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What does it take to develop a Howitzer?

This British artillery piece, dated 1979 and currently to be found on the Parade at Fort Nelson, is not to be confused with the nearby, earlier and similarly sized, British 7.2-inch Howitzer on the American M1 carriage. Can you spot the difference?

Mounted Howitzer

7.2 in Howitzer (Dated 1944) A British 7.2 inch howitzer on the American 155mm carriage.

Mounted Howitzer

Artillery – Field Howitzer 70

Designed for the 1970s it was the first operationally towed artillery piece to move short distances under its own power – almost a self-propelled howitzer – and notable in that it was the last generation of artillery before the advent of computer assisted firing and the use of global positioning systems. Interestingly, the unit could be fitted with a digital display unit which was favoured by Germany and Italy but not by the Royal Artillery.

The Field Howitzer 70 concept was born in 1962 with a NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) requirement for a common howitzer involving America, West Germany and the United Kingdom agreeing on a joint venture – the first two countries both wishing to replace their 155 mm field howitzers and the United Kingdom its 5.5-inch Medium Gun (an example of which can be seen in the Artillery Hall). America soon withdrew however when their operational requirements for the unit differed too drastically for the Europeans. They required a lighter unit for helicopter transport and were not at all keen on the towed facility so they decided to develop their own system which become the M198.  This left West Germany and the UK in 1964 to design and build a new weapon with the following characteristics. A continuous high rate of fire with a burst fire capability; high mobility with minimum effort for deployment and increased range and lethality with a new family of ammunition as well as being able to fire all 155 mm NATO munitions.

Following the completion of the first six prototypes, Italy joined the collaborative project in 1970 which was good news since they were prepared to fund a quarter of the project costs. Then a second batch of eight more units was completed between 1971 and 1973 with extensive trials commencing in 1975. These, involving nineteen units in all, were successful and the weapon was accepted into British service in 1976 but was not fully operational until 1980.

Model Howitzer

This model Howitzer shows the structure of the gun.

The trilateral production committed the UK to manufacturing the carriage, traversing mechanism and propellant charge at Vickers Shipbuilding Group Limited, as it was then known. In West Germany, Rheinmetall manufactured the barrel, loading mechanism, auxiliary propulsion unit (APU), sights and illuminating ammunition and in Italy, OTO-Melara made the cradle, recoil system and elevating gear.

The gun was mounted on a split-trail carriage fitted with small guiding wheels on the trail ends with the APU a Volkswagen 1800 cc diesel engine capable of driving the unit at a maximum road speed of 16 km/h (10 mph) as well as powering both the hydraulics and electrics.

In the Royal Artillery it was deployed in regiments of eighteen guns, six to a battery. The first British regiment to receive its full complement of weapons was the 1st Regiment, Royal Horse Artillery, based in the UK, with the second regiment stationed in Germany with the British Army of the Rhine.

The new family of ammunition included a thin-walled, high fragmentation effect High-Explosive (HE) shell weighing 43.5 kg. A base ejection smoke shell and an illuminating round. Additionally it could fire the American M549A1 Rocket-Assisted Projectile (RAP) and the American M712 High-Explosive, terminally laser guided,  Anti-Tank ‘Copperhead’ projectile. The maximum range for the standard HE round was 24,000 m (15 miles) and for RAP 30,000 m (18.7 miles). Its firing rate was between 2 and 6 rounds per minute, the detachment numbered eight men and for towing its 9300 kg (9.15 tons) weight, the Royal Artillery used the Foden (6 x 6) Medium Mobility Vehicle.

Although ballistically successful, the weapon had an apparent reputation for unreliability particularly with respect to the high levels of maintenance required for the APU and the complex hydraulics. It was found to be prone to dust contamination in the field and suspect when experiencing the rough handling typical of a NATO exercise – conditions not accurately simulated in testing. An internet source states that its system reliability in 1981 was only 51%. Nonetheless, over a thousand units were constructed between 1977 and 1989. The Royal Artillery possessed 397, Italy 162 and West Germany 150. Eight other countries were sufficiently impressed to place orders, with Malaysia, the first non-NATO country, ordering 15. Saudi Arabia utilised 72 units, 40 of which remain in service today. Estonia originally purchased 32 units, 24 of which were in service in 2010 and Morocco maintain the 30 today they originally ordered. But it was Japan who became the largest single user of this artillery successfully negotiated permission to manufactured 480 under licence by Japan Steel Works.

This example was donated to the Royal Armouries in 2016 by Hesco Bastion Ltd of Leeds who manufacture specialist units for protection against small arms fire and/or explosives. FH-70 155 mm Towed Howitzer – DITCHED BY AMERICA? by Matsimus.

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