REMINISCENCES OF AN RCAF RADAR OFFICER ATTACHED TO THE RAF.
Allan E Paull, C.24099, Toronto, Ontario, ©May 11, 1994.
Comedian George Burns once said that if he knew he was going to live so long he would have taken better care of himself. As I sit down to write this, I say that if I knew that I was going to live so long I would have kept a diary during my salad days, days when I was young and inexperienced. Without that, I have had to struggle to dig deep into my memory. However, with help from a little black book, an old snapshot album, a transcript of my military record and an ordnance survey road atlas of Great Britain, I have managed to reconstruct in my mind some of my wartime experiences of 50 years ago.
The transcript of my military records from the National Archives of Canada summarized my war service very concisely: "Enlisted in RCAF as radio mechanic in January, 1942. Commissioned on graduation at Clinton in February 1943. Went overseas. Officer in charge of ground radar stations for 1st year. Officer in charge of radar (Airborne) installations after that. Overseas for 31 months." In what follows I go into a bit more detail.
When war broke out I was living in Winnipeg and my friends and I were at a stage in our lives when we had just finished University, and we had not had the foresight to join the ROTC (Royal Officers’ Training Corp). We were looking for our first job during the great depression and were already frightened by that prospect, when the outbreak of war terrorized us even more with the realization that we were the perfect age for cannon-fodder. In retrospect those of us who survived now look back on our war service as being some of the happier more carefree years of our lives; unfortunately we didn't know it then.
I did not rush to join up in 1939 although some of my more loyal or enthusiastic friends did. I managed to get a job as Statistician at the Grain Research Laboratory in Winnipeg and waited for developments. In January of 1941, I received orders from Ottawa to report to the Royal Winnipeg Rifles army depot in Brandon for 30 days of basic training as a foot soldier in ‑30?F weather, and that was character building and rugged. It made us start thinking seriously about what part we might play in this war before we would again be told what to do by orders from Ottawa. If we were drafted we would stay in Canada. If we volunteered they could send us anywhere. A friend (David Baker) and I started shopping the different branches of the service to see if our university degree counted for anything towards getting a commission, but we soon discovered it did not. About that time we learned of a programme in the RCAF (Royal Canadian Air Force) to train radar technicians (and we had previously heard that in the Air Force even the `other-ranks’ slept with sheets on their bunks) so we decided to apply there. We volunteered and joined as AC2’s (Air Craftsman 2nd Class) in December 1941 and were sent off a month later to Manning Depot to await posting for training.
At Brandon Manning Depot in January 1942 my friend and I, probably because we had university degrees, were fingered by the padré to teach elementary mathematics and physics to the air crew recruits, which filled in our time nicely while we were awaiting posting. But a mumps epidemic put several including me into hospital, and my friend was posted away without me. As it happened, I spent five months in Manning Depot before being sent to U.B.C. for basic radio training.
At the University of British Columbia the three month radio course with a group of 50 or more congenial AC2's in the springtime of 1942 in Vancouver was certainly no hardship: indeed it was enjoyable and friendships were made there. However one soon learned that in the service, friendships cannot be long-lasting since the Air Force did not leave a radar technician in one place for longer than about four or five months. Of all the friends I made at Manning Pool and at U.B.C. and at Clinton, I can count on the fingers of one hand the ones with whom I subsequently crossed paths with again during or after the war: David Baker of Winnipeg (now gone), Bud Sugarman of Toronto, Bill Stovin of Saskatoon, and if I try hard I may come up with another. At the end of September 1942 we were all promoted to LAC (Leading Air Craftsman), and sent to Toronto Manning Depot (the Horse Palace at the C.N.E.) to await posting to Clinton for further training.
The RDF School at Clinton was the very secret high-tech school of its day. RDF stood for radio-direction-finding but it was in fact a radar school. The word RADAR came from RAdio Direction And Ranging. Radar was Britain's state-of-the-art secret weapon that had already been used successfully to track attacking aircraft during the London Blitz in the winter of 1941‑42. At Clinton we were taught the principles of radar and we were given hands‑on training; all fascinating stuff during five months of winter in the snow belt of Ontario. When we graduated in February of 1943, I was one of the lucky few who was commissioned and, as a Pilot Officer without any officer training, I was given a 10-day leave to go home and visit my parents, then quickly shipped overseas to the United Kingdom and attached to the RAF (Royal Air Force).
The BOURNEMOUTH Reception Centre comprised several resort hotels on the south coast of England and hundreds of us were crowded into them; lots of men, not enough girls. Some of the names I remember there (from snapshots) are Bill Stovin, Harold Jones, Scott Reid, Doris and Joan (Pinky), but after 50 years the memories begin to fade. We spent most of April and May of 1943 in Bournemouth before we were sent off to work.
My first posting was to RAF RHUDDLAN in May of 1943 to serve as technical officer in charge of a ground installation at GREAT ORMES HEAD near LLANDUDNO, North Wales, which was set up high on the bluff to provide surveillance over the Irish Sea. Before I arrived the station was being run quite efficiently by a seasoned RAF Flight-Sergeant and I, an inexperienced Pilot Officer, was sent there to take charge. I had to become a fast learner. Prior to my arrival the Flight Sergeant had put one of the men on charge for some offence he had committed and I, as the only officer on the station, would have to hear the case and reach a verdict and pass sentence. I recall I read military law manuals quickly and frequently before the first week was out.
I also remember that the station was armed with a Browning machine gun (left over from World War I) mounted at the top of the cliff pointing out toward the Irish Sea. We fired it once a week to make sure that it remained operational, (it kept jamming) but we never had to fire it in anger. My only other recollection of that station was when the radar antenna, a large bed-spring-sized device, became U/S (Air Force jargon for unserviceable). We all went up on the roof in a blinding rainstorm to work on the antenna and find the fault, and it was after this incident that I first heard the frightening rumour that exposure to radar waves could make a man sterile. It ain't so, and that's pukka gen (more Air Force jargon). I don't recall that we picked up any enemy aircraft on the tube while at that station but most of the friendly trans-Atlantic flights came over from the direction of Iceland and we monitored them on their approach to their destinations in the United Kingdom.
In the fall of 1943 several radar officers from different locations were collected together at PEMBROKE DOCK in south Wales for a refresher and update on some of the latest radar equipment. That course turned out to be almost like a class re-union and I still have a snapshot from there with names scribbled on the back: Hal Eagen, Chas Browning, "Doc", Ernie Shortliffe, Tom Pound, Birnbaum, Parish, Hal Moreau. I remember them all but I have not run into any of them since the war ended.
In September 1943 I was promoted to the rank of Flying Officer and attached to 60 Group, 70 Wing for duty on the Outer HEBRIDES in Scotland, as Technical Officer in charge of the ground radar installation at RAF ISLIVIG on the west coast of the Isle of Lewis. (This is adjacent to the Isle of Harris where Harris Tweed comes from.) To get there I had to take an over-night boat from the Kyle of Lochalsh in northern Scotland to Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis; and crossing The Minch was rough and I recall being seasick in the dead of night. RAF ISLIVIG was a ground installation monitoring the arrival of trans-Atlantic flights approaching from Iceland. However we did see enemy action: one German aircraft appeared on the tube regularly every day, on the same route, at the same time. We called him Weather Willy since he must have been taking meteorological readings along the way. He came from one of the occupied Scandinavian countries, Norway perhaps, flew due west until he got over the North Atlantic, and then turned around and flew back. He did not bother us and we did not bother him.
In the HEBRIDES in the winter of 1943-44 we lived in Nissen huts (a.k.a. Quonset huts, a large half-cylinder of corrugated metal with closed ends, lying on its flat side). These accommodations were much better than those of most of the civilian residents on the island, some of whom shared their shelter with their sheep. Scotch was scarce in those days so we had to settle for Drambuie, a Scotch liqueur made on the Isle of Skye nearby, not too much of a hardship. There was no snow there but it rained horizontally almost every day, like living on the deck of a large ship. In those critical years hundreds of American-made airplanes were being delivered from the U.S. to the U.K. and they were ferried across the ocean by A.T.A. (Air Transport Auxiliary) pilots. I remember getting to know several of these pilots in later months when I was serving at Maintenance Units in England, and I recall spending some pleasant hours with them. While still at Islivig in the Hebrides the signals officer took sick at RAF BENBECULA, a smaller island nearby, and I was sent there on temporary duty. Shortly after that I was transferred to 41 Group, and from then until the end of the war I served on RAF maintenance units as technical officer in charge of installation of radio and radar equipment into aircraft of the RAF and the Royal Navy.
BOMBS IN LONDON
I should add at this point that I did not get the 1939‑45 Star medal that is awarded for serving in an operational theatre of war. Serving in the United Kingdom per se did not count. The only time that I was exposed to enemy fire during the two and a half years I was overseas was when I chose to go to London on leave, but that did not deter any of us from choosing to do so as often as possible to meet with friends and enjoy London for every leave we could get. In 1943 in London we would still experience air raids that were the tail end of the London Blitz. I recall once eating a steak dinner at the Orchard Club that was a watering hole in the basement of a building on Wigmore Street behind Selfridges, and when the air-raid siren went off we all came up to street level to see the fireworks. Later in 1944 the V‑1 buzz bombs had begun and they were more terrifying than the enemy aircraft. The buzz bomb was a small-unmanned aircraft with just enough gasoline to get it to its destination. When it ran out of gas it fell to earth and its bomb load then exploded on impact. In the summer and fall of 1944 I was stationed at #15 Maintenance Unit RAF- WROUGHTON near Swindon, Wiltshire, where we were outfitting the Royal Navy's Barracuda, an aircraft-carrier based bomber. Once each month as Signals Officer I went into London to attend a meeting at Air Ministry offices on Lower Regent Street to discuss with the Navy brass which pieces of radio and radar equipment they wanted installed in their Barracudas, and they usually wanted everything. The standard joke at the time was that if they asked to have one more piece of equipment added, the Barracuda would not be able to keep up with the aircraft carrier. I recall at these monthly meetings in mid‑1944 that on a few occasions when we were all sitting around the conference table talking business, the buzz-buzz of a V‑1 would be heard approaching. Everyone would try to be nonchalant and continue with the business of the meeting even as the noise grew louder, but if the noise should suddenly stop, all would dive for shelter under the conference table until the explosion was heard; and fortunately it was never too close.
The V‑2 rocket attacks began several months later and their terror was quite different from that of the V‑1 since the V‑2 was silent as it approached. You heard nothing until you heard the explosion. (The V‑2 was not unlike the scud missile used against Israel in the 1990 Gulf War.) The one incident that stands out in my mind was eating dinner one evening with a lady friend at Isow's Restaurant on Brewer Street just behind Piccadilly Circus when suddenly there was a loud explosion and we each froze in our seats gripping our fork and knife. It seemed to us that the explosion was next door but we learned the next morning that it had occurred at Marble Arch more than a mile away and had blown out all the windows on the west side of the Cumberland Hotel.
The hotel of choice in London for the RCAF radar technicians tended to be the Strand Palace, although we (I think it was Bill Stovin and I) did try the Savoy across the street one time but were made to feel not welcome when they did such things as add corkage to our bill, and object to our having guests in our room. London in general was good to us, with its concerts and its plays and its service clubs. We went to the Royal Albert Hall and heard the London Philharmonic play Beethoven's Fifth, which had become the V‑for-Victory symphony with its dit-dit-dah motif. We went to the West End Theatres to see the new plays of Noel Coward and others. And we went to the service clubs. The Lord Tweedsmuir Canadian Officers Club in Winfield House on the Outer Circle at Regents Park was one of the better service clubs: Winfield House with its gold-plated plumbing fixtures was owned at the time by Barbara Hutton the Woolworth heiress, but after the war it became the residence of the United States ambassador. There were also the Balfour Service Club on Portland Place, and the Jewish Service Club in Woburn House near Russell Square, all providing general hospitality, and tea dances for the servicemen and servicewomen on leave.
In the early part of the war until the end of 1943, most RCAF radar officers were assigned to ground installation stations at the seashore to provide early warning of approaching enemy aircraft. As the tide turned in the winter of 1943‑44, after Italy signed a secret armistice with the Allies and the Russians had broken the siege of Leningrad, it appeared that the British made a move from a defensive mode to an offensive one in preparation for D-Day (the invasion of Europe on June 6, 1944). Many of us were moved from ground installation stations to aircraft installation duty on stations called Maintenance Units. An aircraft arrived at one of these stations for modifications to its engine, its airframe, and its complement of electronic gear. Once the modifications were completed a test pilot would take the aircraft up for a test flight checking out all the work that had been done. As Signals Officer I would frequently go up on those test flights in the co‑pilot's seat, checking out the radio and radar equipment. Exciting, but also profitable. Each time I did I collected $2.00 per day flying pay.
Our daily routines were frequently mixed with surprises, sometimes pleasant, sometimes not so pleasant. In mid-1944 I received a signal from Air Ministry informing me that my cousin Norman Shnier (Navigator) had been shot down over Germany and was a prisoner-of-war at Kriegefangenen-lager der Luftwaffe Nr.3, Deutschland. Although I was not next-of-kin he had put me down “to-be-notified”; and I was also notified a year or so later when the war ended and he was released and we met soon afterwards in London. This story had a happy ending. Other stories did not. His brother Clifford Shnier, a close pre-war friend of mine was shot down over Hamburg July 30, 1943 while piloting Lancaster EE173 on a night-bombing raid. Thumbing through my war-time little black book I find other friends of my youth who did not make it back to become friends of my middle age: Gerald Gordon of Regina, and R. (Bert) Sirluck of Winnipeg
It was in early 1944 that I was posted to my first Maintenance Unit as Signals Officer at #12MU RAFMAIN KIRKBRIDE, near WIGTON, Cumberland in the north of England near Keswick in the Lake District. Since there were no officers’ quarters there I was fortunate to be billeted with a very pleasant and hospitable family (Mr & Mrs Tom Raine), and to have had the opportunity to spend some of my leisure hours in the Lake District, which was within cycling distance of the station.
In the summer of 1944 I was transferred to #15 Maintenance Unit at RAF WROUGHTON near SWINDON, Wiltshire. Again there were no officers' quarters at the Unit and I was billeted in a pleasant home (Mr and Mrs E H Young and family) in Swindon. Mr Young was editor of the local newspaper. Billet hosts and hostesses loved to have servicemen as guests in their homes since we brought with us our meat-ration coupons, and meat amongst other things was a scarce commodity. At RAF Wroughton we shared facilities with the Royal Navy. For the Air Force we serviced the B‑25 Mitchell bombers, and for the Navy we serviced the Barracuda bombers, which were intended for aircraft carrier use. The B‑25 Mitchell bombers were made in the United States and then flown across the Atlantic by A.T.A. pilots; for this purpose they were equipped at the factory with radio navigational equipment to help them find their way. Once they arrived at our station we stripped virtually all the American electronic gear from the aircraft and replaced it with RAF radio and radar equipment required for operational use. The A.T.A. (Air Transport Auxiliary) personnel were a congenial bunch of Americans, mostly seasoned pilots a little too old for operational duty. They kept us informed of the important things that were going on in the United States, such as what was the top ten on the hit parade. They would bring us the latest phonograph records and other scarce American consumer goodies. Number one on the hit parade that year was Mares-Eat-Oats-And-Does-Eat-Oats- And-Little-Lambs-Eat-Ivy, and we were the first on our street to have it! I have some snapshots from this location showing F/O Lewis, F/O Killick, F/L Robertson, F/O Ward, F/O Bud Sugarman, S/Lt Bob Robson, and F/O Johnny Morgan. Bud Sugarman with whom I had trained at U.B.C. showed up at this maintenance unit while I was there and we served together for a while. [Bud, now Budd Sugarman, runs an upscale antique establishment in a tony uptown district of Toronto.]
In January 1945 I was promoted to the rank of Flight Lieutenant and assigned to RAF BOURTON‑ON‑THE‑WATER, #8 Maintenance Unit, a station near LITTLE RISSINGTON, Gloucester, just south of Stow-on-the-Wold if you know where that is. The location is about halfway between Oxford and Cheltenham and these two big cities were well within striking distance for R&R. The WELLINGTON bomber was the predominant aircraft that we serviced. I had my longest tenure there, close to nine months. As the war wound down the station received more and more Wellingtons for mothballing and by the time I left one could look in any direction and see fields and fields of Wellington aircraft parked one beside the other. I often wondered afterwards what became of them.
Being an Air Force officer in the U.K. carried with it privileges; it was like belonging to a national club with branches everywhere. One story that I have told many times is about meeting a friend in the summer of 1945 (after VE‑Day) in London where we were to board a train north to catch a boat to the Isle of Man for a brief vacation. The friend was a Canadian Army captain named Abel Schwarzfeld (now gone), a bon vivant type who had been a close school chum of mine in our hometown of Regina. On the train north we shared a compartment with an RAF pilot who was going up to Manchester to pick up an Avro Anson at Ringway aerodrome to deliver it to another location. (The Avro Anson was the workhorse of the war in the early years; in the later years it was replaced by the DC‑3 Dakota, (a.k.a. C-47 Skytrain). When he learned that we were on our way to take a boat to the Isle of Man, an island off the west coast of northern England, he suggested that he fly us there and drop us off at the RAF Station. Needless to say we accepted. The most exciting part of the trip was taking off from Ringway when the pilot asked me to hurry and pump up the undercarriage (no hydraulics); he then proceeded to buzz his girlfriend's house in Manchester before we headed west and landed at the RAF Station on the Isle of Man. Our hotel reservations were not until the next day so we requested accommodation at the RAF station; and the two of us spent a pleasant evening in the officers' mess enjoying the food, the beer, and the camaraderie of the RAF officers there.
I still have a Post Office telegram dated 15 SEP 45 sent to me when I was on leave at the Montpellier Hotel in Brighton, a resort town on the English Channel: = YOU ARE DUE FOR REPATRIATION ON 21ST SEPTEMBER STOP REPORT BACK TO UNIT NOT LATER 18TH SEPTEMBER = RAFMAIN BOUTONONTHEWATER+. This was the beginning of the end of my RAF attachment. A month later I was at #1RD TORQUAY, the rehabilitation depot at a resort town on the south Devon coast. After about a week of leisure there I boarded the same troopship I came over on, the Queen Elizabeth I, sailing from Southampton for my return to Canada.
Postscript: In 1946 the British Air Ministry issued a Certificate of appreciation to all Radar personnel who served during the war, and some years later the Secretary of State for Air presented them to each of us on behalf of the RCAF.
Allan E Paull, Professor Emeritus, University of Toronto
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