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M1 / M2 155mm "Long Tom" Towed Gun - North Africa

In the brown-hued landscape of North Africa that the Long Toms first revealed their awesome, accurate firepower in combat. Ironically, because of the tight security surrounding the preparations for Operation TORCH, the ammunition requisitioned from the States was for the old World War I GPF rather than the new M1 155-mm gun, with which the US II Corps was equipped; thus, the M1s were left behind in England and missed the initial phases of the North African Campaign.

American-crewed Long Toms not only fought alongside the GIs of every American division that saw combat in North Africa, but also served for two months with the British army. While serving with the Royal Artillery, US cannoneers and their Long Toms were utilized as reconnaissance-in-force units. On numerous occasions in December 1942 and January 1943, the Long Toms and their US handlers found themselves on Hill 609 with only a mere company of British paratroopers for local protection. An armored car, meanwhile, would probe some 10 to 15 miles out front into enemy territory and, when it drew hostile fire, the Long Toms immediately retaliated. On 18 January 1943, for example, a battery of four Long Toms expended 368 rounds in this fashion in a matter of just a few hours.

The accurate and long-reaching heavy punch of the Long Toms was in great demand during the hectic fighting in North Africa that transformed the "green" GIs into seasoned veterans. They were rushed to the Kasserine Pass to support an armored counterattack, following the American's disasterous defeat. Later, a battery of 155-mm rifles, after getting the worse of a counterbattery duel, withdrew across the Medjerda River and occupied an Arab cemetery. Here, the Long Toms fired for 18 straight days without being detected by the enemy, although both their old positions, as well as a dummy position just 800 yards away, underwent heavy shelling and bombing. Then, on 23 March 1943, a forward platoon of 155-mm guns shelled a German airfield near Maknassy, destroying five planes probably the first ever to be hit by a Long Tom.

As for the crews of the 155-mm guns, they soon came to appreciate the strength and effect of their heavy projectile. For example, at Medjez, just one of their rounds landing 80 yards from an enemy battery caused its prompt relocation. And, on another occasion, they dropped a single shell in the midst of a Panzer tank concentration, only to watch it immediately disperse.

One lesson learned in the Africa campaign in 1942 was that tractors were too slow. British staffs were more painstaking than the Americans in setting requirements for the six-mile-per-hour artillery columns, but the Heavies were often asked to make impossible moves. Two batteries were rushed to the Kasserine Pass to support an armored counterattack. When the battalion supported armored divisions it did so repeatedly 10-ton wrecking trucks were borrowed as prime movers. Shuttling was generally necessary and the units to whom the borrowed prime movers belonged objected, and the tractors were sometimes left far behind. In general, life for the battalion staff was made a burden by lack of organic high-speed prime movers.

Another lesson in regard to traction was that wheeled vehicles as prime movers are not enough. It was near Gafsa, and the only possible position for one of the batteries was in a wadi (a dry stream bed) which shelved half-way down and then had a central channel. All night it rained. Two of the guns were on the shelf of the wadi and some transportation was concealed in the channel. At 0630 hours next morning, without warning, a 4-foot wall of water hit the battery, inundating it and burying one weaponscarrier (mounting a 37-mm gun) to the windshield. The battery was immobilized all day until the ground dried out enough for trucks to get some traction. Had the battery had a caterpillar tractor, towed to the position on a tank-carrier behind a fifth truck, the guns might not have been immobilized.

In an orchard near Medjez a tractor and gun were stuck in the mud so badly that mud rolled up over the wheels of the piece and the wheels no longer turned. Another tractor was hooked up in tandem, and snaked the gun out like a log. While it is not recommended that two tractors be carried around by each battery, the need for one seems well established. Peeps proved much better than C&R cars, doing all that the larger vehicle could do and not being so conspicuous. On several occasions higher authority set a line beyond which nothing bulkier than the peep, except ambulances, was allowed to move; an acute peep shortage set in. The battalion wants all the C&Rs replaced by peeps, with half-tracks added for liaison officers and FOs.

The biggest headache of the campaign was wire. In one position 15 miles were out at one time, tying in the artillery of two divisions and the battalion's own OPs. With all the armor that moves about on a modern battlefront, the lines were cut up almost all the time. At the Kasserine Pass the armored division supported by the battalion provided the RO with a half-track and radio equipment, which proved exceedingly useful and demonstrated the desirability of that vehicle and that type of communications in forward areas.

Of all things imaginable to happen to an airplane, the oddest yet occurred to one of the flying OPs of the battalion. It was blown up on a mine, just after landing in front of one of the batteries after a shoot. These planes were used a lot and with good success.

Since the regiment was never together in the same sector, it is felt that the battalion is the largest sensible unit. For reasons of command and liaison it ws recommended that the regiment be broken down still further, and that the artillery of each division be reinforced by an organic unit of six 155-mm guns, to correspond to the 150-mm guns the Germans assign to their divisions. If attached to the division artillery section for administration and supply, the six guns could be controlled like a British battery and commanded by a major. Each platoon of two guns should have a lieutenant in charge.

Especially in a defensive situation, the advantages of 6-gun batteries, to fire by platoon over a wide front, were appreciated by the battalion at Kasserine Pass and El Guettar. In each of these sectors a battery was reinforced by one platoon in order to provide the field of fire necessary to accomplish the assigned mission. The battalion learned that it does not pay to occupy the old position of another unit, even though it seems to be the best position around.

There was little to be done about flash, which was visible for over 20 miles on a dark night, but it was not clear that smoke rings, which sometimes go hundreds of feet in the air, were a necessary evil. Though the Sound and Flash boys were accused of trying to choke enemy patrols by jamming microphones down their throats, they found broken terrain a serious handicap.

Finally, the battalion learned to know its own strength. It learned what it could do as a team of men, and it saw the good work done by its guns. It saw the morale effect of its heavy projectiles. At Medjez a single round was put down 800 yards from an enemy battery, and the battery lost no time in pulling out. On another occasion one round dropped inside a tank concentration caused it to disperse immediately. The men who served the Long Toms thought them the best guns in Africa, and they did a lot to prove it.

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Page last modified: 29-05-2019 19:05:28 ZULU