Artillery Battalions in World War II
The use of artillery reached its zenith in World War II. The technical development between the world wars, particularly in the United States, created a system that was second to none. Time and time again in postwar interviews, German soldiers mentioned the fear that American artillery engendered along the front lines. They knew that as soon as an American spotter plane appeared over their positions, it would only take minutes before a massive barrage rained down death and destruction. There was no place to hide. The multitude of different caliber weapons combined with pre-configured firing tables meant no escape from its power. No matter how deep you tried to dig or how far you tried to run.
One of the keys to the success of the artillery branch in World War II lay in the structure of the battalion and its personnel. Whether it is within a division or as part of a Corps artillery group, the battalion was the primary unit structure for the artillery branch in World War II. Within those battalions were some of the most highly skilled personnel that the U.S. Army had throughout the war. Between the wars, there were important changes to the standard practices of the branch. Unit structure was evaluated, standard operating procedures were rewritten, and new technologies came on line. Regardless of the theater in which they operated, the branch was able to put all of these innovations into use.
The size of the battalion depended on its main weapon. The bigger the gun, the more men you needed, though the basic battalion structure for both the 105mm M2A1 and 155mm M1 units was similar regardless of the gun. Each battalion had three firing batteries (4 guns each), a Headquarters battery (the CO and his staff along with the fire direction personnel, communications center, etc.), and a Service battery (ammunition, basic supplies, mechanics, etc.). Batteries were further subdivided into sections. Battalions were usually headed by a lieutenant colonel with an executive officer who was usually a major. Batteries were headed by a captain with an exec who was a lieutenant. A 105mm battalion contained just over 500 men. Each battery had about 100 men, which broke down into five officers and 95 enlisted of various rank. A 155mm battalion had approximately 550 enlisted men with 30 officers, with each battery having around 120 men. I use the word approximately because once combat operations began, it was rare for any unit (Division, Battalion, Regimental, etc.) to have a complete table of organization. There was a replacement system, but the exigencies of combat left all units in the combat arms (infantry, armor, engineer or artillery) short of men. The Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 caused such a manpower crisis in infantry units that even some artillery units ended up sending non-essential personnel to the infantry as replacements.
Within an infantry division, there were four artillery battalions, three M2A1 105mm howitzer battalions and one 155mm battalion. The three 105mm battalion were assigned to one of the three infantry regiments to support, forming a combat team. The assignments were made back in the States and continued upon deployment. The 155mm battalion supported the units or areas most in need at the discretion of the Division artillery commander (better known as Divarty). There were also units called cannon companies that used the M3 105mm, a lightweight, short-barreled version of the gun. In the first two years of the war, the 105mm self-propelled and 75mm howitzer were their main weapons. But they were part of the infantry regiment, and used at the discretion of the regimental CO. In theory it was supposed to provide supplemental firepower for the infantry companies. However in practice, they just never seemed to fit into the basic operations of the regiment and in many cases, ended up being used as perimeter defense. Using the vernacular of today, they could be described as a heavy weapons company on steroids. After the war, they were disbanded.
Besides the four firing battalions, an infantry division’s artillery complement contained a Division Headquarters component. It consisted of a battery headquarters, operations platoon, communication platoon, an air observation section and a maintenance section. Included in the operations platoon was an instrument and survey section along with a meteorological section. The communications platoon had the wire and radio section which was provided with over 30 miles of telephone wire and 4 radio sets. The supply and cooks sections rounded out the unit.
The jobs of the enlisted members of each firing battery varied depending on their training and circumstances with many personnel being cross-trained to do a variety of work. Each gun crew was considered a section and within each section there was a sergeant (Section Chief), a gunner corporal and assistant gunner (known as the #1), two other assistant gunners and three cannoneers. A driver and assistant driver rounded out the 105mm section, making for a total of nine men. Although requiring more personnel and having some technical differences (i.e. external powder bags), the duties of the 155mm crews were essentially the same.
Behind the safety plate, on the left side of the breech, the gunner corporal worked a telescopic sight known as the gunner’s quadrant (or gunner’s scope), containing an azimuth scale that measured horizontal deflection, which he set on orders from the firing officer. Officially, it was called the M12A2 panoramic telescope. It could be rotated manually 360 degrees. The sight had an alcohol bubble which he had to level prior to firing while using number wheel to traverse the tube left or right.
Red and white aiming posts were laid to the rear of the sight, almost in a straight line. One aiming stake was approximately 30 to 40 yards back while another was placed halfway between the gun sight and the other stake. The position of aiming posts could vary depending on the unit and terrain. Upon receiving the orders from the firing officer such as Command Left 10 or Right 20, the key task for the gunner was to get the aiming stakes and the gun sight lined up on the vertical crosshair in the scope. If the command was left 10, the head of the site would then be moved off of the aiming stakes by that many degrees. Then he would use a hand wheel to traverse the gun left. Looking through the sight once again to determine that he was still lined up with the aiming stakes, his last task would be to level the bubble, and shout ‘Ready!’ This told the Section Chief that the gun was ready to fire; he then held up his right arm as a signal to the gun crew.
Keeping the gun aligned properly was a difficult task when under the pressure of multiple fire missions, so the gunners had ways of cheating a little bit. Where possible, they could set the scope on a fixed target (e.g. Church steeple) and line up the angle on that. The wide dispersal of an exploding shell, which could be more than 50 yards, gave the gunners room to be off a little bit.
While the gunner corporal worked his sight, the assistant gunner, positioned on the right side of the breech, operated a hand wheel to set the elevation. During the relay of firing commands, included were terms such as Up 15 or Down 5, from the zero. Once the orders were received, he would spin his wheel to the correct angle. But his task did not end there; he also operated the breech block, set the primer and pulled the lanyard upon the order, Fire! Both he and the gunner corporal were also responsible for keeping the crew away from the tremendous recoil of the barrel which could kill or maim, especially in the 155mm. After firing, the breech was opened by the #1 and the shell casing would drop out automatically, where it was picked up one of the loaders to be tossed aside.
The two assistant gunners and three other cannoneers in the section were responsible for packing the shells with powder bags, setting the fuses according to the mission specifics and loading. Although the shells were shipped semi-fixed with the fuse already installed, it was the powder that provided the punch, so that had to be added to the shell. Each shell could take up to seven bags of powder, which were wrapped in silk and tied together. Maximum range for the 105mm was approximately seven miles (12,205 yds). The ammo men would disassemble the shell, pack the bags based on the firing orders, and reattach the fuse. Then the fuse had to be set using a special wrench. The majority of the shells expended during fire missions were usually high explosive (HE). There was a setting sleeve located at the base of each fuse. On an HE round, the ammunition crews could set it for either point detonating (PD) or time superquick (TSQ). This depended on how it was turned. For example, if the setting sleeve was turned parallel to the shell, it was set for superquick. Under the pressure of a fire mission, these tasks were hellish in the freezing, wet weather of Northern Europe. If your frostbitten hands were not already cut up from separating the silk powder bags with a knife, you got soaked kneeling down in the puddles and mud that formed around the gun pit.
The crews on the 155mm had different challenges. Extra men were needed just to carry the shells. The 95-pound shell required separate-loading bagged charges that were loaded with the shell according to the orders given by the firing officer. There were seven different propelling charges, with TNT being the most frequently used. It was the sheer weight and logistics involved with the operations of the 155mm ammo that was daunting. Shells were usually shipped in pallets, with eight shells per pallet. At the ammo dumps, these were broken down for shipment by truck to the batteries. A truck could carry between 50 and 60 shells per trip. The fuses were shipped in crates, about 25 per box. The shells had lifting rings attached at their nose during shipment, and they had to be removed to install the fuse. As with the 105mm, color markings were used to differentiate the type of shells. The setting sleeves also mirrored those on the 105mm ammo. Because of the separately loaded powder, it was vital that the powder chambers of the 155mm tubes be swabbed and inspected after each round was fired. If too much powder residue built up in the barrel, it could cause a catastrophic explosion when a round was fired. Amazingly, those incidents were relatively rare considering the near constant use that most of the weapons received.
Other battery and battalion personnel included radiomen, wiremen, instrument operators (survey team), cooks, drivers, and mechanics. Many of the specialists were also grouped into sections and personnel from both the communications section and survey teams often were part of forward observation teams. Artillery batteries also had a fifth section, which was called the machine gun section. They were responsible for guarding the perimeter and hauling extra ammo.
One of the primary jobs of the instrument and survey section (also called the detail section) was to scout new positions for the battery, help lead the battery into and out of their firing positions, and lay in the guns. The skills of these men also translated into high quality artillery observers. They were also charged with conducting topographical surveys, which during combat operations were carried out rather infrequently. Upon arrival at a position, using such equipment as aiming circles, range finders, and other survey equipment like steel tapes and chains, the enlisted men of the section would lay in the guns to prepare them for aiming direction and elevation. Their officer would take a reading from the aiming circle so that the four guns of the battery would be aligned and shoot parallel with each other. The aiming circle was a small scope graduated with 6,400 mils as opposed to the usual 360 degrees (a mil is 1/6400 of a circle). It aids in laying in the guns by taking into account the Y Azimuth distance between true north and magnetic north. The reading was then given to each gunner while the howitzers were at zero deflection and a minimal elevation from level.
Many of the other non-firing battery assignments came with a multitude of dangers and nowhere was that more illustrated than for the men of the wire section of HQ Battery. Their job was to lay, repair and pick up telephone line. An artillery battalion communications net was its lifeline and monitoring its operation meant constant vigilance. The risk of being spotted by enemy observers was ever present. Running a spool of black telephone cord from HQ to an observation post could put one under fire from mortars, machine guns, snipers, shelling, both friendly and German, as well as enemy patrols. The black telephone cables were constantly shot up and there were up to several miles of cable laid out between an observation post and the FDC or battery. Dense woods, thick mud and snow made repairing the lines physically demanding work. Finding the break in a line required both skill and a little bit of luck. Usually, two men were sent out. They would follow a dead line some distance, usually to a place that had just been shelled. From there, they would splice into the line with their own EE8A telephone, and crank it to ring back to their starting place. If they received an answer, they had to keep moving and the procedure was repeated until they did not get an answer. This indicated that the break was somewhere between where they were and the location of the last “Okay” call.
The officers’ jobs within the battery varied. Despite the copious Army manuals and regulations that defined nearly every aspect of life, the Army still encouraged low-level decision making regarding daily operations of its combat units. Junior commanders were expected to use their own initiative. Although this concept was much more limited in the artillery branch than in other branches, in practice each battery’s CO had great autonomy on officer assignments. In many cases, the executive officer ran day-to-day operations and oversaw all firing sequences and missions. Just like the enlisted, the cross training of commissioned personnel was an essential element in every battalion. The other officers could be assigned to a variety of tasks, which included motor officer, daily maintenance, firing officer or forward observer.
Duty as an observer usually occurred on a rotating basis for the officers of each battery within the battalion. A lieutenant led the small team of 3 or 4 men to a forward outpost to spend up to several days manning a front line position. There was even an instance within the 106th ID when a battery commander was actually manning an observation outpost at the time of the initial attack during the Bulge. When the situation was more fluid, as was the case in the summer and fall of 1944, the observation team may stay with a particular infantry unit for an extended time.
The majority of the officers within the artillery branch were highly skilled. If not West Pointers, many were from military schools such as the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) or the Citadel. Others were graduates of rigorous artillery ROTC programs from around the country. The Ivy League schools supplied the artillery branch with hundreds of officers throughout the war. Many others were reserve officers with established professional careers in civilian life. Later in the war, field commissions for qualified noncoms became commonplace.
Packing A Punch
They Used Captured Weapons Too
Adapting to the Mission
Another key feature of American artillery during the war was the role of non-divisional artillery battalions of all calibers. These battalions were directly under the command of their respective Corps which had its own commanders and staff to coordinate all its elements. Battalions were also formed into field artillery groups of various calibers. The groups began forming in 1943. The command element of the groups was structured very similarly to that of a divisional artillery HQ with such features as fire direction center, H&H battery and service battery. A group was usually assigned from two to six battalions. One or more of the battalions of a group might be attached for direct support to an individual division. Such was the case with many African American artillery battalions. All of these units, regardless of their group or assignment, were considered Corps artillery. In a postwar study, the Army noted that the group command structure was one of the keys to success during the war because it permitted the commanders to shift artillery battalions from army to army, corps to corps or even to support individual divisions. This way the additional fire support went where it was needed quickly. During the Bulge, many of these Corps units were on the move every 12 to 24 hours. The shift of several large caliber artillery units, particularly segregated African American battalions, to Bastogne during the first 48 hours of the battle helped save the city from capture.
There were 238 separate field artillery battalions operating in the ETO by war’s end, with 36 105mm and 71 155mm battalions. This included self-propelled units such as the 275th Armored Field Artillery, who were positioned just north of the 106th. The other calibers were the 8 inch, the 240mm, and the 4.5 inch gun. For the larger caliber units and the armored field artillery, the number of guns per battalion differed from those of the standard infantry division artillery. Armored field artillery battalions had the same command structure within their organic divisions as the infantry, but contained 18 self-propelled howitzers instead of the usual 12 for the towed variety. The 8 inch gun and 240mm howitzer battalions had a total of six guns per battalion.
After the war, change came again. Guns continued to be improved while others were phased out. By the Korean War, they had added six guns to the standard battery. Self-propelled artillery took on a greater role and of course, missile and rocket technology changed the branch forever. But it was the work those battalions did in World War II that set the stage for the rest of the 20th Century and beyond.
Dastrup, Boyd. King of Battle: A Branch History of the U.S. Army's Field Artillery. TRADOC 1992.
Lee, Ulysses. The Employment of Negro Troops. U.S. Army 1966. (part of the Green Series)
Zaloga, Steven. U.S. Field Artillery in World War II. Osprey 2007.
Field Artillery Journal, March 1945.
Field Artillery Journal, October 1943.
Military History Online, "US Army in World War II: Artillery and AA Artillery." Rich Anderson, 2007.
John Gatens, U.S. Army Ret., Personal interview, October 17, 2011.
John Schafner, U.S. Army Ret., Email interivews.
For more information on the 589th Field Artillery, see
- Artillerymen in the Battle of the Bulge
Website on the 106th infantry division, history, uniforms, stories, biographies, weapons
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