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Ubique - The Big Guns

Ubique - The Big Guns

The artillery branch of almost every army involved in the First World War underwent many changes, to keep pace with innovations introduced to the battle and tactics evolved to meet these new threats. The artillery in the French, British and German armies greatly increased in size, not only in terms of manpower levels, but also the number of guns. Massive barrages were fired to support operations, such as the Battle of the Somme in 1916, when guns of the Royal Artillery fired almost 250,000 shells in one hour just before the troops attacked on 1st July 1916.

The calibre of the weapons also increased, which made the guns more powerful in their primary role as field artillery. Also, as tanks and aircraft came to the battlefield, so new weapon designs were produced to counter these threats. During WWII, all armies used speciallydesigned anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns, firing specialist ammunition, which became more powerful, particularly the anti-tank guns, to defeat the heavier tanks, such as the Tiger and the T-34.

Today, there are groups portraying WWII, which use examples of these weapons, such 25-Pounder and 4.5-inch calibre field guns. There are also anti-aircraft guns, such as the British 3.7-inch and even anti-tank guns, including the British 6-Pounder and 17-Pounder and the German ‘88’. This last type was versatile and could operate either in the anti-tank or anti-aircraft role. Indeed, it became a legend in its own service life and was greatly feared by Allied tank crews in all theatres of the war.

Added realism

Displays involving these weapons are loud and exciting and battle re-enactment scenarios would not be the same without them. Even when seen as part of a static display, individual pieces of artillery attract attention, such as the leFH18 10.5cm calibre howitzer. This gun weighed almost two tons in action and could fire a shell weighing over 30-pounds in weight out to a range of around eight miles. As one of the standard pieces of artillery in the German army, it is seen at events where groups such as the Second Battle Group (SBG) have a display.

The SBG have other pieces of artillery in their collection, including an example of a PaK40 7.5cm anti-tank gun, which they tow into the arena and deploy for battle re-enactment displays. The gun fires blank charges loaded into shell cases, so that when in action, the crew operates the gun using the same drill actions from the war. The effect is realistic, especially when the target vehicle is fitted with a pyrotechnic charge, which is detonated to simulate being hit.

Other types of German artillery used by re-enactors include the PaK36/37 3.7cm anti-tank gun, which was one of the first types introduced into service when the German army re-armed. Original examples are extremely expensive; one was offered recently with an asking price of over £19,000. For this reason, groups tend to use replica versions, which can be purchased at more affordable rates and look very good. At the other end of the scale, is the mighty ‘88’, but purchasing an original example is expensive.

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One way around the problem is to borrow one from a friendly collector or military museum. This does happen on occasion, such as the all-female gun crew that I saw at an event in 2016. The group is called ‘Females Re-enacting Axis Units’ or FRAU (from the German for woman). They are based on thorough research and documented evidence, to show German women did serve the guns in action. To discover more about this unusual group and the role of women in wartime Germany visit the website at: www.f-r-a-u. page.tl.

Classic design

One of the most commonly seen types of artillery used by re-enactment groups is the British 25-Pounder field gun, but there are other types that make an appearance at events, such as the impressive 17-Pounder anti-tank gun. There are versions in private ownership, and at the Dig For Victory Show at Wraxall in Somerset, the only live-firing example turns up with a crew and vehicle to show it in action. This event is organised by James Shopland, who also has in his collection (www.shoplandcollection.com) a very rare example of a British 6-Pounder anti-tank gun mounted on the rear of an Austin truck, known as a ‘Portee’ combination, which was used mainly in North Africa.

Other types of artillery used by the British army, which are displayed by re-enactment groups, include the 2-Pounder and 6-Pounder towed versions of the anti-tank guns, which can be displayed in a variety of settings from Dunkirk 1940 to Arnhem 1944 respectively. The 3.7-inch anti-aircraft gun turns up at shows and sometimes a group will put on a firing display. At the Dig For Victory Show (www.digforvictoryshow.com) a pair of 3.7-inch guns fire together for a truly remarkable display.

The 75mm towed howitzer was developed for the American army, but is most often seen as shows used by groups depicting airborne forces. This is correct, because the weapon could be flown in by glider, as happened during Operation Market Garden in September 1944. Original examples of the 37mm calibre M3 anti-tank gun are quite rare and can be expensive, which is why, like the PaK36/37, most versions seen at events tend to be replicas. Indeed, there are some exceptionally good replicas available, more of which will be featured in a future issue.

There are other types of artillery, including Soviet Red Army guns, such as the 76.2mm Model 1942 field gun that have been seen at the occasional event and at the Tank Museum at Bovington in Dorset, the organisers of annual Tankfest sometimes include the massive German PaK 41/43 version of the 88mm gun, which is towed by a prime mover. There are other types of artillery that make the occasional appearance at events, such as the 5.5-inch and 4.5-inch field guns, as used by the British army, the 155mm ‘Long Tom’ as used by the American army. Whilst these are not always fired, it is their presence that does have an impact.

There is no denying, though, that displays with artillery please many people, from military enthusiasts to modellers and those who are generally interested in military history. Re-enactment groups can purchase artillery through the adverts on specialist Websites such as MilWeb (www. milweb.net). On this site, private owners post details of what they have on offer and museums or re-enactment groups advertise guns they wish to sell for whatever reason.

For those with a limited budget, replica versions of the smaller guns are sometimes offered for sale. Whatever a group chooses to use to illustrate artillery, the effect is always guaranteed to grab the attention.