Friday, December 18, 2009

War becomes deep

The Photos are of Big Bertha (German gun that smashed the Belgian Forts), the French 510mm Gun, two captured German Rail Road Guns (actually from WWII), a Canadian 16 Inch Super Heavy Gun, and two photos of US Navy 14 Inch Guns.

This is the next part on artillery evolution. I have hit on some lessons learned by both sides in the First World War. Mostly doctrine which is really important for being able to effectively use your artillery (or any military equipment). Both the Central and Allied blocks learned various lessons and adapted a great deal. Be it the impacts of improved survey methods, the effects of weather, planning, the benefits of centralized control versus much to decentralized control (key point here to be addressed later), and one item that doesn't actually get much attention due to it being somewhat of a flash in the pan. For a short time it was VERY important, but was shut out by another technological advance, the airplane.

This item is heavy artillery. I am not talking 155mm guns or howitzers which were division heavy artillery back then. I am talking the MONSTER guns, the railguns, the dismounted naval guns and mortars, the Paris Guns, the Big Berthas, the US 14 inch Battleship guns that were put on huge rail cars. For about 3 years these guns were at the level of cruise missiles in importance and level of control (i.e. they were controlled and received targeting orders from Army level or higher, not a division FA HQ). In about 1918 though, newer bombers began to replace them.

The reason I am discussing these monsters (aside from the fact that they are incredibly cool) is that they added the element of DEPTH to the modern battlefield. WWI changed many definitions, tactical and strategic being two. What was considered the realm of tactical changed considerably with the advent of a howitzer or cannon that was able to shoot out of visual range accurately. With the new 75mm gun (and its like), the tactical battlefield was now no longer just what you could see in front, right and left. It now included what was way in front of you (out to about 6 or 7 kms) and BEHIND you (the enemy can also do unto you). Think of the questions this added to the mix. How can you move troops and supplies safely? Can you store your ammo and food without it being blown up? Can you have your reserves close at hand (and risk them being blown up before you can use them?) or do you keep them farther back (and risk them not getting up in time or being seen and then blown up on the march in). Depth also impacts time, because if you start spreading out and back to avoid the artillery, you now have to factor in more delays and time spent moving things around or time spent digging stuff in so its safe.

No one had really given this a whole lot of thought prior to WWI so tactically speaking it was a bit of a mess as everyone fumbled around figuring out what was up and how to make changes. Eventually they did and what you got was a type of defense in depth to offset the artillery (you had your main defenses back so artillery couldn't see it to be accurate, or was out of range).

Enter the BIG GUNS. The Germans actually had the first big, mobile, monster guns and they were used to reduce Liege and various forts in Belgium. They were slow moving, but the fact that they could be moved at all was amazing. The Belgians had built their forts with the idea that their own big emplaced guns could out range anything the Germans could bring up (155mm being the biggest) and were emplaced in so much concrete that what guns the Germans did get there would be ineffective. The Germans had two designs (one a straight up cannon, the other a howitzer) which were able to smash the forts flat. After the first year, everyone began to use the big guns for something else.

The monster guns were first real operational or strategic (the term operational and the level of command really came into existence in WWI, but not in a formal sense so both terms work for this) weapons that were really hands on for ground combatant commanders. The huge range of these weapons (20 plus miles, some as far as 26 miles) allowed commanders to hit targets well beyond the front lines. But the big guns were slow to load, hard to move (usually took several dozen train trips to move one), and there were never that many. So you couldn't just use them on any target that happened along, you had to do targeting. In today's Army, targeting is a matter of course. It is simply deciding what you must hit and how you hit it, and what order the targets go in. Targeting has moved from just artillery to general concepts like "targeting the enemy's morale, or the support of the local population", but in WWI it was artillery only. You have x number of big guns, you have y targets (usually more than you have assets to hit with), so who gets hit first, with how much, with what endstate (i.e. are we trying to destroy, neutralize or suppress the target?). This was a critical development in artillery doctrine, and it moved from big guns down to all guns eventually (took about 2 years to be standard practice for all countries involved).

Since you were going for the biggest bang for your limited buck, the big guns came under the control of Army level command who were looking at the big picture. A Corps sized ammo dump is obviously going to be a bigger loss than a company of Machine Gun Troops so the Army FA commanders would work off of the Army (or Corps on occasion) plan and angle the monster guns to hit operational/strategic targets deep in the enemy rear that would effect more than just a narrow front. The rear areas became more dangerous and the actual battlefield became much more two dimensional with depth becoming a major factor. Where the tactical issues of moving troops and supplies and digging them in and time involved had been impacted, it was now an army level problem. Its tough enough when you are only worried about a regiment, how do you space out and protect 5 division worth of troops and all the support requirements? How do you fix roads and rails for all of that? Hide and dig in the supplies? Where do you keep your replacements and reserves? How about your Army and Corps level HQs? You can't go left or right, you have to go back. Space required by armies increased massively. To use a WWII example, when the Germans Blitzkrieged into France 1940, the armored thrust was in three echelons. One on the border, one going back to the Rhine River and the final one was on the other side of the Rhine in Central Germany.

Now for the funny part. In order for these monsters to be used effectively, map firing was used. But intel on exact locations was needed for proper targeting. Since recon units could get through the lines, observation aircraft were used to photograph positions. Using the new survey and map firing techniques, the monster guns then could hit the targets. But over time the planes got better and someone figured out that rather than use the big guns you could use bombers instead. Which then led to even deeper missions and eventually to true 3D warfare. You could make more bombers and bombs for the money than the big guns and hit targets further out, so the big guns were replaced during the 1920s and 1930s by more modern aircraft. The last of the Allied monster guns were in the Coastal Artillery units and those were abolished in 1946 (the Coastal Artillery became instead the Anti-Aircraft Artillery). None of the Allies used the big monsters in WWII (other than the coastal defense guns in certain areas, mostly against the Japanese), but the Germans certainly did.

Which is another funny part. The monsters spawned the idea of depth, the targeting process, the concepts of operational/strategic level weapons used by combatant commanders, and some more monster guns (such as the 420mm gun the Germans built in WWII). The three key concepts (depth, targeting, and operational/strategic weapons) were picked up by the Allies (especially the US) who ran with them like a bat out of hell. The Germans, who actually started the mobile big gun ideas and had concurrent developement of the same ideas, ended up ignoring the three good ideas and instead focused on the dead end idea of making bigger guns.


  1. I know you're focusing on WWI here, but would you view cruise missiles as the next logical extension of artillery for depth? Or would that be air power/bombers?

  2. It went air power next. Air/cruise missiles are considered a type of air power up until we started making ones that the Army used (ATACMs) equipped with regular explosives instead of the nukes.