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1st Canadian Centaur Battery, RCA

May 31, 2017

by Mark W. Tonner

At the beginning of August 1944, the left (coastal) flank of First Canadian Army was held by the British 6th Airborne Division (of which, 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion was a part), whose divisional artillery consisted of one airlanding light field regiment (53rd (Worcestershire Yeomanry) Airlanding Light Regiment, Royal Artillery) equipped with 24x 75-millimetre pack howitzers. To supplement this artillery firepower, 1st British Corps had on 21 June 1944 formed an ad hoc battery of 12x 95-millimetre Centaur self-propelled equipments, which was designated “X” Armoured Battery, Royal Artillery (“X” Armd Bty, RA). These 12x 95-millimetre Centaur self-propelled equipments, had formerly been operated by the Royal Marines Armoured Support Group[1], elements of which had landed on 6 June 1944, in support of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division to provide supplementary artillery support, and had continued to support various Canadian and British units until it was decided, due to their losses (in both personnel and equipment) from enemy action, accidents and mechanical breakdowns, to withdraw the Royal Marines Armoured Support Group from Normandy. From 21 to 24 June, the Royal Marines crews trained the crews of the newly formed ad hoc “X” Armd Bty, RA, who were drawn from Royal Artillery reinforcement holding units in Normandy, on the 95-millimetre Centaur self-propelled equipment.

image 1

An example of the 75-millimetre pack howitzer with which 53rd (Worcestershire Yeomanry) Airlanding Light Regiment, Royal Artillery, was equipped. (Authors’ Collection)

These 95-millimetre Centaur self-propelled equipments, were based on the British designed and built Cruiser Tank, Mark VIII, Centaur (A27L). Only 80 of these close support versions of the tank, mounting a 95-millimetre howitzer in the turret, in place of the standard armament of a 6-pounder gun were produced, and were simply known, as the ‘Centaur IV.’ The crew consisted of a commander, gunner, loader, driver, and co-driver. Fully loaded, the Centaur IV weighed 28 tonnes, and was 6.4 metres in length, by 2.5 metres in height, by 2.9 metres wide. The Centaur IV was armed with a 95-millimetre tank howitzer (Ordnance Quick Firing) and a co-axial 7.92-millimetre BESA machine gun, both of which were mounted, side by side, in the turret. The turret could be traversed manually by hand, or by a hydraulic power system, which enabled the turret to be completely traversed in14-15 seconds at the highest speed. The 95-millimetre tank howitzer had an elevation of minus 5-degrees to plus 34-degrees, and a nominal maximum range of 5,486 metres, and used fixed ammunition, in the form of either a high explosive (HE) shell, or high explosive hollow charge (HES) (capable of penetrating either armour, or concrete) shell, each weighing 11- kilograms, or a 7-kilogram smoke shell. There was stowage within the vehicle for 51 rounds of 95-millimetre ammunition (28 HE, five HES, and 18 Smoke), and for 4,950 rounds of 7.92-millimetre ammunition, contained in 22 boxes (with each box containing one 225-round belt). Like all other British tanks of the period, the Centaur IV had a 51-millimetre smoke bomb thrower (for localized smoke protection) mounted in the turret roof, with stowage inside the tank for 24 bombs, and was also equipped with a No. 19 wireless set (radio), which was housed in the turret. The No. 19 wireless set included an “A” set for general use, a “B” set for short range inter-tank work at troop level, and an intercommunication unit for the crew, so arranged that each member could establish contact with any one of the others. There was also an armoured box attached to the rear hull plate, which contained an “Infantry Telephone,” by which targets could be indicated to the crew commander from those being supported.

image 2 IWM (B5457)

A 95-millimetre howitzer equipped Centaur IV, seen here in service with “H” Troop, 2nd Battery, 1st Royal Marine Armoured Support Regiment, Royal Marines Armoured Support Group. (IWM (B5457))

By August 1944, it had become necessary for the British to withdraw these reinforcement personnel from the ad hoc “X” Armd Bty, RA, to be employed as Royal Artillery reinforcements elsewhere, and they informed First Canadian Army, that they could no longer maintain this supplementary battery to the 6th Airborne Divisional Artillery, and that they would be withdrawing their personnel as of 8 August 1944. Since it was felt that the continued existence of this ad hoc battery was of an operational necessity at this time to provide artillery support within the 6th Airborne Divisional area of operations, Staff Duties, General Staff Branch, Headquarters First Canadian Army, on 4 August, drew up a request for the approval of Lieutenant-General H.D.G. Crerar, General Officer Commanding-in-Chief First Canadian Army, for the authorization to form a temporary Canadian unit to man the 12x 95-millimetre Centaur self-propelled equipments of the battery. This request was duly authorized by Crerar, on 6 August 1944, with a note that the continued authorization of this temporary Canadian unit, was to be reviewed monthly.

image 3

The submission of 4 August 1944, to the GOC-in-C First Cdn Army from Staff Duties for the authorization to form 1st Canadian Centaur Battery.

Details of the organization of this proposed unit were attached to the Staff Duties request of 4 August, as Appendix “A,” under the heading of “Temporary SP Bty RCA (95mm CENTAUR),” under which, the proposed title of the unit was given as “1 Centaur Bty RCA,” with the proposed personnel strength of the unit given as 11 officers, and 100 other ranks, and that the 12x 95-millimetre Centaur self-propelled equipments, and ammunition were already available. It also went on to state that administrative personnel and vehicles were not included in the proposed War Establishment, as the administration of the proposed unit was to be entirely undertaken by the British 6th Airborne Division, and that the formation of the unit would be made under the arrangements of First Canadian Army, with effect from 6 August 1944, and that the unit was to operate under the command of 1st British Corps. Lastly, it was stated that the unit would be disbanded as soon as its present operational necessity ceased (which was forecasted as within three to four weeks).

 

image 4

Appendix “A” to the Staff Duties submission of 4 August 1944, to the GOC-in-C First Cdn Army from Staff Duties for the authorization to form 1st Canadian Centaur Battery.

With Crerar’s authorization of 6 August for the formation of 1 Centaur Battery, RCA, things followed along quickly. Under Canadian Section General Headquarters 1st Echelon, 21 Army Group Administrative Order No. 5, dated 7 August 1944, the authorization for the formation of Serial CM 804, 1st Canadian Centaur Battery, RCA, with effect from 6 August 1944, in the North-Western European Theatre of Operations, under instructions of Headquarters First Canadian Army, and the approved Table of Organization for the battery was published. This was followed on 8 August by a letter from the Canadian Section General Headquarters 1st Echelon, 21 Army Group, to Canadian Military Headquarters (London), with an attached copy of the approved Table of Organization, informing them that the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief First Canadian Army (Crerar), had authorized the formation of Serial CM 804, 1st Canadian Centaur Battery, RCA, with effect from 6 August 1944. Subsequently, and after having received Privy Council authorization from National Defence Headquarters (Ottawa), the formation of Serial CM 804, 1st Canadian Centaur Battery, RCA, with effect from 6 August 1944, was notified under Canadian Military Headquarters Administrative Order No. 139, dated 18 August 1944.

image 5

Cdn Sec GHQ 1 Ech 21 A Gp Admin Order No. 5/44, under which the authorization for the formation of Serial CM 804, 1st Canadian Centaur Battery, RCA, with effect from 6 August 1944, was published.

 

image 6

CMHQ Admin Order No. 139/44, under which the authorization for the formation of Serial CM 804, 1st Canadian Centaur Battery, RCA, with effect from 6 August 1944, was published.

Under the Table of Organization that was published under both Cdn Sec GHQ 1 Ech 21 A Gp Admin Order No. 5/44, and CMHQ Admin Order No. 139/44, 1st Canadian Centaur Battery, RCA, was to consist of 11 officers, and 103 other ranks, organized into a Battery Headquarters (two officers, and ten other ranks), and three Troops, with each Troop consisting of a Troop Headquarters (three officers, and 11 other ranks), and two Sections (each of ten other ranks), for a total Troop strength of 34 all ranks. Each Troop was to be equipped with one motorcycle, one Car 5-cwt (a Jeep), one Truck 15-cwt (fitted for Wireless (Radio)), one Observation Post Tank, and four (two per Section) 95-millimetre Centaur self-propelled equipments, for a total battery strength of 12x 95-millimetre Centaur IVs.

image 7

‘Section (i) Personnel’ of the Table of Organization for Serial CM 804, 1st Canadian Centaur Battery, RCA, that was attached to CMHQ Admin Order No. 139/44, as Appendix “A,” showing the distribution of personnel throughout the battery.

image 8

‘Section (iii) Transport’ of the Table of Organization for Serial CM 804, 1st Canadian Centaur Battery, RCA, that was attached to CMHQ Admin Order No. 139/44, as Appendix “A,” showing the distribution of vehicles throughout the battery.

image 9

‘Section (v) Organization’ of the Table of Organization for Serial CM 804, 1st Canadian Centaur Battery, RCA, that was attached to CMHQ Admin Order No. 139/44, as Appendix “A,” showing a breakdown of the battery’s organization.

On 9 August 1944, Captain F.D. Miller (Royal Canadian Artillery) arrived at “X” Armoured Battery, Royal Artillery, 6th Airborne Division, to begin the process of the handover of the battery to 1st Canadian Centaur Battery, RCA, and found that it was going to be necessary to keep the 95-millimetre Centaur IVs in action during the handover of the battery’s equipment from British to Canadian hands. The next day, Captain Miller met the incoming Battery Commander, Major D.M. Cooper (Royal Canadian Artillery), and a draft of Royal Canadian Artillery personnel, who were drawn from No. 12 Canadian Base Reinforcement Battalion (No. 2 Canadian Base Reinforcement Group), consisting of six Lieutenants, six Sergeants, and three other ranks. After meeting with the Brigadier, Royal Artillery, Headquarters First Canadian Army, from where three 15-cwt trucks were obtained, Major Cooper, Captain Miller, and the nine-member draft proceeded to join “X” Armd Bty, RA. Upon arriving in the battery area, Major Cooper, assigned two Lieutenants, and two Sergeants, to each of 1st Canadian Centaur Battery’s three Troops, and appointed Captain Miller “C” Troop Leader, following which, Major Cooper met with Major Marchand (Royal Artillery), the Battery Commander, “X” Armoured Battery, RA. Marchand informed Cooper, that his battery was nothing more then predicted shooting on counter mortar, counter bombardment, and harassing fire tasks, and that the current policy of Headquarters 6th Airborne Divisional Artillery, because the position of the division was static, was maximum harassing fire on the enemy’s administrative areas, and vigorous and immediate retaliatory fire, to that of the enemy.

image 10 IWM (B5458)

Another image of a 95-millimetre howitzer equipped Centaur IV, seen here in service with “H” Troop, 2nd Battery, 1st Royal Marine Armoured Support Regiment, Royal Marines Armoured Support Group. (IWM (B5458))

From 11 to 14 August, the men of 1st Canadian Centaur Battery, learned their respective jobs, and duties from their British counterparts of “X” Armoured Battery, and familiarized themselves with the 95-millimetre Centaur IVs. The battery’s Gunners were also greatly aided by three Instructors in Gunnery who were rushed over to Normandy from No. 1 Canadian School of Artillery (Overseas) in the United Kingdom to help the gunners in mastering the workings of the 95-millimetre tank howitzer. Also, during this period, another 22 personnel of the Royal Canadian Artillery, were brought forward to the battery from No. 12 Canadian Base Reinforcement Battalion, and the three Troops of the battery were organized with one Sherman Observation Post Tank, four (two per Section) 95-millimetre Centaur IVs, and one Truck 15-cwt. On 14 August, another 38 personnel of the Royal Canadian Artillery, arrived from No. 12 Canadian Base Reinforcement Battalion, and as of 8:00 P.M., that evening, Canadian personnel took over completely from their British counterparts. This was followed by the next day being spent in fine tuning the organization of 1st Canadian Centaur Battery, and also saw the establishment of Battery Headquarters, in rear of “A” Troops position, and the move of Major Cooper up to the battery position from Headquarters 6th Airborne Divisional Artillery. Captain E.J. Leapard (Royal Artillery), who had served with “X” Armoured Battery, RA, since its formation, was attached to 1st Canadian Centaur Battery, and was appointed Battery Captain. Also, 15 members of the British Royal Corps of Signals, and one mechanic (gun) from the British Corps of Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, who had served with “X” Armoured Battery, RA, were attached to 1st Canadian Centaur Battery, fulling the earlier stated commitment of the British in undertaking the administrative needs of the battery. 16 August saw the withdrawal of the remaining Royal Artillery members of “X” Armoured Battery, RA, and the arrival of Captain W.A. Walker, and Captain J. Else (both Royal Canadian Artillery), who respectively, were appointed “A” Troop Leader, and “B” Troop Leader. At 11:00 P.M. that evening, 1st Canadian Centaur Battery was warned to be prepared to move the next morning, as 6th Airborne Division began their advance toward the mouth of the River Seine along the coast, as part of First Canadian Army’s push to the River Seine, with 1st British Corps on the left, and 2nd Canadian Corps on the right.

image 11

A ‘Sketch’ map showing First Canadian Army’s push to the River Seine, with the 6th Airborne Division on the left (coastal) flank, as mentioned in the text.

On 17 August 1944, under command of Headquarters 53rd (Worcestershire Yeomanry) Airlanding Light Regiment, Royal Artillery, 1st Canadian Centaur Battery came into action near Troarn, France, in support of the British 6th Airlanding Brigade. From 17 to 27 August, the battery continued in support of elements of the 6th Airborne Division, which included 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, and Dutch infantrymen of the Royal Netherlands Brigade (Princess Irene’s), and of elements of the British 49th (West Riding) Infantry Division, as 1st British Corps continued their advance toward the River Seine. By the morning of 27 August, the battery had only one Sherman Observation Post Tank, three 95-millimetre Centaur IVs, and one 95-millimetre Cromwell VI[2] left in action due to enemy action, accidents and mechanical breakdowns, which had occurred along the way since first going into action on 17 August, and had taken up gun positions to the rear of Toutainville, France. During the afternoon of 27 August, the 15 members of the British Royal Corps of Signals, who had been attached to the battery, were released and sent back to British 31 Reinforcement Holding Unit, and the battery’s tank crews who had accompanied their broken down, or damaged Sherman Observation Post Tanks, and 95-millimetre Centaur IVs, to workshops, rejoined the battery, leaving only the individual drivers behind.

TANKS AND AFVS OF THE BRITISH ARMY 1939-45

An example of a 95-millimetre Cromwell VI. (IWM (KID 961))

Earlier, on 24 August, while 1st Canadian Centaur Battery was out of action in a concentration area pending deployment for an attack beyond Pont-l’Évêque, France, the Brigadier Royal Artillery, Headquarters First Canadian Army, and the Officer Commanding, 53rd (Worcestershire Yeomanry) Airlanding Light Regiment, Royal Artillery, met with the Battery Commander, Major D.M. Cooper. During this meeting they suggested to Major Cooper that he endeavour to operate the battery as a six-gun battery, instead of that of a 12-gun battery, due to the battery’s losses (in both personnel and equipment) from enemy action, accidents and mechanical breakdowns, and that the battery would probably only be in operation for another two weeks, with the pending withdrawal of the 6th Airborne Division from 1st British Corps. Major Cooper was also informed at this time, that the 15 members of the British Royal Corps of Signals, were to be withdrawn from their attachment to the battery on 27 August (as noted in the paragraph above).

From their gun positions to the rear of Toutainville, France, 1st Canadian Centaur Battery remained in action until 12:00 P.M., 28 August 1944, at which point they ceased fire for the last time. During the afternoon, the battery moved back to a concentration area, and the reorganization from a 12-gun, to a six-gun battery took place. This reorganization lead to the release of Captain Walker, Captain Miller, two Lieutenants, and the gun crews (24 other ranks) of six 95-millimetre Centaur IVs (less drivers), who were all sent back to No. 2 Canadian Base Reinforcement Group, as Royal Canadian Artillery reinforcements. On 29 August, Major Cooper, Captain Leapard (Royal Artillery), and Captain Else, went to Headquarters Army Troops Area First Canadian Army, where Major Cooper received authority to disband 1st Canadian Centaur Battery, Royal Canadian Artillery, with effect from 30 August 1944, and also instructions on the disposal of the battery’s guns, vehicles, equipment, and personnel.

Solent News & Photo Agency

Another example of a Centaur IV, seen here in service with “S” Troop, 5th Royal Marine Independent Armoured Support Battery, Royal Marines Armoured Support Group. (Authors’ Collection)

On 30 August, 1st Canadian Centaur Battery moved to a concentration area near Pont-l’Évêque, France, where the process of the disposal of the battery’s guns, vehicles, equipment, and personnel began on the morning of 31 August. Between 31 August – 2 September 1944, the battery’s vehicles, and equipment were returned to the applicable Canadian Army Vehicle Park, or Ordnance Stores. The battery personnel themselves, were dispatched to No. 13 Canadian Base Reinforcement Battalion (No. 2 Canadian Base Reinforcement Group), as Royal Canadian Artillery reinforcements.

Having learned of the planned withdrawal of the 6th Airborne Division from 1st British Corps with effect from 30 August, Staff Duties, General Staff Branch, Headquarters First Canadian Army, drew up a request (dated 29 August 1944) for the approval of Lieutenant-General H.D.G. Crerar, General Officer Commanding-in-Chief First Canadian Army, for the authorization to disband Serial CM 802, 1st Canadian Centaur Battery, RCA, with effect from 30 August 1944, which was duly authorized by Crerar. Notification of the authorized disbandment of Serial CM 802, 1st Canadian Centaur Battery, RCA, under instructions of Headquarters First Canadian Army, was published under Canadian Section General Headquarters 1st Echelon, 21 Army Group Administrative Order No. 10, dated 9 September 1944. This was followed by a message from Canadian Section General Headquarters 1st Echelon, 21 Army Group, to Canadian Military Headquarters (London), with an attached copy of the submission authorizing the disbandment of 1st Canadian Centaur Battery, RCA (signed by Crerar), and a copy of Cdn Sec GHQ 1 Ech 21 A Gp Admin Order No. 10/44, under which it was notified. Subsequently, the disbandment of Serial CM 804, 1st Canadian Centaur Battery, RCA, with effect from 30 August 1944, was notified under Canadian Military Headquarters Administrative Order No. 149, dated 13 September 1944.

image 14

The submission of 29 August 1944, to the GOC-in-C First Cdn Army from Staff Duties for the authorization to disband 1st Canadian Centaur Battery.

image 15

Cdn Sec GHQ 1 Ech 21 A Gp Admin Order No. 10/44, under which the authorization for the disbandment of Serial CM 804, 1st Canadian Centaur Battery, RCA, with effect from 30 August 1944, was published.

image 16

CMHQ Admin Order No. 149/44, under which the authorization for the disbandment of Serial CM 804, 1st Canadian Centaur Battery, RCA, with effect from 30 August 1944, was published.

Of the three Sherman Observation Post Tanks, and 12x  95-millimetre Centaur IVs, that 1st Canadian Centaur Battery had originally taken over from “X” Armoured Battery, Royal Artillery, only one Sherman Observation Post Tank (Census No. T149788), and four 95-millimetre Centaur IVs (Census Numbers T185007, T185107, T185373, and T185387) were in serviceable and operational condition when turned into 259 Delivery Squadron, Royal Armoured Corps (the ‘Corps’ delivery squadron for 1st British Corps), on 4 September 1944. These five vehicles were duly turned over to “F” Squadron, 25th Canadian Armoured Delivery Regiment (The Elgin Regiment), Canadian Armoured Corps (the ‘Army’ delivery squadron for First Canadian Army), on 5 September 1944, from where they were returned to the applicable Ordnance facility. The remaining two Sherman Observation Post Tanks, and eight 95-millimetre Centaur IVs, having been struck-off-charge of 1st Canadian Centaur Battery, were in various workshops throughout the 1st British Corps area, undergoing repairs, of one sort or another.

image 17

The ‘Vehicles Received’ portion of the daily balance sheet for 259 Delivery Squadron, Royal Armoured Corps, dated 4 September 1944, showing the receipt of four Centaur IVs, and one Sherman Observation Post tank from 1st Canadian Centaur Battery.

image 18

The ‘Vehicles Issued’ portion of the daily balance sheet for 259 Delivery Squadron, Royal Armoured Corps, dated 5 September 1944, showing the issue of one Sherman Observation Post tank, and four Centaur IVs to “F” Squadron, 25th Canadian Armoured Delivery Regiment (The Elgin Regiment), Canadian Armoured Corps.


Notes

  1. The Royal Marines Armoured Support Group (equipped with 80x 95-millimetre Centaur self-propelled equipments) consisted of the 1st Royal Marine Armoured Support Regiment (1st Battery (“A,” “B,” “C,” and “D” Troops) and 2nd Battery (“E,” “F,” “G,” and “H” Troops)), the 2nd Royal Marine Armoured Support Regiment (3rd Battery (“J,” “K,” “L,” and “M” Troops) and 4th Battery (“N,” “O,” “P,” and “Q” Troops)), and the 5th Royal Marine Independent Armoured Support Battery (“R,” “S,” “T,” and “V” Troops). Its five batteries were divided up between the British 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division, 3rd Canadian Infantry Division, and the British 3rd Infantry Division, for the assault phase of the Normandy landings on 6 June 1944, and continued to support British and Canadian troops in Normandy, until the Group was withdrawn.
  2. The 95-millimetre Cromwell VI, was based on the British designed and built Cruiser Tank, Mark VIII, Cromwell (A27M), and was the close support version of the Cromwell (A27M) tank, mounting a 95-millimetre tank howitzer in the turret, in place of the standard armament of a 6-pounder gun, and was simply known, as the ‘Cromwell VI.’ This particular 95-millimetre Cromwell VI, had been acquired by 1st Canadian Centaur Battery from the 8th Kings’s Royal Irish Hussars, the armoured reconnaissance regiment of the British 7th Armoured Division on 24 August 1944, and was returned to them during the disbandment process of the battery.

Sources:

– Library and Archives Canada – RG24, C2, Vol. 12245, and Vol. 12249.

– Library and Archives Canada – RG24, C3, Vol. 14248, and Vol. 14640.

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One Comment
  1. Peter Brown permalink

    Good to see this not well known unit being covered.
    However one detail is repeated that I think is wrong, that supposedly only 80 Centaur IV were made although the total number intended to go to Normandy with the RMASG was 80.
    While I have not seen any definitive figures, Appendix Q “Experiments & Projects” to the Half Yearly Report on the Progress of the Royal Armoured Corps for January to June 1944 (National Archives, Kew, London UK WO.165/135) recorded that “The Centaur IV is the only Mark of Centaur which will be used operationally” though others were to be converted to the AA role. However, it appears that Centaur AA never saw action.
    The Report states that “This vehicle will not be used by the RAC. It is in the Service for the RM Support Group in limited numbers”. Orders Placed is listed as 114 but as to Production Position the comment is simply “In Service”.
    There is also a passing comment in one of the RMASG War Diaries that at one point they had 88 in all.

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