The 25-pdr Field Gun 1939 - 1972: Part Two - Operation History during the Second World War and beyond

Operational History: The Second World War and After
Variants
Bibliography and Further Reading

Operational History: The Second World War and After

A wide variety of artillery pieces arrived in France with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in the fateful summer of 1940. Generally, it had been older equipment that had been issued, such as the 18-pdr and its accompanying 4.5in howitzers (on pneumatic wheels) and the 18 / 25-pdr, along with various modes of transport such as the Light Dragon Mk 2. The British lost over 700 18 / 25-pdr guns in the campaign for France and the Low Countries, which the Germans readily pressed into service as the 8.76cm Feldkanone 281 (e) and 8.76cm Feldkanone 282 (e) (Mk IV and Mk IV with the VP carriage respectively). In the years just before the outbreak of the Second World War, the Royal Artillery’s field regiments went through a period of rearmament that was erratic to say the least as the British Army was kept in limbo as to the threat that was emerging in Europe. When the BEF returned to the UK after the campaign they did manage to bring back some 334 18 / 25-pdr guns, but the 1940 campaign was to be the first and last large-scale deployment of the Mk I 25-pdr as from April, the Mk II had entered service. While it entered service first with the Canadian Army, the gun first saw action in British service with 203 Battery of the 51st Field Regt TA during the Norwegian campaign. Unfortunately, the battery had to abandon their guns with the evacuation of British forces from the country.

The battles of the Western Desert between 1940 and 1942 against the Axis could be argued to have been the finest hour of the 25-pdr. The fighting in the desert was influenced to a much greater extent by the environment, distances and terrain, all of which impacted on the logistics of both sides, meaning that had to be very careful as to how much fuel, food, water and ammunition they needed for their operations. The early fighting from June to December 1940 saw the Italian forces under Marshal Graziani advance into Egypt and halt about 60 miles inside the border. The British used ‘Jock’ Columns that were small, mobile, all-arms formations to harass the Italians but diluted the impact of the 25-pdr. Most guns were the 25-pdr Mk II, but the gun was hampered by soft sand, the trails and platforms requiring reasonably firm ground on which to operate effectively. In many cases the guns had to be winched over rough ground when withdrawing. The startling victories over the Italians during Operation Compass hid the fact that most British guns were incapable of dealing with heavy armour. They could deal with the light Italian tanks easily enough but the arrival of Rommel’s Afrika Korps changed the situation almost overnight. The Germans had the famous 88mm Flak gun, as well as Panzer III and IV tanks. Being almost 88mm in calibre itself, the 25-pdr was the only gun capable of challenging the German armour and the battles around and to the east of Tobruk would prove the worth of the gun. The fighting around Tobruk in April 1942 saw the 25-pdr pitted directly against German armour, for example by A/E Battery, 3rd Regiment, Royal Horse Artillery and it proved itself a worthy opponent, but was at a disadvantage when against the 88mm Flak gun as that had a muzzle velocity of 2,624 feet per second (as against 1,700) and a maximum range of 16,183 yards (as against 13,500). It must be remembered however that the 25-pdr was an artillery piece and not an anti-tank gun. It was used only in desperation against tanks, even though small amounts of anti-tank ammunition had been issued from the outset of the war. One of the first actions of A Battery (HAC), Royal Horse Artillery was on 21 January 1942 as part of Baron column, operating near the Wadi el Faregh. Around forty enemy tanks, mostly Panzer IIIs and IVs, attacked the column from about 4,000 yards. After a five-hour battle, the decision was made to withdraw as the column was now being harassed by Stuka dive-bombers as well as the advancing armoured units. C and D troops of the battery had been firing over open sights and three guns had been destroyed, but the other two continued to fire as they withdrew even though firing was very detrimental to the guns as the soft ground caused the platforms to bend and buckle with the shock of firing. In this situation, gun crews can be easily picked off, and the old horse artillery tactics (quick advance, quick unlimber, quick firing and quick withdrawal) proved to be ineffective due to the difficulty of the terrain. It was much more effective to concentrate artillery fire indirectly at enemy tanks to disrupt their movement.

The preceding barrage to the battle of El Alamein was one of the great moments in the 25-pdr’s history. Around 834 guns were used in a coordinated fire plan designed to cover the engineer parties that were trying to clear paths through the enemy barbed wire and minefields. Over one-and-a-half million shells were expended during this barrage and the only limiting factor was how quickly the ammunition could be brought to the guns. In late 1941 the Royal Artillery was reorganised where they gained much more control over the firing process, especially in situations that required the mass use of large numbers of guns. There would be a separate chain of command for the guns that would follow fire plans that had been created by Royal Artillery officers. Large formations, such as divisions and corps would have artillery advisors with them to help direct the guns, a practice followed by the Soviet Army who regularly used massed gun tactics. From 1942 onwards the Royal Artillery would increasingly have to control the firing of large groups of guns and could be controlled by a set of different orders that indicated the size of formations firing:

25-pdr Field Gun, Mount Etna 1943
25-pdr Field Gun, Mount Etna 1943

After Operation Overlord in June 1944, the 25-pdr, in both towed and self-propelled versions saw service in large numbers in the North-West Europe campaign. Royal Artillery units began to receive the Sexton, a self-propelled version of the 25-pdr gun, immediately after D-Day. This was so that Royal Artillery units could keep pace with the armoured divisions as they advanced across France but they actually replaced the Priest, an American self-propelled artillery piece mounting a 105mm gun, as the US Army was short of 105mm ammunition. Many of the Priests were converted into Kangaroo armoured personnel carriers. The 25-pdr, with its smaller calibre shell, was able to remain as effective as the American artillery due to the ability of the British and Canadian gunners to concentrate their fire more effectively. In Normandy, the organisation of artillery was generally the same as in the desert with twenty-four guns per regiment and seventy-two guns (three regiments) per division. Forward Observation Officers (FOOs) were normally officers from the battery that went up to the frontline and accompanied the troops in universal carriers specially modified for the task, although there were artillery officers at various levels within each division who could call down the fire of a single artillery regiment or the entire divisional artillery if needed. All the guns within a division were surveyed into a map grid where their location, and the location of any enemy targets were plotted and that information shared across the division. The key to the rapid concentration of fire on a target was the quickness with which the guns could be surveyed onto a map grid, a task that was carried out by survey troops. The actions in Normandy, during Operations Goodwood, Atlantic and Totalize, are examples of how effectively massed concentrations of artillery can disrupt enemy infantry and armour to help an attack achieve its objectives. It must be remembered however that artillery can also help in the defence, and the massed formations of 25-pdr guns also successfully broke up numerous enemy counterattacks.

After the Second World War, the 25-pdr next saw action during the Korean conflict and three artillery regiments saw service out there: the 45 Field Regiment between November 1950 and November 1951; 14 Field Regiment between November 1951 and December 1952; and 20 Field Regiment between December 1952 and December 1953. The 25-pdrs of 45 Field Regiment are known for their support of the Gloucesters at the Battle of the Imjin River. After the early phase of stroke and counterstroke, the Korean War settled down into static form of warfare, reminiscent of the First World War. Pre-registered areas of fire could then be logged with the artillery and in the case of the Imjin River, the battery commander supporting the Gloucester’s defence, Guy Ward, was able to call down accurate artillery fire on any numbers of targets that presented themselves due to his unrestricted view across the plain. As the war progressed, the normal procedure would be to use the Air Observation Post to spot for the guns, often an Auster Mk VII piloted by a gunnery officer who could quickly spot targets and call down artillery fire onto them. The 25-pdr was the heaviest British gun in Korea and was highly successful in breaking up the Chinese human wave attacks but for heavier duties, the American 155mm gun was needed.

The 25-pdr was also used during the Malayan Emergency of 1948 – 1960 and so ensured that the 25-pdr continued to be in service many years after the end of the Second World War. The Communist units lacked heavy weapons and so used the jungle to hide their movements. The 25-pdrs were used to support the patrolling operations of the British and Ghurkha forces and were not normally used in permanent positions, instead the gunners were expected to be able to fire at any time, sleeping if necessary in the lorries and working in shifts. Interestingly enough, the prime mover during the campaign tended to be GMC 2.5 ton trucks from the Australian Army. In many instances, the guns were used tactically in an area-denial role, sometimes being fired randomly into the jungle to encourage the idea that nowhere was safe for the insurgents. The guns were often positioned in tea plantations and after an ambush, the guns would be moved and brought to bear so that they could fire onto a known area, a track for example, so as to stop the insurgents in their tracks and allow the Ghurkhas to catch up with them, sometimes firing for so long and so quickly that the paint would blister.

The provision of the 25-pdr to many other armed forces ensured that the gun could be found in conflicts all over the world and well beyond the end of the Second World War or when it had been replaced in British Army service. Both the Indian and Pakistani armed forces were provided with large number of weapons after the 1948 partition and both sides were still using them by the time of the 1970 – 1 Indo-Pakistani War. The Indian Army used them extensively until the late 1970s. Immediately after the end of the war, Indian Field Regiments 1 and 2 were equipped with Sextons while other regiments received towed guns and many of these saw action in Jammu and Kashmir. In November 1962 border incursions led to an undeclared war between India and China that saw several field regiments deployed in operations around Kameng where the border joins Bhutan and Tibet. In one attack, the 25-pdrs of 97 Field Battery fired over 300 rounds to break up a Chinese infantry attack. Many nations in Africa procured the 25-pdr and many still have them in service today. South Africa modified and manufactured them as a 90mm field gun.

Variants

While all weapon systems undergo some degree of modification over their service life, either to enhance performance when new technology becomes available or to rectify problems encountered in the field, a few are so extensively modified that they are almost unrecognisable to the original. A good example of this is the Ordnance QF 25-pdr Short (Aust) Mk I on Carriage Light (Aust) Mks I and II. In mid-1942 the Australians were fighting the Japanese for control of New Guinea and the heaviest support they could muster was the 3-in mortar. The terrain dictated what sort of equipment could be used and the Australians needed a gun that could be broken down into several parts, carried by mule, packed into a jeep or transported by air. The Australian Director of Artillery, Brigadier J W A O’Brian suggested that the 25-pdr could be redesigned for such a role. The firm Charles Ruwolt Pty Ltd produced a number of prototypes and field trials were instigated. The gun entered service in August 1943 and gave a good account of itself despite the fact that many modifications had been needed and it was considered a high risk activity to fire the gun with a supercharge. The Australians affectionately knew the gun as the ‘Snout’, apt considering the barrel was just four feet long and the whole thing weighed just one-and-a-quarter tons. The gun could be broken down into just thirteen (or fourteen depending on which manual you read) loads all of which were parachuted from a C-47 in separate cartons. The gun was quite a deviation from the original 25-pdr in that it required a new cradle, trail and axles. The gun also had a small jockey wheel at the rear so the gun could be manoeuvred while in position, but was raised during transport. It also had two stabilisers that were intended to reduce stress on the wheels but these were found to cause problems when reversing and running up (in a report from the 23 Australian Field Battery) and so the stabilisers were removed. A battery of Australian 25-pdrs normally consisted of a headquarters with four jeeps and a light trailer and two troops, each with seven jeeps, four jeeps having a gun and twenty-four rounds of ammunition, a D-6 tractor (carrying eighty-eight rounds of HE ammunition) and a one-ton trailer.

The Mk I carriage was involved in an experiment with the 17-pdr anti-tank gun barrel. The constant technological battle between Allied and Axis weapons designers to come up with better armoured tanks and the weapons to penetrate their armour led to the British developing a more powerful anti-tank gun than the 6-pdr, the 17-pdr, which was ready on 1 May 1942 but at the time did not have a purpose built carriage. Concerns over the appearance of the German Tiger tank led to the British to try the 17-pdr Mk I on a Carriage Mk II, something that became known as the ‘Pheasant’. The gun was sent to Africa where it saw successful operational use, particularly in Tunisia. It was a brave decision as the 25-pdr gun carriage was not really designed to take the stresses of a gun firing at 2,900 feet per second but the Carriage Mk II is said to have coped with it reasonably in the field.

Bishop self propelled gun, Sicily 1943
Bishop self propelled gun, Sicily 1943

The Bishop and the Sexton were the two main developments in terms of self-propelling the 25-pdr. The Bishop (or the 25-pounder Mk I on Carrier, Valantine, 25-pdr, Mk I to give its proper military title) was designed to fulfil a requirement for the 25-pdr gun to be able to keep pace with the war of manoeuvre in the Western Desert. The Birmingham Railway Carriage and Wagon Co. Ltd was asked to produce a design based around the Valantine tank chassis, which was completed by June 1941. It had a crew of four, could be equipped with a Bren gun for AA defence, had an armour thickness of 60mm maximum and 8mm minimum and carried 32 rounds of ammunition. However the design was not particularly successful being relatively slow at 7mph and the elevation was restricted to 15 degrees, limiting its maximum range to 6,400 yards, but it was the first British attempt to design a self-propelled gun. Some 100 were eventually delivered and they served in the Western Desert and in Sicily and Italy with the 1st and 8th Armies. They were only a stopgap measure and were eventually replaced by the American Priest 105mm self-propelled gun and the Sexton 25-pdr self-propelled gun. It was the Canadian Army Engineering Design Branch that came up with a design that would eventually become the Sexton (Mounting, SP, 25-pdr, C, Mk I) – it owed much of its design to the American Priest and was really a Ram Kangaroo armoured personnel carrier with a 25-pdr gun fixed to the top of it, although the saddle and pintle of the gun had to be redesigned to allow it to be traversed rapidly. The recoil was limited to 20 inches to allow the weapon to elevate to 40 degrees. The driver sat below the gun and to the right and when firing, the vehicle stopped and rounds were passed through a hatch on the left-hand side although the floor space was designed so that floor plates could be removed to access lockers where up to 87 HE or smoke rounds and 18 armour-piercing rounds. For self-defence in an emergency there were two Bren guns that could be mounted on a removable pedestal clamp or in some cases, Browning machineguns were fitted. The carriage went through similar modifications to the Ram tanks and carriers, having a riveted chassis and bogeys to start with and having a cast one-piece nose and M4 bogeys and trailing roller returns added later. Later versions also had a towing hook added for a trailer and a fire control version, known as the Sexton GPO (Gun Position Officer), had the gun removed and an additional No. 19 radio set (along with map tables and extra equipment) added to help control battery fire. Some 2,150 had been built by 1945 and the British Army used them until well into the 1950s.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Falvey, D., A Well-Known Excellence: British Artillery and Artillerymen in World War Two , London, 2002.
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Henry, C., The 25-pounder Field Gun 1939 - 72 , Osprey Publishing, Oxford, 2002, New Vanguard Series No. 48.
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Hogg, I V., Allied Artillery of World War Two , Allied Artillery of World War Two, Crowood Press, Marlborough, 1998.
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Hogg, I V., British and American Artillery of World War Two , Greenhill Books, London, 2002.
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Hogg, I V., The Guns 1939 - 45 , MacDonald / Jane's Publishing, London, 1970, Purnell's History of the Second World War, Weapons Book No. 11.
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The author would like to dedicate both articles on the 25-pdr Field Gun to his Granddad, Ted, who served in the Royal Artillery in World War Two as a Forward Artillery Observer attached to the 10th Indian Division.
How to cite this article: Antill, P. (22 January 2005), The 25-pdr Field Gun 1939 - 1972: Part Two, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_25pdr2.html

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