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Friday 30 March 2012

Somme Trip 2012 - Boom Ravine

We seemed to have spent quite a bit of time in this area so it seemed a good subject for the next blog post on this Somme Trip thread. The close of the Somme Battle in Nov 1916 had given the British command of both sides of the Ancre with the Germans in a salient projecting westwards . The Battle of Boom Ravine was planned as a 'bite and hold' operation to pinch out this salient from the south in order to obtain better positions for the resumption of the offensive proper in the spring of 1917 (the Germans spoilt the plans for the resumption of the offensive proper to some extent by retiring to the Hindenburg Line).

Above: Regina Trench Cemetery which overlooks Boom Ravine (Boom Ravine can be seen in the background of the colour image). This trench was captured by the Canadians between Oct 1st and Nov 11th 1916. By this time it was not a trench as such but rather a collection of shell holes organised into a series of defensive posts.  

The battle, which took place on Feb 17th,  was notorious on two accounts: the weather and the supposedly treachery of two deserters who revealed to the Germans the time of the attack.  

There was a biting five weeks of frost in Jan and Feb 1917: "Intense cold was experienced at this time. The ground, like iron, was covered with snow. The frost was intense, one man being frozen stiff at his post on sentry, and drinking water carried to the front line arrived as lumps of ice, from which bits were chipped for eating" - 23rd RF Battalion History.

Above: Two images of German trenches showing how they turned into liquid mud after a thaw.

The attack was timed for 05:45am on the 17th Feb.  18th Div was attack through Boom Ravine, 2nd Division on the right flank and 63rd on the left flank.A very rapid thaw had set in the day before resulting in the ground becoming "deep and heavy with slush and mud". The day of the attack was misty. As stated above the Germans knew the British were coming and opened a barrage as the British troops began to assemble at 5.00am . The 11th RF were particularly hit hard while assembling in The Gully / Oxford Circus. The fighting during the day was described as desperate and confusing with parties of troops often losing their way in the mist, often never to be heard of again (this was the fate of Capt Simons with  one platoon of C Company, 22nd RF). At the end of the day, Boom Ravine was in British hands but not the final objective of Miraumount. However it was further proof to the Germans that their position on the Somme was no longer tenable and they began the withdrawal to the Hindenburg line soon after.

Above: Image 1: Map of 18th Div attack Feb 17th
Image 2: The top end of Boom Ravine today showing the approx positions of 'Oxford Circus', 'The Gully' and Grandcourt Trench.
Image 3: Foreground shows the position known as 'The Mound'. In the background can be seen the ridge on which the attack was brought to a halt on 18th Div's front. Many Germans counter-attacked from numerous dug-outs in 'The Bluff' temporarily driving the British back although in the end a line was  established just short of the crest of the ridge.
Image 4: West Miraumont Road - the approx position in which the 22 RF attacked - in the mist and confusion Capt Simons with one platoon of C Coy headed off into Boom Ravine (to the left of the image) by mistake and were never heard of again.

Now with over 90 years plus gone by, with a temperature of what must have been 65F plus on the second time we were in the area it was almost impossible to imagine the above took place.

Above: Image 1: A casualty of the Battle of Boom Ravine. Major Walsh (22nd RF) was mortally wounded while tackling uncut barbed wire which was protected by an unexpected machine gun. He was buried in Ovillers Cemetery on Ash Wednesday, Feb 21 1917.
Image 2: A 'dud' 9" shell - the size can be gauged by the metal object on the right on which the hazard tape is tied to - this is a pickaxe head.
Image 3: A roll of barbed wire
Image 4: ADANAC cemetery on the East Miraumont Road. (ADANAC is Canada in reverse - it is a concentration cemetery  of the fallen largely from the late 1916 fighting with 1,973 British, 1,071 Canadian, 70 New Zealand, 53 Australian, 5 Unknown and 1 German burials)

Wednesday 28 March 2012

Easton Wood Batttery

Well actually managed to use all my annual leave up this year - still a few days left after arriving back from the Somme. On Tue went back up to the Eastern Command Line (more on that later) but today went up to Covehithe in weather that was more like mid June! Ended up at The Warren, much WW2 activity in this area although most now long gone due to coastal erosion - but a pillbox does still survive (think I may have posted on it before).

Above: 'Suffolk Square' Pillbox, The Warren
Bottom two photos show Covehithe from The Warren

A quick look in the wood produced a pleasant surprise in the remains of what may have been the ablutions area of the Easton Wood Coastal Battery. Nothing much left except a drain manhole, a few bricks, broken pottery and some bottles but never the less still a fragment in the landscape surviving from WW2. It is worth noting I have found similar pottery and bottles at Diver sites - I must admit I have not checked the locations lists for any Diver Batteries in the area, lazy I know and often leads to misleading conclusions but the whole process of converting Cassini Grid References just takes so much time. Much easier to jump to the conclusion that these are the remains of the Coastal Battery as I know for definite that it was here!! 

Image 1:  Remains of the Battery on the beach
Image 2: Manhole
Image 3: Water cylinder - may or may not be from domestic site but I have found similar cylinders at other WW2 sites.
Image 4: Pipes protruding from the cliff top.
Image 5: Remains of concrete foundations to a hut / building
Image 7: Glazed brick
Image 8: Byrlcreem Bottle - probably  the most common bottle I find!

Next post will be back to The Somme - probably on the Boom Ravine area.

Tuesday 27 March 2012

Somme Trip 2012 - Journey down through Ypres Salinet

Back from another fantastic week on the Somme. It is frightening to think I have been going over for a week virtually every March with my brother since 1985!!. So a series of posts about this years trip - these are not intended as a 'History of the Battle of the Somme' in anyway but just a few highlights of the trip with some added snippets of history. We sailed form Dover to Dunkirk on Sat 18th allowing for a few hours in the Ypres Salient before arriving on the Somme in the early evening. This only really allowed time for a few visits to some cemeteries and bunkers.

First of the big bunkers we came across was at a site called Goumier Farm (or also Gournrer Farm) on the Pilkem Ridge. This was basically a fortified Belgium farmhouse - the  Germans constructed it by enclosing the brick walls in concrete. It was an excellent location with good views over the surrounding area and changed hands many times until finally captured by the 38th Div in July 1917. It was further fortified by the Royal Engineers (they added the blast walls). Subsequently it was to be captured again by the Germans before finally be recaptured by the Black watch.

Above: Goumier Farm Bunker

Another fortified farmhouse we visited was Hussar Farm. This was a British observation post fortified by the Royal Monmouthshire RE, again constructed inside an old farmhouse.

Above: Hussar Farm British Observation Post

We also came across another couple of reinforced concrete shelters - I found a picture of what conditions must have been like in such shelters.

RE Wood was an interesting site. Sited on the Bellewaarde Ridge it offered good views over the British positions. Any ridge in the Salient was strongly contested - and the term 'ridge' in the Flanders plain has to be taken lightly - any  slight rise of ground was a 'ridge'!. The area was obviously the site of mine warfare and also of an attack by the Liverpool Scottish (1/10th Kings Regt) on 16th June 1915 when they suffered 590 casualties killed, wounded or missing. A memorial to this action can be seen on the site. A little snippet of WW2 info - according to Rose Coombs excellent book 'Before Endeavours Fade', the area was also the  location of a failed attempt by the Germans to establish a V1 Rocket launching site.

Above: RE Wood Memorial and one of the mine craters still visible.

Any visit to Ypres has to take in Passchendaele - even people with no or little interest in the First War have heard of this village. It is basically the area where the Third Battle of Ypres 1917 finally came to a halt in atrocious conditions. As I said these posts are not intended to be a history, we only had time for a visit to New Passchendaele Cemetery. Conditions were overcast and the black and white photograph I took actually looked the most atmospheric.

Above: Passchendaele New Cemetery. Bottom two photos show the Canadians in line just before the attack in Nov 1917 and clearing up a few days after the capture of Passchendaele Ridge.

Finally on the drive down to the Somme, crossing over the Belgium border into France we came across a massive British pillbox constructed during the Second War as part of the Gort Line (basically an extension of the Maginot Line constructed by the British).

Above: British Pillbox on the Gort Line. Artists sketch shows British soldiers waiting by their guns ready to meet the anticipated German attack and  recalls "the many months spent by the British Expeditionary Force in France in the latter part of 1939 and during the early part of the following year, awaiting events".

Arrived on the Somme in time for a few beers at Bar Tommies in Pozieres before retiring to our hotel at Foncquevillers which we have been staying at far more years than I care to remember!

Above: Hotel du Nord with a good meal and bottle of wine awaiting!

Monday 12 March 2012

Hollesley - 11th Highland Light Infantry and Horse Event!

In 1941 the 11th Highland Light Infantry (15th Division) were tasked with the defence of the Suffolk Coast between Bawdsey and Orford. Battalion HQ and HQ Company were distributed around Hollesley. No 3 Platoon (Mortar), No 4 Platoon (Carrier) and No 5 Platoon (Pioneer) were situated in copses just to the west of Poplar Farm. This Sunday I decided to have a look for any evidence in these copses remaining from the occupation by these platoons. Unfortunately an Equestrian event was also being held in the area during this weekend. I decided to persevere on recoding remains of corrugated  iron, 4" iron pipes etc much to the bemused looks from many horsey people! I also had a continuous commentary of the progress of various horses around the coarse from the loudspeakers (Susie Prank and Bonnie Prince Charlie are two horses I remember for some reason).

Above: The copses in which the HQ Platoons were located in - the cars and horse boxes from the event can be seen on the RHS!

These platoons were no doubt located in the copses as it would provide camouflage from aerial observation. The War Diary does not have any details on the type of accommodation (would troops have been billeted in Hollesley but the Carriers / equipment etc kept under cover in the copses?) but   location statements prove the platoons were here between April and October 1941 at least, so presumably for such a long stay, huts would have been provided. 

The only remains I came across was one screw picket, some corrugated iron sheets, and parts of the water supply or sullage system. Although there was no evidence of any huts etc I did come across some shallow ditches laid out in squares which could have been for draining surface water from the vicinity of huts.

Above: Top photo shows part of shallow ditches laid out in squares - surface drainage for huts etc?
Rest of the photos show either remains of the sullage system or water provision while bottom image shows a solitary screw picket I came across. A lot of angle iron also used in fences in the area - perhaps left overs from the War.

Not the most exciting post I know, but still another little piece of evidence recorded on the ground, and it is always enjoyable to find evidence of details given in War Diaries. Will return for another look at some time when no horses around!

Well, soon off to the First War battle fields in France again, so expect a run of blog posts on this trip when I get back. A new camera to play with as well, but we'll have to wait and see if the pics are any better!

Sunday 11 March 2012

75mm Field Gun Battery Position - Part 4

This post is basically a few snippets of information  I have found on the 75mm gun and its service in Home Defence to round off this thread.  There were basically two types used for Home Defence:

French "Canon de modele 1897": a revolutionary design at the time due to its recoil system allowing the gun to be continually fired without relaying after every round fired. The gun was the standard field gun for the French during WW1 and the American army were also widely equipped with it. Although America began to manufacture the gun in 1918, very few were shipped to France as most American batteries were equipped with French manufactured guns. America retained these home manufactured guns, largely for training. After Dunkirk when British forces lost many of their field guns, 600 M1897 guns were purchased from America. They were used in Field batteries and also as anti-tank guns. Although the gun was basically the 1897 model, many guns did have their carriages modified.

Above: M1897 75mm in action during WW1

The gun fired shrapnel or HE shells with a muzzle velocity of 500 mtrs per second and a maximum range of 6,900 mtrs. This meant a flat trajectory although this could be improved by digging a pit for the trail, although  I have found no mention of this being carried out in the War Diaries. As a matter of interest I plotted two  elevation graphs from the UK Grid Reference Finder website for the Forty Acre Covert position, for the battery's  two Defensive Fire  tasks. These show that the shells would need to reach a height of at least 5 mtrs for "crest clearance".

Distance 0.00km in the above graphs is the battery position. I basically plotted a few points in a straight line from the battery position to the Defensive Fire Task.

75 mm Gun Model 1917: Early during WW 1 the Americans adopted the 75mm gun as its standard field gun. At first difficulties were experienced in manufacturing the French model 1897 so in 1917 a 75 mm gun which was basically the British 18 pounder re-chambered to fire French 75mm ammunition  was introduced as an interim measure. After Dunkirk, America shipped its remaining 75mm model 1917 guns to Britain.

Above: American M1917 75mm gun - very similar to the British QF 18 pounder.

In the War Diaries little mention is made of the guns (except their position, roles etc). However two references I have come across are of interest:
  • One anti-tank Regt was experimenting with pneumatised 75mm's fitted with platforms. It was found that the original balance of the gun was destroyed on the pneumatised guns so experiments were being carried out in adding a Traversing lever.
  • If damage was caused to the recoil system on the 75mm (French), it could not be made good in this country. It was essential that troops were instructed in the maintenance of the recuperators and that these instructions were strictly adhered to.
An interesting note on the state of training in anti-tank gunnery can be found in  129 Field Regt's War Diary. Many officers were noted as not knowing the drill for anti-tank shooting with 75mm's (and 25 pdr's) and were therefore incapable of training their detachments. The standard of many officers from Battery commanders downwards was low on observed shooting. This was largely due to lack of experience in seeing live rounds fall on the ground. As the Commander in Chief considered that engaging enemy tanks  would be the most important role that Field artillery would be called upon to perform during invasion, anti-tank training was imperative. At first training would be carried out on a Vaudrey Range (a miniature range with miniature moving tanks with a special rifle or bren attachment fitted on a 2 pounder gun) before moving to firing at practice camps where live rounds were used supplemented by plugged HE rounds (for 75mm and 25 pounders; for 18 pounders plugged HE or shrapnel shells with fuse set at safety were used).

Website References for this post:

Monday 5 March 2012

75mm Field Gun Battery Position - Part 3

RA 15th Division Operational Instruction No 28 specified  the movement of certain Field batteries to make "the greatest possible fire power for A.T defence" - E Troop 494 battery was included in this instruction. By 16th April troops were to have completed the following task:

"(a) Registration of primary and secondary defensive fire tasks
(b) Wiring of troop position
(c) camouflage, and track plan
(d) Communications to bring each new position within the Signal Plan of each Sub-Sector".

I had a look for any remains of the new position for E Troop at Tinkers Walks but could find no trace. It is however still easy to visualise the position in the landscape. This post will hopefully illustrate this and also look in more detail at the tasks of this field battery.

The battery and its wagon line was sited in the vicinity of Eastwoodlodge Farm. The main observation post was in Walberswick and described as being in the "house with a tower".

Above: The battery was situated in ground just to the north of Eastwoodlodge Farm. Bottom photo shows Eastwoodlodge Farm in the background, photo taken from Tinkers Walks. An anti-landing trench can be seen on the left hand side.

The battery had predetermined Defensive Fire Tasks and Concentration Fire Tasks. The guns should be able to be fired in any direction, including westwards. To fire westwards would mean running the guns out of their pits - positions were to be marked out for this. 

Defensive Fire Tasks were called for  by the infantry by telephone and / or by putting up the SOS signal (i.e. Golden Rain rockets). This was to be answered by 10 rounds per gun. 

To enable a heavy concentration of fire to be brought down on an enemy attacking the more important beaches, "Defensive Fire Concentrations" were arranged in front of  selected beaches. A Concentration Task was normally ordered by the Brigadier commanding the Infantry in response to the infantry sending the message "HELP" followed by the letter and number of the concentration task. In exceptional circumstances the battery commander could put down concentrated fire on any area in which he was supporting on request of the local infantry commander. The rate of fire for Concentration Tasks was as follows:

Scale C (in absence of orders to the contrary) - 5 rounds per gun rapid
Scale D (when ordered) - 20 rounds per gun rapid
Rapid fire for 75mm's was set at 4 rounds per gun per minute.

After firing on a Concentration, guns were to remain laid on the target for five minutes before relaying on their Defensive Fire Task so as to be ready for "REPEAT" calls.

Above E Troops Defensive Fire (P.D.F 21) and Concentration Tasks (P 74, P77, P80 and P83). Other batteries would also have the same task so for concentration fire D/51 Heavy (two 6" guns) could also engage P.D.F 21 and E Troop could also engage P.D.F 15 and 18. For Concentration Tasks a total of four 25 pdrs and twelve 75mms (including E Troop) would engage P74, eight 75mm and two 6" guns P77, P80 and P83. Note all Defensive and Concentration Fire Tasks were at least 200 yards out to sea from the high water mark.

On June 25th the battery received Operational Instruction No 24 which required certain Field batteries to re-site one gun in an anti-tank role. E troop was to  move one gun to a location in whins 100 yds east of the anti-tank ditch to operate as an anti-tank gun. This gun's task was to enfilade the road and cover the anti-tank ditch north of the road. It's arc was about NW to WSW through West. Instructions were ordered to provide alternative positions to cover the zone (in most cases two alternative positions were to be preapred). Camouflage was of great importance:

"The greatest possible care will be taken over camouflage. Camouflage will be put up before the first sod or brush is cut".

The above, not surprisingly, ties in with manuals of the time. The anti-tank gun was a direct fire weapon and relied upon surprise and concealment. "They must therefore be sited defiladed from the front, be well dug in, and should engage tanks in enfilade in order to avoid striking the tank in front where the armour is thickest. Camouflage must be of the highest order.....a gun spotted by the enemy must be taken as useless...". Once a gun had been located it was German practice to stage an immediate encirclement movement with other tanks to destroy it. As a result anti-tank guns were supposed to be sited in mutual support but there was simply not enough guns to go round for this in 1940/41. Alternative positions were also essential - "if guns are not fully dug in and do not move after a successful engagement, they are in danger of being destroyed before the next assault, or neutralised during it".

Above: Top - position of E troop, Observation Post and anti-tank gun. The location of the anti-tank ditch is marked in red. 
Middle: Photo taken from the approx location of the anti-tank gun. The location of the anti-tank ditch is marked in red.
Bottom: Aerial photo, 1945 showing the anti-tank ditch with the approx position of the anti-tank gun.

The battery was to be manned by sufficient troops to operate the guns in an emergency within 30 minutes during daytime or 5 minutes during night time in normal conditions. On "Stand To" it was to be manned by the full detachment. The Observation post was to be manned permanently by one assistant and one signaller during normal times. On "Stand To" an officer was to be present.

The Wagon lines were sited close to the battery, probably in line with RA 15th Div Operating Instruction No 38. This Instruction stated that on "Stand To" wagons were to be brought up to the battery position if there was adequate cover or to the nearest infantry locality in order to increase the mobility of batteries during active operations and also to provide additional personnel to defend the battery position.

The final post in this thread will look briefly at the 75mm gun.