- Contributed by
- Suffolk Family History Society
- People in story:
- Dr Thomas Carter
- Location of story:
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 18 October 2004
During the autumn and winter of 1939 the Germans introduced magnetic mines. Heinkel 115 floatplanes, flying low and thereby avoiding detection by the coastal chain of radar stations (‘Chain Home’ or CH) like the one at Dover, became water-borne in the approaches to British ports and laid their mines.
We responded by putting up a second chain of stations, which operated on a higher radio frequency and had aerials that enabled them to detect low-flying aircraft. They were called CHL (‘Chain Home Low’) stations. By the beginning of 1940, too, a radar school was operating and its first officer pupils began to emerge. Some of these were posted to take over the radar stations in France and we returned to the UK. I went to Aberdeen, to commission a CHL station. However, my pleas to be allowed to return to flying had not fallen on entirely deaf ears, and in March, 1940, I was posted to the Aircraft and Armament Experimental Establishment, at Martlesham (near Felixstowe), where an attempt was being made to develop effective AI. But no sooner had I arrived there than I was switched to a crash programme to prototype and flight-test IFF in bomber aircraft. IFF (‘Identification, Friend or Foe’) was a system that enabled radar stations to distinguish between incoming German and British aircraft. Testing involved flights across the North Sea, in the course of which I had to double up as air-gunner, though I had yet to fire a Vickers K-gun.
May 1940 started with another order to report to the Air Ministry forthwith. By then the Germans had invaded Norway, without declaration of war, and were advancing northwards from the neighbourhood of Oslo. The port of Narvik, in the mountainous far north, was of considerable strategic importance to the Germans, since it was at the west end of a long railway tunnel through which iron ore of a very high grade that had been mined in northern Sweden was carried under the mountains for shipping to Germany during the winter months, when ice prevented it being shipped down the Baltic Sea.
The Germans had taken Narvik by a Trojan-horse trick, using troops carried in the holds of merchant ships and subsequently resupplied by air-drop. An allied force of British, Poles, French Foreign Legion and Norwegians had tried to retake Narvik during April, 1940, with the object of destroying the tunnel, but had failed to do so; snow was still several feet deep and the equipment of the British, at least, was quite unsuited to arctic warfare. Worse, the Germans had total air superiority, since they held the Norwegian aerodromes, all of which were in the centre and south of the country.
When I arrived at the Air Ministry Air Marshal Joubert told me that two parties, each equipped with W/T and including operators, were to go to the north of Norway. One, led by Flight Lieutenant C.C. Milsom, was to look for sites where it might be possible to build strips from which Gloster Gladiator and even Hawker Hurricane fighters could be operated; no mean problem in a country where most of the land rises steeply out of the sea. The other party, which I was to lead, was to look for sites from which mobile radar stations might give early warning of German aircraft approaching Narvik from the south; another tough problem, since radar cannot see through mountains.
Time was of the essence, so we could not go by sea; and since the allies had no aerodromes, we had to travel by flying-boat. Coastal Command could not spare any Short Sunderlands, so Imperial Airways had been asked to provide two Empire flying-boats, complete with flying crews. These were the civil boats from which the militarised Sunderland had been developed. The boats to be provided were of the long range version in which much of the passenger accommodation had been filled with extra fuel-tanks, so that they could be used for the transatlantic carriage of mail. Civil markings were being replaced with RAF roundels and wooden mock-ups of gun-turrets were being built on the bows and tail, in the hope that the boats would sufficiently resemble Sunderlands to scare away any German aircraft that might see them. In addition, three Vickers K-guns were being provided for each boat, two to go on brackets at portholes, one each side, and one at the navigator's astrodome.
On arrival at Calshot, on Southampton Water, we found Royal Mail Aircraft Cabot and Caribou awaiting us, but only five of the six air-gunners needed, so I found myself acting as air-gunner too; I knew how to load a K-gun, which was more than the other passengers did, though I still had not fired one. (That omission was rectified the next day.)
We refuelled that night (4 May 1940) at Invergordon and disagreed, as politely as possible, with Admiral Sir Lumley Lyster, RN, who wanted to have us put ashore so that he could go to Harstad, near Narvik, to take up the naval command there. We reached a compromise and the flying boats went first to Harstad, where he and his staff were dropped, and then to Bodö, which had been our intended destination. Unfortunately, thanks to the delay we arrived there at the same time as a Heinkel 111, which was not deceived.
Experience soon showed that the K-guns at the portholes of the flying boats were useless, as the presence of a gun in the porthole made it impossible for the gunner to see the enemy. Both flying boats finished up on the water, severely damaged and unfit to fly; Caribou had a great amount of aviation spirit from the extra tanks sloshing around the hull and it seemed a miracle that she did not go up in flames. But the regular RAF air gunner in one of the astrodomes was an expert and we later heard, from Norwegian sources, that one of the Heinkel's engines had been put out of action, with the result that it had to land on a frozen lake further south. It may even be the Heinkel that is now at Duxford, raised from the bed of a Norwegian lake by the Imperial War Museum.
Norwegian fishermen collected the crews of both flying boats and the wounded were taken to the hospital at Bodö, which was well marked with red crosses on the roof; they were still there when it was destroyed by German bombing two weeks later. Milsom and his party built a strip near Bodö from which some Gladiators had a short operational life (one day?) and he found sites for two strips near Harstad, at Bardu Foss and Skaanland, which were later used by two squadrons of RAF Hurricanes that had been flown off the aircraft carrier HMS Glorious. Narvik was taken by the allies and the tunnel blocked. We then withdrew from Norway, at the beginning of June, 1940. The surviving Hurricanes were successfully flown back onto the carrier, despite their lack of arrestor-hooks, but they were lost when she was sunk a day or two later. My party acquired sea-transport in the form of a ‘puffer’ with a Norwegian crew of two, and reconnoitred potential radar sites on the Lofoten Islands and elsewhere; but the north of Norway was evacuated before radar equipment could arrive by sea from the UK.
On return to the UK, at the beginning of June, 1940, I was posted to No 2 Installation Unit, at Kidbrooke, near Woolwich. Its function was the fabrication and supply of aerials and feeder equipment for the UK coastal radar chain, and the assembly, training and despatch of mobile radar units and spares for overseas, then mainly the Middle East.
Flight-Lieutenant Fred Babcock too was at Kidbrooke and in an attempt to improve the performance of the GM1 set we developed a version, GM2, that had 105-foot timber lattice masts and provision for estimating the height of aircraft being plotted. For testing it we chose a site in Kent, at the top of Wrotham Hill, in the North Downs. By then German aircraft were carrying out daylight raids on London and I remember the awe with which, for the first time, I saw on the cathode-ray tube an incoming raid that we estimated to number 100-plus aircraft. The GM2 was a marked improvement on the GM1, but by then more modern equipment was beginning to arrive from the manufacturers and the GM2 was never produced in quantity.
Equipment for overseas was of two main sorts. First, the variety which, like GH stations, ‘floodlit’ a large region of sky but was ineffective at low altitudes; it used the MB2 transmitter, made by Metropolitan-Vickers, and the RF1A receiver, and had two timber-lattice masts 105 feet high. It came in two versions: the Mobile Radio Unit ('MRU'), mounted in lorries, and the Transportable Radio Unit ('TRU'), in crates. Second, the variety that swept a region of sky with a beam of radio waves, like a searchlight, and could ‘see’ aircraft at fairly low altitudes; it was an overseas version of the CHL and was designated COL. It was always shipped in crates and therefore, like the TRU, required buildings to be erected before it could be used and it could not be moved rapidly.
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