War Memorial Gary Trouton

Yellow River

February 2001

The story of a top secret destination for a top secret mission

In the late 1950's I was serving as a lowly Corporal at Royal Air Force Watton, just down the road from us at Stoke Ferry. I had been happily employed for a few short months in the then Central Signals Development Establishment; a unit so secret that I had to go to work each day through a double security fence topped with high voltage wires and surrounded by a 12 foot wall to keep out the prying eyes. After all, this was only 10 years after World War II and we didn't want any old Tom, Dick or Ivan. to learn our innermost secrets. The establishment, known as CSDE for short, had a special claim to fame in that it was commanded by a Civil Servant. Not just any old Civil Servant mind, but no less a personage than Mr. "Pop" Popperwell OBE; the very man who had helped Watson Waft develop RADAR at dear old Bawdsey Manor near Felixstowe.

Happily going about my spooks duties, I received a call one morning from the Station Orderly Room; the place where all manners of administrative and disciplinary matters were conceived, I was to report to the Flight Sergeant in charge immediately, without delay and at the double. Arriving, somewhat bemused, I enquired of one of the erks as to the world-shattering event that had demanded my presence in such short order. He had obviously been struck dumb or threatened with some extreme form of punishment if he revealed the nature of my business. I waited, with some considerable anxiety, to be "seen" by the Flight Sergeant; a known disciplinarian who had a ripe turn of phrase and shouted in a parade ground voice at anyone in the vicinity.

After what seemed an eternity I was wheeled in. "Right Corporal" said the Flight Sergeant. "You have been posted to ruddy China. China is in the ruddy Far East, so you are entitled to 14 ruddy days ruddy embarkation leave. However, you're running for the ruddy command next week, you have to get your ruddy jabs, clear from the ruddy station so you can have next weekend off. OK?" (The use of the word ruddy has been adopted to avoid offending the more sensitive readers; the actual word used was far more Anglo Saxon and rhymed with the name of a male deer). Recovering my breath I said "But we don't have any RAF Stations in China, Flight!"

Turning a lighter shade of purple, the Flight Sergeant said "It says 'ere, in this ruddy posting note, that you have been posted to Number 8 Joint Services Trials Unit, brackets Yellow River ruddy Contingent. There's only one ruddy Yellow River, Corporal, and that is in ruddy China. Now in Air Ministry Pamphlet 123 of 52 it says, anyone posted to the ruddy Far East must have ruddy Yellow Fever jabs. So, you are to catch the ruddy truck to ruddy Ely Horspital and get your ruddy Yellow Fever jabs. Do I make ruddy- well myself clear?" "Yes Flight", I said, "But I still don't think there are any R.AF Stations in China."

"Are you ruddy arguing with me Corporal?" said the Flight Sergeant, "Cos if you are not ruddy careful you'll not spend next ruddy weekend on embarkation leave, but in the ruddy guardroom! Now get off to ruddy Ely and then come back and see me and I'll give you the rest of your ruddy joining instructions!"

Deciding that discretion was the better part of valour, I dutifully caught the truck to Ely and stood in line with dozens of other to receive my Yellow Fever jabs. Being 1955, of course, it wasn't a case of changing the needle after every jab; it was changed only when it became too blunt for the nurse to dig into the next patient's arm. With the inevitable painfully bruised arm (I was about number 25 in line for my needle) I returned to Watton to await the next phase of my instructions.

On entering the Orderly Room I was shepherded straight into the Flight Sergeant's office and the door closed behind me with a dramatic bang. "What I am about to tell you Corporal, is ruddy secret and must not be conveyed to anyone else. Is that ruddy clear?" "Yes Flight" I said, by now feeling even more anxious. "You are to report to the ruddy Air Ministry Unit at ruddy RAF Ruislip" said the Flight Sergeant. "There you will be briefed on the on your specific duties. I can only tell you that they will be ruddy secret and they will be in ruddy China!" I spent the rest of the week racking my brains as to the nature of his new posting but, inevitably could not find anyone to give me anymore information than I had already received from the Flight sergeant.

The week went by in a blur and I vaguely remember running for the Command at RAF Henlow. I know I didn't win. I managed to slip away for my embarkation leave just after lunch on the Friday and decided to fit in a dance at West Runton on the Saturday evening. After all, it was likely to be several years before I saw a white woman again. I obviously had a good time and awoke on the Sunday with a distant memory that I had agreed to meet someone on the beach at Wells at noon.

Heavy headed, I got out my bicycle and set off to cycle the ten miles to Wells. I arrived at the pre-arranged meeting point and saw the sister of one of my friends waiting. Assuming she had a message from her brother I stopped and found to my horror that it was her I had agreed to meet. The situation became even more fraught when she said she thought we should wait until I came back from China before we got married! It seemed that in my cups the previous night I had gone down on one knee and popped the question. The end of my weekend pass just could not come quickly enough, but, as is always the case, the time eventually passed and I returned to Watton.

Back to the billet to collect my meagre belongings, all of which fitted into a single kit bag. I collected a rail warrant and set out with some trepidation for Ruislip. In those days, Lord Beeching had not destroyed the rail network, and I was able to catch a train from Watton to Wymondham, where I changed on to the main Norwich - Liverpool Street line. After about six hours travel, I found myself at RAF Ruislip in the company of just over 100 other airmen in the same state of consternation. It was obvious to us all that we had been selected for a top-secret mission and that we would have to undergo special training at some top-secret base before we parachuted into China.

The next morning, 120 airmen, the majority being technicians like myself, were assembled in the AMU Conference Room to be briefed on our special operation. The briefing lasted a full day at the end of which none of us were any the wiser. All the speakers, from our new CO down, stressed the secrecy of our task and the sensitivity of the location in which we would perform that task. I began to think my Flight Sergeant at Watton had been right after all. The briefmg concluded with instructions for us to 'clear' from Ruislip and to proceed to our next location by the transport to be provided.

The process of 'clearing' required that all 120 of us visited all departments at Ruislip to sign off the station in order that our masters would know where we could be located in the future. The process was tiring, boring and generally very time consuming. The last port of call had to be the Post Room so that our new address could be noted for the forwarding of mail and instructions. Since none of us new where we were going, this exercise seemed a bit pointless. However, being well trained, we did as we were told. When we crowded into the Post Room, a little erk said "Oh! You're the lot wots going to Aberporth, aren't you?" "No" came the chorus, "We going to China".

In the end, of course, the Postal Clerk was right. In fact, we were the RAF contingent of a Joint Service Trials Unit selected to test guided missiles. And he was right that the unit was forming up at Aberporth; at least the majority were. Six of us were to join an equal number of soldiers at the Radar Research Establishment at Malvern. There we were to learn how to maintain the latest type of tracking radar, which had been honoured with the codename YELLOW RIVER. I was, therefore, the first and last RAF technician inoculated against the radar I was to be trained on!

As a postscript, No 8 Joint Services Trials Unit ultimately deployed to Woomera in South Australia; but that is another story.

Ray Thompson

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