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Jan 5 2021

The long arm of the artillery

RUKLA, Lithuania — Covid-19 cannot stop the artillery – not even when self-propelled howitzers with a weight of 57 tons each need to be shipped to Lithuania over a distance of 1500 kilometres. While Germany was in lockdown, 10th Armour Division managed to send its reinforcement forces to the enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) mission in order to fulfil Germany’s alliance commitments at NATO’s eastern flank. This is the story of a long journey.

SOURCE: Bundeswehr
Artillery soldiers at the Kairiai military training area fire a 30-km shot out to the open sea. 
Bundeswehr/Kurt Basler

A cool morning on the Kairia military training area in Lithuania – ideal conditions for the artillery soldiers from northern Bavaria to practice precision shooting. The servicemen and women start up the 1000-horsepower engines of their self-propelled howitzers. The engines rumble as the 57-ton steel giants come to life. The ground shakes as the howitzers make their way to the ammunition storage site where shells and propelling charges are arrayed along the road. Each howitzer is loaded with 25 high-explosive shells and modular propelling charges to ensure that the shells can be fired over a distance of 30 kilometres. Within eight minutes the loading process is completed.

“For the crews, firing a 30-kilometre shot is the ultimate challenge,” explains Battery Commander Johannes M. Since late October, the five PzH2000 self-propelled howitzers have been practising combined arms operations together with their Lithuanian allies in the birch forests of the Baltic region. In order to get there, however, they had to overcome some obstacles.

Artillery soldiers from Weiden in Bavaria support NATO’s eFP Battlegroup

A PzH 2000 self-propelled howitzer is on its way to pick up ammunition on the Kairiai military training area. 
Bundeswehr/Kurt Basler

This exercise forms part of the preparatory training for Exercise Iron Wolf, during which NATO’s multinational eFP Battlegroup together with reinforcements from Germany will be integrated into a Lithuanian brigade. Their mission: to reinforce the indirect fire component of the Lithuanian “Geležinis Vilkas” (Iron Wolf) brigade and its subordinated eFP Battlegroup. Headed by Captain Johannes M., the soldiers of the 4th Battery of 131 Artillery Battalion based in Weiden in eastern Bavaria provide the bulk of equipment and personnel for the reinforced artillery battery. They are supported by ammunition supply and transport elements of the 1st Battery and a meteorological group, a counter-battery radar group and a sound-ranging platoon of the 2nd Battery. But how did these reinforcements make their way to Lithuania?

Crossing the Baltic Sea by ship

The journey from Bavaria to the military training area in Lithuania was admittedly long and difficult. “We have by now become used to transporting major equipment by rail,” says Lieutenant Colonel Sven Zickmantel, the Commander of 131 Artillery Battalion. The battalion’s soldiers had recently been on exercise in Sweden and Austria and had visited Lithuania twice before. Nobody would have thought that the third trip to the Baltic region would be such a challenge.

According to Lieutenant Colonel Zickmantel, planning of the deployment of the reinforcement forces for the eight rotation of eFP Battlegroup started very early. “It was new for my team to use ferry transport. No one in our battalion had done anything like that on such a scale before.” The outbreak of the Covid pandemic in 2019, however, upended all plans: The artillery soldiers were no longer able to take charge of loading their equipment for transport – they had to be in isolation two weeks prior to the departure of their flight. “Our battalion therefore had to establish, instruct and, to a certain extent, train a transportation detachment.”

Transport by ferry – a new challenge

In addition to the conduct of training of new officer cadets and of post-related training for Hungarian artillery soldiers at its garrison in Weiden, the battalion at the same time was busy preparing hygiene concepts for the accompanied transport of the equipment by rail and ferry and the necessarily contactless handover of said equipment to the reinforcement forces taken to Lithuania by aircraft. A total of 65 servicemen and women from all units of the battalion contributed to ensuring the transportation of different vehicles and major equipment over a period of five days and keeping the tight deadlines set by the civilian ferry operator. “In this context, the unpredictable development of the Covid pandemic did little to alleviate the situation,” Lieutenant Colonel Zickmantel comments a logistical job well done.

Reunion in Lithuania

In the months prior to deployment, 131 Artillery Battalion had to pool the personnel at its garrison in Weiden and prepare them for their territorial and collective defence mission. Pre-deployment training, post-related training, training-area stays and follow-on training hence had been part of everyday military life at the battalion since the beginning of the year.

Back in July, soldiers of the fire support platoon together with their comrades from 104 Tank Battalion based in the Bavarian town of Pfreimd deployed to Lithuania in order to form the core of the eight rotation of the multinational Battlegroup for a period of six months. During that time, the soldiers from Weiden were to advice the combat troops in all matters related to joint tactical fire support. The tank battalion from Pfreimd is not exactly new to the Baltic region either – in 2019 the unit of 12 Armour Brigade had already deployed to Lithuania as the fifth eFP rotation.

Howitzers and campers on deck

The equipment for the reinforcement forces began its journey when it was loaded onto trains in Vilseck near Grafenwöhr. The freight, however, was not headed to a reloading station near the Polish-Lithuanian border as usual, but to Rostock instead. At the Baltic Sea ferry terminal, all 55 vehicles were transferred to a ferry a few days later. Zickmantel notes that it is good to know that one can rely on the men and women of his battalion. Arrangements made with civilian companies for the reloading of the equipment at the port in Rostock changed every day. The hard work invested, however, paid off and culminated in a truly unusual sight: vacationers and campers headed to Sweden and howitzers and heavy trucks destined for the eFP crossing the Baltic Sea peacefully side by side.

An enormous effort for the entire battalion

In the Baltic pine forest, the howitzers are waiting for their orders. 
Bundeswehr/Kurt Basler

After their journey to the Klaipėda port in Lithuania, the vehicles were unloaded by the escort detachment and, at night, the contactless handover to their crews, who had arrived by plane, took place. The coronavirus did not stand a chance. Even though the deployment was a logistical challenge and required an enormous effort under these special circumstances, the battalion was able to keep to the ambitious schedule.

The loading and escort detachment of the 5th Battery returned to Bavaria by sea and by bus. “Despite the short-term changes and the additional personnel requirements, the deployment was very successful,” confirms the Commander of 131 Artillery Battalion. Without good coordination between all agencies involved it would not have been possible to bring the equipment and the transport detachment and the reinforcement forces together in Lithuania at the same time.

“Ready to fire!”

A soldier loads shells into the howitzer’s automatic shell-feeding system. 
Bundeswehr/Kurt Basler
On the Kairiai military training area in Lithuania: With only moments to go until the fire order is given, the howitzers set out into the open terrain and move into their assigned firing position from their sheltered location in the forest. Now there is tension in the air. “It is unbelievable to feel how the howitzer reacts to the enormous forces unleashed when the shot is fired,” says Sergeant Jana M., the commander of the howitzer’s crew. Now the show begins: Over the radio, the order to fire comes in. “Go,” she calls to the driver. A few seconds later all four howitzers are in their firing positions, spin their turrets in the direction of fire and get ready to fire.

The platoon's fire direction centre has already processed the target coordinates, taking into account weather data and wind speeds. This helps to calculate the right firing angle and other parameters. In the crew compartment, the gunner takes over. After the automatic loading system has fed a high-explosive shell, the loader inserts a propelling charge into the barrel and closes the breech. “Ready to fire,” he yells. There is silence in the crew compartment. “Fire!” The commander presses the firing button, and the extremely heavy howitzer shakes under the pressure created by the propelling charge. It takes almost a minute until the projectile hits its target.

Story by Mario Hönig, Sascha Klenk and Karsten Dyba

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