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The Bigger Guns of Battle

Today I hand over the reins to “Listy ” for a Community Contribution looking at the history of artillery in warfare.

 

The Bigger Guns of Battle

Ever since the days of Napoleon’s Grande Batterie, artillery has been the decisive weapon of war. Artillery caused more devastation than any weapon system used in warfare up until the advent of aircraft. Even then it’s debatable which has the most effect on the battlefield. Stalin once called artillery "The God of War"; other people have called it the "King of Battle".

With artillery being rebalanced in the game, it was suggested that I take a look at artillery and how it was used in the Second World War. While every nation involved in the fighting used artillery, all but two had similar doctrines when it came to command and control of their guns.

The two that had unique systems were the British (and Commonwealth) and the US. Both are regarded as having the best artillery of the period.

 

Which Tube?

The US doctrine came from its experiences in World War One. At that time, the US army had approximately 2,000 French MLE 1897 75mm artillery pieces. Weapons of this calibre made up the vast majority of weapons used worldwide. However, after the war, studies found that the 75mm shells didn't have enough bursting charge to cause significant casualties to dug-in troops and suggested that a calibre of 100mm or greater was needed.

The US continued to use artillery to neutralise the enemy by destroying them, so they went for a larger artillery piece, eventually settling upon the ubiquitous M2A1 105mm howitzer.

In contrast, the British decided that Nneutralisation should be achieved by pinning the enemy in order to reduce and hamper their ability to fight. This approach required a high rate of fire, so they opted for the 25 Pounder field gun, despite its 87.4mm calibre lacking the blast to kill dug-in troops like the larger US weapon. This high rate of fire was noticed by the enemy, leading to a now almost-legendary comment from one German prisoner of war. He asked his captors if he could see the Belt-fed artillery pieces!

 

King of the Gunners

Both the US and British systems have strengths and weaknesses, and elements of both are used today in modern artillery systems. However, it’s fair to say that neither nation got it entirely right. The differences in doctrine are down to previous experience with artillery.

In the US system, forward observers were deployed to report targets back to a central Fire Direction Centre. The FDC then assessed each target, prioritised them, and allocated the available guns. This meant that targets wouldn't be engaged if there was a higher priority target elsewhere. It also meant that a deployed US force could lose any artillery support it had been expecting due to the need to engage something more important.

One advantage that the US system did have was that the Fire Direction Centre could calculate a "Time on Target". This was where guns allocated to a particular shoot could fire shells at different trajectories and velocities. It allowed one artillery piece to fire several shells and have them all land at the same time. While this did mean that US artillery tended to hit much harder without warning, the precise calculations took much longer and had to be done at the FDC.

Meanwhile, the British were coloured by their experiences of policing the large empire during the 1920’s, especially in the Middle East and Africa. Often the target for artillery in those areas would be a small group of tribesmen out in the open on a hill. In those situations accuracy and speed were essential, meaning that the British had to develop specific techniques, which they then brought into World War Two. One trick was to pre-aim an artillery piece at a priority target such as a Tiger tank, then when air support was overhead, they could mark the target with a single smoke round,  allowing the air support to destroy it.

The British developed a system of complicated mathematical magic that allowed artillery to be aimed and fired very quickly. The average time it took from a British observer calling in a target to the rounds actually landing was between just 30 to 60 seconds.

For those interested a full explanation of the mathematics and systems involved, you can check out this article.

The other main difference between the US and UK systems was the function of the observer. In the British system, the observer was the battery commander. This allowed him to order (rather than request, as in the US system) his guns to fire on a specific target, which meant that a British force with an observer attached to it was guaranteed artillery support. Against priority targets, the British observer could request additional units to engage his target. As all the artillery units used the mathematical tricks, this didn't add much time to the engagement time. If an observer had a significant target in front of him he could request additional guns with a simple code word. The code words were Mike for all guns in the Regiment, Uncle for a Division, Victor for a Corps, William for an Army and Yoke for an entire Army Group Royal Artillery (ARGA). The senior commanders at headquarters would assess the need and then, if authorised, the appropriate guns would fire.

 

Mike Target!


There are many significant actions in history where artillery played a major role. These included Nery (1914), Hondeghem (1940), LZ Falcon (part of the LZ X-ray fighting, 1965) and Mirbat (1972). For this article, we’ll just look at the Battle of Asten in the Netherlands, which took place from the 27th to the 30th October 1944.  This is the only time that a Royal Artillery unit won a US distinguished unit citation.

During the night of the 26/27th October, the 9th Panzer Division and 15th Panzer Grenadier Division smashed into the US lines in the Netherlands, bridging the De Deurine canal and capturing the town of Meijel. This sent the US forces reeling.

The British 21st Army group moved to respond, eventually launching a counterattack led by the 6th Guard’s Tank Brigade. However, that would take time. To help stabilise the situation in the meantime, two field regiments of artillery (131st and 25th RA) were assigned to the US 7th Armoured Division. Additional supply units were attached and their sterling work kept the field regiments equipped with a continuous supply of shells.

On 28th October, the German armour carried on its attack, with tanks penetrating the front line. However, the US forces felt they could hold the position, so the two regiments of Royal artillery were deployed at Asten to cover the front line. The target for their opening salvo in the battle was the steeple of the church at Neerkant which housed a German observation post. The guns were guided onto the target by a US observation plane.

In the afternoon, the Germans made another attempt to attack the US forces with about 20 Tigers and a battalion of infantry. The two regiments of artillery fired continuous Mike targets at this force for two hours, forcing the Germans to retreat from the bombardment.

The Royal Artillery came under counter battery bombardment for most of the night, and despite not being dug in, they took very light casualties.

On the 29th, the Germans launched another attack of similar size as before, which lasted all day. During this time, they only managed to advance about 700 yards (approx. 640 metres), due to being hit with a Mike target that lasted all day! However, although the attack was repulsed by the artillery fire, the effect of the German attacks was beginning to show in mounting US casualties. The 25 pounders were now down to 20 rounds per gun, and the US forces consisted of 1 tank destroyer, 2 platoons of infantry and a smattering of Sherman tanks in the centre, while on the left flank there was just a battered reconnaissance company. The right flank was wide open, and the enemy were just 2,800 yards (2560 metres) from the Royal Artillery positions. Some reports indicated that the German tanks were even closer, causing the artillery to prepare for a ground assault. Scratch defence units were organised consisting of stragglers from the US front line and any manpower that could be spared by the gunners. The reconnaissance later showed that these rumours were false.

Overnight, the supply formations kept on working hard. The Germans also continued to take artillery battery under fire.

On the 30th of October the Germans attacked the battered Recce Company on the left flank. During this period, the two artillery regiments fired continuously with the 25th Field battery engaging 76 different targets and using 10,000 rounds of ammunition, while the 131st engaged 29 targets using 5,430 rounds of ammunition. A “target” in this sense was a point on the ground to shoot at, not a precise head count. In modern terminology, it would be called a “Fire Mission”.

By this point, the US forces had been all but eliminated, but British reinforcements were on the way and would arrive overnight. The Germans made one final attack on the decimated left flank. The observer position was manned by two people - Captain Webb and Lance Bombardier Grundy. They were effectively the only forces on the left flank, and were facing down a strong German attack. With the enemy on three sides, some as close as 300 yards (274 metres), these two remained in position, directing the British artillery for four hours. As a direct result of their observations, the German formations were broken up, and the attack was smashed. The Germans forced to retreat, and then the Scottish 15th division arrived to hold the line.

As you can see, artillery can be decisive in both defence and attack. Many times it has been a bulwark against an enemy breakthrough by using its guns in a direct fire mode. As such, it should always be taken into consideration in your plans.

 

 


 

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