Major changes that occurred in World War I had an especially profound influence on the way World War II was fought. The most important change was the perfection of indirect fire, as opposed to direct fire. Indirect fire techniques had been developed before 1914, but during World War I they were standardized and became the norm rather than the exception for artillery combat. Firing an artillery piece by direct fire required the crew to be able to see the target and to aim at it directly, either through open iron or optical sights. Firing using this method limited the range at which guns could engage targets and required the guns to be far forward and exposed to enemy fire. Indirect fire is a system in which a gun can be fired at targets the gun crew cannot see. The gun crew instead aims the piece by sighting on a reference point.
Initially, indirect fire required a forward observer who could see the target and had some means of communication to transmit corrections back to the guns. After the first shot was fired, the observer would make successive corrections until the fall of shot was adjusted onto the target. Near the end of World War I, however, several armies had mastered the technique of firing without observer corrections. Using the correct current weather data and accurate ballistics data about the ammunition and the guns, the necessary adjustments could be mathematically predicted—hence the name predicted fire for the technique.
Indirect fire combined with predicted fire had several extremely significant consequences for war fighting. First, it was no longer necessary to physically mass guns on the ground to produce massed fire effects on a target. Guns at diverse points on the battlefield could all fire simultaneously on the same target. The second major consequence was the introduction of depth to combat operations. The ability to engage targets beyond visual range transformed the conducting of warfare from a linear, two-dimensional problem to a three-dimensional problem. The advent of combat aircraft also added significantly to three-dimensional warfare.
These changes came to dominate combat operations in the final years of World War I, but they were not fully developed by the time the war ended. Two major constraining factors were the relatively primitive mobility and communications technologies of the day, which limited the effectiveness of the new fire-support capabilities. Between the wars, the technologies of battlefield transportation and communications made great advances, which contributed significantly to the fact that the stagnation of the trench warfare of World War I was not repeated in World War II.
Germany led the world in the development of artillery tactics during World War I. Between 1916 and 1918, Colonel Georg Bruchmüller pioneered many of the most important artillery tactical methods: neutralization and suppressive fires, as opposed to simple destructive fires; performance of specific tactical missions by specially trained artillery groups, including infantry support, counterbattery, and deep attack; and fire preparations organized into phases to accomplish specific tactical objectives. In early 1918, Bruchmüller championed the work of Captain Eric Pulkowski, who developed a technique of meteorological corrections—still in use today, albeit computerized—that made accurate predicted fire both possible and practical.
Ironically, Germany in the interwar years all but abandoned most of the artillery lessons it had taught the rest of the world during World War I. German artillery had been so devastating that the Versailles Treaty only allowed the postwar German army 284 artillery pieces, none larger than 105 mm. As late as 1936, three years after Adolf Hitler came to power, the German army still had only 284 guns. An army not allowed any significant amount of artillery, then, focused on developing alternative tactics centered on the tank, which in theory was supposed to provide its own close fire support. This in turn led the Germans to conclude that even if they had adequate artillery, the guns and especially their ammunition supply would not be able to keep pace with the tanks.
The Germans did recognize that even a massive tank force would sometimes encounter stiff opposition that would slow the momentum of the advance. In such situations, the additional required fire support would come from the air. By 1940, the Germans had developed an impressively sophisticated air-to-ground coordination system that was capable of concentrating as many as 2,700 aircraft over a critical sector. As successful as this system was in France, the Germans did recognize that their panzer forces would still benefit by the addition of highly mobile, organic fire-support assets. At that point they started to develop and field a limited number of self-propelled assault, antitank, and field guns.
The German system of relying primarily on air power for fire support worked fairly well in France. As the war progressed, though, the Germans came to realize that their approach was subject to flaws in three critical areas: mass, weather, and air superiority. When the German army invaded the Soviet Union, the operational theater was so vast and Soviet ground forces were spread so widely that the Luftwaffe could not be overhead everywhere it was needed at one time. The weather in the Soviet Union also severely restricted Luftwaffe operations. But conventional field artillery is practically impervious to weather conditions, and the massively gunned Red Army almost always had adequate fire support. Finally, as the war progressed and attrition sharply affected the Luftwaffe, the Germans lost air superiority. The real importance of the Combined Bomber Offensive mounted by the western Allies was not so much its effect on Germany's industrial base, but rather the steady attrition of Luftwaffe fighters and pilots. By late 1944 and 1945, Germany no longer controlled the air over its own territory, let alone over the battlefields in France or the Eastern Front.
Again abandoning lessons it had taught the world in 1918, the German army of World War II rarely emphasized the massing of artillery above the divisional level. It failed to provide artillery concentrations at the corps, army, or army group levels. The Soviets, though, considered artillery at those levels to be decisive. By 1944, the Germans had come to fully recognize their critical error with respect to artillery, and they desperately tried to recreate the fire-support structure and assets that had served them so well in 1918. By then, however, it was too little, too late.
The Japanese army believed that the immediate and close support of the infantry attack was the primary mission of field artillery. Secondary artillery missions included destroying the enemy's supporting infantry weapons, destroying obstacles in the way of the infantry advance, and interdicting enemy lines of communication. Counterbattery work had the lowest priority.
The Japanese stressed the importance of keeping their guns well forward, often placing firing positions within a few hundred yards of an enemy's forward positions. Command posts were sited right next to the guns so the battery could be controlled by voice command. But the fire and observation conditions of Asian jungles created special problems for close infantry support. The terrain often made it difficult or impossible to track accurately the positions of the infantry units. The requirement to fire over trees almost always meant that the fall of shot would be too far forward of the infantry. The solution to that problem was to position the guns on the flanks of the attacking infantry.
Under Japanese doctrine, artillery was oriented primarily to the offense. Before an attack, standard Japanese artillery preparation lasted between one and two hours. The preparation was conducted in three phases of roughly equal duration: (1) range adjustment; (2) obstacle destruction; and (3) fire on the enemy's forward positions. As the infantry began its attack, the mission of the artillery shifted to direct support. In defensive situations, the main weight of the Japanese guns would be echeloned 1 to 1.2 miles behind the main line of resistance. As the enemy massed for the attack, the defending artillery would fire a counterpreparation. Once the enemy attack started, the mission of the artillery was to break up the momentum of the assault with a series of standing barrages.
As with the Germans, the Japanese throughout World War II suffered from too little artillery and inadequate organization and control at the higher echelons. Artillery in small units was allocated directly to the tactical-level infantry units, which left almost no fire-support assets for centralized command and control at the divisional level and up. By 1944 the Japanese, too, had come to recognize the gravity of these shortcomings, and they moved to correct the problems. But, as with their German allies, it was too little and too late.
The French were slow to modernize their artillery following World War I. Throughout the interwar years, all French tactical thinking was either woefully outdated or too heavily influenced by a defensive orientation. The French believed that massive firepower was the key to victory. They took this idea to its extreme limit and also rejected mobility. They came to regard "weight of metal" as the decisive factor in any defense or attack. This, of course, led to the massive defensive system of the Maginot Line, which sought to replicate on a grand scale the fixed fortifications of Verdun, which had held out in 1916.
The French put all their interwar artillery efforts into artillery in fortresses, largely ignoring mobile field artillery. In the early 1930s, the French did experiment with a mechanized division, but French field artillery was not even motorized until 1934. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, French tactical doctrine emphasized that the mission of artillery was (1) to destroy any obstacles in the path of the infantry, (2) to accompany the infantry by fire, and (3) to strike at the enemy artillery's capability to hit the friendly infantry. The emphasis on these missions, however, was always within a framework of counterpreparations and defensive fires.
Just prior to the start of World War II, a French artillery preparation had three primary targets: the enemy's infantry, the enemy's known antitank weapons, and the enemy's suspected antitank weapons. Counterbattery fire against the enemy's guns had almost completely fallen out of the French doctrine. The French believed that modern technology and mechanization made counterbattery fires impractical, if not impossible. Finally, the French failed to provide any real doctrine for coordinating artillery with air support and air defense. A result of this failure was that two French divisional artilleries were cut off and then routed at Sedan in May 1940 before the German ground forces had even crossed the Meuse.
As early as the mid-1920s, the U.S. Army started to abandon many of the hard-learned artillery lessons of World War I, and the focus of ground tactics shifted back to an infantry-centered world. Right up to the start of World War II, the U.S. Army neglected the requirements of artillery command and control above the divisional level and almost totally ignored corps-level artillery. What passed for corps-level artillery was little more than a holding pool for units and guns not otherwise assigned to a division. According to the doctrine, corps artillery was supposed to be responsible for counterbattery fire. But even as late as May 1943, the Field Artillery School at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, was still recommending that corps artillery units be parceled out to the divisions during operations.
The U.S. Army, however, did not go quite as far as the British, French, or even the Germans in abandoning the artillery lessons of World War I. The American penchant for technical solutions prevailed, and Fort Sill experimented with various forms of fire control techniques, including aerial observation. By 1934, Fort Sill had developed the first battalion Fire Direction Center, which could simultaneously control and mass the guns of all three of an artillery battalion's batteries. In 1940, Fort Sill introduced the graphical firing table, a specialized artillery slide rule that greatly speeded the calculation of the firing solution. In April 1941, Fort Sill demonstrated for U.S. Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall a divisional shoot, controlling and massing against a single target the fires of four separate battalions, totaling 12 batteries.
In the late 1930s, Brigadier General Lesley J. McNair was the assistant school commandant at Fort Sill. McNair had commanded a field artillery brigade in France during World War I. Later, as commander of U.S. Army Ground Forces, he became the chief architect of the U.S. military buildup going into World War II. McNair was a strong believer in flexible massed fires. He championed the development of longer-range guns and supported all initiatives to centralize artillery command and control systems. Under his direction, the number of nondivisional medium and heavy artillery battalions in the U.S. Army nearly doubled between 1942 and 1944.
U.S. Army doctrine in World War II identified two primary field artillery missions: (1) supporting the ground-gaining (infantry, cavalry, armored) units by either neutralizing or destruction fires; and (2) giving depth to combat by counterbattery fire, by fire on enemy reserves, by restricting movement in enemy rear areas, and by disrupting enemy command and control systems.
As the war progressed, the U.S. Army's logistical advantage became increasingly decisive, and the American tactical experience mirrored that of the other Allies. At the corps level, the emphasis increased on command, joint operations, and airpower. Joint operations and airpower were especially important in the Far East, where amphibious operations and jungle terrain made it almost impossible to mass artillery on the ground.
The British army had (and still has) a somewhat different approach to artillery command and control. In almost all other armies, the forward observers (FO), who accompanied the infantry and requested—and, if necessary, adjusted—the supporting fires, were junior officers, usually lieutenants. The more senior artillery officers remained in command of the guns or in the command posts of the artillery battalions or the divisional artillery headquarters. The British attached their more senior officers to the command post of the supported maneuver unit. Thus, a British infantry company would have a captain as an FO—or forward observation officer (FOO), as the British called them. The supported infantry battalion commander would have an artillery major as his artillery adviser.
The idea behind the British system is that the senior and more experienced officers would better understand the overall tactical situation. Whereas a lieutenant FO in most armies could only request fires, a British FOO had the authority to order the fires. The British believed this system produced quicker and more responsive fire support. The system depended heavily on radio communication, which was widespread and effective in the British army from 1940 forward.
As with the Germans, the British had rejected most of the artillery lessons of World War I. Great Britain entered World War II with a tactical doctrine that de-emphasized artillery, based on the theory that tanks could operate independently without much support from the other arms. Unlike the Germans, the British did not have an air force structured to provide air-to-ground support for emergencies. Unlike the Luftwaffe, the Royal Air Force before World War II concentrated on building up its bomber forces. The lack of air support for their ground troops cost the British dearly in the campaign for France in 1940.
The British approach to mobile tactics did work well against the Italians at the start of the campaign in North Africa. But once the Germans entered that fight, the British were at a severe disadvantage against the German combined-arms tactics and organizations. Too often, the British tried to attack German positions without adequate artillery preparation and paid a high price. And at the same time, the British had difficulty establishing an effective defense built on fire and maneuver.
What made the British situation even more difficult during the early fighting in North Africa was the fact that they were forced to use most of their field artillery in an antitank role, which left little for infantry support. By 1942, the British were pouring new antitank guns and more field artillery into North Africa, which then allowed them to develop new tactical methods.
General Bernard Montgomery was the primary architect of the new British approach. Montgomery stressed the steady buildup of a superior firepower ratio and the use of artillery to produce shock action in coordination with the other arms. The two main tactical techniques to achieve this were the creeping barrage and the timed concentration. These techniques had been developed in World War I, but in World War II they were far more sophisticated and effective because of better communications and predicted rather than observed and adjusted fire. At El Alamein, for example, 1,000 British guns produced a massive shock effect by firing more than 1.2 million shells at plotted German targets without having to telegraph the attack by first adjusting the fall of shot. The British also developed a standard fire mission they called the "72-gun battery," which concentrated all the guns of a division on a single target.
Virtually alone among the world's major armies, the Red Army following World War I intensely studied the artillery lessons of that war and diligently applied them during the interwar years. In the 1920s, Soviet Chief of Artillery Lieutenant General Yuri Shedeyman personally translated from German into Russian the books written by Colonel Georg Bruchmüller about his artillery innovations during World War I. Reflecting their faith in massed firepower, the Soviets by the 1920s had built their army into a combined-arms force with artillery as a major component at all levels.
In 1941, the Soviets initiated a major reorganization of their artillery. The number of guns in a division was reduced by almost two-thirds, but the number of mortars increased by the same proportion. The objective was to make the divisions more mobile. The Soviets grouped their heavier artillery pieces into artillery reserve units, which then could be massed at the decisive point of any battle. Following these reorganizations, Soviet leader Josef Stalin in 1942 directed that artillery should be concentrated to support a breakthrough in a designated sector and that more mobile artillery had to be developed to support the armored units that would exploit the breakthrough.
In late 1942, the Soviets organized their artillery reserve units into artillery divisions. With the exception of one artillery division with which the Germans experimented briefly, the Soviets were the only ones to field such organizations in World War II. By the end of the war, the Red Army had some 90 artillery divisions, about the same number of total divisions in the U.S. Army. In 1943, the Soviets began grouping their artillery divisions into breakthrough artillery corps of two or more artillery divisions and one rocket launcher division. The Soviets believed in holding artillery in reserve—directly the opposite of the American belief that artillery is never held in reserve. At the start of the war, some 8 percent of the Red Army's artillery was in the High Command Artillery Reserve. By the end of the war, this percentage had risen to 35 percent.
On the defensive for the first part of the war, the Soviets drew the following conclusions about fire support in defensive operations: (1) artillery, not aircraft, was the superior form of fire support in the defense, (2) the antitank plan should be the basis for determining the overall deployment of forces, (3) all guns should be capable of direct fire, (4) an artillery reserve was essential, (5) armor should counterattack only after a tank attack had been stopped by artillery, (6) artillery must be sited in depth in prepared positions, and (7) indirect fire was only effective when massed and centrally commanded.
USSR attack doctrine grew out of Soviet experiences launching counterattacks from the defensive. By the time the Red Army went on the offensive in the final years of World War II, its artillery had three primary missions: (1) preparation of the attack; (2) support of the attack, principally through a creeping barrage or fixed concentrations; and (3) accompaniment of the maneuver forces. Accompanying fire was the primary mission of the divisional artillery units, more often than not through close-range direct fire. As a result, divisional artillery units generally suffered 10 times the casualty rates of nondivisional units.
The Soviet system worked for the USSR, but it did have its drawbacks. Operations required a methodical buildup of overwhelming force, which in turn required periods of stability. That meant that operations on the Eastern Front went through cycles of long periods of buildup, followed by brief surges of steamrollerlike momentum. The Soviets ultimately had the manpower and the resources to succeed with this approach on the operational level, but during the interim periods the Germans often were able to achieve stunning tactical successes because of their more flexible organization and doctrine. In the end, however, the Soviets succeeded. In so doing, they proved that conventional artillery—the "god of war," as Stalin called it—was in fact a decisive element at the operational level of war.
David T. Zabecki
Bailey, Jonathan B. A. Field Artillery and Firepower. 2d ed. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2003.; Bellamy, Chris. Red God of War: Soviet Artillery and Rocket Forces. London: Brassey's, 1986.; Bidwell, Shelford. Artillery Tactics, 1939–1945. Warren, MI: Almark, 1976.; Hogg, Ian V. The Guns: 1939/45. New York: Ballantine Books, 1970.; Zabecki, David T. Steel Wind: Colonel Georg Bruchmüller and the Birth of Modern Artillery. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1994.