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At Close Range
Life and death in an artillery regiment 1939-45
Profile Books, 7th January 2021
The South Notts were a yeomanry cavalry regiment founded at the end of the 18th century. By the Thirties they were a Territorial unit very much rooted in their region, and the opening chapters show how the South Notts contained all strata of English society. In fact chapter one jumps the narrative and pushes the reader straight into one of the regiment’s most grisly episodes in the Western Desert in 1942.
But starting the WW2 timeline, recruitment obviously stepped up in the weeks before then outbreak of war, and Hart chronicles the varying degrees of apprehension of the civilians who had signed on the dotted line. There is a moving passage when the regiment is about to be sent to garrison Palestine in January 1940, and the regiment is reviewed by its Honorary Colonel – a Boer War veteran.
The book is similar in style to the Lost Voices series, in that it largely comprises first person accounts of the events, set out in a couple of paragraphs, and put in context. In this case the base material is the interviews Hart has collected in his job as oral historian at the Imperial War Museum.
Once in the Western Desert, the overriding impression is just how grim were the living conditions, never mind the circumstances of death. Flies, fleas, extremes of temperature, a shortage of water, and an appalling diet – it makes the courage and fighting spirit even more admirable. There are plenty of examples of poor equipment (and diet) making life unnecessarily hard for the gunners.
Further, because of a lack of air superiority (at least in the first year or so), the artilleryman’s alarm clock was often a German bombing run. Moreover because the South Notts were then using 18/25 and 25 pounders, they had to be located very near the front line, and hence subject to heavy German counter-battery fire. This problem was exacerbated in the first half of the narrative by the Germans’ superiority in tanks. As most readers will know supply lines played a crucial role in deciding the ultimate victor in the Western Desert and Hart sets outs out Rommel’s strategic errors clearly. Whilst some of the battles are very intense and rather gruesome, the author also makes plain that the alternative – weeks of inactivity and boredom in the sand, was almost as unpalatable to most other ranks. Periods of leave were rare, and home leave only happened once or twice.
The intensity of fighting reached its peak with the so-called Battle of Knightsbridge (27 May 1942), and Hart describes the interesting level of tactical disagreements in the officer cadre in the battle’s aftermath. Casualties remained at crippling levels for the next 2 weeks. By the time of the Battle of El Alamein, severe fatigue had set in, and with it came the onset of PTSD. In due course the regiment participated in the invasion of Sicily, and the progression up Italy, and Hart makes plain the privations suffered by Italian civilians, not the least with villages flattened by the South Notts guns. The men soon cemented good relations with the liberated locals.
Early 1944 saw the regiment recuperating in England, before they were sent to participate in the Normandy invasion. There are surprisingly numerous accounts of strafing by the Luftwaffe, given that he traditional view is that the Allies enjoyed air superiority from before D-Day. But a particularly harrowing episode is described when Allied aircraft manage to bomb the regiment, including its command post, with heavy casualties.
Some regimental members were amongst the first to enter Paris after its liberation, and their accounts of their welcome (and their incomprehension of their surroundings) are very touching. The South Notts continued with the Allied sweep up the European coast, and the account of the devastation caused to Arnhem, not the least by Allied artillery, is harrowing.
The book’s denouement is depressing – the South Notts did not return to the UK to a heroes’ welcome, they returned in dribs and drabs to no welcome at all. Resettlement was not managed, and many of Hart’s interviewees struggled to find a job and re-integrate into civilian life.
At Close Range is above all gritty; it is more comprehensive than the typical soldier’s autobiography, and serves as a counterpoint to the more strategic accounts of WW2.