Tag Archives: World War I

Tales from a forgotten front

Craig tipped me to this piece on a little known slice of history.

When we think of World War I, most of us think the epic bloodshed on the nearly static Western Front, with French and British troops, and later Americans, facing off across No Man’s Land against the Germans of the Kaiser. I’ll leave it to URR to tell the tale of the horrendous slaughter that occurred on the Eastern Front.

A less well known theater was the mountaintop struggle between Italy and Austria-Hungary. Fighting in an environment that could easily have inspired Lucas’s vision of the Battle of Hoth, both sides suffered the horrors of war compounded by some of the most inhospitable terrain and weather possible. And so many of the dead were to lay* where they fell.

Now, after almost a century, glacial retreat is exposing some of these fallen.

This became clear in 2004, when Maurizio Vicenzi, a local mountain guide and the director of Peio’s war museum, whose own family fought for the Austrians, stumbled on the mummified remains of three Hapsburg soldiers hanging upside down out of an ice wall near San Matteo — at 12,000ft, scene of some of the highest battles in history. The three were unarmed and had bandages in their pockets, suggesting they may have been stretcher-bearers who died in the last battle for the mountain, on September 3 1918. When a pathologist was granted permission to study one of the bodies, to try to understand the mummification process, there was an outcry among local people who felt that the dead were being profaned.

*It’s early, I haven’t had my coffee. Lie? Lay?

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On Being a Veteran: SGT York

Originally posted this two years ago on my Civil War blog, save for a few updates as to the year marks, this still comes closest to capturing what I think being a veteran means:

Today being Veterans Day, I’ve spend time walking through my old papers and files from “my history” a bit. But in the end, I started pulling out the folders on World War I. We’ve put several coats of paint on this calendar day in the last 93 years [Now 95], but it’s still the eleventh day of the eleventh month. And in my mind, the man who stands tall when I think of World War I is Alvin C. York.

In spite of his somewhat un-military (and under educated) background, York offered one of the best explanations why a nation such as the United States must have soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines. On Memorial Day, 1941, York gave these thoughts while speaking at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington:

There are those in this country today who ask me and other veterans of World War Number One, ‘What did it get for you?’ … The thing they forget is that liberty and freedom and democracy are so very precious that you do not fight to win them once and stop. You do not do that. Liberty and freedom and democracy are prizes awarded only to those people who fight to win them and then keep fighting eternally to hold them!*

President Franklin D. Roosevelt later used portions of York’s speech in his Armistice Day address later that same year. So perhaps it is fitting that I cite it here on Veterans Day.


* This portion of York’s Memorial Day is cited in Sergeant York: An American Hero, by David Lee (University Press of Kentucky, 2002).

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Battleship Texas

A while back, friend of the blog Aggiesprite went to visit the Battleship Texas Memorial, and kindly shared a few pics with us. I thought I’d posted them, but they got stuck in draft limbo somehow. I was reminded when our other friend of the blog Zekexas posted pics of his trip to BBTXM today.  Zekexas is a pretty good photog, so go take a look.

At any event, since Aggie went to all the trouble of taking pics of the old grey gal for me, I should post them.

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USS Texas, BB-35, was commissioned in 1914, and served in both World War I and World War II. She was decommissioned and stricken from the register in 1948.

She’s the only American example of a Dreadnought battleship remaining. At the time, the 27,000 ton New York class battleships were among the largest warships ever built. Mind you, today the  Gerald R. Ford is under construction, and will weigh in around 100,000 tons. And huge numbers of merchant ships displace far, far more.

Still, her ten 14”/45cal guns, in five twin turrets, were quite powerful, and were put to good use fighting during the invasion of North Africa in 1942,and the Normandy landings of June 6, 1944.  In 34 minutes of sustained fire, she placed 255 14” shells on the Pointe du Hoc emplacements thought to contain a battery of 155mm guns. The Rangers assault on Pointe du Hoc is one of the more famous events of that incredible day.

Texas would also engage in a duel with the shore batteries of Cherbourg*, the Dragoon invasion of Southern France, and the invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

Texas was an innovative ship. She was among the second generation of US Dreadnought battleships, shifting from 12” to 14” guns. She also was the first to implement modern fire controls such as rangefinders, directors and rangekeepers** She was the first US battleship to operate and airplane, and was a pioneer in the use of aircraft as spotters for gunfire, greatly improving accuracy at long ranges. She was also an early adopter of radar, mounting the Navy’s first operational air search set, the CXAM-1.

Almost immediately after the war, the state of Texas sought to turn their namesake into a museum. By 1948, she’d been pulled out of reserve, towed to Texas, laid up.  But time has not been kind to the flagship of the Texas Navy. She languished in disrepair until by 1988, she was in great danger of sinking. Indeed, when she was under tow to a drydock, leaks were so bad she was almost unable to be docked. A two year refurbishment brought her back to a much better state, but her advanced age and riveted hull means she still suffers from significant leaks, making the battle to keep her open an ongoing and costly one. Currently Texas is trying to convert her to a permanent dry berth, which hopefully will be complete by 2017.

In the meantime, at 99-1/2 years old, she’s still proud to represent Texas.

For some interior shots, MurdocOnline went on the rare hard-hat tour of her back in 2007.

*She was hit twice by 240mm shells, with 11 wounded, one later succumbing to his wounds.

**A rangekeeper was an early analog fire control computer used not just to plot the present location of a target, but to predict its future range and bearing to account for the time of flight of the ships guns projectiles.


Filed under history, navy


The small armies of Australia and New Zealand, during World War I sent  troops to serve with the British Army. Formed into the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps, they quickly became known as ANZACs. Soon their wartime prowess earned them the reputation as the shock troops of the British Empire.

In World War II, both nations again provided key infusions of manpower into the imperial forces, and struggled to fight campaigns alongside the United States in the Pacific to achieve their own strategic goals.

And in virtually every major US campaign since World War II, troops from the antipodean nations have served alongside our soldiers and Marines.

Both Australia, and particularly New Zealand are small countries, with small armies. But both are highly respected for their professionalism, gallantry, and heritage. And so it is appropriate that we take a moment to remember the shared sacrifices of our allied neighbors from the other hemisphere as they celebrate ANAZC Day.

Head over to CDR Salamander’s for some excellent video of these warriors in action throughout the years.


Filed under army, ARMY TRAINING, Around the web

Artillery Evolutions: Anti-Tank Guns and their German Origins

From World War I until the end of World War II, from the standpoint of doctrine, the preferred way to deal with enemy tanks was an anti-tank gun. During World War I, only one of the belligerents developed a significant anti-tank capability – the Germans.  Ironically, when you consider World War II, the Germans fielded around fifty tanks including captured types during the war.  Facing thousands of allied tanks on the Western Front, anti-tank tactics were a matter of necessity for the Germans.

Although the American Expeditionary Force in France included a substantial armored force, few, if any, American troops faced a German tank in combat.  In the immediate post war period, while theorists debated the full potential of the armored fighting vehicle (A.F.V.), all agreed modern armies needed some anti-tank weapons.  Naturally, the Americans looked to the German experience as a foundation for anti-tank tactics and when selecting anti-tank weapons.  So was the German reaction to allied tanks during the Great War?

After the combat debut of the British tanks on September 15, 1916, the Germans turned to combined arms tactics and adapted existing weapons to counter to the tanks.  The infantry received steel cored bullets for the MG 08 machine guns.  In addition, for close range defense, the Germans issued package charges and bundled grenades.  The engineers studied tank movements and improved obstacles.  As is the case today, they also found mines effective against the tracks.  Engineers also trained to use flamethrowers against vulnerable openings in the hulls.  The artillery was at that time fielding light-weight versions of the standard 7.7-cm FK 96 n/A as an infantry accompanying gun.  These guns, along with smaller 57mm and 37mm guns offered decent performance against the early tanks.  Even the 7.58-cm leichte Minenwerfer (lMW) mortar  penetrated 10 mm of armor at close ranges.  Where these close range weapons failed to work, the Germans planned indirect fire and, where possible, aircraft strafing with armored piercing bullets.

The initial response to the tank worked well for about a year.  Allied employment of the tank was premature and tactically flawed.  Not only did the German high command believe their counter-tactics sufficient, they considered the tank of only limited value overall (explaining the limited German use of AFVs during the war).  This attitude changed after November 20, 1917 with the initial assaults in the Battle of Cambrai using between 430  and 480 tanks.  In the initial stages, British tactics, which included liberal use of smoke screens, confounded the German anti-tank efforts.    Slightly thicker armor on the Mark IV tanks resisted the German armor-piercing bullets.  Yet poor reliability and cross-country performance, along with evolving tactics, still proved the undoing of the British tanks.  After substantial gains, the tanks out ran their supports.  The British had squandered an opportunity.

British Mk IV tank knocked out at Cambrai

Still the Battle of Cambrai marked the first of many swings of the tank vs. anti-tank pendulum.  Faced with improved allied tanks, particularly the light French FT-17 (debuting at the same time, but not in the battle that is), the Germans started a crash program to produce a viable anti-tank weapon.  One weapon that offered promise was a converted 2-cm aircraft cannon.  With new armor-piercing ammunition, these cut through 13mm of armor at 250 meters.  But the German high command apparently preferred the standard 7.92mm machine guns.  Also heavier 13mm machine guns, then used as anti-aircraft weapons, received armor-piercing ammunition to improve utility of that type. Designated 13mm MG08 TuF, these saw limited service.

Foreshadowing the anti-tank rifles used in World War II, and perhaps even the modern lightweight anti-tank rockets, the Germans turned out a 13-mm Tankgewehr (T-Gewehr or anti-tank rifle) for issue to infantry units.  The T-Gewehr used an enlarged version of the standard Mauser bolt-action and had a bi-pod from a light machine gun.  The gun used the same cartridge as the MG 08 TuF, and was actually 13.2 mm for those with an eye for detail. Penetration reached 20mm at 500 meters.

Mauser 13.2mm T-Gewehr

But weighing nearly 40 pounds and possessing the kick of a full team of mules, the T-Gewehr had several tactical drawbacks.  Worse, the penetration figures were in “best case” scenarios.  At many tactical angles, the T-Gewehr could not penetrate the armor of the FT-17, the most common allied tank.   (As a side note, many references say the American John Browning copied the German 13mm cartridge when designing the famous M2 .50 caliber machine gun.  Although sharing a similar half-inch caliber, the two cartridges are actually different.  The Germans used a semi-rimed case while Browning opted for a fully rimmed case for easier extraction.  Truth is Browning designed the .50 caliber cartridge as an enlarged .30-06 cartridge, with development starting in 1910 without any help from the Germans.)

While the light infantry-carried weapons proved less than satisfactory, on the other end of the scale the Germans received favorable reports of 7.7-cm guns used against tanks.  While the infantry-accompanying guns did well, they lacked the mobility to react to tank thrusts.  More useful were the 7.7-cm Kraftwagenflak.  Yes… FLAK.  These were just light field guns on a turntable mount on the back of trucks.  Unarmored, but mobile, these guns were designed for defending captive observation balloons from allied aircraft.  But just as the 8.8cm FLAK turned against a later generation of British tanks in 1940, the 7.7-cm FLAK guns proved the better of those British tanks in 1918.  Trouble was the Germans were just not able to make enough gun tubes or trucks to meet the need – both anti-aircraft or anti-tank.

In the last months of the war, the Germans produced the 3.7cm Tankabwehrkanonen (or TaK).  The gun itself was the lash-up of a barrel from an old fortress gun (a Hotchkiss revolving cannon somewhat like the American Gatling gun in concept, thus one old gun made five new TaKs).  With a small wheeled carriage, the four man crew of the TaK could follow the infantry into battle.  But armor penetration was only 15mm at 500 meters.

3.7cm TaK, note the high sight line

As the war situation for Germany entered a more desperate stage in the fall of 1918, the Army called for an improved anti-tank gun.  Had the war continued, a 5-cm TaK may have seen service, which designers estimated would penetrate a full 50mm (two inches) of armor at 500 meters.  As mentioned earlier the tank vs. anti-tank pendulum was in full swing.

In summary, the German experience from 1916 to 1918 fighting tanks demonstrated the tank was best met with combined-arms tactics.  The experience also showed the need for weapons with increasing armor penetration.  These German lessons, gathered through post-war analysis, figured prominently as American officers drafted doctrine and considered new weapons through the 1920s and 1930s.  I’ll discuss the American interpretation of the German lessons in the next post of this series.


Filed under army, Artillery, history

Artillery Evolutions: More French – Grande Puissance Filloux

Can we say that without getting a mature rating?  Sure!  Grande Puissance Filloux is the “friendly” name given by the French to the “Canon de 155mm mle 1917 G.P.F.”  In the last Artillery Evolutions post, I mentioned the French 155mm gun pressed in to service by the American Expeditionary Force (A.E.F.) during World War I.  This wonderful cannon became the basis for later American designs, vestiges of which are still seen on current service types.

Canon de 155mm mle 1917 G.P.F.

This particular make of gun came about due to the shortage of heavy field guns in the French inventory at the start of World War I.  In the void, the French pushed several expedients into service.  These ranged from ancient guns dating to the 1870s to more modern seacoast guns, in calibers ranging from 145mm to 155mm. The better of these guns was a 145mm seacoast gun mounted on a field carriage.  While providing a useful range over 20,000 yards, the 13.5 ton weight was cumbersome for a field gun.  Here’s a Canon de 145mm mle 1916 in action, but under new owners, circa 1942.

Canon de 145mm mle 1916 in German Service

During World War I, many of these returned to the shop with worn out barrels.  The French in turn rebored these to 155mm, conforming to the standard field caliber, and increased the range to over 23,000 yards.  While the French were happy with this heavy weapon for the static warfare of the Western Front, they looked to more mobile heavy artillery piece.  In an effort to improve the field handling, the government run Puteaux arsenal started work on a fresh design in 1916.  Part way through the project, Lieutenant Colonel L.J.F. Filloux pushed for a split trail carriage in order to allow higher angles of fire, wider arcs of traverse, and easier handling.  As result of his successful argument on this point the gun became the “High Power, Filloux” or “Grand Puissance, Filloux” gun, abbreviated to G.P.F. when the type was adopted in 1917.  On the carriage, the gun had an elevation up to 35° with a traverse of 60°.  Overall the gun on carriage weighed just under 10 tons.

G.P.F. in American use showing split trail and elevation

Aside from the carriage, the gun used rather conventional practices.   The breech and firing mechanism used was the standard Schneider type and similar to that of the 155mm howitzers.  The barrel was a built-up construction, externally appearing as an enlarged 75mm gun.  The recoil mechanism was also similar to the 75mm, but with a new twist – variable recoil.  At the maximum elevation, a conventional recoil system allowed the breech to bottom out.  Other guns of the time period required the crews to dig out a pit in order to deal with this problem.  What the G.P.F. introduced was a system to automatically adjust the resistance in the recoil system as the gun was elevated.

That’s the concept.  In use that meant the crew didn’t have to dig a pit for the gun.  And they could even put down some planking out to keep out of the mud(!).  Although I would add that some diagrams in the manuals still indicated pits were used.

American M1918 155mm with firing platform

For movement, the G.P.F. used a two wheel limber.  In traveling order, the setup weighed about 11.5 tons.  While heavy, still handier than contemporary weapons of the caliber.  The recoil system disengaged to allow the breech to ride closer to the limber.

G.P.F. in traveling order with "caterpillar" shoes

In the photo above, the guy at the front is not driving the gun.  Rather he’s handling the brakes.  The G.P.F. was perhaps among the first artillery pieces designed with mechanization in mind… but air-brakes were a thing of the future.

Although the G.P.F. introduced several advanced features, it’s range dropped to 17,700 yards when compared to the earlier 155mm mle 1916 mentioned above.  In order to improve field handling the G.P.F. sacrificed range for a shorter barrel and lower maximum elevation.  On the other hand, with ten times the traverse, a G.P.F. could command significantly more battlefield than the earlier gun.

The French built over 700 of the G.P.F. guns starting in late 1916.  The combat debut occurred in August 1917.  The gun’s arrival coincided with America’s entry into the war.  Starting in September 1917 the French supplied quantities of the G.P.F. to the A.E.F.  By the time of the armistice, the A.E.F. received over 200 French built guns of this type. The guns supplied by France became the M1917 155mm field gun in American use.  I think the example displayed at the Ordnance Museum (was at Aberdeen, Maryland, but moving to Fort Lee, Virginia) is one of those guns.

M1917(?) 155mm Field Gun at Aberdeen, MD

But of course with the massive American buildup, French sources would be insufficient for war plans extending into 1919.  So just as with the other French guns, the Americans opted for domestic production.  In 1917 the Ordnance Department translated French plans and tabulated them for American standard measures.  In November 1917, the Army set contracts for production a couple thousand of these guns, broken out – as we’ve seen with other guns – into sub-components.  Watervliet Arsenal and Bullard Engineering Works produced the gun tube; Minneapolis Steel & Machinery Company produced the carriages and limbers; and Dodge Brothers produced the recoil components in a Detroit factory.

155mm Gun barrels in the factory

Like the smaller guns, G.P.F. production lagged due to difficulty producing the French recoil system.  However, the Army had ordered Dodge to put priority on the howitzer component production through 1918.  So by the time they turned to the G.P.F. most of the kinks were worked out, but the first rolled out of the factory in October 1918. Thus many American-built G.P.F. guns were fitted with French built recouperators.   Production of the carriage slowed as Americans had to adapt factories to the large castings required.  But the gun tube itself speed through production.  The Americans actually improved the design, adding a better system to lock the jacket in place and a spring operated breech mechanism.  As built, this became the M1918 155mm Field gun.

M1918 155mm Field Gun at Fort Morgan, AL

With the delays, only sixteen complete American-built guns got to the A.E.F. before the Armistice.  But, impressed with the gun’s performance, the Americans kept the gun in production into 1920.  Not only was the gun deemed the best corps level gun, it was also found useful for the coastal artillery.  In the inter-war period, the Army built “Panama Mounts” to allow these field guns to defend coastlines, particularly in overseas possessions. The gun also received pneumatic tires and air brakes on an improved carriage.

A G.P.F. gun on a Panama Mount during World War II

The Army would further refine the G.P.F. concept during the inter-war period, with the familiar M1 and M2 series as the result.  During World War II, several M1918 guns went onto a modified medium tank chassis to become the M12 Gun Motor Carriage.  But the G.P.F.’s long reaching legacy was a carriage layout which persisted in American artillery down to the M198 155mm howitzer.

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Artillery Evolutions: Counter Battery Fire with the 4.7-inch Gun

As mentioned earlier, when the U.S. expanded the field artillery arm to support American Expeditionary Force (A.E.F.) going to France in 1917, planners saw the need for a medium caliber gun to provide counter-battery fire.   Unlike the other artillery types, the Americans had a weapon on hand to fill this need – the Model 1906 4.7-inch Field Gun.

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Well Restored M1906 4.7-inch Field Gun

The Ordnance Department developed the M1906 4.7-inch Field Gun in the decade before World War I.   The Army had sixty of these guns on hand when the U.S. declared war in 1917.  These were among the few American designed guns to see service in France during the war.

Overall the gun reflected conventional design thoughts.  The gun itself was of built up composition with a jacket extending beyond the breech. The jacket attached to a recoil lug.

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Rear of gun showing recoil lug, rods, and cylinders

The gun tube sat upon a cradle with two cylinders underneath housing the long-recoil, hydro-spring system.

The service manual described the recoil action:

The gun moves to the rear 70 inches on the cradle ways, carrying with it the piston rod, spring rods, and spring-rod yoke and compressing the counter-recoil springs.  As the recoil cylinder remains stationary the oil behind the piston must pass to its forward side.  The energy of the recoil of the gun is absorbed by the resistance which the oil offers to being forced through small openings past the piston and by the resistance of the counter-recoil springs.  The energy stored up by the springs returns the gun to its firing position.  This return movement is eased and regulated by the counter-recoil buffer.  The piston-rod pull and spring resistance are transmitted to the carriage, but owing to its weight and the resistance opposed to the trail spade by the earth the carriage remains stationary.

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Trail spade in "up" or traveling position

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Spade in the "down" position - note maneuvering spikes

The breech was a standard interrupted screw with four flats.  A handle swung from left to right, rotating the block, in one continuous pull.  An extractor ejected the empty casing.

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Partly Open Breechblock

Although the gun could fire out to 11,000 yards at 25° elevation, the carriage restricted elevation to 15° and 7,500 yards with a 60 pound high explosive shell.  Traverse was just under 8°, constraining the arc of fire.  But the sighting system borrowed from the successful setup on the M1903 3-inch gun. The gun fired a common high explosive shell containing 3.36 pounds of TNT.

The shrapnel shell contained 711 half-inch steel balls.

In addition the Army fielded gas projectiles during the war.  All rounds for the 4.7-inch gun were fixed, meaning attached to the brass cartridge case, enabling a relatively high rate of fire.

Like the smaller divisional guns, the 4.7-inch gun’s box-trail carriage used a two wheel limber for movement.  With the limber the gun weighed 9,800 pounds, requiring an eight horse team.  This is one reason the U.S. Army set its eye on mechanical prime movers.

At the start of the war, the Army ordered new production batches of the M1906 in order to fill the anticipated need.  As we have seen with the lighter field guns, the Production Board spread the manufacture of the gun out by components.  Rock Island Arsenal, Studebaker Corporation, and Walter Scott Company produced gun carriages to include the recoil system;  American Car & Foundry Company and Maxwell Motor Company produced the limbers;  Northwestern Gun Company and Watervliet Arsenal produced the guns themselves.  In addition American Car & Foundry Company and Ford Motor Company produced caissons.  All told the Army ordered around 750 complete guns.

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Muzzle markings indicating Watervliet manufacture

A well established product entering mass production – nothing to worry about right?  Well three issues (I won’t say problems) arose which limited the 4.7-inch gun’s use.  First, given the desire to remain compatible with French ammunition stocks, planners suggested re-lining the gun to that nation’s 120mm round.  On its face, this sounded like a simple change of millimeters.  However the French 120mm system dated to the 1880s and was quickly departing that nation’s inventory.  Some historians have cited this issue as causing major delays.  I’ve yet to see documentation proving this was more than a paper project anyway.  The companies listed above were already working on 4.7-inch patterns, and the distraction was minimal in my opinion.

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Front View of M1906

The second issue was also ammunition related.  The 4.7-inch was supposed to fire counter-battery missions against German divisional guns.  The 4.7-inch could counter the standard German 7.7cm FK 96 n.A., which ranged only to 6,000 yards.  But the newer 7.7cm FK16 then arriving at the front had a 10,000 yard range, effectively negating the 4.7-inch as a counter-battery gun.  The solution was to adopt a lighter 45 pound shell for the 4.7-inch, allowing for 8,700 yards at 15°.  Furthermore, the Army standardized the practice of “digging in” the trail to allow the 4.7-inch gun to launch shells to its maximum range of 11,000 yards.  Although that required more preparation by the gun crew.  The ultimate solution was a split trail to allow greater on carriage elevation.  Prototypes just such a mounting were at the test ranges as the war ended.

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M1906 showing solid box trail of the carriage, which limited elevation

The most important issue facing mass production of the gun was the gun tube forgings.  Because of the different diameters between the muzzle and breech, manufacturers had difficulty in the heat treatment of the steel jackets.  With a production bottleneck emerging, the Production Board ordered gun tube jackets produced by Edgewater Steel Company in Pittsburgh.  The jackets went to another company on the other side of Pittsburg for machining.  From there the jackets went back to Edgewater for heat treatment. From there the jacket went to the gun-maker who was assembling the other components.

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M1906 - breech and rear of gun

Sounds inefficient, right?  The eventual solution was a redesigned jacket, separate breech ring attaching to the recoil lugs.  However the redesign was too late for the war effort.  With the production bottleneck, only sixteen new production 4.7-inch guns joined forty-eight pre-war examples in France.

While the board sorted out production issues, the Army turned to alternatives.  From the seacoast artillery came twenty-eight 5-inch and ninety-five 6-inch guns.  The Navy contributed forty-six 6-inch guns of various models.  And the firm of Francis Bannerman & Son (a major military surplus dealer of the era) offered thirty 6-inch guns of 30 calibers.  While working gun tubes, these guns lacked field carriages and required other adaptations before issue to the field.  By mid-1918 the Army had the twenty-eight 5-inch gun outfits weighing some 12 tons, but which could fire a shell nine miles.  A similar adaptation for 6-inch guns weighed 21 tons and ranged ten miles.  None of these outfits were worth shipping to the war zone.

Ultimately the solution for the A.E.F., as with the divisional guns, was foreign supplies.   Among the foreign types supplied to the A.E.F. was the British 60-pdr (5-inch) Field Gun in both Mark I and II variety.  Weighing even more than the American 4.7-inch, this beast needed a Holt Tractor to move around the battlefield.  American corps artillery also received quantities of the French 155mm Grande Puissance Filloux (GPF) mle 1917.  But I will save detailed discussion of that piece for another post.

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60-pdr Mark I

In retrospect, the 4.7-inch gun was another sad story in American procurement.  A sound design with much promise, the 4.7-inch was not adapted for mass production.  But the Ordnance Department certainly heeded this lesson and applied it to inter-war design.  In the next war, the US Army would not rely upon foreign cannons.


Filed under Artillery, history

Artillery Evolutions: A Little Something for the Infantry

Take a close look at this often reproduced photo of US troops in action during World War I:

Gun Crew from the 23rd Infantry Regiment in Action

The weapon in this scene is a M1916 37mm Infantry Gun, sometimes called a “1-pounder” by U.S. authorities.  While technically a “gun” it was not officially considered “artillery” during the war.  Each infantry regiment had a platoon of three infantry guns assigned to the headquarters company.  Their employment gave the basic infantry formations “heavy weapons,” establishing a practice that continues today.

Prior to the 20th century, infantry formations were pure “leg” infantry with few, specialist troops organic to the tale of organization even at the regimental level.  New technologies brought new weapons to the infantry in peacetime.  But the intensity of combat became the most important factor bringing specialty platoons to the regiments and battalions.

After the Western Front went to the trenches, infantry commanders on both sides complained that conventional artillery could no longer keep pace with the infantry. The oft cited problem involved reduction of enemy machine-gun nests.  Cratered no-mans-land prevented forward movement of artillery without engineer support.  And the communications systems of the day would not reach to forward assault elements to facilitate careful direction of the artillery.  The infantry needed a light-weight gun system.

The Germans had one solution on hand – the 7.85cm leichte Minenwerfer – an early modern mortar.  But these were engineer specialist weapons designed for high angle fire.  As a temporary solution, the Germans dismantled a large number of obsolete 3.7cm Gruson-Hotchkiss Revolverkanone (similar to the Gatling gun in concept with five revolving cannon barrels).  They fitted each barrel (so a one for five exchange in the number of guns) with a basic breech assembly and mounted the new Grabenkanone on a simple frame with a shield – without recoil system.  Another variant, named the Sturmbegleitkannon, arrived in 1915 and placed the gun on a light field cart for movement forward with assault teams.  The setup weighed 700 pounds.  Later the Germans introduced heavier 7.7cm Infanteriegeschutz or infantry cannons.

Facing a similar tactical need, the French fell back on a pre-war gun design.  The lineage of the weapon is somewhat sketchy, but the Puteaux Arsenal designed a light 37mm gun sometime in the 1890s.  The gun found no uses until 1916 when a French army officer adapted it to a light-weight mounting for use by the infantry.

The basic design used a rotating breech block (a miniature version of the 75mm M1897).  Like the larger gun, the breech block rotated inside a threaded, over-sized breech ring.  The block had a cut out that, when rotated, opened the breech and acted like a tray for loading.  A hydro-spring  system fitted below the gun barrel provided recoil control.   The gun and recoil system sat upon a light, low-profile tripod mount (note the flash suppressor often removed in American service).

In French service, a gun shield on the front of the tripod protected the two-man crew.

French mle 1916 gun with shield and flash suppressor

But this two was usually removed in American service.  Crews placed the entire setup on a small, two-wheeled cart for displacement to new firing positions.  Equipment included an ammunition cart with fourteen boxes of sixteen rounds each.

The gun, firing tripod, and cart weighed about 360 pounds.  The ammunition cart, while doubling the total, remained handy given the number of troops assigned.  If tactical situations required, the entire setup was broken down into several loads for hand carry.

The mounting allowed for 21° elevation and 14°.  Left traverse covered 16°, while the gun swept 22° to the right.  Maximum range was 3,650 yards with an high explosive round.  The crew used a telescopic sight for direct shots and a gradient sight for indirect fires.

37mm dug in with sergeant observing, note telescopic sight

The gun crew was a squad consisting of one sergeant, one corporal, and nine privates.  Supervised by the Sergeant, the corporal and one private worked the gun.  The rest hauled ammunition.  Three of these squads formed the “1 pounder platoon” in the headquarters company of each infantry regiment under the American divisional table of organization in 1918.

When America entered the war, the French had the 37mm in full production as the “Canon d’Infanterie de 37 mle de 1916 tir rapide Puteaux (TRP)”.  The American Expeditionary Force purchased 841 of these from the French to meet immediate needs, officially designating them as 37mm Infantry Gun M1916.  As with the bigger guns, the Americans also purchased production rights anticipating production on a massive scale with contracts totaling over 4,000.

The wartime production board split responsibility for the gun into several contractors. Poole Engineering & Machine Company of Baltimore, Maryland produced the barrels, with subcontracts to the Maryland Pressed Steel Company of Hagerstown, Maryland.  Krasberg Manufacturing in Chicago produced the breech assembly.  C.H. Cowdery Machine Works of Fitchburg, Massachusetts made the recoil mechanism.  International Harvester produced the axles and wheels in a Chicago factory.   Also in Chicago, the Universal Stamping & Manufacturing Company built the carriage trails.  Collectively these vendors provided 826 guns by September 11, 1918.  Three hundred American made guns were in France at that time.

The 37mm M1916 also armed some of the first American tanks to see combat.

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Renault FT-17 or M1917 Six Ton Tank

Although none of these saw action in the war, American vendors produced some 1,200 modified M1916 guns during and after the war for use on the license built M1917 tanks.

After the Great War, the 37mm guns remained in service as part of the regimental organizations.  To save costs, the Army developed a .22-caliber training adapter.  National Guard and ROTC units trained with these, in some cases on indoor ranges.  The Army also evaluated the 37mm as a possible anti-tank gun during the inter-war years.  Development of an armor-piercing round soon branched into the search for a proper anti-tank gun of the same caliber.  Interestingly, the Germans had made the same leap with the same caliber.  And eventually the Americans would borrow that concept (although not the gun itself as some would lead you to believe) as the M3 37mm anti-tank gun.  As war clouds gathered for World War II, the Army brought these old infantry guns out of the warehouses.  A new generation of gunners trained on the 37mms, while more modern weapons entered production.  Some of the M1916s saw action in the Philippines opposing the Japanese invasion in 1941-42.

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M1916 on an inter-war machine gun style tripod

The old 37mm, with its original role superseded and its performance eclipsed by modern guns, was the basis for early American tank and anti-tank guns.

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Filed under army, Artillery, history

Artillery Evolutions: The 155mm Schneider Howitzer

Thus far discussing the US Army’s field artillery of World War I, I’ve focused on the divisional field guns.  These were the more important weapon, in terms of numbers.  But as was custom (indeed even up through World War II) armies often paired low trajectory, high velocity guns with high angle, low velocity howitzers.  The American Expeditionary Force (A.E.F.) was no exception.

Recall that Colonel Charles Summerall wanted six batteries of either 3.8- or 4.7-inch howitzers to augment the twelve batteries of field guns in every division.  But the officers of the A.E.F. wanted 6-inch howitzers at the division level.  Specifically the A.E.F. officers preferred the French 155mm howitzer (technically 6.1 inch) produced by the Schneider firm.  A simple comparison of the American and French howitzers demonstrates the wisdom of the A.E.F. choice:

  • American 3.8-inch howitzer Model 1915 fired a 30 pound shell to 6,100 yards and weighed 2,040 pounds in action (without limber)
  • American 4.7-inch howitzer Model 1908 fired a 60 pound shell to 7,000 yards and weighed just under 4,000 pounds.
  • American 6-inch howitzer Model 1908 fired a 90 pound shell to 9,000 yards (or a 120 pound shell to 6,700 yards) and weighed 7,200 pounds.
  • French Canon de 155mm Court mle 1917 fired a 95 pound shell to 12,300 yards and weighed 7,600 pounds in action.

With only a small increase in weight, the French gun added one-third more range.  More importantly, the Americans had precious few of their howitzers on hand and the French offered the Schneider howitzer in quantity.  The Americans ordered 1,361 howitzers of this type, designating them M1917, from the French, who delivered 772 by Armistice Day.

The type dated back to a 1910 Schneider howitzer for export to the Russians.  After the summer of 1914, the French desperately needed howitzers for use along the static, entrenched fronts and accepted the export model into service as the Canon de 155mm Court mle 1915S.  The original gun fired semi-fixed ammunition with a brass case.  As the French faced a brass shortage and preferred bag charges for large calibers, Schneider redesigned the breech.  The resultant weapon became the mle 1917 and Schneider began large scale production.   The original French guns, including those sold to the A.E.F., had a curved shield.

French 155mm mle 1917 as adopted by the US as M1917

The barrel was a typical French built up type.  Note the “muzzle ring” that became a distinctive feature of this weapon.

Schneider 155mm Barrel

The breech block was a simple interrupted screw type that swung out to the right.  The block itself was very similar to that used on the contemporary 155mm Grand Puissance, Filloux (GPF) gun … but I’m getting ahead a few pots.

Schneider 155mm Breech Block

To facilitate the use of bagged charges, the breech used a DeBange style obdurator pad.  As seen in the diagram, an asbestos ring (solid black) filled with fluid fit between two sections of the block along with metal rings.  The pressure of firing pushed the “mushroom” head of the block and compressed the asbestos ring, thus sealing the breech.

Components of the Breech Block

The entire barrel assembly sat upon and recoiled down a cradle.  Note the trunnions and elevating segments attached to the cradle. These allowed the barrel plenty of elevation while not constraining recoil travel.

Schneider 155mm Cradle

Inside the cradle sat the recoil system.  This consisted of two tubes – the lower tube filled with hydraulic fluid with a piston attached to the recoil rod; and an upper tube filled with a mix of compressed air and fluid.

Component Diagram of the 155mm

When fired, the piston compressed the fluid, forcing it through a connector into the upper tube.  The air compressed, slowly arresting recoil.  As the air decompressed, it forced fluid back into the lower tube thus forcing the piston and the barrel back to the forward position.

The system did require careful monitoring of fluid levels and air pressure.

Going back to the 7,600 pound weight of the gun, this required an eight-horse team for movement.  To balance the piece on the limber, the crew disengaged the recoil system, and pulled the barrel back on the cradle.  However for towing behind trucks or tractors, the barrel could remain forward.

American M1918 ready for firing (top) and traveling configuration (bottom)

Perhaps because it lacked any elaborate components, the Schneider howitzer served with few complaints.

Realizing French production would not meet long term needs, the Americans began license production of the Schneider howitzer in 1917.  The Americans opted for a flattened gun shield, rubber tires, pivoting spade, and different firing mechanism.  The Americans also “improved” the hydraulic fluid and pressure monitoring systems.  With such modifications the howitzer went into production as the M1918.

The M1918 155mm Howitzer on original carriage

The Army parceled out production by components with initial orders going out in the summer of 1917.  For most components, production moved swiftly. Indeed the American Brake and Shoe Company produced excess barrels for sale back to the French in 1918.  But one component again delayed the overall production – the recoil system.  In order to work, the interior of the tubes required a fine polish and exact fit to the piston diameter.  This was not an issue for France, where everything was hand fitted – and guns rolled off the line in handfuls.  But such was not easy for American assembly lines where everyone expected to see hundreds of guns produced over the span of weeks.  One historian described the challenge:

It is scarcely fair to a modern hydropneumatic recuperator to say that it must be finished with the precision of a watch.   It must be finished with a mechanical nicety comparable only to the finish of such a delicate instrument as a navigator’s sextant or the mechanism which adjusts the Lick telescope to the movement of the earth.

Eventually the Dodge Motor Company sorted out a way to mass produce the system.

Compared to the 75mm guns, that of the M1918 155mm howitzer is at least one of partial success.  By July 1918, Dodge delivered quantities of the troublesome recuperator.  The first regiment of 155mm howitzers had begun embarking for France when news of the Armistice came.  As with other American cannon production projects, had the war gone into 1919, more of these would have followed.

In closing, here’s a clip showing the Schneider howitzers in action.

Like the 75mm guns, these 155mm howitzers formed the backbone of American artillery between the wars and saw service in the initial stages of World War II.


Filed under Artillery, history

Artillery Evolutions: Light Guns from the British

As I’ve discussed in earlier posts, finding enough guns to arm the A.E.F. during World War I proved a challenge.  The Army lacked sufficient quantities of guns in 1917 to meet the massive need.  Focusing for this thread of posts on divisional guns, after delays with a domestically designed M1916, the Army ordered the M1897, a licensed produced French gun, into production.  Yet even that production fell behind.  The only practical solution was the purchase of French guns in France to meet the immediate need.

But the purchase of French guns failed to meet one very important need.  Entering the second half of 1917, the Army faced a serious shortfall of training weapons.  After all, training artillerymen requires a lot of hands on training.  Although the M1902 3-inch gun met this need in part, there were only a few hundred available.  It just so happened that the Bethlehem Steel Company of Pennsylvania was already producing light field guns for the British Army.  Common sense struck and the Americans would adopt this gun as the M1917.

18-pdr or 3.3-inch Gun from Bethlehem Steel's 1916 Catalog of Products

Back in 1915, British authorities recognized the need for more field guns than possible from English factories.  So they contracted Bethlehem Steel in 1915 to production the standard Royal Artillery light field gun – the 18-pdr Quick Firing (QF) Gun Mk I gun.  Bethlehem delivered around 850 of these (to go with nearly 8,400 from English wartime production).

A bit about the 18-pdr’s history.  Following the Second Boer War (1899-1902), the British sought to replace obsolete field guns then in service.  The British chose two calibers – an 18-pdr (84mm or 3.3-inch) gun for the field artillery and a 13-pdr (76mm or 3-inch) gun for the horse (cavalry) artillery.  Although both served in World War I, the Royal Artillery found the 13-pdr’s shell too light and it was largely replaced by 1916.

18-pdr Mk I in action during World War I

The 18-pdr used a wire-wound barrel.  Under that method, construction starts with a thin-walled bore tube, over which the gun-makers wrap wire under pressure.  Over the wire is an exterior jacket.  Fifteen layers of .04 x .25 inch wire reinforced the breech end of the gun.  This process had great advantages in economy and allowed gunmakers to spot flaws in the metal rather easily.  Later versions of the 18-pdr, starting with the Mk. II, featured barrels produced with hydrostatic pressure, to speed production.  But Bethlehem used the original wire-wound construction technique.

18-pdr Barrel Construction

The breech block of the 18-pdr was a standard hinged interrupted screw.  Nothing fancy or particularly ground breaking.

The recoil system used a hydraulic-spring system all housed in a set of tubes mounted above the barrel.  When fired, the recoil motion of the gun pulled a piston through an oil filled tube inside the recoil mechanism.  Oil flowed through holes in the piston, resisting the rearward motion of the gun and at the same time compressing the springs.  When recoil stopped, the springs then forced the gun back forward and the reverse motion of the oil ensured the gun didn’t “slap” back into place.   Often a crews wrapped a rope around the outside spring housing for additional protection of the tube (mostly against dents that would block the motion of the springs).

18-pdr Recoil System

In action two problems arose with the recoil system – fluid loss and weakened springs.  The base system used just enough hydraulic fluid (the oil) to work the system, but after frequent firing (i.e. at combat rates), the system leaked enough to reduce the cycling of the recoil force.  Furthermore, the springs often lost their power after extended used, forcing crews to “crank” the gun back into firing position by hand.  The British temporarily solved the first problem by introducing a box reservoir (seen to the left of the diagram above and called a “gravity tank”), with an armored housing for protection.  The immediate solution for the second problem involved more frequent spring replacements.

Most Bethlehem guns had the reservoir attached to the recoil system.  However starting in November 1916, British guns were refitted with the “permanent” solution – a hydro-pneumatic system replacing the springs entirely.  This setup fit neatly within the existing spring housing and could be installed in field shops.  Most British 18-pdrs received this refit, but few if any American guns did.

18-pdr Hyrdo-pneumatic Recuperator

The 18-pdr used a rather typical pole trail, not unlike that found on the American M1902.  This limited elevation, but for the Americans training to use the M1897, this was not an issue.  Later British versions of the 18-pdr introduced a box trail that allowed the gun to elevate higher. The British gun also used a panoramic sight, also similar in concept to the M1902′s.

M1917 Panoramic Sight

Going back to the “common sense” of 1917, the Artillery branch pushed hard for allotments of these 18-pdrs from Bethlehem.  At the time, the company offered to produce the gun in either 3.3-inch (the standard British 84mm) or 3-inch caliber to meet American needs.  While the artillerists were happy with the 3-inch option, the Ordnance Branch with support from the A.E.F. insisted on 75mm.  Although the Army ordered the first M1917s from Bethlehem in May 1917 the change of caliber and bureaucratic challenges delayed the first deliveries until January 1918.  Bethlehem delivered 800 guns by year’s end.  Anticipating needs for the planned 1919 offensive, Bethlehem had contracts for over 1500 more guns – cancelled with the end of the war.

Rear View of American M1917 - Adapted from 18-pdr QF Gun

The successful adaptation of the 18-pdr stands in sharp contrast to the delays seen with the M1897 and M1916 guns.  Arguably the M1917 / 18-pdr could have equipped American batteries in 1917 either in its original caliber or 3-inch version.  Even the 75mm M1917 could have preceded the M1897′s arrival in France.  But the Ordnance Department, with no small influence from the French, felt the 18-pdr an inferior gun.   They saw faults with the 18-pdr’s spring recoil system, wire wound barrel and pole-trail carriage.  Ordnance officers wanted to introduce a British designed hydro-pneumatic recoil system and a modified carriage, but the artillerists objected to any delays in production.  Bureaucracy, more so than technical issues or manufacturing concerns, delayed the M1917.

M1917 in Traveling Order

In closing, enjoy a British 18-pdr firing blanks.

Four rounds, in under 30 seconds, with demonstration safety precautions.


Filed under Artillery, history

Artillery Evolutions: Putting the French 75 in Production

Recapping from earlier posts, upon entry into World War I, the United States had insufficient quantities of a 3-inch field gun.  In order to meet the massive projected demand for divisional artillery, the Army turned first to a domestic design.  When that project stalled, the Army opted to license produce the French Model 1897 75mm field gun.  Let me turn now to the story of producing the French 75.

As mentioned in the closing of the last article, to meet immediate needs in 1917, the American Expeditionary Force (A.E.F.) received 600 French 75s, then designated M1897 in the US Army’s system, directly from French stocks.  But recall that General John Pershing’s staff called for 1080 field guns (and General Charles Summerall wanted 2400 guns!).  The French could supply a few more batches, but clearly the Americans had to produce their own at some point.  At that time, of course, everyone assumed the great American industrial complex would soon have guns piled up at the docks waiting shipment.

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The French 75

I’ve already discussed the debacle that became the “Crime of 1916″ and why that gun did not enter immediate production.  With war demands pressing, in late 1917 the Ordnance Department suggested turning to production of the French 75 as a short term solution.  You must admit this made sense.  The type was a proven design, in service, and met requirements.

But this decision did not go lightly with artillerists, particularly Major General William Snow at the Field Artillery School.  Their counter-proposal was to reopen production of the M1902 field gun, re-chambered for the 75mm round.   Now from our 21st century keyboards, this makes even more sense.  The Army “knew” the M1902 as a reliable gun.  Spare parts were on hand.  So were training materials and all the other intangible things troops in the field need that program managers tend to forget about.  And in some regards the M1902 was a better gun in terms of accuracy given the panoramic sights.  The chief complaint against the M1902 was it fell just short of the French gun in range.  Oh, and there were not many M1902s in France.

So in short order the American Army went from just sharing the same ammunition to completely accepting the French gun. The governing production boards opted to parcel out the manufacturing into sub-components – the gun tube, the carriage, and the recoil system.

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Symington-Anderson Muzzle Stamps

The Symington-Anderson Company of Rochester, New York and Wisconsin Gun Company of Milwaukee, Wisconsin received orders to produce the gun tubes.  Symington-Anderson soon boasted a production rate of fifteen a day.  Likewise the Milwaukee company produced seven a day.  Most accounts indicate production of that component moved smoothly.  Each gun component received a serial number for tracking.  And I’m not just showing them here to break up the text with photos.

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Tube and Breech Hoop Serial Numbers

With five different vendors producing parts working off translated French diagrams, re-scaled from metric to English measures, there was certainly concerns about compatibility.

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Carriage Data Plate from Willys-Overland

Going back to the data plate on the gun carriage, Willys-Overland produced the gun carriage.  Originally the company held contracts to produce 2,900 or so carriages for M1916 guns.  With the change to the French design, Willys-Overland’s order changed to production of M1897 carriages.  As with the gun tubes, production began with only a few bumps.

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Recoil Mechaism Stamps - Rock Island Arsenal

In March 1918, Singer Manufacturing received the contract to produce the first batch of Puteaux recoil system for the M1897.  Shortly afterwards, a second order went to Rock Island Arsenal. Both plants received copies of French diagrams detailing the recuperator design.  But even after twenty years, the French considered these highly sensitive.  Few engineers were allowed to view them, and even then only under guarded circumstances.

One example of the lengths to which the French went to preserve the secret comes from the artillery school at Fort Sill.  After one M1897 burst during training, the school’s shop used the salvaged recoil assembly as a cut-away training tool for instruction.  The French delegation went mad.  In the end the school had to destroy the training aid and promise not to discuss the workings with students.  Other stories from the period mention diagrams locked in vaults only to be viewed at night.

Perhaps in no small part due to the secrecy, both firms soon experienced problems with manufacture.  In spite of following diagrams faithfully, the recuperators did not work.  So in good American fashion, ordnance officers started systematic examination of the problem.  In addition to checking the parts rolling off the assembly line, the Americans disassembled some of the guns from French stocks (four of these were a batch purchased by Yale University to train “their” students… my how things have changed).   Quickly the ordnance officers determined the working examples, from France, all exhibited post-manufacture machining and fitting.  To be brief, the “Soixante-quinze” was in many respects hand-fitted and not ready for American style assembly line mass production. Nor would would such production techniques allow for interchangeable parts.

In addition to all these woes, the Americans also found the hydraulic fluid in use was temperature sensitive.  Not so much a problem in France. But for an Army training up at depots across a continent, this was a major issue.  So that too was changed.  By trial and error, the Americans modified the designs to meet mass-production techniques and field requirements.  The exact modifications are difficult to track, as some were applied only after the war in the 1920s.  But at some point the piston inside the recuperator tube gained sealing rings.

Of course all this delayed efforts to put guns in the batteries.  The first American made recuperators arrived from Rock Island in October 1918.  The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month was just a page tear away.  In all just over 100 American made M1897s arrived in France before hostilities ended.  Had the war gone into 1919, as allied planners anticipated, perhaps Captain Harry Truman would have commanded a battery of American made guns.  Instead the 1,000 or so produced, along with over 1,800 purchased from France, became the main weapon in the inter-war US artillery park.

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Business End of the M1897

So even with a “proven” design, American industry was not able to meet the Army’s needs.  Several reasons might be advanced for the M1897s failure.  The sum of it all goes back to manufacturing practices.  American industry at the time catered to a broad consumer base.  Market space went to the company which most quickly met the demand, often with products celebrated for standardization.  Converting factories geared for practices supporting that philosophy required tailoring the weapon’s design to the assembly line.  The Americans had no time for hand fitted parts, in war or peace.  The failure to adapt the M1897 quickly to mass production was its downfall in 1918.

Before leaving the divisional, or light, field guns of World War I, there is one other weapon to consider in the next post – the M1917 75mm.  This gun had a British accent and its story features jaded bureaucracy.


Filed under army, Artillery, history

Artillery Evolutions: Let’s Talk French – “Soixante-quinze”

I left off last month pointing out the situations that forced the Americans to adopt foreign artillery types upon entering World War I.   The best known of these foreign types was the French Canon de 75 modèle 1897 – often known simply as “The French Seventy-Five” or “Soixante-quinze” in the native tongue.

The Model 1897 is often cited as a “revolutionary” weapon.  In reality it was more a case of evolution at the intersection of several development threads.  Following the “butt-whipping” during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), the French adopted a program to improve field artillery.  Through the following two decades several enabling technologies matured to levels to allow practical application.  To name a few – smokeless powder propellant, breech-loading mechanisms (recall the breech block discussion), fixed ammunition, rifled steel gun tubes, all metal gun carriages, and recoil dampening mechanisms.

Recounting each of these development threads would be lengthy, and resemble some tome on artillery development.  Let me instead walk through some of the particulars using a surviving example, at the USMC Museum.

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M1897 75mm on a restored World War I carriage

First the breech.  The French used a Nordenfelt rotating threaded breech block.  Unlike the hinged interrupted-screw breech blocks we discussed earlier, the M1897 breech turned within the breech housing.

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Rotating the handle from the lower right side to the upper left side exposed the breech of the gun tube, through the slot in the breech block.  That slot became a feed chute for the loader.  Rotating the handle back to the right engaged the screws, locking the block and closing the breech. Notice the lanyard leading up the rotating arm to the hammer.

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Hammer, Lanyard, and Safeties

The gun incorporated a lockout to ensure the block remained locked until the gun fired, or the gunner manually pulled a release catch.   This ensured, in the rush of combat, the gunner didn’t open the breech on a hang-fire.   The breech assembly also featured an extractor to push out the spent cartridge case.

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Ammunition Boxes

As mentioned above, the M1897 fired fixed ammunition with brass shell cases.  The case helped seal the breech.  The 75mm fired two basic projectiles – a high-explosive shell or shrapnel.

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Barrel Profile

The barrel of the gun was a “built up” variety.  The main tube was steel.  But over that were built up layers to provide strength over the breech end – not unlike some of the old Civil War era guns.  This gave the tube profile two steps back towards the breech.

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Close Up of the Recoil Housing and "Build ups" of the Gun Tube

The recoil mechanism sat under the barrel in a protected housing, making examination difficult on a working model.  The best diagram I’ve ever seen of the setup is from a 1933 Army manual:

Still somewhat incomprehensible.  So here’s the cartoon version:

When the gun fired and recoiled, the piston in the upper tube of the hydro-pneumatic system compressed the oil into the lower tube.  In the lower tube a floating piston then compressed the gas on the other end.  As recoil force subsided, the gas pressed back against the floating piston forcing oil back into the upper tube.  The upper piston then moved forward, thus returning the gun barrel to the firing position.  Um.. simple… except for the very fine tolerances required for all the working parts.

This setup allowed the gun to recoil several feet back.  Because of the weights involved, the muzzle of the gun tended to tip during recoil and could damage the carriage.  To prevent that, a set of rollers attached below the muzzle engaged the recoil rails – giving the 75mm a distinctive profile.

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Rollers under the Muzzle

Another component of the recoil system, often overlooked, is the trail spade.

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Trail Spade

Going into action, the crew would tip the trail up and let it fall.  The trail sank in a few inches, even on hard ground.  After the first round fired, the trail dug in sufficiently to stabilize the gun.

Another overlooked part of the system is the “abatage” or shoes under the wheels.  At the same time the crew tipped the trail up, they would drop the shoes under the wheels.  Notice the shoes locked in place here:

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Abatage or Shoe under the Wheel

But for all the advanced nature of the carriage, the French 75 retained the straight “stock” carriage arrangement and wooden wheels of older field guns.  The stock limited gun elevation.  The wooden wheels were not so much a limitation as horses still pulled the gun and limber.

I would call attention to the data plate on the 75 at the museum:

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Data Plate

If you look close, you see Willys-Overland Co. made this piece.  I think you know more about Willys-Overland’s World War II products.

Sighting arrangements for the French 75 were on the left side of the gun.

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Sights and Elevation Wheel

With only six degrees of traverse and eighteen of elevation, the gunner had a little to work with.  The important part is that brass sight allowed the gunner to use aiming stakes for referencing indirect fire.  Not as good as panoramic sights (as was used on the US M1902 3inch gun), still an advance on old iron sights.

The whole setup worked rather well in action.  Here’s a video with some clips showing the gun in action:

Notice about 10 seconds in, the crews tipping the guns to bury the spade.  A good crew fired a round every two seconds.

So all in all a good weapon, right?

Well, there is some room for debate.  The French 75 was two decades old by 1917 and surpassed by newer weapons.  Arguably the American M1902 3-inch was a better gun in some respects.  The same goes for the British 18-pdr gun, already in production at American factories.  But, the American Army wanted compatibility – both as a gesture to the Europeans and to reduce shipping requirements.  So the French 75 it was.

To meet immediate needs, the American Expeditionary Force purchased 600 guns directly from French stocks.  The War Department had high hopes for domestic production of the French 75.  But just as the M1916 story is an example of project development gone horribly wrong, the story of the M1897 is a story of production management gone bad.  As such, it deserves treatment in the next post.


Filed under army, Artillery, history

Artillery Evolutions: Expanding Field Artillery for World War I

As outlined in the last post on this thread, the American M1916 field gun, be it a 3-inch or 75mm caliber, was a design project disaster.  As mentioned in the scope of the M1916 development crisis, upon entry to war the US Army required a major increase in field artillery equipments.  This was not only due to the rapid expansion from a near microscopic peacetime army to that of an expeditionary force, but also due to some doctrinal changes.

Given the allied experience of 1914-1916, any American force entering the trenches required more field guns than previously allocated to divisional formations.  The nature of warfighting in that theater required greater densities of artillery. Prior to World War I, allocations of artillery were expressed in terms of the number of infantry troops supported.  In the American plans, two competing schemes emerged.  The 1911 Greble Board (named for it’s chair, Lt. Col. E. St. John Greble) figured 3 1/4 guns per thousand infantry.

German Guns in Action During World War I

As war experiences came in from the combatants engaged in World War I, another artillery board – the Treat Board – reassessed the needs of the Army should it become involved with the war.  While the Greble Board appeared somewhat conservative in allocations, the Treat Board advocated for a lavish five guns per thousand infantry.  By comparison, starting the war in 1914, the British employed 6.8 guns per thousand infantry, the Germans reached a ratio of 6.4, and the French were using 4.6 guns per thousand infantry.  By 1916 all combatants were employing more than six guns per thousand infantry for quiet sectors, and between eight and twelve for active sectors!  Clearly at the entry into war (1917) the US Army had to increase artillery allocations.

In June-July 1917 a board of officers chaired by Colonel Chauncey Butler, Quartermaster Corps, toured the allied armies.  Representing the field artillery were Colonels Charles P. Summerall and Dwight E. Aultman.  Interestingly, no representative of the Ordnance Corps attended the traveling board.  After visiting French and English commands in the combat zone, the Butler Board submitted a lengthy report suggesting operational, organizational, and doctrinal changes based on the war situation in Europe.  In his portion of the report Summerall, the senior artillery colonel, pushed for a major increase in artillery allocations for the field formations:

  • Division artillery – two regiments of 3-inch guns (12 batteries), 1 regiment of howitzers(six batteries) either 3.8-inch or 4.7-inch.
  • Corps artillery – one regiment of 4.7-inch rifles (six batteries), one regiment of 6-inch howitzers (six batteries), one regiment with a mix of 6-inch rifles (four batteries), 8-inch howitzers (one battery), and 9.2- or 9.5-inch howitzers (one battery).
  • Army artillery park (one per six divisions) – eight 12-inch railway guns, eight 12-inch railway howitzers, four 16-inch railway howitzers.

To support the American intent for 20 divisions in France, this plan required 2400 3-inch guns, 1200 light field howitzers, 480 4.7-inch guns, 480 6-inch howitzers, 372 6-inch guns, and around 100 each of the 8-inch howitzers, 9.2/9.5-inch howitzers, 12-inch guns, and 12-inch howitzers, along with fifty 16-inch howitzers.  Reality was the Americans had about a tenth of this ordnance on hand.  Feeding these guns, Summerall proposed accumulating 15,000 rounds per 3-inch gun; 10,000 rounds for each 3.8- or 4.7-inch howitzer; 8,000 rounds for the 6-inch guns and howitzers; 5,000 rounds for the 8-inch howitzers.

British 8-inch Howitzers in Action

Summerall felt each class of gun had a preferable role in combat.  This employment was influenced by British thinking.  The 3-inch guns would provide rolling barrages, wire cutting, and fire on enemy counterattacks. The light howitzers would fire gas and smoke shells, conduct counter-battery fire, and opportunity fires.  6-inch guns would focus on enemy communication centers, balloon concentrations, and conduct counter-battery missions.  The 6-inch howitzers fired wire cutting missions and also targeted enemy machine guns.  The larger guns and howitzers would focus on enemy gun positions and counter-battery work.

The plan looks fine, from a 95-years gone-by perspective – but perhaps a bit archaic with the “anti-balloon” and “wire cutting” missions.  But just as today’s Army proceeds through PowerPoint fueled meetings, the Army of 1917 convened boards.  General John Pershing, soon after arriving in France to stand up the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) headquarters, had established an “organization board” to set standards for the new command.  While the Butler Board was still in Europe, called for a conference between the boards.  Although the conference agenda covered many aspects, perhaps the most important was to set the corps formations around two infantry divisions, instead of three.  This of course had an effect on the allocation of artillery.

Officers of the AEF and the Baker Board

In terms of armament, Pershing’s board preferred French 155-mm howitzers (which they called 6-inch) in place of the lighter 3.8- or 4.7-inch models.  Pershing’s staff also saw no need for the larger 8-inch howitzers below the Army level, opting for 4.7-inch and 6-inch guns in the Corps artillery.  In short, Pershing’s board reduced the number of artillery tubes needed for the twenty division AEF – 1080 3-inch guns,  480 155mm howitzers, 120 4.7-inch guns, 408 6-inch guns, and 288 of the larger howitzers.  As for the heavy rail artillery, the AEF only wanted forty 10-inch guns and thirty 12-inch mortars.   This reduction cut in half the density of guns desired by Summerall.  The AEF did, however, add a battery of trench mortars to each infantry division and a battalion of the same weapons at the corps level.

US 75mm Gun Crew in Training

While personally I’d have preferred Summerall’s plan, at least the AEF had established an artillery organization by July 1917.  And like all plans, there is the test of reality.  The AEF needed about 2700 artillery pieces of all calibers, not counting spares and reserves.  Even if those numbers sat in some holding area in the U.S., planners had to consider shipping space which was already overloaded just getting 20 divisions worth of troops to France.  Considering the ammunition supplies needed for these guns, and Summerall’s estimates proved sound for major operations, the AEF needed even more shipping space.  A series of decisions and compromises over shipping forced several modifications to the overall artillery plan. Long story short, the AEF would use predominately foreign-made artillery, initially at least firing quantities of foreign-made ammunition.

I’ve already mentioned the change from 3-inch to 75mm for the field gun.  For similar reasons, the adoption of the French Schneider M1917 155mm howitzer made perfect logistical sense.  The Americans also opted for the French GPF M1917 155mm gun (the “6-inch gun” requested by the AEF).  From the British, the AEF would receive 6-inch guns, 8-inch howitzers, and 9.2-inch howitzers.  In addition, the AEF obtained a small assortment of French heavy guns, some of which used early self-propelled mountings.

BI775 GPF 194mm Artillery

French GPF 194mm SP Gun

Although a few field guns of American manufacture arrived in France, the most significant contribution American made contribution to the artillery park were several railroad guns stripped from the coastal fortifications (and from Navy stocks for good measure).

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14-inch Railway gun - Navy Mk I - at the Washington Navy Yard

But that is not to say American industry didn’t try to supply the AEF.  Had the war continued into 1919, the weight of American production would have been felt.  Nearly every caliber of gun used by the AEF was either in production or had plans for production in the US as the war drew to a close.  I’ll take a look at some of those types next, with particular mind to how those guns influenced the designs used in World War II.


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Artillery Evolutions: The Crime of 1916

It’s been nearly a month since I (Craig) took up writing about how the US Army’s artillery evolved from the start of the 20th century.  Real world stuff distracts me from this important work!  In that first post I outlined the (sorry) state of affairs in the field artillery prior to 1914.  The best field pieces in the US Army were M1902 3-inch field gun (adapted from a German design) and the M1906 4.7-inch field gun, with honorable mention to the Model 1907 4.7-inch howitzer.  While the 3-inch gun equipped batteries on General John Pershing’s Mexican expedition (1916-17), developments in Europe indicated the weapon was not sufficient for a larger, overseas war.

American pride, and preferences of the Ordnance Department, necessitated a domestic design which proceeded through several prototypes to become the M1916.  So American gun designers started with the most advanced carriage design possible, with a split trail.  A few foreign designs (notably the Italian M1911 75mm) had adopted this layout.  But concerns about the carriage strength held back further adoption.  Keep in mind in the early 20th century metallurgy still had some ways to go.  On a pole trail or box trail carriage, the junction of the axle and trail is easily braced.  On a split trail, the junction is made by some form of hinge and thus by nature a weak point to the system.

75 MM Field Gun

M1916 75mm Gun from the Fort Sill Artillery Museum Collection

Nonetheless split trails offer tactical advantages such as wider traverse and higher elevations for the gun tube.  The old M1902, on a pole trail carriage, had an elevation range between +15° and -5° and a traverse of 8°.  The M1916 3-inch gun boasted an elevation between +53° and -7°, with a traverse of 22.5° left or right.  The greater range of motion allowed gunners to switch targets, or stay with a moving target, without repositioning the gun as often.  And, oh-by-the-way, place high angle fire on a target otherwise shielded by earthworks or terrain.

For ammunition, the Americans initially preferred the 3-inch caliber of the M1902.  This same caliber (roughly 76mm) offered some compatibility with seacoast weapons then in service.  Although the M1916′s shells weighed only 13.7 pounds, compared to the 15 pound shell of the M1902, the new gun ranged to 9,590 yards.

75 MM Field Gun

Front of M1916 Showing Recoil System

Then the project hit the morass often encountered as the directors strive for “perfect” over “good enough.”  In order to lessen the stress on the carriage and at the same time take advantage of the superior gunlaying options, the design team adopted a rather complicated recoil system.  Initial designs used a hydro-spring system.  But this failed to return the gun to firing positions when operating at high angles.  So the design team scrapped that and worked on a hydro-pneumatic recoil system.  However, lacking extensive experience with such systems, the Americans floundered.  Ultimately, the Americans contracted a French designer who for the most part just reproduced an existing hydro-pneumatic recoil system then in use on his country’s guns.  And to top it off, initially no American manufacturers were allowed to produce the system, so the first batches were fabricated in France.  But that was not the end of problems for the M1916.

75 MM Field Gun

Breech of M1916

The M1916 used a simple vertical sliding breechblock and offered the gun crew a relatively compact work area.  Or in other words, the crew was cramped together in between the trails in order to work the piece!  As near as I can tell, the Ordnance Department simply shut out the artillerists from design input.

Furthermore, in order to provide strength and mount the elaborate recoil system, the designers wanted a one piece pedestal to support the cradle, gun, and recoil system.  After casting trials, this design failed to meet manufacturing standards.  So once again the designers made modifications.  The new mount incorporated several cast components.   By this time the year was 1917, America was entering the war, and no M1916s were ready.  The crash program had crashed, but nobody was willing to admit such.

Entry into the war brought another design change – a change of a single millimeter – but a significant change translating to more delays.  Faced with the need to equip a vastly expanded army, the US needed to acquire not only field guns but also piles of ammunition.  To avoid potential SNAFUs with a proliferation of calibers, the Army agreed to use French ammunition for the lighter field pieces.  So the M1916 was re-chambered for the French 75mm caliber then in widespread use, down from the 3-inch or 76mm.  That single millimeter represented changes to the chamber dimensions, the recoil system, and carriage.  Although minor in scope, these were changes introduced to a weapon system at an advanced development state.  Of note, the new ammunition, firing a 13.5 pound shell, increased the range to 12,400 yards.

M1916 with Original Wooden Wheels

Not until March 1918 did the first example go to France to receive its recoil system.  Arriving later that year, the first gun went through extensive trials.  Firing trials went well, but the carriage itself could not handle extensive cross country movement.  More modifications strengthened the carriage and reduced play in the traversing system.  The advanced carriage design with advanced recoil system along with the multitude of design modifications lead not to the perfect weapon, but rather an unacceptable one.

The final design weighed a respectable 3240 pounds on the carriage.  Finally put into full production, the Army received about 250 of the M1916 75mm guns by December 1918.  But at that point the war was over.  Looking at the sad story of the M1916, many would call it the “Crime of 1916.”  It was, for all purposes, the “SGT. York Project” of the real Sergeant York’s time.

75 MM Field Gun

Front View of M1916

After the war the cash strapped Army worked with the weapons on hand.  The M1916 received some refinements during the 1920s and 1930s.  Some of the guns went to the coastal artillery for use as sub-caliber training devices for the big gun crews.  At least one was tested as an anti-aircraft gun, mounted on a truck (part of an American preoccupation for multi-purpose guns during the inter-war years).  Others received pneumatic wheels and updated brake systems for high speed towing.  In 1940, some of these M1916s finally got to Europe – purchased by the British who were desperately short of anything that could shoot.  In British service these guns received the designation “Quick Firing 75mm ‘S’ Mk 2.”  The Mk 2s armed home guards and defended beaches, but scarcely fired a shot in anger.  A handful remained in the US, used for training in those early war years.

With the failure of the M1916, the US Army turned to other, foreign designs to equip the artillery batteries sent to France during World War I.  I’ll look at those next.

(Color photos are from the Flickr photostream of Daniel DeCristo and are part of a larger set of photos taken at the Fort Sill Artillery Museum.)


Filed under Artillery, history

Artillery Evolutions: Pre-World War I US Field Artillery

Earlier when XBrad outlined the different types of cannons, he tasked me (Craig) to trace the history of the types.  Many of the calibers we see in use today date back to standardization decisions in the 1930s or even earlier.  X Brad lead into this a bit, discussing the history of the famous “105″ howitzer.  The 105mm M2 gun came from a requirement placed after analysis of World War I experiences.  Given that story line, I’ll pick the somewhat arbitrary start point of the weapons in the US Army inventory around 1914.

Fort Washington 1 Mar 08 168

3.2inch Field Gun, Model 1885-97

The Spanish-American War was in many ways a wake-up call for the Ordnance Department of the US Army.  The Army went to Cuba and the Philippines with an inventory which featured breechloading guns.  But such guns, like the 3.2-inch gun (above), 3.6-inch guns, 3.6-inch field mortars, or the lighter Hotchkiss mountain guns, had a poor showing against Krupp guns used by the Spanish.  At that time in history the world was trying to catch up with the benchmark set by the faster firing French 75mm Model 1897 gun.  But the French were not selling that marvel on the open market.    What gave it such an edge?  Well, sharp-eyed redlegs will notice the gun pictured above has no recoil mechanism.  So just like the old Civil War pieces, every time it was fired, the gun crew had to readjust the piece.  The French considered the recoil mechanism, along with the innovative breech block system, a state secret.  In addition, the old 3.2-inch gun used separated ammunition with bags of black powder.

Following the Spanish-American War, the US Ordnance fielded improved equipment in almost every category.  Some backstory about the Ordnance Department is of note here.  In 1901 General William Crozier assumed the office of Chief of Ordnance.  Although Crozier spent  most of his career  oriented towards seacoast defenses.  This was in no way out of step with the Army’s priorities of the day.  For about a century prior to World War I (arguably save a brief interlude known as the Civil War), the US Army’s most important mission was defending the nation’s coast.  The Ordnance Department tended to be conservative in technical approach, and were reluctant to change designs based on feedback from the field.  Some historians over the years have been critical of Crozier’s approach, but during his tenure as chief (1901 to 1918) a number of outstanding weapons emerged.  Just to name a few – the M1903 rifle, the M1911 pistol, the M1918 BAR, the M1917 Machine Gun….

To solve the field gun requirement, the Ordnance officers first replaced the 3.2-inch gun.  Following the lead of the British Army, the US purchased rights to a field gun from the German Erhardt company.  The Erhardt 3-inch gun featured a pneumatic recoil system and fixed ammunition.  The gun ranged out to 8,500 yards.  Like the British Army, which purchased a similar piece as the Quick-Firing 15-pdr, the Americans considered the Erhardt a temporary solution while awaiting domestic weapon developments.

M1902/1905 3-inch Gun

With a few modifications to suit American tastes, the Ordnance department standardized the gun as the M1902 with production starting at Rock Island Arsenal.  But funds were short and only a limited number hit the field.  But enough were produced to outfit the regular Army.  The M1904 and M1905 had small improvements, but most parts were interchangeable.

Limbered up, the M1902 resembled its Civil War forbears.  This is due to the pole trail and spoke wheels.  The pole trail limited elevation to 15°.  And of course in the field horses (or some of those new tractor contraptions) pulled the gun.  The gun on carriage weighed 2,400 pounds.

While some shortfalls emerged, the field artillery found the M1902 at least acceptable, if not outstanding.  The gun served well by all accounts.  Indeed, one of them still serves the “Aggies” of Texas A&M.

Spirit of '02 at Texas A&M

In 1906-7, the Ordnance Board, deviating somewhat from previous experiences, accepted input from the field regarding artillery (perhaps “had to accept” after some pressure from above is one way to describe it).  Input lead to several “stable-mates” for the 3-inch gun – a 3.8- and 4.7-inch field guns along with 3.8-, 4.7-, and 6-inch field howitzers.  In addition a 3-inch mountain howitzer appeared to supplement the 2.95-inch Vickers mountain gun then in service (I’ve mentioned those in passing in a post on my blog, and will return to discuss in detail later).   In September 1907 a series of tests evaluated various artillery systems against redoubts and entrenchments (Yes… the Americans were thinking about fighting in trenches long before the Great War).   As with many similar tests over the years, the army compiled many lessons learned backed with empirical data, but lacked the funds to translate conclusions into equipment purchases.

The 3.8-inch M1908 howitzer, on paper at least, offered useful performance figures.  Firing a 30 pound projectile to a maximum range of 6,100 yards, the setup weighed 3,000 pounds.  Line diagrams from manuals show a compact design with recoil system mounted over a short barrel.  The box carriage trail allowed the howitzer to elevate up to 45°.  But few of these weapons rolled off production lines, and fewer still were issued.  The 3.8-inch howitzer paired well to the 3-inch gun, and might have been a great complement at the divisional level in France.

The 4.7-inch Model 1907/08 howitzer reached limited production also, but although several survivors exist today, very limited details exist about the gun’s service.  Manuals credit the gun with a 7,000 yard range at 40°.  But increased caliber raised the weight to 4,000 pounds, perhaps making the weapon only a marginal improvement over the 3.8-inch howitzer. Similarly the 3.8-inch Model 1907 field gun failed to find a niche.  It weighed double that of the 3-inch gun, but offered only a few thousands yards more range with a 30 pound projectile.

The 6-inch Model 1906/07 looked good on paper.  Weighing 7,200 pounds, the 6-inch howitzer was lighter than contemporary French and British weapons in its class.   But in 1917 the Army deemed its 9,000 yard range with a 90 pound projectile insufficient for the war in Europe.  As a result the Army shelved this promising howitzer, opting for French and British designs.

Saving the best for last, the 4.7 -inch M1906 field gun (some list the gun as M1907 or M1908, which were just improvements on the basic design) actually measured up rather well with contemporary European guns.

M1906 4_7in_2

4.7-inch Field Gun at the Infantry Museum

Although the gun weighed 8,700 pounds in action, it threw a useful 60 pound shell to 11,000 yards.  This gun fit into the “medium” category of field artillery, working at the corps level.  But while successful, like the other field artillery types in the US inventory, only a few were produced by 1914.

Thus as the world entered the “great war” the US had at least a start towards modern artillery equipments.  While lacking howitzers, perhaps more so due to institutional preferences, the field artillery possessed a couple of capable field guns in the 3-inch and 4.7-inch categories.  But in 1917, the rush to equip a force to fight in France would overtake these otherwise capable weapons.


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Heavy Howitzers: Around Full Circle

Craig here.  XBrad opened the door (and threatened to push me through it) with regard to heavy howitzers noting the Republic of China use of what is basically the US M-1 240mm howitzer of World War II vintage.  There’s a bit of irony finding those howitzers defending the shores of Taiwan.  To appreciate such, let me discuss the background of those big old howitzers.

By the close of the American Civil War, heavy howitzers faded from the seacoast batteries of most nations.  The United States retained a rather effective seacoast defense weapon known as the Columbiad which combined the ballistics of guns and howitzers.  But most nations turned to higher velocity, direct fire rifled breechloading guns.  Almost alone among major powers, the Americans produced several large-caliber mortars for coast defense.

During the “First War of the Twentieth Century,” the Russo-Japanese War of 1904, the Japanese laid siege to Port Aurthur (now in Manchuria, mainland China).  Firing on the Russian far east stronghold were batteries of relatively new breech-loading rifled artillery, to include some of these big boys:

Japanese 28cm Howitzers at Port Arthur

These large siege guns not only caused great damage to the Russian defenses, but also worked over ships in the port.  The 28cm (11-inch) howitzers were products of the great German armaments manufacturer, Krupp.  Designed for use in the defenses of Tokyo, the Japanese reallocated the howitzers when the Russian fleet ceased to be a threat after the battle of Tsushima.  And these big howitzers did a job on the Russian fleet in Port Arthur.

Remains of Russian Fleet at Port Arthur

European observers watched this development with great interest.  In the years before World War I, all the great powers produced their own heavy siege howitzers.  Although these could pull double duty as seacoast weapons, most of the continental powers looked for something to reduce the reinforced concrete fortifications on land.   Of this “generation” of heavy guns Schneider, the French armaments manufacturer, produced a 280mm howitzer marketed for the Russians who were then re-arming.   A few of these weapons ended up in French service during World War I.

When the US entered World War I, planners saw the need for a heavy howitzer to work over the German defenses on the western front.  Furthermore, the Ordnance Department saw a need, beyond the wartime requirement, for a new heavy howitzer for mobile coast defense batteries.  After some negotiation, the Army struck a deal with Schneider for license production of a 240mm version of their howitzer.  Schneider built one example in France and shipped it to the US.  And the French also sent engineers to the US to help start the production.  Yet the project never picked up momentum.  Only the original French gun was on hand at the time of the Armistice.

But with the mobile coast defense requirement in mind, the M1918 9.5-inch (240mm) howitzer project continued after the end of hostilities.  Eventually a few rolled out of the factory.  And only with a wink and a nod, we might call this “mobile.”

And I’ll start the unsubstantiated rumor the entire outfit was cleared for air-drop….

Only took six hours for the crew to set up this beast.  And in action she looked intimidating.

The M1918 could throw a 346 pound shell over 17,000 yards.  State of the art for that day.  Only one problem… when the first M1918 went to the range for proofing, the cannon blew up!  And follow-up corrections failed to resolve many of the gun’s problems.  Only after a long gestation were 330 examples produced.  Some of these guns went to Hawaii where concrete pads allowed wide traverse and coverage of potential enemy approaches.

M1918 on Coast Defense Mount

But for the most part, the Army shunted these howitzers to the storage yards.  I’m not certain, but don’t think any were even offered up as Lend-Lease in 1940.

With America’s entry into the next world war, clearly the M1918 was a dated design.  So back to the drawing boards went the Ordnance Department.  The main drawback to the M1918 was (duh!) mobility.  In the inter-war period, experiments to match the M1918 to high-speed towed carriages and  even self-propelled platforms failed.  But lessons learned projected into a new design, as XBrad highlighted – the M1 240mm howitzer.

T33 Prime Mover pulling a M1 240mm Howitzer

Regardless of what you downsize, big cannons are just… well big.  The Army tried several different carriages, but finally settled on a two load arrangement.  In the picture above the barrel, with recoil system, is on a six wheel trailer.  A similar trailer transported the carriage.   The concurrently developed M1 8-inch gun used the same carriage and transport.  The M1 240mm howitzer weighed 64,700 pounds in action and fired a 360 pound shell to over 25,000 yards.  The M1 8-inch gun weighed 69,300 pounds and pushed a 240 pound shell to 35,600 yards (with a 90 pound super charge).

M1 8-inch gun

M1 8-inch Gun at Aberdeen

These battery mates saw heavy action in the Anzio beachhead in 1944, firing counter-battery against the German railway guns.

240mm howitzer of Battery `B', 697th Field Artillery Battalion, just before firing into German held territory. Mignano area, Italy. January 30, 1944

These big guns followed the allied advance through Europe and also served in the Pacific.

240mm Howitzer in the Philippines

But the “system” was not mobile enough for the desires of US planners.  Once again, someone figured to put the big cannons on tracked carriers.  Based on the M26 Pershing Medium (originally Heavy) tank chassis, the T92 240mm Howitzer Motor Carriage and the T93 8inch Gun Motor Carriage made an appearance in 1945.  Despite orders for several hundred, and designation of “limited standard,” only a handful rolled out before the end of the war.

Even in the face of air power lessons-learned during World War II, the Army still figured super-heavy artillery had some place in 1946.  In particular, the Ordnance Department considered the newest technology in regard to counter-battery, interdiction, and coast defense.  After all, everyone was giddy about the “atom” in those days.  So out came the T1 240mm Gun.

9 July 2011 662

240mm T1 Gun

And not quite so happy with that caliber, the Army turned to the T71 280mm which eventually became the M65 280mm Atomic Cannon.

Nuclear Test using 280mm M65

Or for those who like the ‘splodie fast forward to the 9 minute mark:

While the new carriages (based off some German heavy gun and railway carriages) were more mobile than the World War II types, the mushroom cloud effect sort of made that irrelevant.   A few dozen of these entered service, but soon the Army turned to rockets and missiles that offered a little better range (well with the exception of that Davy Crockett thing).  So by the 1960s the “big guns” of the field artillery were 8-inch howitzers and 175mm guns.

But consider the turn about here.  The Armies and the cannons change, but from one century to another there are still those big howitzers placed to defend a Chinese coastline.

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