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Artillery pieces and combat vehicles

Artillery pieces and combat vehicles

12 min read

Few companies have had such a breadth as Bofors, but essentially it focused on developing artillery pieces and combat vehicles. They form an important part of the group’s history and are a technical heritage that lives on in today’s Saab, even if the product families are now found in other companies.

Bofors developed its first guns in the 1870s and 1880s in competition with Finspång ironworks. New blood and capital came into the company with Alfred Nobel, who brought with him technological investment and a greater knowledge of ballistics. The Swedish Navy was an important first customer that started to buy heavier artillery from Bofors, such as the 150 and 250 mm guns from 1889 and 1894.

One of the key employees was graduate engineer Arent Silfversparre, who was appointed manager of the gun workshop in 1885. He was a creative individual. The innovations from Bofors were significant in creating a market of its own. Two examples are the ogival screw breech mechanism and a new recoil control device from the early 1890s. They allowed quick-firing artillery to be produced and had a major impact on arms production throughout the world.

But on 24 February 1902 something occurred that should never have happened. A tragic firing accident brought an early end to Silfversparre’s life. He left behind him a wife and eight young children. Activities at Bofors were paralysed for a time.

Naval guns

The Swedish Navy built several new ships in the late 19th and early 20th century. Bofors and the Royal Swedish Naval Materiel Administration worked closely together and guns were ordered both for the old coastal defence ships Svea, Göta and Thule and for the new Dristigheten, Äran, Vasa and Tapperheten. Bofors was also commissioned for the coastal defence ships Sverige, Gustaf V and Drottning Victoria and designed new 280 mm guns with gun turrets, which severely tested the engineers.

1927 was an important year in which the Swedish fleet plan was accepted with a manufacturing programme that included four destroyers, an aircraft carrier, four patrol vessels and seven submarines. Bofors supplied equipment for all these vessels in the form of guns, armour, ammunition and torpedo air chambers.

The main armaments on the four destroyers Ehrensköld, Nordensköld, Klas Horn and Klas Uggla were 120 mm guns. Guns were also delivered to the mobile coastal artillery, including a completely new type of 150 mm gun ordered in 1937, 23 of which were delivered during the war.

In the 1930s Bofors and the Dutch shipyard Wilton-Fijenoord jointly produced 120 and 150 mm guns for the Dutch fleet. Bofors was also responsible for deliveries of illumination rounds. Naval guns also went to Finland, Romania and Poland in the interwar years.

Artillery pieces and combat vehicles
Bofors 10.5 cm W/40. The Swedish Navy ordered 29 copies. It was also exported to Argentina and Venezuela. The picture from the 1940s.

The threat from the air

The ever-increasing military importance of aviation led Bofors to manufacture anti-aircraft guns. Both the navy and the army needed to develop their defences against the new threat from the air. In the Swedish defence decision of 1925 the anti-aircraft issue was prioritised. The Royal Swedish Naval Materiel Administration started to involve Bofors in the naval anti-aircraft defence field, which was of great importance to the company.

The first project was the aircraft carrier Gotland, which was intended to take on various combat tasks. In the period from 1929 to 1933 Bofors delivered six 152 mm and four 75 mm anti-aircraft guns for the ship. Bofors also developed ammunition which was particularly suitable for firing on air targets.

The second project was the development of a special anti-aircraft weapon, which was to become the famous 40 mm anti-aircraft gun.

Field artillery

Bofors had a certain bias towards naval artillery and did not take the same interest in field artillery. It took until 1910 before the first Bofors design made its appearance among Swedish field artillery. The army was then equipped with a 105 mm howitzer known as the m/10.

Artillery pieces and combat vehicles

It then essentially took until 1930 before the time came for the next Bofors gun in the army. This then involved the first modern anti-aircraft guns. During the 1930s the pace of development sped up and a series of different Bofors guns were brought into the Swedish army: anti-tank guns, light and heavy field guns, automatic anti-aircraft guns, heavy anti-aircraft guns and also Bofors guns in battle tanks and assault artillery vehicles.

Bofors had already had some major field artillery export successes by then.

International business

It was only in the 1920s that Bofors became an international defence industry to be reckoned with. One important reason for this was the Treaty of Versailles and cooperation with the German company Krupp. Due to the peace treaty, Germany was not permitted to produce weapons and Bofors therefore offered to take over the orders that were already held by the German company. This mainly involved a large order for naval guns from the Royal Netherlands Navy and field guns for the Dutch colonies.

Engineers from Krupp provided drawings and expertise and Bofors experienced a real technology leap. Mountain guns, which until then had not appeared in the company, became an important product. Bofors developed a prototype which was tested in Java under field conditions. The tests went well and in 1923 the Dutch ordered 30 mountain guns and 27,000 rounds of ammunition. In addition, the order also included ammunition carts, pack saddles, tool equipment and so on. It was Bofors’ first order for a complete system and attracted much international attention.

One amusing aspect of this was that in order to meet the order Bofors had to set up a saddler’s workshop, which continued in operation until the 1980s. The company also bought both donkeys and mules which were kept enclosed in an area near Karlskoga deanery. The place was then popularly known as the ‘Donkey Barn’ (Åsnaboda).

Bofors’ new mountain guns aroused the curiosity of several countries. In 1928 Turkey placed its first order for 184 mountain guns and 92,000 rounds of ammunition. A further order for 48 guns came in 1932. This showed that Bofors had become a company to be reckoned with.

It is therefore probably not a coincidence that it was at this time that a major transformation of the area around the ironworks took place. The offices were rebuilt, a new hotel was built and wonderful parks were created. A steady stream of foreign customers and delegations now came to exotic Karlskoga to talk business on the spot. China and Iran bought mountain guns, as did Switzerland.

Inventive engineers at Bofors continually found new improvements. An example of this was the 105 mm field gun, which initially came out in 1925. It had a new type of wheel suspension, suitable for towing behind vehicles instead of horses, and a V-shaped gun carriage which made it easier to set the gun up on uneven terrain. The wheel suspension was also put to civilian use in trucks and buses.

Important contribution to the countru during World War II

The outbreak of war in autumn 1939 brought Bofors to the centre of the Swedish government’s attention. A rapid upgrade of Sweden’s defences was required and the responsibility for this largely rested with Bofors. To start with the government requisitioned most of the 400 or so guns that were being manufactured for foreign customers.

Work went on day and night and deliveries to the Swedish Armed Forces reached unprecedented levels. A total of around 5,500 guns were supplied to the Swedish Army and around 750 guns to the Swedish Navy. This is equivalent to a tonnage of 40,000-60,000 tonnes, according to calculations by the Bofors historian Stig A. Fransson. It required around 15,000-20,000 trucks to transport these quantities.

This included the delivery of approximately 2,700 20 mm automatic anti-aircraft guns, 718 40 mm automatic anti-aircraft guns, around 300 7.5 mm anti-aircraft guns, 491 37 mm anti-tank guns and 438 37 mm armoured vehicle guns.

Artillery pieces and combat vehicles
Bofors had a long history of marine artillery. Here is a 12 cm marine cannon. Bofors AB archives.

Major order from the Dutch fleet After World War II

Bofors received another major order from the Dutch fleet. The Dutch fleet had been virtually wiped out during the war. Bofors then received an order for almost all the heavy weaponry. It is possible that the earlier order in the 1920s also set the stage for the second one.

The commitment extended over more than 13 years, and during much of that period Bofors had its own staff living in the Netherlands. The assignment also involved the development of three new weapons systems: a 57 mm twin-turret automatic anti-aircraft gun, an anti-submarine system and a 103 mm illumination rocket system.

The anti-submarine system was later sold to a number of other countries, including Sweden. The idea was based on equipping a depth charge with a booster rocket. Over time Bofors developed a hydro-acoustic proximity fuse. As soon as the rocket was close enough to the submarine for the proximity fuse to detect the ship’s echo, the explosive charge was initiated.

The total financial scope of the project amounted to approximately SEK 120 million in today’s money and was then the company’s largest ever project.

Combat vehicles – a new area

After World War II Bofors also moved into a completely new product area – that of combat vehicles. As early as summer 1931 Bofors engineers had developed a prototype for an armoured vehicle, m/31. But only one example of the vehicle was produced.

In 1947 work started on a conceptual study for tracked artillery pieces. This came about because air defence and field artillery could now be successfully combined in one weapon. In addition, Bofors had experience of naval guns which proved to be useful in this connection – they could also handle larger ammunition in a confined space.

After a while an enquiry came in from the Royal Swedish Army Materiel Administration (KAF) as to whether Bofors could help in the development of a new Swedish battle tank. Sweden had actually considered buying the British Centurion tank, but deliveries would take too long. Under strict confidence Bofors developed drawings of the turret, gun and ammunition. Landsverk was commissioned to manufacture the chassis at the same time.

Conditions changed in 1953 when KAF signed a contract for the British Centurion after all. Thoughts now turned instead to the development of a lighter Swedish combat vehicle. The existing project was scrapped and a new study group came forward with a new proposal in 1957: the S-Tank. Sven Berge was the man behind the idea, the office manager at KAF.

The idea behind the S-tank was to create a battle tank with a small target surface, since it had no turret, and the gun was placed on the chassis instead. The tank was also equipped with a protective mesh at the front. It was necessary to turn the entire vehicle sideways to aim the gun and the entire vehicle had to be raised or lowered using hydraulics to change the gun height. It was therefore not possible to fire on the move, but this disadvantage was outweighed by the light weight and relatively limited size of the tank.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s Bofors developed prototypes with satisfactory results. In 1964 a new assembly workshop for battle tanks was built in the ironworks area and in the summer Bofors received a record order from KAF for 290 S-tanks. The contract was worth SEK 500 million, at that date the largest in the company’s history.

Deliveries took place between 1967 and 1971. In the army the vehicle went under the name of Battle tank 103 (Stridsvagn 103). The tank was only taken out of service in 1997.

Experience from the development of the S-tank was also of benefit to civilian products and Bofors developed its own tracked bulldozer and a straddle carrier. There were, however, various difficulties in the market and the competition was fierce. The company therefore decided to wind up this side of the business in 1969.

Field howitzer 77 and the Bofors scandal

After World War II Sweden procured a number of French artillery pieces – the 155 mm howitzer F. Due to the Swedish climate, cracks formed in the gun carriages, and in the late 1960s Bofors was commissioned to develop a new gun for the armed forces. The gun was a 155 mm howitzer given the name Howitzer 77 or FH 77 (Haubits 77). The sight was developed in collaboration with Philips in Järfälla.

A modified version, known as the 77B, was developed for the export market. The model was sold to India in the 1980s, a deal that was later widely publicised and led to what is known as the Bofors scandal. Revelations on Swedish Radio alleged that bribes had been paid in connection with the large order. The allegations could not be substantiated by the audit carried out by the Swedish National Audit Office nor by the prosecutor. Nor was the parliamentary committee appointed in India able to present any evidence that bribes had been involved. But the scandal brought an end to any new orders from India for a long time and the Bofors scandal remained in the public consciousness.

The gun workshop’s legacy

Today the legacy of the Bofors gun workshop lives on in different companies. The parts involving guns, artillery ammunition and combat vehicles live on in the British company BAE Systems Bofors, which is one of the Saab’s neighbours on the traditional ironworks site. Hägglunds, which also developed Combat vehicle 90, (Stridsfordon 90), with Bofors in the 1990s, also forms part of BAE Systems.