- Contributed by
- People in story:
- Gwen Reading
- Location of story:
- Background to story:
- Royal Air Force
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 08 November 2003
My wartime experience was that of a WAAF Radar Operator.
It is difficult now to realise how amazing the invention of radar was considered to be during the second world war. Until Watson Watt developed radar in the mid thirties, there had been no way of knowing if enemy planes were approaching our shores, until those aircraft could be seen or heard. When talking of wartime radar to young people nowadays, they are not impressed; how could they be, when they take television, computers and mobile phones without the blink of an eye. But it was so different sixty years ago. Radar was our secret weapon. The secret weapon that allowed our pitiably few fighter planes, to be well placed when Hitler embarked upon the Battle of Britain. The radar stations on the south coast enabled those few fighter planes and pilots to always be in the right place at the right time. Hitler must have wondered how we managed this, when the obvious strategy would have been to patrol the skies looking for the attacking German planes, an expensive use of men and machines.
Having been allocated to the trade of RDF (radar) operators, we could not tell any one how we spent our days. Even our parents could not be let into the secret. ‘She is doing something to do with wireless’ our families would say. And people who lived near the huge aerial arrays generally heard rumours of death rays, and some would tell stories of how car engines stopped as they neared our sites!!
For me, I considered myself so very fortunate. I did not join up until January 1943 when the Battle of Britain was well and truly over, but after my training at Cranwell, I was fortunate enough to be posted to Bawdsey near Felixstowe, the very place where radar had been developed in the thirties. We had three types of radar at Bawdsey, CH (Chain Home), CHL (Chain Home Low) and K (Plotting even lower flying aircraft and shipping).
At the Ch station we were always busy, plotting fighters, bombers and enemy aircraft. Those who can remember the war years, will recall how almost every day the wireless news programmes would say, ‘there was enemy activity over East Anglia’. We often picked up ‘hostiles’ as they left Holland, for we could ‘see’ up to 200 miles. We plotted away as the responses became bigger and stronger as they neared the Suffolk coast. In the meantime, another type of radar, GCI, would also be plotting the German plane and would have a fighter plane en route to meet our hostile. GCI would eventually lead the fighter into close combat with our hostile. It was always exciting stuff as we waited to see which plane remained after the battle. Our own planes had a way of indicating that they were friendly. They transmitted IFF (Identification, Friend or Foe). Planes in distress could transmit a wider signal, known as broad IFF or SOS. And we had heaps of these making their way back after bombing raids. Limping in slowly and flying low, we gave these tracks our very special attention. The plotting room at Stanmore would often request us to concentrate on a broad IFF. If the plane ended up ‘in the drink’ the accuracy of our last plot was vital to enable the air sea rescue people to have a chance of picking up the crew. It was not until a few years ago that I realised that RAF Woodbridge was a ‘crash ‘drome’, where they specialised in dealing with difficult landings of damaged planes. Another example of how good people were at keeping secrets. Although we were so near and often invited Woodbridge people to our dances, we did not know their speciality.
When the great bombing raids took place later in the war, the east coast radar stations plotted great masses of planes embarking on their missions, British planes by night and those of the USA by day. Preceded by twenty or so Mosquito pathfinders, that flew very fast and high, the bombers went out in their hundreds. The greatest number of aircraft I ever saw on my screen at one time was 1,950+. That was my estimate and Stanmore congratulated us on the estimation, made up mainly of groups of bombers, but with some fighters and hostiles intermingled. The night watches passed quickly when we were so very busy. Then, relieved at 8am, as we wended our weary way towards the cookhouse, the skies above us would be filled with hundreds of American planes setting off on day raids.
Then we plotted the V1s, doodle bugs. These nasty little pilotless planes were easy to identify as flew in straight lines, at a constant height and at greater speeds than other aircraft. The local Ack- Ack boys became very expert at shooting them down and few penetrated beyond the coast. Also the RAF fighters devised a daring way of turning the V1s. The fighter would position it self just ahead of the doodle bug, then as it caught up, tip the wing, causing it to turn and fly back out to sea. The doodle bugs were not as frightening as bombers, because as long as the firey tail could be seen and the chug-chugging sound could be heard, it was not going to fall from the sky and you were safe.
When the V2s, rockets, came along we could plot these on special equipment which used the upper part of our CH lobes. This set, known as ‘Oswald’, recorded the rocket for a few seconds as it passed through the top of our lobe. We could only watch Oswald’s screen for fifteen minutes, before changing operator, because the trace showed so briefly, that if you blinked it could be missed. A camera operated within Oswald recording all that we had seen. As we espied our rocket we yelled ‘Big Ben at Bawdsey’ down the line to Stanmore, who, a few minutes later instructed us to ’change Oswald’. This was our cue to take out the film, insert a fresh one and then send some one to our dark room to develop the used film. From the information gained from our film and those of other CH stations, the launching site could be traced, and hopefully our bombers sent to destroy them. Londoners could have been given a four minute warning of the approaching rocket, but I suppose the disruption over the entire area would have too great to warrant this.
Out secret work was revealed when on August 8th 1945, the war over, an Air Ministry photographer was sent to Bawdsey. I just happened to be on watch that day. The resulting photograph of our crew was in many national papers, and has graced the cover of several books. The Air Ministry issued the following blurb with the photograph:-
"Working under the closest secrecy since 1939, over 4,000 WAAF personnel have played an important part in the air victories achieved by radiolocation. (Radar). They tracked hostile and friendly aircraft, flying bombs and rockets, German E Boats and Allied Merchant vessels, and have guided British and Allied fighter pilots on to enemy aircraft. Trained to use and service some of the most delicate and complicated instruments ever invented, they have carried out their duties with enthusiasm, often under uncomfortable conditions and sometimes under enemy fire."
I spent two and a half wonderful years at Bawdsey. I was so fortunate to be given the most interesting and rewarding job and to spend my service at delightful Bawdsey, where we lived in a manor house, roamed lovely grounds, and when fear of invasion passed, and the defences and mines removed, bathed from our own private beach. To visit near by Felixstowe meant a ferry trip across the Deben. We made this trip almost every day and all ex Bawdsey folk remember the ferry rides taken in fair weather and foul, with great affection.
Because I so much wanted my grandchildren to know how I spent the war years, in the nineteen eighties I wrote a little account of my life from childhood, through the war years till 1947. Quite unexpectedly, this was published in year 2000 under the title of 'Radar Days' in my maiden name of Gwen Arnold. Later, it was published in large print by another company. Both are still in print. Although the publishers gave the name of 'Radar Days', many pages are devoted to pre war years - I wanted my grandchildren to know what it was like to grow up in the thirties and forties.
This article was not taken word for word from my book as the book runs to some 180 pages. The entry is just a summary.
8th November 2003
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