Artillery Innovations in WWII
When Americans think of World War II, certain images come to mind: the D-Day landings, Pearl Harbor, B-17s, and popular movies like Saving Private Ryan and The Longest Day. HBO's Band of Brothers had an enormous impact towards renewing interest in the War.
But what were the keys to winning the war? How did the U.S. dominate a battlefield by 1945? That answer is artillery. For all the budget cuts and downsizing that the American military endured after World War I, many artillery officers at Fort Sill, Oklahoma spent their time developing a system of artillery that was second to none. While other branches like the infantry and armored, had to learn on the job by suffering various setbacks on the battlefield, the artillery hit the ground running in 1942.
Only the Best
The Artillery Branch was and still is one of the most complicated of military science. Being an artillery officer in the United States Army, just as in many other armies, is a highly treasured commission. Even with all the changes through the years, it still requires a high degree of competency in math and science. Like the Engineers, it was a technically demanding field; only the top graduates of military schools or ROTC usually received the appointments. All of the enlisted compliments were highly skilled as well. They had to be able to learn such things as surveying, radio communications, and gun mechanics.
Recognition has not always come. Other than Napoleon, can the average person name a famous artilleryman? The answer is probably not. There are examples in U.S. military history where artillery has received some lasting acclaim: Taylor’s guns at Buena Vista, the Civil War battles of Malvern Hill or Stones River. Pershing’s guns played a major role in the victories at Belleau Wood and the Meuse Argonne. During World War II, Ernie Pyle devoted a whole chapter on a battery from the Italian Front in his work Brave Men. That was a rare treat. Cannoneers, fire direction centers, and artillery observers bracketing fire on targets are usually not fodder for books or movies. Nevertheless, their contributions to the final victory were enormous. Patton, the tanker, often commented that our artillery won the war.
During the war, recruits felt lucky to be assigned to the artillery. They figured it was safer than the infantry. With the exception of being a forward observer, they were correct. Although making up 16% of an infantry division’s strength, it only accounted for 3% of the casualties. And the figures for the non-divisional units (artillery battalions under Corps control), are low as well. By contrast, an infantryman’s chances of making it through the war unscathed, especially in a rifle company, were slim. In the European Theater of Operations (ETO), the average lifespan of a company commander was two weeks. Most rifle companies turned over their personnel two or three times before the end of the war. Consequently, the foot soldier thought anyone in the artillery lived a life of relative luxury.
That situation changed during the Battle of the Bulge. It was no longer a safe billet. Battery personnel were some of the first to get hit by enemy shells. The front line came to them as never before. German infantry and tanks bypassed the infantry screen and rolled up on their positions. In an age of indirect fire and advanced observation techniques, direct fire on a target became commonplace. Others, fighting with carbines and bazookas, held off many a thrust by the enemy, some even fighting hand to hand. Desperate men had to call down fire on their own positions to help stave off oncoming Panzers.
Throughout the Bulge, artillery units proved invaluable in slowing the German offensive. Recovering from the initial shock, men ran to their guns and often stayed there until ordered out, or in some cases, until they were killed. The speed and accuracy with which the American guns fired astonished the Germans. Caught on the muddy roads and deep ravines of the Ardennes, the German attacks were finally stopped cold by the sheer massing of firepower. The weather in Northern Europe by December 1944 was atrocious, nullifying the Allies’ air superiority. So the artillery had to fill that void. During the first week of the Battle, the U.S. Army was able to amass almost 350 guns of all calibers, one of the largest concentrations in the history of warfare, to defend the Elsenborn Ridge in the northern sector of the Bulge. The Sixth SS Panzer Army literally ran into a wall of steel. Throughout the rest of the campaign, artillery continued to be the penultimate battlefield weapon. At Bastogne, standing right alongside the 101st Airborne were Red Legs, many of them African-American.
Many stunned German POWs would often ask their American captors if they could see the “automatic” guns that had bombarded them. They could not imagine that so much firepower could be brought to bear through just sheer human effort and planning. After the war, when the U.S. Army conducted studies on the effectiveness of their efforts throughout every branch, it was the artillery branch that received the highest marks time and time again.
The British, Soviets and Germans all had very capable artillery branches. The British were also very innovative before the war, but it was the Americans who took the branch to new heights both technologically and procedurally. How did they get there?
Out with the Old
A Generation of Innovation
During the interwar years, the United States became a deeply isolationist nation. Even with its military triumphs during World War I and its ascendancy onto the world stage, the United States downsized its army. In the midst of an economic boom during the 1920s, government spending was slashed, in particular, the budgets of both main services. For some Army officers, ranks were frozen. Others reverted back to a former rank. With the coming of the Great Depression, the cutbacks became worse. By 1939, the regular Army numbered less than 200,000 men making it only the 17th largest in the world.
However, that did not stop the Army from experimenting in new technology and tactics. There were still dedicated men in the service that had the foresight and a passion to innovate. Nowhere was this more evident than at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, home of the U.S. Army’s artillery branch. Under the direction of men such as Carlos Brewer, Leslie McNair, Jacob Devers and Orlando Ward, all of whom would serve as rather controversial generals in World War II, modern artillery practices were born. Many of the new developments had started with the British, but the Americans took the ideas and developed them into a unified system that was second to none.
As late as the 1930s, much of the artillery was still horse drawn. Military theorists knew this had to change. Mobility and adaptability on the battlefield were going to be the keys to successful military operations in the future. When he became Army Chief of Staff in the early ‘30s, General Douglas MacArthur ordered the branch to motorize. Tractors and trucks became the new mode of transport. Throughout the decade, new, larger weapons were tested, and old ones improved. New methods for amassing fires on targets, such as Time on Target missions, were developed. The idea of a centralized artillery command and control system along with the concept of non-divisional artillery battalions took shape. These innovations helped create a system that was second to none during World War II.
The Fire Direction Center (FDC) was developed between 1932 and 1934. The centers centralized the computing of firing data within the battalion. Not only did this allow gunners to mass fire rapidly, it changed the role of the battalion. Prior to this time, battery commanders acted almost autonomously, directing their own fire while battalion commanders were more like administrators, parceling out assignments and supervising ammunition supply. Now, the battalion commander assumed responsibility for fire direction and the battery commander would conduct the fire. During operations, the battalion CO would dispatch officers who acted as forward observers (FOs) from the batteries and/or battalion. The observers would report their targeting information back to the centers by radio instead of telephone, although the latter would be used extensively throughout the war as well. The center would then prepare firing data, apply the necessary corrections and make the adjustments in order to synchronize fire on the most important targets. This innovation allowed a battalion to shift fire rapidly and mass it on a single target.
Similar operations existed not only at the Battalion level, but at various stages within the command structure. This gave American observers options, which was vital in the heat of battle. Forward observers from a particular battery could call up their divisional artillery center or even a Corps unit to get a fire mission. All of those units had personnel capable of completing a fire mission. Also, calling a battery HQ directly and bypassing the Battalion center became commonplace in the first days of the Bulge. Although a firing battery usually received its firing orders from the battalion FDC, and would not have a complete set of FDC personnel, it had a firing officer and a communications specialist to aid an observer who desperately needed a call for fire.
Communication was the key to the entire system, which was not an easy task under combat conditions. If an infantry platoon leader was calling for fire, he was probably under severe pressure and would get priority. Besides the EE8A telephones and the SCR 610 radios carried by all forward observation teams, the Army gave every infantry unit, regardless of its size, a radio as well. The nation’s industrial capacity made this possible. U.S. companies were able to produce a multitude of different radios and the dry cell batteries the Army required at a staggering rate. So in addition to the forward observers, any infantry platoon or squad leader could call in a fire mission to a battalion FDC or battery HQ by using an SCR-536 radio, a grid map and compass.The SCR-536s are better known today as “walkie talkies.” By war’s end, over 100,000 SCR-536s were produced.
At the FDCs, the observer’s request was converted into proper firing commands for the gun crews. Officers in the Fire Direction Center sifted through all the calls for help and decided how much support to assign to each mission request, given the observer’s position, the probable target, weather and the ammunition restrictions. FDC personnel used such things as pre-computered graphical firing tables with a set of clear protractors and rulers already corrected for wind, powder, etc. The tables were basically large books of logarithmic calculations that were created for all manner of distances. So converging the sheaf was possible, with a response time that was not only quick and for the most part, amazingly accurate.
During the war, a typical fire mission started with an urgent call from a forward observer, such as “Crow, this is Crow Baker 3. Fire Mission. Enemy infantry.” In this instance, “Crow” stood for the Battalion, “Baker” indicating they were from B Battery, and “3” was the number of the observation team. Identifying the target, such as infantry, helped determine the type of shell used. A high explosive round (HE) was usually used against personnel because it would explode prior to impact, thereby scattering the fragments along a fifty to one hundred yard area (for a 105mm). The observer’s primary tool was his BC (“Battalion Commander’s) scope. It was usually mounted on a tripod, and contained a graduated reticule in its focal plane, similar to a crosshair in a rifle scope, which helped the observers measure horizontal and vertical angles.
Eyes and Ears of the Army
Upon confirmation, the orders were relayed to the firing battery (or multiple batteries if necessary): “Battery Adjust, Shell HE, Fuse quick, Base Deflection right 250 mils, Elevation 1150, One round to adjust – number one gun only.” Then after a slight pause, he gave the command, “Fire!” Only one gun would fire until the adjustments on the target had been completed. The observers were then told “on the way.” Adjustments were made by the observers until the target was fully bracketed. So orders from the FOs such as “up 100” or “100 over” were commonplace after the initial volley. Once the observer was satisfied that the target was properly bracketed, an order for “Fire for Effect!” would follow. The guns assigned to that particular mission would then all open up on the target. The actual amount of shells fired varied per mission though a volley of three shots per gun was standard during the initial fire mission.
This is not to say the system was perfect. Errors were made that cost lives. Friendly fire was a real problem throughout the war. Weather and technical problems plagued the communication system. Having to read a map and call out orders under fire was a daunting task that caused a breakdown in the skills taught back in the states. Observation teams traveled with the infantry. Like the foot soldiers, they experienced the deprivations and mental anguish of men under constant threat. The artillery foreword observer’s lifespan was measured in weeks.
The FDC personnel were also under immense pressure. The centers themselves were bustling, sometimes chaotic places, crowded with dozens of personnel hovering over makeshift wooden tables that were covered with maps and other data. Phones rang and radios buzzed. Cigarette smoke filled the air. Tense officers peered over the shoulders of their enlisted technicians as the calls came in. Split-second decisions had to be made. Data was checked and rechecked until final approval of a target was given. The training was incredibly rigorous for everyone involved, sometimes lasting up to two years. Without that training and strict adherence to protocol, friendly-fire casualty rates would have been much higher.
Weapons evolved as well during the pre-war period. The two primary pieces used by American artillery battalions in World War II were the 105mm howitzer (M2A1) and 155mm howitzer.The towed 105mm and 155mm howitzers, which were standard issue by the late ‘30s, were improved but the Army continued testing even after Pearl Harbor. Materials and maintenance were constantly evaluated. As always, it was the seemingly simple changes that made a big difference. Innovations, like pneumatic tires, were used for the first time in 1942, which replaced the solid rubber ones. This made transport much easier and made for less wear and tear on the gun carriage.
The triangular structure of the World War II infantry division called for three battalions of 105mm supporting each of the three infantry regiments of the division and one heavy battalion of 155mm howitzers, which was used at the discretion of the Division artillery commander.
The 105mm M2A1, along with its many variants, was the most widely used light artillery piece in the American inventory. Between 1941 and 1945, 8,536 were produced. Based on a German design, it was developed after World War I. By 1941, it had replaced the 75mm field gun as standard issue. Twenty percent of all the shells fired by the US during the war were 105mm high explosive rounds. When fully charged, it fired a 33 pound shell, had a range of approximately seven miles, and one shell burst could cover 50 yards or more. It required a crew of nine men, although in combat this varied, with sometimes seven having to suffice during fire missions.The primary shells were high explosive (HE), armor piercing (HEAT) and smoke, which was primarily white phosphorus. There were various fuses. For HE rounds, these included point-detonating, or time and superquick. During the last six months of the war in Europe, the proximity fuse or variable-time fuse was introduced. It carried a small radar device which would trigger detonation at a preset distance from a target. This greatly enhanced the use of air bursts against the enemy, which could spread deadly shrapnel over a larger surface area.
When the Americans saw the success of the German armored forces in the first two years of the war rampaging across Europe, the development of self-propelled artillery became an imperative. They needed weapons that could keep up with the tanks of the new armored divisions. Finding the right chassis for both the 105mm and 155mm was the biggest problem. A 105mm mobile platform using the M3 tank chassis was developed in time for use in the North African campaign and it would go on to be one of the most successful weapons in the American inventory. Development of a self-propelled 155mm took much longer. Initially using the M3 chassis as well, the M12 155mm Gun Motor Carriage was developed using the French-designed 155mm GPF cannon. They did not begin arriving in Europe until the fall of 1944, and in much lesser numbers than the 105mm. Later designs were built on the M4 Sherman chassis and designated the M40. It used the U.S. 155mm M2 for its armament. All of the self-propelled 155mm battalions were Corps units and used in various artillery groups.
Eyes and Ears
Just prior to the outbreak of the war, a system of aerial forward observation was established. This was the penultimate development for the branch and helped the Americans become masters of combined arms tactics. It took a long intra-service fight. The Artillery hierarchy wanted their own planes and to have them under the control of the Battalion or Corps commander. Predictably, the Air Corps was incensed, wanting control of all air assets. The Artillerymen prevailed. The little Piper Cubs that the battalions used, known officially as the “L-4,” became a symbol of impending doom for many German troops. Enemy soldiers knew if they could see one in the sky, their position had been targeted and it would be only a matter of minutes before a rain of steel would come down. Time and time again in postwar interrogations, German soldiers mentioned seeing those planes and the fear they engendered.
The use of artillery reached its zenith in World War II. It accounted for the majority of casualties on the battlefield. After the war, when the U.S. Army conducted studies on the effectiveness of their efforts throughout every branch, it was the artillery branch that received the highest marks time and time again. The GIs of World War II owe much to the artillerymen who toiled between the wars fighting both a lack of funds and an entrenched establishment. Their dedication inspires the soldiers of today who still practice on the same windswept hills at Fort Sill.
- Dastrup, Boyd. King of Battle: A Branch History of the U.S. Army's Field Artillery. TRADOC 1992.
- Zaloga, Steven. U.S. Field Artillery in World War II. Osprey 2007.
- Field Artillery Journal, October 1943.
- Field Artillery Journal, November 1943
- Field Artillery Journal, December 1943
- Field Artillery Journal, January 1944.
- Field Artillery Journal, March 1945.
- John Gatens, U.S. Army Ret., Personal interview, October 17, 2011.
- John Schafner, U.S. Army Ret., Email interviews.
- Field Artillery Field Manual, Firing, Chief of Field Artillery, 1939.