Portsmouth’s Anti-Aircraft Gunners

QF 3.7 inch anti-aircraft guns in Hyde Park, L...

3.7 inch anti-aircraft guns in Hyde Park, London (Image via Wikipedia)

As Britain’s premier naval port, Portsmouth was naturally a prominent target for the Luftwaffe. Although major warships such as aircraft carriers and battleships rarely used the dockyard in wartime due to the fear of air attack, much work repairing smaller vessels still went on in the yard.

The Germans were well aware of the importance of Portsmouth. A folio of maps in Portsmouth Central Library’s Local History section shows that the Luftwaffe had identified targets all over Portsmouth – the Dockyard, the Power Station, Gunwharf, Vospers Shipyard in the Camber, Fratton Goods Yard, the Airport, the Airspeed Factory, the Gasometer, the military barracks at Hilsea, and Hilsea Railway Bridge. Across the water, HMS Dolphin at Gosport was also a target.

Clearly, such a large target needed considerable Anti-Aircraft Defences. The principal defence came in the form of the 57th (Wessex) Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment of the Royal Artillery. The 57th was a Territorial unit, made up mainly of men who had volunteered to be part-time soldiers before the war and had been mobilised upon the start of the war. 213 battery recruited from Portsmouth, 214 Battery from Southsea, 215 Battery from Gosport and Fareham, and 219 Battery from the Isle of Wight and Cosham.

There were a number of Anti-Aircraft Gun emplacements around Portsmouth. Recent features and letters in the news have pointed to both Gun and Rocket Batteries on Southsea Common. My Grandad can also remember the naval ships in harbour using their anti-aircraft guns too. Anti-Aircraft fire was not just about actually trying to attack aircraft, but also to try and put up such a volume of fire that the pilots were forced away from the target. It also boosted the morale of civilians, who were cheered to see that someone was attempting to hit back on their behalf.

But the most considerable defences seem to have been located around the outskirts of the ciy, in order to catch the attackers as they were either approaching or leaving the target area. As Bob Hunt’s Portsdown Tunnels shows, there were gun sites north of Fort Nelson at Monument Farm, south of Southwick, and near Crookhorn. It was felt at the time that the Luftwaffe was using the white chalkface of Portsdown Hill to guide its planes to the area, so basing flak guns over the reverse slopes would have given the gunners a fair chance of downing Dorniers and Heinkels.

There was also a considerable anti-aircraft emplacement at Sinah Warren on the very south-western tip of Hayling Island. The site at Sinah is particularly interesting. It was located on the edge of a decoy site. A number of sites were set up around the country, in order to lure the Luftwaffe away from bombing large urban centres such as Portsmouth. They achieved this by lighting dummy fires, and two bunkers for dummy fires can still be found on Farlington Marshes. The Langstone Harbour site was particularly succesful. After the massive bombing raid on Portsmouth on 10/11 January 1941, the next large raid on Portsmouth was largely foiled by the decoy site, and most of the German bombs fell harmlessly into Langstone Harbour.

Sadly, some of the anti-aircraft gunners at Sinah Warren paid the ultimate price for their closeness to the decoy site. Several bombs fell on the gun emplacement, killing five men. One man died of his wounds later. All were serving with 219 Battery, 57 Heavy AA Regiment:

Gunner James Bardoe, of Northfleet in Kent
Gunner James Collingbine, of Plaistow in London
Gunner Arthur Farmer, of Portsmouth
Gunner Reginald Knight, 21 and from Wymering
Gunner Leonard Ward, 22 and from Carisbrooke on the Isle of Wight
Gunner James Powell, 28 and from Middlesex (died on the 19th of wounds)

After the threat of air attack receded when the Germans turned on Russia, 57 HAA Regiment was drafted to serve overseas. After going to North Africa in 1942, the Regiment finished the war in Italy. There is a plaque at the Sinah Warren site commemorating the 6 gunners killed in April 1941, and there is an example of the kind of gun the Regiment would have used outside the D-Day Museum, complete with the unit’s ‘flaming Dornier’ emblem.

A total of 48 men were killed serving with 57 HAA Regiment during the war. They are buried in Britain, South Africa, Israel, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Crete and Italy.

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Filed under Army, portsmouth heroes, World War Two

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