The Second World War 1939-45

The outbreak of war found Canadian Gunners still training on the weapons that their fathers had used in 1918. The forces that were mobilized with commendable speed and efficiency when hostilities commenced would have to wait many months before they could be fully re-armed with modern equipment.

On 25 August 1939, in view of the growing tension in Europe, volunteers from the Militia were called out to man the coastal defences, and the 4th AA Battery was ordered from Kingston to Halifax. On 10 September, Canada declared war. Within two days, each of the Permanent Force batteries had dispatched 25 of its personnel to cities and towns across the country to act as assistant Gunnery instructors for the Militia artillery units. Where they were available, First World War-era 18 Pdrs and 4.5-inch howitzers were used for gun drill. Other units had to improvise with barrack room furniture and chalked outlines of guns on the floor.

By 3 December, the 1st Divisional Artillery began to assemble in Halifax, and by 10 December, the first convoy left for England. Training in England was initially hampered by the lack of equipment, although some soon started to appear.

The field regiments (the term “Brigade of Field Artillery” was dropped at the beginning of the war) progressed from the 18 Pdr to the 18/25 Pdr and finally to the new 25 Pdr gun-howitzer and the self-propelled 25 Pdr Sexton. The medium regiments received the 5.5-inch and 4.5-inch guns. Anti-tank regiments (an innovation in this war) were equipped first with the 2 Pdr, then the more effective 6 Pdr, followed by the 17 Pdr and the American self-propelled M10 (3-inch). Light anti-aircraft (LAA) batteries were equipped with the Polsten 20mm and the dependable 40mm Bofors gun for engagement of low-level aircraft. The heavy anti-aircraft (HAA) units guarded against higher altitude aircraft with the 3.7-inch gun. Later in the war, once the Allies had established air superiority, anti-aircraft guns were often employed with devastating effect in the ground role in support of infantry units. The 3rd Divisional Artillery were specially equipped with American 105mm SP howitzers for the initial landings at Normandy and returned to their 25 Pdrs afterwards. In late 1944 the 1st Rocket Battery was formed and was equipped with 12 rocket projectors, each projector firing 32 high explosive rockets. Artillery officers also took to the air with the formation of three Air Observation Post (OP) Squadrons. These Air OP pilots directed artillery fire from their Auster aircraft while flying over the front lines.

The 1st Field Regiment RCHA (re-named from “the RCHA Brigade” at the beginning of the war) was the first of the gun regiments to “visit” the continent in the abortive attempt to stem the German invasion of France in June of 1940. Their stay lasted a mere four days, and they nearly had to leave their guns behind when the British headquarters ordered all guns and transport destroyed in order to ensure enough room for the evacuation of personnel. The determination and stubbornness of the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel J.H. Roberts prevailed, and the Regiment was the only one to return its field guns to England.

The First Canadian Army, which was commanded initially by General A.G.L. McNaughton then by General H.D.G. Crerar (both Gunner officers), would have two army artillery groups (AGRAs), two corps artilleries and five divisional artilleries as its primary fire support. The RCA would eventually go on to play a major part in the campaigns in Sicily, Italy and northwest Europe.

Elements of the 2nd Divisional Artillery – mainly men from 3 LAA Regt with Bren guns to provide the raiders with air defence – landed at Dieppe in 1942. In 1943, the guns of the 1st Division supported Canadian tanks and infantry through Sicily. Next, on the Italian mainland, the 1st Divisional Artillery, augmented later by 5th Divisional and 1st Corps Artillery, assisted in smashing a way through the German defenders up the long Italian peninsula until all Canadian troops were concentrated in northwest Europe in 1945.

On 6 June 1944, the Gunners accompanied the assaulting infantry of the 3rd Division, firing their self-propelled 105mm howitzers from the decks of their landing craft on the “run in” to the Normandy beaches. This would be followed by the break-out, the Falaise Gap, the drive up the Channel Coast, the push through Belgium to the Scheldt, the liberation of the Netherlands, the southeast punch through the Hochwald and the Battle of the Rhine. Numerous barrages, concentrations and ceaseless harassing bombardments were fired in support of the 1st Canadian Army in its bitter engagements with the Germans.

Developments in artillery played a large role in the Allied victory during the Second World War. While there were no revolutionary changes to artillery weapons from the First World War, there were significant evolutionary improvements in range, ammunition efficiency, maintenance and mobility of guns. These included the successful combining of the characteristics of a gun (high velocity) and howitzer (high trajectory) in the 25 Pdr and the development of self-propelled artillery. Another early innovation during the Second World War was that the Observers were no longer expected to calculate gun data for indirect fire as had been the practice throughout the First World War, but left that function to the Command Posts, providing only target locations, descriptions and orders for weight of fire as per the modern practice.

Canadians took part in the most important artillery development of the War, that is the ability of an allied commander to quickly bring down the fire of a massive concentration of guns (from division, corps or even army artillery) onto a single target in a short space of time. This required the development of reliable wireless (radio) and other communications equipment, more effective, speedy and accurate methods of gun survey and improved methods of fire control, voice procedure and fire planning. Putting this system into practice required a high level of proficiency in every troop and battery. Most concentrations fired during the war were carried out at the divisional level, where the Commander Royal Artillery (CRA) always had at his disposal the fire of two to three field regiments (48 – 72 guns). Major battles, normally controlled at the corps or army level, routinely involved the concentrated fire of 500 to 1000 guns and mortars.

A good example of how the Canadian and British Gunners were able to achieve massed, accurate fire occurred in early February 1945 during Op Veritable – the First Canadian Army’s attack from Nijmegen southeast to the Rhineland. The Army Commander, General Harry Crerar, had to make a frontal attack against three successive fortified zones, each firmly anchored on the Rhine River. These included a strong system of outposts on the western face of the Reichswald; then three miles beyond these, the northern end of the Siegfried Line; followed by the Hochwald Layback 12 miles further east. The defences included multiple lines of trench works linking strongpoints and reinforced by anti-tank ditches. Small towns and villages between the second and third zones had been extensively fortified. General Crerar’s final objective lay 40 miles from his front lines. Due to this depth, Op Veritable was planned in three stages, with enough time between each to regroup infantry and armour and to bring supporting artillery to within range of their new targets. General Crerar had 30th British Corps under command, while 1st British Corps would provide a secure anchor and deception to the South. Due to the narrow distance between the Rhine (to the north) and the Maas River (to the south), the initial assault would be made by the five divisions of 30th Corps (including 2nd Canadian Division), and as the distance between the rivers widened, 2nd Canadian Corps would join in on the left flank.

The artillery support for the operation was a major battle-winning factor. The 30th Corps Fire Plan was designed to take advantage of the 14:1 superiority in Allied artillery to blast a way for the infantry into the enemy’s defences. The Fire Plan called for:

  • preliminary bombardment to prevent the enemy from interfering with the initial assault;
  • complete saturation of enemy defences;
  • destruction of known concrete positions;
  • immediate supporting fire for the attack; and
  • maximum fire of the medium regiments on the Materborn feature 12,000 yards from the start line, without their having to move forward.

The fire of seven divisional artilleries would be augmented by five AGRA’s and two anti-aircraft brigades together with units of Corps and Army level artillery, for a total of 1034 guns (not including the 17 Pdrs and 40mm Bofors which would be used with tanks, mortars and machine-guns to “Pepperpot” selected targets with harassing fire). All known enemy localities, headquarters and communications sites were targeted. An estimated six tons of shells would fall on each target. The concrete defences of the Materborn would be subjected to the fire of the 8-inch and 240mm guns of the 3rd Super Heavy Regiment RA located in the 1st British Corps area to the South. The Fire Plan would open with the preparatory fire from 5:00 to 9:45 A.M. on D Day (8 February 1945). It would be followed by a Block Barrage planned to support the three central divisions in their advance. This barrage would commence at 9:20 for seventy minutes on the initial positions and was 500 yards deep. At H Hour (10:30 A.M.) the barrage would lift 300 yards, repeating this every twelve minutes to allow for the advancing speed of the infantry and armour over the difficult terrain.

A novel feature was introduced into the schedule for the preliminary bombardment. Between 7:30 and 7:40 a smoke screen would be fired across the front, followed by 10 minutes of complete silence. It was hoped that the enemy, assuming that the screen heralded the main assault, would engage with his artillery, thereby exposing his gun positions. At the same time, flash spotters, sound rangers and pen recorders of the locating batteries would attempt to pinpoint the enemy battery positions, allowing counter battery fire to neutralize the exposed enemy guns before H Hour.

A massive ammunition-dumping program was carried out by the 2nd Canadian Corps prior to the assault. More than half a million rounds, weighing more than 10,000 tons were dumped – 700 rounds per gun on field gun positions and 400 rounds per gun on medium positions. In addition, 120 truckloads per division of 40mm, 17 Pdr, 75mm and 12.7mm ammunition were dumped for the “Pepperpot” requirement. More than 10,000 three-inch rockets for the Land Mattress Battery were brought in. Every foot of countryside from Nijmegen to Mook and beyond on the far side of the Maas seemed to be filed with tanks, guns, vehicles and waiting troops.

Stunned by the ferocity of the preliminary bombardment of over 500,000 rounds of various natures of ammunition and pinned down by the tremendous barrage which had expended more than 160,000 shells, the badly disorganized enemy troops offered little resistance to the assaulting infantry and armour. The effectiveness of the counter battery and counter mortar programs was seen in the almost complete lack of German shelling and mortaring. Most of the Allied casualties, which were relatively light, came from mines rather than artillery or small arms fire. Prisoners coming back through the gun positions spoke of what the artillery preparation and the barrage had done. There were reports of half the guns of a 12-gun battery having been destroyed and 32 of 36 guns having been knocked out in another locality.

Interrogators were told that the bombardment had a devastating effect upon morale, producing a feeling of complete helplessness and isolation, with no prospect of any possible reinforcement. The defenders claimed, however, that because of the well-constructed shelters, they had escaped serious casualties from the artillery fire and the “Pepperpot” in the initial assault. Those caught in the open were less fortunate. The artillery fire had also succeeded in seriously disrupting the German lines of communication and resupply.

The day’s success owed much to well-prepared gun programs, carefully sorted ammunition, much improved meteorological data and recently calibrated guns. The massive preparations had been successful in providing effective artillery support to the operation. It didn’t end there, however. The artillery would provide continuous support with barrages, screens, direct support and counter battery fire until the enemy was finally beaten three months later.

A total of 89,050 officers and men served in the Royal Canadian Artillery during the Second World War. Of these, 57,170 served in Europe, Newfoundland, the Aleutians and the Caribbean. The remainder served in Canada in home defence in field, anti-aircraft and coast units as well as in numerous schools and depots. There were also three divisional artilleries in Canada formed as part of the 6th, 7th and 8th Divisions for home defence. In 1945 another 6th Division was formed for service in the Far East Theatre, complete with its divisional artillery. It was still training in Canada and the USA when the war with Japan ended. During the War, the Regiment suffered 2,073 killed and 4,373 injured or wounded.

Total artillery available to the First Canadian Army in Europe by the end of the war included:

  • 15 field artillery regiments (264 towed 25 Pdr, 48 SP 25 Pdr Sextons, 48 SP 105mm Priests);
  • six medium regiments (48 5.5-in. guns, 48 4.5-in. guns);
  • seven anti-tank regiments (150 towed 17 Pdr, 150 SP 17 Pdr);
  • one heavy anti-aircraft (HAA) regiment (24 3.7-in. AA guns);
  • seven LAA regiments (60 towed 40mm, 108 SP 40mm, 84 quad-mounted 20mm);
  • 32 75mm AFV OP vehicles (in SP Field Regiments with 4th and 5th Cdn Armd Divs); and
  • One rocket battery (36 Land Mattress rocket projectors).

During the war, though not part of Canada at the time, the province of Newfoundland raised two artillery regiments for service with the British Army. The 59th (Newfoundland) Heavy Regiment, RA fought in North-West Europe, while the 166th (Newfoundland) Field Regiment, RA fought in North Africa and in the Italian campaign.