While doing some research in the US National Archives’ online catalogue I came across a very interesting video composed of footage from a couple of US Army Ordnance demonstrations so I thought I’d take the opportunity to talk about some very big guns.
Railway guns emerged during the late 19th century as a way of moving massive, large calibre guns which had a reach far beyond that of field artillery. Before aircraft were able to effectively attack behind enemy lines railways allowed armies to bring huge guns within range and harass their enemies lines of communication and supply.
This footage comes from Ordnance demonstrations at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in the early 1920s.
First up we have a US-built copy of the French 305mm Canon de 305 modèle 1893/96 à glissement, which according the original footage notes, was a 10in sliding mount for a gun firing a 150lb projectile. I also found some contemporary images of the gun being built at the US Watertown Arsenal, in Massachusetts, which describes it as the Model 1919. It may be the only example built by the US, Schneider built 8 of these guns for France during the war. When the gun fires we can see the whole gun and carriage recoil back a meter or so. Guns on sliding mounts cant be traversed and have to be aimed with specially laid track.
Next we have a 12 inch M1895 gun, mounted on a M1918 railway carriage which was based on the French Batignolles mount, with 360-degree traverse. Originally designed as a coastal defence gun, here’s a photograph taken in 1918 of the gun firing from a disappearing mount.
The M1895 had long been used as a coastal defence gun, and with US entry into the war surplus or unnecessary coastal guns were remounted as railway guns. The railway mounted M1895s had a large recuperator to mitigate the gun’s recoil. 12 were mounted, however, none reached France before the end of the war. We also get a nice shot of the shell hitting its target in the distance.
The 14 inch railway guns were the only big US guns to see action during WW1. Taking spare US Navy 14in naval guns, the 14″/50 caliber Mk 4 gun, which had been mounted in the New Mexico and Tennessee-class battleships, and mounting them in a carriage built by the Baldwin Locomotive Works. Once in position the guns had to have a recoil pit dug out beneath the carriage to allow space for the gun to recoil when it was at high elevation. They had a range of up to 25 miles.
Five Mk1 guns made it to France operating as single gun batteries manned by US Navy Sailors. The guns fired a total of 782 shells during the war, with Battery 4 firing its last shell at 10:57:30 a.m. on 11 November 1918.
Unlike the MkI guns that made it to France in this footage we see the gun without an armoured gun house, with the gunners working the gun in the open.
Finally, we have the truly massive 16 inch M1919 coastal gun . Designed for the Army Coast Artillery Corps to defend the US’ major coastal ports the 16-inch gun could throw a 2,340 lb shell up to 28 miles. In this footage we can see the gun mounted on an M1919 barbette carriage which could be elevated up to 65-degrees.
This second piece of footage dates from between 1929 and 1931, with dozens of West Point cadets gathered eagerly to see the gun in action.
Development of the gun actually began before the war in 1938, but the QF 6pdr MkII Anti-Tank gun didn’t enter full production until 1942. After the evacuation from Dunkirk in the summer of 1940, and the loss of nearly 600 AT guns, it was decided to focus on the 2pdr which was then already in production. The 6pdr saw action for the first time in the Western Desert against the Afrika Korps, serving alongside its predecessor the 2pdr.
The 6pdr was a 57mm gun, firing a 57x441mmR shell effective out to 1,700 yards or 1,500m – with a rated maximum range of 5,000 yd. Unlike its predecessor the 6pdr could fire both armour piercing and high explosive rounds. The gun weighed in at 2,520 lb or just under 1,150 kg. Manned by a six man crew the gun had a vertically sliding breechblock and could fire up to 15 rounds per minute.
The 6pdr had a Hydro-pneumatic recuperator which mitigated some of the gun’s recoil. The barrel recoiled around 30 inches along its cradle immediately after firing. It was mounted on a variety of carriages with the most common being a split trail carriage with 45-degrees of traverse left and right. The 6pdr could be fired with its split trail deployed or closed. The gun could be elevated 15-degrees and depressed 5-degrees – less than its predecessor, although elevation was not a key requirement for a direct fire weapon like an anti-tank gun.
Five Marks of 6pdr were produced, the MkI development model was declared obsolete and didn’t enter production. Production of the MkII began in late 1941, it had a shorter barrel and was later replaced by the longer barrelled MkIV, which also had a single-baffle muzzle brake, one of the first British guns to have one. The MkIII and V variants had special lugs to enable them to be mounted in tanks. The first guns produced were MkIIIs, while these could be carriage mounted they were earmarked for tanks.
The MkIII Airborne carriage was designed to be lighter so it could be transported aboard gliders and aircraft. Its trail legs were jointed in order to save room and the carriage was narrower which restricted the traverse to 37-degrees left or right. The shield was also redesigned with an even smaller profile. Identifiable by its straight, rather than wavy, top edge.
The gun was aimed using a No.22C 2 or 3-power sighting telescope, located on the left side of the gun, which projected through a sight box in the shield. The gunner also had an elevation wheel to his right and, unlike the 2pdr, the 6pdr used a free traverse rather than a geared wheel system. This was controlled by the gunner pushing or pulling the gun. The gun was fired by a firing lever on the left side of the breech. On the right side of the gun, an ammunition box with space for three rounds could be attached to the shield for emergency use. The gun shield consisted of two/four sections, made of bulletproof steel plate, which had a lower profile than the earlier 2pdr.
Unlike the 2pdr, the 6pdr had an array of ammunition that continued to evolve during the war. The initial armour piercing round could penetrate 70mm or 2.8in of armour at 1,600 yards / 1,500m while the Armour-Piercing Capped Ballistic Cap (APCBC) introduced in early 1943 increased this to 3.1in, while the Armour-Piercing, Discarding Sabot (APDS) shot introduced in Spring 1944, enabled it to effectively engage Tiger I and Panther frontal armour, penetrating 4.8 inches of armour at 1,500m. It is worth noting that figures on penetration vary somewhat from source to source. A high explosive shell that allowed the guns to engage non-armoured targets more effectively was introduced in 1943.
Initially used solely by the Royal Artillery’s anti-tank regiments comprising of four batteries, each with 12 guns. By 1944 an infantry division would be equipped with as many as 78 6pdrs and more than 30 heavier 17pdrs while an armoured divisions was equipped with 30 6pdrs.
The 6pdrs first saw action in North Africa proving to be highly effective against both Italian and German armour. During the Second Battle of El Alamein, 19 6pdrs were instrumental in the defence of Outpost Snipe. The 2nd Rifle Brigade and their supporting 6pdrs managed to knock out more than 55 Axis armoured vehicles including Panzer IIIs, Semovente 75/18 self-propelled guns and a number of Panzer IVs. The gunners used enfilading fire to target weaker side armour and interlocked fields of fire caught advancing tanks in killing grounds.
During Operation Market Garden, the airborne 6pdrs of the Airlanding Anti-Tank Batteries proved critical in beating back German armoured counter attacks around Oosterbeek and at the bridge in Arnhem itself. They were instrumental in repulsing the SS reconnaissance battalion which attempted to cross the bridge on the second day of the battle.
One desperate action involving a section of two 6pdrs saw three StuG-III self-propelled guns knocked out before the crews of both guns were killed. The last survivor, Lance-Sergeant Baskeyfield managed to man on of the guns alone and destroy a fourth StuG-III before he was killed. For his actions he was awarded the Victoria Cross.
Like its predecessor the 6pdr was also used as a vehicle gun, mounted in the Churchill Mks III & IV, Valentine Mk IX and the Crusader Mk III tanks as well as the Canadian MkII Ram and the MkII AEC Armoured Car. These vehicles had previously been designed to mount the 2pdr, but were adapted to fit the new 6pdr, in some cases having to remove a crew member from the turret to make enough room to fit the new gun. The Cavalier, Cromwell and Centaur tanks were designed to mount the new larger gun from scratch.
The first tank, equipped with a 6pdr, to go into action was the Mk III Churchill, which took part in the disastrous Dieppe Raid in August 1942. The new tanks, assigned to the 14th Army Tank Regiment (The Calgary Regiment (Tank)), were all abandoned or destroyed during the raid.
In North Africa, like the 2pdr, the heavier guns were mounted on trucks as Portees. Additionally AEC produced the Mk1 Gun Carrier or Deacon self-propelled gun – a 6pdr mounted in an armoured turret on the back of an AEC Matador truck chassis. These performed well in the desert but more enclosed country made them vulnerable and they were removed from service after the North African campaign.
It was not only tanks the 6pdr found itself mounted in. Coupled with the Molins automatic loading system it was also mounted in the RAF’s De Havilland Mosquito Mark XVIII ‘Tstetse’ and the Royal Navy’s motor torpedo boats. The Navy’s Molins auto-loader allowed the gun to fire a 6-round burst at a rate of 1 round per second. Nearly 600 naval versions of the gun, the QF 6pdr MkIIA, were produced. The RAF’s use was more short-lived with only 17 6pdr Tstetses built before 3in rockets were standardised. Despite this two Tsetse of 248 Squadron sank the German submarine U-976 in March 1944.
The US also adopted the 6pdr to replace their 37mm M3 anti-tank gun. It had initially been planned to produce the 6pdr in the US under the lend-lease agreement (4,242 guns were eventually delivered for British use) but in May 1941 the US approved the production of the 6pdr as the 57mm M1 Gun. The US M1 guns had a longer barrel than their British counterparts and many smaller differences in manufacture. The US, like Britain, mounted the gun on vehicles such as the M3 half-track – the T48 Gun Motor Carriage. By the end of the war the US has produced over 15,600 M1 anti-tank guns.
Ordnance QF 75mm was developed from the 6pdr, the 75mm guns were manufacture by boring out the 6pdr’s barrel to enable it to fire the US 75mm M46 HE round. The QF 75mm was fitted to a number of British armoured vehicles from 1943 onwards.
The 6pdr was a simpler gun to manufacture than its predecessor but despite being effective throughout the war it too was surpassed by a heavier gun, the QF 17pdr AT gun, which was developed in the early 1940s, the 17pdr was accepted for service in May 1942 but the 6pdr remained in service alongside the heavier guns.
After the end of the war the 6pdr continued to see use with a number of countries including Israel during the 1950s, the Irish Army and South Korea during the Korean War. The 6pdr remained in British service until 1951, before being replaced entirely by the 17pdr.
The British Army entered the First World War with very few mortars, and certainly none at the battalion level. As the stalemate of trench warfare set in and the effectiveness of enemy mortars became clear it was decided that trench mortars of various sizes would be needed.
Nicknamed ‘plum pudding’ or ‘toffee apple’ mortars after their projectile’s characteristic shape, the 2 inch Medium Mortar or 2 inch Trench Howitzer, was one of Britain’s first effective light trench mortars to be introduced.
Trench mortars were the army’s most forward artillery, right up on the front line. These short range weapons were able to throw large, high explosive projectiles, short distances across No Man’s Land at the enemy trench system opposite. The 2 inch mortar was considered accurate out to 350 yards with a maximum effective range out to just under 600 yards.
Introduced in 1915, the 2 inch mortar was originally crewed by men taken from the battalion it was stationed with, along with some specialists from the Royal Artillery. However, with the introduction of the 3 inch Stokes mortar which was operated by the infantry themselves the 2 inch mortars became the sole responsibility of the Royal Field Artillery.
Mortar positions were often in secondary trenches just behind the infantry’s frontline. This was to help protect the infantry from potential counter-battery fire. The trench mortars were often deployed to sectors to provide counter battery fire against German minenwerfers or in the run up to an offensive or local action. A British Army report on artillery use, drawn up in February 1917, noted that “Owing to their liability to be destroyed by hostile artillery fire it may often be advisable to defer opening fire with these mortars till the last day of bombardment.” The mortars were also tasked with keeping gaps made in the wire clear and with supporting any feint attacks made by infantry during gaps in the bombardment running up to a larger offensive.
Llewelyn Wyn Griffith, a captain with the 15th Royal Welch Fusiliers and later a novelist, recalled in his war memoir:
“At night a trench mortar officer set his guns in a derelict trench about twenty yards behind the line and carried up his ammunition, heavy globes of iron with a little cylindrical projection like a broken handle. In the morning I moved the men from the bays between the trench mortars and their target, to lighten the risk of loss from retaliatory fire.”
Sometimes the width of No Man’s Land required saps to be cut extending out from the frontline so the mortar rounds didn’t fall short. The 50 lb lollipop-like projectile had a maximum effective range of 570 yards (depending on the size of cordite charge used), and could create a crater 5 feet deep and 14 feet wide. The ideal mortar position was a 6 feet wide by 9 feet deep sandbagged pit with the weapon’s heavy wooden bed at the bottom and room for the crew to load the mortar.
Crews could manage to fire approximately once every two minutes. Much slower than the lighter 3 inch Stokes Mortar and but faster than the heavy 9.45 inch Heavy Mortar. The mortar comprising of just its tube, bed, stand and ignition system weighed 320 lbs (145kg), not including the accompanying tools and the Temple silencer system which could be fitted (which weighed 47 lbs or 21 kg alone).
Typically manned by a 5 man mortar crew comprising of an NCO, gunners, and ammunition bearers. To operate the 2 inch mortar a cordite charge was first placed down the tube, the projectile’s shaft was then inserted on top of the charge, the projectile’s fuse was set and checked and a new blank cartridge chambered in the ignition system. The crew then got clear of the weapon and pulled the lanyard to fire the mortar. To reload the crew ran a clearing stick down the tube and then repeated the loading process.
Interestingly, the 2 inch Medium Mortar, like the larger 9.45 inch Heavy Mortar used a cut-down rifle, which screwed into the ‘breech’ end of the mortar tube. This particular mortar has an 1894-dated cut down Lee-Enfield MkI as its ignition system, the cutdown rifle has a wooden insert in its magazine well but it still has its rear volley sight attached. This reusable system replaced the T-tube Friction ignitor, which was in high demand by Britain’s bigger guns. The Lee-Enfield-based system enabled the cordite propellant charges to be ignited by a blank .303 round instead. The rifle’s trigger was pulled with a lanyard from nearby cover. These cutdown ignitor rifle are sometimes confused for Obrez-style Lee-Enfields.
The weight of the cordite charge used dictated the range while a variety of different fuses were used with the projectiles, these screwed into the nose of the bomb. The sphere was about 9.3 inches in diameter with a 2 inch thread for the fuse at its head and a cup for the 22 inch long, 2 inch thick solid cast iron stick or spigot at its base. The sphere was filled with high explosive (Amatol or Ammonal). The high explosive bombs were painted white with a green or pink stripe around their middle.
They were often deployed in batteries of four with three Royal Field Artillery medium mortar batteries attached to each division. The mortars were predominantly tasked with cutting enemy barbed wire and destroying enemy trenches and forward positions, such a machine gun nests.
Captain Griffith described a battery of 2 inch mortars opening fire on enemy lines:
“A pop, and then a black ball went soaring up, spinning round as it went through the air slowly; more pops and more queer birds against the sky. A stutter of terrific detonations seems to shake the air and the ground, sandbags and bits of timber sailed up slowly and then fell in a calm deliberate way. In the silence that followed the explosions, an angry voice called out in English across No Man’s Land, ‘YOU BLOODY WELSH MURDERERS.’
The 2 inch medium mortar entered service in spring 1915 and remained in use into 1917 with British and Empire troops. It was used on the Western Front and in Mesopotamia. Over 800 were ordered initially with 675,000 bombs, many of the mortars were made in railway and agricultural machinery workshops, allowing larger factories to focus on more complex weapons. The 2 inch mortar was superseded by the larger bore Newton 6 inch mortar later in the war. Some of the remaining 2 inch projectiles were re-purposed as makeshift anti-tank mines, buried in no man’s land in anticipation of possible German tank attacks.
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The interwar period saw many countries under invest in their militaries, Britain was no exception. One area of equipment that went lacking for many years was adequate anti-tank weaponry. This was finally addressed in the mid-1930s with the Superintendent of Design at Woolwich arsenal developing the 2pdr anti-tank gun, which adopted in 1936.
Officially designated the ‘Ordnance QF 2-pounder Mark IX’, the 2pdr was an attempt to provide a light and mobile high velocity anti-tank gun which was relatively cheap to produce and effective against contemporary tank armour. It was also intended that the gun would itself be mounted in armoured vehicles and tanks.
In 1934 development contracts were awarded to Woolwich and the Vickers-Armstrong company for the design of carriages for the new gun, the Vickers Mark I and the Mark II from Woolwich. The Mark I had a slightly different armour shield and leg design.
These two carriages were tested against one another with trials taking place from November 1935 through to the summer of 1936. The Vickers design initially won out and the first order for 44 guns was placed in 1936. A subsequent re-evaluation of an improved version of the Woolwich carriage found it superior and the Mark II carriage was adopted.
The 2pdr fired a 40×304mmR armour piercing round which weighed 2lbs 6oz or 900g and was effective out to 1,000 yards against up to 1.5 inches of armour. It had a four man crew and was capable of firing up to 20 rounds per minute. It had an all steel barrel with a removeable breech ring and a vertically sliding breech block. The gun had an innovative and very stable three-legged collapsible platform, rather than a split-trail carriage, that also allowed the gun to be rotate through 360 degrees when its road wheels were removed. The 2pdr had a semi-automatic action with a hydraulic/hydrospring recoil system which used hydraulic fluid to absorb the gun’s recoil. This allowed the gun to be rapidly aimed and fired despite recoiling approximately 20 inches (or ~50cm).
A number of variants of the gun were developed during the war, with the original Mark IX, a simplified production model the Mark IXA, the Mark X which had a barrel made of higher-yield steel which was not autofrettaged – making it easier to manufacture and the Mark XA which was produced to lower tolerances and able to use the Littlejohn adapter.
Here’s a Royal Army Ordnance Corps training film on the 2pdr (courtesy of the AWM) in full:
Weighing around 1,800lbs or 816kg (or 4/5 of an Imperial Ton) the 2pdr was deemed to be too heavy for the infantry it had been designed for and in 1938 it was transferred to the Royal Artillery. Typically the guns were grouped together in anti-tank battalions each with three batteries made up of four troops which operated four guns each. That’s 16 guns per battery and 48 guns per battalion. Typically a battalion would be assigned to support a division. They were designed to be towed by a variety of vehicles with trucks, jeeps and Universal Carriers often being used.
The 2pdr was typically equipped with a No.24B 2x sighting telescope, located on the left side of the gun. It also had an iron sight but the armoured shield had to be lowered to use it. On the right side of the breech an ammunition box, holding 16 rounds was be stored for easy access, another two boxes holding 8 rounds each could be strapped to the carriage behind the ammunition box (described as the emergency ammunition box). The rest of the ammunition in twelve more 8-round containers, giving a total of 96 rounds assigned to each gun, was carried on the truck which towed the gun.
The gunlayer sat in a small seat mounted to the carriage and the loader knelt to the right of the breech. The gun was turned by a small traversing wheel operated by the gunlayer. In low gear one rotation of the wheel would turn the gun 3 degrees, in the higher gear (activated by the right foot pedal) one rotation traversed the gun 20 degrees. This meant the gun could be traversed the full 360 degrees with 18 rotations of the wheel. The right hand wheel controlled elevation of the barrel. The gun was fired by the gunlayer using the left foot pedal or two emergency firing levers if the pedal became inoperable. While the breech would typically open automatically ejecting the spent shell casing after firing a breech handle was also located on the right side of the breech.
The gun could be brought in and out of action in under a minute, including removing or replacing the road wheels. The 2pdr could, however, be fired from its road wheels, this was described as ‘emergency action’. The wheels limited the traversing arc of the gun and turns greater than 14 degrees right or 10 degrees left had to be done by lifting the gun’s trail and turning it manually. While less stable and accurate the gun could be brought into action from being towed in less than 20 seconds.
In 1939, the British Expeditionary Force to France embarked with 509 2pdrs. During the 1940 Battle for France the 2pdr was found to be an adequate anti-tank gun. One problem identified with the 2pdr was that its armour shield, designed to protect the crew, gave it a quite high profile making it easier to spot and more difficult to conceal.
During the retreat to Dunkirk and subsequent evacuation all of the guns brought to France were lost. 60% of Britain’s 2pdr Anti-Tank guns were left behind in France, just 333 guns which hadn’t accompanied the BEF remained. Many of the guns captured after the Dunkirk evacuations entered German service under the designation 4.0cm Pak 192(e).
As the thickness of enemy armour increased the 2pdr began to struggle. The German Panzer II had 1.2 inch thick frontal armour while the Panzer III more than doubled this to 2.8 inches. On paper at least the 2pdr, firing a APHV round, could penetrate up to 2.2 inches of armour at 500 yards (460m). But in reality the Panzer III was the last German tank the 2pdr could expect to engage with a decent chance of success. With the emergence of the later mark Panzer IV, with their 50mm or 2 inch thick frontal armour, they became much less effective. If not adequately concealed gun crews could expect to be engaged by AP and high explosive rounds from the Panzers at ranges outside their effective engagement range.
Despite this, however, the 2pdr proved to be a more than a match for Japanese tanks such as the Type 95 Ha-Go light tanks, which had armour less than an inch thick. At the Battle of Muar in Malaya, in January 1942, Australian 2pdrs, of the 13th Battery, 4th Anti-Tank Regiment, knocked out six, of possibly eight or nine, Japanese tanks as they attacked up a road near Bakri. Sgt. Charles Parsons, commander of one of the guns was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM). Interestingly. the Australians referred to the QF 2pdr AT Gun as the “Tank Attack 2pdr” apparently a designation common to Australian anti-tank weapons as they also called the PIAT the Projector, Infantry, Tank Attack.
The 2pdr remained capable of destroying heavier Japanese tanks too, the Type 97 Chi-Ha medium tank had at 1 inch thick front armour which the 2pdr could easily penetrate at ranges of over 1,500 yards.
Lieutenant Ben Hackney of the Australian 2/29th Battalion described the engagement during the Battle of Muar:
“A couple [of tanks] attempted to turn and make a get-away but still those boys with the anti-tank guns were sending a stream of shells into them. At last they could not move forward any further and became as pill-boxes surrounded, sending fire in all directions; until one by one they were smashed, set on fire, and rendered useless and uninhabitable. There came then from the tanks sounds which resembled an Empire Day celebration as the ammunition within them burnt, and cracked with sharp bursts, and hissed, with every now and again a louder explosion as larger ammunition ignited.”
In addition to being used as a towed anti-tank gun the QF 2pdr was used in a wide range of light and cruiser tanks, it provided the main armament for the Matilda II, the MKVII Tetrach light tank, the first six Marks of the Valentine infantry tank, the MKI & MKII Crusaders, the Cruiser Marks I to IV, the Covenanter tanks and it was also used in the Australian cruiser tank, the AC1 Sentinel.
It was also widely used to arm armoured cars including the Daimler, the MKI AEC, the MKI Coventry and the Marmon-Herrington Armoured Car. In the desert it was also mounted and operated simply on the back of adapted trucks – known as Portees. Trucks built by Chevrolet, Ford or Morris were all pressed into service to create Portees. The 2pdr was deployed on its tripod on the truck bed with its wheels removed. In this setup the guns became highly mobile with the crew able to operate the gun from the truck moving in and out of action rapidly. They were widely used in North Africa with a number of medals including a Victoria Cross being awarded to men who manned them.
Second Lieutenant George Ward Gunn, J Battery, Royal Horse Artillery, was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his actions in November 1941 during Operation Crusader. Gunn commanded a troop of four Portee 2pdrs which engaged a German counter attach, with all but one of his guns knocked out and the remaining gun’s crew killed and the truck on fire, Lieutenant Gunn manned the gun himself, engaging the enemy at 800 yards, he managed to destroy two Panzers before he was killed.
The example we are examining began its life as a Mark IX but was subsequently upgraded into a Mk XA, capable of using a Littlejohn adaptor. The Littlejohn adapter used the squeezebore principle, the device was about a footlong with a smooth tapered bore. With the adaptor fitted to the muzzle of the 2pdr the round would be compressed by the taper going from 40mm to 30mm in diameter. This had the effect of increasing muzzle velocity giving the round a flatter trajectory and more energy. An armour-piercing, composite non-rigid round with a tungsten core was used, designated the APSV (from ‘armour-piercing super velocity’). It had the effect of almost doubling the muzzle velocity of the APSV round when compared to the original 2pdr AP shell. The adaptor was invented by Czech designer, František Janeček, the founder of the JAWA motorcycle company. The Mk I Littlejohn device entered production in January 1943 and the Mk II was approved in May 1944.
While design of the 6pdr anti-tank gun, the 2pdr’s replacement, had been completed by 1938, production of the gun did not begin until 1942. Following the huge losses at Dunkirk and with invasion believed to be imminent the decision was taken to focus on the 2pdr gun as its production line was already established. They remained in service throughout the war equipping anti-tank batteries and armoured vehicles. Over 34,000 2pdr anti-tank guns were produced between 1936 and 1944, over 11,000 of these were deployed as anti-tank guns on carriages while the rest were used in various vehicles.
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Overall Length: 135.5in or 343cm
Weight: 1,800lbs or 816kg
Action: Semi-automatic, hydrospring recoil buffer
Calibre: 2pdr or 40×304mmR
Elevation: -13 / +15 degrees
Traverse: 360 degrees
Rate of fire: 20 rounds per minute
Anti-Tank Weapons, T. Gander, (2000)
British Anti-Tank Artillery 1939-45, C. Henry (2004)
‘British equipment Losses at Dunkirk and the Post-Dunkirk Situation’, WWII Equipment.com, D. Boyd, (source)
2 Pounder Anti-Tank, Royal Army Ordnance Corps (RAOC) training film, via AWM, (source)
Last summer I was lucky enough to visit the vast Fortalesa Isabel II which defended the port of Mahon, in Menorca. One of the fort’s most impressive sights is its huge 15 inch gun battery.
The Spanish island of Menorca, in the Balearic Islands, has a long and storied military history. The strategically important harbour of Mahon was historically the envy of the British, Spanish and French and was the reason for Fortalesa Isabel II’s construction. The for was the last major fortification built on the island, with the Spanish military beginning construction in 1850. A second phase of major improvements was made during 1853-1864. Work to improve and modernise the fort continued into the 20th century.
The Fortress is built on a beautiful rocky headland of La Mola at the mouth of the harbour and covers about a square kilometre. Construction was a massive undertaking and took over twenty years to complete, costing over nine million pesetas. The fortifications are some of the Mediterranean’s most impressive of the period.
The fort is a maze of tunnels, galleries, casements and buildings surrounded by a deep, dry moat. The fort’s first line of defence consisted of a moat 9 metres (30 feet) deep covered by rifle loop holes for infantrymen and embrasures for artillery. Interlocking fields of fire defend the landward approach to the fort’s main entrance, the Queen’s Gate.
Designed to dominate the entrance to the harbour the fortress was intended to hold 160 artillery pieces of various sizes, including Krupp guns and howitzers, many of these protected by strong stone casements. The fort’s armaments evolved overtime from muzzle-loaders to faster firing breech-loaders.
The Spanish continued to upgrade the fort’s guns over the decades mounting rifled guns and howitzers of various calibres ranging from 15cm to 30.5cm. In addition to the fort’s guns the defences also included mines in the harbour mouth and later a battery of shore launched torpedoes.
By the early 20th century the fort’s guns were increasingly obsolete against the backdrop of the naval revolution that saw Dreadnoughts come to dominate maritime warfare. With advances in naval architecture, armour and guns the Spanish government decided to purchase a number of massive 15 inch naval guns that could fire a 1,895 lb (860kg) shell up to 22 miles.
Spain purchased 18 of these massive guns made by the British Vickers company, they had originally been designed for the cancelled Brazilian battleship Riachuelo. In Spanish service the guns were officially designated the Costa de 38.1cm Modelo 1926. During the 1930s the new coastal guns were installed on both the Spanish mainland and Menorca. Two guns placed in the Castillitos Battery, defending Cartagena, opened fire on a Spanish Nationalist fleet, during the dying days of the Spanish Civil War. While Menorca’s guns never fired a shot in anger, they acted as a deterrent.
The first guns reached Mahon in 1932, with a second arriving in 1936, these were mounted on the cliffs of Cape Espero on the La Mola peninsular. The guns were so huge they had to be transported to the fort on a specially built railway pulled by hand and traction engine. These formidable new guns brought Fortalesa Isabel II’s armament up to date, enabling it to protect Mahon from any modern warship.
The 15 inch (or 381mm) Vickers battery at the fort was positioned 70m above sea level and commanded the entrance to the harbour. Six guns were eventually sent to Menorca with two placed on La Mola, two more installed in a battery at Favaritx (the remains of which can be seen here) in the north of the island and a pair at a battery near Llucalari in the south of the island.
While the guns at Favaritx were later removed, the guns at Llucalari remain. The fact that six of these massive and expensive naval guns were placed on Menorca shows its strategic value during the period.
The guns were mounted in barbettes which allowed the guns to traverse up to 300 degrees. The gun housing of the turret was armoured but while it would not protect the crew from a direct hit, it would protect against shrapnel. Below the guns were magazine stores for both cordite charge bags and projectiles, the machinery needed to rotate and move the gun and the motors to power it. Inside the turret were controls to open and close the breech, lift and lower the loading tray and aim the gun. The guns had a potential maximum range of 35km or 22 miles, however, the guns at La Mola lacked the necessary range-finding equipment to achieve this range.
The ancillary buildings for the battery on La Mola are built just behind the two gun emplacements with offices, stores and barracks built in an old quarry. As well as the two main guns the battery was supported by four faster firing 6 inch Vickers guns.
With the eruption of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, Menorca was initially held by the Republicans. But in 1939, the island fell to General Franco’s Nationalists and the fort’s military prison was used to house a number of prominent Republican prisoners. Throughout the Cold War the fort continued to be used by the Spanish Army as a training centre but the rise of air power, the invention of the cruise missile and nuclear weapons rendered the fort and its guns increasingly obsolete.
The last of Spain’s 15 inch guns were finally decommissioned in the mid-2000s, after nearly 80 years in service. Fortalesa Isabel II and her two massive guns never saw action, and today the site is maintained as an impressive museum which is well worth a visit.
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Length: 18m or 59 feet
Weight: 86.9 tons
Calibre: 15 inch or 381mm
Elevation -5 / +40 degrees
Traverse: 300 degrees
Rate of fire: 2 rounds per minute
The Fortress of Isabel II on La Mola in Mahon Harbour (19th 7 20th Century), F. Fornals (2007)
The Conquests and Reconquests of Menorca, M. Mata (1984)