An interesting read indeed. Thanks for sharing Peter.
Hope this is not too big, am too old to deal with all this techie stuff
1950’s Night Fighter Navigator
by Peter Verney
I was raised in darkest East Kent and at 7 was taken in May 1939 to see the Empire Air Display at nearby Hawkinge which started my lifelong interest in aviation, just over a year later we had the Battle of Britain fought over our heads, frightening but very exciting for a young lad. I left school a fortnight after my 16th birthday and started work on a local farm while I tried for a better job. I obtained a job as an office boy in a bean counters office in London, so had to leave home and live in Barnados hostel for boys in Stepney, in those days very rough with the main London Docks just down the road. A few months later I joined the Met Office and worked for them until I left at 18 to join the R.A.F. in July 1950 as a trainee navigator.
After Initial Training School at Jurby in the Isle of Man, in December 1950 commenced navigation training at No. 1 Air Navigation School at Hullavington in Wiltshire. The flying classroom used was the Anson T21. By this time the Government had become concerned by Russias possession of nuclear weapons and the build up of their bomber force, based upon the copy of the B29 Superfortress, which Tupolev were producing. As a result the Meteor NF 11 was produced as an interim lash-up night fighter and there was a rapid expansion of the night fighter force in Fighter Command. In consequence extra crews were required and my course was removed from navigation training at the completion of the Basic stage and posted at the end of August 1951 to the Night Fighter Operational Conversion Unit, No. 228, at Leeming, Yorkshire. This was before we had been awarded our wings and whilst we still held the rank of Officer Cadet. In normal circumstances we would have proceeded to the Advanced stage and spent a further 5 months or so training before being awarded the 'N' brevet and then going on to an OCU.
No. 1 squadron of 228 OCU was then equipped with the Bristol Brigand T4 and Wellington T18. We were trained in these aircraft to use the AI (Airborne Interception) Mk 10 (SCR 720). We also received instruction on the Hispano 20mm cannon with which all British fighters of the period were equipped, and by this stage in our training we were capable of stripping, cleaning, reassembling, and firing the service revolver, 303 Lee-Enfield rifle, Bren light machine gun, and the 20mm cannon. The first time I was issued with a weapon which I was expected to use for real, it was the Sten sub-machine gun, which in untrained hands was at least as lethal to the user and his companions as to any potential attacker.
A.I. Mk 10 (SCR 720)
I feel I should explain the radar we were being taught to use. While the early night fighters had managed reasonably well with the older sets, particularly AI Mks IV and VIII, the advent of AI Mk 10 in 1943 at last gave a really capable radar to our nightfighters and it remained standard equipment in both the RAF and USAF well into the 50’s. However it did demand a well trained operator, to quote Lewis Brandon “Mark 10 had a greater range and better coverage than anything I had previously used, but it had two tubes to watch and lots and lots of knobs to twiddle. It worked all right, but it would certainly need a great deal of practise, and the ideal operator for it would be one with three arms and three eyes”. It was a development of the set which had been produced in America by A.G.Bowen, in conjunction with the best brains of the American electronics industry. He was one of Watson Watts original whiz kids, and when he took the original magnetron with the Tizard mission in 1940, we gave the U.S. the greatest gift we could.
Transmission and reception was via a scanner just like your satellite TV dish, this was driven round at 360 rpm, whilst being nodded a small amount at each rev, signals were blanked out to the rear 180 deg. The tubes comprised the “B Scope”, which was a rectangular display giving range vertically and angle off (azimuth), each 30 deg horizontally. Sounds daft, as the bottom represented the fighter, but it meant that as one closed the range towards the bottom of the tube any lateral motion of the target was magnified and so it was far easier to follow an evading target. Also any target on a collision course came straight down the tube paralelling the azimuth markings. The other tube was the “C Scope” which showed a clockface with radial lines at each “hour” and circles every 15 degrees. There was a strobe line across the B Scope which one had to keep positioned just below the target and the relevant slice of range would be transferred to the C Scope with the target blip. Interceptions were controlled by the nav, once contact had been obtained, by a standard commentary which we were taught. Instructions to turn, climb etc. were standardised and a running update on the targets position relative to us was given. To give the pilot sighting information it was only necessary to say something like “one o’clock 10, range 4000 feet”. He had to visualise the windscreen as the C Scope while searching for the target, and look up the one o’clock line by 10 deg. The area scanned could be adjusted by means of the “tilt” switches which controlled the upper and lower limits to which the scanner nodded, this allowed one to scan at search say 5 deg below and 5 above, but the top scan could be opened right up to hold the target when turning, as also the bottom limit be raised to reduce the ground returns. Minimum range was set by the permanent echo, which on a properly adjusted set would be 300 ft, the blip being also about 300 ft deep, it meant that the blip kissed the permament echo at about 600 ft and disappeared completely into it at 300 ft range.
I once lost a blip in this manner on a very dark night, and we both had to search visually while continuing to gently close the range. We both saw the target at the same time, the Mossie had very well shrouded exhausts which only emitted a small pinpoint of light when dead astern, but generally it was possible to pick them out by about 600 ft. It was amazing that once one had seen these little spots of light the whole aircraft immediately became visible. Maximum range on another Mossie would be about 5-7 miles, and on a large metal aircraft about 10-12 miles. The B Scope could be set to give 5, 10, 20 and 100 mile ranges, the latter being used for map reading although because of the method of display the ground was very distorted. Flying towards a straight coastline one would see an arc protruding down the screen, it was only possible to make out water features or very prominent ground features, but could be very useful, and would also show ships at long ranges. One had to work hard as the controls were spread among three boxes and three had to be under ones hands all the time. One hand controlled the gain and the strobe, which were close together and the other hovered on the tilts. It was also necessary to fiddle with the tuning control to keep the received signal adjusted to the transmitter.
Some 15 out of the 32 who had started the navigation course at Jurby completed the AI school in October and were awarded a navigator/radio "N" flying badge. About half were commissioned as Pilot Officers and the rest, including me, were promoted to Sergeant, which was usual at that time.
We then joined No 2 squadron of the OCU which flew the Mosquito NF36, which was the normal squadron aircraft then, but which was in process of being replaced with the Meteor NF 11. We were introduced to the bunch of pilots with whom we would fly in the Mosquitos, and given about a week to crew up. One of these was a Pole, Flt Sgt Joe Halkiew, who had wartime Mosquito experience, who several people wanted to fly with. Luckily he chose me and we subsequently had almost five successful years together. I can still remember my first flight in a Mosquito on 21st Nov 1951, this was with a staff pilot and called an A.I. staff check. This was to assess our competence when left to our own devices, all previous flights having been with an instructor at ones side, and so was almost the equivalent of a pilots first solo.
We commenced a program of P.I.,s (practice interceptions), and other exercises, to weld us into an efficient night fighter crew. It didn’t always happen! One exercise was a “Rapid fixing cross country”, involving taking a GEE fix every three minutes whilst steering ones pilot round a predetermined course. One crew who did not see eye to eye, landed on the wrong airfield because the pilot did not believe his nav. All good for a laugh. We had one dodgy incident when we did our first high level (25,000') night cross country on the Mosquito, and was about the first time I had used oxygen. When at about 45 minutes after takeoff I turned to Joe and complained that I did not know how to use the Dalton navigational computor, he realised that I was suffering from lack of oxygen and found that we had in fact run out. He immediately descended to 10,000 feet and we carried on, I did not receive a very good mark for this exercise and it had to be repeated. This course lasted about eight weeks with some 38 hours on the Mosquito and my log book records on 14 January 1952 "Awarded Fighter Command Category 'C'" as a Navigator/radio. Joe and I, in company with another NCO crew, were posted to Egypt and early in February '52 we boarded a York at Blackbushe for Fayid in the Suez Canal Zone. On arrival we were given transport to Kabrit which was home to two night fighter squadrons, 39 and 219, both equipped with the Mosquito NF36. It also housed 13 Squadron with the Mosquito PR34, but in the process of converting to the Meteor PR10, and 683 Squadron with Lancasters which was doing an aerial survey of Africa and which soon departed.
39 Squadron RAF Kabrit, Suez Canal Zone, Egypt
When we arrived the situation in Egypt was total chaos, and because of the rioting which had occurred in Cairo the previous year and the subsequent attempts by the Egyptians to remove us from the Canal Zone, our forces had been doubled in strength. Unfortunately stores and food supplies did not keep pace and at times our rations were extremely short and often of poor quality. Beer and bread were only available on about three or four days a week. We were expected to carry a service revolver and 12 rounds of ammunition when flying, the stores however had no holsters or ammo pouches so we were forced to carry our armament loose in our pockets! Initially there were no sheets for our beds, and when we were eventually issued with one each we had to wash them ourselves. We had only been there a few weeks when there was the most almighty sand storm which lasted about two days, the room the four of us then shared had a crack in one window and the man whose bed was beneath it woke up with about 2mm of fine dust all over him. There was also a small sand dune inside the doorway caused because there was a gap of about 12mm under the door. It was very difficult to walk against the flying sand and I can remember stumbling across to the mess, not being able to see my feet at times. Whatever one tried to eat or drink crunched, and tasted of sand. When it was possible to resume work we found that because our hangar doors would not close by about 400mm at one end and the hangar was some 150mm deep in sand. After the aircraft had been pushed out and brushed off someone had the bright idea of opening the hangar at each end, reversing the tail of a Mosquito in, and, by running up both engines, assist a line of men with brooms to sweep the floor. This worked a treat and created another sand storm, much to the annoyance of the Wing Commander Flying, whose office roof had been blown off. His clerks had almost finished straightening out his paperwork, which bore the full blast. Our CO got a rather different one!
Flying in Egypt was a new experience and we were sent off on cross country flights which included traversing the Nile delta at high and low level by day. At night we had a cross country which included a turning point at Neckl in the middle of the Sinai desert, I found a few faint lights and concluded that I had missed the town shown on the map, later we had a look by day and found there were only a few scruffy buildings at a crossroads of desert tracks. Most of our flying took place over the Sinai which was a strange landscape of shifting sand dunes in the North and barren rocky mountains to the South. Occasionally we would see a Bedouin walking along totally alone and miles from anywhere, also small groups with a cluster of black tents and small herds of goats or sheep. We came across one of these herds with a few Bedouin in attendance whilst low flying one day, I am ashamed to say we amused ourselves by flying low over them and stampeding them in the direction of some soft sand. By flying low over the dunes in a wide circle we made three runs across them and had them well and truly scattered and floundering about. Another time we saw a ship going up into the Great Bitter Lake which was about eight miles across. Joe put the aircraft down to within feet of the water and we flew across, looking up at the bows of the ship as we passed ahead. He pulled up at the far shore and turned back and we could see a wake as though a speedboat had been across. There was a tank unit nearby and we would see them exercising in the desert. Joe found a new game in flying down the trail of sand thrown up by a fast moving tank, and zooming over the hapless commander standing up in the turret. Later on we had a visit from the officers of this unit, which caused considerable amusement in the crewroom. Nearly half the Squadrons aircrew were NCOs, and nearly all the Squadrons aircrew were sat around the crewroom playing cards or drinking tea when our CO brought in the tank CO to introduce us. We shambled to our feet as only aircrew can, as this officer appeared. When he realised that there were NCOs present when he apparently expected all aircrew to be commissioned, he stopped with a horrified look on his face. He turned to our CO and said, "I suppose you have to take an NCO along to do the work", turned on his heel and hurried out. We were not so amused when some of the tank officers were given rides on air to ground firing sorties and most were airsick over our radar sets!, we then had to do an NFT (night flying test, in which the radar would be set up against a target and all equipment checked) and go night flying with them.
We soon settled into the standard night fighter squadron routine of NFTs and ciné, with PI's (practice interceptions) under the control of a local GCI (Ground Control Interception) radar. I should explain that ciné was an exercise using the gun camera, carrying out high quarter attacks, to give the pilots practice in deflection shooting. The Mosquito had a simple ring gunsight and so pilots had to learn the basic lead-off gunnery as one would use when firing a shotgun, to this end the camp had a clay pigeon range where our gunnery officer used to organise Saturday morning shoots. I used to help him by doing some of the ciné film assessing, i.e. running the film 1 frame at a time and measuring the range, the deflection allowed and angle off of the target, to assess the pilot's accuracy, and in return he would allow me to have a go at the clays. There was also a strong emphasis on air to ground firing which was carried out on a range at Shallufa. This range was on bare rocky desert and it was absolutely essential to turn sharply away from the line of fire when pulling out from the firing dive to avoid ricochets and lumps of rock. We did have an aircraft written off because a ricochet dented the laminated wooden main spar, if the main spar was damaged within 18" of an engine mounting no repair was allowed and the aircraft was a write off. During the day the local women and children could be seen running about under the aircraft as they were firing and picking up the 20mm cartridge cases as they fell.
At night it was even more entertaining as the navigators had to fly so that they could read off the altimeter, and remind the pilot to begin the pull out from the dive at the specified 400', this meant that recovery was often well below 300'. Joe had of course done this sort of thing for real during the War, and he was always mad keen to get a good score, so took my pull out call as the signal to fire a very short burst before pulling up! This gave him more runs on the target and so a better chance of a good score. A pilot from 219 seriously frightened his navigator one night when he opened his throttles abruptly during this manoeuvre and the torque rolled the aircraft onto its back! He had the presence of mind to complete the roll and regain control. The 10 foot square canvas targets were indicated at night by the use of 3 gooseneck flares, one on each side and one positioned behind at such a distance as to just be visible at the correct 30° angle of dive. Each target was fired on by 4 aircraft, the rounds being dipped in coloured paint, so that individual pilots scores could be made by the range controller, I acted as range controller one night and it was quite difficult to decide on scores by torchlight.
In May 52 we went to Nicosia in Cyprus for the annual armament practice camp, there the concentration was on air to air firing against targets towed by Beaufighters on a range just off the north coast near Morpheu. Scoring again was by paint marking, here the hours of ciné practice paid off but accurate flying was essential if any hits were to be obtained. Pilots were not allowed to fire at a deflection angle of less than 30° to avoid danger to the tug from ricochets and tug pilots were quick to chastise offenders. Joe had been a tug pilot prior to the course at Leeming and had considerable sympathy with them. When carrying out firing exercises it was normal to carry 50 rounds per gun for 2 guns, this made the calculation of percentages easier. Scores rarely exceeded 25 and some pilots were quite unable to hit the target at all, incidentally on air to ground an exceptional score was over 80, and would usually be 30 to 40 by day and about half that at night. Firing the guns was an experience, the cockpit floor was a sheet of ply, immediately below which were the 4 x 20mm cannon and, while the pilots feet were raised on the rudder pedals, for the nav. it felt as though there was someone belting the floor beneath with a baulk of timber. This trip to Nicosia was notable for the fact that we flew over there with six aircraft and only brought four back. One pilot ran out of fuel while over the firing range and belly landed on the rocky beach, which did not improve the Mosquito. Our CO allowed another to swing off the runway on landing which invariably led to the undercarriage collapsing , the resultant damage being sufficient to have the aircraft declared a “write off”. I had incidentally experienced this swing once back at Kabrit, when on checking prior to landing, the pilot discovered we had no brake pressure. The engine torque meant that there was no way to stop the swing once the tailwheel touched the runway. Luckily this is the only occasion I knew when the undercarriage did not collapse. I still remember bounding across the sandy airfield straight towards on of 13 Sqdns brand new Meteors, but again luck held and one wheel ran into a patch of soft sand and we turned away and soon came to a halt.
Escape and Evasion
The powers that be laid on an "escape and evasion " exercise in which we were dropped off somewhere near Nicosia from the back of a lorry in pairs at night, with instructions to find a certain house on the coast about 40 miles away. We carried the normal 1:500,000 topographical map (approx 8 miles to the inch), which we used for map reading in the air, the resident Army forces, including a regiment of paratroops were sent out to catch us, and the local police and population alerted to report and apprehend us. One of our pilots was shot by a nervous Turkish-Cypriot who thought he was being robbed, he spent a couple of days face down in hospital, having shot picked out of his backside. Joe and I made it to within about 2 miles until we were the last crew to be captured and were thrown into the local police cells, stripped to our underpants and handcuffed. There were already about 4 other aircrew in the cells, and we were transported some 35 miles to the interrogation centre at RAF Nicosia, handcuffed together in the back of an open 30cwt truck while still only dressed in underpants. It was meant to represent the type of treatment we might expect from the Russians, all in all quite an experience. However, after the delights of the Canal Zone, Cyprus was paradise with nightclubs, which had cabarets and taxi dancers, where we were treated like lords.
Piloting the Mosquito
We returned to a normal routine at Kabrit carrying out all the usual exercises, amongst which pilots were required to undertake two practice single engine overshoots, and one single engine landing per month, so that they could cope when it really mattered. When on one engine the decision to land had to be made at 800' at night, and 300' by day, as the aircraft had to be dived while the undercarriage and flaps were retracting, to enable a safe climbing speed to be attained in order to overshoot and go round again. While the Mosquito could be safely flown on one engine, it would not maintain height above 5,000', and full power was required which could soon lead to the live engine overheating. It was an endurance test for the pilot as he had to keep the rudder held against the live engine. At the maximum speed under those conditions of about 155 knots it was fairly heavy, even with full rudder trim wound on, but the load increased as speed was reduced until at about 137 knots the pilot could no longer keep the aircraft straight and level. This so called safety speed had to be determined whenever an engine was shut down, as losing control under these circumstances was one of the leading causes of Mosquito accidents. Incidentally, the advice if an engine failed on take off and safety speed had not been attained was: put the aircraft down straight ahead. To attempt to turn led to the aircraft rolling over and diving in and many crews crashed in this way, I suppose it was a crash either way, but at least, as my roommate at Leeming proved, straight ahead one had a chance of getting away with it. He and his pilot had an engine go immediately at takeoff. They went through the boundary hedge, across the road and out into the next field, losing pieces of aircraft as they went. Luckily the live prop was the starboard and came off and travelled about 100 yards laterally. The port prop stood in the field like the proverbial blasted oak tree, but they got away with the obligatory bang on the head, and were none the worse after a night in sick quarters. The hazards of Mosquito flying were vividly demonstrated to me one day when I flew with one of the more exuberant pilots, who asked if I would like to see some aerobatics (strictly forbidden). Naturally I agreed and we flew a nice gentle barrel roll followed by a loop which was very slow over the top, and then he decided to try a roll off the top. All went well until he pushed the stick over to roll out while inverted, then all hell broke loose with land and sky rapidly changing places several times while we banged our heads together at the top of the cockpit. Meanwhile the pilot, who could just reach the top of the stick, was vainly stirring it round until we entered a conventional spin, which seemed like a series of flick turns, from which he eventually recovered, and we very steadily and soberly returned to Kabrit. We concluded that we had managed about three or four turns of an inverted spin followed by the same of a normal spin, it certainly used up a lot of height, but we remained friends and I kept my mouth shut!
There were various exercises during which we would simulate day bombers so that the four Vampire squadrons based at Deversoir could have a go at us. Joe would make me kneel on my seat and try and assess when the Vampires were reaching firing distance and call the break. With a little flap we could easily outturn them but with their superior speed I expect we were all held in their sights long enough for a kill at some time. During one of these, at about 11am one day, two Vampires collided while attacking an aircraft behind us and crashed into the Sinai desert some 40 miles east of the Canal. One pilot was killed and the other got out at very low level and had very serious injuries, including a broken hip and was unable to move. The only means of recovery was by Landrover which took over 24 hours to reach him, but luckily for him some Bedouin had seen him come down. They came up to him late in the afternoon, did not touch him but erected a small tent over him and gave him some dates, then returned at dawn and left some water. Bomber Command Lincolns had a regular "Sunray" exercise to Shallufa and we normally did a night exercise with them. On one of these we intercepted a Lincoln and in accordance with the rules pulled up on his port side to claim the kill by flashing the navigation lights on and off. There was no response to several seconds flashing and Joe, who was an excellent formation flyer, became impatient and drew up close with our wingtip tucked well inside that of the Lincoln. Then he turned on the nav lights again and illuminated the Lincoln cockpit, that got a response all right and there were torches flashed at us from the length of the aircraft.
At Last I become a Navigator
One day the nav leader called me into his office and said that the Group Navigation Officer had discovered that I was not qualified as a navigator, never having completed nav school and was thus quite incapable of navigating in the Middle East. To complete my training it had been decided that I should do a trip with one of the Transport Command Valettas at Fayid, with their navigator supervising and the log and chart sent up to Group. When my turn came I had to take a Valetta to Aqaba, have a meal and a swim, and return. This was ridiculous as the round trip took under 3 flying hours, and the only available nav aids were my eyes and the map. Group must have realised this because a few months later I had to do another trip, to take a Valetta home to Lyneham, have a weeks leave and return as a passenger. This happened in December 1952 and eventually the call came for my log book to go up to Group HQ and the entry qualifying me as a navigator was signed, dated 5/3/54!
We had been told that we were to be re-equipped in early 1953 with the Meteor NF13, which was an NF11 still equipped with AI Mk10 but with a radio compass, and Rebecca/Babs fitted in lieu of the SCR 729 beacon system which our Mosquitos carried, also a refrigeration unit to civilise the cockpit. Incidentally Mosquito cockpit temperatures could reach 160°F(70°C), and we had a nasty experience while night flying after having done 3 hours low level during the day. While climbing at 25,000' Joe announced that he was unable to read the instruments, I took my head from the radar visor and found that my eyes were not a lot better, so we very gently returned to Kabrit to be met by the ambulance. They filled us full of salt and tucked Joe up in sick quarters for the rest of the night. However the Meteors were delayed and the Mosquitos were getting tired, I do not understand the technicalities but there was a tolerance on a glue joint which was measured periodically and aircraft were scrapped if this tolerance was exceeded. The M.U. however was getting short of replacements so a technical conference decided that the tolerance could be increased to keep us going, but after another month or so there was again a shortage of aircraft, and a further technical conference decided that perhaps this tolerance was not so important after all and could be ignored! Because of the shortage of aircraft 219 Sqdn were temporarily re-eqipped with Meteor NF11s and we borrowed a couple for a week or so in order that the pilots could be converted and we could do some PIs. Finally in March 1953 the Meteor NF13s arrived and we embarked on a period of intensive flying in order to get fit for a large exercise at the end of the month, which went off fairly well.
The end of the Mossies
However we were not finished with the Mosquito, when our Meteors were delivered the ferry pilots took a Mosquito back with them but left several behind under repair in the MU, these were returned to the UK by squadron crews as they were repaired. We were required to send a crew up to the M.U. if they needed to fly an aircraft and my logbook records an occasion when they required RL113 to be moved the few miles from Kasfareet to Abyad. We took off all right, but on lowering the undercarriage to land the red lights stayed on. No amount or rocking and shaking would persuade the down locks to work, but a fly past the tower confirmed the undercarriage was down and appeared OK so we chanced it. We were met by a very jumpy Warrant Officer saying “You were not supposed to retract the undercart!”. What a joke, it was necessary to have the gear up before the aircraft would accelerate to safety speed or climb, the undercarriage being a massive drag producer.
The last one, RL141, was appropriated by our CO, Sqdn Ldr Cogill who chose me to accompany him home where I enjoyed a months leave, that and the week in December 52, being the only leave I had during my 2½ year tour. We left Fayid on 24th July 1953, refuelled at Luqa and at Istres, where we spent the night, and arrived at Benson on the 25th. In terms of todays air travel there is nothing to such a trip, I guess a 747 would make it in about five hours nonstop, the passengers would be fed and watered and it would really be little more than a glorified bus ride. For us it was a good experience because we would get some home leave, but we had to work for it. We air tested the aircraft and did a fuel consumption check on 22nd July. Take off on 24th was at 0640 GMT (0840 local time) for the 4 hours 35 mins trip to Luqa, Malta; this was an interesting leg passing places with historic names such as El Alamein, Mersa Matruh, Bardia and Benghazi. Incidentally the Egyptian-Libyan border was plainly visible as a rusty stain across the desert caused by the barbed wire fence. We landed without incident, had lunch and saw the aircraft refuelled and pressed on to Istres, near Marseilles in the South of France. This was another 3 hours 5 mins, arriving at 1700 GMT, my real memory of this was a Frenchman getting up on the wing, while we were still in the cockpit, to refuel us. From his lip dangled the mandatory Gaulloise fag!, I soon told him what to do with it, but he was in a hurry, I guess it was past his knocking off time.
The next morning we set off at 0635 GMT determined to be home in good time. However we were unable to contact the French “Cassis” fixing service, so I was reliant on good old dead reckoning and map reading. I was very pleased that we crossed out over the Cherbourg peninsula spot on the position we were briefed, and hit Portland Bill spot on. However we were unable to raise anyone on the radio which was a requisite when crossing in. I got lost on the map, having been used to deserts with the odd road and so fumbled our route towards Benson. The first real pin point I got was the old airfield at Harwell, marked on the map as a three mile exclusion zone because it housed the atomic research establishment. I couldn’t care less as at last I knew where we were and could give a sure course and ETA for Benson. All this time the pilot had no joy with the radio, but we finally spoke to Benson when we were very close to them. I think the aerial connection had failed and we only had a very short range, also when we landed we found oil running back along the port engine nacelle and dripping off the tail, so I guess that engine wouldn’t have carried us much farther. So a total 10 hours and 45 mins flying time at last had us home. I believe that this was the last time a Mosquito night fighter was flown by a squadron crew in the RAF, and it is a great pity that none were preserved.
Meteors at last
In March 1953 our Meteor NF13s were ferried out to us and we embarked on a rapid learning curve in preparation for a large exercise the following month. The Meteor was a much more civilized aeroplane to fly in, with a refrigeration unit to keep us cool, a lamp to use at night to see charts etc and a bit more room to spread out in. The big drawback was our remoteness from the pilot, and his instrument panel. That separation took a lot of adapting to, and the closeness one felt to ones pilot was never the same. We had been told at Leeming that being a member of a night fighter crew was like a marriage. Eventually we were given an altimeter and airspeed indicator, which were essentials for navigation. However to fly in the Meteor was a whole new experience, less noisy and much smoother, and an altogether safer feeling, not to mention the extra 100 knots of speed and 10000 feet of height
In 1952 there had been a tense period with Egypt when the Egyptian army overthrew King Farouk and General Neguib became president, we sat about in the crew room with the aircraft fully armed waiting to take our appointed place in a plan to invade Egypt but it all came to nothing. A rather similar thing happened the next year when Colonel Nasser in turn ousted Neguib, I can remember visiting the Egyptian camp barber who, while trimming my neck with a cutthroat razor, told me how the Russians were going to supply Nasser with Migs and we would at last be driven out. Quite a number of servicemen lost their lives due to hostile acts by the Egyptians, mainly ambushing transport and sniping, and these actions continued throughout the time we spent in Egypt. The airfield had an RAF Regiment squadron of Bofors guns for defence and these were normally lined up inside the wire perimeter close to the guardroom. In an incident early one morning there were a series of explosions, the Egyptians had crept through the wire and blew up several guns. Also we had a telescramble system whereby the aircraft on standby at the end of the runway were connected to Group by a telephone line plugged into the rear. These lines would be laid out from the control tower during the afternoon and on several occasions thieving Egyptians would remove large lengths before we took the aircraft out at sunset. It got so bad that the lines had to be permanently concreted in. One of the more arduous duties we NCO’s had was that of guard commander, the whole camp, except for the actual airfield and the control tower, was enclosed by a barbed wire fence which was patrolled at night by armed guards. In addition the unit was responsible for guarding a dredger when it was working on our section of the Sweetwater Canal, so in total the guard comprised some 60 men, who would be organised into the standard three shift system of two hours on and four off. The guard commander had to be awake all the time, and his orders stated that on no account must he leave the guardroom, however the supplementary orders for guarding the dredger instructed him to visit the dredger guard every two hours. It should be remembered that the majority of the men comprising the guard were young frightened National Service airmen whose weapons training had been minimal. One of the most important duties of the guard commander was to physically check the breech of each rifle as guards were dismounted, to ensure that they had been properly unloaded. Joe twice had men accidentally discharge a round through the guardroom roof from supposedly empty rifles, this was not an unusual occurrence, and the guard commander would be put on a charge.
‘Swans’ or navigation exercises
In April '53 we set off as part of a flight of three aircraft to visit Malta, this meant a refuelling stop at El Adem and because of strong headwinds, a further stop at Benina in Libya. Unfortunately we were unable to restart an engine and so the other two carried on while we were stuck at Benina, this aerodrome belonged to the Libyans and while the air traffic control was done by an English company, the small RAF detachment who had refuelled us could not effect a repair. A servicing party had to be sent the 200 mile trip by road from El Adem, which took them more than a day. We were accommodated in the old Italian officers mess and decided that we would have a Saturday night on the town in Benghazi a few miles away on the local bus. What a joke, it took us all evening to find somewhere to get some alcohol of very dubious quality. Engine repairs dragged on and it was four days later when we returned to Kabrit.
It was usual practise to send us away for weekends to Malta, Cyprus, or Habbaniyah in Iraq, as a navigation exercise and one or two crews would be told, "Off you go to Malta, or wherever, Friday afternoon and return on Sunday afternoon or early Monday morning" These were great fun and enabled us to get a good meal and a drunken night out, and some cheap booze and fags. The Meteor ammo tanks in the wings were a good store and I can remember getting bottles of gin out covered in ice after the trip back from El Adem, where they had cost 6/8d (33p). The cockpit was rather cramped and I used to fly with my travel bag upended between my legs, if I dropped a nav instrument on the floor the only way to retrieve it was to ask the pilot to invert the aircraft and sort it out from the rubbish which collected in the top of the canopy. Navigation was quite tricky at times when it is realised that we had to plot our tracks and courses on a small scale chart which was folded on a clip board, together with a log, (a paper record), a Dalton computor, a ruler, protractors, and dividers all balanced on one’s lap. It was essential to keep a supply of pencils and at night a small torch, although in the Meteor we had the luxury of a small lamp. When in the Mosquito, squeezed up beside the pilot, to shine a torch anywhere near him brought a swift rebuke, and I used a little pen torch shielded with red tissue. To achieve engineering drawing standards in those conditions was trying to say the least, the noise and vibration from the two Merlins only added to the distractions. I just could not imagine the problems the wartime people faced.
Once on returning from Malta to El Adem we had a problem when the ventral tank failed to feed. A hurried calculation showed we had not enough fuel to make El Adem or return to Luqa, so I made a rapid course alteration for Benina which was roughly at right angles to our track. We made it there with no more course changes and before the tower was manned, and landed with the gauges reading empty. When we susequently landed at El Adem to refuel we noticed a car waiting to cross the runway. The pilot forgot that we still had a full ventral tank and so were overweight for landing and dropped the aircraft quite heavily on to the runway. While we were having a meal the waiter came up to us and asked the pilot to come outside. There he was faced with the Station Commander who tore him off a strip for "damaging his runway". On another occasion on landing at El Adem, we were met by a 13 Sqdn pilot whose Meteor PR10 had sprung a fuel leak with fuel swilling about the fuselage. He was desperate to return his films to Kabrit, but was unable to use his radio or any electrics, and formated on us for the trip back.
In October 1953 the Sqdn went on a week's detachment to Habbaniyah in Iraq, going there required us to divert round Israel, via Aqaba, landing at Mafraq in northern Jordan to refuel. Mafraq was an oiled sand strip and great plumes of dust were thrown up by the aircraft, particularly on takeoff. One evening waiting for our number two to take off while we were airborne above him reminded me of watching a Sunderland on the Great Bitter Lake. We were told that Habbaniyah was our "war station" and we carried out sector recces round the north and east borders, having to find the three passes into Iran at Ruwandiz, Penjwin and Khanaqin. The northern oilfield at Kirkuk had a very large flare where surplus gas was burnt off, and this could be seen from a great distance, as also could the gold plated dome of the mosque at Samara. While at Habbaniyah we did some air to air firing for the benefit of the Wing Commander Flying there. He was a very keen type and would press on in below the laid down 30° angle off, with the result that a shell ricocheted off the nylon target flag and passed through one of the tugs engines. As we only had one aircraft modified to tow targets that curtailed the fun. We also went down to Shaibah near Basra and did a sector recce round Abadan and Kuwait. There was an oil derrick immediately beside the approach into Shaibah and it was a little unnerving flying past this red light at night. While in the mess I got into conversation with an American oilman and he told me that they were drilling down to 10,000'! I considered this total bull**** but years later learned that this was in fact true and that the southern Iraq/Kuwait oilfield at 5,000' deep was underlain by even larger oil deposits 10,000' down. The oilfield produced large quantities of gas, and we were told that the town of Basra had gas pipes laid in the streets to supply street lighting for free and that each house had a free supply for lighting and cooking.
Another wonderful detachment, particularly for the navigators, was the annual Armament Practice School, at Nicosia in Cyprus. We were not required to fly as it was all gunnery, although I always enjoyed that and would always fly on the monthly gunnery sorties we did from Kabrit. This however meant we could enjoy the delights of Cyprus to the full, and I can well remember experiencing a mild earthquake when I was washing one morning. I put the room swaying about down to my elbow bending exertions of the previous night, until someone else urged me to get out quick. Three weeks of that was absolute bliss for us, as the pilots were never slow to join in the parties, and the night clubs treated us as honoured guests.
Between times we returned to the normal routine enlivened by exercises in one of which we were vectored on to a Vampire on a nice moonlit night who must have seen us as we were turning in behind him and started some mild evasive action. I held on to him for a few minutes until he thought he had lost us and levelled up so that we were able to complete the interception. We pulled up alongside him but he did not see our nav lights, we could plainly see the dark shape of his head in the cockpit, and once more we had to tuck a wing in and give him a close up flash. The dark shape went pale as he turned his face towards us, and I have never seen an aircraft break away so sharply, he must have had quite a shock when someone turned a light on about 15' away from him. We also carried out a large radar calibration operation for the army who were installing an air defense system. This involved low flying over set routes with no low limit and were most exhilarating, I flew six of these, three of them in one morning with three different pilots. The Meteor was a very pleasant aircraft to fly in and one felt safe and secure, in fact I have heard it referred to as a "gentleman's aeroplane", and Joe was an excellent pilot who loved aerobatics and formation flying.
Formation flying was all the rage and large formations would be flown for any occasion, we took part in the Coronation Flypast, which went all round the Canal Zone, and I can remember particularly another large flypast which was led by another keen Wingco Flying who would keep too low. Joe had a position at the extreme left of a large formation of squadrons which put us about 5 aircraft displaced laterally from the leader. The turns tended to be steep with the result that when on the inside of a turn we were in great danger of being flown into the ground. I had to remind Joe of this because it was a bumpy day and 110% of his attention was required to maintain formation, with the result that his station keeping became a bit ragged at times. The leader could check this by watching the shadows of the formation on the ground and reprimanded Joe. He got the immediate curt response "If you can do better come back here and do it yourself", there was no answer but a least he took the hint and took us up another 100'. A pilot in that situation really had to work hard with throttles and airbrakes working overtime to maintain station, in 45 minutes both he and 500 gallons of fuel were exhausted.
Kabrit was a poor place with little in the way of amenities, conditions for the airmen were really bad and far worse than prisoners expect today. Ours were not much better, but at least we got our trips away. Water was obtained from the misnamed "Sweetwater Canal" which had been built to provide water for the builders of the Suez Canal in the 1860's, it came via a tortuous route from the Nile and every Egyptian along the way had disposed of his dead animals and done whatever else he needed to in it. To cope we had a water purification plant which produced slightly sand coloured water which curdled the milk in tea. Sanitation was of the bucket variety and these were emptied periodically by a gang of Egyptians into an old dustcart, to watch these people carrying buckets on their shoulders with the contents spilling down their galabiyas was something to steer well clear of, the smell being indescribable. They used to spread it on their fields and sell us the resultant melons, and the medics wondered why there were dysentery epidemics. In the worst of these the sick quarters was completely overrun with over 200 sick at one time. However we were on the edge of the Great Bitter Lake and could go swimming from a jetty which had been built by German prisoners of war, there was also a winter theatre/cinema, where we had occasional ENSA shows and an open air cinema for the summer. This generally showed three films per week, although very popular films were sometimes only on for one night. One such was "The Sound Barrier" which all the aircrew and the station commander wanted to see, but needless to say that night was a night flying night. While our CO relented, 219's insisted on his night flying and was not popular! One of his pilots flew over the cinema at very low level and rolled as he climbed away, there were four aircraft airborne and they all kept their mouths shut so the culprit was never known, true to the old service expression "No names, no pack drill". The Meteor of course never troubled the sound barrier, we were not supposed to exceed Mach .77 but with throttles wide open and diving most people imagined they could read .85 (in reality about .82) on the machmeter, but the aircraft was at its aerodynamic limit and no amount of extra power would make it go any faster. It felt as though the aircraft was gripped in a giant vice and being vigorously rattled about, and a wing would drop, but control was instantly regained by extending the airbrakes. Note that present day airliners cruise across the Atlantic at these speeds.
In June 1954, 39 Squadron was presented with its Standard, and we had a fancy ceremonial parade in which I was B Flight marker. We were issued with heavy khaki drill uniforms with trousers and a shirt and tie, which made three hours of ceremonial rifle drill quite an ordeal, normal summer dress being an open necked khaki drill tunic and shorts. Fortunately nobody fainted and it all went very well. All in all I was not sorry when my 30 month tour ended in August 1954, and I was required to be available at midnight one evening to load my kit into a lorry to go up to Fayid and catch a Hastings home. Needless to say I was dumped into the lorry and slept off a glorious binge on the aircraft. I did not recollect much about landing to refuel and have a meal in Malta, and only came to when the airman in the canvas seat beside me shook me awake to show me the English coast.
152 Squadron Wattisham, Suffolk
We had about 8 weeks leave and in October 1954 were posted to 152 Squadron at Wattisham in Suffolk. This was equipped with a mixture of Meteor NF 12’s and NF 14’s, which was normal for Squadrons as 100 of each mark had been ordered. However the NF 14 was far superior to the NF 12, having spring-tab ailerons and an auto stabiliser to improve directional stability (a problem with the other marks was a tendency to snake, which did not help gunnery). It also had the excellent bubble hood, and so was the preferred mount. Both aircraft were equipped with a nice digital GEE set which made for easy navigation and AI Mk 21. This was an American set as fitted to the F86D Sabre, and, while it had a better range than AI Mk 10 and a good lock-on facility, the display was inferior to the older set. We had an testing period becoming reacclimatised to UK weather conditions, and Joe’s “press on single handedly” attitude got us into some interesting situations, but he was a superb pilot and we were never in serious trouble. Unfortunately after about 18 months Joe had to have an operation on his throat, and became unfit for high altitude flying, and was posted away to a Transport Command unit in time to serve in the 1956 Suez campaign. I then flew with a variety of pilots, eventually becoming permanently crewed up with a Flight Lieutenant permanent commission Cranwell trained pilot. He was a very pleasant man but had become increasingly nervous and would often find an excuse not to fly, which was rather off putting to say the least and I never had the confidence in him that I had had in Joe, or most of the other pilots I had flown with, and this affected my own performance.
While the Meteor made an excellent fun aeroplane it could not be considered a satisfactory night fighter as the Canberra could just climb away from us at altitude, and even catching the American B46 Tornado was a difficult exercise. We once covered about 50 miles alternately climbing and diving to gain speed, just to close the last half mile of range and complete an interception on one. With the introduction of the V bombers we were completely outclassed, and on my last proper night fighter scramble in one of the big exercises, we were vectored on to a Valiant, a despairing final turn at close range took us through his slipstream and we were almost turned over, and lost control. I was then of course flying with the twitchy Flt Lt and the problem was partly of his making and partly my fault. By the time the pilot had recovered we had lost so much range that, although we tried for a few minutes we were losing out and had to abandon the chase. The very next day we were scrambled to 40,000’, and while passing through 38,000’, the hood opened and we suffered explosive decompression. This is not a pleasant experience, and we made 38,000’ to circuit height in record time, I was extremely displeased as I considered he was entirely responsible. However it coincided with the expiration of my tour on 152 Sqdn in May 1957 and I was not unhappy to leave. That concluded my night fighter experience.
No 1 Air Electronics School
The RAF was being downsized rapidly at this time and they did not want NCO aircrew. We learnt that we would not get a third flying tour, nor would we be posted to a front line squadron, all good for morale. I had a few gash jobs, but eventually landed a posting to the Air Electronics School which was teaching signallers for the V bombers. This sounds wonderful, but in fact it was just finding jobs for the boys. I enjoyed myself sorting out the staff pilots so that I could generally choose who I flew with, and flew when I felt like it. Occasionally we were called on to do the job properly, as each course did one trip to Wildenrath in Germany and back. At least it broke the monotony and we could have a few beers in a different mess. After about nine months of this my eight year engagement was up and I found myself a civilian again, which took a great deal of adapting to. But that is another story.
Man is not lost. Only temporarily uncertain of his position.
An interesting read indeed. Thanks for sharing Peter.
Tremendous Thanks for that ... You should write a book
Last edited by D1566; 16th April 2017 at 07:18.
Thank you for putting up your story Peter. At the time you were with 39Sqdn on the Mosquito , my father was the admin NCO. He had a permanent issue parachute and regularly flew in the aircraft. That is until the day he was invited up on a test flight. When it came time to unfeather an engine, the other engine stopped! To add insult to injury, on landing due to the heat haze, the pilot dropped the aircraft onto the runway from twenty feet resulting in the write off of one Mosquito with a broken back. Dad arrived back at RAF Stafford having suffered a perforated eardrum and a broken wrist. Attached is a formation photo. Dad was in the second aircraft from the camera.
PS I have a set of ghouli chits here. Sadly they did not save one crew who had to land in the desert.
Thank you. I enjoyed your story very much. A look back to an air force that was fast disappearing when I joined in 1960.
Enjoyed your posting, Peter - it brought back many memories of that era. Checking my logbooks, I see that I was just about two years ahead of you. Went through 228 OCU at Leeming as a pilot and, just like you, later progressed from the Mozzie NF36 to the Meteor NF14. I think we were both lucky to survive the Mozzies as they were getting somewhat clapped out by then and there were many accidents.
I left the RAF in 1957 and emigrated to Canada with no regrets. As you point out, the NF aircraft we flew wouldn't have been much use if the Russian bombers of that era had actually attacked, so the old WW2 style of training and P.I.s against comparatively slow targets flying straight and level were really a waste of time and we knew it. I didn't stay on night fighters, and later really enjoyed the Meteor F8 which remained my favourite, particularly for aerobatic displays on Battle of Britain Days, even though I also flew some of he next generation fighters such as the Sabre and Hunter.
Now, I do fly an F16 on my computer's flight simulator, but that's all - sigh!
A most enjoyable post. Thank you for sharing your memories.
Tats a good but well used photo Box Brownie. I can't remember who the orderly room sergeant was, but do remember the CO sitting me in that chair for a week or two after he left and before a replacement was found.
John Aeroclub, the RAF had changed radically by your time thanks to a certain Mr Sandys, who changed it from a war footing to a more peaceful affair. He wasn't going to need serious aircrew, missiles would do all the fighting from then on.
Teekay, what can I say, you know better than me what a tricky aeroplane the Mosquito could be. It had to be treated with respect and limits had to be appreciated, step over the mark and it could bite hard. I was very lucky to have a pilot who knew what he was doing and had confidence in his actions, I flew with at least 10 pilots on the Mossie and learned to sum them up quick. The less experienced ones could be overawed by it and not master it which was what was needed, think treat it like a good woman.
Man is not lost. Only temporarily uncertain of his position.
What a fantastic write up ,thank you and TK for your memories of those times ,Thanks
I believe that the Imperial war Museum maintain an archive for experiences such as yours. Had you thought to offer them a copy ?
Good on you Peter, adds a lot to what you told me for 'Meteor Boys'!
Simply, thank you.
An excellent read.
"What you must remember" Flip said "is that nine-tenths of Cattermole's charm lies beneath the surface." Many agreed.
Restoring Meteor NF.14 WS788, one rusty nail at a time...
Peter there is another well known forum pprune.org that has an absolutely superb thread running that would be a perfect destination for your 'RAF Service', thr thread is in the Military Aviation section and is titled
Gaining An R.A.F Pilots Brevet In WW II - started by 'CLIFFNEMO' back in 2008, currently has some 10400+ posts and the current gentleman in charge/senior poster is one 'DANNY42C'
Could I respectfully suggest you check this thread out and consider posting your 'RAF service' there
PZULBA - Out of Africa (Retired)
Thanks peter,, great read.
A great account Peter - thanks for posting it
I think it may have been posted on a similar thread but the book by Lewis Brandon -Night flyer arrived yesterday ,i look forward to reading it
Great Work. Great Write up.
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