Naval Gunners on the Western Front
By Walter Mow
*This is a repost of Walter’s article Commemorating the 100th Anniversary of the end of WW1 and also, “in remembrance of those gritty volunteers that manned the great guns that broke the back of “The War to End All Wars”.”
Wars create necessities and invention comes from the effort to fill those needs.
The Michigan State Naval Militia, whoever they are, an “Oozelfiinch”, whatever that is and deployment to World War I’s notorious battlefields, a movie script? Nope, real life…
Prologue: One hundred years ago today, an Armistice was signed that brought the fighting to an end. This short essay recounts one unit’s efforts to bring about the Armistice.
World War I, the war to end all wars would introduce many new weapons; some would evolve to become the weapons of the Second World War; others would become obsolete. US Navy gunners would be part of the effort to end WWI and the actions they were engaged in would help to break the stalemate on the western front, leading to an Allied victory.
German technology in large bore artillery dominated the early years of the war, most notably the Krupp designed and manufactured German Howitzer called “Big Bertha”, a 16 ½ inch bore siege gun that tossed an 1,800 pound High Explosive projectile 7 ½ miles. The German Army was responsible for the firing and maintaining of “Big Bertha”. Costly to maintain as well as ungainly and difficult to move and position, weighing in at 94,000 pounds, Germany manufactured 12 of these beasts.
The next leap for the Germans would be to marry 15” naval guns with rail cars dubbed “The Long Max”. Being a naval gun in design it would be fired and maintained by German Sailors. A siege gun that hurled large projectiles up to 39 miles with some degree of accuracy, it would be the dominate rail gun on the battlefield prior to intervention of the US Navy. Krupp Industries designed and built 8 of these systems for the combination gun, recoil system and rail car the gun was attached to. Using German and French rail lines the Germans moved the big guns about behind their own lines until the advent of the airplane with near impunity.
Beginning in March and continuing through August 1918, German gunners would rain terror on Paris with the so-called “Paris Gun”. As this weapon was based on a German Naval design it too would be manned and maintained by German Sailors. This awesome giant delivered a relatively small payload of 234 pounds a maximum distance of 81 miles, attaining an altitude of 26.3 miles at a muzzle velocity of 5,400 ft. per second. The lack of rail way mountings would put only three of these weapons on the battlefield. Indiscriminate and inaccurate, its purpose was to frighten the French population, a terror weapon with little to no real tactical value.
When the US entered the war in April 1917, the allies were severely out gunned by the Germans. Intelligence reports revealed the presence of German sailors manning long range artillery, this prompted General Pershing to ask for a similar long range artillery system.
The US Navy could indeed furnish heavy artillery to counter the German threat. Accordingly, November 26th, 1917, the Navy ordered five rail system carriages built to accommodate the guns. Built in the US by the Baldwin Locomotive Works to fit French rail standards, the entire system was shipped to France in pieces and assembled by Navy gunners. Five weeks after arriving in France the guns were rushed to the front to begin one of the strangest sagas in US Naval history.
500 enlisted men and 30 officers volunteered to man the guns. 90% were reservists with many coming from the Michigan State Naval Militia. Upon arrival in France they were placed under the command of the US Army’s Railroad Artillery Reserve; replete with a change of uniforms, the sailors began to fulfill the duties of barrage and siege gun artillery. Adopting the “Oozelfinch” as its insignia, a creature “neither flesh, nor fish, nor fowl”, it represented the unique blend of Army and Navy.
German intelligence was aware of the arrival of the American rail guns and upon receiving intelligence of the August deployment decided to remove the “Paris Gun” and return it to Germany.
The Americans would turn their guns on marshalling yards, artillery emplacements and troop concentrations with devastating effects. The accuracy of these big guns and the long range began to drive the Germans from the field. In duels with the “Long Max”, it was only the superior accuracy of the US gunners that allowed them to prevail.
In six weeks of front line action, the guns of the Navy reservists would break the mold of trench warfare by driving German artillery to retreat from the front, disrupting the flow of supplies to the troops and raising merry hell with German moral. The Navy gunners would have to take their lumps as well. German bombers would make life hard for the sailors by night while the live fire missions kept them at the guns by day.
Air Power would sound the death knell for the American rail gun its value in the First World War cannot be discounted as it was the necessity that filled the need. Rail Battery #2 would fire the first salvo on September 6, 1918 and the final round would be fired by battery #4 just before the Armistice began on November 11, 1918.
Field Artillery and Naval Gunnery have been a part of the American Armed Forces from the days of Henry Knox and John Paul Jones; it is with all the intensity in my soul I shout!!! Let the BIG GUNS ROAR!! and FREEDOM SOAR!!!