During World War I, firepower technology far outstripped mobility technology. During the years between the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871) and the start of World War I in 1914, there was vast technological improvement for artillery and infantry weapons, particularly the machine gun. The result was previously unimaginable levels of battlefield firepower. Battlefield mobility, however, was still primarily a matter of human and animal muscle, as it had been for thousands of years. Thus, firepower had become mechanized by 1914, mobility had not, and the result was trench warfare. By World War II, mobility technology had caught up, and the balance was restored.
Artillery pieces are broadly classified by the ballistic performance of the projectiles they shoot. The three basic categories of cannon, or tube, artillery have not changed in the past 300 years, although individual technologies have advanced considerably. Guns fire projectiles at a very high velocity and on a relatively flat trajectory. They have the greatest range and tend to be the heaviest of artillery pieces. Mortars are generally light weapons that fire a relatively light projectile at low muzzle velocities and short ranges but at high angles of fire—above 45 degrees. Howitzers are extremely versatile weapons, capable of firing at both high and low angles. The muzzle velocity and range of a howitzer are less than those of a gun of comparable size, but a howitzer is far more accurate. A howitzer also can fire a heavier shell than can a gun of the same weight. Most armies in World War II had both guns and howitzers in their arsenals. Although they were technically artillery pieces, mortars were considered infantry weapons by almost all armies.
All forms of artillery through the start of the nineteenth century were the same smooth-bore, muzzle-loading, black-powder mechanisms that had been in use for hundreds of years. They had poor mobility, and the gun crews engaged their targets by direct fire—that is, the gunner had to see and directly aim at the target, just as if he was firing a large rifle. In the last half of the nineteenth century, artillery made several technological leaps in areas such as improved metallurgical and manufacturing techniques, rifled bores, breech-loading mechanisms, fire-control instruments, and, most importantly, recoil mechanisms.
Modern recoil mechanisms, introduced at the very end of the nineteenth century, allowed the artillery piece to hold its position on the ground as each round was fired. That, in turn, meant that the piece did not have to be reaimed after each round, which produced far more rapid rates of fire. The result was vastly improved accuracy and repeatability, which—combined with modern optics and fire control techniques—made indirect fire possible. Indirect fire is the technique of accurately firing at targets that the gun crew cannot see directly. That important advance extended the effective depth of artillery fire, which in turn led to the very concept of deep battle. The first artillery piece with modern fire control and recoil systems was the French Canon de 75 mle 1897 (75 mm gun, model 1897), widely known as the "French 75."
Through World War I, all field artillery was horse-drawn. In the interwar years, the horse gave way to the truck as the artillery prime mover in the British and U.S. armies. Many armies, including those of Germany, Japan, Italy, and the USSR, relied heavily on horses until the very end of World War II. Self-propelled (SP) artillery—guns mounted on a wheeled or tracked carriage—also appeared shortly after the end of World War I, when the British Birch Gun was introduced. By the end of World War II, almost all armies had SP guns and howitzers.
According to an old maxim of the British Royal Artillery, the real weapon of the artillery is the projectile—the gun is merely the means of sending a projectile to the target. During World War II the standard artillery projectile was high-explosive (HE), producing both blast and fragmentation effects. The blast was employed primarily against fortifications and fragmentation was used against personnel. Smoke rounds were used to obscure enemy visibility on the battlefield, and illumination rounds were utilized to enhance friendly visibility at night. In the early years of the war, most armies were forced to use their field artillery in an antitank role, which required the guns to fire special armor-piercing (AP) and high-explosive antitank (HEAT) rounds. During World War I, most armies had developed and used a wide array of chemical rounds that produced various combinations of lethal and nonlethal, persistent and nonpersistent effects. Although all sides still had these chemical rounds in their arsenals during World War II, they were not employed.
The fuze is perhaps the most critical element of an artillery round. The point-detonating (PD) fuze triggers the round as soon as it touches the ground, producing a surface burst. Most PD fuzes could be set on "delay" to allow the round to penetrate into the ground and produce a subsurface burst. The concrete-piercing fuze is a variation of the delay fuze that allows an artillery projectile to burrow into the wall of a bunker or fortification before exploding. The mechanical time fuze was used to produce an air burst, which rained fragments on the target below. This was generally the most effective means of attacking troops in the open. The time fuze, however, required a high degree of skill on the part of the forward observer and the fire direction center personnel to get the time of flight and the height of burst just right. Near the end of World War II, the U.S. Army introduced the proximity fuze, adapted from naval antiaircraft artillery for field artillery work. Also called the variable-time fuze, it contained a small radar transmitter and receiver that produced a perfect 66-ft height of burst every time. The "funny fuze," as Lieutenant General George S. Patton called it, was first used by U.S. artillerymen with devastating effect during the German Ardennes offensive in December 1944.
The U.S. Army classified its field artillery guns and howitzers into three basic categories by weight: light, medium, and heavy. Light guns, used for direct support, were found only in divisional artillery. The airborne divisions and the 10th Mountain Division were armed with the 75 mm M-1A1 pack howitzer. It was designed for easy disassembly, which allowed it to be dropped from the air or transported by six mules. The 75 mm pack howitzer was widely used in Italy and in the jungles of the Pacific, where its transportability was its most important feature.
The workhorse of most infantry divisional artillery was the 105 mm M-2A1 howitzer, the most widely used artillery piece in history. It was accurate and reliable, and it could withstand a great deal of punishment and mishandling. It was first developed in the 1920s as a weapon capable of being towed by a team of six horses, and the design was approved in March 1940.
The M-2A1 was towed by a two-and-a-half ton truck, which also carried the gun's crew and its basic load of ammunition. The armored divisions used the M-2A1's tube and gun carriage on a one of several self-propelled mounts. The standard was the M-7B1, which was mounted on a Sherman tank chassis. In 1945, these guns began to be replaced by the M-37, which was mounted on a Chaffee tank chassis.
In 1943, the army introduced a lightened version of the M-2A1 with a shortened barrel to give airborne units more firepower than the 75 mm pack howitzer delivered. The M-3 howitzer was not a successful design, however. After World War II, the M-2A1 was modified somewhat to become the M-101A1. That version remained in service with the U.S. Army through the Korean and Vietnam Wars. More than 10,200 M-2A1s or M-101A1s were built and supplied to some 45 different armies between 1940 and 1953.
The 155 mm M-1A1 towed howitzer was the standard American medium artillery piece used by the general support battalions of almost all the infantry divisions. It was a successful and popular design, although heavy and somewhat difficult to handle. The cannoneers on the gun crews called these weapons "pigs"—short for pig iron. A self-propelled version of the 155 mm howitzer mounted on a Chaffee tank chassis was designated the M-41, but only about 100 were ever built.
The most widely used American heavy gun was the 155 mm M-1 towed gun, which is not to be confused with the 155 mm M-1A1 towed howitzer. The 155 mm gun was two-and-a-half times as heavy as the 155 mm howitzer and could shoot a shell of the same weight (95 lb) 60 percent farther. The 155 mm gun had a 19-ft barrel and was nicknamed the "long Tom" by all sides. One self-propelled version was the M-12, based on a modified Grant tank chassis. The M-40 version was based on a modified Sherman tank chassis.
The 8-inch M-2 towed howitzer used the same carriage as the 155 mm M-1 towed gun. Whereas the bore sizes of all other U.S. Army artillery pieces were designated in millimeters, this one was designated in inches because it originally was adopted from a U.S. Navy design. Despite its relatively short barrel, the 8 inch had the reputation of being the most accurate artillery piece ever invented. It remained in service in the U.S. Army into the 1960s and in the British Army into the 1970s. After World War II, the U.S. Army also mounted the 8 inch on a self-propelled carriage, and that version remained in service until just after the 1991 Gulf War.
The heaviest U.S. artillery piece was a 240 mm M-1 towed howitzer called the "black dragon." Towed by a 38-ton M-6 tractor, it had surprisingly good mobility for a gun weighing almost 21 tons. Once the gun arrived in a firing position, it took the gun crew about two hours to place the piece into action. The 240 mm howitzer saw extensive service in the Italian Campaign.
At the start of the war the French army still had large numbers of the World War I–era 75 mm guns in service. One of them, the French 75, had been the world's first truly modern artillery piece, featuring a hydraulic recoil mechanism and a screw-type breechblock that allowed a high rate of fire. Between the wars, the French had tried to modernize the weapon, updating it with pneumatic tires and a split trail. The Germans captured thousands of these guns from the French in 1940 and incorporated them into lower-priority Wehrmacht units. The Germans also modified the French 75 as an antitank gun for service on the Eastern Front.
In 1939, the French still had more than 1,000 105-mm and 3,000 155-mm World War I–vintage artillery pieces in service. These obsolete weapons were a detriment in 1940. The standard French 105 mm gun was the Canon de 105 mle 1913 Schneider. The French also still had in service 450 Canon de 155 Grand Puissance Filloux (Can 155 GPF). Despite the age of these weapons from an earlier war, the Germans placed many of the captured weapons into service with their own units—an indicator of Germany's overall weakness in field artillery.
The French did have some small numbers of modern light field guns, including the Canon de 105 mle 1934-S the Canon de 105 court mle 1935-B, and the Canon de 105 L mle 1936 Schneider. Only 159 of the M-1936 guns were in service in 1940. The Germans used those captured pieces primarily for coastal defense. Of even more value to the Germans was the Can 155 GPF (the updated version of the Can 155 GPF-T), which had a carriage designed for motor transport.
Unlike most other countries, the Soviets read the lessons of World War I as requiring more artillery rather than less. In 1937, the Red Army had an inventory of 9,200 field and heavy guns, more than twice that of the German army and triple that of the French. When Germany attacked in June 1941, the Soviet artillery arsenal stood at 67,000 tubes (artillery pieces). Throughout the war, Soviet artillery designs were more reliable, durable, and effective than those of virtually all other armies. Soviet army guns generally had longer ranges and greater lethality. The Soviets also developed innovative mass-production techniques that produced large numbers of relatively inexpensive guns. Through their system of design evolution, they repeatedly combined the successful features of various existing designs and could introduce improved models in a very short period of time.
Unlike most other armies, the Soviet army did not put much effort into developing increasingly powerful antitank guns. Soviet field artillery pieces generally fired at a higher velocity than those of most other armies, and experience in the Spanish Civil War convinced the Soviets that if they were provided with the proper ammunition, field guns were the best weapons against tanks. With the USSR's overwhelming tube superiority over Germany, Soviet field guns could be used effectively to mass indirect fires against distant targets and then quickly switch to a direct-fire point defense against tanks when the situation required. In 1941 and 1942, most German tank losses were to fire from towed field guns.
The Red Army suffered huge equipment losses in the early period following the German attack in 1941. In the first five months of the war, the Soviets lost upward of 20,000 guns. But this loss quickly led to a surge in mass production of modern, standardized weapons. The basic divisional support gun was the 76.2 mm M1942 ZIS-3, a long-barreled gun with a split trail. By the end of the war, variants on the same design had been introduced in 85 mm and 100 mm types. With a range of nearly 13 miles, the latter outranged all comparable divisional support guns. The 100 mm version also was mounted on the SU-100 SP assault gun. Soviet medium artillery included the excellent 122 mm M-1931/37 A-19 and the 152 mm M-1937 ML-20 and M-1943 D-1.
Massed artillery was the basis of the defense of Moscow in the winter of 1941. According to Soviet reports, artillery destroyed more than 1,400 German tanks between 16 November and 10 December alone. The Soviets relied on the same tactics in the Battle of Stalingrad. At Kursk on 5 July 1943, the Red Army fired a counterpreparation with 3,000 guns against the assembling German attack force. It was a dramatic demonstration of the power of massed artillery to disrupt an armored attack before it could be launched. As the war wound into its final years and Soviet production continued to swell the Red Army's arsenal, artillery preparations became more and more massive. During the offensive to cross the Vistula and Oder Rivers in January 1945, the Soviets massed 7,600 guns and mortars along the 21-mile breakthrough sector alone, with 33,500 tubes deployed across the entire front.
The Germans were better-armed with artillery than the Soviets in just one area. In 1944, a typical panzer division had some 70 SP guns with calibers up to 150 mm. A Soviet tank corps of the same period had only 20 76-mm SP guns. Despite their overwhelming number of tubes, only about 30 percent of the Soviet guns were larger than 100 mm. The maximum effective range of most of the smaller guns was only about 3.1 miles. Much beyond that range, Soviet gunners had great difficulty supporting the advance of the maneuver units. Thus, the Soviet's large numbers of massed but relatively immobile guns were effective in creating the conditions for successful breakthroughs but ineffective in supporting and sustaining those breakthroughs.
By 1939, the British army was the first fully motorized army in the world. All British field guns were towed by a four-wheel-drive truck that also carried the gun crew and the ammunition. The primary British close-support gun was the 25-pounder, which fired a 3.45-inch round. Initially designed in 1930, the 25-pounder had a box trail and an innovative central firing platform that allowed the crew to traverse the gun a full 360 degrees.
The earliest version, the MK-1, was based on the modified carriage of a World War I–vintage gun. The MK-1s saw service in France in 1940. The MK-2, with a carriage specifically designed for the 25-pounder, was introduced in 1940 and saw service in Norway. When firing special armor-piercing ammunition, the 25-pounder was pressed into service as an effective antitank gun during the early years of the war. In 1943, the Australian army introduced a lightweight version of the 25-pounder for jungle operations. The British also mounted it on a Valentine tank chassis to produce a self-propelled version known as "the Bishop." A far more successful design called "the Sexton" mounted the 25-pounder on a Canadian Ram tank. The Royal Artillery also used the American 105 mm M-7 SP howitzer, a system known as "the Priest."
At the start of the war, British medium artillery consisted of World War I–vintage guns, including the 6-inch gun, 6-inch howitzer, and the 60-pounder. These were soon replaced by the 4.5-inch and 5.5-inch guns, which used the same chassis. The 5.5-inch gun was first developed in the 1930s, and its final version was approved in August 1939. It fired a 100 lb shell. The 4.5-inch gun first saw service in North Africa in 1942. Both guns were grouped together in medium field artillery regiments.
Early British heavy artillery also consisted mostly of World War I weapons, including the 8-inch, 9.2-inch, 12-inch, and 18-inch howitzers and 6-inch and 9.2-inch guns. All of these weapons were too heavy and cumbersome for modern mobile warfare, and the British lost most of them in France in 1940. Although the British did start the work to design and develop more modern heavy artillery, they suspended those efforts when the United States entered the war. The British instead adopted the American towed 155 mm gun and towed 8-inch howitzer.
The Germans had four categories of artillery: the Kanone (cannon), the Haubitze (field howitzer), the Moerser (a heavy howitzer firing at high angle only), and the Werfer (mortar). Generically, all artillery pieces were called Geschuetze (guns). The three primary calibers of German field artillery were 75 mm, 105 mm, and 150 mm. (The Germans used centimeters to designate their weapons—7.5 cm, 10.5 cm, and 15 cm.) Almost from the start of the war, the Germans recognized that 75 mm guns were ineffective for modern warfare. Those guns, including ones captured from the French, were issued only to low-priority units.
The towed 10.5 cm leichte Feldhaubitze 18 (le FH 18) was the principal German close-support gun. Designed at the end of World War I, it remained a capable weapon throughout World War II. The main problems were that the Germans never had enough of them, and in almost all units right up until the end of the war they were drawn by horses. On the Eastern Front, the le FH 18 was an effective antitank weapon when armed with the proper ammunition. A self-propelled version for the panzer divisions called the Wespe (Wasp) was mounted on a PzKpfw-II tank chassis.
The heavier artillery at the divisional level included a gun (the 10 cm s K 18) and a medium field howitzer (the 15 cm Schwere Feldhaubitze 18 [s FH 18]). The SP version of the s FH 18, called the Hummel (Bumblebee), was mounted on a PzKpfw-IV tank chassis. At the corps and field army echelons, the most common heavy support guns were the 17 cm K 18 gun and the 21 cm Moerser 18 (Mrs 18) heavy howitzer. Both weapons had a common carriage.
In most World War II armies, the organic fire support for infantry units came from mortars. The Germans did have effective mortars at both company and battalion levels, but on the basis of their experiences from World War I, they also fielded infantry guns right up until the end of the war. The two basic types were the 7.5 cm leichtes Infantriegeschuetz 18, designed late in World War I, and the heavier 15 cm schweres Infantriegeschuetz 33. The latter was actually too heavy for an infantry gun.
The Germans did produce several SP versions of their field and antitank guns, and they also produced a self-propelled weapon called an assault gun that was more like a turretless tank. Whereas the SP field and antitank guns consisted mostly of standard towed guns mounted on various tank chassis, many of the SP assault guns had no towed equivalent. The 7.5 cm Sturmkanone 40 (Stu. K. 40) fired a 15 lb shell approximately 4 miles; the 10.5 cm Sturmhaubitze 42 (Stu. H. 42) fired a 33 lb projectile 4.8 miles; and the 15 cm Stu. H. 43 fired a 95 lb shell only 2.8 miles from a barrel that was only about 6 ft long.
German artillerymen were tactically skilled, and their guns were generally technically advanced. The main problems were that the Germans did not have nearly enough of them, and the mobility of the guns they did have was generally poor. Initially, the Luftwaffe provided the close fire support for the fast-moving panzer divisions on the Eastern Front. But when the Germans found that the Luftwaffe could not be everywhere at once across the vast expanses of the east, especially in bad weather, they found themselves woefully outgunned by the Soviets.
As with most other European armies, the Italians entered World War II with many obsolescent artillery pieces in service. Italy had, however, started a rearmament program in the 1920s, ahead of most other nations. The Italians entered the war, then, with several modern artillery designs, but none in great numbers. As the war progressed, even the more modern Italian guns quickly became outclassed by British and American guns, whose development had started much later, in the 1930s.
The 75 mm Cannone da 75/32 modello 37 was initially developed in the 1920s, but it never entered full production. The 75 mm Obice da 75/18 modello 35 howitzer was another good design, but the Italians only had 68 in service by September 1942. The Italians started the war with more than 900 of the obsolete 149 mm Cannone da 149/35 in service. Based on a turn-of-the-century design and lacking a modern recoil system, the gun had to be relaid after every round. It was supposed to be replaced in 1940 by the 149 mm Cannone da 149/40, but that weapon, too, never went into mass production.
Two of the better Italian designs were kept in production and service by the Germans after Italy surrendered in 1943. By 1942, only 147 of the Obice da 149/19 howitzers were in service and only 20 of the heavy 210 mm Obice da 210/22 modello 35, which was an accurate and mobile piece for its heavy caliber.
The Japanese came late to artillery. Most Japanese had never seen a cannon before the arrival of Admiral Matthew Perry in 1853. The Japanese army manufactured its first artillery piece only in 1905, and up through World War II almost all Japanese artillery was based on European designs. Japanese guns, however, were lighter, and they had a greater range than comparable European designs of the same caliber. Japanese designers achieved the weight savings at the expense of the strength of the tubes, trails, and especially the recoil systems. As a result, these weapons suffered from an overall lack of ruggedness and high failure rates that proved costly in light of the heavy firing that was necessary during sustained combat.
Throughout the war, the Japanese had both horse-drawn and motorized artillery units. Whereas the U.S. Army and most European armies moved between the wars from 75 mm to 105 mm as the standard caliber for direct support of infantry, the Japanese stayed with 75 mm throughout World War II. The standard divisional support gun was the 75 mm type-90. It was introduced in 1930, but many units entered the war still equipped with the older type-38. The type-90 had a high muzzle velocity, which made it especially effective in an antitank role. The 75 mm type-94 mountain gun was also widely used in the jungle as pack artillery. Weighing just 1,181 lb, it could be carried by 18 men and assembled and laid for firing in about 10 minutes. As with the Germans, the Japanese also had an infantry gun. The 70 mm type-92 battalion gun weighed only 450 lb, but its range was only about one-third that of the type-94 mountain gun.
Japanese general support guns included the 105 mm type-91 howitzer and the 105 mm type-92 gun, introduced in 1931 and 1932 respectively. Both guns fire the same basic projectile, but the far heavier type 92-gun had almost twice the range. With a range of 11.3 miles, the type-92 could throw a 35 lb shell farther than most other artillery pieces of World War II. The Japanese medium artillery battalions were armed with either the 149 mm type-96 howitzer or the 149 mm type-89 gun. Despite weighing almost three times as much as the 105 mm type-92 gun, the 150 mm type-89 gun had a range only 0.9 mile greater. The largest Japanese artillery piece of the war was the 240 mm type-45 howitzer. An elderly pre–World War I design, it was most effective as a coastal defense gun.
With Japan's overwhelming emphasis on the infantry attack, the Japanese entered World War II without adequate industrial resources for large-scale artillery production and maintenance. Their production facilities were not tooled for standardized production and the mass production of interchangeable parts. Thus, the Japanese army was always chronically short of artillery, and it had trouble keeping what it did have in service.
David T. Zabecki
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