A remarkable image from Prestwich in April 1942 shows the changing of the guard at a heavy anti-aircraft gun site defending Manchester from Luftwaffe bombers.

What’s so different about the picture is that women are serving side by side with men as Prestwich was one of the first mixed batteries in the North West.

It wasn’t quite full equality. While the men are bearing rifles for night duty, the women are carrying staves at the end of their daytime shift. But it was a massive step.

ATS women talked through the working parts of a 3inch AA gun, April 1941

ATS women talked through the working parts of a 3inch AA gun, April 1941

Women were destined to play a vital role as gunners, range-finders and searchlight operators throughout the 1939-45 conflict, making a crucial contribution to the war effort.

At the beginning of July 1940, the UK’s anti-aircraft strength stood at 157,139 men, 1,200 heavy and 549 light guns and 3,932 searchlights. 

By May 1941, it had increased to just under 300,000 men, 1,691 heavy and 940 light guns and 4,532 searchlights.

Changing of the guard at a mixed gun battery at Prestwich, April 1942

Changing of the guard at a mixed gun battery at Prestwich, April 1942

However, Sir Frederick Pile, Commander-in-Chief, Anti-Aircraft Command, was facing a manpower shortage as his troops were being deployed overseas. 

The RAF was already conducting evaluation trials to replace airmen with members of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) at the majority of barrage balloon sites around the country.

The trials were possible thanks to technical improvements in equipment, including the mechanisation of some of the handling of balloons. 

Women at a gun battery run to their assigned stations, November 1941

Women at a gun battery run to their assigned stations, November 1941

Even so, the RAF discovered that 16 WAAFs were required to replace 10 airmen. Pile wanted to fill his vacancies with women from the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS).

Despite many doubters, Pile pressed ahead. On 25 April 1941, regulations were put into force making women eligible for operational duties short of actual combat roles. 

The following month, the first intake of ATS began their training at Oswestry. Pile anticipated the ATS would take over every job at a battery save loading and manning the guns. 

An ATS predictor crew go to work on a 3.7inch anti-aircraft gun, April 1941

An ATS predictor crew go to work on a 3.7inch anti-aircraft gun, April 1941

It was anticipated that two-thirds of the roles could be carried out by women. They would take over the operating of range finders, predictors, radar sets, communications and plotting as well as command and control. 

On 12 June, the 435th Heavy AA Battery was ordered to be raised at Oswestry. Two weeks later the order came through for it to be converted into AA Command’s first ‘mixed’ battery.

Interestingly, it was soon discovered that their more delicate touch enabled ATS members to achieve finer and therefore more accurate settings on the predictors.

A height/range finder in the North West, January 1942

A height/range finder in the North West, January 1942

These were mechanical analogue computers that calculated the required elevation of the guns, the time setting for the shell fuses, wind direction and deflection.

The 435th was declared operational on 21 August. 

The efficiency of AA batteries depended on teamwork. By the end of February 1942, that efficiency at one of the batteries defending Manchester coalesced around Eileen McGough. 

Training on a kinotheodolite which recorded shell bursts from an AA gun on film, October 1942

Training on a kinotheodolite which recorded shell bursts from an AA gun on film, October 1942

The 19-year-old from Bredbury was the one who would be called upon to give the order to open fire.   

Pile was impressed enough with the ATS to order that all newly raised heavy batteries coming from Training Regiments would in future be mixed. 

In 1942, no less than 38 new mixed regiments had been raised and some existing male batteries converted to mixed.

A Z-rocket battery opens fire in the North West, July 1942

A Z-rocket battery opens fire in the North West, July 1942

It was a godsend for the male members of a battery, as Pile directed that the accommodation and facilities must be of a higher standard than that of all-male batteries. 

Even so, things could still be difficult. In November 1943, one of the batteries defending Manchester was facing a crisis. For months and to no avail they had been trying to get their hands on a piano. 

Their last hope was the Manchester Evening News. The paper published an appeal, quoting an officer: “We have been trying for some time, and it would be greatly appreciated for concerts at this particular site.”

An ATS searchlight crew wraps up well for night duty, March 1943

An ATS searchlight crew wraps up well for night duty, March 1943

The 44th Anti-Aircraft Brigade was charged with defending Manchester though its territory stretched from Crewe to Barrow. 

The first mixed unit to arrive was the 581st battery, attached to the 149th (Mixed) HAA Regiment. Over the following months, more mixed batteries were assigned to the 44th with the arrival of the 151st and 169th regiments. 

The ATS also played a major role in the division’s signals unit which, by the end of 1942, was predominantly female.   

Following successful trials, the decision was taken in December 1941 for members of the ATS to be recruited and deployed to searchlight units.

Toward the end of 1941, the manning of some AA batteries was transferred to the Home Guard, releasing around 50,000 men for other duties. 

As well as light and heavy guns, the Home Guard would also take over the manning of Z-batteries firing short range, solid fuel, 3inch (76mm) AA rocket projectiles.