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Z-Battery

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The following articles have been reproduced for reference under the 'fair dealing' terms offered by the BBC in association with their WW2 People's War project, and provide detailed recollections of the Z-Battery, or rocket battery.

Recollections of my father

A.A. "Z" Rocket Projector. Picture by H.J. Ecclestone and used here by kind permission of his son, James Ecclestone
A.A. "Z" Rocket Projector.
Picture by H.J. Ecclestone and used here by kind permission of his son, James Ecclestone.

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.

© James Ecclestone, WW2 People's War.

Homeland Defence - Friendly Fire

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

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.

Epilogue-
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.

IT MAKES YOU THINK DOESN'T IT ?

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

© Alan Hawkins, WW2 People's War.

Variations in design

The following entry on the People's War site is notable, as it introduces the concept of single projectile, and six projectile launchers. It may also relate to earlier versions than those referred to above, as it describes the fusing as being by timer, rather than altimeter. It also describes the danger, and consequences, of being caught in the blast from the rocket.

Live Rocket!

My father served in the Home Guard between October 1942 and May 1943. He did fire-watching duty (e.g. at Staples Corner, London)and was on the anti-aircraft guns in Hyde Park London. He was subsequently in the RAOC and RASC.

He died many years ago, but amongst other things, he told me that he once had to unload a live rocket from one of the rocket guns on the Hyde Park gun site. The gun site was located where there is currently a wide-open space above the underground car park at Marble Arch, flanked by Park Lane.

The guns fired a salvo of six rockets and each rocket had a clockwork-timer. This meant that the rocket was presumably still likely to go off!

He also told me that, on one occasion, a complete gun crew were blown up.

Not much seems to ever have been said publicly about the gun site and the personnel working there, which must have involved them in much bravery and risk, and I often wonder how my father must have felt, travelling from our home, in North Kensington (a source of further stories) to that gun site.

My sister (she is older than me; I was a baby) remembers visiting my father at the gun site, and I believe that Lady Soames (wife of Sir Winston Churchill) who was in the ATS, visited the gun site. I would love to see any photographs concerning the gun site and to learn more about it.

Amongst other things, I have my father's Soldier's Service Book and a certificate from King George VI, commemorating his service in the Home Guard.

Yours sincerely,
Dr B.Wybrow.

© Dr B.Wybrow. WW2 People's War.

These messages were added to this story by site members between June 2003 and January 2006.

Message 1 - AA Rockets
Posted on: 07 January 2004 by John de Mansfield AbsolonResearcher

Dear Dr Wybrow

I had some small experience with the early rocket projecters. The original weapon fired a single rocket and they were designed purely as a barrage weapon. I remember seeing the first projecter at a camp in Surrey just south of London. It was set up for a demonstration which was attended by Winston Churchill who was in a bad mood that day. After a lot of messing about the rocket was fired over London. Winston Churchill walked away in disgust saying "it wasn't fused" it landed in Carshalton and destroyed at house fortunately no casualties.

The rockets were placed on rails and a clip attached to the propelling charge which was fired by a battery. The fuse was set by hand to the estimated range but did not become live until the rocket was fired. The normal drill was to estimate the future position of the target and then order the range which was set followed by a bearing and elevation. When the target reached the presumed position the order to fire was given and ,hopefully, the rockets and the target met together. Apart from that the experience of all those rockets bursting together in front of an aircraft was very off putting. As the drill was very simple it was easy to train teams of Home Guard to operate them. Several hundred men were needed to work the shifts. There were two men to each rocket launcher.They were protected from premature bursts by a shield but the most dangerous area was behind them there being a large sheet of flame from the rear of the rocket when fired. Miss -- fires were usually caused by either bad connections or flat batteries. The rocket would then have to be removed.The danger lay in the propellant igniting whilst the rocket was being moved to a safe place. They were then destroyed by a controlled explosion.

As far as I know the Germans didnít use a similar weapon against aircraft. Their research was directed more towards the aggressive Vengeance weapons.

AA Z guns were re-adapted in a ground role as MRLS(Multi-rocket Launching Systems) for use in the Pacific war. My unit was just about to convert to them when the atom bomb was dropped.

I hope this is some help to you as a general background picture

John Absolon

Message 2 - AA Rockets
Posted on: 20 January 2004 by hillmaxhistry42

Dear Mr Absolon,

Thank you for the detailed reply.

However, I remember, my father telling me that a salvo of six rockets was sent off, and that each had a clockwork timer, so that, time being equivalent to gained altitide, mean't that the projectile exploded at a desired height.

Could your experiences possibly relate to earlier on in the war, whilst my father's corresponded to a later period, namely, October 1942 to May 1943, when he served in the Home Guard on the Hyde Park Gun Sight.

Are there any photographs of the guns in Hyde Park, either on Internet web sites, or elsewhere. I know that Lady Soames, who was in the ATS, visited the Gun Sight.

Message 3 - AA Rockets
Posted on: 21 January 2004 by John de Mansfield AbsolonResearcher 238443

Dear Dr Wybrow.

Thank you for your post I had very little to do with the the operation and use of Z Guns and there could well have been six barrelled and nine barrelled versions. I believe that the Ground to Ground (codenamed Land Mattress) version had either 9 or 12 launching rails. My experience of fuses tells me that it was pre-set clockwork fuse set just before firing and was armed on launching probably as a pre-set distance from the launcher. In any miss-fire the back end was the dangerous bit. The report by my father who picked up two men in his ambulance that were caught in the backfire was horrendous.

I think it was Mary Lady Soames who served on the 3.7 AA site in Hyde Park and as you know was Winston Churchill's daughter. Apart from the Imperial War Museum I wouldn't know where to locate photographs of Z Guns

I hope I have been of some little help in your research.

Regards
John Absolon

Message 4 - AA Rockets
Posted on: 21 March 2004 by hillmaxhistry42

Dear Mr Absolon,

Thanks for the recent reply; I will continue to search for photographs.

Best wishes,
Dr Wybrow.

WW2 People's War is an online archive of wartime memories contributed by members of the public and gathered by the BBC. The archive can be found at the link given below.

Photographs

Z-Battery loader Merseyside 1942, web pic no source credited
Single projectile launcher
Home Guard operators
Z-Battery Merseyside 1942, web pic no source credited
Single projectile loading
Home Guard operators
Z-Battery Bootle 1942, web pic no source credited
Single projectile loading
Home Guard operators


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