The Book of Armaments:
Germany’s Heavy Field Howitzer
The Imperial German Army went to war in August 1914 with a secret weapon: each active infantry corps fielded four batteries of 150mm howitzers, for a total of sixteen pieces. The French had nothing to match it; at the time, no one else, did, either.
The Imperial Army’s initial heavy howitzer, the Model 1902, had just started to pass out of service when the war began and remained in front-line service. The first German artillery piece with a recoil cylinder, the howitzer had initially been intended to batter down French fortresses and the connecting forts between them, but the mission expanded to include attacking field fortifications and finally general infantry support. The batteries trained with the infantry to provide German commanders with immediate heavy firepower close behind the front line. That advantage provided crucial in the early encounter battles, when the French - with nothing heavier than their quick-firing 75mm field guns - unable to conduct counter-battery fire against the big howitzers. Each Russian corps had a dozen 122mm howitzers that could at least return the fire, but they had not trained as intensively as their German counterparts.
The new Model 1913 only reached the front lines in numbers after the war began. A development of the older piece, it featured a splinter shield and a longer barrel for greater range. They first supplemented and then replaced the Model 1902 as the war went on, and afterwards some of them were squirreled away to be “discovered” by the new Wehrmacht after re-armament began in 1935.
A sFH 18 150mm howitzer and crew. Ukraine, summer of 1942.
In 1926, the Weimar Republic’s Reichswehr placed tenders for a family of new artillery pieces: a 105mm light howitzer, a 105mm long-range cannon, and a 150mm heavy howitzer; the latter two would share the same carriage. By 1930 the designs had been completed, with the Rheinmetall barrels selected for the cannon and heavy howitzer, mounted on the Krupp carriage.
Production didn’t begin until the new German regime quietly placed orders in 1933, with the new weapon unveiled when the Nazis openly declared re-armament in 1935. The new howitzer, styled sFH 18 and nick-named the “Evergreen,” quickly replaced the Model 1913 in the heavy howitzer battalions of the infantry divisions and became the standard piece for new formations. By the time war began in September 1939 over 1,300 of them had been issued, with production topping 6,700 pieces by the end of the war.
Each infantry division (including mountain divisions and motorized infantry divisions) had a battalion of 12 heavy howitzers, organized into three batteries of four pieces each. That gave them an enormous advantage in firepower over enemy formations, and contributed greatly to German successes in Poland in 1939, France and the Low Countries in 1940, and the Balkans in 1941. And then the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, and the big howitzer began to show its weaknesses.
A pair of sFH 18 150mm howitzers abandoned by their crews. Russia, 1943.
The sFH 18 had rarely been countered by similar weapons in the early campaigns; both the Poles and the French had them, but kept them in army-level battalions that often could not even deploy against the fast-moving German spearheads. But the Russian 122mm howitzers found in divisional howitzer regiments and the 152mm howitzers of the corps artillery regiments greatly out-ranged the German weapon and could fire counter-battery missions against it with impunity.
Unlike most howitzers, the sFH18 had a very limited elevation; the barrel could only be raised to 45 degrees. The Germans tried to improve their weapon, introducing a rocket-assisted shell in 1941 that proved far too complicated for the gun crews to handle, though it did give the howitzer enormously greater range. It was quickly withdrawn, and the efforts turned to making a more effective new model.
Already in 1936 the Army had shown some dissatisfaction with the howitzer, as it had to be broken into two loads for transport. A lightened version, the sFH 36, appeared in 1938. While it could be pulled by one team of horses in a single piece, it achieved its lower weight through use of lightweight metals that were needed for aircraft production, and by 1942 the assembly line for the heavy howitzer had closed.
A modified version of the standard howitzer, the sFH 18(M), added a muzzle brake to allow crews to jam in even more charges and increase the range (though not enough to match the Soviet howitzers). That damaged both the barrel and the breech, and had to be discontinued. A lighter version, the sFH 40, could be towed by vehicles rather than horses and had a longer barrel and much greater elevation giving better range plus a larger breech allowing use of heavier charges. It proved very expensive to produce, and it still could not match the performance of either Soviet howitzer.
An sFH 40
towed by a prime mover. Hungary 1944.
A hybrid version, the sFH18/40, combined the new barrel of the sFH 40 with the cheaper and widely-available carriage of the sFH18. While that did provide somewhat better range, thanks to the bigger charges and longer barrel, it still could not elevate above 45 degrees and it proved wildly inaccurate. Only 46 of them were made before the project was declared a failure.
Unable to beat the performance of the Soviet weapons, the Germans resorted to pressing as many captured examples as possible into their own service. Thus a highly-favored outfit like the Panzer Lehr Division, and several pampered divisions of the Waffen SS militia, had the Soviet 152mm ML20 corps artillery gun-howitzer in their heavy howitzer battalions rather than the German-made 150mm piece. Another solution was increased production of heavier artillery pieces, but that carried its own problems as these could not accompany the front-line divisions in mobile operations.
The range problem could also be mitigated by making the weapons more mobile and thus able to press closer to their intended targets. Of those 6,700 weapons produced by the end of the war, about 1,200 went to self-propelled mounts like the SdKfz 165 Hummel. But those only saw action with panzer divisions, leaving the infantry’s artillery regiments at the mercy of the Red Army’s big guns.
The sFH 18 heavy howitzer proved sufficient to help power the German Army to victories against enemies with no comparable weapon, or fewer of them at any rate. Once they encountered modern the artillery parks of the Soviet Union and United States, it was inadequate to the needs of the modern battlefield and thanks to Germany’s technical and industrial shortcomings it could not be replaced.
The sFH 18 appears in most Panzer Grenadier games featuring German forces as off-board artillery, and just a few a playing piece, and of course in The Book of Armaments.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published eleventy-million books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog Leopold.
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