Big Bertha (howitzer)

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42cm M-Gerät "Big Bertha"
Dicke Bertha.Big Bertha.jpg
A prototype M-Gerät being readied for firing
Type Siege artillery
Place of origin German Empire
Service history
In service 1914–18
Used by German Empire
Austro-Hungarian Empire
Wars World War I
Production history
Manufacturer Krupp
No. built 12[1]
Weight 42,600 kg (93,900 lb)
Length 10 m (33 ft)
Width 4.7 m (15 ft)
Height 4.5 m (15 ft)

Shell HE; 820 kg (1,807 lbs)
Caliber 420 mm (16.5 in)
Elevation +65°
Rate of fire 8 shells an hour
Muzzle velocity 400 m/s (1,312 ft/s)
Maximum firing range 9,300 m (30,500 ft)

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 Marinekanone ("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).

Development and design[edit]

A picture of the Gamma-Gerät, predecessor to the M-Gerät
The Gamma-Gerät, which preceded the M-Gerät

The quick advancement of artillery technology beginning in the 1850s provoked an arms race between artillery and military architecture. Rifled artillery could now fire out of range of fortress guns, so military architects began placing forts in rings around cities or in barriers to block approaching armies. However, these forts vulnerable to new artillery shells, which could penetrate earth to destroy masonry underground. In response, star forts evolved into polygonal forts, mostly underground and made of concrete with guns mounted in armoured, rotating casemates. Combining rings and barriers, France created a vast fortified zone on their border with Germany, while Belgium began construction of the National Redoubt in 1888.[4][5]

The German Empire also fortified its borders, but Chief of the General Staff Helmuth von Moltke the Elder desired to break through Franco-Belgian fortifications.[6] Although German artillery had been effective during the Franco-Prussian War, by the 1880s the diameter of the German Army's most powerful gun, 21 centimetres (8.3 in),[7] had become the standard thickness for fortress concrete.[8] Moltke began requesting more powerful guns that same decade, which then became essential to his successor, Alfred von Schlieffen, who planned to quickly defeat France by sweeping through Belgium in response to the 1893 Franco-Russian Alliance. To be able to reduce French and Belgian fortresses, the Artillerieprüfungskomission (APK) formed a partnership with Krupp AG in 1893 that resulted in the 30.5 cm (12.0 in) Beta-Gerät mortar. Tests in the mid-1890s showed that the Beta-Gerät could not destroy French or Belgian forts, even with revised shells. Interest in an improved siege gun waned until the Russo-Japanese War, during which the Japanese Army used coastal mortars brought from Japan to end the 11-month long Siege of Port Arthur.[9]

In 1906, Helmuth von Moltke the Younger became Chief of the General Staff and instructed the APK to study the efficacy of the Beta-Gerät. The results recommended a more powerful gun, perhaps as large as 45 cm (18 in), but the Germany Army opted for a 30.5cm howitzer, the Beta-Gerät 09, and a 42 cm (17 in) mortar. Design and testing for the Gamma-Gerät began in 1906 and lasted until 1911. Although the Gamma-Gerät had the destructive power the General Staff required and could outrange French and Belgian forts, it could only emplaced near rail lines and took 24 hours to fully prepare.[10][a] As early as 1907, the Krupp began development of siege artillery transported by road by carriage. Testing resulted in a 28 cm (11 in) howitzer transportable over road and countryside, but it was rejected by the APK, as Krupp's 30.5cm model. Finally, in Autumn 1911, Krupp and the APK developed a wheeled 42cm howitzer, which was designated the 42cm kurze Marinekanone 14 L/12, or Minenwerfer-Gerät (M-Gerät).[12]


Photographed model of an M-Gerät howitzer
Model of the M-Gerät at the Paris Army Museum

The M-Gerät weighed 42 metric tons (42 t), a range of 9,300 metres (30,500 ft), and a maximum barrel elevation of 65°. The gun stood 4.5 m (15 ft) tall, 10 m (33 ft) long, and 4.7 m (15 ft) while the barrel itself was 5.04 m (16.5 ft) long. The M-Gerät was two thirds the weight of the Gamma-Gerät, but had 30% less range and less accuracy. This reduction in weight was accomplished by shrinking the barrel to 5.04 m (16.5 ft) and thinning its walls, while installing a simpler sliding-wedge breech.[13]

The new howitzer was a road-mobile weapon mounted on a two-wheeled field type carriage of conventional construction 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.[14]

"Gerät" siege artillery variants[15]
Gun Weight Range Rate of fire
42cm M-Gerät "Big Bertha" 42.6 t (41.9 long tons; 47.0 short tons) 9,300 m (30,500 ft) 8 shells an hour
42cm Gamma-Gerät 150 t (150 long tons; 170 short tons) 14,000 m (46,000 ft)
30.5cm Beta-M-Gerät 47 t (46 long tons; 52 short tons) 20,500 m (67,300 ft)
30.5cm Beta-Gerät 09 45 t (44 long tons; 50 short tons) 12,000 m (39,000 ft) 12 shells an hour
30.5cm Beta-Gerät 30 t (30 long tons; 33 short tons) 8,200 m (26,900 ft) 15 shells an hour

Service history[edit]

Photograph of an M-Gerät shell that fell on Belgrade Fortress in October 1915
This German 420-mm shell fell on the Belgrade Fortress in the bombing of Belgrade during Mackensen's 1915 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".[16] 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.[14] The first wartime shot of an M-Gerät was fired against Fort Pontisse on the outskirts of Liege on August 12.[17] 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.[14]

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.[14] 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][18] 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.[14][19]

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.[20] Some scholars have disputed the connection.[16] 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.[21] The name has since entered public conscience, for example being applied to a line of Callaway golf clubs,[22] and the name for a satirical French magazine.[23] 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.[24][25]

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.[26]

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 appeared 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.[26]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 12 hours were required to prepare the base off the Gamma-Gerät, and another 12 were needed to assemble the gun itself. Rail lines also had to be laid to the Gamma-Gerät's position allow its assembly.[11]


  1. ^ a b c d Taube 1981, p. 30
  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. ^ Donnell 2013, pp. 6-8
  5. ^ Romanych & Rupp 2013, pp. 5–6
  6. ^ Donnell 2013, pp. 8–9
  7. ^ Romanych & Rupp 2013, p. 6
  8. ^ Donnell 2013, p. 8
  9. ^ Romanych & Rupp 2013, pp. 6, 7–8
  10. ^ Romanych & Rupp 2013, pp. 8, 10, 11
  11. ^ Romanych & Rupp 2013, p. 14
  12. ^ Romaynch & Rupp 2013, pp. 15–16
  13. ^ Romanych & Rupp 2013, pp. 16, 18, 21
  14. ^ a b c d e Herbert Jäger: German Artillery of World War One," The Crowood Press, ISBN 1-86126-403-8
  15. ^ Romanych & Rupp 2013, p. 7
  16. ^ a b Ley 1943, pp. 13–20
  17. ^ Taube 1981, p. 21
  18. ^ Brose 2004, pp. 228, 172
  19. ^ Axel Turra: Dicke Bertha – Ein 420-mm-Steilfeuergeschütz wird zur Legende, Podzun-Pallas Verlag, ISBN 3-7909-0753-7
  20. ^ Romanych & Rupp 2013, p. 4
  21. ^ Romanych & Rupp 2013, pp. 4–5
  22. ^ Holley, David (5 June 1994). ".S. Golf Club Manufacturer Carries A Big Stick". Los Angeles Times. 
  23. ^ "Very droll: The French have jokes, but do they have a sense of humour?". The Economist. 18 December 2003. Retrieved 5 September 2018. 
  24. ^ "Interview with Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung". Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. 24 February 2012. Retrieved 5 September 2018. 
  25. ^ Reiermann, Christian; Seith, Anne (23 April 2014). "ECB Considers Possible Deflation Measures". Der Spiegel. Retrieved 5 September 2018. 
  26. ^ a b Romanych & Rupp 2013, p. 47


Further reading[edit]

  • 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

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.