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007 Bertha Krupp and birds falling to the earth

Bertha Krupp

Bertha Krupp

German guns bombard  Belgian fortresses

It is Sunday 9 August 1914. It is the seventh week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

The British Expeditionary Force arrives in France.

The French launch their plan XVII in Alsace-Lorraine, but soon have to give up the town of Mulhouse to the Germans.

War is declared to Austria-Hungary, first by France and later by Great Britain.

In Africa the British focus on the German colonies of Cameroon and Togo.

The Germans, however, conquer the town of Taveta in British East Africa.

The Russians go onto the attack in East Prussia.

Japan sides with the allies France, Great Britain and Russia.

The first German pilot, Oberleutnant Reinhold Jahnow, crashes near Malmedy and dies on the same day, followed two days later by his deputy, Oberleutnant Heinrich Koch.

During the Battle of Haelen it appears that the days of the cavalry are over: a German charge on horseback with drawn sabre would not stand a chance against Belgian machineguns.

But the fortifications around Liège crumble under the sledgehammer blows of Big Bertha, the howitser named after Bertha Krupp.

‘This is no artillery, these are no ordinary armaments. This is a giant, enormous and terrible, hunting across the plain in fury, crushing everything with his iron footsteps’. It is a German soldier who wrote this review of Big Bertha, the most famous monster of the Great War, that made her entrance near Liège. ‘A devastating and unknown hurricane rages roaring, hissing and shrieking through the air. The terrible blast tears roofs of houses, uproots hundred-year-old trees and makes birds fall to the earth.’

How would Bertha Krupp herself have felt that her name would not only be so disrespectfully associated with the terrible howitzer from the first days of the war? When in 1918 an even more awful gun began to blast the French capital, the frightened Parisians spoke of la grosse Bertha.

Pictures of her do not show a corpulent lady, so the ‘big’ did not really apply to her anyway. Funny in peculiar way to give pet names to the most formidable armaments.

Schlanke Emma (Skinny Emma) was the name of a 305 millimeter howitzer from the Czech Skoda factory of the Austrians. Little sister Skinny Emma came to assist Big Bertha in battering the fortresses of Namur. The gun with which the Germans bombarded Dunkerque in  France was called Langer Max (Long Max). And years later at the end of World War II the Americans baptized their first atom bomb – cynically – Little Boy.

The Germans had to dig out their Big Bertha pretty soon. Their hero Erich Ludendorff, who was a true hoodlum, had invaded the citadel of Liège just like that. However, this did not cause the fortifications of the town on the Meuse to fall yet. They were reputed to be the strongest of Europe. It had indeed been the Germans themselves who had urged Belgium to build them in the eighties of the 19th century. Berlin had anticipated that in case the French ever came to revenge the defeat of 1871, their route to Germany might well lead through the lowland around Liège.

There were twelve of them, built in a circle around Liège. Every two forts, constructed of concrete and iron and largely built underground, were about four kilometers apart. This circle of forts accommodated four hundred guns and three thousand soldiers. Ludendorff knew that field artillery could not destroy them. So he called in the help of Big Bertha, a 420 millimeter howitzer, twice as big as the heaviest gun of the Liège fortresses.

Big Bertha hurled its missile towards the enemy in a big bow. An 820 kilogram shell could easily land twelve kilometers away. Two Berthas had left the Krupp works in Essen on 10 August. It took twenty hours to get them off the train at Herbesthal station and put them together again. This was followed by a hellish journey by road when Daimler-Benz tractors pulled the two colossal mortars up to the forts.

From hot air balloons and church towers artillery observers passed on the co-ordinates to the men behind Big Bertha. The Fort de Pontisse, that had resisted the light artillery of the Germans for a few days, soon surrendered. Then in order to demolish the Fort de Loncin, 36 horses were needed to pull a Big Bertha straight across Liège.

General Gérard Leman, 63 years old, was in the Fort de Loncin. He knew that the hours of the system of fortifications were numbered, but he refused to capitulate. Big Bertha’s revenge was merciless. A chance hit landed exactly in the ammunition room of Loncin, which accordingly exploded from within. The cast iron gun turrets flew up to a hundred meters high in the air like fleas. They still lie where they landed upside down, macabre show-pieces of the impressive museum that the Fort de Loncin has turned into.

Hundreds of defenders disappeared under the rubble of Loncin. Also Leman was feared to have died. However, he managed to struggle out of the debris and lost consciousness in the moat around the fort. After he had come round, Leman told the Germans to put in writing that he had not surrendered as commanding officer of the forts. Out of respect a German officer gave Leman his sabre back.

Because of the display of power the commanding officers of the Fort de Hollogne and Fort de Flémalle were inclined to lower the flag. From his hospital bed Leman gave the order not to surrender any fort without being shelled. Belgians and Germans thereupon agreed to fire a couple of symbolic shells. On 16 August at half past nine in the morning Liège did not have a single fort left. With a four-day-delay an open road to Brussels finally lay ahead of the First Army of General Alexander von Kluck.

Liège had a first that was not to be envied, but later also Namur, Antwerp, Maubeuge, Verdun, Ypres and Oudenaarde got to know the incredible Big Bertha fire power. Nevertheless, in the course of the war they strategically did not make a difference to the Germans, however much they were dreaded by the enemy. Trenches were the true fortifications of the First World War. Big Bertha could deal with concrete and iron. Mud and barbed wire were a different story. The French would benefit a lot more from their much lighter field artillery, the 75 millimeter gun, or soixante-quinze. This is an example of gunnery whereby missiles are fired almost horizontally, whereas a howitzer like Big Bertha stood between a gun and a mortar. The word howitzer by the way is derived from Czech houfnice, meaning ‘sling’.


In 1811 the family business Krupp started with four workers. A century later 79,000 workers earned a living at Krupp Werke in Essen. Alfred Krupp, nicknamed Alfred the Great, or The Cannon King, had turned the company into a steel empire in the 19th century. Whoever worked for Krupp, was Alfred’s subject. The company’s constitution was called General-Regulativ. Duties of the employer were not included, neither were the rights of the employee. Penalties for arriving late for work, immoral behaviour or lack of work discipline, however, were meticulously described. Thus Krupp Werke could throw up shells, cannons and rails regular as clockwork.

In 1902 the empire falls to a sixteen-year-old girl, Bertha Krupp. Her father Friedrich, son of Alfred the Great, has got entangled in a sex scandal. The Italian press writes that he has assaulted small boys on the island of Capri. Some time later Friedrich Krupp dies. The official story says brain haemorrhage, but there are rumours that Friedrich Krupp has taken his own life.

It is important to start looking, without delay, for a good chap for Bertha, the eldest of two daughters. Kaiser Wilhelm II is personally going to look around. It will be the Prussian diplomat Gustav von Bohlen und Halbach, who is born in The Hague sixteen years before Bertha Krupp saw the light of day. By decree of the emperor he can place the name Krupp before his. Kaiser Wilhelm himself is also present at the wedding.

Krupp is Germany’s pride. On the eve of the First World War it is Germany’s biggest company, even though the turnover of the American enterprise US Steel is five times bigger. With an estimated value of 283 million marks Bertha is known by the bank as the wealthiest resident of the empire, the emperor himself occupying a fifth place.

In Germany Krupp practically has the monopoly as far as the production of heavy guns is concerned. Before the war it also conducts business beyond the borders. It is a bizarre detail that after the armistice Krupp is to receive a substantial sum of money from the rival British firm of Vickers. In 1902 the latter entered into a rental agreement  with Krupp for an ignition mechanism. After the war Vickers settles the account on the basis of the number of German losses as a result of allied artillery. In this way Krupp also made a lot of money on dead Germans.

With Vickers’ money and government support from the Weimar republic Gustav can soon start working on the rearmament of Germany again. In the Netherlands Krupp secretly builds bunkers for the production of submarines and in Sweden they work on perfecting new artillery. This is how Adolf Hitler is led to outline the rolemodel for Germany’s youth when he brags them to be ‘flink wie Windhunde, zäh wie Leder und hart wie Kruppstahl’: swift as greyhounds, tough as leather and hard as Krupps steel.


Bertha Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach, contrary to family tradition a happily married woman, got eight children. One son passed away shortly after he was born. Two others died in the Second World War and a fourth was kept prisoner for ten years by the Soviet Union. Her husband Gustav, the actual pilot of Krupp during the interbellum period, was accused of war crimes in 1945, but he proved to be too senile to stand trial. His eldest son Alfried could not escape that very fate. He was specifically accused of using prisoners from concentration camps as slaves. Not far from Auschwitz Krupp had a factory called Berthawerk. Alfried was convicted by the Nuremberg tribunal. He was released from prison in 1951. The company he had taken over from his father was expropriated after the Second World War.

Not only a monstrous mortar type of gun and a factory near an extermination camp were named after Bertha Krupp, but also a hospital carried her name. At the end of her life she must have moved many with visits to needy Krupp workers. She donated the ground on which a church was to be erected. Up to this day there are children in Essen who go to the Bertha-Krupp-Realschule at the Kerckhofstrasse. Bertha Krupp died in 1957 at the age of seventy-one.

In 2011 her granddaughter Diana Maria Friz wrote a biography presenting Bertha Krupp as a forceful personality. This granddaughter is convinced that Grossmutter remained in control, though her husband was the one who propagated the Krupp company to the outside world. ‘She stayed the central figure of her large family until her dying day. We grandchildren will remember her as a great lady, who linked composure and savoir vivre to motherhood and affection. She was closer to us than our parents, for the war, the collapse of the family business in 1945, widowhood and also old age had made her a gentler person, so that she could show us feelings she had never permitted herself to show her own children.’

Next week: Alexander Samsonov

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

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