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Incident during training, post Dunkirk by John Dibblee

During World War II, my gun battery was helping train infantry in liaising with artillery. This was after Dunkirk, when training of the army became very important. We were involved in a training exercise somewhere in the Midlands, in a private estate. This was undulating hillside, which made it hard to see everything. There were no animals or houses, but the range was quite narrow, requiring thought in aiming the guns. The exercise was being watched by Very Senior Officers Indeed.

A gun troop (under a Captain) was deployed like this: the OP (observation post) was in front, to observe the enemy position and direct the guns. The Captain was there. Then there were the guns behind, and the 'wagon line' with vehicles behind that. I was not part of this troop; I was Safety Officer in the OP to make sure that no-one got blown up by mistake. During this exercise, we were testing a new form of smoke shell. The previous smoke shells, which were supposed to lay a smoke screen where required, were inefficient. The shells tended to dig into the ground, so the smoke didn't get dispersed. These new shells had a timed fuse to explode in mid-air. This fuse, instead of blowing off the front of the shell and causing the contents to be expelled forwards faster than the shell was travelling, (as with shrapnel) blew off the back of the shell causing the contents (smoke canisters) to be expelled to the rear at the same speed that the shell was travelling forwards, so that the canisters came to a standstill and dropped vertically.

These shells were duly let off. They were reported as successful, so the gunnery captain was told to stop firing. He issued the order to the guns (through a telephone system laid by the signallers) to "Stop". This is a technical order, meaning stop firing, not stop loading.

The OP then moved forward, so the new position of the OP was where the guns had been previously aimed. The Captain now had to fire explosive shells, so issued the order to the guns. They replied "Loaded with smoke" (since they hadn't stopped loading the smoke shells – they had only stopped firing them.) You cannot unload shells! The usual practise is to cock the guns upwards and "Empty the guns". The Captain was about to make this order when I pointed out that we were now in the target area! I was not worried about the smoke, but the shell carrying the smoke might cause problems. We couldn't fire the guns to left or right as the range was so narrow, and we couldn't fire short, as the whole area was crawling with Very Senior Officers Indeed. So the guns were ordered to fire over our heads. The shell fell safely, and no-one was hurt, but the smoke duly exploded right over our heads (as the timed fuse caused it to do, however much you cocked the guns!) and drifted down over us, and presumably the Very Senior Officers Indeed, so none of us could see a thing!

Addendum: These smoke shells did prove to be successful, and were used during the rest of the war. Personally, although I was responsible for smoking out Very Senior Officers Indeed, I never heard any more about it.

John with his dog Whiskey

John Frederick Dibblee, Royal Artillery, with his spaniel Whisky - taken in 1941