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Interview
Lawrence Kaplan, Military Historian

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Dr. Lawrence M. Kaplan has served as an historian with the U.S. Army Field Artillery Center and Fort Sill, the U.S. Army Center of Military History, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, and is currently the U.S. Army Cyber Command historian. He is the author of Homer Lea: American Soldier of Fortune (University Press of Kentucky, 2010) and the editor of John C. Tidball, The Artillery Service in the War of the Rebellion (Westholme Press, 2011).
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How did Germany develop the V-2, the world’s first ballistic missile?

Germany’s loss in World War I (1914-1918) influenced its emergence as the first country to actively pursue development of military rockets. The 1919 Versailles Treaty that ended the war placed severe restrictions on German military forces, including a proscription against heavy artillery. Consequently, leaders of Germany’s post-war army began looking for new armaments that would increase the fighting power of their limited forces without violating the Treaty. Rockets, which were not restricted by the Treaty, offered Germany such a potential weapon.

In 1929 Germany began research and development of short-range rockets for military purposes. Within a few years the army decided to explore the prospects of developing a long-range rocket as a replacement for heavy artillery.

In 1932 the German Army hired a brilliant, twenty year old engineering doctoral candidate named Wernher von Braun to head up their rocket research program. Two years later, in December 1934, he successfully completed two tests of the Aggregate-2, or A-2 rocket, which weighed about 235 pounds and was a little over five feet long.

In 1937 the German Air Force, which was interested in the development of rocket-powered aircraft, formed an alliance with the Army to provide funding for a huge rocket research facility at Peenemünde, on the Baltic coast. The Peenemünde team made rapid progress over the next five years and moved beyond development of unguided rockets to guided missiles.

In June 1942 the Peenemünde team carried out the first successful launch of the Aggregate-4, or A-4, later called Vergeltungswaffe Zwei (Vengence Weapon-2) or V-2, the world’s first ballistic missile. It was approximately 45-feet high, five-feet wide, contained an internal guidance system, and could deliver a conventional 1,600 pound warhead to a range of about 200 miles. As advanced as it was, however, it had some significant design limitations. Its size was limited because during transport to launching sites, its stabilization fins had to fit through all the tunnels and underpasses in Europe. Also, the choice of fuel, ordinary ethyl alcohol, was decided on availability, not efficiency.

The Germans fired their first operational V-2 against Great Britain on September 8, 1944. It was not a decisive weapon; it was inaccurate and carried a limited payload. By the end of the war more than 1,000 had fallen on Great Britain, as well as hitting targets in Belgium, France, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. There was no defense against them, other than bombing their launch sites.

The V-2 signaled the start of the missile age. Before the war ended, Germany was working on plans for extended-range versions of it, including an intercontinental missile that could hit targets in America.

What impact did smokeless powder have on artillery?

The development of smokeless powder in the mid-1880s contributed to a significant shift in artillery methods. With dense clouds of smoke no longer spreading over a battery and interfering with its aim, the fire became more rapid and more accurate with a new generation of breech-loading rifled artillery with on-carriage recoil systems, such as the M1897 French 75-mm field gun, the first modern field gun.

While smokeless powder significantly increased artillery ranges, it also led to improved long-range small arms that posed a greater threat to men and animals in the open than ever before. Field artillery pieces initially began adopting shields to protect its gunners, and subsequently guns were painted with an assortment of primary colors, known as camouflage, to lessen their exposure on the battlefield.

Field artilleryman began looking for ways to exploit the valuable element of tactical surprise on their opponents, provided their field pieces could be successfully hidden or masked and they used some method of indirect fire. The idea of a forward observer working from an advanced position or from an elevated platform and somehow communicating back to the guns solved the theoretical problem of allowing visual observation of distant targets, but the system was entirely contingent on finding a reliable means of transmitting information. On the eve of World War I (1914-1918) armies relied primarily on wire communications to conduct indirect fire. The war, however, revealed the limitations of utilizing indirect fire when wire communications typically failed on its fire-swept battlefields. For example, in trench warfare (characterized by static, siege warfare methods) imprecise unobserved indirect fire, which relied heavily on massive pre-planned barrages, became an accepted alternative to pre-war observed indirect fire methods that stressed timely and precise fire support with limited ammunition expenditures.

Perfecting observed indirect fire ultimately depended on the development of tactical radios and integrating aerial observation into the process. In the U.S. Army, for example, efficient long-range firepower finally became a reality by 1941, on the eve of America’s entry into World War II. By then, lightweight, reliable, mobile tactical radios provided the key to freeing field artillery forward observers from their reliance on cumbersome wire communications and allowed aerial observation to be readily incorporated into field artillery fire missions.

Did smokeless powder have an impact on infantry methods as well?

The development of smokeless powder in the mid-1880s led to widespread changes for infantry. Smokeless powder provided extended ranges in weapons. The prospects of facing hostile rapid-fire masked artillery and long-range enemy infantry fire meant that traditional close rank infantry formations would vanish from the battlefield. Dispersion of formations and exposure of belligerents for short intervals of time earmarked the dawn of a new age in warfare. No longer could a soldier outfitted in brightly colored apparel to facilitate command and control on a smoke filled battlefield rely on the moral support gained from advancing in close rank formations with his comrades. By the turn of the century, the Boer War (1899-1902) and the Russo Japanese War (1904-1905) demonstrated that modern infantry would need nondescript uniforms that allowed them to blend in with their surroundings. They also would need to be taught to move in wide open formations, which created a new host of command and control problems, and face added pressures to develop self-reliance and perfect discipline if they were to successfully adapt to the new warfare.

Smokeless powder ushered in a new generation of reduced caliber military small arms that reflected some uncertainty in adapting to the new warfare. For example, in 1890 the U.S. Army reduced the caliber of its infantry small arms from .45 to .30, signaling a replacement for the single-shot M1873 Springfield rifle. While other armies began adopting new quick-loading magazine rifles, such as the M1893 7-mm. Mauser used by Spain in the Spanish-American War (1898), the U.S. Army followed a different course with the Norwegian .30 caliber M1892 Krag-Jorgensen rifle that began fielding in 1894 (and was modified in 1896 and in 1898). Although a magazine weapon, it had a magazine cut-off and was intended for use as a
single-shot, with the cartridges in the magazine reserved for emergency use only. The Spanish-American War, however, revealed a serious shortcoming for the Krag compared to Spanish Mausers that could be rapidly loaded with bullets on charger clips. Krags had a magazine that could only be loaded with five loose bullets, which was time consuming and awkward to reload if more than one magazine was needed in emergencies. The Army recognized it needed a better rifle for modern warfare, one comparable to the Mauser that could be charger-loaded, and subsequently replaced the Krag with the .30 caliber M1903 Springfield, based on the Mauser system, as its primary rifle until 1936.

  • jim reiman

    Excellent article

  • Eugenie Buchan

    Hello Dr Kaplan
    I am a graduate student at Exeter University working on a PHD to do with military aviation in China in the 1930s. my supervisor is Professor Richard Overy
    I have ordered your book and look forward to reading it. I am very interested to know if there is any evidence that Homer Lea sponsored young chinese to learn to fly in 1909-1911 and was involved in the idea of creating an army air corps to fly against the Peking government. I am particularly interested in the role of someone called Ray or Roy Wilcox who was their instructor in Detroit. there are numerous press articles about this both in the US and Singapore press in the fall of 1911 – fall of 1912. of course the idea of using a Curtiss Pusher in field operations was completely mad given the vulnerability of such a plane but the articles suggest that they exported 5-6 planes to China.
    You may well have covered something about this in your book. In any event I look forward to hearing from you when you have a moment to respond
    very kind regards
    Eugenie Buchan
    102 St John’s Hill
    London
    SW11 1SH

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