Allied Countermeasures against the snorkel-equipped U-boat I

The Illustrated London News, 23 December 1944. Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D Roosevelt jointly announced to the public on 9 December that German U-boats were now equipped with a device that allowed them to remain submerged. Five days later First Lord of the Admiralty A V Alexander followed up with a public warning that with the appearance of this new device heavy losses should be expected by the public. The day after this illustration was published the snorkel and Alberich-equipped U-486 (VIIC) sunk the SS Leopoldville outside Cherbourg Harbour despite it having a Royal Navy escort, causing a significant loss of life among the US 66th Infantry Division being sent as reinforcements to the Western Front.

The snorkel was treated as a ‘secret’ development by the Kriegsmarine when it was introduced. Allied intelligence certainly intercepted wireless traffic about its existence through Ultra intercepts. However, it appears that the best information came from captured German crewmen picked up after their U-boat was sunk or scuttled.

The British Admiralty’s Naval Intelligence Division’s C.B. 04051 (103) Interrogation of U-Boat Survivors, Cumulative Edition, June 1944 was the first known assessment of the German snorkel. The document revealed that the equipment as well as its basic technical schematics were known to the British at the very start of the Normandy invasion. While this document was descriptive, it did not contain any analysis of the snorkel’s operational or tactical potential as U-boat tactics had not yet evolved. Consequently, the report did not assess any impacts to ongoing Royal Navy Escort or Support Group tactical responses during a U-boat hunt.

This information acquired by British intelligence was accurate. It is clear that by June they had gained knowledge of the Type II non-flange mast as well as the replacement of the pulley system with a hydraulic piston lift. Both design improvements were starting to be fielded broadly across the U-boat fleet, as in the case of U-480, which received a second snorkel installation that summer, upgrading from the Type I to the Type II. The Admiralty report understood that the snorkel was intended for charging, but clearly did not opine the consequences of a non-existent U-boat profile on their detection gear, or the possibility that U-boats could remain submerged for almost their entire patrol. In November British forces that occupied the former German U-boat base at Salamis, Greece, found technical renderings of the Type II snorkel mast installation for Type VIICs, the first such technical documents of their kind obtained by Allied intelligence.

Four months later, US Naval Intelligence observed the stark drop off of actionable intelligence, defined by immediate, readable Ultra intercepts or HF/DF map plots that allowed them to ‘fix’ a U-boat’s location. The report noted the decrease in wireless transmissions and change in Enigma keys, as well as the atmospheric conditions that impacted reception in the North Atlantic. These observations prompted OP-20-G to publish a memorandum notifying US Naval leadership about the impact of these developments to anti-U-boat operations. What the report did not mention was the fact that a number of the intelligence impacts were caused by the introduction of the snorkel, suggesting that OP-20-G did not fully comprehend the correlation. A contributing factor to the lack of understanding was that most snorkel-fitted U-boats were being employed almost exclusively around the coastal regions of the British Isles and not in the convoy lanes of the North Atlantic.

A few statements of note in the 24 November 1944 report are of interest. ‘The problem of fixing U-boats in the Atlantic has become more difficult and will probably continue so …’ for the following reasons: ‘Approximately 90% of the D/F cases have involved U-boat transmissions of the ration of 30 seconds or less. Such short transmissions make it difficult to obtain any large number of high quality bearings.’; ‘the use of Norddeich Off Frequencies has become more general for all types of transmissions. It has been our experience that fewer bearings are obtained on all frequency transmissions of short or medium duration, thereby resulting in less accurate fixes’; ‘U-boats have been maintaining a rigid condition of radio silence. We have noted U-boats on patrol in various areas in the North Atlantic for periods as long as 30 or 40 days without making a single radio transmission’; and ‘ionospheric disturbances, in the North Atlantic in the winter have a detrimental effect upon D/F fixing’.

This resulted in the conclusion by OP-20-G that ‘the accurate locating of U-boats by means of Ultra information has progressively become more and more difficult’.

The OP-20-G memorandum balanced the fact that the dramatic reduction in reliable U-boat position signals was assessed as not impacting operations too significantly given the fact that few U-boats were operating in the mid-Atlantic. The report assumed that if traditional Wolfpack tactics were reinstituted in the spring of 1945 then a natural increase of signals would result in a resumption of accurate U-boat position information. Like the Admiralty report of June, this US Navy intelligence assessment failed to appreciate the paradigm shift introduced by the snorkel.

Overnight the snorkel rendered Allied radar detection almost ineffective and significantly reduced the value of Ultra in fixing U-boats for hunter-killer groups. Yet, a review of US and British intelligence reports revealed that it took both countries about six months to appreciate the snorkel’s impact on their anti-U-boat operations and implement effective countermeasures.

This was revealed by Ladislas Farago, who served as the Chief of Research and Planning in the US Navy’s Special Warfare Branch (OP-16-Z) during the Second World War. Writing after the war, he offered how unprepared the Western Allies were in the face of snorkel-equipped U-boats. The US Tenth Fleet was organised in May 1943 at the very height of the North Atlantic convoy battles as the first anti-submarine command. Its mission was to find, fix, and destroy German U-boats. To this end, its supporting missions included the protection of coastal merchant shipping, the centralisation of control and routing of convoys, and the co-ordination and supervision of all US Navy anti-submarine warfare training, anti-submarine intelligence, and co-ordination with the Allied nations. The Tenth Fleet had no organic naval vessels. Its commander, Admiral Ernest King, used Commander-in-Chief Atlantic’s (CINCLANT) vessels operationally, and CINCLANT issued operational orders to escort groups originating in the United States. The Tenth Fleet was also responsible for the organisation and operational control of hunter-killer groups in the Atlantic.

The Tenth Fleet was ‘misled in its appreciation of the snorkel by reports that tended to emphasise the deficiencies of the device’, according to Farago. Interrogations of German U-boat prisoners early in 1944 who had participated in the first snorkel trials and training in the Baltic spoke despairingly of the device. At this time no U-boat had conducted an operational cruise and not even the German U-boat command understood the device’s full potential. OP-16-Z produced a number of intelligence broadcasts that disparaged the device through the Tenth Fleet. By the summer of 1944 the Tenth Fleet dismissed the snorkel as a viable technological solution for the U-boat. This assessment changed by the late summer and early autumn of 1944 with the approach of U-518 (IXC) off North Carolina in August, followed by others off Canada (see Chapter 9). U-518 sank the SS George Ade, 100 miles from the US East Coast – the first American-flagged ship sunk by a snorkel-equipped U-boat. All Tenth Fleet efforts to hunt down this U-boat failed, leaving it concerned.

The Allies had no tactics or technology to counter the new threat, which was the responsibility of the US Navy’s Tenth Fleet. Farago noted in the early 1960s:

In a very real sense, then, the snorkel thus succeeded in doing exactly what Doenitz hoped it would accomplish: it provided effective protection from the U-boats’ most dangerous foe, the planes of the escort carrier groups. The protection was so effective, indeed, that from September, 1944, through March, 1945, the escort carrier groups managed to sink but a single U-boat, and a non-snorkeller at that, although they accounted for forty-six U-boats during the prior sixteen months.

The Allies devised a simple division of labour in terms of counter-U-boat operations from 1942 onward. The US Navy’s hunter-killer groups were given the responsibility for the central Atlantic and US East Coast, while the British and Canadian air and surface forces were responsible for their respective coastal regions as well as the North Atlantic. This generally placed the burden of counter-U-boat operations on the US Navy from 1942 until early 1944, when U-boats were non-snorkel equipped and operated in Wolfpacks. Once the snorkel was introduced the burden of anti-U-boat operations shifted to the British and Canadian forces through to the end of the war. This included the development of new tactics. It is made clear in reviewing available primary documents that by the end of the war the British and Canadian Royal Navies appreciated the fact that they were fighting a very different U-boat foe, and adapted accordingly. The US Navy and US Coast Guard, however, did not have that same appreciation due to a lack of operational experience against snorkel-equipped U-boats.

Allied Air Operations

In order to destroy a U-boat, it had to be located. By the spring of 1944 location and destruction was predominately carried out by radar-equipped Allied aircraft. The British Air Ministry published ORS/CC Report Nr. 325 on 5 January 1945 titled Operational Experience Against U-Boats Fitted with Snorkel, which summarised the negative impact the snorkel had on Allied air operations against U-boats during the previous six months. The report began: ‘Throughout the past few months the German U-boat fleet have been fitted with a “Snorkel” pipe, about 16’ in diameter and showing some 2–3 feet above the water, through which the air for the Diesels can be sucked in and the exhaust expelled. The consistent use of this device has very considerably reduced the efficiency of [aircraft] detection of U-boats – probably by a factor of about 10, and produced a return to close-in submarine warfare.’

Based on past operational results the following ‘recommendations and statements of fact are considered to follow fairly definitely from the scanty data on operations:’

1. Snorkels are usually seen by their wake and ‘smoke’, this ‘smoke’ is however only produced on some occasions, much more frequent in winter. Theoretical investigation in progress may enable this effect to be predicted. The average citing ranges are average ‘smoke’ 7 miles, (two cases of 20 miles!), wake 4½ miles, snorkel itself about 1 mile.

2. An improvement in efficiency of two- or three-fold could be obtained by use of binoculars throughout.

3. Very little use has in fact been made of binoculars, even for recognition.

4. The operational range of detection on a ASV Mark V (4 miles) is about one third of the operational range on surfaced boats (13 miles), but

5. Radar efficiency is very low and sees more than Force 3 – because of the sea returns.

6. The proportion of snorkel U-boats seen snorkelling and subsequently attacked while visible, or less than 15 seconds dived, amounts to 70% of attacks.

7. Hence the depth charge setting for snorkels should be that proper to ‘snorkel depth’ itself.

8. The sighting range in Leigh-Lights at night is so low (about 400 yards media) that visual bombing holds out little hope. Radar bombing and or homing weapons will be essential.

It was noted in the study that U-boats could clearly be identified through the wakes left by the periscope or snorkel. In the last several months snorkels could be identified seven times greater through the ‘smoke’ trail. This ‘smoke’ was probably vapour caused by a snorkel riding too high out of the water, exposing its exhaust vent. However, the British assessment identified that the smoke, which was usually described as grey in colour, was ‘presumably largely water mist that became clearly visible and much more frequent in cold weather’. The results up to November, according to the assessment, ‘show so low a proportion of ‘smoking snorkels’ (9 out of 22 = 40 per cent) that this phenomenon must be due to some special weather conditions, more frequent in winter than summer’. It was made apparent by the study that the British pilots were not utilising binoculars during their air patrols and that a periscope or snorkel that was not smoking could be identified by binoculars at about 4.5-mile range, while the naked eye could only identify it at a range of 1.9 miles. Despite this fact, the study stated that very few periscopes or snorkels were in fact either first sighted or even recognised using binoculars. Even when air patrols used binoculars, they assessed that periscopes were identified only 16 per cent of the time, while snorkels only 33 per cent. By binocular ‘recognition’ it was meant ‘to identify the vague phenomenon: wakes, smoke, odd looking waves, etc. which are usually first seen’. The study also looked at the rate at which binoculars could identify a periscope or snorkel when radar contact had provided a rough bearing an exact range. It was determined that a binocular was used to confirm a radar bearing 19 per cent of the time. All this led to the conclusion that ‘there is room for considerable improvement in the use of binoculars, both regular scanning by lookouts detailed for the purpose whenever the neck disability is more than 5 miles and for recognition of radar blips. The second point could be met by the second pilots always keeping a pair of binoculars ready focused.’ What this assessment did not consider was the fact that U-boats predominately snorkelled at night as directed by BdU [Befehlshaber der Unterseeboote], limiting the effectiveness of visual identification even further.

A separate detailed analysis was conducted on daylight attacks against U-boats by aircraft during the period June to December 1944. This study focused on U-boats that submerged once they were attacked on the surface. The report was divided into attacks that occurred when a U-boat had been submerged for less than fifteen seconds, submerged between fifteen and sixty seconds, submerged more than sixty seconds, and were lost while the aircraft was manoeuvring to attack. The study found that whether the U-boat was identified operating with just a periscope or snorkel separately, or the U-boat was identified operating both simultaneously, it was impossible to obtain a kill once the vessel began to submerge. The kill rate per attack when the snorkel and/or periscope were still visible was only at 17 per cent. This was 50 per cent less than the 43 per cent kill rate for a completely surfaced U-boat. The study went on to state ‘the number of snorkel sightings leading to targets visible, partly visible or dived less than 15 seconds (41% of sightings, 74% of attacks) is so high that the DC’s against snorkels should have the depth setting proper to the boat actually snorkelling’. This data does support that the U-boat dipole mounted on the snorkel mast was effective in identifying attacking aircraft, giving U-boats the advantage of diving before an air attack commenced. A fifteen-second advantage was enough to gain survivability against an air attack regardless of how far out the aircraft identified the snorkelling U-boat. The realisation that snorkel ‘smoke’ was a marked advantage caused British Coastal Command to issue a memo that declared this study was only permitted to be circulated among those engaged in ‘Air Anti-U-boat Warfare’. Not even the Royal Navy was notified of this observation in order to maintain strict secrecy over this operational advantage. Given that this memo was issued on 22 March 1945, at the end of winter, it probably contributed little to the anti-U-boat effort. However, it does show how seriously the snorkel altered the balance sheet against Allied aircraft.

One effective Allied aircraft tactic against snorkel-equipped U-boats introduced was the use of sonobuoys. U-boat commanders noted in their short reports to BdU that Allied aircraft dropped sonobuoys in areas where their snorkels were presumably seen to alert other aircraft or anti-submarine groups to the U-boat’s diving points. All U-boats were warned of this tactic on 15 February by BdU, suggesting it was a recently employed tactic. There were two types of sonobuoys, one for listening and one for HF/DF. The HF/DF buoy was less effective as snorkel-equipped U-boats rarely transmitted wireless signals. It was the direction-finding buoy that was used with effect during the last six months of the war against the snorkel-equipped U-boat.

Sonobuoys were originally intended to be dropped manually from blimps. Parachutes were added when the decision to deploy them from manoeuvring aircraft was made. They were equipped with a stored, self-erecting antenna. The first operational passive broadband sonobuoy was known as AN/CRT-1. The operational frequency of the AN/CRT-1 was 300Hz to 8kHz, which was within the audible range of the human ear. The operator had to make real-time decisions based on his ability to distinguish various underwater sounds. The problem was that in shallow water the operator had to contend with a host of other noises caused by waves, currents and density layers, making identification of a U-boat operating on electric motors or even drifting with engines off problematic. An improved version, the AN/CRT-1A, also known as the Expendable Radio Sonobuoy (ERSB), had an increased frequency band of 100Hz to 10 kHz and lighter weight (12.7lb).

The improved sonobuoy contained enough battery power for four hours of continuous operation. It was not until June 1944 that these new sonobuoys were being employed by US aircraft squadrons operating in the central Atlantic. It was not until the autumn of 1944 that a single British aircraft squadron received the device for employment.

As an approximation, an aircraft equipped with eight sonobuoys could hold contact with a U-boat for sixty to ninety minutes, and if equipped with twelve, for as long as three hours. This was ample time to vector in a surface hunter-killer group or squadron. The drawback was that calm water was required to achieve these contact times.

The British also took a careful look at operational and practice data recording radar returns against the snorkel. The data the British collected was identified by their own intelligence analysts as ‘scanty’. The S-Band equipment, while operational, could not be compared effectively with the X-Band, which was not yet operational. However, in looking at the MK.V Liberator it was noted that the operational range to identify a periscope or snorkel was 4.7 miles compared with the average of 12.9 miles by day or 14.3 miles by night for this specific equipment on surfaced U-boats. It was thought that the ratio of a third would appear promising until it was realised that this fact implied the majority of these contacts would appear inside the ‘sea returns’ and thus be almost impossible to recognise by sight. The study predicted that in a calm sea the MK.V Liberator had a ratio of 10:1 to identify the snorkel or periscope, while the MK.III Wellington’s ratio was 6:1. In moderate seas the ratios were respectively 50:1 and 30:1. In rough seas it was considered next to impossible to make a radar contact. The conclusion was that the S-Band’s operational range against snorkels ‘appears to be about one-third of that on surfaced U-boats’. In addition ‘detection of snorkel radar in seas of Force 3 or higher is much more difficult than in calmer seas’.

While the above data was based on daylight attacks, a sobering assessment of night-time attacks was also made. The study concluded: ‘The sighting range of the snorkel at night is so low that the technique of attack hitherto used, i.e. radar contact – visual sighting – release of bombs by visual judgment – holds out little hope of success. It is suggested that either radar bomb sites or homing weapons or both are essential.’ This observation is interesting when compared with the procedures outlined to German U-boats by BdU that snorkelling should be carried out at night. This meant that if proper guidance was followed then a snorkel-equipped U-boat’s survivability against aerial identification and attack was very high. No calculations were made by the British in their report between snorkels camouflaged with anti-radar matting and those without. The process of covering snorkel masts with the Wesch anti-radar matting became commonplace in the autumn of 1944 and served to reduce the ability of Allied radar detection even further than already indicated in the above assessment.

The British knew the U-boats were there but were now unable to easily locate them or even effectively employ their aircraft and radar technology against them. The study noted that ‘of the conclusions drawn some are practically certain; others are open to some doubt as based on small numbers. It is however, considered that, in view of the urgency of the snorkel problem, these probable conclusions should also be drawn.’ Indeed, there was a snorkel problem. Six months into this problem the Western Allies were still struggling to identify probable countermeasures against an enemy that they thought was defeated in May 1943, but that had now returned with a vengeance.

Given the negative impact that the snorkel had on British air-based antisubmarine efforts, a series of meetings were convened starting on 22 November 1944 that were intended to address the issue. Meetings followed on 15 December, 19 January 1945, 29 January and 13 March to identify solutions to the troubling snorkel trend. These meetings were held in Room 71/II at Whitehall in the Air Ministry and were chaired by Sir Robert Renwick Bt, who looked for updates from Air Commodore H Leedham, CB, OBE, as the DCD (Director of Communications Development), and Dr A C B Lovell, as the TRE, on ‘actions taken by the DCD and TRE (Telecommunications Research Establishment) to provide anti-Schnorkel measures …’ In the first meeting in November it was stated that ‘methods that could be introduced into existing equipment which it was anticipated would give some 20%–25% increase in the ratio of the snorkel responses as against those of sea returns’. In addition, Commodore Leedham believed that either X-Band or K-Band could be used but at least another month of experiments was required. It was confirmed in December that ongoing trials suggested that modifications to both the Wellington and Warwick systems would allow them to better pick up smaller targets. X-Band trials were still ongoing. It was also recommended that American detection systems be included in the testing programme.

In the 19 January meeting it was expressed that significant delays caused by wrongly specified equipment had prevented Coastal Command from equipping their aircraft with the new detection system modifications. K-Band was given the highest priority and X-Band results were promising. By 29 January, Coastal Command aircraft were finally receiving modifications to their radar sets that would allow for better detection of smaller targets. Interestingly, it was noted that the tests being performed off Llandudno, North Wales, in the Irish Sea against British submarine test targets had to stop due to the presence of actual U-boats in the testing area. The first X-Band-equipped Warwick Mk V aircraft were expected to be delivered in late March or early April.

The Air Ministry wanted to increase their chances of a successful attack against a snorkel-equipped U-boat by 20 per cent. Most of their recommendations, however, were not implemented until the spring of 1945. The US was not involved in these meetings, primarily as they were not directly engaged in the snorkel war to any great extent. British findings were to be made available to the US primarily because it was thought they would ‘interest them’.

BdU issued new guidance on 3 March 1945 to their U-boats based on changes introduced by British Coastal Command air patrols. Specifically, Message No. 226C reminded U-boats to maintain depth discipline when snorkelling and avoid being observed. Seven days later, on 10 March 1945, a follow-on message was sent, followed by further guidance to maintain a low snorkel profile in calm surface conditions embodied in Message No. 228B.

What BdU did not calculate was that with the coming of spring, North Atlantic storms gave way to calmer water, as noted by the reference in Message No. 228B of a sea state 1. This increased the potential of a U-boat’s identification through a raised snorkel or periscope by Allied radar or visual recognition.

Antitank Warfare in the Spanish Civil War

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

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

Spanish troops with a proto-Molotov.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Führer’s Military Toy Projects

The perfect armoured fighting vehicle is one that combines speed, heavy armour and a powerful gun. The factors which govern the design and production of a tank are a careful balance of compromises. Any increase in the weight of defensive armour will demand a stronger engine. The new engine may be larger in size than the original and require more fuel. To meet these requirements might encroach upon the limited area inside a tank which can often only be done by reducing the crew space or the ammunition stowage area. The mounting of a bigger gun also raises the vehicle’s weight and brings with it the need to produce a larger turret, which in turn will lead to another weight increase. Then, too, the design of the metal gun box, which is in essence all that a tank is, must be so simple that mass production is possible of parts that are easily machined and, finally, an assembly that is uncomplicated. It must be possible to replace damaged parts swiftly and under battlefield conditions.

Very few tanks of the Second World War met all these criteria. The Red Army’s T-34 was one which did. Not one of the German armoured fighting vehicles did until the later marks of the Panther tank came into service. The fearful reputation of the German Panzers was, as I have already said, due more to an ability to handle armour in the mass then to an inherently good vehicle design or the numbers produced.

Hitler, who had been an infantry soldier during the Great War, did not allow that fact to inhibit him in discussions regarding the weight/power/gun ratio in panzer design. On 7 July 1941, he ordered armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs) to be uparmoured by fitting spaced metal plates to counter the effect of hollow-charge shells, even though the increase in weight brought about by these plates lowered the speed and restricted the manoeuvrability of the vehicles. Later that month he decided that the number of Panzer Divisions was to be increased to 36. The 1941 figures of total production of all types of armoured fighting vehicles was only 3,256. To have equipped the extra Panzer Divisions which the Führer required would have necessitated a threefold output. Hitler was not able to accept the simple economic fact that German industry was incapable of meeting the extravagant demands he made upon it.

German tank production had always been inhibited by the lack of a native-designed vehicle. Not until 1935 and the Panzer III did the German tank-building industry produce a design which was not dependent upon foreign inspiration. The Panzer III was selected as one of Germany’s two projected types of battle tank. The Panzer IV was the other. One surprising fact was that no thought seemed to have been given to whether the contracted companies had experience of mass production. The only conclusion that can be drawn from this is that in the opinion of those in authority conveyor-belt techniques would not be required. It was obviously expected that standard production would be able to make good those losses in vehicles suffered in the projected series of short wars and that, therefore, there would be no need to go into mass production. Indeed, the Ford and Opel car companies, both with great knowledge and ability, were excluded from the panzer construction programme. As a consequence, until Speer’s reorganization of production methods late in the war, panzers were almost hand-built by craftsmen.

Concurrent with Hitler’s order for Speer to take over war production was the change in direction of the Führer’s thinking. He decided, during 1943, that the overriding priority was for tanks and demanded them in large numbers. The demand could not be met for a variety of reasons; principally because industry had not been allowed to concentrate upon a small number of really good designs. During the short years from the advent of Hitler to the end of the war, no fewer than 230 different types of armoured fighting vehicle, including prototypes, were in service. Of those 94 were fighting tanks, ten were various sorts of tank hunters, 42 were armoured personnel carriers, 19 armoured reconnaissance vehicles, 12 were anti-aircraft tanks, ten were SP carriages, nine armoured gun and infantry carriages. The tragedy for the panzer force was that there were too many types, each of too short a run, and brought too late into service. The problem of providing spare parts for this wide variety of vehicles was enormous. Another factor which adversely affected German tank design was the decision taken before the war to halt the development of medium-weight vehicles in favour of light machines whose battlefield role would be reconnaissance. That High Command decision, pushed through at the insistence of the cavalry arm, was to have the most serious effect upon the application of armour in military operations.

On the matter of armament a discussion at the Berghof during May 1941 produced from Hitler the order to fit a 5cm gun into the Panzer IV. Only a month later this weapon was found to be ineffective against most Russian armoured vehicles. The experience gained by panzer units on the Eastern Front during the first months of battle seems to have had a sobering effect upon the Führer’s thoughts concerning panzer construction. On 14 November 1941, Keitel’s memorandum to the Army High Command read, in part: ‘The Führer sees it necessary, having regard to our over-stretched and limited production capacity, to restrict the tank programme regarding the various models and to determine future types … to ease the pressure upon the industrial and military drawing officers and to release engineers for other production, those current developments whose production would, in any case, soon have been terminated will now be discarded. The Führer demands a simplification and a limiting of the programme so that mass production can be more easily introduced…’

This just did not happen. Prestige struggles between Party bosses, together with the conflicting views of senior military commanders on the development of the panzer arm, were sufficient to ensure that Hitler’s clearly expressed wishes were totally ignored. The obsolete Panzer II was still being produced in 1944 and the 38(t) until 1942. Production of chassis of the latter vehicle, to be used as the carriages of SP guns, was actually increased after that year. A lecture given by Guderian on 9 March 1943 showed that the Panzer IV, which had been in service since 1936, was still Germany’s principal battle tank and that it was planned for production to be continued at maximum rate throughout 1944/45. There were also conflicts within the political leadership in an effort to phase out the Panzer IV in favour of SP guns. Such divergences of opinion did not make for a progressive production programme.

The Panzer V (Panther) was one vehicle which showed the effect of Hitler’s direct interference. Drawings and prototypes of tanks heavier than the Panzer IV had been produced by several companies, but the Supreme Command had shown no interest, declaring that there was no need for them. The T-34 soon proved the OKW’s declaration to be untrue. There was a need for a heavier German tank and that need was urgent. Production of the Panzer V began during November 1942, and the first vehicles to be produced showed weaknesses resulting from rushed development. Guderian warned, during his lecture, that the fundamental faults in the Panzer V were of so serious a nature that the vehicle could not enter troop service until July 1943. Hitler was impatient to bring the new machine into service and actually postponed Operation ‘Citadel’, the German offensive against Kursk, in order to use the Panther as the principal weapon in that operation. The routes of advance to the Kursk battlefield were marked with broken-down Panthers whose transmissions had not been able to cope with the great weight they had to bear, and other tanks which had caught fire because of faults in the cooling system. The poor performance of the Panthers was acknowledged in a High Command memorandum which went on to highlight the fault of German production methods: ‘The demand for replacement parts [for the Panzer V] could not be met … without interfering with production of the vehicles…’

The Panzer VI (Tiger) went into production during August 1942 and ran until August 1944. Then, as a result of Germany’s supply shortages, production was concentrated on the Panzer V; in the same number of man-hours two Panthers could be built but only one Tiger. A further reason was that the Tiger was not adaptable for the mass production which was essential. Hitler interfered with the tactical employment of the first Tigers to be built. He ordered the whole batch, 83 vehicles, to be put into action on the Leningrad Front. The Führer, some 500 miles removed from the battle and without knowledge of ground conditions, laid out the tactics for the whole operation. Every one of the Tigers was lost.

The introduction into service of the Mark II Tiger, or König Tiger, reflected the German tendency towards huge and heavily armed monster tanks, of which the Maus was the outcome. During 1943, the Army Weapons Department initiated a new series of AFVs. The construction of these machines would be met by drawing upon the potential of companies which had not hitherto been employed on tank production. Included in this so-called E series development were plans for the Adler Company to produce a tank of more than 140 tons in weight.

The way in which the vehicle was contracted is indicative of Hitler’s spontaneous actions in pursuit of a single, not necessarily desirable objective. The oral contract was given by Hitler to Professor Porsche on 8 June 1942. A model of the vehicle was shown to Hitler during January 1943, but there was little further development until August, when the first prototype was produced. In June 1944, the turret and gun were delivered for the prototype. Although work continued on the Maus it was never completed and did not enter service.

Even had the 188-ton monster gone into action the operations in which it could have taken part would have been limited. To have moved the Maus across country would have placed a strain upon the 1200hp engine. Vast quantities of petrol would have been used at a time when fuel supplies were fast diminishing. To have transported the Maus by rail would have required special wagons to be designed and constructed.

Hitler, in commissioning the Maus, had ordered the construction of a vehicle that was little more than a slow-moving pillbox. It could not move on made-up roads, nor cross bridges because of its great weight, and it had to be waterproofed so that it would not flood when crossing rivers, for one of the contractual conditions was that it had to be capable of submerging to a depth of eight metres. To construct one 25-ton Panzer IV battle tank required among other things, 39,000kg of steel, 195kg of copper, 238kg of aluminium, 63kg of lead, 66kg of zinc and 116kg of rubber. The amounts of material which were wasted in constructing the Maus were shockingly high and the use of so scarce a material as rubber can only be described as an abuse.

That the Führer could waste not just the material alone but the energies of a vast number of skilled technicians and a great amount of shop-floor capacity is indicative of how the Reich’s resources were dissipated. The Maus, with its 12.8cm gun, was one area which Hitler had explored in his manic search for weapons of great size. Another was the production of super-heavy guns of which the 60cm mortar, Karl or Thor, is representative.

The rationale behind the construction of this monstrous piece of ordnance was the need to destroy armoured fortifications. Obviously, the Maginot Line was meant. The use of heavy-calibre artillery pieces to bombard such fixed targets was not new. Before the Great War the Austrian High Command had constructed 42cm weapons to destroy the Italian Alpine fortresses. In those early days the aeroplane was an untried weapon. By 1935, however, flying-machines could cover vast distances to drop armour-piercing bombs on such static targets as fortresses. The day of the super-heavy gun being used to smash forts was over, and yet, upon Hitler’s orders, the construction of such artillery pieces was pushed ahead.

The Karl mortar, named after General Karl Becker, the officer most closely associated with its development, bore the official description, Gerät 040. The first plans for its construction were laid at the end of 1935 and following certain technical discussions the Army Weapons Testing Department laid down guidelines during the following year. The gun was to fire a 2,000kg shell over a distance of 3,000m. A fleet of nine heavy trucks would be required to transport the loads into which the 55-ton piece would be broken down. To assemble the gun ready for firing required six hours from the time of its arrival at the firing site. As the time taken to set up the Karl was found to exceed the projected six hours, it was then proposed to make the gun self-propelled.

Further developments increased the range to 4,000m and the weight of the gun to 64,500kg. In March 1938, production of the final plans was ordered. Within six months an electrically driven, working model on a 1 to 10 scale had been produced. The proposed weight of the gun had now risen to 94,770kg and the range to 10,000m. First firing trials were carried out in the middle weeks of June 1939. By that time plans had been perfected for the gun to be transported as one piece on a specially constructed railway wagon. Consider: to bring a super-heavy piece of ordnance into action required, to begin with, a railway whose gauge was compatible. Those in Russia were not. Once in the target area, a curved spur line had to be constructed to take up the gun’s recoil, ammunition had to be brought forward and a camp for the crews established. Thousands of men were employed to prepare the route and to serve the gun as well as to man the anti-aircraft batteries and the defence units.

And the end result of all that endeavour? One lucky shot during the fighting in the Crimea destroyed a strong Russian fortress. The other shells fired in that artillery bombardment created deep and symmetric holes in the earth. During the destruction of Warsaw, following the collapse of the Polish Home Army, the Karl destroyed blocks of houses and flats. Hitler had ordered the production of super-heavy artillery and the pieces had been created. For the excavation of a number of holes, one fort destroyed and some city buildings demolished, millions of man-hours had been misused, thousands of tons of steel wasted and confusion brought to the railway system as the ponderous artillery train crawled across Europe.

The last of the Führer’s toys was the one which Speer had described as Germany’s most costly and greatest mistake. The V weapons programme was based on the false premise that indiscriminate destruction would smash British morale. Experts, in pre-war years, had predicted that air raids would cause widespread destruction and produce panic among the civil population. Their predictions were incorrect. Both in Britain and then in Germany it was demonstrated that aerial bombing did not break morale but that suffering, paradoxically, stiffened it. Few reports came back to Hitler to show what damage was being caused by his V weapons and he based his hopes not upon facts but upon what he believed to be facts. Lacking accurate Intelligence he continued the random destruction and his actions can be seen not as the application of a thought-out strategy but as the wild blows of a blindfolded man in a dark room.

Into the production of rocket weapons the Führer poured money, men and materials. Upon these revolutionary projectiles he placed his hopes of finding the war-winning weapon. The rockets failed him just as the super-heavy guns had failed him. The Maus did not even have the chance to show that it too would have failed.

Had all Germany’s wasted resources been controlled, used productively on proper weapons and employed correctly, the outcome of certain battles and campaigns might well have been different. Thanks to Goering’s indolence, the Führer’s interference and the fact that Speer was not given the power he needed until it was too late, industrial Germany was not the thundering forge of Vulcan which she had been thought to be. Instead she was an almost undirected economy, working along bourgeois lines, at a low, almost peacetime level of production and riddled with rivalries, inefficiency and corruption.



The Poseidon Torpedo

The Poseidon drone is estimated to be between 20-25 meters long and might weigh about 100 tons. Screenshot from Vesti Pomoriye by Covert Shores

In his annual public speech in February this year, Norway’s Chief of the military intelligence, Lieutenant General Morten Haga Lunde, showed the slide with the Poseidon drone onboard “Akademik Aleksandrov”. Lunde said he feared more accidents involving reactor-powered weapons systems in Russia.

“We should expect development and testing of new, advanced weapons systems in the areas east of Norway. Several of these will have nuclear propulsion systems,” he stressed.

Wether or not this summer’s Arctic voyage included work on the Poseidon drone or affiliated subsea installations is not known to the public. The Northern Fleet’s press service is not allowed to talk directly to foreign journalists.

The Poseidon (“Poseidon”, NATO reporting name Kanyon), previously known by Russian codename Status-6, is an autonomous, nuclear-powered, and nuclear-armed unmanned underwater vehicle under development by Rubin Design Bureau, capable of delivering both conventional and nuclear payloads.

The Poseidon is one of the six new Russian strategic weapons announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin on 1 March 2018.

The bus-sized Poseidon is designed to destroy coastal targets with a multi-megaton warhead.

    Russia’s giant nuclear-tipped Poseidon torpedo will undergo more tests this year.

    With almost an unlimited range, the Poseidon would speed toward targets on America’s coastline, exploding a 2-megaton warhead next to them.

    The Poseidon will be launched from a class of specialized submarines.

Russia’s intimidating nuclear-powered torpedo is running toward new key tests this year, with a planned deployment for later this decade. The “tsunami apocalypse torpedo,” the first of its kind, is designed to travel across the world’s oceans to deliver a knockout thermonuclear blow against a coastal target or city.

Russian state television accidentally leaked the existence of the Poseidon 2M39 torpedo, originally named Status-6, in 2015. A Russian Ministry of Defense document showed the weapon and described it as achieving:

    “[T]he defeat of the important economic facilities of the enemy in the vicinity of the coast and causing assured unacceptable damage to the country through the establishment of zones of extensive radioactive contamination, unsuitable for implementation in these areas of military, economic, business or other activity for a long time.”

The Truth About Russia’s Apocalypse Torpedo

Initial leaks described the nuclear-powered Poseidon as a giant torpedo—or a large uncrewed submarine, take your pick—that measures 6.5 feet wide and 65 feet long and travels at speed of up to 70 knots. Nuclear power also gives the torpedo plenty of range, and experts believe the Poseidon can travel across the Pacific and Atlantic oceans on its own to deliver its payload. The torpedo’s high speed will make it difficult for U.S. forces to intercept.

Early reports also suggested the Poseidon carried a 100-megaton thermonuclear warhead, which would pack twice the punch of Tsar Bomba, the most powerful nuclear weapon ever detonated. When detonated near an enemy coastline, such a large warhead would inundate a coastal city or enemy port with a radioactive tsunami, contaminating the area and rendering it uninhabitable for decades to come.

Recent estimates, however, have revised Poseidon’s payload down to a (relatively) paltry 2 megatons. That may not trigger a radioactive tsunami, but it’s still powerful enough to do serious damage to a coastal target. Two megatons is the equivalent of 2,000 kilotons, while the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima was a mere 15 kilotons. (A kiloton is the equivalent of 1,000 tons of TNT.)

Western officials are reportedly concerned about the Poseidon, per CNN, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has asked his defense minister for an update on the weapon’s recent “key stage” tests. According to Russian state media, the Poseidon will undergo further testing later this year.

Russia is reportedly building 30 Poseidon torpedoes, and will deploy them on four specially fitted submarines. Two submarines will reportedly serve with the Atlantic-facing Northern Fleet, while two others will serve with the Pacific Fleet. Each Belgorod-class submarine will carry six Poseidon torpedoes. Russia could also deploy the torpedoes in special capsules, where they would be activated remotely.

Russia launched the first Belgorod-class sub in 2019, and is preparing to launch another this year. In February, a commercial imaging satellite detected the sub at the port of Severodinsk, with its bow-mounted Poseidon launch tubes wide open.

While critics initially derided the Poseidon as a myth or a bluff, it’s clear now that Russia is deadly serious about putting this apocalyptic weapon into action. But will the country ultimately build 30 torpedoes and the four subs needed to carry them? That’s a good question.


Fri 22 February 2019 By H I Sutton

Arrows Versus Armour: The Minefield of Opinions

Archers carried specialist arrows, bodkins with needle-pointed heads to punch through mail links, or armour-piercing heads perhaps tipped with steel to penetrate steel plates. Tests have shown that the spin of the arrow in flight enables the head, striking at right angles, to drill a hole into armour plate. The range at which an arrow was shot, as well as whether iron- or steel-tipped heads were used, would determine its potency. Most surviving oxidized red bodkins seem to be of iron, which tests suggest curl up when they strike plate. If they struck mail they would burst the rings apart as they went through, a serious threat to anyone in plate armour, exposing a mail gusset, for example, at the armpit. Crossbows were equally powerful although they did not employ bodkins. Handguns were also appearing in armies in the 15th century, though not in any great number at this period.

U.S. Space Force Changes Missile Warning

The Next-Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared program (pictured in this artist’s concept) will eventually replace the Space-Based Infrared System. Credit: Lockheed Martin

Lee Hudson March 19, 2021

Four years ago, Gen. John Hyten, then head of the missile warning satellite community’s largest customer, U.S. Strategic Command, said he no longer supported “buying big satellites that make juicy targets.”

Instead, he advocated buying a more distributed set of satellites with the ability to survive kinetic or cyberattacks or other emerging threats. After years of study, a multitiered system of satellite constellations with multiple methods of withstanding attacks is beginning to take shape.

“The increasingly contested nature of space demands we augment the resiliency of our space-based capabilities, just as Gen. Hyten said a few years ago,” says Lt. Gen. John Thompson, commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center. In describing the Pentagon’s pursuit of missile warning capabilities, Thompson includes:

• The launches of the last two upgraded Space-based Infrared System satellites;

• A Next-Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared satellite constellation to anchor missile warning capabilities in the future;

• Prototyping efforts across multiple orbits and proliferated constellations and ground systems to analyze data; and

• A partnership with the Space Development Agency, the Missile Defense Agency and U.S. Northern Command on the nation’s missile warning and missile tracking architecture.

“Working closely with our mission partners ensures we’re addressing the threat today while guaranteeing clear lines of effort for future development to maximize technological innovation and prevent overlap,” Thompson notes.

In this first of a four-part series on U.S. military space acquisitions, we look at the nation’s current and future plans for developing satellites and sensors that track ballistic and hyper-sonic missiles, which are designed to give the U.S. and its allies precious time to respond to attacks.

    The Pentagon will unveil OPIR Block 1 requirements this summer

    A new ground system will process all missile warning data

    Space Development Agency aims to launch eight satellites in 2022

In January 2020, a little-known missile warning satellite constellation played a key role in saving American lives. Iran had launched 16 short-range ballistic missiles at two installations in Iraq in retaliation for the U.S. drone strike that killed Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Quds Force. The satellite system known as the Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) warned U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq that the counterstrike was coming, providing enough time for them to get out of harm’s way.

The quick work of the 2nd Space Warning Sqdn. at Buckley AFB in Colorado helped prevent U.S. casualties, according to Chief of Space Operations Gen. John Raymond.

“We’re the initial bell ringer for the nation. We give the nation the ability to have attribution of where the missile would launch from and where it’s headed, so that’s the driving requirement on the program from [the Defense Support Program] through SBIRS,” Col. Dan Walter, senior materiel leader for the Next-Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared (OPIR) space system at the Space and Missile Systems Center, tells Aviation Week.

The Space Force’s SBIRS program is just one effort in the Pentagon’s multipronged approach to tackle early missile warning. Other initiatives include OPIR, the Missile Defense Agency’s project to develop sensors for hypersonic weapons tracking and building a proliferated satellite constellation in low Earth orbit to provide redundancy, led by the Space Development Agency.

In 2020, the SBIRS program detected more than 1,000 missile and space launches globally. The nuclear-hardened SBIRS constellation tracks missiles on a predictable ballistic trajectory using hosted payloads in highly elliptical orbit and satellites in geosynchronous orbit.

In the second quarter of this year, the Space Force anticipates the launch of the fifth SBIRS satellite. The sixth and final SBIRS satellite is scheduled for launch in the second quarter of 2022. Initially envisioned to be clones of the first four satellites, the fifth and sixth SBIRS satellites represent a leap in technology due in part to a new satellite bus that was negotiated under the program’s rebaselining agreement in June 2015.

The new Lockheed Martin 2100 combat bus is designed as part of a family of spacecraft that share common components and can be manufactured at faster rates compared to their bespoke products. Other modernized features include the ability to maintain alternate orbits with new controls and thrusters as well as room to incorporate future payloads and sensor suites.

As advanced as the fifth and sixth SBIRS satellites have become, they draw on technology developed more than 20 years ago. In 2018, evolving threats prompted the Air Force to reassess the future of the missile warning constellation and how it could address more complex threats, including munitions with multiple warheads, decoys and in-space interference. Walter characterizes this evolution as moving from analog to digital.

Potential aggressors could attack a SBIRS satellite through a kinetic or cyberattack to increase the odds of the missile attack succeeding, explains a Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) report on defending against counterspace weapons. Authors of the report conducted a September 2020 workshop that assessed a scenario involving an attack on SBIRS. In that case study, a Chinese-manufactured satellite drew close enough to SBIRS GEO-1 to interfere with a communications payload collecting intelligence about China’s military capabilities. Analysts participating in the workshop pressed for a few changes as a result-—including the purchase of additional SBIRS satellites that could act as on-orbit backups.


These types of threats and the decades it took to develop SBIRS highlight the need for rapid acquisition, and they are the crux of the Next-Gen OPIR effort, which will ultimately replace legacy missile warning satellites.

SBIRS was the Air Force’s fourth attempt to enhance and replace the 1970s-era Defense Support Program. This series of failures was used to advocate for establishment of a dedicated Space Force, which could yield faster space mission decision-making times than if those missions were the purview of the Air Force.

Previous space-based missile warning replacement efforts failed because of immature technology and affordability, according to the Government Accountability Office.

After four years of analysis and increasing pressure due to the strategic threat, the Air Force sought to procure a SBIRS replacement, Next-Gen OPIR, using rapid acquisition.

The first increment of the replacement program, called Block 0, consists of five satellites, three in geostationary orbit and two in polar orbit. They will be equipped with more sensors and other features that make them more resilient to attacks than the SBIRS constellation, according to military officials. The Pentagon’s fiscal 2021 budget plan includes $12.9 billion through 2025 for the program.

Already Lockheed Martin has won $7.8 billion in contracts, the first to develop three geostationary satellites and a separate contract modification for manufacturing, assembly, integration and testing. The company’s Block 0 satellites are on track to complete the critical design phase this year, Tom McCormick, OPIR system vice president at Lockheed Martin, tells Aviation Week.

The company is also using its LM 2100 bus for the three Block 0 satellites, which will reduce cost and add the flexibility to incorporate future sensor suites, McCormick says.

Northrop Grumman secured a $2.37 billion undefinitized contract to build the two polar satellites. The polar satellite program is scheduled for a preliminary design review in August 2023.

Separately, a Northrop Grumman-Ball Aerospace team and a Raytheon Technologies team are competing to win the infrared mission payload contract for Next-Gen OPIR. Industry anticipates a downselect decision in March 2022, Sarah Willoughby, Next-Gen OPIR vice president and program manager at Northrop Grumman, tells Aviation Week.

The Pentagon opted to use rapid acquisition authorities for the mission payload competition with the hope of shaving 1-2 years off the development cycle and ensuring the product is ready for launch in 2025. Historically, satellite payloads controlled by single vendors have caused development delays.

The Space Force intends to announce the path forward for Next-Gen OPIR Block 1 this summer. The military previously announced it will be an open competition, and the update should reveal more detailed requirements.

On the Ground

As the Space Force modernizes satellites, the service must simultaneously update the missile warning processing ground stations, known as the Future Operationally Resilient Ground Evolution (FORGE) program. Raytheon beat out BAE Systems and Booz Allen Hamilton to design the new ground system. The legacy ground stations are custom-made to process data from the Defense Support Program and SBIRS but have difficulty incorporating new sensors. The Space Force is upgrading to FORGE so that as new sensors are developed, they can more easily be integrated into the ground stations for data processing.

FORGE will replace the data processor and management platform developed by Lockheed for the SBIRS constellation. Lockheed is working with the Space Force on an interim ground capability to process missile warning data from the fifth and sixth SBIRS satellites and Next-Gen OPIR Block 0 satellites that will plug into FORGE.

Raytheon is developing an open framework for FORGE that will process satellite data from the SBIRS constellation, future Next-Gen OPIR satellites as well as data from civil and environmental sensors. This design is vastly different from previous satellite ground control programs because FORGE is satellite- and sensor-agnostic so that as technology advances, the ground system will not become outdated.

The Space Force envisions the FORGE operating system will work like a smartphone, enabling it to work with new applications developed by a third-party such as the government, industry or universities. For example, a civil agency could develop a wildfire application that processes data to detect wildfires and runs along the missile warning application but does not interfere with it. In 2020, Altamira Technologies Corp., Maxar Technologies and SciTec won contracts to prototype applications that process missile warning data.

In the coming weeks, the Space Force expects to deliver an unclassified version framework to a laboratory so that industry has access, Lt. Col. Kellie Brownlee, future ground integration materiel leader at the Space and Missile Systems Center, tells Aviation Week.

The three companies that are prototyping applications finished the first demonstration and are preparing for the second demonstration this spring, Brownlee adds.

During these application demonstrations, the Space Dynamics Laboratory, a nonprofit government contractor owned by Utah State University, acts as an independent third-party assessing whether vendors have met entry and exit criteria. The Space Force designed the prototyping period to include four demonstrations, and after the final gate, the service will downselect and award a follow-on contract to one company, Brownlee says.

Missile Warning in Other Orbits

The Pentagon is pursuing two efforts to create a missile warning capability in low Earth orbit (LEO) with multiple spacecraft to create redundant capabilities that are hard to single out and easy to replace.

“Things are changing; our adversaries understand our weaknesses, and they understand our reliance on terrestrial [detection of ballistic missiles], and so [China and Russia are] building systems that are able to compete with what we have today,” Walter Chai, space sensors director at the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), tells Aviation Week.

In 2019, the Pentagon created the Space Development Agency to construct a proliferated constellation in LEO composed of satellite layers that focus on different missions. At the time, it was not clear what the creation of the SDA meant for the MDA’s Hypersonic and Ballistic Tracking Space Sensor (HBTSS) program that was working to field satellites to track hypersonic glide vehicles.

The fiscal 2021 budget rollout only added to the confusion, because the MDA transferred the purse strings for the HBTSS to the SDA. When explaining why the MDA would give up financial control of one of its programs, MDA Director Vice Adm. Jon Hill said that since the HBTSS satellites would become a part of the SDA’s larger small-satellite constellation, a funding transfer would make sense. Hill stressed that the MDA would continue to lead technology development of the HBTSS.

Both the SDA constellation and HBTSS are needed to respond to new threats. The SBIRS and OPIR constellations use narrow-field-of-view sensors that are optimized to track ballistic missiles. These sensors are not designed to track cruise missiles and hypersonic glide vehicles that can maneuver in flight and evade existing radar coverage.

The “motivation of HBTSS is to counter the evolving and advancing threats that the adversaries are developing,” such as a glide phase interceptor, Chai says.

The SDA and MDA are developing different sensors to counter these advanced threats. The SDA constellation will use a wide-field-of-view sensor designed to detect and track hypersonic weapons, and it will add new capabilities every two years as threats evolve. The MDA is working to field a medium-field-of-view sensor under the HBTSS program formerly known as the Space Sensor Layer.

“You have to be able to target on the fly and provide updates for fire control solutions so that you can treat things as maneuverable, whereas in the past, we could just treat everything as a ballistic trajectory,” Space Development Agency Director Derek Tournear says.

The two sensors would work together—-the SDA’s wide-field-of-view sensor detecting and identifying an object of interest and the MDA’s medium-field-of-view sensor then zooming in on the object. Because the specifics are highly classified, consider a notional example: The wide-field-of-view sensor picks up activity in a defined area and sends the information to the HBTSS. The medium-field-of-view sensor could then pinpoint the target within that defined area and send the more granular information to a commander to decide whether to use a ground-based interceptor for target acquisition.

In 2020, the SDA signed contracts with L3Harris Technologies and SpaceX for each company to build four satellites to detect ballistic, cruise and hypersonic missiles using a wide-field-of-view sensor. The plan is for these eight satellites to launch in 2022, Tournear says.

However, the program hit a snag after a series of protests were filed with the Government Accountability Office by losing bidders Airbus and Raytheon Technologies. A decision made Jan. 7 of this year allows L3Harris and SpaceX to move forward with developing the satellites in Tranche 0 of the future Tracking Layer. The bid protests marked the first pitfall for the program, but Tournear maintains that the schedule is on track.

By 2022, the plan is for the SDA to have “periodic regional access” for advanced missile tracking. The HBTSS satellites will be part of the SDA’s expansive Tracking Layer that will include 70 wide-field-of-view and medium-field-of-view satellites by 2023.

For the HBTSS competition, L3Harris and Northrop Grumman beat out Leidos and Raytheon Technologies in January 2021 to each build a prototype sensor satellite capable of tracking hypersonic and ballistic missiles by July 2023.

The Tracking Layer is just one piece of the many missions the SDA is looking to fulfill with its seven-layer small satellites. The SDA’s National Defense Space Architecture (NDSA) also includes a Transport Layer providing communications and data relay to personnel on the ground, a Custody Layer supporting mobile ground asset targeting, a Battle Management Layer providing space-based command and control, a Navigation Layer offering alternate position, navigation and timing in GPS-denied environments, a Deterrence Layer detecting potentially hostile actions in deep space and a Support Layer facilitating satellite operations between the other layers. Once fully fielded in 2025, the NDSA would contain 550 satellites and provide global coverage.

While the pricing of individual satellites in the SDA’s constellation range from tens of millions of dollars compared to traditional satellites that cost more than hundreds of millions of dollars, it is still up for debate which strategy is more cost-effective for the taxpayer. The SDA’s satellites are designed with a notional five-year lifespan, with the plan for them to be updated and replaced as technology advances, while high-value satellites like SBIRS are designed to last decades and cannot easily be updated.

The risk the Pentagon is taking with the SDA constellation is that the new Biden administration may not be up to speed on the advances made in the small-satellite industry and how to operate large constellations of satellites, says Todd Harrison, aerospace security project director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“They may fall into paralysis by analysis like they did in the Obama administration and be unwilling to move forward with the proliferated LEO constellation for missile tracking,” Harrison warns. “I worry that they could try to slow things down to study the problem some more and try to come up with a more perfect solution.”


The A7V was first used in action in the St. Quentin canal area on 21 March 1918, where five tanks under the command of Hauptmann Greiff were deployed. Three of the vehicles broke down before they could engage the British forces, the other two playing a relatively minor part in preventing a British breakthrough. Meanwhile the first recorded tank battle took place towards the end of an engagement involving eighteen A7Vs at Villers-Bretonneux on 24 April 1918.

As the months and years passed, the formidable German army that took to the field in 1914 continued to evolve and modernize in response to changing operational situations; to take advantage of technological advances by Germany; and to counter those by the Franco-British and other Allied forces ranged against the Central Powers. By 1917 the old divisional organization with four regiments had been reduced to three, and battalion strengths also reduced in order to enable the creation of new divisions. A host of special-purpose combat and support units were created to deal with particular aspects of the new forms of warfare. At the same time the size and capability of the artillery increased significantly. Machine-gun units also proliferated, including specialist machine-gun units for mountain warfare and anti-aircraft defence, and for operating with cavalry and cyclist units. The development of light machine-guns and automatic rifles also resulted initially in the creation of special units to man these weapons, but they were later categorized as general-purpose weapons. Protective technology for the individual soldier advanced in parallel with weapons technology, the most visible evidence of this being the iconic ‘coal-scuttle’ Stahlhelm steel helmet, which replaced the traditional Pickelhaube spiked helmet from 1916. From 1915 ever more efficient anti-gas respirators also became an indispensable part of every soldier’s equipment.

Many other changes were precipitated by the rapid advances in military technology as the army sought new weapons and tactical solutions with which it might break – or at least predominate in – the deadlock on the Western Front. The war of attrition and emphasis upon defensive operations on the Western Front meant that the army had to be able to hold and regain ground while also maintaining its offensive spirit and flexibility. The high command’s publication in December 1916 of the new operational doctrine set out in The Principles of Command in the Defensive Battle in Positional Warfare was but one of the more significant such documents among various doctrinal and tactical papers and publications. Field engineering in particular became a growth industry, and in addition to their existing engineering functions the army’s pioneers took on responsibility for flamethrowers, trench mortars, mining, poison gas apparatus and projectors, pontoon and other bridging equipment and searchlight operating. All forms of electronic communication moved on apace, with the responsibility for telegraph communications eventually allocated to a newly-created signals organization from January 1917. Meanwhile, the command and control of all ground transportation units and movement functions were centralized under the quartermaster general’s department.

Above the battlefield, meanwhile, advances in airship and aeroplane design – including innovations such as Anthony Fokker’s system of synchronization that allowed pilots to fire their machine-guns forward through an aeroplane’s propeller – opened up a whole new arena for war-fighting. In 1916 the army’s pre-1914 airship battalions were grouped with its aviation (aeroplane-equipped) units and established as the Luftstreitkräfte (Air Service) as a separate branch of the army; the army later transferred its airship capability to the navy. In due course, Germany’s use of Zeppelin airships and (later on) long-range heavy bombers for the strategic bombing of London and other suitably prestigious targets heralded an extension of the conflict far beyond the armies in the field. Long-range bombing together with unrestricted submarine warfare challenged many of the traditional rules of warfare, as had several core aspects of the doctrine set out in the general staff’s Kriegsbrauch im Landkriege ever since August 1914.

From late 1916 the appearance of the first British tanks on the battlefield dramatically reduced the dominance of the machine-gun, introducing new tactical opportunities and beginning to restore a degree of fluidity and unpredictability to the battlefield. For German troops not directly in contact and serving in the front-line positions, the Allied tank threat changed what had become a comparatively safe and relatively comfortable troglodyte existence into an unacceptably risky daily lifestyle. Although German operational planning on the Western Front had been dominated by defensive imperatives ever since late 1915, it was nevertheless surprising that the army high command failed fully to appreciate the significance of the tank before their more general use by the British, or that Germany had failed to develop an equivalent combat vehicle in anticipation of resuming the offensive in the west once Russia had been defeated. On the other hand, the premature use of tanks by the British in relatively ineffectual penny-packets may well have belied their true potential in the view of the German general staff, at a time when the army’s mechanization programme was already suffering considerable practical and raw material constraints. In any event, despite the army’s traditional emphasis upon offensive rather than defensive action, the general staff’s preferred response to the threat posed by Allied tanks was to concentrate upon developing anti-tank weapons and tactics rather than developing a German tank.84 This was indeed ironic in light of the fact that tanks heralded the resurrection of manoeuvre warfare, which was something that the high command had strived to achieve ever since 1914.

By 1917 it was clear that the Franco-British forces had an unassailable lead in tank development. The German army adopted the expedient of using suitably converted tanks (Beute-Panzerkampfwagen) captured from the Allies, and more than fifty of these vehicles (suitably emblazoned with the German Iron Cross or similar identifying markings) were being used by the end of the war. Despite this pragmatic action to redress the situation and Germany’s late entry into the business of tank warfare, a German-designed tank was eventually manufactured. This prototype armoured vehicle was first demonstrated to senior commanders and members of the general staff in May 1917, less than a year after Allied tanks first appeared on the battlefield. The demonstration and associated trials were judged successful, and in due course a total of twenty production models of the 33-tonne Type A7V tank were deployed with the field army. It had a crew of eighteen and mounted a 5.7-centimetre gun plus six 08 pattern machine-guns.

The A7V was first used in action in the St. Quentin canal area on 21 March 1918, where five tanks under the command of Hauptmann Greiff were deployed. Three of the vehicles broke down before they could engage the British forces, the other two playing a relatively minor part in preventing a British breakthrough. Meanwhile the first recorded tank battle took place towards the end of an engagement involving eighteen A7Vs at Villers-Bretonneux on 24 April 1918. There the massed German tanks had successfully brought about a withdrawal by British and Australian infantry when three of the A7Vs were unexpectedly confronted by three British Mark IV tanks south of the town. After a short tank-versus-tank battle the Mark IVs forced the German tanks to withdraw. Overall, the A7V tanks were less capable and less mobile than the Allied tanks; whenever A7Vs were captured by the Allies they were not usually taken into service by their forces. The introduction of a successor to the A7V was already under way in mid-1917, with the development of the more heavily armed 165-tonne (subsequently reduced to 120-tonne) Type K Großkampfwagen super-heavy tank. This armoured leviathan had four 7.7-centimetre guns plus seven machine-guns, and when the war ended it was already in the final stages of development, with two prototypes almost completed.

Despite ever-increasing mechanization within the army, this process was unavoidably constrained by strategic factors and was therefore much slower and on a smaller scale than the general staff might have wished. Consequently, the army’s critical reliance upon horse-drawn field artillery and transport and (although much reduced since 1914) a mounted cavalry capability continued throughout the war, which in turn meant that the veterinary services expanded in size and importance to maintain this essential form of mobility. The medical services had also grown rapidly in size, expertise and complexity in order to deal with the huge numbers of casualties sustained as the war progressed, utilizing a comprehensive organization of regimental aid posts, field ambulance units, motorized ambulance columns, ambulance trains and military hospitals. Thus the organization, equipment, weapons and appearance of the army at the beginning of 1918 were in many ways very different from those with which it had gone to war in August 1914.


The periods of intense combat at Ypres in April and during May 1915 represented the only major offensive against the Allies that year, with the Ypres salient also the first place at which the army supported its attacks with the use of poison gas. However, the series of attacks at Ypres were carried out at a time when the strategic emphasis was on the Eastern Front, with an acceptance by the general staff that a decisive breakthrough on the Western Front was unlikely to be achieved before the war against the Russians had been decided. Consequently the army in the west was inadequately prepared to exploit the potentially enormous strategic advantage of its first use of poison gas.

At dawn on 15 April 1915 four divisions of the German Fourth Army were concealed in battle positions to the north of the eight-kilometre bulge of the Ypres salient, ready to launch what was at that time an unprecedented type of assault – the infantry would advance behind an air-borne cloud of asphyxiating poisonous chlorine gas. Facing the Germans in the Allied trenches to the south-west were two divisions of French and Franco-Algerian troops, who were flanked by Canadian and British units. The general staff had identified the Ypres salient as the best place to carry out this first operational use of air-borne poison gas, part of the Fourth Army’s remit being to prove the practicality, impact and potential effectiveness of poison gas as a support weapon. One drawback of gas was quickly identified when unfavourable wind conditions on 15 April and during the next few days led to the attack being postponed no less than three times. Finally, on the sunny morning of Thursday 22 April with a light breeze blowing into the Ypres salient from the north, the order was given for a fourth attempt to commence late that afternoon, preceded by heavy artillery bombardments during the morning and immediately before the gas attack. Final preparations were made to the 5,700 canisters containing 168 tons of chlorine gas already positioned well forward ready for use.

At 17.00 hours an apparently innocuous greenish-yellow cloud of vapour – carried slowly south on the gentle breeze – drifted towards the French sentries in their trenches. The artillery bombardments had alerted these troops to the likelihood of an attack, and their initial reaction to the semi-opaque cloud moving towards them was that it simply concealed an advance by the German infantry. As a result, the unsuspecting French infantrymen manned their fire positions and prepared to repel a conventional assault. However, just a few minutes later these men had inhaled the noxious vapour and were retching, coughing, temporarily blinded or choking to death as their eyes were affected and their respiratory systems destroyed. In their hundreds, the French and Algerian troops fled in panic, hundreds more collapsing either in their trenches or as they sought to escape the gas. Meanwhile the chlorine gas settled down into many of the French dugouts and earthworks, affecting other soldiers who had not been above ground when the gas first drifted over their defensive lines.

More than 10,000 French and Algerian troops were affected, of whom at least 5,000 died in and about the front-line trenches within ten minutes of inhaling the gas. In the sixteen-kilometre Allied perimeter of the salient a gap of more than six kilometres opened up, into which groups of German infantry wearing basic respirators pressed forward cautiously, taking about 2,000 gas-affected French prisoners while simultaneously engaging Canadian and British troops on their left flank. The attack was a success – but the German high command had not anticipated such a dramatic turn of events, and so no reserves had been allocated to exploit a breakthrough. As a result, the German advance penetrated no more than three kilometres into the salient towards Ypres before it was brought to a halt by a British counterattack. Nevertheless, the successful deployment of poison gas by the Germans left them in control of the tactically important high ground to the north of the Ypres salient.

On 24 April the army again used chlorine gas, this time against the Canadians in positions north-east of Ypres. Although the Germans gained ground and inflicted almost 6,000 casualties upon the Canadian troops, including about 1,000 fatalities, they also suffered heavy losses and it was clear that the surprise effect of the gas weapon was already reducing as Allied awareness spread rapidly. A failed Allied counterattack on 29 April precipitated a planned withdrawal by the Franco-British forces some four kilometres towards Ypres. Meanwhile, German attacks between 8 and 13 May supported by gas resulted in the capture of additional high ground to the east of Ypres, although no breakthrough was achieved. The final German offensive, once again supported by gas attacks, was launched on 24 May. This attack forced a further Allied withdrawal and reduced the Allied-held salient to an area less than five kilometres wide and eight deep. However, the Germans lacked the necessary follow-up formations to exploit their gains, and the offensive ground to a halt on 25 May. By its end the Second Battle of Ypres resulted in 10,000 French and 59,000 British casualties, while the Germans lost about 35,000 men. German overall losses were smaller than those of the Allies, and some tactically significant ground had been secured, but the general staff had failed to exploit a unique opportunity to capitalize upon its first use of poison gas on the Western Front to achieve a major breakthrough. The initial element of surprise on a potentially grand scale had been lost forever. The Allies (while at the same time vigorously condemning the German army’s first use of poison gas) rapidly began deploying poison gas with their own forces, so that in the months and years that followed it became accepted by all sides as simply another weapon of war, along with the plethora of inconvenient but essential respirators and other protective equipment and measures necessary to combat its lethal effects.

In due course artillery gas shells became the preferred method of delivery, with phosgene and mustard gas joining chlorine as the principal types of poison gas, although other types were also developed and used by both sides. Although its impact as a lethal weapon diminished over time as the various countermeasures such as charcoal or chemical filter respirators improved, poison gas continued to cause large numbers of non-fatal but none the less serious and long-lasting casualties. This was especially due to its effects on the eyes and respiratory system. Throughout the war Germany was the principal user of poison gas, launching as much as 68,000 tons from a range of cylinders, projectors and artillery and mortar shells by the end of the war (compared with 36,000 tons of poison gas deployed by France and 25,000 tons by Britain). In terms of overall casualties directly attributable to poison gas, Germany sustained 200,000 (9,000 fatalities) against 188,706 British and British imperial forces (with 8,109 fatalities), 190,000 French (8,000 fatalities) and 419,340 Russian (56,000 fatalities).