This article looks at the role of a field regiment of the Royal Artillery during the Second World War. The page will explain what a field regiment was, how the unit was structured and how to research both the units and those who served with them. This is one of a series of articles I’ve written to help you in your research:
I also offer a Second World War Soldier Research and Document Copying Service.
A Field Regiment Royal Artillery in the Second World War
Field regiments were units of the Royal Artillery which were usually found serving as part of an infantry division during the Second World War. An infantry division had three field regiments to provide artillery support along with an anti-tank regiment. Though, they were also used as general headquarters and corps troops. At the start of the war, field regiments were equipped with a mixture of 18-pounders, also used during the First World War, the 25/18-pounder, 25-pounder, and 4.5-inch howitzers. As the war went on, all regiments were eventually equipped with the 25-pounder, though this took some time. The photograph below shows a 25-pounder of an unknown field regiment firing at German transport vehicles during the Battle of Gazala in 1942. To the left of the gun is its limber, also known as a caisson which was full of ammunition. Nearby would have been the gun’s tractor, also known as a quad which the limber was hooked to. The 25-pounder was hooked to the limber. If you’d like to learn more about the weapon, I can recommend The 25-pounder Field Gun 1939-72 by Chris Henry.
How was a Field Regiment Structured?
The following war establishment of a field regiment (II/1931/7A/3) was “Notified in Army Council Instructions 12 March 1941”. It replaced an earlier version, II/1931/7A/2 published in June 1938 and would itself be replaced later in the war. The 1938 establishment was published in WO 24/935 and the March 1941 establishment in WO 24/939. In the 1941 establishment, a field regiment contained a regimental headquarters and three batteries. For armament, a field regiment was equipped with twenty-four 25-pounder guns. Each battery was divided into a battery headquarters and two troops. Each troop contained a troop headquarters and a left and right section. So in total, a field regiment contained:
- One Regimental Headquarters
- Three Batteries each containing eight 25-pounders
- Three Battery Headquarters
- Six Troop Headquarters
- Six Troops each containing four 25-pounders
- Twelve Sections each containing two 25-pounders
A field regiment was commanded by a Lieutenant-Colonel who was one of thirty-six officers from the Royal Artillery serving with the unit. A Major was second-in-command with each battery commanded by a Captain and each troop by either a Lieutenant or Second Lieutenant. The regimental headquarters contained six officers while each battery contained ten. When a signal section was serving with the unit there would also be an officer from the Royal Corps of Signals. Also, another officer attached from the Royal Army Ordnance Corps/Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers if a light aid detachment was serving with the field regiment. A Chaplain from the Royal Army’s Chaplains’ Department may also have been attached.
Then there were 636 other ranks who were mostly found serving in the batteries. The headquarters contained 54 other ranks, to give it a total strength of 60 with the six officers. Each battery contained 194 other ranks and when the 10 officers were added had a strength of 204 all ranks. This gave a field regiment a total strength of 672 all ranks, not including those from other corps who were attached. Of the other ranks, fifty-nine were tradesmen, having passed a trade test in a specific skill. These included twenty-five Driver Mechanics and eight Battery Surveyors. Of the 532 non-tradesmen, 38 were Batmen, 125 Driver Internal Combustion and 120 Signallers. For transport, a field regiment had a wide variety of motorcycles, cars, armoured observation posts, trucks, lorries, tractors, and trailers.
How to Research a Field Regiment
The most important document to research a field regiment is its war diary. This was written by an officer of a unit and recorded its location and activities. They often contain appendices in the form of orders, battle reports, maps etc. Without looking at a war diary, it is usually very difficult if not impossible to find out a lot of information about a field regiment, unless they were one of the few units to produce a history after the war. All war diaries are kept at the National Archives in London but none have been digitized. I offer a copying service for war diaries. As most field regiments served as part of an infantry division, another source of information will be the war diary of that formation’s Commander Royal Artillery (CRA). This war diary will contain information and appendices covering all the Royal Artillery units serving with the division. For example, the 9th (Highland) Division’s artillery consisted of the 126th, 127th, and 128th Field Regiments and the 61st Anti-Tank Regiment. The war diary of the 9th (Highland) Division’s Commander Royal Artillery will contain information on all these units.
I have found that Command Royal Artillery war diaries are very useful as they often contain extensive appendices. A particularly useful document which is often found when a formation was on active service is the location report of each artillery regiment and its batteries. Orders of battle at the National Archives will list the formation a field regiment was serving with. Though, the quickest way to find out is to consult Orders of Battle: Second World War 1939-1945 by Lieutenant-Colonel H. F. Joslen. This book has been reprinted by the Naval and Military Press. The formation a field regiment was serving in was usually recorded in its war diary. When a field regiment was outside of Britain, their war diaries usually include weekly field returns of officers and other ranks. These documents will record which formation a field regiment was serving in. An extract from the Field Return of Officers of the 24th Field Regiment dated 5 November 1939 shows it was serving with the 1st Division.
There are often war diaries for the batteries of a field regiment though you’ll rarely find a complete set. They often end by 1942. For example, the 257th Field Battery served as part of the 65th Field Regiment during the war and has two war diaries covering the period between December 1942 and April 1943. If you’re researching a field regiment in-depth, then it’s worthwhile viewing all its field battery war diaries. There may also be war diaries covering a field regiment’s signal section which contained personnel attached from the Royal Corps of Signals. A field regiment didn’t always have a signal section attached and there aren’t that many war diaries. There are even fewer war diaries for the Royal Army Ordnance Corps/Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers’ light aid detachment (L.A.D.) which served with field regiments.
A small number of field regiments published histories shortly after the war and these have been supplemented by more recent publications. The British Library has a copy of most of these titles. For pre-war service, the main source of information will be The Gunner the monthly journal of the Royal Artillery. This journal has a section for units serving at home and abroad to publish accounts sent in from the field regiments. Photographs often appear in the journal. Unfortunately, it’s quite difficult to find, though the British Library does have a complete set which has to be ordered 48 hours in advance. Publication ceased on the outbreak of war. Another useful source of information, especially for the inter-war years is the British Newspaper Archive available to search on Findmypast. This is due to the activities of a field regiment often being reported in their local paper when stationed in Britain. Recommendations for gallantry medals and honours can be downloaded for a small fee from the National Archives‘ website. Gallantry citations are very useful for adding more detail when combined with a unit’s war diary. Citations can be downloaded for free at the National Archives.
How to Research a Soldier who Served with a Field Regiment
A soldier’s service record is the most important document to research them as it should record all the units they served with and when. In most cases, you won’t be able to research a soldier without their record unless they were an officer, became a casualty or were awarded a gallantry medal. Even in these cases, you’ll often hit a brick wall in your research very quickly. All Second World War service records are still held by the Ministry of Defence and you can order a copy if you’re eligible. I’ve written a separate guide on how to order a copy. A service record will often record which battery of a field regiment a soldier was serving with, especially early in the war. Once you know which field regiment/s a soldier served with, you can then view the correct war diaries to find out where they served.
There are two important sources of information for those which served with field regiments available online. The first is the Royal Artillery attestation records covering the period between 1883 and about mid-1942 available to view on Findmypast. Providing a soldier joined the Royal Artillery in this period and served in the ranks, they should appear. However, the later records are nowhere near as detailed as the earlier ones. Around 1929, entries in the attestation books changed as a lot less information was recorded. From this date, only three columns appeared, one recording a soldier’s army number, the second their name in full and the third titled “Transfers to other Corps or cause of becoming non-effective and record of re-enlistment (if any) (Including date)”. Though, you’ll often find a soldier’s first unit written in pencil beneath their army number. Occasionally, there is other information recorded.
The second important record set available online is the Royal Artillery’s Tracer Cards, 1939-1948 on Ancestry. Unfortunately, this set is nowhere near complete but still contains cards for over 300,000 soldiers who served in the Royal Artillery. The cards often don’t start when a soldier joined or was transferred to a corps but some years into their service. Also, they are nowhere near as detailed as a soldier’s service record. Despite these problems, the cards will usually allow you to identify a soldier’s unit and so start to research them without a service record. There is a lot of jargon on the cards in the form of abbreviations and acronyms.
Findmypast has a collection of records relating to soldiers who became a casualty during the war. The most important is the British Army’s casualty lists between 1939 and 1945. This collection records all soldiers who died during the war, went missing, were taken prisoner, repatriated, or wounded. Often, the exact unit a soldier was serving in when they became a casualty was recorded, though sometimes they will just appear in a list of those serving with the Royal Artillery. The prisoner of war records will often record the camp a soldier was being held in. If a soldier was taken prisoner during the war or went missing, look at the relevant file in the WO 361 series. This series, held at the National Archives in London contains enquiries into missing personnel. There are a number of files for individual field regiments and also general Royal Artillery enquiries. They are organised by theatre of war and usually contain eyewitness statements regarding what happened to missing soldiers.
If you’re researching a soldier who died serving with a field regiment between 3 September 1939 and 31 December 1947, you can find where they are buried or commemorated on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s website. The information recorded will vary but you’ll often find the exact unit and even battery a soldier was serving in when they lost their lives. If no unit was recorded, search for the soldier in the War Office casualty lists. Additional information may include any honours or gallantry awards, information on the next of kin, the epitaph on their grave if there was one, their army number etc.