Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Friday, September 13, 2019

The 14-Inch Railway Gun, the Queen Elizabeth, Shoots Up Conflans

The Queen Elizabeth

By Major J. K. Meneely, United States Coastal Artillery Corps

This is an account of the work done during the St. Mihiel offensive by one 340mm, 14-inch French Rifle, Railroad Mount, manned by Battery B of the 53rd Artillery, C.A.C. Captain (now Major) John K. Meneely, C.A.C., Commanding. Conflans, with its immense railway yards and the enormous round house capable of holding any number of locomotives and trains, was the main German base of supplies and operations in the St. Mihiel Sector. Hence, in the St. Mihiel offensive, it was very necessary to fire on Conflans to destroy these railway communications and to the stop the movement of all the trains bringing up supplies, reserves, and ammunition for the German defensive. Battery B of the 53rd Artillery, assigned to the task of destroying Conflans, fired continuous fire for destruction and harassing fire from 2:14 a.m. on 12 September 1918 to 5:00 p.m. on 16 September 1918. During this time a total of 101 340mm projectiles were sent over. The pictures taken after the offensive, show the terrible destruction wrought by these big shells, each of which weighs 465 kg (1,023 lbs.), 87 kg (191 lbs.) of this total weight being high explosives, leaving the muzzle of the gun with a velocity of 847 meters per second. 

The range from the guns to Conflans was 17.5 miles, or 28.2 kilometers. According to report of the French yardman, who had been forced to work here by the Germans, the very first shot was a clean hit in the yards, while the third shot dropped right into the Round House. The daily report of operation during this period included the same remark each day. "Battery B, 53rd Artillery, 20 rounds (or 36 rounds as the case might be); target Conflans; results excellent." But behind such crisp, dry official phrases are hidden many hardships, heroism, and achievements.

Late in the afternoon of 2 September 1918, Battery B received telephone orders to proceed to the front at 4:00 p.m. on 3 September. The Battery promptly entrained and left Haussimont at 4:00 p.m. and proceeded to Sommedieue. The whole trip was uneventful except for the views obtained of the forts around Verdun, which were under heavy shellfire. Allied troops were on the road moving up to new positions through a heavy barrage, which was in progress on all roads.

Sommedieue was the garage for our train. The garage itself was well covered with overhanging trees but it was also well known to the Germans, who continually harassed it with high explosive shrapnel, making it necessary for the battery to leave the cars and sleep in immense dugouts practically our whole stay there.

Aerial Photo of Conflans Rail Yard and Round House

The Firing Position
The firing position, number 956, was at the head of a huge ravine some mile-and-a-half from the Germans. It was a perfect gas trap, and as gas was looked for at any time, every spare moment was taken up with gas precautions. A survey of Sommedieue showed it to be badly shelled, well known to the Germans, filled with French Senegalese troops and certain small living insects too well known to this battery. It was decided, after looking the situation over, to encamp on the top
of the hill near the battery; so shelters were dug three feet deep, for every two men, and a double shelter tent spread over these shelters. The idea was that a shell striking in the battery would have to be a direct hit to do any damage. As it rained practically every day of the 19 that the battery was in this position, it is easy to imagine the condition of the shelter holes at the expiration of that time. Unhealthy, unsanitary, fine for pneumonia or worse, yet the remarkable feature of this is that during the whole time, not a single man was on sick report. The position itself had been constructed by the French, but the dugouts were inadequate and poor. It was rather laughable to discover some of the tricks of these dugouts, especially in regards to gas. Every possible precaution known to civilized warfare was taken in regard to gas defense, but on the second day, it was discovered, in the battalion command station, that the roof of the dugout leaked like a sieve. Where water can penetrate, gas will penetrate as well. Another queer feature of this place was the water situation. There was water everywhere, in the form of rain, but nary a drop to drink. For miles from this chosen site, there was no source of drinking water, and this was the greatest hardship of the whole trip. For days at a time, the battery went unwashed. However, we quenched our thirst with vin rouge. After heaps of digging, shoveling and toiling, the powder dugouts, fuse dugouts and strong-shelters for the men were all constructed and on the night of the 11th of September the battery was ready to fire.

Firing Range

The Battery's Mission
The mission of the battery was to fire harassing fire on Conflans en Jarny which was a main detraining and transfer point for the loads of supplies, reserves and ammunition which arrived from Metz, destined for the St.-Mihiel front. The shelling of the battery was to destroy the yards, thus stopping the trains from passing through, and stem the flood of reserves that might interfere with the successful completion of the task which General Pershing had assumed when all the allied generals had refused to take the same chance for the past four years; namely, that of a clean cutting off of the St. Mihiel salient by drawing in from both sides rather than a frontal attack. Everyone knows the result of this plan, with its striking effect on the outcome of the Great War.

The night of 11 September at 8:00 p.m. orders were received to send a representative to Group Headquarters to await the firing orders. Twelve hours previous to our firing, our panel and radio stations had been set up on the reverse slopes of the hill two-and-a-half miles from the battery and telephone communications had been established to Group Headquarters and the Army Central at Dieu. All was apparently well at 10:00 on the night before the firing was to start; communications were given a final test and all found satisfactory. At 10:15 p.m. the Germans dropped a barrage on the road leading from Sommedieue to the position, and at 10:30 communications were again tested and found completely destroyed. And yet firing was to start at 2:00 a.m. An investigation showed that a German 150mm shell had fallen on a whole mess of wires and that every communication between our battery and hundreds of other batteries, supplied throughout these lines was broken. Very hasty repairs were made and communication was reestablished by midnight.

The Powder
There is a peculiarity in the difference of opinion entertained by the French and by the American Coast Artillery, in regards to powder. The French do not seem to worry about powder getting damp. They ship it in the ammunition cars, merely under the same shelter as the projectiles, not as we do, in carefully sealed metal containers. As is generally the case, the top of the ammunition car leaks, rain pours down upon the precious stuff. I have seen powder practically soaked with water, and yet it appeared to fire as well as dry powder.

An American Surveyor Checking the Damage to the Round House

The Shoot Opens
The first shot was fired at about 2:00 a.m., in the midst of a heavy rain. The pouring streams of rain of course rendered observation impossible, and there was great doubt in the minds of us all, as to the fate of that first shot and the possibility of its being a hit. However, it was after the signing of the Armistice, while on a trip up to see our target that we learned of the fate of this shot. A French yard man, who had been retained in his position during the German occupation, stated that the very first shot we sent over was a clean hit right in the center of the yard; the third shot, he declared, entered the Round House, destroying everything that was inside. You can imagine the consternation those big shells must have caused in the yards. The scurrying of yard engines, the yelling of switchmen, and the turmoil and confusion of it all. It was one of those scenes which many an artilleryman has dreamt of causing, a thing that the fortunate that battery never tire of telling about.

They flew in all directions—full speed. The French Officer is Lt. Boutellier, the celebrated liaison officer for Col. McMillan and later for the 40th Brigade. Firing was continued throughout the night and the dawn broke cloudy and with a light rain falling. At 11:00 a.m., however, the sky cleared for a moment and aerial observation was requested of the 219th French Observation Squadron. This squadron was unable to leave their hangar before 3:00 p.m. due to lack of protection planes. However, at 3:00 p.m., seven observation planes went up without protection, having decided that the mission of observation was so important that they could not wait longer for chase planes. The bravery of these observers needs no further mention. Now as to their fate. The seven planes went up over the lines toward Conflans en Jarny. After the test messages, which were exchanged between the planes and the ground radio station, no further messages, were received. At 7:00 p.m., I was informed by Headquarters that of the seven planes, which went on this mission, three only returned, the other for having been brought down in flames behind the German lines. The three had at the time been forced to return without observation. This fatal attempt, with its drain on the resources of the squadron, cut us off from any observation until the night of the 14th, when the commander of the French squadron himself, who in company with two other observation planes and four chase planes, proceeded to within 15 kilometers of Conflans and made observation from the most extreme heights possible to be obtained by an observation plane. Due to the great angle on which they were observing and also due to the fact that Conflans lies in the valley, this observation proved unsatisfactory

Destroyed Passenger Car in the Conflans Rail Yard

The Work
During the entire firing, 109,965 lbs. of high explosive was sent into Conflans, with good results. After the shoot was apparently over, two new cars of ammunition were rushed up, and we received instructions to destroy the viaducts, which crossed the roads just north of Conflans. The powder furnished with the 40 shells was of four distinct lots, varying in manufacture and age from one year to seven years and in muzzle velocity from minus 5 meters per second to plus 25 meters per second, and its qualities were completely unknown. It was a case where the battery commander had nothing to do but shoot "By Guess and by God" and hope for the best. Corrections for firing in this case were made on a combination of the bracket and successive approximation systems, has devised by Colonel E. J. Cullen, C.A.C. This method is considered by many to be the best of any in use at the present. Each shot was also plotted and corrected on a grid system, on which the reports of the planes, or the, coordinates sent in by the S. R. O. T. were plotted rapidly and accurately.

Finally, at 5:00 p.m. on 15 September, the battery was given its first rest—a 24-hour one— after four days of continuous work in rain and mud. Through the courtesy of a French hospital we got our first bath and rest since leaving the concentration camp. On the night of the 15th, when we ceased firing, it seemed to us that the Germans must have retreated at least as far as Metz, yet as we lay in our train later in the night, preparing to move to a new position in the Argonne, we were harassed all night by 240mm shrapnel.  At 6:30 a.m., on the morning of the 17th, we pulled out of Sommedieue, to the accompaniment of shrapnel and high explosives, with the shells bursting on both sides and in the rear of our train.

Source:  12 April 1919 edition of Liaison, The Courier of The Big Gun Corps, official newsletter of the Coast Artillery Corps. 

No comments:

Post a Comment