- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Peter Helsdon
- Location of story:
- Chelmsford, Essex
- Background to story:
- Civilian Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 11 July 2005
A.A. "Z" Rocket Projector. Picture by H.J. Ecclestone and used here by kind permission of his son, James Ecclestone
Recollections of my father:
The Home Guard in Great Britain was stood down on the 31st. December 1944. Many people now, too young to remember the war, think of the Home Guard as Dad's Army, but I have memories of a highly professional and effective defence force.
It all started with the formation of the Local Defence Volunteers in the Summer of 1940. It is true that there were no weapons or ammunition available then, and a great deal of improvisation took place. But by the time I was able to join 'F' Company of the 6th Essex Battalion H.G.in May 1942 the Dad's Army image had virtually gone.
About November 1942 some of us were posted to 'J' Company. There we were taught "Battle Drill" with a great assortment of weapons, such as - Browning Automatic Rifles (from the USA), Sten Guns, Blacker Bombards, Spigot Mortars, Rifle Grenades, Hand Grenades, Sticky Bombs, and Plastic Explosives. The older members were often veterans of the first world war and could give give good practical advice to the younger troops.
In March 1943, there were two dramatic events which I witnessed. Firstly, one evening I was watching a film at the local Cinema. Suddenly there was an alarming hissing roar from outside. As it quickly died away it was obviously going up, not coming down. Secondly, on the way home afterwards I saw a German plane caught in a criss-cross of searchlight beams towards the North. As I watched, that part of the sky erupted in a cube of fire about 400 Yards in extent, it was quite shattering in effect. I heard later that the enemy plane had been destroyed by a new weapon, an anti-aircraft multiple rocket battery based at Colchester and the noise I had heard was the first use of the same kind of rockets in Chelmsford.
In the Summer of 1942 a proposal had been made to reinforce the Essex Regular A.A. Brigades with Home Guard units manning A.A. "Z" (Rocket) Batteries. The first local training unit was set up at Writtle in July 1942 with four twin-barrelled rocket projectors. In August the battery was moved to its intended operational site at the Recreation Ground (now Central Park).
When the new site was completed in February 1943 there were 64 twin rocket projectors, organised in four troops, Able, Baker, Charlie and Dog, located on the open area bounded by the river, the lake, Park Rd. and the then cattle market. Two G.L. Radar Cabins operated by Regulars (later ATS girls) were sited on the other side of the river in the cricket ground. These Radar Cabins were linked to the operations room near Park Rd. Canteen suppers were provided by ATS cooks and site services by the Regulars.
Each projector could fire two 3" anti-aircraft rockets having a maximum altitude of 19,000 ft. and a ground range of 10,000 Yards (5.7 Miles). The heavy finned rockets were about six feet long and each had an adjustable nose fuse to be set to explode the warhead at the correct altitude. Two men manned each projector. The commands for altitude, bearing, elevation, loading, etc. came over a sound-powered intercom from the operations room to a headphone worn by No.1, who relayed the orders to No.2. Each man set a fuse, No.2 loaded the rockets onto their guide rails and pulled them down onto the electrical firing pins and then set the elevation wheel. The firing pins were connected via safety switches to a firing handle and a 6v. dry battery. No.1 set the bearing and reported "Charlie 5 ready" etc.; on the command "Fire", he depressed the firing handle. If the rockets misfired, we had to wait 20 minutes before unloading.
The sound powered headphone system was not very clear and probably was responsible for some early bearing/elevation setting errors. But some enthusiastic HG Marconi engineers soon designed a powerful valve (vacuum tube) amplifier to replace the official system. Before this there were a few near accidents. On one occasion the Railway Station-Master phoned the Battery Commander to complain about the flight of two lonely rockets, which had nearly shot down some of his wagons standing at the station. All the rest went in the direction of the enemy planes.
The flight path of a rocket is quite different to the simple maths curve governing the ballistics of ordinary A.A. guns. Our operations room used a plotting table, and a prediction device like a three dimensional slide rule, to give us fuse settings etc. from the Radar data fed in by the ATS teams.
The "slide-rule" scales were prepared from a series of 3" rocket flight tests optically tracked and recorded by a team of ordnance experts sent to the clear skies of the West Indies.
Area command was provided by a master control centre at Sandon that covered all the local A.A Batteries, including the heavy 3.7" guns down on the Meads and the Bofors along the Chelmsford by-pass road.
To be fully operational the "Z" Battery site required a total of 1424 men in eight shifts, so in April 1943 I and many others were transferred from the 6th Battalion to the 211(101 Essex Home Guard) "Z"A.A.Battery. Each shift then spent one night in eight on duty.
Initial training took place at 185 London Rd., followed by live firing out to sea at Walton-on-the-Naze near Harwich.
Defence of the local airspace was shared with RAF Night Fighters, so that quite often we could not engage, but the Battery did go into action many times and claimed hits on several occasions.
On the night of April 14th 1943 a wave of twenty bombers came in over Clacton and followed the railway line to Chelmsford. Here they dropped flares and carried out dive bombing using mainly incendiaries. Woolworths shop was burnt down. The Battery went into action several times, and persuaded the enemy planes to turn back. One Home Guard was commended for dealing with an incendiary bomb that had hit his Rocket Dump. The next morning I found an unexploded incendiary and the fin of a "Z" rocket outside our house in Trinity Rd. Our neighbour found a cannon shell in her fireplace.
The following month, on the night of May 13th, thirty enemy planes made a low level attack on Chelmsford. All the towns defences went into action. Twelve Eastern National Buses at their Depot in New Writtle St were set alight. The Radar on the Cricket Ground was put out of action by bomb splinters but the Battery continued to fire under visual control. The Territorial Drill Hall in Market Rd was set alight by incendiaries and the ammunition stored there exploded all through the night throwing burning debris over the Battery site. One bomb landed on sand-bags protecting the Lewis Gun at the site entrance, but failed to explode. It fell at the feet of two Regulars and a H.G. man. Two Home Guardsmen were awarded Certificates for their courageous actions that night. Other bombs fell round the site, some near the path by the river. Houses in Park Rd. near the "Z" Battery H.Q. were destroyed. All the Radar men were wounded but there were no serious Home Guard injuries.
About 60 People in Chelmsford were killed and many more injured that night. In Chelmsford there were many fires, I saw the Prison and adjacent houses burning. On duty the next night I saw bomb craters in a line from the S.E. corner of the Battery site and across the river towards the Radar Cabins. Hawke's Sweet shop on the corner of Victoria Rd./Duke St. and Cannons Restaurant opposite were destroyed. The Suet factory in New St. caught fire and the melted fat ran across the road, making it difficult to get to work at Marconi's factory next morning.
None of the main factories were hit.
There were no more attacks in 1943 but in 1944 the Battery fired on seven different nights, claiming two hits, one a JU88 which came down in flames, but the first was allocated to a Mosquito night fighter and the other to a 3.7 A.A. Battery. No enemy aircraft ever came in range on my duty nights, but we loaded the projectors on several occasions. I imagine that a quarter mile cube of fire was quite a deterrent to enemy pilots.
When there were no enemy aircraft about, we slept in three large Nissen huts where the present Bowling Green is now. Site services were provided by Regular Army staff. Morning tea was made by them in large buckets for each hut. The other buckets were emptied down manholes behind the huts, where the present conveniences are located.
A very good free supper and breakfast was provided in a canteen near the operations room, as were the occasional concerts given by the Blue Ramblers dance-band. The supper was usually fish and chips, the breakfast porridge and egg, the great mystery was fried Spam, was it fish or meat?
After June 1944 the flying bombs came in too fast for us to load and fire. Most of the regular AA guns were moved to the coast and these were very successful as they had been fitted with better radars supported by new proximity shells. The few which escaped these guns were left to the Mosquito and Typhoon fighters. The "Z" Batteries had come to the end of their useful life. The last site manning was on the 11th. September 1944. We had the standing down parade of all the one time members of the 6th. Essex Battalion Home Guard on Sunday 3rd.December 1944.
Some time after VE day on May 8th. 1945 the German prisoners of war in the camp near Chelmer Rd. were allowed out. I spoke to one who said he had been an architect before the war. As he had no winter clothes, I gave him my Home Guard overcoat (less badges). The Italians were held in a camp near the top of Graces Walk at Little Baddow. They were said to bake the best bread in Chelmsford. I used my H.G. Battledress, dyed blue, to work in the cold Winter of 1947. I still have my Cap, Badges, Gas mask and next manning parade orders.
I would like to thank the following ex-Home Guards for their help in refining my recollections of the above events :-
H.J.Ecclestone, E.Cranston, R.H.Oddy, D.Lloyd, D.J.Amos, C.A.Poulton
I would also like to acknowledge help from :-
1.The Essex Record Office.
2.War men Courageous, The Story of the Essex Home Guard. By Peter Finch.
3.Changing Chelmsford. By John Marriage.
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