Lake Macquarie History

1916 Schwerer Minenwerfer Gun - Speers Point Park

The weapon is a 250mm (10”) Schwerer (Heavy) Minenwerfer (literally: “Mine Thrower”), a large calibre weapon. It could fire projectiles with an explosive power that was much greater than artillery projectiles of the same calibre.

At the outset of World War I, 44 of these heavy Minenwerfer weapons were issued to German troops and being a well-kept secret, they came as a nasty surprise to the enemies of the German army.

photo:  minenwerfer gun at speers point park

The serial number of this weapon is 1480, and was recorded as being captured by the Australian 17th Infantry Battalion (5th Brigade, 2nd Australian Division) in the Warfusee, Framerville area in France, on 10th August 1918. This date ties in with the great Allied attack, commencing on 8th August 1918, which ultimately won the war. The 17th Battalion was indeed involved in the capture of Warfusee on the 8th, and of Framerville two days later. The villages (both in the Somme area of northern France) are about 10 kilometres apart, which gives some idea of the rapid advance being made.

The Minenwerfer was very heavy and cumbersome to handle and it took some 21 men to move it. It came equipped with special wheels that were removed when the mortar was emplaced in a pit or trench at least 1.5 metres deep, protecting the mortar and its crew.

The Minenwerfer at Speers Point didn’t have a trail or wheels when it was brought to Australia, as a war trophy, aboard the SS Booral in 1920. The Australian War Museum Committee, at a meeting in July 1919, decided a selection of small trophies and relics would go to the Australian War Museum (later the Australian War Memorial) and the remainder would be divided among the states according to guidelines to ensure fair distribution.

The eventual system of distribution chosen by all the states was according to the size of a town and its population: towns (other than the capital city) with a population above 10,000 were allocated two artillery pieces and two machine-guns; towns with a population between 3,000 and 10,000 were allocated an artillery piece; towns with a population between 300 and 3,000 were allocated a machine-gun.

The 17th Infantry Battalion, being a NSW Battalion, led to an application by Lake Macquarie Shire to the NSW State Trophies Committee in May 1920 for one big gun. In February 1926 the construction of a base for the Minenwerfer was completed and the gun was later installed at Lake Macquarie Park now known as Speers Point Park.

The 17th Battalion’s unit diary gives considerable detail of the actions, and lists quite a large number of German weapons and other items captured. Unfortunately, there is no specific mention of a heavy mortar, although a light one and several field guns are described. There is a published history of the unit: The Story of the Seventeenth Battalion A.I.F in the Great War 1914-1918 by KW Mackenzie, which also gives a vivid description of the fighting for the two villages, but fails to mention the capture of Minenwerfers.

Disadvantages of this weapon were that the range was short, therefore making it necessary to deploy in the frontlines, which made it vulnerable to all types of anti-battery fire. The muzzle velocity was quite low meaning that the speed of the projectiles was slow with a distinctive wobbling sound which made it possible to see and hear them coming, most of the time tumbling over and over high up in the air, which made it possible for those on the receiving end, a chance of avoiding them. Although the accuracy was not pinpoint, if the conditions were right, they could wreak terrible havoc.

Despite these disadvantages, it was produced in great numbers. It as a fearsome weapon, but also it made sense economically to employ this weapon. It was 10 times cheaper to manufacture than the 42 cm Big Berthas, and it was almost equal in effect. The ammunition was also cheaper, as it did not need any costly metal for the cartridge. Because of the low pressures in the mortars barrel, the casing of the mortar projectile could be made thinner, allowing for a bigger load of explosives. A grenade from a Minenwerfer thus contained some 47 kilos of TNT, which actually equals the explosive power contained in almost 250 7.7cm early type of HE/Shrapnel grenades.

References

  • 1918 ‘Australian Imperial Force unit war diaries, 1914-1918 War’ Australian War Memorial viewed 1 November 2018 https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/C1356706
  • Mackenzie, K. W 1946, The story of the seventeenth battalion A.I.F. in the great war, 1914-1918, Printed by Shipping Newspapers, Sydney
  • 1920 'LAKE MACQUARIE SHIRE.', Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners' Advocate (NSW : 1876 - 1954), 27 May, p. 3. , viewed 08 Nov 2018, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article138821280
  • 1926 'LAKE MACQUARIE SHIRE', Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners' Advocate (NSW : 1876 - 1954), 23 February, p. 5. , viewed 08 Nov 2018, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article137506071