Category Archives: WW2

Home Guard Anti-Aircraft Commemorative Certificate

It is often forgotten that the Home Guard had a front line role to play in the defence of Britain during the Second World War. As well as patrolling their local area, the Home Guard were increasingly used to man fixed anti-aircraft sites to free up fitter men for more mobile and front line roles. The weapons manned consisted of both traditional artillery pieces and rocket projectors known as Z Batteries. Like much of the Home Guard’s work, this job has gone largely un recognised and indeed at the time all the men got was a small card expressing the thanks of General Pile, head of Anti-Aircraft Command:This little card is a rare survivor and has printed at the top the black bow on red background of the command’s formation patch:For more information on the badge please look here. One Home guard member who served on Z-Batteries has left us this account:

I was working on electrical repairs in the many textile mills and engineering factories and foundries in the area when I was conscripted into the home guard.

Not the usual infantry but a newly formed Anti-aircraft battery firing rockets. These were new weapons in addition to the many conventional 3.75 AA guns in the area. These new rocket projectors were to be manned and operated by the Home Guard.

The individual rocket projectiles were made of strong sheet metal welded into the shape of a pipe about six feet long and four inches in diameter. In the last foot of length at the business end was a high explosive AA shell, with a fuse in the nose cone, operated by air pressure at any selected height. This was adjusted with a special spanner before the rocket was loaded onto the launcher (projector). There were four stabilising tail fins (quite sharp to the touch) at the rear end. There were eight rockets, each loaded by hand on to their own guide rails on the projector. It was like handling a heavy awkward length of household rainwater pipe, and you had to slide it up the guide rails, then pull it back on to the electrical firing contacts. There were eight projectors in a battery… For the first few times we trained on dummy machines with dummy rounds in the Huddersfield Territorials’ drill hall. We practised loading the rockets correctly and aiming the projectors by means of two-man teams operating large hand wheels whilst standing on either side of the roofed over platform. One man controlled the bearing read off on a dial marked in degrees, indicated by a pointer. The elevation was similarly controlled and set by the number two man on the other side of the platform. Communication was by earphone and microphone to each other and from the Control Centre… Then we went operational. Duty at a battery three nights a week. We carried on practising with the dummy rounds but the real ones were stored in a bunker near each projector, which were about 30 yards apart. We never fired in anger, though we stood by with enemy planes overhead several times. The reason was that the area for miles around was residential and to fire over the houses would have caused a lot of damage as the empty metal rocket fuel containers fell from the sky on to the rooftops…

We did practice live fire once. It was a glorious ‘summer’ day in November and we were taken by train and lorry to Hornsea on the North Yorkshire coast. Each platoon went in turn to the projectors lined up on the cliff top and loaded live rockets (I was worried about my fingers) and fired a salvo into the sky over the sea. I was never more scared in my life. Great 30 foot long sheets of flame past our heads and a roar like an express train in a tunnel, and the flimsy metal structure of the platform of the projector shaking and resonating; and us too shocked and deaf to hear the commands to check for misfires and turn to a neutral bearing.

Royal Navy Tropical Shorts

During the Second World War British naval ratings in tropical regions normally wore a uniform of white shorts, white cotton flannel, black socks and black ankle boots:

Tonight we are looking at an example of a rating’s white cotton shorts:The white shorts worn by ratings, senior rates and officers were all very similar and there are a number of patterns based on where and when they were manufactured, with ‘bazaar’ made examples also thrown into the mix. I suspect that from the RN’s point of view, as long as they were white and looked roughly in line with the proper pattern they weren’t too worried about minor detail differences! It is normally the waistband where differences can be found, many using a pair of brass friction buckles to secure them. This example however uses two white plastic buttons:White buttons are also used to secure the fly:Button down belt loops are provided around the waist to hold an RN money belt:The belt worn with this uniform was usually white as the blue example rubbed dye off onto the shorts. Slash pockets are provided on each hip:This example has a small label sewn into the inside of the waist band indicating it was made by Harrods in 1943 and is a 34” waist:Shorts had long been in use with the British military and no-one thought too much about them. It was therefore a shock to British sensibilities when complaints were received in Florida of all places. GS Guinn in his book “British Naval Aviation in World War II: The US Navy and Anglo American Relations” explains:

In Florida, the Royal Navy’s standard tropical white shorts were frowned upon as being offensive to local tastes and so, unless cadets were in their formal whites, they spent most of their time in khaki trousers and long sleeved khaki shirts. British trainees were unable to understand the nature of the offence to which shorts could give rise. They expected Americans to behave and think like British citizens and were surprised when they did not.

Embarkation Tag

The business of loading a troop ship to transport a regiment to a foreign theatre was always fraught with difficulties. Large numbers of men had to be brought aboard the ship, taken to the correct location and checked to ensure no one was missing or should not have been there. In order to sort this task, as ever, the army bureaucracy swung into action with a variety of forms and check lists. Tonight we are looking at an example of the embarkation tags issued to individual soldiers before they reached the ship:This two part tag was filled out by the individual soldier and as explained on the front of the tag, on boarding the ship the soldier gave the front half of the tag to those organising the embarkation:This ensured that the embarkation officer knew who was on board the ship and could check the names off against a list of who was supposed to be there to see if anyone was missing. These tags were issued to all ranks, and strict instructions warned troops not to board without handing over the front half of the tag:The second half of the tag was retained until the end of the journey, when the same process was repeated to ensure everyone who was expected to be disembarking had done so:The military forces were aware that circumstances could change, so the bottom half of this piece of the tag allowed troops to be disembarked early if there was an emergency or so forth:This particular tag was partially filled out, but never used. Although we don’t know when it was used, a printing date is marked on the front which shows it was produced in May 1944:The following description relates life on board one of these troop ships for the men being transported:

In mid March 1943, the troopship Windsor Castle”, once luxury liner of the Union Castle Line, slipped down the Clyde to join convoy KMF 11. Over 2,500 men were packed on board. When the ship began to heave, side-slip and wallow in the Bay of Biscay, we on “E” deck, the lowest habitable quarters for troops, dripping with sweat, some sea-sick, would compete for the small air vents fixed in the deck roof. Fortunately we were not confined below decks all the time, but would come up for PE and boat drill. Soon we could find our rafts stations with the minimum of disorder. None on E deck saw the Rock of Gibraltar because we had been ordered below. We then knew that our destination was North Africa and we spent the earlier part of the night packing our kit ready for disembarkation. After that we lay back in our hammocks, slung over the mess tables, some of us contravening orders to spend the whole voyage fully clothed. The atmosphere was sweltering. Some removed boots, others jackets and a few undressed completely. Towards midnight “E” deck grew quiet. I lay in my hammock trying to read Oscar Wilde’s “De Profundis” , until the heat made even reading an effort. My boots came off. I loosened my battledress jacket and dozed off

Wartime Parachute Illuminating Flare

At the end of last year we looked at a 1960s parachute illuminating mortar bomb here. Tonight we are looking at a second example of the parachute flare mortar bomb, this time however it is a wartime example and is far more complete than the previous one:Unlike later bombs, this example is painted black, with yellow lettering stencilled on the outside:The thin metal cap that covers the end is still extant on this bomb, and is stamped with a date of 1940:The end cap is also wartime dated, here it is 1942:The FD stands for Fry’s Die Castings Ltd, of London, who manufactured the component. The distinctive holes for a parachute illuminating bomb can be seen directly above the tail of the mortar bomb:These had closing discs over them originally which burnt away when the bomb was fired. Inside the bomb originally would have been a parachute, flare canister and small bursting charge:Unusually this bomb still has the parachute:And the burnt out remains of the flare:The 1959 mortar manual describes its operation:

The flash from the cartridge, when fired, penetrates the closing discs and ignites a delay charge; this in turn ignites a bursting charge of gunpowder which ignites and ejects the flare; a small parachute, packed in the nose of the bomb, is attached to the flare and is ejected at the same time, opening at once and suspending the flare below it.

The pamphlet also gives some guidance on the use of these bombs:

  1. These bombs contain a flare attached to a parachute. When the bomb is fired at an angle of 80 degrees the parachute is ejected at a height of about 600 feet. At this height the flare gives its best performance. It will burn for about 30 seconds, descending slowly and drifting with the wind as it does so.
  2. In still air or light winds the mortar should be fired at an angle of 80 degrees. This will allow the flare to be ejected at a distance of about 100 to 150 yards from the mortar position. If light is required at a greater distance the angle must be lessened as when firing smoke bombs. At its reduced height the flare will not light up so big an area.
  3. Whenever possible place the flare behind the enemy, as this will silhouette him against the light. To avoid our own troops being silhouetted against the light, care must be taken, especially in head winds, to ensure that flares do not drift behind our forward positions. Do not, if it can be avoided, place the flare between the enemy and our own troops as its effect will be to dazzle the defenders thus placing them at a disadvantage.
  4. When the wind is strong the firer will have to judge its effect and alter the angle of the mortar according to where the light is required. The principle is to fire the bomb up wind, allowing the flare to drift over the area where light is required.
  5. Although the flare is efficient and will light up the battlefield a good distance in front of the platoon position, its uncontrolled use may also show up the activities of our own troops. Orders will be given when flares at platoon level are not to be fired.

South African Steel Helmet

My thanks go to Andy Dixon for sorting me out with tonight’s object, a South African made steel helmet. During the Second World War the Transvaal Steel Pressing Syndicate in South Africa produced nearly 1.5 million steel helmets and these were used extensively in Africa, Asia and Italy throughout the war, they also went on to see service in Greece post war. These helmets are fairly common as a large stash of shells came out of Greece a few years back, they were without liners however so like this example replacements need to be fitted. At first glance the helmet looks very similar to other steel Mk II helmets:Note the rough finish on the helmet to reduce shine and the sand colour ideal for the deserts of North Africa (I think this one has been repainted though). The easiest way of determining that the helmet is South African is the set of three holes punched across the back:Originally these were designed to allow a neck curtain to be fitted but no evidence has been found of these being ever issued. The shape of the helmet is also more circular in plan than other Commonwealth Mk IIs, being much more similar to WW1 helmets:Originally the liner fitted had a large oval felt pad in the crown, again similar to WW1 designs, this liner however is a replacement so does not have this feature. The chin strap is a typical World War Two British sprung type:This attaches to the shell with a pair of riveted square lugs:The manufacture of helmets was quite involved. Firstly steel was cut into square blanks:A hydraulic press stamps the shell out of the square of steel:A stainless steel rim is then cinched and welded into place:Before the whole thing is painted prior to fitting the liner:The painter’s protection from paint particles consists of a rudimentary mask and bandages over his hair! After this the helmets are heated in a kiln to cure the paint. British factories in 1939 were turning out 50,000 helmets a week.

Royal Navy Money Belt

In 1924 the Royal navy introduced a blue webbing belt for its ratings. The belt was 2 ¼“ wide and came in two sizes, 40” or 46” long:

As can be seen from the picture above a small pocket was fitted on the right hand side, secured with two press studs:This was frequently used to carry small change, and indeed inside this example I found four screwed up notes from the Far East:These are three Hong Kong notes for small amounts and a Japanese Occupation note. Quite why these were left in the belt is a bit of a mystery, but suggest the original owner saw service in the Orient. The belt was adjustable with a toothless metal buckle:And fastened with a leather tab:And metal waist buckle:The leather tab was deleted in January 1935 and replaced with a webbing tab instead, presumably to save materials, cost or manufacture time. A metal hook was also fitted to the belt to allow a jack knife to be hung from it:Again this was one of the features deleted in January 1935, although many ratings continued to use the hook and indeed retro-fitted newer pattern belts with their own spring clips to match the earlier design. The belt had originally only been issued to Royal Naval ratings, but its use was extended to the Royal Naval Reserve and Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve in August 1930. An example of the post 1935 pattern belt can be found here.

Lanchester Sub Machine Gun

You are a big hairy matelot boarding a ship, you want a weapon you can stab the enemy with, club him with and if you are really desperate shoot him with…you want a Lanchester!

At the start of World War 2 Britain was the only major power with neither a sub machine gun in its inventory, nor a weapon in development. It soon became clear that one was desperately needed and the easiest option seemed to be to reverse engineer an existing design and put that into manufacture. The British had two examples of German MP28s they had acquired from Ethiopia of all places and they used these as a basis for an almost exact copy that was to become known as the Lanchester. Initially the gun was to be produced for the RAF for airfield defence and for the Royal Navy for boarding parties. In the end the gun was not adopted by the RAF as Stens were coming into service and it was almost exclusively used by the Royal Navy, 79,790 being produced.

The gun is the complete opposite of the Sten gun, it is beautifully made with a wooden stock, brass magazine housing and extensive machining:A number of familiar elements were added to the German design, the butt stock is modelled on that of the Lee Enfield rifle:And includes a brass butt plate:A boss and bayonet lug are fitted:This allows a SMLE sword bayonet to be fitted:

Original Lanchesters were select fire, this example is a Mk1* meaning it can only fire in full automatic. A straight cocking lever is fitted on the right side of the receiver:Note the large brass magazine housing. This is the location of the weapon’s markings:From this we can see that this example was made in 1943 by Greener. The two facing /|\ marks indicate it was sold out of service and the Arabic script just visible on the curved part suggest it saw service in Egypt post war. The Lanchester uses large 50 round magazines firing 9mm ammunition. These magazines are identical to Sten magazines, just longer:Originally these guns were fitted with tangent sights, but by the time my gun was produced these had been simplified to a flip sight with a ‘U’ shaped notch:The front sight is a simple post inside a pair of protective wings:The gun’s safety is a locking cut at the back of the receiver that the cocking handle can be hooked into:To strip the gun down a large disassembly knob is provided at the back of the receiver:Turning this allows the main receiver to be pivoted out of the wooden handguard:This then allows the rear knob to be unscrewed and the internal parts of the gun removed:This Lanchester is of course deactivated so the main breach block has had a large part machined away. The Lanchester remained in service with the Royal Navy into the 1970s and can be seen in many period photographs. Here we see it being carried by a member of the Royal Canadian Navy during wartime:And here it is being carried on parade by an Australian sailor:Opinion on the Lanchester is divided, as explained by the ‘WWII after WWII’ blog:

Both sides agree on two things: the Lanchester was rugged and well-built, but, it had a dangerous flaw in that a cocked gun would discharge if the butt was jarred or dropped.

Sailors who liked the Lanchester said that it was reliable, and (in the early semi-auto Mk.I version) surprisingly accurate with single shots. In full auto, it’s balance kept the muzzle on target even when firing a full burst. The weight made felt recoil almost nothing, and cleaning and care was very easy.

Those who disliked it said that in addition to the danger of dropping a live weapon, the extractor could fail during full-auto fire (a field modification was later developed for the Mk.I* to address that issue). There were many complaints that the gun pulled to the right side when firing in full auto. The magazine was frustrating to load and the quick-loading tool became almost a must. After repeated use, the magazine’s lips would spread apart preventing insertion (Sten magazines had the same problem). During it’s post-WWII years, spare Lanchester parts (especially replacement firing pins) became scarce but this was more to do with the Lanchester’s strange background and short production run than any issue with the design.