The gun that bombarded the French capital in 1918 was the most advanced weapon of its time.
A roar, followed immediately by an explosion in the Place de la Republique, shattered the early-spring Paris morning. It was 7:20 on March 23, 1918–the beginning of the third day of the immense German offensive in Picardy that was already threatening to drive a wedge between the French and British armies. Twenty minutes later there was an identical explosion in front of the Gare de l’Est entrance to the metro. When the smoke and dust cleared, eight lay dead and 13 others had been seriously injured. What was it? Al most instinctively, worried eyes combed the skies for the German bombers that had taken to staging nightly raids over the city. There was nothing–no aerial silhouettes, not even the drone of air craft engines. Yet the explosions continued, 25 that first day, killing 16 people and wounding 29 more. By noon the city, already bewildered and terrified by events to the north, had come almost to a standstill.
With an alacrity learned from years of continuous warfare, the Paris Defense Service immediately began gathering metal fragments and subjecting them to careful analysis. In less than three hours, they reached an altogether startling conclusion: Paris was not being bombed, but being shelled by artillery. Yet the nearest point along the German lines was 67 miles away, and adding an extra 10 miles for even moderate safety from counter battery fire, this meant that the offending cannon had to have a range of nearly 80 miles! As improbable as this seemed, further study of the fragments allowed French ordnance experts to hypothesize a projectile approximately eight inches in diameter, with abnormally thick side walls and rifling grooves cut into the steel body of the shell–all features corresponding to the enormous chamber pressures necessary to hurl a round this distance. Further, analysts were able to pinpoint a probable location in a stand of woods in German-held territory near the village of Crepy, almost 75 miles from the center of Paris.
By evening, orders went out to detach a battery of 305mm rail-mounted cannon within range of the designated spot. The very next day, March 24, the German gunners–Pariskanoniers, as they were called–found themselves subjected to a disconcerting, if not lethal, barrage. Amazingly, in almost every detail of the great gun’s configuration, performance, and location, the French ballistic experts had been right on the mark. Theirs was an exceptional feat of analysis, diametrically opposed in its realism to the body of legend and half-truths by which the Pariskanone is remembered today.
Even its name is a matter of misinformation, being frequently confused with either “Big Bertha,” a 420mm siege howitzer named after Gustav Krupp’s wife, or “Long Max,” a 380mm rail-mounted naval rifle that was the technological jumping-off point for the much more specialized Pariskanone. Similarly, more important considerations, such as the extent of its use and the number of casualties inflicted, have been chronically exaggerated.
William Manchester, in his otherwise excellent book about the Krupp family, states that during the 139 days of the big gun’s operation it launched a shell every 20 minutes, for a total of about 10,000 shots. Yet on the very same page, he indicates that the barrel, the length of a ten-story building, had to be straightened after every shot and replaced after every 65–making such a high rate of fire very unlikely.
In fact, the gun (or guns, because there were three in all, with seven barrels) was fired at Paris 367 times during four separate phases between March 23 and August 9, 1918. The tubes were subject to drooping and did require periodic straightening, using a sophisticated bore–sighting mechanism and a cable-based bracing system resembling one-half of a suspension bridge running along the barrel’s top. But this wasn’t necessary after every shot. Tube life was actually as short as 50 shots at first. The barrels were then returned to the Kruppwerke, where they were rebored to around nine inches. This greatly in creased their durability but also shortened the gun’s range, prompting several laborious moves closer to Paris; hence the intermittent periods of activity.
Krupp chroniclers Manchester and Peter Batty both state that over 1,000 Parisians were killed by the Pariskanone. The real figure is less than 260. The Pariskanone‘s reputation as a wanton killer is derived from one horrific incident: On March 29 the gun scored a direct hit on the Church of Saint-Gervais, packed with Good Friday worshipers, of whom 88 were killed and 68 injured. This kind of lethality was never even approximated before or after. During its initial phase of firings, the gun accounted for 122 dead and 247 wounded. Casualties soon declined dramatically as Parisians learned not to congregate in groups during shellings. Thereafter, when they died, it was by twos and threes, like traffic deaths; and most shells did not kill anyone. Nonetheless, the gun’s early success and the subsequent reaction of its intended victims say a good deal about its mission and results.
The Pariskanone was conceived as a strategic weapon, an integral part of the supreme German effort in the spring of 1918. The gun was intended to bring Paris to its knees, disrupting both government and war industries while German shock troops first cleaved the British and French forces, then drove the hapless poilus out of the trenches and back toward their capital.
Today the Pariskanone is most notable for its portentous similarity to the ballistic missiles that hold us hostage, and this may be why it is tinged with an aura of such fear and loathing. But the citizens of Paris, who knew nothing of nuclear warheads and world–girding missiles, found it possible to adjust to fewer than 400 explosions–which were, after all, rather small and frequently hit nothing in particular. When the German retreat in early August 1918 forced the gun out of range and ended five months of shelling, the great cannon had accomplished essentially nothing. As with the Gotha bombers that had struck London the previous year, the creators of the Pariskanone had con fused the concept of Schrecklichkeit (“frightfulness”) with its reality. True enough, the winds of change were blowing in this direction. But to work as advertised, terror weapons had to be really terrible.
Technologically the Pariskanone was much more impressive, but even here its legacy remains mixed. Purely as a piece of artillery, it was a formidable achievement, a statistical tour de force. Developed over the space of two years at the Kruppwerke by Dr. Otto von Eberhard and Ordnance Director Fritz Rausenberger, the gun was essentially a 15-inch naval rifle, tubed down to 8.26 inches, vastly reinforced, and almost doubled in length. What emerged was a veritable infernal engine.
Fueled by 432 pounds of smokeless powder, the gun developed 9 million horsepower as it accelerated its 264-pound projectile to 5,500 feet per second. The shell reached a height of 12 miles in less than half a minute and a maximum height of 24 miles in a minute and a half. For at least 50 miles of its range, the projectile traveled in a near-vacuum–so high and so far that the calculation of its trajectory had to take into account the earth’s curvature and rotation. The atmospherics within the gun were just as extreme, with the dynamic pressure on the breechlock and firing chamber reaching nearly 70,000 pounds per square inch, or approximately 4,700 times normal barometric pressure.
It was remarkable that any movable breech could withstand such forces–and as if to drive that point home, tube number three blew up on March 25 after only three shots, killing five of its picked crew from the Kruppwerke. And it was not just a matter of pressure; the heat and corrosive forces of the propellant gases had to be rammed progressively farther up the barrel until the tube lost all consistency of performance. The gun also had such enormous recoil that a 210-ton emplacement was needed to keep it from driving itself into the earth like a giant spike. The weight of the emplacement and the 180-ton dead weight of the gun and cradle amounted to over three-quarters of a million pounds of the finest Krupp steel–all to shoot a 264-pound projectile.
This is a telling point. For all its fabulous statistics and analogies to today’s ballistic missiles, its technological over achieving, the Pariskanone was a gun like other guns. The future, it turned out, belonged to rocketry and inertial guidance. Or so it seemed until a Canadian, Dr. Gerald Bull, entered the international arms market in the 1970s.
Something of a prodigy, Bull spent a decade working on guided missiles for the Canadian government before leaving to pursue his real interest: very big guns. He was convinced that a super cannon could be developed to launch small payloads into low earth orbit at a cost far below that of rockets. In the 1960s he obtained a previously unknown manuscript detailing Fritz Rausenberger’s work on the Pariskanone. Using that data, Bull did a computer analysis of the gun’s performance. He also developed a series of experimental guns, culminating in HARP I (High Altitude Research Project), two 16-inch naval rifles welded together, which in 1967 succeeded in shooting a projectile 112 miles into low space.
The U.S. and Canadian governments soon withdrew support in favor of missiles. Determined to build his supergun, Bull formed his own company. Apparently to finance it, he entered the inter national arms market with an innovative 155mm gun; in 1980 he was sentenced to six months in a U.S. prison for supplying it to South Africa.
He then moved to Brussels, where he forged close links to Iraq . Later, rumors spread that Iraq was financing a series of guns that would lead to the development of Bull’s supergun, 487 feet long with a range of 900 miles. In April 1990 the British government seized what appeared to be sections of a 200-foot gun barrel, labeled as oil piping and scheduled for shipment to Iraq. Other gun parts were seized in Germany and Turkey, but nearly 85 percent of the weapon reportedly did reach Iraq.
By then, however, Bull was dead. On March 22, just outside his Brussels apartment, an unknown assassin shot him twice in the head–ironically, perhaps, at point-blank range.
ROBERT L. O’CONNELL was an MHQ contributing editor.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 1991 issue (Vol. 3, No. 2) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Das Pariskanone
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