1st Airlanding Anti-Tank Battery, Royal Artillery

The 1st Airlanding Anti-Tank Battery RA originated from a pre-war territorial army unit, the 4th Battalion Kings own Royal Regiment (Lancaster), which was converted into the 56th Anti-tank Regiment in 1938.  The regiment served in France in 1939-40 with the BEF during which time the battery was detached as part of “Macforce” when it knocked out about 25 German AFV’s.  It was evacuated from Dunkirk in June 1940 after which it became the 223rd (Independent) Anti-Tank Battery within the 31st Independent Brigade Group.  In December 1941 it was transferred to the Airborne Division with the rest of the Brigade Group and was renamed the 1st Airlanding Anti-Tank Battery.

  The Battery took part in the invasion of Sicily with the 1st Parachute Brigade in July 1943 when it created history by this being the first time that British guns had been taken into battle by air.  Subsequently the Battery took part in the invasion of the Italian mainland, then came home to the UK with the rest of the Division at the end of 1943 to be based at Hecklington and Helpringham. Before the Arnhem operation the Battery was reorganized into six troops. Four troops were equipped with four 6-pounder guns each and two were each equipped with the newly developed and heavier 17-pounder guns.

Both types were well provided with the new and still secret “Sabot” (APDS) ammunition which could penetrate any German armour then known and, thus equipped, the 6-pounder with its lower profile was claimed to be the most effective anti-tank gun in service at the time.  The 6-pounder traveled in a Horsa glider with its jeep, gun detachment and ammunition. The long barrel of the gun did not permit space for a trailer so the ammunition had to be accommodated in and around the towing jeep.  Forty two rounds per gun were carried of which fifteen were normal armour piercing shot (APCBC) and twenty seven were Sabot (APDS).  The 17-pounder, being longer and heavier, was carried in the larger Hamilcar glider along with its towing vehicle, a specially adapted Morris Commercial which carried the gun detachment and the ammunition consisting of twenty armour piercing (APCBC) and ten Sabot (APDS) rounds per gun.

Each troop commander and one member of each gun team dropped by parachute with the infantry unit to which they were attached so that they would arrive at their RV before the guns were unloaded from the gliders.

For the Arnhem mission, “Operation Market-Garden”, The 1st A/L Anti-Tank Battery was again under command of 1st Parachute Brigade.  B Troop, along with the Battery HQ of 1st A/L Anti-Tank Battery and HQ 1st Parachute Brigade were assigned to accompany Lt. Col. John Frost’s  2nd Battalion on the river road into Arnhem. Due to confusion at the landing zones an additional gun of C Troop also joined the 2nd Battalion column by mistake. The guns arrived at the bridgehead sometime after 8pm on Sunday the 17th and were parked in a builders yard until the troop officer could decide on where best to deploy them. One gun was deployed to the East of the bridge in an industrial complex, two others were deployed to the rear of the Brigade HQ building (The Arnhem Municipal Works) which left two guns to cover the bridge ramp and approaches from the north. It was these two guns who were the major players in the destruction of “Graebners Column”, forever immortalized in “A Bridge Too Far”.

Firing a combination of APDS and Solid Shot these two guns were credited with 12-14 AFV’s knocked out or damaged, including a PzKfw VI (Tiger I). As the perimeter around the bridge collapsed the guns and crews fell victim to incessant mortar , artillery and small-arms fire which prevented the guns from being served. All of the guns & personnel at the bridge finally succumbed to the same fate of the 2nd Battalion and were taken prisoner when ammunition finally ran out.

The other troops of the battery were deployed as follows:    A Troop was assigned to accompany the 1st Parachute Battalion.   C Troop was assigned to accompany the 3rd Parachute Battalion.  D & P Troops (the 17 pdr’s) were assigned to HQ Royal Artillery for deployment within the divisional perimeter and Z Troop was assigned to the 1st Airlanding Light Regiment as gun position security.

This information was sourced from the excellent book on the exploits of the Royal Artillery titled “Gunners At Arnhem” , by Peter Wilkinson MC. 

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