Monday, 28 June 2021

At War! Bougainville: Jungle Attack

In 2014 I was contacted by Brigadier General Ronald R. Stockum, who was born on the 8th July 1916, just one week after his father Sergeant Reginald G. Bareham was killed in action on the first day of the Battle of the Somme whilst serving with the 11th Battalion, Suffolk Regiment (the Cambs Suffolks). Since then I've got to know the General well and am proud to know him as a friend. Aside from the interest in his father, 'Van' as he is known, is a great source of inspiration and knowledge having had a long and distinguished military career. Indeed when I was studying for my MA I was able to tap into his memories of combat during the Second World War Pacific Campaign at which point he was serving with the US Marines as a young officer. Van, now almost 105 years old, continues to write a column in his local newspaper and I thought I would share his account of the Battle of Bougainville which was republished recently.

Here it is .....

Brief History
The island of Bougainville is named for French admiral and explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville, who visited there in 1768. Japan invaded the island in 1942 to provide a support base for operations elsewhere in the South West Pacific. The Allied invasion began in 1943 with full control of the island not re-established until 1945.  Today, the region is divided into three Districts: the North, the South and the Central Bougainville Districts. 

French Admiral Louis Antoine de Bougainville

Jungle Attack 
On November 6, 1943, the 1st Battalion, 21st Marines debarked into landing craft from high-speed transports, actually old converted destroyers, and landed in reserve on the Torokina beaches.  My thoughts, as I faced infantry combat for the first time, were mixed.  While anxious to prove myself, I was apprehensive about the uncertainties ahead and in my inner thoughts hoped to find the battle won and the island secured.
Promptly at 9:55 a.m., the shells of supporting artillery commenced their welcome shrieks overhead.  This is it, I thought, as the chatter of machine guns joined the crescendo to signal two minutes to go!  I made a quick visual check of my weapon and equipment, being unconsciously joined in this by a thousand tense, serious and determined men. As I glanced at my watch, the minute hand seemed to race toward ten o'clock.

US Marines - Bougainville Jungle, 1943

An enormous silence signalled H-Hour, 10:00 a.m., the time of our attack. The battalion sprang to life.  Small patrols moved out and were soon swallowed by the dense jungle. They were followed by the battalion in seven files; each preceded by scouts and a team of machete-wielding marines.
I slipped into my accustomed place near the battalion commander in the center column.  There was little difference between this actual attack and the many that we had rehearsed during training on Guadalcanal. The shade of the jungle was just as friendly and welcome as ever, but what else might it shelter and conceal?  Contrary to popular belief, the jungle is relatively cool, the towering growth providing shelter from the tropic sun. 

A copy of the jungle attack formation carried in combat by the author, November 1943 

An Incredible Sight
Soon after initiating our attack, we encountered an incredible sight!  Covering an area less than the size of a football field was a ghastly tableau of a Japanese assembly area. It contained at least three hundred of the enemy in all sorts of grotesque poses.  Some had died clutching shovels, desperately in the act of digging in.  Some had been surprised while eating what became their last meal.  Others were stilled in the act of undoing their packs.  The stink of putrefaction was not yet in the air, but dominating the dreadful scene was the spectre of death.

I silently thanked God for the barrage which had destroyed this well-equipped and heavily-armed force before it could extract its toll from the ranks of the First Battalion.

Brigadier General Ronald R. Van Stockum (June 2021)

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)