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Radar Operator in WW2icon for Recommended story

by gwenreading

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Gwen Reading
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Royal Air Force
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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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Message 1 - Radar ww2

Posted on: 08 November 2003 by paul gill - WW2 Site Helper

Excellent story. I've learnt a lot!
Like you, I am busy writing up my father's WW2 story for posterity.

I have spent quite a lot of my life on modern radar display systems but I hadn't realised the radar plots were used for air/sea rescue. I assumed the signal would be lost in clutter.
I was also unaware that radar was used to identify the launch trajectory of V2's.
Long range air search radars give bearing and range but not height or elevation angle. Of course, if the recording showed the exact timing of when the rocket appeared and disappeared you would get a better idea of its trajectory. Clever stuff!


Message 2 - Radar ww2

Posted on: 17 January 2004 by gwenreading

Radar WW2

Paul Gill

With Chain Home equipment our last plot gave the Air Sea Rescue people some idea of the area to search. Any clutter on our equipment only occurred close in to the station. At Bawdsey we also had CHL (Chain home Low) and K, both of which could search at sea level. I imagine they would be able to help Air Sea Rescue if the plane in distress was within their range. (About thirty miles I believe). Our plots (out to a range of 180 miles) could not be quite as accurate, and we had an ever increasing gap at sea level. There could be a certain amount of ‘swing’ on our plots, although our bearings were good and our ranges ‘spot on’. Of course we did not work from a PPI but ‘D.Fed.’ our responses from a horizontal trace. We became pretty accurate even when working at very long range from a tiny response. Also, of course, the plotting room at Stanmore, had the plots from perhaps two other stations and worked out a mean from all the plots available.

Regarding the V2s, I believe the films which ran within our equipment ‘Oswald’, did give accurate information regarding the trajectory and timing. The films were projected on to a wall and information gathered. I’m sure it all sounds pretty Heath Robinson now!!

Good luck with your father’s WW2 story. Was he in Radar? Where did he serve? If I can help in any way, do let me know.

Sorry I have taken so long to reply. You will realise I am now a very old lady and some times defeated by modern technology. I have to wait for visits from my grand children to successfully use the internet.

Gwen Reading


Message 3 - Radar ww2

Posted on: 27 January 2004 by paul gill - WW2 Site Helper

Thanks Gwen.
I only realised they would be able to get the accurate trajectory when you described what you did. The rockets would be quite a small target for a long range radar.

I've now returned to the BBC book "The Secret War" by Brian Johnson.
P177 talking about how the sites were found says "Radar tracking gave some indication" and "A clearing in a wood at Rijs was seen in an aerial photograph afer radar had pinpointed a possble firing site."

What you've described is how they refined the collection of the data. Thank you.

My father was a radiographer at Dunkirk and then three unwelcome years on Malta. Food was short and He was reduced to eating curried vulture at one point!

gives his story.
Best wishes



Message 4 - Radar ww2

Posted on: 28 January 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Dear Gwen

What a marvellous story! I fully concur with Paul, and I am grateful to him that he urged me to read it.

Gwen, you say "young people nowadays, ... are not impressed; how could they be, when they take television, computers and mobile phones without the blink of an eye."

What they don't realise is that none of the things you mention would be possible without the discovery of radar. The civil spin-offs are quite astonishing: everyday many thousands of commercial aircraft take to the sky, virtually all of them are tracked by radar, and the global navigational network Loran relies on radar. But it doesn't stop there, the ubiquitous mobile phones and early television networks got critical boosts from WW2 radar. The impact of WW2 radar on astronomy is astonishing, it truly opened up the universe to us, bringing in the discovery of pulsars and quasars and millions of galaxies. It also made microwave spectroscopy possible. The humble microwave oven is also a spin-off.

In Robert Buderi's words (and the title of his book) radar is "The Invention That Changed The World" (published by Little, Brown, and company, 1997). I recommend you read it. You may find Buderi's description of Bawdsey Manor interesting, particularly how it came to be set up in 1935.


Message 5 - Radar ww2

Posted on: 28 January 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper


Your grandchildren may be interested to know how microwave ovens came to be invented.

As you will know, a magnetron is the heart of radar - used for generating very high-frequency radio oscillations.

Late in 1945 Percy Spencer, who never finished grammar school, was stood in front of a magnetron that was being tested when he noticed that a bar of chocolate in his pocket was beginning to melt. Then he put his hand in front and suddenly felt it getting warm. Fascinated, he got a bag of popcorn and to his surprise they began to pop madly when placed in front of the device. From that discovery a magnetron-based oven was produced for industrial kitchens, known as Radaranges, but the patent wasn't secure. The invention then spread rapidly as the domestic microwave oven. The full story is in the book I mentioned above, "The Invention That Changed The World"


Message 6 - Radar ww2

Posted on: 30 January 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper


In your excellent story you mention a photograph taken at Bawdsey one day when you were on duty, and subsequently widely published.

I think the photo you refer to is one of several which appear in "RDFI" by Michael Bragg (Hawking Publishing, 2002).

He identifies those in it as Sgt K. Sperring, WAAFs Joan Lancaster, Elaine Miley, Gwen Arnold (whom I suspect is you, sat back wearing a headset), Joyce Hollyoak, and Section Officer Peggy Wright. He also has a photograph of Denise Miley 'on the tube'.

Kind regards,



Message 7 - Radar ww2

Posted on: 21 February 2004 by gwenreading

Dear Paul,

Thank you for your interest and for passing my note to Researcher Peter.

I have read your father’s story with great interest. We were a tough breed in those days.

In passing may I mention that my late husband also experienced the deprivations of the siege of Malta. He spent two years in Malta as a radar operator on anti aircraft guns. The men certainly had very little to eat, and according to my mother in law John never recovered the weight he had lost. John was on Valetta harbour when the famous convoy came in, and several days later when the oil tanker Ohio limped in.
However, in John’s own words, when the bombing stopped life was ‘boring’ and he ‘volunteered for everything’. He was accepted for the SAS and completed the training in North Africa. A little later he was commissioned into the Indian Army—the Sikh regiment. I still have his uniform –which I think is unusual having both Sikh insignia and SAS badges.

Best wishes



Message 8 - Radar ww2

Posted on: 21 February 2004 by paul gill - WW2 Site Helper

Well I knew Peter would read/enjoy it and could offer an expert opinion.

I'm about to write Reg Gill's Malta story in full. He has been very seriously ill in hospital but is showing signs of recovering.

He was in a relatively protected position in Malta but the AA gun crews were prime targets. There were arguments between medical and military officers over fitness for duty of seriously injured men.

Reg has photos which tell their own story. People scouring the shoreline for food. Washing with "sea soap". Also what did surprise me was photographs of a funeral he says occured during a polio outbreak. I have never seen a reference to this but he was quite clear that some victims had to be hand ventilated. It could not be confused with typhoid.

Reg regained weight after 1945 by being sent, still reluctantly in the army, to Ireland where food seemed more plentiful than in Leeds.

Are you writing up anything on your husband's story Gwen? I'd be very pleased to read it if you do.

best wishes


Message 9 - Radar ww2

Posted on: 24 February 2004 by gwenreading


Message 10 - Radar ww2

Posted on: 27 February 2004 by gwenreading

Peter WW2 Researcher.

Dear Peter

Thank you for your messages. Sorry I have not replied earlier.

I will remind my grandchildren of the importance of the magnetron in our everyday lives. I think it was first used in the equipment we knew as Katy during WW2. We had a Katy section at Bawdsey on which shipping and low flying aircraft were plotted. The naval plots went to Harwich and the aircraft plots augmented the CHL information. I didn’t ever see the equipment-but knew of its existence. We had one WREN on each watch-I imagine a token provided by the Navy.

I do not remember the wavelength of our CH equipment, I think I would say it to have been around twenty metres. I’m sure Mike Bragg’s book will tell me. We always referred to Katy as the ‘centimetre stuff.’

I know Mike Bragg quite well, and was able to contribute in a small way to RFD1. You are right about the photograph taken at Bawdsey the day after the war ended. I am still in touch with Joan Lancaster and Elaine Miley. Sadly Denise Miley died a few years ago.,

Thank you for your interest.



Message 11 - Radar ww2

Posted on: 27 February 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Dear Gwen

How delightful! And what an attractive photograph, glamour as well as brains :)

I shall now treasure my copy of RDFI, signed by Michael Bragg, all the more.

Best wishes,


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