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A WAAF officer, acompanied by a flight sergeant, inspecting a squad of WAAF Policewomen, RAF Police School at RAF Uxbridge, Middlesex, England, United Kingdom, 1940s - WW2DB

National History

Get fell in! The vital defence role played by Britain’s ‘Gunner Girls’

At the beginning of July 1940, the UK’s anti-aircraft strength stood at 157,139 men, 1,200 heavy and 549 light guns, and 3,932 searchlights. By May 1941, it had increased to just under 300,000 men, 1691 heavy and 940 light guns, and 4,532 searchlights.

However, Sir Frederick Pile, Commander-in-Chief, Anti-Aircraft Command, was facing a manpower shortage as his troops were being deployed overseas.

Serve in the WAAF, Poster - J.Floss
Serve in the WAAF, Poster – J.Floss

The RAF was already conducting evaluation trials at Cardington, intending to replace airmen with members of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) at most barrage balloon sites around the country.

The trials were possible thanks to technical improvements in equipment, including the mechanisation of some of the handling of balloons. Even so, the RAF discovered that 16 WAAFs were required to replace 10 airmen. Pile wanted to fill his vacancies with members of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS).

A WAAF officer, acompanied by a flight sergeant, inspecting a squad of WAAF Policewomen, RAF Police School at RAF Uxbridge, Middlesex, England, United Kingdom, 1940s - 
WW2DB
A WAAF officer, acompanied by a flight sergeant, inspecting a squad of WAAF Policewomen, RAF Police School at RAF Uxbridge, Middlesex, England, United Kingdom, 1940s – WW2DB

Despite many doubters, Pile pressed ahead. On 25 April 1941, regulations were put into force making women eligible for operational duties short of actual combat roles.

The following month and wearing the shoulder flash of the 1st Anti-Aircraft Brigade, the first intake of ATS began their training at Oswestry.

Pile anticipated the ATS would take over every job at a battery save loading and manning the guns. In doing so it was anticipated that two-thirds of the roles at a battery could therefore be carried out by the women.

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They would take over the operation of range finders, predictors, radar sets, communications, plotting, command, and control. They would also mount daylight sentry duty though armed with staves instead of rifles. The night picket remained men only.

Portraits of Waaf Servicewomen Based at RAF Watnall, Headquarters of No. 12 Group Royal Air Force Fighter Command during the Second World War
Portraits of Waaf Servicewomen Based at RAF Watnall, Headquarters of No. 12 Group Royal Air Force Fighter Command during the Second World Warwikimedia

On 12 June the 435th Heavy AA Battery was ordered to be raised at Oswestry. Two weeks later the order came through for it to be converted into AA Command’s first ‘mixed’ battery.

Interestingly, it was soon discovered that women had a more delicate touch enabling them to achieve finer and therefore more accurate settings on the predictors.

The predictor was a mechanical analogue computer that calculated such things as the required elevation of the guns, the time setting for the shell fuses, wind direction, deflection and so on.

The 435th took over an existing battery sited at Richmond Park, London, and was declared operational on 21 August.

The efficiency of a battery depended on teamwork and Pile was impressed enough to order that all newly raised heavy batteries coming from Training Regiments would in future be mixed. On 14 November, the newspapers were reporting that a mixed battery had shot down a German bomber.

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The 33rd (Western) AA Brigade was responsible for anti-aircraft defences around Merseyside. On 24 November 1941, the brigade received its first mixed battery with the arrival of the 476th.    

By the end of 1941, 14 mixed regiments had been raised, each consisting of three to five batteries. Each battery usually comprised four guns, though some were of six guns. The following year no less than 38 new mixed regiments raised.

It was a Godsend for the male members of a battery, as Pile directed that the accommodation and facilities must be of a higher standard than that of all-male batteries. 

Even so, things could still be difficult. In October 1942, Wigan Borough magistrates refused an application from the manager of the Ritz cinema, Wigan, to hold a charity concert to raise funds to provide Christmas comforts for the men and women stationed at nearby AA batteries.

By the following Christmas, the Merseyside batteries were able to provide for others. The men and women of six local AA units made toys in their spare time.

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Around 500 of them were distributed to the inmates of the Royal Liverpool Children’s Hospital. It was a joint effort with the Americans as they provided Sergeant-Major Taafel who stood in for Santa Claus.

Earlier in the year, the mixed battery sited to the north-east of Liverpool asked the Liverpool Echo for help in tracing Brandy. The six-months-old mongrel had wandered onto the site one stormy night and was instantly adopted. She was even placed on the official strength.

The newspaper notice read: ‘Last seen on 4 June. Telephone Aintree 1458’.

On 11 June, the Echo was pleased to announce that Brandy had been found safe and well. She had been paying a visit to a nearby barrage balloon unit.

Following successful trials, the decision was taken in December 1941 for members of the ATS to be recruited and deployed to searchlight units.

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In July 1942, the 26th Searchlight Regiment (London Electrical Engineers) became a ‘Mixed’ regiment. The newly raised 93rd (Mixed) Searchlight Regiment, was transformed to became virtually all-female. The only males left in the regiment were its Commanding Officer and the senior officers in each of the batteries.

Aircraft Navigation and Guidance: MPs visiting No 554 Anti Aircraft Battery near Harwich watching a demonstration of a searchlight with radar equipment known as ELSIE
Aircraft Navigation and Guidance: MPs visiting No 554 Anti Aircraft Battery near Harwich watching a demonstration of a searchlight with radar equipment known as ELSIE – wikimedia

Toward the end of 1941, the decision was taken to transfer the manning of the Z rocket batteries to the Home Guard. These were short range, solid fuel, 3inch (76mm) AA rocket projectiles fired in salvoes. Given their proven track record, Pile decided that the ATS would take over Z battery functions similar to those they were carrying out at gun batteries.

Pile was promised 220,000 ATS for his guns. He expected 170,000 but the actual figure was just over 74,000.

Written By

Clive is our Transport and Railway writer, with years of experience he is a fount of knowledge on all things transport nostalgia.

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