At Close Range: life and death in an artillery regiment, 1939-45

The direct experience of the gunners has long been a neglected aspect of World War II history. We have had plenty on life in a tank unit, or a fighter squadron, but there is a sense in which the role of the artillery has been seen as more mundane, perhaps less glamorous. Peter Hart has addressed this imbalance in a book that provides plenty of new insight on the subject and pays full tribute to those who fought in this Cinderella arm.

His approach, as with his highly regarded books on World War I, has been to tell the story through the words of those who took part. Hart has long worked as the Oral Historian at the Imperial War Museum in London, where much of the content of the sound archive consists of interviews with veterans he has undertaken himself. Among them are some 50 interviewees from the South Nottinghamshire Hussars (SNH), who spoke to Hart during the 1980s. These interviews form the backbone of the book.

Hussars? Well, this was originally a yeomanry cavalry unit and, with some pride, it retained its identity until disbandment in 1946. Indeed, the question of regimental identity, such an important component of British Army culture, is a fascinating subplot to the Hussars’ World War II story. And that story is an extensive one, with the SNH having fought throughout the Western Desert campaign, then in Sicily, and then across France, into Holland, and finally Germany.

We follow them on this journey, as young men from Nottingham endure both the trials of combat and other less obvious challenges, such as slotting back into civilian life on their return. As ever, the use of first-hand accounts provides rich detail and vivid, often harrowing narrative.

At the Battle of the Cauldron, wounds that were ‘beyond talking about’ were treated with a lethal dose of morphine; and – not morally comparable but somehow almost as painful – we hear of the awful process of shooting a favourite dog that could not be shipped home.

Hart’s decision to follow one specific unit enhances character continuity and generates an even stronger sense of intimacy. The advantages of oral history are thereby magnified, the book coming across as very personal, rather than suffering the scattergun effect one sometimes feels with broader treatments.

The author himself stitches together the various veterans’ accounts deftly and unobtrusively. In doing so, he provides sufficient context for the reader to follow the narrative and to appreciate the emerging themes.

Where necessary, particularly with respect to the larger engagements, a reminder of the broader shape of the battle is included, so that the reader can readily appreciate the location and role of the SNH. There are campaign maps and some more-detailed battle diagrams to support this, and anyone with a broad knowledge of the period will find themselves very much at home.

The author strikes a fine balance, avoiding the temptation to slip into a full narrative history, yet providing crisp and authoritative context where necessary.

On occasion, too, opinions are offered on the conduct of the war or on specific individuals. Hart himself emerges as both human-being and historian, telling us, for instance, how difficult he found it not to laugh when hearing some of the soldiers’ lighter anecdotes. We learn something of the actual process of writing history here, and the book is better for it.

Emotional engagement

The strength of oral history lies in the personal details, which engage the reader at the emotional level. In this the book delivers, whether it is in the accounts of friends suddenly killed, camp cooking, or, inevitably, sex and romance. The photo collection adds to the poignancy, underlining the humanity of these stories. Yet the book also provides plenty of material for those interested in the more technical aspects of artillery tactics during this period.

Men from the South Nottinghamshire Hussars in the desert atBir Mentischa, Tobruk, late 1941. Photo: IWM.

It should be recorded, too, that oral history can simply be more accurate. The contrast between the actual first-hand account of a punctured tyre under fire and the subsequent heroic gloss provided by the regimental ‘history’ is rightly highlighted by Hart.

As suggested earlier, while there are books on World War II artillery, there are not many that focus on battery life and what the gunners actually did in the field. This unit employed three different types of gun, culminating in the 5.5-inch medium, which fired a 100lb shell and was the largest hand-loaded weapon in the British Army.

Quite what that meant in terms of the gunners’ work is fascinating to read about. There are hair-raising stories of firing at twice the recommended maximum rate, with gun barrels glowing red hot. Indeed, the very last shot fired by the Hussars in 1945 was a ‘premature’, the shell exploding in the barrel. It peeled back ‘like a banana’ – though fortunately, in this case, without serious casualties.

Equally dramatic are the many accounts of the work of the forward observers, another aspect of the war that has been under-reported. We ride with one of them in an amphibious Sherman ‘DD’ tank, under fire, across the choppy Scheldt estuary; and we lie with them under the Saharan sun.

More broadly, we learn about the evolution of British artillery systems and tactics, such as the introduction of the ‘AGRAs’ (Army Group Royal Artillery) and the constant quest for faster set-up times. So for those concerned with the ‘hard’ history of how an artillery battery actually worked, there is much to relish here.

This is unashamedly British history, full of social insight that is arguably quite parochial. But there are universal truths about soldiering as well, and there is a lot of fascinating material on the role of the guns during World War II which will have broader appeal. For me, the stand-out feature of the book is its conception – the decision to follow a single artillery unit through the personal recollections of its veterans.

Nearly all of the men that Hart spoke to are now dead. This book is a fitting tribute to them and, let it be said, to their counterparts in other armies. It is also an important contribution to the history of artillery during this period. Peter Hart has done an excellent job.

Review by Andrew Mullholland.
At Close Range: life and death in an artillery regiment, 1939-45, Peter Hart, Profile Books, £25 (hbk), ISBN 978-1788161657.