AIR DEFENCE OF GREAT BRITAIN
December 1941 to March 1943
'We were suddenly deafened by the roar of strange aero engines, and the rat-tat-tat of cannon fire. On looking up, we could see the black cross of the Luftwaffe, spitting tracer cannon at the trucks in the village.'
PRELIMINARY training for 317 and 319 started at Aberystwyth in mid-Wales and for 318 at Saighton Camp, outside Chester. But barely a month later, the newly-formed regiment was thrust into an operational role.
Just after Christmas, RHQ moved to Stanmore, north-west London, and 317 and 319 deployed to provide ADGB (Air Defence of Great Britain) anti-aircraft cover from sites at Stanmore and Luton. Meanwhile, 318 was detached to start training for the task that would be the hallmark of the whole regiment – mobility. The new gunners had to become expert in moving quickly and efficiently in preparation for their possibly vital role on the battlefield.
New Year’s Day 1942 saw the 92nd on the move to Calverton, Nottingham, with some units going further east for gunnery training at the anti-aircraft school at Stiffkey, near Wells-next-the-Sea on the Norfolk coast – ‘a desolate, lonely place with one little pub that was full if it had four people in it,’ Ronald Prince recalled.
On January 10, there was drama at Calverton when a German plane dropped four bombs on the regiment’s area. Two failed to explode and no one was hurt. Just over a fortnight later, the 92nd was on the road again, transferring to Frogmore Hall, a 60-room redbrick Victorian mansion set in 180 acres of wooded grounds near Watton-at-Stone, Hertfordshire.
While 317 and 319 moved into this impressive new base, 318 went to Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, to take over protection of installations including waterworks at Kempton, Hampton and Uxbridge.
The regiment now came under the command of 3rd British Infantry Division, ‘The Iron Division’ – to which it would be attached until the end of the war, and to whose fame it was destined to contribute.
Throughout February, while 318 stayed at Walton, 317 and 319 undertook mobile training. By the end of a cold, snowy month, the regiment’s new vehicles were starting to arrive. On March 16, there was an air raid alert at Walton, but the raiders passed over without unleashing any bombs.
Four days later, the whole regiment concentrated in Hertfordshire, moving into tents at Hitchwood South Camp, near Hitchin, to start a month’s mobile training in conjunction with 3rd Division. RHQ and 319 personnel lined the route during an inspection of the division by the King.
On April 20, the regiment marched back to Frogmore Hall. Heavy showers during the early part of the month affected training, with vehicles becoming bogged down, but the latter part of April saw exceptionally warm and fine weather. Frogmore Hall was the 92nd’s base for most of the summer as the men continually trained and practised, becoming ever more skilful in the techniques of gunnery.
Tragically, two men died there in motor accidents. On May 20, 1942, Gunner George Dansey was killed by a vehicle being driven by an officer under instruction. On June 19, Gunner Frederick Wilson died after being hit by a lorry as it drove around the winding inner road of the estate.
On July 24, the regiment was on the move once more. Its destination was Ryde, Isle of Wight, where it linked up with other units of 3rd Division, including 8 Infantry Brigade and Royal Marines. An ‘exhilarating’ exercise with the Commandos followed, plus a two-day assault course at Ashey Down. The non-swimmers among the 92nd’s men were taught to swim.
On August 15, Lieutenant-Colonel James Bell Hollwey took over from Lieutenant-Colonel Plant as commanding officer of the 92nd. By August 17, the regiment was concentrated back across the Solent at Chandler’s Ford, Southampton, for the start of a four-day exercise in Kent and Sussex. It then went to Clacton-on-Sea, Essex, for a week’s firing practice.
‘We were billeted in a deserted holiday camp and slept four men to a chalet,’ Michael Cullen recalled. ‘This place was a dump, the food only fit for the swill bin. Still, I suppose we should have been thankful, considering the amount of ships we had lost to the U-boat packs.’
From Clacton, the regiment moved on September 8 to Sandbanks, Bournemouth, where the guns were deployed to guard the narrow entrance to Poole Harbour. Training continued into October. On the 12th, two Focke-Wulf 190 (FW 190) fighters soared over a ferry near the guns of 317, one of the raiders firing its cannon. The battery was later in action against enemy aircraft in the Brighton area.
Encounters with German raiders along the South Coast were usually fleeting, with barely time to aim and fire the Bofors before the plane had passed out of range. ‘They used to come in very low,’ recalled Gunner George Baker of the 92nd. ‘When they got near the coast, they would sweep up and in, either aiming at targets or just giving harassing fire.’
George, a 19-year-old Liverpudlian, had volunteered for the Army in April 1941 despite having a reserved occupation in weapons manufacture. But military service became less than exciting for him after he found himself posted to a coastal defence battery on the tiny island of Inchkeith in the Firth of Forth.
Wanting to see more action, he arranged for his brother Billy– who was already in 92nd LAA –to ‘claim’ him into the regiment inthe autumn of 1942, under the system that allowed brothers to choose to serve together.
At the beginning of November, the 92nd started a week of hardening exercises, manhandling guns across rivers and quarries, followed by anti-tank practice and anti-aircraft practice against targets towed by naval launch. ‘Training has been constant, with many lessons learned, especially in regard to the anti-tank role of 40mm equipment,’ wrote the CO, Colonel Hollwey.
Early in December, the regiment moved across to Kent, stationed at Ashford and Folkestone, where 317 engaged two Messerschmitt 109s (ME 109) and 318 fired against two FW 190s. On the 11th, an FW 190 was engaged by an RAF Typhoon fighter in front of 318’s guns, which were unable to fire for fear of hitting the British plane. Eleven days later, a Dornier 217 (DO 217) bomber was engaged by 317, but managed to drop its bomb load on Ashford.
On December 30, four FW 190s were engaged at Camber. This dramatic encounter was graphically recorded by Michael Cullen in his memoirs. He told how he and his fellow gunners of E Troop, 318, were billeted in the clubhouse on the local golf course – ‘no more than a hut, really’ – and their Bofors was dug into a gunsite overlooking Camber Sands.
‘The gunsites were visited every day by a Women’s Voluntary Service mobile canteen, managed by two well-educated, elderly ladies,’ he wrote. ‘We would follow their progress each morning, eagerly awaiting their arrival, for our ever-welcome morning cuppa! We had become a little lethargic since arriving there, but we were soon to be aroused from our doziness.
‘The canteen, this particular morning, had stopped in its usual place at the foot of the hill. We had left the gun in the hands of the cook and one of the ammo numbers (a soldier who loads ammunition into the gun), while we partook of our morning cuppa. We were suddenly deafened by the roar of strange aero engines, and the rat-tat-tat of cannon fire. On looking up, we could see the black cross of the Luftwaffe, spitting tracer cannon at the trucks in the village.
‘The planes were FW 190s. After recovering from the shock and urged on by the tea ladies, we raced back up the hill. The two men on the gun appeared to be paralysed. Under the auspices of Sergeant Jack Smith, we turned the gun in the direction of the planes, which had disappeared over the village.
‘We had secretly hoped that they had gone home – but no such luck. They returned, having spotted us, and dived down with the sun behind them and in our eyes, spitting tracer shells each side of the gunpit. At the sight of these three planes intent on ending our days, I was prompted to say three Hail Marys and one Our Father, but unfortunately there wasn’t time – they had by now crossed over Camber Sands and were heading out to sea.
‘We opened fire at last, and let go about 12 rounds, and managed to hit one plane in the rudder. We saw some bits fly off. After we had stopped shaking, we began to feel sorry for the pilot, knowing that in all probability, he would not make it back home. The whole incident had only taken about three minutes – we knew then why we had been dubbed the “Hit and Run Raiders.” Needless to say, there were several pairs of cellular underpants hanging on the clothes line that night.’
The following day, New Year’s Eve, the CO wrote: ‘It is the end of a very satisfactory month for the regiment. We are now equipped with all our guns and have had some grand engagements.’
Although the regiment gained much practical anti-aircraft experience by being attached to static and semi-static ADGB batteries along the South Coast, it also served to highlight the different emphasis between the two types of unit. For example, divisional AA troops such as the 92nd could not possibly be equipped with predictors for tracing enemy aircraft.
These cumbersome box-like devices, a type of early computer, were powered by a separate electricity generator and set up to feed targeting information to the gun by ‘predicting’ where an enemy plane was likely to be at a given time. But they were so heavy they needed four men just to lift them into position – clearly impractical for units where speed and dexterity were the watchword.
Indeed, mobility was the key function in the life of the regiment and everything was geared towards it. Pride of place in the 92nd always went to the efficiency and effectiveness of the guns. The supply of ammunition, petrol, water, food, small arms, wireless and field telephones always had top priority in using up essential space. The balance between these functions was delicate, but was to prove its effectiveness in battle.
The year of 1943 opened with more enemy raids. On January 4, a German plane dropped a stick of bombs near a 318 detachment at Winchelsea, causing no casualties. By the 13th, the regiment was on the move again, going back to Clacton for ten days’ firing practice.
It returned at the beginning of February to Seaford, Newhaven and Brighton, where one gun was stationed in front of the famous Grand Hotel. ‘Brighton itself was like a military garrison – mostly Canadians,’ Michael Cullen recalled. ‘The seafront was just a mass of barbed wire and tank traps. Our guns were sited along the front in case of any sudden attacks from the air.’
On the 9th, a DO 217 was engaged, but got away. Next day, however, came a significant milestone in the 92nd’s history – the regiment achieved its first Category One, a confirmed kill of an enemy plane. The honour fell to G Troop of 319 Battery, which shot down a DO 217 over the sea at Newhaven with a five-second burst of fire. On the 22nd, the batteries returned to Folkestone and Aldington.