London Electrical Engineers
|London Electrical Engineers, RE|
|Active||27 April 1897 – 1 May 1961|
|Size||Six companies (1914)
Multiple companies (WWI)
Two regiments (1922–45)
One regiment (1947–55)
One company (1955–61)
Later, Duke of York's Headquarters and Streatham
|Engagements||Second Boer War
World War I
|Col R.E.B. Crompton|
The London Electrical Engineers was a Volunteer unit of the British Army's Royal Engineers founded in 1897. It pioneered the use of searchlights for port defence before World War I and for anti-aircraft defence during the war. In the interwar period it formed the two senior searchlight regiments of the Territorial Army, which defended Southern England during The Blitz. Detachments later served in the Battle of Crete and Siege of Tobruk. The regiment was one of the first to employ women in a combat-related role.
Queen Victoria approved the formation of 'The Electrical Engineers, Royal Engineers (Volunteers)' on 27 April 1897. Their role was to supplement the regular Royal Engineers (RE) in wartime by operating searchlights to defend major ports in conjunction with minefields controlled by Volunteer companies of Submarine Miners, RE. The headquarters of the new force was at 5 Victoria Street, Westminster, and initially there were four companies recruited in London and the Midlands. By 1908 there were seven 'Divisions' of electrical engineers around the great estuary ports of Britain, including the London Division, which was responsible for the Thames Estuary. The London Electrical Engineers established its HQ at 46 Regency Street, Victoria, in 1900.
Second Boer War
The Commanding Officer of The Electrical Engineers was Rookes Crompton (1845–1940), the electrical pioneer and founder of Crompton & Co, one of the first large-scale manufacturers of electrical equipment. In earlier life he had been an infantry officer in the Rifle Brigade and the 57th Foot before going onto the Reserve List in 1880, but had spent much of his service in India designing military steam wagons. Early in the Second Boer War, Colonel Robert Baden-Powell improvised searchlights to deter night attacks during the Siege of Mafeking. Soon afterward Major Crompton led a detachment of the Electrical Engineers Volunteers to South Africa where they operated electric Arc lamp searchlights of his own design, the first use of such equipment by the Royal Engineers on campaign. The detachment served from April to October 1900 in the Transvaal and Orange Free State. Crompton was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel, Mentioned in Dispatches and made a Companion of the Bath for his efforts and was later given the honorary rank of Colonel.
Under the Haldane Reforms, the Electrical Engineers RE were converted into Fortress Companies RE in the new Territorial Force. They were responsible, among other duties, for electrical installations in the defended ports. The large London Division was planned to split into six RE companies as follows:
- London (Fortress) Royal Engineers
- 1st London Divisional Telegraph Company RE
- 2nd London Divisional Telegraph Company RE
- London Wireless Telegraph Company RE
- London Cable Telegraph Company RE
- London Ballon Telegraph Company RE
However, the plan was changed over the next two years. Instead, the London Electrical Engineers retained its title and role, 1st London Divisional Telegraph Company, RE, (as well as the 1st and 2nd London Divisional Field Companies) was found by the East London (Tower Hamlets) RE (V), while the 2nd London Divisional Telegraph Company (as well as 3rd and 4th London Field Companies) was found by the 1st Middlesex RE (V).
The London Division was therefore finally reorganised as follows:
- London Electrical Engineers
- London Wireless Telegraph Company RE
- London Cable Telegraph Company RE
- London Air-Line Telegraph Company RE
- London Balloon Company RE (disbanded 1913)
The three telegraph companies formed London District Signals, while the London Electrical Engineers (LEE) specialised on searchlights. Crompton and most of the other officers appointed to the LEE were Members or Associate Members of the Institution of Civil Engineers. Another was the pioneer aeronautical engineer Edward Teshmaker Busk, who was a lieutenant in the corps. Crompton retired in 1910, but was appointed Honorary Colonel of the corps in 1911.
World War I
By the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, the London Electrical Engineers had grown to six companies based at Regency Street. Searchlight units were immediately deployed to the South Coast of England and the Thames Estuary to form light barriers against surface raiders. For example, No 2 Company London Electrical Engineers was positioned at Coalhouse Fort in East Tilbury. By an agreement between the Admiralty and War Office on 3 September 1914, responsibility for air defence of the UK lay initially with the Royal Navy, which provided aircraft, quick-firing guns and searchlights to defend vulnerable points against the anticipated air raids. These acetylene searchlights were operated by civilian Special Constables.
The first night raid was made by Zeppelin airships on 19/20 January 1915, then in April and May regular raids began on the East Coast of England, reaching London on 31 May/1 June. Zeppelin raids continued during the summer and autumn of 1915, after which it was decided that the Royal Navy would try to deal with raiders approaching the British coastline, while the Army would be responsible for dealing with them over land. The transfer took effect between February and April 1916. Experience had shown the need for plentiful searchlights to guide both gunners and fighter pilots to their targets. The army established a 25-mile wide searchlight belt stretching from Northumberland to Sussex, with a double ring round London.
By July 1917 there were 42 AA Companies of the RE scattered around the country. These included the following LEE units:
- Nos 1–6 AA Companies, London
- Nos 11–12 AA Brigade Searchlight Companies
- Nos 20/21 and 24/26 Aeroplane Squadron Searchlight Companies
- No 40 AA Company, Dover
- No 53 AA Company, Newhaven
Changes were also needed in searchlight design and training, so a team was selected from the London Electrical Engineers to return to their Headquarters at 46 Regency Street and set up workshops, design and drawing offices to deal with the redesigns. This organisation became The Searchlight Experimental Establishment commanded by Captain P. Yorke, RE. (The Tyne Electrical Engineers (TEE) similarly took responsibility for the School of Electric Lighting at Gosport.) Technology and tactics developed to keep pace as the Germans replaced vulnerable airships with heavy bombers. New 90 cm and 120 cm electric searchlights and their sound locators were linked directly to the guns to provide early warning.
In August 1918, a new establishment was implemented. The London and Tyne Electrical Engineers became the parent units for all coast defence and anti-aircraft Electric Light units and the depots that trained men for them. It was from these that nearly all RE Anti-Aircraft companies and Anti-Aircraft Searchlight companies were formed, serving on Home Defence, with the British Expeditionary Force in France and Flanders, and on the Italian Front.
Between 1915 and 1918, the RE formed 76 AA Searchlight Sections for overseas service. The LEE is known to have found 25 of these: Nos 2 (jointly with Regular RE), 3–5, 7, 9, 12, 14, 16, 18, 25, 29, 30, 31, 33, 35, 37, 39, 41, 43, 45 and 48, together with Nos 21, 23 and 24, which were formed in France from Nos 1-8 AAS sections. Others were formed by the Regular RE (No 1) and by the TEE. The parent units of a further 29 AAS sections are not known, but they probably consisted of mixed LEE, TEE and Medical Category B personnel. A fixed two-light section in France in 1917 comprised 20 men with three vehicles; a mobile three-light section in 1918 consisted of five vehicles and 28 men.
Among the professionals who served with the London Electrical Engineers during the war were the electrical engineer Reginald Frankland-Payne Gallwey (who later succeeded as the 5th Baronet of that name) and the chemist Theodore Acland. The remaining part-time civilian searchlight operators were also replaced. By the end of the war there were 622 searchlights in use for Home Defence.
This large anti-aircraft effort was quickly scaled down after the Armistice, but the Searchlight Experimental Establishment continued as civilian body, with several officers of the London Electrical Engineers still attached. In 1922 the London Electrical Engineers was split into the 10th and 11th Anti-Aircraft Battalions RE. These were renumbered in 1923 as the 26th and 27th (London Electrical Engineers) Battalion, RE, becoming the two senior searchlight units of the new Territorial Army (Numbers 1–25 were reserved for Regular Army units, but most were never used). 26 AA Battalion, based at the Duke of York's Headquarters in Chelsea, comprised Nos 301–3 AA Companies, and 27 AA Bn headquartered at Mitcham Lane, Streatham, had Nos 304–6 based at Rochester Row, Westminster. (The Regency Street premises were used by the former London District Signals, which had become Air Defence Signals.) Crompton remained Honorary Colonel of the 27th.
During the 1930s the air defence strength of the Territorial Army was greatly expanded. In December 1935 1st Anti-Aircraft Division was formed to cover London, with 26th and 27th Battalions assigned to 26th (London) Anti-Aircraft Group (later Brigade), which shared the Duke of York's Headquarters. With the further expansion of the TA after 1938, each battalion was brought up to a four-company establishment, 26th Bn gaining 321 AA Company and 27th Bn receiving 390 AA Company. 26th Battalion transferred its 302 AA Company to 34th (Queen's Own Royal West Kent Regiment) Anti-Aircraft Battalion at Greenwich, receiving 339 AA Company in exchange.
In September 1938, 26th AA Bde was split in two, the two London Electrical Engineer battalions remaining with 38th Light Anti-Aircraft Brigade at the Duke of York's Headquarters. 301 AA Company had moved to Shepherd's Bush but remained part of 26th Bn.
World War II
In 1939 all anti-aircraft guns and searchlights for Home Defence came under the control of Anti-Aircraft Command, and in August 1940 the AA Battalions were transferred from the Royal Engineers to the Royal Artillery, being redesignated Searchlight Regiments.
26th (Mixed) Searchlight Regiment (London Electrical Engineers)
When heavy German night air raids on the UK (The Blitz) began in late summer 1940, 26th Searchlight Regiment was still with 38 AA Bde in 1 AA Division defending London. It retained this role throughout the war.
A secret trial (the 'Newark Experiment' in April 1941) having shown that women were capable of operating heavy searchlight equipment and coping with conditions on the often desolate searchlight sites, members of the Auxiliary Territorial Service began training to replace male personnel in searchlight regiments. At first they were employed in searchlight Troop headquarters, but in July 1942 the 26th became the first 'Mixed' regiment, with seven Troops of ATS women posted to it, forming the whole of 301 Battery and half of 339 Battery. In October that year the all-women 301 Battery was transferred to the new 93rd (Mixed) Searchlight Regiment, Royal Artillery the last searchlight regiment formed, which by August 1943 comprised about 1500 women out of an establishment of 1674.
With the lower threat of attack by the weakened Luftwaffe, all Home Defence searchlight regiments were reduced in February 1944, and by November that year all men of A1 medical category under the age of 30 had been transferred to the infantry. After the war all units of the TA were placed in suspended animation as their personnel were demobilised.
27th (London Electrical Engineers) Searchlight Regiment
During the Blitz 27th Searchlight Regiment formed part of 47 AA Bde in 5 AA Division, covering Southampton. The regiment left the UK early in 1941 to move to Egypt, where it came under the command of 2 AA Bde based in Cairo. Until late 1942 (when it was joined by a Royal Marines unit) it was the only searchlight regiment in Middle East Forces, and frequently had detachments serving over a wide area.
In May 1941, 304 Battery was detached with other Royal Artillery units from Egypt to Crete, where it operated 20 searchlight projectors in the defence of the Suda Bay area alongside mainly Royal Marine AA gunners (whose own searchlight unit was acting as infantry). On 26 May, after continuous German attack from the air and by airborne troops, the defences round Canea finally collapsed and Suda had to be abandoned. The force had to retreat across the island to Sfakia, where the Royal Navy evacuated as many as possible to Egypt. Thousands of British and Commonwealth troops were taken prisoner.
Later in 1941, two Troops of 306 Battery served with 4 AA Bde in the defence of Tobruk, which resisted months of air attack. Meanwhile, night bombing attacks on British bases in Egypt were common, and two Troops of 390 Battery were guarding Alexandria. At the time of the Battle of Alamein two Troops of the regiment were serving with 12 AA Bde under HQ Eighth Army for Army Area protection. During the opening night phase of the battle (Operation Lightfoot), five searchlights were used to assist the assaulting troops to keep direction.
When the TA was reformed after World War II, 26th Searchlight Regiment was to be reconstituted on 1 April 1947 as 118 Searchlight Regiment RA, with 303, 321 and 339 Batteries redesignated as 357, 358 and 359 respectively. However, this was rescinded a month later. The regiment appears to have been absorbed into the Headquarters of 121 Construction Regiment RE (County of London), a TA unit formed from the London Corps Troops Engineers and 47th (London) Infantry Division Engineers, based at the Duke of York's Headquarters. This combined unit later became part of the present-day 101 (City of London) Regiment RE.
The 27th was reconstituted in the TA on 1 January 1947 as 562 Searchlight Regiment RA (27th London Electrical Engineers). Two years later it was redesignated as a Mixed Light Anti-Aircraft/Searchlight regiment. It was subordinated to 64 AA Bde. When Anti-Aircraft Command was disbanded on 10 March 1955, 562 Regiment was merged into 624 LAA Regiment (Royal Fusiliers), becoming R Battery (London Electrical Engineers) in the combined regiment. Finally, on 1 May 1961, 624 LAA Regiment merged into a TA infantry battalion of the Royal Fusiliers and the London Electrical Engineers lineage ended.
The following served as Honorary Colonels:
The Electrical Engineers
- William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin, OM, GCVO, PRS, appointed 18 August 1897
London Electrical Engineers
- Col R.E.B. Crompton, CB, FRS, appointed 24 June 1911
26th (London Electrical Engineers) Anti-Aircraft Battalion:
27th (London Electrical Engineers) Anti-Aircraft Battalion:
- Col R.E.B. Crompton
- A.W. Goodwin, MP, appointed 19 December 1929
- Henry Mond, 2nd Baron Melchett appointed 18 June 1938
The London Electrical Engineers are listed on the City and County of London Troops Memorial in front of the Royal Exchange, London, with architectural design by Sir Aston Webb and sculpture by Alfred Drury.
- London Gazette 27 April 1897
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- Short et al.
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- 520–536 RA Regiments at British Army units 1945 on
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- UKNIWM Ref 11796
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- The Regimental Warpath 1914–1918
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