71st (West Riding) Field Regiment, Royal Artillery
The Gunners

Proud Record of the 71st Field Artillery by Alf Dow

SHEFFIELD'S Territorial gunners, officers and men of the 71st (West Riding) Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, have a proud and impressive war record. Their overseas service was in FRANCE (a brief and hectic campaign); NORTH AFRICA (where they had their battle baptism in dreadful conditions); ITALY (where they landed three times and fought fiercely); GREECE (where they were policemen and administrators); and finally AUSTRIA (where they cleared up after the fighting and began their occupation duty).

Ceremonial changing of the Guard in Greece, where the unit did control and administrative work for several months.Ceremonial changing of the Guard in Greece, where the unit did control and administrative work for several months.Ceremonial changing of the Guard in Greece, where the unit did control and administrative work for several months.Ceremonial changing of the Guard in Greece, where the unit did control and administrative work for several months.Ceremonial changing of the Guard in Greece, where the unit did control and administrative work for several months.Ceremonial changing of the Guard in Greece, where the unit did control and administrative work for several months.Ceremonial changing of the Guard in Greece, where the unit did control and administrative work for several months.Ceremonial changing of the Guard in Greece, where the unit did control and administrative work for several months.

Broke Panzer Grenadiers

Eight times they embarked on sea voyages which took them to varied and trying climes and campaigns. They fought in torrential rains and unspeakable mud in North Africa; on open beaches at Salerno, and on snow-clad Italian mountains. They broke the might of famous German Panzer Grenadiers. They gained many decorations. They sustained many casualties.

The story is worth telling from the beginning, in September, 1939, when the Regiment was mustered at Edmund Road Drill Hall, Sheffield. Within a few weeks these Territorials, then commanded by Lt.-Col. C. Wardlow, well-known Sheffield officer, moved to Grassington, north of Skipton, in the Yorkshire dales.

They trained there through the winter and until April, 1940, being at that time part of the 49th (West Riding) Division. There were rumours that they were going to Finland and Norway—the 49th actually went there—but eventually, after Dunkirk and after they had been transferred to the 52nd (Lowland) Division, they went to France.

That was about the end of June, 1940, and the Regiment had a hectic ten days on the Continent while France was crumbling. Immediately after landing they dashed furiously inland, nearly as far as Evereux. And then they had to get out just as quickly, but not so easily.

Food and ammunition supplies ceased suddenly. There was no petrol. The situation was almost impossible.

Lieut.-Col. P. M. Thomas, D.S.O.

Adjutant at that time was Capt. P. M. Thomas, afterwards to become Lieut.-Colonel and Commanding Officer. He commandeered petrol from Frenchmen at the point of his pistol.

That enabled the gunners to get their guns and vehicles back to the docks at Cherbourg, but here was fresh trouble, for the dockers had stopped working and the gunners had to do their own loading.

Actually it was a fine achievement that they managed to bring home 21 out of their 24 guns, and about half their vehicles. Guns were scarce and valuable in Britain in those brave days.

Home again, they were reformed at Biggleswade, Beds., and then sent up to Scotland to join the 9th Division. For a time they did infantry duties, defending the coast in the neighbourhood of Montrose and Dundee, but finally they were put into the 46th (North Midlands) Division, which is the second line of the 49th to which they were attached originally.

That was the beginning of the Sheffield gunners' long association with the 6th Battalion of the York and Lancaster Regiment, the 6th Battalion of Lincolns. and the 2/4th Battalion of the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry.

Defence of East Anglia

About November, 1940, there was a move to Hawick in the Lowlands of Scotland, and at the beginning of January, 1941. the Regiment went down to Cambridge, and then on into camp in Norfolk, where training became intensive while combined with duties concerned with the defence of East Anglia.

Lieut.-Col. C. Wardlow.

It was in September, 1941, that Colonel Wardlow retired, having completed three years in command of the Regiment, and he was succeeded by Lieut.-Colonel D. A. Hunt, a Regular Army officer.

The 71st then went into Kent—in November, 1941—and occupied defence positions along the south coast in the area of Hythe.  Rumours of embarkation were many in 1942, and the 71st was equipped with new guns and vehicles in August that year. It was also strengthened in September by drafts of men from units in Northern Ireland.

Final concentration was at Aldershot in December, and about Christmas the guns began their journey to embarkation ports.

On January 4th, 1943, the Regiment moved to Glasgow and sailed from the port the following day. The voyage to Algiers was uneventful—although the seas were very rough and discovered the bad sailors.

Guns Opened the Road to Tunis

When the gunners landed in North Africa in the middle of January the campaign had become a bitter struggle, with the British First Army and the Americans meeting stiff opposition on an extended front in difficult country.

Action came quickly. There was a four-days' drive across Atlas mountains and plains, and then, on the night of February 1st-2nd, the guns were fired in earnest for the first time.

Conditions of the action meant that batteries had to be rushed as required to places where the enemy was pushing.

The guns under a blanket of snow. Winter scene at Falerone in Italy.The guns under a blanket of snow. Winter scene at Falerone in Italy.The guns under a blanket of snow. Winter scene at Falerone in Italy.The guns under a blanket of snow. Winter scene at Falerone in Italy.The guns under a blanket of snow. Winter scene at Falerone in Italy.The guns under a blanket of snow. Winter scene at Falerone in Italy.

One battery was firing 100 miles to the south of the rest of the Regiment, near Robas, operating with the French and with fierce Morocco men, while another was at Thala, battling for 36 hours at a stretch against German tanks and sustaining the Regiment's first casualties.

Then at Hunt's Gap, when the Germans poured in tanks and infantry in a desperate effort to capture Beja, the guns were in action for a week unceasingly. The enemy was driven back with heavy losses, but the 71st also had losses.

At that time the Germans had mastery in the air. Gun positions could be changed only at night, and the drivers did hundreds of miles on twisting mountain roads through rainstorms and incredible mud, all in pitch darkness. Their achievements were magnificent.

The rain never stopped for long. The gunners never went to sleep dry. There was no natural cover, no houses nor buildings; only slit trenches and ground sheets.

Next move was northwards to Nebel Abiod, threatened by Germans pushing down from the north. But the First Army was beginning to build up its strength, and about the end of March the Regiment took part for the first time in a big attack.

Mules were used to move observers' wireless equipment over the hills and through the thick undergrowth to positions from which the Germans were surprised
and Sedjenane finally recaptured.

Good Friday Offensive

Relieved by Americans, the 71st then went down to Bou Arada, and on the morning of Good Friday took part in an offensive across the plain at Goubellat, through waist-high corn.

This attack should have started at 3 in the morning but a German counter attack about that time postponed it until 5 o'clock—when it was broad daylight—which made conditions definitely unpleasant, particularly for the observation officers forward with the infantry.

It was here that, two days after the start of the attack, Major A. R. Senior, of Sheffield, second-in-command of the Regiment, was killed.

For 101 nights at this period the 71st was in action continuously, and all the time the weather was appalling.

It was after action near famous Longstop Hill that the guns prepared the ground for the final break through to Tunis, but the Regiment did not go forward with the infantry and tanks. Victory was followed by camp at Tunis for a month and then back to Algiers for new training.

About the middle of August they moved to Bizerta, and on September 4th the Regiment embarked in a tremendous convoy with aircraft carriers, cruisers and and hundreds of heavily-laden landing craft.

All the men had been told what was to be done. After dark on the night of September 8th-9th the convoys anchored in Salerno Bay. At 4 a.m. the assault boats went in. At 7.30 the Regiment's advance parties were due to land, but on the way to the arranged beach rendezvous the ship was hit three times.

Heavy shell fire turned them to another part of the beach, where there was congestion and confusion. Germans as well as British were all milling about in the same small area. That night the Regiment was split up and guns were in action miles apart.

Roads were bad. There were swamps and mosquitoes. But on the 10th it was possible for the batteries to sort themselves out.

Cleared the Beach-head

The beach-head was rapidly cleared up. Salerno was captured by men of the Reconnaissance Corps.

Then counter-attacks started. The 71st were on the extreme left by Salerno town itself, where the beach-head was very shallow—only about a mile across.

For ten days and nights the Germans made very determined attempts to drive everyone back into the sea. The men were in action constantly, shells being rushed direct from the ships to the guns in action. No one had any sleep.

There was one particularly big enemy attack when the 71st concentrated a terrific fire into the middle of the advancing Nazis and undoubtedly saved the day.

Afterwards the Brigadier commanding the infantry supported by the Regiment, went round the guns personally and thanked the gunners for their fire which, he told then?, had certainly averted disaster.

Those were desperate days, but after a fortnight enough strength was built up to enable an attack to be made through the hills, preparing the way for the 7th Armoured Division to go forward and capture Naples.

Five days' rest and then through Naples with the Fifth Army to the river Volturno, where once again the Regiment's guns were ceaselessly in action in close support of the opposed crossing of the river.

Then began an uphill fight into the mountains and the desperate battle for the Camino Massif in appalling weather. Here the Regiment fired 1,100 rounds a gun in six days.

The last battle of this campaign was at the River Garigliano, where the Regiment fired a tremendous barrage and crossed to the rocky mountains on the other side. From this terribly exposed bridge-head the Germans tried for weeks to force them.

Slit Trenches Impossible

The ground was so stony that slit trenches were impossible. The men had to build stone walls round themselves for protection. But there were many casualties, including Major C. E. Wilson, of Sheffield, who was killed here.

It was after this period of six months' continuous action that the Regiment was pulled out to re-fit and re-train in the Middle East. They had a few days in Cairo, six weeks near Haifa, in Palestine, and then went on to Damascus, in Syria. Eventually, back to Egypt (Port Said) and—back to Italy.

They arrived in time for the Gothic Line battle and it was then that Col. Hunt (who had been awarded the D.S.O.) was promoted Brigadier and was succeeded in the command of the Regiment by Lt.-Col. P. M. Thomas.

By about midnight on August 25th-26th, a tremendous force had been concentrated without the Germans knowing much about it. Movement faster than anything previously experienced by the Regiment began at once. Positions were changed five times in the first eight days.

Weather was excellent, though hot and dusty, and the Gothic Line was broken before the Germans had time to reorganize their defences.

But difficulties arose later. The Regiment went into one of its worst engagements at Gemmano, on a hill over which fighting swayed backwards and forwards so thickly that it was difficult to shell without endangering our own troops.

There was one morning when the Germans' famous 90th Panzer Grenadier Division flung its weight against the British line at Foli after very heavy shelling, in a desperate attempt to halt the advance. The guns broke up the attack.

At the beginning 400 rounds were stacked beside each gun; all had gone by noon. And all the time the loaders were stuck in mud up to their knees, knowing that relief was impossible.

Col. Thomas was directing fire in this action, and at one time he had ten Field Regiments, three Medium and one Heavy Regiment, all firing at once in terrific concentration which finally broke up the attack completely.  For his part in this action and subsequent good work Col. Thomas was awarded the D.S.O.

About the middle of December the Regiment was relieved by New Zealanders and spent Christmas out of the line. Soon afterwards they were rushed to Greece.

Fighting there was over when they arrived, but they were given a territory of 1,200 square miles, near Argos, to administer and control. Col. Thomas became a military governor, and the whole administration, as carried out by the Regiment, was excellent.

But at the beginning of April, 1945, there was a new call on them. They were rushed back to Italy and made their third landing in that country. They drove furiously from Taranto to the battle, but they were too late. The destruction on the Po had been so complete that there was no more fighting left to be done.

And so the 71st proceeded to its occupational duties in Austria and well-earned peace.