By a one time Navigator

It all became rather more serious, in a different way, when posted to an Operational Squadron.

Until them the preoccupation had been to jump the hurdles of seemingly course after course of arduous training with the dreaded stigma of being ‘C T’d ‘( Ceased Training), always lurking in the wings to make a swift and silent ‘strike’ should competence and motivation momentarily lapse. Up to this time, extraneous activity, what we understood to be part of Squadron life and took the form of wild parties in the Mess, where ribald songs followed extremely heavy imbibing, had been sensibly set to one side. So this bit of hedonism stretched before us quite invitingly.

Familiarity with the ‘Beau’ in all the aspects of it’s functions and operating Capabilities, had brought a reasonable level of confidence to be able to perform to the required standards, and, surprisingly, there was a deep sense of tangible relief that, at long last no more tests, other than to cope with the real thing. This was also manifest in a sense of exhilaration, and a quiet, and exciting anticipation of what real ‘ops’ would be lika Curiosity overcame concern.

But still not quite there, few local flights, then a few ‘cross-countries’ had to be completed, before ‘voila’, name in print on the ‘Crew Availability’ roster, in stark and a touch startling, black and white.

For some the ‘Runway’ had a very significant role in the ‘real’ operational trips. It seemed to be a focal point. It was the start and the finish, the departure and the arrival point of’ our personal, and deeply committed involvement it, the affairs of that time, and always beckoned invitingly, when, at the end of a ‘hard day’, and the ‘clag’ was down, and position was uncertain, tired and anxious eyes were peeled for a first glimpse of it’s comfort.

‘Theatres of Operation’ as our American friends so called them, varied greatly according to the type of’ target the enemy offered and the capability of our aircraft to effectively take ‘remedial action’. From the somewhat frigid and rugged coastlines of Northern Scotland, to the more tolerable English flatlands of East Anglia, ‘sorties’ ranged eastwards to the coasts across the North Sea, On the other hand, battle was fought over the sands and placid Mediterranean waters of the Middle East, and, probably more arduous and less likely to provide the basic creature comforts when aggression was in temporary in abeyance for a few hours or so, the beautiful, but heavily wooded jungle islands to the North of Australia.

The ’Home Runway’, consequently, came in a variety of shapes and sizes, with, of course, attendant variation in local geographical features, to either aid or complicate easy access to or take off from. The wide variety included strips hacked out in the jungles of the East, in a most laborious way, and allowing with it’s narrow width, little latitude for error on take off and landing, and with a very indifferent surface.

In the Middle East, runways of compacted sand, hardened by a coat of oil, but with the ‘shifting sands’ of that area, somewhat ill defined. In the early days after the landings in Europe, those made of steel mesh, (I forget the ‘trade name’) but undoubtedly providing a ‘rough ride’. And, of course, the more usual standard type of aerodrome set-up, consisting of three intersecting concrete or tarmac runways, orientated to prevailing wind direction, and speeds, and, at a lot of places, where three runways were impractical or unnecessary, a wide expanse of grass.

The pressures of war brought rapid development in all areas of technical knowledge, and in aviation the scene was constantly shifting, with new aircraft, and operating techniques being constantly introduced. It was ’open slather’ and any idea,no matter how weird or improbable that offered aid to victory, was given due and serious consideration.

Some ideas relating to the ‘Runway’ were the fruit of extremely imaginative thinking. There was, for instance an idea to use icebergs, in mid Atlantic, as landing grounds for aircraft on Atlantic patrols against U-boats. They were to be ‘harvested ‘in the North and towed to position and moored there. Strange in retrospect, but desperation is a hard taskmaster. Crews of land based aircraft coming across an Aircraft Carrier at sea, and being very cautious of the inevitable ‘friendly fire’ noted with sharp interest the remarkable limitations of the ‘sea-borne Runway’ and the demand for most specific skills at that ‘interface’ with the choice for pilots, when choice had to be made on take of and landing, greatly limited.

But with the immense amount of shipping activity ranging over all areas, there was a serious shortfall of Aircraft Carriers to provide air cover for convoys. A somewhat hazardous and ad hoc method was introduced by fitting some quite small merchant ships with catapults to launch Hurricane Fighters. These ships were not large enough to permit any font of landing facility, and the returning pilot was obliged to chose between ditching his aircraft next to the ship or bailing out. A grim choice in the chill wastes of the North Atlantic and those pilots rate high in dedication and courage.

The ‘Home Runway’ with its ‘creature comforts’, was, of course, first choice, but bad weather, and delays due to ‘prangs’ etc. sometimes necessitated diversion to another landing ground. Many aerodromes had their own alternative runway known as a ‘Satellite’ but these had few facilities and were merely somewhere to ‘lob- in’ until matters had been sorted out and it was possible to return to home.

With the advent of more and larger aircraft, bigger loads, range etc. the ‘gathering storm’ gathered way and much of eastern England assumed the appearance of one large aerodrome with all the congestion of virtually overlapping airfield circuits. The amount of work in airfield construction had to be speeded up with the arrival of the American 8th Air Force-Boeing B 17’s and Liberator B24’sand huge amounts of concrete for building runways was used.

The place was literally crawling with runways most of which were extended significantly in under and overshoot, to accommodate the demands of the new planes. It became apparent that special facilities had to be provided to handle returning aircraft with special problems, like difficulty in retaining control of the plane, and in the extremely fickle weather of North West Europe, weather conditions which precluded landing at most, if not all, the ‘home base’ airfields. To this end three special landing aerodromes were installed, colloquially known as ‘pranging dromes’, strategically placed on the East Coast.

These had very long runways, supplemented with very extensive under and overshoots. In addition, they were fitted with ‘FIDO’ -Fog Intensive Dispersal Operation-, this consisted of pipes alongside the runway, conveying fuel, with nozzles at interval, where the fuel was ignited when necessary to aid the incoming aircraft. The heat generated by the burning fuel, lifted and dispersed much of the fog and gave the crew a sporting chance of getting down in one piece. This also provided a glow through the weather which aided location of the airfield. On many occasions it was a long shot, when the ‘fickle finger’ was being exceedingly fickle, but many crews owe their survival to this remarkable but simple device.

The writer was on hand at one such drome when the weather conditions were almost zero, and a B117 Flying Fortress of the American 8th AirForce made several desperate attempts to ‘get down’. The last approach ended in catastrophe, and the doomed aircraft ploughed through five or six Mosquito aircraft on the perimeter track near the main runway. All were totally destroyed in the ensuing flames.

One UK. Beaufighter Station had one runway East/West, with the East end almost on the sea, and also a wide expanse of grass area to permit take off and landing North and South. With a large force of aircraft, say 40 or 50 or so, setting out on a planned ‘Strike’ or seeking a target of opportunity, a somewhat special, and I think spectacular procedure for takeoff evolved. This entailed, after Briefing and Start up, carefull taxiing and positioning for take-off in alternative pairs. When airborne, low attitude and a lengthy run away from the aerodrome was made, with aircraft subsequently taking off and turning in towards the long gaggle and forming loose formation.

The procedure was so organised, with precise timing, that when the whole Strike Wing swept back across the aerodrome at about 75 feet and with an almighty roar, the formation had tightened up in more orderly fashion. For the crews, on such a ‘fly-past’, the sight of the aerodrome staff, out in their numbers by the Control Tower, to wave and cheer us on our way, was most exhilarating, encouraging and quite unforgettable. This procedure, viewed in retrospect, was one of those aspects of Service leadership and moral, planned with little pomp or fuss, that enabled the aircrews to express their appreciation of the dedication of all ranks and trades who contributed, in whatever capacity, and in hard weather conditions, to put in the air such a potent Attack Force.

To experience the sight from the ground, when not taking a flying part, was also most moving, with the overpowering roar of those sturdy and reliable Hercules 1650 horsepower engines gradually becoming faint in the distance and the airfield overtaken by a solemn and tangible silence. Time seemed to stand still, until gradually the onlookers dispersed to carry out their many duties. Everyone was aware of the approximate time the crews were due to return and a gentle wave of anticipation became apparent, a kind of ripple of hope, with the thought of the count of returning aircraft to be made and that, without doubt, no matter how many Pines the count was made, not all would be there to be counted.

But hope always lingered arid was extended until no further extension of time was feasible. Sometimes a buzz of excitement, long after this extension had lapsed, occurred, with news that someone had lobbed into another ‘drome’, condition unknown, casualty not stated Anxiety once more took over, until the identity of the crew filtered through, with either the great sense of relief that a close colleague had made it or it was crew perhaps not quite so well known who were the fortunate blokes.

Time passes, many things are forgotten but some aspects of those flying days frequently swing into sharp focus, the ‘good’ invariably, and ‘triggered’ by quite odd and apparently unconnected factors. Perhaps most of us have a specific kind of triggering mechanism. In my case, it seems to he thought of the ‘Runway’.  Lincolnshire. in Eastern England, was, as menntioned, really one vast and congested ‘runway’. but now, with only few exceptions, the land is back to its farming use, with cattle grazing and wheat and other crops waving their heads in the English breezes where such intense activity once took place. One such runway discovered to be not quite so derelict as most, was ‘our runway’. Many post-war years later, when the opportunity came to re-visit the scene of our Beaufighter activity, an experience, quite unexpected and startling occurred It was a ‘massive overload of re-call’.

Little was left of the aerodrome, other than the main runway, running East and West. It was a bit ‘tatty’ but even in that state looking down its length, brought a heightening of sensibility and thoughts began to kaleidoscope with ever increasing intensity and the present time and surroundings began to take on a far-away aspect. A companion’s voice came through this haze, suggesting a quick dash down the runway. As the car gathered speed down this crumbling, but faithful old piece of tarmac, on the familiar heading of 0900-due east towards the sea. I quickly and irresistibly slipped into a ‘time-warp’.

Every take-off, every landing, with all the excitement, fear, exhilaration, and all the happenings of those flights of the past, totally overwhelmed me in such emotional power as to be almost incapacitating. Faces, names, visions of violent scenes, swam, through my mind at lightning speed. The experience was unique, an ‘out of dimension’ happening and recovery to the then present time sluggish and not really welcome.

That ‘Runway’ was the place of so many takeoffs, with many sadly into that great and unknown void, with Flying Log Book subsequently ruled oft, cryptically, ‘Failed to Return’. Those who did make that ‘Final Touch-Down’ remember those friends with much respect,

S.Wright – VK6YN. November 1999.

Return to the index of Vital Spark articles.

G3MGQ’s Month on the Air

Prepared by the clubs RSGB trainer, G3MGQ, you will find the latest DX contests including the ones to shoot for as well as ones to give a wide berth. Why not download the latest edition of Month on the Air and enjoy your DX just that little bit more.

Become a member of HERC

Join the Hastings Electronics and Radio Club.

Why not join one of the largest and most established Radio clubs in the South East of England? Very low joining cost, and free for a year to new licencees.

Vital Spark Archive

Vital Spark newsletter articles

Take a look through a large selection of articles written by club members over the years which have been published in the monthly Vital Spark newsletter .

Used Ham Radio Equipment

View HERC's Used Ham Radio Equipment for sale list..

Every four weeks, HERC's Used Ham Radio Equipment for sale list is updated on the site. Bookmark the gear for sale page to re-visit easily and take advantage of the used equipment on sale through the club.

Club Photographs

HERC Image Galleries.

Here is the official HERC photograph archive which contains multiple image galleries spanning several decades since the club was formed many years ago. Enjoy the images!

Popular pages

Get your amateur radio licence - Find out more about amateur radio licence training.
Month on the Air - G3MGQ's popular monthly DX contest/expedition list.
Wilf Gaye Memorial Cup - The clubs annual operating event in the memory of Wilf Gaye M0GYE.
St. Richard's College Buildathon/STEM/ARISS - HERC attends St. Richard's Catholic College for their various events surrounding the Tim Peake ARISS contact.
G3BDQ - John Hey's Rare QSL Cards.
Sussex Electronics Radio Fair - SERF Sussex Electronics Radio Fair 2016.
Vital Spark - A selection of articles re-published from the Vital Spark.
RSGB News - Find out how to get RSGB news on your mobile or PC.
Experimenters Corner - A selection of Proteus projects by Bob Gornal (G7DME)
BBADL - Bath Based Distance Learning Course.
Conquest Hospital Radio - Presented by HERC member Antony (G4CUS).
Radio Rallies 2016 - An up to date list of radio rallies scheduled for 2016.
Club QSL Cards - A selection of QSL cards the club has received over the years.
Other Newsletters - Excellent newsletters and magazines from other clubs.
TX Factor episodes - Take a look at the TX Factors YouTube videos.
John Taplin - A bio of the late John Taplin.

Amateur Radio Resources

Other Radio Clubs & RAYNET

BSARS - Brede Steam Amateur Radio Society

RAYNET - The Hastings and Rother RAYNET Group.

HERC members sites

Sigord - Gordon Sweet
Hastings Radio Comms - Andrew Haas-Campbell
Hoofbags - Liz Costa