Dad’s War to D-Day

The Cause and Outbreak of World War 2

Germany had been held fully accountable for WW 1 and the reparations required of it had left it economically poor and with extremely high inflation. In time a change in attitude toward it and new economic policies saw it borrow monies from America. It steadied inflation, provided jobs and Germans started having a better life. Then along came the Wall Street crash and America wanted its money back and Germans were suddenly poor again.

The Weimar government were blamed and Hitler’s party came to power with him as Chancellor. When its parliament was burned down Hitler was granted emergency powers. He became president on the death of Hindenburg, who had appointed him and so developed a dictatorship. His Nazi party had some opposition as they persecuted the supposed inferior groups but they were creating jobs for millions and so were accepted by the majority. They were particularly manufacturing war machines and on the 1st of September 1939 invaded Poland. As per a political agreement, that led Britain and France to declare war on Hitler’s Nazi Germany.

Dad is conscripted into the Royal Artillery

In early 1939 the Military Training Act was passed. It started a conscription process whereby all men between 20 and 21 would register in that year for military service. The first intake was in July. Dad would be 24 at that time and not included in this intake.

After war had been declared a National Service Act superseded the Military Training Act. It merged the regular army, TA, reserves and militia. It also made all men between 18 and 41 (later raised to . 51) liable for conscription. Conscripts were able to choose between the army, navy and air-force but allocation to regiment or corps was done by the Ministry for Labour. It was based on the individuals preference, a limited assessment of the individual and some inadequate guidance on the needs of the army services.

Prior to the outbreak of war Anti-Aircraft Artillery had being greatly expanded. Many experienced officers had been transferred there from field artillery regiments. The declaration of war meant air attacks were a real threat and dad who was fit and strong became a gunner in the Anti-Aircraft section of the Royal Artillery. His service record shows him as a Gunner in the R. A. for 6 years from 18th April 1940 to 13th April 1946. We know not what regiment he was in at the start of his war service.

Artillery Training would be needed but his war papers only have one entry saying that he passed DM 7/5/1941. DM is a gas that causes a burning sensation in nose and throat and a heavy tight chest, accompanied by a nauseating feeling. The gas was used in some grenades that burnt and emitted smoke through holes in the grenade body. Dad would have used a gas mask and entered a chamber in which the gas was present.

Dad at Spurn Head on the Humber

I remember dad telling me he was at Spurn Head and Kilnsea featured in that conversation. I suspect he was a heavy anti-aircraft gunner there and possibly in 59 Regiment Eastern Command. The map is a modern map but illustrates the area. The inset shows how long the peninsular is (3.5 km). A lighthouse is located at its point though now cut off by high tides. There can still be seen at this location many of the concrete fortifications and gun positions that are relics of the war but much eroded by the sea.

In 1915 during WW1, an early warning station and a number of forts had been built there. One at Kilnsea, at the north end of the humber peninsular, a larger one called Spurn Fort at Spurn Head (point). A military railway had linked the Godwin Battery at the Kilnsea Fort with the Green Battery at the Spurn Head Fort. Two large fortifications had also been built on sand banks either side of the mouth of the estuary. These were Bull Sand Fort, with 12″ of seaward armour and positioned 1.5 miles off Spurn Head, and the smaller Haile Fort, on the low tide mark between Cleethorpes and Humbleton. The estuary forts are still standing to date. The battery forts used and much updated for WW2  are gone, the Kilnsey Fort area sold as a Caravan Park, the Spurn Head Fort area as a Nature Reserve. 

The threat from air attack was as great as that from the sea in WW2 so in addition to having their  main “sea” guns updated to 6 inch and having other naval guns installed , the  Godwin and Green Batteries had new search lights and anti aircraft guns installed.

Heavy anti aircraft 3.7 inch quick fire guns would have been installed at each battery These were further supported by 4o mm Bofors Guns, 20 mm Oerlikon Canon and Lewis Automatic Machine Guns at locations throughout Spurn Head.

At Warren Head, between the Kilnsea and Spurn Head Forts about thirty huts were constructed to house men and women who manned a new anti-aircraft installation constructed there. Other buildings were added in this Warren Head area and another 20 huts were erected to house infantry close by. At its peak about 1,500 military personnel were located in accommodations on Spurn Head, an area closed to the general public.

At first the Warren Head area had 2 by 4.5 ” anti aircraft guns but these were soon replaced by the much quicker firing 3.7″ guns, by Bofors guns and by Bren guns that replaced the Lewis guns. The quick fire  3.7 inch guns were capable of firing 28lb 94mm shells to 30,000 feet at up to 20 rounds per minute. It was crewed by seven men but later by some women for Home Defence. At Spurn Head the guns worked with the searchlights, acoustic detectors and possible radar there. I am fairly confident dad was part of such a gun crew, and serving here at Warren Head or maybe at the Kilnsey Fort.

To supplement the existing WW1 standard gauge railway between the two batteries a road was constructed down the head via the Warren area to the point. A jetty was also built here so that heavy construction materials could be off loaded to the road and railway. There are still to be seen, in this area, massive concrete structures of pill boxes, anti tank blocks, weapons pits and gun emplacements. Many have been undermined by the sea. 

The below photograph of dad, second from the left,with some army pals, I am confident, was taken whilst he was barracked in this area and I suspect taken looking toward the Warren Head anti aircraft installation from the seaward side of the peninsula. In the right background there are sandbag fortifications surrounding what appear to be 3 guns pointing skyward. The building is probably one of a number that includes their barracks, the tall structure an Observation Post. Most anti aircraft gun emplacements at this time  were sited on a circular arc, as was the case at the Godwin and Green Batteries. These guns are clearly in line, maybe because those Batteries covered the threats from the North and South.

The Humber area was bristling with military personnel because it was considered a likely area for invasion. Hull itself was hit by numerous High Explosive Bombs and Parachute Mines. Over three quarters of Hull housing was damaged, 152,000 people were made homeless, 1,200 people lost their lives there, and 3,000 were seriously injured. Hull often took bombing meant for more inland places, or from enemy aircraft that had failed to find Sheffield, or Leeds. No pilot would risk a potential heavy or crash landing with live and armed bombs aboard. Dumping of unused bombs was normal but whilst the RAF had strictly observed dump zones in the North Sea and English Channel the Luftwaffe, dumped bombs over Britain right from the start.

Stationed at Thorne

Dad was next stationed at Thorne, near Doncaster, where he lodged with a Betty and Tommy Nichol at 10, Tennyson Avenue. They came to be known by us as Uncle Tommy and Aunty Betty and in later years we would holiday there. I remember Tommy showing me, when I was a teen, how to set a car distributor contact points and another time going to Brimham Rocks with them.There was clearly not an army barracks at Thorne, so why was he at Thorne?

The map above shows us that Thorne was on the German bombing run across the Humber to the industrial centres of Yorkshire and Lancashire. I presume the army had numerous Anti – Aircraft guns inland so that if the guns located at the Humber Estuary missed their targets, the inland guns would have a second try. Thorne would be just one of many places where this would happen.

I must have gone to Thorne with mother at some time during the war, probably in 1943 when I was four. I do not remember what I presume must have been a stay with Betty and Tommy but I do have a vivid memory of going to an area near a street where a skyward pointing gun was sited. I remember the gun had two wheels and that a number of soldiers were there. We did not go near the gun. We stood on a pavement and a man (dad ) came across to talk to us.

At this time the gun shown right was very much in use by the Royal Artillery Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiments. It satisfies my memory and is a QF 3.7″ Heavy anti-aircraft gun on mobile mount. It could be available within 15 minutes of arrival at a location. A similar gun was available on a fixed mount. Interestingly I picked out this gun from photographs before I knew that such guns were used to combat aircraft at Kilnsea. So dad would simply have moved from 3.7 inch guns on fixed mounts at Spurn Head to 3.7 inch guns on mobile mounts at Thorne.

There were three anti- aircraft and searchlight units in the Thorne area but only one in Thorne itself. This was at the end of Alexandra Street where it joined Brickyards Lane and I suspect where dad was based. It would I believe have been supplied with ammunition by the Barrow Haven Ammunition Dump on the South Bank of the Humber Estuary.

Dad is transferred to 68th Medium Regiment Royal Artillery

The Battle of Britain in the air and the Luftwaffe being diverted to the Russian Front had reduced air attacks on mainland Britain and so Dad, with his gunnery experience and in preparation for an assault on Germany, was moved from whichever regiment he was in to the re-formed 68th medium regiment Royal Artillery, a part of 4 Army Group Royal Artillery (4AGRA). He was now Gunner No 972810 in the R.A.

Dad’s assignment to the 68th would have been in the August of 1943 and I believe that his transfer was accompanied by a period of privilege leave.
Privilege leave was earned leave and it was clearly more possible to take such leave whilst UK based. His record shows that he was on leave in August and also in the November of 1943 and in late January / early February of 1944.

The photograph on the left shows him at Durham Station on his way back to the army after such a period of leave. I am the smartly dressed one in the middle, between mam (Ruby Gladys ) and dad. Since my grandchildren estimate my age in the photograph as nearer 4 than 5, I think the photograph was probably taken at the station after his August leave.

Whichever period of early leave it was, he would be heading for Perth in Scotland and for training in his changed artillery role.

The cap and collars of his uniform had badges that bore the mottos of the Royal Artillery. The Royal Artillery’s main motto and battle honour “Ubique”, meaning   “everywhere”, was granted by King William IV in 1833.

Everywhere was appropriate because Royal Artillery regiments were to be found with and under the command of assault land forces wherever they were. The cap badge also bears the subsidiary motto “Quo fas et gloria ducunt” which means “where right and glory lead”. Both mottoes are shared with the Royal Engineers, due to the shared Board of Ordnance history.

The Royat artilleries Field Regiments were to be found alongside and commanded by infantry divisions or armoured (tank) divisions. With their lighter 18/25 pound field guns they were highly mobile and moved with them. R.A. anti-tank regiments and anti- aircraft regiments were likewise to be found with infantry divisions.

Medium and heavy regiments with their longer range and greater power guns would be generally behind and in support of such divisional troops and controlled by Army Corps or divisional commanders. They were less mobile and would take up firing positions. But R.A. regiments were not just about supporting land forces. They might be on board merchant shipping as protection or used in coastal defences.

You might ask what all of this means. What are Corps, Divisions, Regiments, Brigades, Batteries, etc? What does Medium mean? What is a Battery? What guns and equipment do they have? How is an Artillery Regiment used in war? What is an AGRA? If at this stage you want answers to these questions follow this link

Training for War with 4 AGRA

After its formation in the March of 1943, 4AGRA started to assemble its regiments for pre war training, in the Tay river valley at Blairgowrie, Perthshire. The intention was to train its gunners and produce Artillery Regiments suitable for war. So as to be a part of 4AGRA the 68th medium regiment, originally formed in Lancashire was reformed. The 68th had become a “lost” regiment. Lost when Tobruk in Libya had fallen in the June of 42, after a long seige there and to the German Commander Rommel. Now, in 1943, it was being reformed taking from another Lancs regiment, 59 medium, and other Garrison Regiments.

The 51st Heavy Regiment had been first to arrive in April. The 53rd Medium, 65th Medium and 79th Medium Scottish Horse (an historical name) regiments arrived in May. The newly formed 68th Medium Regiment and 150th Field Notts Hussars (also a name) joined it later in August. 4AGRA were now a standard AGRA but with 4 x medium regiments instead of the usual 3. Its field regiment would operate 24 x 25 pdrs sometimes self propelled. Its medium regiments each had 16 x 5.5″ guns in two batteries of 8. Its heavy regiment would have 8 x 7.2″ Howitzers and 8 x 155 mm guns.

The artillery field guns had a max range of about 13,000 yards. They were manned by a crew of 6. The Howitzers had a 202 lb shell and a max range of nearly 17,000 yards. It was manned by a crew of 10. The 155 mm fired shells of about 100 lb in weight. It had a maximum range of about 25,000 yards and a gun crew of 14. The 5.5″ medium gun could send a standard 100 lb shell, carrying 10.5 lb of explosive up to 16,200 yards . Later 80 lb shells would carry 12 lbs of explosive up to 18,100 yards. Such guns were manned by a crew of 10.

Whilst here on training dad had 9 days of leave in the November of 43 and 9 days starting 31/1/44 when I suspect my brother Derrick was conceived. The leave is described as privilege but it is leave earned as a result of service. In each case of leave it can be seen that a free warrant was applied which meant you got a ticket to travel anywhere you wished. If no warrant was issued then you would take leave at your place of duty but resting from it.

Few in the regiments training at Blairgowrie had seen action. Most of them had gunnery experience but the actions in war were something different and intensive formation and unit training was required. This training was started under the command of Brigadier A. G. Matthew and continued in the May of 44 by a Brig. H. A. Hambleton, who then commanded the formation throughout the coming war operations. Training was strenuous with exercises like the fire and movement ‘Gallop’, the diggings of ‘Shovel’, the supply problems of ‘Sisyphus’ and the corps manoeuvres of ‘Eagle’ and ‘Blackcock’.

Training as recorded by a Gunner in 53 Medium Regiment

“My next move was to join a proper regiment at Blairgowrie, Perthshire, Scotland. 8 Troop 209 Battery 53 Med Regt RA. The regiment was stationed in a Smedley Raspberry Factory about quarter of a mile down the road from town near a big river. Every Sunday Morning Church Parade. We marched to church and then if not C.of E. could make own way to other churches. Some chaps soon found out that it was a good way to get out of Church Parade. Mum sends me a biscuit tin of cherries for my 20th birthday.

Training all the time on and off the moors for 2 and 3 weeks at a time. At first no tents and had to sleep fully dressed under tarpaulins in a line. 10 gun crew not good. One night raining hard have to pull over our heads to stop getting wet but have to get up in the middle of the night to do 2 hours guard duty. One time firing across Dundee water with all 16 guns. First time for us firing all 16 at once. Once, three weeks on the moors with snow and ice – have to go down to the stream and break the ice to wash and shave at 6.30am. At least we did have tents now.

One day after firing guns, we heard “Stand Easy”. I was on shells that day, putting on the fuses or airburst time fuses set in seconds. Anyway the order came, “Take Post” the Sergeant No 1 shouted loud to No 2 and No 3. But he forgot that there was already a shell in the gun and they rammed another shell up the breech. They soon realised what they had done. The officer ordered everybody back for 15 mins (which was the done thing). After that he ordered them to get it out and it was brought over to me. He said take the fuse off as quick as you can in case it goes off. The fuse nose was smashed in, they were made so as not to go off. But this did not always work as one gun crew later on in France got the next shell too close to the gun so that when the gun fired it recoiled and hit the shell killing several of them. Anyway everybody moved away while I unscrewed the fuse, There was me, leaning back on a pile of about 20 100lb shells. Anyway it came off otherwise I wouldn’t be here now.

Still going out one to three weeks at a time on moors, etc. up as far as Aberdeen and Inverness. After about six months, move again to Balero Camp, Carronbridge Dumfriesshire. About 1,000 men. Some Saturday nights go to Dumfries or to Carronbridge. “

Preparations for D-Day

All of the regiments assembling at Blairgowrie, had known they were earmarked for an assault on France as a part of 4AGRA, an R.A. group that would be in support of British 1 Corps, a part of the British 2nd Army. It was known there would be beach landings and so much thought was been given to getting the tractors and the guns they pulled from landing craft to the shore.

Waterproofing, including exhaust mods, had been carried out on the vehicles and the tractor drivers had all driven through 50 yards of 4 foot deep water in order to gain some experience of how their vehicles handled in water. Drivers had also gained experience driving on sand at Broughty Ferry, Dundee and later they all went in batches to Inveraray for landing simulations.

By February of 1944 draft instructions were starting to arrive and although these changed several times, it was clear that the 4AGRA regiments who were to land on D-Day would land at H + 5. The H represented the hour of the 1st landings and D the day of those landings and giving rise to D-Day. Neither of these were at this stage known ,or indeed where those landings would be.

On 6/4/44 (my birthday, I would be 5) dad’s papers show that dad made a will. A form of will is shown on pages 17 and and its reverse side 18 of his army booklet. But his will was completed on pages 15 and 16 of the booklet as these were used when leaving everything to one person. The vertical details on the left are what remain of page 15 after his will was cut out. It shows the date he made his will, the signature of the officer who received that will who added “fit”. It also shows that the extracted will was sent to the R.A. Paymaster.

It seems that 4AGRA troops all made wills before leaving Perthshire which happened on and around the 18th of April when 4AGRA regiments were on the move to Oxted in Surrey. They did so via Barracks at Carronbridge, near Thornhill north of Dumfries, then Catterick , Doncaster and Lutterworth. Four weeks of dress rehearsals took place at Oxted before 4AGRA left for camp A15 near Wickham in the Meon Valley, Hampshire, where three more days of preparatory training ensued.

Operation “Overload” with Eisenhower in charge had been much time in planning. It included operation “Neptune” better known as the Normandy Landings which would  involve the landing of some 150,000 men and 1500 tanks in a 48 hour period. It also planned the creation of two temporary harbours called Mulberry A and B that would be essential for supply purposes. Overlord also included a pipe line under the sea to supply fuel. Late on June 5th of 1944 the operation was underway because the planned landing were to take place on D-Day June the 6th 1944.

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