- The View from the Tower -

I arrived at Ventnor in March 1950 via Bridgenorth, Yatesbury, transit camp at Newbury, CH quarterly overhaul party at Rye, my first encounter with CH, then on to Ventnor because they were short of a CH mechanic! I may add that I was not trained on CH having been told it was obsolete when at Yatesbury.

I had drawn the short straw and was warned to be on the lookout for the Station Warrant Officer Estelle, a gentleman(?) whose reputation was well known throughout 11 Group. Having travelled down from Waterloo in overcoat order with full webbing etc, I struggled up The Shute and presented myself at the guardroom in the old domestic site in Down Lane. Flagpole at Down Lane siteThe RAF policeman, Alf Tuffin was booking me in when that certain WO told me to stand to attention, get my heels together and placed me on a charge for having creases in my overcoat. His exact words which have stuck in my mind for all this time were, "Knock him off Corporal, shake him up a bit while I am away." I never saw his face then because he went out of the door, going on leave and Alf having asked where I lived prior to being called up and finding out that both of us came from West London, Alf from Shepherds Bush and me from Ealing, uttered several rude words to the SWO`s back and tore up the Form 252!

The full complement of the station at that time was approximately between 35 to 45, comprising CO, Adjutant, 2 WO`s 1 Admin and 1 Technical, 1 Flt Sgt and a Sgt (both technical) , 3 GRM`s 1 Radar fitter, about 12 radar operators ( these numbers changed almost overnight dependant upon the requirements of other stations in the chain), 3 RAF policemen, 3 cooks, 3 drivers 3 clerks, 2 telephone operators, these numbers varied because there was a lot of movement due to the change over from 18 months to 24 months service due to the Korean War starting. We were all billeted in Down Lane apart from the CO, Tech WO and Flt Sgt who all lived out. The food was excellent because we all had the same food and woe betide Corporal "Ginger" Goddard the cook in charge, if it wasn`t up to scratch, the SWO saw to that! The food was cooked on coal fired brick built ranges (a relic of the wartime) and these had to be kept alight overnight, this being the responsibility of the duty RAF Policeman! We went through a bad patch when Ginger went off sick (not from his own cooking) and we had a catering officer sent over from Tangmere to take charge and try to balance the books, because Ginger kept overspending the budget. This officer insisted in serving health foods, eg, raw prunes for breakfast. Naturally, the SWO saw to it that he was posted back to where he came from fairly quickly. Ginger came back and overspent the budget fairly quickly!

Down Lane domestic site

These quarters had been the WAAF quarters during the war with the male staff billeted at the top site. Every Wednesday night was bull night with a CO`s inspection and parade Thursday morning, everyone on parade was usually told to get his hair cut or a razor down his neck by the SWO. It was hard to believe that the station was deemed to be operational and probably the only one in 11 Group which had a SWO like ours!


We did have one AOC`s inspection when the guard of honour, of which I was one of six members, performed a "slope arms" with fixed bayonets inside a hut, because it was raining and the ceiling became perforated with six holes! It was good to see the SWO highly embarrassed.

Wednesday afternoons were generally recognised as sport afternoons, everywhere that is, except Ventnor, because the SWO would hand out a list of jobs to be done. I have walked across the small ploughed field that stood in the centre of the site, spreading seed by hand ready for the next harvest! Nobody was excused except those who informed him that they were wanted up at the top site on watch that afternoon.

One Wednesday, the SWO forgot to hand out his list and two of the lads went out of camp, perfectly legally. When they returned he placed them on a charge and they received 7 days jankers. Having completed the seven days they were advised by the other Senior NCOs to submit what was known as "A redress of a grievance" against both the SWO and the CO. A Board of Inquiry was held at RAF Tangmere, our parent station at that time and it found against both parties. The CO was posted to Yorkshire and the SWO to Germany!

A highlight of the day was to see the Adjutant march his two Scottish terriers from his quarters to his office and if you happened to be in the Orderly Room next door, hear him place them both on a charge for not standing to attention! These dogs had to be bathed and groomed by the Adjutant`s batman in the bath, probably not listed in his official duties. The story went that the Adjutant had retired immediately after the war as a Wing Commander but re-enlisted as a Flying Officer. He always wore the uniform of a Flying Officer but some said that it was an honorary rank but who were we to query that statement? At the time of the AOC`s inspection, he turned out in his Winco`s uniform only to be told very smartly in front of the guard of honour by SWO Estelle that he was improperly dressed! This demonstrated the type of man Estelle was, not standing on ceremony, he didn't even take the old boy aside!

The new CO, Fl.Lt Jeffries and the F/Sgt acting SWO were both sport mad and knowing that the station was operational, ended the bull nights and CO`s parade. During the latter part of my time at Ventnor, there was a temporary shortage of RAF policemen and Telephonists due to the increase in the National Service time from 18 to 24 months and so it was quite normal for a couple of us to man the guardroom at night and in my case, because I worked for Post Office Telephones, prior to National Service, the Technical WO asked me whether I could cover some night duty on the station switchboard. This was a "sleeping watch", because the board was closed down at 22.00hrs and out came the bed until 06.00hrs the next day. I well remember an occasion when being on duty in the guardroom on a Saturday a very smart 15cwt truck appeared at the camp entrance, highly polished with wheel nuts painted red or white. A sergeant RAF policeman announced that he and the two corporals were from the Provost Marshals office in London and that they proposed doing a "Town Patrol" that evening. Word was immediately passed around that anybody going out that night would be wise to wear civilian clothes. Out they went and did their patrol, even going into the Winter Garden Ballroom. He was absolutely furious when they returned later that night and said they had not seen any RAF personnel out in uniform. That very same sergeant was posted to Ventnor a little later and I wonder if he was still there when the domestic site moved to its new location in charge of the police section. One of the original policemen, "Lucky" Jordan and I used to go down town for a drink of Brickwoods Brown Ale which needed a glass of rum to fortify it and when he was on night duty sometimes used to bring me breakfast in bed at 0500 hrs. The remainder of the lads could never quite fathom out why I never went to breakfast with them when this happened!

The top site equipment was the CH and CHL this being maintained by Tony Gallagher and Harry Andrews and in service daily, the occasional exercise involving the Fleet Air Arm flying in low under the radar. There was a Type 13 and Type 14 but all my time was with CH. It was officially listed as under care and maintenance but was run up daily, checked and signed for. The T Block housed two CH transmitters and at Ventnor, the station telephone switchboard. Not having any previous training on CH, Jim Marshall, the radar fitter gave me the bare rudiments and from there I learnt the hard way. It was quite interesting, particularly as the transmitter employed water cooled valves. The water was stored under the floor and cooled by passing it through a very large radiator and fan housed outside in the blast wall. Unlike conventional glass valves this type had to be stripped down and cleaned internally and the only way to lift the water cooled head was by using a pulley system. Once seated down again, a vacuum had to be created inside by means of a special pump. This creation of this vacuum had to be done every time the transmitter was required for use and the only way to test for it was to plug in a crude looking box with two metal pointers showing beneath a glass aperture and if after pressing a button there was an arcing between the pointers, the vacuum was complete. It usually meant that the whole process of running up took approximately seventy five minutes. There was a control desk where most of the running up process was monitored by switching into the various stages with the aid of a small cathode ray tube and observing the waveform shapes. It was always a nice moment when you pressed the appropriate button to apply the power to those big valves, wind up the 40,000 volts HT rheostat and sit back! The receivers were also kept in running order but in my time, never staffed by operators.

The Rx towers as viewed by Harold's Box Brownie from the top of a Tx tower,with the wartime men's domestic site below. Another part of the care and maintenance was the periodic check of the aerial array and this was mainly after bad weather when I would climb to the top of the 360ft masts to see if there was any damage to the array or insulators and if so, call the quarterly overhaul party in to lower the array and repair the damage. I also had to check the masthead red lamps. I remember that in early 1951, both transmitters were refurbished by Metropolitan Vickers and the water cooled valves replaced by conventional valves and sometime after my demob, they were dismantled completely.

Once the old regime of the SWO and CO had departed, we did occasionally scrape up a reasonable football team (with me as goal keeper) taking on such sides as the Royal Artillery from Parkhurst Barracks, Sandown Police, residents from HM Prison Parkhurst, and once we played cricket against RAF Uxbridge at RAF Sopley in a knockout competition for the Fighter Command Trophy. Naturally we got knocked out! Several of us signed on for the Ventnor Football Club, playing at weekends.

I remember that during the winter of 1950-51, we had a terrific blizzard one Friday night with the result that most of the huts were snowbound and we actually had to dig ourselves out to go to breakfast! I have personally never experienced snow like that before or since. Our hut was the wooden one situated down to the right hand side of the photo and although it was heated by the usual barrel stove, hot water came from a boiler located in a space at the end and was normally kept fired up by civilian staff during the day but in the evenings and weekends by the occupants of the hut. It was not unusual to have the safety valve lifting and the top of the boiler glowing! We had to go outside the hut to get to it so there was always friendly discussion regarding who had stoked it last.

One thing that I could not understand was that whilst the station was deemed to be operational and therefore subject to some semblance of security, the top site was only fenced in by concrete posts probably six feet high linked by five or six strands of galvanised wire which from its condition, was probably the original fencing erected when the site first opened. We were required to book in at the guard room on entering the site but we quite often used to leave the site at lunchtimes by climbing out through the wire on the south side and then run or walk down the well trodden footpath that led to the farm next to the domestic site. We even had RAF Police dogs later on who were supposed to add to the security but I cannot recall them ever being walked around the perimeter.

At the onset of the Korean War, the Air Ministry decided that the security of the camp should be tested (I can't think why because I don't expect any North Koreans had even heard of RAF Ventnor or even knew where the Isle of Wight was located) and therefore arranged for the Royal Artillery to attempt a raid on the top site under the cover of darkness. All top site staff were issued with rifles and five rounds of dummy ammunition and instructed to guard their respective equipments and await the arrival of the"enemy". Whether the RA ever came I don't know because we got so cold including the Tech F/Sgt. and Sgt. who both being older than the rest of us, felt it more and they said something to the effect of "Bother this, we're going down to the cookhouse for a hot drink" and so we all departed, leaving the site for the RA. We never heard from them so we assumed that they had given up the exercise as a bad job or they had lost their way between Parkhurst and Ventnor and would not admit it!

During this period we had the first intake of "H" reservists posted to us for two weeks and due to the lack of accommodation, they had to sleep under canvas, the tents being erected along the path between the ploughed field and the cookhouse. Typical of Air Ministry organisation, not one of them had been anywhere near a radar site, so their time was spent between days on the RA rifle range or days out to Portsmouth and Southampton. I believe that they even spent a day at the Southsea Fun Fair! When I was demobbed I was placed on the "H" reserve too and one year later was invited to return to the RAF, but not to Ventnor. However, the dates happened to coincide with a holiday I had booked so I told them that. In reply I was informed "not to worry" and that I would be given a new date. I still have my kitbag nicely folded showing my number and waiting for the postman to call!

Immediately prior to my demob I observed the early part of the construction of something big involving a very large and deep hole with two large McAlpine cranes and many tons of concrete being poured. Enquires resulted in being told that it was top secret. After leaving Ventnor, I often wondered what it was going to be on completion. I now know that it was the ROTOR site. I visit the Island three or four times a year to St Helens and often go "up top" and until recently, stood outside the NATS main gate and wondered where it was in relation to the position of the CH masts, as I remembered them. I obtained copies of the site plans from the RAF Museum and on a late issue, could see exactly where it is, together with information from various other websites about RAF Ventnor.

And here, fifty five years after last passing its portals, Harold emerges from the bowels of the Ventnor R Block following his tour of inspection in March 2006.








Return to 'On Parade'....or....Take Leave....or....Read about the building of The Hole that Harold saw.


Text & Photographs© 2006 Harold Lewis