Invading America, 1943
Hitler defeated at Stalingrad. The Eighth army move into Sicily. It is 1943.
America had been at war for about 18 months. Most Americans, untouched by the conflict, questioned their country’s involvement and Roosevelt wanted to show the American people what the fighting was like and what was needed to win. To help the US President in his PR campaign, Churchill sent a Battery of British Royal Artillery gunners, complete with their equipment. Their brief was simple but comprehensive: talk to the American people; show them what the war is all about.
The 1st Composite Anti-Aircraft Demonstration Battery Royal Artillery was unique. It included heavy and light AA guns, searchlights and highly technical specialist equipment such as radar, which was barely off the drawing board. The Battery had three tasks: to demonstrate British anti-aircraft skills and accuracy, to help with fund raising for the war effort, and to take part in social events to cement the friendship between the two Allies. After 6 weeks of intensive training, the 346 officers and men boarded the Ile de France en route to a country familiar from the movies, but which none of them had had the faintest chance of visiting before.
It wasn’t a holiday. Even crossing the Atlantic they had a job to do. Clifford Cole, radar expert with the Battery, explains:
‘We were detailed to act as Voyage Guard to German prisoners of war being sent to America... It is quite a business – the handling of prisoners in accordance with the Geneva Convention – and the possibility of mass violence on board ship, especially when they got to know that they were to cross the dreaded Atlantic and brave all Hitler’s U-boats, made me think.’
The British Battery on the Ile de France in New York Harbour.
Once on US soil the pace was gruelling. The Battery toured through more than thirty states of the union, from New York to San Francisco and from Chicago to El Paso. At army camps they gave giving demonstrations of firing; they paraded through city streets, and broadcast on US radio. A memorable highlight of their visit was demonstrating at the United States Military Academy at West Point – General Eisenhower’s son John was a cadet there at the time – and being the first non-American soldiers to be allowed to bring their weapons of war into probably the most famous military academy in the US.
‘The first demonstration was the best I’d seen since we formed as a Battery. It was a strange psychological effect, the men showing off in front of cadets and doing extremely well. We put on a really good demonstration, bringing a searchlight, a Bofors gun and the heavy gun section into action in quick time. Some record times were put up, including putting a 3.7 inch gun into action in three minutes twenty seconds from halt to action. The demonstrations played havoc with the men, however; bringing a heavy gun into action six times in a day is extremely heavy work... It was a fine sight to see 600 cadets in white trousers and blue coats lined up in seats on the balcony and to hear their almost tumultuous clapping at the end of the show.’
A night firing display.
The Battery even had a brush with Hollywood, as various stars joined them for fund-raising events in Boston and Los Angeles. A booklet published to commemorate the Battery’s visit to New York summed up:
‘A storm of tickertape descended from Broadway’s towering buildings at noon, 31 August 1943, when 350 veteran British anti-aircraft soldiers made their official bow to New York – America’s gateway.
‘These were the soldiers of the Number One Composite British Anti-Aircraft Battery, who came to the United States to exchange ideas on ack ack, with American AA troops…
‘The Tommies are best described by the words of a certain American soldier. “They’re good guys and good soldiers”.'
Ticker tape parade of British Battery down Broadway.
But was the tour worth all the effort? Colonel Tom Metcalf, in charge of the Demonstration Battery was in no doubt: ‘Support for the British created not only by our gunnery, but also by our mixing afterwards, was worth more than what those men by themselves could have done for their cause in England.’
Largely forgotten today, the demonstration tour was a vital contribution towards encouraging American support. As Cole says: ‘The American people were so eager for news and so eager to learn, that I was amazed at the work our government had done to increase relations. It is not everyone who can say that they have had the honour of parading down Broadway and being received by the Mayor of New York, LaGuardia...’
Invading America, 1943, an illustrated eyewitness account of the tour written by Clifford Cole has just been published by Loaghtan Books.
A4, 144 pages, 200 period photos, and costs £18.95 including postage.
For further details visit www.loaghtanbooks.com
Clifford Cole, the Battery’s radar expert, broadcasting on American radio.
‘The first demonstration was the best I’d seen since we formed as a Battery. It was a strange psychological effect, the men showing off in front of cadets and doing extremely well. We put on a really good demonstration, bringing a searchlight, a Bofors gun and the heavy gun section into action in quick time.'
Hedy Lamarr and Bob Hope entertaining the British Battery at the Hollywood Canteen.