History of 1st Bty (The Blazers) 28th Fd Regt RA

Image - the 1st battery 28th Field Regiment Field Artillery

The Battery was formed on 1st August 1779 as Captain David Scott's Company, 1st Battalion RA. Over the next hundred years or so the Battery was renamed several times including 6th Bty, F Bty and N Bty before being renamed 1st Field Battery on 1st July 1889. The Battery has retained its number ‘1’ right up to the present day.

The Blazers name has been the subject of some controversy over the years with all sorts of claims and counter claims being made as to its origin. The most plausible reason is that while under command of Captain Belson 1829-1841, the Battery spent a long period at Woolwich (1831-1841). Whilst there, Belson’s Company used to regularly train on the common "blazing" away vast quantities of ammunition, apparently to impress the local maidservants. Belson’s Blazers became a household name in the area and although Belson's name was dropped, the Battery still continued to use their unofficial title "The Blazers."

In 1913 1st Bty along with 3rd and 5th Bty's were in XLV (45) Brigade Royal Field Artillery as part of the reorganisation of the artillery training brigades. 45 Brigade RFA were stationed at Leeds at the outbreak of the Great War and joined the divisional artillery of the newly formed 8th Division in September 1914. 45 Bde RFA served with the 8th Division throughout the Great War. 57 (Howitzer) Battery joined the Brigade in 1916. The Division arrived in France in November 1914 and served in all the major actions on the Western Front including Neuve Chapelle, the Somme, Third Ypres and the Retreat of March 1918. Exhausted, the 8th Division was sent to a quiet sector in the French area on the River Aisne to recuperate, but on 27 May found itself full in the path of a German offensive against the French. The 8th Division was overwhelmed and suffered heavy casualties; 45 Brigade RFA lost many men and almost all its guns. It was reformed and took part in the Advance to Victory.

At the end of the War there were, as a result of wartime changes, 37 regular RFA brigades; 45 Brigade RFA was renumbered 37 Brigade RFA Still, taking a vacant number. In 1922 the Army was substantially reduced in size and the RFA was reduced from 37 to 28 brigades; junior batteries were absorbed by senior ones and the vacant brigade numbers reallocated: 37 Brigade RFA was renumbered 28 Brigade RFA. 28th Brigade RFA spent the inter war years in various stations both at home and abroad – including Aldershot and Shorncliffe in England, as well as Meerut and Ferozepore in Northern India. In 1924 the RFA and RGA were reunited as the Royal Artillery and 28 Brigade RFA became 28 Field Brigade RA still with 1st, 3rd, 5 and 57th Bty’s.

In 1938 brigades were reorganised and redesignated regiments and their batteries linked in pairs: 28 Fd Bde in Jubbulpore, India became 28th Fd Regiment RA with 1st Bty becoming A Troop and 5 Bty becoming B troop of 1/5 Bty, each equipped with 4 x 18 pdrs and 3 Bty becoming C Troop and 57 Bty becoming D troop of 3/57 Bty, each equipped with 4 x 4.5 inch Howitzers. The Regiment was finally mechanised there in September of that year, when it exchanged its horses for rather ancient Albion lorries as gun tractors and American Civilian Type 15 cwt Chevrolet Trucks as Staff Vehicles. The original horse-drawn 18 pounders where fitted with small, solid wheels with pneumatic tyres.

In 1939 28th Fd Regt RA joined the 5th Indian Division which had been formed from the Deccan District, composed at the beginning of the war of the 7th Poona Brigade, the 9th Secunderabad Brigade and the 10th Jhansi Brigade. The Regiment fought with 5th Indian Division throughout the Second World War and no history of 1st Bty could be complete with out reading "Ball of Fire" a history of the 5th Indian Divison, which is in full on the web.

The Regiment departed India on 24th August 1940, embarking on HMT Nevassa at Bombay for service in the Middle East. It arrived at Port Sudan with the two Brigades 9th and 10th of the 5th Indian Division some four weeks later where it unloaded its new Karier Spider gun tractors that it had been issued at the docks before departing to replace the Albion's. They new tractors where soon in use towing the guns to Haiya Camp near Khartoum.

After the Division and its two brigades arrived in the Sudan various changes were made. The 29th Brigade, composed of the three British battalions already in the country, were split up. The 1st Worcestershires remained, the 2nd West Yorkshires went to Mayne's Nine Brigade, while the 1st Essex joined Ten Brigade. Each of the three brigades now had one British and two Indian battalions. 28th Field Regiment, R.A, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel G. de V. Welchman RA, now attached to Ten Brigade, commanded by Brigadier W. J. Slim, M.C, was bivouacked for several days in Gedaref, a dirty, smelly little town, and then set off towards the south- east. Slim's Ten Brigade held Gedaref and Doka and watched the enemy at Gallabat and Metemma. the Kassala area was taken care of by "Gazelle Force".

After a month of in theatre training A Troop (1/5 Bty) comanded by Capt J G Gordon were dispatched to join Col Messervy’s "Gazelle Force". Messervy was charged with the task of dominating the Gash Delta and deceiving the enemy. By great mobility, daring, and an enterprise that often amounted to impudence, the Gazelle Force led the Italians to believe that at least two divisions faced them and yet there was scarcely more than a thousand men. Messervy’s columns harassed and ambushed enemy maintenance convoys, and raided behind Italian outposts. Characteristic of their day-to-day achievements was the rounding up of a party that was repairing the telephone line from Kassala to Tessenei; when a small enemy force came out to search for the missing line party, it, too, was destroyed. The A Troops first shots were fired into Kassala in October 1940 where one of the shells was reported to have Killed an Italian General.

Ten Brigade‘s was tasked with the first offensive operation into Italian held territory. Brigadier Slim accompanied by members of his staff and Lt Col Welchman RA, made the first main reconnaissance on 28th October 1940 to an observation point named Signal Hill. It was here he could plainly see Gallabat fort and behind on the lower slopes of Jebel Mariam Waha lay Metemma, less than two miles from Gallabat. Between these two places ran the steep Boundary khor that marked the frontier between the Sudan and Abyssinia. Ten Brigades task was to take Gallabat and Metemma and Slim chose 6th November 1940 for his attack. It was the first offensive action to be taken in Africa or on any other front by our land forces since the outbreak of war with Italy and the Guns of 28th Fd Regt RA, less A Troop, fired the first shots. Although 10 Bde managed to take Gallabat and Metemma it was not able to hold them due to the Italians having complete Air Superiority and the Slim decided, reluctantly to retire to positions within artillery range of Metemma, and to render that base untenable to the Italians. Ten Brigade had been introduced to the noise, strain and horror of modern war. To quote Brigadier Slim's notes on training issued after the battle: "The majority of the troops who assaulted Gallabat had hardly seen an aeroplane or tank, let alone co-operated with or been attacked by them; they had never seen or heard an artillery bombardment or had a shell pass over their heads. The noise alone of these, heard for the first time, is distressing and bewildering."

Our troops stayed in the new positions shelling Metemma, however the tinder-like elephant grass was a problem to the Gunners of 28th Fd Regt RA. Several fires started in the gun-pits when fragments of burning cordite set the grass alight. Buckets of water had constantly to be kept at hand, and smoking was strictly forbidden. Because of the visits of hostile aircraft day after day, these gun-pits were elaborate with their camouflage nets draped on poles. The Gunners went to the length of cutting sods with the grass attached and of 'planting' these on top of the camouflage nets to simulate the normal jungle grass growing on every side. As these covers had to be taken down every time the guns were fired, and then replaced immediately afterwards, the trouble involved was great, but amply repaid. Never once were the Gunners spotted by Italian pilots. On the 23rd December 1940, A Troop rejoined the Battery at Khartoum Commanded by Maj MD Gibbon, and on the 26th December exchanged the 18 pdrs for the new 25 pdrs. The Battery then moved to Gadaref to join up with the rest of the Regiment, which had also received its 25pdrs.

Soon after the withdrawal from Gallabat, Lt Col Welchman RA was presented with a hunting spear, which became one of his most treasured possessions. He converted it into a sort of khud stick, and found it an invaluable aid on the climb, which he did several times a day, up the steep paths of Signal Hill---his Observation Post. Though Welchman was soon practised enough to avoid poking the point of the spear through one of his own feet, he also noticed that those who accompanied him were careful to keep at a respectful distance. Welchman was soon given the title of "Abu harleyah," meaning "Father of all spears," by the Sudan Defence Force, and "Ballum sahib" by the sepoys.

1941 brought with it new challenges and a full scale plan to invade Eritrea, but the Italians one step ahead withdrew and January became a chase across the country by 10 Brigade. During the chase members of A troop, 1/5 Bty captured an amply stocked field cashier. The Brigade finally got to grips with the Italians in a line of hills north of Barentu and the Battery fired their first rounds with their new 25pdrs on the 27th January 1941. The battle went on for some time and it was not until the 3rs February it was safe to do some training. The Battery was pulled out the line on the 9th February 1941 for intensive training in Mountain warfare and on the 8th March 1941 moved forward to Keren. On arrival the Guns where dug in and began registering targets for the attack on Keren.

1/5 Bty sent an FOO party to support the attack of 10 Indian Inf Bde on Fort Dologorodoc. The plan was for 4 Ind Div to attack Sanchil, Brigs Peak, Hogs Back and Samamma at 0700hrs on 15 March. If they were successful 5 Ind Div was to assault the fort at 1030hrs. The 4 Div attack was partially successful and at 1030hrs, the 5 Div attack started across the open ground. The advancing troops were met by a hail of machine gun fire and after considerable casualties the attackers were pinned before reaching Pinnacle. The Bty FOO Party were also pinned and it was almost impossible to observe the battery’s fire. It was not until the evening that Pinnacle and Pimple where captured after hard fighting. By then the Italians were so dazed by the bombardments and surprised by the direction of the attack that Fort Dologorodoc was captured. 1/5 Bty OP was amongst the first troops into this key position and retained there for the rest of the battle. The guns fired nearly 600 rounds per gun during the first 24hrs and though within enemy mortar range had very few shells near them.

Fort Dologorodoc with stood as many as eight determined counterattacks. In which the OP had some hot moments. Many of these counterattacks were broken up by the DF fire of the two Divisions artillery. The gun positions were very exposed, B Troop positions was controlled by telephone – one section being 500 yds behind the others because the position were overlooked by Sanchil, Brigs Peak and Hogs Back towering above it 300yds away.

After a short fire plan the final attack went in on the early morning of 25th March and immediate progress was made against a demoralised enemy on both sides of the road. Capt Gordon went forward as FOO but his party was hit by a mortar bomb and he was badly wounded with three others. He died a fortnight later. By the morning of 27th March everything was set for the breakthrough. The sappers had cleared the road block, the Italians were evacuating and six tanks went through successfully. 29 Bde with 28 Fd Regt in support were ordered forward in pursuit and 1/5 Bty led the guns into Keren.

The advanced elements of 29 Bde quickly made contact with the enemy at Ad Teclesan 60 miles east of Keren, this position was strong covered by three road blocks. Gun positions were difficult to find and 1/5 Bty was deployed in a wadi with guns positions 20 yds apart in a straight line. After 2 days fighting the enemy resistance broke. Asmara was declared an open town and was occupied in the afternoon, 1/5 Bty again leading the guns in to the town. Capt DCBL Esmonde White Bty Comd was awarded an MC for his work as an FOO at KEREN. Capt J Willey took over A Troop from Capt Gordon.

It took part in many of the principle actions of the period, including Gazala where the Regiment lost heavily when it was overrun by the Germans, 1942 and the Cauldron in 1942. In 1942 all RA Regiments were reorganised into three batteries: 28 Fd Regt RA reorganised with 1st, 3rd and 5/57 Btys.

In July 1943 the Regiment returned once again to India. It was re-titled 28 Jungle Field Regiment and was again assigned to the 5th Indian Division and spent the remainder of the war in action against the Japanese.