Throughout the countless centuries of warfare the development of weapons has been characterized by an eternal duel between the offensive and the defensive, the latter historically following the former. With the introduction of each new offensive weapon affecting the strategy of warfare, these invariably follows a parallel defensive weapon to counter the potential threat to a nation's security. A historical yet contemporary example of such changes in military tactics and equipment took shape in 1914, when the airplane emerged as a powerful weapon against the Allied powers in France. On 30 August 1914, just 27 days after the war began, a single German plane bombed Paris. German air raids on London followed as early as October, and there were frequent attacks on Allied troops and supply lines in France.
Although the first military use of the airplane had occurred during the Tripolian War in 1911, the development of antiaircraft artillery did not begin until after the first bombing attacks of World War I. The United States developed and produced some artillery pieces and small arms, but the air defense weapons used by the American Expeditionary Forces were acquired in large part from France and Great Britain. On 10 October 1917, some six months after the United States entered the war, the first U. S. Army antiaircraft units began training at Langres, France, and the first tactical batteries moved to the front in April 1918. At the end of World War I, there were about 12,000 men with antiaircraft artillery forces. American units, in action less than a year, destroyed a total of 58 enemy warplanes.
In the years between the two world wars, antiaircraft artillery grew up as a part of the Coast Artillery Corps, at that time a separate branch of the Army. The War Department had assigned the new antiaircraft mission to the coast artillery rather than the field artillery largely because the coast artillerymen had training in firing on moving objects. Although handicapped by meager appropriations for research and development, Army arsenals and laboratories managed to devise some new items of equipment and to improve old ones. But very little new equipment was forthcoming for the ground combat units until after Army appropriations began to rise in 1936. The successes of Germany's Luftwaffe in the invasions of 1939 and 1940 spurred the rapid expansion of U. S. antiaircraft artillery.
It was not until 25 years after the formation of the first units that a separate organization for antiaircraft artillery was established in the United States. On 9 March 1942, three months after Pearl Harbor, the Antiaircraft Command (AAC) was organized as an element of the Army Ground Forces. The growth of antiaircraft artillery forces surpassed all other arms of the Army during the war. By the end of 1943, the peak year, there were 431,000 men in more than 550 battalions, for an increase of about 1,750 percent over the pre-war strength.
Although some antiaircraft rockets were developed during World War II, the U. S. Army continued to rely almost entirely on conventional artillery guns as its first line of defense against aerial attack. These antiaircraft weapons ranged from the .50-caliber machine gun and 37mm and 40mm guns for protection against low-flying, strafing-type planes, to 120mm guns for the defense of large areas against bombers. For defense against aircraft at considerable altitudes, the Army's mainstay was the towed 90mm gun with a maximum vertical range of 12,000 to 13,000 yards.
Near the end of the war in Europe, a new threat, the German 650-mile-per-hour (mph) jet-propelled airplanes, especially the Me163 Komet and the Me 262 Stormbird, appeared, hastening the obsolescence of the antiaircraft artillery fire-control systems based on primitive radars and searchlights that had been designed to cope with 450-mph propeller-driven aircraft.
Antiaircraft artillerymen in WW II certainly did not get the glory that the armor and the infantry did, but their courage and pivotal role in the victory was just as important. AAA men fought to the last ditch on Bataan; then, racked with malaria and dysentery, marched off to the hell holes the Japanese called prisoner-of-war camps. When enemy planes shrieked down North Africa's "Stuka Valley," scattering infantrymen to the shelter of foxholes, the antiaircraft artillerymen ran to man their 40mm guns. They could never stop V-2 rockets, but they shot down better than 80-percent of V-1 "buzz bombs" headed for Antwerp and London. Antiaircraft gunners saved the beleaguered beachhead at Anzio by shooting down so many enemy planes that the Germans suspended daytime air raids. They drove M-16 half-tracks onto Omaha Beach and shot up German pillboxes and gun emplacements. General Omar Bradley said his troops never would have made it off that bloody beach without them. They defended the seaports, airfields, and railheads that sustained Allied armies in their drive across Europe. They guided countless Allied bombers and fighters return home after raids against the Reich. When the chips were down at the Battle of the Bulge, they used their 90mm guns to stop onrushing Tiger tanks. They went "island hopping" across the Pacific with MacArthur and Nimitz, with frequent stopovers at "exotic isles" like Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima, the Philippines, and Okinawa. They defeated kamikaze attacks and everything else the Japanese could throw at them. Their weapons were machine guns, 40mm cannon, and large-caliber flak guns. Their arsenal also included radars, searchlights, and barrage balloons. But most of all, it was the character and skill of the men themselves that proved the most formidable weapon of all.
This section is under construction.
Links to Other AAA Units
AAA Image Gallery
Image 1: The 197th AAA AW Bn shoots its way onto
Omaha Beach, D-Day, 6 June 1944 (click to enlarge).
Image 2: An American AAA unit engages a V-1 rocket
near Antwerp, Belgium, September 1944 (click to enlarge).
Image 3: An American halftrack mounting a quad-50 downs
a Stuka dive-bomber during the defense of the bridge over
the Rhine River at Remagen, Germany, March 1945
(click to enlarge).
Image 4: A U.S. antiaircraft barrage lights up
the night sky over Algiers, 1943.
Image 5: A camouflaged mobile antiaircraft unit
scans the horizon near San Pietro, Italy, 1944.
Credits: Images 13, courtesy U. S. Army Air Defense Artillery School; Images 4 and 5, U. S. Signal Corps.
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