Oct 15

Navy on the Western Front: The 14-Inch Railway Guns in World War I

Thursday, October 15, 2015 4:00 AM


battery firing

A 14″/50-caliber battery firing on German targets. France, October, 1918. Its ammunition car is on the left. USNI Archives.

With a clanking rumble and puffs of steam and smoke, the U.S. Navy rolled into Paris in September, 1918. Word of the Navy’s coming had been telegraphed beforehand, and jubilant and curious crowds gathered not on the Seine, but at the railways stations, to witness the spectacle: the Navy had arrived in its own specially-built train, trailing at its end a new gun to rival the Germans’ terrible Paris-Geschütz that had been lobbing death on the city since March. The effectiveness of the German long-range guns on the Western Front (those guns manned by their own German naval crews) convinced Allied planners that an equivalent to this effective inshore fire support was needed.

As the Chief of the Naval Bureau of Ordnance wrote to the Chief of Naval Operations in November, 1917, “The above [situation] suggests the possibility of our mounting several 14-inch guns along the coast, fitted with high angles of fire, and with a specially formed shell, fitted with delayed action fuses, in order to outrange these German guns. Manned by our seamen, a battery of four of these guns might not be a bad answer to the long-range German bombardment of Dunkirk.”

The 14" railway battery. Builder's photo, taken at Baldwin Locomotive works by E. B. Duckett. USNI Archives.

The 14″ railway battery. Builder’s photo, taken at Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia by E. D. Duckett. USNI Archives.

On November 26th, 1917, the Navy Department approved construction of a battery of five 14″/50-caliber guns, mounted on a specially-built carriages built by the Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The guns could fire a 1,400-pound projectile from 15º to 43º in elevation to a maximum of 42,000 yards. The gun setup itself with its carriage weighed over half a million pounds. In addition to the gun car, the specially-built train designed to meet all French railway standards consisted of a locomotive, a construction car, a crane car, a kitchen car, two ammunition cars, three berthing cars for the gun crews, and a headquarters car for the battery.

Full view of one of the battery trains -- probably Battery No. 3 -- in October 1918. USNI Archives.

Full view of one of the battery trains — probably Battery No. 3 — in October 1918. USNI Archives.

Early in 1918, a letter was sent out by Rear Admiral Charles P. Plunkett, commanding officer of the new unit, describing the men he sought to man the battery:

“Select a detachment consisting of the officer or petty officer (in charge) whose name appears in parenthesis above and thirty other men, for most important duty.

This detachment should include only excellent men. It should include several men who can do machinist work, electrical work, radio work, concrete work, signaling, locomotive engineers and firemen, trainmen, carpenters, painters, plumbers, blacksmiths, automobile men, and an assortment of men of various trades.

It is not intended that all men should be men of trades; the majority of them should be intelligent and active young men, preferably those with some education. It is not necessary that the men have ratings indicative of their trades. Select excellent all-round men without regard to rating. Hold this detachment in readiness for orders.

Submit to the Director of Gunnery Exercises and Engineering Performances a list of the men showing their rates, branch of service, small arms qualifications, the place from which received, the various duties each has performed at your range and a brief statement of his former occupation, education, and things he can do.

Hold this party as a separate detachment. Have it begin an intensive course of training, covering all the Navy small-arms courses, including daily firing for each man. Give plenty of practice with pistols and revolvers, or both, and especially plenty of machine-gun practice, each man with each type of gun. Have plenty of practice at 600 and especially at 1,000 yards.

Every man must have a thorough knowledge of the mechanism of the pistol, rifle, and each type of machine gun. Include no man who is unable to qualify as sharpshooter or higher. Have daily instruction in signaling, including semaphore, blinker, buzzer, and radio if possible.

Every night (except Sunday) have instruction. Intensify the work and eliminate all men unable or not disposed to undergo incessant work.

Make daily report of range practice and of other instruction to the Director of Gunnery Exercises and Engineering Performances.

This is for the most important and desirable duty.

Sailor berthing

An enlisted sailor shown standing in front of one of the berthing cars of what is likely Battery No. 3. Note the bottles and mirror behind him, as well as the stenciling on the car to the right. USNI Archives.

In total, each battery train would have a compliment of:

  • 1 commanding officer
  • 1 construction officer
  • 1 orientation officer
  • 1 medical officer
  • 1 chief turret captain
  • 2 gunner’s mates, 1st class
  • 1 gunner’s mate, 2nd class
  • 2 machinist’s mates, 2nd class
  • 1 boatswain’s mate, 1st class
  • 2 coxswains
  • 1 electrician, 1st class
  • 1 electrician, 2nd class
  • 23 seamen
  • 1 chief machinist’s mate
  • 8 ship fitters, 1st class
  • 8 ship fitters, 2nd class
  • 8 carpenter’s mates, 1st class
  • 1 ship’s cook, 1st class
  • 1 baker, 1st class
  • 1 ship’s cook, 2nd class
  • 4 ship’s cooks, 4th class


Marine guards seen in what may be a shell hole from the battery. USNI Archives.

Battery officers standing in what is probably a crater made by one of the big guns’ shells. USNI Archives.

Accordingly, a draft of 250 men and 8 officers, under Commander Garret L. Schuyler, U.S.N., and a second draft of 207 men and six officers under Lieutenant Commander Joel W. Bunkley sailed for Staint-Nazaire, France in June, 1918. As LCDR Bunkley would later write in Proceedings, “The men’s trades and capabilities in civil life had previously been card-indexed and had been found to include everything from an undertaker to a major league baseball pitcher, and many of these trades were now used to advantage.” When they arrived in France, the batteries, still operated by the Navy, were placed under the command of the U.S. Army’s Railroad Artillery Reserve. The men adopted the insignia of the “Oozlefinch” or “Woozlefinch” — a species that was “neither flesh, nor fish, nor fowl” — a most appropriate symbol of the unusual hybrid operation if there ever was one.

Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt (center, with cane) inspecting a battery train at Saint-Nazaire, France. U.S. Army Signal Corps photo 29418 (USNI Archives).

Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt (center, with cane) inspecting a battery train at Saint-Nazaire, France. U.S. Army Signal Corps photo 29418 (USNI Archives).

The day the first Naval battery arrived, the dreaded Paris Gun was removed and sent back to Germany. With that menace out of the way, the Naval batteries were redirected against German railway lines and marshaling yards with deadly effect. At Laon, a shell hit a moving supply train, lifting one boxcar from the tracks entirely and throwing it onto a nearby platform. Another ripped up the entire three-track line for a distance of over 100 yards. At Montmedy, a direct hit was made on a German troop train with considerable casualties.

gun sitting

Hiding the Gun from an enemy airplane?” The men of what is likely Battery 3 and the photographer have a bit of fun posing atop the barrel of one of the 14″ guns. USNI Archives.

But in spite of their apparent effectiveness, the guns were already largely obsolete even before they were built. The rise of the warplane was quickly spelling the end of the railway gun. “Every night,” CDR Bunkley recalled,

“large enemy bombers could be heard overhead searching for the batteries and ammunition dumps and shortly afterwards explosions near by loudly indicated where the bombs had hit. The battery cars, with the exception of the ammunition cars, were always placed some distance from the firing position, and camouflaged as best they could be. On the first night the enemy bombers came over, although the men had been trained to lie flat on the ground or get into near-by trenches, many of them ran for the berthing cars, but fortunately there were no close hits. The night of September 23 was an interesting one. The Boche planes were over in force dropping bombs all around the guns. Direct hits were made on a large ammunition dump about a half mile from No. 1 train and during the remainder of the night there was a continuous bombardment from exploding shells of all calibers. Among others, some fifty thousand ’75’s’ were exploded and as a result, most of the trees within a large radius were stripped of limbs and leaves. The engines always kept a head of steam, so that, when the shells began to drop on all sides, the train was moved about a mile up the track where it remained until the next morning.”

But “[t]he railway batteries at Charny and Thierville did not operate with impunity,” recalled LCDR L.B. Bye,

“They were repeatedly shelled and bombed as was the case at Soissons. On October 30 Battery No. 2 reported firing six rounds into Montmedy with a range of 37,382 yards, the first shot at 12.04 p. m., and the last shot at 12.29 p. m. The enemy at the time was shelling cross roads between the gun and the berthing cars. Three American engineers working on the track nearby were killed. The headquarters and one berthing car were derailed and replaced without damage. Battery No. 4, on the same day, reported five other soldiers killed and others injured by enemy shells which fell near the crossing of the roads (railway and wagon) at Charny. One shell which killed two and injured several others fell within 50 feet of the blue-jacket in the naval railway battery telephone control station. Gas masks were always carried and the men of the railway battery had to be continually prepared for casualties. When off duty the men remained in dugouts. On October 28 the following men of Battery No. 4 were wounded by enemy shell-fire:

  • GUTHRIE, .K. W., S. F. 2C, U. S. N., wounded on left leg.
  • SHARPE, A. P., S. F. 1C, U. S. N. R. F., wounded on left leg.
  • BURDETT, A. J., S. F. 2C, U. S. N., wounded on face.

Two other men received slight wounds; Sharpe died on October 29 while in the hospital at Glorieux, near Verdun.”

Shipfitter Sharpe would be the only sailor killed out of the five batteries.

“There was no let-up in the fire of the naval batteries until the Armistice went into effect,” LCDR Bunkley recalled in 1931. “The last shot was fired from No. 4 gun on the morning of November 11 at 10:57:30, which permitted it to land a few seconds before eleven o’clock.” The guns had fired 782 rounds against the enemy on 25 different days, averaging around 50 rounds or more each per day. But with the Armistice signed, the war had come to an end.

Locomotive no. 1, in the lead of one of the battery trains. Note the "U. S. N." on the tender. USNI Archives.

Locomotive no. 1, in the lead of one of the battery trains — probably Battery 3. Note the “U. S. N.” on the tender. USNI Archives.

“The men that manned the batteries deserve a great deal of credit,” CDR Bunkley concluded.

“Most of them fresh from civilian life, college men, railroad men, men who had never before seen a gun fired, soon became first-class sailor-men, webb-footed soldiers if you will, who, in five weeks’ time at St. Nazaire, assembled the whole outfit, guns, mounts, and trains, and who at the front performed like veterans, surmounted all obstacles, and handled their individual jobs in a most efficient manner.As predicted by the French populace when the batteries were en route to the front, finis la guerre was not long in coming and the men of the naval railway batteries contributed, in no small way, to its end.”

Lt. Smith

Lieutenant William G. Smith, U. S. N., Train Commander, gunnery and orientation, Battery 3. USNI Archives.

Today, one of the railway batteries is preserved at the Washington Navy Yard.

For more information, see:

CDR J. W. Bunkley, “The Woozelfinch: The Navy 14-Inch Railway Guns,” Proceedings 57, No. 5 (May, 1931).

LCDR L. B. Bye, “U. S. Naval Railway Batteries,” Proceedings 45, No. 6 (June, 1919).