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A History of the School of Fighter Control

by Flt Lt Tony "Plez" Pleasant (Retd)
(Published here by kind permission of the author)

"LEARN IN ORDER YOU MAY GUIDE"

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

When I first joined the RAF in 1958 I was required to complete a security form that contained a box measuring approx 2 inches by 1.5 inches. The information required was a list of all members of your family living outside the United Kingdom, including Eire. As my mother had been the youngest of 11 children and hailed from Cork I realised there would not be enough space to include all aunts, uncles, and cousins. I, therefore, wrote, "Too numerous to mention". The flight sergeant was not amused and demanded I obtain a comprehensive list of all those relatives. I obtained such a list from my mother and wrote them into the box and all around the margins of the form. The flight sergeant was totally unimpressed, gave me a thorough talking to regarding the poor use of sarcasm in a service environment and ordered me to write "Too numerous to mention" in the box provided. That small anecdote is to cover my six in case I miss anyone from this list of acknowledgements. Sufficient to say that almost everyone I called upon was only too willing to help. Thank you all.

Mike Hatch Air Historical Branch, London

Everyone connected with the Air Defence Battle Command & Control Museum, RAF Neatishead, especially Sqn Ldr Roy Bullers (Retd)

Mike Swan, John Hyde, Don Cameron, Jim Crofts who all contributed.

RAF Museum, Hendon, for allowing me to research the photographs

SFC personnel past and present especially the then Wg Cdr Brian Rogers who gave me the job and Sqn Ldrs "Wedge" Preston the well known parachutist and Al Macpherson, now retired, for their help in improving my English, and all the conscientious F540 compilers without whose diligent work this task would have been impossible.

Finally to Maggie, my wife, who must have had her patience sorely tried by my initial never-ending babble and who was kind enough to read the first couple of drafts.


PREFACE

Since the first bomb was dropped on London on 31 May 1915 there has been an obvious requirement for some form of air defence of the United Kingdom. The belt of searchlights1 that stretched from the south coast to Northumberland during the First World War was most likely 'state of the art' for 1916 but hoping to spot the intruders from the dark side as they passed through the powerful beams of light was not going to be the ideal for too long. In the mid twenties only one airfield in East Anglia, RAF Duxford2, was equipped with aircraft for interception duties, possibly giving rise to that well known fighter control saying, "Scramble the Duxford Wing". The squadrons based there at the time were Nos 19, 29 and 41, the first two being equipped with the Gloster Grebe3 and No 41 Sqn flying the Siskin4. Relatively long-range detection was achieved by using sound and usually involved massive constructions (walls) some 200ft in length and 26 feet high with a curved, partial parabolic design, or a detector in the shape of a bowl. The initial plan for the defence of the south coast from Swanage to The Wash was for three 200ft walls in the Thames estuary and a further 21 for the remainder of the coast. Also planned were 10 of the 30ft bowls for the estuary and 4 for the remainder of the coast5 (Photographs of wall and bowl types can be found in issues 24 and 26 of the C&R Bulletin). A well preserved example of a similar sound location wall can still be seen in Malta, a legacy from World War II; at least there was one in 1979!

In the mid-thirties much work was being done in the area of Radio Detection Finding (RDF), especially by the Radio Research Establishment using 13 MHz equipment on a 250ft tower6, the production of such equipment was to render the concrete walls in the UK obsolete. On 26 February 1935, two men met in a muddy field at Weedon near Daventry, Northants for a trial of what the general public thought of as a 'death ray'; they were in fact there to investigate the effects of an aircraft passing through a radio beam. The radio beam to be used was provided by the BBC Empire Service transmitter at Daventry7 which operated in the 49 metre band. The choice of target aircraft was by no means accidental, it was a Handley Page Heyford bomber8 and had been specifically chosen because its wing span was 75ft, equivalent to 23 metres, almost half the wavelength of the Daventry transmitter. To the delight of both men, as the aircraft passed through the beam, flying at a height of 6000ft, a deflection was noted on their measuring equipment. They measured the deflection out to a range of 8 miles. If it can be said that Bawdsey was the birthplace of radar it is equally true that it was conceived in a muddy field in Northamptonshire. Incidentally, the two men were the Superintendent at the Radio Reception Centre at Slough, a certain Mr Watson-Watt the inventor of radar9, and the other was Air Vice Marshal Dowding later to become the Air Officer Commanding Fighter Command 1936 to 194010. It is reported that after the successful trial Watson-Watt turned to Dowding and proclaimed, "England is once more an island"


INTRODUCTION

The initial, "authorised" history of the School of Fighter Control (SFC) was written in 1986 by a budding Fighter Controller called "Ginge" Crayford. The young officer Crayford had volunteered at the behest of the then Officer Commanding the SFC Wg Cdr Ted Ward. It is understandable, therefore, that after thirteen or fourteen years an update is required; also the School celebrates its diamond jubilee in the year 2000, so it is hoped this history will be in circulation by then.

Why do we need a history of the SFC? It is often said that many lessons are learnt from history. I am not so sure about lessons being learnt, but as I have researched this particular piece of history I have noticed the same errors recurring. If I may give just one example from my own experience.....

In January 1968 Sqn Ldr Bob Beardsley, the Officer Commanding the SFC, expressed his disquiet about the failure rate. With specific reference to the older student, he wrote , "Concern is felt for the reduced number of students on the fighter control course. Despite pleas to reduce the upper ages of the older students one member of No 34 course is a fifty year old re-entry officer, this must be a record." The first edition of our history continues, "It seemed that the lessons during the second World War of trying to teach 'old dogs new tricks' had been forgotten once again". During my first tour as an instructor at RAF West Drayton, between 1980 and 1983, a scheme was introduced whereby Flight Sergeants, "of a certain age", were encouraged to attempt the Controller's course with the possibility of promotion to Warrant Officer should they pass; I cannot recall one who did - old dogs new tricks?

I realise there will be a multitude clamouring to give details of historical teaching that will disprove the rather cynical example detailed in the last paragraph; I would therefore like to thank them in advance in the hope of saving them both time and effort. Of course lessons can be learned as long as we are all wise enough to learn them. I would rather see history as a compilation of facts, experiences, anecdotes but, mostly, people who have gone before but remain as much a part of the Service and Branch as those currently serving. The School is the first introduction to the Branch for budding Fighter Controllers, so is possibly more worthy of a 'history' than any other unit within Fighter Control.

In 1960, as I hope you will read, the School closed for nearly four years and that decision has ensured that, in the opinion of many senior officers, the Branch has remained undermanned for the ensuing forty years. It is now almost certain that, with the arrival of the Higher Instructional Officers, that particular piece of history will never be repeated!

A knowledge of what went before gives us our links with the past and, hopefully, an understanding of the problems that were prevalent during the years of less technically perfect radars and also a respect for the many individuals who put down the foundations upon which the expertise and finesse, so evident in the modern Fighter Controller, were laid. A glance through some of the course photographs, many originals still available, provide a constant reminder of some of the characters that have manned the Branch, a solid pictorial history. There is, inevitably, a sadness that many of those pictured are no longer with us, but history can provide the memories that bind the past to the present.

So, to all young and thrusting Branch members, I wish a complete career and I hope that when your service comes to an end, you will look back with pleasure and pride that you served as a Fighter Controller and praise the School that set you on the road.

Continue to the next part of the history ......