The Secrets of Radar
A nostalgic look back at the early days of radar
The Secret of Radar by Margaret F Slater
[First published in The Wartime news Vol 8 August 2003]
It was the results of the intelligence tests at the end of four weeks initial training at RAF Wilmslow that persuaded the powers that be I should become a Radar Operator. What this involved nobody could tell us, since in 1944 it was still 'Top Secret'. However, we were packed off to a six-week course at the Radio School at Cranwell to learn the basics before being posted to an operational radar station where we would continue under training for a further six months.
My posting was to 70 Wing which covered the whole of Scotland, including the Hebrides, Orkneys and Shetlands, and Northern Ireland. HQ was near Inverness, from where a six-hour train journey to Thurso, followed by 18 miles in RAF transport, brought me to Dunnet Head, the most northerly point of the mainland.
The radar station there was established to guard the approaches to the Royal Navy base at Scapa Flow. Three types of radar covered low flying aircraft (CHL and Type 57) and shipping (CD); operators were trained on all of them. Most WAAF were billeted in the usual Air Ministry wooden huts, apart from twelve of us for whom a Nissen hut was 'home'. Unlike the rest of the camp, there was no central heating in our hut, but we kept warm with a stove which was never allowed to go out.
The gales in the far north are quite an experience. To prevent us being blown over, all the pathways between the domestic site and the Ops Blocks were roped on both sides. Walking on the one road on camp used by vehicles was quite dangerous as it was impractical to have ropes to hold on to. There were several cases of broken wrists and ankles when people were blown off their feet. In our free time (not a lot on a three-watch system), a favourite activity was to visit some of the crofts to buy fresh eggs. The crofters always made us welcome, offering us tea and a friendly chat beside their peat fires and they were obviously quite glad of the odd shilling they charged us for half-a-dozen eggs. These we would cook on night watch in the Ops Block kitchen. Although it was impossible to get down to the sea, since the 400 ft cliffs rose sheer out of the water, we would often bathe in the summer in the lochans near the camp. Since there was no NAAFI, free evenings were spent in the Rec Room dancing to records. We could not listen to the wireless as the sweep of the CHL aerial blotted out the programme every 20 seconds - even the news of VE Day reached us via the Filter Room in Inverness. Once every three weeks, our day off coincided with the Liberty Run to Thurso and this made a welcome change. Very occasionally, we treated ourselves to a hotel meal, but more often we had a snack in the WVS canteen before going to the only cinema in town regardless of what film was showing.
We may not have known anything of events leading up to VE Day, but a couple of days later we watched six U-boats which had surrendered in the North Atlantic being escorted through the Pentland Firth to Scapa Flow by two Royal Navy destroyers. After six years of war this unforgettable sight was to us more exciting than all the more noisy celebrations elsewhere. When going on leave we travelled on The Jellicoe, a train for service personnel which ran from Thurso to London Euston every day leaving Thurso in the early evening. Men and women were strictly segregated, the women being confined to one or possibly two coaches. An evening meal was served in the dining car after which the women were shepherded back to their carriages by the Officer OC Train. Their coaches were then locked so that there was no access from the rest of the train. About 7.30 am the girls were 'let out' for breakfast in the dining car and the segregation might become less strict, but this depended on the Officer OC Train.
Shortly after VJ Day I was posted to 70 Wing HQ, now moved from Inverness to Tealing, near Dundee. There I was 'misemployed' for ten months as a Release Clerk, processing the paperwork for those coming in from the outstations to be demobbed. Despite regular office hours, a camp cinema, a NAAF1, and the civilised pleasures of Dundee with its excellent repertory theatre, several cinemas, and Keillers Cafe where we could set the world to rights over a teacake and a pot of tea, I really missed radar and the watch system. However, in the summer of 1946 I was posted to Pen Olver, a CHL station on The Lizard - the most southerly point of the mainland. This seemed an idyllic posting: rocky coves where we could swim or sunbathe, plenty of country walks, and Helston a short bus ride away. Here, I thought, I might happily spend the rest of my service life, but it was not to be. Within two weeks the station closed and I was on my travels again.
This time my destination was Bawdsey on the Suffolk coast, known as 'the home of radar' since here Robert Watson-Watt had carried out some of his prewar research. Bawdsey Manor is a vast Victorian mansion which was once a favourite retreat of Edward VII and Lillie Langtry. Prior to the RAF taking it over, it had been the home of the composer Roger Quilter. Lady Quilter still lived on the estate. I was there from June 1946 until September 1947, a period of transition to peacetime conditions. There was both CH and CHL and we worked a modified watch system, no longer covering the full 24 hours. In 1947, the Filter School was opened and the first National Servicemen arrived for training as Plotters/Clerks SD. Six Jamaican Radar Operators also arrived. For the great majority of us this was our first ever contact with black people and we all worked and socialised together without any problems.
The severe winter of 1947 caused the partial closure of the station. Only a skeleton staff remained and the rest of us were sent on indefinite leave which in the event extended to about five weeks. During the summer of 1947 when CH and CHL radar were no longer top secret, a visit from a girls' school in Felixstowe was arranged. For some reason best known to themselves, no Radar Mechanic was free, so I, a mere Operator, was detailed to explain to them the workings of the transmitters. When the girls arrived from the Ops Blocks they looked completely bewildered by all they had seen. Hardly surprising since in those days there was no television and a CRT would have been a complete mystery to most people. The fact that aircraft were plotted from a mere blip had also left them utterly bemused. Consequently my 'Child's Guide to a Radar Transmitter' was entirely adequate. At the end of my talk, I was overjoyed to be rewarded by their teacher discreetly pressing into my hand half-a-crown (12Y2p), a most handsome tip, sufficient for an excellent meal at one of the best cafes in Felixstowe!
Finally, in September 1947, I was demobbed and picked up life in Civvy Street where 1 had left it just over three years before.