Notes from the Curator's Office

Anzio Annie: The Gun that Held 50,000 Men Hostage

Leopold, AKA "Anzio Annie," fires another shot into the Allied beach head camp. (Copyright Lee Krystek, 2012)

(7/12) A number of years ago when I was employed as a computer systems analyst, I had to make regular trips from my office down to the NSA at Fort Meade near Washington. The trip took nearly half a day, so to break the monotony I would stop for a few minutes at the Ordinance Museum at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds. In those relaxed days before 9/11, you could pop off the exit from Interstate 95 and be in the museum's parking lot in just 5 minutes. (I understand the museum has now moved to a new location at Fort Lee, so before you visit, check its website to find out its current status).

For anyone who was a history or military buff the Ordinance Museum was a fascinating place. The indoor facilities were in a small, brick building that housed an interesting collection of small arms. It was the outdoor exhibits that were really stunning, however. Row after row of tanks, mobile artillery, bombs and rockets from around the world: German, Japanese, Russian, British, Italian and, of course, American military hardware were all represented. However, one exhibit, more than all the others, couldn't help but catch the visitor's eye. Across the street from the building was a massive German WWII gun mounted on a pair of railroad cars. The sign next to it said it was a 280mm (11 inch) gun that the Germans had dubbed "Leopold."

At the time I hadn't realized that this giant had another name: Anzio Annie. It, along with its partner (dubbed "Robert"), had terrorized Allied soldiers in 1944 as they were penned in on a small Italian beachhead for over three months. Only recently had I connected Annie's fascinating story to the gargantuan gun I'd seen in Aberdeen.

The Italian Campaign

The British light cruiser HMS Mauritus of the Italian coast during the Anzio landing.

Late in 1943, the Allies were pushing their way north through Italy. They found themselves stopped by the "Gustav Line," a defensive boundary created by the Germans south of Rome. To out flank the Germans, it was decided to land two divisions - one American and one British - at beaches near the towns of Anzio and Nettuno. The Allies figured that the Germans would be forced to divert troops to Anzio from the Gustav Line, allowing a breakthrough there. If the Germans didn't divert troops, then it was hoped that the Allied forces at Anzio could head inland and cut the German supply lines to the Gustav instead.

After the landing, the Germans responded by rushing forces to the Anzio/Nettuno area to hold the Allies from advancing any further inland. In addition to troops and tanks their defense included a lot of very large artillery.

The Krupp K5-Es

The Germans had always loved big guns. During WWI the famous German armament manufacturer, Kuipp, had built huge a howitzer (a gun with a relatively short length for the diameter of its barrel) with the nickname "Big Bertha." It could toss a 16 ½ inch diameter, 1800 pound, shell almost eight miles. Krupp also built the so-called "Paris Gun" which was used to shell the city from March to August of 1918. While the Paris gun had a relatively small shell - about 9 ½ inches wide and weighing 210 pounds - its immense 92-foot-long barrel could send its payload a staggering 81 miles.

Given their earlier experience, Krupp was tasked by the German military in 1934 with the job of developing another enormous gun. This one was to be mounted on a railcar and had a barrel just over 70 feet in length. The gun was to be able to handle shells weighing 560 pounds and send them a distance of 40 miles. Krupp would build 25 of these monsters which were designated with the model name "K5-E."

They were first employed during WWII along the coast of France to harass shipping along the English Channel. With their range, the guns stationed at Calais, France, could also hit targets in Dover, England. Using special rocket-assisted projectiles to increase the range, the Germans could even target London.

When the battle at Anzio started, the German commander General Albert Kesselring had "Leopold" and "Robert," two of the K5-Es, sent by rail to a town named Ciampino. This location was in the Albano hills about 19 miles from the Anzio beachhead.

The "Paris Gun," with its 92 foot long barrel, needed support cables to keep it from sagging.

The Americans had always doubted the value of railway guns. After all they were, of course, limited to traveling only where there was a railway line. A big gun like the K5-E couldn't be aimed in just any direction, either. The front of the railway car had to be pointed in the general direction of the target. There were several ways of doing this. The easiest was to find a section of curved track that was tangent to the target and just position the gun where you needed it. A more versatile solution, however, was to run the gun onto a turntable so you could point it any direction you wanted. The Germans designed a portable turntable just for this purpose .

The planned American reply to any enemy artillery at Anzio was two-fold. The first was to use their own artillery to return fire on the attackers and destroy them. The second was to use the superiority they had in the air to hunt down any guns giving them problems and bomb them into oblivion.

The Tunnel

This wasn't going to be effective for the K5-Es stationed at Ciampino, however. The range of the guns was far beyond anything the Allies had, so there would be no return artillery fire. Hunting them down and bombing them from the air wasn't going to be easy either because the Germans had cleverly located their firing position in the Ciampino railway yards near a railway tunnel.

The man in charge of the guns, Colonel Frederik Filzinger, ordered them parked in the tunnel anytime they were not actually firing so they were well out of sight of any Allied aircraft patrol. To further confuse things, the Germans also built several dummy railway guns out of wood (apparently utilizing a telephone pole mounted on a flat car). Painted and covered with purposefully ineffective camouflage netting, these were positioned to distract allied bombers from the true targets. The Germans also set up flash simulators across the countryside that at night would look like the muzzle flash of a cannon and confuse the Allies further about the location of the big artillery.

Making things even more difficult for the defenders were an array of other German artillery guns in the area. Most of these were smaller, like the German 88mm, but a few, like a captured battery of Czechoslovakian 210mm guns and a captured battery of French 240mm guns, were much bigger and these could have been mistaken for Leopold and Robert, though neither had the range or the heavy payload of the K5-Es.

According to R.J. O'Rourke in his book Anzio Annie: She was No Lady, German records show the K5-Es started shelling the beach on February 7th, about two weeks after the landings started. The typical routine for use of the guns was to prepare them for operation as much as possible in the safety of the tunnel. Then either "Robert" or "Leopold" along with their support cars, would be pushed into the rail yard by a diesel locomotive. The gun would be aimed at the approximate position of the target and a special ranging shell, designed to create a large black plume of smoke so it could be seen from German observation posts overlooking the beach, would be fired. While the round was still in the air, the gun's barrel would be lowered, the breech opened and the remnants of the old shell extracted. A cart on rails, which was already loaded with the next shell and several bags of "diglycol" explosive powder, was rolled up to the back of the gun and loaded into the barrel. The Germans also put in a bag of Deuneberger salts to reduce the muzzle flash and make it less visible. With the breech closed, the weapon would be elevated again. By this time the observation posts would be reporting back the location where the first shell fell in relation to the final target and the position of the gun could be adjusted. Then it would fire again.

The K5-E dubbed "Leopold" parked at the Ordinance Museum at Aberdeen. (Copyright Lee Krystek, 2005)

It took between four to seven minutes to reload and fire the gun. This meant in a half-hour or so they could fire six to eight rounds - usually enough to find and devastate the target - and then the gun would disappear back into the safety of the tunnel.

Though the Germans had other fairly large guns at Anzio, these would constantly have to be relocated to avoid being found and attacked by Allied forces. Each new location would mean the guns would have to be re-oriented to beach head with several rounds fired just to point them to the general vicinity of possible targets. The tunnel gave the K5-E's the advantage of always firing from the same location, which made their shells deadly accurate.

The Anzio Express

When the K5-E's first few rounds started hitting the beach, the Americans quickly realized that railway guns were not quite obsolete. The huge shells passing overhead sounded like an express train and quickly gained the name "the Anzio Express." The soldiers, not realizing there were actually two guns involved, dubbed the cannon itself "Anzio Annie."

With the troops and all their supplies penned into a relatively small area on the beach, targets were plentiful. The big guns took out ammunition dumps, gasoline dumps, supply dumps, and various harbor installations. Also under threat were any ships that ventured close to land to unload. Because of the threat posed by Robert and Leopold these had to be anchored at least three miles out to sea, greatly hindering resupply efforts.

Commanders on the beach demanded that Annie be found and destroyed. Search planes were scheduled to overfly the area every hour. Overcast weather and the tunnel kept the secret of the Annies' location safe, however.

By March 3rd the guns had fired some 315 of their huge rounds into the Allied camp. A few days later on March 8th, Captain Borchers, who was directly in control of the guns operation, used intelligence gathered from aerial photos to fire eight shells into what he thought looked like a fuel dump. The result was a massive fire with flames that reached 1,000 feet in height. It burned for three days.

The Allies Strike Back

One of the Annies fires from the rail yard at Ciampino.

The next day the Allies believed they had gotten a break. After some heavy shells hit the beach that morning, an Allied plane spotted railroad guns firing from the Ciampino yards. Eight P-40s carrying 500-pound-bombs were immediately dispatched. They arrived over the target ten minutes before noon to find the guns still in position. This was the first of four air attacks against the guns that day. Dodging deadly anti-aircraft fire the pilots dove on the target with bomb after bomb exploding around or on top of them. By evening the Allies were convinced that the "Anzio Express" had made its last run. The news made its way quickly around the troops at the beach head: Anzio Annie would not bother them again.

Unfortunately this wasn't the case. Leopold and Robert had been safely parked in their tunnel several miles away long before the first bomber arrived. The planes had attacked the wooden decoys. Borchers' boss, Colonel Filzinger, later called him after hearing the Allied radio announcement that both of his guns had been destroyed, and told him laughingly "You're dead!"

A few hours after the last plane was gone and it was dark, Captain Borchers decided to dissuade the Allies of the idea that Annie was gone by taking one of the guns out and firing four more of the 280mm rounds into the Allied camp.

April came and the Allies were still stuck on the beach with rounds from Annie and other German guns landing on top of them day after day. The damage wasn't just in casualities and destoryed supplies, either. The massive shells roaring overhead were taking a huge psychological toll on the troops. A report in Stars and Stripes described the situation:

"…the big guns arrived, and the beachhead troops learned to recognize their gruesome, thundering scream. They told how one shell split through three floors of a thick, stone building beside the harbor. They told how another crashed through an ancient Roman cave in Nettuno and how a third uprooted men from their foxholes. A fourth ploughed into the Anzio cemetery unburying the dead."

On April 6th the Allies finally got some luck. One of Annie's shells proved to be a dud and punched an 18-inch hole into the ground for a length of 47 feet. A crew dug down to it and recovered the shell. Finally the Allies had a good idea of what type of gun they were up against. However, inaccurate intelligence about the K5-E's was still a problem. Some experts estimated the range of these weapons was far more than they actually were: perhaps sixty miles. This meant that the aircraft searching for the guns now had a much larger area to cover.

One of Leopold's decendents, an M65 "Atomic Annie" parked at Aberdeen. (Photo by Mark Pellegrini licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license)

The Allies best strategy turned out not to go after the guns, but to bomb the rail lines and roads coming into the region that carried the weapons ammunition. By the beginning of May a shortage of shells and diglycol was forcing Robert and Leopold to make fewer and fewer appearances.

The Secret is Out

The secret of the tunnel was finally discovered on May 28th. Several of the gun crew were sunning themselves near the tunnel entrance when an Allied fighter plane suddenly appeared. Though the guns were out of sight in the tunnel, some of the crew ran towards the safety of the entrance. An experienced sargent warned his men to stay put, some of the younger troops panicked, giving away the secret.

Captain Borchers decided to expend half of his remaining shells that night in case there was a successful attack against the tunnel the next day. As he had feared, it came with the dawn. Eight P-40s arrived, each carrying a 1000-pound bomb. Though they struck near the tunnel entrance and destroyed the gun crew's kitchen car, there was no damage to Leopold or Robert.

It was clear to Colonel Filzinger, however, with the secret discovered, and with the advance of Allied troops off the beach, he would have to either move the guns or lose them. That night they fired off their last 16 rounds and the gun train headed north. They had bombarded the beachhead for almost four month,s doing massive amounts of damage to equipment and supplies while terrorizing the British and American troops.

Unfortunately for the Germans there were no working rail lines to the north for the guns to make their escape. It was decided instead to take them to the port of Civiaveccia in hopes that they could be removed on barges. These never came, however, and the Germans were forced to render the guns unusable and leave before Allied troops arrived.


After the guns were captured, it was decided to ship Leopold back to the states for examination and testing at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds. The Army learned quite a bit from this gun and used a similar design when they built the M65 (nicknamed "Atomic Annie") the world's only cannon to fire a nuclear weapon. Atomic Annie was the same caliber - 280mm - as the K5-E. Like the K5-Es the gun's platform was supported by two sets of rolling wheels. Instead of railroad cars, however, the designers decided to use two truck-like transporters so that the atomic weapon could be moved over regular roads.

Fortunately Atomic Annie, unlike Leopold, was never fired in anger. Its one atomic test was conducted in 1953 in Nevada when it fired a 15-Kiloton warhead 7 miles. In total it only spent a decade or so in the United States' arsenal before military leaders decided that an atomic cannon, in the age of jet bombers and ICBMs, was already obsolete.

Today, both an Atomic Annie and "Leopold" are on exhibit at the Ordinance Museum. Leopold sits there quietly, like the retired dinosaur it is. It is hard to believe the terror this old metal monster once inspired, almost 70 years ago on a beach half a world away.

A Partial Bibliography

Anzio Annie: She was No Lady by R.J. O'Rourke, O'Rourke Services Co. 1995.

Anzio Annie: The Story of a Gun by by Louis Wildenboer, Military History Journal Vol 13 No 3 - June 2005.

Anzio Annie makes her way to Fort Lee by F.M Wiggins, The Progress-Index, 2010.

Copyright Lee Krystek 2012. All Rights Reserved.