- Contributed by
- Gavin W S Dudley
- People in story:
- Gavin W.S. Dudley
- Location of story:
- Southeast England
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 09 December 2004
Travels of a Captain R.E (Searchlights)
GAVIN W.S. DUDLEY, O.B.E.,
Croix de Guerre (BELG) (avec Palme)
Chevalier de Leopold II (avec Palme)
PART ONE — The Twilight War Till 41
I was working in the Royal Bank of Scotland, Burlington Gardens, and had been since 1934. In 1936 Germany under Hitler and the Nazis had been ruthlessly destroying all opposition and undertook harsh anti-semitic action against the Jews.
Britain had started its greatly delayed rearmament. We knew that war with Germany was becoming closer so I decided to join the T.A. in October. I became a corporal in the 31st S.L. (Searchlight) Regiment R.E. (T.A.) and was posted almost immediately to the Regiment's Head Quarters at Broadbridge Heath, Horsham, Sussex.
The 31st S.L. Regiment R.E. was part of the A.D.G.B. which, still in its infancy, was being formed to defend London in the S.E. from air attacks from Germany. (A.D.G.B. stands for Air Defence of Great Britain). We had, therefore, very little equipment, few weapons and no searchlights or generators, although each troop had one Lewis machine gun!
A Searchlight Regiment in those days consisted of Reg: HQ (1 Lt. Colonel, 2 Majors etc.) 4 S.L. Batteries (1 major, 2 Captains and countless Lieutenants). Each Battery controlled 4 troops each with 6 S.L. detachments.
Each troop (2 Lieuts, 1 Sgt. Major, 6 Sgts, 16 O.Rs — Other Ranks)
Therefore: 1 troop 96 men. 1 Battery 394 men. 1 Regiment 1536 men. 1 Brigade 4608 men.
During the winter of 1937 I think I remember that I was 'called up' for a day's training each month at the Reg. H.Q. at Horsham. Life as a territorial was indeed dull.
In March 1938 came the Austrian Anschluss when Germany forcibly incorporated Austria into the increasing German 3rd Reich.
There was then a partial mobilisation of A.D.G.B. So off we went to our T.A. H.Qs, myself with a s/h Morris 8 car to find that some searchlight equipment had arrived. We examined the new 90cm searchlights, the newish diesel generators and the primitive sound-locating equipment.
I was promoted a Sergeant now and we practised the S.L. drill manuals - how, on paper, one could engage a Hun aircraft at night travelling at 200 mph (direction London) - height 16,000ft with a S.L. beam of only 20,000ft beam length.
Most of the time, when we were not drilling at Reg. H.Q. we spent our time on the actual S.L. troop sites selected by H.Q. on rather ancient maps, digging trenches and earthen ramps for the equipment when it arrived - but no site equipment ever did come.
Within a week (end of March) the scare was over and there was no war! YET!! It was, however, a scare and we were promised new S.L. equipment very soon, as well as suitable huts, etc. on each site.
The spring and summer of 1938 passed by fairly easily though new equipment (or better equipment) started to dribble through and our monthly visits to Horsham and the surrounding area were not unduly tiresome. Certainly England was leaning fast and sometime in the winter of 1938/39 we tried to illuminate one of the first Hawker Hurricanes, but failed of course! - but it was good practice.
We all returned to our civilian jobs. But we were never at ease concerning Hitler’s Reich and its desire to swallow up Europe accompanied by the frightful anti-Jewish atrocities.
Now came one of the startling episodes leading up to W.W.II - the Munich Agreement of September 1938.
During the previous winter, Germany had had its eyes on Czechoslovakia (and in particular the German speaking areas, the Sudeten area of Czechoslovakia).
The T.A. was called up again in August 1938 and in a matter of days, the A.D.G.B. (London’s A.A. defences) was ready (with a small ‘r’). The 31 S.L. Reg. R.E. was stationed on the same sites as in 1937 - to the s. and w. of Horsham - and we were presented with our new equipment - in gleaming khaki. I was still a Sergeant and using an ancient Ford V8, I toured some of the sites, helping to put the newly arrived S.L. equipment and each detachment (of 16 or so soldiers) in a fit state of efficiency should any German aircraft dare to fly over us at night!
In March 1939 Hitler reneged completely on the Munich agreement of 1938 and occupied most of Czechoslovakia.
We knew that a World War was not far away. The T.A. and A.D.G.B. began really serious training. New anti-aircraft equipment was arriving. Each A.A. regiment south of London had to undertake a fortnight’s special training at Tidworth during the summer - Tidworth Pennings (in our case 31st S.L. Reg. R.A.). Tidworth Pennings held terrible memories of O.T.C. camps for Public School boys when, in 1932, Bedford burnt down all Eton’s loos ‘thunder boxes’ - what a to do! Also, marching up and down Tidworth Hill behind the camp in full uniform had to be done once a week. The Regiment spent a two weeks course at Tidworth in June and I was commissioned a 2nd Lieut. at the end of the course.
By this time, I had an old V8 Ford Saloon, which was fun over the fields at Tidworth, & I handed it over to a very great friend as he came on the next Tidworth course. I went back to London with my new Triumph speed-twin ‘Tiger 100’ motorcycle, which would easily exceed 100 mph !!
Germany invaded Poland at the end of August, leading to General mobilization. I remember being called out of a cinema in Wimbledon on 31st August and went immediately to the Wimbledon Drill Hall and thence to join the 31st Reg. S.L. Bty R.E. (A.D.G.B.) at Horsham. My new Battery was the 325 S.L. Bty R.E. at Broadbridge Heath.
So I packed up all my belongings from my digs in S. Wimbledon into my s/h Packard 140 saloon (USA) and off I went to Broadbridge Heath, picked up our men and our new S.L. equipment, and were given instructions and orders from our Regimental C.O., a Lt. Col. of the Royal Engineers (A.D.G.B.), in a huge marquee. This was where we met our other Battery Commanders, Majors, Captains, Lieutenants and senior N.C.O's., including the R.S.M. (an ex-Grenadier guardsman!!).
The next day we dispersed to our war sites that had already been prepared for us - by units of the Pioneer Corps, I think. Quite a jamboree it was - and Britain had not yet declared war on Germany - two days to go! War was declared against Germany on 3rd September 1939.
Barney Bischoff, straight from a city firm of stockbrokers, was the 2nd Lieutenant with me - an excellent man.
I don’t remember any problems about finding our S.L. sites. I continued to use my Packard while Barney used a new Austin 8 saloon (one for each troop) and had it camouflaged in khaki paint a few days later.
The N.A.A.F.I. operated a sort of ‘meals on wheels’ using a fleet of lorries which delivered hot cooked meals every day to the 48 S.L. sites in the battery’s area…..and very good food it was too, since proper food rationing had not yet been organised.
I also remember that each S.L. troop was issued with a new 350c.c. motorcycle, suitably camouflaged. Ours was an A.J.S.
THE TWILIGHT WAR September 1939 - April 1940.
Though we all expected the worst from Hitler and the Germans, nothing very much happened. Training of men and equipment continued, mostly dummy runs, using the newly issued A.A.S.L., operation of rules and discipline. No hostile air raids over us (Horsham area) before Christmas 1939 that I remember, but only the occasional burst of searchlight beams to the south nearer Eastbourne and Newhaven. Nevertheless there was one burst of light at the end of September 1939. A dark night it was and one such group of searchlight beams came closer and closer, the pyramid of beams being, I suppose, 20,000 feet…. All going north (towards London). When the pyramid approached us, up went our S.L. beams searching the sky but hearing nothing. We passed the ‘ghost’ target over to the S.L. battery to the north of us and it finally petered out over London. No aircraft of any sort, but it did show the troop commanders and Battery H.Q. that our young recruits were not asleep - merely nervous!
During this time I met my first girl friend, a delightful girl. In November she called in at our troop H.Q. and invited out Barney Bischoff to dinner with her parents. He had a great time and returned early a.m. saying how nice it was to be driven by a girl in an expensive fur coat!. My turn came soon after and I got to know the family fairly well. She was very fond of music, and danced superbly, and I would take her to dinner-dances at the Hog’s Back Hotel in my Packard! Later, in 1940, she visited my parents and my mother thought she was a lovely girl. We started to fall in love but she then, having joined the A.T.S. as an officer, and the German offensive against France, Belgium and Holland grew closer, we both agreed not to see each other for three months and then meet at Pruniers (fish restaurant) in London, which we did as the Battle of Britain was raging overhead. We decided that so uncertain was the future that we’d go our diverse ways - so it was.
The ‘twilight war’ continued into the spring of 1940 with A.D.G.B. becoming more expert in illuminating the occasional German light bomber with better equipment: The 31st SL Reg P.A was thought to be expert enough to operate the new V.I.E. locators with the much larger and more powerful searchlights and so in the spring of 1940 we received our V.I.E’s - a great advance on the old wooden sound locators. It was the beginnings of Radar, though in these early days it still was the sound of an a/c being connected electrically to the movement of a huge projector. Radar was being started along the channel Coast by perfecting the use of radio waves and their reflections from a metal object, e.g. a German aircraft, with C.H.L. Coast High Level) Identification of countless (50-100-200 a/c at one time) German bombers taking off from their bases in Belgium and Holland and the height and direction of their bombing runs (by day and by night)…… more of this later on in 1941 when our use of C.H.L (Radar) was invaluable during the Battle of Britain.
Around Christmas time and a cold Christmas too, I had to sell my Packard saloon. Petrol had been rationed for some time and now military petrol was coloured RED and woe betide if the Military Police, (M.P s), in increasing numbers, found one with red petrol in a civilian car. But I remember using a bottle of aspirin tablets to remove the red!! Canadian troops had started to arrive and they were not averse to handing over 4 gallons of red petrol in exchange for a bottle of whiskey - and then we had to buy two bottles of aspirin!
However, within two or three months this ruse was discovered and the red dye made stronger! (Petrol engines are not designed to run on petrol & aspirins!!)
For the searchlight and Heavy Artillery Units surrounding London this period of ‘Twilight War’ was used for training the S.L. detachments into moderately efficient units and using the latest radar locations of enemy aircraft - including exercises in aircraft recognition. Detachments had to be fairly smart and quick to make instant recognition between friend and foe. We had inter-troop competitions, both for aircraft recognition and, of course, searchlight drill - often we officers would turn up at a detachment by night - and also by day - and shout: “Take post, enemy a/c reported” etc, and then the detachment would rush out of their tents, man the sound-locating and projector equipment, start up the diesel engine (quite difficult on a cold night), passing current through to the sound-locator into the projector; all troops with tin hats, gas masks at the ready, the one and only machine gun manned, etc. - Then the Sergeant in charge “ready to expose bearing 175, elevation 74 degrees”, etc. The officer would award marks to each site and once a month the winning detachment would receive a prize (usually an extra ration of cigarettes from NAFFI).
During the spring of 1940, the 325 S.L. Battery R.E. was moved towards the coast and we took up, after reccees, etc., 24 new S.L. sites around Newhaven and Eastbourne. Training continued of course. It was around this time that I was posted as Senior Instructor to the 27th A.A. Brigade School of ‘Radar and sound location of enemy aircraft’ in Brighton.
I had already been on a short 2-week course somewhere and had to arrange a series of 2-weekly courses for the three S.L. batteries in the 31st S.L. Reg. R.E….. how to use the new miracle of radar, how to ‘strobe’ a blip on a time-base in the early designs of the cathode-ray tube; how to recognise a friendly ‘blip’ and to trace it along the time-base amongst the mush of minor blips and to differentiate between friend and foe and to telephone to the projector (search-light) operator the elevation and bearing reading, etc. During this time we actually progressed to having electrical contacts directly between the sound-locator and the projector, so that they moved together - a great advance! I remember also a heavy rubber cable had to be laid between sound-locator and projector - and it was very heavy!!
Around Easter, 1940, as instructor at the a/m brigade school, I had my first flight in a R.A.F. Tiger Moth, acting as a target plane over 325 S.L. Battery S.L. sites to train our new sound-locators and the new radar drill. Great fun; circling over the South Downs watching the locators and the projectors of about 12 sites training their sights on me. This was very memorable!
The Germans invaded the Low Countries and W.W.II now really started. Orders for ‘General Preparedness’ came to us from 27th A.A. Brigade, through 31 SL Reg RE (Horsham) then through 325 SL Battery and on to us on our SL sites. We realised that all our training with our new SL equipment was about to be put to the test. So we had to prepare for anti-aircraft action by day as well as by night - we ‘stood to’ and then ‘stood down’ repeatedly - all rather tiring. I remember gazing across the channel - we were at Newhaven, Sussex. Almost immediately I was ordered to close the 27th A.A. Brigade School at Brighton.
I sold my little Standard 8 coupe - no petrol coupons for us now, even at 5½d a gallon. Each troop, however, had been issued with army transport: an Austin 8 saloon, Khaki-coloured, for the 2 officers, a 5cwt truck (usually a Ford of a Morris or a Hillman) for the troops generally.
The terrible war in France, Belgium and Holland, with the German Panzer Divisions racing through the top end of the supposedly impregnable Maginot Line, the Stukas with their howling sirens and their dive-bombing attacks on military targets as well as on defenceless towns and villages and citizens, the panic and chaos created everywhere, made us manning the guns, searchlights, field artillery, and the newly employed radar directional apparatus along the south-eastern coast of England very apprehensive and worried. We were constantly being warned of German spies dressed as nuns or bogus recruits dropping by parachute at night, and this meant that searchlight detachments were ‘on duty’ during the hours of darkness - every night - and during daytime hours we had, of course, to watch out for all sorts of antics that the Germans might be doing. Quite tiring!
Moreover, this part of the WWII ending up with the Dunkirk evacuation (miracle upon miracle), which has all been well recorded. Enough said.
I do remember certain happenings - actual dates are subject to memory - but they all occurred around the Dunkirk evacuation which was between May 28th (when King Leopold of Belgium surrendered) and June 4th-7th.
My troop certainly caught a He III bomber a/c in our searchlight beams. It twisted and turned and finally to our surprise it turned round and made off across the channel to France without apparently dropping any bombs (on Newhaven docks for example - quite close to us). Also, on a few occasions when I was visiting SL sites, we did have shooting practice, firing at some lone ME 109’s with our single Lewis machine gun - not one was hit!! Our SL detachment obviously forgot to ‘aim off’ ahead of the Hun a/c along its course - 200 mph requires quite a few degrees of ‘aim-off’.
Another memory (must have been after the Dunkirk evacuation) was that we received orders to prepare all gun and SL sites for a possible German invasion of the British Isles. All SL sites (but not gun sites or CHL sites,) were given 2 London taxis for SL sites. So we had 12 black taxis for distribution after being painted in a rather terrible khaki colour-wash. Each site sergeant then had to patrol his area and report back to Troop H.Q. ON any suspicious happenings, either on the South Downs or overlooking the Channel Cliffs (depending of course where the site was). We had to link up with a Canadian Infantry Brigade and, of course, the Home Guard and the coastal watchers. Of course, there were periods of boredom waiting for we knew not what.
So we organised taxi races between the sites, and to see up to 12 Khaki-coloured London taxis racing and cornering over the South Downs - well, it was fun. The taxis were taken away in July 1940.
The one unforgettable memory was that of the huge pall of black smoke that hung over the beaches of Dunkirk from May onwards. The smoke clouds were easily seen from Newhaven, Eastbourne and East. As we watched and heard the BBC news on our little battery-operated radios we shivered. How we hated the Germans. I don’t remember being apprehensive of the future, for we all heard the stirring words of strength from Churchill.
From the fall of Dunkirk in early June 1940, we knew now that England was in great danger. A rough programme of events went with this. May 10th - Chamberlain resigned. Winston Churchill in as Prime Minister with a coalition government. May 10th Germany invaded Holland (which surrendered on May 15th ). Belgium was invaded also (which surrendered on May 28th). France, our political ally, also invaded. On June 10th Italy joined the war on Germany’s side. France, now overwhelmed, signed an armistice with Germany on June 22nd, dividing France into two regions, N. France and West Coast under Germany; and S. France under Marshall Petain to be known as Vichy France.
So, except for the Empire, all of whom - except Eire (!!) - had declared war on Germany, we were now alone.
We had been able by God’s grace to save 337,000 men of the B.E.F., including about 60,000 French from Dunkirk, but all our equipment, guns, transport, light and heavy tanks etc. had to be left behind on French soil. I do remember the huge smoke-clouds that hung over the Calais, Gravelines and the Dunkirk area. I learnt later that these smoke-clouds were a blessing in disguise. The evacuation of Dunkirk was carried out in perfect June weather when the German aircraft over the beaches were unable to bomb accurately because of the smoke from the oil refinery fires at Dunkirk. I remember seeing quite a few ‘Dunkirk’ boats entering Newhaven harbour, disembarking 100s of tired soldiers, then off again towards the distant smoke -clouds of Dunkirk.
For my part, the next few months were a whirling mass of activities …..(1) against the German aircraft now coming over the Channel in increasing numbers by day, but only occasionally as yet by night, …..(2) To be always on guard against spies, fifth columnists, and other traitors, …..(3) being always under a constant flow of warnings - ‘Walls have ears’, ‘Beware of forged identity cards’ and ration cards etc. ….. and (4) constantly ‘Taking Post’, with all S.L. detachments to report to Troops H.Q. and thence to 325 AA. Bty RA (now RA and not RE.) all sightings of German a/c and other suspicious activities along the southern coastline of England.
I do remember seeing quite a few ’Dunkirk’ boats entering Newhaven harbour, disembarking hundreds if tired soldiers, then off again towards the distant smoke clouds of the north coast of France.
The number of German ‘hit and run’ raids increased during this time - June/July 1940. These raids were mostly on RAF fighter command aerodromes - Kenley, Biggin Hill, West Malling, Tangmere and others. But it was on July10th that Goering, having stocked up his bombers and fighters in Northen France began in earnest to bomb England into submission - The Battle of Britain: the world’s first decisive air battle. We now know that Hitler's ‘Mein Kampf’, (his ‘Bible’), declared that decadent England would be conquered and subjugated to become a 2nd class nation of 23 million people (the remainder to become slaves of the 3rd Reich, or die in labour camps, etc.)
During the Battle of Britain, 1940, all Searchlight Regiments, Batteries, troops and S.L. sites were heavily involved. All site, not only my own S.L. sites being so close to Newhaven, had to track all German daylight raids in our area by using our eyes in addition to our new ‘radar’ sound locators but, of course, our main duty was to illuminate German bombers at night, to aid the aiming of A.A. heavy artillery around London and to help RAF night fighters (of which we had very few) shoot them down.
So it was an exciting time for all of us. Once a bomb dropped only a 100 yards or so away from one of my SL sites - but no one was even wounded. Another time, at Redhill Camp, where the Battery had a training course, we all, 150 of us, had to dive into trenches during a bombing raid and I have a photograph to confirm this!
During the months of August, 1940, through to late November, the sky over S.E. England was full of aircraft ‘trails’, twisting and turning over our heads. A friend of mine, a spitfire pilot at West Malling, Kent, showed me his operation diary - from early mornings (only sometimes, in good weather) to late evenings, he flew with his squadron of 12 spits up to 4-5 sorties every day for nearly 4 days each week - 12 spitfires against 50 or 100 or even 130 JU88s, or HEIII bombers. The skies were filled with dog fights, noise, trails with German bombers on fire or shot up, falling in one's or two's, over Kent and Sussex and, sadly a few spitfires also. It was quite terrifying and it made us LOATHE the Germans. Once two aircraft, one in flames, dived into the ground near troop HQ and exploded - one was German and the other a RAF Hurricane badly damaged. I remember only one parachute was seen.
During this time I was posted to Biggin Hill Fighter Command and Searchlight units (RA)….. the latter providing useful information corroborating all the radar ‘material’ from CHL’s ‘early warning’ on the coast, as well as from the observer Corp; and then, watching the overall picture in the Ops. Room, and analysing height, speed, direction and density of incoming Hun raiders, would inform 27th AA Brigade etc. by telephone (until some lines were cut by bombs).
The Battle of Britain reached its peak in mid September, 1940. The Germans were ready with Panzer Divisions, Infantry Divisions, hundreds of landing craft, transport etc., awaiting the outcome of the Battle of Britain. In late September, after the serious setback of September 15th, 1940, the Hun knew that defeat of the RAF defences was not possible. The RAF secured final victory through the use of a chain of radar stations (CHLs) that gave early warning of German attacks and by a superb centralised fighter direction organisation that could concentrate the few British squadrons on the point of maximum German effort.
So by the beginning of October we all knew that the German invasion fleet had been cancelled. The daylight bombing raids dwindled. But by November 1940 night raids on London and industrial targets in England increased……and that’s when the Searchlight troops had to work doubly hard.
From now on to May 1941 my life and the lives of all the men and women in ADGB (Air Defence of Great Britain) were a kaleidoscope of fortune, risk and hard work - but there were good times too — 48 hour leave to London, or 72 hour leave to my home …. times when I met two superb girl friends!
One girl friend I had met in the Autumn of 1940 when she came to Troop HQ and asked me out to lunch, including a chance to shoot down some pheasants at her father’s home. A week later on a wet and misty day I tried my best with a 12 bore double-barrel shotgun but missed everything! She then came up and said: ”I’ll hold your hand for the next drive”. Again I only winged a pheasant, and I remember her father saying “He’ll never make an officer, he can’t hit anything.” I was never invited again.
However, by this time my sister had got a job in the Foreign Office and there met this same girl. The two shared a flat and on my 24 hour or 48 hour leave, I would take them out ‘dining or dancing at the Mirabelle, the Mayfair and Arthur's (in Piccadilly) - great fun in between the multiple air-raids of the Blitz.
Another sweet girl, I can’t quite remember how I met her — through my mother, I think - was a WREN officer and stayed at my home at least twice. She was a ‘naughty nice girl’ and would spend part of the night in my room, and I still remember how my father, at say 1 a.m., would slowly open his door and listen. Of course she and I froze, then old Pa would go back to his room (only two doors away from my room) - and we’d carry on with our delightful ‘poodle-faking’. Soon in late 1941 she moved to WREN training in Canada and there married a very nice Canadian.
So the war went on into the Spring of 1941. It was all hard work. The daylight raids had ceased and the whole of the German air force was engaged in night bombing and, of course, all Searchlight Batteries S, SE and E of London were busy nearly every night: I think that we caught 4, if not 5, German a/c in our beams and on one night in particular we lit up one of the German parachute 1000lb bombs floating down, near Horsham, I think. Luckily I heard that it did very little damage but blew out a large chunk of chalky field. I suppose the German pilot funked it and deposited his bomb far short of St. Paul’s in London.
Continued in part two
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