In 1917, railway-mounted artillery was not a new innovation; the first recorded use of cannon mounted on railcars was during the Civil War. World War I, however, as it did with many other innovations, expanded the combination’s scope and breadth.
The Germans first used very large naval guns at Verdun in 1915. The eight 38-centimeter (15-inch), 45-caliber guns were designed and built as the main armament for two stillborn battleships of the Bayern class. As first employed, they required fixed concrete emplacements that took months to build. In November 1917, the U.S. Navy’s Bureau of Ordnance received a report from Navy Lieutenant Commander G. L. Schuyler with information concerning the maximum range of one of the guns, singly emplaced near Ostend, Belgium, which was firing into Dunkirk. Known as the “Leugenboom” gun, it had a range of 50,300 yards, or slightly more than 28.5 miles. No British guns in the sector could equal this range, and it was evident that the Germans were making great strides in modifying their naval guns so that they could be used on land for long-range bombardment.
An Idea Born
On 12 November 1917, Bureau of Ordnance chief Rear Admiral Ralph Earle suggested to the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) the possibility of mounting several 14-inch naval guns along the Belgian coast as an answer to the long-range German bombardment of Dunkirk. The CNO found merit in the suggestion and requested a plan. The process literally raced from there. Two weeks later, the CNO approved an organization of five rail mounts with a complete train for each, along with a sixth headquarters train.
The task of coordinating all efforts to accomplish the manufacture and shipment of guns, mounts, carriages, cars, locomotives, and other necessary equipment fell to Lieutenant Commander Levi B. Bye. The guns—drawn from ten spare 14-inch, 50-caliber, Mk IVs intended for New Mexico- and Tennessee-class battleships—had to be adapted to mounting on railcars. Turret specialists hashed out issues with personnel at the Naval Gun Factory who were experienced in bridge and locomotive work. Further, the railcars had to meet French railway standards.
Each battery, under the command of a Navy lieutenant, was to be a complete self-sustaining unit, designed to operate individually or in conjunction with the others. Each consisted of one naval rifle mounted on a 72-foot, 267.5-ton railcar with four six-wheel bogies. The remainder of the train included a locomotive and tender, two armored ammunition cars carrying 25 shells each, and 11 other cars accommodating a 10-ton crane, recoil pit foundation materials, fuel, workshop, berthing, kitchen, commissary, and a medical dispensary.
By 25 January 1918, the gun factory had completed drawings and sketches not only for the mounts, but the supporting cars as well. Barely three weeks later, the Baldwin Locomotive Works in Eddystone, Pennsylvania, received the contract for building the five gun cars and six standard U.S. Army 2-8-0 locomotives. The Standard Steel Car Company of Butler, Pennsylvania, was to build the 72 auxiliary cars.
In the interim, Captain Charles Peshall Plunkett, later a rear admiral, was detailed at his own request as commanding officer of the naval railway batteries, with responsibility for assembling and training their crews. He had no shortage of volunteers once news of the formerly secret project spread. Lieutenant Commander Bye wrote that “this is for most important and desirable duty,” and that “oral and written requests for detail to this organization were received from at least 20,000 different officers and men.” The final manning selected was 500 men and 30 officers.
Baldwin promised delivery in less than 120 days. It delivered the first mount on 25 April, just 72 days from receipt of the contract and 120 days from the first ink put to the drawings. The last was delivered exactly a month later. Standard Steel’s cars were completed six days later, on 1 June, despite a small tornado and major fire in its Hammond, Indiana, shops.
Battle of St. Nazaire
After training and breaking down the batteries for transportation to France, the first draft of 250 men and eight officers sailed on 26 May, arriving at St. Nazaire on 10 June. The remainder arrived by 16 July. Battery shipments began from Philadelphia on 20 June on board the USS Newport News (AK-3). She arrived at St. Nazaire, France, on 8 July. The last shipments, carried by the Navy freighters Bath, Pensacola, Malang, and Rappahannock, arrived by 15 August.
Immediately on their arrival, the artillery sailors “fought” their first “battle.” Nothing at St. Nazaire existed for their quartering and little for their work. A report noted: “The men’s trades and capabilities in civil life had previously been card-indexed and had been found to include everything from an undertaker to a major league baseball pitcher, and many of these trades were now used to advantage.” Within ten days, the artillerymen-cum-World-War-I-Seabees had completed their barracks using lumber from the locomotive packing cases. Their new compound even included a small brig. They constructed a siding on which to erect the cars and requisitioned a mile-long stretch of track to test the cars and work in their bearings. A nearby machine shop with two 150-ton cranes was commandeered for mounting the guns and erecting the locomotives, and they built a small air-compressor plant for riveting and painting.
Despite completion of their facilities, the “battle” raged on. Practically no complete units arrived on which to begin work. Parts for cars were mixed with those from the guns. Lieutenant Commander Dexter C. Buell noted: “We have had no construction difficulties of any kind, other than lack of material when we needed it. The ships were all loaded upside down.” Of the more than 80,000 rivets required, none had arrived. Packages so marked contained unusable stove bolts. A frantic search throughout France found only metric-sized pieces, which had to be drawn down to proper size. Further, Buell neglected to note that the blueprints had never arrived. If not for the detailed sketches and notes taken by bluejackets assigned to assist the factory inspections, the batteries could not have been reconstructed.
Round-the-clock ship offloading had its issues as well. On midnight one Sunday, a 14-inch gun was left dangling in the air over the Bath, ostensibly because the crane had broken down. Admiral Plunkett, who was overseeing the operation, “climbed to the top of the crane and, with a five-franc note, soon had the crane in working order again.” While many missing parts were obtained through channels from the Army, the ancient military art of scrounging also was practiced. Destroyermen, in particular, are renowned as among the best practitioners, but one report describes them as “pikers compared to railroad men.”
Throughout this, assembly was little delayed. The locomotive and car erection began on 20 July, and assembly of the first gun was begun six days later. The first train was completed and ready to leave St. Nazaire on 11 August.
There remained, however, a significant concern. The axle load of the gun cars was 13,000 pounds heavier per axle than allowed by French authorities. The Americans did not fear an overload. Admiral Plunkett noted: “[W]e have tried all the tracks in St. Nazaire, culminating in a passage over a temporary crib work which rather shocked the railroad people, but demonstrated that this mount of ours negotiates things that were never contemplated in its original design.”
The French fear for their trackage was rendered moot by the urgent need for the American guns at the front. But while the tracks could tolerate the loads, the wheel bearings could not. It was “practically impossible” to move the guns any great distance at a speed of greater than 5 to 10 miles per hour without more than “normal trouble” and “certainly without more than can be tolerated in a mount carrying a gun of this value.”
A Strategic Weapon
The gun, with a maximum range of 42,000 yards—some 23.8 miles—could be fired at any elevation from zero to 43 degrees. At angles of 15 degrees or less the rail trucks provided the necessary support and recoil was absorbed by the car, which rolled backward against the wheel brakes. At any higher angle, the gun required a pit reinforced by heavy wooden beams and steel supports to accommodate its 44-inch recoil. This required an average of 30 to 36 hours to construct. Once completed, the gun was rolled over it, raised off its locked trucks by jacks and lifting screws fore and aft, and locked to a heavy steel transom bed plate. The rails above the pit were removed because the breech was too wide to pass between them. This emplacement required a further 60 to 90 minutes.
Once emplaced, a traversing gear allowed 21/2 degrees train on either side of the centerline. The only major difference between the gun’s rail mount and a ship mount was the addition of a pneumatic system to assist the runout springs to return the gun to firing position after recoil. The springs alone were too weak to accommodate the land version’s maximum elevation, which was 13 degrees greater than the 30-degree shipboard mount.
The naval batteries were strategic weapons with targets no closer than 14 miles. Their combat numbers are not impressive, firing a total of only 871 rounds—782 at the enemy—over just 25 of the 66 days they were operational. There was, however, method to the madness of expending so few rounds on so few days.
Their targets were primarily “garages” (freight yards) and railway centers far behind the lines. Fire was withheld until several hours after an infantry attack. The objective was to wait for the proper moment when enemy reserves were being rushed in and then bombard rail centers when they were most crowded. Had they fired at the opening of the offensive, they would have revealed their objective, giving the Germans the chance to reroute troop and ammunition trains. Further, the guns were limited by their life expectancy of firing 300 of the 1,400-lb. rounds. Thus, firing for effect between advances was wasteful not only of ammunition—there were only 1,500 rounds total—but also of gun life. By the armistice, Battery Nos. 1 and 3 had nearly reached their limits.
Before going to the front, the French tested Battery No. 1 at the Nuisemont proving ground. The Americans were given a target 18 miles away, at which they proceeded to place four rounds “almost within a stone’s throw of each other.” The French general had seen enough. “Waste no more ammunition, but go and fire it against the Germans,” he told Admiral Plunkett.
Organizationally, the naval railway batteries were assigned to the Railway Artillery Reserve of the First American Army, with its advance base at Haussimont. From there, they were reassigned to either a French or American sector based on need. In general, Battery Nos. 1 and 2 operated with the French armies west of Reims during the Oise-Aisne offensive, while Nos. 3, 4, and 5 supported the U.S. Army at Verdun. During the Meuse-Argonne offensive, Battery No. 2 was called to reinforce the American sector, after which it returned to French control. Despite the mobility afforded by the guns’ rail mountings, their strategic utility dictated their movement. Thus, Battery Nos. 1 and 5 each operated from only one base, while Nos. 3 and 4 fired from two each, and those were just 2.5 miles apart. Only Battery No. 2, which operated from four bases and in both sectors nearly 150 miles apart, had significant movement.
After the proof firing of Battery No. 1, it was ordered to Soissons, where it began to bombard the Laon rail yards. Through 12 October, when the French began to occupy the town, the battery fired 285 rounds, within just 15 rounds of its useful life. After standing down for a week, the battery began moving on 24 October for Champenoux, 186 miles to the east, to begin an assault on the Metz area. The crew was digging the recoil pit when they received news of the armistice.
Naval Railway Battery No. 2 was the first in action. On 6 September, from the Forest of Compiègne near Rethondes, it fired a single shot into Tergnier, which the Germans soon began to evacuate. At 0030 that night, the gun began a five-hour, 13-mile trek to Fontenoy-Ambleny. Over two days, from the 14th, it destroyed an “enormous” ammunition dump in Besny-et-Loizy with 22 rounds. It took two days from 6 October for the gun to move 48 miles to Flavy-le-Martel to attack the rail center at Mortiers. Over three days from the 11th, it threw 38 rounds into the rail yard. The Germans withdrew on the 16th.
The American Expeditionary Forces requested support and assigned No. 2 a position at Charny, five miles north of Verdun. It took the battery nearly six days to travel the 145 miles, arriving at 0230 on 30 October. Less than ten hours later, at 1204, it fired its first round at the Montmédy rail center. The short turnaround time from arrival to firing was aided by Battery No. 4 constructing the recoil pit while No. 2 was in transit. Through 2 November, the battery fired 55 rounds, after which it was ordered to rejoin the French, but this time 85 miles to the east at Lunéville, to begin operations against Metz. The gunners were digging their pit on the morning of the 11th, when they received word at 0940 to stop because of the armistice.
Battery Nos. 3, 4, and 5 left St. Nazaire beginning 12 September, and after a nearly two-week trip to Haussimont, were ordered to positions near Verdun. From there they were to attack, in the words of a captured German document, “the most important artery of the army of the west.” This immensely important double-tracked rail route, which paralleled the Verdun battlefront from Metz to Sedan, allowed swift and safe movement of German troops and supplies. It was several thousand yards beyond the range of Allied artillery—until the arrival of the Navy batteries. There were two strategic positions along the line. Longuyon was a detraining point with 15 long sidings and numerous storehouses, and Montmédy, headquarters of the Seventh German Army, had a rail yard, large troop barracks, and an airfield.
The three batteries arrived at Thierville early in October, and on the 23rd, each fired one ranging round into Longuyon. Their arrival put the rail line in serious jeopardy, and the Germans responded in kind with heavy artillery fire and aerial bombing. Although no guns or cars were directly hit, the gun and ammunition cars’ armor plate proved its worth. Weather prevented further firing until the 29th, when, once again, all three batteries opened up, but this time on Mangiennes with ten rounds each. On the 30th, Battery No. 4 joined No. 2 at Charny.
The German attacks, however, did not deter the constant bombardment of Longuyon and Montmédy. From Thierville, Battery No. 3 targeted the Longuyon airfield and hangars; No. 4, from Charny, the Montmédy yards and rail tunnel; and No. 5, from Thierville, the South Longuyon rail yards. On 3 November, Battery No. 3 moved to Charny and targeted the Montmédy freight yards. Four days later, the battery attacked the bridge there with 50 rounds, the highest number fired on any one day by the batteries.
The naval batteries continued to pound their targets—147 rounds on Longuyon targets and 259 on Montmédy—until the last moment before the armistice went into effect. Battery No. 4 fired its last shot at 1057 and 30 seconds on 11 November. This permitted the shell to strike a few seconds before the 11 o’clock deadline. Battery No. 5 had fired its last round just a minute earlier.
The naval railway batteries wasted little time in packing up. By 10 December, all five had arrived in St. Nazaire. The majority of personnel arrived in New York on Christmas Eve.
In describing the final phase of the Meuse-Argonne offensive, General John J. Pershing wrote: “Our large-caliber guns . . . were skillfully brought into position to fire upon the important lines at Montmédy, Longuyon, and Conflans—the strategical goal which was our highest hope was gained. We had cut the enemy’s main line of communications and nothing but surrender or an armistice could save his army from complete disaster.”