Oct 15

Navy on the Western Front

Thursday, October 15, 2015 4:00 AM

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battery firing

A 14-inch/50-caliber gun firing on German targets in October 1918. Its ammunition car is at left. (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive)

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 approach 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 arrived in its own specially built train, trailing at its end a 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 (manned by naval crews) on the Western Front convinced Allied planners that an equivalent 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.

A 14-inch railway gun. Builder’s photo, taken at Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia. (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive)

On 26 November 1917, the Navy Department approved construction of a battery of five 14-inch/50-caliber guns, mounted on carriages specially built by the Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The guns could fire a 1,400-pound projectile from 15 to 43 degrees in elevation to a maximum of 42,000 yards—nearly 24 miles. The gun and its carriage weighed more than half a million pounds. The specially built train to pull them was designed to meet all French railway standards and consisted of a locomotive, construction car, crane car, 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. (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive)

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 more than 100 yards. At Montmedy, a direct hit was made on a German troop train with considerable casualties.

gun sitting

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-inch guns. (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive)

But despite 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,” Commander 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.”

But “[t]he railway batteries at Charny and Thierville did not operate with impunity,” recalled Lieutenant Commander 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,” 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. (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive)

“The men that manned the batteries deserve a great deal of credit,” Commander 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. (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive)

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). http://credit-n.ru/zaymyi-next.html деньги в долг