South African Military History Society


On 14 June, fellow Member Johan v.d.Berg presented his lavishly illustrated and extremely well researched talk on German Railway Guns from WW I and II, with the PARIS GUN taking prominence.
Named Emperor's Gun by the Germans, in honour of Kaiser Wilhelm, the French, who were the recipients of its shells, called it Big Bertha (Dicke Bertha). This monster-gun bombarded the city from March to August 1918. Everything about this 21 cm gun was gigantic, even by modern standards. It weighed 142 tonnes and had a range of 132 km, allowing it to hit its target 120 km away. The 40 m long barrel had to be braced to keep it from drooping, and after every shot the barrel-end whipped around and oscillated by as much as one meter either side for almost a minute. To reach its mark, the gun had to be elevated to an angle of 55 degrees to propel its shell through the stratosphere's near-vacuum until gravity pulled it earthward. There were many problems connected with its successful operation. While the shell was on the way, the earth rotated around its axis, throwing off the aim. To put a shell into the stratosphere, a muzzle velocity of 1 250 m/s was needed, demanding a large charge of powerful propellant, 152 kg in fact, which, due to its extremely high temperatures, washed away the barrel's interior surface. Therefore, successive shells would seat a little further down in the barrel due to erosion, requiring different weights of propellant; altogether a fine mathematical problem to be solved on an ongoing basis. Another obstacle was the instability of shells in flight. The soft copper driving-bands came off in the barrel due to enormous pressure, and steel ribs were substituted. However, despite all efforts, the Paris Gun was really not a success. In the operational period of six months it fired a total of 361 shells, killing 256 and injuring 620 Parisians. Admittedly, it did initially create confusion among the people, but bomb drops by aircraft, and there had been reliable, long-range aircraft available since 1917, would have been much more effective and certainly much cheaper. Between the two World Wars gun construction was of secondary importance, and it was only after Germany's rearmament programme began that railway guns were built again. FIRST there was the 28cm Schlanke Bertha (Slim Bertha) which achieved fame as "Anzio Annie", and 28 pieces were built and employed on all fronts. SECOND was the ultra-long-range 21cm K 12(E). Two of this type of gun bombarded the Kent coastline, but really more for propaganda than for strategic purposes.

From 1935 on, designers of the Krupp armaments concern worked on a 80 cm gun, which was only ready for action in 1942. The gunners christened it DORA, although later it became known as the Schwere Gustav. The gun was 11,6 m high, 43 m long and 7 m wide, and it straddled two railway tracks. Assembly by travelling crane took three weeks and the gun was served by a force of 1400, commanded by a very senior officer. To select a target worthy of DORA's attention was difficult, but eventually the heavily-fortified port of Sebastopol was chosen, and the labourers began. Near Bakchisaray tracks were laid until the whole area looked like a marshalling yard, protected by a swarm of AA guns and two guard companies. On 5 June firing commenced, assisted by a Fieseler Storch aircraft for spotting, and the best firing rate was one shot every fifteen minutes, though on average there were only 14 rounds per day. In this way, over a distance of 25 km, and over a period of 13 days, fortress after fortress was decimated until on 1 July Sebastopol fell to German troops. In total DORA fired 48 rounds, which thus was its entire operational career.

In the final analysis, as a practical combat weapon, the super gun was a gross waste of time, money and manpower. A Squadron of STUKA would have done the work faster and cheaper. Perhaps the well known gunners' love for his guns, and there were quite a few artillery officers in the German general staff, can be blamed for this misdirection of energies. Strangely enough, the War Diary of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, when recording the assault on Sebastopol, never once mentions the gun.

Thank you Johan, for a most fascinating presentation.

For further study, the complete text of Johan's talk can be borrowed from the Scribe.


12 July 2001
"AGES OF EMPIRE": From rifle to musket to .303
Illustrated Talk by Dr.John Austin from the Historic Firearms Society

16 Aug 2001
Medal Evening with various presenters, each one dealing with a different theme
Arranged by Dr David Grant from the Cape Town Medals Group
13 Sept 2001
STALINGRAD: The Persistent Enigma
Slide Talk by John Mahncke
11 Oct 2001
Slide Talk by Stan Lambrick.
8 Nov 2001
Illustrated Talk by Bob Buser.
December 2001

CASTLE MILITARY MUSEUM: The first issue of Newsletter No.01/01 has become available. It contains information on all ventures and can be obtained from Natie Greef, Tel.: 469 1153. It is important that our Castle remains part of our Cape Town Heritage, and members are urged to promote it to friends and tourists.

Meetings are normally held on the 2nd Thursday of each month at 20h00 at the Recreation Hall of the SA LEGION'S ROSEDALE COMPLEX, Lower Nursery Road, Rosebank, (off Alma Road), opposite Rosebank Railway Station, below the line.
All Visitors welcome. Tea and Biscuits will be served.

Jochen (John) Mahncke (Vice-Chairman/Scribe) (021) 797 5167

South African Military History Society /