MG 08 Machine Guns: Belt-fed Malice

Author's photograph

The War Museum’s Spandau 1917 manufactured gun #4943d, complete with barrel armour, and muzzle and shield armour, water reservoir to circulate water through the barrel, and optical sight.

Dubbed the “Queen of the Battlefield” or the Devil’s Paintbrush (because of the way it swept across a battlefield in strokes), the MG08 Heavy Machine gun is one of the iconic weapons of the First World War. The German Army was well-equipped with Spandau and DWM manufactured MG 08s when the war began. Both the British Vickers and the 08s were refinements of Sir Hiram Maxim’s basic design. An 08 could fire as much as 500 rounds a minute, and was fed by a cloth sewn belt of 250 rifle-caliber bullets. The crew was highly trained to be able to remedy every one of the guns frequent stoppages (jams, etc.) quickly. 08s were carefully placed to maximize their effectiveness on the battlefield, and overlapping fields of fire gave way to cleverly placed guns that fired at oblique angles, to avoid tell-tale muzzle-flashes or frontal exposure of the crew. The July 1916 opening of the Somme offensive proved to Commonwealth armies that the MG08’s defensive power could not be overcome by waves of massed infantry assaults. The same lesson was learned in similar casualty figures in botched French and Russian attacks. Allied armies eventually trained specialist snipers (again the Germans had been far ahead in this) to eliminate crews. The Germans adapted by protecting the gunners with body armour and fitting the MGs with special shields to protect the gunner. The snipers learned to target the water sleeve on the barrel, to disable the gun. As long as static war prevailed, the MG08 had a huge defensive advantage. Still, combined tactics of preparatory bombardment, rehearsals, barbed wire cutting raids, creeping barrages, sniping, accurate counter-battery fire, close support from mortars (and rifle grenades), and squad level tactics that avoided masses of men grouping together, all helped lessen the losses.

MG-08 #2685, in the mud at Passchendaele, reconstruction of saturated, cratered landscape at Canadian War Museum

MG-08 #2685, in the mud at Passchendaele, reconstruction of saturated, cratered landscape at Canadian War Museum

These guns had held up many an advance, and battalions were very proud of their destruction or capture. Many Canadian Victoria Crosses (some posthumously awarded) were also awarded for eliminating machine gun positions. Crews could face harsh treatment by CEF soldiers who had watched their pals gunned down. The regular soldier thought of artillery as almost an act of nature, like a hurricane to suffer through; If you were unlucky, your sector got pounded. If you were really unlucky, “a shell had your number on it.” In contrast, the machine gun was personal. It spewed malice, in the form of spitzer-tipped, full-metal-jacketted rounds cutting across “No Man’s Land.” Astonishingly, about 2,500 machine guns, mostly of this type, were brought back by the Canadian government as war trophies. These are difficult to locate, as many were scrapped, many were sold off to private collectors, some went missing, and some ended up in museums.

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U-Boat deck gun, the research continues!

Krupp 8.8 cm 30 calibre quick-firing deck gun, no. 1972, produced 1916

Krupp 8.8 cm 30 calibre quick-firing deck gun, no. 1972, produced 1916 (author’s photo)

Sometimes you go about as far as you can researching something, and you still don’t have the answers you crave.  This happens surprisingly often with museum artifacts, as the chain of provenance and the wealth of detail that might have accompanied the artifact breaks down, and what you are left with is partial documentation, rumour, enigma, and frustration!  Such is the case for me when I consider the German Ubts naval gun, 8.8cm, 30 caliber, serial no. 1972, produced in 1916 by Krupp, in their Essen works.  Today this piece is on display in LeBreton Gallery, at the Canadian War Museum.  This is a breech-loading, quick-firing gun that used a vertical sliding breech block.  It was likely an adaptation of a design for torpedo boats and other small craft, and could stand long periods of immersion in salt water. I have now researched this streamlined submarine deck gun 2 times professionally and now lately, because it has become a grudge match.  This gun is unique, and important, simply by its rarity.  There are no others in Canada like it, and indeed, there is not even what you would expect would be more common, a deck gun from a Second World War U-boat.*  There are very few of these in existence, and most were recovered from wrecks.  It may be the only WW1 Krupp gun of its exact type in near perfect condition.  The submarine campaign featured periods of restricted and unrestricted submarine warfare, where the imperial German navy tried to cut the supply lifelines to Great Britain and hamper the Allied war effort in Europe.  Deck guns were used for shelling ships when the sub was on the surface, to save torpedos, or to allow the crews to evacuate.  This gun might have sunk merchant ships and killed their crew members.

Krupp 8.8cm business end, showing the 32 groove right handed twist on the rifling (author's photo)

Krupp 8.8cm business end, showing the 32 groove right-handed twist on the rifling (author’s photo)

There are two origin myths connected with this gun: One note in the file gave some fairly recent information that it had been linked to U-91.  In the First World War, there were German subs named U-91, UB-91 (a smaller coastal boat) and UC-91 (a mine-laying boat).  UB-91s gun has actually survived and is on display in Chestow, England.  It is the larger 10.5 cm deck gun.  UC-91 was sunk in the North Sea after the war.  That leaves U-91, which is described in January 1918 as having been armed with the more potent mix of both a 10.5cm and an 8.8 cm gun.**  The second potential provenance is more strange, and features an army unit capturing (or at least laying claim to) the naval gun.  In an inventory of war trophy artillery in Ottawa in the interwar era, this Krupp is clearly IDed, but is listed as having been claimed by the 72nd Infantry Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force (a Vancouver unit, today perpetuated by the Seaforth highlanders of Canada).  This unit’s involvement with the gun is a key mystery.  There are several possibilities, but they all seem a bit unlikely.  Could the 72nd have picked it up somehow after the war from one of the boats being scrapped along the French coast or in England?  Could both these provenance details be linked? For example, did the 72nd organize to have the gun brought back to Canada from where U-91 was being disassembled on the French coast?  The search continues.

*The closest thing to another submarine deck gun is a 76mm Japanese gun captured during the Kiska landings in the Second World War and today on display in Vernon, BC.  This gun was of the right type to have been used on a sub, but was in fact part of a coastal battery when it was found.

**Michael Lowrey, from Uboat.net, contributed many helpful details about this gun, KTB u-boat war diaries, German First World war submarine armament generally, similar survivors, and possible provenance.