Lights in the sky at Cress Green

By Steve Mills

We’ve talked about the impact of the Second World War on Eastington in several previous articles, but given the recent events recalling the 75th anniversary of D-Day, it seemed timely to look at a very local but largely forgotten piece of military history that survives within the village.

This takes the form of a decaying brick building of modest size at Cress Green. It’s largely overgrown and only visible from a few public footpaths. Most people are unaware that it even exists, let alone what it was originally used for. And what was that? …It was built during the Second World War as a searchlight position, one of a number dotted around the area. These were used in conjunction with anti-aircraft guns set up mainly to protect the Hoffmann ball bearing works at Stonehouse and the Sperry Gyroscope plant at Bonds Mill, both of which were engaged in important war work at the time. There were also other engineering works in the area, as well as an Admiralty store in Stanley Mill at Ryeford.

In some of the surrounding villages, the arrival of a searchlight was a great source of excitement. However, their appearance was not always welcomed as particularly in and around major cities, local residents sometimes feared that their presence made them more of a target for bombers.

Effective operation of searchlights was important, as hitting an enemy aircraft was often incredibly difficult. In 1940, it took an average of 20,000 rounds of ammunition to bring down a single enemy aircraft! It seems that the first searchlights were set up around Stroud in June 1940 under the control of the 46th Anti-Aircraft (AA) Brigade. Later in the year saw the formation of the new 9th AA Division responsible for the anti-aircraft defence of South Wales and the Severn Vale. AA battalions became part of the Royal Artillery in August 1940, with 349 Searchlight Battery stationed at Stonehouse. As well as providing light during air raids, they were also sometimes used as homing beacons for aircraft returning to RAF bases at Colerne and Moreton-in-Marsh.

The Cress Green building

Like many buildings of the period, in response to the threat from the German air force, the Cress Green building was doubtless thrown up as quickly and cheaply as possible. It would have been built either by the Royal Engineers or a civilian contractor. The latter was a common arrangement used for erecting pill boxes and other military structures. Given the urgent circumstances, it’s perhaps not surprising that there are no records or early photographs of the site.

Its construction was similar to that of many other military buildings of the period, and was based around a series of precast concrete trusses. These could be set up rapidly and provided support for both the walls and roof. The spaces between the trusses were infilled with a single skin of brick and any doors and windows deemed necessary. As a result of a shortage of building materials, every effort was made to use simple, readily available materials such as brick and concrete, and similar techniques were to be found in military buildings ranging from stores to lookout posts, hospitals, and even prisoner of war camps.

The inside of the Cress Green building was split into several small rooms, each of which presumably had a specific function such as communications with other searchlight and gun batteries – all would have been linked so that they could work in harmony during an air raid. Searchlights usually worked with at least two others – this allowed them to form a cone of light that illuminated enemy aircraft, allowing more time for the anti-aircraft guns to focus on them. There was another searchlight at the top end of Nupend that doubtless worked in unison with the Cress Green light.
Buildings such as these were only expected to have a limited lifetime, but it’s remarkable just how long some have survived. Some are still useable although others such as the Cress Green building have long fallen into ruin.

The war ends

In retrospect, the work of searchlight batteries seems to have been a relatively unglamorous and now largely forgotten part of home defence. As one former soldier commented “I suppose pointing a big torch at the enemy isn’t the stuff of heroic drama. At least the guns teamed with them got to fight back”.

Sylvia Bliss recalls that a contingent of the Yorkshire Regiment was stationed at Cress Green, billeted in the tin Nissan hut that formerly stood next to the brick building. No doubt that was cold and damp, but at least one soldier seems to have found somewhere warmer to spend his off-duty hours as he married a local girl (Dorothy Douglas) before whisking her off to Yorkshire!

Remarkably, many years ago I had the opportunity to talk to an old soldier who had spent time at the Cress Green facility during the war. He had been driven down from Yorkshire for what I assume was to be a last look at where he had once been stationed. He mentioned that for a time, a Bofors gun was also positioned at Cress Green. The Bofors gun was a mobile 40 mm anti-aircraft gun, one of the most popular medium-weight anti-aircraft guns deployed during World War II. However, it’s not clear how long it was located there.

Apparently the soldiers didn’t have much to do for most of the time and boredom was a real problem – it seems to have been quite a treat to occasionally trek across the fields to visit the ‘bright lights’ of Stonehouse!

At the end of the war, the military departed, handing over the buildings to Mr Keyes, who farmed the land at the time. The Nissan hut appears to have survived up to the 1970s, although the decaying shell of the searchlight station is still quietly mouldering at the edge of the field overlooking Stonehouse and beyond, a silent reminder of those troubled times.