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M65 Atomic Cannon - "Atomic Annie"

The "Atomic Cannon", the Army's largest artillery gun, was capable of firing both conventional and atomic warheads. This 47 ton gun (aka "Atomic Annie") was transported by two tractors. The drivers of the vehicles communicated with each other by means of a built-in telephone system. It proved to be a highly mobile weapons system and adaptable to most road conditions. It fired a 550 pound projectile and had an approximate range of 20 miles. Six years after the development of strategic atomic weapons, this road-transportable cannon gave a tactical atomic capability to US land forces.

Atomic weaponry was a staple in military arsenals during the Cold War. During the early onset of the arms race in the 1950s, atomic projectiles were not yet being fitted on missiles, but rather appeared in the form of bombs. For the U.S. Army, however, where military tactics included the use of atomic weapons on and close to the front line, a weapon was designed to deliver an atomic artillery around behind the front lines.

Determined to break the Air Force’s monopoly and provide its own units with a nuclear capability, the Army rushed into production the massive 280-mm artillery piece. Amid great publicity, on May 25, 1953, “Atomic Annie” fired an 800-pound atomic warhead at a target over six miles away. Unfortunately, this great photo op was about as good as it got: the 280-mm gun soon proved to be all but unusable in any foreseeable combat scenario.

The gun was nicknamed Atomic Annie, probably derived from the nickname “Anzio Annie” given to the German K5 280mm (11 inch) gun that the Germans had dubbed "Leopold" which was employed against the American landings in Italy. The German gunners, quick to invent an fitting name, called the series the Schlanke Bertha ('Slender Berthas'), which was most appropriate for their lean profile. The Germans had always loved big guns. During the Great War the famous German armament manufacturer, Krupp, built huge a howitzer (a gun with a relatively short length for the diameter of its barrel) with the nickname "Big Bertha" - named after Bertha Krupp, the firm's matriarch. The US 155mm Long Tom was the top of the Allied range. The name "Big Bertha" subsequently came to be applied generically by the Allies to any very large German gun.

Dwight David Eisenhower took the oath of office on Tuesday, January 20, 1953. It was the most elaborate inaugural pageant ever held. About 22,000 service men and women and 5,000 civilians were in the parade, which included 50 state and organization floats costing $100,000. There were also 65 musical units, 350 horses, 3 elephants, an Alaskan dog team, and the 280-millimeter atomic cannon.

The Army took steps toward breaking its dependency on the Air Force for atomic support in Europe in October 1953, when two 280-mm. atomic cannons belonging to the 868th Field Artillery Battalion arrived in Germany. The Army had developed the artillery pieces in 1952 and tested them in the Nevada desert on 25 May 1953, with the successful firing and detonation of an atomic projectile. Weighing eighty-eight tons, each enormous weapon required two heavy tractor trucks to move it, one to its front and the other to its rear. The section had a top speed on the highway of thirty-five miles per hour. Although relatively slow and ungainly, the pieces could be emplaced and put into action in about the same amount of time that conventional heavy artillery required. The guns lacked the range and flexibility of aircraft delivered munitions, but they provided a far greater measure of accuracy and reliability. Most important, unlike the Air Force, they could provide atomic fire support to Army ground units at night and in any kind of weather.

The message implicit in the delivery of the new weapons was as important as the tactical capabilities they represented. As the guns arrived, Army leaders made a great show of displaying the ordnance for the American and European press. The cannons symbolized the Eisenhower administration’s commitment to defend Europe with atomic weapons while also giving the Seventh Army the ability to provide its own atomic fire support without having to rely on the Air Force.

Views differ on Ike's nuclear threats in early 1953 - for example, Maurice Matloff, in American Military History, who saw a general threat being offered to Moscow and Pyongyang, North Korea; Burton I. Kaufman, in The Korean War: Challenges in Crisis, Credibility, and Command, who saw no direct threat being made to China; and Timothy J. Botti, in Ace in the Hole: Why the United States Did Not Use Nuclear Weapons in the Cold War, 1945 to 1965, who saw increased Chinese flexibility at Panmunjom, North Korea, as being "probably influenced by rumors that the administration had let circulate around the Far East that the U.S. was stationing more atomic bombers in Okinawa." Others saw the stately and visible progress of an atomic cannon across the Pacific as a crucial influence.

Page last modified: 17-05-2019 17:22:44 ZULU