55th (Kent) Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment, Royal Artillery was a volunteer air defence unit of Britain's Territorial Army from 1925 until 1955. In World War II it defended the Thames Estuary, Medway Towns and Dover during The Blitz and later served in Iraq and North Africa. It then supported British Eighth Army and US Fifth Army during the Sicily and Italian campaigns until the end of the war.
German air raids by Zeppelin airships and Gotha bombers on British cities during World War I had shown the need for strong anti-aircraft (AA) defences in any future war. When the Territorial Army (TA) was reformed in the 1920s it began raising five dedicated AA units of the Royal Artillery (RA). The last of these was 55th (Kent) Anti-Aircraft Brigade, with headquarters at Fort Clarence in Rochester. At first the brigade consisted only of 163rd (Kent) AA Battery based at Tunbridge Wells and in turn formed the only unit of 28 Air Defence Brigade. In 1935 it was joined by the independent 166th (City of Rochester) AA Battery, which had been converted from a coastal defence battery (of Kent Heavy Bde RA) in 1932.
One further subunit was added to 55 AA Bde in 1936 when 205th (Chatham & Faversham) AA Battery was transferred from 58 (Kent) AA Brigade, which had been formed the previous year by conversion of an existing Medium Regiment RA.
As Britain's AA defences expanded during the 1930s, higher formations became necessary. 1st AA Division was formed to cover London and the Home Counties in 1935, and 55 AA Bde was assigned to 28th (Thames and Medway) AA Group based at Kitchener Barracks, Chatham.
In 1938 the RA replaced its traditional unit designation 'Brigade' by the modern 'Regiment', which allowed the 'AA Groups' to take the more usual formation title of 'Brigades'. Anti-Aircraft Command was formed in April 1939 to command all TA air defences.
Early in 1939, as part of the doubling of the strength of the TA after the Munich Crisis, 205 Battery left the regiment to provide the basis of a new 89 AA Regiment, and two new batteries were formed, 307 at Tunbridge Wells, and 308 at Rochester. During 1939 a new 6th AA Division was formed to be responsible for the air defence of the Thames Estuary, Essex, and North Kent, and 28 AA Bde including 55 (Kent) AA Regt was transferred to this new formation before the outbreak of war.
In the summer of 1940, along with other AA units equipped with the older 3-inch and newer 3.7-inch AA guns, the 55th was designated a Heavy AA Regiment. During The Blitz 55 (Kent) HAA Regt operated as part of 28 AA Bde guarding the Thames, Chatham and Dover in 6 AA Division.
In June 1941, 308 Bty left the regiment, and later served in West Africa. A newly formed 418 Bty joined in July. In the autumn of 1941 the regiment left 28 AA Bde (leaving behind 418 Bty, which joined 59th (Essex Regiment) HAA Rgt) and briefly joined 34th (South Midland) AA Bde covering Birmingham and Coventry in 11th AA Division. However it soon left AA Command and became part of the War Office Reserve.
The regiment left the UK in September 1942 and went by sea via Cape Town to Iraq, where in November it joined 'PAIFORCE' (GHQ Persia and Iraq).
55 HAA Regiment left Iraq in April 1943 to move to North Africa, where it came under command of Middle East Forces.
In July 1943 the regiment was assigned to 15th Army Group for the Allied invasion of Sicily. For the initial landings on 10 July, 55 HAA Rgt's three batteries were allotted to beach groups of XXX Corps arriving during the first morning, but regiments were mixed up and no overall AA HQ was landed, so a great deal of reorganisation was required during the first two days of the operation. The lightweight No 3 Mark III ('Baby Maggie') mobile gunlaying radar sets proved too fragile for landing over an open beach. Also, radio and telephone communications could not be established, and Allied airborne formations overflying the beachheads to their drop zones suffered badly from friendly fire. As Eighth Army advanced up the east coast of the island during July, batteries of 55 HAA Rgt were stationed to defend the port of Augusta, where it reported daily attacks by Messerschmitt Bf 109s and nightly attacks by Junkers Ju 88s operating from 28,000 to 30,000 feet. At Augusta, 55 HAA Rgt came under the command of 73 AA Bde, while 307th Bty back at Syracuse was under 62 AA Bde.
During the invasion of mainland Italy in late 1943, beginning the Italian Campaign, 55 HAA Rgt at first remained in Sicily defending Augusta. Later, as the Allied armies advanced, the AA units followed to protect vital airfields and ports in the rear. 55th HAA Regiment crossed from Italy to join 52 AA Bde stationed at the airfield complex around Foggia. It later moved to 66 AA Bde supporting the advance of US Fifth Army particularly the Salerno bridgehead and airfields. After the breakout from Anzio in May 1944, 66 AA Bde took over that area, and then followed Fifth Army up the west coast through Rome until it reached Livorno, where 55 HAA Rgt defended the important supply port. During the winter of 1944–45, 55th HAA Rgt was transferred to 12 AA Bde, supporting British Eighth Army.
The Luftwaffe's strength in Italy growing weaker, AA defence became less important and Eighth Army's HAA guns were increasingly used in the medium artillery role to support the ground troops. The effectiveness and accuracy of the 3.7-inch gun and the ample supply of AA ammunition made HAA units a useful addition for the artillery commanders. They were required to find and train their own men for unfamiliar work in Observation Posts (OPs) and Command Posts. Counter-bombardment, defensive fire and harassing fire programmes were carried out, and firing airbursts above entrenchments, and destroying hard targets such as buildings became specialities of the HAA gunners. 55 HAA Regiment spent months of the Italian campaign engaged in this way as corps medium artillery, often working with Air OP spotters. As a result, 55 HAA Rgt escaped the disbandment that befell many other AA units as the war drew to a close, and was still serving when the instrument of surrender of the German armies in Italy was signed on 29 April 1945.
55th (Kent) HAA Regiment was placed in suspended animation in 1946.
In 1946, after the end of the war, 55 (Kent) HAA Regiment was placed in suspended animation. When the TA was reformed in 1947, the regiment was reconstituted as 455 (Kent) (Mixed) HAA Regiment, RA ('Mixed' indicating that some of the personnel were drawn from the Women's Royal Army Corps). It was at first assigned to 54 (Thames & Medway) AA Bde (the former 28 AA Bde), but that formation was soon disbanded. In 1950 the regiment was briefly redesignated 455 (Kent) (Mixed) AA Fort Regiment (Thames Estuary), consisting of 'P' Battery and 'Q', 'R' and 'S' AA Forts, but it reverted to its previous title before the end of the year. 455 (Kent) HAA Regt was disbanded when AA Command was abolished in 1955.
The following officers served as Honorary Colonels of the regiment:Col Sir Osmond E. d'Avigdor-Goldsmid, Bt – appointed 3 February 1932
Col J. Egginton, OBE, TD – appointed 26 October 1935
Lt-Col W.E.H. Cooke, OBE, TD – appointed 19 January 1939