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Eight Years in the RAFVR - Part One - Joining Up

by Suffolk Family History Society

Contributed by 
Suffolk Family History Society
People in story: 
Dr Thomas Carter
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
18 October 2004

In 1917 Portland was an important naval base and my father was a naval officer, so I was born at Portland and in due course went to the Junior School of Weymouth College. However, many of my relations had gone to Clifton College, and in 1931 I was sent there. By then my father had left the Navy and we were living in London, so each term I had a train journey (Paddington to Temple Meads, 120 miles in 120 minutes, what speed!), in the course of which I always had a final holiday treat: tea and toasted tea-cake in the dining car. On one such journey, about 1933, I shared a table with a young solicitor and we got into conversation. I told him I hoped to go to Cambridge in 1936, to read Natural Sciences. "Did you ever think of learning to fly?" he asked. "I should love to, but my father could never afford it," I replied; by then the country was in the middle of the Great Depression. "You should apply to join the Cambridge University Air Squadron," came the reply, "they will teach you for nothing; but you should apply now." I did, and in October 1936 I was called before a selection board at Cambridge. The number of applicants greatly exceeded the annual intake of 25 pupil pilots and we were asked if, when considered proficient, we would apply for commissions in the newly-formed Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve. I said I would and a week or two later I received my first flying lesson, at Duxford, a grass aerodrome eight miles south of Cambridge. The aircraft was an Avro Tutor, a sturdy biplane with a 240 horse-power Armstrong-Siddeley Lynx radial engine and a cruising airspeed of 95m.p.h. A year later most of us were called for interview at the Air Ministry, together with similar numbers from Oxford and London, then the only other universities with Air Squadrons. The London Gazette later announced that we had been commissioned into the RAFVR as Acting Pilot Officers on Probation, with effect from 16 Nov 1937.

Between 1936 and 1939 Wing Commander C.E.W.Lockyer was in command of the CUAS and he was already convinced that another war with Germany was coming. It was rumoured that he had been sent over the lines, in 1916, when he had only eight hours solo experience as a pilot, and that he intended that nothing similar should happen to us. "It does not matter what type of aircraft you fly," he said, "what matters is experience in the air. You must be able to take the proper corrective action, without thinking, no matter what attitude your aircraft gets into; you must be able to find your way anywhere, no matter how thick the weather; and you must be able to get down without too much damage to yourself and your aircraft if ever your engine packs up." So if time allowed we were sent on solo cross-country flights, map-reading; if not, then an hour practising spins, loops, slow rolls, Immelmann turns, stalled turns; and if the cloud was too low for that, then landings without engine in a small field at Barton, on the southern edge of Cambridge. Each summer we went for two weeks to a practice camp at Abingdon, the usual home of the Oxford UAS. We learnt to fly bigger and faster aircraft which were still in service use by the RAF: Hawker Hart and Hind light bombers, Audax army-cooperation aircraft. We had lectures on air navigation, armaments, aero-engines, aircraft construction and the theory of flight. We had a few lectures on administration, but they were mainly on abstruse aspects such as the difference between the Air Force Act and the Army and Air Force Annual Act.

Some time in the spring of 1939 eight of us who had been reading physics, and were considered to be among the brighter undergraduates, were asked by Dr J. A. Ratcliffe, the Reader in Physics, if we would mind being interviewed by ‘a man from the Air Ministry’. We did not mind. It led to an invitation to spend six weeks in August and September doing work that he would not describe in detail but would, he said, be scientific, of great national importance, and work for which we were well qualified. We all jumped at the opportunity to earn a few guineas. We took our degree examinations in May and June and then went our ways, I to earn a few more guineas by tutoring. Three of us who were in the University Officers' Training Corps or the Air Squadron had been instructed to keep the relevant Reserve Centre informed of our whereabouts at all times, so that the authorities could get into touch with us if war should break out.

By the middle of August, 1939, the international political situation was looking very bleak and it came as no surprise when, on the day after signature of the non-aggression pact between Germany and the USSR, I received a telegram from the Air Ministry. It instructed me to report forthwith to the Air Ministry Experimental Station, Dover. I drove to Dover in my Morris car (which I had bought off a scrap-heap for £5 and lovingly repaired). At first the police were very dubious about telling me how to find the AMES, but sight of the telegram convinced them that I had a right to know. So I drove to the place on the cliffs, east of the Castle, where there were four 360-foot steel and four 240-foot timber towers, surrounded by two tall security fences and guarded by armed soldiers. Having read and signed the Official Secrets Act, twice, I was admitted; and at the centre of the site, in a darkened, hut surrounded by protective earthworks, I was greeted by Dr Ratcliffe. In response to his first question, I assured him that I had read and signed the Official Secrets Act. "Come in, then", he said, "this is what is known as RDF. It is a system for detecting aircraft at great distances, and is very secret. You and the others from Cambridge are here to learn all about it." So we started on a crash-course of instruction. Ten days later war broke out, and we found ourselves learning about RDF by day and keeping watches on the transmitter by night, to relieve the hard-pressed RAF crew for the more highly skilled job of operating the receiver.

Here I must interject some remarks on security and nomenclature. Before 1939 the RAF had a Signals Branch, which dealt with wireless telegraphy (W/T), radiotelephony (R/T) and telephones. With the invention of RDF it too came under the Signals Branch at first, but because it was highly secret few people knew about it, even within the Signals Branch. Following the outbreak of war need arose for a great increase in the number of RDF stations and of people to man them, so in 1940 RDF was split off from Signals and put under a new branch, and for reasons of security deliberately confusing nomenclature was adopted: the new branch was called the Radio Branch and personnel qualified in RDF were called Radio Operators, Radio Mechanics etc. By 1941 it was known to the British that the Germans had a form of RDF and a commando-style raid was made on a German RDF station on the cliffs at Bruneval, in Normandy, to capture and bring back vital parts of it. Subsequently Air Marshal Sir Philip Joubert de la Ferté, the Assistant Chief of the Air Staff (Radio), admitted the existence of British RDF during a talk on the BBC's Home Service, and for this purpose he gave it a new name, radiolocation. By then we had developed light-weight RDF (AI, Airborne Interception) for use in night-fighters, but this fact was not disclosed. In 1942, after the entry of the Americans into the war, the British adopted their acronym, radar. For clarity I shall adopt this term in what follows, despite the anachronism.

At Dover, after the outbreak of war, I daily expected a further telegram, telling me to report for training in air-gunnery, bombing etc. But what came, in the middle of September, was an order to report to Air Ministry, Signals 4, forthwith; and there I was told I was called up, not for flying duties but to go to the north-east of France immediately, in command of a mobile radar station. Two more of the eight from Cambridge, John Ratcliff (no relation of Dr Ratcliffe) and Fred Babcock, both of whom had been in the Signals Section of the University Officers' Training Corps, were transferred to the RAFVR and took mobile radar stations to the north of France in October. The other five went to what later became the Royal Radar Establishment, for research and development work. No doubt they were considered brighter than us: after the war one of them became a Nobel Laureate and head of a Cambridge college.

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