(Note: this is a work in progress, any text in bold is only draft notes)
Chapter 1: Its own History
The 124th (Northumbrian) Field Regiment RA (TA) only existed for seven years but its roots were deep within the Northumbrian Volunteer Artillery and went on in various guises to become a part of what is now 101st Regt RA(V). 2009 was the 150th anniversary of the formation of the Northumbrian Volunteer Artillery, and its formation is where this story starts.
The beginning of the Volunteer Artillery movement was in 1858, when the Secretary of State for War, in response to French re-armament, sent a circular to the Lord Lieutenants of each county authorising them to accept the services of any companies of volunteers. Mr W.F. Pilter called a meeting at the Assembly Rooms, Tynemouth almost immediately to call for volunteers to form a new local artillery corps. On 2nd August 1859 official blessing was given to the constitution of the 1st Northumberland Volunteer Artillery Company and Mr Addison Potter was appointed to command with two Lieutenants, one of whom was W.F. Pilter. This marked the formation of the first such unit in the British Army Order of Battle. The 1st NVA continued to grow and in January 1860, a second company was raised at Tynemouth with further units in Willington Quay and Wallsend, and two more in Newcastle itself. Having reached six batteries the corps now constituted a brigade and Potter was promoted Lt Col.
The most significant event in the early years was the division of the 1st NVA into three, two batteries corps 1st and 3rd NVA and the 2nd Newcastle upon Tyne Artillery Corps. All three units under 1st Administrative Brigade of NVA based at Tynemouth commanded by Col Potter and listed on the Army List as the most senior Volunteer Artillery Unit. By 1866 recruitment had started to fall but with another war scare in 1875 recruitment again went up and the 1st NVA grew to four Btys. Recruitment kept on rising and two more batteries were added enabling the 1st NVA to become an independent brigade. However, this was short-lived and in 1879 the War Office intervened, consolidating all the smaller artillery volunteer corps into one. This resulted in the 1st and 2nd NVA, the Durham Volunteer Corps and the 1st Administrative Brigade being formed into a single unit called the 1st Northumberland and Durham Volunteer Artillery still commanded by Col Potter. Feelings ran high in Tynemouth and letters were written to the Secretary of State for War and His Royal Highness, complaining bitterly of their treatment. This eventually had the desired effect and in 1881 a letter was received from the Secretary of State for War giving the 1st NVA its independence and a new name: The Tynemouth Volunteer Artillery.
In 1882 the remainder was again renamed, this time to the 1st Northumberland and Sunderland Volunteer Artillery. This name was to stay until May 1888, when the Sunderland batteries also became an independent corps. This in turn resulted in the batteries in Newcastle once again becoming simply the 1st Northumberland Volunteer Artillery. Col Potter who had commanded them right from the start died in 1894, and was succeeded by Lt Col Philip Watts. In 1899 the idea of small batteries was dropped by the War Office and the 1st NVA was organised into a four battery brigade. Three batteries were now rearmed with 16-pounder RMLs and one with the standard army 15-pounder BL field gun, which were lent to the battery at Elswick by the Ordinance Works whose factory was adjacent to their Dunn Street drill hall.
At the start of the Second Boer war in 1899 the War Office decreed that no volunteer artillery units should be sent out to South Africa. However, Lady Meux, the wife of one of the directors of Armstrong Whitworth Arms Company, had six 12-pounder field guns made by the ordnance works at Elswick. These were presented to Field Marshal Lord Roberts, who directed they should be used to equip the battery at Elswick so they would be manned by the men who built them. Formed on the 31st January 1900 the 'Elswick Battery', as it was now known, marched to Newcastle upon Tyne town hall to be sworn in before the Lord Mayor of Newcastle. The Battery arrived in South Africa in April 1900 and fought with distinction until June 1901, when the Battery - now at Elandsfontein - was demobilised, handing its guns over to an artillery militia unit which had arrived from Britain. They left South Africa at the end of June and arrived back in England on l6th July, 1901.
Although the success of the Elswick battery had been recognised they were specialist trained men and were not a true representation of the volunteer artillery movement as a whole. Even before the turn of the century it was apparent that the volunteers were not capable of providing an effective reserve for the army. In 1902 there were again changes and the 1st NVA became 1st Northumberland Royal Garrison Artillery (Volunteers). The Norfolk Commission, looking into the militia and volunteers units, published their findings in 1907 which resulted in the Territorial Reserve Forces Act being introduced. Under this act the Territorial Force was formed and organised into regional divisions, area brigades and local battalions. The 1st Northumbrian RGA was again re-designated; it was now the 1st Northumbrian Bde (Royal Field Artillery) with three batteries and an ammunition column, part of the Northumbrian Division. As territorials they were now provided with uniforms, paid per day while on camp and were subject to military law. As a force they were now on a much better footing to support the regular army.
In 1914 the 1st Northumbrian Bdes RFA had just departed for annual summer camp, when they received emergency orders recalling them to their home base. All units were mobilised for fulltime war service and on 5 August 1914 moved to their allotted positions on the Tyne defences. By mid August 1914 the 1st Northumbrian Bde was equipped with the BLC 15-pounder gun which was a modernised version of the obsolete BL 15-pounder, now incorporating a recoil mechanism above the barrel and modified quick-opening breech. In early April 1915 the Division was warned that it would be going on overseas service and by the 23rd April the 1st (N) Bde had moved from its training area at Gosforth Park Racecourse to a harbour area just to the west of Ypres. The 1st Brigade along with its infantry brigade arrived just in time to go into the action, but due to limited supplies of ammunition the 1st Bde was not directly involved it the battle, unlike the infantry brigade which was not so lucky, receiving 70% casualties. Due to there being very limited supplies of the outdated 15-pdr ammunition the Bde took no part in any serious action until they were re-equipped with the new 18-pounder in October 1915. After some familiarisation training they were soon back in the line in time to give the Germans three good salvos on New Year's morning 1916. In March the 1st Northumbria Bde took part in their first major battle of the Ypres Salient. The weather was bitterly cold and accounted for more casualties than the enemy but the Bde did well in its first action.
By the beginning of April 1916 the Bde was replaced in the line and a fourth battery was raised. The new battery was ready by the middle of May but was taken to form a new 18-pdr Bde, while the batteries of 4th Durham How Bde were distributed to replace them. It was also at this time the Army reorganised the RFA and the 1st Northumbrian was re-titled the 250th Bde and the batteries titled with letters (rather than numbers) A to D, with D being the howitzer battery. Back in the line by early June it was not long before the battle of the Somme was raging and the Bde was in the thick of it. After the Somme offensive died down the Bde spent rest of the war moved up and down the line supporting whatever operation and/or division required it, first on the Somme then Ypres again and then Arris. They were gassed and shelled but moral was always high; the enemy they feared the most being the mud and diseases.
Peace came with a feeling of anti-climax. The Brigade had fought so hard, for so long that the reality that it was all over was hard to grasp. The Brigade moved to a rest area and started the long process of demobilisation. In the four terrible years they spent in France the Brigade had not fared too badly compared with the infantry, with 10 officers and 192 men killed. In July 1919 the final cadre of 250th Brigade, RFA returned to England for demobilisation from the war. With the 250th now back in the Barrack Road, Drill Hall, Cowgate, and C Bty in Blyth and with a new CO, Col N.L. Parmeter. The Bde now settled down to peace-time soldiering. In the autumn of 1919 the Territorial Force was reformed again and the following year renamed the Territorial Army. In 1920 the Brigade for a short time was again reconstituted as the 1st Northumbrian Brigade, RFA before being re-designated the following year as 72nd (Northumbrian) Brigade, RFA. The batteries were also now uniquely numbered 285, 286, 287 (Elswick) and 288 (Northumberland) Batteries respectively.
In 1924 72nd became 72nd (Northumbrian) Field Brigade followed by the change of the Bty subtitles to "Northumbrian" in 1928. What then followed was a number of years of relative stability until the demise of the Horse in the early 30s. There was a shortage of MT drivers and the conversion of the old horse drivers was a major undertaking. The transition was successfully achieved by 1933 despite a tendency to approach any natural obstacle at a gallop and the bigger the obstacle the faster the speed, which took a little time to eliminate. However all was ready for the Bde's first mechanized camp in the June of 1933.
In late 1938 the Royal Artillery decided that it again needed to change things, all brigades were to become regiments, so the 72nd became 72nd (Northumbrian) Field Regiment, RA. Also at the same time it was felt that four small batteries needed to change to two larger ones of three troops, 24 guns in total. The regular army managed this by merging batteries such as is done today 19/5 and 53/2 Btys but for the TA it was different. 72nd Field Regiment was quick off the mark transferring the personnel from 288 into 286 Bty and from 287 (Elswick) Bty from Blyth to join 285 Bty. Even before this first change was complete in early 1939 the TA was ordered to double in size. As before 72nd Fd Regt where quick to meet this new challenge. 287 (Elswick) and 288 Bty were transferred along with a cadre from the regiment to the newly raised duplicate 124th (N) Fd Regt RA (TA) which came on the army list on the 24th May 1939 and was the first regiment to complete the duplication process. They were co-located with 72nd Regt in the Cowgate Drill hall in Newcastle and assigned to 69 Bde, 23 (N) Infantry Division a duplicate of 50th (N) Division.
Chapter 2: The 124th's Phoney War 1940-41
Up until this point the history of 124th has been a shared one with that of 72nd, but from this point on, it has a story all its own. The CO, a former BC in 72nd Fd Regt, was Lt Col W.A. Swale MC. Recruiting was also brisk and a number of young solders joined up at this time. One such member of the regiment was Gunner Samuel Chantler who joined 287 Bty then part 72nd (N) Fd Regt RA at the age of 16 years and 7 months on the 2nd May 1939. It was acceptable to join the Territorial Army at 17 so he added a year onto his age when he enlisted. On formation of 124th Fd Regt the BC of 287 (Eswick) Bty was Maj Bransom who was a prominent city solicitor, and the BK was Capt Milligan, a member of an important family that ran a large glass company in the city. BSM Hull and TSM Beatty were both Great War veterans and were long-serving members of the Territorial Army. On formation of 124th Fd Regt Lt Harrison joined the battery, newly commissioned he was without a uniform and used to parade in smart overalls and sand brown. Equipment and uniforms were scarce during this early period immediately before the war and the training was of WWI vintage, as Samuel Chantler explained:
Our training in the newly formed regiment was pure Dad's Army. We were issued with various pieces of equipment at different times and we looked rather a queer lot, however we all got stuck in and done our best. We were soon moved out of 72nd Regts Drill Hall into a disused warehouse a short distance away. A few weeks later, one Saturday morning the Battery assembled, all in uniform by this time, with a water bottle slung on our hip, we boarded busses and left for Whitby. We camped on the North side of the town and slept in bell tents, everything else being in the open air. We had no guns or vehicles but the weather was good however so we all enjoyed our selves.
On Saturday 2nd September we were up early, breaking camp then boarding busses back to Newcastle. My mid day we were being billeted in Bath Lane School near the Drill Hall and we where told that war was immanent. On the Sunday morning the Battery was paraded for church when the Sirens Sounded. We marched to the Town Moor nearby and dispersed under trees lining the edges. We were there a couple of hours or so then returned to our billets at the school.
I became a trainee specialist and we would spread out over the moor doing T.E.W.T.s. We had old and obsolete, signalling and tactics which were more or less the same as had been used during the first war. In the school yard we had two old 4.5" Howitzers which had been converted to have rubber tyred wheels. It was interesting however and we all wondered weather we would be going. Our first days with 124th Fd Regt was just like Dad's Army but we never doubted we would win just as we had in the last one, after all most of us had fathers and uncles who had been the victors.
124th Fd Regt RA joined the 23rd Northumbrian Division which was raised as 2nd Line Territorial Army Division, again as a duplicate of the 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division in October 1939. In November 1939 all soldiers in Field Forces under the age of 18 were titled juveniles and were to be transferred to home based units. Samuel Chantler plus 39 other juveniles from 124th Fd Regiment RA were transferred to a local Territorial HAA Regiment, ending their time with the Regiment.
By January 1940 the Regiment was up to a strength of 571, but a number of key members were soon attach to various units of the BEF in France. Lt Col W.A. Swales MC. TD. RA, Capt C.R. Shortt, A/Major H.I. Bransom and 2/Lt H.N. Pickering to name but a few. Their attachment was most instructive and the lessons learnt were invaluable to the regiment and new training ideas where adapted and put into action on their return.
Also during these early times the regiment received a number of important visitors, the first of whom was General Sir William H Bartholomew GCB, CMG, DSO, ADC in January 1940, followed that February by Capt G. Bryan Conrad, the American Military Attaché. He was reported to have expressed surprise and admiration at the state of efficiency of the unit. General Sir Walter Kirke, GCB Commander-in-Chief of the Home Forces also visited the Regiment in February, just before the Regiment moved from Cowgate Schools to the Drill Hall, Barracks Newcastle-Upon-Tyne.
Training continued as 23rd Division was ordered to France with the BEF on the 22 April 1940 with its two infantry brigades 69th and 70th. The division was to be on labour and training duties and went out to France without any of its artillery, signals, or administration units, thus leaving 124th Fd Regt RA back in Newcastle training.
The war in France was all but over with the evacuation form Dunkirk of the BEF in May/June 1940. The 23rd and 50th Infantry Divisions were evacuated, with many casualties, in the first week of June 1940. The 50th Division was in fact the last division to leave Dunkirk. On arriving back in Britain the Division was dispatched up to Cheshire for rest and reorganisation. The 50th’s time in Cheshire was very short however and by the end of June the Division was moved down to Dorset as part of the anti-invasion plan covering the area from Lyme Regis to Christchurch, with its Divisional HQ based in Blandford.
It and it was during this time of reorganising 23rd Infantry Division was disbanded and 69 Infantry Brigade along with 124th Fd Regt RA (TA) was transferred to 50th Division joining them in Dorset in the July of 1940.
287 Bty were put on the various fixed guns around the Bournemouth area, while 288 Bty with their mobile French 75mm covered Pool Harbour to Brown Sea Island.
The Regiment received its first 25-pounders on 3 November 1940, and was up to full strength of 24 by the 20th December 1940. It was during this time that the Regiment experimented with 3 batteries of 8 guns for the first time with 'R' Battery being formed but it was short-lived, disbanding again after just two months.
50th Division the Regiment set sail on the SS Orduna from the Clyde on the 6th May 1941, for service in the Middle East. The convoy consisted of eight vessels and was escorted by HMS Exeter, HMS Argos (aircraft carrier), one AA cruiser and seven destroyers. It was a very eventful trip for the regiment as one of the vessels ran aground leaving the Clyde and was left behind, the Orduna's steering gear failed as it passed the entrance to the Mediterranean and collided with another ship, suffering superficial damage above the water-line. The convoy arrived at Freetown on the 4th June 1941 and stayed for refuelling for two days, leaving for Durban on the 6th less one vessel which had been badly damaged in a collision in the harbour.
The convoy arrived Durban on the 20th June 1941 and the regiment was granted a day's shore-leave, before the convoy moved on again on the 23rd. The Exeter's Walrus flying Boat crashed while landing on the 27 June 1941. The O.C. Troops Lt Col English VC was found to have died in his sleep and on arrival in Aden he was taken ashore for burial. The Regiment finally arrived at its destination, Tewfik on the 17 July 1941, disembarked and moved by train to Qassasin. On the 23rd June 1941 the Regiment fired its first shots in anger when a sentry fired three rounds at a person who failed to answer his challenge.
The regiment moved to Port Said where it boarded an Australian Cruiser HMAS Hobart bound for Famagusta, Cyprus arriving on the 5th August 1941. The Regiment was now part of the island defence with 288 Fd Bty based in Pane Lakkatania and 287 Fd Bty in Limassol. The Regiment gained two more guns on the 22nd August 1941, a pair of Italian 100/17 Howitzers which were used to cover the aerodrome at Ktima.
During the remaining months of 1941 the regiment settled in to the life in Cyprus but it was to be short lived.
Chapter 3: The MIDDLE EAST 1941-42
On the 31st October 1941 the regiment received a warning order to prepare to move from Cyprus. 50th Division along with 124th Regt RA left the island on the 3rd November handing over a lot of its equipment to 5th Indian Division who had arrived to take over. The regiment left in the dead of night, on the decks of warships, heading for ports in Palestine with the intention of concentrating in Iraq and move on to fight with the Russians in the Caucasus. The Division concentrated in Haifa, northern Palestine for re-equipping and preparing for the long trek east. The Division took over the weapons and equipment that had been left by 5th Indian Division which were in very poor shape some 900 vehicles were found to be total unserviceable.
News arrived that the division was expecting a push by the Germans south east into Persia and 50 Division was tasked to help hold their advance. Great urgency was now put on the division to re-equip, however it became so difficult to get the new equipment it was decided to strip 150th Bde of most of its transport vehicles and bring 69 and 151 Bdes up to strength. 150 Bde along with 72nd Fd Regt RA, 124th sister regiment would re-equip in slower time and join the division later. This completed the 50th now with only two brigades moved off towards Kirkuk vir Baghdad in Iraq. The 124th Regt RA reached their temporary camp site just outside Kirkuk on the 6th December as the original one was flooded. The operation planed for the Caucasus having been cancelled the Regiment got down to preparing its home on the campsite it now occupied only 6 miles from where it spent the first night. A terrific wind and rain storm blew up on the first day and made digging in and tent erection extremely difficult and many of the tents were blown across the site, one of which was the CO's much to his annoyance and the troop's amusement.
The storm soon passed over and
the damage soon rectified now the Regiment along with the division got on with
individual training and firing camps. The rains kept coming turning all the
roads very treacherous. The constant rain did start to dampen the Christmas
spirit but this was partially restored when the ration supplies arrived from
E.F.I on the 24th December. On Christmas day the Regiment was stood
down for the day and a substantial dinner including turkey with all the
trimmings dished up to the ranks by the Officers and NCOs. After the meal the CO
Lt Col J M Ripley addressed the men wish them Christmas greetings and
felicitations for 1942 and presented comforts to the men.
After a quite Christmas it was business as usual for the Division still minus 150 Brigade as it had been ordered to Syria to replace Australian units called back to defend their home land. Boxing Day found 288 Bty out with the infantry in 'Desert Column' Training while the rest of the regiment was on general training and maintenance. New Year's Eve was a quiet one, but as the regiment is 'Northumbrian' the 'Geordie' spirit was in evidence. New Years day again saw the regiment out training this time with the Green Howard's on co-operation training. Early January 1942 was a time for training, acclimatisation and sport. 287 Bty played inter-troop football matches on the 8th Jan, followed by an inter-troop alarm race on the 9th won by B troop. The following day there was an exciting football match between 287 Bty and the 5 East Yorks on a very wet and muddy pitch which the Battery lost 0 - 3.
On the 11th January the regiment received orders to return to Middle East Command so 124th prepared for the second trip across the Iraq Desert. The 124th left on the 13th January, moving west towards Syria stopping at a number of camps on route. The 287 Battery even had time on the 26th Jan 1942 for sport a Rugby and football match was played against the Cheshire Yeomanry the rugby drawing 11 - 11 and the football wining 2 - 1. The next day the regiment crossed the frontier into Syria and arrived at their new location Zabboud camp on the evening of the 27th Jan which they took over from the Australians. It was a hutted camp in a valley 20 miles north of Baalbeck and was the first time the Regiment had proper accommodation since arriving back in the Middle East. The time here was spent on vehicle maintenance and making themselves comfortable but again it was all to short as they were soon on the move again, this time to a half finished hutted camp by a small village called Laboue on the 8th February 1942.
The next two days were spent finishing the camp in time for a visit of Commander Royal Artillery 50th Division. He delivered a speech to the regiment telling everyone that there was to be glorious opportunities for a quick death, glory and rapid promotion (in which direction he did not say) and then left to let everyone draw their own conclusions, which they did. On the 11th the regiment was on the move again first to Palestine then on to Egypt passing through Cairo on the 13th February. The Regiment continued moving along the cost road via Sidi Barrani and Sollum into Lybia on the 18th February 1942. This road was a scene of desolation with burnt out vehicles every where, and it brought home to the men of the regiment that they where now close to that which they had been avoiding for two and a half years, the war.
Chapter 4: WESTERN DESERT 1942
124th Field Regiment RA's theatre of operations now changed to the North African desert, a vastnesses in which they were to fight until April 1943. The 50th Division History "Path of the 50th" by Maj Ewart Clay MBE describes it well.
It is unlikely that anyone who did not personally experience the desert in war will understand clearly the impressions of those who did. In the tales that will be told in the future will be many contradictions. Some people will dwell on the desert's hostility to all forms of life, and the discomforts it occasioned to those who had the temerity to try to support life in its sterile bosom. They will tell how myriads of flies, the most faithful camp followers in the history of warfare, plagued them throughout the day and sometimes clustered so thickly on their vehicles as to turn them from brown to black.
They will describe the abominable khamseen, the hot wind from the burning deserts of the south, which spread a smothering blanket of fine sand over everything, choked the nostrils, infiltrated into ears and eyes, and, when mouths were opened to swear, got into them too.
On the other hand, there will be others who will speak wistfully of sunsets, when coolness came upon the desert like a benediction after the heat of the day, and the sky was beautiful in pastel shades of heliotrope and pink; who will speak of long journeys through trackless wastes, accomplished by means of magnetic and sun compasses; who will affirm that there is a special joy in the desert in a beer or whisky and the light of a hurricane lamp at eventide.
The contradictions will be understandable to those who realize that the desert has many moods and is very large. The northern desert of Africa is, in fact, bigger than India.
The coastal strip, which is the part which concerned the Division, consists in Egypt of a coastal plain which is backed by an escarpment which runs parallel to it. From the top of the escarpment a plateau extends to the south. Up this barrier, at Sollum, the coastal road winds painfully; and a little to the south-east a secondary route - no more than a track - clambers to the top of Halfaya Pass.
Westward through Cyrenaica the escarpment is for the most part acse to the coast, and in the semi-circular bulge between Gazala and Benghazi it develops into the Akhdar Hills, green and pleasant, and colonized before the war by Italian smallholders.
The Gebel, as this country was called in the Eighth Army, is one of the few green areas in Libya. Along the coastal strip there is, generally speaking, just sufficient rainfall to support a thin, sporadic vegetation.
In places the desert suddenly blossoms, and in spring snail depressions may be carpeted with flowers. Such oases in the barren lands seem doubly beautiful by contrast with their surroundings. Here and there the Bedouin succeed in growing a thin crop of cereals. But in stark contrast to such glimpses of gentler country great tracts of sterile sand stretch away to far horizons under the staring sun, and fantastic mirages are the nearest thing to beauty which the traveller will find.
One piece of desert is very much like another, for the wilderness is full of repetitions. The newcomer, looking at a map produced in those early days, would sometimes say: "But why is all this space blank?" He would not yet have learned that the desert itself is some-rimes blank for scores of miles.
Landmarks were few. Rock cisterns, dug and cemented by the Romans, and usually flanked by twin mounds of excavated material, were invaluable guides to one's position. "Bir" (pronounced "Beer") was their Arabic name. Occasionally the map would show the tomb of some desert personage. Sometimes it was just four low walls, like a miniature village penfold, with white rags fluttering from it. Occasionally the humble grave of a desert commoner, just a few stones apparently pitched on to the face of the desert, would help an anxious navigator.
Tracks there were, and when these were marked by route posts they were invaluable. But often the criss-cross comings and goings of the vehicles of two armies had resulted in a maze of tracks to which it was safest to pay no attention.
Natural features, with a few notable exceptions, did not exist in any marked form, though experience taught the soldier to recognize slight rises and falls in the desert for what they were. "Return to this depression tonight," said an officer to the leader of a small patrol. "What depression?" was the reply. "The one we're in now," said the officer.
The 8th Army had pulled back halfway across North Africa before stopping just east of the Libya-Egypt frontier on a line south of coastal town called Gazala, approximately 20 miles west of Tobruk. The 50th Division had been given the centre of the line to defend, taking over positions from 4th Indian Division. The 1st South African Division was covering north to the sea and 201 Guard Brigade and the Free French covering the South. 1st and 7th Armoured Divisions were behind the line waiting to counter any enemy armoured thrusts around the exposed southern flank.
On arriving in the desert 50th Division found 150th Brigade had already arrived and taken up the northern position in the divisional area. The middle position was taken over by 151 Bde with 74th Fd Regt RA and 69 Bde with 124th Fd Regt RA took the southern area. The defensive line relied heavily on mine fields to fill the gaps between boxes and there was quite an extensive one of about 6 miles between 69 Bde and 201 Guards Brigade the next box to the south. 124th arrived in the "69 Brigade Box", on the 23rd February 1942 and took over a fairly well prepared position from 144th Fd Regt RA and spent the rest of the month settling in and improving their camouflaging and defences. On the 3rd March, 287 Bty had there first real taste of the desert warfare when they formed part of a 69 Bridge mobile column, a large fighting patrol which to some was a contentious tactic.
"The contention was," writes Lieutenant-Colonel R.H.L. Wheeler RA, who was GSOl a Gunner and who left 50th Division in the April to command 1st Fd Regt RA "that this position would be a secure base, holding fast in spite of enemy break-through and giving to our armoured forces a point of manoeuvre. It is evident that this policy gave the Germans the initiative from the outset. It is hard to see what else could have been done with the resources then available."
"The patrolling activity which the Division carried out was perhaps not based on such sound logic. Against the Italians small columns of all arms, perhaps two companies or a battalion of infantry with supporting arms, all motorized, and pursuing harassing tactics, had been very successful."
"This doctrine was handed on to the Division, who accepted it enthusiastically. Brigades took it in turn to find the column, which ranged No Man's Land, shelled enemy positions and then slipped away and sent out fighting patrols at night This was excellent training for commanders, and for all ranks in 'desert drill.'"
"The Germans, however, experienced and strong-nerved, did not react. They gave little sign that they had noticed our columns, but occasionally they would come out in force with tanks. A column could not take on a force of tanks, and had to retreat precipitately. Two columns got mauled. This was bad training, but it happened so seldom that, probably, little harm was done."
"It is certain that these sorties were necessary if the troops were to avoid clinging to the protection of their minefields with all the attendant loss of initiative and nerve."
The Column headed out of the 69 Brigade box heading south before turning northwest. The Battery contacted armoured cars belonging to 1st Armoured Division who reported that Abiar el Aleima had been occupied by the enemy. Soon after that the 287 Battery was then called into action to engage some enemy lorrys believed to be laying mines, 120 rounds were fired and at least one lorry was destroyed. The OP then came under enemy artillery fire there work done the regiment came out of action and moved off and laagered up for the night. Early the following day 4 enemy field guns were seen coming into action, 287 Bty again came into action and fired 16 rounds on top of them at a range of 1100 yards. One towing vehicle was destroyed, forcing the enemy to leave a gun behind when pulling out. A little later a large force of some 25 vehicles returned and rescued the left gun. The battery was called upon to support the Column on a number of occasions over the next few days until it retuned to the brigade box in heavy rain on the 6th March. Over the next couple of days the regiment got back into improving the defences and maintenance on the equipment, including the painting of the cross of St Andrews on the Bonnets of the vehicles.
It was now 9th March and it was 288 Bty's turn to go out with the 69 Brigade mobile column. The battery soon contacted two officers from 74 Fd Regt RA at Sid Breghisc, and found the minefields reported in this area did not appear to exist. In the afternoon the battery came under fire from 75 mm and 105mm guns. They used minimum adjustment often only one air burst at a time and use a roving OP. Meanwhile 124th OPs in there static positions were subjected to intermittent shelling from 105mm guns. After a quite night at 1400 hrs the following day the Bty dropped into action with established OPs and 2 FOB registered various points and engaged small bunches of enemy troops. The battery established an OP at Gabr el Aleima however they were later chased from position by a German Armoured Car which stopped to fire at intervals but did not hit anything.
On the 11th March at 1230 hrs the Battery came into action northwest of Bir Sferi which had excellent command of surrounding countryside. A number of targets were engaged including a herd of camels which were mistaken for enemy vehicles. After engaging a large enemy concentration that had been passed to the battery by a Sergeant in the armoured car squadron a plan was made to put a troop into action the next morning. At 0800 hrs the Troop came into action with the Troop Commander observing from an armoured OP. A roving enemy OP was soon spotted and engaged before it despairing into dead ground. The roving OP appeared again and later brought down fire on our own OPs which had also spotted by an armoured car which opened fire with its cannon. The OPs led the Armoured Car to within 10000 yards of the troop position but as the target was in cover most of the time only three rounds were fired at it before it went away. The Column retuned to the brigade box on the evening of the 12th March and after a nights sleep the battery joined the rest of the Regiment on digging in and maintenance duties.
On the 17th March the whole regiment was to take part in a divisional formed general patrol with three columns, 124th was part of "C Column". At 0615 hrs that morning the regiment left the perimeter and at 0955 hrs contacted the 151 Bde Coy. At 1100 hrs they joined the 69 Bde Coy where the regiment was joined by one field battery and one troop of light anti aircraft. On the evening of the 17th the regiment arrived at Got Tarraf a large depression approximately 10 miles from the coast and completed a reconnaissance of Eluet el Aggara. This place had been described as an important topographical feature. A patrol done on the night 15/16 March had reported that it was held by approximately one company of infantry but any advance towards it was overlooked for a distance of six miles from a pimple on the high ground called Gabr el Aleima. Under these circumstances it was considered that a dawn attack was impractical and a report sent to that effect was sent at dawn on the 19 March.
If Eleut el Agarra was to be taken then a daylight attack would have to be made. As no reply to the report having been received by 0800 hrs, it was decide to attack Eluet el Agarra that afternoon and a further recce took place. At 1430 hrs an attack was launched by B and D Coys 7th Green Howards, no infantry opposition was encountered during the attack but 124 Fd Regt RA were heavily shelled. The objective was taken by 1730 hrs and on arrival at the objective the infantry brought up heavy MGs and anti-tank artillery. Their position soon came in for heavy shelling and under fire from some passing AFVs. The object proved to be anything but an outstanding topographical feature. From it the field of view there was nowhere more than 1000 yards and the best that could be obtained nearby was an arc approx. 330 - 90 degrees. There were some wadis in the locality which afforded some cover but generally the whole position was overlooked by the Pimple. With the force available to the column all round defence was impossible and the back of the position was wide open to AFV attack over favourable ground.
A sect of 287 Fd Bty was brought up close and helped to keep down the enemy fire. Our artillery was very active shelling the OP and enemy guns on the PIMPLE. Two enemy armoured cars appeared on a track some 1000 yards north of our position and fired a few rounds but some machine gun fire and a few rounds of 2-pdr drove them off. It was decided that "C Column" would attack the Pimple at dawn on the 21st March. A recce patrol was therefore sent out but failed to find out any new information. At 0615 hrs the regiment heard machine gun and artillery fire coming from the direction of the pimple and a green followed by a red Verey light was sent up twice. The firing did not continue for long and it was not known whether the Pimple had been captured or not. A liaison Officer from the regiment was dispatched to "A Column" to find out. He reported that the Pimple was still in enemy hands and 124th was to stand by to support the attack with artillery fire if called upon. In the end the regiments help was not required because on the appearance of our tanks the forces holding the Pimple surrendered. The regiment was tasked to provide an escort for the prisoners and later the collection and destruction of enemy materiel. At 1100 hrs "C Column” was ordered to send a copany of infantry with machine guns and anti-tank guns to take the Pimple.
The orders were to hold the Pimple to cover the withdrawal of "Column B" after which orders would be given to withdraw. At about 1015 hrs the enemy started shelling the Pimple, and 15 minutes later orders were received from Brig Nicholls to start thinning out the position. At about the same time dust was seen indicating vehicles on the Tmimi Mechili road and were then seen to turn in a southerly direction. At this point Brig. Nicholls ordered the withdrawal to be speeded. The regiment fired a ranging shot at the approaching troops, estimated at 40 vehicles, but they disappeared before effective fire could be brought to bear. The regiment then came out of action and followed the rest of "C Column" back to the Box which was reached at about 1530 hrs.
During the operation T/Capt W.H. Willis, Sgt Story and Sgt Cartwright were wounded, five vehicles had been captured including a halftrack and some British vehicles for the loss of one 8-cwt truck and a gun limber.
For 69 Brigade April was very similar to March with first one battery going on patrol followed by the other and the constant preparation of defences and training. A force the size of this made re-supply very difficult, the desert supplied nothing so everything the Army needed, from water to ammunition, had to be brought to them from somewhere else. These supplies came both by road and rail which had been extended for the purpose and by three pipelines which had been laid for the job. The task of re-supply was difficult and thankless and some of the issues were even remarked upon in the regiment's War Diary for April.
The reserve water supply in 44 Gall drums found to be undrinkable and Condemned by Medical Officer. New supply of reserve water delivered RASC. On examination this was also not fit for human consumption One drum was practically crude oil. We are getting used to drinking petrol and paraffin with our water, but we draw the line at crude oil
On the 24th April the Regiment took part in a three-day Bde exercise with the object of learning co-operation with tanks, two Troops were left on perimeter in an anti tank role. The rest of the month was quiet with maintenance and general duties.
While April was quite for 74th Fd Regt in 151 Bde and 124th Fd Regts in 69 Brigade, for 72nd Fd Regt in 150 Bde April brought a change of fortune that was not to be for the better. It became clear that the Germans would be ready for an offensive before the 8th Army so Gen Ritchie set about making the Army's final defensive preparations. The 1st South African Brigade was sent to relieve the 150th Brigade in the northern part of the 50th Division's position and the 150th Brigade was sent south to relieve the 201st Guards Brigade in the Ualeb area, south of the Trigh Capuzzo. The new 150th Brigade position was very difficult to defend with a perimeter of twenty miles was separated from the 69th Brigade by a gap of six miles, was too big for three battalions, uncompleted. Ten miles to the south of the 150th Brigade were the Free French in Bir Hacheim both gaps were again covered by extensive minefields. 201st Guards Brigade moved into a defended area locality called Knightsbridge in the centre of the rear. In Knightsbridge were the first 6-pounder anti-tank guns to be seen in the desert - they had arrived a few days before the battle began. The Division still had its 47-mms and 65th A/Tank Regiment with its 2-pounders. The 1st Army Tank Brigade and the 7th Medium Regiment, RA, were also put under the command of the 50th Division.
From north to south the Army's dispositions were:
Gazala.-- 1st South African Division.
Alem Hamza.-- One brigade of the 2nd South African Division.
Behind this line: 201st Guards Brigade (Knightsbridge) and
1st Armoured Division. Alem Hamza to Gabriel.-- 151st Brigade. Behind this line: 7th
Armoured Division. Fachri.-- 69th Brigade.
Trigh Capuzzo to Ualeb -- 150th Brigade
Bir Heneim -- Free French Brigade
The Battle of Gazala
The May and June pages from the war diary of the 124th for were lost during the battle of Gazala so a lot of this next section has been put together from fragments of information. On the 2nd May 1942 275 Anti-Tank Battery was posted to 124th Fd Regt with it brought it 12 portee 2-pdr Anti Tank guns on a Morris CS8 vehicle. This type of equipment was new to Regiment and it was left very much to the BC to get the best use out of it. It soon proved its worth defending OP positions when on the on the 13th May 2/Lt Oakes was in charge of a section of his troop on just such a duty when at 0345 hrs 4 German Panzer III tanks were seen approaching the position. Capt Adamson the OP officer gave the order to withdraw, when the tanks were only 1200 yards from the position and still advancing. 2/Lt Oakes sent his second gun to take up a hull down position on the flank and mounted the other gun himself.
In spite of the heavy and concentrated fire from the tanks he succeeded in delaying their advance and managed hits on two out of the four tanks. He was now isolated as the 4 Panzer IIIs kept approaching but as they moved out of his view the other gun on the flank came into action. Using this covering fire he began to stalk the tanks going forward to close with them. He was sitting in the layer’s seat himself when suddenly he came upon all four tanks only 600 yards away. He fired at least 12 rounds into them scoring hits on all them and hitting one in particular several times. His gun now came in for some heavy and accurate machine gun fire as well as some 50mm from the Panzer III's main armament. One round of the latter hit the vehicle amidships throwing two members of his detachment to the ground and setting fire to the box seat and it's contents. 2/Lt Oakes extinguished the flames with a Pyrene fire extinguisher and got both of his detachment back on to the gun under heavy fire, and made a hasty retreat.
Both members of the detachment had been wounded one in the leg and the other in the back and 2/Lt Oakes had sustained a large skin wound in the back of the head. On arrival, at the 25-pounder troop position, onto which he had very effectively lured the tanks, he sent his two wounded men to the Regimental Aid Post in his truck and reported to the B.C., who in turn sent him to have his own wounds dressed. For this action 2/Lt Oakes was awarded the Military Cross.
Most of May was the usual bout of patrols and maintenance and preparation but everyone knew it could not last and there was a real feeling that something was going to happen at any moment. Then on night of the 26th May it did, when after a sustained artillery bombardment the Italian 10th and 21st Corps supported by elements from the Africa 20th Mobile Corps launched their attack on the north and central Gazala positions. 151st and 69th Divisions found themselves facing 10th Italian Corps of two divisions, but dug into defensive positions they were able to hold their ground.
WOII (BSM) Fredrick Knowles Troop Sergeant Major of ? Troop, 288 Bty was managing the ammunition re-supply at there position in Fachri. During this onslaught of MG and artillery fire he carried on sorting out the ammunition and evacuation of wounded and when the position became untenable he organised the move of the troop to their alternative position. All this was carried out while under heavy fire and he was later awarded the Military Medal his citation read;
He never once took cover and his exertions and devotion to duty went a very long way to minimise casualties to men and equipment. His presence of mind and coolness under fire were a shining example to his Troop. Later on he was wounded whilst convoying ammunition to his Troop position, in the GAZAIA LINE on about 6th June. Over a period of time this Warrant officers devotion to duty was an example to his troop.
On this the opening day of the Battle another medal was one by the Regiment this time by L/Sgt Billingham of ? Troop, 288 Bty. He was in charge of his Troop wagon lines and ammunition re-supply also at Fachir. Any movement between Troop and Wagon lines attracted heavy gun fire. With one Quad already out of action. L/Sgt Billingham decided rather than risk a succession of Quads running the gauntlet to the Troop with ammunition, he would take just his with a long trail of ammunition trailers behind it. This he did twice under heavy shell fire enabling the guns to be fully supplied during a critical part of the battle.
This phase of the attack soon proved to be a feint, as early on the 27th the greater part of the German Afrika Korps, 90th, 15th, 21st Divisions together with the Italian Ariete Division, swung around the unprotected flank of the Gazala Line, and headed north, with Tobruk as their objective.
While the 69th and 151st brigades of 50th Division were occupied in the centre with orders to stay put in their defensive positions, the Germans soon started to try to lift the vast minefield between 69th and 150 Brigades' area in the south. It was Rommel's intention to shorten his lines of supply creating lanes through the minefield and thus establishing a direct route east and west across this unoccupied stretch of desert. The Allies’ intention, however, was to enclose this piece of ground, nicknamed the 'Cauldron', and set up a killing field to destroy the enemy's armour. This forced the rest of the Division and in particular 124th Fd Regt RA with its sister 72nd Fd Regt RA in 150th Brigade, to face the heaviest attacks. With the British armoured divisions (which were held in reserve to engage any attacks round the flanks) committed, 50th Divisional raised a Mobile Reserve consisting of:
Headquarters, 1st Army Tank Brigade (Brigadier O'Carroll).
44th Royal Tank Regiment.
One squadron, 42nd Royal Tank Regiment.
One squadron, South African Armoured Cars.
287th Battery, 124th Field Regiment (Major Ian Bransom).
6th Green Howards (Lieutenant-Colonel E.C. Cooke-Collis).
One company, 2nd Cheshire Regiment.
The British armour had managed to hold Rommel's tanks around the areas of Harmat and Knightsbridge Box, but they were hard pressed, so at approximately 10.00 hrs on the 27th of May the Division dispatched the reserve to occupy Bir Aslagh, which was about half-way between Harmat and Knightsbridge. This put them between the enemy and the rear of the 150th Brigades position with the intention of protecting the 150th Brigade's rear, and also to establish an "anvil" against which the British armour could hammer the enemy. The mobile reserve was soon in action against an enemy force moving north, and although well dug in they continued to take casualties throughout the day including several tanks, but it soon became clear that while it was a heavy attack this was not their main advance. The 150th Brigade also sent out a mobile column to assist the mobile reserve, and the medium battery (Battle Axe) gave artillery support to the reserve from within the brigade box.
The battle raged on through the night but by 07.00hrs on the 28th May the mobile reserve had been relieved enough but the 150th Brigade column to enable it to move to a new location at Knightsbridge, which they occupied without opposition. However even with some armour left behind to support the Brigade column, a heavy attack forced them out of the Aslagh area.
It was during the support to Knightsbridge with the mobile reserve that 287 Battery was attacked by 40 German tanks. It soon became obvious that the position was untenable, BSM Dash, against all the odds extracted his troop at a time when the whole battery was surrounded and under murderous artillery and MG fire and one troop already overrun. He then managed to lead the complete troop from the position and back to the 69 Brigade area for which he was awarded the MM. Despite this it was 124th Fd Regiment's blackest day of the war losing 287 Bty battery in its first major engagement.
The Regiment now back together and now down to 16 guns spent time sorting out its defensive positions in the 69th brigade area. While the main part of Rommel’s forces concentrated their attention on the 150th Brigade area. 72 Regt where now down to twenty-five rounds per gun which made it very difficult to stop any of the work the Germans were doing on lifting the minefield. Trucks were sent back for more ammunition but were not seen again by the Brigade.
The 29th May brought more of the same, the enemy gaining ground a little and the shelling of the divisional area increased. During the day the enemy managed to get supplies to his armour in the Cauldron who which running critically low on petrol and water. This re-supplied German force along with the serious shortage of ammunition by the besieged troops added to the deteriorating situation of the 150th Brigade.
Elsewhere on the divisional front the Italians never looked like penetrating the division’s defences while the Germans concentrated on opening the supply routes to it main force pushing for Tobruk. During the 30th May the 150th Brigade fought a desperate battle "plugging up holes" as the enemy now surrounded their entire position. While the 150th Brigade fought on attempts were being made to send ammunition through, but on the two nights it was tried the enemy cordon proved to string.
31st of May the enemy finally broke into the north-east corner of the brigade area a Company, of the 4th East Yorkshire and "F" Troop, 286th Bty, 72nd Regt RA, fought from 1000 hrs until 1600 hrs before they were crushed. The Bofors of "A" Troop, 81st Battery, 25th Light AA Regt engaged some Panzer IV tanks until a direct hit put the gun out of action. The brigades few remaining tanks managed to seal off this break through. As night fell on the 31st the brigade still held its front line but with no reserves and only thirteen tanks things where grim. The Artillery of the brigade was no better off there were six medium guns with twenty rounds each, and 72nd Regiment was down to twelve 25-pounders with less than a hundred rounds among them. If the brigade was not relived by morning the brigade could not hope to hold out any longer. The Divisional had been given orders expressly forbidden it to go to the aid of 150th brigade. So it was with a great sadness that 69th and 151st Brigades where to stand by and watch the demise of the 150th Brigade and 72 Fd Regt RA the sister regiment of 124th Fd Regt RA. At first light on the 1st of June the enemy attacked from all sides, and the brigade was soon overrun and captured. The Germans had not only destroyed an entire brigade they were now entrenched in the centre of the British defensive Gazala Line.
Later on June 14th and 15th in the GAZAIA breakthrough a column of vehicles in which he was driving became involved with mine-fields After the Officer in charge of the column had found a safe passage L/Sgt BILLINGHAM "policed” the whole column through to safety, although the area was being harassed by shell fire.
Later between June 28th and July 1st he was largely instrumental in extracting the Troop vehicles under his cbarse from positions around Deir El Shein which were under hostile fire from Guns, Tanks, and machine guns. L/Sgt Billingham has, always shown the greatest initiative and his infectious cheerfulness and courage are an example to all the men who were with him.
Lord Robert Blake (who died in 2003 aged 86) was for many years a leading historian of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century Conservative Party. But on the outbreak of war he joined the Royal Artillery, and in 1942 was captured outside Tobruk while serving with 124th Field Regiment. He was taken first to Bari and then to a camp in central Italy, where over 15 months he read through the Bible, Shakespeare and much of Gibbon, as well as memorising the contents of an Italian dictionary. When the order came for the camp to be evacuated, Blake and four companions hid in the rafters of their hut despite German threats to toss in hand grenades as they left. The Germans went round the huts with a basket of grenades, but only a boot was thrown into the hut hiding Blake and his friends. When he and his four companions finally emerged after 14 days, the camp was deserted.
Blake used his newly acquired Italian to approach a woman working in a field. She agreed to help, taking him and two others to stay in a flat. This was so small that the three men, as well as the young son of the house, had to sleep in the marital bed; and when the Germans came knocking on the door they all had to cram into the lavatory. To keep his mind active, Blake memorised the pattern of rail traffic which they could hear outside.
In January 1944 the three men bade farewell to their hosts and set off with a larger party of escapers and Italian deserters to cross the Maiella Pass in thick snow, where they were uneasily aware of being watched by red-eyed wolves. When they finally reached the Eighth Army, Blake passed on his information about the railway traffic, which the RAF used to bomb an ammunition train; he was mentioned in dispatches.
Blake never forgot his Italian experience; when he published an entertaining anthology, The Sayings of Disraeli, in 1992 he touchingly dedicated it to "George Burnett and Arthur Dodds, companions in our escape from Italy, 1943-44".
The Regiment, now two batteries of eight guns 288 Bty and 489 Bty, was moved to the 8th Army reserve potion at El Alamain on the 24th August 1942 and split up. 288 Fd Bty was attached to 74 Fd Regt and 489 was attached to 97 Fd Regt. The first time any of the batteries had been in action since Tobruk was on the 31st when 288 Fd Bty engaged the enemy at long range. The 124th Fd Regt RA was soon reunited and on the 26th October 1942 at 00.22 hrs the Battle of El Alamain began with a massive bombardment.
On the 28th November, 441 Bty joined the Regiment from 58th Fd Regt RA and this was the form the Regiment would stay in for the rest of the war. The 124th Fd Regt RA now followed the 50th Division on the pursuit of Rommel all the way to Tunisia until the surrender of the Africa Korps.
Prisoners of war
On the night of 13th November 1942 the Italian transport
ship SS Scillin was en route from Tripoli to Sicily with about 815 Commonwealth
prisoners-of-war on board and some 200 Italian soldiers.
The conditions in the hold were terrible. It was so over crowded that no-one could lie down. About half the men had dysentery and a great many were seasick. The only air and light came in through a small hatch. It was kept open during the day and battened down at night.
The ship sailed from Tripoli on a northerly course, keeping close to the shore. At 1929 hours on the 14th November 1942, she was sighted off Cape Bon ,some 10 miles north of Cape Milazzo in the Tyrrhenian Sea, by the British submarine HMS Sahib (P212), commanded by Lieutenant John Bromage. The HMS Sahib (P212), part of a patrol line of 10 submarines deployed to intercept the enemy main fleet if it attempted to interfere with the Allied landings in Algeria (Operation TORCH). The submarine was on the surface and, as the target was an unarmed coastal ship, opened fire with her 3 inch gun, scoring 10 hits from 12 shots. At the time the SS Scillin seemed be heading towards Africa and carried no sign or flag and as the submarine's orders were that only African-bound ships were to be torpedoed.
The SS Scillin continued to ignore the warning and sent
a wireless transmission that it was under attack. At 19.50 hours HMS Sahib
fired a single torpedo hitting the SS Scillin engine room and the ship sank by
the stern in under a minute.
HMS Sahib then proceeded to the scene to pick up survivors, and the crew were horrified to hear shouts of "British prisoners of war!" from the water. In the next 35 minutes she picked up 27 prisoners of war (26 British and one South African) and 35 Italian crew, but was forced to break off the action on the approach of an anti-submarine vessel. The survivors later reported that before the SS Scillin was torpedoed the prisoners attempted to remove the boards over the hatches in order to get on deck, but the Italian guards forced most of them back into the hold, from which they had no chance of escape when the torpedo struck.
Most of the British POWs died instantly when the torpedo blew the bottom of the hold in which the British prisoners were herded.
At a subsequent inquiry into this 'friendly fire' tragedy, Lieutenant John Bromage was cleared of any wrongdoing. At the time he firmly believed that the ship was carrying Italian troops. The Ministry of Defence kept this incident a closely guarded secret for fifty-four years, telling relatives a pack of lies, maintaining that they had died while prisoners-of-war in Italian camps. It was not until 1996, after repeated requests for information from the families of the drowned men that the truth came out. The submarine HMS Sahib was attacked by bombs from escort German JU-88s and depth charges from the Italian corvette Gabbiano in the counter-attack immediately after the sinking. Badly damaged, the HMS Sahib was later abandoned and scuttled.
During investigations it was found that the SS Scillin had no life-belts or life-boats and the hatch had been battened down. However, the charge of the murder of 783 prisoners was dropped in January 1947 due to lack of evidence.
EL ALAMAIN to TUNISIA
124th Fd Regt RA's time in Sicily is not well documented in the Regiment's war diary but there are two comprehensive reports covering two small actions that the Regiment took part in during the battle for Sicily. The first is from ran anonymous report on the action of the Regiment at Lentini, found in the Public Records Office. The second comprises excerpts from Capt D.L.C. Price's notes on the operations he took part in with 288 Bty.
As part of the 50th Division the 124th were then moved to Egypt in May 1943 to prepare for the Sicily landings. The Division commenced landing in SICILY from 0245 hrs onwards on 10 July 1943, all personnel of 124 Field Regiment RA were, less rear parties, were ashore by midday. The first days positions were reconnoitred SOUTH and SOUTHWEST of AVOLA, to cover the beaches; also in the area immediately NORTH of CASSIBILE. The former were not however occupied, but the latter were. During the next few days the following positions were occupied:- (a) on the road CANICATTINI BAGNI - SIRACUSA (b) SOUTH of FLORIDIA (c) on the road FLORIDIA - SORTINO (d) just EAST of SORTINO (e) 3 miles NORTH of SORTINO (f) about 7 miles SOUTH of' LENTINI. Although in the early stages little shooting took place, the actual movements were such that most people got very little sleep between the night before landing and the night of 14/15 July.
On the afternoon of the 14th July 124th Field Regiment RA, in support of 69 Infantry Bde arrived in LENTINI to a delirious welcome from what appeared to be the entire population of the town, and it was felt that there was a sporting chance of at least some undisturbed sleep that night. Various factors prevented this however. Firstly was due to an unfortunate episode during reconnaissance of the regimental areas later that afternoon which resulted in the deaths of Major Paul Perbury MC (B.C. 288), Capt. Peter Thomas Gidley Withycombe (Troop Comdr B Troop), Gunners Roy McKee and Ronald Weidner (BC’s detachment). A number of Italians had been giving themselves up, and on this particular occasion a party was discovered in the regimental area. Thinking little of it, the BC and B troop Comdr approached the party to receive their surrender. Suddenly a German bolted from the lorry in which the Italians had been travelling and almost immediately there was a very large explosion, killing, Major Perbury, Capt Withycombe and the BC's driver and wounding several Italian prisoners. The explosion also seriously wounded his operator who later died from his wounds. All four were buried in the Catania war cemetery, Sicily.
As a result of this episode a fresh reconnaissance took place, and positions were chosen close into CARLENTINI village on the road to AGNONE, where it was decided that interference by wandering parties of enemy troops would be less probable. Whilst preparations were being made to occupy these positions and while the 288 Battery was involved in the long column of 50th Division winding through CARLENTINI, a lorry approached from the east along the AGNONE road towards the 489 Battery position. It was challenged by one of the Regiment's Bren Carrier OPs, which had been put out for this very purpose, but it declined to halt. Fire was opened with a Bren and rifles, but it was not until the lorry was well within the area, and even revolvers had been brought into play that it was finally halted. It disgorged some 20 ancient, battered and grey bearded Italians from the coastal battalion who were greeted by the CO with the remark "You silly old men! What are you doing fighting in this war?" Incidentally on his way to the original recce of this area the CO had been some what embarrassed by the appearance of three Germans and an Italian. The Germans were fully armed and equipped, and more than a match for the CO and his Jeep driver whose total armament at that moment was one rifle, one Tommy gun and one revolver. However, they fortunately decided to accept the CO's hospitality for the duration and all was well. Later in the day a further recce down the AGNONE road produced 15 more Italians of the MARINI battalion. Such was the state of confusion in the enemy ranks that numbers of such bodies were wandering around in the area covered by the Division and many of them surrendered eagerly when permitted to do so; the appearance of these parties was therefore not particularly alarming.
The position was duly occupied by 489 Bty with 441 Bty and the RHQ arriving later just after dark. Owing to the late hour and subsequent developments 288 Bty bivouacked in the streets of CARLENTINI through which a steady stream of troops was still proceeding. Steps were taken to piquet routes into the area Lt Irwin being in charge of one patrol and to ensure that the local defence was more carefully organised than usual. The afternoon's experiences persuaded every man to keep his weapon and ammunition very close to hand. It was not until about 2000 hrs, as it was getting dark, that a column including tanks was reported approaching the position.
Meanwhile in the field on the north side of the road 489 Bty had been waiting in tense expectation. Suddenly there came a warning order from Captain Langlands "Tank alert", the sound of tracked vehicles coming up the hill could be plainly heard. The standing patrol which had been posted down the road withdrew, and the first vehicle that loomed up was a large truck towing a field kitchen. This sailed past unmolested and was brought to a halt by the previously captured lorry, which had been used as a block at the road fork.
Some suspected that this was not a British vehicle prepared them selves, L/Bdr Armiger then jumped into the road with a rifle. In the trees on the right was Gnr Phillips of 441 Fd Bty concealed with a Bren gun. Two or three motorcyclists appeared first; no one fired as no one was sure whether the approaching column was enemy or friendly. At a few yards range the leading motorcyclist fired the machinegun mounted on his cycle, he was challenged and put his hands up. Lt Stevenson shouted "Don't kill him" and L/Bdr Armiger threw down his rifle and knocked the man clean off his cycle with his fist. Another of these motorcyclists was shot by Phillips and a third by Bdr Anson.
Three minutes later tanks could be heard coming round the last bend onto the straight. No 3 Gun of D Troop fired three rounds of HE at 900 yds along the direction of the road. No 4 gun fired one round AP at the leading tank, but could not get sufficient depression, for the road was in a hollow rut below the level of the field. Simultaneously in C troop Sgt Halliwell, whose gun had been brought into action just inside the wall and was laid and loaded ready, jumped into the road with Bdr Gray, while the rest of the crew took up defensive positions with rifles. They suddenly saw the tanks approaching, but before they could get to their gun it was fired by Lt Irwin who had come back from his patrol unobserved. It had proved impossible to get the gun on its platform at that particular point and when it was fired it jumped back and broke Lt Irwin’s leg.
By now, every man had a Bren, Tommy gun or rifle in action and was thoroughly enjoying the fray. There was considerable danger, however, in that those in the rear, if not strictly controlled, might fire into the backs of the friendly troops in front of them. This danger was fortunately averted, chiefly owing to timely intervention of Sgt Ashton of D Troop who indicated the position of his troop by his shouts during a lull. The leading tank, finding a 25-pdr shell whizzing over its head from point-blank range, swerved and hit the wall. An officer got out, and fired with his revolver at Gnr Phillips in the trees (at five yards range). Phillips replied with a burst from his Bren, but both men managed to miss each other. The tanks behind also stopped, and since they could not use their guns, as they were beneath the level of the wall, returned fire over the wall with their automatics. They also threw a few grenades. Some of the Italians lined the cactus hedge on the far side of the road from the battery. It was one of these bullets from here that killed Captain Ninian Langlands at ten yards range, as he was standing in the open directing the fire of his troop. He too is buried at the Catania War cemetery Sicily
At this stage there was a call from C Troop to charge and man the wall, this received immediate response and from then on many of the Gunners remained standing by the wall, firing point blank at the tanks and their escort of motor cyclists, there was also a general uproar of shouting and firing for a few minutes. Most of the men were shouting "Pack in", "Give up" and certain more colloquial expressions, and seemed surprised that the Italians did not cotton on to what they meant. The Italians shouted back "Italiano, Italiano" apparently thinking that we were Germans (so one POW said).
The confusion was increased by the men of 441 Bty and the RHQ who were packed in the road on the left of the field. Not suspecting the presence of any enemies, they were astonished to find bullets begin to whistle over the road. The greater part at once took cover at the foot of the high walls bounding the road. The RSM boldly leaped the wall and advanced towards the firing to see what he could do. The men then got hold of their small arms, lined the wall and started to return the fire in the general direction of the shooting and shouting on their right until their officers prevented them, not knowing if it was friend or foe; 489 Bty was for a time between two fires.
After a few minutes the CO managed to restrain the firing and restore order; the Italians were summoned to surrender, which they were perfectly ready to do, but whoever they showed themselves someone would open fire and they popped down into their tank again. At last BSM Moore, Sgt Ferguson and many others leaped over the wall and pulled them out of their tanks by bruit force. (The 'tanks' were 3 47/32 Semovento, open at the top, armed with one 47mm gun and one M.G.) Lt Stevenson got into the hindmost one, to try and block the road with it, but it would only go backwards, so he got out and then with several others held up 2 more tanks and some more motor cyclists who came round the corner. Sgt Waugh and Gnr Lawley, who joined this party, both went in to mop up these tanks in spite of the fact that neither of them had any ammunition left by this stage!
Shortly afterwards a party headed by Lt Easter, Lt Smith and the RSM went round the first corner and found 2 stationary tanks. They fired at them, rushed up and overpowered the crews. Gnr Phillips took charge of 9 prisoners and was marching than back when another tank was heard at thy foot of the hill, they all waited in the road, concealed, as it roared up firing its machine guns. One burst of fire halted it and it jammed against the wall. Phillips re-marshalled his prisoners but as he did so the barrel of his Bren gun fell off and (not being a Bren gunner) had to shout for help to put it on again. The bag was now 8 tanks with several motor cyclists, 2 large Lorries and a field kitchen. One lorry turned out to be packed with the complete kits of high naval officers, including cocked hats, jackboots and dress swords; the other had good medical equipment, crates of oranges, a dead sheep and several large, live, grey and white rabbits. Lt Crump got into one of the tanks, and opened the breach of the gun and out fell an orange, then another, till altogether 7 rolled out of the barrel. He tried the same trick with the other tanks, but the penny would not drop. This closed the first phase of the skirmish and all was quiet.
One of the, prisoners, however, said that 13 tanks had left their last position, so it seemed that more might happen. The CO sent Lt Easter with a patrol down the road with another patrol in support. Lt Easter was withdrawn shortly afterwards, but the RSMs patrol went down the hill through the wood as far as the bridge. They found nothing, on the road, but heard MT ahead, so they returned.
The second phase opens with preparations for an ambush of anything else that might come. Lt Easter, the RSM Sgt Ashton, Sgt Waugh and some others, about 12 in all armed with rifles, Tommy guns and 2 Brens, cautiously followed by the Padre armed with a looted First Aid Outfit, went down the second leg of the road to a door in the left hand wall, inside which most of the party were posted. Some were left on the rood taking cover behind the last abandoned tank. The CO came down to supervise arrangements.
MT was heard at the top of the opposite hill it came down across the bridge and approached up the bottom leg of the road; the plan was to open fire as it rounded the bend. But the head of the column halted on the bottom leg, perhaps suspecting that something was wrong. Some of the crews dismounted and could be heard talking. Our patrol listened for a few minutes and then decided to open fire. They opened up with whatever they had and shouted at the tops of their voices. (The shouting consisted of curses on "you yellow bastards" and a good deal of irrelevant ribaldry, but combined with the bullets it had the desired effect.) Then, leaving the 2 Bren gunners to give covering fire, they charged down the steep hillside through the trees, and also round by the road, and found that the Italians had at once surrendered. There were 3 more tanks, 40 motor cycles armed with Machine guns, some Lorries and some motor tricycles, and about 40 men. The result of our volleys at 50 yards range was 2 men wounded in the leg. The rest of the men were later found hiding in a little cave near the bridge. Though bulging with Grenades, they proved most amiable and showed no fight. They were marshalled in a line and marched up the hill after the others.
Just beyond the bridge the patrol made contact with the 5th EAST YORK’S who were responsible for combing out the area in front, so they returned and decided to search the vehicles before retuning up the hill to rejoin the Battery. On the way the Padre produced a melon (looted) and distributed slices to the returning patrol. A crate of oranges was also discovered and lugged up the hill to be shared among the troops. The time was then about 0100 hrs.
Matters were now well in hand the Italian drivers obliged by manoeuvring their tanks off the road and parking them in a neat line. Their MO and Red Cross orderlies helped our doctor to attend to the wounded. The rest of the POWs were guarded in the road, except for a small party which was set to collecting the dead. One of these men had the distressing experience of turning a body over and finding it was his brother; all wore shocked to discover their grey haired Colonel lying dead in the road. They carefully took the wedding ring off his finger and begged the Padre to see that it was sent to his widow.
The final result was as follows: We had captured intact the 4th Battalion Contraccarro Semoventi of the 3rd Regt (Parmo) of the LIVORNO Division. We had lost one officer killed, one officer and one other rank wounded.
The Italians had lost their Colonel and 2 men killed, and about a dozen wounded. All the rest (160) were prisoners. The booty consisted of 12 tanks (11 captured and 1 more which never even came down the opposite hill and was found next day), 50 motor cycles 6 lorries, 3 motor tricycles, many automatic weapons, and 2 German 75-mm pack howitzers of an apparently new type. Unfortunately the Regiment received orders, to move before a more accurate check could be made. Including prisoners captured in the afternoon, the total was 199, of whom 5 were Germans.
During all this time 288 Bty were at the top of the hill in. CARLENTINI some distance away. Their advance party, on its way down, heard firing and received a report that the regiment was being attacked by tanks. They returned with the idea of preventing their guns coming down into the trap, mounted one to cover the road into the village and parked the rest in the market square, and patrolled the silent moonlit streets till morning. The men who served the gun that was covering the road had an anxious night. In one of the houses close by their position seemed to emanate some curious rumblings and noises. They covered the door with a Tommy gun and then as they did not know what kind of devilry was afoot, they brought a Bren gun up as well and kept that trained on the door too. The suspicious sounds continued all night long and when morning broke, the door opened and on old woman come out to greet the dawn. The men approached and asked leave to look inside. To their embarrassment they found that the room contained one chair, one bed and 2 restless donkeys.
Captain D. L. C. Price, RA, wrote:
The battle by now was taking shape and I remember shelling Carlentini, a suburb of Lentini, and then an hour later using up all our dressings bandaging up the civilian wounded after entering the town. They were very understanding and all the church bells were ringing, so I didn't feel too badly, and in any case nobody was seriously hurt. But the futility of war was again brought to my mind by that incident.
The battle became really serious at the Simeto River, the south boundary of the Catania plain, because a German Panzer Division had joined the fray. For the next 10 days the fighting there was the bitterest I remember in the whole war and I can still smell the stench of decaying flesh on the banks of that river. Eventually, the Durham Light Infantry Brigade under Ronnie Senior, in a brilliant operation, got over the river to the other side. During those 10 days I had an observation post in a smart villa overlooking the plain, which had a convenient turret but which seemed to offer target practice for the German Anti-Tank gunners, who used to put the odd shell through it, but fortunately lower down!
I had several visitors. One was a smartly dressed Lieut RN who said he had 'a monitor' and could he help. I apologised for my ignorance and he explained it was a seaborne 15in gun. I asked him his accuracy of ranging and he said 'about a hundred yards'. I declined his help!
The night came to press across the Catania plain, and those were a few bad hours. More than a few soldiers 'turned and ran'. We had the luggage carrier on our vehicle carried away by an anti-tank shell while we were in it' I did an on-foot reconnaissance and we 'holed-up' behind a haystack until dawn; which heralded a better day. We pressed across the plain but the Quartermaster's department of the infantry hadn't caught up and, by the evening, the PBI (poor bloody infantry) had had no food. This fact, unknown of course to them, did not deter a German machine-gun crew from firing into the positions selected for a night's rest and sustenance. The Company Commander 'lent' me ten volunteers and, as the sun was setting, we went out, up a vine-covered hill, hoping to finish the day successfully. It was not entirely to be. We had to withdraw but left nobody behind. The gesture persuaded the Germans to go; so there was rest after all. We always carried our own rations and cooking equipment. There was a hen for eggs in the tool box and a hot water pan on the exhaust manifold for cooking tins of stew.
I remember extensive use of mines about this phase of the affair and silting on the bonnet of the tracked carrier looking for a disturbed surface on paths we followed, touching the driver's shoulder to stop when suspicion arose. There was no time for 'sweeping' ahead; we had to get on. One less lucky carrier had been blown up into a tree and was lodged forlornly in a leafy grave.
After the Caiania plain had been taken on 5 August, I think the Germans knew- that they were going to lose and we made better progress. The next event was Taormina and the order went out to take it without damage. We took a chance and drove up the hill into the town at dawn, 15 August, and the risk paid off- there were no enemy. We breakfasted in. the square and the Mayor came and offered us the keys of the town and two bottles of champagne. The keys I returned and he shared the champagne with us; it was a very friendly little ceremony and gradually the people came out to look, to chatter, and to embrace.
As the day advanced, the infantry caught up and so did my guns and we went into action on the plateau of the promontory above the beautiful Isola Bella bay. It was here that Air Vice-Marshal Broadhurst nearly didn't live to fight another day as he put down his little plane in front of the guns just as we were opening fire. Happily, I saw the aeroplane coming in and shouted 'stop' which gunners know means just that. The rest of the day was somehow sad. The road had been blown and we had to put our gear on our backs and walk. As the Germans retreated, so they blew up a vital road bridge on that east coast shore line and we were able to pursue them no more. With the complete liberation of the island by 16th August 1943, the Division were recalled to England on 19th October 1943 to prepare for the invasion on Europe. The Regiment had two other Recorded causalities in Sicily, L/Bdr Henry Nicholls killed on the 18th July and Gunner Sidney Church killed on the 28th July both buried in the Catania war Cemetery, Sicily.
On arrival back in England from Sicily the regiment first had some leave before commencing intensive preparations and training for D-Day. The 50th Division had been chosen as one of the Divisions to spearhead the landings in Normandy. 69 and 231 Brigades had been selected as the assault Brigade with 151 as the follow up. Due to the fact that 124th and 74th Fd Regt RA were equipped with towed 25pdrs, they were replaced by two Self propelled regiments 147th and 86th (HY) Fd Regts RA for the first phase of the invasion.
While 124th was destined to be the last Gunner Regiment of the division into Normandy three of its OP party’s, one from each Bty with their Universal Carriers, a total of 3 officers, Capt AG Hawkins, Lt Greig and Lt Clarke and 12 ORs, did land on D-Day, Gold Beach, King Green Sector. Also a jeep and driver was to land with 147 Fd Regt RA part as a survey team on Gold Beach, Jig Green Sector.
While the OPs were landing on the beaches the Regiment was in Algonquin Camp, Witley, Surry carrying out final preparations to go Normandy. On the 12th June, 489 Bty moved to Marshalling Area S.4 for the vehicles to have there final waterproofing before moving to Tilbury Docks and embarking on MT 9.
On 11 June 1944 Lt Greig was FOO to the left forward Company of the 2nd Bn Gloucester Regt in their attack on Tilly-Sur-Seulles. During the advance the company came under heavy fire from enemy mortars which Lt Greig silenced with his battery. He than continued to advance with the infantry under heavy fire into Tilly-Sur-Seulles throughout the advance he continued to control the fire of his guns and to send valuable information. The infantry reached their objective but were later forced to withdraw. All the platoon Commanders became casualties and the parties of the company with which Lt Greig was, became detached and were without officers. Lt Greig immediately took charge of the party and reorganised them, taking up a defensive position and regaining touch with the remainder of the company. Throughout the action Lt Greig’s courage, coolness and complete disregard of his own safety were exemplary. His conduct was an inspiration to the infantry he accompanied, and for this action he was awarded the MC.
Arriving on the 18th June 1944, 489 Bty came ashore and moved to map reference 785703, one mile due west of Bernieres Bocage and was first in action on the 23rd June 1944. The remainder of the Regiment moved to the Marshalling Area S.4 on the 30th June 1944 and embarked on MT A110 and MT A111.
The 489 Bty was under command of 74th Fd Regt RA until the RHQ and the remainder of the 124th Regt RA arrived on the 5th July 1944. The Regiment deployed to RHQ 778712, 288 Bty 779110, 441 Bty 773713 489 Bty stayed in its starting location. The Regiment was then heavily involved with the support the Division in their engagements in the Battle of the Bocage in the Tilly-Sur-Seulles, Hottot-Les-Bagues and La Senaudiere areas.
Sgt McCrindle was NCO I/C Bty Signals of 441 Fd Bty 124 Fd Regt RA. On the afternoon of 19 Jul 44 it was necessary to lay a new line from the Bty position to the OP in the Infantry FDLs, and as NCO i/c Signals Sgt McCrindle took charge of the line laying party. On approaching the forward position the track along which the line was being laid was heavily shelled by the enemy and shelling continued over the whole area. On reaching the cross-roads the party again came under very concentrated and accurate shellfire and it was decided that an overhead crossing was essential. On both the above occasions, Sgt McCrindle showed supreme courage and telling his party to keep under cover, himself laid the greater part of the line (including the overhead crossing) under continual shellfire. The shellfire at the crossroads was so concentrated that the line was shot away twice and it was solely due to Sgt McCrindle coolness and devotion to duty during these operations and later at the cross roads LE LION VERT where he came under enemy M/G fire, that the line was got through.
Throughout this difficult and hazardous task, Sgt McCrindle showed great coolness and determination and set a fine example not only to his own men, but to all other units in the neighbourhood. His line was through some hours before any other unit’s line in the area, and enabled support to be given to the infantry at a critical time.
Major Bury, BC of 489 Field Bty RA which normally supports 6 Bn GREEN HOWARDS. On the night of 11/12 Aug 44 the 6 Green Howards moved fwd to the area 876397, just East of the enemy strong point of ST PIERRE LA VIELLE, and Major Bury, as the supporting Arty Offr, moved fwd with them. During the move the column came under sustained enemy Artillery fire which caused casualties to men and vehicles. Although he was wounded in the face and leg, Maj Bury remained at his wireless set at Bn HQ, controlling the fire of his Bty and setting a superb example to officers and men alike. Under heavy and accurate shellfire without thought of self or personal safety, he went out to take bearings on the enemy Arty which was causing casualties in Bn HQ and in the rest of the Bn, and thus enabled the enemy Btys to be fixed, and accurate CB fire to be undertaken by our own Arty for this action Maj Bury was awarded the MC.
Bdr Walton volunteered to set as OPA moving with the leading infantry during an attack on LA ELESSIS-SUR-GRIMAULT on 9 Aug 44. The OP party with whom he was working was supporting the 6 Bn GREEN HOWARDS during this very important phase of the Battle for the liberation of France. The Infantry Coy, with which he was, was almost on to its objectives when the enemy launched a determined local counter attack, temporarily outing it off. Due to his never flagging seal, continued fire was obtained from the guns, which prevented the counter attack from succeeding, and the Infantry from being moved back. He was the first to see the attack begin to develop, and in spite of fatigue, by his alertness and determination under heavy fire, support was obtained and the situation restored. The advance was then successfully continued due in great measure to Bdr Walton’s alacrity and courage he was awarded the MM.
Early the next morning, 12 Aug 44, the 6 Bn Green Howards moved fwd about a mile to LES FORGES and at about 0915hrs enemy mortars, field guns and 38 mm guns began a series of concentrations on the Battalion area which continued until 1900hrs. The Infantry themselves were unanimous in affirming this to be the worst enemy fire they had undergone since “D Day”. Early during this period Major Bury’s vehicle was hit and the wireless operator sitting beside Major Bury was seriously wounded, but Major Bury, in spite of his wounds which were now seriously troubling him, remained at his post carrying out not only his own duties, but helping his signallers with theirs. Throughout this period of highest devotion to duty and personal bravery and, in spite of wounds and fatigue, carried out his own and some of his signallers duties with complete efficiency and effective results. For this action he was awarded the MC.
On the 17 September 1944 the allied airborne forces dropped to seize the crossing points at Eindhoven, Veghel, Grave, Nijmegen and Arnhem. 30 Corps was to advance, centred on one road called route “Club” from the Meuse-Escaut Canal to Arnhem meeting up with the Airborne Forces on route. 50th Division's tasks were to follow the Guards Armoured and the 43rd Division’s as Corps reserve and secure a crossing over the River Ijssel, twelve miles north-east of Arnhem.
At 13.30hrs the 50th Division watched as one of the largest air armadas of the war pass overhead. The division's field artillery 74th, 90th and 124th Fd Regts RA and the Mortars of Cheshire Regiment took part in the opening barrage. At 14:35hrs the Sherman’s of the Irish Guards crossed the start line and despite heavy fighting reached Valkenswaard five miles south of Eindhoven by dusk. The infantry of 231 Brigade were now called up to clear woods on the left of the Guards' advance. The following day 231 Bde took over Valkenswaard, as the Guards advanced north through the bridgeheads at Zon, Vehgel and Grave and on to Nijmegen. There it took two days of severe fighting before the town and its great bridge was cleared.
On the 22nd 69 Brigade was in trouble when two enemy battalions of infantry and a regiment of tanks cut the main Corps centre-line near Uden, eight miles south of the bridge at Grave. The brigade was cut in half with East Yorkshires in the north and the Green Howards in the south. 124th Field Regiment, RA, who had been moving up with 69 Brigade, found itself in a similar predicament. The main body cut off from the CO, 2IC, C.P.Os and Survey party. Captain Dowdeswell the battery captain of 288th Battery put the regiment into action in support of the 101st Airborne Division. 86th Field Regiment was also in the area and the groups of mixed artillery were collected together, with the commanding officer of the 86th Field Regiment acting as Commander Royal Artillery to the American divisional commander.
Things were so planed so when, the next day, the Germans attempted to strengthen their grip on the road by attacking Veghel, farther south, they were met with very warm reception. The American infantry, British tanks and artillery, working in an improvised but close co-operation, drove off the enemy with heavy losses it was a fine example of allied co-operation in the field.
On the 23rd 151 and 231 Brigades were ordered to move north and east of Eindhoven to guard the right flank while 69 Bde with 124th Fd Regt RA continued onward towards Nijmegen. On arrival there they came under command of the Guards Armoured Division with the task of capturing Bremmel, a village north of the river. This the 5th East Yorks achieved on the 25th, but the Germans were not happy at losing this village, and kept them under heavy artillery fire for days. On the 26th the 6th Green Howards were ordered to occupy Halderen, but the infantry ran in to severe opposition, and failed to capture there objective. The 69 brigade now attacked in the direction of Halderen continued throughout the 27th of September. During the day the East Yorks gained some ground as they were supported by a quick barrage planned by Captain Ramsden from 288th Battery, he registered with his battery but the mission was fired by the 55th Field Regiment of the Guards Div as 124th Field Regiment were supporting the Green Howards. The airborne troops farther north at Arnhem had by now been withdrawn. The attempt to reach them by land had clearly failed, and attempts to supply them by air had been only partially successful. Thus the final objective of Operation "Market Garden" Arnhem and the crossing of the Rhine defences had not been achieved.
After a period of rest and reorganisation, 50th Division were reassigned to support the Guards and 11th Armoured Division in their drive through Belgium, and on 8th September 1944 were back in action on the banks of the Albert Canal. On the 17th September, as part of Operation Market Garden, the Field Batteries supported tanks of 30 Corps in the push to reach the 1st Airborne Division at Arnhem; and in October took up defensive positions in the Nijmegan area between the Waal and Meuse rivers.
During the defence of the Nijmegan the enemy gave first priority to the elimination of the bridgehead and from the 28 Sep attacks were expected. After enlarging the bridgehead considerably 69 Bde formed a defensive position. 6 GREEN HOWARD'S were drawn into reserve leaving one coy under command of 7 GREEN HOWARDS. The enemy’s intention to eliminate the bridgehead was emphasised by the numerous attacks on the bridgehead by the largest force of aircraft produced outside Germany for a long time. In addition the bridges were attacked and blown. The railway bridge, successfully, and the river bridge partially, by a party of enemy manning human torpedoes. As a result the bridgehead became an island and 69 Bde and 5 Gds Bde were placed under Command 45 Div the only complete formation who were N of the River.
The Counter Attack. At 1930 hrs 29 Sept 44, after heavy shelling the enemy tried to counter attack the5 EAST YORK'S, on a narrow front. Infantry advanced but the attack was eventually beaten off by arty and LMG fire. The 5 EAST YORK’S and other troops in the line afterwards stated that no attack could have materialised through such withering fire. Next day the 6 Highland Light Infantry from the 52 (L) Div relived the 5 EAST YORK’S.
On the 1 Oct the enemy launched his attack on a much broader front to reach NIJMEGN. Movement of tracked vehicles was heard during the night all along the 69 Bde and 5 Gds Bde fronts, and at 0400hrs attacks began on the 6 Highland Light Infantry front. These were probably feints and at 0550hrs, preceded by heavy mortar and shell fire, the real attack began against 7 GREEN HOWARD'S and IRISH GUARDS from the NORTH.
An attack was also put in against 45 Div across the river NEDERRILJN. It was soon apparent that the main attack was directed on the 69 Bde front, but in the early stages 43 Div arty was employed solely on their own front and 55 and 124 Fd Regts alone had to support 5 Gds Bde and 69 Inf Bde. The Regt was continuously firing DFS and when not engaged on 69 Bde front answered calls from 43 Div.
12 enemy tanks were sent against 7 GREEN HOWARD'S and although 2 were knocked out the remainder succeeded in infiltrating in between B and C Coy’s. This forced C Coy to give ground and exposed A Coy who were soon isolated. It was in this position that 7 GREEN HOWARD'S held on from 0700hrs (when the attack developed in earnest) to 2300hrs (when the 5 EAST YORK’S relieved them) against continuous pressure from the enemy on all sides.
During this period our Ops continually engaged enemy tanks and infantry causing heavy damage and casualties to the enemy. A favourite concentration area of the enemy was an orchard (MK 740699); this became a Regt tgt No M.22 and directing staff lost count of the of the number of times this target was engaged both by the Regt and also by 43 Div Arty. 43 Div provided very quickly the additional fire which was badly needed on our Bde front at this critical time. The Bde Commander decided to use 5 EAST YORK’S to relieve 7 GREEN HOWARD'S and in addition a further troop of Tanks was sent to support them.
At 1800hrs 5 EAST YORKS with a Sqn of 13/18 Hussars advanced to the relief 7 GREEN HOWARDS supported by 124 Fd Regt. 5 EAST YORK’S received information, that the 7 GREEN HOWARD'S were unlikely to hold out long enough for them to arrive in time and began to dig in short of 7 GREEN HOWARD'S Position. Then, as a result of the weight of fire put down 124 Field Regiment and 45 Div the position eased and the 7 GREEN HOWARD'S reported that the position could be held provided the 5 EAST YORKS came up immediately. At 2300hrs A Coy was relieved and the enemy attack was a complete failure. EAST YORK’S after relieving the 7 GREEN HOWARDS were again subjected to a most severe pounding from numerous enemy Btys. Whenever not engaging other targets those hostile Btys were engaged by the 124 Fd Regt and when possible the fire from 45 Div Arty was employed. 151 and 251 Bde’s of the 50 (N) Div were being rushed up as reinforcements and 69 Bde was relived on the 2 Oct 44
7 GREEN HOWARDS were continuously shelled, attacked by infantry and Tanks from 0550hrs till 2300hrs. 124 Field Regiment RA was firing continuously from 0400hrs to 2300hrs and fired a total of 12,500 rounds during this action.
Prior to the crossing of the Rhine and the final stages of the war, the 124th Field Regiment, as part of 50th Division, returned to the UK on 12th December 1944 after some six months of continuous front line service since the D-Day landings; to embark upon a programme of re-organisation and training throughout the spring of 1945.
124th Field Regiment RA stayed on the orbat until 1947 where it was re-designated 324 Heavy Air Defence Regiment RA.