- Contributed by
- John Benson
- People in story:
- 6oth Field Regiment, Royal Artillery
- Location of story:
- Lincolnshire - and elsewhere...
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 13 January 2005
A 25-pounder gun in action
The 60th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, was a Territorial Army unit. When war broke out there was one battery of 18-pounder guns at the depot in Augusta Street,Grimsby(number 239)and another battery (237) at the Old Barracks on Burton Road, Lincoln (now the Museum of Lincolnshire Life.) The officers and men were all part-time soldiers who gave up an hour or two of their time each week for training.
The men were mobilised on 1st September 1939, the day Hitler invaded Poland. The men ceased to be part-timers for almost the next seven years.
Territorial Army units were much less rigid than Regular Army regiments. Many of the men were friends before they joined. It was all a bit amateurish and informal, and it wasn't uncommon for men to call officers by their first names.
The two batteries of the 60th Field Regiment came together in October 1939 at Bordon in Hampshire and then on New Year's Day 1940 they left for France. They were based at Bois Grenier, a village near Armentieres which had been the scene of extensive action in WW1. In May they moved into Belgium when the Germans invaded. 237 battery went into action along the canal leading from Ypres to Comines, whilst 239 held Nieuport until they ran out of ammunition.
Most of the men from the regiment escaped from La Panne and Dunkirk and eventually came together on the South coast. For a time they only had rifles as their 18-pounders had been destroyed.
Despite the threat of invasion, the Lincolnshire Gunners left the UK in January 1941 for the Middle East. They arrived in Egypt in April, having travelled round the Cape.
The Gulf War
The lads from Lincolnshire went into action almost immediately. The pro-German prime Minister of Iraq had ousted the pro-British Regent and a small force of less than 2,000 men was assembled to go into Iraq. They were joined by 300 Bedouin tribesmen of Glubb Pasha's Arab Legion. Although the Iraqi army had been trained and equipped by the British they didn't have any tanks. There were two RAF bases in Iraq and although they only had an assortment of obsolete aircraft they took the offensive and bombed targets in Baghdad and elsewhere. Eight guns from 237 battery took part in the capture of Fallujah. After a time the Iraqis asked for an armistice. By a combination of tenacity, bluff and an immense amount of good luck the pathetically small British force had managed to emerge victorious,the pro-German Prime Minister fled and the pro-British Regent was restored.
Fighting the French
The Germans had sent aircraft to Iraq and the only way they could have done this was by using airfields in Syria. At that time Syria was in control of the Vichy French and was supposed to be neutral. So a week or two after their camnpaign in Iraq the Lincolnshire gunners were sent to Syria. No-one quite knew what to expect, as the French had been our allies. Indeed 60th Field Regiment - together with the rest of the British forces - had been under the supreme command of the French prior to Dunkirk. It was thought that the French would only offer token resistance, but this proved not to be the case. 237 battery found themselves at Palmyra, where they were under constant air attack. The British had no air cover and the few Bofors guns they possessed had been left behind. In intense heat the Lincolnshire lads dug in and shelled the "Beau Geste" French fort at Palmyra. Eventually the French asked for an armistice. They saw General de Gaulle and his Free French forces as traitors.
The 60th Field Regiment returned to Egypt where they were re-equipped with brand-new 25-pounder guns. Remarkably accurate, the 25-pounder could fire high-explosive shells in support of infantry or solid shot in an armour-piercing anti-tank role. After some weeks of preparation they took part in Operation Crusader. By November 1941 the British and Commonwealth forces in North Africa had at last got more men, tanks, guns and planes than the Germans and Italians. It was time to get rid of Rommel and his Panzers once and for all. The British plan was for the 600 tanks of the 7th Armoured Division (the famous "Desert Rats") to move into the Libyan desert, where, by sheer force of numbers, they would annihilate Rommels's panzers. The 60th Field Regiment was part of the 7th Support Group - artillery and a few infantry supporting the tanks.
Everything had been kept so secret that when the Desert Rats moved from Egypt into the Libyan desert the Germans knew little about it. In fact Rommel was pre-occupied in planning his own offensive to take the port of Tobruk the following Sunday. So as the Germans had inconveniently failed to turn up the British decided that one brigade of tanks would take on some Italians to the left, another would stay put whilst the third - the 7th Armoured Brigade would go forward with the Support Group to relieve the outpost at Tobruk which had been under siege for some months.
Whatever had happened to the plan, so carefully made over the last three months, to destroy Rommel's Panzers by sheer weight of numbers? Within 24 hours, the British were scattered all over the desert.
The Lincolnshire lads moved up with the 7th Support Group towards Tobruk. On Friday 21st November 1941 they were at a place called Sidi Rezegh, a few miles from Tobruk, shelling targets to the north in support of the 6th Royal Tank Regiment and a detachment from the 1st King's Royal Rifles when, suddenly, from the south, BOTH of Rommel's Panzer Divisions turned up. The guns were swung round to face this unexpected menace. The German tanks came on in waves. To the north, the 6th Royal Tanks were almost wiped out when Rommel brought up some 88mm guns. To the south the 2nd Royal Tanks were picked off by anti-tank guns of 15 Panzer, whilst the 7th Hussars were virtually annihilated by 21 Panzer.
The 7th Armoured Brigade had lost almost all of their tanks. All that was left were the guns of the Support Group and detachments of infantry from the King's Royal Rifles and the Rifle Brigade.
The action at Siidi Rezegh was later described as one of the bloodiest anti-tank battles of the war - and the lads from Lincolnshire were in the thick of it. The Germans withdrew overnight, and then resumed the attack the following afternoon, from the opposite direction. Once again the weary gunners manned their 25-pounders as wave after wave of German tanks came forward. 239 battery from Grimsby bore the full force of the German attack and Brigadier Jock Campbell - the officer commanding the Support Group - helped to lay the guns. He won the VC. At long last, the tanks from the other two British Armoured Brigades reached Sidi Rezegh, but the action was too confused for them to be effective. By dusk, the Germans had over-run the positions held by 239 battery and many men were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. 237 battery only just escaped the same fate. The Germans had almost over-run their positions when two British tanks appeared, hull-down, to give the Lincoln lads cover whilst they hastily hooked in their guns to their 3-litre trucks ("quads") and went pell-mell from the battlefield. "Go 3 miles towards the moon!" someone yelled.
The battle at Sidi Rezegh lasted three days. On the Sunday what was left of the 60th Field Regiment went into action again. A South African brigade had been brought up, but the Panzers moved south, by-passing them, in the morning and then in the afternoon attacked them to the north, slicing through them like a knife through butter. The whole brigade was destroyed in about two hours. The 6oth were to the north of the South Africans and came into action late in the afternoon. Once more they were in danger of being over-run, and the drivers of the quads slammed their boots on the accelerators and drove hell-for-leather wherever they could into the desert. It took a week before what was left of the 60th Field Regiment came together again. Only one gun was left from Grimsby's 239 battery, whilst nine of the Lincoln battery's twelve guns were still usable. Three-quarters of the 7th Armoured Division's tanks had been destroyed.
In the end Operation Crusader just fizzled out. Rommel made a brilliant attempt to turn the British attack into Libya into HIS attack into Egypt and only just failed. He was short of supplies as a result of the Royal Navy sinking his supply ships. When the 60th Field Regiment withdrew to Egypt in January 1942 to re-organise and to be given a belated Christmas dinner, their CO was asked to nominate the men who should receive medals. "They all deserve a medal" he said. As a result, nobody got one.
Against the Japanese
By this time, the Japanese were in the war, and in February 1942 the 60th left Egypt once again, this time bound for the Far East. They sailed for Rangoon, but the Japanese got there whilst they were aloat and the ship was diverted to Bombay. The Lincolnshire lads crossed India and spent a long time at Ranchi, not far from Calcutta. There was a bombshell. General Orde Wingate needed men for his second Chindit operation, and the highly-trained and experienced Lincolnshire gunners had to part with their 25-pounders to train as infantry - worse,guerillas - operating in the jungle behind the Japanese lines. Not only would they have the Japanese to contend with, but also the hazards of the jungle, with snakes, mosquitoes and leeches. They would be supplied entirely from the air.
The 60th Field Regiment became numbers 60 and 88 columns in Wingate's 23rd Brigade. They were the last two columns in the last of Wingate's brigades to penetrate into the jungle - although by this time Wingate was himself dead, killed in an air crash. They left Mariani, in Assam, on 23rd April 1944 and tramped up and down the steep-sided Naga hills. They carried packs which weighed 70 pounds as well as their rifles and sten guns. They were also in the rainiest part of the world. They trudged on day after day in incessant pouring rain, and soon illness struck. Many men became ill with dysentery. At last on 11th May, they reached a place along the Japanese supply route to the front at Kohima, where they established a stronghold (which they named "Grimsby".) A landing strip was made so that light American L5 planes could land and take off the wounded. Patrols went out from Grimsby searching for Japanese and they were usually away for five days, but very few enemy were encountered.
The Japanese did not really have a supply route, for when they attacked they took everything they had with them. They also relied on capturing food, ammunition and guns. Grimsby was attacked by the Japanese on one occasion, but after fierce fighting they were seen off.
By this time, the Japanese had been defeated around Kohima and it was decided that the Lincolnshire lads should penetrate further into the jungle to ambush the enemy's escape route. So on 20th June 1944 60 and 88 columns left Grimsby, together with 56 and 44 columns from the 1st Essex Regiment and once more they slogged up and down the hills. No-one would ever forget this journey. Low cloud obscured the top of a fearsome mountain 8,000 feet high, the track was soft, slippery mud, the mules had difficulties on the steep slopes and they had to be pushed, pulled and levered on. Some fell of the sides of the track and men had to scramble down to unload them before leading them back onto the track again. They got to the top of the hill and the men thought they had got over the worst part as the trail now sloped downwards. But it ran through a sort of deep ravine. On both sides of the track the ground sloped steeply upwards, covered by dense jungle which made the track dim, gloomy and eerie. The air was damp and clammy and there was the constant drip, drip, drip of water from the trees.
They soon found themselves struggling along in a what was little better than a bog. They hacked and slid their way along and mules sank to their bellies.
Suddenly, to their horrow,they found that the valley was littered with skeletons. There were carcasses of mules and bullocks and then - here and there - human bones. Half-buried in the mud there were dreadfully-smelling decomposed bodies of Hapanese, who must have died of starvation or exhaustion in this terrible place. Arms and legs stuck out grotesquely from the ooze and skulls with empty eye sockets grinned mockingly. The men and mules trod on them and tripped over them as the columns staggered on in the dark, foul atmosphere, heavy with the nauseating stench of death and decay.
There could have been few men who were not reminded of the 23rd Psalm: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death..." The valley was about six miles long and it took the men eight hours to get through this revolting place. But they got through it at last and then, in the twilight, they camped by a stream and the men jumped into it to wash the mud and filth and sheer disgust of the valley off themselves.
The men continued their journey, but the weather was now appalling. 56 column, which was leading, reached a place called Saiyapaw and waited for a supply drop. But despite many efforts the planes couldn't find them because of the low cloud. The following day 88 column also reached Saiyapaw, and then 60 column arrived. Still no supply drop. 44 column, which was bringing up the rear also arrived, and now all four columns in the same place, anxiously awaiting a supply drop. They could hear the planes circling overhead above the clouds. By this time the men were starving. Major West persuaded the headman of the village to sell a bullock.
Many of the men were now very ill. Some had malaria whilst others had dysentery. Few were now in a fit state to carry on, never mind fight any Japanese. It was decided to amalgamate the fit men into one lightly-armed column to carry on, whilst the rest under Major West would slowly make its way towards the advancing British forces.
The men struggled on, being sheltered by local tribesmen at night. At last they came across a track which a few Japanese stragglers were using, and they set up ambushes and killed a few of them.
Finally on 14th July 1944 the column received orders to retire to Imphal. The 33rd Indian brigade,pursuing the Japanese, would be along at any time, and they finally arrived on 17th July. It was learned that Major West's party of invalids had arrived safely at a place called Ukhrul.
The columns re-formed at Ukhrul. 88 column left for Imphal on 22nd July and 60 column followed the next day. Although the gradients were fairly easy, the road was in a poor condition. So were the men. A few in the worst condition were transported on mules. Others, apparently close to death, were carried on stretchers, whilst others lagged behind, staggering along as best as they could, often with the help of their friends. Fresh-faced troops moving in the opposite direction stared in amazement at the sight of the ill, bearded and emaciated men. At last, three days from Ukhrul, meals and transport were arranged by the Military Police. They were still at quite a high altitude and the men looked down upon a mass of soft, billowing white clouds with here and there the sharp point of a mountain top pushing through. And then there was an even more welcome sight - a green expanse of unbelievable flatness - the Imphal plain. They had almost forgotten there was such a thing a flat land.
And so 88 column rode into Imphal on 24th July 1944 and 60 column the day after. They had the blissful luxury of a hot bath. Their long walk was over at last.
The seriously ill were admitted to hospital straightaway and the others travelled to Dimapur. They were given extra rations, for everyone was suffering from malnutrition and had lost between three and four stones. Big, strong men who had weighed fourteen stones were now thin hollow-eyed weaklings of ten stones. Gradually the men recovered, even those who had seemed to be on the point of death.
All ranks were given 28 days leave in September and when they returned there was stupendous news. It had been decided that all those who'd had continuous overseas service of three years and eight months were to be repatriated immediately. The men of the 60th Field Regiment just qualified! And so in early November the regiment sailed from Bombay on the "Orion", a pre-war luxury liner and they landed at Liverpool a month later. They were all given 28 days leave, and told to report to Woolwich after Christmas.
At Woolwich the men were told that the 60th Field Regiment was in a state of "Suspended Animation" - in other words it no longer existed. This was a sad disappointment as the men were now posted in dribs and drabs to other regiments, when - after they had gone through so much they would have preferred to have stayed together.
And so the 60th Field Regiment - the part-time Territorial Army gunners from Lincolnshire - ceased to exist. There was to be no march from the railway stations back to the Old Barracks in Lincoln and the depot in Augusta Street, Grimsby, the heroes returning, bands playing, flags waving, pretty girls running forward with kisses, streets lined with cheering crowds...
Perhaps that's why few people, even in Lincolnshire, ever got to hear of the deeds of the 60th Field Regiment - the Lincolnshire Gunners.
The motto of the Royal Artillery is "Ubique" - the Latin word for "everywhere". This certainly was the case for the 60th Field Regiment, which claimed that it was the only unit in the British Army which fought all major foes in World War 2 - a claim that has never been disputed.
So they were not only "ubique" but unique as well!
There is a website about the 60th Field Regiment at www.lincs-artillery.co.uk. Details are given on the website about how to buy "All the King's Enemies" by John Benson - the full story of the Lincolnshire Gunners, which was published in 2000.
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