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Remembered Today:

HMS General Wolfe - Longest Shot?


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I’ve just come across the story of  HMS General Wolfe. Wolfe was a monitor built originally with two main guns of 12-inch (305mm) calibre, but in 1918 one monster 18-inch (457mm) gun was added.


On 28 September 1918 from out in the North Sea this 18-inch gun fired at a target in Belgium that was 36,000 yards (20 miles) away. Because of this action the Wolfe is said to hold several records: she fired (1) the heaviest shell (2) from the largest gun (3) at the longest range in the history of naval warfare up to to that time; and also the heaviest, largest and longest ever before or since in the history of the Royal Navy.


Wolfe had one sister ship with an 18-inch gun: HMS Lord Clive, and she was first in action on 14 October 1918.


I’ve been thinking about this.


First, Wolfe may hold the records for (1) heaviest shell and (2) from the largest gun, but they can only be joint-records, because Clive also fired with the same model of gun and shell.


Second, Wolfe’s target on 28 September 1918 was the railway bridge at Snaeskerke, a village four miles to the south of Ostend. But two weeks later Clive also fired at the same bridge. It may be that Clive fired from closer to shore than Wolfe and so was less than 20 miles away from Snaeskerke, but it could also be that Clive was a bit further out at sea and thus the rightful holder of the long-range record. I wonder if this has ever been established.


Third, Wolfe is recorded as firing 52 shells on 28 September, all at the same bridge at Snaeskerke. I should think that a direct hit from just one of those ginormous shells would be enough to knock out a bridge, and yet 52 shells were fired. Moreover, when Clive went into action two weeks later she fired at the same bridge. Therefore it seems that the Wolfe’s 52 shells had failed to knock the bridge out. If so, it seems that she achieved her record in an action that was a failure. Is it too cynical to suggest that she was getting no decent feedback about the fall of shot on the bridge, and so she fired off all (or almost all) the shells she was carrying in the hope that at least one would do the trick, but, as it turned out, none actually did?


The facts above are entirely taken from Wikipedia. Any thoughts on this anybody?


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Ian Buxton states the following: 


"At 07.32 she [Wolfe] opened fire from 36,000yd on the important railway bridge at Snaeskerke, 4 miles south of Ostende.  In doing so she made naval history, firing the heaviest shell from the biggest gun at the longest range ever used in action to date.  ... Nevertheless she managed to keep up over two hours of 'rapid' fire, dropping in all forty four shells near their target.  The rate of fire was much better than anticipated; one round per 2min 38sec in place of 4min on trials.  Later in the day she fired a further eight rounds, thus almost exhausting her outfit of sixty 18in.  The monitors then all retired to Dunkirk for the night after the heaviest shore bombardment of the war; some 550 large shells.  ... The bombardment continued for the next five days, although not as heavy as on the 28th.  Wolfe fired a further eighteen rounds on the 29th, three on 2 October and six on on the third.  ... Not until 14 October were they [the Allied armies] able to make any further advance; ... Wolfe was joined by Lord Clive, newly arrived with her 18in gun from Portsmouth the day before [13 October].  Firing commenced at 07.10 on the 14th from 34,000yd, but Clive fired only a single round at this time, receiving no spot.  Her gun had not been calibrated, so the actual gun range may well have been different to that estimated for the gun elevation.  ... Later in the day Clive again tried her 18in.  Three rounds were got off, again all unspotted, but the order to cease fire came, to avoid hitting advancing Allied troops.  As there was a shell in her gun, the charge was reduced and the shell fired into a minefield 20,000yd to seaward.  Wolfe fired only two 18in rounds as she received no air spots either, but the other monitors fired 174 12in."


The above from Big Gun Monitors, second revised edition, 2012, Seaforth Publishing.


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Thanks. Interesting that Buxton says that Wolfe and Clive fired all those ginormous shells but doesn't say that any of them hit their target.

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This gives Shell weight 3,320 pounds (1,510 kg) and Filling weight 243 pounds (110 kg), which I suppose was all explosive.



But here I found these figures for the 15-inch guns carried by the most powerful battleships of the time: Shell weight 1,938 pounds (879 kg) and Filling weight 490 pounds (222 kg)


This puzzles me because it seems to mean that 18-inch gun fired shells containing much less explosive than the 15-inch.

That would mean that although Wolfe may have held several records, she didn’t hold the record for firing shells that contained the most explosive.

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I’m no expert but there are many factors that will affect the accuracy over such a huge distance. 

Size of charge, are they all exactly the same, or have been increased/decreased accurately and correctly. 

Are the shells all exactly the same, imperfections etc. 

The temperature of the gun barrel which will increase as more shots are fired. 

The gun barrel rifling being degraded each time a shot is fired. 

Air temperature and humidity, also wind speed and direction. 

The fact that the ship is pitching and rolling, no matter how minutely. The ship also needs to remain exactly on station. 

I am sure there are more factors to consider, but as stated i’m no expert. 

Hope this helps.Gareth



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Yes, Gareth. All these things suggest that it is pretty futile to fire at a small target 20 miles away unless you have arranged to get reliable feedback about the fall of shot. If the people responsible for the Wolfe's action that day didn't do that, maybe they were incompetent.

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Was there any word about the effects of firing the 18 inch gun on the ship?


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2 hours ago, Bart150 said:

maybe they were incompetent.

Or maybe they were just doing their best, with the resources they had available. to respond to a call for fire on a distant target.

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SMS Queen Elizabeth at Gallipoli fired Her 15 inch rifles over the peninsula and into Dardanelles Strait and 

with the help of forward artillery controllers in aeroplanes or on ships (not sure which), managed to sink at least 

a couple of  Ottoman ships! Excellent shooting.




Joe R

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This is a very technical subject and no doubt well beyond my pay grade

however, I have come across an interesting table and comments which are to be seen in



As well as comparing Full Charge and Half Reduced Charge at various ranges, comparison is also made with the fire of a British 15-inch Howitzer Mk.1

quote -


“In view of the results obtained in the German bombardment of the Antwerp forts, it is of interest to compare the above performance of a 15-in. naval gun with that of a 15-in. howitzer. From Table 1 it is seen that at 10,500 yds., the extreme range of the howitzer, the expectation of hitting on a 14-in. gun “broadside on" is only one-third to one-quarter, and on the "end on" target, two thirds, that of the naval 15-in. gun.

Furthermore, the accuracy of laying, which was possible in the usual weather conditions off the Gallipoli coast from a ship at anchor, does not materially differ from the extreme accuracy which is possible with a howitzer ashore.”


I hope that this is of interest



Edited by michaeldr
to correct Half to Reduced
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For those interested in the British 18 inch naval gun, there is a very detailed technical description of the 18 inch Mark I gun fitted to the GENERAL WOLFE and the LORD CLYDE written by N. J. M. Campbell in WARSHIP, Volume 3, pp.196-99. (Conway, 1979).  

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Thanks, Malcolm. I don’t have access to that article. Does it explain the thing which is puzzling me?

How come the shells of the 18-inch gun contained relatively little explosive?

18-inch gun: Shell weight 3,320 pounds (1,510 kg) and Filling weight 243 pounds (110 kg)

15-inch gun on the battleships: Shell weight 1,938 pounds (879 kg) and Filling weight 490 pounds (222 kg)

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Thanks for the table, Michael. As I understand it, this table summarises the results of shots that were actually fired at Gallipoli. The table contains about 40 results, each one for a different combination of the five factors: type of gun, range, full or reduced charge, size of target, position of target.


At the end, it is said that the table presents results in a situation of ‘perfect conditions and perfect spotting’. I think I understand ‘perfect conditions’ but what does ‘perfect spotting’ mean? Does it mean that feedback was received such as ‘that shot was exactly two feet short’, ‘the next one was the perfect range but exactly three feet to the left’, ‘that next one was exactly one foot short and exactly one foot to the right’? If so, I’d be surprised if that degree of perfection was possible in practice.


A more boring point: Each of the 40 result figures in the table is the percentage of hits achieved reckoned to one or even two decimal places. This implies that the whole table is summarising the results of many many thousands of shots and that even the least common combination out of the 40 had hundreds of shots. Even so, it would still be relevant to know how many shots were fired for each combination. That information might help in understanding how significant some of the apparent anomalies are.


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1 hour ago, Bart150 said:

what does ‘perfect spotting’ mean?


When weather and enemy action allowed, spotting for the navy at the Dardanelles was carried out either by aircraft or by a tethered balloon rising from a ship. Later, when the land campaign was under way, then naval officers established observation posts on land eg on Kiretch Tepe Sirt during the occupation of Suvla.

Where aerial observation was not possible [eg 25th February 1915 bombardment of the outer forts] observation was provided by a second ship in the squadron with an aspect at right angles to the line of fire.


Regarding that action on 25th February 1915 some further quotes from Mitchell are perhaps worth adding here


"Queen Elizabeth: Long-range bombardment, thirty-one 15-in. three quarter charges.

Inflexible: Long-range bombardment, nine 12-in. three-quarter charges. … …"


"...taking into account the aspect of the target, Queen Elizabeth might have expected, under the best conditions, about 2½ per cent, of hits, and Irresistible 2¼ per cent. Actually, each of these ships knocked out two guns, and thus were lucky in obtaining even more than their proper percentage of hits, their firing in each case being described as very accurate. … …"


"On the whole, this bombardment clearly demonstrated the power of the ships anchored at about 12,000 yds. to destroy the Turkish guns, provided good observation at right-angles to the range was available, as in the case of Nos. 1 and 4 Forts."


One last interesting point in reference to the stability of the platform:

the bombardment which recommenced on 25th February 1915, did so after several days of bad weather. Even so, the sea was still too rough to allow an aircraft to take off from the water for spotting. Nevertheless the results of this bombardment seem to have been above average.



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The 490 lbs. figure is for the propellant (filling) charge, and not the bursting charge.  Bursting charges for APC and CPC shells would be smaller than their HE equivalents.  The subject is further complicated by variations in the explosive used in the charge.  Campbell quotes a figure of 243 lbs. of black powder for the 18 ins. CPC burster, and 119 lbs. of lyddite for the 18 ins. APC  burster.  Finally, no 18 ins. HE shells were delivered in time for war use, although I think they were in production.

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Malcolm, I can see that it's complicated. Is it possible to make any simple statement at all about the explosive force of one of Wolfe's 18-inch shells relative to a 15-inch shell of a battleship? Was it more? Or Less? By how much, roughly?

Anybody know?

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5 minutes ago, Bart150 said:

Is it possible to make any simple statement at all about the explosive force

From the link above the comparative data for CPC shells (not HE) are:-


18" - used a super-charge propellant of 690lbs - the shell was 3320 lbs of which 243 lbs was burting charge (=7.3%)

15" - used a super-charge propellant of 490 lbs - the shell was 1920lbs of which 129.3 lbs was bursting charge (=6.7%)


I cannot state how these figures convert to "explosive force".(whatever that means).

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Thanks Horatio, I see that the shell of the 18” gun had a bursting charge almost double that of the 15”: 243lbs v 129lbs.

I don’t know what the exact definition of ‘bursting charge’ is, but I presume that the greater a shell’s bursting charge is the bigger the explosion it can make and the more damage it is likely to do.


I’ve noticed that ‘TNT equivalent’ is widely used as a unit for stating the degree of energy released in an explosion, and so for comparing shells and explosions with each other.

The link you provided says that the shell of the 15” gun had a bursting charge that consisted of TNT. So it had a TNT equivalent of 129lbs.

I can’t find anywhere what the bursting charge of the 18” gun consisted of. If it was TNT then its TNT equivalent was 243lbs, and the 243:129 ratio stands. If it was made of something else, then its TNT equivalent was, I suppose, something else, but – as a guess – maybe not hugely different.

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  • 2 years later...

Hi all,

I am trying to find out if these monitors, the General Wolfe in particular had RMA gunners? 



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Taking HMS QUEEN MARY as an example:  of her approx 1200 'ratings', nearly100 (8.3%) were RMA (42) and RMLI (56) gunners. That said, it is difficult to read across rthe "same proportions" to monitors with their very diffeerent mnain and secondary armament. The "same proportions" principle would give GENERAL WOLFE (complement c.200) only 7 x RMA gunners and 8 x RMLI gunners. However, if the RMA manned a single main armament turret in both ships we might expect GENERAL WOLFE to have a complement of 42 x RMA gunners, over 20% of her complement.

The lesson from all this supposition about RMA/RMLI manning is that to know the answer we would need to see the detailed Scheme of Complement for each ship.

The only other snippet I can add is that I have found zero RMA casualties in the losses of monitors M.15, M.21 M. 28 (HMS RAGLAN) and M.30 during WW1. RAGLAN lost 60% of her complement, including five RMLI.

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Thanks thats very detailed. The casualty figures are telling, It may be that due to the requirement of RMA ashore manning the monitors guns was too much to ask, maybe they manned 1 or 2 guns rather than being the norm 

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