Tom’s War – Everyday heroes of WWI

While I was writing Letting in the Light, the story of the Spindrift artists’ community during WWI, my brother Julian was compiling our family tree. Coincidentally, he was looking into our grandfathers’ military service in WWI at the point I was writing about my characters leaving for the Western Front or volunteering on the Homefront.

Thomas Mouat Brand

I remember Tom, my maternal grandfather, as a quietly spoken man who was never too busy to listen, to me as a small child. Tom had firm moral values and worked hard all his life. His family moved from Wallsend, North Shields, to Middlesbrough on the River Tees around 1911 and when he was 18, joined the Tyne Electrical Engineers (TEE) in North Shields.

When war broke out in 1914, the TEE were tasked with providing search lights to defend the docks and other strategic targets along the eastern coast of England. Tom was deployed in the area as a territorial soldier and then sent to the training camp at Haslar near Portsmouth. Tom was in 34 Company, one of several small Searchlight units of 15 – 20 men, working in conjunction with anti-aircraft batteries to protect the Portsmouth docks.

Each unit would have either one or two lights either 60cm or 90cm in diameter. These were lit by an arc lamp which made a long hissing sound and a bang when they started and stopped! Tom was a staff Sergeant. The Searchlight units were deployed alongside the anti-aircraft team (anti-aircraft fire was known as Archie), and the light aimed to illuminate the plane or airship so the guns could shoot it down.

German air raids started over England in Norfolk in January 1915. The second was in April, when a Zeppelin airship L 9 commanded by Kapitan-Leutnant Mathy was on a naval reconnaissance towards the coast of England. The L9 appeared off the mouth of the Tyne about 7:00pm and coasted northwards before coming inland to swoop down on Tyneside. The airship was met by rifle fire of the first battalion Norden cyclists at Cumber. Mathy’s first bomb fell at West Sleekburn, and was followed by 22 others. A woman and a child were injured. He then unloaded his 8 remaining bombs and went out to sea south of South Shields.  In April 1916, zeppelins raided Sunderland dropping 25 bombs and killing 16 people and wounding about 100.

It’s hard to imagine how terrifying it must have been for civilians to see huge Zeppelins coming over their homes and destroying property and people. The emotional impact must have been far greater than the physical damage inflicted, and the government and forces realised the importance of offering at least some resistance to this these attacks.

In July 1916 Tom’s unit was deployed to the Western Front where the men were constantly in action with enemy aircraft and, from the outset, “the searchlights themselves were continually and severely bombed by the enemy in his night raids. British personnel shewed great determination and courage in keeping the searchlights directed on to the enemy aircraft while being heavily bombed.”

34 Section left Calais in June 1917, taking over two defences at Zeneghem, to the South. These defences were under one command with Audricq, (jointly known as A and Z,) to the South-East of Calais, comprising searchlight sections and a decoy dump at Broukerque. This was designed to look like an arms dump to attract enemy planes, which would then be attacked with searchlight and anti-aircraft fire. The sections were connected by telephone and each light had a code name: Madge, Ethel, Peggy, Phyllis and so on.

In January 1918, Tom’s unit was selected to deploy to Italy. The Italians had disastrously lost the battle of Caporetto, and the Austro-Hungarians were threatening to create a pincer movement on the Allies, from the South. 34 Unit was the only TEE searchlight unit to travel beyond France. Lieutenant Winter, who was to lead 34, arrived in Padua on 26th January and reported to AA Group HQ at Montebella, in the Piave sector of the line. The unit was attached to the 7th Division which, coincidentally, was the same one as my paternal grandfather was in. They were near each other on both the western Front and Italy on the River Piave from 1916 to early 1919.

On arrival, Tom’s unit had no equipment and the men were divided among the Italian units to train them in the latest methods of air defence. New Galileo-Fiat searchlights were operated by the personnel of 34 section. These were designed to be highly mobile on a 2-wheeled trolley.

In early April 1918, the British took over the Asiago section of the front line and 34 went ahead to set up their lights. Between April and September, they manned three stations in the vicinity of Schio and Thiene. However, by the end of April German bombing had virtually finished. As a result, the unit was given two new roles: one was to help RAF pilots to drop spies behind enemy lines; the other to support Italian artillery sighting.

In October, 34 was returned to the Piave sector where they provided cover to the pontoon bridges which were constructed to cross the Piave. These river crossings were the scene of extraordinary courage shown by, among others, my grandfather Bill’s unit of the HAC, crossing the Piave by small boats under heavy artillery and machine gun fire.

The armistice was signed between Italy and the Austro Hungarians on 2nd November 1918. 34 was then sent to billets in the Vicenzia area before being de-mobilised early in 1919.

When Tom returned  home, he had malaria and lung damage from gas inhalation. Malaria was common in the marshes of Italy at that time. My grandmother told us he would be in bed for days at a time sweating profusely and delirious, years after he had returned home. He had a disability pension until the mid 1930’s.

To read Part 2 of this blog about Bill, my paternal grandfather’s wartime experiences, click here

Thanks to Julian Spooner for his research. Sources: National Archives: War Diaries HAC 2/1 Battalion (Diaries and Orders.) Honourable Artillery Company History G Goold, Beckett Chapter 6, Reflections of a Regiment: The Honourable Artillery Company and the Great War in Pictures: Justine Taylor

Letting in the LightTo buy Letting in the Light click here

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