News story

Britain's biggest gun aims for Netherlands

The UK's largest artillery piece, 1 of 12 surviving wartime railway howitzers in the world, is being moved for exhibition in the Netherlands.

The 190 ton breech loading 18-inch howitzer, is being sent to the Netherlands to form the centerpiece of an exhibition at the Het Spoorwegmuseum (Dutch Railway Museum) in Utrecht.

The gun, originally designed for the battlefields of the First World War, weighs around the same as 17 double-decker buses in rush hour.

Specialists work to dismantle the gun for transport to the Netherlands
Specialists work to dismantle the gun for transport to the Netherlands [Picture: Shane Wilkinson, Crown copyright 2013]

On Monday, 25 March, nearly 70 years after its huge barrel was pointed across the Channel to protect our shores during the dark days of the Second World War, it began its journey from the grounds of the Royal Artillery’s headquarters in Wiltshire, where it has sat since 2008.

The logistical operation to move such a hulk of metal along some of the busiest roads in the south of England has taken weeks of careful planning.

Specialised heavy equipment moving lorries had to be used to transport the rare howitzer.

It had to be dismantled into 2 sections before it could be moved, yet the loads were still gargantuan. The barrel alone weighs-in at 86 tonnes; 104 tonnes with the collar and breech.

The project manager who has masterminded the monster move and been behind the dismantling and restoration of the priceless antique is Lieutenant Colonel John Le Feuvre, Deputy Commander of Larkhill Garrison. He said:

I’m delighted to be here to watch the railway howitzer set off on this first step on its long journey. It’s taken a lot of time in preparation, but it’s been worth it.

Warrant Officer Class 2 Nick Shipton (left) and Lieutenant Colonel John Le Feuvre
Warrant Officer Class 2 Nick Shipton (left) and Lieutenant Colonel John Le Feuvre of the Royal Artillery at Larkhill Garrison [Picture: Shane Wilkinson, Crown copyright 2013]

John Stocks is one of the team of lorry drivers and logisticians whose job it is to make sure the historical howitzer gets to the Netherlands unharmed:

I don’t see any problems moving the gun,” he said. “We’ve moved some pretty unusual things in the past including a fibreglass dinosaur.

The move provided a spectacular sight for commuters on their way home along the A34 on its journey to the coast.

The railway howitzer will remain in the Netherlands until September 2013 before returning home to the UK to a location yet to be confirmed.

This will be the first of many public displays of this weapon of such historical importance. The Royal Artillery project team are hoping that, after so much effort went in to getting it up to an acceptable standard for the to move to the Netherlands, it can be viewed by the public as was intended when it was gifted to the regiment on its move to Woolwich in 1991.

Logisticians lift the howitzer's barrel out of its carriage
Logisticians lift the howitzer's barrel out of its carriage [Picture: Shane Wilkinson, Crown copyright 2013]

The howitzer’s history

The 18-inch Barrel No L1 was 1 of 5 (Serial numbers L1-L5) manufactured by the Elswick Ordnance Company as a replacement for the 14 inch barrels mounted on Railway Truck Mountings (RTMs) ‘Boche Buster’ and ‘Scene Shifter’ between 1917 and 1919.

The barrels were completed too late to see action in the First World War.

Following the war, all the barrels were put into storage except No L1 which, in 1921, was mounted on an RTM to test the accuracy of the 18-inch howitzer in Shoeburyness, on the Essex coast.

Successful tests extended the lifespan of the RTMs into the era of mechanised warfare; the slighter 14-inch barrels having become obsolete.

Gun barrel on the back of the lorry
The gargantuan gun barrel is carefully positioned on the back of the lorry [Picture: Shane Wilkinson, Crown copyright 2013]

The outbreak of the Second World War saw the gun being rolled out again. With the fear of invasion from France it was deployed to the Kent coast, where it stayed until 1943 as a deterrent but was never used. With invasion never happening, the guns were dispersed.

All were scrapped in the early 1960’s except this one remaining piece which, still on its proofing sleigh, was sent back to Shoeburyness to test fire power efficiency of 1,000-pound bunker bombs.

A television production team has documented the restoration work on the gun and is recording its journey to the Netherlands. The programme, which is part of the Channel 5 series Monster Moves, is due to air in the UK this summer.

Help us improve GOV.UK

Please don't include any personal or financial information, for example your National Insurance or credit card numbers.