Life On The Anti-Aircraft Gun-sites WW2
Location of story: Various Gun-sites in England
Article ID: A4016053
Contributed on: 06 May 2005
When war threatened in 1938 I joined a Red Cross Detachment and received instruction on home nursing and first aid. We also had lectures on the effects of mustard gas attacks that were absolutely terrifying. We were expected to put in a minimum of hours – 20 I think. This was quite difficult when working full time so I tried a night shift or two on Saturday nights at Bensham Hospital in Gateshead.
However, the uniform for a V.A.D. recruit (Voluntary Aid Detachment) was quite expensive and was not provided for us. Also, I wasn’t allowed to volunteer as I was exempt as a Railway employee. Then by 1942 my younger colleagues were being conscripted along with girls in general and women up to the age of 39 were allowed to volunteer with the added advantage of our army pay being made up to our Railway Salary, so away I went.
Every girl recruit was interviewed and tested for aptitude. You had to volunteer for the gun-sites so, though at 26 I was considered old for the job, I stuck out for Radiolocation. After kitting out, initial training in marching and gas mask drill, with steel helmets, inoculations and smallpox vaccination – at Harrogate (Queen Ethelburga’s School in my case ), the gun- site volunteers were sent to Oswestry for Radiolocation training in theory and practice in operating.
We were also kitted out in the battle-dress top, two pairs of trousers, two pairs of brown boots, one pair of brown leather gaiters and two pairs of socks. Oh, and a pair of denim overalls like a boiler suit for maintenance and fatigues. We were not allowed out of camp in battle –dress so kept the tunic, skirt, 2 shirts, shoes and stockings already issued to us in Harrogate. A.T.S. battle-dress was made of finer material than the men’s. The boots too, were of softer leather and no- one seemed to have much trouble with them though most girls had worn high heels. At one stage we were issued with ‘long johns’ but no-one ever wore them preferring the stockings, which were quite thick though silky looking, under the socks. We did have vests, white knickers and khaki artificial silk ‘bloomers’. We must also have worn a corset with suspenders and brassiere.
Our hands were protected from the cold – very necessary in the case of the girls on Predictors height finders. The Spotters, as they were outdoors all the time – by mittens with short topless fingers and an ingenious flap that could be fastened back or bought over the finger-ends as necessary. They were white sheepskin except the flap and entirely washable. Heavier personal wash, like pyjamas (also army issue), towels and shirts were laundered free for us. Outer wear could be cleaned when necessary – free.
Mercifully we did not have to pass written exams but we had to endure many lectures on theory. When one sergeant took a panel cover off the Transmitter we gasped at the complicated wiring revealed. “Do we have to learn that?” I asked . “No”, he replied , “but I have to show it to you so listen.” Whole books have been written in the subject. In fact, this country has no idea what it owes to the men who developed Radiolocation, such as Sir Robert Watson Watt and Professor Jones and four firms, Cossor, Baird, Siemens and Marconi who built the complicated equipment for use on land, sea and in the air, not only round our coast but all over the world, wherever the troops needed it.
As well as the transmitter there was a receiver with four little television screens, Cathode Ray Tubes, Range, Bearing, Height of approaching aircraft and a very small one for identification – friend or foe. All this needed a high voltage electricity supply so a Lister generator was also put into our care.
These were much like a car engine but had to be started up with a handle that took two girls to swing round though it was the guards duty out on site to start it so that saved a minute or two while the girls ‘took post’. The aerials of the Transmitter and Receiver needed to be washed and dried, lightly greased and re-set every day.this was done by the stand-by team. There was 24 G.L. girls ( Gun-layer as the Radiolocation girls were called) to a site, 4 teams of 6, 5 operators under one Corporal. The Corporal was in telephonic communication with the Command Post, receiving the orders “search”, “follow”, “stand down” but never giving orders, nor did we hear the order “fire”
When the guns did go off we hadn’t to jump as the Predictor was following our dials and the guns were following the Predictor. One team was ‘on call’,one ‘on stand-by’ (we were unlikely to remain accurate after 2 hours) one on fatigues with an Evening Pass to look forward to and one on 24 hour leave. We were entitled to 10 days leave every 3 months – usually we got it . However, all leave could be cancelled or severely curtailed as happened just before “D” Day and during the V.I. raids.
After Oswestry we, that is a full team of 24 G.L. Girls together with the gunners and A.T.S. instrument operators such as Predictor, Height Finder, Plotters, Telephonists and Spotters were taken by ‘Special Train’ to Firing Camp at Weybourne on the Norfolk Coast. There the whole of the Battery personnel were trained in Seen and Unseen target shooting techniques. Perhaps I should say here that all female personnel were A.T.S. Privates, Corporals, Sergeants or, in the case of Officers (2 to a site) Subalterns. Only male personnel were Gunners (that doesn’t apply now, all Royal Artillery personnel are “Gunners”). This was probably in case of invasion we might be treated more leniently than the men- some hope.
Our first gun-site was about 2 miles out of Reading, the outer defences of London, but the worst raids were over though we had several call-outs, being credited with one plane shot down but were quite pleased to be told that the pilot baled out and was taken prisoner. Here Cooks and N.A.A.F.I people were waiting for us with the coal (fires in the evening only) washed and stones marking the paths whitewashed (not so daft as it made the stones more visible at night).
The reading site was quite comfortable, the accommodation being in Nissan huts each holding 12 personnel . The huts were arranged in what was known as ‘spiders’ – that is 4 huts converging end – on to toilets, washbasins, showers and sinks. This was known as the Ablutions – all supplied with hot water in the evening from a common boiler. I can’t remember how many ‘spiders’ there were but a gun-site needed 120 – 130 people. Each gun-team alone consisted of 11 men – there were 4 guns to a site, two sites to a Battery. We had a N.A.A.F.I hut where Housey-Housey (Bingo) was played sometimes. Tea and buns could be bought and our ration of chocolate and cigarettes were served – at a price of course – 1s.0d. for 20 cigs I think- perhaps 1s.6d. for the better ones. I know I gave up smoking when they went up to 2s.6d. for 20 after the war.
I seem to think cocoa and bread and margarine could be had free from the cook-house. About 7-8 p.m. the N.A.A.F.I. also supplied something to eat until 10p.m. There were posters on the N.A.A.F.I. walls too, detailing the Beveridge Plan which became the National Health Service.
It was now well into 1944 so we had settled down into a well – drilled team with experience of actual raids. We received word that we were to be inspected and tested. So we washed and polished, dusted and swept everything, including the coal (what there was of it).
Then early one very frosty morning we had to be at our posts, all maintenance done kit laid out for inspection (barracked), rooms cleaned, breakfasted (not in that order) ready for inspection. Of course we were ready too soon but we were duly inspected, tested and eventually congratulated.
The exact order of our Battery movements is getting a little hazy but it must have been after Reading we were sent to Woking into a field by the Thames which flooded the guns so they were sent to another site while we G.L. Girls, together with a cook and officer stayed by the river because the Transmitter and Receiver needed quite a large area of flat land all round them to reflect the returning Radio Waves evenly. This was quite a nice site and the Spring weather was pleasant but leave was almost non-existent. However, we did have a N.A.A.F.I. hut manned by W.V.S. volunteers and supplied with enough make-up, chocolate and cigarettes for nearly a whole site, though none of us smoked much so our cigarette ration (or some of it – the Park Drive or Woodbines) went to the gunners (who paid us for them of course). The lady of the house right on the edge of the site very kindly made a cup of tea for whoever was on guard duty.
The make –up by the way, was INNOXA and there a was plentiful supply of Channel No.5 but at, I think 2s.6d. there weren’t many takers.
It was quite early in 1945 that we were moved to Ashford in Kent, or rather to a farmer's field about 2 miles out of Ashford. Here our accomodation was more primitive but the A.T.S still had their wooden huts, each standing seperately in line the ablutions being in a hut at the end, till with a boiler for hot water when the gunner on duty as boiler-man remembered to light and stoke it, but only in the evening. The men, however, were in tents and had to take their showers in what for all the world looked like pre W.W.1. bathing machines drawn on to the site by lorries. This seemed unfair to me so we, the G.L. team, suggested through our No.1 - a Corporal, who saw our Sergeant who saw the Officers and, in quite a short time, it was arranged that the showers were out of bounds to A.T.S. on 2 or 3 evenings a week. We never lacked hot water after that.
There were sheep in lamb in our field, one motherless lamb was penned with a ewe who had lost her lamb but the farmer had to move them as we spent too much time anxiously watching to see if the ewe would feed the lamb - I don't remember the outcome.
What little leave we had was spent in Ashford, though one 24 hour pass was spent in Folkestone, where I ran into an ex-office colleague who was in the R.A.F. Regiment. We all went dancing somewhere on the sea front. The coast of France could be seen quite clearly. My friends and I spent that night in a Salvation Army Hostel while the R.A.F. went back to camp.
There were quite a lot of Americans in the area (some of them black) so we had our first sight of jitter - bugging; I wasn't much of a dancer - even English style - but that was quite beyond me.
Six of us were walking back to camp one night about 11p.m. and still a lot of daylight as the country was on double summer -time, when we came upon a bad road accident - a large Army truck had run into a group of soldiers from a camp further along the road from ours.
We did what we could for the injured, saw them into an army ambulance that had been called, but the driver said he hadn't permission to go to a hospital.
Fortunately a staff car (saloon, painted dark green) drew up beside me. An Officer, wearing red tabs on his shoulders, got out, asked me what had happened and I told him. He went over to the waiting ambulance which was very soon on its way – fast As a result of this I was asked (by one of my own A.T.S. Officers) if I would like to go to Officers Training Unit. The thought of any more training made me feel weak.
One night in June ,the 4th - 5th,we were called out, given a bearing to search and our screens were filled with aerial activity. A rather keyed up male officer knocked on the Receiver door, looked at the Range screen and announced "This is it".
The invasion of Europe had started. Just a week later we were thrown into a frenzy of activity by small aeroplane shaped objects with fire coming out of the rear; an eerie sight as it was misty and they were too small to contain a pilot. They flew too low for our guns to be effective so we were shut down after a month of hectic, noisy activity to give fighter aircraft a chance to shoot them down over the sea. These were the V I s, or Doodle-bugs, and flew faster even than Spitfires but I've just recently learned the guns further inland managed a very high score of direct hits.
By early autumn we were again sent to Weybourne Firing Camp where volunteers were called for to man gun-sites in France and Belgium. I had to refuse as my mother was very ill and I had had two spells of compassionate leave ( that was 28 days which could be added to 14 days ordinary leave).
Again, memory is a bit hazy but we had a very long overnight train journey to Whitby firing Camp where the girls were billeted in a large hotel on the site-front. From this hotel we had to march to the firing Camp situated on the cliff top near the Abbey. This meant climbing (not marching) up the 265 steps every day for 10 days wearing full battle- dress with steel helmets and carrying our respirators. A neighbour from Gateshead had seen us and wept because we looked so tired.
From there we were sent to Gloucester Lodge, just south of Blyth, where some sorting out of personnel took place and I and a few more were posted to a site by the River Tees under the Shadow of Dorman Long’s Steelworks by Grangetown Station. In the past the slag had been used to try to reclaim land from the Tees,
Now, at the furthermost point from Grangetown Station, right beside the river, a gun-site had been built with much more primitive conditions. Mains electricity was laid on from the steelworks to provide power for the guns, cookhouse and internal hut lightingbut the fuse wire was a 6” nail as the previous Battery had got tired of mending the fuse.
There were flush toilets and hot water for the girls but a little man with a horse and cart came out every day to take away the night – soil from the men’s dry closets, there was no N.A.A.F.I. on that site but a Sally Ann van came out in the morning with tea & buns and perhaps a few extras like razor blades and writing paper.
It was one of the worst winters on record – bitterly cold and the snow lay quite deep for weeks. In fact it was so cold during the night our boots froze to the floor. Yet we all kept cheerful, for one thing, the news from Europe was good. There was only one serious alarm and that was a day time raid by one VI that must have been launched experimentally from an aircraft. Rumour had it that it came down in a field near Bishop Auckland – that was confirmed many years later by a lady on duty in Durham Cathedral. No more Vis or bombers came over fortunately as the guns on that site were 3.7s with 4-5” barrels and manual fuse setters so would have been much slower firing.
The Radar equipment, however was very up-to date, being a Canadian built Mark 3, much more compact the receiver and transmitter being in one cabin, but we also had the older Mark 2 as they covered a wider sweep of the sky. I do remember having to take a turn spending a night with 2 more girls in the cramped conditions on the floor of the Mark 3 as it took longer to warm up than the Mark 2. That happened several times, however our R.E.M.E. sappers (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers) brought hot tea out to the girls before breakfast. I should have explained each site had at least 2 sappers to look after any problems that arose with the radar works, though it was wonderful how little trouble arose.
VE day was spent thankfully but quietly as so many of us had friends and relatives still in mortal danger at sea or in the Far East. We had done what we set out to do so we could think about going home.