U.S. and German Field Artillery in World War II: A Comparison
Written By: William G. Dennis
At first glance, there seems to be little difference between the artillery branches of the U.S. Army and German Wehrmacht in World War II. The American guns were a bit heavier than their German counterparts and generally had a longer range. The German 105mm was sufficiently similar to the American 105mm howitzer, and there were enough similarities overall between each army’s guns to allow the U.S. Army to equip two of its field artillery battalions with captured German pieces to take advantage of the enemy ammunition stocks captured in France.
Nevertheless, evaluating an army’s artillery requires a good deal more than looking at the standard guns that it deploys. To be fully effective, an artillery arm must be well supplied with suitable ammunition. There must be a sufficient supply of standard guns so that the units being supported can know what fires they can expect. It must have a good means of identifying and accurately locating a target and needs well-schooled forward observers who are in close contact not only with the batteries, but with the troops they are working with. Effective artillery requires fire direction centers that can accurately place fires and rapidly shift them from one target to another. Those fire direction centers must be able to co-ordinate with other artillery units to mass fires as needed. The guns must have effective prime movers or be mounted on tracked vehicles. There must be a sufficient supply of all of the above to meet the needs of the maneuver units or other forces the batteries are supporting. Finally, the guns must be protected from counter-battery fire or other interdiction.
In other words, artillery is a system with a number of interacting components. The gun is the most visible part, but the whole system must work well to make the gun effective. Any analysis that does not examine all components of the system, and acknowledge that interference with any part of it can sharply reduce its effectiveness, is incomplete.
A component by component examination of American and German artillery shows that almost from the beginning of America’s participation in the conflict the U.S. Army had the superior system. American artillerymen did not try to combat the enemy’s artillery by building bigger guns. The approach from the beginning was to build a better system and it worked. That was clear to thoughtful observers at the time. Viewing the Italian campaign, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel commented, “The enemy’s tremendous superiority in artillery, and even more in the air, has broken the front open.” During the Normandy campaign, Rommel added, “Also in evidence is their great superiority in artillery and outstandingly large supply of ammunition.” By any reasonable standard, especially during the latter part of World War II, the American artillery arm was very clearly superior to that of the Germans.
This fact may be startling since at the beginning of World War II, American artillery was armed with obsolete French guns that were transported via horses and unreliable trucks. In the next two years, however, the U.S. Army corrected twenty years of neglect by civilian authorities. The rest of this article examines the several components of the American and German artillery systems with an eye to showing how this transformation took place and describing its impact.
The potential for rapid improvement and transformation of the Army’s artillery was developed in the interwar years largely at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, the home of the U.S Army Field Artillery School. Fort Sill was also where then-Lieutenant Colonel Lesley J. McNair introduced modern instruction methods which greatly facilitated the Army’s ability to rapidly expand the Field Artillery branch.
When war broke out in Europe in September 1939, the Army’ artillery units were still equipped with the venerable 75mm and 155mm French guns purchased during World War I. The French 75 or, more properly the Matériel de 75mm Mle 1897, is considered the first of the modern artillery pieces and was capable of a high rate of fire out to 8,000 meters (approximately five miles). It was designed to counter the mass infantry attacks that were typical of the tactics of the late nineteenth century by placing large numbers of time-fused shells over bodies of enemy troops.
The Field Artillery branch had developed clear ideas of what guns were needed for the mobile war it saw coming. Their designs were well thought out and served America well and, in some cases, are still serving America’s allies. When the money was finally allocated, the Army could spend it effectively (after a bit of congressional prodding) to get the guns it wanted built in a minimum of time thanks to the Army’s Industrial Mobilization plan. The United States was the only country with such a plan. The first version was largely put together by a bright young major named Dwight D. Eisenhower. As a result, good quality field guns were available when the army landed in North Africa in November 1942. While the Army fought in North Africa with modern artillery pieces, the French 75mm gun still had a limited role at that stage of the war. One of the first German Mk. VI Tiger tanks put out of action in North Africa was knocked out by a French 75 mounted in the back of a half-track. Until the M10 tank destroyer became available, the Army used this expedient to provide units with a mobile antitank gun.
The effectiveness of American artillery, even at this early stage of American involvement, impressed Rommel. In an 18 February 1943 letter to his wife, he described the fighting in and around what American historians have called the Battle of Kasserine Pass. In part he commented “an observation plane directed the fire of numerous batteries on all worthwhile targets throughout the zone.”
By the time of Operation TORCH in November 1942, the Army had deployed an entire family of new guns. The M1 75mm pack howitzer, with a range of 8,880 meters (5.5 miles) for mountain, airborne, and jungle use, was put into service, and anything larger than a bicycle could move it. Two types of 105mm howitzers were assigned to infantry divisions. Each infantry regiment had a cannon company of short barreled M3 105mm howitzers that fired a reduced power round out to 7,600 meters (4.7 miles) for direct support. British historian Max Hastings has written that the Army withdrew the M3 from all but the airborne infantry late in the war, but that is inconsistent with the evidence available to the author. Each infantry division had three battalions of twelve M2 105mm howitzers, one battalion for each of the division’s three infantry regiments. The M2 105mm howitzer had a range about 12,000 meters (7.5 miles). The primary role of these guns was support of a designated infantry regiment, but they could also fire in support of other units. The aim of this practice was to enhance the effectiveness of the artillery/infantry team by having the same units habitually fight together, and it was largely successful. There was a smoothness to that cooperation that was rarely achieved with attached battalions of tanks and tank destroyers.
These new guns, especially the M2/M2A1 105mm howitzers, were superior to the French 75mm guns they replaced in part because of their longer range, but also because the larger caliber allowed a significantly larger bursting charge. They were also capable of plunging fire, which allowed the guns to engage targets in defilade, unlike the flatter trajectory of the French 75. In the infantry division their prime mover was usually a 2 ½-ton truck or an M5 high speed tractor. Each infantry division had another artillery battalion equipped with the tractor-drawn M1 155mm howitzer with a range almost 14,600 meters (nine miles). These guns provided general support of the division.
Heavier guns in separate battalions were attached to divisions, corps, or armies as needed. The M1 4.5-inch gun, range 19,300 meters (twelve miles), was used mainly for counter-battery fire. However, by the end of World War II, this gun was withdrawn from service despite its exceptional range. The bursting charge of its round lacked power and others guns were more accurate. The M1 8-inch howitzer had a range of almost 18,000 meters (eleven miles) and fired a 200-pound shell with great accuracy. The M1A1 155mm “Long Tom” could hurl a 127-pound projectile to a range of 22,000 meters (13.7 miles), while the M1 8-inch gun fired a 240-pound shell up to 32,500 meters (20.2 miles). The largest artillery pieces employed by the Army against Axis forces was the M1 240mm howitzer, which could fire 360-pound shell out to a range of 23,000 meters (14.3 miles).
If necessary, these heavier guns could be moved by truck, but they were usually pulled by the M4 high-speed tractor. In addition, there was a self-propelled version of the Long Tom. Under favorable conditions, an American heavy artillery battalion could road march up to 160 miles per day. These vehicles made American artillery far more mobile than German guns, which still relied heavily on horses for movement. German Field Marshal Erich von Manstein commented on the effectiveness of American trucks, even in the mud of the Russian front, where they sharply increased the mobility of Russian artillery units.
Another weapon that supplied supporting fires, although it was neither a cannon or assigned to the artillery, was the M1 4.2-inch chemical mortar. Its high explosive round had the same impact as the 105mm shell, and it was often used to supplement other supporting weapons.
Another category of guns that often supported the infantry with direct fire and indirect fire were those mounted on tank destroyers. Confusingly, that term was used to describe both towed antitank guns and those mounted on tracked vehicles. America built several such tank destroyers on a tracked chassis with a lightly armored, open topped turret. When the Army decided to build such vehicles, the Wehrmacht was making successful attacks with massed tanks. These highly mobile tank destroyers were intended to rush to the scene of such an attack and seal off the penetration. By the time tank destroyers were ready for employment, the days of Blitzkrieg were over but they remained successful in engaging German armor. They were also very useful as infantry support weapons. Their highly accurate, high-velocity guns were excellent for engaging fortifications and in an indirect fire role.
As mentioned earlier, the first mobile tank destroyers consisted of 75mm guns mounted on half-tracks. A better system was needed quickly, so Ordnance officials decided to use available guns and chassis. The M10, the first purpose-built tank destroyer, mounted a 3-inch naval gun (which was available because the Navy had phased it out) on a Sherman chassis. While it was a fairly good weapon, the vehicle was unnecessarily large and slow. The M10’s gun also lacked the desired punch. The M10 was eventually phased out in favor of the M18 (nicknamed the “Hellcat”), a smaller, faster vehicle that mounted a high-velocity 76mm gun. Germany continued to improve its tanks, so the Army developed the M36, which carried a 90mm antiaircraft gun. The Army issued the M36 to tank destroyer battalions in Europe in the latter part of the war.
Most American armored divisions deployed three battalions of standard 105mm howitzers mounted, in the open, on the chassis of an M3 Lee or, more frequently, an M4 Sherman tank. These were designated the M7 and nicknamed the “Priest” for their pulpit-like machine-gun ring. While the Sherman was overmatched by German tanks in terms of main guns and armor, it was far more mechanically reliable than comparable German vehicles, and since the unarmored version that carried the artillery piece was substantially lighter than the Sherman, it seemed to handle mud quite well when compared to the standard Sherman tank. Belton Cooper, a veteran of the 3d Armored Division and author of Deathtraps: The Survival of an American Armored Division on World War II, considered them one of the Army’s best pieces of equipment.
It has only taken a few paragraphs to describe America’s artillery and prime movers because America was able to adequately supply all of its forces with these few types of standard guns and vehicles. This was not the case with German artillery. Germany’s shortages were so severe that Germany seemed to employ nearly every gun that came into its possession. In The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944, Rick Atkinson wrote that half of the Wehrmacht’s artillery pieces on the Eastern Front were French guns. General Hans Eberbach, while commanding Fifth Panzer Army against the British in Normandy, wrote that his artillery included guns from every major power in Europe. It would be hard to overstate the logistical problems this caused. Acquiring the proper ammunition, let alone the firing tables and other equipment needed to keep the guns operational, must have been a nightmare. To add to his problems, the British alone had six times as many guns as he could deploy.
The mobility of American artillery was a sharp contrast to Germany’s situation. R. L. Dinardo’s excellent book, Mechanized Juggernaut or Military Anachronism? Horses in the German Army of World War II, covers the topic quite well. The relative lack of mobility of Germany’s artillery was caused by the limitations of the German economy, desultory planning, and the initiation of hostilities long before the planned expansion of the Wehrmacht was complete. The reliance on horses caused substantial problems in terms of speed of movement, low cargo capacity, short radius of action, and the disproportionate number of men needed to care for the animals. German horse-drawn artillery could only move at a rate of perhaps twenty-five miles a day for several days before the horses needed to rest. These problems were only partly mitigated by using the German rail system. Intense Allied bombing of German railways slowed the movement of troops, equipment, and supplies. The raids also caused heavy losses in men and materiel.
One way to appreciate the magnitude of the problems caused by horse-drawn artillery is to note that one of the reasons the German Sixth Army did not try to break out of its encirclement at Stalingrad was because most of its horses were in rehabilitation camps to the west and were outside of that encirclement. As a result, Sixth Army would not have been able to move its heavy weapons or ammunition during a breakout attempt.
The Trüppenführung, the basic statement of Germany’s war fighting doctrine, stated that the “Artillery must be used with great mobility to achieve its full effect.” The U.S. Army’s artillery achieved that goal far better than the Wehrmacht or any other army during World War II.
Part of the reason American artillery was so effective was good forward observation. During World War I, fire was adjusted by individual batteries. Battery commanders spotted the fall of their rounds, usually from a crude tower near the guns. In World War II, both German and American artillery fire direction was normally done at the battalion level. A fire direction center typically controlled at least a dozen guns, so better target acquisition and observation of the fall of the rounds than the Word War I practice was needed. In the fast-paced fighting of World War II, observers needed to be somewhere near or with the troops being supported, and they needed to have rapid communication with the fire direction center. When the troops were moving, landline telephones were useless. Even in static situations, the telephones, with their vulnerable lines, had serious limitations near the front lines. Radio was a possible solution, but early AM radios were fickle and often unreliable. Major, later General, Anthony C. McAuliffe studied the FM radios that the Connecticut State Police had began using and convinced the Army to develop FM vehicle radios. These provided a strong clear signal for about forty miles. Germany developed a family of high frequency vehicle radios for military use, but their radios were not nearly as effective as the American versions. By the last year of the war in Europe, Germany was deploying its own family of FM radios.
America added another element to forward observation: the light airplanes previously referred to by Rommel. Initially the Army Air Corps refused to listen to the to the light plane manufacturers’ pleas to be included in the war effort, so the manufacturers made planes available for free to generals conducting maneuvers. The benefits were so clear that, almost instantly, an irresistible clamor for their purchase arose.
The plane most used by U.S. forces was a slightly militarized Piper Cub designated the L-4. The aircraft was painted olive drab, equipped with a radio, and modified with the addition of a window was placed in the top of the fuselage behind the wing. Two planes were issued to each artillery battalion.
Replying in kind to American deployment of airborne artillery spotters was not an option for Axis forces. Germany had an airplane that would have served admirably, the Fiesler Fi 156 Storch (Stork), which was designed with artillery spotting in mind. Nevertheless, like so much German equipment, it was overdesigned and therefore too expensive for Germany to use it as widely as it would have needed to be used to make a difference in German capabilities. In addition, Allied air supremacy would have rapidly driven them from the sky.
The use of aerial spotters solved the problem of a shortage of spotters on the ground. The troops frequently operated in separate small units, too many to have a spotter with each one. The spotter on the ground could only see nearby targets, leaving some units unable to call for fire. The airborne spotters were so effective that, in some cases, the pilot/observer directed up to ninety-five percent of the artillery fire delivered. Not only could targets be far more clearly observed from the air, but targets further behind the front lines could also be engaged.
The mere presence of the observation planes in the air over the front lines had the effect of severely suppressing enemy fire. That impact was observed in both the European and Pacific Theaters. When the spotters were in the air, enemy batteries generally remained silent or limited their fire to a few rounds at dawn and dusk. So even after the plodding German batteries arrived at the front, they were often silent.
When they were forced to fire anyway, the counter-battery fire had a catastrophic impact on them. For example in the winter of 1944-45, Germany attempted to hold the Allies well west of the Rhine River. When that defense collapsed Germany took heavy losses as the troops attempted to flee across the few bridges available. German artillery attempted to slow the advancing Americans and the “air observation posts had several field days firing on the artillery batteries that were trying to protect the crossing of the Germans to the East bank of the Rhine River. These batteries were destroyed or silenced.”
Allied troops on the ground in all theaters were extremely grateful. The most dramatic proof is that in 1978, a former World War II observation pilot received a letter from a former infantryman. He had been under Japanese artillery fire on the island of Luzon when a spotter airplane came on the scene and silenced the Japanese battery by its mere presence. He was sure that the spotter had saved his life. Years later he succeeded in tracing down the pilot to personally express his gratitude.
The Field Artillery School at Fort Sill also developed the fire direction center for U.S. artillery battalions and brigades into a place where fires could be rapidly allocated and shifted as needed. It was common practice to combine fires of the artillery of two or more adjacent divisions in support of an attack of one of those divisions, and then shift all the fires to successive attacks by the other divisions. The four divisions fighting on the northern shoulder of the Battle of the Bulge went even further. They were supported by the fire of 348 guns and a battalion of 4.2-inch mortars. All of these guns were placed under the direction of the assistant division commander of the 1st Infantry Division and all their fire was coordinated through his headquarters.
The sophistication of American fire direction developed at Fort Sill included the uniquely American ability, at that time: to have several batteries fire “Time on Target” (TOT) shoots. The fire direction center directing the TOT broadcast a countdown to all of the batteries participating in the shoot. Each battery calculated the time of flight from their guns to the target. Each fired during the countdown at a time that caused the initial rounds from all of the guns to impact the target simultaneously. Its effect was shattering.
The sophistication of American fire direction is illustrated in an anecdote in My War, a memoir by Dr. Don Fusler, a soldier who served on a 57mm antitank gun crew. His unit had occupied a large farm in western Germany. On three occasions German artillery fire came in on them with suspicious accuracy, twice hitting tank destroyers and once the unit mess. A Russian slave laborer told them that when they had occupied the farm a German captain had been on leave there and had stayed behind with a radio when the rest of the defenders pulled out. He was captured and in his possession was a map showing all of the German artillery positions in the area. It was turned over to the division artillery which conducted a simultaneous TOT shoot on all of the German positions. No other artillery in the world could have done that at that time.
The ability to coordinate fire planning and execution with the troops being supported, to readily observe the impact of artillery fire, and to efficiently shift that fire as needed was extremely important. Prewar studies had made it clear that a synergistic effect occurred when infantry, artillery and armor fought as a closely coordinated whole. That was repeatedly confirmed during the war.
In Eisenhower’s Lieutenants: The Campaign for France and Germany, 1944-1945, American military historian Russell Weigley makes much of ammunition shortages, arising largely out of the difficulties in getting ammunition from Normandy to the fighting fronts. According to Weigley, this limited the effectiveness of U.S. artillery. This seems overblown. He is correct that the American forces did not always have as much ammunition as it might wish because they preferred to use their guns to pound German positions. In the fighting for Hill 192 outside of St. Lô, the 2d Infantry alone fired up to twenty TOTs a night to keep the defenders off balance. During interrogations, German prisoners of war (POWs) in France frequently remarked on the heavy volume of American fire they had experienced.
The effectiveness of German artillery was limited by ammunition shortages that dwarfed those of the Allies. Even in Russia in 1941, ammunition shortages were felt; by late that year heavy artillery units typically had about fifty rounds per gun on hand. Primarily because of supply problems, the German artillery supporting Fifth Panzer Army in Normandy could only fire about ten percent of what the British fired. Production problems, massive bombing raids on German manufacturing centers, and air interdiction of lines of communication all combined to seriously impede Germany’s ability to move ammunition and other supplies to its forces in Africa, Italy and the European campaign.
American artillery enjoyed another advantage that is hard to quantify: superior quality of the ammunition it fired. By 1942, Germany was drafting workers of military age out of factories and munitions plants and replacing them with POWs and slave laborers. They were not enthusiastic replacements, especially since they were usually working under harsh conditions. There are numerous anecdotes about sabotage that caused shells to fail to explode at crucial times. One of the best documented examples is described by Geoffrey Perret in There’s a War to be Won: The United States Army in World War II. Germany deployed batteries of long-range 170mm guns against the Anzio beachhead that could shoot from beyond the range of Allied counter-battery fire. However, they failed to do significant damage because seventy percent of the shells were duds.
The American artillery’s effectiveness got another boost in the winter of 1944-45. Against troops in the open, or without overhead cover, shells that burst just before they impact are much more effective than those that hit the ground before exploding. Normally, this is accomplished with a time fuze set to detonate the round a fraction of a second before it impacts. Getting the timing right can be tricky and slow the rate of firing. The proximity, or variable time (VT), fuze automatically exploded the shell above the ground, simplifying the gunners’ job. It was available earlier in the war, but fear that Germany would capture examples and reverse engineer the fuze for use against the fleets of bombers devastating the country kept the Allies from using it against targets forward of the front line. The Allies planned to begin using it against ground targets with the beginning of the New Year, but the German surprise offensive in the Ardennes, later known as the Battle of the Bulge, hastened its introduction by a few days.
The Allied artillery had a number of different types of impacts on the Normandy campaign and taken together their effect was huge. The fact that TOTs could drop without warning at any time meant that there was steady attrition in the front lines. The German front was always close to breaking so units were deployed at that front as soon as they arrived. The first to arrive tended to be well equipped elite units and they were quickly ground down. For example, the well trained 3d Parachute Division arrived from its training area in Brittany a few days after the invasion. It was deployed against the left flank of the American sector. Even when the front was relatively quiet, the Fallschirmjäger lost approximately 100 killed and several hundred wounded each day. As a result, an elite German division was seriously depleted before it was attacked by the 2d and 29th Infantry Divisions near St Lô. Panzer divisions that the Germans were also forced to commit to a defensive role had similar experiences. As a result, German opportunities to assemble a multi division force of near full strength units for the massive counterattack they needed to make to regain the initiative were severely limited.
What forces they could muster for counterattacks were virtually defeated before the attacks began. The most dramatic example took place in the British sector. Three full strength Panzer divisions arrived from Belgium and Poland and assembled near Caen. They were tasked with cutting the Caen-Bayeux road. Their assembly areas were so raked over by American and British artillery that the attack got off to a late shaky start and was called off less than twenty-four hours later. During American artillery attacks, U.S. guns neutralized crew-served weapons, destroyed defensive works, and kept the enemy infantry from manning its defenses until the fires were lifted.
In other cases, what should have been German successes were foiled by the tenacity of the men on the ground, backed by very substantial artillery support. For example, after the capture of Avranches and the breakout from the Normandy beachhead, the Germans launched Operation Lüttich, a foolhardy attempt to cut off American spearheads now penetrating deep into France. The plan was to drive from the vicinity of Falaise to the coast of the Gulf of St. Malo. The Germans made some initial progress until it reached the town of Mortain, where a battalion of the 30th Infantry Division occupied Hill 317. For three days, the Germans attempted to capture the hill, but the battalion, aided by curtains of artillery fire, held them off. It was an example of the artillery “putting solid walls of hot steel in front of American defensive positions” while calling in concentrations on German troops for miles around.
Later in the Battle of the Bulge, artillery provided the same protection. In addition, it hampered German attacks by separating infantry from its accompanying armor. Tanks unsupported by infantry were regularly taken out by American antitank guns and bazookas.
The advantages the armies of the western Allies had over the German were not limited to the excellence of their artillery. Some of these advantages are well understood and some less so. For example, there is not a lot in the histories of World War II about the fact that the Germans never developed the cavalry groups that gave the Allies an excellent reconnaissance capability. During the fighting at Mortain, there was a serious gap in the American lines. The Germans could have side slipped the axis of their advance into that gap but they never discovered it. The advantages of air superiority during the European campaigns were crucial and that topic is well developed elsewhere.
Nevertheless, the superiority of Allied and especially American artillery was one of the most important advantages the Allies had. American artillery in the European Theater was flexible, accurate, lethal, and highly mobile. At best, the German artillery arm was “competent but uninspired.” As Historian Michael Doubler put it in his book, Closing with the Enemy: How GIs Fought the War in Europe, 1944-1945, “By the summer of 1944 the field artillery had proven itself to be the most brilliant performer in the American combined arms team.” General George S. Patton, commander of Third Army, also praised the artillery, stating, “I do not have to tell you who won the war. You know. The artillery did.” The U.S. Army’s artillery refers to itself as the “King of Battle,” and its performance in Europe in World War II allowed it to rightfully claim that title.