Reading a War Diary

Yesterday Sue and I paid one of our occasional visits to the National Archives, Kew, London. The main purpose of our visit was to continue our search into the military career of one of her forebears, William Richardson. He began life as a Drummer in the Royal Artillery in the early 1790s when he was twelve years old and retired in the rank of sergeant major. He survived eleven years of service in the West Indies at a time when serving there was often a death sentence. For example, of the sixty nine men who sailed with him to the West Indies, only six were alive a year later … and that included two commanding officers! In fact William Richardson ended up commanding what was left of the Company at several points during his service in the West Indies, and was awarded extra pay some years later because of it. It is also probably why he was promoted to such a high rank at a relatively young age.

Whilst I was at the National Archives I took the opportunity to read the War Diary of the unit with which my maternal grandfather served during the early part of the Second World War. He was a member of the Territorial Army before the war, and in 1939 his unit – 366th Field Battery, Royal Artillery – was mobilised. Along with the 367th Battery it formed the 140th Army Field Artillery Regiment, which was armed with 18-pounder Field Guns, an example of which can be seen below:

The Regiment was not attached to a Division as was the case with most Field Artillery Regiments, but controlled by GHQ and allotted to provide extra firepower to formations that required it.

In March 1940 the Regiment was sent to France to form part of the BEF (British Expeditionary Force), and the first two months of the War Diary are taken up with movement orders, personnel returns, and reports on various inspections and manoeuvres that the Regiment took part in. The May section of the War Diary tells a very different story … and at some point I hope to transcribe the interview with the Regiment’s second-in-command as this explains events from his point of view.

Simply put, the 140th Army Field Artillery regiment was destroyed during the course of fighting in and around Wannehain (on the River Escaut (in French)/Scheldt (in Flemish)) and then Cassel. On 27th May 1940 they were surrounded by advancing German forces, but continued fighting until the evening, by which time the situation was hopeless. At that point the Commanding Officer ordered the destruction of the remaining guns and his men to try to break out. By the 30th May almost half of them had been killed or captured, but 14 officers and 287 men (out of approximately 700) did manage to make it back to England via Dunkirk. Despite having been seriously wounded, my grandfather was one of the lucky ones who did make it back.

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4 Comments on “Reading a War Diary”

  1. KEV. says:

    Very interesting information that you have presented BOB. My Father and his two Brothers all served during WW2 in the AIF- and all returned home after four years…Dad was stationed at Moratai, Cyril was a Desert Rat and Edgar was in the Artillery – scarce information…they did not talk much about their Service – and left few notes. They are all gone now into God's care. Lest we forget. Regards. KEV.

  2. Kev,

    The interview with the Regiment's second-in-command (which is the only entry about what happened during the battles that has been entered into the unit's official War Diary) was taken in 1945 … after he was released from a POW camp.

    We are fast losing the generation that served during the Second World War, and it has become important to remember what they did. I am doing my bit, and in due course I hope to gain access to both my grandfather's and my father's army records so that they can be copied and passed down to future generations. I have their medals on display, alongside a brief description of their careers.

    Your family certainly seems to have 'done its bit', and it might well be very rewarding for you to find out more if you can.

    All the best,

    Bob

  3. KEV. says:

    Agree Bob- certainly important…Military History and Service Records- would indeed be made all the more clearer to us if our Returning Service Men and Women -just simply wrote it all down…then and there…though, for a great many who returned from War and survived its brutality and hardship and sacrifice- they didn't want to remember any of it…just continue if nothing had been…that is how I feel about it. In our Family – the History has been indeed just about completely lost. Regards. KEV.

  4. Kev,

    Actually talking about things or writing about them can be quite cathartic. This was not an accepted thing to do back them, which is a great pity.

    My father was all right until he reached his late thirties … and then he had his breakdown. All the memories flooded out and he was unwell for a long time afterwards. At that point he wrote and talked about some of the things he had done and seen … and I know that this helped him to cope.

    All the best,

    Bob


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