Artillery in Defence

In terms of the defence, the principle roles of artillery (taken from Field Service Regulations Vol II 1935) would be:

  • Defensive fire, used against troops actually attacking. It is usually put down on pre-arranged areas in co-ordination with the fire of other weapons, especially of machine guns and is fired on a pre arranged signal. If the enemy can actually be seen attacking, they will be engaged by fire of all batteries whose observers can see them.

  • Anti-tank defence, to provide a second line of fire if armoured fighting vehicles break through the front line. In some certain circumstances field guns may be placed in or near the front line with a primary role of anti-tank defence.


It was important that artillery could be concentrated against any enemy preparation or delivery of attack as artillery fire is most effective when applied intensively on a selected area. The artillery fire plan should be co-ordinated with the fire of the infantry and medium machine guns. It was also important that plans were in place to bring down defensive fire if the enemy made a sudden attack – such defensive fire tasks are known as “S.O.S tasks”. Each artillery troop could only have one SOS task at anyone time although arrangements should be made that these tasks could be switched to suit the conditions. Guns were normally laid on SOS tasks when not engaged.


During the Invasion Scare of 1940-42, it was recognized that Infantry weapons could not cover all the beaches where an enemy landing may take place – artillery could cover this ground.  Artillery fire was normally controlled by observation, should this fail, it was also important that fire could be brought down by predicted methods.


Thus the ideal picture of artillery deployment in defence was that of a large number of guns under centralized control, with Observation Posts covering the whole front, able to bring fire to bear with any desired intensity on to any task. Artillery units would have a number of alternative tasks registered which could be fired in a few seconds; they could also fire on unregistered targets, either by observation or predicted methods.

  • In a Coastal Defence role, i.e. an Anti-Invasion role, 55th Division Artillery stated the following objectives during the summer of 1940:

  • Engage enemy vessels as they approach the coast

  • Bring fire to bear on the beaches in the event of the enemy obtaining a footing

  • Engage the enemy if he succeeds in advancing from the beaches

  • Engage the enemy landing from the air behind the infantry defences and behind or on the flanks of gun positions.

  • Engage enemy tanks at all times

  • Engage enemy aircraft that have landed on the sea or land

  • Move in support of infantry in counter attack role.


When it arrived in Suffolk in April 1940, 55th Division Artillery only had 12 serviceable pieces; by November this had increased to 159. This increase was obtained by both an increase in modern field guns (e.g. 18/25 pdrs), the use of naval guns (6 pdrs, 4” BL and QF on both fixed and mobile mounts), equipments dating back to the First War still in service (although modified during the interwar years, e.g. 4.5”& 6” Howitzers and 6” mortars) and 24 First War style French 75mm guns purchased from the USA. The heaviest guns to arrive were two rail mounted 12” howitzers.


The following shows the number of pieces available in July and November 1940:




























In the summer of 1940 the shortages did not relate just to artillery pieces. In June 1940, the Commanding Officer, 72nd Medium Regt noted that although he was responsible for two four-gun batteries, 17 strong points on roads around Ipswich and two mobile inlying pickets, he had only two Lewis guns and no anti-tank rifles,  no Binoculars prismatic, no ammunition for .38 and .45 revolvers and no daylight signaling lamps. Only seven officers and a few other ranks had webbing equipment and 400 men had no gas mask. It must have been a relief to hand over the road blocks in Ipswich to the Home Guard in early July!


After the fall of France, as with all Home Forces, the Divisional Artillery role changed from largely training to active defense of the coast. For the next five months personnel worked on constructing gun pits, observation posts, local defence trenches and posts, laying cable etc.


Gun pits were dug to allow guns to cover the arc of fire allotted to them. However guns had to be able to be quickly removed from pits to engage targets outside their main arc of fire. For this purpose, alternative fire positions were to be marked with pegs and lines of fire with aiming markers set up for likely target areas.  Local defence  posts would have been simple weapons-pits / fire trenches constructed to bring fire down by two or three men on to likely lines of approach.  Barbed wire defences were also erected although at first there was a great shortage in barbed wire.


Troops slept near their posts, at first in tented camps but huts or requisitioned buildings were eventually provided, and stood two one hour before dusk and dawn. The artillery also had to provide men to supplement the meager infantry resources; at one point, in the summer of 1940, over 1,200 gunners were acting as infantry. For example, 136 Field Regiment had to provide two rifle troops of three platoons for the local defence of Darsham and one troop of three platoons for the defence of Westleton. This force was known as R.O.B Force. The 109 Field Regiment provided a rifle troop for the Bungay defences and was expected to form part of the reserves to counter-attack in the event of the enemy gaining a foothold on the beach or to hold their position in the event of the enemy breaking out of his beach head until Division or Corps reserves arrived. This caused some difficulties when ordered to find 50 men to train on four newly delivered 75 mm guns as the Bungay Garrison could not be reduced.


Observation Posts to direct fire were to be set up in the forward zone so the whole of the beach in the allotted zone of fire could be seen. Posts were also to set further back to allow a general view over the forward area and also one to give a general view of the gun position area. A combination of telephone, radio and lamps were to be used to communicate between the gun position and Observation Post.  Observation Posts were sited in a variety of locations including pillboxes, lighthouses, church towers, windmills, Martello Towers, trees and haystacks.   At least two examples remain of purpose built concrete Observation Posts for Field artillery.


Observation Posts were to be fully manned at ‘Stand To’. During the day an Observation Post party was to be present but maybe under the command of an NCO. At night an officer was to be present at the nearest infantry HQ and the remainder of the party at the Observation Post or nearest infantry HQ. Observation Posts were sometimes required to send out a series of practice fire orders to the guns, prefaced by the words “DUMMY DUMMY DUMMY” and other series of orders sent to signallers and other lookouts. As with other anti-invasion duties, long tedious hours resulted in at least one Regiment sending out instructions that Observation Post personnel should pride themselves on familiarizing themselves with their duties – letter writing and reading novels was to take place in off duty hours!


All Observation Posts and batteries had a large scale map (1:25,000) marking all troop, machine gun and minefield localities.  These maps would allow accurate ‘predicted fire’ with observers being able to correct range by references to ranging points or the target itself. Some limited ranging was also carried out on SOS targets and other specific targets (e.g. ranging was carried out on Defensive Fire targets at Martlesham and Ipswich aerodromes). Defined targets were set at Division level, each target numbered (with prefix T for target and TDF for defensive fire).  Arrangements were also made to bring down SOS fire on the relevant signal (a ‘golden rain’ rocket).


Fire Tasks were refined early in 1941 as follows:


“Z” Tasks with the object of engaging the enemy at 600 yards out to sea, before it became necessary to put down Defensive Fire (a concentration of 10 enemy vessels was required as the minimum for calling for Z Tasks).  Z Tasks would normally be ordered by the Sub-Sector HQ but could be ordered by any Observation Post in the event of a failure in communications with the Sub-sector HQ. On a Z Task being ordered, troops would fire three minutes RAPID.  Defensive Fire Tasks would take precedence over Z Tasks and any troops employed on Z Tasks would make an immediate switch if Defensive Fire Tasks were called for.


Primary Defensive Fire Tasks (“X” Tasks) with the object of engaging the enemy at 200 yards out to sea which all guns on the immediate front would respond to at three minutes INTENSE on receipt of the SOS signal.


Secondary Defensive Tasks  (“Q” Tasks) with the object of engaging the enemy at 200 yards out to sea which all guns with a secondary role on the front in question would respond to at three minutes INTENSE if not involved on a Primary Defensive Fire Task


Beach Targets with the objective of engaging the enemy if he had gained a foothold on the beach. These tasks would only be fired on the orders of the Sub-Sector HQ at four rounds gun fire from units detailed to answer.


Targets were again redefined in May 1941, with the prefixes X and Q dropped and instead targets were either Defensive Fire or Concentration Tasks. Defensive Fire Tasks remained largely the same but were to be answered by a burst of 10 rounds gun fire by Field batteries and three rounds gun fire by Heavy batteries. Concentration Tasks were specified to bring down a concentration of artillery fire on the more important beaches and allowed for a rapid switch from beaches not being attacked. The request for a Concentration Task was to be prefixed by the word “HELP”. Gun fire was to be at two rates, scale “C” or “D”, with scale “D” reserved for targets of special importance which had to be specifically ordered.


If not engaged on their primary anti-shipping role, Coastal Batteries could also be called to answer Defensive Fire Tasks at seven rounds per battery per task.


A specific problem for Defensive Fire Tasks and Concentration Tasks occurred in the area south of 81 North Grid Line (off the Coast between Thorpeness and Aldeburgh) due to the placement of Naval Mines. These were to be laid on “Action Stations”. If it was ascertained these mines were in position, no Defensive Fire or Concentration Tasks were to be fired unless the enemy had clearly penetrated the minefields. If they were not in place then Defensive Fire and Concentration Tasks would be fired under normal instructions.













As with the infantry there was to be no withdrawal of the artillery. Trucks with wireless sets were provided to allow mobile observation posts to be set up, either to observe areas not under observation from established posts or to allow guns to move to new positions if their current position was threatened. One Medium Regt was allocated two Bren Carriers as armoured Observation Posts. If gun positions were likely to be overrun, arrangements were made to disable the guns.


Most of the artillery in 1940-41 was sited to primarily cover the beaches. However by the end of 1941 an airborne landing in the rear of the beaches was considered an equal if not greater threat and 54th Division, moving to Suffolk in November 1941, considered that at least 50 per cent of guns should be sited to cover the areas in the rear, relying almost entirely on predicted firing.


References for the Artillery pages:


55th Div papers, TNA

54 Div papers, TNA

15 Div papers, TNA

Artillery Training, Vol II, Gunnery  1934 Supplement No.2, WO, 1940

MTP No 23, Operations, Part II – Defence, WO, Sept 1939

MTP  No 23, Operations, Part II – The Infantry Division in The Defence, WO, March 1942

MTP No 3, The Defence, WO, June 1943

Infantry Training, WO, 1937

Fortress Lowestoft, R Jarvis, The Heritage Workshop Centre, 2002