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German ballistic contraptions of World War Two


By Sakhal

Recoilless cannons for aircraft

The "Davis cannon" was a recoilless cannon for aircraft introduced in the Royal Naval Air Service during the last weeks of the First World War, with the purpose of hitting ships and submarines. The problem to solve was to install a powerful cannon firing a large projectile in a thin device without the recoil from the cannon damaging the aircraft. The Davis cannon consisted of two barrels attached to each other by their rear part so their muzzles were in opposite direction. A projectile was loaded in the barrel that was to fire against the target and in the other barrel there was a "recoil load" composed of some kind of shrapnel. Between the projectile and the recoil load was placed the detonation charge. So when firing the cannon, while the projectile departed against the target, the recoil load was expulsed in the opposite direction to be dispersed in the air. Since both barrels fired at a same time, the recoil of each barrel was reciprocally nullified and hence the Davis cannon was a recoilless cannon.

From the base of this cannon, the company Rheinmetall started, around 1937, the research for producing a more perfected version in caliber 30 millimeters. After being built and successfully tested in a ground mounting an exemplar, the technicians installed it in an aircraft, and from that moment their problem begun. This system did not adopt the use of a recoil load but it was based in a different principle: part of the gas emitted during the detonation had to be expulsed at high speed by means of a valve placed in the rear part of the cannon. Since the mass of the gas multiplied by its speed was equal to the mass of the projectile multiplied by its speed, the effect of both should be counteracted. But the jet of gas expelled at high speed damaged the part of the aircraft on which the cannon was fixed. Useless were the attempts to reinforce the fuselage with steel plates of 3 millimeters in thickness. The solution was found by using two exhaust tubes to divert the gas away from the aircraft, one of them directed downwards and the other directed upwards. Arrived to this point, the technicians had to solve the problem of feeding the cannon, because a weapon provided with a sole projectile, specially being of a small caliber, would be useless. After many experiments it was adopted a roll belt containing ten projectiles. To achieve the escape of the gas, the detonators were built with the terminal part in plastic, which was disintegrated on the detonation, allowing a part of the gas to arrive to the exhaust valve. Many modifications were successively made, also because the technicians had the intention of installing this cannon in a Junkers Ju 88, but long time had passed since the beginning of the research, and meanwhile the military authorities had lost interest in this weapon, which prevented it to be used in combat. It is doubtful than this one were an effective weapon even if the technicians who devised it affirmed otherwise. But a pilot who participed in the experiments in 1945 affirmed that whenever the ten projectiles were fired, the fuselage of the aircraft resulted damaged.

German ballistic contraptions of World War Two

Cross-section of the 30 millimeters recoilless cannon.

However, something positive had been achieved: the demonstration of the theoretical principle of the recoilless cannon. The technicians, soon after, by request from the Luftministerium, started the research for a cannon of large caliber, capable of firing a 650-kilogram projectile, able to pierce the armor of an enemy warship. So it was born the Geraet 104, a 350-millimeter cannon which should be installed under the ventral part of the aircraft. Being such a large cannon, the efflux of gas would have certainly destroyed the carrier aircraft, so the technicians from Rheinmetall had to return to the principle used by Davis, the "recoil load". But instead of using a second barrel and a special recoil load, they obatined the same result by using a detonator encapsulated inside a steel container weighing 650 kilograms, as the very projectile. When the detonator was exploded, the projectile and the container departed in opposite direction, achieving so the required balance. And obviously, it was impossible to reload a weapon of such caliber installed in an aircraft, so the Geraet 104 remained as a single-hit weapon. However, before being tested in flight, the war started, and since there were many other more important weapons demanding later developments, the project Geraet 104 was abandoned.

German ballistic contraptions of World War Two

The huge cannon Geraet 104 installed in the ventral part of a Dornier Do 217.

Improved artillery projectiles

In any direction beyond the boundaries of the Reich, the German Army would have to face some massive fortifications, being the most significative one the Maginot Line. To deal with an enemy so hard as reinforced concrete is, there was no other solution than hitting it with an even harder material and, at the same time, to concentrate the maximum of energy in the most restricted space possible. From this simple formula it was born the projectile Roechling, created by the Ruhr-based company Roechling Shell. During the interwar period the German military command dedicated long time to investigate in depth the Maginot Line by organizing a team of scientists which should study the way to destroy the "invincible" fortification. The Roechling solution was the best system found: a very long and thin projectile fitted with an extremely hard ogive. The length added heaviness to the projectile and the thinness allowed to concentrate all of the kinetic energy generated by that weight in a very small area, with the purpose of passing through strata of concrete as if they were cardboard. To provide such a long projectile with an adequate flight attitude it was fitted with stabilizing fins, which as soon as the projectile departed from the bore, were deployed by the pressure of air on its wake. The projectile Roechling was not immediately used, since the Wehrmacht circumvented the Maginot Line instead of frontally attacking it. But as precaution, large quantities were built, ready to be used in the event of need. The experimental test, effectuated in Neufchatel, near Liege, demonstrated that the projectile was able to pass the reinforced concrete roof of a fort and the rooms beneath it, reaching the subsoil and causing prodigious damage. The prestations of this projectile were so deadly that Hitler, fearing that one of them could be retrieved intact by the enemy, prohibited its utilization without his specific permission. But during the war nobody asked authorization to use these projectiles, so they were left in a deposit only to be taken by the Allies at the end of the war.

German ballistic contraptions of World War Two

The projectile Roechling Be 42, of caliber 210 millimeters, was specifically created for the howitzer Model 18. It weighed 200 kilograms, had a length of 2.6 meters and was fitted with folding fins. Its maximum range was 11275 meters and it was able to pass through four meters of reinforced concrete.

In 1941, the Germans tried to find another practical use for the science of missiles, of which they had already notable experience: after constant research they managed to create the first rocket projectile, projected to be used with the Howitzer 18 of 150 millimeters. It was not a big success but it contributed to open new technical ways. The conventional projectile fired by the Howitzer 18 had a range of 13250 meters, while the rocket projectile reached 20000 meters, but with lesser precision. The rocket projectile transported its explosive charge in the nose and a rocket engine fed by solid fuel in the rear part, with exhaust outlets in the base of the projectile. The projectile was expulsed from the cannon in the conventional way, but the explosion of the detonator activated a "reserve unit" inside the projectile. This unit burned while the projectile was in its way to the highest point of its trajectory; in that moment, the unit would activate the rocket engine which would propel the projectile from that moment. But often the additional thrust from the rocket caused the projectile to leave its natural trajectory. Encouraged by this partial success, the projectists took into consideration a cannon of larger caliber, the Model 5 of 280 millimeters. This was a long-range cannon which fired special projectiles to a distance of 62 kilometers. The technicians projected a rocket projectile with the engine in the nose and an exhaust duct which, crossing longitudinally the projectile, ended in its base. The rocket engine was activated by a timer detonator placed in the nose. With the help of the rocket engine, the projectile, weighing 25 kilograms, was able to travel to a distance of 86 kilometers. The technicians were satisfied with this result even if the projectile effectuated a rather imprecise trajectory.

German ballistic contraptions of World War Two

Rocket projectile.

The development of more efficient projectiles took place in the research facilities at Peenemunde, provided with the best wind tunnel existing then, dedicated to the investigation of aerodynamics applied to the stabilization of projectiles during flight. The technicians arrived to the conclusion that a dart-shaped projectile, assisted by stabilizing fins, should reach a long range even if fired from a smooth bore. A barrel was took from a 310-millimeter cannon and a dart projectile was built on purpose. With this arrangement and with the help of a more powerful initial thrust, the cannon was able to launch its projectile at the incredible distance of 150 kilometers. The technicians at Peenemunde had no time to continue their experiments, since the war approached its end. Still, one of these cannons, mounted in its railway carriage, was used against the American troops landing in Anzio, then distant 120 kilometers. This bombardment caused much confusion among the Americans because these could not know if they were subject to an air attack or a bombardment by missiles.

German ballistic contraptions of World War Two

The dart projectile "Peenemunde Arrow Shell" of 310 millimeters in dotation for the 280 millimeters railway cannon K 5, modified to operate with the 310-millimeter smoothbore barrel. This projectile weighed 136 kilograms, had 1.9 meters in length and a range of 150 kilometers.

Multi-chambered cannon

The idea of a multi-chambered cannon is conceptually interesting, starting from a cannon with a very long barrel fitted with a normal projectile and detonator. Along the barrel are attached additional detonation chambers. As soon as the cannon is fired, the first detonator impulses the projectile, and as soon as this one reaches and surpasses the second detonator, this one explodes, creating and additional expansive force. This process repeats for every chamber until the projectile exits the barrel with a very high muzzle speed. But from the theory to the practice things were different. In the first place, the flames from the first detonator sometimes managed to reach the second detonator even if the projectile still had not; this was enough to cause the rest of the detonators to be triggered as well. The result was that the projectile, instead of being impulsed towards the muzzle, was compressed between two opposite forces. In the second place, the explosion of a detonator required a certain time (at least a hundredth of a second) after being triggered; in this fraction of time, the projectile had already traveled about one meter inside the barrel, so the amount of space to be filled by the gases would be no longer constante, and unless the cannon were incredibly long, the projectile would have already surpassed the first three or four chambers before the explosion of the second detonator. In third place, if everything worked right and the first three chambers had already exploded, the projectile would have acquired such a speed that it would probably not be reached by the gases from the fourth chamber.

Despite of these problems, the German technicians, in 1942, harbored the idea of building such a cannon, and a certain engineer Coenders, working for Roechling, proposed the project and its realization. It looks like they had the intention of building this cannon to obtain even more effectiveness from the aforementioned projectile Roechling. This project proposed a cannon with a barrel as long as 50 meters, fitted with 28 detonation chambers, which should be able to impulse the projectile at a speed of 1800 meters/second to a distance of 250 kilometers. A model of modest proportions, firing 20-millimeter projectiles, was built; this model worked rather well and it was shown to Albert Speer, who in return proposed it to Hitler, who immediately approved it insisting that Coenders should start building the cannon without even posing the project to the Department of War Implements. Probably it was Coenders who requested to avoid posing the project to the Department, knowing that this one would surely reject it due to the difficulty of its realization. Coenders started the work and created a second model of modest dimensions, which would be installed in Misdroy, a small isle in the Baltic, for the trials. He projected as well a projectile that immediately entered production and, supported by Hitler, ordered to the Organization Todt to build a large artillery terrace in the vicinity of Calais, ready to harbor his huge cannon which, in October 1943, was built at the Hillersleben Shooting Range.

The first experiments demonstrated that the projectile had an unstable trajectory, but it was expected to eliminate this problem by correcting the fins of the projectile. Also the tests effectuated in Midsroy were unsatisfying. In the early 1943, the responsible of the Department of War Implements, General Leeb, while effectuating an inspection tour of the coastal defenses in the area of Calais, found the huge construction in which the multi-chambered cannon was to be installed. And he was not happy when knowing the purpose of that emplacement. Leeb requested information from Berlin and in March he assisted to a test that resulted catastrophic, because the projectile became more unstable than ever, the barrel of the cannon exploded, and everything that according to his prevision should have gone bad, went really bad. By suggestion from Leeb, some ballistic experts examinated the problem and concluded that there was a structural defect in the projectile; and bad enough, in that moment around 20000 of them had already being produced. Not surprisingly, Leeb declared that he supported to cancel the entire project, but the enthusiasm shown by Hitler in the project was stronger than the opinion from Leeb, and really nobody dared to inform him about the failure of the experiments. So it was decided to continue the project while studying a series of modifications.

The Research Committee of the Reich contributed its technicians to the project and an expert in high-velocity ballistics was in charge of projecting a projectile specially adapted to the multi- chambered cannon, which was swiftly developed with the help of a supersonic wind tunnel. As soon as a small number of the new projectiles was ready, the cannon was tested again: after having fired 25 of them, the barrel blew up whereas the projectiles fired had reached a distance of only 44 kilometers. At this point the project was about to be abandoned, but after long debate, it remained unsolved the main concern of the participants: who would inform the Fuhrer about the failure. And because of this unpleasant perspective, it was decided to retake the experiments while studying every possible modification. It was requested the collaboration of many experts in ballistics and mechanical engineering and, in brief time, things started to go better. It was created the new projectile adapted to the purpose and successive shootings demonstrated that it could travel a distance of 90 kilometers. At this point, the development team started to expect the eventual success of the entire program. But in that moment the Royal Air Force started to bombard the facilities at Calais, causing huge damages. During the reparations, the Allied forces landed in Normandy and the entire effort was already useless.

Still, two cannons of reduced dimensions were built and sent to the battlefield. The first one took part in the offensive in the Ardennes, in December 1944, and the second one was emplaced in a base of reinforced concrete in a hill near Hermeskeil, to bombard Luxembourg. None of them seemed to have caused important harm to the Allied troops, and the Germans in their withdrawal destroyed them before they were captured by the enemy. Similar fate suffered the huge cannon built at Hillersleben, which was found by the Allies cut into pieces. Even if it was a defective weapon, there is no doubt that if the experts in ballistics and mechanical engineering had been requested from the beginning of the project, the multi-chambered cannon could have worked satisfactorily. And if this had happened, it could have been a real blow for London, which would have to endure terrible bombardments with 250-kilogram projectiles falling every ten or fifteen minutes. On the other hand, it can not be avoided to think that all the effort dedicated to that multi-chambered cannon would have given better fruits if dedicated to other more reasonable projects.

German ballistic contraptions of World War Two

The multi-chambered cannon, known as "Millipede" or "Busy Lizzie", was officially denominated Hochdruck-Pumpe of 150 millimeters. It is shown also one of the projectiles developed for this very special cannon. The fore and rear supports of this projectile would be detached as soon as it exited the barrel.

Anti-tank artillery

At the beginning of the war, the standard anti-tank cannon was an artillery piece of modest dimensions which fired, with a high muzzle speed, hardened steel projectiles against the enemy tanks. But during the war these were built with increasingly stronger armor, which demanded the introduction of increasingly larger anti-tank cannons firing heavier projectiles. To allow the utilization of an anti-tank cannon of moderate dimensions and weight, which could be maneuvered by as few as two or three persons, while having a high muzzle speed and hence a high piercing power, the Germans projected what would be later called by some "the first secret weapon": the conical cannon. The story started when German engineer Gerlich in collaboration with arms manufacturer Halbe was determined to create a new type of rifle with conical bore. He attempted to sell his idea to diverse nations, and he managed to be employed as technical consultant for the United States Army and the British War Department. His weapons were refused for production because of being very delicate and costly to produce for military use, however being demonstrated that they were very effective and precise. In the 1930s Gerlich returned to Germany and his idea was accepted for being applied to heavier weapons, including an anti-tank cannon. The most difficult problem was not to build the barrel, but the projectile, which had to gradually shrink in its travel along the bore without being deformed. On the other hand, given the very high speed of the projectile, this one could not be built entirely in steel, because instead of piercing the armor it would be broken in the impact.

The prototype was built with a core of tungsten carbide, an exceptionally hard material that would resist the impact. The casing of the projectile, formed by steel bands, was fitted with two fins - one in the central part and the other in the rear part - made of wrought iron. When the projectile traveled towards the muzzle, the fins were compressed downwards, hence being able to adapt themselves to the gradually narrow bore. The muzzle speed was 1220 meters/second, much faster than in any other existing projectile in that time, and its effect in the armor of a tank was incredible. The first conical cannon used in combat was the "anti-tank cannon 41", of caliber 28 millimeters in the breech and 21 millimeters in the muzzle. Despite of its projectile weighing only 85 grams, it was able to pierce through 50 millimeters of armor from a distance of 500 meters. The utilization of this cannon in North Africa against the British 8th Army caused surprise in the Allies, who did not expect the Germans to be able to operate such ballistic principle in such a brief time. To this cannon followed a heavier version, of caliber 42 millimeters in the breech and 30 millimeters in the muzzle, which fired a projectile weighing 350 grams with a muzzle speed of 1270 meters/second, able to perforate 75 millimeters of armor from a distance of 450 meters. In 1942 it appeared in the battlefield a new version, the Panzerabwehrkanone 41 of caliber 75 millimeters in the breech and 55 millimeters in the muzzle, built by Krupp. It was a very powerful cannon, which fired projectiles weighing 2.6 kilograms with a muzzle speed of 1200 meters/second, being capable of perforating 150 millimeters of armor from a distance of 900 meters. Not surprisingly, such weapon was immediately used against the Soviet tanks.

But unfortunately for the Germans, their country lacked deposits of tungsten, necessary to produce the special projectiles fired by these cannons. In the mid 1942 the situation was so critic that the authorities had to face a dramatic dilemma: to use the tungsten still available to build machinery needed in the industry of aeronautics and tanks or otherwise to use it for producing the special ammunitions. It seems that Hitler had been informed about the matter and that he had ordered to build the machinery for the industry. As a consequence, the production of the ammunition was discontinued and the conical cannons were retired from the battlefield when their special ammunition was no longer available. Until the introduction of the first rocket launchers operating with shaped-charge grenades, the Germans would have to satisfy themselves with firing conventional steel projectiles against the enemy armor.

German ballistic contraptions of World War Two

The conical cannon, one of the most effective German weapons, fell in disgrace due to the lack of tungsten in Germany.

In the early 1944, Germany faced a growing number of enemy tanks in the battlefield built with an armor of increasing thickness. This fact forced the Germans to overhaul their anti-tank equipment in dotation for the infantry. They had already created the Panzerfaust and the Panzerschreck after knowing about the Bazooka, but none of these weapons had a good range. On the other hand, the only weapons capable of damaging severely the most recent Soviet tanks were the anti-tank cannons of caliber 75 or 88 millimeters, too large and heavy to be managed by two persons or be properly camouflaged. Due to these inconveniences, it was demanded a light anti-tank weapon with a range of at least 800 meters which fired a projectile able to pierce an armor of 127 millimeters in thickness. Shortly after the technicians produced a simple but effective weapon known as "Puppchen" (Dolly), which fired the same 88-millimeter rockets than the Panzerschreck. The light launching tube was mounted in the carriage of the obsolete 28-millimeter anti-tank conical cannon, with a simple breechblock attached to its rear end. When the rocket was fired, its propulsive force remained inside the tube because the exhaust gases could not escape instantly through the rear end of the tube, but slowly as the breechblock allowed. With this system, the rocket, instead of its usual firing range of 150 meters (when fired from the Panzerschreck or similar portable weapons whose rear end is totally open) it reached the distance of 685 meters, achieving also a greater precision. Still, the weapon was small and simple enough to be managed by two or even one sole person.

German ballistic contraptions of World War Two

The Puppchen was basically a fortunate hybrid of rocket launcher and conventional cannon.

A second weapon, known as "Hammer" or Panzertodt, was based in a new ballistic principle, still being perfected at the end of the war. It was based in a notable application of the rocket projectile, actually the same one used in the Puppchen, but attached to a long steel rod fitted, in its end, with a pear-shaped block of caliber 105 millimeters having two pairs of fins. The tube in which the projectile was introduced was of caliber 105 millimeters, so the grenade - which was of caliber 88 millimeters - had to be surrounded by a sleeve to fit in the bore. The propeller was simply wrapped around the steel rod and the tube was opened in its end. When the propellant was ignited, the gas passed through the pear-shaped block, and the space between this one and the tube gave to the rocket the required thrust. The precision of this weapon was notable, albeit its range was only about 550 meters. The ensemble weighed 40 kilograms and it was mounted in the carriage of a machine gun, to which two wheels were applied. Despite its serial production was approved, this one had not been started when the war ended.

German ballistic contraptions of World War Two

The Geraet "Hammer", recoilless cannon operating with rocket projectiles. The shape of the rear end of the projectile rendered the tube of the cannon - conceptually speaking - as part of the rocket itself.

The only weapon which fully achieved the authorization of the military and entered production was the 80 millimeters Panzer Abwehr Werfer, weapon operating with a new ballistic principle. With the purpose of restricting its weight as much as possible, the barrel of the cannon was made with extremely thin walls of a special steel. This meant that the pressure inside the barrel had to be kept as low as possible: to achieve this the projectile was fitted with stabilizing fins and the bore was made smooth. The combustion chamber, built with the conventional steel and closed by a latch breechblock, could endure a much higher pressure than the barrel. The firing device consisted of a case for the detonator which, in its front part, was closed by a heavy perforated steel plate; the projectile was fixed to this plate by a simple pin. When the detonation occurred, a high pressure was created both inside the case of the detonator and the combustion chamber, but the gas reached the barrel by passing through the holes on the steel plate, tightly attached to the rear part of the barrel. So, while the pressure in the breechblock was high, the pressure in the barrel was kept low. When the gas pressed on the projectile, this one would be released from the pin when it was accumulated the pressure required for the desired speed. Although the pressure inside the barrel did not exceed 3.5 tonnes (a conventional cannon operated with about 20 tonnes), the projectile reached a muzzle speed of 520 meters/second and a maximum range of 750 meters. Many cannons of this type were built in 1944-45 and, when seen in action by the Allies, they generated much respect and interest.

German ballistic contraptions of World War Two

The Panzerabwehrwerfer 600, anti-tank cannon operating with the principle of low and high pressure.

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

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Website: Military History

Article submitted: 2015-06-10


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