In September 1940 a group of British officers and NCOs from the 8th Heavy Anti-Aircraft (AA) Battery of Royal Artillery with a few selected VCOs of the Indian Artillery reported to the Gun Carriage Basin in Colaba, Bombay(now Mumbai). It was this group of AA Gunners who went on to establish the 1 Indian Technical Training Battery, the first Indian Anti-Aircraft Establishment ever raised and they also formed the nucleus of the ‘R’ HAA Regiment; the first Anti-Aircraft unit of the Indian Army. This was followed by a number of AA Regiments and Batteries including all types i.e. Heavy, Light and Composite units and subunits. The Indian AA Artillery soon eclipsed its more senior cousins; the Field and Mountain Artillery and at one stage, India had more AA Regiments than any other theatre of operations barring the Great Britain.
The AA Regiments served in varied theatres during the Second World War, from Singapore in the Far East to Iraq in the Middle East. They had a chequered history- serving with honour in all theatres; and also suffered numerous losses but none of the AA Regiments had more tragic history than the first AA Regiment of India Artillery- the ‘R’ Heavy AA Regiment.
Even before the raising had been completed, No 1 Heavy AA Battery was sent to defend the Digboi oilfields in Assam. Soon thereafter, the Regiment (less the No1 Battery) sailed to Singapore in August 1941 as part of the reinforcements rushed to Malaya Command. Attached to the Regiment were 1 and 5 Light AA Batteries. With 1,250 Other Ranks and 111 Followers, officered by only 12 British officers of the Royal Artillery and Nine VCOs, it was an unusually large Regiment even by the standards of Anti-Aircraft Regiments of that time when it reached Singapore. It was further augmented by the arrival of thirty British officers and 96 British Other Ranks.
The Regiment took over 60 light AA guns and a fair number of static AA guns with its responsibilities including almost all the important sites in Singapore. Amongst them were the Air bases at Tengah and Selatar, Naval Base East, Alexandra, Normanton, Oil Depot at Krangi and the supply depot at Bukit Timor.
As the Japanese attacked Singapore, the air raids were met with stiff resistance from the AA gunners. Havildar Sham Lal and Gunner Balbir Singh were awarded the Indian Distinguished Service Medal (IDSM) for their act of gallantry while deployed at Tengah air base; the first Indian AA gunners to be so awarded. Lieutenant John A. Hopson earned himself a Military Cross while Lieutenant Colonel John Rowley Williamson was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for his outstanding leadership in face of adversity. He was the first, and only, person from the Indian AA Artillery to be so honoured during the war.
The acts of bravery were not enough to hold the Japanese who steamrolled the opposition with deadly efficiency. Faced with unsurmountable odds, the Allies surrendered on 15 February 1942. 1st Indian HAA Regiment was one of the Allied units that surrendered that day. The gunners of the Regiment were segregated and sent not only to prisons on the island but also to other parts of Asia abroad the “hell ships’.
The Regiment lost over 320 gunners during, and after, the war with only the memorial at Singapore bearing silent testimony to the bravery of these gallant gunners. These names are all that remain of the Regiment as the 1st Indian Heavy Anti-Aircraft regiment was never raised again; dying as it were with the surrender on February 15, 1942; never to be resurrected.
1st HAA Battery, located at Digboi, was grouped with 2nd HAA Regiment severing its link with the parent regiment.
For a Regiment with such rich history, there are no photographs in any of the records and archives. The only photograph of Indian AAA at Malaya is of a LAA Battery- either 4th or 5th LAA Battery which were attached to ‘The First’ and were not part of the Regiment per se. This photograph is held by the Armed Forces Film and Photo Division and is part of their collection of photographs of World War II. There is however no photograph of ‘The First’. It seemed that ‘The First’ was dead and buried for good with no visual record of the Regiment.
But as they say, fortune favours the brave. While working on the “History of Indian AA Artillery 1940-45”, I came across the reference to a painting in February 2020 of ‘1st Indian Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment’ that was held by the Imperial War Museum (IWM) but there was no digitised media available online to check it’s details. The only details available were that it was by Cecil CP Lawson and measured 285x368mm.
IWM offers a service to provide copies of the paintings held with them, at a cost, but even this request hit a snag as the Head of Arts at the IWM wanted to check the will of Cecil CP Lawson to check the information of the rights holder and if a photograph of the painting could be shared by the Museum.
Cecil CP Lawson, a well-known ‘military painter and writer’ (as he described himself) was born in Kensington in 1880 and was active in Glasgow, Paris and London. Shortly before the First World War, he enlisted as a private in the Westminster Dragoons, and for most of it served with them in the Middle East. He was at Gallipoli, then in Egypt and Palestine, including at the battle for Beersheba and the capture of Jerusalem in 1917.
In 1918 the Dragoons were reassigned to the 2nd Army on the Western Front and became part of the Machine Gun Corps. In this Lawson was a corporal. Although he was never an ‘official’ war artist, the Imperial War Museum has a group of oil paintings by him of the Flanders. By 1919 the Dragoons had demobilised but in March that year Lawson was commissioned Second Lieutenant in the Royal Army Service Corps, though he resigned in 1921 and was in England from 1922.
Between the wars, Lawson began writing and illustrating (in watercolours) the History of Uniforms of the British Army, volumes of which were published throughout the 1940s and 1960s. fifth volume of History of Uniforms was at the publisher’s when Lawson died aged 86 on 24th February 1967. Lawson was a pioneer of serious research and publication on military uniforms including that of Imperial and Commonwealth armies and the Colonial Corps. The Imperial War Museum has a good collection of his drawings of army regiments and uniforms.
Tracing the Will
Lawson died in 1967 and had left a will. With the probate records having been digitised, it was simply a question of getting a copy of the same. For this, Probate Search Service of the U.K. Government was approached who provided a copy of the will for GBP 1.50. Step 2 completed.
Thankfully, the will allowed the images of the paintings donated to the IWM to be shared by them. The copy of the will was shared with the IWM who acknowledged that they could now provide an image of the painting and would I make a request for the same online.
Getting the Copy of the Painting
The first demand for the copy of the painting was made in March 2020 but before the IWM could do the needful, United Kingdom went into a lockdown. The request for the image was left unattended. It was only in 2021 that things started moving as U.K. started the un-lockdown process. Enquiries made in June 2021 confirmed that IWM could supply a copy of the painting and a demand should be raised for the same.
And after fifteen months, a file containing the images of the painting was received from IWM on 2 July 2021.
For the first time, there is a visual record of the 1st Indian HAA Regiment.
‘The First’ lives on.
The Twist in the Tail (or one can say, the Tale)
Lawson signed the painting as “1st Indian Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment. British Officer. Sepoys. Burma”. The uniform and the heavy AA gun are all shown correctly – even the red and blue diamond of Artillery on the Officer’s hat but there is one interesting error in this. The Regiment never served in Burma. As Lawson never visited the Far East and merely depicted the Regimental scene as he imagined, the artistic license and the error can be pardoned.