South African Military 
History Society


The subject of the curtain raiser at the 12th October meeting, given by speaker Louis Wildenboer, was "The Paris Gun", the super cannon with which the Germans bombarded Paris from March 1918 to the end of WW1. The Paris Gun, the Wilhelm Geschutz, as the Germans called it after their Kaiser Wilhelm II, is frequently confused with the Big Bertha, the 240mm howitzer used by the Germans to smash the Liege forts in 1914. Krupps made both guns, but the resemblance ended there. Nothing like the Paris Gun had been seen before, nor has been since. With its effective range of 130km, it is unique in the history of artillery.

The German objective was to erode the morale of the people of Paris. It was not to destroy the city itself. The target was a large one. But it was intended the fall of shot should be confined to the city centre, and with no spotters available to enable ranging to be adjusted, calculations had to be correct first time. The task of designing such a gun was given to Krupps' ballistic expert, Professor Rausenberger, a physicist. He came up with a 210mm calibre, 256-ton monster. The 40m-long, rifled barrel, plus a 6m smoothbore extension, weighed a massive 145 tons, and was braced along its entire length to prevent muzzle droop. It needed 209kg of propellant to blast a 94kg projectile over the distance, although both these weights increased with each shell fired.

The shells had special pre-formed splines to engage the rifling instead of the usual copper bands, and were numbered one to 65, each with a slightly larger calibre to allow for wear on the rifling. On each firing the propellant had to be increased to cope with the extra weight of shot. After the 65 shells had been fired the gun barrel was returned to Krupps for re-boring to 240mm calibre to accommodate a new set of numbered shells. Muzzle velocity was 1604m/second, almost Mach 5. By comparison, the same figure for South Africa's G5 is a mere 820m/second.

The supersonic shock wave increases drag tremendously, and Professor Rausenberger calculated that by firing the shell into the stratosphere, where air density is minimal, there would be no shock wave over a large section of the trajectory, and overall drag could thus be much reduced.

The luckless Parisians were taken completely by surprise when the first shell landed on central Paris at 07h18 on 21st March 1918. Explanations ranged from an exploded gas main, a time bomb in a sewer, bombing by high-level aircraft or from balloons. Even the bizarre possibility of a German mortar firing a massive shell that then acted as an airborne cannon to fire a second shell in mid-flight was considered. Only when sufficient shell fragments had been collected was the truth realized. From the pattern of the strikes it became possible to work out where they were coming from, and to launch counter measures, all unsuccessful.

The gun was never even seen by the allies, because when the war ended the Germans took great pains to destroy the barrels and breaches to preserve their secrets. Only the massive carriage remained when the site was overrun by the advancing French Army. Altogether three Paris Guns fired a total of 367 shells, all of which landed in the target area. They killed a total of 250 people and wounded 620, apart from doing considerable damage to property.

Society chairman Hamish Paterson delivered the main lecture of the evening from notes prepared by Kemsley Couldridge before his death. The subject was "Clive, Calcutta to Plassey", and it was preceded by a short introduction on the past and present of Calcutta by George Barrell, who used to live there.

Calcutta was founded in 1690 by the British East India Company. Sited on the banks of the Hoogly River, the main distributary of the River Ganges, it provided access from the sea to the hinterland of Bengal, India's richest province, which in those days covered a considerably larger area than now. Over the next 60 years the original trading post grew into a considerable city, clustered round the company's fort. In fact it had become big and powerful enough to attract the resentful attention of Seraj-ud Daula, the nawob, or ruler, of Bengal. Although still nominally a vassal of the Moghul Emperor in Delhi, Seraj was in practice independent. He was also widely unpopular with his own court.

Seraj ordered the British and French settlements in Bengal to stop fortifying in anticipation of war between their two countries. The French complied but the British prevaricated, and Seraj decided to attack Calcutta. The lightly defended city surrendered after four days of siege, with the governor and most of his officers escaping to ships in the river. The 64 people remaining were interred without food or water on the night of 20th June 1756, one of the hottest of the year, in the notorious Black Hole prison, a tiny dungeon measuring about 25 square metres. Only 21 emerged alive the next day.

After much deliberation the Madras Council dispatched Robert Clive with a force of 800 European troops and about 1 000 Indian sepoys, accompanied by four ships of the line and one frigate under the command of Admiral Watson. Clive was not a professionally trained soldier, but he had acquired a reputation in defense of company interests in southern India against French-inspired threats. He landed in mid-December at Fulta, down river from Calcutta, where the survivors of the siege had gathered. After beating off a night attack on his march north, and failing in one of his own when he reached Calcutta, Clive recaptured the city in February 1757.

Seizing what he saw as an opportunity to unseat Seraj and replace him with his own nominee, Mir Jafar, Clive marched on Murshidabad, the Bengali capital. He was met by the nawab's French-assisted army of around 35 000 infantry and 8 000 cavalry at Plassey, a village on the banks of the Hoogly south of the capital. Having insured that Mir Jafar's troops would take no part in the subsequent battle, Clive led his small force to victory with only minor losses. Mir Jafar became nawab, Seraj was murdered, and Clive was rewarded beyond the dreams of avarice.

Commemorative Tours in the Kimberley area:
1. There will be a "Battles and Bottles" tour to Modder River and Magersfontein on Saturday 25th November, guided by Steve Lunderstedt and with profits going to the MOTHs.
2. There will be a repeat of the Highland Brigade March from 18h00 on the night of 8-9 December 2000 from the Crown and Royal Hotel, Modder River, returning to Kimberley at 06h30.
Further details from Steve Lunderstedt at 053-831-4006 (phone/fax) or e-mail:

KwaZulu/Natal 9 November DDH Prof Mike Laing General Patton's Poems and Prayers ML Johan Wassermann The Battle of Holkrans Cape Town 9 November Sq Ldr Patrick Wells DSO After Malta George Barrell (Scribe) (011) 791-2581



9 November
CR Leslie Ayres Women Disguised as Men in War
ML Dr Walter Murton Star Wars
Will members please note that the January 2001 meeting will be held on 21st January, the third Thursday of the month.


9 November
DDH Prof Mike Laing General Patton's Poems and Prayers
ML Johan Wasserman The Battle of Holkrans

Cape Town

9 November
Sq Ldr Patrick Wells DSO After Malta

George Barrell (Scribe) (011) 791-2581

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