Commemorating the First World War Centennial in Kansas

Big Bertha

One of the more familiar terms to come out of the First World War was ‘Big Bertha’. Although recently applied to a popular line of golf clubs, many still know that the name was first given to an artillery piece used by the Germans, but it is often misapplied to the Paris Guns of 1918.

Bertha Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach

So to set the record straight, Big Bertha was the M-Gerät siege howitzer. Its nickname originated with the Germans themselves, who called the gun Dicke Bertha, which precisely means ‘heavy Bertha’, a gibe at the fabulously rich Bertha Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach (1886-1957), the sole owner of the Krupp-Essen works, who wasn’t a particularly large person, but had a lot of jewelry.  The gun had a 42 cm bore, weighed 47 tons and could drop a 1,800 lb. shell on a target up to 7.8 miles away with high precision. Incredibly, this gun was mounted on a wheeled carriage and was ‘road-mobile’ (when towed by a huge steam tractor) although the barrel had to be dismounted. The Germans used these guns against fortresses with devastating effect in 1914 and 1915. Twelve were built and in the course of the war it is estimated that six were lost due to barrel failure. None exist today, although the US Army did have one at Aberdeen Proving Ground until it was scrapped during WW2.

Big Bertha was a derivative of Krupp’s 42 cm Gamma-Gerät siege gun, which was a mortar rather than a howitzer, and had to be moved by rail and assembled on a concrete pad, as it weighed 140 tons including the base. Ten of these were built and none survive today, although one was used by the Germans during WW2. The Germans also developed new heavy siege guns during WW2: the self-propelled 60 cm Mörser Karl and the 80 cm rail-mounted Schwerer Gustav.

Going back to the Paris Gun, (Paris-Geschütz), it was a cannon of 21.1 cm bore, with a barrel that was 112 feet long and weighed 256 tons with its base. The shell weighed 234 lbs., the range was 81 miles, the shell’s trajectory reached an altitude of over 25 miles, and it was impossible to aim due to the distance and the Coriolis effect, so most shells fired did little damage, but it was a very effective terror weapon.

Paris Gun in action

Due to excessive wear, the barrel only lasted for about 65 shots.  Only one gun was ever deployed at a time, although bases were built for three, and one was destroyed by careless shell management. After the war Krupp-Essen reworked the Paris Gun into a railcar-mounted model called the 21 cm Kanone 12 in Eisenbahnlafette. Two of these were manufactured in 1938 and they were used in 1940 and 1941 to shell Kent in Southern England.

The Austro-Hungarian army also had a formidable siege gun, the road-mobile Škoda 30.5 cm Mörser M.11 mortar, made in Plzeň.  At the start of the war they had nineteen of these and they loaned eight to the Germans to use alongside of the real Big Berthas on the Belgian and French forts.

Škoda  30.5

With a range of six miles, the Škoda 30.5 could deliver with high accuracy either an impact-fused shell of 633 lbs. or an 845 lb. armor-piercing shell with a delayed action fuse that was devastatingly effective against the cast-metal cupolas on the forts of the day.

Škoda 30.5 in transit

The Austro-Hungarian Army used ten of the 30.5’s on the Belgrade forts (twice) but not so much on the Russian border forts as the spectacular success of the German-led GorliceTarnów Offensive in 1915 forced the Russians to pull back and abandon most of these forts.

By wars’ end the Škoda works had manufactured 79 of the 30.5’s and 55 remained to be divvied up among the armies of Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Hungary, Italy and Austria. In 1940 39 of these were still in service, and many were used by Germany and its allies on the Eastern Front. Today there are four left, including the one depicted above, which is at the Belgrade Military Museum, and is referred to by Serbian guides as ‘Big Bertha’. Oh well.

James (“Jim”) Patton BS BA MPA is a retired state official from Shawnee, Kansas and a frequent contributor to several WW1 e-publications, including "Roads to the Great War," "St. Mihiel Tripwire," "Over the Top" and "Medicine in the First World War." He has spent many hours walking the WW1 battlefields, and is also an authority on British regiments and a collector of their badges. An Army Engineer during the Vietnam War, he does work for the US World War 1 Centennial Commission and is affiliated with the WW1 Historical Association, the Western Front Association, the Salonika Campaign Society and the Gallipoli Association.

1 Comment

  1. Nikolaus Groenewold

    My great uncle was a crew member of a 42 cm kurze Marinekanone M-Gerät (Big Bertha). We have a picture of him next to it from the western front dated early 1918. My uncle died not long after that picture was taken, I’ve long looked for a way to find where he died because there were so few of these guns. So far no luck.

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