The 59th Regiment

The 59th Regiment H.A.A. (heavy anti-aircraft) included 3 Batteries;
  • Battery 164 consisted of Troop “A” and Troop “B”
  • Battery 167, Troop “C” and Troop “D”
  • Battery 265, Troop “E” and Troop “F”

Dad joined Battery 164, Troop B. There appear to have been 8 guns per Battery, and there were 3 types of gun.

A.S.Cross (ex 167 Battery) describes the ordinance;

Each Battery had two Troops who were identical in their make-up, each having four pieces of ordinance (guns), a predictor (akin to a modern computer), a Height & Range Finder, and a Telescope for identification purposes. Each also had a Communication Unit for linking up to outside sources.

There were three types/sizes of gun used by the Regiment during the period 1939-45, the 3 inch, the 3.7 inch and the 4.5 inch. The 3.7 inch Mobile version being the most used and most liked.

According to Henry Moore (164 Battery) the 3 inch gun was least liked. It had poor capabilities, and the loud “crack” it made when firing, sometimes resulted in perforated eardrums and permanently impaired hearing.

the gun crew

There were generally 9 members in a QF 3.7" gun team, and they were known by their numbers:-

  • Number 1: in charge of the gun (gave instructions)
  • Number 2: bearing setter (direction)
  • Number 3: elevation setter
  • Number 4: fuze setter
  • Number 5: the breech man
  • Number 6: the rammer
  • Numbers 7, 8 & 9: the ammunition men

These guns could be operated for short periods with only 6 men.

about the shells

It may not be obvious to us mere civilians, but the shells fired at enemy aircraft where not necessarily expected to hit the target. These shells included a propellant, a high explosive (HE) charge, and some means of detonating the HE.

At the start of World War 2, a timed fuze was used for detonation. When the gun was fired, the propellant exploded forcing the shell to separate from the shell-case with a muzzle velocity of about 800m/s (in the case of a QF 3.7" gun). The idea was to set the fuze on the shell to explode the HE when the shell was close to the aircraft, and rely on fragments of metal ("flak") to damage the plane and bring it down.

Exploding the shell within (say) 30m might be enough to bring the plane down, or exploding the shell within 200m might be enough to damage the plane or injure the crew. Naturally this would depend on the size of the shell or force of the blast.

Note that 800m/s is almost 1,800miles per hour. Therefore a small error in fuze setting may result in the shell bursting hundreds of metres from the target aircraft.

It is also worth mentioning that 'what goes up, must come down'. A large number of military and civilian casualties were thought to be incurred by metal falling back to earth.

Towards the end of the war, a proximity fuze was introduced which exploded the shell when the fuze detected that is was close to an aircraft. This resulted in a dramatic improvement in hit rate, maybe 5-10 times better than before.

According to Bill Church, shell cases were recycled and sent back to the munitions factories. They could be used 4 times. He also mentioned that after an air-raid, the hot shell cases were gathered up and put into their beds to warm the blankets!

A.S.Cross continues;

To burst the shells in the target area was a complex business requiring the combined efforts of a number of highly trained and dedicated operators. By following the target with the instruments we could measure its height, its course and rate of travel. This information would be translated into usable data by the use of shaped cams and intricate gearing and fed to specially prepared rotating drums, these being engraved with height and fuze curves. By matching a pointer to a height curve a ‘lead time’ could be predicted, this was the time to be allowed for the shell and target to reach the same spot in the sky.

Information required by the guns, bearing and elevation, was transmitted to them via cables from the predictor, terminating at dials with ‘follow the pointer’ displays for the ‘Layers’.

Each engagement was managed by the Gun Position Officer (G.P.O.), his orders to control the shooting were relayed by his assistance (G.P.O.Ac.), this allowed the G.P.O. to concentrate wholly on conducting the shoot and obey instructions from the G.O.R. {gun operations room}

Vickers Armstrong QF3.7 inch gun as used by The 59th Regiment
The Vickers Armstrong QF 3.7 inch gun

The Vickers Armstrong QF 3.7 inch gun fired a 28lbs (12.7kg) shell to a height of 30,000 feet with a maximum range of over 7 miles. Maximum rate of fire was 20 rounds per minute.

Predictor mechanical analogue computer used by 59th Regiment HAA
A Number 1 Mark III Predictor used with the QF 3.7 inch AA gun.
(South African National Museum of Military History, Johannesburg)

The predictor is a mechanical analogue computer used to track aircraft and control the attached anti aircraft weapons. According to Henry Moore, this was operated by a 5 man team.

A.S.Cross continues;

We had been led to believe that on declaration of war, the enemy would unleash his forces upon us almost immediately, and in fact the government had produced a film, shown throughout the country earlier in the year, depicting what horrors we could expect, and so, on that Sunday, we were called out, the Municipal Siren sounded and we heard our fate over the radio with mixed feelings. All sites were on this alert and probably listened as we did and many an eye was cocked to the sky as we were stood down, to spend the rest of the day in reflection.

Now that war was a reality, and we were deemed “Regulars for the Duration” we all appeared to have matured over-night and everything we did had a sense of purpose to it. When the siren sounded, by day the lads dropped what they were doing and high-tailed it to their posts grabbing their gas respirator as they went. By night they came in many stages of attire, dressing as they came, none wanted to be the last. All covers were removed and ‘Number 1s’ {a team member} would report their readiness. The time taken was of the order of one minute, even by night and without the use of ‘carrots’.

Up to November there were many call-outs all ending after varying amounts of time, without a shot being fired. If the session was of a long duration, tea would come round, served from a ‘dixie’, hot, strong and sweet. If a meal was missed the cookhouse staff would regale us with sandwiches, those massive door-stop efforts which were a meal in themselves, but very welcome.

Then in a clear cold night in November, the siren sounded about 9pm. We took posts and almost immediately heard the drone of an aircraft. The local searchlights exposed and in their beam was a Dornier Seaplane. It was a text-book engagement. The H/RF gave us a height, the Predictor set it and balanced their rates, a fuze was set, the guns loaded and fired. Almost a perfect salvo as I remember it each gun fired 2 rounds, their bursting obscured the target from view as it dived out of sight. We were traversing back to our standby position when the lights exposed a second hostile aircraft. This was given the same treatment. Both Troops engaged the targets, but we never did hear if we had been successful or not, but the compliments were many from all directions on the way the engagements had been handled, and we ourselves felt very proud of acquitting ourselves so well on this our first action in this war.

Now came the hard bit, the gun barrels had to be scrubbed clean of all debris, and for this we used a circular bristle brush on a shaft known as a ‘Brush Piasaba’ {from a Brazilian palm: Leopoldinia Piassaba} with lashings of hot water, then carefully dried out. Meanwhile No.5 would be stripping down the breech to clean and oil its many parts. This task was carried out one gun at a time in case of an emergency call out, so we always had fire power available. In practice No.5 would have that mechanism back and working by the time the gun was ready for loading. But this night was different. Never had a gun been given such loving care than this as 9 loving fathers would help to put their first-born to bed and sleep. {I assume there was a 9 man team operating the gun} None of these tasks were easy, the Breech Block (of special hardened steel) weighed just under a hundredweight {about 50kg} and great care had to be taken not to damage the many slots and apertures for fear of any malfunction in action.

Having cleaned up to their own satisfaction, they were free to go to bed or spend a short time celebrating in our makeshift canteen.

The next morning was business as usual, and our latest project was “drainage”. Our site was below sea level so, to keep us from becoming waterlogged, the existing ditches were cleaned out and some fresh ones dug to route the water away.

Christmas came upon us bringing with it very heavy snow. All sites were cut off by huge drifts forcing them to improvise, making sledges to haul the rations across the fields to the sites. We on Canvey were lucky, ours had arrived just before the snow, but we did have to dig through a huge drift towards Benfleet to get the Christmas leave party away to the station.

We were given our own petrol tank; silent prayers were offered to the God of Purloin by those who could see a quick few bob on the horizon, until they saw the tanker driver empty a flash of red dye in. Then the budding chemists within our ranks spent many hours trying to filter the dye out before they finally admitted defeat (Army 1, troops 0).

But it wasn’t all light-hearted fun. A.S.Cross again;

Somewhere about this time the Regiment suffered its first casualty, all due to a silly mistake.
At the time, sites were ‘Standing To’ an hour at dawn and an hour at sunset due to the threat of invasion from ‘Jerry’. On ‘Stand Down’ one of the rifle party was taking a practice aim on an aiming disc held by B.S.M. Herbie Wells. The rifle had not been unloaded or checked, there was in fact a live round in the chamber, thus, when the aiming sequence was completed the rifle fired and the round passed through his forehead, killing Herbie instantly.

One sunny Saturday afternoon in August, the siren sounded, the site was manned and ready for action in seconds, when we heard the drone of aircraft engines, our ‘Spotters’ picked them up and we were ‘on target’. The sight that met our eyes was almost unbelievable. Hundreds of enemy aircraft in 3 separate “V” formations. Some rounds were fired at them, but then we had to stop to allow our own fighters to get at them, which they did like terriers after rats, an apt description. The Battle of Britain had commenced in earnest.

Night raids now took over. We would start manning fairly early in the evening right through to dawn, though not shooting all the time, the guns and instruments were being manned. Each gun would fire approximately 200 rounds per night, and that meant a lot of energy expended to keep those hungry breeches fed, the spent cases removed, and the stocks replenished. Then when the ‘all-clear’ sounded after dawn, we faced the maintenance of the guns, hauling the ammunition from the magazine, stacking the spent cases ready for the collection by the R.A.S.C. This all amounted to about an hour before we could expect breakfast and then possibly some sleep.