- Contributed by
- People in story:
- 23rd Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, 60th, 89th, 100th Bty
- Location of story:
- UK and Africa
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 02 June 2005
THE 23rd FIELD REGIMENT, ROYAL ARTILLERY
60th. 89th 100th Bty.
3rd September 1939 to 8th May 1946
When the war broke out on 3rd September 1939 the 23rd Army Field Regiment was stationed in England, with RHQ and two Batteries at TOPSHAM Barracks, EXETER, and two Batteries at BRISTOL, having returned from India in 1935.
Immediately on the declaration, the Regiment was mobilised on a two-Battery basis at TOPSHAM, and very soon came under Command 3 Division. This formation was ready for war at the end of the month. Since then, the Regiment’s travels have taken them to places as far apart as ABBERVILLE in France, and ALGIERS, to TRIPOLI and TRIESTE. The number of countries served in is only equalled under the number of nationalities they have supported. Pole, American, French, Senegalese, Ghoums, Gurkhas, New Zealanders, South Africans and Canadians. But it’s exhaustive list is almost eclipsed by the number of different insignias that had been painted on the regimental transport — which reached an all time record in the first winter of the Italian campaign, when some trucks sported First, Fifth and Eight Army signs, until General LEESE saw them.
The various Divisions under which it has served will become apparent as the account proceeds, to list them initially would merely served to tax the powers of concentration of the reader unnecessarily.
The French Campaign with the British Embarkation Force
Having embarked at the end of September 1939, the Regiment was in France complete by mid March, and spent the first few months of the “Bitzkreig” appropriately enough, contentedly sitting in Northern France. Divorced finally from the fleshpots of LILLE, the Regiment left them and the 3rd Division, and joined the 51st (Highland) Division, with whom they moved into action between LAUNSVELT and HALSTROFF, 15 kilometres in front of the MAGINOT LINE. This was on 28th April 1940 — the first action of the war. On 5th May, themselves getting an unpleasantly forward grandstand view of things. For a week the position was constantly shelled and strafed, necessitating a withdrawal on the 12 May to VECKERING which was in the Maginot Line itself, but by this time the fortress of Maginot Line was valueless. The 5th German Panzer Corps had broken through further to the north and the “Battle of the Bulge” was rapidly becoming the race for DUNKIRK.
Then began the nightmare march back to the coast, which the Regiment did, leapfrogging, troops, and fighting continuous rearguard actions. The number of casualties grew serious, but reinforcements never succeeded in contacting the Regiment. A determined attempt to stop the rout was made at ABBEVILLE where the first British Tanks that had been sent went into action — the gallant 10th Lancers were wiped out completely.
By the night of 9th June, 51st division reached St. Valery. The Brigade Group, consisting of the 1st and 5th Battalions Gordon Highlanders; 2nd Bn. Seaforth Highlanders; 4th Bn. Black Watch, and the 23rd in support, were ordered to deploy a rearguard six miles from the coast to protect the evacuation by sea of the rest of the Division. This position was held against vicious and repeated attacks until the night of the 11th June. At midnight the situation was such that 60/100 Battery was ordered to take up positions in an Anti-Tank role on the main road. An hour afterwards these positions became untenable owing to infiltrations by the enemy tanks and infantry. 89/90 Bty. who were still deployed in a field role, were ordered to give covering D.Fs while 60/100 Bty destroyed their guns. This they did at 1300 hrs, and were followed by 89/90 Bty soon afterwards.
Lieut.Colonel GARRETT, Commanding Officer, formed up the Regiment and marched back to St. Valery; not that this was a pleasant rendezvous as part of the town was in flames, it was under heavy shellfire, and was bombed from drawn onwards with Nordic regularity. As they approached the square, a Staff Officer gave the CO the news that the last boat had left the beach.
The CO immediately gathered the Regiment round him in the square and explained the position. If they could hold out in the town until nightfall, ships might arrive for them. It was up to every one to protect himself and his line of retreat, but he could promise nothing, for the town was menaced on both flanks. To implement these orders perimeter defences were dug and manned by the heterogeneous collection of French troops, the Divisional Infantry, and the gunners.
At 0900 hrs 12 June all personnel were recalled into the town. The only hope had gone — the Germans coming up from CALAIS, were on the beach behind them, and the town was encircled. Further resistance was pointless.
The remnants of the Regiment formed up with the rest of the division, and with the Colonel still leading them marched into enemy hands.
When the evacuation of Dunkirk has finished and the General Staff took tally to find how many men had returned to defend England, they found only one officer, Capt. J C BARTON, RA and about ten other ranks of the 23rd Field Regiment. To this small nucleus, other ex BEF personnel and reservists were added until there were sufficient trained men to undertake the building and training of the new 23rd. The task of doing this was given to Lieut. Colonel R F L Bush, RA, who remained with them until March 1941. By then, overcoming the shortness of instructions and even worse, lack of material and equipment, the Regiment had become once more a coherent body, consisting of three Batteries — 60; 89-90; 100.
Thus when Lieut. Colonel J. BARRON MC, RA took over, the growing pains of the Regiment were over even to the extent of having their French 75s removed and having them replaced by 18/25 pounders. Training as a Regiment ensured under command 48 division, stationed then in Devon. Training so thorough that the fame of Colonel BARRON spread far and wide and many young officers came to regard Dartmoor Drill Orders as a personal cross to bear. All the moors, ‘moods,’ and even blacker moods, at times of the people on them, were soon well known — almost as well known as MERIVALE and OKEHAMPTON ranges themselves. Though in this later connection, there are still officers in the Regiment who swear that even if the bogs on Dartmoor have ever been charted properly, which is a matter open to considerable suspicion, they have been known to shift their position malevolently from one week to the next.
Yet the Regiment’s offensive spirit never wavered. Proof of it may still be seen in a partly demolished hut at Okehampton, enthusiastically engaged by a No. 1 whose ideas on safety were sketchy. But perhaps further instances may well sink into oblivion lest we offend the still tender susceptibilities of the people concerned.
During this time one officer, Capt. J F N BUCKINGHAM RA and about twenty men filtered back to the Regiment after various wanderings through Europe, after their escape from German POW camps. The ways were various, varying from MADRID to MOROCCO, although PORTUGAL and SWITZERLAND had been the best two bets. These having been absorbed, and most new men having been saved from the predatory demands for drafts for the Eighth Army in LIBYA, when Lieut. Colonel J R Phillips, RA took over command in late July 1942, the Regiment was ready for mobilisation once more. For this purpose they were put under command of a newly formed 2 AGRA and left 77 (Devon and Cornwall) Division who were low establishment, and as Dartmoor grew colder and wetter in November 1942 they did their last Drill Order and turned with pleasant anticipation to a fairly imminent move to the warmer climes of NORTH AFRICA.
The North African Campaign
Such delectable anticipations rapidly became bitter delusions. The first night on ALGERIAN soil was spent on the beach in the open with the rain pouring down. If they were prepared to accept this as a freak, subsequent days spent under canvas at BONE waiting for guns and vehicles to arrive gave them ample proof that DARTMOOR was by no means the wettest place on earth. To add to the disillusionment, the long series of night marches, which took them across ALGERIA and TUNIS to the front, equally convinced them that it was not the coldest.
On the night of 17th January 1943 the Regiment came into action near MEDJEZ-el-BAB for the first time in its second campaign of the war. The area was merely a gap between two infantry positions, and several times German patrols managed to infiltrate into the gun area and cause casualties. Apart from this, activity was confined to sorties by American and British infantry into the GOUBELLAT plain with Forward Observation Officers walking miles and seeing nothing. As such, it was a pleasant and easy transition from training to war.
The whole front flared up in February with ROMMEL trying to get the AFRICA CORPS back from the advancing EIGHTH ARMY and during this month the particular trials that an Army Field Regiment are prone to, became patently obvious. HQ 2 AGRA had been left behind in England and the Regiment was no-one’s property, being Army troops, although from time to time 1 AGRA got a fleeing glimpse of them. Even this was remarkable, since at one time during the month the Regiment was spread over 75 miles as the Air OP flew; and to get from 89 Bty HQ to 90 Bty by road meant a journey of 135 miles. Leaving 89 Bty in the North, 60 and 90 Bty originally moved South to PICHON in support of the French under whose command for a time they came. But by the 19th February 60 Bty was out with the American RCT in the plain of OUSSELLTIA and 90 Bty was deployed near THALA with the American 1st and British 6th Armoured Divisions.
Here they had the doubtful privilege of being the first Battery to have any real fighting, for it was at THALA that Rommel’s final offensive in N. Africa was launched. From the KASSERINE PASS towards TEBESSA, the First Army’s supply centre. Under Command 6 Armoured Division 90 Bty were part of the counter-attack force consisting of the LOTHIAN and BORDER HORSE: 2/5 Battalion Leicester, and the American 6th and 26th RCT.
On 20th February, after initial advances by our own troops, about twenty enemy tanks and a large force of infantry counter-attacked, supported by intense gunfire from hostile batteries deployed in the mouth of the KASSERINE PASS. By 18.30hrs, the LOTHIAN and BORDER Tanks had been overrun and their few remaining tanks were retreating through the guns; the Battery Commander Major T A G MORT RA and one FOO Captain J A CAPELL RA had been killed by direct hit on the OP. The forward infantry were retreating in disorder and the second FOO Captain E J MASTERTON RA was missing.
The Guns pulled out at dusk, with enemy tanks only a few hundred yards away round a bend in the road. RHQ joined by this time and the Battery was re-deployed in front of THALA by dawn the next morning, 1800 yards behind the Leicester’s position, with the Ops in the company areas.
That evening at 19.30hrs another strong attack was launched. Enemy tanks broke through the infantry and attacked the forward RHQ, the whole gun area being under intense machine gun and mortar fire. Just before dawn the remnants of the Leicester’s came back through the guns and warned them that the situation in front was hopeless. At 04.45 hrs, the OP Officer Lt AS BLAKE sent a message that the Germans were digging in beneath on the left of his OP and trying to talk to him on his OP line. This was the last message from him. You will remember THALA Ted, Lineman “BUNK” Harper was wounded and we helped to bring him in. (I understand that whilst he was in the First Aid Post he was wounded again while still on the stretcher. Didn’t see him again until after the war. The Battery however stayed in action all day protected by the surviving platoon of the 10th Bn the Rifle Brigade and was relieved at night by reinforcements which had been coming up all day.
Captain MASTERON, missing for three days, reported back to RHQ having tramped 60 miles through enemy lines.
During this action, 80 Battery in the North was changing command almost daily in supporting energetic GHOUM patrols far into the BARGON valley. “B” Troop 60 Battery had the vaguest operation order of the war from HQ US Artillery, and as a result found themselves in support of the 6th TIRAILLEURS Moroccans, who were holding a pass commanding 20 miles of front. Fortunately it was an ITALIAN force that attacked the position in daylight across the OUSSELTIA Plain. Two BERSAGLIERI Battalions provided a magnificent target. The attack was broken up without the use of small arms.
The Troop was down to 8 rounds per gun and the nearest supplies were about 15 miles away over the sketchiest roads imaginable, it was as well that a German force trying to work round the left flank was barbarously but efficiently dealt with by a GHOUM ambush. The 60 Bty joined “B” Troop the following day and for the rest of the month spent a quiet time culminating in a large experimental armoured sweep by an independent CHURCHILL BRIDGADE. This was so gentlemanly that the French contingent of high-ranking spectators at the OP brought a gramophone to relieve the tedium of waiting for the Tanks to deploy.
In mid-March, near ROBAT, the Regiment once more became a single unit, and even so far as to deploy in the Group area of 1 AGRA with whom practising Group targets with the French, the rest of March and the first fortnight of April slipped pleasantly away. On 18th April a column of strange buff coloured vehicles appeared and the regiment was pleased to be relieved by an EIGHTH ARMY Regiment — the first Army Artillery REGIMENT to be relieved.
The final heave in NORTH AFRICA was being prepared apace, and the REGIMENT moved North to a concentration area at SOUK-el-KHEMIS. Gun positions were prepared under the lee of LONGSTOP HILL, which it was sincerely hoped, would be clear of the enemy by the morning of D+1. This unfortunately was not so, and the second and third barrages for the final clearing of the stubbornly held feature, was fired observed from the gun position at a range of three thousand yards. LONGSTOP and DJEBEL RHAR fell and as 78 division moved into the hills to exploit their success the Regiment was put under command 1st Division for a series of bloody attacks leading up to the capture of the BOU AOUKUS feature. Zealous recce again put the guns about one thousand yards behind the forward infantry and for days whilst the 24th GUARDS BRIGADE inched forward, constant counter-attacks by TIGAR TANKS just the other side of the ridge from the Regimental area were beaten off by Group Targets observed from an OP one hundred yards in front of the guns.
With Longstop and the Bou finally in our hands the time was ripe for the breakthrough and having fired all night for the final attack for the Bou, the Regiment switched through 90 degrees to support the 9th Corp’s attack under Command 2 AGRA — this being the first time under the command of their parent formation in four months continuous action. Together with them they followed the advance uneventful to Capt. BON where the Regiments final position in N. Africa was occupied at KSAR-DJEMAADEJEOUR on 11 May 1943.
The second major campaign of the war was over and the Regiment’s detachment marched in the VICTORY PARADE at TUNIS.
The next four months were spent in re-equipping in various arid bivouac areas in Setif in ALGERIA with, as a diversion, a thousand-mile trip to TRIPOLI in case they were needed for SICILY. Having done the trip it was decided by higher authority that they were not!!
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