Tag Archives: royal artillery

War Graves desecrated in Benghazi

I’m absolutely appalled by the footage of armed men desecrating British war graves in Benghazi in Libya. Click here to watch.

Footage on the BBC website shows a large group of armed men – accompanied by what appears to be a reasonably professional film crew – smashing numerous CWGC grave stones. A man is then shown climbing a ladder to try and damage the cross of sacrifice that is present in all larger cemeteries. One gravestone is clearly seen to be engraved with a star of David, denoting that it is the grave of a Jewish serviceman. At no point does anybody seem to stop them, least of all the camera crew. The group act calmly and casually – this is not the work of a few idle youths.That it was filmed does suggest that it was organised. Of course the Libyan Government has condemed the attacks, but did they do enough to stop them? Will they do enough to stop them in future? I’m intrigued about who exactly the film crew were.

War graves in Libya have been pretty inaccessible for many years, since Colonel Gaddafi came to power. One Portsmouth man is buried in Beghazi – Bombardier Henry Herbert, aged 22 who was killed on 8 January 1942 serving with 51 Field Regiment of the Royal Artillery. The CWGC have confirmed that graves have been damaged, and will be carrying out a full survey soon.

Desecrating war graves is a particularly cowardly thing to do. Especially considering British servicemen have done a lot to help ordinary Libyans, both during the Second World War when the Eight Army fought to push back both the Italians and the Germans, and in the past year or so when NATO forces helped the overthrow Colonel Gaddafi. It is a cowardly thing to do, because the man buriede beneath the gravestone cannot fight back. And more important than that, a war grave is deserving of respect, no matter who is buried there. A person who died doing their duty deserves dignity and peace regardless of the uniform that they wore, or the mistakes of their political masters.

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Artillery in the Great War by Sanders Marble and Paul Strong

The First World War has often been described as an ‘Artillery War’. Particularly after the war on the western front descended into stalemate, all belligerents turned to heavier and heavier guns to try and break down their opponents.

The British Army in particular started the war in 1914 with its artillery configured for imperial policing – small, mobile guns that could follow behind infantry or cavalry easily. The French, with their offensive spirit, held to a similar approach. But by the end of the war, all sides were fielding huge cannons, some of which could only be moved by Railway.

Major attacks on the Somme and at Passchendale were heralded by huge artillery barrages, some of which, it was said, could be heard from London.The barrage before the Somme lasted for days. But was this massive firepower worth the loss of the element of surprise? It probably didnt take much for the German defenders to work out that a weeks artillery barrage would lead to a major offensive. In any case, the artillery rarely achieved what was hoped – to cut barbed wire and destroy enemy fortifications. In too many instances neither was achieved.

Not only did technology change, but theory too. At Le Cateau in 1914, British gunners were firing over open sights, much as their ancestors had done at Waterloo a hundred years earlier. Once trench warfare ensued, indirect fire became the norm, with more complex fire plans. A certain Major Alan Brooke is credited with creating the creeping barrage. The question of control was also raised. Should artillery barrages be controlled at Army, Corps or Division level? And at what level should artillery be commanded? This issue was all the more acute, considering that many General officers lacked the aptitude to use artillery to its potential.

Perhaps the greatest legacy of the use of artillery between 1914 and 1918 is the impact that it had on its use in the Second World War. At Alamein, and in Normandy, Montgomery prepared for every major set piece battle with a detailed, preliminary barrage. Between 1939 and 1945 the Royal Artillery was seen as perhaps the most crucial corps in the British Army, in breaking up attacks and wearing down the enemy. This use of firepower was all the more important, with Britain suffering acute manpower shortages, and fielding inferor small arms and tanks.

Artillery in the Great War is published by Pen and Sword

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Portsmouth’s Anti-Aircraft Gunners

QF 3.7 inch anti-aircraft guns in Hyde Park, L...

3.7 inch anti-aircraft guns in Hyde Park, London (Image via Wikipedia)

As Britain’s premier naval port, Portsmouth was naturally a prominent target for the Luftwaffe. Although major warships such as aircraft carriers and battleships rarely used the dockyard in wartime due to the fear of air attack, much work repairing smaller vessels still went on in the yard.

The Germans were well aware of the importance of Portsmouth. A folio of maps in Portsmouth Central Library’s Local History section shows that the Luftwaffe had identified targets all over Portsmouth – the Dockyard, the Power Station, Gunwharf, Vospers Shipyard in the Camber, Fratton Goods Yard, the Airport, the Airspeed Factory, the Gasometer, the military barracks at Hilsea, and Hilsea Railway Bridge. Across the water, HMS Dolphin at Gosport was also a target.

Clearly, such a large target needed considerable Anti-Aircraft Defences. The principal defence came in the form of the 57th (Wessex) Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment of the Royal Artillery. The 57th was a Territorial unit, made up mainly of men who had volunteered to be part-time soldiers before the war and had been mobilised upon the start of the war. 213 battery recruited from Portsmouth, 214 Battery from Southsea, 215 Battery from Gosport and Fareham, and 219 Battery from the Isle of Wight and Cosham.

There were a number of Anti-Aircraft Gun emplacements around Portsmouth. Recent features and letters in the news have pointed to both Gun and Rocket Batteries on Southsea Common. My Grandad can also remember the naval ships in harbour using their anti-aircraft guns too. Anti-Aircraft fire was not just about actually trying to attack aircraft, but also to try and put up such a volume of fire that the pilots were forced away from the target. It also boosted the morale of civilians, who were cheered to see that someone was attempting to hit back on their behalf.

But the most considerable defences seem to have been located around the outskirts of the ciy, in order to catch the attackers as they were either approaching or leaving the target area. As Bob Hunt’s Portsdown Tunnels shows, there were gun sites north of Fort Nelson at Monument Farm, south of Southwick, and near Crookhorn. It was felt at the time that the Luftwaffe was using the white chalkface of Portsdown Hill to guide its planes to the area, so basing flak guns over the reverse slopes would have given the gunners a fair chance of downing Dorniers and Heinkels.

There was also a considerable anti-aircraft emplacement at Sinah Warren on the very south-western tip of Hayling Island. The site at Sinah is particularly interesting. It was located on the edge of a decoy site. A number of sites were set up around the country, in order to lure the Luftwaffe away from bombing large urban centres such as Portsmouth. They achieved this by lighting dummy fires, and two bunkers for dummy fires can still be found on Farlington Marshes. The Langstone Harbour site was particularly succesful. After the massive bombing raid on Portsmouth on 10/11 January 1941, the next large raid on Portsmouth was largely foiled by the decoy site, and most of the German bombs fell harmlessly into Langstone Harbour.

Sadly, some of the anti-aircraft gunners at Sinah Warren paid the ultimate price for their closeness to the decoy site. Several bombs fell on the gun emplacement, killing five men. One man died of his wounds later. All were serving with 219 Battery, 57 Heavy AA Regiment:

Gunner James Bardoe, of Northfleet in Kent
Gunner James Collingbine, of Plaistow in London
Gunner Arthur Farmer, of Portsmouth
Gunner Reginald Knight, 21 and from Wymering
Gunner Leonard Ward, 22 and from Carisbrooke on the Isle of Wight
Gunner James Powell, 28 and from Middlesex (died on the 19th of wounds)

After the threat of air attack receded when the Germans turned on Russia, 57 HAA Regiment was drafted to serve overseas. After going to North Africa in 1942, the Regiment finished the war in Italy. There is a plaque at the Sinah Warren site commemorating the 6 gunners killed in April 1941, and there is an example of the kind of gun the Regiment would have used outside the D-Day Museum, complete with the unit’s ‘flaming Dornier’ emblem.

A total of 48 men were killed serving with 57 HAA Regiment during the war. They are buried in Britain, South Africa, Israel, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Crete and Italy.

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BQMS Stanley Thayer MM

Lance Bombardier Stanley Thayer, 27 and from Cosham, was serving with 5th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery of the Royal Artillery. 5 HAA Battery were part of 2 Heavy AA Regiment, and were based in Northern France as part of the British Expeditionary Force. They landed in France in November 1939.

As a 27 year old Lance-Bombardier in a regular Artillery unit in 1940, Thayer was almost certainly a pre-war regular soldier. During the German invasion of France and Belgium in the Spring of 1940, Lance Bombardier Thayer found himself facing an attack by German aircraft.

At 6am on Sunday May 11th, eleven Dornier 215 aircraft flew at a height of about 50 feet very near to the gun position at which the L/Bdr was stationed. The aircraft appeared to be about to attack the gun site since they were flying in line astern formation in the direction of the site. Although a burst of machine gun fire came from one of the planes, and he was standing quite unprotected by any form of emplacement, L/Bdr Thayer opened fire with his Bren Gun. The approach of the aircraft was turned away from the site, five planes flying to one side and six to the other. He engaged each plane as it appeared and one plane appeared to be hit a large number of times.

By his exemplary conduct and coolness in action, L/Bdr Thayer set a very fine example to the remainder of the section and saved the gun site.

Thayer’s Military Medal was announced in the London Gazette on 20 December 1940.

Thayer served on throughout the war, and at some point he was also mentioned in dispatches. In 1944 he was a Battery Quartermaster Sergeant with the 80th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Brigade. 80th HAA Brigade came directly under the command of 21st Army Group in the invasion of Europe.

BQMS Thayer died on 8 October 1944, at the age of 31, and is buried in Dieppe Canadian War Cemetery in France. He may have died of illness in hospital as Dieppe was some way behind the front line, or his anti-aircraft unit may have been stationed there.

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Lance Bombardier Edward Wait MM

Lance Bombardier Edward Wait, 25 and from Southsea, was serving with 444 Field Battery in 64 Field Regiment Royal Artillery, a London-based Territorial Army unit. The Regiment was part of the 56th (London Division) during the war in Italy in 1943. As an Observation Post Assistant to the Battery Commander, Wait had an important role in keeping communications flowing between the Observation Post, the Guns and the Infantry that the Battery was commanding. Frequently in the Second World War the Royal Artillery were called upon to provide support to Infantry attacks, and the Artillery Signals network often provided a link not only for the Gunners but other units too.

The Reccomendation for his Military Medal takes up the story:

On the night of 29 October 1943 444 Field Battery RA were supporting the 7th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry in the attack on the Tranzi feature 0492. Lance Bombardier Wait was performing the duties of O.P.A. to the Battery Commander’s party. In about the area 047916 the wireless set which was carried by a signaller got struck by a piece of shell which damaged the terminal wire and rendered the set unserviceable. At this particular moment, approximately 0230 hours, this set was the only means of communication to Brigade HQ as the Battalion set was disserviceable. To repair the wireless set was a delicate operation which entailed removing minute screws from the control panel. Lance Bombardier Wait worked coolly and patiently in the dark under heavy mortar and shelling and made good the repair in 15 minutes. The shelling was so intense that the Infantry were forced to take cover but Lance Bombardier Wait remained in the open with his set. Later on the set gave further trouble; infiltrating enemy made things very confused and Lance Bombardier Wait and one signaller got separated and lost touch with the rest of the party. He knew that the objective was a certain feature and through his determination to succeed at all costs he rejoined his Battery Commander on the feature at first light with his set through to the Battery. His complete disregard for personal safety was most noticeable, he is a young NCO and this was his first experience of an attack and his behaviour throughout was very fine indeed.

Lance Bombardier Wait’s Military Medal was announced in the London Gazette on 21 March 1944. He did not live to learn of the award, however. Wait was killed on 20 February 1944, during the amphibious assault in the Anzio Beachead. He is buried at Anzio War Cemetery.

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The British Army’s supporting arms in the Second World War

Sappers erecting a Bailey Bridge under fire over the River Rapido in Italy, May 1944

Sappers erecting a Bailey Bridge under fire over the River Rapido in Italy, May 1944

One thing that is really striking about my Portsmouth World War Two dead research is just how many soldiers were members of the various supporting arms, who maybe don’t get the credit that they deserve.

In Wellington’s day, the Army consisted in the main of Infantry and Cavalry, with Artillery in support. These three might be termed the ‘teeth’ arms, and due to their low-technology status they only required support in the field from services such as the Royal Engineers, the Commassariat and the Army Wagon Corps.

With the Industrial Revolution, and the increased mechanisation of warfare, the Army required many more men and services to support it in wartime. Winston Churchill might have scoffed the amount of cooks and bottle washers in the Eighth Army in the Desert, but it took a lot of manpower to keep hundreds of tanks running. Churchill simply divided the total strength of the Eighth Army by the amount of men in the ‘teeth arms’, and concluded that the remainder must be superfluous. An example of how out of touch Churchill could be regarding military matters. Warfare had advanced since Wellington’s day – the Generals of 1914-1918 had struggled getting to grips with technological change. A smaller proportion might have been ‘ront-line’ troops, but those that were better armed than their ancestors, and needed support arms to maintain them.

The Royal Artillery seems to have had a first class reputation during the Second World War, and was frequently one of the reasons that the British Army was able to fight battles without too heavy losses – particularly important given the dearth of replacements available by 1944. Many men served in the Royal Artillery, from the various Light, Medium and Heavy Field Regiments, Anti-Aircraft units, Searchlight Batteries and Coastal Artillery. They served in every theatre, as shown by the Gunner’s motto, Ubique – everywhere. Wherever the British Army fought, its guns went with it. Almost as many Portsmouth men died serving in the Artillery as did serving with the local Hampshire Regiment.

The Royal Engineers also gained a first class reputation for their sterling work in many theatres, from the Desert to the Jungle. There were a wide range of Sapper units – Field Companies and Regiments, Dock operating companies, General Construction units, Fortress Companies, Railway Companies, Advancied Field Companies and Assault units. They operated frequently under enemy fire, for example throwing up Bailey Bridges in remarkable time. Often they put down their tools and also fought as infantry, particulary at Arnhem Bridge. So far I have found at least 32 Portsmouth men who died serving with the Royal Engineers in the Second World War.

One innovation in the Second World War was the formation of REME, the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. This new Corps specialised in working on vehicles and machinery, and many men were transferred from other Corps upon its formation. 4 Portsmouth men died serving with REME.

The Royal Corps of Signals was another unit that went everywhere that the Army did. Maintaining communications was a vital part of warfare in the Second World War, in particular in the highly mobile fighting that frequently occured. At least 10 Portsmouth men died serving with the Royal Signals between 1939 and 1947.

Other Corps such as the Royal Army Service Corps, the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, the Royal Army Medical Corps, down to the Royal Army Medical Corps and the Royal Army Chaplains Department, along with the Gunners, Sappers, REME and Scaleybacks provided strong support to the Infantry and Armour. The men who died serving in these units are proof, if any is needed, that the Infantry Private or the Armoured Trooper needed the Gunner to lay down fire support, the Sapper to build his bridges, the REME to fix his engine or his rifle, the Signals to keep up communications, and the medics to treat him.

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Sergeant Louis Hogg

I’ve found an intriguing case in my research into Portsmouth’s 1939-1945 war dead.

Sergeant Louis Hogg, 24 and from Stamshaw, was serving with 59 Anti-Tank Regiment, Royal Artillery when he was killed in France on 10 July 1944. This was just after Operation Charnwood, the capture of Caen. He is buried in Banneville-la-Campagne War Cemetery, Normandy.

59 Anti-Tank Regiment, a Hampshire based Territorial Army unit, was attached to 43rd (Wessex) Division during the battle of Normandy in 1944. Its four batteries would have been dispersed throughout the Brigade to provide Anti-Tank defence against the German Tiger and Panther Tanks, which were proving so deadly to the Allies.

What intrigues me most of all are the details for Sergeant Hogg on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s website. His parents are described as Mr and Mrs LOADER.

How come a Sergeant Hogg’s parents were a Mr and Mrs Loader? It might not be militarily important, but as a historian with an interest in both family history and military history, and the social side of war, it would be interesting to know his story.

Anyone out there got any ideas?

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