“These Poms turned up dressed like tiger hunters. Then I found out they were Battle of Britain-hardened Cockneys. They’d fire a clip, dive for cover, then climb back on their gun and shoot more Jap planes to pieces.”
The 79th Light Anti-Aircraft (Ack-Ack) Battery was an independent Territorial Army unit (‘the weekend warriors’) of the Royal Artillery of the British Army.
Formed in the winter of 1939, they were based initially at Walton-on-Thames to defend key installations including water reservoirs supplying London. Originally containing mostly London volunteers, the battery became a full-time unit at the start of September 1939 when war with Germany became inescapable. As with all Territorial Army units, the battery was absorbed into the regular army by the end of that month. Together with three other similar batteries they became part of the 36th Light Ack-Ack Regiment.
During the first two years of the war the unit was employed on anti-aircraft protection duties in the Luftwaffe’s Blitzes of London. The unit saw action during the Battle of Britain where it served with distinction defending the Hawker Aviation factory at Langley, Churchill’s country home at Ditchley and the oil refinery north of Bristol. Later, they were used in the protection of airfields and key installations in Cornwall and the Scilly Isles.
During the months the battery converted to using Bofors 40 millimetre automatic anti-aircraft artillery the battery was preparing to become a mobile battery. Conscripted 19 year old cockney drivers were being trained in Blackpool. Replacement gunners were sourced from the 79th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment trained at Hadrian's Camp in Carlisle. In November 1941 the men were all issued embarkation leave.
The battery was then formed with other batteries, including the 48th and 69th LAA batteries, into the 21st Light Anti Aircraft Regiment Royal Artillery for service overseas. The battery received some cursory training in mobile warfare during ‘Exercise Bumper’ and were now issued with desert kit and their equipment was painted in desert camouflage ready for overseas deployment in mid-November.
The battery gunners left Gourock on the MV Warwick Castle at 8am on 7 December 1941. A small team from the 79th accompanied their equipment on the SS Malancha, which sailed independently from Liverpool on the same day as the Japanese launched their attacks on Malaya and Pearl Harbour.
Whilst at sea, the planners at the War Office decided to reschedule the operation which had been one of Winston Churchill’s pet projects, but without letting him know. The Operation would eventually take place a year later as “Operation Torch”.
The small convoy which had been embedded in a much larger troop convoy WS(14) for their voyage to Gibraltar – which was to be the staging post for the invasion of Algiers – did not detach on December 11th as planned but stayed with main convoy en route to South Africa. The ‘Force’ received no instructions about what would be their new destination and mission.
In Cape Town, they were to learn that Britain was now at war with Japan and their new assignment was to defend Singapore. Singapore was under attack before they arrived and they were redeployed to Batavia on the jungle covered island of Java on 3 February 1942. Their ship was attacked as it arrived in port.
In Batavia the 79th LAA Battery was split in two. Troop B was sent to defend the airfield of Malang while Troops A and C boarded the HMS Ban Hong Liong on 9 February to defend Penfui airfield in Dutch Timor – the closest airfield to Australia.
To find out more, click the read more button. Sparrow is the most detailed account of The Sparrows, told in the way they described.
–L/Cpl. Clyde McKay,
2/40 Inf. Bn AIF
Bofors 40mm Anti-Aircraft Gun
British Pathé newsreel
A Bofors 40mm clip. The shells are armed with high-explosive heads.