British WWII field artillery

Supporting 'Our Boys': How The Royal Artillery Became A WWII Battle-Winner

British WWII field artillery

Often the infantry are the focus when looking at Britain's Second World War effort. Now, with the release of his book 'Gunfire! British Artillery in World War II', Swedish author Stig H Moberg focuses on those who gave them vital support. He tells Forces Network about the learning curve faced during the war by British gunners and the industry that supplied them...

Britain went ill-prepared to war in 1939, but a decisive rearmament had started in 1938. 

As far as the artillery was concerned it would take five years to complete what was needed in terms of new equipment and additional formations and training, to meet the needs that Germany and other enemies had made obvious.

First, the Royal Artillery modernised a large number of vintage guns from the Great War - but around 60% were lost in France when the Phoney War became 'hot' in May 1940.

At that time British industry, now on a war-footing, had begun to manufacture a new light gun which, after endless discussions in the inter-war period, eventually had got its final specification - the QF (Quick Firing) 25-pounder Mark II gun (see top). Many ordnance factories and private industries had by 1943 manufactured around 10,000 of these weapons. (This figure is for complete guns - in fact as many as 12,500 barrels were manufactured). 

The situation was worse with medium and heavy guns - only vintage versions were available. Modern guns did not exist, even on the drawing board.

Through a crash programme, the new BL 4.5-inch and BL 5.5-inch guns could, by late 1941, be supplied to medium regiments and they saw battle in North Africa for the first time in 1942.

No modern heavy guns were manufactured. Heavy regiments had to use modernised howitzers and, late in the war, American guns.

During the second half of the war, a large number of self-propelled guns were supplied to support armoured divisions. The versatile 'Priest', with an American 105 mm howitzer, dominated until the invasion of Normandy. Then the 'Sexton' followed, with its 25-pounder gun.

British artillery second world war
A British 25-pounder field gun - also visible is an Auster aircraft, used for fire observation (image: RAHT)

Gradual supply of new guns made the Royal Artillery a very strong resource by 1942/1943. But to understand what efficient, strong and tactically flexible artillery fire was really about, one has to look into what is called the 'indirect fire system'. 

Besides the guns, functions included surveying, ballistic calculations, battle intelligence (in particular target acquisition), wireless and telephone communication, fire observation, and logistic/administrative functions. All had to be well-coordinated and involving skilled gunners. These aspects of indirect fire were also modernised in order to make the Royal Artillery a master of the battlefield.

By 1943, the Royal Artillery could muster more than 200 field and medium regiments (battalions) with an average of 700 men per regiment.

We should, however, not forget that the Royal Artillery also organised a large number of anti-aircraft and anti-tank regiments as well as coastal artillery and artillery for merchant ships. So in total around 700,000 men and women were employed.

artillery second world war
Logistics was all important – shells being unloaded to provide a medium artillery gun with ammunition; the gun is a BL 5.5 inch medium artillery piece (image: RAHT)

In parallel with the rearmament and the actual fighting during the first years of the war, modernisation and development of necessary gunnery methods, battle techniques and tactical principles also took place. 

Two officers were instrumental in this process, which culminated in late 1941 and early 1942. Brigadier (later General) Sidney Kirkman introduced command and control procedures by which it became possible to concentrate all available artillery resources in a given operational or tactical situation irrespective of boundaries between formations.

Kirkman later became Montgomery's chief artillery adviser, just before the battle of El Alamein.

Another innovator was Brigadier (later Major General) Jack Parham.

He introduced methods by which a fire observation officer could call for fire from a few guns, a whole regiment (24 guns) or all the artillery of his division (72 guns), and even all the artillery in his corps (300-600 guns).

By these methods, he could bring down adequate fire in support of the infantry in 5-20 minutes.

By well-prepared defensive fire that could be released in minutes, strong enemy counterattacks could also be repelled.

British attacks were supported by hundreds of guns or more. Montgomery had around 900 guns at his disposal at the Third Battle of El Alamein in October 1942 and some 1,400 guns during some of the critical battles in Northwestern Europe. These could provide rolling or creeping barrages across a front of 4-5 kilometres, gradually knocking out enemy positions in depth, five kilometres or more from the start line.

The gunners had many 'tools' in their toolbox and creative planners and observers made the best use of them depending on the actual operational and tactical situations.

Besides various types of fire plan to support the infantry and armour in defence and attack, direct anti-tank fire or smoke to conceal own movements or to blind enemy anti-tank guns and fire observers were frequently implemented, as were nightly harassing fire plans.

British artillery Second World War
A Fire Observation Post (image: RAHT; painting by J.T. Kenney)

Anti-aircraft guns could also be used in ground roles, which happened often towards the last years of the war.

As well as the gunners and the guns, there were other important elements at play, as the British continued to optimise their artillery deployment: observation and logistical invention.

Divisional artillery had six observation parties per regiment that they used to help control fire. These men travelled in small Bren (gun) carriers or in tanks.

Light Auster aircraft, piloted by artillery officers, were used when observation deeper into the battlefield was required. (See picture above).

And Army cooperation (AC) squadrons from the RAF could also help to penetrate even deeper into enemy-held territory, taking photographs to locate artillery positions, tactical headquarters and so on - but also for fire observation.

Finally, a unique development by the Royal Artillery was the procedure for having self-propelled guns landing on the Normandy beaches during D-Day.

The landing itself was not the main innovation, rather, it was the ability of the gunners to fire their weapons at targets on shore whilst they were still approaching in quick moving landing craft. The procedure, worked out and tested in Scotland, was called 'run-in-shoots'.

Second World War
Example of self-propelled guns doing run-in-shoots from landing craft on D-Day – the Priest SP gun is obscured by smoke from the shell it has just fired but men behind can be seen loading shells (image: RAHT)

Artillery alone, though, could not win the war, not even battles. Joint planning and joint battle execution, together with supported arms, were a pre-requisite for success as was all-arms training. If, as happened sometimes, such close cooperation failed, the consequences could be very serious. Fortunately, these failures occurred less as the war went on.

In fact, in my opinion, British artillery by the end of the war was state-of-the-art and became a real battle-winner. It was a thoroughly efficient arm, able to deliver concentrations of the heaviest fire in support of the infantry and armour, both day and night.

To learn more, read Stig H Moberg’s ‘Gunfire! British Artillery in World War II’. To receive free postage and packaging (within the UK) and 25 percent off the normal retail price, enter the code GFFN25 after typing in the billing address. (The code can also be quoted over the phone to the sales team at Pen and Sword who can be reached at 01226 734222).

All images courtesy of the Royal Artillery Historical Trust - RAHT

Cover image: A 25-pounder artillery gun being produced in a factory (image: RAHT; painting – Weir Ltd).

British Artillery

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