The Man Who Made The Supergun
Written by guest Author: Andy Rowlands
This is the story of the Canadian engineer Gerald Bull, who achieved both fame and notoriety in the late 1980s, as his company designed the immense ‘Superguns’ for Iraq. I originally wrote this back in 1992, and have re-written parts of it as more information has come to light since then.
To understand some of the background of this extraordinary man, we have to start with a retired former arms dealer; Major Robert Turp. During the Second World War, Turp was a member of MI10; a British Army Intelligence unit, whose task was to assess captured German war material.
In a bombed-out munitions factory in Germany, Turp and his team discovered the plans for the next German ‘terror weapon’, what has become known as the V3. It was a 5.9inch (150mm) multiple-barrelled weapon intended to be used to bombard London.
The V3 ‘terror weapon’
Made in sections, the V3’s would have been just over a hundred metres long. Angled charges at intervals along the barrels would have boosted the final projectile speed and given a range long enough to hit London. Turp also found parts of a prototype 30mm gun, which also had a barrel in six-foot sections. The belief then, and up to the time of the Supergun Affair, was that a sectioned gun barrel would never work; the act of firing the gun would explosively burst the joints. Turp was intrigued by the prototype weapon and a few sections of barrel were assembled and test-fired…and the gun remained intact. Turp’s report on the V3 was added to the piles of captured Nazi war secrets, filed away and forgotten. Turp was convinced that the Supergun Gerald Bull designed for Saddam Hussein was based on the V3.
The full-scale V3 site was under construction by September 1943 near Mimoyecques in the Pas-de-Calais region of northern France, very close to the French end of the present day Channel Tunnel, where V1 & V2 launch sites were already under construction. The initial layout comprised two parallel facilities approximately 1,000 metres apart, each with five inclined drifts which were to hold a stacked cluster of five gun tubes, for a total of 50 guns. Both facilities were served by an underground railway tunnel and underground ammunition storage galleries. The V3 was designated by the Germans as the Hochdruckpumpe (“High Pressure Pump”), which was a name intended to hide the real purpose of the project.
The plans were to have the first battery of five gun-tubes ready for March 1944, and the full complex of 25 gun-tubes by 1st October 1944. A barrel failure occurred at the Misdroy proving ground in April 1944 after only 25 rounds had been fired and, as a result, the project was cut back from five drifts to three, even though work had begun on some of the other drifts. The site was finally put out of commission on 6th July 1944, before it was complete, when Lancasters of the RAF’s 617 Squadron (the famous “Dambusters”) attacked using 12,000lb Tallboy deep-penetration bombs.
There is now a museum at Mimoyecques, which allows visitors to view the galleries (in various stages of construction and bombing damage), remains of the guns, a small-scale V-3 replica, and examples of machinery, rail systems and tools employed. The site also contains memorials to the slave labourers who were forced by the Nazis to construct it, and to the airmen killed in action during the destruction of the site.
The photograph below is one of the few remaining images of the V3 prototype, photographed at Wolin Island in Poland, courtesy of Bundesarchiv. The remains of the concrete foundations for this gun are still visible today on the side of the hill.
In 1945, Gerald Bull became Toronto University’s youngest ever Phd, receiving a doctorate in Astrophysics when only 22. The Cold War had just begun, and for smart engineers, defence work was the quick way to fame and fortune. Bull lectured, built hypersonic wind-tunnels to test new designs of shells, and helped design the Velvet Glove air-to-air missile. Soon after this, Bull joined the Canadian Armament Research and Development Agency. They had been working on an early Anti-Ballistic Missile defence since 1945, and Bull suggested a much cheaper way of testing their rockets than the expensive 3500mph wind tunnel – shoot them down a gun barrel. They tried it, it worked, and Bull became the Defense Department’s ‘golden boy’.
The HARP gun
In 1961, Bull moved to McGill University in Montreal to direct the High-Altitude Research Project. HARP was a joint venture with Dr Charles Murphy, a ballistics scientist with the US Army, to see what was the peak altitude various sized guns could achieve. Bull wanted to get into the space race by firing satellites out of a big gun. It would be a cheap launching system.
A specially-cast 16” cannon with a barrel 60 feet long was conveyed to Barbados, as the government there had offered a suitable firing range on the coast. Although funded to a point by the Canadian government and the US Army, HARP was always short of money, and needed the exposure of frequent press reports. Once in the firing position, the gun was elevated to 80 degrees. It successfully fired multiple times to around 50 miles altitude.
The Paris Gun
Bull was always trying to do things bigger and better. During the HARP project he tried out just about every type of large artillery piece in existence at the time. He was aware by this time that the Germans had produced an extraordinary long-range cannon during the First World War, and he started to research the archives, uncovering in the process the famous 420mm ‘Big Bertha’ howitzer and a railway gun that could allegedly shoot 60 miles. Eventually he found what he was looking for; what is now known as the Paris Gun. Built by Krupp, it had a barrel 112 feet long, and could fire eight-inch shells. The barrel was braced with a framework to counteract barrel droop due to its length and weight, and vibrations while firing. It was mounted on a special rail-transportable carriage and fired from a prepared, concrete emplacement with a turntable. In the spring of 1918, it bombarded the French capital from 75 miles away, which earned it the nickname the Paris Gun, though the German name for it was “Kaiser Wilhelm Geschütz“.
This is an image of the Paris Gun on it’s test-mount, showing the enormously-long barrel.
The Germans destroyed the gun after the armistice, but photographs clearly showed the barrel was sectioned and bolted together, so Bull knew sectioned barrels would work, what he had to do now was scale-up the Paris Gun to the size he needed for satellite launches, one of the future aims of the HARP project.
The Barbados Gun
Bull acquired two surplus 16” naval battleship guns, cut the breech off one and built a connecting structure to join the two barrels together. This colossal gun was transported to Barbados and erected in 1964. Two years later, after multiple test-firings, it shot a simulated satellite load to 112 miles high – a world record that still stands. It became known as the Barbados Gun, and is still there, just east of the airport, slowly rusting. It’s even visible on Google Earth. Around it are the remains of several other smaller guns, used for testing various ideas and projectiles, including the original HARP gun.
The picture below shows the Barbados Gun when the project was active in the 1960’s.
The picture below shows what the Barbados Gun looks like now.
To reach orbit however, Bull realised he needed something even bigger. He and Charles Murphy did engineering studies and calculations for guns with 36”, 48” and 64” diameter barrels, to see how they might perform.
They found a wider barrel would reduce destructive G forces inside the gun. The barrel itself could be a smooth-bore pipe divided into relatively short high-pressure sections. It appeared a gun-launched satellite was possible. At that time, the US Army saw space as the next battlefield, and Bull proposed a shell that could shoot down ICBM’s. There are rumours Bull also produced an engineering study for gun-launched nuclear weapons.
Fearing HARP was becoming too much under the influence of the military, the Canadian government withdrew funding. Years later, Bull was still bitter about that decision. The following year; 1967, the Pentagon did an about-turn and put it’s faith in anti-ICBM missiles, withdrawing their own funding. The High-Altitude Research Project was dead.
Deeply frustrated, Bull abandoned the Barbados site and returned to the US. He purchased a 10,000 acre site straddling the US – Canadian border, which effectively gave him an international road and customs station. He created a new company; the Space Research Corporation. On his newly-acquired land he built a large gunnery range, including a big artillery piece left over from the HARP project. He boasted he could now fire a shell from Montreal to Mexico City, a distance of some 2000 miles, a claim most doubted.
The GC-45 howitzer
Once again, Bull showed his ingenuity in making new technology from old. His SRC offered third-world countries a conversion kit to upgrade their aging artillery guns. He also began to re-think conventional assumptions about artillery; from barrel to breech. Out of this came the GC-45, the prototype of a new breed of 155mm field howitzers, which bore the Bull trademark long barrel that could until recently far outshoot any similar field gun in either the NATO or former Soviet arsenals, and do it with accuracy. The picture below shows a typical CG-45.
As the GC-45 became respected and sought-after, so did Gerald Bull. Christopher Foss, then editor of Jane’s Armour and Artillery, was invited to Canada to see the GC-45 in action on Bull’s test range in the late 70s. By this time, Bull was doing classified work on new shell designs, work so valuable to the US that he was made an American Citizen by a special act of Congress. Before long his research into shell designs had produce a major innovation; the Extended-Range Full Bore projectile. Under test it had twice the killing power of conventional 155mm shells, and had a range of 25 miles.
Having proven the shell on his test-range, Bull went into production of the ERFB shells, assuming the interest the US military had shown would turn into orders. Unfortunately for Bull, it didn’t, and he needed a new customer. He subsequently found one, but it turned out to be a very bad move on his part.
His troubles began in 1977, when the container ship Tugeleland (seen below) carrying SRC shells and GC-45 gun assemblies, was found to be heading for South Africa, suspicions began to be raised. The voyage broke the laws of both Canada and the USA, & also violated a UN arms embargo. South Africa badly needed the advantage Bull’s ERFB shells would give them in their war with Angola, which had superior Soviet-made artillery. South Africa later said the CIA had offered to help them, and brokered the deal between them and Gerald Bull, via former USMC Vietnam veteran and Silver Star recipient Major John Clancy III. To intervene in this way was supposed to be illegal, but the CIA didn’t want what they saw as Communists possibly gaining control of the naval base at Simonstown, which effectively Polices the South Atlantic.
Within weeks, SRC ordered 60 GC-45 barrels and 50,000 ERFB rounds from their suppliers. SRC paperwork stated they were for Israel, and a few days later, export licences were granted. This process usually took some months, so it appeared someone was greasing the wheels to get the export licences granted quickly.
Bull was also selling technology to South Africa which would give them a delivery system for low-yield battlefield tactical nuclear weapons. Unfortunately for Gerald Bull, this intricate deception was beginning to attract attention. Too many ships were involved ferrying SRC munitions around the world. Customs officers were starting to ask questions, and the media was starting to get wind of what Bull was doing. Another cargo ship; the Breezand, was found to be carrying SRC equipment. It docked in Barcelona ostensibly to offload, then departed without unloading, and headed for South Africa, while it’s sailing manifest stated it was bound for Canada.
By now, US Customs had become interested in just what Bull and SRC were up to. Customs officials went to Washington, but the government refused to talk to them, citing national security. The Customs officials were looking to indict 15 individuals, five corporations and three countries. A week before the trial date, Gerald Bull met with attorneys to plea-bargain. The following Monday, Bull and another SRC employee; Rogers Gregory, were the only ones indicted. The US government had found a way of side-stepping it’s own Customs laws.
Bull and Gregory had been persuaded to plead guilty and later claimed they had been given the impression they would only be fined. A former Customs officer would later claim he had received a phone call ‘from the White House’ ordering him to discontinue his investigation into the South Africa case. As a result, the evidence of US government and CIA involvement in the South Africa deal was never heard in open court. To his surprise, Gerald Bull was given a six-month jail sentence, and believed he had been made the fall-guy.
In part two, we follow Dr Bull after release from prison, see further questionable arms deals he got involved in, and culminating with his designing the Superguns for Iraq, which ultimately led to his downfall.
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