story of 8th (Belfast) Heavy Anti Aircraft Regiment, Royal Artillery .
1939 to 1945.
On the north side of the ambulatory (St.
Anne's Cathedral, Belfast)
there is a very distinctive war
memorial to this
regiment, many members of which had links with the Cathedral.
This account has been written by Colonel
Murray Barnes, OBE, TD, former second-in-command of the TA regiment
which succeeded the 8th.
Canon Tom Gibson, Dean Crooks, Canon Nobel
Hamilton and Dean McKelvey served at various times as Chaplains to the
Ulster TA Gunners.
Preparation for war
Munich Agreement in 1938, preparations began for war in the hope that
peace would prevail.
Ulster had always wanted to have Territorial Army units, but this was
not possible because the Government had signed a Treaty with the Irish
Free State, binding them not to raise an army in Northern Ireland.
However, it was agreed to permit Territorial units on condition that
the parentage of the new force was accepted entirely by the War Office,
and the object of the territorial units was for Imperial defence only.
In 1937, a Battery of Heavy Artillery with a
Fortress Company of Engineers (both TA) had been raised for the defence
of Belfast Lough. As the war clouds grew in size, 3rd Anti –Aircraft
Brigade (3 AA Bde) of the Supplementary Reserve was formed in early
1939 and was in action prior to the second mobilisation of the
Territorial Army, to provide defence for the City of Belfast.
The 8th (Belfast) Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment
RA (Supplementary Reserve) ( 8 HAA Regt) formed part of 3 AA Bde.
8 HAA Regt,
which initially comprised over 1000 men from the City and district
of Belfast was formed at Dunmore Camp on the Antrim Road. Many of these
men were friends and colleagues from the same offices, works and
organisations in the City. The Army list for 1938 contains a list of
the names of the first Officers to serve in the Regiment.
Some of the men while not well known in 1938
went on to become household names both during and after the war e.g.
Jimmy Cunningham who later commanded the Regiment and post war headed
the family financial company, Robert Stephens who post war became
the Secretary to the Governor of Northern Ireland, Harry McKibbin an
Irish International and British Lion rugby player, as was Blair Mayne,
who was destined to become the most decorated officer of the War, and a
founding member of the Special Air Service. It was, and remains
the view of many that Blair Mayne should have received the Victoria
Cross. Post War Blair became the Secretary of the Law Society and was
unfortunately killed in a car accident near his home in Newtownards in
County Down in 195?. David Holden went on to become Head of
the Northern Ireland Civil Service. Norman Brann to become Her
Majesty’s Lieutenant for County Down, and Robin Kinahan to become
Lord Mayor of Belfast and to receive a Knighthood. He served on
the Board of the Cathedral and was a major fund-raiser for its
development. He assisted Dean Peacocke in establishing Samaritans in
was equipped with the 3.7 inch Mobile Anti-Aircraft Gun which weighed
9.5 tons and had a muzzle velocity of 2,670 feet per second. The shell
weighed 28 pounds and the gun fired 12 to 15 rounds per minute up to an
effective ceiling of 25,000 feet.
The Regiment was split into Three Batteries,
21, 22 and 23 Batteries. Each Battery had two troops and each Troop was
equipped with 3.7in Anti-Aircraft guns which were drawn by a
Matador Tractor. The guns were also capable of firing in the ground
role if and when required.
Training and France
declared war on 3 September 1939 and on 4 September, the British
Expeditionary force was ordered to France. 8 HAA Regt remained in
defence of Belfast until October when it left Northern Ireland for
practice camp in Cornwall.
After a period of training in England the
Regiment embarked in December to join the British Expeditionary Force
and was in position in France before Christmas.
Force, France 1940
the winter months started with the period popularly known as the
“Phoney War”. Life resolved into a drab routine of continuous
manning and labouring programmes, with nothing to break the
monotony. Endless digging, wiring, draining, hut building and
sand bagging apart from humping stores and ammunition. The winter
was harsh, with heavy rain and hard frosts which lasted for weeks.
In December 1939, 8 HAA Regt was deployed
largely in defence of the port of Le Havre. 21 Battery moved
forward to Arras where it was deployed in May 1940. RHQ
with 22 and 23 Batteries remained at Le Havre.
In May 1940, the Regiment was in action and
fighting hard. 21 Battery was involved heavily near St Valery,
but was eventually surrounded by German Tanks and subjected to aimed
machinegun fire. In these circumstances the Battery was forced to
destroy its guns, and remove the breech blocks. The men of the
Battery then courageously assisted the infantry with small arms fire
and were eventually evacuated to Dunkirk.
22 Battery managed to get out through
Cherbourg and after many adventures, 23 Battery escaped from St Malo.
Both of these Batteries had been deployed in defence of airfields. It
is of note that one Battery, despite orders to blow them up, managed to
bring back three of their 3.7inch AA Guns along with vital gunnery
The History of the Royal Artillery confirms
this story and adds that the Regiment claimed to have shot down two
enemy planes on the day of its embarkation.
The “Battle of
Britain” and “the Blitz”
There was little respite for the gunners of the 8th on their return
from France. A rapid redeployment to Blackpool took place where further
training was organised. Then, they were deployed to protect Coventry,
Plymouth and Wolverhampton. The “Blitz” began in September 1940
with nightly attacks on large cities. There had been a painful
foretaste in July and August, but it was the new intensity and
continuity of the offensive that gave it its place in history. The
night “Blitz” of 1940 – 1941 lasted just over eight months.
When London was heavily bombed on 7 September
1940, the Regiment was concentrated there.
On 27 September 1940, an enemy plane was
claimed as shot down during a raid on London. On 2 October the Regiment
helped to extinguish some of the 2000 incendiary bombs which fell in or
near Harrow School, setting part of it alight. Between 8 and 16
October, bombs fell on the Regiment’s positions on several occasions
causing three fatal and twelve non fatal casualties. On 24 and 25
November, the destruction of a further plane was claimed.
In January of 1941, the Regiment was moved to
Middlesborough, over which enemy raiders passed on their way to attack
other targets. These raiders were engaged with uncertain results, but
just before the Belfast raid of 5 May 1941, pieces of an enemy aircraft
were found scattered over the Tees Valley.
Early in 1942
, 8 HAA Regt (SR) embarked by a strange coincidence on the
Belfast built “Britannic” bound for India, where they arrived in
Bombay on 28 July 1942.
Colonel Harry Porter who served in the
Regiment as a sergeant during the action in France and who was later
commissioned, recalled that the Officers and men of the Regiment
disembarked at Bombay, the guns arrived in Karachi, and everything was
brought together in Lahore in the Punjab. Having gathered together
equipment guns, and stores, the Regiment embarked on a 1,000 mile drive
across India to Calcutta in East Bengal on “the Grand Trunk Road”
involving the crossing of the Ganges delta– a major undertaking
especially in the absence of bridges in most places– to join
the Indian Anti-Aircraft Brigade. Colonel Porter indicates that the men
of the Regiment were not prepared for the poverty which they found on
their arrival in Calcutta.
In late July and August 1942, the Regiment
defended Calcutta against air attacks, and then moved to the border
with Burma to defend Chittagong and East Bengal. By this stage each of
the guns in the regiment had been named after the wife or girlfriend of
the Number 1 in charge - the name being painted on to the gunshield!
From October 1942, a long series of Japanese
air attacks were directed against the Digboi oil plant and the forward
airfields of Eastern Bengal as far south as Chittagong. Calcutta was
raided regularly. The most common form of attack was carried out by
Army type 97 bombers (Mitsubishi Ki 21 or “Sally”) flying in
formation and escorted by Zero fighters. The newly arrived British and
newly formed Indian Regiments alike, took time to bring drills and
procedures up to the right standard. Some casualties were suffered by
the defending gunners, but soon they began to bring down their targets.
Chittagong not only had a large airfield but
was also the supply base for 15 Corps and by March 1943 there were 24 x
3.7 inch and 32x 40mm guns in position there. The History of the Royal
Artillery records that, in the Chittagong area, “…. the Ulster AA
Regiment, 8th HAA was noted for its good shooting, bringing down three
out of five for 24 rounds on one occasion.”
Campaign – September 1942 to May 1943
The first offensive of 15 Corps to clear the
Arakan commenced during December 1942. This offensive was unsuccessful.
Despite an initial advance almost as far as Akyab, Japanese forces held
firm and in the counter attacks which followed, the British front was
thrown back. In spite of personal intervention in command by General
Slim, by May 1943 15 Corps was back where it started six months before.
The men of 8
HAA were not continually in action and did have some time for rest and
recuperation during their time in India and Burma, and when they had
the opportunity to relax they grabbed it with both hands.
For example, the Regiment found time to form a
corps of pipes and drums. Three sets of pipes were purchased in India,
and within a year, there were twelve pipers. In 1944, the Officers of
the regiment presented Kashmir silk Pipe Banners. The pipers and
drummers wore a white crossbelt on which was emblazoned the red hand of
Ulster. The Band performed when the Regiment was not in action – the
Bandsmen had more important things to do when duty called. Parades were
held oh St Patricks Day and on the 12 July, led by the Pipes and Drums.
At one stage the Regiment had three Bands, including a Flute Band.
The lack of entertainment produced a self help
attitude from the men of the 8th. They formed their own “Concert
Party” to entertain their mates and even persuaded some pals to
become female impersonators in the true style of “It Ain’t Half Hot
Mum” as shown on TV. These shows were greatly enjoyed by all ranks.
Football, Wrestling and Rugby were also arranged. The Rugby was easy to
fix especially with Harry McKibbin of Ulster and Irish international
fame in charge.
The beginning of the
In January 1945, Akyab fell to the converging Indian Divisions without
a fight, and on 31 January both 36 LAA Regt and 8 HAA Regt sent
batteries across to the Island to protect the airfield and landing
The final drive to Rangoon then took place,
and its eventual fall did not finish the campaign, although it marked
the point of climax. The Anti-Aircraft defences remained on operational
status though no serious air attacks developed. In September 1945 the
AA defence role ended.
8 HAA Regt remained in Akyab from its arrival
on 31 January 1945 until it left Burma April 1945 for Calcutta and
later Madras under 34 Indian Division. But before leaving Akyab and
Burma,, there was a further job to do.
St Mark’s Church,
This small church was a battle-worn building when the Regiment arrived
there, and was one of the first to be re-taken in all Burma. It was
quickly resolved to restore the fabric of the Church and put it back
into operation. The men of the 8th put every effort into this challenge
and the job was satisfactorily completed.
As in any war there were casualties among the
men of the 8th, and a number had paid the supreme sacrifice during the
Regiment’s service since leaving Belfast for Cornwall in1939. War
cemeteries in England, France, Belgium, India and Burma contain
headstones upon which are inscribed the names of gunners from Belfast
who did not come home.
At Easter in1945, a memorial tablet in memory
of the men who died in the Arakan campaigns was unveiled in St Mark’s
Church, Akyab, the church so lovingly restored by the Regiment.
In August of 1945, the 8th set sail from Madras for Home. Once again a
strange co-incidence decreed that a Belfast built ship, the RMS
Stirling Castle would transport the Regiment back to England.
Shortly after arriving back in Belfast, the
men of 8 HAA Regt (SR), all wearing the distinctive 14th Army Hat with
the brim tacked up on one side, took part in a farewell Parade and
March Past through the streets of their Home City, led by their
Commanding Officer, Colonel Jimmy Cunningham.
The late Colonel
Harry Porter, in a short history of the 8th wrote in 1979 as follows;
“Whilst “Anno domini” is taking its
toll, we like to think that the unique spirit of the 8th will remain
until the last member has “shuffled off this mortal coil”. If a
little of its magic touches the next generation, it will have been
inspired by the enthusiasm and devotion to duty of those who, at a
critical time in our history, were privileged not just to be in the 8th
Regiment, but to be the regiment itself.”
The late Colonel Porter can be assured that
the “magic of the past” has indeed touched younger generations who
take their inspiration from the comradeship, deeds, and sacrifices of
those who served in the 8th.
The Northern Ireland men and women who are
presently serving and who have served as volunteers in the Royal
Artillery Territorial Army Regiments and Batteries which have succeeded
the 8th (Belfast) Regiment can bear witness to this, in particular 206
(Ulster) Battery, the latest in a long line of successors who, as
volunteers have served in Iraq during the current operations there.
you go Home,
Tell them of us, and say,
For your tomorrow,
We gave our To-Day