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Winter Meeting

Wednesday 17th January 2007, at Larkhill

A Presentation by Mr Keith Brigstock


The Winter 2007 Meeting of the Society was held in the Newcome Hall, Larkhill, on Wednesday 17th January at 11 am.  27 members of the Society, three guests and seven others attended the meeting and two serving members of the Regiment.  As the Chairman was unable to attend, the Secretary, Lt Col Townend was in the Chair.

After the Secretary had given out the customary parish notices, he introduced the speaker, Mr Keith Brigstock, an enthusiastic member of the Society and proud owner of a 150 cm searchlight and generator who had already demonstrated his searchlight to the Society in 2004 and was now able to give the Society a more detailed explanation of the organization, equipment and tactics of Royal Artillery searchlights.

Keith Brigstock

Good morning ladies and gentleman.  For those of you I have not met before, and some here who may think you’re the lucky ones, my name is Keith Brigstock and I am the SO2 CIS G6 here at the Artillery Centre. May I start by saying how honoured and pleased I am at having the opportunity to give today’s presentation.   I was myself a Gunner for 20 years and have always been a keen military historian with my particular interest in the Royal Artillery of the Second World War.

It is only recently that my focus has narrowed to Anti Aircraft Searchlights after acquiring one of my own in 2002, which you will have seen outside. Some of you may remember it from the April 2004 meeting, in a less finished state, when the Society generously made a contribution towards its restoration.

My presentation to day, “An Introduction to Searchlights”is very much that, an introduction. You will appreciate that Anti Aircraft Searchlights are just a part of the bigger story of Anti Aircraft warfare, and it would be very easy to let this bigger story dominate the presentation. So please bear with me if I skate over some of the milestones of Anti Aircraft warfare in an attempt to focus on the story of Searchlights.  I will of course be more than happy to answer any more detailed questions at the end.

The history anti-aircraft warfare is not very glamorous and part played by searchlights even less so, resulting in not much being written about them. I therefore set myself the task of increasing the wider knowledge of Anti Aircraft Searchlights of the Royal Artillery, a large branch of the Gunners, short lived and little known about.

Today I intend to cover the origins of military searchlights, their development during the First World War and through the Inter-War years with the Royal Engineers, then during on to the Second World War with the Royal Artillery. We will touch on the workings of searchlights and look at their equipment and organisation and their changing role during their time in the Gunners. I will also talk briefly on the 93rd Searchlight Regiment RA the last Searchlight regiment to be formed and famous for a second reason, but more on that later.

The Royal Navy were the first to see the value of searchlights, introducing them into service on ships in the 1880s to facilitate naval gun fire on to enemy shipping at night. The Army first deployed searchlights in South Africa during the Boer War, first in a coastal defence role to provide light barriers across estuaries and then on land for detecting troop movements at night around defended positions.

Col Baden-Powell, of Boy Scout fame, historically made use of searchlights during the Defence of Mafeking, where he used improvised searchlights at various locations fooling the Boers into believing that the whole position was ringed with them, thus deterring a night attack.

The early pioneering of electrical searchlights at the turn of the century was carried out by the Voluntary Corps of Electrical Engineers which had been formed from the Institute of Electrical Engineers.  By 1907 the Corps had become the London Electrical Engineers, Royal Engineers, Territorial Force (Fig 1).  It was this need for technical knowledge of electricity that searchlights were given as a responsibility of the Royal Engineers.

Searchlights were still being used very much in the coastal and land role, and had yet to be seen as an anti aircraft asset, this was soon to change. The aircraft that first alerted Britain to the threat from the air was not afixed wing aircraft but Germany’s development of the airship of which there were five battalions by 1911.

At the start of the First World War, searchlight units were deployed to the south coast and the banks of the Thames estuary, where they were deployed to form light barriers, just as they had done in the Boer War.  Britain at this time had very little in the way of anti aircraft guns or searchlights but with support from the admiralty a month into the war 33 guns were in use but without any searchlights. London was only defended by only four 1-pounder Pom-Pom,s on the roofs of the Foreign Office, the Admiralty, the Crown Agent’s and in the Woolwich Arsenal.

The first Zeppelin raid on London was on 31st May 1915.  The Air Defences of London had now grown to 12 Anti Aircraft Guns and 12 acetylene gas powered searchlights manned by 120 special constables, but it was still not enough.  In this early stage of the War the co-ordination of Anti Aircraft Guns and Searchlights was poor and this showed in the lack of results, but if they guns not been doing well, night-fighters had even less success. It was clear that the Air Defence of Britain was in need of an overhaul.

The brilliant beam of light that a searchlight produced was not from a bulb but by electricity jumping from positive carbon rod to negative one causing a bright arc of light.  During the time the arc is running the carbon rods burn down and need constant adjustment to keep the gap just right for the arc.  Many of the components of searchlights had been made in Europe prior to the war, for example the carbon rods you can see here (Fig 2), which were excavated from the 2 Coy, London Electrical Engineers, position at Coal House Fort in Essex, were made in Nuernberg in 1903.  A number of problems arose as the coastal searchlights and their units were transferred to Anti-Aircraft duties.  Changes were required in design and training and a select band from the London Electrical Engineers were withdrawn and returned to their Headquarters at 46 Regency Street, London, where workshops, design and drawing offices were set up to deal with the redesigns.  This organisation became “The Searchlight Establishment” and was commanded by Capt P Yorke RE.

By December 1915, even though now integrated into air defence, all new AA searchlights units were still raised as part of the Royal Engineers. The Tyne Electrical Engineers, who came from a similar background as the London Engineers, took over the running of the School of Electric Lighting, which had been formed in Gosport.  In 1916 the War Office took over responsibility for all anti-aircraft defences and a new strategy was developed which included a searchlight belt 25 miles wide stretching from Northumberland to Sussex (Fig 4). Each searchlight company was controlled directly by the commander of the air squadron whose aircraft patrolled over that sector.

The benefits of such tactics soon became apparent when the first Zeppelin, L15, was shot down over Purfleet after first being illuminated by searchlights based in Woolwich (Fig 3).  Searchlight units soon became adept at picking up Zeppelins, and although the raids continued, airships were frequently turned back by anti-aircraft fire.  By 1st October 1916, the Zeppelin threat had all but ended and the Germans attentions turned to use of the bomber.

The main bomber used was the Gotha, a twin engine biplane, which could fly at 80mph and carry a bomb load of 1,000lbs at a height 12,000 feet.  As a result the Air Defence plan was again reorganised when Major General Ashmore, who had studied anti-aircraft warfare, was placed in command of London’s Defences. He had a radical approach to its defence, organizing zones of guns and searchlights with gaps between them for patrolling fighter aircraft, which enabled them to attack enemy formations broken up by the anti aircraft fire.

New 90cm and 120cm searchlights and their sound locators were linked directly to the guns to provide early warning. General Ashmore continued improving the AA defences, often contrary to the wishes of the War Office, and in early 1918 he finally replaced the remaining part time civilian searchlight operators with Royal Engineers (Fig 5).

You may be wondering why searchlights are measured in centimetres as apposed to inches. Well this is because searchlights concave reflector with a fixed focal point is classed as an optical instrument and optical instruments such as cameras and telescopes, were all manufactured in Europe and so were all  measured in cm and mm.

On 11th November 1918, Armistice Day, the Air Defence of Great Britain had a total of 469 guns and 622 searchlights. By 1920, only two years later, the strength of AA Defence in Great Britain had dropped to one brigade of 32 guns and one battalion of 48 searchlights.  The Searchlight Establishment however, raised earlier in the war, had been so successful in developing searchlight technology that it was confirmed as the authoritive body on searchlights and in 1919 the establishment was civilianised, mainly by demobilising the military staff that worked there.  It was not, as many may think, the rise of Nazi Germany in the 1930s that changed political attitude  towards air defence as this had occurred much earlier, in 1922, with the rise of the French Air Force which was by then the largest Air Force in Europe.  

Numerous committees discussed the ideal number of guns and searchlight required for the defence of London but finally a territorial force of one searchlight battalion equipped with First World War 120 cm searchlights and four brigades of guns was agreed. This was later increased in 1925 when the Air Defence of Great Britain (ADGB) was formed linking all elements of air defence.

Also in 1922 it was decided to bring all aspects of Anti Aircraft, under one roof; the Gunners AA Gunnery Wing and the Sappers AA Searchlight Wing where amalgamated into “The School of Anti-Aircraft Defence”. Also the Signals Experimental Establishment at Woolwich which was concerned with the detection of aircraft by sound, merged with the Searchlight Establishment to become the “Air Defence Experimental Establishment”.  Both these new organisations were based at RAF Biggin Hill.  In December 1935, after 15 years of political arguments, both in government and with the Chiefs of Staff, 1st AA Division finally came into being.  It was primarily TA and was seriously under-manned and under-equipped, having to re-role a number of TA infantry battalions to fill the gaps. It was, however, finally a real Anti Aircraft organisation.

In July of the following year (1936) 1st AA Division came under the operational control of RAF Fighter Command and was joined later the same year by the newly formed 2nd Anti-Aircraft Division. Both Divisions had geographical responsibilities with 1 AA Division looking after London and the South East and 2 AA Division the rest of Great Britain.

The first Gunner Searchlight regiment was 2nd Searchlight Regiment RA, which was formed on the 25 May 1938. This was a militia regiment where the Officers and Senior NCOs were full time while the rank and file were young men subscripted for a six month tours of duty. This regiment was joined in the November by 3 new Gunner TA Regiments 70, 71 and 72 SL Regts RA (TA).  All were equipped with the new 90cm Projector Anti Aircraft, as searchlights were now officially called: lighter, smaller yet more powerful; it had a high current-density arc unit with automatic carbon feed allowing easer and more efficient use. 

To support these searchlights a new range of lorry mounted generators were introduced, the Tilling Stevens and the Thorneycroft, supplemented by a new two wheeled trailer Lister, 15 KVA Diesel, generator similar to the one outside (Fig 6).

During 1938 searchlight and acoustic technology had moved on and new sound locators were being rolled out. These new sound locators were fitted with large parabolic receivers and sensitive microphone detectors and due to their size were mounted on large four wheel trailers (Fig 7). A further development soon followed with the invention of the cathode-ray tube enabling a green screen from which the operators could see sound converted to a visual display.

In June 1938, 1st AA Corps was formed, increasing the number of Anti Aircraft Divisions to five.  Little had changed, though; even after all the rhetoric from government the corps was still woefully short of manpower, guns and searchlights.

The Munich Crisis of September 1938 brought a much needed wake up call.  On 23rd August the Anti Aircraft Defences were mobilized; at first the deployment seemed to have gone well, but when thoroughly examined it proved to have been a shambles.  A large number of units had been  unable to deploy; in London, for instance, the County Council refused to let any equipments deploy on there land, including the parks, and for those equipments that did deploy half of them could not have been used due to a lack of the right stores and ammunition.  The reason given for the lack of correct stores was clear; the army had been largely at the mercy of Civilian Companies and Trade Unions.  There were reports of soldiers being told to wait while store keepers had their breakfast and of vehicles being sent away and told to report the next day.  A familiar story even today, some things never change.

On 1st April 1939 1st AA Corps was again expanded by a further two divisions and was given full command status.  Anti-Aircraft Command was born and four months later, on 28th July 1939, Major General Sir Fredrick Pile took over as General Officer Commanding Anti-Aircraft Command, a post he was to keep for the next six years (Fig 8).

One of the last peaces of equipment to come into service before the start of the War was the new 150cm searchlight.  Mounted on its own four-wheeled trailer its more powerful, narrow beam was capable of penetrating mist and low cloud to illuminate targets at 20,000 feet or more.   The first equipments were issued to the regular regiments but it was not long before all searchlight units received two per troop to mix in with the 90cm Projectors.  More powerful but less mobile than the 90cm projectors it gave the units more flexibility and often acted as master lights for the troop.  It used the same carbons rods as the 90cm making supply easer as searchlights burnt through them a quit a rate. The negative and positive carbons burnt at different rates 1 negative to 3 positive. The manual states they had a burning time of 150 and 50 minutes respectively but in practice it was more like half that time.

(Video Clip 1 -RE Searchlights in Action c 1939)

Searchlight units were to take part in all theatres of operations from North West Europe to the Far East, but for the rest of this presentation I intend to focus on the searchlights of Ack Ack Command.

On 24th August 1939 Ack Ack Command was mobilized, just 10 days later on the 3rd Sept 1939 Britain declared war on Germany.  It was only three days before the Command shot down its first aircraft, an RAF Bristol Blenheim of 64 Squadron which flew into the Sheerness Gun Defended area, the plane crashing three miles east of Sheerness; there is no information on casualties.  The first real success of the command was on the morning of the 19th October 1939 when an Anti Aircraft searchlight detachment on a remote site in Scotland spotted a U-Boat conning tower in the Firth of Forth. They raised the alarm and an RAF Anson and four Royal Navy destroyers were dispatched and it was later reported that the U-Boat had been found and sunk.

After the initial deployment one of the firsttasks of Ack Ack Command was to supply searchlights units for the BEF.  In 1939, 1st AA Battalion RE was the only full time regular searchlight unit in Great Britain and they soon found them selves deploying to France with the BEF, although it appears that this may have been a mistake as the movement order was supposed to have read “Less 1st AA Bn RE”; they were actually supposed to be deployed in the Thames area.  Shortly after arriving in France they where joined by two Gunner batteries to make them up to full strength.   1 SL Regt RA came on to the order of battle on the 15th January 1940 and moved out to France in the April. The new regiment took over the searchlights and equipment from the two RE companies who then along with their RHQ returned to England. Even before 1 SL Regt was in position it was decided that more searchlights were needed, so 2 and 3 SL Regts RA and the RHQ and one company of 37 AA Bn RE were mobilised.    

As was normal with searchlight units they were dispersed on remote sites all around northern France. Caught out by the sudden onslaught of the Germans Blitzkrieg, they soon found themselves reverting to an infantry role for which most had not been trained. The bulk of 1 SL Regt and half 2 SL Regt were forced into defensive positions around Boulogne and Calais.  The heroic part played by 1 SL Regt, along with two officers and 230 men from 2 SL Regt in the defence of Calais is well documented in Airey Neave’s book “The Flames of Calais”.  He was the first British officer to escape from Colditz and had been a troop commander in 1 SL Regt when he was captured.   The battle for Calais was a bloody and hard fought one, with troops fighting from house to house, but in the end the pressure was too much and by the end of May Calais fell. 1 SL Regt lost most of its 52 officers and 1600 men with only one officer and 57 men managing to get back to England.

Another group from 2 SL Regt – one officer and 80 men – found themselves attached to K Battery, Royal Horse Artillery with orders to help hold the small village of Hondeghem which was on the Germans main axis of advance.  The troops fought a valiant action then, running short of ammunition, they charged the German positions and broke through, giving them a route out towards Dunkirk. For this action K Battery was awarded the honor title of Hondeghem, one of only five awarded during the Second World War.  Unlike the other searchlight regiments, 2 SL Regt were more widely spread which resulted in its batteries having mixed fortunes.  By the 25 May 1940, 5 Bty was completely missing, 6 Bty had over 50 per cent missing and 8 Bty was missing just under a quarter.  By the end of May the Regiment had lost over 50 men killed and approximately half the Regiment captured.

3 (Ulster) SL Regt RA (SR (Special Reserve)), which had only been formed three days before war was declared, faired much better.  Its batteries were deployed relatively close together around the Dunkirk area with one battery in Dunkirk itself. On 19 May, after some hard fighting often against tanks, the bulk of the Regiment was ordered to destroy their searchlights and make for Dunkirk.  By 21 May, 9, 10 and 11 Btys were in defensive positions around the port while 12 Bty continued in it searchlight role in side the town.  Over the next six days the Regiment withstood many attacks from the enemy until on the 27 May they were relieved.  The Regiment was very fortunate that the next day 9, 10 and 11 Btys and RHQ were evacuated to England.   M and C Troops of 12 Battery were evacuated in small boats the next day, while the rest of the Battery was ordered to destroy the remaining lights and assist in the defence of the beaches.  They were eventually taken off the beach in small batches, by 31 May.  The Regiment had been very lucky with only 28 killed, 41 wounded and three men taken prisoner.   

The Battalion HQ and 307 Coy, 37 (Tyne Electrical Engineers) AA Bn RE arrived late in France, disembarking at Dunkirk on 16 May 1940.  They were sent straight to the Le Havre area and avoided being caught in the Dunkirk pocket.  What followed for them was a mad dash across France to towards Brest while trying to avoid the advancing German army. They were one of the last units to leave France in mid June, being evacuated from St Malo, Brest and St Nazaire having suffered only two casualties.

The involvement of searchlight units in the evacuation of France does not quite end there.  34 AA Bn RE supplied searchlight detachments for the Thames Defence Flotilla, three paddle steamers converted for Anti Aircraft work: HMSs Royal Eagle, Crested Eagle and Golden Eagle. On 29 May the Flotilla was ordered to France to assist in the evacuation from Dunkirk (Fig 9).  Between the three ships over 3500 men were rescued often at great risk to the crews.  Great bravery was shown by the searchlight detachments on these ships.  LCpl Gordon Vane on the Royal Eagle was awarded the Military Medal and Cpl Lew Goddard on the Crested Eagle was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, both for actions during the evacuation.

While the BEF were in France, the rest of Ack Ack Command was far from idle.  Throughout the autumn of 1939 searchlights were being deployed on sites all over Great Britain, but the sense of urgency generated by this full scale deployment soon gave way to an unexpected lack of action.   The mass waves of bombers that had been predicted failed to materialise and as the autumn gave way to winter the hardships and physical discomfort along with a lack of action soon began to affect morale. Searchlight sites tended to be remote and many of the detachments were cooped up on these sites, some still under canvas, for months at a time, often without even an afternoon off.  Senior commanders were aware of the problems and rushed civilian contracts through to provide hutted accommodation.  However things where not moving fast enough so General Pile decided to provide stores and equipment for units to help themselves, and by forming engineer batteries to help with the hut construction programme.

It would not be long however before the searchlight detachments would be involved in their first major battle of the war, the bitter winter of early 1940.  Heavy snow started to fall soon after Christmas and the cold snap lasted until mid February.  A number of sites were cut off and had to improvise ways of getting their supplies through.  By the beginning of the spring 1940 Ack Ack Command had suffered more casualties from the winter than from the Germans, but General Pile called the winter of 1939-40 a merciful respite as it gave him and the Command the time to prepare for the onslaught he knew was to come.

On 1 Aug 1940 all RE AA searchlight units, with from a few exceptions, transferred to the Royal Artillery.  We can see here a video of some gunners going through this early training.

(Video Clip 2 – RA searchlights training)

By the end of 1941 the number of Searchlight Regiments in the Royal Artillery had risen to 71.  A regiment had a strength of 52 Officers and 1622 OR s and was one of the largest regimental level units in the Army, over twice the size of a field regiment.  A regiment was commanded by a lieutenant colonel and consisted of four batteries, each commanded by a major, with a strength of 11 officers and 365 OR s, although there were a number of three battery regiments.  A battery consisted of four troops each with six searchlights and was usually commanded by a captain.  Both the 90 and 150 cm searchlights had ten-man detachments on static sites.  This gave a regiment a total equipment strength of 96 searchlights.  To give you some idea of the size of a searchlight regiment the photo here (Fig 10) is of 342 (M) SL Bty, 93 SL Regt, about which more later.  Just multiply this by 4 and you can see just how big a searchlight regiment really was.

Not only where the regiments large in manpower they were spread over a large geographical area making command and control very difficult. Here (Fig 11) we see the spread of 82nd SL Regt which covered the Wiltshire area from November 1941 until June 1943.

The roles of searchlights had been evolving since the start of the war but the primary role was still the illumination of aircraft at night for recognition and engagement by Anti Aircraft guns and by RAF night fighters.  The secondary roles were:

Coastal Watch

Homing Beacon for stricken Aircraft

Artificial Moonlight

LAA fire – each searchlight detachment was issued a Lewis light machine gun

Intelligence gathering to assist the Observer Corps

Here (Fig 12) we see the layout of a searchlight site in early 1940 and the position the detachment in action:

The Searchlight should be placed on flat solid piece of ground with clear 360 degree visibility.  The sound locator where possible should be located in the path of approaching enemy aircraft, 50 yards forward of the searchlight, and as far way as possible from external noise including wind.  The Generator should be between 200 to 300 yards from the searchlight and the maximum distance from the sound locator.  If possible intervening hedge rows and trees should be used to shield the noise from the searchlight and give overhead camouflage. 

Numbers 1, 4 and 5 work on the searchlight.

Numbers 2 and 3 are the spotters, deployed approximately 30 to 50 yards each side of the searchlight

Numbers 6, 7 and 8 are the sound locator detachment. Their secondary duty is to man the AA machine gun which should be placed as near as possible to them without hindering the locator’s operation.

Number 9 is at the generator.

The main means of communication was by telephone, with both the sound locator detachment and Number 9 having their own lines. The Number 1 has a link with the Troop command post, although this was often manned by the cook when the light was in action. Later in the war sites were issued a No 17 Set radio for communication with troop headquarters.

In more detail:

The No 1 is the detachment commander, normally a sergeant.  One of his responsibilities is discipline. As we see from this photo taken from the 1960 comedy “Light up the Sky”, based on life on a searchlight site, we see the cook, played by Harry Locke, trying to punch the No 1, played by Victor Maddern, for criticising his cooking, while a young Gunner Benny Hill, tries to break up the fight (Fig 13).

The Nos 2 and 3 are the eyes of the detachment, each equipped with a pair of binoculars and a spotting chair, their main role is to search for targets and to help direct the beam on to the target as soon as they see it (Fig 14).

The No 4 is responsible for the proper care and maintenance of the outside of the searchlight and in action he is responsible for tracking and keeping the beam on to the target with assistance from the sound locator and the spotters (Fig 15).

The No 5 is responsible for the care and maintenance of the lamp, all electrical circuits, and the inside of the projector barrel.  Most importantly, in action he/she is responsible for the arc unit ensuring that it is burning correctly and efficiently and that the carbons don’t burn out.

The sound locator detachment is a three man team. The No 6, a JNCO,is the detachment commander and also the 2IC of the searchlight detachment. The No 7 is responsible for tracking sound in the azimuth and informing the No 6 when on target, and No 8 for tracking sound in the elevation.  The sound locator detachment is also responsible for manning the Anti-Aircraft machine gun on orders from the No 1.

The No 9 is responsible for the maintenance and the technical working of the generator or generator lorry. During the hours of darkness he must make sure the engine is capable of taking full load at a moment’s notice, and it must therefore be kept warm and started regularly, remembering the early generators were hand-cranked to start.

(Video Clip 3 – Australian Unit Deploying)

At the beginning of the war the defensive plan for searchlights was to have great belts of the lights across the country with a searchlight every 3,500 yards.  However, there was such a shortage of searchlights that the interval had to be increased to 6,000 yards.  Gun Defended Areas such as cities and ports, for example, were kept at 3,500 yards where possible.  This layout did have it problems and some lessons were learnt in the first real brush with the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain.

The Battle of Britain started slowly in June 1940 with the enemy raiding by day, and even after switching to night raids, the Luftwaffe still only attacked ports and shipping.  In July the enemy switched back to daylight raids which were now heavier, averaging 20 aircraft, but still concentrating on ports and extending to include the industrial centre of the Midlands.  Even after this short time, the searchlights detachments were starting to suffer from having to be awake all day augmenting the Observer Corps and manning their machine guns and then being on duty all night manning he lights. During August the raids grew in number and intensity, with the list of targets broadened to include airfields and radar sites, and heavy fighter escort. The number of aircraft used to attack the fighter stations grew and some raids had in excess of 200 aircraft, it was now obvious that the Luftwaffe were intent on trying to destroying the RAF on the ground.  While this battle was being fought mainly during the day by the RAF, searchlight sites were playing their part with intelligence reports and even shooting down a number of enemy aircraft.

On 15 Sep 1940 the Luftwaffe threw everything they had at Britain. The RAF was ready for them and in the fighting that day the RAF reported they had shot down between 60 and 80 aircraft.  With the RAF concentrating on protecting their airfields it was often left to Ack Ack Command to defend the ports and industry.  In the three and half months of the Battle Ack Ack command had destroyed 190 aircraft and although statically low, General Pile later stated in his autobiography:

“There is no doubt that the RAF played the dominant role in the great victory, nor is there any doubt of the heroic fighting qualities of the pilots who took part in that battle. Yet without the ground defences, the Battle of Britain could not have been won by the fighter pilots, any more than the battle of El Alamein could have been won by the infantry and tanks without the Gunners.”

The next big trial for the searchlight detachments was the Blitz, an eightmonth nocturnal battle over the cities of Britain. Although London had had a taste of what was to come in early July it was not until September 1940 that the Luftwaffe really started the raids in earnest.  Although the searchlight layout was tight in London, over the rest of the Great Britain due to the lack of searchlights it was patchy to such of an extent it became a help to the enemy.  German pilots where able to use the location and density of searchlights as an indication to the location of high priority targets.  Many searchlight units were ordered to black-out, which did not help the moral of the Gunner detachments or the civilian population closest to the blacked-out lights. However this blackout did not seem to help and on 22 Sep they were order to end the blackout and to re-engage the enemy.

The more powerful 150cm Searchlights were now being issued in quantity but the searchlights of Ack Ack Command were still not having the effect hoped for.   In November 1940 the searchlights in the 11 Group area were reorganised and ordered to form clusters in sites with one 150cm and two 90cm searchlights on each site, each site being 10,400 yards apart.  This applied to searchlights both in Gun Defended Areas as well as the belts to try and combat the recognition of defended areas by enemy bombers.  Until then the searchlights sites had been controlled and named by the AA divisions.  As part of the changes they were more closely integrated with the RAF.  Searchlight Sector Control Rooms were now co-located with the RAF where possible.  Also all the searchlight site names were allocated an alpha-numeric code made up of the 2 letter Sector Code, such as DX – Duxford or MW – Middle Wallop, and a 4 or 3 digit number the first 1 or 2 digits for the battery the third for the troop and the forth for the site.

In February 1941, at the height of the Blitz, Ack Ack Command got the increase in size that General Pile had been hoping for, to three corps, a total of 12 divisions. More important was the realignment of the divisional boundaries to better match the RAF Group boundaries (Fig 16).  Also during February it became evident that the clustering trial, while having merit, was not producing the results that were hoped for so a new searchlight layout was designed.

By August 1941 as the Blitz started to diminish, a new searchlight plan was drawn up (Fig 16). The Gun Defended Areas kept their own searchlight units, while the remainder covered Britain south of the River Tees, less for two small areas in the Midlands and Wales. There were two densities, Killer Belts of one searchlight every 6,000 yards approximately and Indicator Belts of one every 10,400 yards, these to be equipped with the new SLC radar guided searchlight when it became available, however due to the lack of manpower the full coverage was never achieved (Fig 17).

In September 1941, 48 SL Regt based around Portsmouth was ordered to trial the use of searchlights to dazzle bombers as away of protecting the Dockyard. A number of searchlights were clustered together and instructed to aim their beams at the fronts of oncoming aircraft, on receipt of the signal. The trial failed to impress although it remained in PAM 3, Operational Procedures for Searchlights, 1943 as one of the roles of searchlights.

Towards the end of 1941 all the hard work of the Air Defence Research and Development Establishment, now based in Christchurch, had paid off as the new radar controlled searchlights, SLC or Elsie as they were better known, started rolling of the production line.  The SLC initially came in three modes:

The wigwam with the radar remotely controlling a 90cm searchlight.

The radar fitted directly to a 90cm searchlight.

The radar as an integral part of a 150cm searchlight, the most common form (Fig 18).

Ironically all three were based on an invention by the Japanese Dr, Hidetusugu Yagi hence the aerials were called the Yagi Array, which consisted of one transmitter antenna and two receiving antennas for direction and two for height.  The radar operated in a similar way in all three modes with the operators preformed the same duties.  The sound locator became redundant and the detachment took on new duties with the No 7 controlling the bearing and the No 8 controlling the elevation, both housed under a canvas covered frame to protect them from the weather and to make it easer to see the green cathode-ray tube screen.  The No 6 was the selector and was in charge of the radar detachment. The Radar only helped the searchlight to acquire a target; it was still down to the No 4 on the long arm to keep the beam on target.

By the beginning of 1942, Ack Ack Command’s ability to engage night raiders had improved, Gun Laying radars, which enabled the guns to engage unseen targets, were appearing and the way night fighters and searchlights worked together changed with the introduction of Elsie.  Codenamed SMACK, boxes 10 by 40 miles were set up in the killer zones, a night fighter would be allocated to each box and would fly around it until the Searchlight picked up and illuminated an aircraft.

All the satellite searchlights would then expose coning the target enabling the night fighter to swoop in for the kill. This method of night fighter engagement was so successful it stayed in used right up to the end of the war.

By late 1942 AA Command found there was a disparity of brigades and units in divisions and it was decided to radically change the organisation of the Command.  The three corps and 12 division HQs where cut out and Brigades started to report direct to a Group HQ, similar to the RAF.  The one difference is that General Pile decided that one more group was need to cover London alone, the remaining groups were to cover the same geographical areas as fighter command, which had been changed from four groups to six groups in 1941 (Fig 19).

In 1942-43 Ack Ack Command’s battles were more about equipment and manpower shortages than enemy raids.  The SLC radars had been a great success, the units equipped with them seeing a massive improvement in their ability to illuminate hostile aircraft, however there were never enough to go round.  The real problem was manpower; right from the first days of the war General Pile had been pressured to supply manpower to the field army and every year more and more formed units and men were being withdrawn from Ack Ack Command.  He was at first able to compensate for this by introducing women in the command posts of HAA sites and searchlight troop HQs from late 1941. When this resource ran out, he then turned to the Home Guard to help fill the gap, with a requirement for 100,000 men into rocket batteries alone.  Thewithdraw of manpower hit the searchlight units most with 18 regiments being re-roled to Light Anti-Aircraft as well as a constant draw on individual manpower.With no help from the Home Guard in this area it was hoped to raise ATS searchlight units to take their place, but due to the number of women volunteers drying up only one regiment was formed.

A secret trial, called the Newark Experiment, was carried out in April 1941 to see if women were capable to carrying out the tasks that were required of searchlight regiments. On 23 Apr 1941, 54 ATS members were sent for training at Rhyl.  There were concerns that the girls would not be able to cope with being sent to desolate and lonely places, that they would not be able to defend themselves and that they would not have the strength to turn over the huge generator that was needed to power the searchlight.  However, during the secret experiment, the girls proved themselves capable of coping with all these difficulties.  In July 1942 the first seven searchlight troops was formed with ATS members and they were posted to 26 (Mixed) SL Regt as a true mixed regiment with one complete battery of four troops in 301 Bty, two troops in 339 Bty and one troop in a third battery. There were also other ATS troops dotted around in other searchlight regiments.

93rd (Mixed) Searchlight Regiment RA (TA) was formed on 25 Oct 1942 and was the last searchlight regiment to be raised during the Second World War.  The RHQ was formed at Gerard’s Cross, Buckinghamshire with 301, 342 and 495 Btys.  The batteries came from 26 (M), 79 and 77 SL Regts, respectively.  Apart from 301 Bty which was already an all-women battery, the Regiment was still 50 percent male but the wholescale transfer of ATS in, and male gunners out, soon started. By the time the Regiment was full converted in the August there were approximately 1500 girls in the Regiment (Fig 20).

Due to the cold, special coats nick-named “Teddy Bear” coats were issued (Fig 21).  These were much-loved by the girls and are now very rare.  Guard duties were carried out using a ‘stick’, often a pick-axe handle, as the ATS were not allowed to carry guns, even to defend themselves.  The only immediate contact with the outside world was a small radio transmitter for the detachment receive messages from the troop officer and send reports.  A dispatch rider would arrive each day with details of how friendly aircraft could be identified and to deliver personal mail.

The ATS often found the duties more interesting. They had to learn about electricity, radio circuits, radar, mechanics, morse code and plotting and had to be able to recognise enemy and friendly aircraft in all weathers.  One of the great dangers of operating the searchlight, however, was the risk of enemy aircraft shooting down the beam of light, and there were a few casualties from this.  With the introduction of the SLC radars it was again thought that the girls would not be best suited for this work but as before they more than proved themselves, and were often found to be better than the men at this type of work.

93 (M) SL Regt RA commenced disbandment at The Copse, Hamble on 1 Jul 1945, and was completed by the 29th, thus dispatching into history the only predominantly all female regiment ever to serve in the British Army.  A reunion was organised here at the Artillery Centre in 2005 to commemorate the 60th Anniversary of the disbandment of the Regiment. We were lucky enough to have 44 women and 2 men from the Regiment attend together with the special guest, Dame Vera Lynne.

(Video clip 4 – 93 (Mixed) Searchlight Regiment)

In 1944 a large number of searchlight units had already been earmarked in role for the Normandy invasion and eight regiments were redesignated as Garrison Regiments to carry out general duties in those areas of Europe occupied by the allies. In February 1944 all searchlight units were reduced to three batteries and by 1 Nov all remaining A1 men under 30 were transferred to infantry units.  In early June 1944 the Chiefs of Staff believed that it was all over for Ack Ack Command. The Normandy landings had taken place and there was no sign of the suspected V weapons.  Meetings were held on how best to dismantle the Command, searchlight units already taking the brunt, but it all turned out to be a little premature.

On 13 Jun 1944 the first Flying Bomb hit London. The Battle of the Flying Bombs was to last more than nine months and it was Ack Ack Command’s finest hour, as Churchill might have said. The Battle is a subject in its own right, and, with little of my allotted time left, I must keep it short.  

Searchlights did not have a big role in Operation Diver although those who were in the area did play their part.  Ack Ack Command’s biggest problem was that at the start of Op Diver it did not have all its guns and equipment in the right places to fight the battle.  The Command was told it had 18 days to move 192 HAA guns and the same number of LAA guns, 40 batteries of Gunners with all their equipment.  The Command actually completed the redeployment in 24 hours.  The Battle of the Flying Bomb was great success for the Ack Ack Command, only a quarter of the V1s getting through and with over half the kills going to anti-aircraft fire.

The last threat to Britain was from the V2 but there was little or nothing that Ack Ack Command could do about this weapon, although lots of ideas were tried. It was the ground troops in North-West Europe, supported by the Allied bomber campaign that finally put paid to this threat.

The war in Europe ended on 8 May 1945.  Ack Ack Command had risen to every challenge thrown at it during the war.  It had integrated women in the Army to a level never seen before or since, some 76,000 by the end of the War, and had managed the ebb and flow of manpower over the six years which rose to nearly 360,000 at its height.

The Royal Artillery had entered the War with only five searchlight regiments, yet by the end of 1940, just 15 months later, this number had risen to 62.  By the end of 1941 this had increased again to 71 regiments, two of which were serving abroad.  1942 was the beginning of the end for searchlights in Ack Ack Command as 19 regiments were re-roled or disbanded, one posted abroad and only one new one added – the 93rd .   It was the same the following year with a further 11 re-roled or disbanded and 15 more posted overseas, and two more posted overseas in 1944.  By the end of the War there were only six searchlight regiments each with only three batteries operating in Great Britain (Fig 22).

Radar had been the saviour of Anti-Aircraft searchlights in 1941 but as the Gun Laying Radar and aircraft borne radars improved it was also to be its downfall.  Searchlights stayed in service with the Royal Artillery into the early 50s with 78 SL Regt (the new number of 1 SL Regt) being the last regular unit to be disbanded in 1956.  Mixed TA Light Anti-Aircraft/Searchlight units also saw service up until the late 1950s but by 1960 all searchlights had been handed back to the Royal Engineers, whence they had come in 1940, to provide artificial moonlight.

Restoration Project

(Fig 23)

The Chairman said that there was time for a few questions.

James Heaney:           Did the Germans have heavy bombers that could fly above the range of the


Speaker:                     The Germans never really got into strategic bombing and never developed high

                                    performance bombers, so the answer is no.

Paul Battenbury:       How did the detachment minimize the effect of the noise of the generator on the

                                    sound location equipment?

Speaker:                     There was 300 yards of cable , and the generator was where possible hidden

                                    behind a building.  There was also a canvas noise shield on the generator.

Nick Allen:                 Who manufactured the carbon rods?

Speaker:                     A variety of companies.  There were two different rods: one positive/negative and one

Negative/positive.  The rods burned at different rates – the positive at three times the speed of the negative, so a rod would last either 20 minutes or 60.

The Chairman thanked Keith Brigstock, and Mrs Brigstock who had modelled the Teddy Bear coat, for a most interesting and informative presentation.  He knew that Keith had put an enormous amount of work into preparing the presentation including rehearsing in front of some very bemused HQ DRA clerks.  However, his preparations had paid dividends as he had managed to make what might appear to be the least glamorous branch of the Royal Artillery – ever – into a fascinating story, which he had certainly enjoyed and was sure all the other members present had as well.

The Meeting finished at 12.45 pm and the members moved to the RA Mess for lunch.


Fig 1.               London Electrical Engineers

Fig 2.               Carbon rods (German)

Fig 3.               Zeppelin

Fig 4.               AA Defences in WW1

Fig 5.               RE Searchlight 1918

Fig 6.               Lister Generator

Fig 7.               Sound Locator Mk 9

Fig 8.               General Sir Frederick Pile

Fig 9.               82 SL Regt Deployment

Fig 10.             342 (M) SL Bty

Fig 11              Deployment 82 SL Regt

Fig 12              Layout of a Searchlight Detachment

Fig 13.             Detachment Duties: No1 – Discipline

Fig 14.             Detachment Duties: No2 – Spotter

Fig 15.             Detachment Duties: No4 – Light Operator

Fig 16.             Revised AA Plan 1941

Fig 17.             AA Deployment 1941

Fig 18.             SLC Radar and 150 cm searchlight

Fig 19.             Revised AA Organization – AA Groups

Fig 20.             93 (M) SL Regt

Fig 21.             ‘Teddy Bear’ coats

Fig 22.             Searchlight unit statistics

Fig 23.             150 cm searchlight restored