Shropshire History


Anti-Aircraft Units


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The Luftwaffe brought warfare to Shropshire by its bombing raids on airfields, military installations and factories.  The county was relatively lucky not to suffer the scale of bombing on civilian targets that places like London and Coventry did.  In an attempt to counteract the threat of bombing, three types of unit were stationed at places around Shropshire.



Bombing Decoy Sites



In 1939, Colonel John Turner was placed in charge of British decoy and deception schemes. The first decoy sites were to prevent bombing of airfields and these were known as K Sites.  They were set up  on large fields or waste land and had dummy aircraft, bomb dumps and fuel stores. The surface would be levelled to look like runways and large sheets of canvas were painted and laid on the ground to represent hangars. Old and disused vehicles were placed around the site, along with gun pits and camouflage nets.  These dummy airfields looked very realistic from the air and were successful in diverting a number of bombing raids. Most K Sites were closed down in 1942-43 although a few were still in use in 1944. 


QL Sites were for use at night and were sometimes at the same location as K sites.  Lights were set up on poles and from the air they looked like a runway flarepath. For authenticity, they had light patterns that included obstruction lights (red lights placed on hangars and other tall buildings to stop our aircraft landing on them by mistake).  Later, a bar of red lights was placed across the flarepath and could be seen when on approach.  This was added after a number of our own aircraft had attempted to land there, sometimes with fatal consequences. 


The QL Site crew had a powerful Chance Light (similar to a small searchlight) on top of their bunker and this could be used to simulate aircraft taking off, landing and taxiing.  Power was provided by generators within the bunker.  The bunkers were all of similar design like a small Nissen hut.  Some sites had a bunker above ground whereas on others it was below ground, some sites had both.  One end of the bunker, covered by tin sheeting, was the Operations Room with the runway light controls and a telephone connected to the headquarters station.   The other room housed the generator and was covered with steel sheeting or arched, pre-formed concrete. Fuel pipes ran to the generator from the tank outside.  Normally, there were two 15” ducts for air intake and one for the exhaust.  Between the rooms there was a passageway that led outside, protected by a blast wall.  There was another exit, sometimes vertical, from the Operations Room.



QL Sites were still being built for the RAF and USAAF in 1943-44, with the last ones closing down at the end of the war.  After the German's started using incendiary bombs, Turner added fires and the new sites were called QF Sites. The theory was that, after a first wave of bomb dropped on the real target, the decoy would light fires to simulate the previous raid for further waves to home in on.


Similar sites had fires or lights to imitate a poor blackout and these had an A prefix, where they acted as a decoy to a large Army installation or civilian installation like a power station, or N for a Royal Naval Armaments Depot.

Following the night bombing of Coventry in November 1940, the decoy programme was expanded to deflect German bombers from towns and cities. These decoy sites were initially called SF Sites (Special Fire) but this soon became Starfish Sites. By the end of the war there were 237 Starfish Sites protecting 81 locations. The sites were located about 4 miles from the edge of the town they protected and at least 1 mile from any other settlement. The fires were lit as soon as the target town came under bombing attack. The aim was to extinguish fires in the town as fast as possible, leaving the decoy site to distract further bombers.

Starfish Boilers were 15ft long cast iron troughs filled with coal or coke over a bed of creosote-soaked reed, rush and wood off-cuts.  There was roofing felt over the top to keep the contents dry.  The wicks consisted of a tube of wire netting about 1ft 6” long by 6” wide.  These were filled with oil-soaked rags and contained an electrically wired flashbang as detonator.  There were two 1,000 gallon tanks on 20ft high scaffolding, with pipes leading via toilet-type cisterns to the trough.  One tank was filled with oil or paraffin, the other with water.  The idea was that the coal would be lit when enemy bombers were in the area at night and, after the cast iron trough was good and hot, the diesel was released. This boiled and the vapours ignited. The water was then released onto the burning oil causing a virtual explosion of fire and steam. This was very much like someone putting out a large fire with water and flames reached over 30ft into the air.



Fire baskets were also set out in patterns over the site to take on the overall shape of buildings. The angle-iron framework of the base was about the size and shape of a coffee table.  On top of this sat the wire-netting basket, plus flare-cans topped up with creosote placed inside.  An electrically-fired detonator was positioned under the basket and, once the basket was burning, the flare-cans would catch fire and give off a different flame with smoke.  When burning at night they would look just like flames coming from the windows and doors of a building with plenty of smoke.   There were sufficient baskets to last several hours and they were replaced the following day by reserve baskets stored on site.


Ignition of the boilers and baskets was controlled centrally from the Operations Room and it could be done in sequence to mimic a spreading fire. QL lights were also placed on site to look like a poor blackout before the fires were lit. These were laid out so that at night they could look like factories, marshalling yards, shipyards, steelworks, etc.  They also included welding flashes, railway signals (red and green), red railway crossing gate lights, tram car electrical flashes an street lamps.  Other lights could also be made to look like open skylights, doors and windows where someone had carelessly not complied with the blackout regulations.



Boningale (SJ81410191)

QF Site built to deflect enemy bombing from the aircraft storage unit at Cosford Airfield. There were two curviform buildings located at SJ817015.


Harley (SJ595018)

QL Site built to deflect enemy bombing from Atcham Airfield. It was still in use until 1942.


Kinnersley (SJ677183)

AQF Site built to deflect enemy bombing from the Army base at Donnington.  It was also a QF Site and QL Site to deflect enemy bombing from High Ercall Airfield. The site was still in use during 1942 but could have been in use throughout the duration of the war.


Leighton (SJ624057)

AQF Site to deflect enemy bombing from the power station at Ironbridge, for which it also served as part of the 'C-series' of civil decoys. It was in use until at least 1943.


Neenton Heath (SO651889)

NQF Site at Drailes Farm built to deflect enemy bombing from the Royal Naval Armaments Depot at Ditton Priors. It was in use throughout the duration of the war.


Sheriffhales (SJ741120)

AQF Site and AQL Site built to deflect enemy bombing from the Army base at Donnington. The site was still in use during 1942, but could have been in use throughout the duration of the war.


Silvington (SO613803)

Starfish Site built in June 1941 to deflect enemy bombing from the city of Birmingham. The site was still being used between 1942-1943. Silvington was one of eight Starfish sites for Birmingham.


Wilmington (SJ54921420)

AQF Site built to deflect enemy bombing from the Sentinel armaments factory at Harlescott.  It was also a QF Site and QL Site built to deflect enemy bombing from Shawbury Airfield. The site was still in use between 1941-1942. Two concrete buildings associated with the decoy survive at the site, one of which is an exposed shelter set in an earth mound located at SJ549141. The second building is located at SJ54921403.




Searchlight Batteries



At the beginning of the war, the defensive plan for searchlights was to have great belts of the lights across the country with a searchlight every 3,500 yards.  However, there was such a shortage of searchlights that the interval had to be increased to 6,000 yards.  Gun Defended Areas such as cities and ports, were kept at 3,500 yards where possible.   The searchlights in use at first were 90cm and these were gradually replaced by the more powerful 150cm as the war progressed. By August 1941, a new searchlight plan was drawn up. The Gun Defended Areas kept their own searchlight units, while the remainder covered Britain. There were two densities, Killer Belts of one searchlight every 6,000 yards and Indicator Belts of one every 10,400 yards.


Shropshire was covered by 38 Searchlight Regiment, which consisted of 1,536 men. It comprised a Regimental HQ (1 Lt Colonel, 2 Majors etc) and 4 Batteries (1 Major, 2 Captains and several Lieutenants). Each Battery was made up of 4 Troops (2 Lieutenants, 1 Sergeant Major, 6 Sergeants and 48 Other Ranks) and each Troop consisted of 6 Detachments with a searchlight.


The searchlight was placed on a flat solid piece of ground with clear 360o visibility.  The sound locator was located in the path of approaching enemy aircraft, 50 yards forward of the searchlight, and as far away as possible from external noise including wind.  The generator was 200-300 yards from the searchlight and the maximum distance from the sound locator. If possible intervening hedgerows and trees were used to shield the noise from the searchlight and give overhead camouflage.  It had a 9 man crew made up as follows :-


No 1 was the detachment commander, normally a sergeant.  One of his responsibilities was discipline.

Nos 2 and 3 were the spotters, each equipped with a pair of binoculars and a spotting chair. Their main role was to search for targets and to help direct the beam on to the target as soon as they saw it.

No 4 was responsible for the proper care and maintenance of the outside of the searchlight. In action he was responsible for tracking and keeping the beam on to the target with assistance from the sound locator and the spotters.

No 5 was responsible for the care and maintenance of the lamp, all electrical circuits, and the inside of the projector barrel.  In action he was responsible for the arc unit, ensuring that it was burning correctly and efficiently and that the carbons didn’t burn out.

No 6 was the commander of the 3 man sound locator section and was normally a corporal. He was also the second in command of the searchlight crew.

No 7 was responsible for tracking sound in the azimuth on the locator equipment and informing No 6 when on target.

No 8 was responsible for tracking sound in the elevation on the locator equipment. He was also responsible for manning the anti-aircraft machine gun on orders from No 1.

No 9 was responsible for maintaining and working the generator or generator lorry. During the hours of darkness he had to make sure that the engine was capable of taking full load at a moment's notice and it therefore had to be kept warm and started regularly.



The main means of communication was by telephone, with both the sound locator detachment and Number 9 having their own lines. The Number 1 had a link with the Troop command post. Later in the war, sites were issued with a No 17 Set radio for communication with Troop headquarters. All the searchlight site names were allocated an alpha-numeric code made up of the Battery number, 2 letter sector code BG – Birmingham, 2 digits for the area and a digit for the site, eg 350 BG10 3 was site 3 of the Birmingham Area 10 manned by men from 350 Battery. The detachments were often sited at isolated locations so the NAAFI operated a sort of “meals on wheels” using a fleet of lorries which delivered hot cooked meals every day. Most had a wooden hut as accommodation for the crew.


Towards the end of 1941, the new radar controlled searchlights SLC, or Elsie as they were better known, started rolling of the production line.  The sound locator became redundant and the detachment took on new duties with the No 7 controlling the bearing and the No 8 controlling the elevation, both housed under a canvas covered frame to protect them from the weather and to make it easier to see the green cathode-ray tube screen.  The No 6 was the selector and was in charge of the radar detachment. The radar only helped the searchlight to acquire a target and it was still down to the No 4 to keep the beam on target.



In December 1941, 350 Battery of 38 Searchlight Regiment took over the Shropshire sites in area BG10, then occupied by 378 and 381 Searchlight Batteries.


By the beginning of 1942, the ability to engage night raiders had improved. Gun laying radars, which enabled the guns to engage unseen targets, were appearing and the way night fighters and searchlights worked together changed with the introduction of Elsie.  Codenamed SMACK, boxes 10 miles by 40 miles were set up in the killer zones, a night fighter would be allocated to each box and would fly around it until the searchlight picked up and illuminated an aircraft. All the satellite searchlights would then light up, exposing the target and enabling the night fighter to swoop in for the kill. This method of night fighter engagement was so successful it stayed in used right up to the end of the war. In 1942-43 there was a real problem with manpower. Every year more and more formed units and men had been withdrawn from Anti-Aircraft (Ack Ack) Command.  In July 1942, the first 7 searchlight troops were formed with women from the Auxiliary Territorial Service and soon women were serving in most batteries.


Balderton Hall (SJ48462382)

Site of searchlight manned by men from 350 Battery.


Claverley (SO796944)

Site of searchlight 350 BG10 7 manned by men from 350 Battery.


Haughton (SJ734093)

Site of searchlight 350 BG10 1 manned by men from 350 Battery.


Hook-a-Gate (SJ46550918)

Site of searchlight at The Lea manned by men from 350 Battery.


Kinton (SJ37371928)

Site of searchlight manned by men from 350 Battery.


Lodge Hill (SJ745059)

Site of searchlight manned by men from 350 Battery.


Ludford Park (SO51457265)

Site of searchlight manned by men from 350 Battery.


Melverley Green (SJ32181892)

Site of searchlight at Cross Lanes manned by men from 350 Battery.


Mount Pleasant (SJ49381462)

Site of searchlight at Moveage Farm manned by men from 350 Battery.


Nib Heath (SJ41461878)

Site of searchlight manned by men from 350 Battery. The crew were accommodated in Nissen huts at Bentham Hall Farm near Ford (SJ39581378).


Nox (SJ41081038)

Site of searchlight manned by men from 350 Battery.


Overton (SO51457265)

Site of a searchlight manned by 532 Searchlight Battery RAF. It was part of the defences for the adjacent RAF Training Depot at Ludford Park Camp.


Standford (SJ34151286)

Site of searchlight near Hole Farm manned by men from 350 Battery.


Stockton (SO715995)

Site of searchlight 350 BG10 8 manned by men from 350 Battery.


How a Searchlight Worked








At the beginning of the war, arrangements were made to protect major cities and military installations with anti-aircraft guns. The RAF were responsible for those defending airfields but the Royal Artillery manned the rest. Most of these were in fixed locations in the expected flight paths of German bombers. Some anti-aircraft guns like the Oerlikon were only used by the Navy.


Vickers .303 Machine Gun


This was the smallest calibre weapon used in an anti-aircraft role. It was water-cooled and required a 6-8 man team to operate it, one to fire, one to feed the ammunition and the rest to help carry the weapon, ammunition and spare parts. It could fire 500 rounds per minute with a range of 6,000ft. The small calibre and range meant that it only had a role against low flying aircraft and, even then, it needed a lucky strike to bring anything down.


Polsten 20mm


This gun was Polish and its design team escaped to England in 1939, where they resumed work together with Czech and British designers. It went into service in March 1944. It was a lot cheaper than the similar Oerlikon, costing only £70 to produce compared to £350. It could fire 450 rounds per minute with a range of 6,500ft.


Bofors 40mm

This gun was used throughout the war and was the main medium anti-aircraft gun. It could fire at a rate of 330 rounds a minute with a range of 41,000ft.


Vickers 3.7 Inch


This was Britain's primary heavy anti-aircraft gun and was roughly the equivalent of the German 88 mm. It could fire up to 20 rounds per minute with a range of 61,000ft.


After the Dambusters raid in 1943, an entirely new system was developed that was required to knock down any low-flying aircraft with a single hit. The first attempt to produce such a system used a 50mm gun but this proved inaccurate so a new 55mm gun replaced it. The system used a centralised control system including both search and targeting radar. This calculated the aiming point, after considering windage and ballistics, then sent electrical commands to the guns which used hydraulics to point themselves at high speeds. Operators simply fed the guns with shells and selected the targets. This system, modern even by today's standards, was in late development when the war ended.


Ironbridge (SJ652043)

Site of a light anti-aircraft gun emplacement on the roof of the power station.


Sheriffhales (SJ750107)

Site of heavy anti-aircraft battery at Crackleybank. It was disused by 1942.