The autumnal breeze flirted with my ankles, sending a cold chill creeping up to my core. I counted my breaths as the anticipation escalated, following the controlled technique defined by the marksmanship principles. On the shout, I fired, and a millisecond delay was chased away by a deafening boom, as reverberations tore through my entire body. But I wasn’t lying prone in a woodblock on Wessex Storm – far from it, in fact. I was stood in a skirt in sun-soaked West Sussex, and the gun (if we’re allowed to call it that) was in fact a pair of four-inch Naval cannons, the last remaining component of the County-class heavy cruiser, HMS Devonshire, which has long since gone to the scrapyard.
What's it like to fire a massive naval gun on land?
It had been brought along to the Revival by John Dale, a dairy farmer and organiser of the annual Capel Military Show, and it was the focal piece in a parade comprising more than 150 World War Two vehicles. At 8:30 on each day of the Revival, blanks were fired from its twin barrels, and on Saturday it was my turn to pull one of the ropes that had replaced the original electronic firing mechanism.
As I approached the weaponry, Dale was perched astride the barrel, proud against the pale sky as he removed the oilskins that covered the muzzles. He was dressed in green overalls, webbing ancillaries and a cat-got-the-cream grin.
“I love it here,” he announced as he agilely dismounted. “I’ve only been once before and this is the first time we’ve stayed for the whole weekend. It’s awesome, we’ll definitely be back. And the guns will be back too – if they’re invited.”
While the Motor Circuit’s neighbours may vote contraire, the guns were hugely popular at the Revival. In its live firing heyday, the cannons were capable of lobbing 17kg shells 12 miles, and even barren the sound was, suffice to say, proportional to its capability. Unsurprisingly, Dale had never fired it live.
“Originally these had a one-piece charge, but I’ve cut the cases down to make it a bit more manageable,” he explained. “And then we use old fashioned gunpowder, a bit like Guy Fawkes. But when you hear how loud these are, just remember that Guy Fawkes used four tonnes of explosives when he tried to blow up Westminster, and I use a kilo in each round.” That somehow failed to put things into perspective – I couldn’t even begin to imagine an explosion 4,000 times louder.
“The original primer has been removed, so I just cut a shotgun cartridge in half, and that’s what I use to ignite the gunpowder. So, it works very much like a large shotgun cartridge really, but there’s nothing coming out the end, just air.”
Despite his attestation, watching Dale load the casings – as long as my arm and twice as thick – into the breech was enough to set my pulse racing. Catecholamines flooded my system as I stepped forward and grasped one of the ropes – the other being held by a colleague.
A call over the radio was followed by a countdown, and before I could compute, the first muzzle belched flames mere metres from our faces. ‘Fire two’ came the call and I pulled hard on the coarse cord, the second barrel exploding with a furious boom. It was over within seconds, but the resulting ringing lasted all day.
Stunned, I turned back to Dale, whose grin had only intensified. After five years of owning the cannons and offering unsuspecting onlookers the firing string, he was by now used to this reaction.
But the guns weren’t his only armament – in fact Dale counts a veritable artillery back at his farm, including two live firing tanks...
“We have got a Chieftain tank; I have a Russian wartime T34 tank, a T54 tank from the 1960s… And then I’ve got a truck here, that RAF tractor over by the Spitfire is mine as well, and then we’ve got a 5.5-inch gun up there, and a Bofors, and a 25 pounder,” he gestured widely around the Victory Parade field.
The pastime had come naturally to him when he had begun to investigate the life of his grandfather, who had died during the war.
“I’ve been mucking around with gunpowder all my life, and I’ve had old ships naval cannons before, so it wasn’t anything new to me,” he explained.
“I came by these at an auction – I wasn’t really going out to buy them in particular, but they were there and they went for cheap and I couldn’t really resist them really,” he laughed. “I paid just under £2,000 for them. But they weigh 10 tonnes, and they’re a bit of a pig to move about, so it’s not everybody’s cup of tea.”
The guns weren’t working when he bought them, due to rusted and seized breeches and a handful of other mechanical gremlins. Following a full restoration, Dale estimates they could be worth “10 or 15 thousand now, to someone collecting Naval history”.
For they do have quite the history. Built for the Royal Navy in the late 1920s, the HMS Devonshire measured 192 metres long and 20 metres across at her widest point. To use the common military analogy, that’s about twice as long as a football pitch and half as wide.
She spent most of her pre-World War Two career assigned to the Mediterranean Fleet and shortly after the outbreak of war was assigned to the Home Fleet as flagship of a cruiser squadron. Notably, in June 1940, she evacuated the Norwegian government and royal family, before participating in the Battle of Dakar; supporting Free French efforts to take control of French Equatorial Africa, and searching for German commerce raiders.
Returning home in early 1941 she briefly rejoined the Home Fleet, escorting aircraft carriers as they went on the attack in Scandinavia. She was then sent to the South Atlantic where she sank the Q-ship Atlantis, before being assigned to the Eastern Fleet in the Indian Ocean and supporting the Allied invasion of Madagascar in mid-1942. She was refit during 1943, before returning to escort duties for the remainder of the war. Post-war, she became a training ship for naval cadets until she was sold for scrap in 1954.
However, two of her four QF 4-inch naval gun Mk V lived on, passing through various hands until they fell into Dale’s ownership. Despite sitting for a number of years outside a museum in the midlands, the restoration ‘wasn’t too bad’, Dale remarked humbly.
“It was all painted up, which saved a lot of it, but it was missing its firing pins. I managed to get a replacement one from the explosion museum in Gosport, and had a very skilled old-school engineer on the farm copy it.
“I’ve also had some help from the curator of HMS Belfast because she’s got four sets of these guns onboard, and I’ve made a few parts for their guns and we’ve done a few swaps and bits and pieces. It’s a small world, and there aren’t many of these about.
“But it’s not easy to source parts. There are one or two dealers who specialise in naval stuff, and you speak to people who say ‘well I might have this’, and it’s just a case of rummaging around and finding stuff really. There is still quite a lot missing off of the guns – there’s enough to do what we do but originally this whole gun would have been in an enclosed turret, which is obviously all missing, and a lot of the sighting gears missing, so I’m still collecting bits and pieces up.”
To the untrained eye, however, the guns are as imposing and impressive as they were in their wartime prime sat on the upper deck of the Devonshire. Nowadays, they play an important role in commemorative events, firing on Remembrance Sunday and others. They’re unlikely to ever leave Dale’s collection, but instead he hopes to delve further into their incredible history.
“I haven’t managed to access the ships logs yet,” he admitted. “But the archives were really interesting and when I went through them, they showed exactly how many new barrels it had had, how many rounds it had fired. It’s quite incredible to me that all that information is still out there, if you know where to look…”
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