Air Raid Display at Fort Nelson

This year’s display theme at the Fort Nelson Easter Show was ‘The Blitz on Portsmouth, March 1941’. To that end it was planned to portray both the scenario of an actual raid and illustrate how all the various organisations, both Military and Civil, acted to defend the country during the early years of the Second World War. Naturally it wasn’t a case of plug and play! On Thursday all the heavy kit was delivered to Fort Nelson and the basic display lay-out agreed. Apart from a steep learning curve with the manhandling of the 3.7” Guns – those platform legs are actually a lot heavier than they look and the road wheels are even heavier – the only other humping and dumping was sandbags – 2500 of them! Even though they were palletised many had rotted which meant that they fell to bits as soon as you tried to lift them. The balance was provided by supplying empty new bags and m³ bags of builder’s sand!

Friday was spent refining the display and building the sand bag revetments around the two 3.7” Guns, the two Bofors, two Bren AA mounts and the dummy CP. Additionally, the Cookhouse / Mess Tent and the marquee for use as the Searchlight Control Room (SCR) had to be erected. As last year, accommodation was one of the school activity rooms, so most folk bunked in there as best as they could.

On Saturday the last of the sand bags were finally filled! The new plotting / light table were installed along with all the SCR equipment into the marquee and really began to look the part. The Cookhouse was fully functioning, all Guns were emplaced and the 'downed Messerschmitt Bf109' in position. Suffice to say there a few aching backs!! At last we had several opportunities to run through the script and try to refine our actions and timings in order to co-ordinate the air display with the ground activity and ensure that the pyrotechnics looked convincing. At the same time the SCR staff were running through the actual events that occurred on the 10th March 1941 and practising presenting them on the searchlight plotting table. Although condensing the time scales, they were using the actual techniques and communications in order show to the public just how efficient and effective an integrated air defence system was in 1941. The only part that wasn’t working to plan was the ‘live’ 3.7” Gun. ‘Fired’ using a mixture of Oxygen and Acetylene, it was proving to be very reluctant! Only very occasionally would it produce a bang worthy of the name, its normal effort being a less than effective ‘pop’!!

Sunday morning dawned bright and summery as had the last three days. With breakfast and all camp admin completed long before the gates were opened to the public. As in previous Fort Nelson shows, a full range of activities took place throughout the day with just enough time between events for the public to move around the fort and the re-enactors to catch their breath before either organising or taking part in the next display! The Garrison’s role in this was primarily to display the Ack-Ack weaponry and Searchlights (with the aid of a license built Me108 acting as the German raider, pyrotechnics to simulate weapons effects and volunteers playing the role of the civilian Police and ARP services) and demonstrate the workings of the SCR. However, as is the way with these events, 'volunteers' were acquired to assist in other displays. Namely, Kath Price who ably demonstrated the ATS deadly close order weapon (or Pick Helve!) in the fire power demonstration. Additionally, the ‘Normandy battle scenario’ was to be fought between the Germans, Brits and Americans around and through the gun positions; so various Gunners were deployed to be the victims of the surprise German assault!

By late afternoon everything has taken place more or less as planned, with the public seemingly impressed and well entertained. True there were still the odd glitches and there were one or two tweaks made to the timings but overall both the event organisers and the participants felt that all the hard work had been well worth while. All that was left was to tidy up, get changed and adjourn to a local hostelry for dinner and some suitable libation to help restore them for more of the same the following day. However, before going to bed the 90cm Searchlight from Newcastle owned by Denny Thompson was powered up using the Groups Lister Generator and gave an impromptu display.

The Bank Holiday Monday started in a similar vein with another promise for a bright sunny day. Indeed, for the morning and early afternoon it was exactly that, unfortunately by mid afternoon it had clouded over and become very overcast. None the less, the full programme of events was achieved with most of the tweaks helping things to run just a little smoother. Again all the displays were given the ‘thumbs up’ from the general public and were well received by the larger re-enactor community.

Of course the final act was the dismantling and tidying up after the show. Everyone rallied round and despite being pretty knackered all the kit was packed away and loaded or ready for the flat-bed transports that would call the following day. As the majority of the Group drove back home a small rear party remained at the Fort to assist with the loading of the 3.7” Guns, Searchlights and Generator.

Naturally the thank-you list of is long. Firstly, the organisers from the Garrison LHG and Mark Selwood from Fort Nelson without whom the whole event just would not of happened, and secondly the two 3.7” Heavy Ack-Ack Guns Solent Skys Museum and Denny Thompson. The RN Detachment from the HMS group, Signals from Geoff Lease and the 30 Corps Group, Jean Fleming with the NAAFI wagon and the On Parade Team, Bob Seaton the ARP Warden , Civil Policeman (sorry no name), John & Dave the MPs, Nigel & Julie Peachy, the Canadian rep and John Bush who played the part of our captured German Pilot. Lastly, all the members of the Garrison LHG who all helped make it a weekend to remember!

© Rod Ulrich June 2007

The Photos from Members and Friends and from Damien Burke