Big Bertha Weapon – World War 1

Big Bertha, also known as the German Dicke Bertha, was a 420-mm (16.5-inch) howitzer model. It was employed by the German army to attack Belgian and French garrisons during World War 1. 

It was a 42 cm kurze Marinekanone 14 L/12 (short naval cannon). The weapon was also known as the Minenwerfer-Gerät (M-Gerät). It was a German siege howitzer. 

Krupp AG developed it in Essen, Germany. The Imperial German Army operated the weapon from 1914 to 1918. 

German soldiers dubbed the gun “Big Bertha” after one of its bullets obliterated Fort Loncin. The troops used it during the artillery bombardment of Liège, Belgium. 

A total of 12 Big Berthas were deployed. In fact, the M-Gerät was one of the heaviest artillery pieces ever handled. It has a 42-centimeter (17-inch) gauge barrel. 

It was first conceived in 1911 and went into production the following year. 

According to some sources, the nickname “Big Bertha” was given to the cannons in honor of the Krupp firm’s owner, Bertha Krupp von Bohlen und Holbach.

Test fire for the weapon started in early 1914. Subsequently, the gun was expected to be completed by October. 

However, when World War 1 broke out, the two available M-Gerät guns were still in the prototype stages. Nevertheless, troops transferred them to Liège. 

As aforementioned, the troops used them to demolish Forts Pontisse and Loncin. 

The fancy name for the weapon- “Big Bertha,” swept through the German press. Moreover, the Allies also adopted the moniker as a nickname for all German transuranic artillery. 

Likewise, the Paris Gun has also historically been mistaken with the M-Gerät. Germans deployed Paris Gun; after all Big Berthas were retired in 1918.  

Similarly, German engineers consequently produced a smaller-caliber cannon due to casualties from defective ammunition. 

The German army also faced casualties from Allied rebuttal artillery, the Beta-M-Gerät. German troops operated the smaller-caliber cannon from 1916 until the end of the war to combat this. 

Although smaller in caliber, it possessed a lengthier and bigger barrel. Engineers fitted the barrel to the chassis of the M-Gerät. However, it was less accurate than the base gun. 

What happened to the Big Bertha gun?

The Germans surrendered two 42 cm M-Gerät guns, a.k.a. Big Berthas, to the US Army at Spincourt in November 1918. 

Is Big Bertha still used today?

None of the Big Bertha cannons exit today. The last time the Germans used these guns was against fortresses in 1914 and 1915. Germans built twelve Big Bertha guns in the war, but Germans lost six due to barrel failure.

The Design and Development of Big Bertha 

Model of the German Howitzer, Big Bertha
Model of the German Howitzer, Big Bertha

Beginning in the 1850s, the rapid progress of cannon technology sparked an arms race amongst artillery and military construction. 

Rifled artillery could now shoot beyond the range of fortress cannons. In response, military planners began constructing garrisons in rings encircling cities. 

They also constructed garrisons as barriers to prevent oncoming armies. 

These forts were susceptible to artillery projectiles that could puncture the earth and demolish subsurface masonry. 

As a result, star forts morphed into polygonal forts. The morphed strongholds were largely subterranean and composed of concrete. 

The weapons were also positioned in armored, spinning casemates. France had established a massive fortified region on its border with Germany. It did so by combining rings and barriers. 

Likewise, Belgium had also begun building the National Redoubt in 1888. The Germans strengthened their frontiers as well. 

But Chief of General Staff- Helmuth von Moltke, the Elder, demanded the ability to breach Franco-Belgian defenses. Despite being efficient during the Franco-Prussian War, German artillery had stagnated. 

The barrel radius of the German army’s most powerful cannon, the 21-centimeter field howitzer, was no longer appropriate to use against strongholds. 

Thus, Moltke then started demanding more powerful firearms during the same decade. 

Consequently, in retaliation to the 1893 Franco-Russian Alliance, Moltke’s successor, Alfred von Schlieffen, sought to defeat France by pushing through Belgium speedily. 

To lower the size of French and Belgian strongholds, the Artillerieprüfungskommission (Artillery Test Commission, APK). 

The first product of this collaboration was a 30.5 cm mortar. It was labeled the Schwerer Küstenmörser L/8, but troops dubbed it the Beta-Gerät to mask its use as a siege cannon. 

Finally, in 1911, Krupp and the APK produced a mobile 42 cm howitzer. 

It was known as the 42 cm kurze Marinekanone 14 L/12. This weapon was also known as the Minenwerfer-Gerät (M-Gerät). In July 1912, the APK commissioned its first M-Gerät. 

Another followed this in February 1913. Finally, in December 1913, tests on the gun’s portability began. Engineers discovered that gas-powered tractors were optimal for towing the M-Gerät. 

At last, in February 1914, test-firing commenced, which was witnessed personally by Military leader Kaiser Wilhelm II

Production 

Big Bertha
Big Bertha

The M-Gerät, a.k.a., Big Bertha, totaled at 42.6 metric tons. This giant weapon stood at 4.5 meters tall, 10 meters long, and 4.7 meters broad. 

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It perched on a steel base braced with a wedge. Soldiers could also raise this spade from the ground while the M-Gerät was positioned to move it. 

This attribute gave Big Bertha a 360° rotation. The cannon was also breech-loaded, with a horizontally movable breechblock.

Moreover, it also had a 5.04 m cylinder that soldiers could rise to a maximum elevation of 65°. 

When discharged, the M-Gerät had a muzzle velocity of around 815 meters per second. It had a standoff distance of 9,300 meters. 

The APK commissioned the first M-Gerät in July 1912, which arrived in December the following year. Following this, the APK commissioned a second one again in February 1913. 

Before the First World War, two other guns were commissioned on July 31, 1914. Later, this was again followed by two more on August 28. Furthermore, the APK ordered two more on November 11, 1914. 

In total, Krupp generated 12 M-Gerät howitzers. Big Bertha had to be installed on-site, then dismantled and hauled in five wagons for transfer. 

Each of these wagons, weighing 16–20 metric tons, was designed to contain a particular segment of Big Bertha. 

The gun carriage was excluded, as that had its wagon. Besides, the wagons were too hefty to be pulled by horses. They were instead hauled by purpose-built, gas-powered tractors. 

Not to mention, the wagon wheels were modified with articulating feet called radgürteln. This modification alleviated ground pressure as they moved across open terrain. 

Under ideal conditions, the tractors and wagons could travel at a speed of 7 km/h. Troops were able to assemble Big Bertha in six hours on the battlefield. 

Ammunition 

A 42cm ammunition in 1918
A 42cm ammunition in 1918

Armour-piercing, high explosive, and intermediate projectiles were available to German siege artillery. 

The weapon engineers intended the armor-piercing shell to pierce concrete and metal armor. However, it was generally useless against reinforced concrete. 

Likewise, high explosive shells had two charges. Troops could program it to have ‘no delay,’ a ‘short delay,’ or a ‘large delay.’ 

If they selected “no delay,” the shell exploded on impact. Moreover, it could penetrate up to 12 m of ground if configured to a delayed detonation. 

Finally, the intermediate, or “short shell,” weighted half as much as the high explosive shell. It had a ballistic tip for increased range and accuracy. 

The shells for the 42 cm cannons were typically 1.5 m long and weighted 400–1,160 kg. Troops used a primer gun in a brass casing to propel them. 

Consequently, siege artillery shells were manufactured in restricted quantities. 

This resulted in a quality gradient. In early 1916, German siege guns began to detonate prematurely due to faulty ammunition. 

As a result, crews were obliged to evacuate from Big Bertha before firing. 

Battle Service 

The destroyed Fort, Fort de Loncin
The destroyed Fort, Fort de Loncin

The German army had only two Big Berthas at the outset of the war. On August 12, 1914, both saw their first combat against the labyrinth of Belgian forts around Liège

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The weapons destroyed a series of forts and forced the city’s surrender in five days. 

This allowed the German army to proceed westward through southern Belgium. They were approaching to conquer northern France. 

On August 21–25, the forts surrounding Namur were similarly pounded into submission by Big Berthas and Koda 305-mm mortars. 

There were two more victorious sieges: Maubeuge (August 25–September 8) and Antwerp (September 28–October 10). 

In 1915, as more Big Berthas (12 guns) were manufactured and fielded, they produced similar success against Russian forts. 

However, the Big Berthas could not penetrate the reinforced concrete of the updated French forts. This was at Douaumont and Vaux during the Battle of Verdun in 1916. 

Legacy 

Big Bertha in the Charlie Chaplin film The Great Dictator
Big Bertha in the Charlie Chaplin film The Great Dictator

As aforementioned, early in the conflict, German soldiers renamed the cannons “Dicke Berta” at the Battle of Liège. It was a homage to Bertha Krupp, who had acquired the Krupp factories from her father. 

Consequently, the name became jargon for all large German artillery. The German infantry notably used it for the 42 cm guns. 

The name also spread to German publications. Subsequently, it found its way to Allied servicemen as “Big Bertha.” 

Since then, the word has entered the mainstream consciousness. For example, it is a namesake for a line of Callaway golf clubs. 

It is also a satirical French-language magazine- La Grosse Bertha. In November 1918, two 42 cm Germans relinquished M-Gerät weapons to the US Army at Spincourt. 

One was transported to the United States for evaluation before being shown at the Aberdeen Proving Ground. The other, though, was abandoned, unassembled in its transit configuration. 

Both were decommissioned in 1943 and the early 1950s. 

A World War 1 veteran, Emil Cherubin, also made a copy of an M-Gerät. This copy roamed Germany and was featured on a few postage stamps. 

Conclusion 

Around the latter months of World War 1, Parisians lived in the shadow of a long-range German artillery cannon. 

The Krupp armaments firm produced one of Essen’s most dangerous weapons. 

Not to mention, Big Bertha was too good a moniker to stay inside German lines. People soon applied the name to any unusually huge heavy artillery pieces. 

Within striking distance of the German lines, the French capital suffered an immense psychological impact.

A total of 320 to 367 shells were estimated to have been fired. The gun could fire at a maximum of roughly 20 shots per day. 

Approximately 250 people were murdered. Six hundred twenty were injured, along with significant property loss. 

Finally, the weapon was expressly prohibited by the Treaty of Versailles

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