Bull and Harp
by Joe Palmer
[ people - october 02 ]
In the Missisquoi Valley, five miles from the site of Queen's Palace near Glen Sutton, Quebec, on both sides of the Canadian-American border, Gerald V Bull built the laboratories and workshops of the Space Research Institute, a facility devoted to putting satellites into orbit by shooting them from cannons. Large-caliber guns had not yet been used in researching the upper atmosphere and outer space, although the dream of doing so goes back a long way, even to the carefully conceived, fantastic scientific wonders of Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon in 1865. The US Department of Defense had encouraged such research following Wernher von Braun's work on the Redstone missiles, and so it had spent much money on the development of rocketry. Up till then, only such very expensive rockets had been used. Dr Bull hoped to simplify and facilitate the exploration of space by means of cannons through his High Altitude Research Programme, HARP.
Because Gerald Bull's uncle's wife had won the Irish Sweepstakes, they could afford to adopt him and send him to good schools. That is part of the reason why he became the youngest person, at age 22, ever to get a PhD degree from the University of Toronto. He was a physicist who devoted his attention to aerodynamics and ballistics, to moving things effectively through air and space.
He was the most successful cannon maker of his time, working with money from military contracts supplied by both the Americans and the British through the Canadians. That's why he built his laboratories and manufacturing plants on a mountainside right on the Forty-fifth Parallel between the two countries. When you look south towards Jay Peak, Vermont, from Mansonville, Quebec, you can see the track of a gigantic cannon barrel that lay on the mountain, pointing south at an angle of fifty-two degrees from the horizon.
A devoted socialist, Bull once wrote about his faith in the redeeming nature of technical progress: "I believe that, in the end, technology is going to do more to destroy capitalism than all the revolutions in history." His teachers in post-war Toronto had been Fabian socialists who taught him to ignore the reality of international conflicts, while holding to his faith in the natural improvement of the human condition. Like other old-fashioned idealists, the disillusioned Marxists, he kept his head in the sand.
Gerry Bull made his living as a pioneer in artillery technology for the United States Department of Defense, and so he became a manufacturer of weapons and an arms dealer. He wanted to make obsolete the use of rockets for putting satellites into orbit, but he had to make a living in order to afford to do that, so he built and sold cannons and shells. In his developmental work he studied everything that had been done in the past, and consequently he produced a summary work, a book about the building and operation of large cannons: Wehretechnik und Wissenschaftliche Waffenkunde (Bonn, Mittler, 1988, Bd.4), "Defense Engineering and Scientific Weapons Knowledge," a book immediately translated into Chinese, by the way.
In the book, Bull traces the development of ordnance systems up through the time of the Great War and to the refinements of the mechanical systems of cannon made during and following World War II. Up until the time of the War Between the States, cannon shot had almost always been bags of small balls intended to harm individuals, if not large, round cannon balls for breaking down walls and puncturing ships. The first rifled artillery had come into use during the Crimean War, 1853-56, "rifled" meaning that the long bullets, or projectiles, were given a spin by spiral grooves built into the barrels, so that thereby the gyroscopically-stabilized shells flew farther and straighter.
Then in the Franco-Prussian War, 1870-71, the first breech-loading cannon were used. In these the bullets and gunpowder were not loaded from the mouth of the cannon, but locked into the back, the breech, in the form of a big cartridge, or the projectile, in the form of a bullet or a bag of shot, was forced into the breech ahead of a bag of gunpowder, which was then ignited by a priming device. Further improvements were the development of clean, smokeless gunpowder, which greatly increased the rate of fire, and the use of "mushroom obturators," sabots or o-rings, driving bands around the base of the projectiles, which increased efficiency all around.
The culmination of these endeavors came during the Great War, 1914-18, when the Germans built and used Big Bertha and the Paris Cannon. These were not the same, although in the public memory only "Big Bertha" remains.
Big Bertha, "Dicke Berta," was used by the Germans against the Belgians, who had built twelve forts, the Brialmont Forts ringing the city of Liège, for protection, posting 35,000 troops with all the necessary equipment to defend the capital city. Big Bertha was brought up by rail car to attack Fort Loncin. The twenty-fifth shell detonated the powder magazine inside the fort and entombed the garrison.
The ruins, untouched, remain today as a memorial to the dead, killed by a projectile from a 42cm Big Bertha mortar, a one-ton falling shot of "plunging fire."
A sign at the ruins tells the visitor ´ Passant, va dire à la Belgique et à la France qu'ici 550 Belges se sont sacrifiés pour la défense de la liberté et le salut du monde. ª (Passerby, go tell Belgium and France that 550 Belgians were sacrificed here for the defense of liberty and the salvation of the world.)
The Big Bertha cannon, indirect-fire field cannon, had not been ready to use until 1914, for they were based on naval guns, a part of the Schlieffen Plan to adapt existing technology. Relatively light, mobile pieces of large caliber, in this case 42 cm, would fire at high elevations bringing plunging fire to forts and towns, and so cause them to surrender. There were two types of hydraulic recoil and recuperation platforms, mounted either on railcars or on wheeled trucks, carrying guns called "Kurze Marine Kanonen" that were taken from battleships. They could fire a distance of 20 kilometers to the horizon. Belgium surrendered.
The gun called Big Bill, " Wilhelmgeschütze," the Paris Cannon, was based on Big Bertha, but it was not a 42 cm mortar-type howitzer. It was the largest cannon ever built. Its purpose was to shoot into the city of Paris from a long distance to augment the air raids and demoralize the French.
Krupp got the job of making the cannon. They rushed into production with "frantic zeal for the sake of the army and victory." Big Bill was thirty-four meters in length, and one meter in diameter, with a 21 cm bore. It weighed 200 tons, of the finest steel casting. When seen from a distance it appeared as an ordinary field gun, but it was a "monster gun." The gun itself weighed 200 tons, the carriage 250 tons, and the pedestal 300 tons. They tested it over the sea at Cuxhaven, assigning men from the marine regiment at Kiel and fifty technicians to assemble the gun at Crépy-en-Laonnois, 124 kms from Paris.
At the camouflaged site, the director, Vice-Admiral Rogge, chief of ordnance of the Admiralty, assembled his firing crew that included Prof Rausenberger, one of the designers, and naval officers, engineers, ordnance experts, ammunition handlers, medical doctors and corpsmen, in all fifty men to operate the cannon.
Essential to the use of cannon were artillery spotters. It was necessary to "sight in" each target visually, seeing where the previous shot had landed in order to correct the aim and hit the target. The plan was to use a German spy in Paris who would report by telegram through Switzerland. It would take about four hours to learn where each shot had landed, according to plan.
The Paris Cannon could fire only 65 rounds before the barrel was worn out. Therefore, each projectile was graduated in size to compensate for the wear on the bore, and serially numbered, since the caliber increased with each shot. There was no sabot, or driving band around the projectile; it would melt in the heat and pressure. So each shot had grooves matching the rifling built into it, exactly reproduced on the steel casing of the giant bullets. The caliber varied from 21 to 23.5 cm, the length from 95 to 111 cms. Each weighed about 100 kgs and cost 35,000 reichsmarks. There were no duds. The fancy fuses always worked.
The gunners had a new experience with the Paris Cannon. The old range tables were no good in calculating shots through the upper atmosphere. Because of bad calculation of the height of the first shot, it landed in a clergyman's garden, eleven kilometres beyond where it was aimed. It was necessary to take the rarified atmosphere and the curvature of the earth into account. The ideal angle of the cannon was not 45 degrees, but 52 degrees. At an apogee of 40 kms, it could shoot a distance of 124 kms, taking 3 1/2 minutes for the shell to land.
The axis of the barrel had to be reset after each shot, bent straight with block and tackle, and verified by telescopic sight layer by layer until mathematically correct. The powder was kept at 15 degrees C, the responsibility of a gunnery officer. Three hundredweight of gunpowder, shaped like bundles of spaghetti in combustible silk bags, produced at 5000 atmospheres of pressure, a muzzle velocity of 1800 meters per second, that is, nearly 6,000 feet per second, twice as fast as a high-powered rifle. It was ignited through the giant screw breech by a friction device much like a cigarette lighter.
Each shot was reported to General Headquarters by Vice-Admiral Rogge, using telephone cable from Crépy. A wealthy German gentleman, resident in Paris for 20 years, Baptiste Martin, reported the results in code by telephone to a lady on the Swiss frontier. Then a peasant driving a cart took it across into Switzerland, where it was phoned to Basel, then telegraphed to Germany. Sometimes it took only half an hour to get the results to GHQ. For example: "23rd March, 7 hrs 20'15 Quay de la Seine No.6, 2 dead, 9 wounded, taxi wrecked." The French thought it was high-altitude bombers. Cavalry searched the woods around Paris. In the effort to find out what was happening, agents were dropped behind the German lines. Evacuation began in anticipation of German occupation of the city.
It was called "the chef d'oeuvre of secret service work," this arrangement of an observer in Paris and agents on the border with Switzerland, with coordination in Basel, Berne, Zürich, Neuchâtel, and Berlin. A spy at the French GHQ reported that all was working well, the camouflage perfect. The gun was part of a stage set made of canvas, wires and nets, concealing blockhouses, hutments, cranes, rails, magazines, and people. Aviators saw only brown and green speckled forest. Spotter airplanes using sound-ranging and flash-spotting techniques tried to find the Paris Gun, but the Germans mounted ninety other smaller guns around the big cannon as masking batteries, firing simultaneously to fool the spotters.
On Good Friday, 1918, the Church of St Gervais was hit, killing 91 and injuring 100. A truce was declared for the funeral on Easter Sunday. On Easter Monday at 24.01 hrs, the shelling began again.
On 9 August, the last shot was fired on Paris, the 19th round from the fourth and final barrel. The third barrel had exploded on its third shot, killing 17 men. All rounds fired had fallen on Paris, 320 of them, 180 in the city center, 140 in outer Paris, causing incalculable damage. One thousand people were killed.
In 1991, Gerald Bull was convicted of violating the Arms Export Control Act and the United Nations Arms Embargo Against South Africa. He had been building and selling long-range cannon barrels and shells with the encouragement of the CIA. Everyone knows that weapons designers are worse than drug dealers. He spent eight months in detention in a country-club federal prison near Pensacola, caught in a web not of his own making. Henry Kissinger himself had quietly approved the sale of Bull's big guns to South Africa, so that they could be used in self-defense against the Cubans in Angola, and then traded to Israel for a similar purpose. But Jimmy Carter, a Pollyana president, came to power.
Gerry Bull was the fall guy. Somebody had to take the blame for political incorrectness, and the most obvious source of malfeasance was the manufacturer, in the public mind, that garbage can of opinion. The punishment of a tool-maker for the use of a tool was the outcome of the process that Bull found himself in. He was furious, outraged, at first saddened, then broken in spirit, then vindictive. His large family, his wife Noémie and their seven children, suffered with him.
Financially ruined, Bull sold off his moveable property, and hired himself out as a consultant in weaponry. Soon Saddam Hussein's military programme in Iraq included Project Babylon, a super gun designed by Gerald Bull, capable of boosting a rocket into orbit. In return for Saddam's support, Bull worked on a cannon capable of bombarding his neighbors' cities from a safe distance.
In the guise of a "petrochemical project," the sections of the first large gun barrels were built in Sheffield and shipped from Middleborough Port on the North Sea, bound for Iraq. Bull was in Brussels, supervising the collection, shipping, and assembly of the components of the big guns. The Israelis, in all fairness, it is said, told him to lay off.
At the door of his hotel room, a Mossad agent shot him in the head five times with a .22 Long Rifle caliber, silenced pistol, just before the Gulf War began.