Note: this is a question about railway - mounted artillery, NOT about armored trains (which were more akin to tanks-on-rails and had much smaller guns)

The idea behind railway gun is quite sound: a bigger gun is better than a small gun but it is harder to relocate. But if we will use trains, that can carry lots of weight relatively quickly, then we can put REALLY BIG guns on them and move them around with ease!

But the effect is far from expected because the railway artillery requires LOTS of maintenance and logistics, might have problems with aiming in other direction than straight ahead of the tracks and the number of shots per day is simply pathetic:

For example, the famous Dora (no, not that one) required 250 people to assemble the gun in 3 days, 2500 to lay the tracks and 2 flak battalions to protect it from the air attacks and in return, it was providing 14 shots per day.

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All this looks horribly inefficient when compared to for example WW II bombers or even smaller, WW I heavy artillery, like the famous Big Bertha (which could fire 8 shots per hour, although indeed with ~7 times lighter shell).

So, were ever those "white elephants" of modern weapons even critical in winning any battle? Or were there just a drain on the resource, that could be better spent on a different kind of weaponry?


I've removed the "winning" part since indeed it had not much sense - U-boats were critical in the battle of Atlantic, yet the battle was won by Allies. So in other words, I am looking for battles where railway guns have played a very significant role, no matter on the final outcome.

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    The Dora is somewhat one-of-a-kind, and a bad example for a "railway gun", as while it does reside on tracks, those tracks need to be purpose-build (two tracks alongside each other, with a bend in the tracks as the Dora could not traverse on its own). The "real" railway guns were track-mobile, i.e. could be transported by the same railway they would fire from, and had significantly higher firing rate.
    – DevSolar
    Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 8:27
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    @DevSolar you might be right, I'm not trying to say anything like "railway guns are bad because Dora was bad design" - it would be like saying "tanks are bad because Maus was a bad tank", just genuinely asking about the success (or lack of it) of this particular type of weapons. I've already found some info about smaller, more successful Krupp K5 ("Leopold") but again I'm lacking any information that they were really good weapons.
    – Yasskier
    Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 9:07
  • OK then... what are you comparing "normal" railway guns against, and what makes a "good weapon"? Railway guns were super-heavy artillery you could not normally get "on target" otherwise. They were build and employed by the US, UK, France, and Germany from 1862 to WWII. Were they "good weapons"? What would qualify?
    – DevSolar
    Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 9:43
  • @DevSolar First, I'm looking only at WW II and WW I. As for "good weapon": I'd say a weapon that was efficient in construction and usage and has played important role in winning a battle, similar to one Big Bertha (not a railway cannon) played in breaking through the Belgian forts during WW I. I just have a feeling that this concept (huge cannon on rails) is kind of bad, once you go past the certain size and until that point, a regular, smaller artillery would be (almost) as good if provided i.e. in bigger numbers at the same cost.
    – Yasskier
    Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 10:35
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    There are very few weapons, or weapon systems, that you could attribute with "winning a battle". Were the RAF's and USAAF's strategic bombers "efficient", given the casualties among air crews and civilians on the ground? Were Germany's U-Boats (which cost lots of crews their lifes), or the V-1 (which didn't)? I cannot help but feel that this is opinion-based...
    – DevSolar
    Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 10:50

3 Answers 3


The only time they were used - although on a different front - they did more or less what they were intended to do.

The German leadership was well aware about the logistical nightmare these guns imposed on the army. The fact that only two were ever ordered shows the over all value even the Germans assigned to these guns. Yet they were deemed necessary to break an eventual stalemate. The super heavy guns like the 80cm "Schwerer Gustav" were purpose built guns to defeat the bunkers on the Maginot line. They were a weapon developed and built for a single purpose - that never came.

The Germans never thought they would rush through France like they did during the Blitz and were rather planning for a prolonged siege like during WW I.

Since they marched through France in mere 6 weeks they were now sitting on now practically obsolete ordnance not knowing what to do with it. When, later on, the German offensive in Russia faced the fortifications of Sevastopol, they actually found a use for the guns they've been sitting on for almost two years.

Sevastopol - on the very edge of the Crimea peninsula - was a major Russian stronghold and hard to conquer since the fortification there were enormous. In the end, not even the large 80cm gun alone could cripple the fortress. A combined effort of the 42cm, 60cm and 80cm guns was needed to knock out the Russian artillery and crippled the fort.

Since the siege itself took more than 9 months to conclude, there was quite enough time to transport and assemble the railway gun there. These super heavy artillery pieces did play a role in defeating the defenses and freed up resources needed on the rest of the eastern front. So while no single piece of equipment can "win" a siege on itself, these guns did contribute - although mainly because the army found an opportunity to use the otherwise useless guns and not because they were such superior equipment.

  • Hi Adwaenyth and welcome to HSE. Adding links to your sources would improve this answer and make it more likely people will upvote. Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 14:14
  • @LarsBosteen I wrote the answer mostly from memory, but the Wikipedia article on the gun actually mentions most of it and also links to some sources (although most material on the guns and their use is obviously in German). Still do know a little from what my grand father told me when he was still alive. He participated in the offensive as a Seargent commanding a 105mm field howitzer, but not on Gustav or Dora itself.
    – Adwaenyth
    Commented Feb 27, 2019 at 11:04
  • @Adwaenyth: I recommend you copy the last comment into the main body of the post.
    – gktscrk
    Commented Jul 24, 2020 at 8:38

No, the development of the railway gun came too late. Airplanes could do much the same, far more efficient, and at less cost.

As you said yourself, railway artillery needed LOTS of maintenance. 14 shots per day is not exactly very efficient. Do mind that after 18-20 shots, the barrel was worn out and needed replacement. Before that, each shot would change (widen) the bore diameter. Which required each shot had to be recalculated and adjusted to compensate for that. That (barrel changes) happens with other guns too, but after 500-2000 shots, which is a big difference.

During WW1, there was an excuse: airplanes weren't yet capable of delivering the same amount of bombs on one particular spot. This wasn't the case during WW2. If you needed a lot of ordnance on a particular target, simply use more bombers. Need more impact? Use bigger bombs.

WW1 railway guns weren't really efficient for the investment, but it worked. During WW2 it was a sheer waste of money, time and effort. That's why the allies didn't invest in it. The British used railway guns for coastal defense, but those guns were left overs from WW1 battleships.

The Germans used railway guns to repel the landings at Anzio with moderate success, and the Karl Gerät with more success during the siege of Sebastopol. Looking back, the investments weren't worth it. The few times a railway gun actually made a difference, it could have been done with different weapons are far less cost and effort.

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    As I can only give this anecdotally, I won't do it as a full answer: one of my grandfathers was at the siege of Sebastopol. From his tales (and mind you this is from memory as he passed many years ago), until the railway guns came to their aid, they were making zero headway. The Luftwaffe simply didn't have the kind of bombs (Grand Slam/Tall Boy style) - nor aircraft that could deliver them - to break the fortress.
    – Marakai
    Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 4:17
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    True, however going by the original question, then the answer would have to be "yes, the Siege of Sebastopol was decided by an, albeit lucky, shot from a railway gun".
    – Marakai
    Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 4:35
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    @Marakai: Not so "lucky". They knew the ammunition depot was there, and they knew that -- being 30 meters underground -- they had little chance to get at that depot with conventional artillery or bombs. That depot was quite deliberately targeted, so I would not call its destruction "lucky".
    – DevSolar
    Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 8:40
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    @DevSolar Which would bring us back to "yes, the Siege of Sebastopol was decided and won by use of a railway gun, when the Germans had no other ways to strike at the ammunition depot in specific and take the fortress in general". Maybe I should just put it up as an answer and let the votes decide. But I have no time currently to add the appropriate sources and research.
    – Marakai
    Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 8:43
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    (ctd.) Also, I consider it a bit unfair to say "the 80cm gun was a waste of resources, just use Grand Slam bombs". The Germans did not have a bomber equivalent to the Lancaster that could carry a bomb load of that magnitude. The Mistel would be the closest equivalent, but with much less penetrative power, and with a distinctly unimpressive operational record. So, yes, building those 80cm guns was not a good use of resources, as the war turned out to not be about sieges, but that's a lot of hindsight speaking...
    – DevSolar
    Commented Feb 26, 2019 at 8:51

Railway guns were outdated by WW2, But it's complicated. They were designed to be artillery, bunker-buster and defensive. Though the German examples during WW2 were the most notable, the British, French, American, Italian... Even Polish and Russian examples had niches. For example, Gladiator (British) was used to train Naval crews on the guns without having any serviceable ships taken out for training, and in that role it meant that British and American crews had better experience using naval guns as large field artillery, which was useful during D-day.

Offensively, they didn't see much use, but some of the Railway Operating Division staff (again, British) noted their Italian counterparts had been using them decisively for port defence, and a captured Italian gun was used against a sea fort by the Australians. (Railways at War, 1982? I think).

As a design, railway guns had been used decisively in wars before WW1. But they were fortress-breakers, for the Sigfried and Maginot lines. Aeroplanes and railway warfare and sabotage made their greatest strength, Mobility, in to a weakness. the British guns, for the most part, were anti-ship and training, and as they pointed out, in that role, were more of a liability than Whinnie, the dug-in naval gun. They notably "lost" Boche-Buster for a short period because they fly-shunted it (took all the brakes off and pushed it around with a loco) only to discover they couldn't stop the juggernaut. And in many ways, in theory they had a niche through WW2, but the sort of offensives they did best in, didn't happen during WW2. Sevastapol is probably the last great hurrah of the Railway Gun in an offensive role. They were for doing a high-velocity surgical job against things no other gun could hit. Some of the last Port Defence examples lasted a bit longer (fairly sure some remained around the Panama and Suez Canal entrances for a few decades) but even in that role, a lot of that style of gun had been replaced by torpedo stations. Some Smaller railway artillery setups built by Vickers overcame a lot of the problems of the railway gun, but came in too late for any actual, practical use. rotating platforms so that a line of artillery could be pulled in to position, a middle ground between the wartrain and the railway gun, worked but sat in a niche that was basically filled by the same thing on tank chassis, or bombers.

(again, Railways at War) It should perhaps be observed that, particularly with the Italian ones, they were considered terrifying enough to merit the retreating Axis to make every effort to stop their possible advances towards the German heartlands. After the Italian examples were captured, the Germans basically doubled track-removal efforts, and it's notable that at several Italian campaign locations, the ROD were requested to at least try to get them in to dislodge forces or push for a surrender. The Germans literally completely removed one railway (not just breaking the ties or sleepers, but physically removing every last bit of rail) because it was the only line where they knew a gun would have to pass. Their problem was, they were too slow to do so and were captured by the British ROD who were relaying! The Italian campaign increasingly fell back on defensive fortress lines, the ideal situation for the railway gun, particularly as they were (mostly) out of bombing range, but none were negotiated up from the south.

One final problem noted by the Brits (and they observed in the French and Americans too.) was that the railway gun programme was operated by the Royal Naval Air Service, Railway Operating Division, Army Marines and Navy, and had RAF spotters too. Tactically and logistically, it was a case of Too Many Cooks, particularly as these different forces held and operated different rank systems and had different considerations on what the gun should be used for, and where. Add in that a lot of the RNAS's railway section was handed to the Poles, and it became a logistical nightmare in to which people intentionally went to avoid being sent to the front. I'm not sure of the German arrangements, But it mostly seems similar.

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    ?? is "Railways at War" a citation to a source? I couldn't find a reference to a source of that name.
    – MCW
    Commented Apr 23, 2021 at 14:00
  • Possibly this
    – justCal
    Commented Apr 23, 2021 at 14:35

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