On this day in 1914 (29 July) – the first shots of World War I were fired by the Austro-Hungarian river monitor SMS Bodrog upon Serbian defences near Belgrade. From his book City Boys at War: The Lloyd’s Battery 1938–1940 A Gunner’s Perspective, Peter Ledger looks the role those working in the City played in both WWI and WWII, from the personal viewpoint of a young marine broker.
It is a fair bet that not many people in the London insurance market today are aware that there was a Lloyd’s battery, one of three making up the 53rd (City of London) Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment, RA. Several anti-aircraft regiments were raised after the Zeppelin raids on London in the First War. It remained in place after the end of that war and the Battery was recruited from men working in the Lloyd’s insurance market. It was named 159th (Lloyd’s) Battery.
Despite the memory of the horrors of World War I being still in relatively recent memory, and a general mood of appeasement in the country, many young men believed another war with Germany was inevitable and volunteered for service.
One recruit was Alfred Ledger, a young marine broker working in the City, who volunteered in 1938. Five weeks after his marriage in July 1939, Alfred was called up and the regiment deployed to France. Like so many young couples at the time, Alfred and his wife, Marjorie, exchanged letters throughout the war. Their cache of letters has just been reopened after a gap of over 75 years.
The 53rd was one of two artillery regiments providing anti-aircraft defence for the Advanced Air Striking Force (AASF), the air component of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). With raw memories of the catastrophic human cost of the First War, the prevailing mood supported appeasement. Britain was ill prepared for another confrontation with Germany. Poorly equipped regiments and squadrons were dispatched in great haste to France. The regiment left for France in such a hurry that it was ordered to leave non-essential stores behind. Several weeks after deployment to the area around Reims, food for the gunners were still being cooked over open fires in the fields. Confronted by the coldest winter for 100 years the men lived in shelters constructed from straw bales with tarpaulins as roof protection. Alfred described shaving outside, his shaving brush freezing to the dustbin he was using as a table.
It was not until late December 1939 that the Regiment moved into the huts they had spent their time building. Reading Alfred’s letters, it would be easy to gain the impression he was employed by a building contractor rather than as a gunner.
Luftwaffe attack with no warning
In the early hours of 10th May, 1940 the Luftwaffe attacked. A massive failure of intelligence meant that the AASF received no warning. Throughout daylight over the next five days, the 53rd’s gunners were continuously in action. Simultaneously, the German army launched its surprise attack through the Ardennes. The AASF squadrons were perilously at risk and were ordered to withdraw south to Troyes. In the haste of withdrawal under darkness, the roads crammed with refugees, the regiment was forced to abandon all but eight of its guns. Patrols later recovered ten guns but two patrols, including men from the Lloyd’s battery, were captured.
The AASF took drastic action and transferred one of the three batteries to 73 HAA. The rump of the regiment was sent to Nantes and then to Marseille to defend airfields that were to be used by the curiously named Haddock Force – RAF bombers sent from England to bomb northern Italian industrial cities as soon as Italy entered the war.
Evacuation and escape
By now, the Dunkirk evacuation was in full swing. Marjorie’s father reported seeing hundreds of exhausted soldiers at Waterloo station. She expected Alfred to knock on the door at any moment, but he failed to appear. In an anguished letter she confided: “I didn’t write yesterday. I didn’t know where we stood, or what was going to happen! I began to wonder if I was having a nightmare! I thought that, if France really had definitely given up fighting, I hoped and hoped that you would be one of the lucky ones to escape. The other awful thought was that maybe you didn’t get out, but were captured by the Germans instead, so I decided it was useless to write.”
Such were the strains on the families at home. What Marjorie could not know was that, 24 hours earlier, the 53rd had been ordered to escape. The only British vessel available in Marseille docks was commandeered – the Alma Dawson, a collier covered in coal dust. The French dockers went on strike and refused to load the guns which were abandoned, minus instruments and breeches. Marjorie’s distress was misplaced; as she was writing the Alma Dawson had slipped out of Marseille en route to Gibraltar.
Peter Ledger, City Boys at War: The Lloyd’s Battery 1938–1940 A Gunner’s Perspective (Unicorn, £20) http://www.unicornpublishing.org