A short history of the Airborne Forward Observer Units, Royal Artillery, during the Second World War

As Airborne Forces during the War of 1939-1945 grew from raiding parties to battalions, to brigades, and to divisions, the problem of adequate artillery support became acute. An Airborne Division then had two parachute brigades and one airlanding brigade; nothing larger than a weapon container could be dropped by parachute; gunner units, apart from O.P. parties, had to be carried by gliders, and there was never enough air transport. Apart from anti-tank units, the ration of field artillery was one Airlanding Light Regiment per division, or one battery of eight 75mm howitzers per brigade.

An answer was first found to this lack of fire support upon the lines of the F.O.B. parties who observed the fire of naval guns. Volunteer O.P. parties were obtained from Field and Medium Regiments in 21 Army Group likely to be in support, and these were taught to parachute, and were then attached to the Airlanding Light Regiments in 1st Airborne and 6th Airborne Divisions.

In June 1944 it was decided to form those O.P. parties in 1st Airborne Division into 1st Forward Observer Unit R.A. (Airborne) under Major D.R. Wight-Boycott, Irish Guard Officer from 123 O.C.T.U. at Catterick.

1st Forward Observer Unit R.A. (Airborne)
The original establishment of a F.O.U. was in itself eccentric: 20 Officers and 60 Other Ranks approximately, the officers being 1 x Major, 18 x Captains and 1 x Subaltern. It was intended to have one O.P. party with each battalion, with control and rear link sets at Brigades, an overall control at H.Q, R.A., and liaison officers at supporting regiments. The main net became well known as the Airborne Support Net.

Any independent battery will to some degree show signs of that madness which makes a good unit, and in 1st F.O.U. this was accentuated by the airborne spirit, the independence of the many parties to which it broke down, and above all to the fact that it was formed from a loose collection of O.P. parties from different regiments. Certainly it had madness coupled with a strong unit pride.

1st F.O.U. had hardly found its feet as a unit when there began the series of abortive operations which culminated in the Arnhem landings. The unit was split up on different airfields over East Anglia and the West of England for weeks and eventually arrived [by air] at Arnhem. It must be confessed that the basic design for the F.O.U. did not work in this battle. The 68 set used by [the] parachute O.P. parties did not function in the town of Arnhem, and by the time supporting artillery came within gun and wireless range, many who should have observed its fire were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. However, a shrunken version of the net was established by the survivors, and the most remembered shoot (fired by a medium artillery battery of the Bedfordshire Yeomanry who now wear a Pegasus on their forearm as a sign of their services at Arnhem) was taken by the C.R.A. Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Loder-Symonds. Standing on the steps of the H.Q, R.A. dugout, directly plus of the target, he called for fire on the middle of the small airborne perimeter. The mediums were at maximum range but shot perfectly together and a large German infiltration was broken up with no British casualties.

Despite the partial failure of the principal purpose of the F.O.U., the O.P. parties served their battalions, ‘shooting’ [for] the Light Regiment when possible and acting as infantry officers when required. The writer himself met in the battle a F.O.U. Captain commanding a parachute battalion reduced to some 50 men, he being the sole officer.

After the battle, those few who had returned began to rebuild 1st F.O.U. and in the six months following achieved a unique reputation for ‘shooting’ and signalling. Their wireless nets had no rival in 1st Airborne Division; three and sometimes four shoots might be taken on one frequency by rotation procedure. And it was during this time that a walking stick became the mark of the Airborne Gunner Officer.

An expansion also took place in this period of rebuilding. The Normandy battles had shown the urgent need for some type of Counter-Mortar organisation and this, beginning with stop watches for Mortreps, ended with the addition of two locating sections, each armed with a 4-pen recorder for some sound ranging and a primitive (but airportable) radar set for radar-location.

In the Spring of 1945, 1st Airborne Division flew in to occupy Norway as German resistance collapsed, and the F.O.U., with its many resourceful officers, but few men found many responsible and enjoyable tasks! These halcyon days however ended in September 1945: the Division returned to England and began the break up procedure, demobilizing some and sending its younger members to 6th Airborne Division, and before the end of the year 1st F.O.U. was disbanded.

2nd Forward Observer Unit R.A. (Airborne)
In 6th Airborne Division the same start was made, with volunteer O.P. parties from supporting regiments, and in Normandy, in June 1944, twelve such parties were to drop under command of 53rd (Worcestershire Yeomanry) Airlanding Light Regiment. Only five parties arrived, the others landing wide or in the sea. Those that arrived helped to hold the Airborne bridgeheads and while they were still fighting 2nd F.O.U. was formed in England on 7th August 1944, under Major H.J.B. Rice.

6th Airborne Division was partly British and partly Canadian, and 2 F.O.U. became one of the two British Gunner units with mixed R.A. and R.C.A. personnel. Its Headquarter personnel were mixed: 3 Section was British in support of 3 Para Bde (having been formed from the O.P. parties in Normandy, who returned to England in September); 5 and 6 Sections were Canadian in support of 5 Parachute and 6 Airlanding Brigades.

Three months of training produced the same high standard of signalling and shooting, and the blend of R.A. and R.C.A. personnel produced (if possible) an even happier variety of madness. Their preparations for Christmas at home however were frustrated by the German offensive in the Ardennes. They landed at Ostend on Christmas Day 1944, and were busily and effectively engaged in the Ardennes for the whole of January. They spent a further month along the River Maas between Venlo and Roermond, occasionally leaving O.P. parties concealed on the enemy bank and on one occasion in particular producing a long range patrol which on several occasions became a fighting patrol before returning to the West bank.

At the end of February they were withdrawn to Winterbourne Gunner to receive two sound-ranging sections and organise them on a jeep basis. Two days later these Sections left again for Germany. Meanwhile the rest of the F.O.U. had a quick leave, and then prepared for the Airborne Assault across the Rhine, arriving at their transit camps on 19th March with wireless sets netted and sealed. It is worth mentioning that as part of the deception plan they began a long signals exercise which was gradually and quietly taken over by 1st F.O.U. who were still running it when 2 F.O.U. landed on the far side of the Rhine on 24th March. The first parachute O.P. party was in touch with its supporting L.O’s within 20 minutes after jumping from its Dakota. The next day Captain K. Boss R.A, when 1 Canadian Parachute Battalion were being heavily attacked, called for D.F. and, the better to observe it, stood on top of his slit trench. According to the Canadians his fire spared them from a dangerous counter-attack, but he was seriously wounded and died some months later. He had received the M.C for an earlier action on February 11, though his sacrifice for the Canadians was an equally commendable episode.

From then on, the O.P’s with their battalions enjoyed the fighting race of 6th Airborne Division across Germany until on 5th May, V.E. Day, found them at Wismar on the Baltic coast. During this campaign they had only lost 6 killed and 14 wounded. Two M.Cs were awarded, one to Captain Boss and the other to Captain S.Mooney R.C.A. for his part in the assault crossing of the Weser north of Minden. A week later they were back at Winterbourne Gunner, losing their R.C.A. personnel, and beginning to exchange their older British members for younger ones from 1st F.O.U., for although demobilization was beginning, 6th Airborne Division’s task was to drop first on Singapore and then on Japan.

In preparation for action in the Far East, H.Q. and 5 Section flew with 5 Parachute Brigade, arriving at Kalyan near Bombay at the end of July. The dropping of the two Bombs brought V.J. Day in August and saved the enormous casualties which would probably have resulted from an airborne landing on the Japanese mainland. 5 Parachute Brigade Group became independent and with 5 Section (detached from 2 F.O.U.) moved to Singapore and then to Semarang on Java, becoming involved in the heavy fighting and internal security problems. This service lasted until June 1946.

Meanwhile the rest of the 6th Airborne Division (and the remainder of 2 F.O.U.) had been halted in Palestine where F.O.U, H.Q. rejoined from Bombay. Here again the internal security problems kept them busy.

In March 1946 Major Harry Rice handed over command to Major M.T.J. Williams. Three months later the detached section rejoined the F.O.U.

It may be said that the Gunners during the last War showed a particular aptitude for efficient signalling and it was natural for the F.O.U’s to be the best of all, for without communications they were powerless and almost every officer, N.C.O and man was a trained signaller. In Palestine, this skill gave 2 F.O.U., amongst other duties, the provision of wireless communication over 60 miles of Palestine Railways and responsibility for all communications involved in the transhipment of illegal immigrants from their arrival at Haifa, under naval escort, to their camps in Cyprus. And it should be recorded that when 2 Parachute Brigade moved to England, its F.O.U. Section under Captain G.S. Goulding established contact by 52 set with F.O.U, H.Q. in Palestine. This Section (or Troop as it became) took part in Exercise Long Stop the first full scale Brigade drop since the War. It moved to Flensburg and then to Fallingbostel with 2 Parachute Brigade in July 1948.

In 1947 the Royal Artillery suffered one of its periodic shake-ups (in titles) and 2 F.O.U. emerged as 334 Forward Observation Battery R.A. (Airborne). The remainder of the Battery returned to England in 1948. In that year [the] 6th Airborne Division [was disbanded and the 2nd Independent Parachute Brigade Group was renamed] 16th Independent Parachute Brigade Group, and 334 .F.O.U. was reduced with it, becoming 2nd Independent Forward Observation Troop. It was commanded by Captain C.J. Codner, MC, captain F.R. Moore and Captain J.S. Bradley in succession.

A possible need for it during the Abadan crisis brought it up to full strength under Captain O.C. Trevaldwyn, but upon its return home, it was either disbanded or merged into the 33rd Airlanding Light Regiment, R.A. The writer has found great difficulty in learning exactly when it ceased to be independent and when it ceased to exist. Perhaps like all old soldiers it simply faded away!

3rd Forward Observer Unit R.A. (Airborne)
Like 1st F.O.U. and 2nd F.O.U., the 3rd F.O.U. was formed in June 1944. 2nd Independent Parachute Brigade needed the same form of support as the Division’s and Captain B.D.D. Emslie was summoned to the School of Artillery at Eboli to form a unit with a few officers and men. Some were R.A. , some R.C.A.; some had been in Naval Bombardment Units.

By July 1944, 3 .F.O.U. was in being with 9 Officers, 1 Sergeant and 36 Other Ranks, (about one third of all ranks being R.C.A.). In that short period parachute courses and unit training were achieved and a War Establishment gained (but no 1098). Exercises with 2 Parachute Brigade began, coupled with liaison with the Artillery of 45 (U.S.) Infantry Division.

On [the] 15th August [1944] the unit dropped with the Parachute Battalions on ‘Operation Dragoon’, on a D.Z. north of Frejus. O.P’s from 3 F.O.U. supported the battalions with fire from U.S. Artillery which had come in by sea and from 64 Light Battery R.A. which had landed by glider. This operation continued for 9 days and on 28th August the F.O.U. returned to C.M.F. [Central Mediterranean Forces]

September found the unit training near Rome. (It was at this stage that a 1098 was granted, after its first operation), but within the month 3 F.O.U. moved to the South of Italy for Operation Manna, a seaborne assault on Greece by 2nd Parachute Brigade, which was unopposed. Athens was entered and half of the F.O.U. remained there, the other half supporting the advance in Salonika. Then followed the Elas Eam uprising, with its bitter fighting. 3 F.O.U. was withdrawn to Italy at the end of 1944 for a further short period of training on the Collefero ranges with the 2nd Parachute Brigade.

February 1945 brought operations in the Florence area with 6 A.G.R.A., and the next month a projected airborne assault across the River Po. This was postponed many times and eventually precluded by V.E. Day.

3 F.O.U. returned to England in June 1945, posting its younger members to 2 F.O.U., and disbanding eventually in October, the remaining personnel joining 1 F.O.U.

Submitted by Bob Hilton

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