November to December 1941

 ‘I know you will live up to your old motto, Loyaute M’Oblige. I have every confidence that you will soon be holding more than your own as a          highly-efficient regiment of the Royal Artillery.’

BUT the new challenge that faced the 7th Loyals was about to begin. On November 13, 1941, the men of the battalion were called together in the New Pavilion, Redcar, to be addressed by the divisional commander, Major-General P J Shears. He wished them good luck in their new role as gunners, saying it was ‘a great honour’ to have been selected.

Two days later, on November 15, 1941, the battalion was officially converted to an artillery unit. But its proud origins as part of The Loyal Regiment were enshrined in its new title. It became the 92nd (Loyals) Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, Royal Artillery.

The 7th Loyals was one of 22 battalions from British infantry regiments which were switched to mobile LAA duties in the winter of 1941 to meet a shortage of such units in the ever-expanding Army.

As the German blitzkrieg in Poland and France had shown so dramatically, air power was now one of the decisive factors in war. It was vital that any army going into battle had the means to protect itself against enemy planes – and that meant creating highly mobile anti-aircraft units which could deploy at a moment’s notice to combat any threat from the skies.

Each LAA regiment consisted of a regimental headquarters (RHQ) and three batteries. Each battery was divided into three troops, each of six guns. The total of officers and men was about 800, around the same strength as an infantry battalion.

LAA regiments were equipped with 40mm Bofors Guns, the classic light anti-aircraft weapon of the Second World War and after, and with 20mm Oerlikon Guns and Polsten Guns.

The Bofors was designed for use against relatively low-level raiders, such as fighters and dive-bombers. Recoil-operated with a sliding breech block, it fired its two-pounder shells at the rate of 120 per minute. These were fed into the auto-loading unit from clips or ‘chargers’ holding four shells each, which were continuously supplied by the gunners.

Shells had a muzzle velocity of 2,700 feet per second and were deadly against aircraft up to about 5,000ft, although they in fact went many times higher. Filled with TNT, they were fused to explode on impact and to self-destruct through a tracer- igniter once they had passed their effective range. This was to prevent live shells which missed enemy aircraft falling to earth and exploding on friendly soil.

Because the Bofors – originally developed by the Swedish armaments firm of the same name – was such a successful gun, many variants were built for different situations and it was continuously developed and improved during the war. Initially, LAA regiments used towed versions, but self- propelled models – with the gun set on the back of a Morris C9B Commercial lorry chassis – were later built for even greater mobility and battle-readiness. Another mobile version, not used by LAA regiments, had a Bofors mounted on a Crusader light tank chassis.

While the designated task of mobile LAA units was providing defence against enemy planes, guns were used extensively against ground targets later in the war, when the Bofors proved a devastating weapon for bombarding infantry positions.

Loaded with solid shot, they were also given an anti-tank role. But, unless fired in a concentrated stream, the 40mm shells were usually ineffective against heavy German armour. And, as some veterans ruefully recall, attacking tanks with Bofors fire could be a positive hazard because it would probably earn a hot reprisal from the undamaged panzers.

These then, were the weapons with which the newly-formed 92nd had to familiarise itself and become expert in their use. The regiment’s three batteries were designated 317 (consisting of A, B and C Troops), 318 (D, E and F Troops) and 319 (G, H and I Troops). Three of the 7th’s four rifle companies – A, B and C – were simply converted into 317 Battery, 318 Battery and 319 Battery, with the men of the remaining rifle company, D, being distributed among the three.

Battery commanders were Majors N H Joynson, M S Gornall and Peter Crane. Captain Godden took over as adjutant. Later, Major Crane noted – not without a hint of pride – that in each of the batteries, two-thirds of the men who served the guns were from 7th Loyals, and most were from the Lancashire area. Regiment members brought in after conversion were largely drivers and tradesmen.

The batteries were initially billeted at Kirkleatham Hall, Redcar (with RHQ), at the town’s racecourse and at a local convalescent home. On the day conversion took place, a German Junkers 88 (JU 88) flying below 500ft dropped two bombs which ricocheted 300 yards and 50ft high, bursting on Dorman and Long’s. Several civilians were killed and injured and the steelworks was extensively damaged. A Bofors detachment tried to down the raider, but no hits were reported.

Meanwhile, coastal patrols continued. On November 14, a mine was washed up in the regiment’s sector and rendered harmless. The following day in the same area came a grimmer find – the body of an RAF pilot who had been based at Leuchars in Scotland was recovered from the sea.

As work started on acquainting the men of the 92nd with their new equipment, intelligence tests were carried out and revealed an ‘exceptionally high’ aptitude for gunnery among the men.

This was especially the case for Leo McCarthy, who had been called up with the original intake of Merseyside men when the 7th Battalion was formed in 1940. Before being drafted into the Loyals, Leo was a fitter’s labourer at the Cammell Laird shipyard in Birkenhead and had worked on building the aircraft carrier Ark Royal, which was launched in 1937.

One of his tasks at Laird’s, alongside his father-in-law Daniel Weaver, was to help install the Ark’s anti-aircraft guns – which were quick-firing Vickers 40mm pom-poms, a similar weapon to the Bofors. So when as a new artilleryman he encountered the Bofors, Leo had more idea than most how an anti-aircraft gun worked.

Soon, it was time for the regiment fully to take up its fresh challenge. In a letter, Brigadier John Wells CMG DSO, Colonel of The Loyal Regiment, told the CO: ‘I am pleased and proud at all I saw and heard of the 7th Battalion when I saw them recently. What the regiment loses by your conversion, your new corps will gain. The spirit in which you are accepting this change is the real proof that you are true Loyals.

‘Although you are no longer part of the The Loyal Regiment, you can – and I know you will – live up to your old motto, Loyaute M’Oblige. I have every confidence that you will soon be holding more than your own as a highly-efficient regiment of the Royal Artillery. Thank you for all you have done for the regiment. Good luck to you all, officers and men. I shall always be glad to hear of you.’

Another letter to the CO, from Brigadier J H Jenson MC TD, was equally warm. ‘I feel I cannot let you leave the brigade without expressing to you and to all the ranks under your command my grateful thanks for your loyal co-operation during our short connection and my sincere regret that it should be necessary to sever that connection.

‘I have been impressed by the fact that all ranks in your unit are imbued with that keenness and determination to become efficient in the job which will stand them in good stead in their new role. I hope they will enjoy their work and I feel sure that, with the spirit they have in the unit, they will be a credit to themselves, to you, and to their country.’

So on November 26, 1941, after 16 months as infantry, the former 7th Loyals bade farewell to the windswept Yorkshire coast and travelled back across the country to start their new role as artillerymen.