Big Bertha (howitzer)

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42cm M-Gerät "Big Bertha"
Dicke Bertha.Big Bertha.jpg
One of the first Big Berthas being readied for firing
Type Heavy siege gun
Place of origin German Empire
Service history
Used by Austro-Hungarian Empire
German Empire

World War I

World War II
Production history
Manufacturer Krupp
No. built 12[1]
Weight 47 tn (94,000 lb)
Length 5.88 m (19.3 ft)

Shell HE; 820 kg (1,807 lbs)
Elevation +40° to +75°
Muzzle velocity 400 m/s (1,312 ft/s)
Effective firing range 12.5 km (7.8 mi)

Big Bertha (German: Dicke Bertha, lit. 'Fat (or heavy) Bertha') is the name of a type of super-heavy siege artillery developed by the armaments manufacturer Krupp in Germany and used in World Wars I and II. Its official designation was the L/12, Type M-Gerät 14 (M-Equipment 1914) Kurze Marine-Kanone ("short naval gun", a name intended to conceal the weapon's real purpose).[2][3] Its barrel diameter calibre was 420 mm (16.5 in).

Design history[edit]

The Big Bertha had its genesis in the lessons learned by the Germans (and Austrians) from the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–1905. During the war, the Japanese had dismounted some of their coastal defence 28-cm (11") howitzers and used these to help break the defences of the fortified Russian naval base at Port Arthur. This was a complete novelty as, until that time, it had been assumed by military experts that the largest transportable siege guns were around 20 cm in calibre. Nevertheless, other Europeans failed to learn the lesson. The Germans and Austrians also developed a series of road-mobile superheavy guns, including the 30.5-cm Schlanke Emma howitzer, the 38-cm Barbara and Gudrun howitzers, and their own 420-mm howitzer).[4]

Model of the road-mobile "M-Gerät" (M-device) version. The model can be seen at the Paris Army Museum

During the early 1900s Krupp began to develop a series of road-mobile heavy mortars and howitzers, ranging from 28 cm calibre to 30.5 cm. These built upon Krupp's experience with building coastal defence mortars (Küstenmörser), such as the 30.5-cm Beta-Gerät, the first model of which had been introduced in 1897 (though other nations, including Britain and the United States, also built similar weapons).[5]

A new version of the 30.5-cm Beta-Gerät howitzer, vastly superior to the 1897 model, was developed in 1908, but finding it wanting in offensive power, the Artillerieprüfungskommission ("artillery testing committee," APK) asked Krupp to build a larger gun capable of smashing modern fortifications. Krupp first investigated the possibility of building a 35-cm weapon, but instead jumped to 42-cm as this was the smallest shell that could carry the large bursting charge required to fulfill the APK's requirements. The first 42-cm design was the massive L/16 (the barrel was 16 calibres in length) Gamma-Gerät howitzer, which was a scaled-up version of the Beta-Gerät.[5] Unusually for Krupp, both the Beta and Gamma weapons eschewed the usual sliding-wedge breech mechanism in favour of a screw-type breech, after the practice common in Britain and France.

Gamma fired shells weighing up to 1,160 kg. It weighed 150 tons, and was what the Germans called a Bettungsgeschütz, or "bedding gun", i.e., it was mounted on a stationary carriage that was emplaced in a concrete foundation, which took days to prepare. It had to be transported in sections on ten railway cars—six for the gun and another four for the bedding.

Moving Gamma and preparing it to fire required significant resources. Consequently, the APK asked Krupp for a more mobile version, and ordered one gun on 15 July 1912.[5] Even before it was delivered in December 1913, the APK went ahead and ordered a second example in February 1913. The first howitzer was demonstrated to Kaiser Wilhelm II in March 1914, who was greatly taken by the new weapon, and the second was delivered in June 1914.[5]

Gamma-Gerät (Gamma-device)—the railway-transported, concrete-emplaced predecessor to the Big Bertha

The new howitzer was a road-mobile weapon mounted on a two-wheeled field type carriage of conventional construction. It was a completely different weapon from the Gamma-Gerät. The barrel was shorter than Gamma's by four calibres length, and reverted to the conventional Krupp sliding-wedge breech. With thinner walls, the barrel was of generally lighter construction than Gamma's and fired lighter shells of around 830 kg. Fully assembled it weighed 43 tons, much less than Gamma, and did not have to be emplaced in concrete. Special steel "mats" were developed, onto which the wheels were driven, with a steel aiming arc at the rear of the carriage that allowed limited traverse. This aiming arc was fitted with a massive "spade" that was buried in the ground and which helped anchor the weapon. To prevent the weapon bogging down in muddy roads the guns were equipped with Radgürteln, feet attached to the rim of the wheels to reduce ground pressure. Krupp and Daimler developed a tractor for the Bertha, though Podeus motorploughs were also used to tow the guns, which were broken down into five loads when on the road.[5]

Service history[edit]

This German 420-mm shell fell on the Belgrade Fortress in the bombing of Belgrade, October 1915, during Mackensen's offensive. It is now at the Belgrade Military Museum, Serbia.

Only two operational M-Gerät were available at the beginning of World War I, although two additional barrels and cradles had apparently been produced by that time.[1] The two operational M-Geräte formed the Kurze Marine Kanone Batterie (KMK) No. 3; the 42 cm contingent contained four additional Gamma Geräte organized in two batteries, and one more Gamma became operational two weeks into the war as "half-battery".[6] They were used to destroy the Belgian forts at Liège, Namur, and Antwerp, and the French fort at Maubeuge, as well as other forts in northern France. Bertha proved very effective against older constructions such as the Belgian forts designed in the 1880s by Brialmont, destroying several in a few days.[5] The first wartime shot of an M-Gerät was fired against Fort Pontisse on the outskirts of Liege on August 12.[7] The most spectacular success was against the nearby Fort Loncin, which exploded after taking a direct hit to its ammunition magazine. The concrete used in the Belgian forts was of poor quality, and consisted of layers of concrete only, with no steel reinforcement.[5]

Big Bertha gained a strong reputation on both sides of the lines due to its early successes in smashing the forts at Liege. The German press went wild with enthusiasm and declared the Bertha a Wunderwaffe.[5] Later during the German assault upon Verdun in February 1916, it proved less effective, as the newer construction of this fort, consisting of concrete reinforced with steel, could mostly withstand the large semi-armour-piercing shells of the Berthas. Only Fort Vaux was severely damaged during this event, destroying the water storage and leading to the surrender of the fort.

A total of 12 complete M-Gerät were built; besides the two available when the war started, 10 more were built during the war.[1][8] This figure does not include additional barrels; two extra barrels were already available before the war started,[1] and possibly up to 20 barrels were built, though some sources state 18.[3] As the war ground on, several Berthas were destroyed when their barrels burst due to faulty ammunition. Later in the Great War, an L/30 30.5-cm barrel was developed and fitted to some Bertha carriages to provide longer-range, lighter fire. These weapons were known as the Schwere Kartaune or Beta-M-Gerät.[5][9]

Replicas and legacy[edit]

The nickname "Big Bertha" appeared early in the war, as the first pair of M-Gerät guns were rushed to Belgium and destroyed Loncin Fortress. German soldiers christened the guns "Dicke Berta" in reference to Bertha Krupp, head of the Krupp family.[10] Some scholars have disputed the connection.[6] After the Battle of Liège, the name "Big Bertha" spread to German newspapers and then to Allied servicemen as slang for all heavy German artillery.[11] The name has since entered public conscience, being applied to a line of Callaway golf clubs,[12] used as the name for a satirical French magazine,[13] and a metaphor for Duncan Edwards's kicking ability.[14] Mario Draghi, President of the European Central Bank, prominently referenced Big Bertha in a 2012 interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung as a metaphor for his bond-buying policy.[15][16]

Two 42cm M-Gerät guns were surrendered from KMK Battery 5 to the US Army at Spincourt in November 1918. One was taken to the United States and evaluated and then put on display at the Aberdeen Proving Ground. The other was left unassembled in its transport configuration, and both were scrapped in 1943 and the early 1950s. A pervading post-war misconception was the survival of addition Big Berthas. The only other 42cm howitzer piece to survive the First World War was an unassembled Gamma-Gerät that was hidden in Krupp's Meppen facilities. The artillery piece was reassembled in the 1930s and used by the Wehrmacht at Liège and Sevastopol and its post-war fate is unknown.[17]

In 1932, World War I veteran Emil Cherubin, who had served in a Bertha battery, built a full-sized wooden replica of the M-Gerät. Cherubin's replica then toured Germany, and it appears on a number of postage stamps. While no 42cm howitzers survive, a number of European museums house 42cm shell casings or even projectiles. There is a 1/5 scale model of an M-Gerät at the Paris Army Museum.[17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Gerhard Taube (1981). Die schwersten Steilfeuer-Geschütze, 1914–1945: Geheimwaffen "Dicke Berta" und "Karl". Motorbuch Verlag. p. 30. ISBN 978-3-87943-811-2. 
  2. ^ G.V. Bull and C.H. Murphy: Paris Kanonen - the Paris Guns (Wilhelmgeschütze) and Project HARP, Verlag E.S. Mittler & Sohn Gmbh, ISBN 3-8132-0304-2
  3. ^ a b Rudolf Lusar: Riesengeschütze und schwere Brummer einst und jetzt, J.F. Lehmanns Verlag München, ISBN 3-469-00363-7
  4. ^ Michal Prasil: Skoda Heavy Guns, Schiffer Military History, ISBN 0-7643-0288-4
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i Herbert Jäger: German Artillery of World War One," The Crowood Press, ISBN 1-86126-403-8
  6. ^ a b Willy Ley, "German Siege Guns of the Two World Wars", Journal of Coastal Artillery, Feb, 1943, pp. 13–20
  7. ^ Gerhard Taube (1981). Die schwersten Steilfeuer-Geschütze, 1914–1945: Geheimwaffen "Dicke Berta" und "Karl". Motorbuch Verlag. p. 21. ISBN 978-3-87943-811-2. 
  8. ^ Eric Dorn Brose (2004). The Kaiser's Army: The Politics of Military Technology in Germany During the Machine Age, 1870–1918. Oxford University Press. p. 228 and 172. ISBN 978-0-19-517945-3. 
  9. ^ Axel Turra: Dicke Bertha – Ein 420-mm-Steilfeuergeschütz wird zur Legende, Podzun-Pallas Verlag, ISBN 3-7909-0753-7
  10. ^ Romanych & Rupp 2013, p. 4
  11. ^ Romanych & Rupp 2013, pp. 4–5
  12. ^ Holley, David (5 June 1994). ".S. Golf Club Manufacturer Carries A Big Stick". Los Angeles Times. 
  13. ^ "Very droll: The French have jokes, but do they have a sense of humour?". The Economist. 18 December 2003. Retrieved 5 September 2018. 
  14. ^ Galvin, Robert. "Duncan Edwards". The National Football Museum. Archived from the original on 15 January 2008. Retrieved 13 February 2008. 
  15. ^ "Interview with Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung". Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. 24 February 2012. Retrieved 5 September 2018. 
  16. ^ Reiermann, Christian; Seith, Anne (23 April 2014). "ECB Considers Possible Deflation Measures". Der Spiegel. Retrieved 5 September 2018. 
  17. ^ a b Romanych & Rupp 2013, p. 47


  • Gerhard Taube: Die schwersten Steilfeuer-Geschütze 1914–1945. Geheimwaffen "Dicke Berta" und "Karl"', Motorbuch-Verlag, ISBN 3-87943-811-0
  • Axel Turra: Dicke BertaEin 420-mm-Steilfeuergeschütz wird zur Legende, Podzun-Pallas Verlag, ISBN 3-7909-0753-7
  • Rudolf Lusar: Riesengeschütze und schwere Brummer einst und jetzt, J. F. Lehmanns Verlag München, ISBN 3-469-00363-7
  • Konrad F. Schreier, Jr.: The World War I "Brummer" in 'Museum Ordnance: The Magazine for the U.S. Army Ordnance Museum', November 1992
  • G.V. Bull and C.H. Murphy: Paris Kanonen—the Paris Guns (Wilhelmgeschütze) and Project HARP, Verlag E.S. Mittler & Sohn Gmbh, ISBN 3-8132-0304-2
  • Herbert Jäger: German Artillery of World War One, The Crowood Press, ISBN 1-86126-403-8
  • Michal Prasil: Skoda Heavy Guns, Schiffer Military History, ISBN 0-7643-0288-4
  • Raimund Lorenz: Die "Dicke Berta" aus Vluynbusch, Museumverein Neukirchen-Vluyn
  • The 420-mm. Mortar: Fact and Fancy by Captain Becker, German Army. Reprint from Artilleristische Monatshefte, JULY-AUGUST, 1921.
  • Romanych, Marc and Martin Rupp: 42cm 'Big Bertha' and German Siege Artillery of World War I, Osprey Publishing: 2013, ISBN 978-1-78096-017-3

External links[edit]

  • Storz, Dieter (16 April 2015). "Dicke Bertha". International Encyclopedia of the First World War. Retrieved 5 September 2018. 
  • Duffey, Michael. "Big Bertha". Retrieved 5 September 2018.