Isle of Wight Rifles - History - Conversion to Artillery

History

Conversion to Artillery

"The 8th Battalion Hampshire Regiment (Princess Beatrice's I.W. Rifles) is to be converted to a brigade of the heavy artillery, charged with the important duty of manning some of the Isle of Wight Batteries which are part of the outer defences of Portsmouth and Southampton." This announcement was made by General Sir Richard Haking, C.B., C.B.,E., K.C.B., K.C.M.G., the Colonel of the Hampshire Regiment, at a meeting in the Drill Hall at Newport, on Thursday, the 1st of April, 1937. This meeting was unique in the military history of the Island, as all ranks had been invited by their Commanding Officer, Lt. Col. C. W. Brannon, M.C., to attend. The invitation asked the men to attend to hear 'an important annoucement,' it also stated that they were to attend in civilian clothes.

"The battalion responded in good numbers, about three hundred of them attending from all parts of the Island, a large number of the Old Comrades' Association also attended, they had been invited to find out what was to be the fate of their beloved unit, something they were all most anxious to know, particularly as rumours had been circulating for some time. After the invitation of the Army Council to make the change had been made to the men and the significance and attractions of their new duties had been fully explained, the men responded most enthusiastically, almost to a man in assenting to the change when their Commanding Officer called upon them, company by company, to express their willingness. Thus closed the gallant and distinguished career of Princess Beatrice's Isle of Wight Rifles as an infantry unit, a career extending just over three-quarters of a century, marked by having the late King George V as Honorary Colonel of the Regiment and the unit being graciously privileged to bear the name of the Royal Governor, as well as by gallant active service during the South Africa War and in the Great War on the Gallipoli Peninsula and in Egypt and Palestine. It was pleasing to the men at this time to know that efforts were made for them to retain their battalion title in their new designation as Artillery.

"Whilst the meeting had been assembling, the battalion band had been playing selections of military music. Colonel Brannon presided over the meeting and he had asked General Haking to make the announcement. The General had been asked by the War Office to inform them that it was proposed to alter their status from infantry to Coastal Defence Artillery. The War Office has written very sympathetically on the matter, pointing out that they considered the change a necessity as part of the re-organisation of the defences of Portsmouth and Southampton. They wanted more artillery in the Isle of Wight, and felt that the only people who could supply that need were the gallant officers and men of the Isle of Wight Rifles. The War Office realised that the change would entail certain sacrifices of valued ties, but had promised that they would do their utmost to ensure that these sacrifices were as small as possible.

"General Haking had been informed that although the battalion was to become part of the Regiment of Artillery, the unit would retain its identity and distinctive title and would remain affiliated with the regular infantry corps, to which it had belonged. As Colonel of the Hampshire Regiment, General Haking, said that he was delighted that he was not going to lose the Isle of Wight Rifles from his regiment completely, and although he knew little of gunnery, it would give him great pleasure to inspect them as gunners as they were his 'oid comrades.' At this juncture the meeting burst into thunderous applause. The General continued saying, that as soon as he had received the communication from the War Office he had immediately informed their commanding officer and, like the good soldier he was, Colonel Brannon said he was sure that the battalion would respond to the requirements of the country. He hoped therefore that every officer, N.C.O. and man would loyally support their commanding officer and be determined to be as good gunners as they had been infantrymen. No effort, he said, would be spared to maintain the high traditions of the battalion and it had a proud history which it had gained on the Gallipoli Peninsula and in the Palestine Campaign. He wished all ranks every good fortune in their new careers as gunners and was confident that if the need arose, they would render their country just as faithful and efficient service as gunners as they had done in the past. Major General B. B. Crozier, C.B., C.M.G., D.S.O., the Commanding Officer of the Wessex Area and the 43rd Wessex Division then addressed the meeting. He referred to the real necessity for the proposed change and said that the original suggestion must have placed Colonel Brannon in a very awkward position, when consulted, as he had to be, he had had to take a chance and speak for and on behalf of his battalion.

"He had decided to take that chance and had guaranteed that the Isle of Wight Rifles would loyally respond to the appeal that they should change their status. General Crozier said that from his two and a half years happy experience of the Rifles, he was confident that it would prove a good change and that the Rifles, to a man, would fill up a gap in the defences of their country. Knowing the regard that Colonel Brannon had for the success, happiness and welfare of the men in his battalion, he was certain that every man in the battalion would answer his appeal. As Divisional Commander, he said he was sorry to be losing the Rifles, but he hoped that circumstances would allow him to keep in touch with them when they had become gunners. He said that they would find the work extraordinarily interesting and they must not be frightened at the thought of the technical difficulties of gunnery. There was nothing in gunnery that they could not master, and he was sure that they would become fond of gunnery as there was no branch of the service in which team spirit was more pronounced than in a gun crew. In the infantry there was always argument as to whose bullet had found a billet, but there was no doubt in coast defence gunnery, the splash decided it. As Divisional Commander he said that he would part with them with real regret, he did not like losing ribs even if they were taken to make other attractive units. Colonel F. M. Montressor, M.C., Commander of the Fixed Defences, Southern Command, assured the men of the Rifles that when they had converted to a heavy artillery brigade, they would receive a hearty welcome from everyone in the Fixed Defences, and they would receive every possible assistance in the way of expert guidance in their training as gunners.

"Their responsibilities would include the manning of certain coastal defence armaments in the Island, so that in the event of war, they would have the satisfaction of defending their own homes." The other units of the Fixed Defences, he said, would feel extremely honoured at being joined by a unit with such high traditions of service.

"Colonel Brannon then addressed the meeting, he said that as the proposals had hitherto been confidential, he had been unable to disclose them to tide battalion, but the suggested change had appealed to him from the start as a sound move, and he felt that it was their duty as a battalion to respond. It was clear that it was to the advanage of the country that Territorials should take the place of regular soldiers in the national defences, and it was obvious that the Island could not supply the necessary number of artillerymen for air and coastal defence and a full infantry battalion as well. As gunners they were to be charged with the important task of defending two of the most vital ports in the country, the greatest naval base and the largest mercantile port (at that time). Colonel Brannon had considered it to be his duty, immediately that he knew of the proposed change, to communicate with Her Royal Highness Princess Beatrice, and he had, on the day of the meeting, received a telegram from H.R.H. which read: "Hearty Greetings to you and to all ranks of my Regiment. Beatrice."

"From this brief message, Colonel Brannon thought that they may assume that H.R.H. thought that they were doing the right thing, a fact that he felt sure would influence all ranks in coming to the right decision.

"The Commanding Officer said that they would have a lot to learn, and him probably more than any of them, he then appealed to them to give him their fullest support and he promised them that if he could not tackle his job as fire commander, he would go back into the ranks to learn it there. He hoped to arrange for training at week-ends, he said, at the forts that they were to occupy. These forts were in some of the most delightful parts of the Island. Colonel Brannon then concluded his address by asking the men, company by company, to join him in this new venture and each group enthusiastically responded with shouts of We will, almost every man raising his hand as a further indication of his assent. Sir Richard Haking closed the meeting by saying "I shall have great pleasure in reporting to the War Office that you have received the proposal with a fine and soldierly spirit."

"At this time, Colonel E. D. H. Tollemache, the Commanding Officer of the 128th Hampshire Territorial Brigade, wrote to Colonel Brannon saying: " I shall be sorry to lose you and your fine battalion, but I am sure that the changeover is correct and sensible from every point of view. The spirit and enthusiasm will go on just the same and even more so now that you have the job of defending your own Island."

"Thus, on the first of April, 1937, the Isle of Wight Rifles became a heavy brigade of the Royal Artillery, they had to learn the highly technical but deeply interesting science of coastal defence gunnery. Linked up in the fire command which they took over was a detachment of Royal Engineers who were responsible for the operation of the searchlights which were to co-operate with the guns. The Rifles thus had a definite role to perform on mobilisation, in this task they had reverted to a similar role to that which was laid down for them prior to the Great War when they had definite duties as an infantry battalion with posts at the eastern forts and around the southern coast of the Island.

"An important task lay before the new '530 Coast Regiment R.A., Princess Beatrice's Isle of Wight Rifles' as they were to become known. Strong, fit and well educated men were needed urgently to bring them up to strength, sufficient to carry out their duties. Although the work was different the discipline and military knowledge of the serving men proved of great assistance in the new role. The Rifles were permitted to retain the original battalion cap badge and black buttons, also they were allowed to retain their green and black ceremonial dress, the latter earning them the nickname of 'The Green Gunners,' they were the only unit of the Royal Artillery to have this distinction. The unit also continued to be affiliated to the 54th East Anglian Division, with whom it had been associated through its overseas service in the Great War. At the beginning of May, 1937, the infantry side of things was finally wound up and the serious business of conversion had begun. At this time the unit had a total strength of seventeen officers and two hundred and seventy other ranks.