BRITISH ARTILLERY IN WORLD WAR 2
This page provides an overview of the evolution of British divsional artillery organisation and that of the formations and units they supported.
Updated 22 April 2004
To appreciate the organisation of WW2 divisional artilleries it's useful to go back to 1914 and more importantly to know the organisation of infantry and the other types of division. The reason for this is that an efficient artillery organisation reflects the organisation of the arms they support.
In the summer of 1914 a British infantry division comprised 3 infantry brigades, each of 4 battalions with some 1000 all ranks, their only support weapons were a section of 2 MMGs. The regular battalions had just finished changing from 8 to 4 rifle companies, each with 4 platoons of 4 sections and commanded by a major. Divisional troops consisted of artillery, engineers and services. The divisional artillery comprised 4 field brigades RFA, each with 3 batteries and an RGA battery with 4 × 60-pdr Guns. Three of the RFA brigades had 18 × 18-pdr Guns and one had 18 × 4.5-inch Howitzers. These field brigades each had over 750 all ranks including their ammunition columns. The cavalry divisions (3 cavalry brigades totaling 9 regiments) had 2 horse artillery brigades each with 12 × 13-pdr Guns.
When war broke out in 1914 only the first 'peacetime' divisions had this establishment, the shortages from the ensuing rapid expansion meant the new divisional artilleries were 'non-standard' and 'New Army' batteries, including imperial forces, had only 4 guns. In 1916 is was decided that all types of battery (RFA and RGA except the very heaviest) were to have 6 guns, and field artillery brigades were to comprise 4 batteries, 3 with 18-pdr and one with 4.5-inch. In effect the pre-war 4 × 3 × 6 organisation became 3 × 4 × 6. Imperial forces were invited to conform. However, infantry divisional artilleries were reduced to 2 field brigades, the other became a 'army field brigade' and was assigned as necessary for operations. Increasing field brigades to 24 guns was a very cost effective means of increasing firepower, although the expansion was not completed until about March 1918. The RGA batteries were organised into groups of various types and numbers of heavy and siege batteries.
With the arrival of peace in 1918 the field brigade of 4 batteries (3 ×18-pdr, 1 × 4.5-inch) was retained with 3 in an infantry division and a pool of army field, medium and heavy brigades, mostly with 4 batteries, the medium brigades being 1 × 60-pdr and 3 × 6-inch How. By the mid 1930s field brigades RA varied in the equipment of their 4 batteries, but 2 batteries of 18-pdr and 2 of 4.5-inch predominated. The infantry division retained 3 infantry brigades but the number of battalions in a brigade, reduced to 3 in 1917, reverted to 4 after de-mobilisation. However, light brigades RFA were also introduced into infantry divisions in the 1920s and lasted into the early '30s, their role was 'accompanying artillery' but they were perhaps the forerunners of the divisional anti-tank regiments that were formed in 1939 by converting field regiments. In UK most regular batteries were on the reduced establishment of 4 guns.
OUTBREAK OF WORLD WAR 2
In 1938 artillery brigades RA were renamed 'regiments', and field regiments reorganised into 2 batteries each with 12 guns while RHA and medium regiments each had 2 batteries of 8 guns. This reorganisation also created the positions for troop commanders (captains) who became the batteries' main observers. It also substantially increased the size of regimental HQ, including creating the position of Second in Command and making the regiment instead of the battery the official accounting unit for stores and equipment, which necessitated the establishment of a regimental Quartermaster. The 24 gun regiments totaled about 580 all ranks. Reducing the number of batteries in a unit assisted subsequent expansion, notably when doubling the TA in 1939.
At the outbreak of WW2 an infantry division comprised 3 infantry brigades and divisional artillery, engineers, signals and services. The infantry brigades had 3 battalions, having lost their fourth in the mid-1930s, and an infantry anti-tank company. The divisional artillery consisted of 3 field regiments and an anti-tank regiment RA with 4 batteries. Infantry divisions were about 13,600 strong. MMGs were concentrated into corps troops, a MG battalion (48 MMGs) per division. GHQ troops included infantry pioneer and motorcycle battalions.
Infantry battalions had undergone a major reorganisation in 1938. They kept 4 rifle companies but these were reduced from 4 to 3 rifle platoons, which in turn reduced from 4 to 3 sections each with a LMG. However, rifle platoons gained a 2-in mortar and an anti-tank rifle. HQ company acquired carrier and defence platoons (with AA LMGs and anti-tank rifles) and kept their mortar (reduced to 2 × 3-inch) and assault pioneer platoons. Interestingly, the battalion Scout Section, which had existed in 1914 and 'lost' during WW1, was still missing (and remained so until the creation of Reconnaissance Platoons in 1962!). Total strength was some 780 all ranks.
After Dunkirk the Bartholomew Committee (named after its leader General Sir William Bartholemew, an artillery officer) examined the lessons. These included organisations. The main artillery lesson of 1940 was that the 12 gun battery didn't work. The main problem seems to have been that it was too big to command on operations - it had the same number of guns as a battalion in the German and US armies! However, supporting a brigade of 3 battalions with a regiment of 2 batteries also seems to have been an emerging factor. Some officers hankered after the traditional 6 gun battery but the arguments against this were the difficulty of finding positions to accommodate 6 guns, what to do with the 4th battery when supporting a brigade of 3 battalions, how to organise with the captain OP officers, and the increased 'overhead' of more but smaller batteries. The 3 × 8 gun regiment was the outcome and lasted for almost 20 years (and then re-appeared after another 20), its total strength including R Signals and RAOC/REME was about 700 all ranks - slightly less than 1914 but with more officers reflecting a bigger HQ, battery CPs and OP parties. Vehicles needed less men than horses, a simple fact that seemed to have escaped the attention of the German General Staff!
The Bartholomew Committee recommended many other changes, including full mortar platoons in infantry battalions and conversion of brigade anti-tank companies to battalion platoons once RA re-equipment was completed, and creating divisional reconnaissance regiments. Over the next 3 years there were various changes in divisional organisations (armoured ones outlined below), those assigned to European theatres stabilised as follows:
Evolution of Armoured Divisions
While there were army tank brigades of 2 'I' tank regiments and light armoured reconnaissance brigades of 2 cavalry regiments, armoured divisions were also being formed. At the beginning of WW2 these comprised 2 armoured brigades, one light and one heavy, each with 3 armoured regiments. Divisional total (including HQs) was 349 tanks. In April 1940 they converted to 2 identical armoured brigades but the squadrons reduced from 5 to 4 troops, so the armoured regiments each totaled 52 tanks in 3 squadrons, with 2 of the 4 tanks in each sqn HQ as 'close support'. In addition HQ sqn included an intercommunication troop of 10 scout cars. The regiment's total strength was about 575 all ranks. The division totaled 340 tanks. Then there was the divisional support group. This had a solitary field regiment (RHA) with 2 × 8 gun batteries, and the planned build-up meant that 3 more regular RHA regiments were swiftly formed. The support group also had a mixed LAA and anti-tank regiment RA (2 batteries of each) and two motorised infantry battalions. Finally there were engineers, signals and services.
In October 1940 the armoured brigades each gained a motor infantry battalion, taken from the support group, which gained a new lorried infantry battalion and separate LAA and anti-tank regiments instead of the composite one. An armoured car regiment was added to armoured divisions as was a second engineer field company but the tank total remained 340. Field artillery remained a single RHA regiment, albeit 3 batteries.
In Feb 1942 the organisation of Middle East armoured divisions underwent major change. They became an armoured brigade group with 3 armd regts, a motor battalion, RHA regiment (including an anti-tank battery), and an LAA battery. The second brigade was a motorised brigade group of 3 battalions and the same artillery as the armoured brigade. Divisions in UK underwent similar change except that all artillery remained under command of HQRA and the brigades were not 'brigade groups', the tank total in UK based divisions was 201 plus 26 AA tanks. In Aug 1942 Middle East changed again, basically to the UK organisation although the number of field regiments increased to 3, but the tank total was down to 172 plus 14 AA tanks.
The next change was in April 1943, this reduced the number of field regiments to 2 and replaced the armoured car regiment with an armoured reconnaissance regiment. The tank total was now 244 plus 34 AA tanks (excluding OP tanks that started to appear in artillery regiments). This lasted until March 1944, when light tanks were issued to armoured regiments and an independent MG company added to the division. Tanks now totaled 244 plus 66 light, 25 AA and 21 OP. In about July 1944 the armoured divisions in Italy received a second infantry brigade.
Airborne divisions comprised 2 parachute brigades and an airlanding brigade, eventually they had an airlanding artillery regiment, but initially their only artillery was an anti-tank battery.
Organisationally, Indian divisions were traditionally 1/3 British infantry battalions and all British artillery. In Burma the number of British battalions steadily decreased and Indian field regiments progressively replaced British field regiments in Indian divisions in both Italy and Burma.
In the Far East the changes were rather greater and a period of variously specialised infantry divisions was followed in late 1944 by an 'all purpose' divisional organisation. These divisions generally had three different types of 3 battery regiment: a standard 24 × 25-pdr regiment, a jungle field regiment with 16 × 25-pdr (jury axle) or 16 × 3.7-inch hows and 16 × 3-inch mortars in the third battery, and an Indian mountain regiment with 12 × 3.7-inch hows. However, in some cases the two 24 gun 25-pdr regiments each had one battery of jury axle guns, and there were other variations at various times. LAA and anti-tank were combined in a single regiment having 2 batteries of each until reverting to a 3 battery anti-tank regiment when the Japanese airforce disappeared from the sky.
2 Infantry Division in Burma, the only full strength British division in the theatre was different, first its three field regiments replaced one battery of 25-pdr with 3.7-inch hows, then they each re-equipped another battery with 105- mm M7 Priest SPs and the regiments were renamed 'Assault Field Regiments', finally the Priests were replaced by 25-pdr in 1944 before the Kohima battle. 36 Division, a unique mix of British combat troops and mainly Indian services, underwent similar changes in its two field regiments.
In the SW Pacific, the artillery organisation in Australian divisions also underwent changes. In early 1943 the divisional artillery was reduced to one regiment. It grew again later in the war.
In May 1942 the basic organisation settled at 55 standard cruiser tanks and by 1944 regiments in armoured brigades had adopted a standard organisation with 78 tanks of various types. It comprised 4 cruiser tanks in RHQ; AA troop (6 AA tanks), reconnaissance troop (11 light tanks) and intercommunication troop (8 scout cars) in HQ sqn; HQ troop (4 tanks - 2 close support) and 5 troops (each 3 tanks) in each of 3 squadrons. However, with the advent of the 17-pdr Sherman they reorganised in 4 troops of 4 tanks, one troop with 17-pdr Shermans. Armoured reconnaissance regiments were different, having 40 cruiser (plus 6 close support) and 30 light tanks.
The 'standard' infantry battalion increased to about 820 all ranks and HQ company split to provide a support company, whose commander became responsible for the battalion's support weapons and coordinated with the brigade's 'support group commander'. The defence platoon was abolished in 1941. When 6-pdr anti-tank guns were introduced into anti-tank batteries the 2-pdr were handed over to newly formed infantry anti-tank platoons in each battalion and eventually replaced with 6-pdr. This may have involved re-assignment of the brigade infantry anti-tank company's manpower. The carrier platoon increased in size as did the mortar platoon (to 6 × 3-inch). There were 25 armoured carriers (mainly in mortar and anti-tank platoons) in addition to the 13 in the enlarged carrier platoon. 3 PIATs in each rifle company HQ replaced the rifle platoon anti-tank rifles and battalions retained their sniper section, which was controlled by the intelligence officer, but unlike armoured regiments they did not have a reconnaissance platoon.
Motor battalions in armoured brigades had about the same number of men as a 'standard' battalion but only 3 rifle companies. However, these companies had 4 platoons, 3 in 15-cwt trucks and one in carriers. They also had a large support company with 3 anti-tank platoons (each with 4 anti-tank guns) and 2 MMG platoons (each 4 MMGs) but no assault pioneers. Motor battalions had organic vehicles, most of these battalions were either Kings Royal Rifle Corps or Rifle Brigade. Motorised/lorried battalions (independent or in the infantry brigades of armoured divisions) were on the standard establishment but had dedicated troop carrying vehicles provided by RASC.
MG battalions were smaller than standard infantry battalions, having 36 MMGs in 3 companies, the fourth company converted to 16 × 4.2-inch mortars in 1943. Infantry division reconnaissance regiments had mortar and anti-tank troops and 3 reconnaissance squadrons each with 3 reconnaissance troops and an assault troop of riflemen. The armoured division reconnaissance regiment evolved to a standard armoured regiment organisation.
The smallest battalions were Commandos (about 460 all ranks) and parachute (about 620) while the largest was airlanding with about 860, 4 platoons per rifle company and an AA/Anti-tank company in addition to support company. The artillery in the airborne division comprised a single field regiment with 75-mm hows, and another regiment with 2 anti-tank and one LAA batteries.
Anti-Tank and LAA Regiments RA
These divisional units evolved throughout the war, initially there was a composite anti-tank/LAA regiment in armoured divisions, and this was re-adopted by infantry divisions in Burma in 1944 until later that year when they became anti-tank and LAA became corps troops (by this time Japanese aircraft were few). There were also corps anti-tank and LAA regiments, as well as AA Bdes that usually included some LAA regiments.
LAA units had either 3 or 4 batteries, each with 12 guns organised into 2 or 3 troops. 40mm guns predominated but 20mm were also used. Many guns were made self-propelled by mounting them on trucks.
Anti-tank regiments generally had 4 batteries, each with 3 troops of 4 guns divided into 2 sections. Organisations varied as new guns were introduced, with different troops having different equipment, this started early in the war when some batteries had a troop of 18-pdr! In 1942 they were given a night fighting capability by issuing each section with a 2-inch mortar and illuminating bombs, smoke bombs were also issued to aid re-deployment in difficult circumstances. From about 1943 standard training included the use of captured enemy anti-tank guns. 'Self-propulsion' was introduced early with the 2-pdr portee.
There was an HQRE as part of divisional HQ and a field company for each brigade. The field companies, each some 250 men strong, provided the bulk of the combat engineer resources. The field park company provided construction equipment and some engineer stores. At the beginning of the war it included a bridging platoon but these were subsequently centralised.
The divisional signals regiment was organised into 3 companies (squadrons in armoured divisions), each deployed and operated both line and wireless communications and provided despatch riders.
Number 1 Company provided communications within and between the various elements of the HQ.
Number 2 Company - H Section (troop in armoured divisions) provided communications to HQRA and detachments to anti-tank and LAA units. E, F and G Sections were assigned to the field regiments in the division, there was no G Troop in an armoured division.
Number 3 Company provided sections to brigade HQs and to non-artillery divisional units.
Other Arms and Services
Infantry brigade HQs each had a defence platoon, divisional HQs had a defence platoon (company in Burma), intelligence section and field security section. A division also had a provost (MP) company and a postal unit.
Transport comprised a HQ RASC, and normally a transport company for each brigade and a company for divisional troops. In addition to unit LADs there was generally a REME workshop for each brigade and an ordnance field park for the division.
The medical resources were a field ambulance for each brigade and a divisional field hygiene section. Field dressing stations, casualty clearing stations, field surgical units and field transfusion units were assigned as required for operations.
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