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280mm Atomic Annie Artillery

The first atomic artillery is a 280mm cannon capable of firing artillery shells with tactical nuclear warheads. Twenty of the atomic cannons were produced at a cost of $800,000 each, according to the National Nuclear Security Administration. The weapon weighed over 83 tons, with cannon and carriage, or 50 tons in firing position, and was more than 80 feet in length, the largest mobile artillery ever built.

Gun crews could set the cannon up and be ready to fire in less than 15 minutes using hydraulic jacks and winches. The atomic cannon could be be returned from firing position to traveling position also in 15 minutes, record time for any artillery of similar size. The huge gun is balanced on its nine foot circular base plate with jacks, enabling its crew (5 to 7 men) to move it through its full 360° traverse capability. The projectile and powder charge are loaded with the assistance of a power hydraulic ram.

280mm Atomic Annie Nuclear Field Artillery in firing position
280mm "Atomic Annie" Nuclear Field Artillery in firing position.

Today in WW II: 22 Sep 1943 Operation TOENAILS completed, with the occupation by US troops of all important islands in the New Georgia group, Central Solomons.   

Development of the 280mm Atomic Artillery Shell

In 1949 the US Department of Defense completed studies which indicated the feasibility of an atomic artillery shell. To design the actual shell, Picatinny Arsenal assigned ordnance engineer Robert M. Schwartz, a City College of New York graduate and former Navy radar project officer who started at Picatinny at the end of World War II.

Working at first in a locked room at the Pentagon, Schwartz had to increase the size of the Army's largest field artillery shell from 240mm to 280mm and toughen it to withstand firing at 6,000 revolutions per minute. To meet those requirements, the shell had to have 4,000 times the strength of the casing of an airdropped atomic bomb. Despite the unprecedented challanges, Schwartz completed his preliminary sketch in 15 days and then returned to Picatinny and another locked room to refine the design, completed in 1950. Schwartz went on to recruit and lead the Picatinny Arsenal engineering development team for Army nuclear weapons.

M-65 280mm "Atomic Annie" Nuclear Field Artillery

The M-65 280mm Nuclear Field Artillery traveled suspended between the front and rear custom transporter tractors at a road speed of up to 35 miles per hour. The combination of gun and tractors could make a right angle turn at a street intersection 28 feet wide. Each of the transporters had its own 375 hp engine.

The tremendous recoil shock of firing was absorbed by a double recoil system. Both the gun tube and the heavy carriage move separately with the recoil, reducing the overall recoil distance to a minimum.

The Army deployed the 280mm atomic cannons to Europe in the early 1950s. Some sources say there was also deployment to other areas, but details were classified. The units were difficult to maneuver because of their length and heavy weight, and could only be driven on paved roadways or packed ground. The twin transporters were driven much like those of an aerial ladder fire truck, with the drivers communicating using a telephone system. The atomic cannon weapon system appeared in the Inagural Parade for Gen. Dwight Eisenhower when he became President of the United States, 20 January 1953. The gun had difficulty maneuvering the parade route in downtown Washington, DC.

According to information from Kirtland Air Force Base, NM, Jim Michalko served as a crew member of one of the cannons in Germany in 1955. He said, "They couldn't turn well and the streets of Germany were narrow so we had a hard time moving it around." He remembers that several buildings were destroyed at one point when the cannon had no where else to go.

Find additional photos and hi-res versions of the M65 280mm Field Artillery at the Olive-Drab Military Mashup:

Nuclear fireball from the Grable Event of Operation Upshot-Knothole, a 15-kiloton test fired from the M65 280mm Atomic Annie cannon, Frenchman's Flat, Nevada, 25 May 1953. This shot was the first and only tactical nuclear artillery shell fired from the M65 280mm gun.
M-65 280mm Nuclear Field Artillery with tractor, Germany 1958. Photo Copyright © Ivan Baker,  used with permission.
GEN Jira Vichtsonggram (Thailand), GRP CAPT Chamrat, and RADM Chat watch a demonstration of the 280mm Atomic Annie Artillery, Ft. Sill, OK, 17 June 1958.
M-65 280mm atomic artillery system with one tractor at the National Atomic Museum, Kirtland Air Force Base, NM.
Fort Sill, OK, Directorate of Logistics employees carefully place Atomic Annie in her new resting place in front of the Field Artillery Museum, 12 October 2010. The M65 atomic cannon was refurbished and repainted to look like she did in her operational days back in the 1950s.
M-65 280mm Nuclear Field Artillery with tractors, Germany 1958. Photo Copyright © Ivan Baker,  used with permission.

Weapons Testing of the M65 280mm Atomic Artillery

The M65 280mm cannons were creatures of the Cold War, used only for testing and deterrance. During May 1953, the US Department of Defense held a series of weapons tests at the Nevada Test Site, called Operation Upshot-Knothole. More than 20,000 DOD personnel participated in the tests. There were a total of 11 detonations, including air drops, tower shots and probably most importantly, one nuclear warhead fired from the M65 cannon. At 8:30 AM on 25 May 1953, the atomic cannon fired a MK-9 artillery shell as part of the Grable Test. The shell was projected seven miles downrange and detonated 524 feet above Area 5, known as Frenchman Flat. The Artillery Test Unit from the Artillery Center, Fort Sill, Oklahoma, fired the cannon. The shell exploded with a yield of 15 kilotons and was the first and last nuclear device to ever be fired from a cannon.

Hundreds of high ranking Armed Forces officers and members of Congress were present for the test. Two battalion combat teams maneuvered in the area after the shot.

The M65 280mm system never saw actual combat use. Nonetheless, Gen. J. Lawton Collins, chief of staff of the Army during the Korean War, thought its existence played a role in deterring Soviet aggression during the early Cold War years. The May 1953 public demonstration of the devestating weapon had an impact on the negotiations for an end to the Korean War, leading to an armistice signed 27 July 1953.

Origin of the Name Atomic Annie

The name "Atomic Annie" was probably chosen with reference to "Anzio Annie" a German K5 railroad gun that bedeviled the Anzio, Italy beachhead during 1944. The identification of the exact weapon that fired the nuclear warhead has been controversial, but the one on display at Ft. Sill, OK, retains the name "Atomic Annie".

It is believed that eight of the original twenty atomic cannons survived, including two in military base museums at Ft. Sill, OK and Kirtland Air Force Base, NM.

More Eyewitness Details on the M65 280mm Atomic Artillery

Melvin De Vilbiss' father was a Field Artillery officer, with the M65 guns from 1955 through 1958. Writing on the Olive-Drab.com Facebook, 8 Feb 2012, Mr. De Vilbiss related:

My father became the platoon leader, then battery commander of the gun “now” known as Atomic Annie from 1955 through 1958. We know this because the tube and serial numbers on the gun are #11 and #15 respectively. Numbers my father remembers explicitly! The unit was the 692nd FA Battalion.

It has been written there were 20 of these guns produced, deployed in S.E. Asia and Europe. Here’s the story according to my father, LTC (Ret) Donald R. De Vilbiss:

There were two battalions of six guns in Germany. My father was assigned to the 2nd BN 38th FA in Darmstadt FRG from 1959 to 1962, becoming a battery commander while stationed there. He was also called upon to assist in training an artillery battalion in Giessen FRG. Both of these battalions were comprised of three firing batteries each with 2 guns, for a total of 12 guns.

He knows for a fact there was at least one gun, but believes there were actually two, in Direct or General Support maintenance in the FRG. He recalls several incidents of guns being put out of commission for various reasons, replaced within “hours” by guns from DS/GS. There were no guns in DS/GS in the United States. This makes sense at the height of the cold war since these were the “only” atomic capable cannon in the U.S. inventory until the 8 inch projectile was developed. So far, this brings the total to 14 guns.

Within the continental United States there were two battalions, each with three batteries of “one” gun. These battalions were stationed at Ft. Sill, mentioned above, and one other three gun battalion somewhere in the eastern U.S., probably Ft. Bragg, but possibly Ft. Campbell or Ft. Benning. My father was never assigned to this unit. This brings the total number of guns to 20.

To the best of his knowledge, there were no 280mm units ever in Asia, but definitely non after 1955 when he first joined the battalion at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma.

With regard to the gun known as Atomic Annie (tube #11; carriage #15):

It was never in Europe! As far as my father knows (he was assigned to the gun two years after the one and only atomic shell was fired) there are no records indicating the gun known as Atomic Annie fired that specific round. As every field artilleryman knows, detailed records of every shell and charge fired are kept on every tube for tube wear and calibration. There were no unclassified records on Atomic Annie that showed she fired that round. He also acknowledges those records may be classified.

The gun was not christened as Atomic Annie until “after” 1958, and how it came to be is unknown by my father. In 1955 the guns in my father’s battalion were not known by names - period.

After my father became battery commander, he was asked by the men of the battery (remember – one gun per battery in the U.S.) if they could name their gun. They chose the name Aphrodite.

In fact, my father has a picture of the entire battalion in front of crossed cannon from Batteries A & C on or about mid-1958.

The cannon in the picture are named Aphrodite and Cheyenne. Remember, the gun, tube and carriage #11 & #15 respectively, was my father’s gun – Aphrodite. That is the same gun in the Field Artillery Museum at Ft. Sill, now known as Atomic Annie.

This may not be as embellished as the story some would promulgate – but it is the true history of the gun as known by one who was there and served with it.

The M-65 280mm Atomic Annie cannon on permanent display at Fort Sill, near Lawton, OK (without its prime movers).   This gun is the one that fired the test atomic munition at Frenchman Flat, NV, May 1953.
The M-65 280mm "Atomic Annie" cannon on permanent display at Fort Sill, near Lawton, OK (without its prime movers). This gun is the one that fired the test atomic munition at Frenchman Flat, NV, May 1953.

M-65 atomic artillery system with one tractor at the National Atomic Museum, Kirtland Air Force Base, NM
M-65 atomic artillery system with one tractor at the National Atomic Museum, Kirtland Air Force Base, NM.

M-65 atomic artillery system with one tractor at the National Atomic Museum, Kirtland Air Force Base, NM
M-65 atomic artillery system with one tractor at the National Atomic Museum, Kirtland Air Force Base, NM.

Full M-65 atomic artillery system with tractors
Full M-65 atomic artillery system with tractors.

Atomic Annie
The fireball ascending at Frenchman's Flat, NV from the Atomic Cannon Test, history's first atomic artillery shell fired from the M65 280mm artillery gun, 23 May 1953.

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