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- Royal Navy
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- 18 November 2003
Special Duties Y Section, WRN
I was in the WRNS from December 1942 to April 1946, as part of the Special Duties Y Section, who listened to German language broadcasts from small units perched around the south and east coasts. Our job as R/Ts was: to search the airwave bands on VHF sets (hence the clifftop locations, because our range was only 25 miles); pick up any transmissions from ships (usually minesweepers or E-boats); and get the duty WRN in the D/F tower to fix the bearing on the signal.
Then we had to write down what we heard verbatim in longhand, speedily but legibly on triple message pads, changing the carbons each time we came to the bottom line, and passing the original and top copy to the duty officer. She telephoned the message to HQ before posting each slip to the proper box.
Still searching the wavebands
All this time, we were still twiddling the knob with our other hand, moving back and forth between the frequencies to catch question and answer, or command and acknowledgement. If more than two frequencies were in use, a second - and sometimes a third - operator would come on the spare sets, and another had to keep the search going on the other wavebands.
In the summer of 1943 I was at Sheringham on the north Norfolk coast. The traffic on our sets was mainly minesweepers and aircraft. We kept a regular watch on the Hamburg frequency – ‘Achtung! Achtung! Elbe-Weser radio!’, which often reported aircraft ditching, parachutes and ‘Gummi-boote!’ (rubber dinghies).
This proved to be the source of my one real personal achievement. Early one morning I was flicking the knob methodically down the usual search channel when I heard the familiar carrier wave and stopped to listen, pencil poised. The voice gave details of a ‘Gummi-boot!’ down in the North Sea. The bearing was at once phoned through to HQ.
A day or so later our First Officer came up to me beaming with a personal message from the Admiral, conveying thanks from the RAF. Our own Air Sea Rescue service had been able to get to the dinghy before the Germans, and snatch the two survivors back to safety.
Watching D-Day shipping and flying bombs
Later on, stationed between Dover and Folkestone in early 1944, I took part in many E-boat actions, working with a lot of people. There was always a sense of achievement overlaying the grim purpose. In June that year we watched from the clifftop day after day, as the extraordinary concentration of D-Day shipping went down the channel. We were mystified by the huge rectangular blocks, later to be identified as sections of Mulberry harbour.
When the flying bombs started, they were visible as they left the French coast and sometimes extremely audible as they fell short or were shot down by gunners on the cliffs on either side of us, like coveys of partridge.
I did many interesting things in the two years before I was demobbed in 1946, but nothing ever equalled or surpassed the thrill of that one air-sea rescue.
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