By Dennis Conrad, Ph.D., Histories and Archives Division, Naval History and Heritage Command
In November 1917, Rear Adm. Ralph Earle, the head of the Navy’s Bureau of Ordnance, suggested that if the Navy mounted “several naval 14-inch guns . . . fitted with high angles of fire, and with specially formed shell, fitted with delayed action fuses,” they might be able to outrange the German Lugenboom guns, then pounding the vital port city of Dunkirk from a distance of some 24 miles. Earle added that after securing Dunkirk these guns, if mounted on railroad cars so they would be mobile and self-sustaining, could be used offensively to bombard German supply and railroad centers well beyond the front lines. Thus the Naval Railway battery was born. As an aside, note that contrary to popular belief, the Naval Railway battery was not intended to combat the German Paris-Geschütz gun that had fired on the French capital from some 75 miles away during the critical German offensive in the spring of 1918.
Getting the guns proved easy. They were taken from spares created when the Navy altered the design of its battle cruiser class. The mobility came from mounting the guns on specially-constructed railway carriages created to carry the gun and its slide and hauling them where they needed to go using special locomotives manufactured by the Baldwin Railroad Works at Eddystone, PA. Five of these trains were readied and then shipped unassembled to France where they were reassembled by their crews.
The insignia adopted by this unit was a “Woozlefinch,” which one officer who served in the unit described as “neither flesh, nor fish, nor fowl.” This was a perfect description of both the unit and the men that composed it. This hybrid operation was created by the Navy, manned by Sailors, but operated under the command of the U.S. Army’s Railroad Artillery Reserve and, interestingly, were the only American-made artillery used in the war.
Moreover, the 530 officers and men that composed the Naval Railway Guns command are equally difficult to pigeonhole. In a letter describing the men that he wanted, Capt. (later Rear Adm.) Charles P. Plunkett wrote that they should include men who can “do machinist work, electrical work, radio work, concrete work, signaling, locomotive engineers and firemen, trainmen, carpenters, painters, plumbers, blacksmiths, automobile men, and an assortment of men of various trades.” But, he added, “It is not intended that all men should be men of trades; the majority of them should be intelligent and active young men, preferably those with some education. It is not necessary that the men have ratings indicative of their trades. Select excellent all-round men without regard to rating.” As can be seen by this description, these were all picked men, not just volunteers who joined on a whim.
The unit was subdivided into six groups, one for each battery and these groups were further subdivided into crews: a train crew, a construction crew, and a gun crew. Finally, everyone in the unit was expected to serve as infantrymen if needed. While in operation the Naval Batteries had no support from the Army and should Germans units advance on them, they were expected to “fight alone.” Gratefully for them, the Germans were in retreat throughout their period of service.
The first detachment arrived in France June 10, 1918, but waiting for their equipment and preparing the trains meant that they did not leave for the front until Aug. 18. They served continuously from then until war’s end on Nov. 11, 1918.
They scored some notable successes, especially considering that “the great majority of shots were fired without adequate observation,” and that they fired behind German lines at “unusually long ranges” and only “several hours after an Infantry attack” when reserves and ammunition cars were, it was expected, being rushed toward the front. Thus their fire was not continuous or random but measured and deliberate. Even so, they scored some notable hits including destroying a section of a moving supply train, ripping up an entire three-track line for a distance of some 100 yards, and scoring a direct hit on a German troop train with devastating results. The American naval commander in European Waters, Vice Adm. William S. Sims, spoke highly of the naval railway guns, praising their “very excellent and valuable work, particularly in the recent pushes.”
Even so, the guns were already an anachronism. The increased use and effectiveness of aircraft, particularly bombers, with their greater flexibility and mobility, meant that the Naval Railway Battery would not be a mainstay in future wars. Nonetheless, its development and deployment highlights the U.S. Navy’s ability to think innovatively and create and deploy new and effective programs quickly. That skill is transferable and is a hallmark of the U.S. Navy in the twentieth century.
As a final note, if you wish to see one of these Naval Railway Guns, there is one exhibited at Willard Park at the Washington Navy Yard. If you wish to learn more about these guns and the men who fired them, see a history of their service at “United States Naval Railway Batteries in France.”