Field Gun - A Century of History

By Phillipa Brown, c. 1998;


Every year for two weeks in July during the Royal Tournament at Earls Court, London, the Royal Navy’s Inter-Port Field Gun Competition takes place. For the sailors who take part in the competition it as near to war as you can get and is the culmination of six months of dedication, fitness, courage, teamwork and,

above all, discipline.

Audiences are held spellbound as the three commands from Portsmouth, Devonport and Fleet Air Arm do battle in a twice daily race that see two teams of 18 men take a gun and limber that dates back to the last century and weighing over a ton, plus associated equipment over a five foot wall, across a twenty-eight foot wide chasm, through a four foot high by two foot wide hole and bring the equipment into action, to engage the enemy and fire three rounds. In a rearguard action enroute they have to overcome the same obstacles. This is called: Out, Back and Home. Each section is timed to the nearest one-hundredth of a second and at the end of the three sections the times are totalled. However, the run is still not over, penalties can still be incurred if the drill is not carried out correctly, for instance: a man moving before the ‘G’ is sounded on the bugle or throwing or dropping a piece of equipment into the chasm. These penalties are turned into seconds and these are added onto the final time. The crews are awarded 2 points for a win, 1 and a half for a tie, 1 for a defeat, and 0 for a disqualification or a run taking over 4 minutes to complete.

At the end of the two weeks ‘field gunning’, four trophies are awarded. The Inter-Command Challenge Cup is awarded to the crew gaining the highest number of points over the fortnight, and this record is held by Fleet Air Arm for gaining the maximum 32 points in 1966 and the trophy is now held by Devonport for gaining 29 points. The Aggregate Time Challenge Cup is awarded to the crew who has the lowest aggregate official time over the 16 competition runs; the record is held by Devonport at 39 minutes 20.34 and the trophy is now held by Devonport. The Fastest Time Cup is awarded to the crew who achieves the fastest out, back and home in one run. Before 1999 this record was held by Portsmouth and had stood for 15 years. This year Devonport broke the world record when they recorded a near faultless run of 2 minutes 40.43. The Sunday Express Plate, which in the past has been called various other names, is awarded to the crew that incurs the least number of penalty points over the competition. Fleet Air Arm won the trophy this year and they hold the record of 2 penalty points.

Throughout the competition the results are signalled to the fleet worldwide where the men follow their crew’s progress with the same fanatical interest, as they would show in their football team of their choice. Many ex-gunners, or simply a keen supporter of the gun race, will make an annual pilgrimage to Earls Court,

some staying for the two weeks
duration, just to share an atmosphere that can not be found anywhere else in the world. However, this event would never have even started if it were not for a historic event, which happened 100 years ago:

The Relief of Ladysmith.

The display in its present competition form was started in 1907,

 inspired by the exploits of a Naval Brigade during the Boer War in 1899.

In South Africa at the turn of the last century relations between the Dutch in the Transvaal, the Orange State, the British in the Cape and Natal deteriorated rapidly after a conference held in Bloomfontein, capital of the Orange Free State, to resolve the problems arising form the massive influx of immigration as a result of the discovery of gold in the Transvaal and their claims for citizenship rights ended in stalemate. Both sides moved forces to their mutual borders, the British forces in Natal numbered less than 16,000 whilst the Transvaal Burgher army alone totalled nearly 27,000. In September the decision to despatch more than 10,000 troops to South Africa from home and abroad was made in London. The Transvaal Government responded to this major troop movement with an ultimatum issued on the 9th October, with a time limit of two days, that all British forces were to withdraw from the borders of the Transvaal and all the troops which had landed since the previous June were to be moved from South Africa and those on their way from overseas were not to be landed. Two days later on the 11th October 1899 at 5pm war was declared and the Boers invaded.

The British forces were quickly overwhelmed and forced back to the towns of Mafeking, Kimberley and Ladysmith, which were then besieged. Ladysmith was the most vulnerable of the three towns

and should it fall a great moral victory could be claimed by the marauding Boer forces.

It was at this point that the Royal Navy was called into action.

At anchor off Capetown were the cruisers, HMS Terrible and HMS Powerful, the British Commander in Natal, General Sir George White VC, signalled the ships for assistance, particularly long range guns. Fortunately for the General, Captain P. Scott RN of HMS Terrible was a gunnery expert and he quickly designed a carriage that could hold 6 inch, and 4.7 inch, 12 pounder naval guns for transit and in action. Following initial tests, all the necessary guns and equipment were transported to Durban by HMS Terrible; the carriages were then speedily manufactured in the Durban Railway workshops. The contingent was soon ready and under the command of Captain H. Lambton RN, the 280 officers and men with two, 4.7 inch guns, four long range 12 pounders and four maxim guns the Naval Brigade as they were now called, left Durban by rail for Ladysmith. Their train was the last to complete the journey to Ladysmith on the 30th October just as the siege and bombardment started.

The Naval Brigade were soon in action against the Boer artillery; their long range guns were so effective in countering the enemy batteries and holding them at bay that it was not long before Captain Scott was being asked to provide another brigade. This was duly done and the new brigade acted in support of General Buller’s push towards their besieged comrades. Due to the nature of this operation the railway was of little use, therefore the guns had to be manhandled over difficult terrain to be brought into action in many different engagements, eventually reaching Ladysmith after 120 days of blockade. This is the whole idea of Field Gun: to try and reconstruct as near to the truth as possible what happened a century ago during the relief of Ladysmith. The men not only had to cope with very difficult terrain but they had to construct some sort of way of getting across a bottomless area of land; this is where the present days chasm idea came from.

The news of the relief of Ladysmith was greeted with great jubilation in Britain and Queen Victoria sent a telegram to the Naval Brigades thanking them for their invaluable assistance.

Leaving Ladysmith on the 7th March 1900 the sailors of Powerful and Terrible were soon back on board,

the Powerful heading for home and arriving in Portsmouth on the 11th April.

The officers and men of Powerful were soon invited to a number of military and civic receptions culminating in a Royal audience with Queen Victoria where she personally thanked

the ship’s company for their part in the saving of Ladysmith.

The Royal Military Tournament of 1900 was held in Islington Agricultural Hall and featured men from HMS Powerful parading one of their 4.7-inch naval guns called ‘Joe Chamberlain’. This proved most popular and the Navy’s contribution continued as part of the Tournament, which moved to Olympia in 1906.

Since that year it has become customary to say that the Inter-port Field Gun Competition at the Royal Tournament is in commemoration of what Lambton’s men of the Powerful achieved in saving the town of Ladysmith. But each one of all the Naval Brigades ashore in South Africa during the second Boer War performed deeds that are worthy, each in its way, of such salutation.

In 1907 a competition replaced the parade for the first time, the three depots of Portsmouth, Chatham and Devonport providing the gun teams. This was the idea of Commander P.H Hall-Thompson RN, who is regarded as the father of the field gun competition. The 1914-1918 war stopped all such events for its duration but the competition returned with the new Royal Tournament of peacetime. The Second World War ‘stopped play’ for a second time, but the resumption saw two important changes: the venue was Earls Court in1950 and by now the Royal Tournament’s Field Gun Competition had been joined by a team from the Fleet Air Arm. Upon their entry the newcomers won the Aggregate Time Challenge Cup as well as the Fastest Time Cup.

In 1960 Chatham ran at the tournament for the last time.

Throughout the history of the Inter-Port competition as many as

eight crews have competed including the Royal Marines in the 1920’s.

However it is not just this year that records have been set and then broken.

In 1981 Portsmouth produced a record run of 2 minutes 42.4, only to see it snatched away again two years later by Devonport with a run of 2 minutes 41.1. However, the very next year, 1984, Chief Petty Officer PTI Keith Mack trained a Portsmouth crew, which put in a blistering run of 2 minutes 40.6, which was the record that had stood for fifteen years. But it is not all glory and record breaking as was proved in 1982. A.B Allen the Flying Angel (no.7) for Portsmouth was the last man being pulled across the chasm on the run back. He reached the home ramp and released the ten-foot spar he was carrying as his drill required and ran on down the ramp. However, instead of checking on the collapsing sheer legs and passing on the outside of them he went through the middle. The collapsing sheer legs killed him. (The sheer legs weigh 170lbs) Broken bones, pulled muscles and severe cuts were the risks that dedicated gunners accepted and before they signed up they were required to sign a disclaimer stating that they would not sue the Navy for damages. But when they signed the disclaimer they never expected a man would be killed in the toughest team sport in the world.

Sadly, due to ‘Government cuts’ this year was the last year of the Royal Tournament as everybody knows it and the final time anyone will ever ‘run the gun’. On 20th July 1999 the Government confirmed what many people had been dreading for months, the fact that the field gun competition would come to an end in August 1999. Both at Devonport base, HMS Drake and at Earls Court there was a very subdued atmosphere. On the night of Devonport’s last ever run the ‘A’ Crew stayed in their mess for most of the day and when the moment came they all had tears in their eyes. There were mixed emotions and a tense atmosphere as the crew came into the bar. Nobody knew what to say whether to congratulate them or to give them sympathy. Some members of the crew just sat and stared at their lynch pins, crying. They were inconsolable. The last night was also a moment I’ll never forget. It ended in controversy as all three crews wore black armbands during the run, even after they were told by the MOD not to, but whatever anybody did it would not change the future. When Devonport went into the arena to collect their trophies there was not a dry eye in the arena. When the commentator announced it was to be the last time we would ever see the ‘Men of Field Gun’, the whole arena showed their anger by stamping the floor or banging their chairs. It was obvious that no one wanted it to end, however, it was too late. Backstage the Devonport crew should have been celebrating their New World Record and their overall success but they felt as if there was no celebrating to be done.

The two weeks of blood, sweat and tears were starting to take their toll and the crew of ’99 just wanted to forget about the future without field gun and try to remember all the good times they had at Devonport, Portsmouth and the Fleet Air Arm.

It might have been the toughest team sport in the world but it was not good enough for the Government of today. Sadly all things have to come to an end at some time. Unfortunately in the memories of all field gunners and supporters 1999 proved to be one of the saddest years of their lives.

This is why it will always remain in the bodies and souls of all field gunners

and supporters the ultimate team sport.


Kindly donated by the Oggies for inclusion into this website.

By Phillipa Brown;     Edited by T~t~P

Sources used: Guns and Guts


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