Heavy Howitzers: Around Full Circle

Craig here.  XBrad opened the door (and threatened to push me through it) with regard to heavy howitzers noting the Republic of China use of what is basically the US M-1 240mm howitzer of World War II vintage.  There’s a bit of irony finding those howitzers defending the shores of Taiwan.  To appreciate such, let me discuss the background of those big old howitzers.

By the close of the American Civil War, heavy howitzers faded from the seacoast batteries of most nations.  The United States retained a rather effective seacoast defense weapon known as the Columbiad which combined the ballistics of guns and howitzers.  But most nations turned to higher velocity, direct fire rifled breechloading guns.  Almost alone among major powers, the Americans produced several large-caliber mortars for coast defense.

During the “First War of the Twentieth Century,” the Russo-Japanese War of 1904, the Japanese laid siege to Port Aurthur (now in Manchuria, mainland China).  Firing on the Russian far east stronghold were batteries of relatively new breech-loading rifled artillery, to include some of these big boys:

Japanese 28cm Howitzers at Port Arthur

These large siege guns not only caused great damage to the Russian defenses, but also worked over ships in the port.  The 28cm (11-inch) howitzers were products of the great German armaments manufacturer, Krupp.  Designed for use in the defenses of Tokyo, the Japanese reallocated the howitzers when the Russian fleet ceased to be a threat after the battle of Tsushima.  And these big howitzers did a job on the Russian fleet in Port Arthur.

Remains of Russian Fleet at Port Arthur

European observers watched this development with great interest.  In the years before World War I, all the great powers produced their own heavy siege howitzers.  Although these could pull double duty as seacoast weapons, most of the continental powers looked for something to reduce the reinforced concrete fortifications on land.   Of this “generation” of heavy guns Schneider, the French armaments manufacturer, produced a 280mm howitzer marketed for the Russians who were then re-arming.   A few of these weapons ended up in French service during World War I.

When the US entered World War I, planners saw the need for a heavy howitzer to work over the German defenses on the western front.  Furthermore, the Ordnance Department saw a need, beyond the wartime requirement, for a new heavy howitzer for mobile coast defense batteries.  After some negotiation, the Army struck a deal with Schneider for license production of a 240mm version of their howitzer.  Schneider built one example in France and shipped it to the US.  And the French also sent engineers to the US to help start the production.  Yet the project never picked up momentum.  Only the original French gun was on hand at the time of the Armistice.

But with the mobile coast defense requirement in mind, the M1918 9.5-inch (240mm) howitzer project continued after the end of hostilities.  Eventually a few rolled out of the factory.  And only with a wink and a nod, we might call this “mobile.”

And I’ll start the unsubstantiated rumor the entire outfit was cleared for air-drop….

Only took six hours for the crew to set up this beast.  And in action she looked intimidating.

The M1918 could throw a 346 pound shell over 17,000 yards.  State of the art for that day.  Only one problem… when the first M1918 went to the range for proofing, the cannon blew up!  And follow-up corrections failed to resolve many of the gun’s problems.  Only after a long gestation were 330 examples produced.  Some of these guns went to Hawaii where concrete pads allowed wide traverse and coverage of potential enemy approaches.

M1918 on Coast Defense Mount

But for the most part, the Army shunted these howitzers to the storage yards.  I’m not certain, but don’t think any were even offered up as Lend-Lease in 1940.

With America’s entry into the next world war, clearly the M1918 was a dated design.  So back to the drawing boards went the Ordnance Department.  The main drawback to the M1918 was (duh!) mobility.  In the inter-war period, experiments to match the M1918 to high-speed towed carriages and  even self-propelled platforms failed.  But lessons learned projected into a new design, as XBrad highlighted – the M1 240mm howitzer.

T33 Prime Mover pulling a M1 240mm Howitzer

Regardless of what you downsize, big cannons are just… well big.  The Army tried several different carriages, but finally settled on a two load arrangement.  In the picture above the barrel, with recoil system, is on a six wheel trailer.  A similar trailer transported the carriage.   The concurrently developed M1 8-inch gun used the same carriage and transport.  The M1 240mm howitzer weighed 64,700 pounds in action and fired a 360 pound shell to over 25,000 yards.  The M1 8-inch gun weighed 69,300 pounds and pushed a 240 pound shell to 35,600 yards (with a 90 pound super charge).

M1 8-inch gun
M1 8-inch Gun at Aberdeen

These battery mates saw heavy action in the Anzio beachhead in 1944, firing counter-battery against the German railway guns.

240mm howitzer of Battery `B', 697th Field Artillery Battalion, just before firing into German held territory. Mignano area, Italy. January 30, 1944

These big guns followed the allied advance through Europe and also served in the Pacific.

240mm Howitzer in the Philippines

But the “system” was not mobile enough for the desires of US planners.  Once again, someone figured to put the big cannons on tracked carriers.  Based on the M26 Pershing Medium (originally Heavy) tank chassis, the T92 240mm Howitzer Motor Carriage and the T93 8inch Gun Motor Carriage made an appearance in 1945.  Despite orders for several hundred, and designation of “limited standard,” only a handful rolled out before the end of the war.

Even in the face of air power lessons-learned during World War II, the Army still figured super-heavy artillery had some place in 1946.  In particular, the Ordnance Department considered the newest technology in regard to counter-battery, interdiction, and coast defense.  After all, everyone was giddy about the “atom” in those days.  So out came the T1 240mm Gun.

9 July 2011 662
240mm T1 Gun

And not quite so happy with that caliber, the Army turned to the T71 280mm which eventually became the M65 280mm Atomic Cannon.

Nuclear Test using 280mm M65

Or for those who like the ‘splodie fast forward to the 9 minute mark:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H6gy_krPau8]

While the new carriages (based off some German heavy gun and railway carriages) were more mobile than the World War II types, the mushroom cloud effect sort of made that irrelevant.   A few dozen of these entered service, but soon the Army turned to rockets and missiles that offered a little better range (well with the exception of that Davy Crockett thing).  So by the 1960s the “big guns” of the field artillery were 8-inch howitzers and 175mm guns.

But consider the turn about here.  The Armies and the cannons change, but from one century to another there are still those big howitzers placed to defend a Chinese coastline.