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- Fly by Night -

Flaked out in a strange bed in a strange room in the huge H block, I pondered my fate whilst Geoff snored blissfully in the next bed. We had endured a long day of travelling to North Yorkshire from Ventnor. Negotiation of the London Underground was made no easier by the need to transport Geoff's Junior 60 model aeroplane together with our kitbags and suitcases. Geoff had carried the five-foot wing and I had the fuselage of this uncompleted joint venture. Our introduction to Yorkshire on November 11th. was cold, wet, and windy and we had arrived at the camp from Northallerton railway station in the draughty back of the inevitable 3 tonner.

Leeming had been built in 1941 and provided a base for a succession of heavy bomber types, eventually being equipped with the mighty Lancasters, and it was a massive place compared with dear little Ventnor. A group of H blocks were arranged around a parade ground with Station HQ, Cookhouse and NAAFI close by. Messes for officers and sergeants were a little more distant and surely somewhere not too far must be the huge hangars and the airfield. We certainly knew that there were aeroplanes! It was 23.00 and the damn things were still making an awful din: how on earth was anybody ever expected to sleep at a flying station? At Ventnor the loudest sound would have been an owl or perhaps the bleating of a lamb. We later found that flying often went on into the small hours and we learnt to be pleased when it rained, because our supposedly 'Day & Night All Weather' Javelins were loath to venture into the sky if there was perceptible precipitation. Our rooms were in no way sound-proofed but otherwise comfortable enough. The H blocks were two storied buildings with 14 bedded centrally heated rooms in the arms of the H and ablutions facilities arranged in the centre. Far superior to the 22 bed wooden huts of Square Bashing but inferior to the cosy accommodation at Ventnor. (Use the Colin Ensor link below to see a picture of an H Block).

The next morning we set about 'arriving' which involved taking a blue card on a tour of all departments of the camp and getting it signed at each one. We were a group of about a dozen radar fitters and mechanics and came from camps all over the UK. Not one of us knew why he was there but we got a good clue from the Flight Sergeant at the Signals Section HQ, when we eventually 'arrived' there. "Ah. You're not really part of us, you must belong to the new GCI Section. Finish arriving and come back tomorrow". We seemed to be an embarrassment to the Signals Section, but on the third day of reporting there, our very own Flt.Lt. Technical Officer awaited us and he quickly put us in the picture.

We were a brand new unit on the camp, too large for the existing Signals Unit to absorb and administer: we would be entire unto ourselves, working at the other side of the airfield, but of necessity living in the quarters this side. Our Type 7 radar was an overhauled second hand machine which had just been handed over after re-commissioning by the Marconi company. Our purpose in life was to assist in the training of pilots and navigators in the techniques of being controlled from the ground. My initial reaction to this spiel was of total rejection: where was the ace Type 80 man now? I didn't want to work on an old banger of a Type 7! Especially in freezing Yorkshire 200 miles from home, and in what seemed to be a 'bull-happy' camp too.

A grey bus appeared and we were soon travelling round the peri-track. A third of the way around the airfield, when we were nicely out into the countryside, a low newly constructed building appeared and the bus pulled off. Across the peri-track we could see the heads about 200 yards away. There was a low-to-the-ground Type 7, two Type 13 height finders and a strange one that looked like a Type 13 minus it's normal aerial but equipped with a very small horizontal one instead. In the distance was the traffic on the A1 trunk road and behind the GCI building were fields and low hedges. A young sergeant (Kim Stanbrook) greeted us by asking where on earth had we been as he had been waiting for us for days.

He took us on a tour of inspection of the building which revealed two 'cabins' each equipped with a PPI and a Type 13 height-finder display and one cabin with a PPI and an adjacent console for Type 7 beam split heights. There was a Radar Office and a small plant room containing the Ward Leonard servo machine for turning the Type 7. Outside it was quite a walk across the sticky turf to the Type 7 and wellington boots were needed. This radar was much smaller than the mighty Type 80: it worked on a frequency close to that used by ITV, about 200 Mhz., and consequently the reflector mesh which was flat & vertical, had mounted on it banks of dipoles, these being connected by thin pairs of parallel copper tubing (transmission lines), to a small cabin at the top of the structure. The turning motor was enclosed in a box at the base of the thick central column and adjacent to this, set in concrete was the square steel trapdoor of the man-hole entrance to the underground room. With the aerial rotating at the usual four rpm there were not very many seconds in which to scuttle in crablike, to raise the hefty lid, and to climb onto and down the ladder before the reflector came around again. As the bottom edge was only three feet above the ground, lack of agility could very easily result in one being knocked flying, and exiting from the hole required even greater care especially at night.

From the start we worked a little shift system, but we were only caretakers really and our work consisted of desultory familiarisation and testing. Christmas came and went, and then people from other trades began arriving and soon the technical people were outnumbered by operational staff and the unit duly became fully operational. Various forms of training went on at Leeming. There were several Valetta flying classrooms, each containing half a dozen Air Interception radar sets of the type the fliers would find in their fighter aircraft. Each pupil had to guide his Valetta on to a target Valetta which attempted moderate evasion. Air experience rides were allowed in the otherwise empty target planes and on one grey day I spent four long hours banking and diving over the North Sea with nothing in sight except the occasional successful Valetta classroom forming up on our wing tip, for me, too close for comfort. Further instruction was carried out in Night Fighter Meteors and I believe that it was these our ground controllers guided to within a few miles of the targets, whereupon they used their AI radar housed in the black extended nose, to complete the interception. I do not know whether the delta wing Javelin squadron was part of the radar control training programme or whether they just co-existed at Leeming as a normal fighter unit.

Our Type 7 was supposed to have a range of 220 miles and it certainly gave solid cover at 150. However the PPI display was a disappointment to a Type 80 man as the echoes were now no longer tiny tadpoles, but little crescents the size and shape of a fingernail paring, this being due to the wider beamwidth of a metric device. But in one way the Type 7 was ahead of its time in that it employed beam-switching which allowed a skilled operator to obtain heights from a dedicated A scan display, but the accuracy was not as great as heights from a Type 13. All the equipment was extremely reliable and we were not kept busy. The other mysterious head was for IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) and was not in use at that time. However, extreme reliability did not prevent the requirement for somebody to be in attendance at the Type 7 at all times and this was a very tedious business. The concrete dungeon beneath the Type 7 was a noisy dismal hole and a two hour stint was all anybody could stand. During the night time, when flying eventually ceased in the small hours, we still had to remain on shift although the Type 7 was allowed to be run down. Often I would then sleep, usually on the floor of the Radar Office but at one time we had another occupation. We would build balsa model aeroplanes and with luck one could build one from scratch and have it flying by dawn. Geoff had completed his huge model but we could only fly that at weekends, when the real planes were not normally active. The primitive radio I had constructed for it worked reasonably well over a short range and controlled just the rudder. Unfortunately, one day the Junior Sixty flew out of that range and hit a wall. The plane was OK but the engine was damaged and Geoff never got round to repairing it before he was demobbed.

P.S.

Colin Ensor has informed me that prior to the construction of the site as described above, GCI had existed at RAF Leeming in the form of a mobile convoy and indeed, further research reveals that the convoy was already a going concern by January 1947. However in 1954 Fighter Command was requesting the Air Ministry to provide dedicated radar for training purposes that could track the soon to be delivered Javelins to 50,000 feet plus. Click on Colin's name to read a good collection of anecdotes about his time at Leeming.

And Ian Stewart adds a lot more information giving us fairly recent pictures of our H Block and the NAAFI/Airmens' Mess.

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