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Chapter 7 - Ten Years of Bawdsey

When the Air Ministry directed that the School be reactivated on 6 January 1964, Sqn Ldr N F Smith, already serving at Bawdsey, was appointed Chief Instructor. His staff was made up of members already serving at that station. Some of the best remembered being: Barry Palmer, Jack Webb, Bob Beardsley, John Hyde, "Johnny" Johnson, Doug Shelley, Eddie Le Conte, John Platt, Vic Mitchell and last but not least WO Greg Baxter who started an association with the School that lasted for many years. The first controllers course at Bawdsey, attempting to train 10 students in 10 weeks was completed on 13 March 1964 and by 1st July 1964 14 officers and 7 SNCOs had graduated from the School. A real asset of the time was the fact that 5 aircraft of No 85 Sqn at RAF Wattisham had been established for the exclusive use of the School.

The School was established on the first floor of the education block and facilities were, for the most part, fairly primitive; Although most teaching was done by "chalk and talk", a full syllabus of academic lectures was built up, together with a full range of visits to airfields, contractors and to HMS Dryad (46). As in previous incarnations, the School participated in all major live exercises in which the station took part.

A happy coincidence: during my first tour at the School as a commissioned controller in the early 1980s I was informed, as OC Basic Air Defence Course, that we should now consider not only streaming in the two specialisations but also give guidance on students streamed Systems, as to their suitability for employment on Bloodhound Mark II squadrons. Although I had served at RAF Marham on Bloodhound Mark Is in the early 60s, I still did not feel I had the expertise to form this judgement. I therefore rang the Operations Officer at RAF Bawdsey and asked what qualities he felt were essential for a youngster joining their team. "Hang on," he said, "I'll ring you back". A little later he rang with the most helpful piece of advice, "It would be good if they had a driving licence!" As this was not exactly what I had been seeking I decided to go to the site and try to assess the requirements for myself. After the next streaming board I took along with me a youngster who we saw as a good team worker believing this to be one of the major talents we should be looking for with regard to this particular post (he also had a driving licence). As had been the situation for many years, the Manor at Bawdsey had been used for accommodation, initially as an Officers Mess, then for use by all ranks. The bar was particularly attractive, the walls being covered in squares of leather tooled, as I remember, with coats of arms. As I was admiring the workmanship, one of the SAM Controllers indicated a large, water stained area which was less than an improvement on the craftsman's art. He said that the belief was that a young trainee WRAF controller had been running a bath when she was called away to the telephone to answer a call from her boyfriend. I'm sure you've guessed the outcome...the bath overflowed causing the indicated damage. I took this story with a pinch of salt, as we are all aware of the numerous accounts of misuse of the telephone systems, not to say total "hogging" of lines by WRAF personnel.

Whilst attending the Annual General Meeting of the Association of Fighter Controllers in Ipswich in 1997, an excellent occasion for meeting old friends and making new ones, I was discussing the Bawdsey incident with a colleague in a small group. Having caused the general adverse comments I had expected, I was tapped on the shoulder by a lady who in all earnestness said, "Oh yes, it's quite true, it was me." Thank you Paddy ............ for allowing me to use this in the history and I hope the account may have solved the mystery of the stains for several readers.

There was a gap of 14 months in the RAF Bawdsey records but, as the record for March 1965 comments, "....... there have been nine courses of controllers through the School", it can be assumed it got off to a fairly lively start. It is interesting to note the aims of the School of more than 30 years ago:

1. To train officers and SNCOs in fighter control duties at a rate of 60 students per annum. The ten week course to comprise a maximum of 8 students, (this figure was later increased to 10 and then to 12).

2. To provide senior officers taking over appointments as Master Controllers with one week's familiarisation training in C&R.

3. To give trained fighter controllers, recently employed on other duties, refresher training on current C&R practice. The length of the course being determined by the skill and knowledge of individual students.

4. To initially train Air Defence Operators (ADOs) at a rate of 180 per annum.

5. To provide a re-introduction to the C&R system for ADOs who have been employed on other duties for over a year.

The task of producing 60 controllers a year may seem at first glance to be a difficult one. However, by the end of February 1965, 65 students had successfully passed the course. Five different groups were to receive training at Bawdsey:

1. Pilots and Navigators on ground tours.

2. Officer cadets after IOT.

3. Sergeants already in radar trades to be trained as Flight Sergeant controllers.

4. NCOs from other trades prior to IOT

5. Commonwealth and foreign nationals.

A quote from the book "Bawdsey", written by Gordon Kinsey, to boost the morale of controllers past and present,

"Personnel picked for training at the SFC were chosen for their alertness and the ability to make the right decision at the right time, for they were to take part in what must be one of the greatest battle of wits to be fought in our technological age".

In March 1965 the strength at the School was, one sqn ldr, seven flt lts, two WOs, one FS, one C/T and three sgts supported by JNCOs and airmen. The live flying effort was greatly increased during March as No 11 Fighter Controllers course was made up of 10 Royal Jordanian Air Force officers. Other foreign students to be trained came from Burma and Iran. Sorties flown were broken down as follows:

Meteor flight of 85 Sqn..................... 54 Sorties comprising 386 interceptions

 

Canberras of 85 Sqn......................... 2 Sorties comprising 30 interceptions

 

Hunters from Binbrook..................... 3 Sorties comprising 21 interceptions

 

Lightnings from Wattisham.............. 11 Sorties comprising 49 interceptions.

Who said it was so much easier in the "good old days?" In May 1965, it was reported that "An increase of the air traffic in the area made it more difficult to control live practice interception sorties safely and the inaccuracies of the height finding radar equipment has made it necessary to assume that all other air traffic is at the same flight level as the aircraft controlled by the School so that avoiding action is taken regardless of the indicated height separation unless the pilot has confirmed visual contact with the aircraft concerned."

It is noticeable from the record that achieving the target of 12 students per course became more and more unlikely, even increasing the number of Master Aircrew failed to boost numbers significantly and, in September 1967, the target number of students per course was reduced to eight. As a boost for the morale of all past and present female members of the Branch, an excerpt from the CO's comments from the unit records dated February 1968, ".....as usual the WRAF results are better than the RAF, they are more conscientious". Sadly, he was commenting on the ADO courses! An ominous a quote from February 1970 stated, "............and it is suggested that we should now waste no time in making a study of our controller training organisation with a view to evaluating:

a. the suitability of the recruited material;

b. the validity of our aptitude tests;

c. the effectiveness of our training methods.

I wonder how many times that's been said!

Courses for foreign students were arranged shortly after the School re-opened one of the first consisting of a Master Controller and twelve Interception Controllers from Jordan. An Executives course was arranged to accommodate Burmese officers but an unforeseen problem arose when they were found to be unwilling, or unable, to describe their own operational environment: the most junior member, a warrant officer, outshone his seniors in every respect. A most embarrassing situation.

The main equipments in use at Bawdsey were the T84 search radar (47) and the HF 200 heightfinder (48). Synthetic training was carried out using the Mullard Trainer (49) The vagaries of the Mullard Trainer were exacerbated by the male "drivers" reading books during the sorties and their female counterparts knitting! Live flying for basic training was carried out by Meteors (50) and Canberras (51) of 85 Sqn, but use was also made of the operational squadrons for more advanced practice, giving rise to a particularly close relationship with 56 and 111 Sqn Lightnings (52) at Wattisham. Surprise! Surprise, an early problem was the high failure rate of older, mainly ex-aircrew students who could not meet the work - rate requirements of the task.

During February 1966 a fire at the Master Radar Station (MRS) at Neatishead, resulted in the tragic death of two Norfolk firemen and caused the closure of the unit(53+). To fill the operational capability gap created by Neatishead's closure RAF Bawdsey (54) was re-activated as a Master Radar Station (MRS), a role it had relinquished only two years previously. The School therefore once again operated alongside a fully committed Operations Wing, leading to conflicts between School requirements and operational commitments.

This period was dogged by continued problems of failing to recruit enough students for the course and by the high failure rate of those it did recruit. This situation gave rise to a comment by Sqn Ldr Fred Flowers, " We find that this particular job of Fighter Controlling is very much an aptitude. To do this job you've got to have the ability to make up your mind quickly, to decide what has to be done and then do it without delay." A premise that still holds true today.

Courses for foreign students continued apace, often involving delicate political handling. Senior members of foreign courses could not be seen to do less well than their subordinates - let alone fail the course. One Middle Eastern student, believing he was about to be failed, tried to present the Chief Instructor with a silk prayer mat; whether it was a bribe or an attempt to seek assistance from the Almighty in obtaining patience with the student was not clear. Another senior student, again from the Middle East, enlivened a dining-in night by proposing a toast to "His Majesty Queen Elizabeth".

When Sqn Ldr Barry Palmer took over the School in 1969 it was still running the basic Fighter Control and Air Defence Operator courses. The Fighter Control instructors at the time included such worthies as, Flt Lt John Platts, Flt Lt John Ridgewell, Fg Off Pat Gallanders, Flt Lt Vic Mitchell, FS Bernie Wassel - popularly known as "Bernie the Bolt", due to a catchword used by Bob Monkhouse on a game show, "The Golden Shot", of the period. Finally the never to be forgotten, and previously mentioned - FS Ian "Lofty" Wetherell, was a stalwart of the instructional team whose favourite expression appeared to be, "He never had an original thought in his life". Lofty had the gift of every good instructor in that he could adapt his teaching method to the quality and personality of each individual student.

Sadly the problem of providing adequate numbers of fighter controllers remained; less than half the students passed the course and then some 50% of course graduates were unable to qualify at the front line. As is often the procedure, a job analysis was therefore performed, largely by Flt Lt John Platts and Flt Lt Vic Mitchell, which led to a revision of the School Syllabus. The new syllabus concentrated on basic interception skills and included 10 hours of live control, (NOTE a comparison with Phase 2 might be interesting at this point). Foreign and Commonwealth courses occupied about one quarter of the 8 IC courses held per year and were part of the target of 96 students per annum - which was not met until later. Special Master Controllers courses were organised for GD Group Captains going to take up Station Commander posts, and for Wing Commanders posted to Brockzetal and Uedem.

In 1972 the trade of ADO was changed to the present Aerospace Systems Operators (ASOps) and HQ Strike Command moved from Bentley Priory to High Wycombe.

The OC School was at this time a co-opted member of the TACEVAL team ("TRAPPERS" to the victims). The team's function was to assess the effectiveness of the Air Defence Ground Environment (ADGE) worldwide. Three of the School staff also formed part of the UK team that took part in the AFCENT Air Defence competition, at which the UK were particularly successful. The competition consisted of the control of a pair of Lightnings, one used to identify a target that was allowed to evade before a certain "bomb-line", the other being positioned to achieve a "kill" if the target was identified as "hostile". The team who achieved the most economic and successful intercept was adjudged the winner. A major interruption to the training schedule always occurred during station exercises when school staff and students were used to provide station defence during TACEVAL. More recently they were used on "Raw Deal" a very creditable charity event run jointly by the RAF and Round Table the mission being, " To run an adventure training weekend for Corporate, Round Table and RAF teams to raise money for Disability North." The School at RAF Bawdsey closed in 1974 after 10 years of contributing to the manning of the Branch.

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