Use of the 3.7″ AA Gun in the Ground Role

There are a lot of myths about the ‘failure’ of the British Army to use the 3.7″ anti-aircraft gun as a multi-role gun, as the Germans and Italians did with the 88mm AA gun. Quite often there is a claim that this was not allowed. What happened in reality, in my view, is rather that the guns weren’t anywhere near the ground fighting (and neither should they have been), and that the British army valued air defense over ground defense for these guns. One should note that the Axis did not have a free lunch either. Using (and losing) their precious 88mm guns in ground defense roles weakened the in-depth air defense, and allowed the Royal Air Force far more freedom in attacking bases such as Benghazi, Derna, and Tripoli. Nevertheless, I guess this wasn’t appreciated by the UK tank crews at the time. Apart from that, it is also often overlooked that the 3.7″ gun was much heavier and bulkier, and probably not designed for a multi-role use, unlike the 88mm.

In order to lay to rest the myth that it was actually not allowed to use the 3.7″ gun in the ground role or wasn’t used as such until much later in the war, I am posting here an excerpt from a Lessons Learned document of 8 Army, published after Operation CRUSADER.

 EMPLOYMENT OF AA ARTILLERY AGAINST GROUND TARGETS

The Comd 70 Division reports from TOBRUCH that on many occasions during recent operations, 3.7 AA guns were used against ground targets, notably the EL ADEM aerodrome when enemy aeroplanes were seen landing. They were also used for engaging enemy movement, and for counter battery(1) at ranges beyond that of normal artillery, and for night harassing of roads.

Results were very effective. The guns were very accurate, and fragmentation was excellent. Fuzes were set at safety, and no unexploded round was found on subsequent examination of the areas.

Owing to their high rate of fire, these guns were invaluable for use, in conjunction with others, on one minute area shoots on centres of hostile action.

It is interesting to note that in the German instructions for the defence of the HALFAYA position against Tank attacks, all AA guns were given an A.Tk role while Small Arms fire was to be used against attacking aircraft.

The following points however must influence the use of AA weapons in roles other than A.A.:-

(i) Effective A.Tk range of 40mm shot is 500 yds.

(ii) AA ammunition stocks in M.E.F. are not unlimited.

(iii) Carriages are conspicuous tagets in field operations and must be carefully camouflaged.

Notes:

(1) engagement of enemy artillery positions to subdue the enemy guns.

Abbreviations:

AA/A.A. – anti-aircraft

A.Tk – anti-tank

Comd – Commander

M.E.F. – Middle East Forces

 

 

Image

Gunners cleaning a 3.7-inch anti-aircraft gun near Tobruk, 19 August 1941. Courtesy of the IWM.

 

 

A 3.7-inch anti-aircraft gun in the Western Desert, 27 June 1941. Note the substantial gun crew and the size of the gun. Courtesy of IWM. 

 

18 thoughts on “Use of the 3.7″ AA Gun in the Ground Role

  1. Pingback: 3.7in AA gun NOT used as AT gun - Page 12 - World War 2 Talk

  2. Pingback: 51st (London) HAA Regt. RA - World War 2 Talk

  3. My father was with 60th HAA who fired 2,450 rounds in the ground role during the Normandy campaign. By the end of October this total had increased to 25,000 rounds. Typically they moved up about a day behind the infantry.

    Routledge also identifies a number of occasions when 3.7s were used successfully in the anti-tank role, both in N Africa and NW Europe.

    Ground and a/t were explicitly envisaged secondary and tertiary roles for the 3.7.

  4. My uncle was in 8th army (AT regt). My uncle’s verdict on the 3.7 as an AT weapon – “Bloody useless in the desert, the sights were very poor in the varying visibility. Better in European conditions”.

  5. There was a field modification to the 3.7″ called ‘Tobruk Sights’ in which an AT telescope was grafted onto the mount. Once that was done, there is no reason why the 3.7″ couldn’t be effective in AT other than its weight and size etc. This was an in-field modification done in theater in Africa.

    In fact as pointed out by Routledge and others, it was in fact so used as AT.

    Agree that there is no free lunch. HAA employed in AT role weakens in depth air defense. Nevertheless, AT ammunition was manufactured in quantity for the 3.7″ and it did get fired and used as such. I have a round of 3.7″ AP in my ordnance collection.

    I have talked to ex-3.7″ gunners in Europe that have accounted for their guns being taken out of AA service, issued AP, and told to get forward and deal with certain ‘problem’ tanks. Given the guns rate of fire and the weight of 3.7″ shot, reportedly, none of those tanks knew what hit them. None got off any return fire and all were destroyed.

  6. Does not look to be practical to adapt it for installation in a tank turret. Pity; one wonders how the gun would have fared against, say, the Tiger or Panther later in the war, compared with the 17-pounder.

  7. 254/81st Hy AA Rgt were trained to fire it in anti tank AND anti shipping roles in 1943, off the top of my head this was while attached to 36 Beach Brick for the proposed invasion of Rhodes and the Dodecanese.

  8. I recall my father talking about being part of experiments using his 3.7s – skimming shells off the sea to extend their range against shipping, don’t know the outcome. But, as always, when he touched on something relating to his experiences during 39-45, the moment you tried to get him to expand on them, he clammed up. Dad was also involved in the use of his guns against German armour, again, never gave me any details except to tell me they were involved in an ambush, aiming over open sites, effectively one round, one kill.

  9. Hi Andreas,
    Been reading the comments about whether the British forces ever used the 3.7 in HAA gun against ground targets. My late father was in the 292 battery 94th AA for the RA and used the 3.7 in the desert for 4 years.
    I got his units diaries so I could research what he got up to during the war as I found when you asked him he was like so many that fought did not want to talk about their experiences.
    I found a few entries where the guns were used on ground targets and September 1942 they carried out a practise firing which was observed by General Alexander and 12AA Bde Commdr Brig Calvert Jones.
    Thought this might help clarify this debate.

    Colin Fraser

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