American and German field artillery in the Battle of the Bulge
Facts about the German 88
Recent articles in military periodicals on the Battle of the Bulge remind us that many of the U.S. infantrymen who fought in the Bulge were woefully uninformed about the German Artillery — and his own artillery as well. This is not surprising, since the military training of most GIs had not included any formal instructions on the artillery weapons, organization, or tactics of the German or the American artillery.
What he picked up on his own about the artillery was sometimes misinformation based on myth, rumor, unreliable press articles, and "common knowledge." As a result, many infantrymen developed a distorted view of the artillery of the two nations. Often, these views exaggerated the power of the German weapons (especially the German 88mm gun) — and tended to disparage the American weapons as obsolete and qualitatively inferior to the Germans.
The purpose of this paper is to dispel some of those misperceptions — and to provide my fellow veterans with a factual account of the artillery of both sides in the Battle of the Bulge.
American field artillery in 1944 — obsolete or modern?
Perhaps a brief review of the changes made in the U.S. Field Artillery between the Great Wars will best answer this question.
During World War I the artillery arm of the AEF was equipped entirely with French (mostly the famous French 75mm gun), and a few British pieces. At that time the French weapons were technologically superior and were plentiful.
After the war, the U.S. decided to equip its peacetime army with the French WWI weapons. However, even before the war ended, some American artillery officers found defects in the French guns — and the U.S. Field Artillery School at Fort Sill OK, took the lead in calling for the modernization of the U.S. Field Artillery — and the replacing of all foreign weapons with improved weapons of American design. In response, several War Department Boards examined the question — including, among other things, replacing the French 75 with a new 105mm howitzer as the main division artillery piece.
In the 1920s, progress on the modernization project was slow due to limited funds, pacifism, and conservative tendencies in the Army, and the availability of surplus weapons. Despite these obstacles some progress was made on designing a new 105mm howitzer and other weapons. In the 1930s, the Field Artillery School kept pushing for the new weapons and the pace of modernization increased despite the effects of the Great Depression. However, there was continued resistance from conservative senior officers to replacing the 75 with a 105 howitzer. As late as 1939, General George C. Marshall still opposed it because of the cost involved. Nevertheless, with encouragement from the artillery school, innovative Artillery and ordnance officers continued in the 30s to experiment with new gun designs — and by the end of the decade prototypes had been developed for the howitzers and guns which saw action in WWII. Also in the 1930s after much debate, a decision was made to begin motorizing the Field Artillery (which was horse-drawn) — and by the end of the decade 75 percent of the division artillery had been motorized.
In May 1940, the Germans easily defeated the French and British with a new type of mobile armored welfare — and including the 105mm howitzer as their main divisional artillery weapon. In June the U.S. War Department finally announced that the U.S. division artillery would be armed with the new 105mm howitzer and the 155mm howitzer. And in 1942, the decision was made to fully motorize the U.S. Field Artillery. When the first American combat troops landed in North Africa in Algeria in November 1942, the First U.S. Infantry Division was armed with the new 105mmm howitzer M2A1 — and by the time the Division landed in Sicily in July 1943, it also had the new 155mm howitzer, M1. Moreover, all of the Division's artillery was motorized.
By the Battle of the Bulge (hereinafter referred to as the Bulge) in December 1944, all American artillery units had been equipped with new American weapons. The new weapons entered the service on the following dates:
105mm howitzer November 1942
155mm howitzer July 1943
155mm gun December 1941
(originally of UK design)
90mm gun 1943
8-inch howitzer 1942
240mm howitzer 1943
105mm howitzer 1943
155mm gun 1944
Thus, in the space of just over two decades and against formidable obstacles, the U.S. Army had managed to replace all of its World War I artillery pieces with new, modern howitzers and guns — and to convert from horse-drawn to motorized artillery. Ian Hogg, the noted British expert on World War II artillery believes the U.S. was so successful with its weapon program because its total focus was on creating new weapons. In contrast the German designers tried to overhaul current service weapons while designing new ones — thus not giving full attention to the new ones.
The American artillery weapons in the Bulge were not retrograde pieces of World War I vintage, but were virtually new — and in fact newer than many of the comparable German weapons of that day. How these new American weapons compared in quality with like weapons in the German Army will be discussed later in this paper.
Artillery weapons and organization in the Bulge
In order to keep this paper reasonably short — and to facilitate comparisons of the artillery of the two nations, the discussion will be limited to the artillery which participated in the Battle of Elsenborn; i.e., the artillery of 6th Panzer Army on the German side and the artillery of the opposing U.S. V Corps (-).
The Tactical Situation, Elsenborn Sector, as the Battle Begins on 16 Dec. 1944
For his counteroffensive Hitler decided to attack with three Armies in the thinly held Belgian Ardennes. The main effort would be made on the right by the tank heavy 6th Panzer Army in the Elsenborn Sector between Monschau and Losheim — where the Germans expected to encounter only one Infantry Division (the 99th) and a light Cavalry Group. Sixth Panzer Army included four SS Panzer Divisions, four infantry divisions, and a large artillery force — supported by a parachute drop and Skorzeney's Special Operations Group. The four SS Panzer Divisions were charged with exploiting the gaps opened up by the infantry divisions — and making a lightning dash to the Meuse River, Liege, and Antwerp. They expected to easily penetrate the 99th's widely dispersed defenses.
Much to their surprise, the Germans soon learned that they had failed to detect the presence of a second infantry division (the 2nd Infantry Division) in the 99th's sector. Moreover, the Germans had not anticipated that the Americans could reinforce the area with two additional divisions (the 1st Infantry Division at Butgenbach and the 9th Infantry Division at Monschau) by 19 Dec.
The Germans and American Artillery "Order of Battle" — Elsenborn, 16 Dec. 1944
As the Battle of Elsenborn began on 16 Dec. 1944, the German artillery of 6th Panzer Army greatly outnumbered the guns of the opposing U.S. V Corps elements — 1,222 to 314. (Thus belying the myth that the American artillery always outnumbered the Germans.)
For details on the weapons and organization of the artillery at Elsenborn see Chart A, for German Order of Battle (OB) and Chart B for the American OB. These charts present a picture of the weapons involved (by caliber, type, nomenclature, and assignment), and the artillery organization.
An analysis of the two charts presents some interesting insights:
The division artillery of the Germans and the American infantry divisions were surprisingly similar — both in weapons and organization. Both opted for a 105mm howitzer as the main close support weapon and for a medium howitzer of about 150mm.
At the Corps level there were noticeable differences in both weapons and organization. The Germans had a greater variety of cannon (including some Russian) and a much larger number and variety of rockets and very heavy guns. Organizationally, the Germans had no Corps Artillery Headquarters as such — and their non-divisional artillery was grouped into Volks Artillery Korps (VAKs), Werfer Brigades, and very heavy batteries.
Re the 88s: Chart A shows that the German 88mm guns were obviously not the main close support weapon in the German Army — (that function belonged to the 105mm howitzer). In he entire 6th Panzer Army there were only 216 towed 88s out of a total of 1,222 pieces — and most 88s were flak guns whose main mission was anti-aircraft defense. And note that there were no 88s in any of the German Infantry Divisions (VGDs).
One of the most notable advances in artillery weapons technology in WWII was the proximity fuse. In both of the Great wars, the fuses available for achieving air bursts were quit unsatisfactory — requiring daily registrations and settings at the guns. Needed, was a fuse that would explode the shell when it arrived in the proximity of the target — without registrations and individual settings. The U.S. put some of its best electronic and engineering experts on this very complicated problem. By 1944 the U.S. had built an operational proximity fuse for use against ground targets and the artillerymen called it Pozit or VT (variable time). It consisted of a tiny battery and a transmitter/receiver which sent and received electronic emissions until the shell reached he optimum distance from the target — at which instant it detonated the shell.
When the German offensive began on 16 Dec. 1944, General Eisenhower quickly released the new fuse for use in the ETO — and at Elsenborn it was first used on 19 Dec. at Monschau. The new fuse was employed tentatively at first because of fears that it would endanger friendly troops and aircraft. (It could not discriminate between friend and foe.) Therefore, the fuse was not fully exploited at Elsenborn during the Bulge. Nevertheless, the Pozit Fuse was one of the great technological achievements of WWII. (Note: Over the years, the U.S. Field Artillery resolved the safety problems and during the ongoing war in Iraq, the Pozit fuse has been used with excellent results.)
Quality of the weapons — a comparison
Since many Americans believe that the German artillery weapons firing at them were superior in quality to those of the Americans, we shall compare the close support weapons; that is, those guns which did most of the firing against enemy personnel — of both nations by assessing their respective characteristics.
See attached Chart C for a detailed comparison. Since this study focuses mainly on the close support weapons, only the principle light and medium pieces of the divisional artillery will be considered.
Chart C indicates that there is not much difference in the quality of the divisional weapons of the two sides. The American pieces have the edge in shell power, range, elevation, and transport — while the German weapons were slightly lighter (desirable for close support missions) and had more on-carriage traverse. In many cases the American weapon was as good as its counterpart in the German Army — and in some cases was better. The notion that the American guns/howitzers of the division artillery were somehow inferior to those of the Germans in the Bulge is without merit.
Three basic artillery functions
A significant aspect of the American artillery's performance in the Ardennes (and elsewhere) was not so much in the number of its tubes, but in its excellence in performing the three basic functions of the field artillery: shoot, move, and communicate.
a. The "shoot" or gunnery function.
The Americans called the shooting aspect of their mission gunnery. This function involved al of the activities incident to placing artillery fire on the target. Gunnery in World War II was the area where the American artillery made its most significant contribution — and particularly its use of massed fires.
As a result of experiences in WWI, the major powers had seen the need to improve their abilities to mass the fires of their division artillery. However, most nations were bounded by tradition and habit and were slow to make the necessary changes to bring this about. Only the U.S. was willing to make a clean break with the past and to restructure its entire artillery command and control structure in pursuit of a mass fire capability. Leading the way for the Americans was the Field Artillery School at Fort Sill OK, where in the 1920s a group of farsighted, innovative young officers became convinced that achieving such a capability should be a top priority. After much deliberation, they decided that in order to mass the fires of a division it would be necessary to make two major structural changes.
First, fire control within the battalion would have to be centralized at battalion headquarters rather than remain decentralized to the firing batteries. Hence the battalion commander would exercise fire control instead of the firing battery commanders. This idea caused great dismay among older artillery officers who liked the old arrangement and adamantly opposed diluting the authority of the firing battery commander. Despite high-level opposition to their ideas well into the 1930s, the officers at Ft. Sill knew that centralization was key to their success — so insisted on this change.
Secondly, to provide the battalion commander with the means to control the fires of the three batteries, Ft. Sill created a fire direction center (FDC) on the battalion staff to be manned by highly trained gunnery experts. All requests for fire would be funneled to the FDC where they would be processed, and fire commands relayed directly to the firing battery exec at the howitzer position. By 1934 Ft. Sill had developed a prototype FDC and in 1940 an innovative new graphical firing table was invented to help the FDC speed up its calculations. (Boyd Dastrup, King of Battles.)
With war looming in 1941, the war department finally approved the FDC system for the divisions — and FDCs were installed throughout the artillery. Refinements in the system continued to be made at Ft. Sill and in the units from 1941 to 1943. One of the most notable refinements was the time-on-target (TOT) mission in which not only are all batteries concentrated on one target, but the projectiles are programmed to arrive at the target at nearly the same moment. Hence, enemy personnel in the open are engulfed before they can take cover.
Subsequent combat operations proved the value of the massed fire and TOT techniques. In the Bulge, American divisions had no problem massing the fires of their 48 organic pieces of artillery. Although the massing of fires was normally limited to the fires of one division, at Elsenborn, by 20 Dec. there were four divisions defending the critical hinge of the northern shoulder. The V Corps Artillery Commander, Brig. Gen. Helmick, seized the moment and authorize the 2nd Division Artillery to coordinate the fires of all four divisions. On 22 Dec., the fires of three divisions (129 available guns) were massed by the 2nd Infantry Division on a single target. (It never became necessary during the battle to mass the fires of all four divisions.) On the 22nd, the 2nd Division fired 63 TOTs — mostly with 44 guns per mission.
The distinguished military historian, Trevor N. Dupuy believed that the U.S. FDC system was perhaps the most important reason why the U.S. artillery, by the end of World War II was "best in the world."
The Germans too were aware of the advantages of massed fires and tried to develop a capability during the Russian campaign. By February of 1944, their system had failed and they decided to design a new one. The new system involved a "fire control battery" to be attached to and to control the fires of each Volks Artillery Korps (VAKs). This system got its first test in the Bulge but ran into problems at the start. For example, there was only one fire control battery available in the 6th Panzer Army during the entire campaign — and it was not particularly effective. It was readily apparent to experienced American artillerymen that the Germans at Elsenborn were not massing their fires effectively in support of their attacks.
Another aspect of the gunnery was observation. Artillery fire is most accurate when it can be adjusted to the target by a trained observer. To ensure that they had good observation during WWII, armies employed both ground and air observers. Air observation had the advantage of being able to see deeper into enemy lines (and better detect targets like enemy artillery) — but the disadvantage of being limited by the weather. An artillery air observation capability was desired by all armies of that period.
In June 1942, the War Department decided that the field artillery should have an air observation capability, and two Piper Cub planes were authorized at battalion and higher levels.
In the Bulge, whenever the weather permitted, the American artillerymen made maximum use of their observation planes — with excellent results. German General Thoholte later noted that American artillery directed by air observation was "exceptionally good" and fire directed by air observation "usually knocked out" its target.
On the German side at Elsenborn, the situation was quite different because they no longer could fly cub planes in daylight because of U.S. air superiority. Therefore, the artillery of 6th Panzer Army had no air observation capability in the Battle of the Bulge.
In addition to being able to shoot, the field artillery must be capable of moving — and mobility was especially desired for the close support units of the division artillery. Mobility is required not only to transport the howitzers from one position to the next — but also to resupply the units with ammunition, fuel, and food. As noted earlier, howitzers are not much use if they cannot be supplied with ammunition.
In World War I, field artilleries were horse-drawn. In the 1920s the reformers at Fort Sill began urging that the U.S. Field Artillery be motorized. Despite considerable opposition to the idea, by 1935 the U.S. Army had begun to replace its horses with trucks. When the Germans demonstrated in 1940 what could be accomplished with highly mobile forces, the U.S. Army accelerated the pace of its motorization. By 1942, all American field artillery units had been fully motorized.
At Elsenborn, the excellent mobility of the artillery of the 99th and the 2nd Infantry Divisions enable them to minimize their losses when Col. Piper's Panzers broke through on their right flank.
The mobility of the German artillery was quite another story. Americans have been led to believe by WWII film documentaries that the whole German Army in the Bulge was highly mobile. However, in the 1930s, the Germans had decided not to motorize the infantry divisions. Hence, for most of WWII the artillery of the German infantry divisions was horse-drawn. In 1944, some of the light battalions were provided with captured and other vehicles — but the 150mm howitzer units remained horse-drawn and about half of the light battalions of the VAKs. Some units resorted to using a single prime mover for every three or four pieces.
In the Bulge, an acute shortage of gasoline further reduced the mobility of the German artillery. Because of the lack of transport and fuel, the German field artillery was not able to keep up with the advancing Panzers. For example, it took the 388th VAK four days to move its six battalions to the next position — a distance of only 12 miles. And only about half of the German Corps Artillery was able to follow in the wake of the offensive. (Danny Parker)
During the offensive, both armies at Elsenborn faced problem of re-supplying their firing batteries with ammunition — the Germans because of transport and fuel shortages, and the Americans because their main supply route was cut early — and their ammunition dump was endangered and evacuated. The Germans were unable to solve their ammo re-supply problems — while the Americans, thanks to their superior mobility, were able to solve theirs quite handily.
To perform its shooting (gunnery) function the field artillery must be able to communicate with higher, lower, and supported units. When the FDC system was being developed it became evident that in order to exercise the control necessary to mass fires the FDC would have to be provided with an elaborate, redundant, and reliable communication network involving the forward observers, FDC, and the gun batteries. Moreover, it should be an independent artillery system which did not rely on the infantry for wire links.
In WWII the primary means of communications was by phones — field wire in the infantry divisions. Radio was considered a "back up" means. During the Bulge, the American communication system generally performed well. During the first few days, there were some disruptions to wire lines cut by shell fire — but these were usually repaired with dispatch.
Regarding German artillery communications during the Bulge not much information is available at the division level. We do know that the senior artillery officer of 6th Panzer Army did not have independent artillery wire/radio links to his subordinate units — such as the system available to his counterpart in U.S. V Corps, Brig. Gen. Helmick.
The German 88mm Gun
The German 88mm gun is the best known artillery weapon of World War II. American combat veterans of the ETO have strong feelings about this particular weapon because they firmly believe that the 88 was the artillery piece that did most of the firing against them. Veterans tend to describe the 88 as a "super gun" "terrifying," "pervasive," and "scourge of the battlefield." By the Battle of the Bulge, the 88s had attained an almost mythical aura with the GIs and almost all German incoming artillery rounds, regardless of caliber, were referred to as "88s" by the troops.
But did these beliefs represent an accurate assessment of the 88 as a field artillery weapon — or were they an exaggeration of its role as an anti-personnel weapon?
The following is my attempt to answer this question — and hopefully, to provide some interesting facts about the 88s to my fellow veterans:
Development of the 88mm FLAK gun:
In 1925, the German Luftwaffe anticipated the need for a heavy anti-aircraft gun. Because of restrictions of the Versailles Treaty, the first gun was not produced until 1933 as the 88mm Flak 18. As war loomed in the mid-30s's, efforts were made continually to upgrade the Flak 88s — and new models were introduced in 1936, 1939, and 1942. As anti-aircraft guns, these weapons were placed under the Luftwaffe — with the mission of defending against enemy aircraft in both the Homeland and on the battlefields. During WWII the Germans built about 18,000 88s.
a. The 88mm Flak 18: Entered the service in 1933. The gun featured a single-tube barrel on a pedestal, and an ingenious semi-automatic breech and a cruciform platform carriage.
b. The 88mm Flak 36: Entered the service in 1936. Because of flaws in the Flak 18, the Germans redesigned the weapon and produced the Flak 36. This gun had a new three-piece barrel so the section near the chamber could be replaced separately. The basic mounting was changed from an octagonal to a square shape — and the piece was provided a new carriage.
c. The 88mm Flak 37: Entered the service in 1939. It employed a new improved data transmission system for finer control. And a simpler barrel construction of only two segments.
d. The 88mm Flak 41: Entered the service in 1942. This version of the Flak 88 was designed to enhance the weapon's capability as an anti-aircraft weapon by significantly increasing its maximum range. The Flak 41 could reach almost 9,000 feet higher than the Flak 37. It also had improved ballistics, an increase in the rate of fire, a new, longer tube, and new mounting and ammunition.
Uses of the FLAK guns — 1936 to 1945.
The Flak 18 was originally built to be an anti-aircraft gun and initially that was its only function. However, during the Spanish Civil War in 1936-37 it was discovered that the 88 could be used effectively as an anti-tank gun. However, it was not till 1941-42 that Rommel fully exploited its anti-tank capability with great success in the North African campaign. There, the treeless, flat terrain was ideal for the high velocity, flat trajectory weapon. Another advantage was that the Germans had many 88s while the Allies had no comparable heavy anti-tank gun. This disparity — plus German propaganda, helped trigger the "myth of the 88s."
The Flak 36 also was basically an anti-aircraft gun — but by the time it came on line, it was seen as a multiple purpose gun; that is, both as an anti-aircraft and anti-tank/field gun. However, during the invasion of Belgium and France in 1940 the flak guns were used mostly as anti-aircraft weapons — and only occasionally for anti-tank and anti-pillbox purposes.
The Flak 37 was a modification of the 36. By this time it was anticipated that large numbers of Flak 88s would be needed to defend the Homeland — and to provide the field units with both aircraft and tank defenses. In 1943, during the large tank battles in Russia, the Germans made good use of their 36s and 37s as heavy anti-tank weapons. And again when the Allies landed in Normandy, the Flak 88s were in great demand both as anti-aircraft and as anti-tank/field guns. During the Battle of the Bulge, when the weather cleared on 24 Dec., German armored formations looked to the Flak 88s to protect them from Allied planes which had air superiority. In addition, some anti-tank missions were fired — and a lesser number of close support missions. In the Bulge the German Flak 88 still greatly outnumbered the American heavy anti-aircraft guns. The excellent new 90mm gun performed the same multiple tasks as the Flaks — but were much fewer in number. (See Charts A and B.)
The Flak 41 had been built primarily to improve the anti-aircraft defense of key installations in the Homeland — and they were used for that purpose. Only a few of the Flak 41s ever saw action with the ground forces — and those were rarely used in the anti-tank/field role in the Bulge.
Development of 88mm PAK Gun.
As early as 1941 the German Army began expressing a requirement for an 88mm gun which would be used exclusively as a heavy anti-tank/field gun — with no anti-aircraft capability. Krupp came up with an excellent gun — the 88mm Pak 43 which entered the service in 1943. The next year a new version was available, the Pak 43/41 — and it was a superior anti-tank weapon. In the Battle of the Bulge two units of the 6th Panzer Army were equipped with the 43/41. The 388 VAK had one battalion of 18 guns — and the 683 Panzer Jaeger Abt had 36. The hilly, broken terrain of the Ardennes was not ideal for the employment of a heavy anti-tank gun like the deserts of North Africa had been, or the plains of Russia. Moreover, there were too few 43/41s to make much difference in the Bulge.
In summary, in the Battle of the Bulge the Germans employed two different types of towed 88s — a Flak and a Pak. The Flag guns were by far the more numerous and the gun performed three roles on the battlefield: anti-aircraft, anti-tank, and close support. As an anti-aircraft gun it was a good weapon. As an anti-aircraft gun it was superior. And as a close support gun it was only fair (as compared go the 105mm howitzer). The Paks were strictly anti-tank/field guns and were a superior anti-tank weapon. A late entry in the war, the Paks participated in the Bulge, but in limited numbers.
The Myth of the 88.
The myth was born in North Africa with Rommel's great success with the 88 as an anti-tank gun. At that time the Germans had plenty 88s while the U.S. and the UK had no comparable heavy anti-tank gun. German propaganda publicized it as an all-conquering super-weapon. The U.S. and UK infantrymen somehow came to believe the 88 was a major threat not only to tanks but to the infantry as well. In 1943 reports from the big tank battles in Russia extolled the prowess of the 88s as the only anti-tank gun that could stop the new Russian T-34 tank. By the Bulge in 1944, most U.S. combat infantrymen were fully persuaded that the 88 was their main nemesis on the battlefield — and they invariably yelled "88s" upon hearing an incoming round. Ian Hogg, the noted English expert on the artillery of WWII, noted this tendency in his book on the German artillery of WWII. And I personally noticed it as a forward observer at Elsenborn.
Myth vs. Reality.
Did the myth represent the truth about the 88s threat to the infantry? Was the 88 the main anti-personnel artillery piece in the German Army? The role of firing against opposing front line troops was the responsibility of the German Division artillery — which included several light battalions mostly of 105mm howitzers, a medium battalion, and an anti-aircraft battalion. The Panzer division's anti-aircraft element included a heavy 88 battalion which occasionally fired anti-personnel missions. But in the Panzer divisions there were about twice as many 105 howitzers as there were 88s. In 1944, the German Infantry (Volksgrenadier) Division had no heavy anti-aircraft unit and there was not a single 88 gun in the entire division in the Bulge. (See Chart A.)
Re the U.S. Field Artillery in WWII:
There is no merit to the allegations that the U.S. Field Artillery fought WWII with obsolete weapons of inferior quality. All of the American howitzers and guns were virtually new and compared quite favorably with those of the Germans — and they were more highly motorized. In the area of artillery technology, the American proximity fuse was an achievement unmatched by the Germans, though the Germans were ahead in missile technology.
In the area of artillery operations, the Americans were noticeably more effective at controlling the fires of the artillery by mastery of the massed fire techniques.
Re the German 88s:
Early in the war, the American infantry was misled into believing the 88 was more dangerous to men in the front lines than was actually the case. A myth developed and spread widely — and by the Battle of the Bulge, the U.S. infantrymen were persuaded that just about every artillery round fired at them were 88s. Actually, the 105mm howitzer was the German's main anti-personnel weapon — and fired many more rounds at the infantry than did the 88s — and with a larger shell.
Charles P. Biggio Jr.
Acknowledgements: My deep gratitude goes to the following for their assistance: Richard C. Anderson Jr., Danny Parker, Dan Rosen, Sue Thompson, Margaret A. Weaver, Ian Hogg, Boyd Dastrup, Rich Boyland, Dan Crowley, Charles Biggio III, and Lt. Gen. (USA-Ret) David E. Ott.