Overlord'S Blog: "Whose for the Guns!"
Its not often one can point to a single vehicle or artillery piece and say their actions changed the course of history, however today's article follows the story of one. In an action that won three Victoria Crosses, one gun halted the Germans and gave the allies time to dig in and form a defence line that stopped the Germans during the opening months of the Great War. Without that line its possible the Germans could have driven onto Paris and won World War One in 1914.
I am of course talking about the exploits of Number 6 gun, "L" Battery, Royal Horse Artillery. Today known after the village of Nery, where the battle took place
"L" battery arrived in France as part of the 1st Cavalry Division on 16th of August 1914. On the 24th, "L" battery supported the 9th Lancers mounting their charge at Audrignies. About 1300 in the afternoon the 9th Lancers launched a charge against the Germans to relive pressure on the beleaguered British infantry holding the line. Leaping a sunken road the two squadrons slammed into German lines and scattered the enemy infantry. Despite this success the cavalry took heavy casualties from point blank fire from German field guns and machine guns. In a later action, despite being wounded, Capt Grenfell won a VC. "L" battery was also strongly praised for its gallantry, having fired all their ammunition stocks in support of the charge. The Battery commander received a DSO for his part.
"L" battery also took part in the battle of Quievrain, and then Le Cateau. At Le Cateau "L" battery deployed along with the rest of the British army in open terrain to meet the Germans. A huge artillery battle developed and although the Germans had been momentarily halted nearly 8000 casualties had been taken by the British.
Days later after taking part in several skirmishes "L" battery found itself bivouacked at Nery. Orders were for the battery to move out at 0430 and continue to retreat. French infantry were holding a plateau to east that over looked Nery. Over night a thick fog formed and the move out was delayed until 0530.
At 0510 the fog suddenly lifted, to reveal the German 4th Cavalry Division on the plateau. The French forces had never been there, and the German scouts had discovered the British encampment over night. As soon as the fog lifted the Germans began shelling the British column ready for march. The opening salvo cut through the men and horses. One of "L" batteries guns over turned and smashed as the horses bolted.
On the Ridge as well as the Division's infantry the Germans had at least two machine guns and twelve field guns in action. all shooting at the short range of 600 to 800 yards.
The commander of "L" battery had been knocked unconscious by the first shots, leaving Battery Captain Bradbury in charge. Yelling "Come on, whose for the guns?!" Cpt Bradbury lead a party of men to the wreckage of the column. They managed to unlimber three of the thirteen pounder guns.
The first gun had its wheels blown off before it could fire a round, rendering it useless. The remaining two guns started to reply to the Germans. After about ten to fifteen minutes the second gun was smashed by the German shells, only Lt Giffard surviving with massive shrapnel injuries that troubled him for the rest of his life.
This left Cpt Bradbury's gun as the only British unit in action against a German Division.
Two Lieutenants, Campbell and Mundy, from the first gun to be knocked out, joined in with Cpt Bradbury's crew. Gunner Darbyshire was in the gunners seat when a shell landed close enough to give him severe concussion, with blood pouring from his ears and nose he was unable to carry on aiming the gun, but refused to retire. He opted to assist Driver Osborne haul ammunition to the gun. The ammo supplies were 20 yards away, with no cover from the murderous German fire.
Lt Campbell took over from Gnr Darbyshire, only to be blown out of the gunners seat and killed by another shell blast.
At this point Battery Sergeant Major Dorrell arrived at the gun and took over the position of gunner. As he arrived Cpt Bradbury was hit, and his leg blown off. Propped up against the wheel of the gun Cpt Bradbury carried on directing the guns fire as best he could until he died from his wounds.
BSM Dorrell and his two reaming crew, Lt Mundy and Sergeant Nelson, kept the gun in action.
By 0730 the gun had fired around 150 rounds, and no more shells could be found. As Number 6 gun fell silent the German Cavalry were surprised by a flank attack by the 5th Dragoon guards supported by "I" battery RHA. The Germans were in such disorder from the casualties inflicted on them by "L" battery they routed, leaving behind eight field guns at the site of the battle. The German officer ordered his men to scatter as a last ditch attempt to save them. throughout the day the other British units captured the remaining four field guns and at least one machine gun. All abandoned by the fleeing German division.
The guns of the battery were recovered by "I" battery with the help of the 2nd Dragoon Guards, and returned to the Army Ordnance Corp at St Nazaire. Number 6 gun was eventually gifted to the Imperial War Museum, some time between the Museums founding in 1917 and its first opening in 1920.
The Gun is still on display there, in the same condition it was hauled off the battlefield.. When you get close to it you can see the storm of fire the Germans directed at it. Individual spokes are smashed by bullets, Shrapnel has scoured the gun shield and the barrel has a huge dent in it. The damage to the left wheel is from a shell hit.
For that action the following rewards were given:
Victoria Crosses for Cpt Bradbury, BSM Dorrell and Sgt Nelson.
Legion of Honour for Lt Giffard.
Medaille Miltaire for Gnr Darbyshire and Dvr Osborne.