuschrecke

The development of SP artillery had been envisioned as early as 1934, but by 1935 attention had turned to a tank with a 105mm howitzer. Thus, it was not until early 1940 that approval was given for development of a true SP artillery piece. In January 1942 Krupp showed a prototype of a 105mm howitzer on the PzKw IV chassis and in July a contract for 200 was placed. This was to be an interim design, as the Automotive Design Office really wanted a weapon with 360° traverse and capable of dismounting tor use separate from the carrier vehicle. This resulted in the “Heuschrecke 10” vehicle with a light howitzer in a dismountable turret. In the meantime, however, it had become clear that the interim design was both heavy and expensive and Rheinmetall and Alkett were called upon to. mount the 105mm howitzer on the chassis of the PzKw II light tank. Using experience previously acquired in mounting the 15cm infantry gun and the 75mm Pak on this vehicle, they demonstrated the vehicle in July 1942. The contract for the PzKw IV SP vehicle was thereupon cancelled. In fact, the Heuschrecke 10 never entered series production, and the Rheinmetall/AJkett SdKfz 124 “Wespe” soldiered on to the end of the war.

10.5cm leFH18/1(Sf) auf Geschutzwagen IVb (Sd Kfz 165/1)

From 1941, various proposals had been made for a self-propelled version of the 10.5cm leFH18. Krupp designed a special vehicle based on the Pz Kpfw IV components, using a smaller engine, hull and three-station bogies per side, with larger road wheels. Krupp’s Pz Sf IVb had a partly-traversing turret which was open-topped. A Test Series of eight units was ordered. Production vehicles were to have the Maybach HL90 which gave 320PS. Production was cancelled because, on the subject of self-propelled artillery, official thinking was tending towards carriages capable of all-round traverse, with ability to dismount the weapon.

The Sd.Kfz. 165/1 was similar in design to the Heuschrecke, but did not have the chassis-mounted launching mechanism to remove the turret. After a series of tests, the Sd.Kfz. 165/1 was accepted by the Wehrmacht in early January 1940. In 1941, Krupp built prototype vehicles armed with the 105 mm leichte Feldhaubitze 18/1 L/28 (light field howitzer 18/1 L/28, abbreviated leFH 18/1 L/28) cannon based on a modified Panzer IV chassis. The prototypes were fitted with a smaller six-cylinder Maybach HL66P engine, which had a power capacity of 188 hp (140 kW). Although 200 vehicles were ordered, Krupp completed only 10 prototypes in the final four months of 1942.

Alkett now proposed an interim solution of mounting the 10.5cm leFH18 on the Pz Kpfw II chassis, and this was accepted as the Wespe (wasp). In a final attempt to have their special GW IVb chassis utilized, Krupp offered the design as the basis for the Jagdpanzer IV, designated Panzerjager IVb (E39) mit 7.5cm PaK39 L/48, but the normal Pz Kpfw IV chassis was again utilized.

The Sea Battles for the Dardanelles I

Fort Seddulbahr before the bombardment on 19 February 1915.

Reconstructed Turkish heavy gun site at the Dardanelles Straits before the bombardment by the British and French fleets

Turkey’s entry into the war on the side of the Central Powers did not bring about the strategic advantage for which Germany had hoped. Bulgaria and Romania did not join the alliance with the Central Powers and remained neutral. Thus a direct overland transportation link between these allied states was still missing and this was of decisive importance for delivering essential weapons and ammunition to Turkey. Even Romania insisted on its neutrality and no longer permitted freight from Germany to pass through its territory, which had previously been possible by paying bribes.

In mid-November 1914, based on reports from Istanbul, the Foreign Ministry emphasised in a memorandum to the German High Command that the number of mines in the Dardanelles and the army’s ammunition would hardly suffice for two battles, so that ensuring a transit route to Istanbul through Serbia became one of the most important tasks of German war planning. The document pointed out that should Turkish requirements not be fulfilled due to shortage of ammunition, then the possible negative consequence could be the mobilisation of the entire Balkans against the Central Powers. On the other hand, as a positive effect of a campaign against Serbia, and thus by keeping the Turkish army as an ally, then 700,000 Turks as well as a further 400,000 men of the Bulgarian army could be made ‘usable’ for German purposes. Towards the end of November 1914 Austro-Hungarian troops tried to defeat Serbia but during the first half of December this offensive ended in a severe rout and the Central Powers’ withdrawal from Serbia. The overland route to Turkey remained blocked.

Field Marshal von der Goltz was again posted to Istanbul in November 1914, transferred from a controversial period as military governor of Belgium. This assignment had been engineered on the initiative of Ambassador von Wangenheim, who evidently wanted to be rid of the recalcitrant General Liman von Sanders and hoped that he would be better able to exercise influence on the conciliatory old Field Marshal. When von Sanders learned of Wangenheim’s efforts to bring back von der Goltz, he tried to dissuade the head of the Military Cabinet in Berlin and stated that, in his view, his relationship with the Ambassador was not as bad as was apparently mistakenly assumed. Von Sanders received support through a letter that Lieutenant Colonel Thauvenay, a member of the Military Mission and now quartermaster at Turkish Headquarters, wrote to the Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office. In the letter, Thauvenay tried to excuse the conflicts between the Head of the Military Mission and the Ambassador, indicating that it was due to the General’s military integrity and straightforwardness. He considered von der Goltz was unfit to have an active role in the Turkish military, since he had already ‘sinned enough in the Turkish army’ and what was needed was ‘not a smiling advisor but a firm hand’. This entreaty was unsuccessful however, and von der Goltz arrived in Istanbul on 12 December 1914. But not even von der Goltz himself knew for what purpose he had been assigned to Turkey. He had received no clear instructions or support from either Germany or the Turks. Von der Goltz was not made subordinate to the Military Mission, had no other powers and was therefore not suitable for the German Ambassador’s intention, which was namely that he should act as a replacement for Liman von Sanders. On the contrary – in a telegram on the departure of the Field Marshal from Berlin, it was said that the posting was ‘merely an act of courtesy and has nothing to do with warfare or military operations’. This was understandably unsatisfactory for von der Goltz, who still regarded himself as the figurehead of German-Turkish cooperation and was now bitterly disappointed with his dubious status and lack of recognition:

‘Here I am only to hold a purely honorary position. Not even an adjutant was to be allocated to me. […] Any rights, powers or courses of action to gain influence have not been granted to me. I was not authorized to recruit other officers. All these rights, especially a significant monetary fund, however, were placed at General v. Liman’s disposal, were contractually guaranteed to him, and the Military Cabinet nervously ensured that I was not interfering with these rights.’

Nevertheless, at the beginning of February 1915 the Sultan gave von der Goltz the function of an advisor at the Turkish headquarters and let him take part at General Staff meetings. Although he felt like a ‘spare wheel’ in this position he nonetheless gave expert advice to the Turkish leadership and wrote assessments and reports to Berlin. Thus during these weeks von der Goltz principally viewed his task as explaining to Istanbul the war question against Serbia and in supporting the new Chief of the General Staff, Erich von Falkenhayn, with his assessments. He saw the advantage of a military operation against Serbia as of grand strategic effect, both in Turkey and in the Balkans, and wrote to Falkenhayn:

‘If, on the other hand, we succeed in bringing the Balkan states over to our side through early success in Serbia, our prevalence over Russia would be finally settled. We have Bulgaria and as soon as we or our allies are with strong forces in Niš the rest will follow on. Then the well-equipped Turkish army of six corps, now inactive in Thrace and Constantinople, can be used.’

Von Falkenhayn was not against this line of reasoning, but had to keep his eye on all the theatres of war and thus saw no possibility of carrying out a major offensive against Serbia. Even the Austrian Chief of the General Staff, Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf, saw no chance of even a limited operation against Serbia in order to open just a single corridor as a transport route.

Meanwhile, on 3 November 1914, the Allies had launched a first attack on the entrance to the Dardanelles – apparently, however, more with the intention of probing the defence capability or damaging installations than trying to make a breakthrough. Lieutenant Colonel Wehrle reported:

On the morning of the 3rd at 7 o’clock, 10 English[sic] and French ships of the line were lying in two semicircles at the entrance of the strait, and fired at the two forts at Kumkale and Seddulbahr from a position 16,000 metres away, where no Turkish guns could reach. Out of the slight morning mist, muzzle flashes constantly light up, the forts are shrouded in smoke and dust from which continuous tongues of flame rise up. Half an hour later a tremendous white cloud of smoke appears over Seddulbahr, and stayed in the air for minutes. A [sound like] heavy thunder is heard. The ships peel off and disappear in the haze. That was the start, but a bad start. Through an incomprehensible act of carelessness by a coastal battery, many hundreds of hundredweights of old gunpowder had remained piled up in an underground storage area. This storage area was hit by a shell and the whole battery, along with 5 officers and 60 men, were blown to pieces.’

After this attack and during the following weeks it remained quiet in the Dardanelles. This afforded the Turks more time to continue their preparations for defence. An additional Turkish artillery battalion had been assigned in mid-December for the defence of Beşika Bay (just slightly north of Nagara); Lieutenant Colonel Wehrle first of all had to put this unit through some basic training:

‘Simply looking at them, my head was shaking in disbelief and even my Turkish battery commanders, who were used to many things, remained speechless at this pile of military destitution. The battalion was taken in hand and two days were needed to restore order and bearing. First, everything went to the delousing facility, which was set up in a bakery. Meanwhile officers and NCOs of the Howitzer Regiment were tasked to inspect materiel and equipment, any items deficient were noted and indents placed with the quartermaster. Fourteen days later Marshal Liman v. Sanders visited the battalion in its firing position. Chance would have it that just at the time, when we were standing in one of the batteries, a destroyer was approaching the shore. The Marshal gave the order to fire. This battery had never before fired a single live shot. I prompted the battery commander, checked the sighting and the first shot near the target caused the boat to turn off. The battery was praised and was very proud. The following day, a French cruiser appeared and gave us thanks with 60 heavy shells, which it fired – not at the battery but against a dune 200 metres away, which I had set up at night, using tree trunks as a decoy.’

Meanwhile, new calls for help went out from Istanbul to Berlin. On 30 December, Ambassador von Wangenheim announced that, with the continuing geographical isolation of Turkey, ‘the moment could be foreseen where Turkish thirst for action and will to fight may cease’. On 4 January 1915 Falkenhayn was notified about a meeting of the generals and admirals stationed in Istanbul regarding the ammunition situation in Turkey, where they concluded that even with the most economical consumption, ‘the ammunition for the army and navy would only last until mid-March’. Admiral von Usedom, who was responsible for the defence of the Dardanelles, had also stated that ‘he could vouch for the defence capability of the Dardanelles against a first attack, but that he could not give the same guarantee for a repeated attack’.

Churchill had discussed the question of opening the Dardanelles in November 1914 in the context of a new strategic offensive in southern Europe to win over the Romanians, Bulgarians and perhaps the Greeks as allies; however, this plan was not pursued due to a lack of available forces. Only at the beginning of January 1915, in response to a request from Russia, who wished to take the pressure off their Caucasus front, was further planning resumed in London. However, since the British Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, did not want to make troops available for the Orient Front, the commander of the British Mediterranean Fleet, Vice Admiral Sackville Carden, was asked how this task could be achieved. He replied on 5 January that although he could not take the Dardanelles by a surprise rush attack, he could take them with the fleet in a large and extended operation. This statement formed the basis for the decision of the British Military Council on 28 January 1915, which recommended an attack on the Dardanelles solely as a fleet action. Preparations for this attack took several weeks. In mid-February it was believed that the plans for attack were ready. On 19 January, Russia had been informed of the intended operation; in London it was expected that with the operation to force the Dardanelles, Russia would at the same time carry out a naval attack on the Bosphorus and a landing on the Turkish Black Sea coast. This, however, was rejected by Moscow due to insufficient forces being available.

Meanwhile the Allied fleet, lying off the Dardanelles, had been considerably strengthened. In addition to the sixteen large British battleships and cruisers, four French battleships and the Russian protected cruiser Askold arrived in January, so that at least twenty-one large warships were now off the Dardanelles. At first the Allied fleet limited itself to continuous monitoring of the entrance to the Dardanelles. From mid-January 1915, there were signs that the Western powers intended an attack on the Straits. On 15 January a French submarine broke through the defensive anti-submarine net stretched across the Dardanelles. Through the courageous intervention of Navy Lieutenant Prince Reuss, who set course in a small ship towards the submarine and dropped depth charges, the submarine was forced to surface at Nagara and fired on by coastal batteries. The Austro-Hungarian Military Representative in Turkey, Field Marshal Lieutenant (Feldmarschalleutnant) Josef Pomiankowski, reported:

‘As an enemy submarine appeared shortly thereafter, it was immediately fired upon and severely damaged, leaving the commander with no choice but to surrender. The crew was captured, but the boat – it was the French submarine Saphir – was towed to Constantinople, where I had the opportunity to inspect it. Saphir belonged to a very outdated type, and was also much neglected. German naval officers told me that in the German fleet boats of this type no longer existed.’

Beginning on 2 February, individual ships began to shell the outer fortifications. On 19 February the Anglo-French fleet again shelled the outer fortifications of the Dardanelles with twelve warships. Admiral von Usedom described this in detail and thus gave an example of the leadership qualities of the German forces taking part:

‘The French used their heavy artillery, the Englishmen [sic] followed soon thereafter with their medium artillery, so that now broadside salvoes were being fired at three minute intervals against all four forts. The batteries were heavily hit; and clear hits could be made out in the fort at Seddulbahr and in the Kumkale battery. At Fort Orhanié the clouds of smoke from the explosions were right in front of the traverses. The ships came closer and closer to the forts. Apparently they believed the batteries to have been fully destroyed. This now gave Orhanié and Ertugrul the opportunity to counter-fire at 16.45 hrs. At the same time all hell broke loose, in which all the ships now seemed to take part. At intervals of 40 seconds, salvo followed salvo. At times, the forts were completely obscured by the black clouds of the explosions. Nevertheless, Orhanié and Ertugrul continued firing. Towards18.00 hrs, the enemy broke off the bombardment. The battery commander of Orhanié, Lieutenant Hans Woermann, as well as the Turkish interpreter and telephonist, who had been in the second observation station of the battery, were killed at 16.10 hrs by 2 shells of 15 cm calibre, after being forced to abandon the first observation post as a result of it being hit. Deputy Ordnance Technician Joerss, sheltering with others outside the battery, assumed the post of the dead battery commander. Since the phone line was out, he no longer had communications with the other batteries. On his own initiative, when the second enemy ship came into bearing from the left, he opened fire at a distance of 44 hm [4400 metres]. Then the Englishman immediately turned to starboard to increase the range.’

The losses caused by this attack totalled four dead, including two Germans, and nine wounded on the Turkish side. Lieutenant Colonel Kannengiesser wrote about this attack:

‘The first attack on 19 February 1915 was aimed at the outer forts of Seddulbahr and Kumkale at the entrance [of the Dardanelles], which were fired at from long range, and vanished under a dense hail of shells, smoke, dust and splinters. Aircraft directed the fire. How can 30-year old guns with quite outdated traverse and firing methods counter this? As Carden withdrew his ships when darkness falls, the loss of people and materiel is insignificant.’

The destruction was judged to be low in relation to the estimated 800 to 1000 shots fired by the Allied naval guns. At Kumkale, only a 28-cm gun had been permanently knocked out, but Fort Seddulbahr had suffered greater damage. In preparation for the breakthrough and also for landing operations, the forts at Kumkale and Seddulbahr were systematically bombarded almost every day. With field artillery support, the forward Turkish infantry managed to beat off the smaller Allied daylight landings, which were aimed at demolishing gun barrels and ammunition bunkers in the forts. On 25 February 1915 the Allied fleet made another attack on the outer forts, which were almost completely destroyed after a seven-hour bombardment.

These initial experiences of the Allied fleet and their limited visible successes led to new British operational planning. The experience during the British fleet’s 1807 Dardanelles breakthrough was also remembered, in which, after entering the Marmara Sea, fleet re-supply was disrupted by Turkish troops on either side of the Dardanelles. Therefore land forces had to be included in the planning to secure the coastal areas after the breakthrough. The basic decision was made on 16 February 1915, but it was only on 10 March that the total strength of the Expeditionary Force was finalised: four English divisions and one French division. However, the exact operational role for this force had not yet been defined. It should follow the outcome of the fleet operations, which were maintained. Thus there was still no joint or coordinated operational planning for the deployment of Allied naval and land forces.

Despite the Entente’s limited success so far, the attacks on the Dardanelles had caused great concern in Istanbul. Although Turkey had already been a Central Powers’ alliance partner for several months, deliveries of much needed supplies from Germany still could not be transported there and unrest began to grow against the background of the imminently anticipated attack on the Dardanelles. On 1 March Enver wrote to von Falkenhayn that the situation was serious, as the Allied fleet was gradually destroying fortifications and could thus force a passage through the Straits. In a second telegram of 8 March, Enver recalled the precarious situation and described the opening-up of an overland transportation route through Serbia as the ‘vital question for Turkey’.300 On 10 March, Admiral von Usedom wrote to von Falkenhayn: ‘Despite the relatively meagre success of the enemy, destruction of all the Dardanelles fortifications cannot be prevented in the long run, if the munitions and mines which have been on order for months do not arrive as soon as possible.’

The Foreign Office warned:

‘Should the Dardanelles and Constantinople fall, this would not only signify a great moral boost for the Entente, with immense repercussions for all of Islam and for Turkey’s existential endangerment, but also a revitalisation of the war effort in Russia and France, thus not only prolonging the war but also driving all the Balkan states (Bulgaria and Romania) into the arms of the Entente.’