140th Regiment’s B.E.F marking
The 140th (5th London) Army Field Regiment, Royal Artillery was a Territorial Unit formed after the declaration of war by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain on 3rd September 1939. The Regiment was based in South London. It comprised about seven hundred men and support staff divided into two Batteries: 366 Battery, which was based in Clapham and undertook initial training in a local girls’ school and 367 Battery, which was based in Woolwich. The Battery’s subsequently trained together and were sometimes informally referred to as ‘Clapham‘ or ‘Woolwich’ men.
The new recruits were mainly young men from the generation born at the end of the 1914-18 Great War. Some, like my father Eric West, who joined the Regiment on 20th October 1939, had been called up under the terms of the Military Training Act of May 1939, which conscripted men age 20-21 for a six month period of military training and then transfer to the Reserve. Others were recruited after the outbreak of hostilities. The result was a Territorial Regiment of young men in their late teenage years and early twenties who mainly lived in the suburbs of London and the Home Counties.
The senior officers, by contrast, had been born in Victorian and Edwardian England. They were men in their forties and early fifties who had often seen service as Artillerymen in the Great War, and a few were decorated veterans of that conflict. It is obvious from ‘Grand Party‘ that the Officers and men had a good relationship based on mutual respect and that the Regiment remained a cohesive force, whatever the circumstances. Brooks describes his role as being a ‘father, nursemaid and friend‘ to his men, as well as a ‘teacher and guide’.
Great War 1914-18
The lessons of the Great War, which of course had taken place only twenty years previously, were etched onto the consciousness of the Regiment. Lt-Colonel Brook’s account in ‘Grand Party’ mentions visits to the Somme battlefield sites and British Cemeteries that were eerily familiar to the Officers, and over which the Regiment undertook its pre-battle training prior to the German invasion of Belgium on the 10th May 1940.
Equipment & Training
In the early weeks of the Regiments’ formation, basic training took place using mock weapons and the officers often supplied their own private vehicles and bicycles for transport. The two Batteries of the Regiment were each equipped with 18-pounder Field Guns.
The 18-pounder was a quick-firing field gun with the shell and cartridge fixed together. It was based on a World War One weapon that had been modernised and was mounted on a Mark II carriage with large rubber tyres. The gun barrel was nickel-steel with a single-motion screw breech incorporating a cartridge extractor. The sights were on the right of the gun and incorporated a telescope and clinometer for indirect firing in an arc. The effective range of the weapon could be 3-5 miles, although in the last days of the Battle of Cassel some of the firing was done over ‘open sights‘ directly at German tanks only a few yards distant.
The British Army in 1940 (unlike the German Infantry) was fully motorised under a mechanisation initiative and each 18-pounder gun was towed behind a Tractor unit (mainly Morris or Guy ‘Quads’) with an ammunition trailer positioned between the tractor and gun. The Regiment’s vehicles were identified by a number ’10’ in white on a red and blue background. These units could manage speeds of nearly 20-30 mph on open roads.
A rare example of a roadworthy Guy Quad, 2019. With thanks to Darren Holmberg
The interior of a Guy Quad gun tractor unit showing driver’s position, with thanks Darren Holmberg
Tactics, Battery’s and Troops
British Field Artillery tactics were organised so as to provide groups of gun strong points, usually camouflaged by trees and supported by communication tracks to supplies and ammunition at the rear and with forward observation posts linked by telegraph wires. In 1939-40, a Battery was sub-divided into a 12-gun, three Troop arrangement with each Troop sharing radio and communications. Each gun would have been crewed by six men, a sergeant, in overall charge, the No.3 who was his right hand man, a Lance Bombardier who laid and fired the gun, numbers 2 and 4 loaded and rammed and numbers 5 and 6 fetched and carried the ammunition.
Royal Artillery tactics in 1939-40
The British Expeditionary Force
Once equipped, 140th Regiment was assigned to join the B.E.F. (British Expeditionary Force) in November 1939. It was not allocated to a particular Division but was under the control of GHQ and was allocated to individual forces depending on operational need to provide extra firepower to formations that required it. The two Batteries were in operation together as a single fighting unit until May 23rd 1940 and ‘Grand Party‘ asserts that they were the first B.E.F. Artillery unit to engage the Germans on the 14th May 1940.
140th Regiment at Dunkirk
After the 23rd May, the two Batteries were separated and assigned to different theatres. 366 Battery, under the command of Lt-Colonel Brooks, was assigned to defend the Eastern escape corridor to Dunkirk and 367 Battery, together with Regimental HQ, under the command of Colonel C.J. Odling, was assigned to protect the Western corridor and the garrison at Cassel.