1st Durham Volunteer Artillery

The 1st Durham Volunteer Artillery was a unit of Britain's Volunteer Force and Territorial Army from 1860 to 1956. During World War I, it was the only coastal defence unit to engage the enemy, and it also trained siege gunners for service on the Western Front.

1st Durham Volunteer Artillery
CountryUnited Kingdom
Branch Territorial Army
TypeArtillery Regiment
Coastal Artillery
Siege Artillery
Heavy Anti-Aircraft Artillery
Garrison/HQHartlepool & West Hartlepool
EngagementsRaid on Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby
Lt-Col Lancelot Robson, DSO

Artillery Volunteers (1859–1908)

An invasion scare in 1859 saw the creation of many Volunteer units composed of part-time soldiers eager to supplement the Regular British Army in time of need. Four Artillery Volunteer Corps (AVCs) were raised in County Durham, with their officers' commissions being issued on 14 March 1860:[1]

The 2nd (Seaham) Corps was initially the largest, and the other three were attached to it for administrative purposes. In 1880 and 1881 the 2nd Durham won the Queen's Prize at the annual National Artillery Association competition held at Shoeburyness.[2] By the end of the 19th Century, however, all four were independent units, attached to the Western Division of the Royal Garrison Artillery (RGA) and ranked as 51 to 54 in order of seniority among Volunteer Artillery units. In 1902, the divisional structure was abolished, and the units were renamed 1st–4th Durham RGA (Volunteers).[3]

The first Captain Commandant of the 1st Corps at Sunderland was the local politician Sir Hedworth Williamson, Bt (1827–1900). He commanded it for 28 years and was appointed Honorary Colonel of the 1st Durham Volunteer Artillery in 1888 after command of the unit passed to Lt-Col Edwin Vaux.[3]

The Vaux connection

Edwin Vaux (1844–1908) was a member of the prominent Vaux brewing family of Sunderland,[4] and the family name frequently appears among the lists of Durham Volunteer Artillery officers. Among them was Major Ernest Vaux, who volunteered for the Imperial Yeomanry during the 2nd Boer War and commanded the Maxim gun detachment of the 5th Imperial Yeomanry, winning a Distinguished Service Order (DSO). The family brewery introduced Double Maxim brown ale in 1901 to celebrate the detachment's return and the beer is still brewed in Sunderland. Ernest Vaux later commanded a Territorial battalion of the Durham Light Infantry throughout World War I.[5]

Territorial Force

Under the Haldane Reforms, the Volunteer Force was subsumed into the new Territorial Force. In the original 1908 plans for the TF, the 1st Durham RGA was to combine with the Tynemouth Volunteer Artillery to form a Northumberland and Durham RGA (and spin off a battery and ammunition column for the local Royal Field Artillery (RFA) brigade), while the 4th Durham RGA in West Hartlepool was to combine with the 1st East Riding of Yorkshire RGA to form a Durham and Yorkshire RGA, the two new units covering the whole NE coast of England. These plans were radically changed, so that by 1910 the Tynemouth and East Riding elements had formed their own units, while the 1st and 4th Durham merged to form a new Durham RGA as a defended ports unit (the 4th had also spun off a battery and ammunition column to the III Northumbrian Brigade RFA).[6][7]

The organisation of the Durham RGA was as follows:[8][9]

  • HQ at The Armoury, West Hartlepool
  • No 1 Heavy Battery at Sunderland
  • No 2 Company at West Hartlepool
  • No 3 Company at West Hartlepool
  • No 4 Company at West Hartlepool
  • No 5 Company at Hartlepool

The commanding officer was Lt-Col Lancelot Robson, a doctor and former mayor of Hartlepool, who had first been commissioned into the 4th Durham RGA in 1893.[3]

World War I

Raid on Hartlepool

On the morning of 16 December 1914, a German naval force under Rear Admiral Franz von Hipper approached the coast of North East England to mount a Raid on Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby. The battle cruisers SMS Seydlitz and SMS Moltke, with the armoured cruiser SMS Blücher, concentrated on Hartlepool, which was a base for light Royal Navy warships. The port was defended by two batteries. On the day in question, 11 officers and 155 other ranks of the Durham RGA were manning Heugh Battery (two 6-inch guns manned by No 4 Company) and Lighthouse Battery (one 6-inch gun).[10][11]

As was normal practice, the gunners 'stood to' at 06.30 and so were ready for action when the German warships approached. The Germans planned to bombard the batteries for 15 minutes to suppress them before turning the attention to the town. The Seydlitz opened fire at 08.10 and Lt-Col Robson rushed from his home to take up his post as Fire Commander and Battery Medical Officer at Heugh Battery. The first shell cut the Fire Commander's telephone lines, so the whole action was fought by the Battery Commanders on their own under standing orders. At ranges of 4000 to 5000 yards the German shells fell round the batteries without scoring a direct hit. Heugh Battery engaged first the Seydlitz and then the Moltke until they passed out of its arc of fire, and then concentrated on the stationary Blucher which was firing at Lighthouse Battery. Lighthouse Battery scored a direct hit on Blucher's forebridge, disabling two guns of the secondary armament, but suffered a number of misfires due to an electrical fault.[10][12][13]

The action ended at 08.52 when the batteries fired their last rounds at 9200 yards' range at the withdrawing warships. The Germans had fired 1150 shells, killing 112 and wounding over 200 civilians and doing extensive damage to the town and docks. The Durham RGA suffered two killed, and in firing a total of 123 rounds had inflicted at least seven direct hits, killing 8 German seamen and wounding four.[10]

The bombardment of civilian targets caused great outrage among the British public at the time. The commanding officer and three gun captains of the Durham RGA were later decorated, Lt-Col Robson receiving a Distinguished Service Order, Sgt T. Douthwaite a Distinguished Conduct Medal for extracting a live cartridge from the breech of the Lighthouse Battery gun after a misfire, and Acting Bombardier J.J. Hope and Bombardier F.W. Mallin each received the Military Medal. These were the first two MMs to be gazetted after the institution of the award in April 1916. Hope's medal was the first MM minted, and the first to be presented.[10][12][14][15][16][17] In 1920, all members of the Durham RGA in action that day were made eligible for the British War Medal, normally only awarded to those who saw active service overseas.[10]

94 Siege Battery

Although the unit never went overseas, the Durham RGA did supply trained gunners for RGA batteries and other units on active fronts (by 1916, for example, Sgt Douthwaite was with a siege battery and Bdr Mallin was a sergeant with an infantry battalion).[14] On 16 December 1915, the Durham RGA provided 60 per cent of the manpower for 94 Siege Battery RGA being formed for overseas service (the remainder coming from Regulars and New Army volunteers of the Tynemouth RGA garrison).[18] The Nominal Rolls of the battery show large numbers of men with home addresses in Hartlepool and the surrounding area.[19]

Commanded by Major Daniel Sandford, 94 Siege Battery went to France in May 1916, equipped with four BL 9.2-inch howitzers Mark I (increased to six guns in January 1918). It first went into action in the preliminary bombardment for the Battle of the Somme and thereafter took part in most of the main actions on the Western Front: Battle of Arras, Battle of Messines, the Flanders Coast operations (1917), the March Retreat (1918), Battle of Amiens (1918) and the Hundred Days Offensive (1918).[20]

During the advance in late August 1918, the battery's forward observation officer, Capt R.A.E. Somerville, found two abandoned German 7.7 cm field guns near Marincourt. With the assistance of his telephonists, he turned one gun round and fired over 100 rounds at the retreating enemy, for which he was awarded a Military Cross. The two guns were sent home as trophies, one to the Durham RGA and one to the town of Sunderland.[21]

After the Armistice with Germany, the TF was demobilised and the Durham RGA placed in suspended animation in 1919.[8]


The TF began to reform (as the Territorial Army (TA)) in 1920. The Durham RGA was first designated the Durham Coast Brigade, RGA, but this was soon changed to Durham Heavy Brigade, RGA.[8][22] The HQ was still at The Armoury in West Hartlepool, which was shared with the 3rd (Durham) Battery, RFA, and the 5th Battalion Durham Light Infantry.[11] The commanding officer was Major Leonard Ropner (1895–1977), who was a director of a local shipping firm and had won a MC commanding a battery in France during the war. His younger brother, William Guy Ropner, was also a major in the Durham Heavy Brigade. Leonard Ropner later became an MP and was created a baronet.[3][23]

In the 1920s, the RGA was subsumed into the Royal Artillery (RA). The Durham Heavy Brigade consisted of 186th and 187th Heavy Batteries at West Hartlepool and Hartlepool respectively, and fell within the 50th (Northumbrian) Divisional Area.[3][24] In 1932, the HQ moved to the Drill Hall in Ward Street, Hartlepool and 186 Battery was converted to a Medium Battery and transferred to the 54th (Durham and West Riding) Medium Brigade RA.[25] When the TA doubled in size in response to the 1938 Munich Crisis, the unit raised a new battery numbered 174.[3] At the outbreak of war in September 1939, the Durham Heavy Regiment (as it was now termed) was under the orders of Northern Command.[26]

World War II

In July 1940, the Durham Heavy Regiment was split into two units: 511 (Durham) and 526 (Durham) Coast Regiments.[8][22][27][28] In the autumn of 1940, 511 Coast Regiment was guarding Hartlepool, which was equipped with one 9.2-inch gun and four 6-inch Breech Loading (BL) guns.[29] 526 Coast Regiment had been moved to guard Paisley on the River Clyde.[30]

As the threat from German naval forces declined, 511 Coast Regiment was placed in suspended animation in 1943.[8][27] 526 followed in June 1945 after the end of the war in Europe.[8][28]


Both regiments were reformed in the TA in 1947, 511 becoming 426 (Durham) Coast Regiment and 526 becoming 427 (Durham) Coast Regiment, both still based at West Hartlepool.[31] Both regiments were subordinated to 103 Coast Brigade, based at Darlington.[32]

However, on 1 September 1948, 427 Regiment was converted into an air defence unit as 427 (Durham) (Mixed) Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment ('mixed') indicating that members of the Women's Royal Army Corps were integrated into the unit). In 1954, this unit merged into 485 (Tees) HAA Regiment at Middlesbrough.[31][33]

Then, on 31 October 1956, 426 Regiment was converted to Royal Engineers (RE) as 336 (Durham Coast) Field Squadron, RE as part of 132 Field Engineer Regiment (formerly part of the Tyne Electrical Engineers). Shortly afterwards, it was redesignated 336 (Durham Coast) Crane Operating Squadron. 132 Regiment was disbanded in 1961; 336 Sqn transferred to the Royal Corps of Transport in 1965.[31][34][35]

Honorary Colonels

The following served as Honorary Colonels of the unit and its predecessors:

  • Sir Hedworth Williamson, Bt, appointed Hon Col of 1st Durham Volunteer Artillery 17 November 1888, died 26 August 1900.[3]
  • Col Robert Lauder, VD, appointed Hon Col of 4th Durham RGA 24 June 1905 and subsequently of the combined Durham RGA, 1 April 1908.[3][36]
  • Edwin Vaux, CB, VD, appointed Hon Col of 1st Durham RGA 9 June 1906, died 25 June 1908.[3]
  • John Lambton, 3rd Earl of Durham, VD, appointed Hon Col of Durham Heavy Brigade 29 September 1921, died 18 September 1928.[3][23]
  • Sir Leonard Ropner, 1st Baronet, MC, TD, MP, appointed Hon Col of Durham Heavy Brigade 1 January 1930.[3][23]


A memorial plaque was placed at Heugh Battery to mark the spot 'where the first shell from the leading German battle cruiser fell at 8.10 am on 16 December 1914 and also records the place where during the bombardment the first British soldier was killed on British soil by enemy action during the Great War 1914–1918'.[37]

There is also a memorial window at St Hilda's Church, Hartlepool, 'in memory of the officers, non-commissioned officers and gunners of the Durham Royal Garrison Artillery who fell in the Great War 1914–1918'.[38]

The parade ground of the former Durham RGA HQ at The Armoury became the site of the West Hartlepool War Memorial[39]


The medals of Lt-Col Lancelot Robson, who commanded the Durham RGA during the Raid on Hartlepool, are held by Hartlepool Borough Council Museums Service.[40]


  1. Beckett, Appendix VIII.
  2. Litchfield, N and Westlake, R, 1982. The Volunteer Artillery, Sherwood Press, p189
  3. Army Lists
  4. Times Obituary of Ernest Vaux
  5. London Gazette, 20 March 1908
  6. London Gazette 14 October 1910
  7. Litchfield, pp. 58–60.
  8. RGA at Regimental Warpath Archived 14 November 2014 at the Wayback Machine
  9. Litchfield, Appendix 1.
  10. Kelly's Directory of Durham and Northumberland 1921.
  11. "Robson at Wartime Memories Project". Archived from the original on 27 August 2014. Retrieved 26 August 2014.
  12. Robson photo in Flikr
  13. London Gazette 7 April 1916
  14. "Douthwaite at Wartime Memories Project". Archived from the original on 27 August 2014. Retrieved 26 August 2014.
  15. "Hope at Wartime Memories Project". Archived from the original on 27 August 2014. Retrieved 26 August 2014.
  16. "Mallin at Wartime Memories Project". Archived from the original on 27 August 2014. Retrieved 26 August 2014.
  17. Lowe, p. 15.
  18. Lowe, Ch XI.
  19. Lowe.
  20. Lowe, pp. 71–2.
  21. Heavy Rgts at RA 39–45 Archived 7 January 2009 at the Wayback Machine
  22. Burke's
  23. Titles and Designations 1927
  24. T F Mills (28 December 2004). "54th Medium Brigade, Royal Artillery (T.A.)". regiments.org. Archived from the original on 28 November 2007.
  25. Northern Command 3 September 1939 at Patriot Files
  26. 511 Rgt at RA 39–45 Archived 24 September 2015 at the Wayback Machine
  27. 526 Rgt at RA 39–45 Archived 24 September 2015 at the Wayback Machine
  28. Col K W Maurice-Jones, 1959. The History of Coast Artillery in the British Army, Royal Artillery Institution, London, p220
  29. Coast Defence at RA 39–45 Archived 4 March 2016 at the Wayback Machine
  30. 414–443 Rgts at British Army 1945 on Archived 4 March 2016 at the Wayback Machine
  31. Coast Brigades at British Army 1945 on
  32. 474–519 Rgts at British Army 1945 on
  33. 301–336 Sqns at British Army 1945 on
  34. Watson & Rinaldi, pp. 297, 304.
  35. London Gazette 29 September 1908
  36. IWMWMA Ref 43276
  37. IWMWMA Ref 43322
  38. "Drill Halls at the Great War Forum". Archived from the original on 27 August 2014. Retrieved 26 August 2014.
  39. Hartlepool Cultural Collections


  • Ian F.W. Beckett, Riflemen Form: A study of the Rifle Volunteer Movement 1859–1908, Aldershot: Ogilby Trusts, 1982, ISBN 0-85936-271-X.
  • Burke's Peerage, Baronetage and Knightage, 100th Edn, London, 1953.
  • Litchfield, Norman E H, and Westlake, R, 1982. The Volunteer Artillery 1859–1908, The Sherwood Press, Nottingham. ISBN 0-9508205-0-4
  • Norman E.H. Litchfield, The Territorial Artillery 1908–1988 (Their Lineage, Uniforms and Badges), Nottingham: Sherwood Press, 1992, ISBN 0-9508205-2-0.
  • Maj Charles E. Berkeley Lowe, Siege Battery 94 During the World War 1914–1918, London: T. Werner Laurie, 1919/Uckfield, Naval & Military Press, 2004, ISBN 1-84574-088-2.
  • War Office, Titles and Designations of Formations and Units of the Territorial Army, London: War Office, 7 November 1927 (RA sections also summarised in Litchfield, Appendix IV).
  • Graham E. Watson & Richard A. Rinaldi, The Corps of Royal Engineers: Organization and Units 1889–2018, Tiger Lily Books, 2018, ISBN 978-171790180-4.

Online sources

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