Updated 27 May 2016
This introduction provides an overview of British field artillery in World War 2, including some of its key features that made it different to that of other armies. However, these British practices were followed by Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. The practices of the United States field artillery were different in several very significant ways.
In World War 2 the Royal Artillery was divided into three branches: Field, Air Defence and Coast. In addition artillery was also responsible for around half the DEMS (Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships) detachments on merchant navy ships (with shore bases from New York to Sydney). Field artillery was the most important in the land battle, although Air Defence also played an important part. This site is focused of Field artillery.
The basic artillery unit was a Regiment (equal to a battalion). This was divided into Batteries that were in turn divided into Troops. Field artillery included survey and anti-tank regiments, however, most regiments (field, medium and heavy) provided indirect fire support using guns of 88mm calibre and larger, and this is the focus of this site. Indirect fire meant the guns did not see their targets, batteries were told what to shoot at and when by observers or fire planners.`
The key capability of field artillery was the ability to mass the fire of batteries against opportunity targets and in large-scale fireplans against planned targets. The latter had been mastered by the British Army by 1916. It was built on the introduction of indirect fire before 1914 and by the introduction of meteorological data and artillery survey methods as well as the necessary technical procedures in the first years of World War 1. In 1942 the British Army introduced effective and efficient procedures to quickly apply the massed fire of many batteries against opportunity targets, wireless communications were the key enabler of this. These procedures were also used by Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand and South Africa. It was probably the most generally effective field artillery system used in World War 2.
The features of this system, some of which were long standing, were:
1. About 85% of field artillery batteries had 8 guns (only mountain batteries and those with large calibre guns, greater than 5.5 inch, were smaller).
2. The gun position was run by the junior officers and warrant officers of the battery, running a gun position effectively and efficiently is mostly a technical matter of applying well designed drills and procedures, and being properly trained.
3. The battery second-in-command was responsible for the battery’s administration, logistics and local defence.
4. The other officers (the battery and troop commanders) of direct support batteries were with the supported infantry or tank units where they could apply their tactical and technical judgement and knowledge to ensure artillery fire was used with best effect to meet the needs of the supported troops, ie:
a. direct support troop commanders (captains), the battery’s observers, with company level commanders (majors);
b. direct support battery commander (major) with the directly supported infantry battalion or armoured regiment commander (lieutenant colonel);
c. direct support regiment commander (lieutenant colonel) with the supported brigade commander (brigadier);
d. divisional artillery commander (‘Commander Royal Artillery, CRA, a brigadier) with the divisional commander (major-general);
e. corps artillery commander (‘Commander Corps Royal Artillery’, CCRA, a brigadier) with the corps commander (lieutenant-general).
A key feature of the British system was that observers gave orders to their own battery. Massed fire from many batteries/regiments could be requested by any observer, but observers could be ‘authorised’ to order fire to their own regiment, divisional artillery or larger artillery grouping, this authorisation was assigned as necessary and could have a limited duration. This is a significant difference to some other armies, notably the US, where observers could only request fire. The great advantages of this system were:
1. it ensured the best possible integration of artillery support with the manoeuvre forces and the best possible artillery advice to their commanders and staffs because the artillery commanders were with the supported commanders, who each only needed to deal with one artillery commander.
2. Faster engagement of opportunity targets because the target originators gave orders.
3. The originator ordering the engagement understood the tactical situation and applied fire accordingly.
This arrangement ensured the best possible integration of artillery support with the supported infantry and armoured units and formations. This system also reflected history: tactical fire control in battle had been the primary concern of artillery commanders for centuries; this meant they had to be in the best place to do it. The officers of regiments and batteries that were not ‘in direct support’, ie they were ‘in support’, deployed to where they were needed, but the direct support commanders generally spoke to the supported commanders on their behalf.
The ability to mass the fire of batteries in large-scale fireplans against planned targets had been mastered by the British Army by 1916. It was built on the introduction of indirect fire before 1914 and by the introduction of meteorological data and artillery survey methods as well as the necessary technical procedures in the middle years of World War 1. In 1942 the British Army introduced effective and efficient procedures to quickly apply massed fire against opportunity targets, earlier procedures were generally limited to the fire of a single regiment.
Divisional artillery was larger than those of most countries (72 guns ((25 pdr (88 mm)) for an infantry division) and commanded by the CRA, it also included anti-tank and anti-aircraft regiments. Additional artillery, mostly medium and heavy, was commanded by the corps and higher artillery commanders and assigned in support as necessary. However, in 1942 these non-divisional regiments started being ‘brigaded’ into AGRAs (Army Groups Royal Artillery) each commanded by a brigadier (CAGRA). The normal scale was an AGRA per corps. The standard organization for an AGRA was 4 medium regts (each two batteries totaling 16 guns, 4.5 (114 mm, max range 20,500 yards) or 5.5 inch (140 mm, max range 18,100 yards), a heavy regiment (4 batteries) also 16 guns (7.2 inch (183 mm, Mk 6 max range 19,667 yards) Howitzers and 155mm Guns (max range 20,100 yards) and a field regiment, ie 104 guns in total.
The commanders and observers of regiments that were not 'in direct support' deployed to where they were needed. The firepower of artillery not under divisional command was part of larger concentrations, fireplans and targets in depth, particularly enemy artillery.
Each corps had an artillery Survey Regiment. These regiments undertook artillery survey (providing accurate fixation and orientation to gun regiments) and target acquisition of enemy artillery using sound ranging and flash spotting.
Field artillery included anti-tank regiments. There was a regiment in each infantry division and one for each corps. Their equipment and organization evolved throughout the war, 2-pr (40 mm) guns at the beginning, replaced by 6-pr (57 mm) and then 17-pr (76 mm), regiments had 48 guns. This was in addition to the organic anti-tank guns of infantry battalions.
UK had used air observation of artillery fire very widely in WW1 (from 1914 onwards). This was less effective in WW2 until the introduction of Air OP squadrons (RAF) with artillery officer pilots flying Austers, first used in N Africa in late 1942. In western theatres the normal scale was a squadron per corps.
Air Defence and Coast Artillery
Air Defence artillery manned anti-aircraft batteries as part of the field army, as part of Air Defence UK and other air defences at fixed positions (such as ports) around the world. Air defence included radars, searchlights and multi-rocket launchers, the latter had been introduced in the late 1930s but proved ineffective. Air defence of airfields became the responsibility of the RAF Regiment after its formation in 1942.
In the field army there was a light AA regiment, equipped with 40 mm Bofors, in each division and in AA brigades. Heavy AA regiments were in AA Brigades and equipped with 3.7 inch (94 mm) heavy AA guns. AA Brigades were army or theatre level formations in the field army and assigned to corps as necessary as well as protecting rear areas.
In UK they were organised into AA Divisions, at their peak there were 12 AA Divisions organised into three AA Corps in UK. In addition to 3.7 inch, 4.5 inch (114 mm) and later in the war some 5.25 inch (133 mm) HAA guns were used, the latter in fixed emplacements.
Coast defence artillery was mostly deployed at defended ports around UK and overseas. The standard heavy gun was the 9.2 inch (234 mm), although there were larger calibres (15 inch (381 mm)) at Dover and Singapore. 9.2 inch positions were normally two guns in concrete emplacements with underground ammunition storage and fire control centre, and above ground observation posts. However, 6 inch (152 mm) were the most widely used as were 6 pdr (57 mm) for close defence. Coast artillery also had an assortment of other calibres including 12 pdr (76 mm), 4.7 inch (119 mm) and 8 inch (203 mm).
Air defence and coast defence artillery were RA responsibilities but are not described on this site.
Copyright © 2016 Nigel F Evans. All Rights Reserved.