Number Seventeen


The British Invade Riverside, 1943


The year was 1943; two thirds of the way through the Second World War. In January Hitler had been defeated at Stalingrad; US troops had taken Guadalcanal in February; and Operation Chastise, better known as the Dam Busters raid, had taken place in May. It all seemed a very long way from California. So what was an anti-aircraft Battery of front-line British troops doing in Riverside in October?


America had been at war for about eighteen months, and many Americans, untouched by the conflict, questioned their country’s involvement. President Roosevelt wanted to show the American people what the fighting was like and what was needed to win. He also wanted to give the British and American allies chance to get to know each other. To help the US President in his PR campaign, British Prime Minister Churchill, at Roosevelt’s request, sent to the US a Battery of British Royal Artillery gunners, complete with their equipment. Their brief was simple but comprehensive: talk to the American people and show them how the allies are working together to win the war.


The 1st Composite Anti-Aircraft Demonstration Battery Royal Artillery was unique. It included heavy and light AA guns, searchlights, and highly technical specialist equipment such as radar, which was barely off the drawing board. After six weeks intensive training, the 346 officers and men boarded the Ile de France at the end of June en route to a country familiar from the movies, but which none of them had had the faintest chance of visiting before. In his book Invading America, 1943, Clifford Cole, radar expert with the Battery, explains:


I was preparing to visit a country I had heard so much of, read so much about, yet knew so little of that I felt a peculiar nervousness as to how I was going to react to it all. If I were given to nightmares, I feel sure that I should have a nightmare that would have a predominancy of men chewing gum,