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. The aim of this post is provide some context around this and distinguish two separate issues – use of the gun in the ground role, and use in the anti-tank role.
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.
One should note that the Axis did not have a free lunch either. Using (and losing) their precious 88mm guns in tank defence weakened the ability of the artillery arm to provide in-depth air defense over logistics centres, and thus allowed the Royal Air Force far more freedom in attacking bases such as Benghazi, Derna, and Tripoli. Nevertheless, I guess this strategic aspect might not have been overly appreciated by British tank crews at the time.
Regardless, it is likely that most damage on British tanks inflicted by Axis AT guns was by 50mm PAK38 and Italian 47mm Boehler guns, which were far more numerous, more mobile, and easier to camouflage.
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. Apart from that, it is also often overlooked that the 3.7″ gun was much heavier and bulkier, and not designed for a mobile multi-role use, unlike the 88mm.
There are also doctrinal questions, e.g. whether AA gun formations were trained to work closely with the tanks, and able to make much of a difference, and whether the specialized equipment needed was present (e.g. the Germans used a half-tracked prime mover for the 88, giving it more off-road mobility – Empire forces did not have such vehicles).
What is clear from the document below is that the 3.7” gun served in the ground role, and that it was considered a specialized asset to be used for specific tasks, rather than general shelling of enemy positions. Like the 88, it had a very good range, and presumably the ability to generate airbursts through the use of timed fuses. These are valuable in counter battery work, and (as noted below) when engaging planes operating on an enemy airfield within range.
Gunners cleaning a 3.7-inch anti-aircraft gun near Tobruk, 19 August 1941. Courtesy of the IWM.
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.
Tobruk was of course a special case. For one, mobility did not matter as much, since it was a siege. The field gunners and AA gunners worked cheek-by-jowl, making cooperation much easier, under a Fortress command. The defended area was small, meaning that guns could be located to be able to be effective in both air and ground work.
AA/A.A. – anti-aircraft
A.Tk – anti-tank
Comd – Commander
M.E.F. – Middle East Forces
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.
(1) engagement of enemy artillery positions to subdue the enemy guns.