Barrington's memories of the School of Artillery

 

Cleo

 

After some weeks at Young Officers’ Course at the School of Artillery at Larkhill, with all the practical training at Salisbury Plain, I saw on the order board that I was being posted to the School of Super Heavy Railway Artillery at Catterick in Yorkshire. Having trained at the Officer Cadet Training Unit (OCTU) on 13-pounder guns last used in the First World War and on 18-pounder field guns again of First World War vintage when I was in the T.A., I had no idea what “Railway Super Heavy” meant.

A tiresome and lonely journey by rail at 19 years of age and under war time conditions saw me ending up on the station at Catterick. On enquiry to the Rail Transport Officer (RTO) as to the location of the School of Super Heavy Railway Artillery, I was somewhat mystified to be informed he had never heard of it! Such was the chaotic state of affairs in this country at that time that I was beginning to wonder whether I myself was not the victim of some subversive movement!

However, this rather nice old RTO with First World War ribbons suggested I go to the Royal Corps of Signals Headquarters’ mess in Catterick where I would be given accommodation. After a week or so, I was joined by a distinguished Captain R.A. with First World War medals on his chest and Observer Wings. He too had been directed to join the school of Super Heavy Railway Artillery and no-one seemed any the wiser what this meant.

In the course of the next week we were conducted by a team of London N.E. Railway officials, led by a red hat Brigadier General R.A., to the railway sheds at Darlington. It was there that we were introduced to massive 84 ton guns which had last seen action on the Somme, together with guns which had been taken off warships in the interim period between the two world wars in accordance with several naval treaties decreeing that guns of such calibre were no longer to be employed. Allegedly, they had been destroyed but, in fact, were preserved, minus the gun sights and range tables, in mineral jelly in railway sheds,

In a matter of weeks we were joined by chaps from coastal batteries, mainly Territorials, who had been employed on coastal defence and, like ourselves, had no experience of these particular “railway guns”. Eventually, I found myself as a Second Lieutenant in command of “Cleo”, one of the first two 12 inch railway Howitzers, with orders to be ready with gun crews and Sappers (Royal Engineer locomotive crews) to make our way down to the Dover area - presumably to repel the threat, that was now becoming very real, of a German invasion. Needless to say, we still had no such things as range tables, no gun sights or the technical equipment required for firing such ordnance!

We were billeted under canvas on the moors outside Catterick. As Troop Commander, I was privileged to be housed in a bell tent (including a camp bed and basin which my father had sent).

 It took some time to travel down south. It was an arduous and prolonged journey, not least because the gun itself on its carriage weighed 85 tons and various bridges had to be reinforced before we could cross them! On route we stopped off at Immingham, near the mouth of the Humber, and we did fire some rounds. Indeed, these were very precious because there were not more than about 21 rounds of 12 inch ammunition suitable for this particular gun in the U.K. For this particular calibration exercise I found myself at the Dock tower at Grimsby taking part in spotting the fall of shot in the Humber estuary.

The gun members were not instructed to use earplugs but we were told how important it was to breathe out and relax the stomach muscles when the gun was fired. However, the evening newspaper for Immingham and Stalingborough did warn the citizens to leave their windows open the following morning. Indeed, our calibrating rounds smashed all the lamps and windows on Stalingborough railway station and several in the village.

The Duke of Kent (later killed flying with the RAF) visited us unexpectedly sometime between June and July and had breakfast in the mess railway coach. I was Orderly Officer of the day and turned out the guard to salute the car flying its pennant.

Eventually, in late August, we arrived at a little railway halt near Dover, at a village called Shepherdswell approx 12 miles from Dover. We shunted the gun into a siding and pushed it into a tunnel where we protected its position with barbed wire and First World War vintage Lewis guns (the troops themselves being armed with Ross Canadian rifles) while wondering what our fate would be.

In fact, from Shepherdswell we were to take the gun by rail closer to the Dover area. The air combat in S.E. England, particularly over Kent toward Canterbury and London, was critical at that time. The Battle of Britain was being fought out: parachutes were coming down quite frequently from the battles in the air and we did have German airmen in our guardroom on two occasions.

As already mentioned, this 85 ton gun “Cleo”, was one of two – its sister gun was called “Sheba”. Together they formed what was called the Fifth Super Heavy Battery.

The shell weighed a third of a ton. It had to be hoisted on the loading cradle and rammed into the breech. The breech block was then closed and the loaded gun elevated. There were sixteen men per gun and the whole crew was housed in a train comprising two carriages, one being the Officers’ Mess for the Battery Commander, the Command Post Officer and the two Gun Position Officers. The second carriage provided quarters for the two Warrant Officers plus cooking facilities. The other ranks were housed in bunks fitted into the old type wagons marked “40 hommes” or “8 chevaux” (relics of First World War days.)

 

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