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. 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.

Documentary Evidence

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


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.

Further Reading

Guidelines on the use of the 88mm gun

Counter battery observation

Artillery order of battle – Tobruk


34 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


  10. Pingback: Post-CRUSADER – Guidelines for the use of 88mm AA guns in the D.A.K. – The Crusader Project

  11. My late father was in RA Hy AA and was a Radar Operator but during the Ardennes when no aircraft flying were having to service the Guns. Yes there were British Units during the “Battle of the Bulge”


  12. The Maintenance man at the Patternshop I worked in while an Apprentice was in REME during WW2 in Egypt and was telling about fixing sights on to AA guns they had obtained as what they were officially given was given was like throwing snowballs at the German Tanks, told the new guns were a very nasty surprise for the Germans.


  13. I think that the use by Germans of their antiaircraft artillery in anti-tank work is well documented. (Not only the 88 mm impact can put a matilda tank out of play but the continuous impact of 20 mm projectiles can make the most expert crew fall in the panic). The English seem to have been more reluctant in the use of their antiaircraft artillery and of course their beautiful cannon 25 pounder Field Gun-Howitzer. I believe that because of the difference in the telescopic sights to aim for. But in case of trouble it would be used of everything I suppose.


  14. hello andreas , my father served with the 64th HAA 1941/45 initially as a moble radar operatorhten donr he told me that the fired in the ground role at tanks in n africa and later when in the dalmation islands in the ground role from the island of Vis against ground tin the area of Split . later they took their guns on into hertzogovinia .fo a HAA unit the 64th had a very active war sadly not much recorded of it.


    • My late Father Arthur Hiatt was in the HAA RA served in WW2 and they were unlucky to be caught up in the Ardennes now known as the Battle of the Bulge because of the weather no aircraft were able to fly so my father was to help with the guns he said as the Radar he usually worked was not required. The 3.7 AA GUNS were being used as field guns being very successful against the German Tanks.


  15. AAA battalions were also used to help suppress ground targets. Their larger 90 mm M3 gun would prove, as did the eighty-eight, to make an excellent anti-tank gun as well, and was widely used late in the war in this role. Also available to the Americans at the start of the war was the 120 mm M1 gun


  16. From what comments I have heard is that the equipment issued officially was not the same as what was used because how do you acquire 3.75 AA Guns plus Ammunition as they are not exactly that small and light, someone was light fingered. The thing is not much comes out about WW2 OR WW1 from the people who took part. My father said during the Ardennes campaign they were cut off and were being spied on from a hut in a field, a person came running out and he was hit with a Bofor on the 3rd shot, talk about over kill, but difficult to comment as far back now in history,


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