Nomenclature: Ordnance QF 18pdr gun Mark I or II, on carriage field QF 18pdr gun Mark I or II Weight of Equipment: 1 ton 5 cwt 21 lb Ammunition Type: fixed QF Calibre: 3.3in Projectile Type & Weight: Shrapnel, 18.5lb; HE; smoke; incendiary; gas Maximum Range: 6525 yards
The field gun that was to become the 18pdr owed its origins to the Second Boer War. That distant and muddled conflict emphatically pushed home the point to the denizens of Horse Guards and Woolwich, that the state of the British Army's field artillery had become more than a trifle parlous. The early days of the Boer War showed that the Boers could outrange and outshoot anything the Artillery could put into the field. The only immediate short-term solution was for the British Artillery to order (secretly) 108 Erhardt 15pdr guns directly from Germany, but once these guns were delivered, the Boer War had settled down into a prolonged and nasty guerilla campaign with little artillery content. But the experience gained with the 15pdr Erhardt guns gave many pointers as to what the Royal Artillery wanted for their field pieces. The Erhardt guns were sound enough but insufficiently robust for the prolonged rigours of British Army service, and almost as soon as they were delivered the search for a long term replacement was under way.
The task for this long term programme was given to General Sir Henry Brackenbury, and so thorough and far-ranging were his initial investigations that he ordered that all the field artillery in service with the British Army would have to be replaced within a three year period - in fact it was he who started the initial programme by ordering the Erhardt 15pdrs. Brackenbury issued fairly stringent requirements to British industry and among his required equipments were guns for the field and horse batteries. In time the two guns emerged as pieces firing 13.5lb or 18.5lb projectiles, but of the three main producers (Vickers, the Royal Ordnance Factories and Armstrong) there was no overall product that emerged as a clear choice.
(The plan below comes courtesy of Ken Musgrave, he holds the copyright to it, and any commercial use must first be cleared with him.)
The answer was, in both cases, to amalgamate the designs and see what the end results looked like. Thus, with both the 13.5pdr and the 18.5pdr guns, the barrels were from Armstrong, the cradle and some of the carriage came from Vickers, and the bulk of the carriage was a design from the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich. For their day, both designs were thoroughly modern and sound, but almost as soon as the results were issued, voices were raised as to whether or not two almost similar guns were what the Army needed - the difference between a 13.5lb and a 18.5lb projectile hardly seemed to be worth all the extra efforts involved. During the early 1900s, there was a great deal of discussion and debate as to the merits and demerits of both types of gun, but in the end the contest was settled by a political decision made by the Prime Minister of the day, Arthur Balfour. He produced a compromise. As the initial call was for guns for both the horse and field batteries, the smaller gun would go to the Royal Horse Artillery and the larger gun to the Royal Artillery field batteries.
Thus the 18pdr gun became the 18 pdr OF Gun, and it was accepted for service on June 30 1904. Soon after, other empire and Commonwealth governments followed suit and the 18pdr became a Commonwealth gun. The Indian Army also decided to adopt the 18pdr to the extent of setting up their own production line - by 1914, 99 18pdrs had been made. In the United Kingdom the 18pdr was soon in production and by the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, some 1126 equipments had been produced. Of these, 280 had been sent to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada (where the first arrived during 1906).
The first 18pdr has wire-wound barrels with a calibre of 83.8mm. As early as 1906 the barrel design was changed to the more modern convention of inserting the inner tube liner into the gun sleeve - this enabled worn barrels to be relatively easily re-lined, a fact that was to be of great advantage between 1914 and 1918. The wire–wound barrels were the Mark 1 and the later barrels the Mark 2 (or Mark II at the time - this article will use the later arabic where possible). To add to the variety of early Marks, worn Mark 1 barrels were converted to mark 2 standard, when they became the Mark 1 *. The gun used a hydro–spring recoil mechanism and a single–action interrupted–screw breech. The carriage used a single pole trail which, on the move, was hitched to a limber carrying 24 rounds of ammunition. The gun and limber were towed by six or eight horses, while more horse teams towed extra ammunition waggons. As with the gun, the carriage underwent some modifications (there was even a Mark 1 **), but the main change came after experience in action. Once the Great War had settled into a prolonged artillery action, it soon became apparent that the recuperator springs used were incapable of standing up to the strains of long term warfare and many broke in action. During 1915, a new recuperator design with a hydro–pneumatic system was gradually evolved for retro-fitting to all guns in the field and on the production lines. On the lines a lengthened cradle slide was introduced for greater stability when fired and these two innovations then changed the carriage to the Mark 2.
Once that was done the 18pdr proved to be a sturdy and reliable workhorse and by the end of 1918, 8,393 had been produced in the United Kingdom. Even this prodigious total was insufficient to meet the demands of an ever-growing Allied Army and orders for more were placed in the United States during 1916. There the Bethlehem Steel Company had turned out 851 equipments together with limbers and ammunition waggons by the time the United States entered the war in 1917. Thus the unprepared American War economy had an already-equipped artillery production line in being and they converted it to their own use, but as they had already opted for a standard calibre of 75mm they produced their Model 1917 guns in that calibre. By the time the war had ended they had turned out 724 75mm/18pdrs out of a grand total of 2,686 ordered. We shall return to these guns later in the article.
As mentioned above the 18pdr became the workhorse of the British and Allied armies. They formed the major part of the heavy artillery barrages that became the central feature of the Great War campaigns and to them and their ilk must be laid the responsibility for the strange appearance of the Western Front terrain. The field batteries of all the combatant armies were usually allotted the task of barbed wire cutting and destroying the enemy's front line field fortifications and trenches. During the early months of the war, the 18pdrs were unable to perform this task since virtually all of their ammunition issue was shrapnel. Produced with the man-killing potential of this projectile in mind, shrapnel soon showed itself to be completely unsuited to the conditions of the Western Front. The shrapnel bullets were unable to make any impression on even the most lightly protected fortifications and they could not cut barbed wire either. To add to the Artillery's troubles, by 1915 the supply of even shrapnel had dwindled to a trickle. The result was the 'Shell Scandal' that brought Lloyd George into political power with his Ministry of Munitions, so by 1916 the 18pdrs were firing little else but HE. Even with this projectile the effectiveness of the 18pdrs was often less than satisfactory for they fired in a relatively flat trajectory. When the projectile hit the ground it often had little or no penetrating effect and the resultant detonation often did little more than remove the top soil and leave a small shallow depression. When a shell fell into mud, its effects were often minimal other than removing more soil. The overall result was the strange and eerie 'desert' landscapes of 1917 and 1918. After 1918 a team of accountants totted up that well over 100,000,000 rounds were fired by 18pdrs between 1914 and 1918.
By 1918 it had been decided that the range of the 18pdr was insufficient at its maximum of 5966 metres. Trials had begun as early as 1916 on a way to improve the gun's performance but it was soon found that there was little enough to be done with the gun itself. A new Mark 3 gun was designed but it did not get into production. The next step was the Mark 4 which was little changed from the Mark 2 ballistically but it had a new Ashbury single-motion breech that proved easier to work in action. The main changes came with the carriage. The old pole trail was easy to use with horses but it had the definite disadvantage that it limited the available elevation, and thus the range. Allied to the new Mark 4 gun was a new carriage, the Mark 3, which had a box trail allowing an elevation increase to 30° (the Mark 2 was limited to 16°). This increased the range from the earlier 5,966 metres to just over 8,500 metres. The recoil system was also updated (and moved to under the barrel) and the end result was an almost entirely new gun. Only a few got to France before the war ended, but after 1918 the new design became the standard gun of the Royal Artillery field batteries.
After 1918, the 18pdr remained firmly emplaced as the Royal Artillery's main field gun. In November 1918, the numbers in the field and on the stocks was 3,144 and there were over 8,000,000 rounds held ready to be fired from them. Although these stocks were run down, mainly by stockpiling some of the earlier equipments, many remained to be handed out or sold to many foreign and Commonwealth nations, including a few to the new Irish State. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s the 18pdr became the training piece of the British Army as it had little other roles to carry out. Some were taken to Russia to play their part in the ups and downs of their Civil War, and when the British left in 1922 some 18pdrs were left behind, only to re-emerge during the last ditch defence measures taken at Moscow and Leningrad in 1941 and 1942.
In some ways, the 18pdr became a development burden on the limited defence funds the Army had during the 1920s and 1930s. With so many perfectly serviceable guns to hand the Gunners had virtually no hope of any new equipment, but the 18pdr often became the tool involved in the few experiments that were possible - for instance the Birch Gun was an 18pdr Mark 5. But by the end of the 1930s, things began to change when the growth of the new German State cast its ominous war shadows. But even the 18pdr proved to be a burden. Even as the specifications for the new gun-howitzer that was to become the 25pdr, were being drawn up, the numbers of 18pdrs on hand were simply too many to discard. They had to be used in some way.
Here, the 18pdr and 25pdr stories begin to overlap. By the late 1930s, the British Army was gradually moving towards mechanisation and the horse began to be replaced by the motorised truck. The 18pdr had its part to play here as the old spoked wheel carriages were gradually updated to take pneumatic wheels and new brakes. Changes were also made to produce a new carriage, the Mark 5 which had increased elevation (as had an interim, the Mark 4) but most important was the new split trail which gave a great increase in traverse from the previous 8° to 50°. But many gunners were less than happy with the split trail innovation and instead took to requesting a 360° turntable onto which the gun and carriage could be hoisted. This idea was not new as it has its (British) origins in the extemporised Hogg and Paul Platform of 1918, knocked up from a plank platform and a spare gun wheel. With such a device the gun could be easily and quickly traversed for anti-tank and mobile warfare. By the 1930s, the device had become a circular steel ring carried on or under the carriage trail, and it was trials with these platforms as opposed to the radical split trails that determined the final shape of the 25pdr. But before the 25pdr could get into service, new barrels with the 25pdr calibre of 87.6mm were put onto 18pdr carriages. The carriages involved were the Marks 3,4 and 5 and the guns were the 25pdr Mark 1. Enough were so modified to produce sufficient for the little BEF contingent to take to France in 1939.
However, many 18pdrs were not converted and by the time war came again in 1939 there were many 18pdrs still in service. With their new rubber tyres and modern carriages, many were identical to the 18/25pdrs in service with the BEF, but by 1940 their numbers had dwindled as the modern carriages were converted to the 25pdr role. The old 1918 stockpiles then played their part for many were taken out from their wrappings and given a face lift by the use of the Martin-Parry conversion. This involved the use of stub axles under the old to take new rubber tyres and brakes. New sights were often fitted and the end results were issued for training and general use. Some even found their way to France, for by 1940 the gradual expansion of the BEF had outstripped the supply of 18/25pdrs. Thus by 1940 there were some field regiments equipped as they had once been in 1918 with 18pdrs and 4.5in howitzers.
Then came the 1940 French campaign that culminated in Dunkirk. While the bulk of the British Army got away, they had to leave behind their precious guns. The 18pdr total was large. The Army left behind 216 18pdrs of all types, some destroyed or spiked but many in a perfectly serviceable condition. The Germans took their prizes into almost immediate use, and the 18pdr got yet another designation to add to its already long listing - this time it became the 8.38cm Feldkanone 271(e), but interestingly enough this only applied to the old 18pdrs Mark 1 and 2 on the pole trail Marks 1 and 2, even though this version had the Martin-Parry Mark 2PA conversion. It would seem that there were insufficient of the later Marks captured to warrant their large scale use, even though German references to them can be found in some documents. The Germans used their 18pdrs as equipment for second-line formations, in France and some found their way into beach defences. By 1943 the bulk of them had been replaced and scrapped.
In the United Kingdom, the 18pdr now became a major item of equipment and during 1940 all manner of 18pdrs were rushed back into service. Old guns and carriages straight from the stockpiles were placed back into service for training, beach defence and even as front line equipment for some overseas units. The 18pdrs took the field once more during the early Desert campaigns and as late as 1942 were standard equipment for gunner units in Iraq and Syria. In 1942, some were issued to anti-tank batteries in Burma (along with captured 149mm Italian howitzers), while even more were on hand in Singapore when that fortress was captured in early 1942. A Japanese report mentions that a total of 43 18pdrs were captured then, 15 of them "motorised" and 28 with their original 1904 carriages - these latter were used by local militia. Of these the Japanese were able to take over or repair about 21 while the rest were scrapped or reduced for spares. Exactly what use the Japanese made of their prizes still remains the subject for research - the report already mentioned recommended that they be used for local use.
But in 1940 the position on the British mainland was not good. Invasion seemed imminent and artillery was in short supply. The United States came to the rescue with a supply of old artillery pieces that dated mainly from 1918 or thereabouts, but perfectly good enough for use at a desperate time. Most of these guns were 75mm French models in varying states of modification, but some were 75mm Model 1917s on the Carriage Model 1917A1. These were the old re–calibred 18pdrs in 1918 and stockpiled. Fortunately, most of them had been modernised to a pneumatic–wheeled standard, virtually identical to the British Martin-Parry conversion. Thus they could be taken into service almost immediately and they were used for beach defences and gradually they were issued to the Home Guard. By 1945 there were few 18pdrs still left in service. In Canada a few lasted the war out as coastal defence guns at some locations but they were generally the exception. The 18pdr had done its bit in two world wars and in many more minor conflicts as well. Today, the 18pdrs can still be found in museums and acting as gate–guardians in all manner of unlikely places. Its day has passed but it is still remembered as a good gun.
- Text by Terry Gander, from Airfix Magazine August 1980
There are many kits of this gun available in all scales; 6mm from Irregular Miniatures, 15mm from Peter Pig, 1/72 from Emhar and Reviresco, 1/76 from Matador Models, 20mm from Tumbling Dice and IT Miniatures, 25mm from Old Glory Miniatures, 28mm from Renegade Miniatures, 1/35 from Emhar and 1/32 from Hinchliffe/Skytrex and Scale Link.
Airfix Magazine, August 1980 D Clarke & B Delf, British Artillery 1914-19, Field Army Artillery, 2004. Osprey Publishing Ltd, Oxford, UK.