The Derry Boys

Seventy years ago the soldiers of 9th (Londonderry) Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment Royal Artillery were returning from the war.

Wednesday, 11th November 2015, 12:48 pm
A 3.7-inch HAA gun firing in support of Fifth (US) Army south of the Arno river in August 1944.

Although the Regiment had marched off in November 1939 as a body, there was no formal homecoming. Instead, men came home as individuals as their ‘demob’ categories took effect.

One such individual was the Regiment’s best-known officer, Major Sir Basil McFarland. In June 1945 he was re-elected to the mayoralty of his native city and later appointed Honorary Colonel of 9th (Londonderry) Regiment. Sir Basil and all who served in the Regiment – his Derry Boys – could look back with pride on its achievements during the war.

Not for nothing had 9th Londonderry achieved its reputation as the finest heavy anti-aircraft regiment in the Mediterranean. It had also been the first reserve forces unit deployed overseas, when it moved to Alexandria in Egypt in November 1939.

Yet when it reached Alexandria the Regiment was only partially trained with no sign that it would become the formidable unit that the Royal Navy was to demand for the defences of Tripoli when that city fell to Eighth Army in 1943.

In November 1939 many in 24, 25 and 26 Batteries had yet to see a 3.7-inch AA gun, the weapon that became their standard equipment. With the few 3.7s in Alexandria, manned by 20 Battery and the Royal Marine Artillery, the Derry Boys began intensive training. Long hours of sweating in the sun paid off when they engaged the first Italian raid on Alexandria in June 1940.

The night raid was fought off with no damage to ships in the harbour. No aircraft were shot down but that changed the following day when a reconnaissance aircraft appeared to photograph the results of the raid. As the recce plane made its getaway over Agami Point, it was engaged by guns of 25 Battery. The aircraft was hit, fell from the sky and crashed. The Derry Boys had their first ‘victory’.

More was to follow as Alexandria, eastern home of the Mediterranean Fleet, came under increasing attention from the Regia Aeronautica and, later, the Luftwaffe. In spite of that, for the eighteen months that the Derry Boys defended the harbour no enemy bombs fell on ships there.

Hostiles approaching! Gunners of 25 Battery take post at Sidi Barrani on 27 June 1941.

In the summer of 1940, 25 Battery was detached to defend Port Sudan, remaining in Sudan until April 1941. Italian bombers raided Port Sudan but again not one bomb hit a ship in the harbour. The high standard of the defence of Alexandria and Port Sudan was clear to the Royal Navy and would be remembered in late 1942.

There had been a price to pay for the defence of Alexandria. Already the Derry Boys had lost men killed when some enemy bombs had fallen on them. When 25 Battery returned from Sudan on Easter Day 1941 it was immediately ordered to the Western Desert –Rommel had broken through the Halfaya Pass on Good Friday and the battery was deployed to Mersa Matruh. Then regarded as Egypt’s last line of defence, Matruh was where 25 Battery suffered its first fatalities.

Having defended the Canal Zone in spring and early summer 1942, the Regiment was posted to join Ninth Army in Palestine to defend against a possible German breakthrough in the Caucasus and advance towards Egypt.

While in Palestine the gunners learned of Eighth Army’s victory at El Alamein and of the repercussions for them. With Eighth Army poised to advance into Libya, the port city of Tripoli became an important target. Its harbour would allow easier re-supply of Eighth Army for its advance into Tunisia.

October 1939 and 9th (Londonderry) HAA Regiment awaits inspection by the Honorary Colonel, the Duke of Abercorn, and the commander of 3 (Ulster) AA Brigade, Colonel Shilstone.

Aware that Tripoli would become a prime Luftwaffe target, the Royal Navy demanded that 9th (Londonderry) HAA Regiment be at the core of the port’s defences. And so the Regiment was ordered to leave Palestine, catch up with the advancing Eighth Army and take over positions in Tripoli as soon as the city fell.

Tripoli was captured by Eighth Army on 23 January 1943. Within hours 9th Regiment was manning gun positions around the harbour and had even increased its strength by taking over some Italian 90mm AA guns.

The defence of Tripoli was the apotheosis of the Regiment. Within days the Luftwaffe were pounding the harbour but raid after raid was beaten off, often with heavy losses to the attackers. During February and March there were almost fifty bombing raids with one occurring on 20 February while General Montgomery was visiting 9th Regiment. On 19 March German aircraft attacked at low level to avoid detection by radar. Heavy rain and low cloud also reduced visibility and muffled sound.

Even so, the raiders were engaged quickly and effectively. Six were shot down by the AA guns with another probably destroyed and one damaged. The attacking force had numbered fifteen machines.

Alexandria 1940 and gunners of 24 Battery man a Bren gun on an anti-aircraft mount close to the El Silsila gun position. The Bren was deployed to engage very low-flying aircraft.

However, the Germans managed to drop some bombs in the harbour. One ship was hit and sank. Another, struck by a crashing bomber, blew up with its cargo of ammunition. In twelve minutes, over 1,300 heavy AA rounds had been fired.

From then on attacks on the port reduced in strength and intensity. The Luftwaffe had dubbed the Tripoli defences a ‘wand aus stahl’, or wall of steel, and captured German airmen reported that the most unpopular order in the Mediterranean was to fly against Tripoli.

By the end of April the Luftwaffe had given up. There were no more raids on Tripoli although a high state of alert was maintained even as 9th Regiment began preparations for its next role.

On 15 September 1943, men of 9th Regiment landed on the Salerno beaches in Operation AVALANCHE. Within minutes they were converted to infantry and spent the next few days helping fight off a German counter-attack designed to throw Fifth (US) Army back into the sea. For his role in these operations, Sir Basil McFarland received a Mention in Despatches.

The Regiment spent over a year in Italy. At first it defended Naples, where it suffered its heaviest losses of the war when fifteen men of 25 Battery were killed by a German bomb. They later defended US airbases near Pompeii and Herculaneum and witnessed the eruption of Vesuvius on 19 March 1944, an event that destroyed many American aircraft on the ground.

In the summer of 1944 the Regiment turned its hand to field artillery and provided support for US troops along the Arno river, in sight of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Their remarkable accuracy drew praise from US Army officers, as did their reliability. In one instance, American officers called on them to silence a German machine-gun post that had survived bombardment by US Army guns. A battery (8-guns) bombardment had failed to knock out the position, as had a battalion (24-guns) concentration. One round from a 25 Battery 3.7 silenced the machine gun. This was no lucky shot, but the result of experience and considerable practice in the art of gunnery.

In late September the Derry Boys left Italy. The Regiment had served longer overseas than any other unit in the Army. It spent the last months of the war in England and was involved in fighting off the last Luftwaffe raid on Britain in March 1945. But many of the originals had gone by then, some of the younger men having been selected for infantry training to join Second Army on the European mainland.

Thus there was no welcome home parade for the Derry Boys, although some returned for the official visit to Londonderry of King George VI, Queen Elizabeth and Princess Elizabeth in July 1945. Derry Boys formed part of the street-lining parties, their smart turnout eliciting many positive comments.

In their six years of service they had added a new and proud chapter to the history of the city and county and the areas around Strabane, Sion Mills and Enniskillen from whence came the majority of 9th Regiment’s soldiers.