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15 October 2014
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by ageconcernbradford

Gloucestershire (H.G.) "Z" A.A. Gunners regulations

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People in story: 
Alan Hawkins
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Contributed on: 
13 December 2004

This story was submitted to the People`s War site by Alan Magson of Age Concern, Bradford and District, on behalf of Alan Hawkins, and has been added to the site with his permission. The author fully understands the site`s terms and conditions.


In 1943 I was apprenticed to be an aircraft designer with The Bristol Aeroplane Co., at their Filton Works, Bristol. Because my home was on Tyneside this meant that I had to live in lodgings, and all that entailed - a minimum of amenity, rationing and no central heating in bedrooms. With this appointment I was in what was termed 'a reserved occupation'. Whilst doing my period of workshop experience I attained the age of 18 and consequently conscripted into the Home Guard. Besides doing works hours (8 a.m. - 6 p.m.), I was studying part time one day a week, plus homework, and doing overnight fire watch duties once a fortnight and we still had intermittent night air raids. Now I had to attend an all night vigil, one night in eight. No wonder I had little time for girls! (Not that the girls noticed, as there were so many randy Yanks around). A Home Guard duty time sometimes conflicted with work hours and had priority, then was I given a special release dispensation. For the first month in the Home Guard they put me in the infantry, where I was kitted out with standard Army battle dress, with all the accessories. Then they transferred me on to anti-aircraft guns. Not just the ordinary 3.7's, but a new secret weapon called 'Z' guns.
I was attached to:- 104 Gloucester'Z' A.A. Battery
Baker Troop, Abbots Leigh Bristol
Everything to do with these guns was hush hush; we were not to talk about them to anyone outside the site - it was rumoured that even the Yanks didn't know about them.
One Sunday a squad of us were bussed down to Eastern in Gordano, where we were given instruction, in their operation and allowed to fire one missile each over the Bristol Channel. These 'Z' guns were composed of two pairs of rails about 8 ft long mounted on a steel pedestal which could rotate through 180 degrees horizontally and the rails could be elevated between 30 degrees to the horizontal and 80 degrees. Two men operated each unit, one to turn it horizontally and the other to operate the vertical inclination. The missiles, or rockets were 6 ft 3" long and 4" diameter, with four thin sheet metal fins at the back end and very heavy. Although of average strength and build I had a lot of trouble lifting one.
The knife like fins were vile, several fellows had their fingers amputated, through carelessness. After setting the fuse each man heaved his own rocket on to the rails, ensuring that the back end made contact with the two electric terminals, which ignited the rocket propulsion fuel. It was essential not to look up at the departing tail flame.
The drill was to carry a rocket from a nearby storage shelter and place it on a low level rack on your side of the centre pedestal. Here the each gunner adjusted the fuse ring on the nose of the rocket, to a digit setting given over the headset which we had to wear. The fuse was an air pressure sensitive device which detonated the charge at a predetermined altitude. The fuse cap was in the form of a brass cone with numbers inscribed on a rotatable ring, which had to be lined up with the fixed mark. If the setting was made inaccurately the explosion would occur too near the ground or would not go off at all.
On the operational gun site at Abbot's Leigh, 5 miles from Bristol, there were 64 such rocket guns in a field, which, when fired together caused 128 shells to explode in an imaginary box one mile square. Supposedly a lethal fire to any aircraft caught in the box. H.G. complement consisted of four 'troops' of 32 men, plus N.C.O's i.e. 2 men per launcher. At the site the full time service and command complement were A.T.S. girls, who performed the ranging and firing sequencing, under the command of a male major.

Each H.G. relief was picked up by bus in Bristol, at 7 p.m. and returned at 6 a.m. My pick-up point was Old Market (or what was left of it after the Blitz) from where I had to catch a bus back to Filton (to start the working day). On many nights of our attendance there was no action, but we always had one hour of practice drill before we had our supper. After this we spent the rest of the night on double bunks, in Nissen huts, dressed ready for action when the 'stand to' bells rang.
Reveille was at 5 a.m., roll call, inspection then a good full breakfast .... but who can cope with that at that time in the morning? In those days 1 suffered from continuous indigestion. Do you know that one of my landladies would not let me into the house at six o'clock in the morning because she said it disturbed her sleep: she wouldn't give me a key in case I lost it. She was quite generous though as she allowed me to rest in the garden shed until she got up.
My friend, Roy Lawrence, failed to turn-up for two duties in succession, without good cause, and was fined and told that any future failure would mean prison.
On the first night of real action we manned the guns and believed we did all our correct drill. However the problem was that at night the fuse cap was illuminated by a lamp no bigger than of a small torch, hence very difficult to see the settings. I did mine, with trepidation, my number two did his. We fired as commanded over the headset - so did all the others, we assumed. Of course we never got to know the immediate result, because we had to cower down behind the blast shield, until told to 'stand by' for the next salvo.
On our next duty night we paraded at 8 p.m. as usual, only to get a ferocious telling off from the full time Commanding Officer.
" When this relief fired last time. . . .due to your stupid incompetence a number of shells failed to explode in the air. They fell back on Bristol and exploded causing a lot of damage and casualties. For this your training drill time will be doubled to see if we can get you idiots into some sort of shape. Don't let it happen again!"
When we were dismissed we queried amongst ourselves why ack ack guns should be sited in such a place that the fall-out could happen over a city.
As the months passed our stand-to bells rang less frequently, until eventually we were able to sleep right through the night, some fellows even started to undress their uniforms to sleep in their underwear, under blankets which stank of chlorine. In late September we were stood-down permanently. We had a final parade on December 3rd 1944, when all Bristol Home Guard units were marched through the centre of the city to the sounds of military bands. We had done our duty - everybody cheered.
I cannot recall that I was over zealous, or patriotic about doing this duty; it was more of a distraction from my focus on aircraft design and construction. However I did receive a certificate of loyalty, for my service, which I still have (perhaps I ought to frame it). There was no recall of the uniforms which we had, so with clothes on coupons 1 used to wear my uniform, less flashes, when riding my newly acquired Velocette 350cc motorcycle. The greatcoat was a boon in the severe winter of 1947, as was the waterproof cape and substantial boots.
After the War I dumped the steel helmet and respirator, but kept the respirator bag as a general carrier. The cost of this material presumably came out of the £12 million per day which the war was costing and for which we are still paying.
I still have the original 'Z' A.A, guns information booklet, shoulder flashes, cap badges and anti-gas first aid tin, plus some memories which I find hard to cherish.
After the fighting and when all the dust had settled, the fellows in the services, who had
survived, returned home. Then came the distribution of campaign medals to many who
richly deserved them, but also to some who did not. When it came to the designers, draughtsmen and technicians who created the weapons there was no official recognition. However, whilst the fracas was going on, some of us did receive medals from the people in the local community, which we used to compare weekly in the design offices.
I still have my two white feathers, which I received from grateful Bristol neighbours!
But, taking the overview, one must consider how it would have been if the Tommies had no tanks, the matelots had no destroyers and the Brylcreem boys had no bombers...............because we, the manufacturers, were all called into the fighting Services.
For an entertaining dramatised version of life on a `Z` AA gunsite see my 1 1/2 hour play " ACK ACK BEER BEER " based on actual wartime incidents.
A.A. Hawkins

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These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006. It is no longer possible to leave messages here. Find out more about the site contributors.

Message 1 - Friendly Fire

Posted on: 13 December 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Dear Alan

I found your story of great interest and very informative.

The 'Z' device which you descibe so well must have predated the secret ZAA-Batteries, otherwise known as 'UP's'(Unrotated Projectiles), devices which fired electrically a cluster of sixteen explosive-carrying rockets which detonated at a pre-determined altitude.

'Unrotated Projectiles' was itself a code for rockets, as opposed to rotating shells fired from the rifled barrels of AA guns.

I do not understand the reason for not awarding the 1939-1945 War Medal to the Home Guard, whereas a mere 28 days non-operational service in the forces got you it. It was a perverse decision. Three years service in the Home Guard qualified you for the Defence Medal.

Best wishes,


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