Fire in the Steppe:
German Infantry Guns

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
December 2020

Hard experience in the First World War taught most European armies the need to support infantry with light artillery under their own control. These took the form of trench mortars and small cannon known as “infantry guns,” ranging from 37mm to 75mm caliber. They usually had only direct-fire capability, not being designed to lob shells over long ranges.

Afterward, the German Reichswehr placed light artillery in the infantry order of battle. In 1927, Germany’s leading artillery maker, Rheinmetall, received an order for a new, lightweight 75mm gun for the infantry. It had pneumatic tires and was intended to be drawn by a truck or half-track prime mover. A lightweight splinter shield protected the four-man gun crew. An unusual “shotgun” breech action allowed the crew to huddle tightly behind the shield while re-loading: after firing, the barrel would slide back over the breech block, with the muzzle pointed toward the ground and the breech end pointing upwards. The crew could then easily slide the next shell into the barrel and lock it back into position to fire again.

At less then 900 pounds, the gun could easily be manhandled into position, and this feature made it very popular within the Army. With its short barrel, range was not great — 3,900 yards — but more than enough to provide direct support to the infantry. Initially it had only high-explosive shells, much smaller than the standard load for a 75mm piece (about 5 kilograms). During the war the guns would also receive hollow-charge anti-tank rounds.

A 75mm leIG 18 infantry gun during pre-war maneuvers; note the gas masks.

For mountain troops, a variant with large spoked wooden wheels could be broken into six to 10 pack loads, allowing it to be carried by a train of mules or even very strong men. The gun had the same barrel and breech, but a lighter trail and no splinter shield. A similar gun was provided for airborne troops. Crews preferred the mountain gun variant: despite the anachronistic appearance of its wooden wheels, these were much larger than the tires on the standard gun and made it much easier to handle in action.

Issue of the weapons varied throughout the war, but almost every formation had some of them. Standard regimental tables called for a company of six 75mm guns in three two-gun platoons, plus a platoon with two heavy 150mm infantry guns. Late in the war, many battalions had their own two-gun platoon. Mountain battalions always had two mountain guns in their organization.

The heavy 150mm infantry gun.

In 1933, the newly renamed Wehrmacht issued specifications for a heavy 150mm infantry gun. Rheinmetall once again obliged, but the result would be much less popular with the troops. The sIG 33 150mm gun weighed more than four times as much as the lightweight gun and could not be broken down for transport. While it certainly provided greater firepower, with a shell weight also about four times that of the 75mm gun and a greater range, it could not be moved by its crew or, apparently, by just about any number of infantrymen sweating at its wheels. Requiring motor transport or a horse team to move the gun took away most of the advantages of a true infantry gun; it also required a larger crew (seven men).

The heavier shell did give it some capability against armor, but it did not receive a 150mm counterpart to the light gun’s hollow-charge shell. Instead crews received a large stick bomb to be inserted into the muzzle and fired like a giant rifle grenade. The weapon required very steady nerves to use in action, and accuracy appears to have been random at best. Instead the stick bomb came to be used only against fixed targets like bunkers, and in the time-honored tradition of military contractors and purchasing departments this became its official purpose.

The designers feigned surprise when it tipped over. ...

Despite the big gun’s lack of mobility it would be issued until the end of the war. To overcome this deficit, it was fitted on chassis of PzKpfw I light tanks, wheels and all, but the gun’s massive recoil often caused the vehicle to flip onto its side. This early assault gun saw action in Poland and France in 1939 and 1940, but performed poorly and would soon be withdrawn. Later vehicles would carry the sIG 33 with more success, including the Brummbar assault gun.

Both types of infantry gun appear in most Panzer Grenadier games featuring German forces.

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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 countless 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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