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Gigantic artillery of the Third Reich


By Sakhal

280-millimeter Kanone 5 [E]

The Allied troops that the 22nd January 1944 landed in Anzio had not thought that the German resistance would be so tenacious. There has been controversy about the behavior of General Lucas, about how Operation Shingle could have been avoided or managed in a different way, and many other arguments concerning those hard weeks. The truth is that the Allied soldiers disembarked in the coast faced situations that resembled the stories told by survivors of the First World War. There was not a clear division between the frontline and the rearguard, projectiles and grenades fell from everywhere, and there was nearly no shelter outside the craters created by the explosions. In the midst of this hell and at a certain pace, a long-range German cannon, probably hidden anywhere on the highlands that the soldiers could see on the horizon, went out of its hideout and fired a couple of heavy shells, before disappearing without leaving a trail. Aerial reconnaissance was not able to find the mysterious cannon. Some fighter-bombers, which overflew the beachhead when the projectiles arrived, headed toward where they seemed to come, returning later with comforting news about the destruction of the cannon. But shortly after a new burst would arrive, causing victims among the troops stacked in the ruins of the villages. Soldiers, as it is known, become habituated to everything, and thus they began to refer to their invisible enemy with the nicknames "Anzio Annie" and "Anzio Express". Week after week the long-range cannon kept under its fire the landing forces at Anzio, but when finally the Allies tresspassed the defenses and advanced toward Rome, its thundering voice vanished immediately.

The mystery was revealed when the American captured, disabled by the very German, two huge 280-millimeter railway cannons, whose barrel was more than twenty meters long. It happened that the American had destroyed a sector of the railway which connected Velletri with Rome. In a tunnel near Velletri the cannons had been sheltered, one put into service and the other in reserve. When the German were certain that no enemy aircraft was nearby, they brought outside one of the cannons which, after shooting its deadly charge, returned immediately to the refuge, while outside the artillerymen removed any trail which could reveal the existence of the artillery position. When the railway was damaged, the gunners fired their last "tribute" to Anzio, disabled the cannons and abandoned the site. The American, owners of the remainings of both cannons (which they nicknamed "Leopold" and "Robert"), transported them to United States. There they managed to rebuild one of them by taking pieces from the other, to then test it. The reenacted "Anzio Express" was preserved since then near the Aberdeen Proving Ground.

Gigantic artillery of the Third Reich

Let us see some of the characteristics of "Leopold" (depicted in the illustration) and its equals. Designed in the years 1934-36 by Krupp engineers, the trials started at the beginning of 1936. Accepted by the Supreme Army Command, it entered service in 1940 and soon became the standard weapon of railway artillery. It was a piece of optimal ballistic qualities, gifted with notable precision, good rate of fire (as it could fire up to 15 times per hour) and, in the scope of its inherent limitations, easily transportable. To aim in azimuth, since the horizontal turn was limited to only one degree, specially oriented railways or rotatory railway platforms were used, which allowed to rotate the cannon in the 360-degree arc. The Kanone 5 [E], as it was its true designation, was designed to use four types of barrel: with 10-millimeter rifling, 7-millimeter rifling, variable step rifling or smooth bore in 310-millimeter caliber. In total, Krupp produced thirty complete cannons, three complete barrels, and thirty coatings ready for giving new life to the bores worn by the use.

German technicians tried to exploit to the maximum the capabilities of this ballistic masterpiece by developing experimental projectiles propelled by a rocket engine, with the purpose of increasing the range; this however was achieved at the expense of a decreased precision. The rocket engine, fed with solid propellant and activated by a timer, was able to increase the range of the projectile, which weighed about 250 kilograms, in almost a half of the nominal range, thus being able to reach 86 kilometers afar. The technicians were satisfied with this result even if the trajectories were often imprecise.

Gigantic artillery of the Third Reich

The development of more efficient projectiles took place in the Peenemunde research facilities, which were provided with the best wind tunnel existing then, dedicated to the investigation of aerodynamics applied to the stabilization of projectiles during flight. A 310-millimeter barrel was developed for a new type of ammunition, a dart-like projectile known as Peenemunde Arrow Shell, which was then given as equipment for the Kanone 5 [E]. This projectile, which had 1.9 meters in length and a weight of 136 kilograms, reached during its trials the incredible distance of 150 kilometers.

Gigantic artillery of the Third Reich

Specifications of 28cm Kanone 5 [E]

Weight: 218 tonnes

Length (total): 31.1 meters

Length (barrel): 21.54 meters

Maximum elevation: 50 degrees

Maximum azimuth: 1 degree

Rate of fire: 8-15 shots per hour

Maximum range: 52 kilometers

Caliber: 280 millimeters

Weight of projectile: 255 kilograms

Barrel lifespan: 240-550 shots, depending on projectile and propellant charge types


600-millimeter Mörser

In 1935, amidst the rush for rearmament, the Wehrmacht requested from the German heavy industry weapons of uncommon characteristics, of which the cannons "Gustav" and "Dora" can be considered a perfect example. In that same year a huge piece of siege artillery was ordered: a self-propelled mortar of 600 millimeters in caliber, able to change its position by its own means without being dependant of a railway. This was required since in the Eastern Front the railway was sparse, inadequate and mostly of a width different from that of the European railway. Russia possessed a considerable line of fortifications and many strongholds were far away from the railway routes. In 1939 the Rheinmetall-Borsig presented the prototype of a steel behemoth which weighed 123 tonnes, denominated "Karl", for which ballistic tests were immediately carried. In 1941 the two first units, named "Thor" and "Eva", were already finished. These gigantic mortars were capable of firing both piercing and high-explosive shells, of truly devastating effects, because of their weight and the steep angle of fall, characteristic of mortar fire. However it was considered that the range was not satisfactory and hence it was studied the installation of a barrel of smaller caliber, whose external dimensions would be similar to those of the 600-millimeter barrel, allowing the installation on its place. The smaller caliber and the length of the barrel allowed to increase the range considerably.

Gigantic artillery of the Third Reich

Besides several of these cannons, four caterpillar tractors were built. The engine, a Mercedes-Benz, could be installed either in Diesel or gasoline version, but generally the first type was preferred. Before opening fire, a gear system allowed to lock the suspension and descend the hull, leaving it resting on the ground; this prevented damage to the transmission mechanism caused by the recoil. For short travels the mortar used its own engine, while for longer travels the tractor and the mortar were loaded separately in special trailers; both were then towed by artillery tractors. In very long travels it was used transportation by railway; the huge mortar could be loaded, by means of a special gear, in two platform wagons. These mortars were in fact the largest self-propelled artillery pieces ever deployed in a battlefield. Despite being very effective, they were bulky and costly, required a notable manpower and could be used only in particular terrain conditions. They were used in the German invasion of Russia in 1941, during the siege of Sevastopol in 1942 along with the massive cannon "Gustav", in the siege of Leningrad in 1943 and in the uprising of Warsaw in 1944. One of the mortars captured by the Soviet Army survived the war and was exhibited in the Kubinka Tank Museum, west of Moscow.

Gigantic artillery of the Third Reich

Specifications of 60cm Mörser

Caliber: 540/600 millimeters

Weight: 123 tonnes (600 millimeters), 115 tonnes (540 millimeters)

Length: 11.15 meters

Width: 3.16 meters

Height: 4.78 meters

Armor: 12 millimeters

Engine: Mercedes-Benz Diesel V-12 (12 cylinders in V-line) 580 horsepower

Maximum speed: 10 kilometers/hour

Weight of piercing projectile: 2.16 tonnes (600 millimeters), 1.5 tonnes (540 millimeters)

Weight of high-explosive projectile: 1.6 tonnes (600 millimeters), 1.3 tonnes (540 millimeters)

Weight of propellant charge: 240 kilograms (600 millimeters), 180 kilograms (540 millimeters)

Maximum range (piercing projectile): 4.5 kilometers (600 millimeters), 10 kilometers (540 millimeters)

Maximum range (high-explosive projectile): 6.7 kilometers (600 millimeters), 10.5 kilometers (540 millimeters)


800-millimeter Kanone

In 1935, one of the military objectives of prime importance for the German Army was the Maginot Line. To achieve a solution for the problem of the neutralization of such an exceptional stronghold of the potential adversary, it was decided to search for a weapon in the genre of the Bertha supercannon, which in the First World War had bombarded Paris with optimal results. The specifications indicated for the new artillery piece were: range of 35-45 kilometers, maximum elevation of 65 degrees and penetration of one meter of steel armor, seven meters of reinforced concrete or thirty meters of compact terrain. The company which managed to present the project for a weapon with such requisites was the omnipresent Krupp, with a team of technicians led by engineer Erich Muller. The result of the studies was a gigantic cannon mounted on a railway carriage sustained by four platform wagons, which would be kept disassembled in a deposit and issued for assembly to the site where it would have to be deployed. Having a caliber of 800 millimeters, this was the rifled artillery piece of largest caliber ever built, and also the heaviest mobile artillery piece ever built in terms of overall weight; it fired as well heavier shells than any other artillery piece. Out of three units ordered, two were completed, denominated "Gustav" and "Dora".

The ensemble reached a weight of 1350 tonnes and was moved by two Diesel locomotives of 1000 horsepower each, along a twin set of railroad tracks. Elevation and ammunition load mechanisms were electrically operated, whereas for horizontal orientation it was necessary to build a large platform with a curved railway path on which the cannon was moved along until achieving the desired position, since dispositions for horizontal orientation were non-existent in the artillery piece itself. To transport the materials they were required at least three trains and almost 1000 specialists. For building the artillery position it was provided the employment of about 1500 workers which were recruited on the way. The preparation of the artillery position required about three to six weeks and two bridge cranes capable of lifting 10 tonnes had been prepared specially for assembling the artillery pieces, being the assembly time about three days for 250 men. The facilities, commanded by a Colonel Engineer, comprised General Headquarters, a section for fire control, a section for security service and another one for emergency and gunners, for a total of about 500 men. As support and protection, apart from the technical personnel, it was provided a Flak (anti-aircraft artillery) detachment, a Nebelwerfer (rocket artillery) detachment, twenty engineers from Krupp, two guard companies, a military police unit equipped with dogs and a section for aerial cover and reconnaissance provided by the Luftwaffe. In total, almost 3870 men.

Gigantic artillery of the Third Reich

For firing the cannon 350 men were necessary. The maximum shot dispersion was one percent and the range was certainly limited by the huge caliber. A special rocket-propelled projectile was planned to achieve the exceptional range of 150 kilometers, which would require the length of the barrel to be extended to 84 meters. "Gustav", due to the quick neutralization of the Maginot Line by very different means, was not used against these defensive positions in France, but later, in the early 1942, it was sent to Ukraine to neutralize the fortifications of Sevastopol, where it fired forty-eight shots in five days, while "Dora", sent to Stalingrad, would never see action. To give an idea of the power of these cannons, it should suffice to say that during the siege of Sevastopol an ammunition magazine which was located thirty meters underseas, protected by at least ten meters of concrete, was left in ruins after nine shells were fired against it. "Gustav" was later prepared for the siege of Leningrad, but the attack was cancelled. Later in 1944 these cannons would be hypothetically employed during the revolt in Warsaw.

This project was one of the most awesome creations of the German war industry but also an useless effort which wasted large amounts of time and materials just for firing forty-eight projectiles against some obsolete fortifications in Crimea. With such action "Gustav" had worn out its original barrel, which had already fired around 250 rounds during development and testing. The cannon had been then fitted with the spare barrel while the original barrel had been sent back to Krupp for relining. Albeit these artillery pieces mostly complied with the requisites demanded, it was a mistake from the German Army to order a weapon in base of the success of a similar weapon in a very different war. They would have been awesome museum pieces, but both cannons had been destroyed already before the end of the war; "Gustav" disabled by the German themselves in its emplacement near Leningrad, and "Dora", which had been moved to the west along with the German retreat, dismantled and lost in unclear circumstances, possibly destroyed by the German as well.

Specifications of 80cm Kanone

Weight (total): 1350 tonnes

Weight (barrel): 400 tonnes

Length (total): 42.97 meters

Length (barrel): 32.48 meters

Caliber: 80 centimeters

Width: 7 meters

Height: 11.6 meters

Weight of armor-piercing projectile: 7.1 tonnes

Weight of high-explosive projectile: 4.8 tonnes

Weight of propellent charge: 1.85-2 tonnes

Length of armor-piercing projectile: 8.26 meters (including propellant charge)

Length of high-explosive projectile: 6.79 meters (including propellant charge)

Maximum elevation: 48 degrees

Rate of fire: 1 shot every 19-45 minutes

Maximum range (armor-piercing projectile): 38 kilometers

Maximum range (high-explosive projectile): 47 kilometers

Barrel lifespan: about 300 shots



Categories: Artillery - World War Two - 20th Century - [General] - [General]

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Website: Military History

Article submitted: 2018-11-22


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