Monday, 10 January 2022

New Life for an Old Howitzer

The Germans were quite pragmatic with their materiel in the Second World War, leading to a number of weapons that combined elements of various epochs. One such weapon was the 15 cm sFH 13/1 (Sf) SPG, which combined the 150 mm sFH lg First World War era howitzer and a captured French chassis. A few dozen of these vehicles were built and took part in fighting in North Africa and Normandy.

The Germans were one of the first who truly appreciated the benefit of heavy field howitzers. THe first such weapons were tested out during the 1900 Boxer Rebellion in China. In 1902-1903 Germany formed five 150 mm howitzer battalions (the real caliber was 149.1 mm, but the designation was rounded up to 15 cm) armed with the sFH 02. Krupp developed a new 15 cm howitzer in 1913 designated sFH 13 to replace the sFH 02. The gun had a single trail carriage typical for weapons of the time. The elevation angle ranged from 0 to 45 degrees.

Compared to the sFH 02, the new howitzer had a longer barrel (14 instead of 12 calibers), a gun shield, and other improvements. The first use of the sFH 13 in battle showed that it was not without drawbacks. The main issue was the weak recoil brake spring, which led to many breakdowns. Several changes were made, including replacing the spring with a hydraulic piston. A second round of modernizations addressed the range and barrel wear. The first issue was solved by increasing the barrel length to 17 calibers, the second by reducing the number of rifling grooves. The resulting weapon called sFH 13 lg (langen - lengthened) became the backbone of the Kaiser's artillery. 3409 sFH 13 guns of all types were built.

sFH 13 lg howitzer.

The sFH 13 lg was considered obsolete by the start of WW2 and was generally used by second line or training units of the Wehrmacht. Nevertheless, they were used in battle both in towed and self propelled variants.

An SPG version

Among other trophies captured in 1940, the Germans ened up with about 300 Lorraine 37L tracked prime movers. The French army used these vehicles to supply their tank units with fuel and ammunition. The Germans used some of these vehicles for their original purpose and some as artillery tractors. The idea to convert the captured vehicles into SPGs arose in early 1942. The layout of the Lorraine 37L with an engine in the middle and cargo space in the rear was ideal for this conversion.

Lorraine 37L prime mover.

The possibility of creating an SPG on the Lorraine 37L chassis was demonstrated to Hitler on May 28th, 1942. As a result, conversion of 160 surviving vehicles was authorized. 60 would be used as a chassis for the 75 mm Pak 40 anti-tank gun, 60 for the 105 mm leFH 18 howitzer, and 40 for the 15 cm sFH 13 lg. The first two weapons were quite modern, but the third was already obsolete. Its effective range was half as much as that of the new 15 cm sFH 18 howitzer. However, the sFH 18 was too large and heavy to be installed on the Lorraine. The use of the older but lighter weapon allowed for a quick improvement to its mobility in support of tank units.

The need for SPGs was particularly felt in North Africa at the time, and so a decision was made at a meeting with Hitler on June 4th to first produce 30 150 mm SPGs for Rommel. The Alkett factory in Berlin-Borsigwalde was given this task and dealt with it splendidly. All 30 SPGs were finished by the end of June. The new SPG had a traditional long German name: 15 cm sFH 13/1 (Sf) auf Geschützwagen Lorraine Schlepper (f) (Sd.Kfz. 135/1).


The SPG kept its engine and running gear. The hull was changed in the front and middle. A casemate welded together from 7-10 mm thick plates was installed in the rear. A small rectangular door in the left part of the upper rear casemate plate was used to enter the fighting compartment.

15 cm sFH 13/1 (Sf) auf Geschützwagen Lorraine Schlepper (f) (Sd.Kfz. 135/1).

The gun in the casemate had a bore axis height of 185 cm. The traverse range was small: 7 degrees to the left and to the right. The elevation ranged from 0 to 40 degrees. The maximum range of the gun was 6200 m. The SPG was equipped with the standard Rbfl 32 sight. Auxuliary armament consisted of one MG 34 machine gun carried inside the casemate.

Drawings of the 15 cm sFH 13/1 (Sf).

Since the SPG was almost three times as light as the Hummel, a special folding spade had to be added in the rear of the vehicle. The small size of the 15 cm sFH 13/1 (Sf) led to another drawback: only 8 rounds of ammunition could fit on board. Since the presence of two loaders was unnecessary with such a miserly ammunition capacity, the crew of just four men was no longer such an issue.

The longer spade was a distinguishing feature of the second batch of the 15 cm sFH 13/1 (Sf).

A second batch of Lorraine SPGs (64 units) was built in July-August of 1942 in Paris by Baukommando Becker. These vehicles were different from those initially built. They had a longer spade, a device that allowed deploying the spade without exiting the vehicle, and a new gun travel lock that could also be disengaged from the inside. 

Delivery of vehicles from the second batch, Versailles, fall of 1942.

In North Africa and Normandy

Command of Tank Army Africa was informed that they will shortly receive 30 15 cm sFH 13/1 (Sf) SPGs on July 4th, 1942. 10 of them were already loaded on the transport ship Apunia in Naples, 10 more were in the process of being loaded in Brindisi (4 on the Pilo, and 3 each on the Sestriere and the Pisani), and 10 more were on their way from Germany. 12 vehicles would be issued to the 15th and 21st Tank Divisions each and 6 more to the 90th Light Division. The Allies made a correction to these plans. Seven of the SPGs (3 in July and 4 in August) sank with the ships that carried them. As a result, the 90th Light Division never received its SPGs. The first ten 15 cm sFH 13/1 (Sf) to arrive in Tobruk on July 26th, 1942, were issued to the 155th Artillery Regiment of the 21s Tank Division.

15 cm sFH 13/1 (Sf) in North Africa.

On August 30th, 1942, a representative of the Land Forces Ordnance Directorate attached to the Tank Army Africa HQ reported:

"The SPGs on the Lorraine tractor chassis have not yet been used in battle. Both tank divisions had been issued the sFH 13 Sfl. The 15th Tank Division collected their 12 guns in one battalion consisting of three batteries with four guns each. The battalion is subordinated to the commander of a tank regiment as a close support asset. Each battery commander is subordinate directly to a tank battalion commander and his battery must follow that battalion. The third battery is left with the SPG battalion commander and is subordinate to the commander of the tank regiment."

This quote tells us that the 15 cm sFH 13/1 (Sf) were seen not as traditional SPGs, designed for indirect fire, but as a mobile close support weapon. The cause of this was likely the short range of the guns.

The 15 cm sFH 13/1 (Sf) saw their first battles during Rommel's unsuccessful attempt to break through the British defenses at El Alamein. The Germans lost several SPGs in their offensive that began on the night of August 30th-31st. The 15th Tank Division reported three SPGs destroyed and two more damaged as of September 3rd.

15 cm sFH 13/1 (Sf) abandoned by its crew.

The 33rd Artillery Regiment of the 15th Tank Division had eight 15 cm sFH 13/1 (Sf) left as of October 1st, 1942. The 21st Tank Division's 155th Artillery Regiment had 11 such vehicles. These 19 SPGs were still functional when the British began their offensive on the night of October 23rd-24th. Nearly all of them were lost in the next few days. By the start of November the 15th Tank Division only had three 15 cm sFH 13/1 (Sf), but two were lost on November 3rd and the last one on November 8th. The 15 cm sFH 13/1 (Sf) remained in service with the 21st Tank Division until early December.

British officers study a captured 15 cm sFH 13/1 (Sf).

Several 15 cm sFH 13/1 (Sf) with minor damage were captured by Allied forces. One of them was moved to a facility near Tel el Kebir where foreign vehicles were studied. Another SPG ended up in the United States at the the Aberdeen Proving Grounds.

A battery of 15 cm sFH 13/1 (Sf) on the move.

SPGs of the 3rd Battery, 2nd Armoured SPG Regiment. Aubagne, November 1942.

SPGs from the second batch of 15 cm sFH 13/1 (Sf) were attached to the 1st and 2nd Armoured SElf Propelled Artillery Regiments (Gepanzerte Artillerie-Regiment (Sfl)). Each included five batteries of six guns each for a total of 15 cm sFH 13/1 (Sf). This formation was described by TO&E K.St.N. 461 approved on October 31st, 1942. The 1st regiment was disbanded in December of 1942 and its batteries were distributed among infantry divisions stationed in Western Europe. The 2nd regiment was reorganized into the 931st Artillery Regiment in March of 1943. This unit was later renamed to the 155th Artillery Regiment and included into the 2nd Tank Division, which was reformed in France after being destroyed in North Africa.

15 cm sFH 13/1 (Sf) in position, Normandy, 1944.

The 21st Tank Division had two dozen 15 cm sFH 13/1 (Sf) remaining when the Allies landed in Normandy on June 6th, 1944. 12 were still a part of the 155th Artillery Regiment, six each were assigned to the heavy artillery companies of the 125th and 192nd Panzergrenadier regiments. Three 15 cm sFH 13/1 (Sf) were lost in June and nine in July. After getting trapped in the Falaise Pocket, the 21st Tank Division had only one 15 cm sFH 13/1 (Sf) remaining. 

The 15 cm sFH 13/1 (Sf) was created from scrap, an obsolete howitzer and a nearly useless tractor, and thus could not boast exceptional fighting qualities. As mentioned before, the on-board ammunition capacity was miserly. The small access hatch positioned very high up made it difficult to serve ammunition up from the ground. The overloaded chassis broke often and its mobility was far short of the tanks it was supporting. Even on roads, the top speed was only 20 kph, and off-roads it could not outrun a pedestrian. The short range of the sFH 13 lg made it difficult to use the 15 cm sFH 13/1 (Sf) in artillery regiments, and so the only way of using them was for close support. This is how these vehicles were used in the 15th Tank Division in North Africa and in Panzergrenadier regiments in Normandy.

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