Colossal German Cannon Shells Paris From 75 Miles Away
Today in Military History: March 23, 1918
During the waning days of “The Great War” aka the First World War, the residents of the French capital of Paris awoke one morning to explosions occurring all over the city. No explanation was offered at first, many citizens fearing a new high-flying German zeppelin had begun bombing the city. The reality was far more chilling, however. German engineering again gave the world another wartime breakthrough. However, it ended up as a dead-end sprout on the tree of military technology.
Considering the many modern weapons which German military forces utilized during the conflict, it is often wondered how they managed to lose the First World War. Consider these facts:
a) The Germans made the first extensive use of the Maxim machine gun – invented by American Hiram Maxim – which made the battlefields of 1914-18 much more dangerous;
b) Further, poison gas was first used by the Germans, unsuccessfully against the Russians in January of 1915, then with greater effectiveness on the Western Front versus the British and French few months later;
c) World War One also saw the first widespread use of submarines and the sudden, unexpected attacks by these vessels on warships and international commerce;
d) Finally, the Krupp manufacturing family – makers of artillery since the 1840’s – produced new and larger guns for the German army, the “Paris Gun” probably being one of their crowning achievements.
The “Kaiser Wilhelm Geshütz” (Emperor William Gun)
Much of the information we have about the Paris Gun is speculative; this is because the weapon was never captured by the Allies and the Germans probably destroyed the gun barrels. However, some facts about the weapon are known.
The Paris Gun was manufactured sometime in 1916-17, as the Germans were seeking some way to inflict psychological terror on the French capital. They took worn-out naval cannon, originally 380 mm (15 inches) and inserted an internal rifled tube that reduced the bore size to 210 mm (8 inches). The tube was 98 feet long, and protruded about 42 feet out of the end of the old gun-muzzle. An extension was bolted to the old gun-muzzle to cover and reinforce the lining tube. A further, smooth–bore extension was attached to the end of this, giving a total barrel length of 118 feet. (This smooth section was intended to improve accuracy and reduce the dispersion of the shells, as it reduced the slight yaw a shell might have immediately after leaving the gun barrel, that is produced by the gun's rifling.) The barrel was braced to counteract barrel droop due to its length and weight, and vibrations while firing. The original breech of the old, 380 mm gun did not require modification or reinforcement of any type. A total of seven gun-barrels were produced.
Since it was based on a naval weapon, the gun was manned by a crew of 80 German Imperial Navy sailors under the command of an admiral. It was surrounded by several batteries of standard army artillery to create a "noise-screen" chorus around the big gun so that it could not be located by French and British spotters. It was mounted on a special rail-transportable carriage and fired from a prepared, concrete emplacement with a turntable.
The shells fired by the Paris Gun were about 3.4 feet in length, and weighed 210 pounds. Each shell had an abnormally thick casing, and contained 33 pounds of explosives. The abnormal thickness of the shell casing, to withstand the massive forces of firing, meant that shell would explode into a comparatively small number of large fragments, limiting its destructive effect. One shell landing in the Tuileries Gardens was described by an eyewitness as producing a crater 10-12 feet wide and 4 feet deep.
The shells were propelled at such a high velocity that each successive shot wore away a considerable amount of steel from the rifled bore. Each shell was sequentially numbered according to its increasing diameter, and had to be fired in numeric order, lest the projectile lodge in the bore, and the gun explode. In addition, after every 65 rounds, the barrel was returned to the Krupp factory to be re-bored to a width of 238 mm with a new set of shells.
Each shell fired by the Paris Gun left the gun-bore at a velocity of 1600 meters/second (or 5250 feet/second). It reached a maximum altitude of 131,000 feet (25 miles, making it one of the first manmade objects to reach the Earth’s stratosphere). The shells could reach as far as 81 miles, but it took about 170 second to reach its target. As a result of the long distance, the Germans soon discovered that their shells were consistently falling to the right of their intended targets.
The weapon was emplaced on the north side of a hill in the forest of Coucy, near the town of Crépy, in the Department of Aisne in Picardy in northeastern France. It was near the Chateau Bellevue, which was on the south side of the same hill. The Germans used the chateau as their headquarters, while the owners were allowed to remain. Barracks for the gunners were dug underground, while the Germans added a tennis court, bowling alley, and swimming pool.
Bombardment of Paris
The first shells fired by the Paris Gun fell on Paris at 7:18 am on March 23. The explosion was heard across the city. Shell fell at about 15 minute intervals, with a total of 21 shells counted the first day.
The initial assumption was these were bombs dropped from aircraft too high to be seen. But within a few hours, sufficient casing fragments had been collected to show that the explosions were the result of shells, not bombs. By the end of the day, military authorities were aware the shells were being fired from behind German lines by a new, long range gun. There was initial, wild press speculation on the origin of the shells. This included the theory they were being fired by German agents close–by Paris, or even within the city itself; abandoned quarries close to the city were searched for a hidden gun to no avail. However, within days, the gun had been found by the French air reconnaissance. It was located by French aviator Didier Daurat. But, owing to the weapon being so far behind enemy lines, it was never neutralized.
The Paris Gun operated until August 9 of 1918, as American forces began moving towards it position. In all, the weapon is thought to have fired between 320 and 367 shells, with an average of 20 shells per day. The shells killed 250 people and wounded 620, and caused considerable damage to property. The worst incident was on March 29, when a single shell hit the roof of the St.-Gervais-et-St. Protais Church, collapsing the entire roof onto the congregation, then hearing the Good Friday service. A total of 88 people were killed and 68 were wounded.
The Germans are believed to have moved the weapon back to Germany, where it was likely destroyed, along with its construction plans. One of the spare gun-mounts sans cannon was captured by American troops near Chateau-Thierry, but the cannon itself was never found.
Footnote #1: During World War II, the Germans constructed a railway siege gun called “Heavy Gustav,” which was used against the Russian port of Sevastapol. It was destroyed by the Germans before the end of the war, though one of its shells is in the Polish Army Museum in Warsaw.
Footnote #2: The Germans were also working on another super-gun, designated the V-3, but also known as “Busy Lizzie” (see above). It was intended to bombard London across the English Channel from the Pas de Calais. It was never fully deployed and was destroyed by Allied bombers.