44th Anti-Aircraft Brigade (44 AA Bde) was an air defence formation of Britain’s Territorial Army (TA). Formed in 1938, it was responsible for protecting Manchester and later the Isle of Wight during the Second World War. It was reformed postwar under a new title, and continued until 1955.
With the expansion of Britain’s Anti-Aircraft (AA) defences in the late 1930s, new formations were created to command the growing number of Royal Artillery (RA) and Royal Engineers (RE) AA gun and searchlight (S/L) units. 44th AA Brigade was raised on 29 September 1938 at Manchester. It formed part of 4th AA Division, which was responsible for defending North West England. The first brigade commander (appointed 22 October 1938) was Brigadier Gerald Rickards, DSO, MC.
At the time the brigade was formed, the TA’s AA units were in a state of mobilisation because of the Munich crisis, although they were soon stood down. In February 1939 the TA’s AA defences came under the control of a new Anti-Aircraft Command. In June, as international tensions grew in the run-up to the Second World War, a partial mobilisation of AA Command was begun in a process known as ‘couverture’, whereby each unit did a month’s tour of duty in rotation to man selected AA gun and searchlight positions. AA Command mobilised fully on 24 August, ahead of the official declaration of war on 3 September.
The composition of the brigade upon mobilisation in August 1939 was as follows:
When the code word to mobilise was issued on 24 August, 65th AA Rgt was returning from a practice camp at Burrowhead in Scotland and went straight to its war stations. 39th S/L Bn and one battery of 62nd S/L Bn had transport standing by and were able to return immediately from their couverture deployment with 2 AA Division in East Yorkshire to man their war stations. 81st AA Regiment manned two HAA battery sites and also deployed Lewis guns as LAA cover for the Vital Point (VP) of the Metropolitan-Vickers factory at Trafford Park. 80th LAA Bty and 71st S/L Rgt also manned VPs. By midnight the brigade was disposed as follows:
In the next 24 hours more HAA gun sites were reported ready for action, around 60 S/Ls were deployed and the number of Lewis guns at VPs was increased, with 39th S/L Bttn guarding the Manchester Ship Canal, Salford docks and Barton Power Station. In addition, the women of the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) companies were taking over their duties with the regiments.
On 1 November the brigade was reorganised, with 39th and 71st S/L Rgts transferring to the command of 53rd Light AA Bde covering the Mersey area, followed shortly afterwards by 62nd S/L Rgt. Simultaneously, 21st (69, 136 & 143 Btys at Liverpool) and its newly formed offshoot 41st (133, 134 & 135 Btys) LAA Rgts transferred from 53rd LAA Bde and took over command of the LAA batteries manning VPs in 44 AA Bde’s area, (42, 82 and 129 Btys), while 80th LAA Bty ceased to be an independent unit and came under 21st LAA Rgt. The commander of 44th AA Bde was named AA Defence Commander (AADC) for the Manchester Gun Zone. New VPs taken over by the brigade included ICI’s Lostock Gralam works and Crewe Junction (136 LAA Bty), Baxter’s respirator factory at Leyland (133 LAA Bty), Royal Ordnance Factory, Chorley, (133 & 135 LAA Btys), Carlisle Junction (134 LAA Bty) and de Havilland’s Lostock works (181 AA Bty, later 253 AA Bty).
Despite a number of alerts, there were no enemy air raids in the brigade’s area for some time. In November, the brigade received 4.5-inch HAA guns to re-equip three of its four-gun HAA sites, and 436 S/L Bty relieved 134 LAA Bty so that it could be sent to train on the Vickers MkVIII ‘pom-pom’ gun. In June 1940 the AA regiments were redesignated ‘HAA’ to distinguish them from the growing number of LAA units, while in August all the RE AA battalions and infantry battalions converted to S/L duties became Searchlight Regiments of the RA.
Most of the air raids in 4 AA Division’s area during the Battle of Britain were in the West Midlands or over the Mersey. A few bombs fell on Manchester and Crewe on 27/28 August, and across East Lancashire the following night. Night raids increased during the autumn as the Battle of Britain was followed by the Blitz. 65th (Manchester Regiment) HAA Rgt moved to the Orkney & Shetland Defence Force (OSDEF) in the first week of October 1940, being replaced by 70th (3rd West Lancashire) HAA Rgt from 33 (Western) AA Bde.
Some examples of Gun-laying Mk I radar began to arrive for the HAA batteries, Bofors 40 mm guns appeared in increasing numbers for the LAA regiments, and the AA divisions formed units equipped with Z Battery rocket projectiles. In November 1940 the expansion of AA Command led to the creation of new AA Divisions. 44 AA Brigade remained in 4 AA Division and was responsible for Manchester and the surrounding area, including the shipyards of Barrow-in-Furness, but Brigadier Rickards was promoted to command the new 12 AA Division from 15 November. He was succeeded in command of 44 AA Bde by Lt-Col Erroll Tremlett, a former first-class cricketer who had distinguished himself commanding 54th (Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders) LAA Rgt at the Dunkirk evacuation, where his guns had defended the Mole and protected the embarkation of many of the troops.
The cities of NW England were heavily bombed during the winter of 1940-41 (the Liverpool Blitz and Manchester Blitz). On the night of 21/22 November the Manchester guns engaged raiders on their way to and from Liverpool, and on the following two nights it was Manchester’s turn to be hit. Raids on Manchester peaked at Christmas. The Royal Artillery’s historian considered that during these attacks on British cities ‘the actions fought [by the AA batteries] were as violent, dangerous and prolonged as any in the field’. ‘On an HAA 4.5-inch position of 44th AA Brigade in Manchester, the power rammer on one gun failed. One Gunner loaded 127 of the [86 pounds (39 kg)] rounds himself in eleven hours of action, despite injuries to his fingers’.
During the winter of 1940-41, the composition of 44 AA Bde was as follows:
The Blitz is generally held to have ended on 16 May 1941. By now the HAA sites had the advantage of GL Mk I* radar with an elevation finding (E/F or ‘Effie’) attachment to supplement searchlights. At this stage of the war, experienced units were being posted away to train for service overseas. This led to a continual turnover of units, which accelerated with the preparations for the invasion of North Africa (Operation Torch) in late 1942 and the need to transfer units to counter the Luftwaffe’s Baedeker Blitz and hit-and-run attacks on the South Coast. However, newly formed units continued to join AA Command, the HAA and support units increasingly becoming ‘Mixed’ units, indicating that women of the ATS were fully integrated into them. Members of the Home Guard (HG) also provided manpower, particularly for ‘Z’ Batteries.
Brigadier Tremlett was promoted to command 10 AA Division from 14 February 1942, and was succeeded at 44 AA Bde by Brig R.E. Kane, OBE, MC.
During this period the brigade was composed as follows:
At the end of September 1942, AA Command disbanded the AA Corps and Divisions and replaced them with new AA Groups, whose areas of responsibility coincided with the Groups of RAF Fighter Command. 44 AA Brigade came under 4 AA Group, with its HQ at Preston, which covered NW England and N Wales and operated with No. 9 Group RAF. 4 AA Group’s area was quiet throughout the following year, and in May 1943 4 AA Bde had to ‘un-man’ some of its VPs to provide LAA guns and crews to 5 AA Group in Eastern England, which was dealing with ‘hit and run’ raids by the Luftwaffe. When in September 1943 AA Command was required to release manpower to 21st Army Group forming for the planned invasion of Normandy (Operation Overlord), the group began to lose units by transfer and disbandment. On 14 January 1944, Brigadier Kane was transferred to command 45 AA Bde and was replaced by Brig J.W. Barker, TD.
During this period the brigade was composed as follows (temporary attachments omitted):
In March 1944, 44 AA Bde HQ was moved from Manchester to take over the AA defences on the Isle of Wight. Here it came under the command of 6 AA Group, which had responsibility for covering the ‘Overlord’ embarkation ports around the Solent and Portsmouth. The brigade established its HQ at ‘Broadlands’, Staplers Road, Newport, and took over command of 82nd (Essex) HAA Rgt and 151st LAA Rgt from 47 AA Bde and was soon reinforced. Additional LAA guns (mainly Bofors, with a few Oerlikon 20 mm cannon) were sited singly at Yarmouth, Shanklin, Sandown and Ventnor.
Brigadier Vere Krohn, MC, TD, a former head of AA Command’s technical branch, arrived from 43 AA Bde to take command on 2 May, and began redeploying the HAA sites and additional radar-controlled searchlights to tackle aircraft attempting to lay mines in the Solent. There were sporadic attacks, with 619/185, 182/136 and 438/136 HAA Btys submitting claims for ‘kills’ on 15, 16 and 23 May, but the Luftwaffe failed to disrupt the ‘Overlord’ preparations.
A week after D-Day the long-awaited attacks on London by V-1 flying bombs (‘Divers’) began. AA Command had prepared Operation Diver to counter these weapons, and AA guns were moved from all over the UK to strengthen 2 AA Group’s ‘Diver Belt’ in South East England. 6 AA Group also deployed additional HAA batteries in the Solent-Portsmouth defences. The first V-1 appeared over the Isle of Wight on 26 June, and 44 AA Bde redeployed its LAA guns in an anti-Diver role, including twin Browning .50 Machine Guns from S/L sites in the west of the island. However, the V-1 launch sites in Normandy were quickly overrun, and few missiles were seen in the Solent-Portsmouth area. As 21st Army Group overran the main launch sites in the Pas-de-Calais, the Luftwaffe shifted its focus to air-launching V-1s over the North Sea during the autumn, and AA Command redeployed units from the South Coast to Eastern England in response.
44 AA Brigade ‘blacked out’ its searchlights on 12 November apart from those required as homing beacons for friendly aircraft, and the crews were sent to provide construction parties for the gun sites in the new ‘Diver Strip’. In early December it handed over its remaining commitments to 67 AA Bde, and Brigade HQ was disbanded on 31 December 1944.
During this period the composition of the brigade was as follows:
By October 1944, the brigade’s HQ establishment was 8 officers, 7 male other ranks and 22 members of the ATS, together with a small number of attached drivers, cooks and mess orderlies (male and female). In addition, the brigade had a Mixed Signal Office Section of 5 male other ranks and 19 ATS, which was formally part of the Group signal unit.
The brigade was disbanded on 11 December 1944.
When the TA was reconstituted in 1947, 44 AA Bde reformed at Salford, Greater Manchester as 70th AA Brigade (TA) (taking the number of a disbanded wartime formation from 4 AA Division) and forming part of 4 AA Group at Warrington. It now comprised the following units:
(‘Mixed’ indicated that members of the Women’s Royal Army Corps were integrated into the unit.)
AA Command was disbanded in March 1955, and 70 AA Bde was placed in ‘suspended animation’ from 31 October that year. It was formally disbanded on 31 December 1957.