- Bob Irwin -


I came across your web page and thought you might like to read this extract from my father's memoirs. I believe he went to RAF Ventnor in Oct/Nov 57 so you may have been there at the same time. He was then Sgt (or Flt Sgt?) Bob Irwin. I was at school in Sandown and then Ventnor for a year, aged 9 to 11. My Dad took me once down into the depths of the radar station- it made quite an impression on me at that age.

Kind Regards

Ken Irwin


Isle of Wight 1957 - 1960

I always felt a sense of excitement when a move was expected. In twenty six years of moving around within the RAF I never once felt regret at moving on. The excitement of what lay in store at the next location was always enough to offset the sense of loss of what we were leaving behind. In later years we were given more advance warning about impending moves but in 1957 man management and forward planning didn't feature highly in the order of priorities. Yours is not to reason why was the prevalent adage

When returning from abroad we could list three areas of choice to which we would like to go next. We had a standing joke that if you wanted to go to the south of England it was better to ask for the north of Scotland. I requested N. Ireland, Scotland and the south of England and was posted to the Isle of Wight. By RAF interpretation I had got the area of my choice. Hitherto I was the advance party in our many moves but this time we had a change of tactic. We packed everything into the Morris Minor and headed off to Ventnort. Until then I had never heard of Ventnor and the Isle of Wight was a dot on the map off the coast of Hampshire. We took the car on the overnight ferry from Belfast to Liverpool. No 'drive on, drive off' ferries existed then. The car was driven on to a net and hoisted by crane on to the open deck of the ship. An early morning start from Liverpool followed a stormy night crossing and we motored all day until we ran out of land at Lymington, Hampshire, and decided to stay overnight and get a ferry in the morning to the Island. The holiday season was over and we had no difficulty getting an apartment in Ventnor as a temporary measure. Shortly afterwards we rented a house, 'Cymric' in nearby Sandown and lived there for a year until we moved to an RAF house at Ventnor.

The Isle of Wight is a beautiful holiday resort and was a favourite haunt of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and today there is still evidence of their involvement with the island. Every town on the island is a holiday attraction and each has its own characteristic. Cowes is internationally famous for its yachting activities and especially for its regatta week, Sandown holds the UK record for the most hours of sunshine and Ventnor, terraced on the slopes of St. Boniface Down, is more like a Continental resort. I always thought since of The I.O.W. as the most beautiful part of England. Everything is in its favour. It is far enough south to have a favourable climate and low rainfall and the only drawback is accessibility as the ferries are inconvenient and make travelling to the mainland expensive.

The RAF station existed at Ventnor from 1939 until 1960 and was an important radar outpost being one of four covering the southern approaches to England. The island virtually escaped the war apart from several bombs dropped aimlessly by the Luftwaffe making a hasty retreat, although Cowes was the target of attacks, and the radar site took an early pasting. They could hardly return to Germany with their bombs on board as that would have taken some explaining. The RAF station was located in and on St. Boniface Down and overlooked Ventnor, which was terraced on the lower slopes. On the top of the Downs the radar reflectors continually rotated sweeping the air and sea approaches across the English channel, whilst tunnelled out of the bowels of the mountain was an underground cavern-like complex which housed all the sophisticated radar and military equipment for a modern air and sea control and reporting Unit.

Apart from the rotating radar reflectors there was no evidence of the hive of activity going on under the shell of the mountain. There was only one entrance or exit and that was via an inconspicuous and well controlled system of double doors, guarded by RAF police. The domestic and office accommodation was located further down the hill and the quarters for married personnel overlooked the town and the sea. From our lounge window we could see the town of Ventnor, the sea and the pier - a picture book setting.

I was in charge of Stores and Equipment at Ventnor and although the unit was numerically small we were still subject to the same system of control and accounting as a large operational unit. I had two assistants. One was responsible for the operational aspects i.e. spares for the radar, radio and ancillary equipment and the other one looked after the domestic requirements i.e. shoe repairs, laundry, furniture and office requisites and POL (petrol oils and lubricants). Our supplies came from the parent unit, at Sopley, Hampshire. (The last time Sopley was in the news was as a refuge for the Vietnamese boat people in 1981/82) I had the use of a Morris J2 van in which I used to collect the Stores on a weekly basis. I enjoyed the weekly trip on the ferry and the drive through the New Forest. Road traffic was minimal and I enjoyed the quiet peace and tranquility of the New Forest.

Some time in 1959 Ventnor became superfluous to the defence system of the country as changing requirements and new radars meant fewer locations were required so Ventnor was closed. I remained behind because, as Equipment Officer, I had to dispose of all the equipment. There was one other problem - the eighteen houses or married quarters. Originally occupied by personnel on the station, they were now, as they became vacant, allocated to the families of airmen serving unaccompanied abroad in places like Christmas Island or Gan. As Sopley was some three or four hours away it was desirable to have someone on the spot to look after the houses, check people in and out and arrange electricity changes and supply, so I was elected to remain indefinitely. I stayed for another year, the lone survivor of a bygone age, until I was posted to Hong Kong in August 1960

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Text © 2006 Bob Irwin