Friday, 26 March 2021

The Smoke Lane Heavy Anti-Aircraft Battery, Bristol (1940-45)

To counter the six major air raids on Bristol during the Second World War, the 'first to be built' heavy anti-aircraft batteries in close proximity to the city deployed twenty four 3.7" heavy anti-aircraft guns - four for each of the six batteries. The firing during the raids must have created quite a cacophony - on the 11th April 1942 'Good Friday Raid' on Bristol in 1941 the guns fired a total of 6765 rounds. Whilst only two Luftwaffe aircraft were shot down by the Bristol HAA batteries throughout the war, they played a major part in the defence of the city - forcing the raiders to fly high and presenting a picture of defiance to a frightened population. 

The Magazine at Smoke Lane HAA Battery

Remnants of five of the six original batteries - Easton-in-Gordano, Portishead, Rockingham Farm (Smoke Lane), Cribbs Causeway, and Purdown - are still extant and two are accessible to the public - Smoke Lane and Purdown (both of which are scheduled monuments). The sixth, at Winterbourne, I've not yet found. By the end of the war the total number of HAA batteries protecting Bristol under the auspices of RAF 11 Group (West) numbered twenty. This post covers the Smoke Lane site which has been opened up to the public with the help of English Heritage, who have installed a very helpful information board and financed a number of access paths. 

Smoke Lane - Info Panel
Although accessible it is not the easiest place to find. If travelling by car come off the M5 at Junction 18, and head towards Bristol Port. At the roundabout in front of the Port gates take the last exit and head north along St Andrew's Lane (the A403). You will see the railway tracks on the left and after about half a mile or so you will reach another roundabout. Take the first exit into what looks like a factory complex. The road which is bordered by metal fencing on both sides, will take you straight to the site. 

Once you've parked up, go to the information board in the north east corner. You will see the old magazine on your right and the remains of the control buildings directly in front. The four gun positions can be easily discerned and whilst three have been filled in with building debris, the fourth on the right hand side has been cleared and is accessible. I would describe the condition as 'fair' - a number of the other HAA sites around Bristol are in much better shape, but not all are easily accessed.

Gun Position No. 4 at Smoke Lane

The interpretative aids on the site are very helpful. For example the strange triangular indentation on the floor in one of the control buildings were footings for a Predictor machine (called a 'Kerry' after its inventor Major A.V.Kerrison at the Admiralty Research Laboratory, Teddington). The height, speed and range of a Luftwaffe aircraft was predicted and the information passed to the gunners who would do their work. 

Floor of Predictor Building
ATS Predictor Operatives
The Smoke Land HAA complex was once much larger. There was a radar station to the east, and a hutted camp nearby. The site was fully operational from 1940 and initially manned by the 98th HAA Regiment. It protected the northern end of the Avonmouth Docks firing out into the Bristol Channel. 

There are a number of other interesting buildings on the site - albeit in a collapsed or sem-standing state. As with similiar battery locations elsewhere, various building were used for storage, ablutions and offices and the remains of a brick built hut, which may have been used for one or more of these purposes, can be seen at Smoke Lane. Other structures at Smoke Lane including a concrete platform for telescope use and a building used to house a height finder instrument (which was used in conjunction with the predictor). There's also a slightly larger structure thought to have been a command post. 

The remains of the Control Buildings at Smoke Lane

The magazine, which can be accessed via a path at each end, consists of a corridor and five ammunition storage rooms - fenced off for safety reasons. The guns were served with high explosive (HE) and shrapnel 28lb shells. The fuses worked on timers with the standard maximum being 43 seconds. The bulk of the ammunition was stored in the magazine with supplies for immediate used kept in the bins which surrounded each of the gun pits.

The Magazine at Smoke Lane HAA Battery

The 3.7" guns themselves were relatively modern for their time. First deployed in 1938 (and two years later at Smoke Lane) their effectiveness was incrementally improved over the course of the Second World War. By 1945 they could fire 32 rounds per minute through auto-loading and could hit targets of up to 32,000 feet - though they rarely did when in action.

As an aside, The Shopland Collection, based in Clevedon - have a General Electric 3.7" Heavy Anti-Aircraft Gun which is operational (blank firing). Shoplands can provide a crew and will pull it using an AEC Matador Tractor. It is available for demonstrations and is often seen at the annual 'Dig for Victory' event which takes place on the Ashton Court Estate near Bristol.

For a post about the Purdown HAA Battery click here - Bristol's Air Defence (1940-1945)

Wednesday, 24 February 2021

The Foolish Young Officer (1917)

The following is transcribed from a recording that my Great Uncle, Alf Curme, made in the early 1980s. The story was one of his favourites and he would often tell it when in the company of friends or family. His thick Hampshire burr was a pleasure to listen to - and is it now on the original recording.

The Hampshire Yeomanry, A Squadron, Petersfield


At the time of this incident Alf Curme was serving as a Private with the 15th (Hampshire Yeomanry) Battalion. It occurred sometime after September 1917 following the 'dismounting' of the Hampshire Yeomanry. Alf was obviously delighted to have 'got one over' on an officer. He may have saved a few lives in doing so.

Alf, with his sister Nell

When you went up the line through the Ypres Salient, to the tip of the 'U' you know, where our fellows were, quite a lot, there was a timber track. The roads were so muddy they just disappeared into slush - there was no drainage system. At one time we were just past 'Dicky Bush' lake (Dikkebus) - it was a horrible spot - just grease and mud. Your horses used to go in up to their knees trying to pull the limbers through. Anyway they decided to make a timber track and they got lengths of pine and laid them all out. What a game that was! The stuff used to move about.

There was one very, very strict rule and that was - never stop on the track. At the start of the timber road there was always a military policeman. And he always stopped everybody and told you when to go. He would stand there for eight hours taking his turn. When the German's were shelling they almost

always used to shell in groups of six. He would know where the last six dropped having counted them. When the last one went off he would say "hop it, get over that track fast!".

The great thing was never to stop on that track because if you did you couldn't get anything past either way. I was in charge on this particular night. We were taking field cookers up to our blokes because they were in the reserve trenches. I had four field cookers and the usual limber and GS wagon and all that sort of thing. Maltese carts with all the Red Cross stuff in. I had probably fifteen to twenty vehicles. I got about a quarter of the way along this track and there were some bloomin' artillery blokes with guns - limbered up - with their poles down and their bloomin' nose bags on. They were on the track - half way along!

Alf Curme, Hampshire Yeomanry
I rode on ahead when I saw this lot and said to one of the gunners; "what the hell are you doing here?". He said "we've got a young officer up in front and he's trying to rule the roost mate, he stopped us all and started the feed - told us the horses will be safe on here". He paused and then added a word of warning "don't you be saying a word to him".

I said; "by God, I'll say a word - where is he!". I went on ahead with all my usual kit on - tin hat on the top and all my slings around me and the rest of it. I found this officer bloke and I said "what bloody Brigade do you belong to? I'll bloody well report you!". For good measure I added "do you know you're infringing the rights of every damn trooper?". I put the fear of God into this fellow. Then he suddenly said to me "what rank are you?". "Don't you worry about bloody rank" I said. We don't all carry it on our great coats. You get these bloody things limbered up and out. Hop it!". He damn well moved quickly! He cleard off up that track and I thought to myself you cheeky blighter.

I was so mad, I couldn't help it - to see the young fool had done that. He'd already been warned by his own Sergeant that the track wasn't passable.

Alf (right) with his brother, Charles
Note: Alf went to The Sudan after the end of the War where he was awarded the Order of the Nile (5th Class) for his help in building the country's railways. Later he served in the Allied Control Commission, helping to rebuild Germany's railway network in the aftermath of the Second World War. He and his wife, Josephine, had one daughter Joan. I remember Alf as an affable, modest and practical man who was quietly proud of his achievements. 

The original recording can be heard here

To hear Alf's account of an encounter with German Uhlans click here.