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M65 Atomic Cannon - "Atomic Annie"

In November 1944, the US Army, on the basis of combat experience, was issued a requirement to create a 240-mm long-range gun, in addition to the 203mm M1 gun and the 240mm M1 howitzer, which were the most powerful of the available military mobile land vehicles. The task of the new gun was to defeat the heavily fortified targets and communication centers, as well as counterbattery combat with heavy enemy artillery.

As a result, the gun was made. But it became atomic at a later date - in 1949, the US Atomic Energy Commission announced the development of a 280-mm caliber nuclear projectile. Since the work on smaller nuclear warheads was not conducted at that time, the Army chose not to wait until the perfection of nuclear weapons would allow it to fit into a 240-mm caliber shell, and instead change the delivery vehicles. The barrel strength of the gun allowed it to be drilled to 280 mm caliber, thus increasing the maximum range of fire. Work on the 280-mm gun, received the designation T131, was completed by the end of 1950, and its first prototype was completed in the spring of 1951. Production of the T131 continued until 1953, during this period only 20 guns were manufactured.

Faced with what many officers interpreted as a threat to the existence of their service, the Army undertook comprehensive, total — and in retrospect often poorly executed — effort to create an atomic-era military force. Both the need for institutional survival and Eisenhower’s New Look policy drove the army towards creating the Atomic Field Army [ATFA] which would allow the army to stake its claim on the nuclear battlefield.

In May 1952, Secretary of the Army Frank C. Pace described work underway to develop an artillery piece capable of firing an atomic projectile. Weighing about eighty-five tons, the prototype 280-mm. cannon had a range of about twenty miles and had to be moved while suspended between two heavy truck transporters. Although the gun had not yet fired a nuclear warhead, the Army had tested it with conventional ammunition. Pace claimed that the weapon could hit its target under any weather conditions and would be especially effective in defending against enemy forces massing for an attack. This was a particular point of interest to EUCOM and the Seventh Army, which had to rely on the Air Force to deliver any atomic munitions they might need on the battlefield.

Determined to break the Air Force’s monopoly and provide its own units with a nuclear capability, the Army rushed into production a 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.

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.

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.45 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.

By the end of June 1954, five battalions of the atomic artillery had arrived in Europe and were becoming more firmly established as essential components of any proposed defense in Western Europe. Assigned to the 42d Field Artillery Group at Baumholder and placed under Seventh Army control, these battalions were the 59th, located at Pirmasens, the 264th at Bad Kreuznach, the 265th at Baumholder, the 867th at Kaiserslautern, and the 868th at Baumholder. In its annual training guidance, the U.S. Army, Europe, directed the Seventh Army to employ them throughout division, corps, and army-level maneuvers.

The 280-mm. cannon battalions dragged their big guns all over Germany as they participated in field exercises from division- to NATO-level maneuvers. As a result of this training, the Seventh Army developed standard operating procedures that integrated atomic fire support into its battle doctrine. Artillerymen and engineers learned, for example, to address some of the complications the new weapons entailed. Engineers, in particular, had to conduct a route reconnaissance prior to their movement of the big guns to ensure that bridges and roadways along a route could bear the weight. In many cases, they had to avoid small villages because their corners were too tight to negotiate without damaging property.

John C. Gazlay, an infantryman with the 13th Armored Infantry Battalion, remembered that, when traveling down the narrow, high-crowned roads in Germany, the lead tractor would travel on the right side of the road, while the rear tractor traveled on the left. This arrangement would present a frightening sight for oncoming traffic, which had to take to the shoulders to allow the moving roadblock to proceed. By the end of 1954, USAREUR and the Seventh Army were well on their way toward developing an operational doctrine based on the use of atomic weapons. Much, however, remained to be done. The 280-mm. guns remained the only atomic capable weapons system under Army control. A July inspection by a team from the Office of the Chief of Army Field Forces noted continued deficiencies in procedures for employing aerial-delivered atomic weapons in support of ground combat operations. The observers noted that these shortcomings stemmed from an absence of a jointly accepted doctrine between the Army and Air Force to determine the number of weapons to be allocated to ground support and the types of targets to be attacked.

US European Command contingency plans directed USAREUR to provide atomic-capable artillery units with accompanying logistical elements to designated NATO forces and to assign staff to allied headquarters to assist in planning for the battlefield employment of atomic weapons. Seventh Army units had already tested plans to allocate two battalions of 280-mm. cannons to British forces in the Northern Army Group as part of Exercise Battle Royal in 1954.

Atomic artillery units participated in almost every major field-training exercise, from division-size to NATO maneuvers. Although it was difficult to fire even conventional rounds from the huge, 280-mm. guns due to a lack of suitable firing ranges, Seventh Army technicians constructed a pyrotechnic device that simulated an atomic explosion for use in field training.

Despite the growing interest in atomic warfare, up until early 1955, USAREUR had only six 280-mm. cannon battalions, each with three two-gun batteries, to provide all of its organic atomic fire support. Moreover, the guns themselves were controversial. Critics pointed to the difficulty in transporting them through European villages and along narrow roads and bridges. American newspapers published articles and showed pictures of guns that had skidded off roads and gotten stuck in ditches. Artillerymen defended the performance of their weapons and praised their performance but nonetheless conceded that more agile systems were needed.

As a further upgrade to the flexibility of its atomic arsenal, USAREUR received word in May 1955 that the Army had developed an atomic shell for its 8-inch howitzer. At thirty-five tons, the artillery piece was less than half the weight of the more cumbersome 280-mm. cannon. The 8-inch guns could fire a shell out to a range of almost twenty miles and were already deployed to Europe in substantial numbers. Although none of the new projectiles reached Europe by the end of the year, and the 280-mm. cannons remained the mainstay of the Seventh Army’s atomic arsenal, it was clear that the command was expanding its options as it prepared for an atomic conflict.

The extensive use of the 280-mm. guns throughout the training exercises also revealed serious shortcomings in the command’s ability to keep them in service. Maintenance of the guns and their transporters proved to be a chronic and difficult problem. Due to the rotation of trained personnel and the absence of a formal training program for specialists in both the artillery and supporting ordnance battalions, many units lacked the qualified mechanics needed to keep the equipment running.

The M65 was based on the design of the 280mm (about 11") German K5 Railroad Gun. Its design, and name, both derive from the German K5(E) railroad gun "Anzio Annie" deployed against the American landings in Italy in WWII. The M65 was transported between detachable front and rear transport tractors. The Japanese had made a strong impression when they employed 280mm howitzers against Port-Arthur during their war against Russia in 1904-5. The French and the Russians collaborated afterwards to develop a similar weapon.

Picatinny Arsenal received the mission to develop an artillery shell able to carry nuclear payload in 1949. Basically, this meant scaling a 240mm shell, the Army largest field artillery shell in World War II, up to 280mm. The project's entire design team was Robert Schwartz, who completed his preliminary sketches during a period of 15 days spent alone in a locked room at the Pentagon. He sharpened the details in another locked room at Picatinny. The Chief of Staff of the Army at the time, General J. Lawton Collins, thought enough of Schwartz's effort to cite him in his memoirs over a quarter of a century later.

The next problem was to sell the product to the Pentagon. This would not have happened if Samuel Feltman, chief of the Ballistics Section of the Ordnance Department's Research and Development Division, had not pushed the project to approval. This goes along way to explain why Picatinny has a research building named after Feltman. Then, Schwartz had to rush to procure equipment and assemble a staff to carry out the three-year development effort.

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.

A single test shot was fired seven miles at the Nevada Test site at 8:30am, local time, on May 25, 1953. A 15-kiloton test fired from a 280-mm cannon at the Nevada Proving Grounds. Conducted at Frenchman's Flat, Nevada, the Atomic Cannon test was history's first atomic artillery shell fired from the Army's new 280-mm artillery gun. Operation Upshot-Knothole consisted of 11 atmospheric detonations, took place at the Nevada Test Site in 1953. There were three airdrops, seven tower shots and one warhead fired from an atomic cannon. An experiment in this testing was to determine the effects of a nuclear explosion on a B-50 aircraft. About 21,000 military personnel participated in Upshot-Knothole as part of the Desert Rock V exercise.

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.

The first atomic cannon went into service in 1952, and was deactivated in 1963. Throughout the 1950s, the Army deployed nuclear cannons to Europe even though they were obsolete as soon as they arrived. Guarded by infantry platoons, these guns were hauled around the forests on trucks to keep the Soviets from guessing their location. Weighing 83 tons, the cannon could not be airlifted and took two tractors to move its road-bound bulk. It was a glamorous weapon to be sure, but it did not fit into the Pentomic structure of the Army, and it siphoned off precious funding that the Army desperately needed for modernization.

As the end of 1962 approached, the Army announced new weapons and equipment that would be ready for deployment in the near future. Perhaps most important, the development of a 6-inch atomic artillery shell that the Army could fire from its existing 155-mm. howitzers spelled the death knell for both the ponderous 280-mm. atomic cannon and the inaccurate and politically sensitive Davy Crockett.

In June 1995, a veteran testified at a personal hearing on service connection for hearing loss that he worked for three months on a nuclear or atomic cannon when he was in the service and they fired the cannon for three months, every working day and approximately three to four hours a day at five minute intervals. The veteran indicated that he was never given ear protection during service. He stated that he received medical treatment during service and was told that his hearing loss and tinnitus "would resolve themselves." The veteran further stated that he has had a "tremendous ringing in both of [his] ears" that "impairs [his] hearing" since service

Twenty were manufactured; eight appear to have survived the Cold War and are on public display today.

  • Army Ordnance Museum, Aberdeen, Maryland (still has the two large "prime movers" attached)
  • Atomic Museum, Albuquerque, New Mexico
  • Fort Sill Museum, Oklahoma
  • Freedom Park, Junction City, Kansas
  • Rock Island Arsenal, Memorial Field, Rock Island, Illinois
  • Virginia War Memorial Museum, Newport News, Virginia
  • Watervliet Arsenal, Watervliet, NY -- where they were all manufactured.
  • Yuma Proving Ground, Yuma, Arizona

Weighing 85 tons, it required two tractors to move it and was so unwieldy that it could take an hour of careful maneuvering to get it under a bridge. Its instability and propensity to slide or tip when maneuvered on anything but firm and level ground earned it the nickname the “Widow Maker.” To complicate the Army’s problems further, the gun was very unpopular among Europeans. Within 2 years it had been surpassed by other weapons, and was taken out of service within a decade.

There are arguments over the value of the atomic cannon, especially in regard to range, but General Collins believed the threat of its deployment had a role in bringing about the Korean armistice and did not doubt the presence in Europe "of our nuclear guns has contributed greatly as a deterrent to any offensive by the Soviets."