Military Memories

The Heart of Marengo - Volume 9, Issue 7 - April, 1999

By Jim Mundell

"The Biggest Gun"


      In October and November of 1996, this series told the wartime experiences of Marshall Johnson. He had two military careers, really. The first was in the coast artillery, protecting the Pacific Coast of the United States beginning in early 1941. The second part was in Military Intelligence, though still connected with an artillery unit in the European Theater of Operations. He was a corporal during the latter time, having been a sergeant for just one day. The commander rescinded it as exceeding the quota. He was with the 417th Field Artillery Group.

      As the war drew to a close, Marshall found himself at Grafenwohr, Germany. This had been a Panzer Training Camp and they were to transform it into the headquarters for the American Army of Occupation. Marshall pondered the fact that Field Marshall Rommel (the famous desert Fox of the North African campaign) had reviewed newly trained Panzer (tank) units on parade there a few years before.

      Marshall decided to check out the woods behind the barracks one-day, and stumbled upon huge gun barrel and other remnants of a railway gun, resting on a series of flat cars. He took several pictures, and the left, but was certain that he had found parts of a giant siege gun.

      Fifty-three years passed, but Marshall never completely forgot about what he had seen. He mentioned it during the earlier interview and a picture was published with the story. It was then that his son, Brad Johnson, entered the story, sending the article to Europe on the Internet in search of answer.

      History buffs there responded with the complete story. (You got to check out Railway Gun WEB Museum and Palpatine's German Railroad Guns Page for further details. The size of this gun is just mind boggling!!) It is very important to Marshall that this be told, and he makes reference to the quote about "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it." The following is proof of that!


(Photo courtesy of the Railway Gun WEB Museum)

      The largest manufacturer of armaments in Germany was Krupp and the company was at that time headed by Gustav Krupp. The French had built the seemingly impenetrable Maginot Line of huge interconnected underground forts along the eastern border of France to ensure that the Germans would never attack again. The whole system was incredible. The forts were made of thick concrete and armor plate, and many of the gun turrets could be raised for firing or lowered flush with the terrain. These also wore thick armor. There were even narrow gauge electric trains that ran through tunnels deep underground connecting the forts. The system ran between neutral countries as it was not considered likely that their neutrality would be violated, even by Germany. The system, therefore, ran from Belgium in the north to Switzerland in the south. The French felt safe behind this Maginot Line. The Germans saw it only as an obstacle to be breeched.

      It is easy to understand why all this happened. The Germans had occupied half of France during the first World War of 1914 to 1918. In 1935, the German General Staff set about a search for weapons capable of destroying the huge French fortifications. None of the weapons then available were remotely powerful enough to do the job. They needed something much larger.

(Photo courtesy of the Railway Gun WEB Museum)
      Gustov Krupp heard of the test. He had achieved his success by anticipating and meeting the needs of the German military. It had made him very rich. He immediately put his design staff, under the leadership of Professor Erich Muller, on the problem. The new weapon would have to pierce through another thirty-six feet of earth and concrete and then punch through another six feet of hardened steel plate to blow up what lay within. They set about this daunting task without consideration of the concept that it was impossible. They drafted plans for huge guns of seventy, eighty, and one hundred centimeters. That works out to bores of twenty-seven and a half inches, thirty-one and a half inches, and thirty-nine point three seven inches. The gun would weigh four hundred tons and required twin parallel railway tracks to run on. This was only for firing. It had to be dismantled to be moved anywhere and that would take an entire train and two thousand men to accomplish. It would take five hundred men just to aim, fire and reload the monster gun. Calculations showed the eighty-centimeter version was most practical for the job, and plans were drawn up. The complete specifications were sent to Berlin, but on one replied.

      Adolf Hitler came to see what was being produced at the Krupp armament works, and was impressed by what he saw. Gustav described the giant gun to Hitler in an effort to impress him. Hitler immediately saw that this would indeed solve the problem of how to defeat the Maginot Line and ordered three. It was then 1937, and the huge project began.

      Construction and assembly of the huge gun was a major project and it would take time. There was a growing pressure to achieve operational status in time to crush the French. Events that would change the world were afoot.

       In 1939, the big gun was not yet completed, but Hitler had sent his army in to Poland. England and France had treaties with Poland and were obliged to declare war on Germany. The stage was set for a replay of World War I, but the Maginot Line stood in the way, just as it was designed to do. Hitler did not yet have his giant siege gun to blast holes in it. The only option was ignore the neutrality of Holland and Belgium.. His armies cut through them, bypassing the dreaded forts. Once again, half of France was in German hands. To avoid being taken, France gave up.

      Almost two more years were to pass before the Schwerer Gustov was completed and tested. In time there were two of these huge guns and half the parts for the third. These were very specialized weapons, designed to destroy heavy fortifications and useless for anything else. They began to ponder what purpose the giant guns might serve. One ideas was to bombard the coast of England, but the gun did not have the quite enough range, and there were no targets on the coast worthy of a seven ton shells anyway. Tow tons of propellant charge could only send one the big shells twenty-nine miles. That was a long way, but not quite far enough. A giant gun from World War I ("Big Bertha") fired much lighter shells about twice the distance to bombard Paris. Something like that might have been more useful. This gun had been designed to do a different job, but the need had passed.

      Another idea was to use one of the monsters to reduce the British fortress at Gibraltar to rubble. This was suitable work for the huge gun, but it required the permission of General Franco of Spain to transport and operate within that country. Franco politely declined.

       During 1941, trials of the big gun were conducted at the artillery range of Hillesleben about seventy miles west of Berlin, Germany. They constructed targets of steel and concrete to test the weapon's power. The results were interesting.

      The armor-piercing shells were almost seventeen feet long and weighed over seven tons. It took a ton of propellant to fire the shell from the one hundred and five-foot barrel of the giant gun. The shell could penetrate eighty yards of earth. A high explosive shell was also made for this gun. When test-fired, the shell formed a crater nearly ninety feet across and thirty feet deep. (Photo courtesy of the Railway Gun WEB Museum)

      The effects of the shell travelling down the barrel at twenty-seven hundred feet per second and the hot corrosive gases released by combustion of the power charge wore out the barrel after only one hundred firings. The shells were not the only things that were huge. The four hundred ton barrel was mated to a one hundred and ten ton breach block.. The entire gun with its carriage weighed thirteen hundred and fifty metric tons. The complete machine stood four stories tall, over twenty feet wide, and one hundred and forty feet long.

      The aiming of the huge piece was also fascinating. It could be elevated by tipping the end of the barrel up to adjust the range that the shell would travel. This was fairly normal, if on a grand scale. Aiming the gun from side to side was a different matter. The carriage could only take the load of firing if the gun was aimed straight ahead. The built curved tracks and move the carriage forward or backward along the curve to aim the weapon. It took forty-five minutes to load, aim, and fire. A system of cranes and trolleys was used to load the heavy shell and charge. A separate train was used to deliver shells and another for the propellant charges.

      The huge weapons had no purpose, once the Maginot Line had been bypassed, so they languished for a time until a need presented itself in Russia. It was only a few days work for one of those big guns, and involved firing a total of forty-eight shells. Considering what was involved in transporting and erecting the monster, it hardly seems worthwhile. There was also a general artillery barrage by normal guns and many had raids by Luftwaffe dive bombers.

      It is hard to assess the part that "Gustov" played, except for one lucky shot that will be described shortly.

      The first target was a group of coastal gun batteries. They were engaged at a range of about twenty-seven thousand three hundred and forty yards, or almost sixteen miles. To assess the accuracy of firing, a special flight of Fieseler Fi-156 observation aircraft was used to radio back the damage inflicted. It took only eight shots to completely destroy these targets. Six more shots were fired at Fort Stalin later the same day with the same effect.

      June 6th, 1944 began with seven shells fired at Fort Molotov. The White Cliff of Severnaya Bay was next. The Germans did not know that an ammunition deport was buried deep underground beneath the fort until they fired the first shot. The ammunition stored in the deport exploded, completely destroying the entire fortification in spectacular fashion. Nine round were fired in all at this target. One that missed the target sank a small sailing ship that was unlucky enough to pass through the point of impact.

       The gun was busy again the next day. Seven shots were to proceed an infantry attack on the target of the day. It was then decided to conduct some maintenance until the 11th of June.

      Five shells were fired at Fort Siberia on that day. No suitable targets were available until the 17th of June, when the last five shells were fired at For Maxim Gorki and its adjacent coastal battery. It completely destroyed them and there was nothing left to blow up.

      The gun was dismantled and shipped back to Germany by train. The barrel was badly worn and a replacement was installed. The other one was sent back to Essen, German, to be relined. It is believed that the gun fired about three hundred rounds in all, including testing, training and demonstrations.

      The gun was only fired on five of the days it was at Sevastopol in Russia. Krupp tried to find more work for the gun, designing a version with a fifty-two centimeter (twenty and one half inch) bore that was to fire finned "arrow shells" a calculated distance of ninety-five miles. They tried to use it at Leningrad in Russian in January 1944 but events turned against them and it was withdrawn to Germany. It reappeared to fire thirty shells in Warsaw, Poland, during the uprising there in September of 1944.

      The war was drawing to a close then, with the Russians coming from the east and the other Allies from the West. The big guns were broken up and pieces were scattered across the country. They had used a lot of money, resources, and manpower to accomplish little.

      Oddly enough, there is a sequel to this story. A Canadian gun genius name Gerald Bull was working for the United States government on a "super gun" made by welding two World War II sixteen-inch battleship guns together, end to end. It could fire arrow shells to great height, and there was there was talk of boosting satellites into orbit by an improved version. Funding died and he sought a new master.

      The one who stepped forward was Sadam Husein of Iraq. He commissioned Bull to build a huge gun on the side of a hill. The plan was to fire poison gas or germ warfare shells at Israel. There were threats on his life, but he persisted until someone shot him to death in the hallway outside of his apartment. The giant gun was never completed, the remains being destroyed during Desert Storm.

      Gustov is still the reigning champion for the title of biggest gun ever made. Who know what the future will bring?

       This series of stories has lasted a number of years, but sadly, we must stop before we have told everything that there is to tell. The author would like to thank those who volunteered to talk, apologize to those who did not get to, and wishes peace for those unable to tell of thins that still haunt them. -- Jim Mundell

      


Pictures taken at Grafenwohr, Germany by Marshall Johnson

            


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