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18-inch Howitzer “Railway gun”

Railway gun on display

18-inch breech loading railway howitzer, 1918, Britain (AL.387) – on loan from the Royal Artillery Historical Trust. © Jonty Wilde / By kind permission of the Royal Artillery Historical Trust

This “Railway Gun” is on display at Fort Nelson in the Artillery Hall.

Getting up close is the best way to comprehend its size and to appreciate the manufacturing expertise expended in the construction of this super-heavy monster artillery. The barrel weighing 86,364 kg (85 tons) was designed to throw a shell of 1135 kg (1.12 tons) containing a bursting charge of 78 kg (172 lb) of T.N.T. to a range of just over 20 km (13 miles). To achieve this the barrel had to withstand around 25,401 kg (25 tons) of pressure per square inch around the charge of 120 kg (265 lb) of cordite. The reason for this was to bring an even greater weight of firepower down on the German Hindenburg defensive line on the Western Front than had been possible with two naval 14-inch guns. These were also railway mounted, made by the Elswick Ordnance Company (EOC) of Newcastle and named ‘Boche-Buster’ and Scene-Shifter’.

Responding to a request from General Headquarters in France for bigger artillery, the Munitions Council, probably towards the end of 1917, invited both EOC and Vickers Ltd to submit designs based on a bore of 18 inches. Eventually EOC built three, including the one we have today, and Vickers two but none of them were finished before the end of the war! However, they were put to very good use thereafter as will be revealed below. Introduced into British service on the 8th May 1920, this barrel, designated L1, had been proof fired and had its charge determined in April 1919 at Woolwich. Soon after it was sent to the Proof and Experimental Establishment at Shoeburyness in Essex for further proof firing and other firings to enable the compilation of its range characteristics, that is, the relationship of barrel elevation and propellant charge to range – vital information for a Battery Commander. The mounting upon which L1 sits is much older.

Mountings such as these were constructed by the Royal Carriage Department, Woolwich, solely for the proof firing of heavy calibre naval guns between 12-inch and 16.25-inch. This example as number 10 was built in 1886 and weighing 96,525 kg (95 tons) spent most of its working life at either Shoeburyness or Woolwich oftentimes ferried between the two on War Department barges.

In the years following 1918, most of the heavy artillery barrels and railway gun rolling stock was moth-balled at various Royal Army Ordnance Depots. The commencement of the Second World War in 1939 focussed attention again on the nation’s available artillery. Moves were made to locate, classify and note its condition and one of the experts called upon to help was none other than Major S.M. (Monty) Cleeve, Battery Commander of 471 Siege Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery, who, with a 14-inch Mark III gun upon ‘Boche-Buster’ gave a demonstration firing to King George V on an official visit – the so-called ‘Kings Shot’ in 1918. Cleeve found four 18-inch barrels including L1 and four mountings at Chilwell, Nottingham. Could such important artillery be brought back into service? Winston Churchill certainly believed so following his coming to power as Prime Minister in May 1940 and the fall of France one month later. This allowed the Germans to commence emplacing powerful coast defence guns in the Pas de Calais region opposite Dover quite capable of cross-Channel bombardment. The Kent coast defences in particular needed strengthening and Churchill’s view was that these old guns and mountings could help but not before much inspecting, maintenance and railway line preparation. Eventually, barrel L2 and ‘Boche-Buster’ were united in October 1940 but the journey to Kent was not started until February 1941.

Large artillery gun firing from a railway carriage and track in 1941

18-inch Howitzer on ‘Boche-Buster’ firing a ranging round in Kent, May 1941.

Although operated by the 11th Super Heavy Battery, Royal Artillery, and housed in Bishopsbourne Tunnel on the Elham Valley Line, this unit was never called upon to engage an enemy target and was therefore regarded as somewhat of a white elephant by the other coast defence detachments. Nevertheless, Churchill enjoyed showing it off to visiting VIP’s when visiting that part of Kent. Its relatively short range meant that at best it would have been able only to cover the approaching shoreline in the Dover vicinity. By 1943 it had been withdrawn to Salisbury Plain to continue further investigative firing trials into concrete penetration.

These had started at Shoeburyness in 1943 involving L1 on No.10 with twin objectives in mind. Firstly, to use one or more 18-inch Howitzer in subsequent operations in France following the invasion of Europe specifically firing a shell of modified design strong enough to penetrate concrete and secondly, research into strengthening air-dropped rotating and non-rotating 454 kg (1000 lb) bombs when targeting concrete. It was far cheaper and simpler to use a gun rather than attempt to hit a target from an aircraft flying at height. It avoided taking an aircraft and its crew from front-line service and the post-strike recovery of the bomb was much easier. It is believed by the author of this piece that Barnes Wallis was involved in this research in order to help with the construction of his 5080 kg (5 tons) Tallboy and 10,160 kg (10 tons) Grand Slam earthquake bomb. Interestingly, L1 fired its last round, a 1000 lb bomb, as late as the 27th November 1959.

Large gun mounted on a railway carriage and track

18-inch Howitzer on Railway Proof Carriage at Shoeburyness, Essex on 7 June 1990. Crown Copyright.

For some years afterwards, both gun and carriage remained at Shoeburyness somewhat neglected in a remote siding. Apart from an occasional coat of paint and several attempts to pass the unit on to other defence establishment, it was not until 1979 that it was refurbished and moved to a more visible location there. Full retirement came in 1991 when it was gifted by the Ministry of Defence to the Royal Artillery Historical Trust and placed on public display outside the Rotunda at Woolwich. There it lay for seventeen years until 2008 when it was moved again, this time to the Royal Artillery Barracks at Larkhill where it was set-down on a section of railway line adjacent to the sports field. In 2013 permission was granted for it to star in the exhibition ‘Tracks to the Front’ at the Dutch National Railway Museum (DNRM) in Utrecht, Holland detailing the story of trains in wartime as part of the 300th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht. A clause in the six-month loan agreement committed DNRM to meet the expense of its relocation to an English site which, after a short period of negotiation, was agreed to be the Royal Armouries (RA) Museum of Artillery at Fort Nelson. Its transport by road and sea to Holland and back was of sufficient interest to feature as a documentary in the Monster Moves television series for Channel 5. The loan to the RA was originally for five years but this was extended in 2018 to 2023.

18-inch Railway Howitzer and Railway Proof Carriage arriving at Fort Nelson on 17th September 2013. © Philip Magrath

More information about the gun can be found in our Collections Online.

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