BRITISH ARTILLERY IN WORLD WAR 2
RECRUITING & TRAINING
This page looks at the way the artillery was recruited and trained before and during the World War 2. The methods of recruitment and training also varied quite widely between the various countries that practiced the British system of artillery and this page concentrates on the British.
Updated 14 June 2014
It's often forgotten that no-one was ever commissioned or enlisted in the 'British Army'. Enlistment was a contract between the individual and the sovereign and could only be changed by mutual consent. Officers were commissioned in 'His Majesty's Land Forces' and appointed to a regiment or corps of their choice while soldiers enlisted directly in a regiment or corps of their choice (although there could be a short transitory period while they made up their mind). Of course 'choice' was mediated by there being vacancies in and their acceptability to their preferred regiment or corps, but if that did not exist then the potential recruit often did not join the army. Once appointed to or enlisted in a regiment or corps then a posting to a particular unit was a matter for the regimental or corps authorities, in artillery this 'unit' was a battery. Involuntary transfer (ie change of cap-badge) between regiments and corps for soldiers in cavalry, artillery, engineers and infantry was forbidden by the Army Act. For officers, the Military Secretary posted selected officers to general staff appointments, and units also had to post officers and soldiers to 'Extra-Regimental Employment' outside the units of their regiment or corps. Every officer was given a 'personal number' (6 digits) and soldier a 'regimental number' (8 digits), field artillery including anti-tank had a block of over a million numbers in World War 2 (WW2).
Historically, Britain had always followed a system of volunteer recruitment; before World War 1 conscription had been regarded as an unsavoury foreign habit that created armies of unwilling soldiers lacking in moral fibre. Britain had a volunteer regular army and a volunteer reserve, called the Territorial Force from 1908 and Territorial Army (TA) after 1920. However, the manpower needs of WW1 forced conscription. Conscription was never universal throughout the United Kingdom; Ireland and the Crown possessions (Channel Isles and the Isle of Man) were exempt. Furthermore conscription was never introduced into any British colony. The dominions (Australia, Canada and South Africa) limited where their conscripts could serve. Basically this limitation was 'homeland defence' service only, although during WW2 Australia extended the definition to include the entire island of New Guinea. However, New Zealand's conscripts could serve anywhere.
Nevertheless between the wars Britain recognised that they would need conscription if they engaged in a war requiring more than ¾ million British troops. There were several reasons for this in addition to the obvious one of getting enough volunteers. These included social equity and the need to properly manage the intake of large numbers of recruits. The latter being a major problem in WW1 when the rush of volunteers had overwhelmed training and equipping arrangements, took key men from war industries and led to adverse social effects when local groups volunteered together for the same unit which subsequently suffered high casualties.
In the dominions the peacetime military organisation typically comprised a very small ' permanent army', basically an instructional cadre, and a volunteer militia. In both world wars their overseas contingents were all volunteer expeditionary forces raised from scratch. The volunteers came from the militia, both volunteer and conscripted, and from the general population. A few regulars, mostly more senior officers, were included but the regulars were needed at home to train the militia. In the colonies, including India, the military force was entirely volunteer, although is some cases it was predominantly recruited from elsewhere. Hong Kong and Singapore were notable examples whose 'local' forces were recruited from India, mostly Punjabis. In some colonies and India there were TA type units that recruited from the local expatriate community.
Until 1868 an enlistment in the British Army was for life. After this date various terms were introduced but by the 1930s soldiers enlisted for up to 12 years with the colours (ie in the regular army) and had the option of completing 21 years 'reckonable service' with the colours, although Warrant Officers Class 1 could be extended to give them 5 years as a warrant officer. However, in the 1930s most soldiers served an average of about 7 years with the colours. Reckonable service meant service over the age of 18. Those serving more than 12 years were generally senior NCOs and Warrant Officers.
Boys service could start as early as 14 (reflecting the school leaving age), and there were two Boys Batteries at Woolwich before WW2 and during the war another was formed in India for British recruits. Boys were trained as apprentice tradesmen, bandsmen or tailors. They could not be sent on active service but in peacetime finished their boys service in regular units, in artillery they were usually trumpeters and horse-holders, before mustering for man's service.
TA officers and soldiers served without any fixed term. Regular officers also served without a fixed term, although there were compulsory retirement ages that varied with rank
The infantry had introduced the Caldwell system in the late 19th century, in this each regiment of the infantry of the line had two battalions, one of which would be overseas and maintained up to strength by the home based one. Artillery being a large regiment did not use the 'pairs' system, regiments were rotated through overseas postings usually lasting 6 years. Regiments overseas were maintained at full establishment while those in UK were on 'reduced establishment', basically only 4 guns in a 6 gun battery. Of course this meant that on the outbreak of war some regiments had been overseas for several years and some remained overseas for most of the war. Generally soldiers remained in the same regiment, at least until they became senior NCOs, in peacetime officers were posted about every three years.
In the late 1930s neither the regular army nor the TA were getting enough recruits. In 1937-8 the regular army, with an establishment of about 200,000 was some 20,000 under strength, and took only 50,000 recruits compared to 70,000 in 1932. However, in April 1939 the Secretary of State for War announced the regular army's total strength as 224,000. The increasing threat of war was gaining recruits, particularly those who wanted to be sure of serving in the regiment or corps of their choice. Most TA units were well under strength, and in the 1930s their reduced establishment was only about 60% of war strength, but totaled some 436,000 including officers. TA artillery regiments had a regular army adjutant, regimental sergeant major and a small number of senior NCOs as 'permanent staff'.
According to the League of Nations Yearbook, there were about 140,000 reservists, although this figure excluded some 40,000 Supplementary Reservists mostly tradesmen whose civilian jobs were directly relevant to the army. However, most reservists were those completing their 12 years of service or had volunteered for reserve service after 12 years. There were three sections of these regular other-rank reservists, excluding the Supplementary:
A - Volunteers enrolled for 1 year at a time who agreed to be called
out without Proclamation when 'warlike operations were in preparation or progress'
(the Supplementary Reserve was also on this basis).
B - Men completing their 12 years of service.
C - Men who had completed 12 years service and volunteered for a further 4 years reserve service.
B and C were liable to call-out by Proclamation when there was 'imminent national danger', this also extended the service of regular soldiers due to complete their service with the colours. All three sections were liable for annual training but in practice this seldom if ever happened. All this left a substantial number of ex-regular soldiers who had not completed 21 years service and were not part of the Reserve.
There were also only 14,000 regular and 19,000 TA serving officers for the entire army. Regular officers who retired before the compulsory retiring age were liable for service in the Regular Army Reserve of Officers until they reached retiring age. There were also a few thousand reserve TA officers. Of course there were also many thousands of men in their 40s who had been officers in WW1 but were not officially reservists. To put all this in perspective nearly a quarter of a million army Emergency Commissions were granted in WW2.
Artillery strengths were:
Peak strength was reached in about June 1943 when all-rank totals for the British Army's arms were:
Of the RA totals about 40% was field artillery with about 7% officers, however, AA had only some 5% and Coast 3% officers.
In early 1939 the Military Training Act was passed, this started a conscription process by requiring all men between 20 and 21 to register in June 1939 for service in the 'Militia', which embraced army, navy and airforce. The first intake was in July. Also in 1939 the Government announced a doubling of the TA, this was done without consulting the War Office, who were opposed to it. The political goal was to signal resolution and firmness to Germany, it had little effect. From an artillery point of view the doubling of the TA roughly coincided with the re-organisation of artillery brigades in artillery regiments that halved the number of batteries but doubled their size and introduced new positions. It included additional officers, a battery going from one major, one captain and 3 subalterns to one major, 3 captains and 6 subalterns. It also significantly increased the regimental HQ element. The overall result was a challenge but could have been worse. However, in the months leading up to the outbreak of war and in its early months the AA artillery was greatly expanded. This meant that many experienced officers and NCOs were removed from field artillery to the new AA regiments.
The outbreak of war meant the TA was 'embodied'. Both regular and TA units were mobilised and brought to their War Establishment strength including regular reservists being posted to TA units, which also absorbed their regular army permanent staff. The Military Training Act was superceded by the National Service Act when war was declared in 1939. This merged the regular army, TA, reserves and militia. It also made all men between 18 and 41 liable for conscription (the upper limit was subsequently raised to 51 but only a few up to 45 were called-up). However, conscripts were able to choose between the army, navy and airforce. Selection for regiment or corps was in the hands of the Ministry for Labour, based on a superficial assessment of the individual, inadequate guidance on the needs of different parts of the army, and the individual's preferences. This suited the navy and airforce very well, and the artillery moderately so (RA was popular), although it was very unsatisfactory from the overall army perspective.
In 1942 the system was finally changed, and while a man could select his service, all army recruits joined the new General Service Corps for six weeks in a Primary Training Unit for basic training and selection. This ensured a better distribution of manpower according to ability and a properly informed understanding of the needs of the different parts of the army. By this time almost all recruits were 18 year olds. The selection process generally identified about 6% of recruits as potentially suitable for officer training.
The major failure in the first years of WW2 was the selection of officers for the army. There were insufficient volunteers and high failure rates during training. In April 1942 a new selection process was created where volunteers attended a 3 day War Office Selection Board that involved assessments, interviews and group command tasks instead of the previous system of short interviews. This proved to be an excellent system, and reflected a major change in British military thinking: that leadership ability was not necessarily a matter of inheritance, some considered it 'socialism'. However, the British Army remained committed to the view that junior officers were leaders first and technicians second, and also considered that the RAF put it the other way around!
In 1920s the Royal Artillery had reorganised its regular recruit training organisation. The Depot at Woolwich (SE London) comprised two training brigades (ie 'battalions') where recruits spent 14 weeks of general and artillery training before being posted to units. However, all pre-war training of TA recruits was a matter for the unit they joined, and mainly the responsibility of the unit's regular army permanent staff.
Woolwich was also the home of the Military College of Science until it was moved to Shrivenham in Wiltshire early in the war. The college provided technical training for officers and soldiers, the focus was on artillery and 'mechanical traction'. For artillery it trained apprentice tradesmen, instructed and tested artificers, trained NCO technical instructors and was responsible for teaching part of the Gunnery Staff Courses syllabi.
Most pre-war artillery officers for the regular army were volunteers who were trained at the Royal Military Academy Woolwich, officers for Royal Engineers and Royal Signals also trained there and it emphasised a maths and science education. A few officers were commissioned directly from university. Newly commissioned regular officers attended a Young Officer's course at the School of Artillery, Larkhill. The main source of TA officers were the Junior Training Corps where they were trained to Certificate A standard, the basic requirement for a TA commission. The major deficiency in the TA was the lack of formal officer training both on courses and in units.
The arrival of National Service necessitated other arrangements to cope with the large numbers involved. Large numbers of training units, properly called 'Corps Training Centres', were established. For field artillery they were Field and Medium & Heavy Training Regiments for guns and specialists, Signal Training Regiments and Survey Training Regiments, the length of the courses varied.. Before the introduction of Primary Training Units these specialised Corps Training Centres also undertook the basic training of their recruits, which for artillery included basic gun drill, no matter what the training regiment's specialisation. Most of these regiments also conducted driver training. Of course creating these units meant providing them with instructors, yet more experienced NCOs being taken from regiments. Training regiments were as follows:
These training regiments were organised into Groups. By early 1943 the summary of artillery Corps Training Regiments was as follows:
By this time these regiments were also training drivers on a 12 week course, which meant that 'driver-operators' underwent 30 weeks of RA training.
Of course all this initial training taught little more than individual skills, it did not train 'teams' - detachments, sections, troops, batteries or regiments. This was the responsibility of the battery and regimental commanders, who were accountable to their formation commander. After completing training in Corps Training Regiments men were sent to either an artillery regiment in Home Forces or to a reserve regiment that acted as a depot and assembled drafts for units overseas. These reserve regiments, formed in 1940, had 8 batteries, reduced to 4 in 1943, and were all disbanded a short time later. Reserve regiments were:
However, at the end of 1942 four divisions were designated training divisions and the artillery regiments in them had responsibility for training men up to troop level for either new units or as reinforcements for regiments overseas. Men spent 5 weeks in these training divisions. This meant that they were sufficiently trained to join units in action as individual reinforcements. These divisions were 48, 76, 77 and 80 Inf Divs. Subsequently 77 became a holding division and in late 1944 38 and 47 Divs replaced 76 and 80 Divs and 48 and 45 replaced 77 Div. The artillery regiments in these divisions can be found in list of field regiments.
RMA Woolwich closed at the outbreak of war and Officer Cadet Training Units (OCTU) were formed to train potential officers in the skills they would need in field artillery as well as other basic skills. These courses lasted 6 months (slightly less for anti-tank), the cadets already having some training in training regiments and from 1942 in Primary Selection Centres, some also underwent several weeks of pre-OCTU training. OCTUs were generally commanded by colonels. The field branch OCTUs were:
Nevertheless, the underlying principle of training for war in the British Army was that it was the responsibility of the commander at any level to ensure his command was properly trained. In peacetime this meant division and brigade commanders because there were no higher field formations. For units it meant a system of annual inspections by their formation commander, the CRA in the case of divisional artillery. These inspections were in the field or barracks to assess the efficiency and capacity of the Commanding Officer and the general efficiency of the unit's 'training, discipline, interior economy and readiness for war'. In addition to this there was an Inspector of Artillery (and inspectors for other corps, but not infantry!) who reported in general terms to the Chief of the Imperial General Staff on training and readiness for war. The problem was that while the British Army had doctrine, although in 1939 there were some serious gaps, there was no uniform interpretation of it. The field commanders were their own masters in this matter.
SCHOOLS OF ARTILLERY AND RANGES
Artillery was different because Kings Regulations required the Commandant(s) of the School(s) of Artillery to 'visit all practice camps and ensure uniformity in gunnery instruction'. This task was undertaken by the officers and warrant officers of the Gunnery Staff, who were the instructors at the School(s) of Artillery and part of the artillery staffs at the geographical command HQs in UK and overseas. The members of the Gunnery Staff had all completed a long course, 12 months in peacetime, including several months at the Military College of Science as well as the School of Artillery, they learnt all categories of artillery - field, AA and coast. Nevertheless until the outbreak of war the School of Artillery was really only a school of gunnery, the school had a single wing - Gunnery Wing. During the war it expanded to teach artillery tactics, equipment and related subjects.
The School of Artillery had moved to Larkhill on Salisbury Plain in 1919 and a Depot and School had been established at Karkul in India in 1924 and moved to Deolali in 1941. During the war a School of Survey was established at Catterick as was a School of Super Heavy Artillery and a School of Mechanical Traction at Rhyl. Middle East School of Artillery was also established and Artillery Schools of Instruction were formed in France (1940) and Italy. Generally, the various schools, commanded by brigadiers, concentrated on training unit instructors, although they also ran conversion courses particularly for armoured and infantry units converting to artillery. In overall command was the MGRA (Training) who was also the commander of all RA Training Establishments and Groups in UK.
Before WW2 the Gunnery Staff were also amongst the few who had some training in 'methods of teaching', the others being the instructors at RMA Woolwich and RMC Sandhurst. The lack of instructional skills was recognised as a deficiency quite early in WW2 and undoubtedly affected the quality of training in both training and field units. However, it was a problem that could be solved and the Army Education Corps became responsible for teaching 'methods of teaching' throughout the army.
The School of Artillery at Larkhill expanded dramatically and its responsibilities increased during the war. While individual training was the main activity, the school also conducted short overnight test exercises for all regiments in the summer months. The school was also responsible for supervising all practise camps in the UK and well as training staffs of higher artillery HQs. It was also heavily involved in new equipment, both its design and trials. By 1943 the school's established strength had risen from less than 80 instructors in 1939 to over 250, in a total staff of some 2000. By this time the school was designed to have 590 officers and 700 other ranks under training at any one time.
The rapid expansion at the beginning of WW2 meant there was a severe shortage of instructors. In 1939 the Gunnery Staff courses for both officers and NCOs were reduced to 2 months, then lengthened to 3 months in 1941 then 5 months in 1944 but covered only one category of artillery so the instructors became specialised. The gunnery staff prepared the various artillery training pamphlets, instructed at artillery schools and wrote formal reports on practice camps having closely monitored and instructed the units. This system ensured that technical gunnery drills, processes and procedures were uniform throughout the army.
Officer training included both AOP and RAF arty/R pilots in the school's Air Wing. It had a major role in the application of air photography, and in 1944 this part of the School became the Army Photographic Research Branch. In 1944 a Radar branch was created to deal with the use of radar by field artillery. This was in addition to the Survey Wing, created in 1942 by absorbing the School of Survey. The other wings of the school were Gunnery, Equipment (established in 1941) and Tactical (formed at the beginning of 1942). Also in 1942 a Publications and Kinema Section was created to bring order to the plethora of publications, see the Sources page (which excludes AA and Coast) to get an idea of the problem. The officers and instructors of this section wrote the doctrine and drills, which were published via Army Council approval and notified in routine Army Council Instructions.
Artillery training needs range space, both for impact areas to train observers and deployment areas to train the batteries. These facilities were called 'practice camps'. Before 1939 there were 5 practice camps in UK at Larkhill and Westdown/Tilshead (No 1 Practice Camp) on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire, Okehampton (No 2 Practice Camp) on Dartmoor in Devon, Redesdale (No 3 Practice Camp) in Northumberland close to the Scottish border and Tranfynydd (No 4 Practice Camp) in Wales. In 1941 Westdown and Okehampton were handed over to the US Army and a new area acquired at Sennybridge in S Wales, Redesdale (No 5 Practice Camp) in Northumberland close to the Scottish border, and Otterburn (No 6 Practice Camp) near Redesdale. In addition wartime legislation made it possible to fire in many other places including areas in the Pennines, Yorkshire, Norfolk and the Southdowns.
Anti-gunnery, being direct fire and needing a lot less space was much simpler, although anti-tank ranges needed moving target facilities. Pre-war Lydd in Kent provided the main facility but many were added during the war.
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