The Royal Navy Command Field Gun competition was contested by teams from the Royal Naval commands of Portsmouth, Devonport and the Fleet Air Arm (although teams from Chatham and the Royal Marines have also competed). The "Command" format, negotiating walls and a chasm, was held annually at the Royal Tournament in London from 1907 until 1999, apart from the periods during the World Wars. The "Inter-Port" or "Command" Competition was contested by teams from the Royal Navy annually, and was a popular item at the Royal Tournament until finishing in 1999.
At each performance of the Royal Tournament, two crews competed to transport a 12 pounder field gun and limber over a series of obstacles. From the start line in front of the Royal Box, the crews pulled the guns and limbers to the end of the arena where they turned and carried themselves and the equipment over a 5-foot (1.5 m) wall. The guns and limbers were then dismantled and carried to the top of a ramp on the "home side" of a 28-foot (8.5 m) "chasm". The crew set up a wire and traveller so all 18 members of the crew and their equipment could cross the chasm. The team and equipment then passed through a hole in the "enemy wall" at the end of the arena. Each crew then fired three rounds to end the "Run Out". The average time for the "Run Out" was 85 seconds.
The second part of the competition (the "Run Back") involved the crews taking all their equipment back over the 5-foot (1.5 m) enemy wall and then back across the chasm. Once all the crew and equipment were back on the home side of the chasm, the wire and traveller were dismantled and three more rounds were fired in a rear guard action. The average time for the "Run Back" was 60 seconds.
In the final stage, the "Run Home", men, guns and limbers passed back through the hole in the home wall and then the teams "hook up and pull for home". The clock was stopped as the teams crossed back over the start line. The average time for the "Run Home" was 21 seconds.
The record for the fastest run at the Royal Tournament was set by Devonport in 1999, the competition's final year, with 80.86 seconds for the "Run Out", 58.65 seconds for the "Run Back" and 20.92 seconds for the "Run Home", an aggregate of 2 minutes, 40.43 seconds.
Present day Command Crews
Three Commands, Devonport, Fleet Air Arm and Portsmouth currently have associations made up of past members of their Command Field Gun Crews, since its demise in 1999 and a heritage centre and museum at Crownhill Fort, Plymouth is maintained and run by Devonport Field Gun Association.
The original "Command" Field Gun is still being run by civilians as Wellington College (cadet-size) and Portsmouth Action Field Gun (full-size). A second team, Eastbourne Youth Field Gun, established 2017 and also a cadet-size formation, is the newest field gun formation in the "Command" format.
Royal Tournament History
The Royal Military Tournament of 1900 was held in Islington Agricultural Hall and featured men from HMS Powerful parading one of their 4.7-inch naval guns called 'Joe Chamberlain'. This proved most popular and the Navy's contribution continued as part of the Tournament, which moved to Olympia in 1906.
In 1912 a competition replaced the parade for the first time, the three depots of Portsmouth, Chatham and Devonport providing the gun teams. This was the idea of Commander P.H Hall-Thompson RN, who is regarded as the father of the field gun competition. The 1914-1918 war stopped all such events for its duration but the competition returned with the new Royal Tournament of peacetime.
The Second World War 'stopped play' for a second time, but the resumption saw two important changes: the venue was Earls Court in1950 and by now the Royal Tournament's Field Gun Competition had been joined by a team from the Fleet Air Arm. Upon their entry the newcomers won the Aggregate Time Challenge Cup as well as the Fastest Time Cup. In 1960 Chatham ran at the tournament for the last time. Throughout the history of the Inter-Port competition as many as eight crews have competed including the Royal Marines in the 1920's. However it is not just this year that records have been set and then broken.
In 1981 Portsmouth produced a record run of 2 minutes 42.4, only to see it snatched away again two years later by Devonport with a run of 2 minutes 41.1. However, the very next year, 1984, Chief Petty Officer PTI Keith Mack trained a Portsmouth crew, which put in a blistering run of 2 minutes 40.6, which was the record that had stood for fifteen years.
It is not all glory and record breaking as was proved in 1982. A.B Allen the Flying Angel (no.7) for Portsmouth was the last man being pulled across the chasm on the run back. He reached the home ramp and released the ten-foot spar he was carrying as his drill required and ran on down the ramp. However, instead of checking on the collapsing sheer legs and passing on the outside of them he went through the middle. The collapsing sheer legs killed him. (The sheer legs weigh 170lbs) Broken bones, pulled muscles and severe cuts were the risks that dedicated gunners accepted and before they signed up they were required to sign a disclaimer stating that they would not sue the Navy for damages. But when they signed the disclaimer they never expected a man would be killed in the toughest team sport in the world.
Sadly, due to 'Government cuts' 1999 was the last year of the Royal Tournament and the final time anyone will 'run the gun' in the format described above. On 20th July 1999 the Government confirmed what many people had been dreading for months, the fact that the field gun competition would come to an end in August 1999. On the night of Devonport's last ever run the 'A' Crew stayed in their mess for most of the day and when the moment came they all had tears in their eyes. There was some controversy as all three crews wore black armbands during the run, despite being forbidden to do so by the MOD and being informed that if anyone did it would attact a penalty. They reasoned however if they all wore armbands it would make no difference and, in the end, were not penalised. When Devonport went into the arena to collect their trophies there was not a dry eye in the arena.
THE RUN OUT
Run Out to the First Action: Average Time 1 minute 25 Seconds.
The crews marched through the double doors to the Start Line to the sound of 'Hearts Of Oak'. They quickly checked there gear then 'Manned the Loops' and prepared to start. The Thunderflash was struck and we were BURNING 2,3,4,5 Standby !...
At the exploding of the thunder flash the gun was raced from the start position down the side of the arena and manhandled over a five-foot wall. Men and equipment poured over; within seconds, wooden spars weighing 170lb were erected and wires rigged across the 28 foot chasm. Whilst the gun and limber were rapidly dismantled, the first men were hauled across, some carrying 120lb wheels over their shoulders. The gun carriage and gun barrel followed; the gun barrel, which weighed 900lb, was dropped into it’s carriage as if it was a toy. The remainder of the crew, wheels and limber were pulled over and, having raced through the opening in the second wall, which is too narrow for the gun and limber to pass through with wheels on, the crew engages the enemy with three rounds.
THE RUN BACK
The Run Back to the Second Action: Average Time 1 minute.
A bugle call “Retire” was sounded. All the men and gear had to be withdrawn over the wall (the combined weight of the gun barrel and gun carriage was 1,250lbs and it went over in one piece!!) and then back across the chasm. The steel wire over the chasm was tested to some 12 tons and it sagged each time these heavy awkward shapes were hauled over. As soon as the last man of the crew, nicknamed the “Flying Angel”, was across the chasm, the rig was collapsed and three rounds were fired in a rearguard action.
THE RUN HOME
The Run Home to the Finish Line: Average Time 21 Seconds.
At the sound of the “G” on the bugle these highly trained crews began the final phase of the competition; this was to take all of the equipment through the narrow gap in the Home Wall. With the 363lb limber going through in a flash and to the shouts of "Lift and Launch" and sundry other cries, the guns and carriages rapidly followed; in a matter of seconds the wheels were on, the pins are in and the crews raced flat out to the finishing line.
All three stages were carefully timed and the times added together. Rigorous time penalties were imposed if the drill was not carried out correctly; these were added later to the crew's actual running time to give the 'Official Time for each crew.
The crews competed twice daily with an additional two 'practice periods' for the duration of the tournament.
The daily results and fluctuating state of the competition were followed with great interest throughout the Royal Navy and were singled around the world to Ships and Establishments.