A Day with 100 Regt RA(V) on the Plain

I have experience the Plain before, so the on the morning of the Garrison Living History Group’s trip to visit to 100 Regiment, Royal Artillery. I made sure I had all the right cold-weather gear. Draws and Vest cellular (woollen, issue underwear). Shirt and tie, woollen jumper, then woollen battledress jacket and trousers over the top. Add a leather jerkin, leather gloves and GS cap and in theory you can withstand the worst of the weather. By the time I reached the Chairman’s house, I was regretting my warm clothes as the sun was shining and it looked to be a warm day. The Chairman, Jonathon Catton and one of our Drivers, Dave Nesbitt and I set off westward. It became apparent the farther west we drove that the temperature was falling and light rain began to splatter on the windscreen.

We met at the Bustard Inn. After a swift drink and lunch was we moved to the formalities. We were introduced to Major Mark Thurley the Regimental Training officer and organiser of our visit. This gentleman, I perceived, appeared to have some sort of black on his face! Throughout our visit, he would continually reapply this make-up from a small compact and mirror he kept in his pocket. Of course, face camouflage was not unknown in WW2, though supply was limited to boot polish or the traditional burnt cork. Even so, it was the preserve of the Commandoes or front-line infantry. You would never find it on the gun platform.

We were bundled into a waiting Land Rover and sped off onto the range. We tumbled out onto a desolate muddy farm track. Behind me a small farm nestled in the protective fold of two low ridges, dilapidated building hidden by trees. Grey smoke rose from the chimney to be whipped into the equally grey sky by the biting wind. In the small fenced off fields around the farm were cows, the smell of which carried quickly to my nostrils.

In front of me were 201 Battery (Herts. and Beds. Yeomanry) the three guns arranged in front of the CP. Everything was hidden under camo nets, with three barrels pointing over the crest of the low ridge. To the right 307 Battery (South Notts. Hussars) occasionally loosed a round off into the leaden sky. The light drizzle turned into light rain as a second land rover of Historians arrived. We must have cut strange figure in our WW2 battledress, standing by the side of muddied track, in the rain, somewhere on Salisbury plain. There were brief introductions and were issued ear-defenders, another luxury to the WW2 gunner. Only the Canadians cared about their gunner’s ears, and even then, most of the veterans are deaf because they didn’t have to wear them.

I calculate that around ten of our historians (we must number around 30) have worn the Queens uniform in one form or another. Most of our historians then, have limited knowledge of military matters, though they are ever keen to expand them. So we expect the inevitable, strange question. Nothing prepared me for what one historian asked. This man is an airline pilot, in charge of a Boeing worth several million pounds and the lives of over three hundred passengers.

On the gun-platform the similarity and differences became quite obvious. Modern dress aside, it was evident that just as in WW2, dress on a gun site varied, though there was a marked lack of homemade or civilian clothing. The tannoy system linking the guns to the CP has been replaced by wireless. Impressive bits of kit that would have been a luxury to a WW2 gunner were the electronic fuse setter in place of the selection of special spanners used in WW2 and the GPS system on the light gun. The very idea that a gun ‘knows’ its location was interesting enough, but to reduce laying to making two bars on a computer screen line up was the stuff of dreams in 1944,. Yet the principle behind making the shells land on target is the same?

This was the question I posed to Lt. McPoland as were leaving the 201 battery. He very kindly invited the Chairman and I into the CP. As the Chairman mounted the steps a fire-mission came through and three or four people charged in after him, bundling him in a flail of respirator case and greatcoat into a seat. We reclaimed our Chairman and were duly dispatched to the OP.

The same leaden sky greeted us as we fell out of the Land Rover (I sustained a cut finger and immediately applied for a wound stripe). We were introduced to Major Richard King of the SNHs who stood with his back to a distant ridge and related our position to the guns and a briefly explained the role of OP. Every so often a round would explode on the ridge, throwing up a plume of greyish black smoke, which quickly disappeared into the grey sky. Major King explained that these very shells were passing over our heads. The result was an awed silence from the assembled historians. We are quite used to equally grey and grainy films of shells falling, kicking up earth and stone, but to have the shells so close was something else.

We then watched a small barrage of shells land on the ridge, closely grouped, exploding in air. I was, at first, disappointed; those films of artillery barrages (particularly those of the Great War) lead one to expect the whole ridge to come alive with explosions. However, when I raised my binoculars to my eyes, such disappointment fell away. I could see distinctly the orange flash of the shell as it burst above the ground. The brown and green earth could be seen to be thrown up among the grey and black smoke. These shells continued to fall for some minutes in this small area. It was quite breathtaking and all of us had our eyes firmly glued to our binoculars, the rain forgotten. However, the weather was closing in fast and it was time to return to the guns.

“If it ain’t raining, it ain’t training!” chirped the driver of our Land Rover for the fourteenth time. But then he would say that, because he had been sitting in his dry vehicle. By now the dampness was slowly creeping up the woollen legs of my battledress and about to reach my woollen knitted drawers. We stepped back into the rain, which was remarked on by Lt. Ali Burns, the BK of 207 Battery as were re-issued with ear defenders. In the background someone said again “if it ain’t raining, it ain’t training.’ To which someone equally chipper replied “if it ain’t snowing, I ain’t going.”

We were split up again, and the chairman and I took the opportunity to go into the CP. I volunteered my place in the warm CP vehicle to our chairman, who is more advanced in years than I. Here he was able to chat to the Technical Assistants and see their computer. Another advance from the technology of WW2; a slide rule, a pencil, pad and a large chest of tables. Being outside, however, I got a chance to see that just like WW2, everything was recorded on paper and checked.

I also met the Chaplain. I confess this came as a surprise. One tends to think of Britain as a secular society, and vicars generally as rather wishy-washy. So it was gratifying to see a man of God doing God’s work. I was delighted to discover the Chaplain had been blessing shells before they were sent on their way. The BK, seeing that I was acting as a wind break for the CP, directed me to a gun. I arrived only minutes after the No.1 had permitted one of our members, Don Gray, to fire a round. Bad luck then struck this gun; one of the seals on the recuperator became suspect. This was a problem WW2 guns frequently encountered. The gunner of WW2 had to rely on seals made of leather or natural India rubber (before the fall of Malaya). The ammunition was transferred to the other guns. That distinct clank of the shells knocking against each other is burned into my memory. We then watched the guns fire off their remaining ammunition, end the mission and come out of action. I stood in the centre as the gunners raced to be the first away.

We thanked our hosts, and retired to a pub for a drink. We all chatted excitedly about our experiences. Some vainly attempted to revive Don Gray, who seemed to have gone into some sort of trance since his firing. Alas, he remains so to this day. Such a visit was important for we historians. We can compare and contrast the equipment, drills and procedures. More than that, we got a feeling for life on a gun site.

One can read books, study film and talk to veterans for years, but you can never truly understand life for a Gunner during WW2 until you start to live the part. Even then, to the modern man wishing to return to the 1940s, you are limited. You can eat the food, wear the uniform, learn the gun drill, but until you’ve stood on a real gun site, firing live shells, correctly plotted onto an unseen target, you can never truly understand. During this visit we historians came as close as we can ever get to the real gunner experience. We now know about the rivalry between gun teams, the laid back atmosphere of the gun platform, the speed at which thing are done, the constant record keeping by everyone, the clank of real shells as they knock against each other, or are rammed into the breach. These guns actually recoil! We now know what it is like to be firing at an unseen enemy. Some of us now know that all the pages of mathematical theory we often studied or shied away from is very necessary and is actually applied. One of us now knows what it feels like to send a live shell spinning through the air to its target.

I would like to thank all the gunners of 201 and 307 battery RA for their hospitality, interest and help. I would also like to thank all the officers, particularly Lieutenants McPoland and Burns and Major King. Particular thanks go to Major Thurley for organising our visit the Colonel West for presenting us with this unique opportunity to experience artillery in action. We can know take what we have learned, and continue to educate people about the Gunners of WW2.

Ian Hagger