Reviving an illustrious 280-year-old tradition, the VIth Regiment of the Maritime Ack Ack later to be called the Maritime Royal Artillery was formed at Thornbury during the last World War in 1940, retained its base in the town for the whole period of its existence and was finally disbanded here in July, 1946.
This tribute to its great service to the country and to its memory has been written by Mr. E. Frank Biddle, a well known Thornbury resident and sportsman, who himself served with the Regiment during the War.
He has in his possession a framed document setting out its historical tradition and the purpose it served when the Regiment was revived. It reads: ‘In the Year of Our Lord 1662, men from the City of London banded themselves together to man the Merchant Ships to fight the Spaniards and the French. They became known as the 1st Maritime Regiment of Foot, later to be called The Royal Marines. In the Year of Our Lord 1940, men banded themselves together from units of His Majesty’s Army to man the Merchant Ships to fight the aircraft and submarines of the Hun. They became known as The Maritime Ack-Ack, later to be called The Maritime Royal Artillery. The cycle of time has turned 280 years and the Honours are even. These men, worthy of the traditions of their forefathers, kept the Life Lines of the Empire pulsing with the needs of the men at war i.e. Troops, Guns, Tanks, Aircraft, Oil, Raw Materials, Spirits and Foodstuffs’.
One dark and rainy evening a Police Officer on duty saw lights flashing around Kyneton House, Thornbury, which at that time was empty and on investigation he found two Army officers, a few N.C.O’s and 18 men trying to find an entrance to the house. The officer in charge, Capt. H. D. de Roeper, D.S.C., R.A., informed the police officer he had come to take over the house to prepare for a Unit of the R.A. to train men as gunners to go to sea and with the R.N. to defend the merchant ships. Although this was supposed to be against International law, it had been decided to arm all merchant ships.
With a start of 28 of all ranks at Kyneton House called ‘The 6th Battery, R.A., Kyneton House, Thornbury, Bristol’ it soon grew to be a Regiment of 3,300, to be called the 6th Regt. Maritime Royal Artillery; its Commanding Officer was Lieut.-Colonel H. de Roeper. The Regimental Badge was shield-shaped topped by a grenade with the regimental motto on a scroll underneath. The motto was ‘Ostendo non ostento’ – I show not show off. The shield, surrounded by a white strip, was divided into four quarters by a thin white line. The top right quarter was red background with a white gun; top left, royal blue background with a white anchor; bottom right, royal blue with white waves; and bottom left, red with white VI.
This Regiment started in Thornbury and was also disbanded in Thornbury with the rest of the Maritime Regiments in 1946. There were five other regiments formed – the 1st at Loch Winnoch in Scotland; the 2nd at Greenock; the 3rd at South Shields; the 4th at Southport; and the 5th at Shoeburyness. There was a total of about 3,300 of all ranks.
The Regiment in Thornbury soon took over all military buildings in Thornbury and district and many huts were built in the Castle grounds – the large gunnery building is still there. Huts were also built at Kyneton House and in the Jubilee Hall field at Alveston. Their gun-firing practice range was at Severn Beach near the Pumping Station and they fired towards the Bristol Channel.
Kyneton House remained their H.Q. There is a room on the left at the top of the stairs where plans for manning the convoys were drawn up and where the men received orders which took them all over the world. Many of these men did not return. The turn-over of men in Thornbury was about 1,000 a month and on one pay day in December, 1941, £34,533 6s 3d was paid out to the men. They manned ships in convoys and on coasters sailing around our shores. On a coaster there would be two men and varying numbers on other ships according to size and destination. An average ship had about eight men, a troop ship many more. The two Queens, which were troop ships, mainly between New York and Greenock in Scotland, had about 100 men and officers on each. They also had with them some Royal Navy gunners whose H.Q. in this area was ‘The Flying Fox’ at Hotwells, Bristol. The combined force was known as the D.E.M.S. They also used the merchant seamen as gun loaders when in action. The D.E.M.S. motto was ‘Intrepide per oceanos mundi’ – Boldly over the oceans of the world.
The number of men lost from the regiment, killed or missing at sea, was never really known but it was estimated at about 350. There is still a board in Thornbury Church on which are the names of the earliest casualties and in the Church at Lock Winnoch there is a memorial to the Maritime Regiment.
The discipline of these men was excellent. When on ship they were entirely on their own for discipline and it was very rarely broken. They were answerable only to the Captain of the ship. If there was any misconduct, the man concerned was at once transferred from the regiment. When at sea they had their own quarters and no one was allowed there. This caused some odd incidents on Troop ships. No one outside the Maritime Ship’s Company was permitted to give them orders, not even the Senior Military Officers aboard or the Ship’s Captain wanted to know why. These ships captains put a great deal of trust in these men and it was quite common for them to request the same personnel for future trips. They were in complete charge of the guns and all arms and defence equipment on the ship. I believe it is the only military regiment to be awarded the Atlantic Star.
One could fill a book with stories of incidents that occurred on the convoys to Russia, Malta, the Far East, the Middle East, the invasion areas and crossing the Atlantic.
One of the reasons why the correct list of casualties could not be kept was that often when a ship was lost at sea, some survivors were picked up by other ships and landed at odd places and were missing for months, perhaps as long as a couple of years and then turned up again. This happened a great deal on trips to Russia and the Middle East. There was the case of Bombadier John Bedford who later lived in the Thornbury area. He lost his ship on the famous Malta Convoy but managed to reach the Island and helped a great deal in its defence before turning up two years later when he was granted the privilege of wearing the George Cross as a badge on the shoulder of his uniform. William Fisher who married and lived in Thornbury until his death a few years ago was one of the men rescued form the Altmark after the Jervis Bay incident.
I know a sergeant who was awarded the D.S.C. because of a joke. On a dark night in the Arctic Ocean he strolled on to the Bridge and for a joke shouted ‘Hard to port, sub on the port bow’. The man at the wheel wrenched it over and the ship went right through a U-boat that no one knew was there. He got his award for devotion to duty.
There were many awards of D.C.M., D.S.M., M.M. and foreign awards. One bombardier was awarded the D.C.M. for shooting down six German aircraft on a convoy to Russia, while feeling sea-sick during the whole operation.
By the Spring of 1941 the Regiment had taken over all the military-occupied buildings in Thornbury. Kyneton House was the H.Q. and Holding depot with the field at the rear covered with huts. The Castle building was the Officers Mess with the exception of a few rooms upstairs which were used as a library by the College of Arms, Sir Algar Stafford Howard being then Norroy King of Arms. The covered in hard tennis courts there were used for films for instruction in aircraft recognition; the huts in the Castle field were the quarters for the men in training.
The Exchange Hotel Assembly Rooms were the Quartermasters stores. An interesting note here is that each man was fitted out with two uniforms, arctic kit, tropical kit, a civilian suit, three pairs of boots, two pairs of sea boots and socks as well as gunnery protection clothing – ‘Some Kit’.
The front part of the Picture House was the Sergeants Mess, Cranbrook Radio shop was the reception centre for men returning from sea. The little shop next the Mr. Holdaway’s, later a jewellery and clock shop, was a tuck shop. The Congregational Church school room was a Y.M.C.A. canteen run by local ladies; the Wesleyan schoolroom was a workshop for hobbies etc. The sign over this doorway was ‘Abandon Rank all who enter here’ and this was strictly enforced.
The Riding School at Alveston together with the huts on the Jubilee Hall field was a holding and training centre. The Cossham Hall, Thornbury was probably put to its greatest use by the regiment. It was used by military and civilians together for dances, socials, shows of all types, concerts by military bands, children’s parties and other entertainments. Some of the shows put on by E.N.S.A. were first class as also were the band concerts.
By this time men were coming and going in large numbers and it was strange the public did not realise the movements of men to join the convoys. This was mostly done by lorries leaving the Castle around 6-6.30 p.m. for Bristol. In addition the men were encouraged to travel to Bristol for a night out. The lorries returned, leaving Temple Meads station at 10 p.m. or 11.15 p.m. bringing back men from ships to the regiment also the men who had been in Bristol for the evening out. They also brought out many civilians and called at Filton, Patchway, Almondsbury and Alveston, picking up on the way. This was about the best late-night ‘bus’ service that Thornbury had ever enjoyed and the security and intelligence officers considered it an excellent ‘cover’ for the movement of troops.
An odd thing that the public seemed to miss was that from about December 1943 to May 1944 the Riding School at Alveston was always full of men, about 500 every ten days, who were on a refresher course preparing for D-Day on June 3rd. Nearly every gunner on the invasion ships went through this course using Severn Beach and a firing range at Newport, Mon.
This was also a very busy time for the Rev. R. G. Rawstorne, Vicar of Thornbury who had become the Regimental Chaplain. The usual practice was to hold a Church Parade and Service at the Church on Saturday mornings. At different times during the week meetings were held attended by about twenty men each time where there were free discussions led by the Vicar. These were very popular and the Rev. (now Canon) Rawstorne was held in great esteem by both officers and men of the regiment.
The first officer of the Maritime Regiment to come to Thornbury was Capt. de Roeper but the first Commanding Officer was Colonel McDougall who was followed by Lord Portman. Neither of these remained very long and by 1941 Capt. de Roeper had been promoted to Colonel and C.O. of the Regiment. He stayed until 1946 when he was demobbed owing to his age and returned to his home in Kent. He was a fine officer and gentleman and was loved and respected by all who served under him. He was followed by second in command Major Du-Maine who remained until the regiment was disbanded in July, 1946 when he returned to the War Office in London.
There were many fine officers, N.C.O’s and men who did excellent work for both the regiment and the town life of Thornbury of which they considered they were a part. Among them was the Hon. Cyril Lyttleton, the County cricketer who is now Lord Cobham. He became President of the M.C.C. and for some time was Governor of Australia. He left the 6th Regiment to become C.O. of the 5th Regiment at Shoeburyness. Other popular officers here were Majors Taylor, Richie and Palethorpe, M.O., Captains Duncan and Hughes, and Lieut. Ready.
Captain Hughes was a member of a firm of bell founders who had been responsible for re-casting the bells of Thornbury church some years before and because of the Regiment’s close relations with Thornbury Grammar School in sport etc., they made a model gun, mounted and inscribed. The gun was presented to the school where it is used as a trophy for sports. The gun and its mounting were both made in the workshop at the Wesleyan Schoolroom.
The regiment as a whole were very keen on keeping up their sport. They had a very good cricket eleven and shared the Ship ground with Thornbury for their home matches. The regimental soccer XI was top class and won several cups including the Gloucestershire Services Cup, the final match of which was played against the National Fire Service on Bristol City ground. The side included four International players and several other professionals, among them Alec James, the famous Arsenal and Scottish player.
An Old Thornburian who joined the regiment was Jack Williams, the son of Mr. S. M. Williams who kept a drapery shop where the Ace Supermarket now is. He was a casualty in the Mediterranean Sea. His only brother was in the R.A.F. and was lost in an air raid over Germany.
Many of the H.Q. staff were men who had seen a great deal of active service, several from sinking ships and who had bad times during incidents. One of these men was on the staff at Thornbury for some time and being a strong well-built man, he was subjected to a good deal of chaff, mostly by his civilian pals. Not once was it made known that he was suffering from a badly injured back. The whole of his back had new skin grafted on due to burns he received on a now famous tanker, of which a film was made, when in action in the Atlantic.
Here I must put in a word about R.S.M. Smith — ‘Joe’ to everyone who knew him, except when on duty; then he was a real terror. He was a ‘regular’ soldier and was respected by all and many of those apart from his own regiment. In 1945 he was awarded the O.B.E., of which he was very proud. It is quite true that when men of the Maritime Regt. met ship’s Servicemen all over the world, the first question nearly always was ‘How is old Joe?’ and ‘is Mrs. Parsons still going strong’. Mrs. Parsons was the wife of Mine Host at the White Lion, Thornbury. She did a great work for the troops and was much admired and respected by them.
With the coming of V.E. Day, a large part of the regiment was posted to a regimental depot in Australia for duty in Eastern waters until V.J. Day, after which the Maritime Regiment, like the Old Soldiers, quietly ‘faded away’. It was a matter of regret that no farewell was staged. Also it seems sad that a famous Regiment, the 6th Maritime, that started in Thornbury, remained in the town for all the time it was in being and was finally disbanded here in July, 1946 has no feature in the town by which to be remembered, except a small model gun at Thornbury Grammar School (now Marlwood School, Alveston) where even there it is not generally known how great a part the Regiment played in the War of 1939-45.
However in Thornbury Church there is a memorial to the Maritime Regiment. It is the Altar Table of the Children’s Chapel in the North Aisle.
The first military unit to arrive in Thornbury was the 1st Monmouth Regt. which had become a Searchlight Unit. They made the Assembly Rooms at the Exchange Hotel their Headquarters with manned searchlights on the top of Marlwood, Aust, Earthcott, Almondsbury, Rockhampton, Baden Hill and North Nibley. They changed the position of these lights occasionally and later North Nibley became their H.Q. They did very good work by pin-pointing enemy aircraft for fighters and Ack-Ack units.
Earlier it had been decided that Thornbury should be a Service Centre and many local buildings were requisitioned. Among these were the Castle, Kyneton House, the Cossham Hall, the Grange at Tytherington, the Riding School at Alveston, a part of the Ship Hotel, a very large part, of the Exchange Hotel, Thornbury, the skittle alleys at public houses, the schoolroom of the Wesleyan Church and several shops and houses including the premises now occupied by Cranbrook Radio. On the grounds of the Castle, Kyneton House, the Riding School and Jubilee Hall, Alveston a number of huts were built. The front part of the Picture House, Thornbury was taken over. The schoolroom of the Congregational Church was used as a Y.M.C.A. room run by local ladies. The Men’s Social Club premises, now occupied by the Midland Bank, was shared by members, Service personnel and Civil Defence.
The Royal Navy took over Tortworth Mansion which later became a U.S.A. Military Hospital and Eastwood was the leading Civil Defence School. It was also used a great deal by Cabinet Ministers and high Service personnel.
At the end of September, 1939 the 52nd Heavy Brigade of the Royal Artillery was formed in Thornbury, becoming 1100 strong. They were equipped with 9in. guns and during the wet weather of the winter 1939-40 their guns were parked in Castle Street, Pullins Green and other odd spots. A large number of men were billetted in twos and threes in the homes of Thornbury people. They fitted in very well and became a part of the town.
Among the officers of this unit was Capt. Bowes-Lyon, a cousin of the Queen Mother. The remained until the end of March, 1940 when they left France from Thornbury Railway Station via Ipswich and Dover; it took three days.
When they left a second Unit of the same type – the 52nd Regt. IIA was formed but with the war in France taking a turn, they were dispersed a sent to man the gun positions on the South Coast.
With this change in the state of the war large numbers of children from Birmingham and the East Coast were evacuated to Thornbury and District. At this time apart from the Searchlight Unit and the arrival of a detachment 6th Gloucestershire Regt., there were not many Servicemen in Thornbury. The Gloucesters were mostly elderly men engaged in guarding the Severn Tunnel Pumping Station and other important positions. One of their officers was Capt. R. Gyles, the well-known Bristol cricketer and County hockey player.
With Dunkirk, the war effort in Thornbury really began to move. Many soldiers came here through all sorts of channels, straight from Dunkirk. Dr E. M. Graces’s son Edward (Ted) who at that time was a medical student went with others, with the ‘Little ships’ to help bring the troops out. The 1st Warwick Regt. re-formed here and quickly left for the South Coast. Their place in Thornbury was at once taken by the 1st Battn. of the Royal Ulster Rifles who remained until the end of August and then, one night, left for the coast following an invasion scare. For a few months after this there were three units in Thornbury – Royal Corps of Signals at the Castle, the Gloucesters in the town and an R.A.M.C. Field Unit at Kyneton House. An Ack-Ack Battery was stationed at Woodlands, their gun site being right on the spot where the M4-M5 Motorway exchange now is. Their Commanding Officer was Captain Ernest Marples, who later became Minister of Transport who was Minister when the road was planned.
Before bringing these memoirs to a close there is one thing that should not be forgotten – that is the presence of the U.S. Forces in the district. The nearest and largest were at Tortworth and the building now Leyhill Open Prison was a large U.S.A. Military Hospital. Many were trained there before D-Day and were very good but there was a little trouble in Thornbury between the white and coloured U.S.A. troops. With the coming of the D-Day invasion the hospital played an important role for U.S.A. Personnel. Almost the first of the U.S.A. wounded from the French beaches were brought there. On the third day of the invasion about 600 wounded were brought by train to Thornbury Railway Station and then taken to hospital by ambulances, both military and civil, U.S.A. and British field ambulances and Civil Defence cars.
True to form the Americans staged this in a big way. There was one-way traffic from the Station to the A38. Incoming vehicles via the Milbury Heath Road to Gillingstool, Upper Bath Road and in at the back entrance to the station, vehicles out of the front of the station via High Street, Gloucester Road and The Knapp. There was a U.S.A. military policeman on every corner with the local police giving a helping hand. The first trains did this but subsequent ones were shared with Charfield Railway Station.