An Admirable Gun: The 25-pounder Field Gun
by James Goulty
Artillery - the primary source of combat power
According to Major-General J. B. A. Bailey, author of Field Artillery and Firepower (2004), it was field artillery which ‘became the primary source of combat power during the twentieth century.’ If this is accepted, then the 25-pounder field gun must surely rate as one of the most important artillery related developments, especially from a British perspective. Conceived during the 1930s, it was intended as a gun/howitzer, thereby combining the characteristics of the First World War vintage 18-pounder field gun, which had limited elevation and a high muzzle velocity, and the 4.5-inch howitzer which had a high trajectory and proved immensely versatile.
The 25-pounder saw widespread action
The 25-pounder saw widespread action with British and Commonwealth units during the Second World War in countries as diverse as Norway and Burma. By 1945 over 12,000 had been manufactured in Britain alone, many by the Vickers factory in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Initially the combined gun/howitzer capability was acquired by re-boring 18 pounder barrels to accommodate the 25 pound shell, and mounting these on the 18 pounder gun carriage. These were known as the 25 pounder Mark I or 18/25 pounder. Many were lost with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in France during 1940, although others performed an invaluable training role in Britain, and were deployed in the Western Desert.
25-pounder in action with the BEF
Sir Robin Dunn recalled how his unit, 7th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, was rapidly mechanised on the eve of war, and had its guns re-bored at ordnance workshops, before sailing to the Continent as part of the BEF.
“We actually landed in France on first of October 1939. By which time, of course, our guns had been returned. These were bored out 25-pounders [i.e. Mark Is or 18/25 pounder guns]. We were brought up to strength with 300 reservists and what were called Militiamen, because that was the beginning of conscription… and we were almost entirely untrained, I would say when we got to France, because there simply hadn’t been time. ”
Eventually, the majority of Mark I guns were replaced by the 25-pounder Mark 2, an entirely new design, which had evolved from a 1936 requirement by the Royal Artillery for a field gun with increased range. During the ill-fated Norwegian campaign of 1940, 51st Field Regiment, Royal Artillery (Westmoreland & Cumberland Yeomanry) was the first unit to take the new gun into action. Unfortunately, they had to abandon their guns during the withdrawal from that theatre, but not before throwing the breech blocks into the sea so that they were of little use to the enemy.
High explosive and armour piercing shells
All marks fired a 25 pound shell, hence the guns name. However, the Mark 2 could reach targets at 13,400 yards, whereas, the Mark I only had a maximum range of 12,000 yards. The shell was comparatively small, and when a high explosive (HE) round burst it disintegrated into several pieces. These could prove lethal against an enemy caught in the open at up to 200 yards from the point of impact, but the gun lacked punch against fortified targets or troops who were well dug in. As members of 136th (1st West Lancashire) Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, discovered, this proved a notable problem in the Far East. Here Japanese troops made skilful use of bunkers and trenches with overhead protection, which could only be tackled successfully by heavier artillery pieces or direct fire from tanks. Another distinct problem for gunners in the Far East, was simply coping with the terrain. Wartime artillery officer Shelford Bidwell, explained, one way around the backbreaking work of dragging or towing guns through jungle and over sodden rice fields, was to mount them upon large, flat harbour craft to form floating batteries. These operated on winding waterways, overshadowed by trees, and regularly shifted their position, so it was very difficult for the Japanese to counter them.
In addition to HE shells, the 25-pounder gun could fire smoke or armour piercing (AP) rounds. Thick white smoke was deployed to act as a smoke screen to mask the movements of friendly troops in an attack or to blanket enemy positions and so hinder their ability to observe the battlefield. Contrastingly, coloured smokes were fired to indicate targets, especially so these could be attacked by aircraft. The AP round consisted of solid shot, intended for use against tanks and armoured vehicles, although the gun wasn’t originally designed as an anti-tank weapon. They could also be used against defensive positions.
Charges for firing shells
The charge for firing a shell was contained in a brass cartridge case that was loaded into the gun separately, and each contained three separate bags of cordite. Of these, two bags were removable, enabling gunners to obtain different ranges. Additionally, there was a supercharge comprising a sealed cartridge case containing 50 percent more cordite than normal. The figures below give an idea of the ranges that could be achieved using HE shells with various charges under normal atmospheric conditions:
Charge 1: 3,700 yards or 2.1 miles
Charge 2: 8,100 yards or 4.6 miles
Charge 3: 11,900 yards or 6.7 miles
Supercharge: 13,400 yards or 8.3 miles
Engaging a target
Targets were engaged by either observed or predicted fire. With the former personnel in an observation post or even a light aircraft, could see the target and knowing the position of the guns were able to swiftly calculate the distance from these to the target, plus the necessary direction of fire, and relay this information to gun positions. With a predicted shoot, the target would be obscured, but its map reference known, so that the correct range and bearing of gun to target could be calculated. Consequently, communications were essential to the efficient workings of field regiments, and this was achieved via wireless/radio or telephone, depending on conditions. During static warfare telephone was often used, although lines risked becoming damaged, whereas, radio was better suited to mobile operations.
Typically, a full gun crew consisted of a sergeant (Number One) who commanded the gun, and five soldiers. The Number Two would open and close the breech, and force the shell into the chamber with a wooden rammer. On the left-hand side operating the sights was the gun layer (Number Three). The remaining gunners, known as Numbers Four, Five and Six respectively, were concerned with preparing ammunition with the correct charge, and having it ready for loading.
Gun carriages and barrels
Different types of gun carriages and barrels were used. The Mark 2 had a boxed rather than split-trail carriage, which enabled the gun to elevate to a high angle because the breech hung snuggly between its sides. Another clever innovation was the use of a wheel-like platform that sat underneath, and onto which the gun could be positioned by a Field Artillery Tractor or Quad, sturdy, humped back looking vehicles specifically designed to tow the 25-pounder and a limber, containing ammunition and stores. Once positioned on the platform, a single soldier with a handspike could traverse the gun in any direction throughout 360 degrees. Typically, guns had a rate of fire of 3-5 rounds per minute, although higher rates were possible if using pre-prepared ammunition. During the war other refinements occurred, notably the fitting of telescopic sights, and a muzzle brake, a device on the muzzle of the barrel that deflected the propellant gases from a shell to generate forward thrust which countered the recoil of the gun.
Bishops and Sextons
Other variants of the 25-pounder appeared, notably two self-propelled versions capable of keeping pace with armoured formations. The Bishop saw action in North Africa and Italy, and mounted the 25-pounder in a large box-like structure on a Valentine tank chassis. It was slow, cumbersome, had limited elevation which restricted the gun’s range, and was essentially a makeshift measure. Contrastingly, the Sexton, which owed its origins to the Canadian Army Engineering Design Branch, was a more successful design. It married the 25-pounder with a Ram tank chassis, in an open topped fighting compartment, with the driver located below the gun on the right-hand side, and was used extensively in North-West Europe during 1944-1945. However, as Battery Sergeant Major Ernest Powdrill observed, Sexton crews had only limited protection.
“The armoured sides of our guns were only waist high so one had to crouch down on one’s knees to escape lethal splinters coming in parallel to the ground, but we could not escape shrapnel from above, so we were covered in muck and dust and enveloped in acrid smoke.”
For British and Commonwealth soldiers of the Second World War, the 25-pounder became an iconic weapon, well liked for its reliability and rugged construction, although this made it comparatively heavy (351/4 cwt). According to Ray Ellis, who served with 107th Regiment, South Notts Hussars Yeomanry, Royal Horse Artillery, it was ‘an excellent field gun.’ Yet, in North Africa he found that it was ‘slow to traverse’ potentially making it an inviting target under fluid desert warfare conditions, especially against enemy armour. As the gun only had a thin shield at the front, this gave limited protection: ‘…the crew was completely exposed and therefore vulnerable to small arms fire.’ However, the 25-pounder’s mobility aided the tactics that Ray and his comrades had to adopt. In 1941, with the British firmly on the defensive, this included the use of ‘Jock columns’ to harry the enemy. These usually comprised a squadron of tanks, six 25-pounders, one troop of anti-tank guns, a unit of motorized infantry, and possibly anti-aircraft artillery. The field guns were viewed as the most valuable asset of these ad hoc units, not least owing to their firepower. Despite this, invariably ‘Jock columns’ suffered significant casualties. As Ray discovered another significant feature of the North African campaign, was that the 25-pounder had to serve as a substitute anti-tank gun to make up for the British Army’s deficiencies in this department, despite it being ill suited for this role.
'It was the guns that saved Anzio...'
As an infantryman embroiled in the bloody fighting at Anzio, Italy, in 1944, Bill Titchmarsh, recounted how it felt to receive support from an entire field regiment of 25-pounder guns, which over a fortnight fired around 54,000 rounds in support of his 169th Brigade.
“It was the guns that saved Anzio…the gunners were firing hub to hub…right over your head and sometimes on us. Once we called a ‘stonk’ down on us and were told to get down in the bottom of our slit trenches with Jerry all around. Luckily the rounds fell on open ground amongst the enemy and not in the slit trenches.”
What Bill was alluding to was dubbed a ‘Mike’ target or the fire from an entire field regiment of twenty four 25-pounder guns. This was devastating, especially against enemy infantry assaulting over open ground. Similarly, as former artillery officer, A. M. Cheetham recalled, an ‘Uncle’ target employed the firepower of a division, normally three field regiments (72 guns), plus a medium regiment of 4.5-inch howitzers, whereas, a ‘Yoke’ target was like an ‘Uncle,’ but supplemented by other available medium and/or heavy regiments. Contrastingly, a ‘Victor’ target entailed employing the artillery of an entire corps, including all available 25-pounder guns. Shelford Bidwell noted, that in May 1944 a corps tasked with attacking the ‘Hitler Line’ in Italy, was supported by 810 guns, while the crossing of the Rhine by XXX Corps in February 1945, was supported by over 1000 field guns of all calibres, that expended around 6,000 tons of ammunition. Similarly, during the Battle of El Alamein in October 1942, that resembled a First World War battle with an assault on trenches by infantry backed by artillery, 1000 field and medium guns supported the main attack. Major-General Bailey observed, that there weren’t any restrictions over ammunition expenditure, and in twelve days, ‘the British 25-pdrs fired over one million rounds’ aided by aerial reconnaissance which ensured this was ‘targeted more precisely, avoiding wasteful area saturation.’
An English Regiment wearing the Balmoral bonnet
Field regiments tended to have distinctive identities, something that was reinforced in several cases by their geographical affiliations and Territorial Army origins. When Richmond Gorle became a battery commander with 181st Field Regiment in 1944, he found that the majority of his soldiers were: ‘Shropshire lads,… converted to Gunners from 6th Battalion The King’s Shropshire Light Infantry’ with a few others from ‘London and elsewhere’ who ‘fitted in well with the kindly country folk without in the least altering the county spirit and character.’ Moreover, it was ‘amusing’ to find ‘a pure English Regiment’ attached to 15th (Scottish) Division, and ‘funnier still’ to discover ‘them wearing the Balmoral bonnet and liking it!’
After 1945, the 25-pounder continued to serve, albeit the war demonstrated its shells had limited power. Field regiments from Britain, Canada and New Zealand deployed it during the Korean War (1950-1953), and the British Army used it to counter communist insurgents during the Malayan Emergence (1948-1960). Famously one gun even formed part of the defences at the Omani port of Mirbat, where on 19 July 1972, elements of the SAS repelled the Adoo, a communist inspired group rebelling against the then Sultan.
SWWEC, Acc. No. 2001-1141, Transcript: oral history interview by Dr Peter Liddle with the Right Honourable Sir Robin Dunn, (Tape 1500), July 2002.
Bailey, J. B. A., Field Artillery and Firepower (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2004)
Bidwell, Shelford, Gunners at War (London: Arms and Armour Press, 1970)
Cheetham, A. M., Ubique (Formby: Freshfield Books, 1987)
Dunn, Robin, Sword and Wig: Memoirs of a Lord Justice (London: Quiller Press, 1993)
Ellis, Ray, Once a Hussar (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2013)
Gorle, Richmond, The Quiet Gunner at War (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2011)
Goulty, James, Second World War Lives (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2011)
Henry, Chris, The 25-pounder Field Gun 1939-72 (Botley, Ox: Osprey, 2002)
Powdrill, Ernest, In the Face of the Enemy (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2008)
Robertson, G. W., The Rose & The Arrow: A Life Story of 136th (1st West Lancashire) Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, 1939-1946 (Privately published on behalf of 136 Field Regt, RA Old Comrades Assoc.)
Thompson, Thomas, Fifty-First Field: The Story of the 51st Field Regiment, Royal Artillery (Westmoreland & Cumberland Yeomanry), in the Second World War (Carlisle: Cumbria’s Museum of Military Life, 2020)
About The Author
James Goulty holds a masters degree and doctorate in military history from the University of Leeds, and has a particular interest in the training and combat experience of ordinary soldiers during the world wars and Korean War.
He has published numerous articles and written 5 books for Pen and Sword Ltd, including The Second World War through Soldiers’ Eyes: British Army Life 1939-1945; and Eyewitness Korea: The Experience of British and American Soldiers in the Korean War 1950-1953.
Copyright © 2022 bmmhs.org – All Rights Reserved
Images © James Goulty