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84 mm field gun [8-staal]

Introduction

The French-Prussian war [1870-1871] was the prelude to a huge revolution of arms. Metallurgical developments made it possible to fabricate guns that were able to resist much higher yields and prolonged action; guns that were much better corrosion and fatigue resistant. Improvement of percussion instruments made the breech loading action to become standard for all guns. Last but not least the rapid improvement of powders boosted the flagrance and energy of propellants.

It all resulted into the introduction of modern guns that delivered projectiles over much larger distances, in much higher frequency and with a much increased potential regarding delivery of powerful and heavy projectiles.

The 8-staal [steel] gun was of the second generation breech loaded guns that soon followed the first generation of bronze guns.

Prelude 

After the 1870-1871 war the Dutch army had purchased its first breechloader: 8 cm bronze guns from Switzerland for the field army, soon followed by 10 and 12 cm fortress guns for the static forces. The rapid developments of new high strength alloys made these "modern" guns obsolete in less than a decade.

In the late seventies [19th century] steel guns were introduced. The Dutch were quick to order these new products of Krupp. Already in 1878 the new gun "12-lang staal" [12 lang 24] was introduced for the static artillery units, soon followed by the heavier "15 lang staal" [15 lang 24]. Both guns would still see service in the 1940 war.

The Dutch army realized that the bronze guns were already outdated upon delivery and browsed the market for urgent replacements. They soon ended up at Krupp that offered a modern 8,4 cm steel gun that was much like the 8 cm bronze guns, only capable of much improved achievements through its all steel construction. It was decided that the 8,4 cm Krupp gun would replace the bronze equivalents.

Introduction of the 8-staal gun

In November 1881 the 8-staal - in those days considered as highly modern rapid-fire field guns - was introduced in the units of the Dutch field army. This gun was a revolutionary new design for the artillery. It was capable of producing sustained rapid fire, although in those days such was no more than 2-3 rounds a minute.

Although an ingenious system of a combined charge [in a steel shell] and projectile was used to load and fire the gun, it was in fact still a dual-loaded gun. The trigger mechanism that was used to fire the gun had to be taken on and off with every round fired, and the same operation applied for the aiming devices. The ignition load [percussion cap or primer] in the trigger-section ignited the propellant after which the projectile was launched.

Since the 8-staal came with a rifled barrel, the projectile was rotated in the barrel by making use of a soft-bronze band around the base of the projectile-casing that was forced into the spiral grooves of the barrel. After the shot was fired, the trigger-mechanism was taken off [for reloading], the vizier had to be put on [for re-aiming], the breech block was opened [empty cartridge shell was taken out] and the re-loading action had to be executed. All this took well trained crews at least 20-25 seconds.

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Dutch 8-staal [84 mm] guns (may 1940)

The 8-staal was a two piece weapon, with a fixed barrel and crib. As such it was a fully recoiling gun that lacked any kind of mechanised brake. It was fitted with a scoop-brake under the undercarriage. The barrel was fixed to the solid cradle by a single tilt axis. As such the barrel tilted after the projectile had left it. The fixed mounting and solid cradle also prevented the possibility to traverse the gun without physical displacement. Aiming the gun in traverse operation was done by means of a yoke that was fixed at the rear end of the under carriage leg. Depth adjustment was done by a simple and basic screwing device under the breach. The screw operation was aided by a very unpractical horizontal wheel. The operation of this horizontal screw-wheel [located between the breech block and the undercarriage] was a very time consuming operation, especially when targets would appear with a great variety of distance. In other words, the gun was all but suitable for a dynamic artillery role.

With the above described characteristics in mind it does not surprise that when the gun was fired it genuinly went up the wall. That's why it had to be re-aimed after every single shot and the crew had to hide well away from the gun when it was fired. These gun features were obviously not unique in those days [last decades of the 19th century], but since the 8-staal would still serve in the artillery in 1940 these wild characteristics posed the challenge of operating the guns whilst still being protected from enemy counter-fire. Obviously this was more than a challenge, since the 8-staal was not fitted with a protective shield where at the same time the gun profile was high [over 1 m].

The maximum effective range of the 8-staal was about 5,000 meter, but "effective range" defined in 1880 was quite different from its definitions in 1940. In May 1940 the effective range of the gun was considered to be no more than 3,500 meters. Beyond that the straddle was considered too much. The ammunitions used were canister, HE canister and HE rounds.

As off 1905 the 8-staal gun became less important to the artillery units when the 7-veld field gun was introduced. This new gun was indeed capable of rapid-fire and had a much more extended range. The 8-staal became a secondary gun, although it remained operational in the army for mobilised artillery regiments.

After WWI the 8-staal could be considered obsolete, but it was nevertheless kept in the reserve regiments until 1933. By then it was even considered obsolete by the artillery-short Dutch army, although still in 1927 the gas-seals had been modified to plastic seals. The remaining guns were stored in the arsenals and some pieces even ended up in museums. But six years later the tremendous shortage of infantry and AT guns in the forward defence-lines forced the Dutch to dust off these old work horses, and reinstate them in operational roles again.

No less than 108 guns were put into active service again; 48 of those in four battalions [of 12 guns each; 36 in the Peel-Raamline and 12 in Zeeland], 12 off in three independent batteries [of 4 guns each; one battery in the Delfzijl harbour, one at Fortress Den Helder and one at Amsterdam harbour] and 48 off more in single-gun batteries [29 in the Ysselline; 7 in the Maas-Waalline/Betuweline and 12 in the Maasline].

Apart from the fact that the guns were extremely old-fashioned operationally wise, they suffered from all sorts of fatigues. The majority of the guns had failing breech-blocks, seals and trigger devices. The seals in the blocks - necessary to prevent gas-leakage at the breech-loading-door - almost all failed. Next to these problems, many of the guns would appear to be metal-fatigued. Also, many gun crews that received ammunition from the war-depots were quite stunned to find out that some batches had suffered from serious corrosion. Crews found themselves occupied with polishing grenades!

Although quite a number of guns had been overhauled prior to the German invasion, many failed after one or two rounds fired. Some guns even refused to fire a single shot. However, at two locations the 8-staal would distinguish itself far beyond expectation.

The 20th Artillery Regiment - designated to be fitted with the purchased new 105 mm howitzers from Krupp [that never came] - was equipped with 36 off 8-staal guns. This regiment was the only artillery regiment that stayed to the rear of the main defences in the Peel-Raamline when the 3rd Army Corps and Light Division had evacuated Brabant. Three battalions were formed, of which one [the 3rd] was dislocated just north of the railway at Mill.

When the Germans had managed to penetrate the Peel-Raamline at Mill in the early hours of the invasion, they unloaded an infantry battalion [shuttled in by an armoured train] to the rear of the line, close to Mill. One company of this battalion - about 150 men strong - made its way north towards the rear of the Dutch front-line, with the objective to take these troops by surprise. The twelve guns of III-20RA - that were located to the rear of the front-line - were all aimed to the east, directing towards the village of Mill. Suddenly the commander of the most southern battery discovered German infantry approaching their position from the south-west. Without hesitation he ordered his men to turn their guns 120 degrees, and take aim at the approaching enemy. In this odd position the guns had to fire in an enfilading operation [over each others heads], and as such they had to be fired piece-wise [rather than a battery volley]. When the adjacent battery-commanders discovered the first battery suddenly opening fire, they quickly copied the action of the southern battery and as such within fifteen minutes time three full batteries had opened direct fire on the approaching Germans.

The ordeal that came over the German infantry took no less than one full hour. Notwithstanding this barrage the Germans had managed to come within 400 meter of the southern battery. When also the Dutch light arms opened fire the Germans finally realised that retreat remained the only healthy option. The III-20RA had prevented a disaster at Mill. After this event, which took place in the early morning of the 10th, it would take the Germans a full day still to take the positions that the 20RA had defended with so much dedication and courage.

In Zeeland the 8-staal still proved to be of some value too. In Zeeland, a battalion of 17RA fitted out with these old beast, joint a French navy-artillery barrage of German SS troops that endeavoured to overtake the Dutch-French positions along the main causeway. Although almost two-thousand rounds were fired [in the end six guns had suffered from fatal mechanical failure] the Germans could not be stopped. They did suffer losses however.

Also along the Maas- and Ysselline a number of individual successes were gained by single gun crews equipped with the 8-staal. But in particular along the river-lines many 8-staal guns proved mechanically unfit. Some were not able to fire a single shot, others failed after one or two rounds fired. Often the guns were not able to participate at all because simply not a single opponent came in sight.

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The obsolete infantry gun 8-staal [staal=steel] (may 1940)

In total 52 of the 108 available 8-staal guns would see action during the May War. Of these 52 the majority saw action in Brabant. Two of the three battalions in the Peel-Raamline [24 guns] as well as the battalion in Zeeland [12 guns] saw by far most of the action, and fired thousands of rounds altogether. Almost all guns in the Ysselline [25 out of 29 available] as well as the three independent batteries did not fire a single shot.

Obviously the battle results of the 108 guns were quite modest. Should one deduct the action at Mill, the effect of the rounds fired was neglectable. One could even deny that the presence of the guns alone was any show of power. In many cases the sighting of these vintage guns was all but a moral boost to the men fighting around them. In stead of the modern AT guns - that had initially been their share - they witnessed the arrival of the obsolete 8-staal guns. "Look with what they sent us off to battle!?" was a much heard statement. And right they were to question that!

Obviously the Germans had a good laugh about the captured 8-steel guns that virtually all ended up in the melting ovens to be transformed into modern German weapons. A few pieces were left to museums and even the Dutch were allowed some pieces for exposure already during the war.

Specifications

Manufacturer:  Krupp [Germany]
Calibre:  8,4 cm [84 mm]
Barrel length:  2,300 mm.
Material:  Steel
Fire rate:  2 rounds/min. [5 min. max]
Muzzle velocity:  V0 460 m/sec. [HE]
Ammo types:  - Canister
- HE Canister [7,03 kg excl cartridge]
- HE [7,06 kg excl cartridge]
Gun mass:  1,030 kg.
Barrel mass:  450 kg.
Maximum range:  5,000 meter [3,000 effective]
Introduction:  1881
Number available in May 1940:  108
Traction:  horse traction, six or four horses per gun
Gun crew:  6 - 9 men