It’s been said a million times, but nothing spurs invention like man’s innate desire to kill one another.
It’s an accurate adage, but despite requiring huge investments of time and money to develop, most weapons have surprisingly short shelf lives because advancements are made so rapidly.
But though most weapons systems are rendered obsolete relatively quickly, a few like the M1 soldier on decade after decade, and thanks to recent geopolitical developments, the venerable super-heavy cannon may once again be pressed into service in the very near future.
It’s anybody’s guess why the massive M1 howitzer was nicknamed the “Black Dragon,” but it probably had something to do with the fact that the term conjures such intimidating images.
Whatever the case, the 240 mm (9.44-inch) M1 replaced the Army’s previous heavy hitter – the 240 mm M1918 siege cannon – which was based on a pre-World War I French design.
Capable of hurling 345-pound (156.5 kg) bunker-busting shells more than 9 miles (14.5 km), the M1918 was no slouch, but by the outset of the Second World War it was showing its age.
Hence, development of the M1 began in 1940, and by mid-1943 it was ready for action in war-torn Europe.
The Army simultaneously developed a slightly smaller but longer range 203 mm (8-inch) gun with the same M1 designation, but it quickly fell out of favor due to persistent barrel life issues and unacceptable accuracy.
Featuring stronger components, more potent shells, better accuracy and twice the rate of fire of its predecessor, the Black Dragon was exactly what the Army needed to obliterate previously impervious Axis positions.
With the exception of naval and railway guns, the M1 was the heaviest artillery piece in the American arsenal during the Second World War.
Though tanks and artillery are decidedly different weapons, for comparison purposes, the Dragon’s gun has twice the bore of the 120 mm (4.7-inch) main guns on most modern main battle tanks like American Abrams and British Challenger IIs.
But whereas tank’s all-purpose guns are primarily used for killing other tanks via direct fire, artillery pieces hurl heavier shells out past visual range, sometimes over mountains and other obstructions.
M1s fired high-explosive and deep-penetration rounds, the heaviest of which weighed a staggering 360 pounds (160 kg) and were capable of hitting targets out to 25,000 yards, or roughly 14 miles.
This lethal combination of range and firepower made them true standouts, but M1s weren’t exactly “light on their feet.”
However, despite tipping the scales at an axle-breaking 65,000 pounds (29,500 kg), they were towable.
That said, preparing one for transport, getting it where it needed to be and setting it up again was a logistical nightmare, which meant they were only suitable for relatively static operations.
Along with supporting drivers, riggers, an auxiliary truck-mounted crane, at least two prime movers like M33s or 7 ½ ton Mack 6x6s and the gun’s 14-man crew, each M1 had to be broken down into two component parts prior to being moved, the first consisting of the barrel and recoil assembly, while the second was made up of the frame and carriage.
Due to the truck’s relatively anemic engines, the gun’s weight and poor road conditions, speed was usually limited to just 5 mph (8 km/h), which meant that a 100-mile (160 km) relocation would take…well, a long time.
Then once on site, it often took the better part of a day to get the huge gun put back together, levelled, stabilized and ready for action.
Needless to say, an M1 couldn’t be called in at the 9th hour to take out a few pesky targets before being hauled off to its next assignment.
In addition, there was always the threat of enemy gunners honing in on them before they were up-and-running, which meant that they would have to be abandoned and left to their fates.
To address the M1’s glaring mobility issues, the Army developed a self-propelled version which it cobbled together using an existing – albeit stretched and beefed-up – M26 Pershing heavy tank chassis.
This Franken-machine was called the T92 Howitzer Motor Carriage, but though more than a dozen were ordered only five were actually built of which none saw service, because – big shocker – they weren’t particularly mobile either.
M1s officially entered service in 1943, but it wasn’t until January of 1944 that they saw combat with the 697th and 698th Field Artillery Battalions in Anzio, Italy.
In a truly epic Goliath vs Goliath battle, American and German guns of similar size slugged it out for months.
The Black Dragons earned their metal by knocking out a number of artillery pieces from great distances, and in one instance they put the infamous 283 mm (11.1-inch) railway gun known as “Anzio Annie” out of action temporarily.
It was even claimed that on a number of occasions with the help of forward spotters, they took out smaller more mobile targets like individual tanks, and it also excelled at destroying bridges that had survived numerous aerial attacks and artillery bombardments from smaller caliber field guns.
During the Battle of Monte Cassino, M1s reduced the German’s monastery stronghold to rubble and a few were used by the British 8th Army in similar operations as well, but by late 1944 the big guns had more pressing business to attend to elsewhere in Europe, and all were withdrawn from Italy.
Most ended up within striking distance of the Siegfried Line, a fortified German defensive bulwark that stretched nearly 400 miles (643 km) from the Netherlands in the north to Switzerland to the south along the country’s embattled western border, where they relentlessly hammered away at reinforced bunkers and artillery positions and fields of hardened steel and concrete tank obstacles.
With the end of hostilities in Europe in May of 1945, most M1s were dismantled and shipped back to America where they were destined to live out their remaining days in dusty Army warehouses, but that bleak future was cast aside when war broke out on the Korean peninsula in the summer of 1950.
Once again pressed into service, the previously mothballed Dragons got a new lease on life when they were shipped to front lines halfway around the world to batter yet more reinforced positions that had withstood significant poundings from smaller guns like 105 (4.1-inch), 155 (6.1-inch) and 203 mm (8-inch) howitzers.
Divided between the 159th and 213th Field Artillery Battalions, the big guns first saw action in early May of 1953, when the first 240 mm round was lobbed onto a hilltop target called “the donut.”
Airborn observers helped guide in the first shell, which nobody thought would hit anything important since fine sighting adjustments hadn’t yet been made.
To everyone’s surprise however – especially the Korean and Chinese soldiers hunkered down inside the donut – the round struck an ammo dump, and according to first-hand accounts the entire hilltop blew off in extraordinary fashion.
Even the most ardent Black Dragon proponents probably concluded that the M1’s days were numbered after the Korean War.
After all, by that time the Army was already developing artillery pieces that could fire small nuclear shells.
M1s were officially retired in the mid-’50s, and though that might have been the end of the story, a few were sold to Taiwan where they were installed on retractable carriages deep within mountainside lairs on Matsu and Kinmen Islands, both of which were within a stone’s throw of mainland China.
So why is this relevant?
If you’ve been watching the news recently you may already know that tensions between China and Taiwan have been heating up, and though it’s just speculation at this point, there’s increasing talk of an impending invasion, which according to some sources could be just a year or two away.
Though it’s now an age of rockets, smart bombs and cruise missiles, conventional super-heavy artillery could still be used with lethal effect on ships and amphibious forces, and in addition, a number of large Chinese cities like Xiamen on the country’s southeast coast are within range of the Taiwanese Black Dragons.
Since taking office in 2021 President Biden has sought to strengthen ties with the government of Taiwan, but mainland China’s view is and always has been that the island is little more than a wayward territory that can be legitimately retaken by force if necessary.
To add more fuel to the already growing fire, the United States just tentatively approved the sale of additional weapons to Taiwan, including drones, missiles, and 40 155 mm self-propelled howitzers to beef-up coastal defenses in a package deal that purportedly totals nearly 800 million USD.
Like most countries, the United States doesn’t have formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, but thanks to a not so well-known 1979 law, America is “legally” obligated to provide the democratically self-ruled island nation with the means to defend itself.
The deal hasn’t yet been formalized, and Congress could block the sale, although if there’s one thing ever-polarized Democrats and Republicans can agree on, it’s that the United States can and should do anything in its power to halt what they consider overt Chinese aggression.
High ranking Taiwanese officials have expressed gratitude to their American counterparts on the premise that military support will help maintain stability in the region, while the Chinese remain adamantly opposed to the proposed weapons sale.
Whatever happens, it may be the big “antiquated” M1s that are once again called in to do the heavy hitting if war does break out in the South China Sea.