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Regimental History - 20th Century

Second World War 1939-1945

66th Anti-Tank Regiment (King’s Own) Royal Artillery

 

66th Anti-Tank Regiment Royal Artillery (The King’s Own) Territorial Army
Notes by Major W A Gale


When the Territorial Army was expanded to great strength in the early part of 1939 after the Munich Crisis, the 66th Anti-Tank Regiment RA (TA) was formed in the town of Crosby to the north of Liverpool in the County of Lancashire in the month of April. Its formation was heralded by a public meeting enthusiastically attended and held in the Town Hall of Crosby. This was presided over by Alderman H Preston Reynolds JP, himself an old gunner in the 1914 war and at present Member Number One in the Crosby Branch of the Royal Artillery Association. At this time Alderman Reynolds was also President of the Old Boys’ Association of Merchant Taylors’ School, Crosby, and much support was given to the formation of the 66th by Old Boys of this School and also by Old Boys of the Waterloo Grammar School, these schools between them providing over 100 members of the original Territorial Regiment. Records were constantly broken at this time by TA Regiments in their enlisting up to strength in a very short time, and the 66th was no exception, being fully manned in a few days.

The summer of 1939 was spent with evening parades on the grounds of Merchant Taylors’ School and with officer and NCO training at week ends in short camps, Tactical Exercises Without Troops, map reading exercises and driving instructions. A visit was also made to the Headquarters of the parent Regiment, the 56th, in Ulverston.

On 19th August 1939 the 66th under the command of Lieutenant Colonel B A Carr DSO, and with Major E O Burton as second in command went to Territorial Annual Camp at Gower near Swansea. Here a most useful camp was enjoyed and good training and instruction were given under the guidance of several officers and NCOs lent by the parent 56th.

The 66th were due to return to Liverpool on the evening of 2nd September but with the invasion of Poland on 1st September the Regiment was kept back in camp and embodied there. On 3rd September, the day of the declaration of war the 66th did return to Crosby and went into quarters on the West Lancashire Golf Links, north of the town. Here it stayed breaking itself in until 1st November 1939, when a move was made to the Wirral area of Cheshire where it came under the command of the 55th West Lancashire Division. The 66th at this time was well up to strength and with immense possibilities, but the first blow at its ‘esprit de corps’ was received just before Christmas 1939 when all the “immatures” (or boys under 19 years of age) were posted away. Some fine potential material was lost and looking backward now over the years, it would perhaps now seem that this first large scale posting was the forerunner of things to come.

In the spring of 1940 the 66th joined the 59th Division and moved to Brigade Camp at Rugeley. During the Battle of France and Norway this particular Brigade was suddenly moved with a view to going to Norway. The 66th was left behind and rejoined the 55th Division.

About this time two Batteries were detached for guard duties at the large internment camp at Huyton, near Liverpool. This was tiring and unrewarding work, but had its value in its disciplinary teaching to a regiment that was already aware, thanks to the influence of Colonel Carr, of the value of discipline.

After the fall of France and with the threat of invasion hanging over the country, the 66th moved with the 55th Division to the coast of Suffolk and Norfolk and took up its place in the coastal defences, where the variety of its roles was only equalled by the variety of antiquity of the weapons and pieces provided.

In the Autumn of 1940 the Regiment moved to the Cotswold area and the Winter was spent in Brigade and Divisional training. During the whole of 1940 there had been a steady drain on the Regiment in supplying men to OCTU’s and special services. Replacements had however been made with the best type of National Service Man and the 66th was still up to strength.

In the Spring of 1941 the 66th moved with the 55th Division to man the coastal defences of Sussex and remained there until the middle of the Summer when there was a spell of hard intensive Divisional training in the Aldershot area.

It was at Aldershot that the 66th raised the Cadre of a new Battery, 297 formed under the command of Major B A Prangley, formerly Battery Commander of 261 Battery. Returning to Sussex at the end of the Summer the 66th was denuded of both 297 Battery and also one of the original Batteries, 262.

297 joined the 81st Anti-Tank Regiment and played a gallant part in the campaigns and battles of North Africa and Italy. 262 joined the 83rd Anti-Tank Regiment and after wintering in Iraq fought in the Battle of Egypt in 1942 enduring heavy casualties.

Meanwhile the 66th itself leaving Sussex in the Autumn of 1941 moved back with only 3 Batteries to the Costwold area near Broadway.

In December 1941 it moved again with the Division to the East Riding of Yorkshire in the area of Hull but before leaving Broadway learned the frustrating news that the Division had become a Low Establishment Division and its role, a drafting one.

1942 was spent in the Hull area with occasional spells of Brigade training in the Catterick and Newcastle areas. Constant draftings were a continuous disappointment and it spoke well for the discipline of the 66th that its morale remained so high. This was a tribute not only to Colonel Carr but also to Colonel H C Cory, MC, who had succeeded him as Commanding Officer in the late summer of 1941.

During the spell at Hull a new Battery was raised by the 66th under Major J C Lowe, namely 306 Battery. Unfortunately this Battery left the Regiment at the end of 1941 to join the 72nd Anti-Tank Regiment RA with whom they saw service with the First Army in North Africa. Draftings reached the peak during the summer of 1942 during to the disastrous turn of events in Egypt.

Before the 66th left Yorkshire in December 1942 to go to Okehampton in Devonshire Lieutenant Colonel H C Cory, MC, RA, left to take command of a Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment and was succeeded by Lieutenant Colonel E F S Brodie. Okehampton saw the regiment built up again into a first class unit and when the 66th moved to West Sussex in the summer of 1943 hopes were again high that the Unit might yet be used as a Regiment in an active role, particularly as during this Sussex a great deal of Brigade and Divisional training was done with Lieutenant Colonel K L Beddington OBE RA as Regimental Commander. During this time a further Battery, 354 was raised under Major T R L Greenhalgh, with main cadre from the other Batteries.

Such hopes however, were dispelled when the 66th moved in December 1943 to Northern Ireland, where it stayed as a unit until the end of the war, when in October 1945 it passed into a state of “suspended animation”. In Ireland the Regiment eventually passed from the command of the 55th Division to the Northern Ireland District Command. for some time after its arrival in Northern Ireland the 66th remained a well balanced and highly trained unit, but when D-Day cam in June 1944 the battle began for the liberation of Europe, it was once more treated as it always had been, as a Cinderella. Draftings were on a large scale and drafts of officers and men were flown from Northern Ireland direct to Normandy. It gave satisfaction and pride – albeit a little rueful – to be told later by Anti-Tank commanders who fought with the BLA in Europe, what good store they set on men sent to them from the 66th. Fortunately a great many of the men so drafted, remained together and fought in the Troops in which they had been trained.

Lieutenant Colonel K L Beddington himself went to Normandy where he commanded the 97th Anti-Tank Regiment RA. He was succeeded by Lieutenant Colonel P L Graham, MC, RA, who shortly handed over the command to Lieutenant Colonel G B Hildebrand, DSO, RA, who had fought with the 4th Indian Division in the 8th Army. The 66th was lucky in that Colonel Hildebrand had latterly commanded the 149 Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, which had absorbed the 106 Field Regiment RA, both of which came from the Liverpool District. Colonel Hildebrand thus had strong Merseyside sympathies when he joined the 66th and fought hard to keep it in being as a unit. To a great extent he succeeded. When he came, the strength was low and its morale was badly shattered. Under him its last role was played and the Regiment restored to something worthwhile. It received large scale drafts of ex Royal Navy and ex Royal Air Force personnel and was instructed to turn them into Anti-Tank gunners and drivers. This it did, and did well. By the time the war in Europe was over and there was a demand for personnel for the Far East, the 66th had its share ready, and again there were large scale draftings. it is interesting to recall that many of these men – the great part in fact – scattered as they were, were collected together in India by the energy of Major T R L Greenhalgh and shepherded by him to the mother Regiment, the 56th where they were formed into their original Troops and Batteries and replaced 80% of the 56th who had been sent back to England for repatriation.

Meanwhile the remnant remained in Northern Ireland, the older ones preparing themselves to return to civilian life and the younger ones being posted to units in liberated Europe. In October 1945 the 66th was passed into a state of “suspended animation”.

When the Territorial Army was re-formed after World War Two the Regiment was resuscitated as the 390 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment RA (The King’s Own) TA first Commanding Officer of the new unit being Lieutenant Colonel H N Williams TD, RA, who had commanded 262 Battery during the war. His second in command was Major R F Murphy who had commanded 261 Battery during the war. On 15th July 1950, consequent upon the re-organisation of the Territorial Army, 390 LAA Regiment, was merged into the 306 Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment RA (Lancashire Hussars) TA. In effect, the 390 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment thus becomes a Battery and its LAA armament was exchanged for heavy guns and equipment. The 390 personnel became “R” Battery (The King’s own). The Regimental Identity was thus preserved and Battery Headquarters remained at Crosby Drill Hall.

It is not possible to give firm figures of the personnel who passed through the 66th, but the number of officers and men must be considerable, and the 66th, helped in teach such things as enabled many of them when the time came, “to quit themselves like men and be strong”.


66th Anti-Tank Regiment RA (The King’s Own) TA
Notes by Colonel K L Beddington, OBE, RA, (Retired)


It was in July 1943 that I took over command of the 66th Anti-Tank Regiment. I had been a gunner for twenty years but had never before served in anti-tank artillery. I was therefore a little apprehensive when I arrived at Lancing, Sussex, to take over my new responsibilities.

I need not have worried. I was made to feel at home at once and, within the first few hours, had sensed that unmistakable feeling of joining a thoroughly happy and efficient family. After a very few days, I realised that I had been given the honour of commanding a first class Regiment with a fine esprit de corps. My first impressions, which were not altered during the next ten months were the smartness and keenness of all ranks, the high standard of discipline in force and the general excellence of the administration.

During our stay in the Lancing area, monthly visits were made to the ranges at Lydd where were practiced under the critical eye of the Commander Royal Artillery, Brigadier R Morely, MC. Frequent exercises and TEWTS (tactical exercises without troops) were held with the other “arms” of the 55th (West Lancashire) Division with whom liaison was close. There was keen rivalry between batteries and everyone was looking forward to the time when training could be tested in action. This proved to be a pious hope. We were attached to a reserve division and had already been decimated from time to time as a result of orders to find drafts. But each batch of replacements was quickly trained up to the standard of those who had left and we continued to look enviously across the Channel.

Life in billets was from time to time enlivened by “tip and run” air raids, during which light anti-aircraft weapons on the sea front opened up in a noisy, hut heartening chorus. Indeed, Major R F Murphy came into breakfast one morning and alleged that during the night a German aircraft had fired tracer bullets into his bed, in which he had slept on the veranda of a house on the sea front.

We had our “anti-invasion” role and gun positions had been reconnoitred further inland. Some guns were actually sited each night to cover the seaward approach and bathing was forbidden in case tell-tale footprints in the sand should reveal the absence of mines. Had we known that we were situated on the left flank of Hitler’s invasion plan “Sea Lion” we might have been a little more watchful and those of us who lived in houses on the seaward side of the promenade might have slept a little less soundly.

The blow came in December 1943 when the Division was ordered to Northern Ireland. The most optimistic then began to realise that the War Office was not going to heed our constant requests for the Regiment to be used in a more active role. With many regrets, we embarked at Stranraer for Larne after saying farewell to our many friends in Lancing. Indeed we had the unusual experience of later receiving a letter signed by a number of local civilians thanking us for leaving our billets in such good condition.

We settled down quickly in our new stations. Headquarters and one battery were at Downpatrick and the remaining batteries in Antrim, Lisburn and Herford. Headquarters was situated in the old local prison in which the sanitation was found to be indifferent. However, with the help of the medical officer, Captain R L Grynoch, RAMC, we got the authorities to take urgent action and much of the decaying fatty matter was removed from beneath the cook-house floor. Some of the troops were already suffering from a mild form of food-poisoning.

Our first task was to set up the Regimental administratively up to scratch and to deal with the rather second rate vehicles we had taken over. This was soon accomplished and by March 1944 all batteries had received first class reports from the new Commander Royal Artillery, Brigade P A Calvert-Jones CBE DSO MC and from a team of vehicle inspectors sent down by the War Office. During the vehicle inspection, which lasted several days, so keen were we to get good reports that details of faults found in one battery were quickly sent by wireless to the others.

Ulster had its advantages. Battery Commanders were able to run their own shows with the minimum interference from Regimental HQ and useful training was carried out in the countryside, where we were treated with great kindness by the local inhabitants. We were even able to obtain such items as eggs, cream and butter which in those days of strict rationing, were luxuries of the highest order.

Practice was carried out at Bush Mills on a beautiful part of the north coast just near the Giant’s Causeway, most batteries carrying out a tactical scheme en route to it. But perhaps the best training value was received by all ranks in a 24 hour exercise which was carried out not far from Downpatrick by each battery in turn. This was set and umpired by Regimental HQ and was called “Exercise Urgency”. It comprised the occupation and digging of a defensive position followed by an advance up a rocky valley and consolidation of the captured objective. Every possible means to produce realism was employed. For instance, dummy minefields were actually laid by the umpires and, during the night, each battery was attacked by live enemy with blackened faces to test the local defence arrangements. Unfortunately, in one of these night attacks, Battery Sergeant Major L J Powell received serious eye injuries from a thunder-flash.

We had time for enjoyment and sport as well. Our Rugger fifteen was very successful and some officers accepted invitations to shoot duck. Dances were organised by a committee of local civilians headed by the Dean of Downpatrick, one of which achieved some notoriety. An American soldier who had “too much drink taken” invaded the dance hall to the consternation of all the ladies present. He was shortly followed by American police with truncheons drawn. In the midst of the riot which followed, the American Provost Marshal arrived to restore order, was promptly hit on the head by his own police and carried out unconscious. Needless to say, the 66th were not implicated but two “Redcaps” attached to us came on the scene and quickly restored order.

Then came a bitter day in April. I was sent for by the General during a divisional exercise and told I was to go to England at once and take over by the 14th of the month another anti-tank regiment which was to take part in the invasion of Normandy, “Operation Overload”. Although this meant action for me, it was in fact, a terrible disappointment. I had come to love the 66th and every Officer, Warrant Officer, Non-commissioned officer and man in it and it would have been a great honour to have been able to go to war with them. However, it was not to be and I left Downpatrick with a very big lump in my throat. I have since derived some consolation from the fact, that large numbers of the Regiment who were later posted out as drafts to Normandy and other theatres, nobly upheld the 66th tradition and proved that their training had not been in vain.

Finally, I would pay tribute to the Regiment in general and in particular to my second in command, Major D H Alexander, to my adjutant, Captain E R Nicholls and to the four Battery Commanders (in alphabetical order) Majors W A Gale, 264 Battery, T R L Greenhalgh, 334 Battery, P G Hampton, MC, 263 Battery and R F Murphy, 261 Battery. No Commanding Officer could have been better served by his offices or by his men. No captain could have had a better Team.

Accession Number: KO2067/01

 

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