Smith Gun and limber at The Royal Armouries, Fort Nelson.
|Place of origin||United Kingdom|
|Used by||British Army, Home Guard, RAF Regiment|
|Wars||Second World War|
The Smith Gun was an ad hoc anti-tank artillery piece used by the British Army and Home Guard during the Second World War. With a German invasion of Great Britain seeming likely after the defeat in the Battle of France, most available weaponry was diverted to the regular British Army, leaving the Home Guard short on supplies, particularly anti-tank weaponry. The Smith Gun was designed by a retired Army Major named William H. Smith as a makeshift anti tank weapon, and was put into production in 1941 following a demonstration to the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill.
The weapon consisted of a 3-inch smoothbore barrel approximately 54 inches long mounted on a carriage and capable of firing both anti-tank and anti-personnel rounds to ranges of approximately 500 yards. Despite the promising-sounding nature of the weapon it had several problems; the effective range was only around 100–300 yards, it was a heavy and awkward weapon to move around and it developed "a terrifying reputation for killing its crew." Production issues meant that it was not introduced until 1942, when it was issued mainly to Home Guard units and those units in the regular Army tasked with guarding airfields, and ammunition shortages meant that the guns had only six or seven rounds each. Despite these problems many Home Guard units developed an attachment to the weapon, later claiming it was "one of the best pieces of equipment ever issued to the force."
With the end of the Battle of France and the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from the port of Dunkirk between 26 May and 4 June 1940, a German invasion of Great Britain seemed likely. However, the British Army was not well-equipped to defend the country in such an event; in the weeks after the Dunkirk evacuation it could only field twenty-seven divisions. The Army was particularly short of anti-tank guns, 840 of which had been left behind in France and only 167 were available in Britain; ammunition was so scarce for the remaining guns that regulations forbade even a single round being used for training purposes.
Given these shortcomings, those modern weapons that were available were allocated to the British Army, and the Home Guard was forced to supplement the meagre amount of outdated anti tank weapons and ammunition they had with ad hoc weapons. One of these was the Smith Gun, which had what Mackenzie describes as an "unorthodox" origin, like many of the other weapons that were produced for use by the Home Guard during the conflict. It was invented by retired British Army Major William H. Smith, the director of a civil engineering company that produced toys, and was intended to be a cheap and easily-manufactured anti-tank weapon. The weapon design was submitted to the Ordnance Board, who were not convinced of its merits, but the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, witnessed a demonstration of the weapon in 1941 and ordered that it be put into production.
The Smith Gun consisted of a 3 inch calibre smoothbore barrel 54 inches in length, which was mounted on a carriage which looked "like a two-wheeled baby carriage" and weighed approximately 604 pounds. A shield was erected between the two wheels to provide cover for the crew. The weapon had an unusual firing procedure, in which it was actually tipped over onto one wheel, this acting a baseplate and thereby allowing the Smith Gun to be rotated 360 degrees with a 40 degree elevation. It was light enough that it could be towed behind a civilian vehicle, although it was not designed for this and Home Guard units had to be prohibited from doing so as it would damage the wheels of the weapon's carriage. The Smith Gun was able to fire both anti-personnel and anti-tank rounds, with the latter capable of penetrating some 60mm of armour at that range. Fletcher claims that it had a range of approximately 500 yards, although Mackenzie states that it had an effective range of only between 100–300 yards, and was also inaccurate.
The weapon was found to have several flaws in its design, and as such was not well liked by some of the Home Guard units to which it was issued. It was heavy and awkward to manhandle, particularly over rough ground and in urban areas; in the latter, it was recommended that toggle ropes be used to manoeuvre the weapon into position. It also possessed a low muzzle velocity; and due to the initial supply of rounds possessing faulty fuzes it gained "a terrifying reputation for killing its crew."
Production on the Smith Guns began in late 1941, but problems with their manufacture meant that it was not until mid-1942 that the first batch of 4,000 were delivered to the Home Guard; by the beginning of 1943, a total of 3,049 Smith Guns had been issued to Home Guard units. Production problems also affected the ammunition for the weapons; a delay in manufacturing anti-tank ammunition meant that each weapon was only supplied with six or seven rounds. A number of Smith Guns were also issued to regular army units tasked with guarding airfields, and one was even mounted onto a Bren Carrier, although this prototype did not go into production. Despite the problems with the weapon, and its tendency to injure or even kill those who manned it, the government attempted to portray it in a positive light, issuing special instructions in the autumn of 1942 which stated that the Smith Gun was a "simple, powerful and accurate weapon which, if properly handled, will add greatly to the firepower of the Home Guard." After a period of initial distrust, many Home Guard units appear to have taken to the Smith Gun and attempted to make the best use of it. Mackenzie states that some units even had 'a growing sense of affection for the weapon' and describes how, when a letter was published in The Times towards the end of the conflict criticizing the weapon, numerous Home Guard volunteers replied with their own letters describing how satisfactory the Smith Gun had been; they also stated that it was "one of the best pieces of equipment ever issued to the force." No Smith Guns were used in active service, and they were declared to be obsolete in 1945.
- Mackenzie, p. 121
- Mackenzie, p. 120
- Lampe, p. 3
- Mackenzie, pp. 90-91
- Mackenzie, pp. 120-121
- Kinard, p. 270
- Lowry, p. 21
- Mackenzie, p. 137
- Fletcher, p. 41
- Mackenzie, p. 136
- Fletcher, pp. 40-41
- Fletcher, David; Bryan, Tony (2005). Universal Carrier 1936–48: The 'Bren Gun Carrier' Story. Osprey Publishing. ISBN 978-1-84176-813-7.
- Kinard, Jeff (2007). Artillery: An Illustrated History of Its Impact. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 1-85109-556-X.
- Lampe, David (1968). The Last Ditch: Britain's Secret Resistance and the Nazi Invasion Plan. Greenhill Books. ISBN 978-1-85367-730-4.
- Lowry, Bernard; Taylor, Chris, Boulanger, Vincent (2004). British Home Defences 1940–45. Osprey Publishing. ISBN 1-84176-767-0.
- Mackenzie, S.P. (1995). The Home Guard: A Military and Political History. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-820577-5.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Smith Gun|
- Smith Gun
- Smith Gun (National Army Museum)
- British Gun Is Tipped On Its Side For Firing, May 1944, Popular Mechanics Winston Churchill shown watching demonstration of the Smith Gun
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