Marking 70 years since VE Day – The Big Guns of WWII: 25 pounder self-propelled gun

To mark the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe day, our Portsmouth site Fort Nelson will be firing the impressive 25 pounder self-propelled gun at 1pm and 3pm today. Also known as the Sexton, the gun was developed to support rapidly advancing forces in later stages of World War Two. The gun will be fired at at 1pm and 3pm today.

The 25 pounder self-propelled gun pictured on the Parade at the Royal Armouries at Fort Nelson ©Royal Armouries

The 25 pounder self-propelled gun pictured on the Parade at the Royal Armouries at Fort Nelson ©Royal Armouries

The Royal Artillery experimented with a number of designs in their attempted to improve the mobility of artillery. Self-propelled guns on tracked mountings gave much better cross-country mobility. The ‘Flanders Mud’ of the First World War made it difficult and sometimes impossible to move heavy guns. Early tanks showed the way forward, leading to the gradual introduction of self-propelled guns [SPGs]. The towed 25 pr gun, examples of which can be seen on display in the Voice of the Guns gallery and the Artillery Hall, required a towing vehicle and limber and had limited off-road ability.

Early prototypes included the ‘Bishop’, combining a mounted 25 pounder quick firing gun to chassis of a Valentine tank. The Royal Artillery also used the American M7 self-propelled 105 mm which was known as the ‘Priest’, as its gun mounting resembled a pulpit. However, the British needed a self-propelled gun which incorporated the 25 pounder.

The answer, which came to be known as the Sexton, was created by adapting a Canadian Kangaroo chassis, based on the M3 American tank, to carry a 25 pounder field gun. Manufactured at the Montreal Locomotive Works in Canada, over 2150 Sextons were produced between 1943 and 1945.

The 25 pounder self-propelled gun on display in the Artillery Hall at the Royal Armouries at Fort Nelson ©Royal Armouries.

The 25 pounder self-propelled gun on display in the Artillery Hall at the Royal Armouries at Fort Nelson ©Royal Armouries.

This example on display at the Royal Armouries at Fort Nelson is painted in the colours of the 90th City of London Yeomanry, which landed in Normandy on D–Day, 6 June 1944. On the final run into the beaches they fired their guns from the landing craft in support of the troops already ashore. This example was transferred to Portugal after the Second World War and reimported in the 1980s and  has been restored to running order

See the mighty 25 pounder self-propelled gun fired at the Royal Armouries at Fort Nelson on Friday 8th May to commemorate the 70th anniversary of VE Day. Firings take place on the Parade at 1 pm and 3 pm.

Bite the Bullet

In 1857 native soldiers of the Indian Army rose up against the British Empire in what became known as the Indian Mutiny. It’s often said that the cause of this unrest was the paper cartridge issued for use with the new Pattern 1853 Enfield rifle. These were greased at one end to lubricate the bullet, which had to be pushed down the barrel from the muzzle end for loading. In order to open the cartridge, soldiers were instructed to tear it with their teeth, resulting in the ingestion of some of the grease. Rumours spread that this grease was derived from pig fat, forbidden to Muslims, or from cows, which would be a serious issue for Hindus. Moreover, the rumours suggested that this was a deliberate practice intended to degrade and even to force conversion to Christianity.

Paper cartridge issued for use with the P'53 rifle, containing a lead 'Minié syle bullet

Paper cartridge issued for use with the P’53 rifle, containing a lead ‘Minié syle bullet

In fact, the causes and background to the mutiny were rather more complicated than this, but historians agree the cartridge rumours were one of the main triggers or tipping points for the mutiny. Some have disputed the claim of pig and/or cow fat, but although it is clear that their use was not intentional, both types of grease were indeed used on the cartridges. Although many officers in India recognised this serious oversight and attempted to address it, the offence and concern had already been caused. The result was widespread violence, bloodily put down by the Imperial authorities, with ringleaders being ‘blown from guns’, or tied to the muzzle of cannon which were then fired.

The tangent backsight of the Pattern 1853 rifle, graduated up to 900 yards, and the Pattern 1859 musket for native troops with its basic 'V' notch

The tangent backsight of the Pattern 1853 rifle, graduated up to 900 yards, and the Pattern 1859 musket for native troops with its basic ‘V’ notch

One less obvious result of the mutiny was the introduction of a new pattern of arm. Though it outwardly resembled the Enfield rifle, the rifling lands and grooves themselves were machined away, and a much more basic rear sight fitted. These new Pattern 1858 and 1859 smoothbore muskets effectively put ‘Brown Bess’ back in the hands of Indian troops. This was a deliberate attempt to limit the effectiveness of any future uprising, as they would be much less effective at range, and make the targeting of officers far more difficult.

Blogger: Jonathan Ferguson, Curator of Firearms

Going by the book!

The last battle on English soil was fought on 18 December 1745, when dragoons of the Duke of Cumberland’s Government army caught up with the rearguard of the retreating Jacobite forces of Charles Edward Stuart – ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’. The rebel Jacobites had advanced as far as Derby, but due to lack of support from the people of England decided to retreat back towards Scotland.

Front page of the manuscript

Front page of the manuscript

By 18 December they had reached Penrith in Cumberland, and as the rearguard was passing through the village of Clifton the advance elements of Cumberland’s army – a body of dragoons several hundred strong, caught up. The Scots rearguard was made up of several infantry units. Charles chose not to commit his main force but continued to retreat in the direction of Carlisle, ordering his rearguard to catch up. However, with the Government cavalry in the vicinity it was not possible for them to do so without first offering battle.

In our archive we have a rare survivor from this period, a small 31-page booklet entitled: The new exercise of firelocks and bayonets appointed by his Grace the Duke of Marlborough to be used by all the British forces: with instructions to perform every motion by body, foot and hand. This manual was written by an anonymous ‘Officer in Her Majesties Foot Guards’, and published in 1708. Prior to the Act of Union of 1707, the Government forces in England, Scotland and Ireland had been separate, so this booklet was one of the very first drill manuals used by the British Army. It is not illustrated, but the descriptions of the orders and words of command give us a good feel for small-arms handling at this time.

Pages from the manuscript

Pages from the manuscript

At Clifton, the dragoons dismounted and, lining a series of hedges and ditches opened fire upon the Jacobites. After a brief exchange of fire, the Jacobite regiments charged and dispersed the Government forces, and then resumed their retreat. Reports as to the numbers of casualties vary, but an account written on 29 December 29by Thomas Savage, a local farmer whose house seems to have been at the epicentre of the fighting, put the number of Government troops killed at ten, with 21 wounded. Only five Jacobites were killed according to Savage, and although many were wounded only two were taken prisoner.

On the face of their poor show at Clifton, it might seem that the manual the dragoons followed had been of little use. However they were probably outnumbered by the Jacobites, and as the events of Culloden would show the following year, when troops using manuals like this were commanded by a resolute and skilled general such as Cumberland, they proved to be very effective indeed.

Blogger: Stuart Ivinson, Library Assistant

Weird and Wonderful

Though it looks like something out of a video game with its twin bayonets, this is a real gun. It is the Sterling S11 sub-machine gun, designed in 1965 as a follow-up to the classic Sterling Mk.4/L2A3 of the 1950s (the latter of which doubled as the Stormtrooper’s blasters in ‘Star Wars’). It was meant to compete with the then-new and now famous Heckler & Koch MP5, and took a few design cues from the equally well-known Israeli Uzi.

Dual bayonet experimental Sterling S11 sub-machine gun

Dual bayonet experimental Sterling S11 sub-machine gun

Due to falling sales of sub-machine guns in general and to reliability problems with the gun, only one example was ever made; ‘EXP 001′. This was presented to the Ministry of Defence Pattern Room in 1989 and came to the Royal Armouries with the accession of that collection in 2005.

Why two bayonets? One is of the type fitted to the SLR rifle and the other for the previous Sterling SMG. We can’t be sure why the S11 was fitted for both; the trouble Sterling went to suggests that it was intended to give export customers a choice. We can be certain of one thing however; you would never have used both at the same time!

Blogger: Jonathan Ferguson, Curator of Firearms

STEN – Now and Then

Mass-produced military firearms rarely survive with much of their service histories intact. At the Royal Armouries in Leeds we recently discovered an exception that has been hiding a lot of history – in plain sight – in the markings stamped and scratched into its metal body.

Close up of the engraving on the Mk.II STEN

Close up of the engraving on the Mk.II STEN

It is a rare type of Mk.II STEN made in 1943 using a new, cheaper, wrapped steel body. These were found to be faulty and were all recalled – just like a car would be today. This particular STEN survived because it had been supplied to South Africa and ended up in Cyprus sometime in the 1960s.

An explanation for this is that lots of young Greek men went to South Africa during the Second World War to fight with both the South African and the Greek armies, and the STEN must have left with them at the end of the war.

Mk.II STEN on the production line

Mk.II STEN on the production line at BSA assembly facility plant at Tysley, 1942

Having been cut and welded internally to prevent it firing, it was then purchased by the Royal Armouries and spent 17 years being used for education and live interpretation. We don’t normally collect deactivated firearms, you wouldn’t blunt a medieval sword after all, but we have now added this example to the permanent collection due to its rather interesting history.

Blogger: Jonathan Ferguson, Curator of Firearms

Exploded Firearms

As a soldier it was, and still is, important to be familiar with your personal issued weapon in order to be able to keep it clean and keep it functioning correctly. Before multi-media learning aids the best way to learn about the functionality of a weapon was to take apart the real thing and mount it on a wooden board, much like a 3-D exploded diagram today.


Webley Mk.I and II revolvers of 1895 and several devices called 'Morris Tubes'

Three boards in the Royal Armouries’ collection contain all of the separate components for several iconic British military firearms. The first shows the Magazine Lee-Metford Mk.II and Lee-Enfield Mk.I rifles, both introduced in 1895. The next board focuses upon the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield of 1903 and the Pattern 1907 bayonet. The last contains the Webley Mk.I and II revolvers of 1895 and several devices called ‘Morris Tubes’. These were designed to allow military rifles in .450 .303 calibre to fire cheaper small-bore .22 rimfire ammunition for training purposes. All of these are pre-First World War, though versions of the SMLE and Webley revolver were standard issue right through to the Second World War.

Rifle board

Short Magazine Lee-Enfield of 1903 and the Pattern 1907 bayonet

We don’t know for sure where these particular boards originated but they were made to instruct soldiers and officers in the component parts of their issued weapons and would have been hung on the wall of a classroom in one of the army’s training establishments.

Blogger: Jonathan Ferguson, Curator of Firearms

Collections Up Close August

The Royal Armouries’ collection contains several items belonging to Ernst August I (1688-1748), Duke of Saxe-Weimar, later Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach in Germany from 1728–1748. Ernst August was noted for his extravagant spending and love of splendour.

The Duke maintained a standing army that was disproportionately large for the duchy’s financial resources, which resulted in him having to rent out some of his soldiers to other leaders. He spent much of his reign desperately seeking resources, even arresting rich subjects in exchange for ransoms. However, legal proceedings were mounted against him and he was eventually bankrupt.

A selection of guns belonging to August

A selection of guns belonging to August

He had eight children with his first wife but none of their sons survived into adulthood, leading him to remarry after her death to try again for a male heir. He fathered four more children and an illegitimate son, but only one survived to adulthood- Ernst August II.

Several items of the Duke’s possessions are on display at the museum. These include a saddle from about 1720, typical of those used by cavalry in Europe during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The Duke’s EA monogram can be seen on the gilt brass fittings of the saddle, which is on display in the War Gallery.

Close up of August's saddle on display

Close up of August's saddle on display

The museum also displays a set of hunting weapons and accessories made for the Duke by artist craftsman. It was popular for wealthy sportsmen of the 17th and 18th centuries to have a complete set like this. The items were made by various craftsmen from across Europe, including double-barrelled flintlock pistols (Flemish, made by Daniel Thiermay), single barrelled flintlock pistols (Italian, made by Gioanni Botti with barrels by Lazarino Cominazzo), a flintlock over-and-under sporting gun (French), and a German hunting sword.

The Duke’s passion for hunting was so extravagant that when he died, aged 59, he had 1,100 hunting dogs and 373 horses. However, August had left a financially ruined duchy, and his one surviving son, Ernst August II, succeeded aged just eleven.

Blogger: Angela Clare, Researcher