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Remembered Today:

Did shells really whistle?


TinHat
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I was just looking at some film on youtube, versions of All Quiet on the Western Front.  The artillery shells whistling as they approached impact struck me as weird.  Unless a whistle was deliberately attached, they wouldn't whistle.  I'm aware that air dropped bombs got whistles, on the German side, at least, in WWII.   But back in WWI, surely that had not been invented? 

Anyone have definite evidence of this, one way or the other?

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The ref given by michaeldr would seem to be saying that (assuming these are big and slow) they would have rumbled.  And if fast, then cracked, but I guess that WWI shells were not "fast".  But the idea of them whistling does seem to be crushed by that seemingly well-informed and detailed ref.   (Assuming that it's not Cliffy from Cheers.)

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They do....having spent many a day with artillery shells going over ones head I can confirm they do whistle. 

 

Edited by ianjonesncl
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Hi ianjonesncl,  Then does this sound right (making correction for what you reckon would be the different speed, size of WWI shells)?

   

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it was said in both wars, that you could tell what shell was coming over by the sound it made

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As an aside, I remember Peter Jackson in his talk after the showing of 'They shall not grow old' describing how they got the artillery sound track. They recorded the New Zealand artillery by putting devices at gun, point of impact and various places on the way, they then put the recordings in the appropriate place in the film. I don't remember any whistling but if modern day guns and their ammunition behave differently to WW1 type is there an issue of authenticity for the film?

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German soldiers sometimes described artillery shells (and bullets) as whistling, although I'm not sure if that was just poetic licence as many of them used music metaphors to describe the sounds of war.

Edited by knittinganddeath
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It’s the air displaced by the shells driving band (that engaged with the rifling) as it rotates during passage through the air, that causes the peculiar whistling.

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Did I read somewhere that large shells passing overhead sounded like express trains?

Peter

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This is an interesting article from amtrac.org regarding the whistling of shells In Vietman...

'When the North Vietnamese fired their artillery, you could hear the guns go off. The sound was a very faint pop sound, so faint that if you were not tuned into it, you might wonder if you really heard it at all. Depending upon the weather which would affect the speed of sound, the pops were followed four to ten seconds later by exploding shells. The whistling sound that is made by incoming artillery shells is only heard when the round goes over your head. The whistle sounds that last two or three seconds, like the ones on old war movies are artillery shells you don't worry about too much, those shells would land hundreds of feet from you. The shells that would get you were the ones that whistled only for a fraction of a second before hitting the ground, but in that fraction of a second your mind would hear the whistle very clearly, measure the length of the sound, calculate how close to you it would land, and give you time to think about it. When the incoming shells didn't go over you, the sound of the explosion was quite different, if the explosion was close, it sounded like a loud "WHAM" like someone hitting a sheet of corrugated steel with something heavy. The sound became less "wham like" and more sharp, like a heavy "CRACK" the further the explosion was from you. If the shells landed close to you, you heard a "THUD" as the shell impacted the ground. This was closely followed by the sudden outward movement of air and the sound wave of the explosion which followed it. Immediately following the sound wave you would hear strange little noises overhead as the pieces of shrapnel tumbled and flew through the air. These are sounds that you never forget.'

.......also a little know fact is that if you stand behind an artillery piece when it fires the shell is visible for a short time :) 

This footage is an excellent example of what it is like to be on the receiving end... 

A little of topic but I hope of interest.

Gunner 87

 

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For a front line soldier who also had good descriptive powers, you should read the letters of John Monash written to his wife. See the letter of 16th May 1915 where he describes the sounds of the battlefield.
After describing the sounds of bullets fired from various guns he turns to artillery
“...shrapnel sounds like a gust of wind in a wintry gale, swishing through the air and ending in a loud bang and a cloud of smoke, when the shell bursts.”

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I've always been a bit confused by 'Whiz bangs'. Was the bang the explosion of the shell or the firing of the gun? I've always assumed the former case with high velocity artillery, like the case of supersonic weapons such as the V2 where the explosion was heard first and the sound of the rocket after.

Peter

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6 minutes ago, petwes said:

I've always been a bit confused by 'Whiz bangs'. Was the bang the explosion of the shell or the firing of the gun? I've always assumed the former case with high velocity artillery, like the case of supersonic weapons such as the V2 where the explosion was heard first and the sound of the rocket after.

Peter

Good early days thread on the forum here: 

"Is it Whizz-bang or Whiz-bang? - Other Great War Chat - The Great War (1914-1918) Forum" https://www.greatwarforum.org/topic/41440-is-it-whizz-bang-or-whiz-bang/#comment-343927

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As far as I remember, the whistling sound was made from the air collapsing back together behind the shell, the shell itself pushes through the air, deviding/ splitting the air so to speak, the air collapses back together at the rear

The same principle as jets and rockets, only their wings ( trailing edge) taper down to allow the air to flow smoothly back together 

 

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Generalizations are always a problem, so please accept the limitations of my comments.

Artillery used by armies in WW1 were mostly much lower velocity than artillery used today and much more of the artillery was "field guns" firing on relatively flat trajectories as opposed to howitzers. So ignoring mortar shells, artillery tended to be more audible in flight than modern artillery. These slower shells were more likely to whistle than modern artillery. One of the most common German guns was the 77mm field gun "LFK c96 n/A" and latter the upgraded version "LFK m16". These were known as the "Whiz-bang" due to the characteristic whistle of the shell as it flew past you.

Artillery ammunition in WW1 had a very high ratio of shrapnel to High Explosive projectiles. The shrapnel shell was filled with lead balls and had a pusher plate and a very small explosive charge to clear the balls ("bullets") out of the shell when the time fuse fired. If everything worked as designed, an area of ground would be raked by a cloud of bullets similiar in size to a pistol bullet and travelling at a similar speed to a pistol bullet at 25 to 50m. As the war progressed it became obvious a heavy steel cased shell holding a large quantity of high explosive and shattering into steel splinters was a more effective weapon than shrapnel. The problems included that it was much easier and cheaper to make shrapnel shells than HE. For practical purposes HE suitable for use i artillery shells was always in short supply throughout the war.

 

The point of this ramble is that artillery evolved after the Great War. Excepting tank and anti-tank guns (which do not engage in barrage fire and are typically very high velocity) howitzers replaced the low-velocity flat trajectory field guns. Artillery range increased dramatically and HE replaced shrapnel. This has changed both the sounds made by shells in flight and how readily audible they are. The "whiz" or "whistle" of WW1 field gun shells was a widely recognized characteristic of artillery fire during the war. And of course, no matter how disconcerting the sound, if you heard it, it had already gone passed you and you were safe from that shell. 

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14 hours ago, TinHat said:

Hi ianjonesncl,  Then does this sound right

I think it is a reasonable depiction. My recollection was that the whistle was not that high pitched, though they would be passing at a greater height.

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13 hours ago, petwes said:

Did I read somewhere that large shells passing overhead sounded like express trains?

If it is close to you

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13 hours ago, petwes said:

explosion was heard first and the sound of the rocket after

That happens with artillery rounds. You see explosion then hear the sound.

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Looking at the mainstay German 15 cm sFH 13 heavy howitzer, the maximum muzzle velocity of 365 m/s was just over the speed of sound but a few km down range it would have become sub-sonic and therefore the sound it was making would arrive before it exploded. After leaving the muzzle, the spin rate would have been about 8,000 rpm and I assume the noise heard would have been caused by the rotating, grooved copper drive band interacting with the air flow.

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This discussion is getting admirably technical but still remains a series of informed guesses.  I was wondering if any TV programs had fired any WWI artillery to find out what happened?  Or perhaps there are no surviving examples that work or that anyone wants to risk?  (Presumably a copy could be made but only a TV company could afford it.)  Just an idea. 

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This is one I saw recently.  It may not answer your question though. It was a short range. Firing a minenwerfer... Fast forward to 6 minutes. 

 

Edited by depaor01
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29 minutes ago, TinHat said:

still remains a series of informed guesses

..based on direct observation, if one has sat in an op as foo as some like Ian have.

But subjective as the 1917 intelligence lecture I linked above reminds us.

 

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2 hours ago, TinHat said:

This discussion is getting admirably technical

One for the technicians.... the sound of a 100 lb (45.4kg) 6 inch gun shell flying through the air in the First World War would sound the same as a modern 43.5 kg 155mm shell flying through the air ? 

Certainly the balistics of possible lengths, weights etc would give some differences, but would not be discernible ?

 

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