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Artillery on the 20th century


By Sakhal

Future military historians that would look backward to the 20th century could easily think that it was the zenith of artillery. Due to the huge diversity of types and multitude of designs, it seems that will never be seen again anything like the artillery of the first half of the 20th century.

Artillery started the 20th century in full ebullition. In 1897 the French Army had uncovered its new weapon, the cannon Mle 1897 of 75 millimeters, which would be known as the "famous French of 75". This cannon introduced the concept of "fast-firing cannon", a field cannon that had the mechanism to control the recoil in the carriage, a breech of fast opening, ammunition of a single piece and a shield. The projectile of one piece (a metallic case with an ignitor in its base and a charge of smokeless powder with the grenade firmly attached to its fore part) allowed to reload quickly with a single movement. The breech of fast opening contributed to the fast reload. The recoil brake allowed the carriage to remain in the same place when the cannon was fired, allowing the artillerymen to be reunited adjacent to the artillery piece, protected from enemy fire by a shield, which allowed for faster operations. This way, the gunners could load and fire with precision up to twenty projectiles per minute. Overnight, any other artillery piece in the world was left obsolete. It is interesting to remember that the French had achieved the same thing regarding portable weapons ten years before, with the rifle Lebel 1886, which had clearly surpassed its rivals.

Artillery on the 20th century

The cannon 75 Mle 1897. The illustration depicts a modernized version with tires in the wheels used during the Second World War.

In 1900, the artillery units around the world demanded fast-firing cannons. In 1914, all the armies involved in the Great War had them in their first-line artillery units, even if their reserves used to be equipped with "homemade" reconversions of obsolescent cannons. However, the accelerated production of wartime would soon provide abundance of modern armament. The war gave pass also to some weapons that had been in gestation during the former decade. It should be remembered that in the early 20th century the most important factor in a cannon was its weight: a weight that could be towed by a group of six or eight horses. Regarding field artillery, the British set the weight in 30 long hundredweights (1525 kilograms). The medium cannons (or "siege cannons" as they were still called) surpassed this weight, but they could always be separated in two loads to not reach the limit. But the new century had witnessed the advent of motorized transport and some armies experimented with the new means. The Italians, for example, tested a combination using motorized traction in the roads and teams of horses to move accross the countryside. The gasoline engine was then an unreliable artifact, whereas horses were well known, causing the engine to be ignored during long time. There were other two new weapons that were not less revolutionary: the anti-aircraft cannon and the heavy howitzer.

In 1909 there was an air exhibition in Germany and the manufacturers of weapons presented their solution for the aerial threat: fast-firing cannons installed in trucks. The largest part of the armies were convinced that the airplanes would be not much more than a useful observation platform; however, enemy exploration airplanes were not welcome, so these first anti-aircraft cannons still enjoyed a limited support. In Germany, Krupp had developed some large coastal cannons in the 1890s; he redesigned them in a more transportable way, proposing to emplace them by means of the railway. But the Army objected that the trains cannot always reach where artillery is needed and it asked if Krupp could use the new tractors Daimler-Benz for the purpose. Then Krupp presented a howitzer of caliber 420 millimeters that could be towed, dismounted into pieces, by tractors, to be assembled in its emplacement by means of a motorized crane and to be used to bombard fortresses that had been projected to resist impacts from a 240-millimeter cannon, which was the weapon of largest caliber that could be moved in the field by means of horses. Krupp had his idea authorized and he baptized this cannon as the "Big Bertha" in honor of his daughter.

Artillery on the 20th century

The "Big Bertha".

Between 1914 and 1918 other new ideas appeared: trench mortars that launched the grenades in a way that these fell vertically inside the narrow trenches, smoke grenades to conceal the movements of the troops, flares to illuminate the battlefield or colored flares to make signals and grenades filled with gas. As the war intensified, the cannons were made larger, so each side could bombard deeper inside enemy territory, reaching strategic points such as railway junctions, deposits, headquarters and resting areas. The railway allowed to carry the heaviest cannons to the very battlefront, from where they could fire grenades of half a tonne to a distance of 30 or 35 kilometers. This culminated with the "Paris Gun", which bombarded the French capital from almost 120 kilometers afar. Between the two world wars, the armies of the western democracies lacked money, manpower and equipment, until it was started the rearmament in the late 1930s. During those years, the project teams were busy creating and perfecting designs of weapons, whereby in 1939 the belligerent armies had again modern weapons in first line, even if their reserves had to conform themselves with the remainings from 1918. Only the British were fully mechanized; Germany and Russia had artillery towed by horses until 1945, whereas the United States Army still used mounted cavalry for reconnaissance in 1940.

In the essential, the cannons from the Second World War were not much better than the ones from the Great War; the differences were in the more generalized adoption of motorized traction for the larger cannons, tires for the wheels, carriages with two folding masts, metallurgical advances and a more effective ammunition. The anti-aircraft cannon, with the advent of the radar and the proximity fuze, became more effective than ever. The increasing utilization of tanks had led to the development of a completely new type of weapon: the anti-tank cannon. But, as tanks increased the thickness of their armor, the anti-tank weapon had to increase its size to be able to perforate it. By definition, an anti-tank cannon has to be easily manageable by hand, easy to conceal and fast to maneuver; but the last models that appeared in 1945 weighed 10 tonnes or more so they were no longer viable. This question was half solved with an invention that would have been barely imaginable in 1918: the recoilless cannon. This one expulsed rearward the largest part of the propellant gases to compensate the recoil caused by the departure of the projectile in the opposite direction. Not existing recoil, no brake mechanism was needed, so it was not needed either a solid and heavy carriage to absorb the shock caused by the shot; but this meant also a lower muzzle speed and the necessity of developing a method to perforate armor that were better than throwing a very hard projectile at very high speed. The timely development of the hollow charge and later of soft-head grenades (high explosive plastic) allowed to fight the armored vehicles with something more than brute force.

Artillery on the 20th century

The Pak 44 of caliber 128 millimeters, with a weight of 10 tonnes, was one of the heaviest anti-tank cannons ever made.

The Second World War witnessed as well the rise of the self-propelled artillery. The lack of money had stopped its development, but the necessity that the artillery had to follow the fast armored formations soon put the support cannons on tracks. This led also to the assault cannon, a tank modified to mount a heavier cannon, which accompanied the vanguard of the infantry to give it direct artillery support when it faced resistance. And finally, the Second World War also lighted the remotely controlled missile and the perfectioning of the rocket projectile. The late 1940s were years of military confusion, because the armies had to assimilate the nuclear warfare and the guided missile. In many countries the coastal artillery was dismantled: if a missile could reach farther than the cannons, these would have no purpose. All the money and the effort of development was turned toward the guided nuclear weapons and the air defense missiles, the turbojet aircraft and the air weapons. The American and British artillery regiments used in Korea, in the early 1950s, used weapons and techniques from the Second World War; in fact, between 1945 and 1960 the only new instrument that the British field artillery received was a thermometer.

Once engineers and scientifics had depleted the development of nuclear weapons, they tested their skills in the conventional artillery. There was no essential change in the principles: the cannons continued being tubes closed in the rear end on which an explosive charge was burnt to impulse a projectile out of the fore end. What changed were the auxiliary elements. Computers were introduced to effectuate ballistic calculations that previously had been done with paper, pencil and a table of logarithms, allowing for much exacter and very much faster calculations. The fuzes used electronic components to perform timing and commutation functions that previously were effectuated by merely mechanical methods. To determine with exactitude the position of the cannon could be used gyroscopes, infrared rays, radars and lasers, along with satellites. The drones with television or infrared cameras and other sophisticated surveillance means could deliver information to the cannons from much deeper inside the enemy lines of what an observer could see with binoculars. All of this gave to the cannons much more data than before, making fire much more precise and response time shorter.

Artillery on the 20th century

The ZSU-23-4 is an anti-aircraft system armed with four 23-millimeter cannons and fitted with a radar for localization and fire control.

Then the engineers and scientifics turned their view to the cannon itself. During the Second World War it had been done the same basic research about the manufacture of the cannons, the design of the grenades and the chemistry of the propellants; a good part of this was not finished, but abandoned after the war was finished. Now, the new technologies would grant answers that were not available in 1945. It was improved the design of the cannons, being made stronger and lighter; the improvements in the design of the grenades produced projectiles with blunt fins and hollow tail, reducing the aerodynamic drag and increasing the range. And because a fast response of "our" artillery would surely mean a faster counterbattery response from "their" artillery, the self-propelled cannon acquired importance again, while the towed cannon was fitted with a sort of auxiliary propulsion to allow it to change position by itself and hide before the arrival of the counterbattery fire, without having to wait for its tractor. In this time, the artillery had already "embraced" the missile; in the early 1960s, the heavy anti-aircraft artillery had been almost entirely replaced by missiles; the monstrous long-range cannons were left behind and their place was occupied by the intercontinental ballistic missile, which could encompass half world, or the tactical missile which had a range of "only" several hundreds of kilometers. The anti-aircraft defense against the ground-strike aircraft flying at low altitude still corresponded in a large extent to the light automatic cannons, but these were updated with electro-optical sights linked to ballistic computers, a combination that could measure the speed and the heading of a target and predict with huge exactitude where would it be when the projectile arrived to it.

Artillery on the 20th century

The howitzer FH-88 of caliber 155 millimeters, a paradigm of the modern field cannon, fitted with an auxiliary propulsion motor that also works to feed and orientate the cannon and to deploy or retract the masts of the carriage and the wheels.

But the science and the wit of the technicians work in a double direction; apart from making new and improved cannons, they can also produce new and more difficult targets and countermeasures. A helicopter seems an easy target, but it is much harder to hit than it seems at first glance, so a certain intelligent technology is required to counteract it. A supersonic missile flying at only some meters above ground or sea level is a deadly threat: how could it be stopped? How could a cannon be camouflaged to prevent infrared sensors to detect it? In a sole century the artillery went from the black powder and the carriages without recoil mechanism towed by horses and the artillerymen equipped with field binoculars to motorized cannons that can fire to distances of 50 kilometers and hit targets that they can not see directly, with grenades that are automatically directed towards them. From rockets that were not much more than magnified fireworks to missiles capable of traveling 8000 kilometers and throwing several independent warheads that fly each one to its particular target. From the first cannons intended to shoot down the first dirigibles and aircraft to the Gatling automatic cannon, which can fire 6000 projectiles of caliber 20 millimeters in one minute. The question is not only what the enemy can be thinking now, but in what will it be thinking tomorrow. What innovations will bring the 21st century to the world of artillery?

Categories: Artillery - 20th Century - [General] - [General] - [General]

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Website: Military History

Article submitted: 2015-06-19


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