Giant first world war gun on the move across southern England this week

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Giant first world war gun on the move across southern England this week

Britain's last surviving railway howitzer, completed too late for WWI, to make slow road journey to Hampshire artillery museum
(The last surviving 18in railway howitzer, built for the first world war, at Shoeburyness in 1959. Photograph: Royal Armouries)

A unique surviving giant, a stupendous 190-tonne gun which missed its date with destiny when it was completed too late for the first world war, will make a slow journey across southern England this week, ignominiously towed on a low loader even though it was built onto a railway truck to be transported by rail.

It is the largest surviving piece of British artillery, the only remaining British railway gun, and one of only 12 railway guns surviving in the world.

"There was some discussion of transporting it by rail, which would have been magnificent – but I don't think it was ever really viewed as a serious proposition," Nick Hall, the keeper of artillery at the Royal Armouries, said. He described securing its loan, from the Royal Artillery Historical Trust, as "a career-crowning moment".

It will be on display for four years, throughout the centenary of the war which it missed, at the Armouries' artillery museum, Fort Nelson in Hampshire .

Five of the 18in (45.7cm) howitzers, with monster breech-loading barrels weighing more than 80 tonnes, along with two railway truck mountings, were built in Newcastle but they weren't finished until 1918 as the war was ending. They were designed to be moved to mainland Europe, where they could be moved quickly by rail, and with a range of almost 13 miles they could be used to lob enormous shells at the German lines from well behind the western front.

One, nicknamed the Boche-Buster, first saw active service half a lifetime and another war later, when Winston Churchill was anxious to reinforce the defences of the port of Dover, and stationed it in Kent ready to fire shells into the Channel at any German invasion fleet. However, it never fired a shot in anger.

Four of the guns were chopped up for scrap metal after the second world war, but by then a new job had been found for the fifth, at the test firing ranges at Shoeburyness in Essex, where it was photographed being towed by a small steam loco in 1959. The loco also survives, and is still in use on the Isle of Wight steam railway.

Hall first saw the gun at Shoeburyness in 1990, and has coveted it ever since. When the Shoeburyness ranges closed, it moved to the Royal Artillery headquarters in Woolwich, and then again to the new base at Larkhill in Wiltshire, where he encountered it again decades later, at the far end of a car park in a remote corner of the base. The Territorial Army has already built a length of railway track on the parade ground at Fort Nelson to take the gun.

The gun finally reached the continent almost a century after it was built, on a short loan to the Dutch National Railway Museum in Utrecht, and will now return to Britain and travel to Fort Nelson by road and ferry.

It should provide an awe-inspiring spectacle for thousands of motorists – if bewildering to many – as it trundles under wide load escort along the busy roads from Harwich in Essex to the fort just north of Portsmouth on Thursday night and Friday morning.