Site Records

Site Name: Area Combined Headquarters Chatham & HMS Wildfire
(C in C Nore, RN & AOC No. 16 Group, RAF Coastal Command)

Cumberland Road
Chatham, Kent
OS Grid Ref: TQ771693

Sub Brit site visit 16th February 2008

[Source: Bob Jenner]

Creation of Area Combined Headquarters
During 1937, with the threat of war imminent, an exchange of letters between the Admiralty, Air Ministry and the War Office resulted in a policy for the provision of protected accommodation at the four main naval ports at Plymouth, Portsmouth, Chatham and Rosyth. It was decided that it would not be practicable or desirable to re-locate the Military HQ's to the coast so a small military liaison staff was allotted to each of the proposed HQ's which the Admiralty and Air Ministry now proceeded to plan and build.

The protection against air attack was particularly pertinent for the Navy at Chatham. During the later stages of WW1 on the night of 3rd September 1917, when 900 men were sleeping in the drill shed at the barracks of HMS Pembroke, 4 German Gotha bombers carried out the first night air raid on the UK. One of the planes dropped two 50 kg bombs through the glass roof of the drill shed killing 130 with 88 seriously injured. It was the largest single loss of life due to air raids in WW1. Large underground shelters were dug into the wall of the barracks before WW2 began.

The plan to build these Area Combined Headquarters (ACHQ's) involved the location of the Air Officer Commanding (AOC) No 15 Group, RAF Coastal Command with the naval Commander in Chief (C in C) Plymouth and Western Approaches at Mount Wise in Plymouth (HMS Drake). AOC No 16 Group, Coastal Command was located with the C in C Nore at Chatham (HMS Pembroke). Pitreavie Castle was to house the naval Flag Officer (FO) Rosyth (HMS Cochrane) and the AOC No 18 Group, Coastal Command.

The naval C in C Portsmouth (HMS Victory) was to relocate alone at Fort Southwick on Portsdown Hill. His area of command was covered by both No 15 (later No 19) and No 16 Groups. No 17 Group, Coastal Command at Gosport had a training role and no area responsibility. In August 1938 HQ Coastal Command moved from Wykeham House, Lee on Solent, Gosport to its new location at Eastbury House in Northwood, northwest London and subsequently in 1943 into its protected HQ. This site then went on to become HMS Warrior and later the Permanent Joint HQ (PJHQ).

Following the outbreak of hostilities and the occupation of northern Europe, adjustments were required in the above arrangements. In June 1940 the naval command at Plymouth was split, with a new C in C Western Approaches (HMS Eaglet) and the AOC No 15 Group moving north to Liverpool and into protected accommodation in Derby House in February 1941. The existing C in C Plymouth remained at Mount Wise where he was joined by the AOC of the newly formed No 19 Group to cover the South Western Approaches.

The design, size and construction of the five ACHQ's are all different. Those at Mount Wise, Fort Southwick and Pitreavie Castle are covered elsewhere on this web site.

The Nore Command
The title originates from the name of a large sandbank in the Thames Estuary at the mouth of the River Medway and has been associated with the navy for centuries. At the beginning of the war the command covered from Rye in Sussex to Yarmouth in Norfolk. When the ACHQ's were formed the northern boundary was moved north to Flamborough Head in Yorkshire taking over the Humber Sub Command from FO Rosyth on 13th December 1939 in order to conform with the area of No 16 Group RAF. Meanwhile in the south further changes were underway.

Admiral of the Fleet Sir John Tovey

The C in C, Nore was normally a full Admiral’s appointment, except in 1943 when Sir John Tovey, on being relieved as C in C, Home Fleet, was posted to the Nore on promotion to Admiral of the Fleet.

Rear Admiral Bertram Ramsay had resigned his appointment in 1934 and had been placed on half pay. He was promoted to Vice Admiral on seniority and was placed on the retired list in 1938. He was recalled as a retired officer and appointed to the staff of C in C, Nore and tasked with turning the commercial port of Dover into a naval base and headquarters. He established the HQ in the casemates of Dover castle alongside that of the army GOC Fixed Defences, Dover. Now Vice Admiral, Dover, Ramsay was responsible for the transportation, support and protection of the lines of communication of the BEF in France as well as the defence of the Straits of Dover. The events leading up to the fall of France and the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) evacuation at Dunkirk had caused the Dover Sub Command to be removed from the control of C in C, Nore and placed directly under Admiralty control. The Sub Command

  was not restored to Nore until 1946. The southern boundary of Nore Command was now a line due east of the North Foreland in Kent.

The Nore Command at Chatham had five major sub commands each under the command of a Flag Officer (normally a Rear or Vice Admiral). These sub commands were Chatham, London (less the Admiralty) Sheerness, Harwich and Humber. They were further sub divided into Bases under Naval Officers in Charge (NOIC) and Residential Naval Officers (RNO) Such bases included Gravesend, Southend, Queenborough, Brightlingsea, Yarmouth, Lowestoft, Felixstowe, Burnham-on-Crouch, Boston, Grimsby and Immingham.

Their prime responsibilities were the protection

HMS Plover - This coastal minelayer was launched in 1936. Based at Harwich she carried 100 sea mines at a time, to build and maintain the east-coat barrier minefield. She was broken up in 1969. This was a typical vessel of the Nore Command.
of East Coast convoys from air and sea attack, and the maintenance of the east coast barrier minefield. This involved the sweeping of enemy mines, standing anti U-Boat and E-Boat patrols, naval attacks on enemy shipping and Air/Sea Rescue. The assets for these tasks were in the main small ships, apart from the light cruisers of the 20th Cruiser Squadron during 1940, the force consisted of small Destroyers, Sloops, Trawlers and Motor Boats with MTB's and MGB's for offence. At its peak Nore Command had over 50,000 personnel with some 900 vessels operating from 35 different bases and all controlled through the sub commands from the ACHQ.

No. 16 Group RAF Coastal Command
On 10th September 1940 Coastal Command was placed under the operational command of the Admiralty in a similar manner as the Army AA Command being under the operational control of RAF Fighter Command.

The Air Officers Commanding (AOsC) at the ACHQ's were of Air Vice Marshal rank and therefore of a lower rank than their naval counterparts but were not subordinate to them. The area of No 16 Group matched that of the Nore in the north but stretched as far as Portsmouth in the south covering the now independent Dover Sub Command and the eastern half of Portsmouth Command.

AOC 16 Group had for his task (in1940) 8 Squadrons of light aircraft (Blenheim, Hudson, Anson, Beaufort, Swordfish and Albacore) flying from 6 airfields from Thorney Island in the south to Thornaby in the north. He was charged with co-operation with the Fleet, providing air cover as well as anti-submarine

Avro Anson - (Faithful Annie) was a twin-engined light transport aircraft that came into service in 1936 and remained in service until 1969; nearly 1100 machines were built. Used for general reconnaissance (GR), training and light transport duties they formed the mainstay of Coastal Command during the early days of the war.
patrols, reconnaissance and air/sea rescue culminating in the protection of the eastern part of Operation Neptune, The D Day landings. The Group carried out this task until it was reduced to Wing status in 1946 but the RAF presence at the ACHQ (by now a Local HQ) continued until closure in 1962, the RAF personnel being accommodated in Anson Block at HMS Pembroke.

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[Source: Bob Jenner]

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