In 1939 Britain imported half of all its food requirements, most of its raw materials, and all of its oil. Most of this trade was transported by Britain’s Merchant Navy or in ships from around the Empire. At the outset of war British ships accounted for twenty-six per cent of the world’s tonnage of mercantile shipping, with the British Empire having some 9,500 ships and over 140,000 men. Britain’s dependence on imports and her island geography left her vulnerable to blockade, as was demonstrated during the First World War, when at one point in 1917 there was less than six weeks supply of foodstuffs in the country. Twenty years later Britain’s fleet of coasters and general traders had shrunk by more than 4,000 ships, making the safe passage of shipping an even greater necessity.
On 3 September 1939 Germany declared that all British merchant vessels would be treated as warships and open to attack. Less than nine hours after Britain’s entry into the war the British liner ss Athenia, sailing from Liverpool to Montreal, was torpedoed by a German submarine 250 miles off the Irish coast and sunk. On 11 September Churchill announced to the Shipping Defence Committee his intention to ‘arm a thousand merchant ships’ to force the enemy to operate under water. On 24 September Germany abandoned all treaty rules governing the conduct of war at sea. The following month a German Naval War Staff Memorandum set out Berlin’s policy: ‘Germany’s principal enemy in this war is Britain. Her most vulnerable spot is her maritime trade
At the outbreak of war the main threat to Britain’s merchant fleet came from German submarines and mines. By early 1940 the threat of mines had been overcome by countermeasures such as degaussing, paravanes and anti-torpedo nets. However, with the fall of France Germany was able to launch air attacks from captured airfields against shipping along Britain’s east coast. The situation became so serious that the government asked the Admiralty to provide protection. Unable to spare naval personnel, the Army agreed to supply 940 men and 470 machine guns for the task. The Army called for volunteers for unspecified ‘secret work at sea’ and ‘special sea duties’. They were all trained machine gunners, and came mostly from infantry regiments. Volunteers applied for maritime service for a variety of reasons: to avenge fallen comrades, for adventure, to travel the world, or to escape domestic problems, or because they had originally wished to join the navy but found themselves drafted into the Army. The first troops deployed just days after their establishment on 27 February 1940. Operating initially around the eastern and southern coastline in two-man teams on small coastal vessels, they were thought such a success that their role and numbers gradually expanded. This formation was known as the Bren Gun Scheme.
At the same time as this was happening, larger merchant ships were being armed with naval guns for self-protection. These Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships (DEMS) required gun crews, so a DEMS organisation was established to provide the manpower. This organisation, which was under the control of the Admiralty’s Trade Division, drew personnel from the Admiralty (Royal Navy and Royal Marines), the War Office (Army), and the Ministry of War Transport (Merchant Navy). On larger vessels it was common to have Army and Royal Navy gun crews on the same ship, working in separate teams and assisted by merchant seamen. Numbers peaked in November 1943 when there were 40,000 gunners (14,000 coming from the Army), and by 1944 there were 46 DEMS bases at home and 50 abroad.
Sea-going soldiers joined their vessels prior to sailing and returned to their Army bases on returning from sea, but in October 1940 it was decided to also man the guns of merchant ships in UK ports. The Army provided 2,000 men and these were known as Port Gunners. At the same time extra men were provided for sea-going duties along the east coast, and these were known as the Coastal Shuttle Service. In February and March 1941 a further 4,500 Royal Artillery gunners were allocated to man Bofors and light anti¬aircraft guns on ocean-going ships.
On 6th May 1941 the Bren Gun Scheme, Port Gunners and Coastal Shuttle Service were combined to form the Maritime Anti-Aircraft Royal Artillery. This organisation was made up four regiments comprising a total of seven Batteries. The 3rd Regiment with its Regimental Headquarters in Thornbury, covered the south of England with 6th Battery, also in Thornbury, in charge of South Devon, South Wales and the Severn Estuary. In September 1941 Port Gunners were transferred to sea-going duties as enemy attacks on ports decreased. Owing to the demands of the Russian and Atlantic convoys the Army provided a further 3,000 men in October 1942, bringing the total to 14,200 of whom 13,600 were sea-going.
In July 1942 the Eastern Shuttle Service was established in Bombay to cover India, Ceylon and South Africa. In December more overseas bases were established in Canada, America, Egypt and Australia.
Maritime Royal Artillery
As the war progressed attacks by enemy aircraft diminished, and surface ships and submarines became the main threat. Low-angle guns were introduced to counter this new menace, and to reflect the change in role the title was altered on 1 November 1942 to Maritime Royal Artillery. In March 1943 the establishment was reorganised into six regiments, each consisting of a Regimental Headquarters, Training Battery and Holding Battery. Each regiment was responsible for a designated area of shipping: Clyde (1st Regt, Loch Winnoch), Forth (2nd Regt, Leslie), Tyne (3rd Regt, North Shields), Mersey (4th Regt, Southport), Thames (5th Regt, Shoeburyness), and Severn (6th Regt, Thornbury). There were also overseas Troops and Batteries in North Africa and Palestine, and later on in France, Belgium and Holland. In August 1944 1,800 maritime gunners were returned to Army service. Further reductions took place during 1945, and the final regiment was disbanded on 31 July 1946. The MRA motto was Intrepid per oceanos Mundi = boldly over the oceans of the world.
Maritime gunners sailed on a wide variety of merchant vessels: trawlers, coasters, freighters, ore carriers, tankers, passenger ships and others. They were often away at sea for months at a time, sometimes for over a year. They sailed alone or in convoys of up to 70 ships to destinations such as the Mediterranean, America and Canada, Russia, South Africa, Australia, and the Middle and Far East. The large passenger liners such as the Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth and Mauretania were used as troopships and often sailed alone, relying on their speed to outrun the enemy. The Queen Mary could transport 15,000 troops at a time, and carried up to 200 DEMS gunners. Although tasked with defending merchant ships, maritime gunners also took part in offensive operations, serving on merchant vessels which took part in landings such as North Africa, Sicily, Normandy, and the South of France.
Perhaps the best known and most costly action for the maritime artillery was Operation Pedestal, better remembered as the ss Ohio convoy to Malta. On 2 August 1942 fourteen merchant vessels with a strong naval escort set sail from the Clyde for Malta with desperately needed fuel and supplies. The convoy was under constant attack from 11th to the 15th August. Only five ships, four of which were badly damaged, arrived at their destination. Of the 162 maritime gunners who took part in the convoy, thirty were killed, six wounded and nineteen taken prisoner. Fifty three maritime gunners stranded on Malta were ‘hijacked’ to bolster anti-aircraft units on the island, and soldiers rescued at sea found themselves stranded in distant ports.
Weapons and Equipment
In the early days of coastal protection a two-man gun team would carry: a Lewis machine gun in a long wooden box, four full drum magazines, a box containing 1,000 rounds of ammunition, a gun mounting and four fixing bolts, cleaning kit and tools. The First World War Lewis gun was quickly replaced by the Bren machine gun. The Marlin, Hotchkiss and Browning machine guns were also used. These hand-held weapons were augmented by a selection of rocket-based weapons of varying degrees of effectiveness: flares, Parachute and Cable, Holman Projector, Pillar Box, Fast Aerial Mine, ‘Pig Trough’ and flame thrower. As the war progressed heavier calibre deck-mounted anti-aircraft guns such as the Oerlikon and Bofors gun were introduced. On larger ocean going vessels naval guns were fitted to combat aircraft, but later on low-angle guns were introduced against submarines and surface ships.
As well as carrying his Army uniform and equipment, a soldier was also required to take along navy kit including two pairs of sea boots, dufflecoat, hammock and blanket, tropical or artic wear as necessary, as well as civilian clothes for going ashore in neutral ports.
Life at Sea
Watches, or spells of duty, comprised 4 hours on 4 hours off, or 4 on 8 off if manpower allowed. All gunners ‘stood to’ during Action Stations. Weapon cleaning and practice took up a large amount of time. Soldiers could earn extra pay by volunteering for galley duties, painting and cleaning the ship, and mounting anti-sabotage watch when in port. Soldiers received no additional pay for their sea-going duties, and were paid less than naval ratings and merchant seamen, though it should be remembered that the latter had their pay stopped if their ship was sunk. Washing and repairing uniform and kit, writing letters and sleeping took up the off-duty hours. Very few officers went to sea, and when they did it was only as Gunnery Officers on the largest passenger ships. Most remained at regimental and battery locations, while some commanded DEMS detachments at ports.
Duties at Home
On returning from sea a soldier would be de-briefed, make good any deficiencies in his kit, then take seven to ten days leave. The survivor of a sinking would receive ten to fourteen days. On returning to base he would undergo aircraft recognition training and weapon handling practice. There would also be spells on cookhouse fatigues and guard duties. He would stay with his regiment until either allocated another ship or sent to a port detachment, where he would await a tasking.
Of the 14,000 army gunners who served at sea at least 1,236 lost their lives during the war. The exact number of deaths will never be known as many men were listed as merchant seaman in official records. This is because they signed on as seamen on joining ship to comply with international treaty obligations governing the arming and defence of merchant shipping. Of the 24,000 Royal Navy gunners who served in DEMS 2,713 were killed. Official records state that 2,600 merchant ships were sunk and 30,000 merchant seamen lost their lives, the majority drowned or killed by exposure.
Thornbury and the Maritime Artillery
Twenty eight officers and men of RHQ and 6th Battery, 3rd Regiment, Maritime Anti-Aircraft Royal Artillery arrived in Thornbury from Cardiff some time between May and September 1941. Personnel numbers peaked in December 1942 when there were 43 Officers and 2,987 soldiers on the strength of 6th Regiment, Maritime Royal Artillery. The regiment was disbanded soon after December 1945. The motto of 6th Regiment was Ostendo non ostento = I show not show off.
Men from the regiment sailed from Avonmouth, Falmouth, Plymouth, Newport, Barry, Cardiff, and Swansea, with the possible addition of Pembroke, Port Talbot and Milford Haven.
Kyneton House, Kington near Thornbury
Situated about a mile and a half north-west of Thornbury, this seventeenth-century listed manor house was requisitioned by the Army during the war and became the Regimental Headquarters. The central tower section was used for Plotting/Tracking Room and offices, and huts were erected in the field behind the building for accommodation and cookhouse. The house was home to Westwing girl’s school between 1960 and 2001, during which time the Headmistress regularly hosted reunions. It was sold to a property development company and has been converted to private accommodation.
Thornbury Castle, which was still in private hands during the war, housed the Officer’s Mess. The indoor tennis court was converted into a cinema for viewing training films on aircraft recognition. There may have been huts in the area now occupied by the vineyard.
The Pithay, Thornbury
The Training Battery was situated just outside the castle wall alongside the footpath to Kington. It comprised a small collection of Army buildings for stores, training and accommodation, as well as some anti-aircraft and naval guns for instructional purposes. All that remains now is one metal building (possibly a cookhouse), some overgrown foundations and the original metal-reinforced trackway laid by the Army. There was a Dome Trainer (aerial view of area taken after the war clearly shows site of trainer that tallies with the memories of it of Thornbury resident George Ford).
The Army used several buildings in the town, which was referred to as a ‘small inland West Country town’ under government censorship restrictions:
2 The Plain – Tuck shop
7 High Street – Reception Centre for men returning from sea
The Cinema (57-9 High St) – Training films. Sergeant’s Mess at rear
Exchange Hotel (now Knot of Rope) – Quartermaster’s stores in part of building
Sport and Leisure
The Wesleyan school room at the rear of the Methodist church was a hobbies workshop. The Cossham Hall in Chapel Street was used for ENSA shows, dances, as a YMCA and gym. The Congregational Church school room (Chapel Street) was a YMCA canteen run by local women. The regiment had a dance band, and fielded cricket and football teams which included several international players. The regiment laid on regular transport into Bristol for the docks and railway station, as well as entertainment for the troops. This service was used by the people of Thornbury, and provided a cover for the movement of troops leaving for sea and returning to base.
The Regiment’s Holding Battery was stationed just outside Thornbury at a riding stables and in the field next to the Jubilee Hall. In addition to a collection of wooden huts there was a Dome Trainer. This white dome-shaped construction was used to train soldiers in anti-aircraft gunnery techniques. The Jubilee Hall was used for teas, and at least one regimental meal took place there/here.
Pilning Rifle Range
Members of the regiment undertook live firing at Pilning on the shore of the Severn Estuary some six miles south-west of Thornbury. Firing practice took place on Thursdays weekly. Troops fired machine guns, Oerlikons and rockets out into the Severn at targets towed by aircraft. It is still used by the Ministry of Defence.
HMS Flying Fox, Bristol
Members of the regiment underwent training on naval guns, seamanship and anti-aircraft gunnery at this Royal Naval Reserve establishment in Hotwells, Bristol, which is still in use today. Gunnery practice also took place on the training ship HMS Flying Fox, which was moored nearby. Soldiers could qualify as a naval gunlayer 2nd class, which entitled them to wear the appropriate badge on their uniform. There is a memorial plaque on the quayside commemorating the ship:
HMS Flying Fox
The Training ship for the Bristol & Severn Divisions of the Royal Naval & Volunteer Reserves lay at this berth for fifty years.
This memorial is in honour of all who served or trained in her during peacetime & in war & of those who gave their lives in the service of their country as ‘a security for such as pass on the seas upon their lawful occasions’
The main port for sailings to and from Bristol. Designated a ‘Place of National Importance’ by the government. Referred to as ‘a West Country port’ or a ‘West Coast town’ under censorship restrictions. Privately owned, permission is required to enter the site.
Now largely redeveloped as a tourist and leisure attraction. In 2004 the tidal Cardiff Bay was enclosed by a barrage to create a harbour facility. The few remaining docks are in private hands.
Thornbury & District Museum
Thornbury & District Museum has a 6th Regiment Roll of Honour which carries the names of 181 dead. This was formerly displayed at Kyneton House until the closure of Westwing School in 2001, and is a copy of an original which hung in Thornbury parish church until 1980.
Points to note: The deaths run from 20 May 1941 to 11 April 1945. As 6th Regiment MRA was not constituted until 1 November 1942, the earlier entries relate to 6th Battery MAA.
Not all of the deaths relate to action at sea. Other causes include accident, natural causes, lost overboard, and accidentally shot.
The name of only one Sergeant appears. This is because senior NCOs did not usually go to sea as they were instructors or employed at RHQ.
There are many instances of multiple deaths on the same date. This suggests the loss of a ship.
The two entries for NEWMAN with the same date relate to twins who always served together.
Ten deaths occurred on 23 December 1941. It is not certain yet whether they all served on the same ship, or in different ships on the same convoy.
The museum also holds a few photographs relating to the regiment, some research notes complied by Ron Knott, and material from a 1988 exhibition.
Thornbury Parish Church. Saint Mary’s church has a memorial to 6th Regiment. This wooden table altar, paid for by the regiment, is sited in the Stafford Chapel to the right of the nave. It carries the following inscription:
‘This altar is given in memory of the two hundred and forty one men of
the 6th Regiment of the Maritime Royal Artillery who gave their lives
in the war of 1939-1945, and whose regimental headquarters was
at Thornbury 1942-19′