Barrington's field regiment

 

The Field Regiment of Artillery

 

It was in March 1942 that I, together with Gunner Officers from artillery units throughout the UK chosen by what “lottery” I have no idea, found ourselves drafted to Gravesend, to a newly formed or rather, to be formed, Field Regiment of Artillery. Our party of Gunner Officers and sergeants took over the 12th Battalion the Worcestershire Regiment which had returned from duty in Iceland. The Worcester sergeants and officers remained with the Worcestershire Regiment and we commenced converting the Infantry Battalion to Gunners at Gravesend with improvisation certainly the watchword. We had no guns and no equipment. I well remember the first gun drill parade with a garden roller and a flag pole as a muzzle with paper dial sights and all the “ju-ju” of gunnery to be imparted by we mixed bag of Gunner Officers under the watchful eyes of our first C.O., Lieutenant-Colonel F.W. Vogel O.B.E. (later killed in a flying accident on his way to the Middle East) and a regular Warrant Officer Gunnery Instructor.

I was in charge of the “specialists” who would form Command Post personnel. They had to learn to use directors to lay the guns and the intricacies of surveying the gun positions in order to relate such positions to map references. We moved to Broadstairs where I well remember my role as a schoolmaster but, nevertheless, I too had to turn out on the beach for rigorous P.T. and for field training - we were all subject to the harsh fitness training required under the command of 5th Corps.

We moved to Margate and it was on the 27th March that we received our first 25-pounder guns. This was about the time of the victory at El Alemain in the Western Desert - the first Allied victory of the war. I recall it was in April when we had our first firing practice on the Shearness range (3 rounds per minute – a very high degree of training). I’m afraid things did not go very well and so it was that we retired to the Gun Park for more “dear old gun drill”. We spent time on all sorts of exercises throughout May until toward the end of June when we had our first Regimental firing camp at Lydd: Anti-Tank shooting where all went very well and was cause of great celebrations.

On 4th July, we received orders that the Regiment was to mobilise for overseas service as part of the 43rd (Wessex) Division, the famous ‘Wyverns’, and on the 17th July we went to Sennybridge Range near Brecon and fired our first rounds as part of 43rd Divisional Artillery.

While on leave in October 1941, I had become engaged to Pearl; we planned to marry in the coming August 1942. I was fortunate enough to get leave and we were married at St John’s Church, Maindee, Newport on 8th August 1942, a wonderful day despite the weather and the difficulty with obtaining films for photographs and Pearl’s difficulties with clothing coupons. We honeymooned at Ilfracombe, the weather not being very kind to us, and I always remember Pearl in a beautiful pink coat.

At the end of August 1942, Lieutenant-Colonel Vogel was to take an appointment as a Brigadier in North Africa and Lieutenant-Colonel Geoffrey Pethick assumed command, an officer of the Royal Horse Artillery and ex-GSO1 (General Staff Officer, grade 1) of 7th Armoured Division 8th Army in North Africa. The remaining months of the year were spent in training with the troops of the 43rd Division. When not on exercises we lived in a school in Ramsgate. The German FW190s were adept at shooting up Ramsgate and over-fond of chasing us up Shearness Range. We spent Christmas 1942 at Ramsgate and I experienced a very chilly Christmas Eve night at an OP on the cliff overlooking Pegwell Bay.

However, I was back with the Regiment for Christmas Day at Ramsgate and I remember the traditional serving of dinner to troops and rendering a ditty or two e.g. Eskimo Nell. My promotion to Captain came through and I was duly appointed Commander of F Troop 173 Battery, my fellow Troop Commander in command of E Troop being Val Baxter who had come to us from 4th Indian Division in N. Africa (8th Army) where he had won a Military Cross. Two troops E and F comprised 173 Battery commanded by Major Tom Brewis. I had seven days leave covering New Year’s Eve which needless to say was extremely enjoyable and Pearl and I found time passed much too quickly.

Returning to the Regiment, 1943 was an extremely hectic period commencing with anti-tank gun firing on the ranges at Lydd. This was very exciting over open sites but unfortunately the Regiment had one very nasty accident when a Sergeant went in front of his own gun to manoeuvre it extra quickly and lost his arm with the shell from it. Nevertheless, the Regiment distinguished itself by winning the anti-tank competition against the other two Regiments of the Division.

This Lydd training was followed almost immediately by the infamous exercise “Gallop” when the Divisional Artillery’s troops moved as a whole up the East Coast to Scotland then back down the West Coast firing at the artillery ranges on route despite awful weather. This took place in February with a foot of snow on the ground! We had a week in the open sleeping in slit trenches under what cover we could obtain and from there did a forced march, vehicles of course, as a Divisional Artillery across country back to Kent. This exercise proved the Divisional Artillery capable of rapid movement and manoeuvre and its vehicles able to stand up to such conditions. The Light Aid Detachment of REME (Royal Electrical Mechanical Engineers) attached to each Field Regiment proved its worth in keeping all the vehicles on the move with “make and mend” and, where necessary, with a tow.

1943 was a year spent on so many exercises consolidating our gains in training. Sports were rushed to the fore in an attempt to achieve a very high standard of physical fitness. The welfare side was put into full operation with the wives of officers meeting in London so that, in the event of our going into action overseas, they could arrange to have a rota of chaps in the Regiment such that, when any casualties occurred, correspondence and possible help could be offered.

On the political front, the news was always of the Russians’ demands for the Western Allies to open a second Front in Europe in order to force the Germans to remove Divisions from the Russian Front. We would not have been surprised had we been occupied by moving into a possible embarkation area at any time. However, the “exercise” of the Canadian forces at Dieppe in some strength proved the very many difficulties in landing a force on the North coast of France and the Canadians suffered very severe losses. The Russians were fighting a very strong campaign and the German losses sustained on the Eastern Front were severe.

Pearl did come down to the Regimental Headquarters’ Mess at Bexhill just before Christmas 1943 and we enjoyed a few days together when she met most of the Officers of the Regiment and my Batman, Gunner Price.

The New Year brought very strong rumours of the impending invasion of Europe and it was made clear that the role of the Division would be that of a “Breakout” Division from the bridgehead once established. I remember our Sgt Major, a regular soldier, being convinced that nothing would take place for us as a Regiment until our gun tractors were replaced - we had had them since 1942 and they had covered some mileage.

On 15th April 1944, we were ordered to put on our war paint. All the vehicles and guns were painted with camouflage paint and all the polished brass work, including the grease nipple points on the vehicles, were blackened over, the exhaust systems were waterproofed and engines were completely treated with a bostik material to render them waterproof. It became pretty obvious that we would soon be on our way.

It was at this time that I was sent for by the CRA (Commander Royal Artillery) Brigadier General Heath and told that I was to go on a parachute course with the role of Observation Officer for the heavy guns of the Royal Navy off the beachhead. I have to say that this did not appeal to me in the least and I had not long been at the training depot (where we were supposed to practise jumps from a long tall tower) when the Adjutant sent for me and told me that my posting had been cancelled. In the event the order from the CRA had not been with his personal knowledge but had emanated from Divisional Headquarters. I returned to 179 Field Regiment and a fellow officer Ken Wall took my place as Observation Officer. In the event poor Ken was parachuted in, dropped short and landed in the water, was taken prisoner by the Germans and spent the rest of the war in a POW camp.

 

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