History - Searchlight Operators

(A.T.S. Remembered)

Radar controlled searchlight

A 150 cm Radar operated Searchlight of the all female 93rd Searchlight Regiment

Once the Government had decided that women could be attached to Mixed Batteries of Anti Aircraft Command of the Royal Artillery it was agreed that this could well include searchlight duties. A secret experiment was carried out in April 1941 to see if women were capable of carrying out the tasks that were required of Searchlight Regiments. On 23 April 1941 54 A.T.S. members were sent for training at Newark. They were aged between 19 and 35 "the Army Intelligence tests showed the general intelligence to be rather higher than that of the men: the members were fairly representative of A.T.S. personnel."

Letter regarding A.T.S. Searchlights Following on from this successful experiment recommendations were made that A.T.S be attached to Searchlight Regiments. This letter from the Under Secretary of State, The War Office, dated 2 December 1941 recommends members of the A.T.S. for searchlight operational duties.

The original concerns had been that the girls would not be able to cope with being allocated to desolate and lonely places, that they would not be able to defend themselves and that they would not have the strength to turn over the huge generator that was needed to power the searchlight. However, even during the secret experiment, the girls proved themselves capable to coping with all these difficulties.

In July 1942 the first searchlight troop was formed with A.T.S. members. There were six detachments to each troop, four troops to each battery, three batteries to a regiment. Each detachment had 14 girls commanded by a Sergeant with a Corporal as assistant. Each troop was commanded by an A.T.S. Subaltern.

The consequence of their success was, in October 1942, the formation of the 93rd Searchlight Regiment, the only all female Regiment in history. The members of the 93rd coped adequately with the generators and in some instances were allocated a 'token man' who would arrive with the searchlight troop when the alarm was sounded. He would start the generator and then disappear into the night. Some troops had a Number 9 (the person in charge of the generator) who would start it themselves and these girls became known as Lister Twisters. Lister being the manufacturer of the generator. Later on during the War electric starts were put on generators which saved a lot of the problems. Guard duties were carried out using a 'stick', often a pick-axe handle as the girls were not allowed to carry guns, even to defend themselves. The only immediate contact with the outside world was a small radio transmitter for detachment personnel to give and receive messages from the troop officer. A dispatch rider would arrive each day with details of how friendly aircraft could be identified and deliver personal mail. The ration lorry visited detachments once a week to deliver the rations.

The girls often found the duties interesting. They learnt about electricity, radio circuits, radar, mechanics, morse code, plotting and had to be able to recognise enemy and friendly aircraft in all weathers. One of the great dangers of operating the searchlight, however, was the risk of enemy aircraft shooting down the beam of light.

Searchlights were used for several duties:

To start off with, searchlights had to be aligned by sight, the calibration being supplemented by sound locators. Later more sophisticated radar equipment was added. Searchlights used were either 90 cm or 150 cm in diameter. A 150 cm radar operated searchlight would need a detachment of 14. Girls were allocated a 'number' and operated the tasks for that number. The main numbers were 1 - 9 with 12, 13 and 14 being used as reserves.

Once V1s and V2s were coming over the channel it was impossible for the searchlights to track them as they were too fast. This was the time that the searchlights were used to aid recovery of survivors from damaged buildings.

The 93rd Searchlight Regiment was disbanded in July 1945.

It is part of the nature of being British, that at times of stress and hardship the best way of handling these situations seems to be either to joke about it, or write a song about it. I thought you might like to see the words of a song I found in the papers of an A.T.S. member - this is a song for the Searchlight Girls:

"When the barrage opens out to meet the invading hun
Everybody's thoughts go out to the Girls Behind the Guns
But they are not the only girls in the frontline every night
For suddenly from out of nowhere comes a blinding light
A long accusing finger pointing upwards to the sky
To tell the guns and fighters "there the raiders lie"
They're the Girls that do a job - A far from easy one
But equally important in keeping off the hun
Unloved, unwanted - fact few people know
That when the beams are out at night the girls are down below
But if they help in some small way to keep the hun at bay
They're satisfied
And don't give two hoots what people say"

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