Richard Brett-Knowles interviewed by Dr Thomas Lean



Richard Brett-Knowles interviewed by Dr Thomas Lean
Richard Brett-Knowles
Interviewed by Thomas Lean
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National Life Stories
Interview Summary Sheet
Title Page
Ref no:
Collection title:
An Oral History of British Science
Electronics engineer
Date and place of birth:
Mother’s occupation:
Father’s occupation:
January 29th
1924, Manifold
Wick, Essex
Dates of recording, Compact flash cards used, tracks (from – to):
5 January 2012 (tracks 1-5), 6 January 2012 (tracks 6-9), 28 February 2012 (track 10-14)
Location of interview:
Interviewee's daughter's home, London
Name of interviewer:
Dr Thomas Lean
Type of recorder:
Marantz PMD661 on SD card with two lapel mics
Recording format :
WAV 24 bit 48 kHz
Total no. of tracks
Total Duration:
10 hr. 4 min. 28 sec.
Additional material:
Interview open copyright to BL
Mono or stereo:
© The British Library Board
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Track 1
I’d like to start today by asking you to introduce yourself please.
Well, I’m Mr Brett-Knowles but I was born Knowles and we changed it to BrettKnowles for family reasons. And I think it might be better for you to call me
Knowles because the people I’m going to talk about will know me as Knowles,
wartime experience for example.
What did you do?
What did I do?
Well, in the war I was a civil servant in a reserved occupation in a nice safe part of
Worcestershire. Actually I was at TRE, it’s the Telecommunications Research
Establishment, so called because we didn’t do any telecommunications research at all;
we were trying to kid the Germans that we didn’t – that we didn’t know about radar.
The Germans thought we didn’t know about radar, and we thought they didn’t know
about radar for totally different reasons, theirs was over crediting us with abilities we
didn’t have. They sent a Zeppelin over in the August of 1939 to listen to our radar
transmissions, they didn’t hear them. Why? Our radar was based on the empire
transmissions of the BBC. The sun spot cycle was very favourable and they broadcast
to our empire, which we used to have before we frittered it away, on twenty-odd
megahertz. The transmissions were based on those transmitters used for the BBC.
The receivers, brand new techniques, were not transmitting speech, transmitting
pulses and we want to hear them. And it wasn’t exactly portable, it was fixed. The
Germans, on the other hand, in 1938 their army was equipped with a portable radar.
When were you born?
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1924, 29th of January, at my father’s farm. He wasn’t a farmer but he had it as a
hobby as a bailiff. His line of business was food and nutrition, for which he got a
CBE in the First World War.
Where was the farm?
In Essex, a place called – it was called Manifold Wick. A place you might know is
Tiptree, it’s not very far from there, between Tiptree and Maldon. And that was my
introduction. We left there when I was only five.
What did your father actually do?
He had a firm of produce surveyors, so he surveyed the quality of food, which left me
cold. He did not force me into his profession. He was a brilliant self engineer, he
made my toys which were far better than anything you could buy.
What was his name?
Frank Knowles. And for my fourth birthday my maternal grandmother gave me a
Meccano set. I wanted nothing more for my toys until I learned about radio.
We’ll come back to Meccano in a moment but I was wondering if you could describe
your father to me please.
Could you say again?
Could you describe your father to me please?
Yes, a medium build, not tall like I am but something went wrong with his genes, I’m
sure. He had a small moustache, he very rarely smoked, which was very common in
those days. My mother, having been a nurse, smoked like a chimney, which so
horrified me I have never smoked in my life and I don’t want to start now.
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Could you describe your father’s personality to me?
He was very helpful to people. Yes, he had a wicked sense of humour which I have
inherited I’m afraid, practical jokes. You’ll learn a little more about that later on
when you interview me about my time in Greenland. We’ll keep that for then.
Could you give me an example of one of his practical jokes?
Yes, the family came down to the farm for Christmas, I must have been about three or
four at the time. He woke us all up at midnight, Father Christmas coming down the
chimney. [both laugh]
What sort of hobbies did he have?
Making things.
What sorts of things?
Well, toys for me, what you call DIY today. We never had the man out, he always
repaired things around the house, and if he needed some sort of tool for animals he
would make it himself.
Could you – are there any things he made that stick in your mind in particular?
Well, only – yes, he made me a toy. We went to Belgium once for a holiday, he had
to go on duty frequently, and we all went. He had made me a little pull along wooden
boat. It was on the floor and a Belgian stole it from me but I caught him and I bit him
on the knee, he gave me back the toy. So if you see an elderly Belgian with teeth
marks on the knee, I did it. I couldn’t sit down for a little while afterwards.
[laughs] You mentioned that your father was a produce surveyor, and what exactly
does a produce surveyor do?
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Oh, I’m selling you beef for example, and you want to know the quality of it and so
do I. He would examine whatever it was, edible materials, and both analytically and
with common sense looking at them, and would pronounce whether they were value
or not, that was his job. And in the war, World War One, he did this for the army, he
fed them, designed their rations. That’s what got him the CBE.
Do you know what sort of background he came from?
Yes, but he didn’t force me into it. I wouldn’t have been any good at it anyway. I
inherited his ways of making things with his hands, he was extremely good at that.
So what exactly did he win the CBE for?
Feeding the troops in World War One, like Lord Woolton did in the Second World
War, designed their ration packs.
Designed in what sense?
Oh, what was to go in them, the constituents to give them I suppose adequate calories.
It’d be joules today wouldn’t it, it’d be SI units? It was calories in those days, and the
necessary vitamins such as we knew about then, we hadn’t discovered all of them in
that era. That’s what he was doing. And I told you when we were talking earlier
about the sausages he made. I helped him but the secret of their contents died with
Can you describe what your mother was like to me as well please?
Yes, she was a nurse. In those days had to pay to be a nurse, my grandfather paid for
her to go to St Thomas’. The thing I didn’t like was she smoked like a chimney,
which was very common then. The little story which is not relevant to me but to her,
she got visited, or the hospital did, by an American gentleman, and the matron came
along. My mother was showing the American round and she introduced the matron as
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Miss Lloyd, still. The American took one look at her and said, ‘I’m not surprised.’
She wasn’t the world’s most beautiful person, the matron, not my mother. And she
realised that farming and food just didn’t interest me, and she encouraged me in things
she didn’t possibly understand, electrics and radio and chemistry. She never lost any
opportunity of getting me educated.
What was her name?
Edith Annie Knowles, or to start with Edith Annie Rogers, my grandfather was Mr
Rogers, my maternal grandfather. I haven’t seen much of my father’s family. He had
two, a son and daughter, before he married my mother, they – his first wife died and
the other two are quite a bit older than I am. Once was – Auntie Ruby was my half
sister, I got on – we got on very well, and I saw my half brother once. And the reason
why I’m now Brett-Knowles but I was Knowles in this period was we wanted to
divorce ourselves from his family. I don’t know much about it but it’s not very
creditable I believe.
I’m just wondering in what sense very creditable.
Well, I don’t know is the answer, and I’d rather not know.
Could you actually describe what your mother was like to me?
Could you describe what your mother was like to me please?
Not easily. So common in that era, nothing particularly outstanding. She was very
good musically, she could play the piano. I am tone deaf, I just – I like classical
music and I also like Glenn Miller for that matter, I do not like pop, but she could play
the piano. I have tried and I’m quite hopeless at it, I can’t whistle and I don’t sing. If
I do sing people nearby me have distress, so I don’t.
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I ought to sing perhaps when I go to church services, I’m a regular churchgoer, I go to
Christmas, I had to miss this one unfortunately. I go to Easter because I said I would
when I was confirmed, and what else? I go to church when we go down to the Scillies
on a Sunday, so I go there regularly, and that’s it I’m afraid. My grandfather, with
whom we stayed when my father died, was extremely religious. There was a parson
cousin of mine that said, ‘All that show of religion, that wasn’t Christianity. Having
you and your mother to stay when your father died, that was Christianity,’ and he was
a parson, he should know.
When did your father die?
1932, when I was eight. Oh, I’m sorry, correction, 1933. I never saw him after 1932,
he died a year later. And very wisely I was not taken to see him because he had, I
suppose it’d be called Alzheimer’s today, and he didn’t even recognise my mother,
and my mother didn’t take me there. And I’m so glad ‘cause I can remember him as
he was.
How do you remember him?
How big –?
How do you remember him?
Oh, for how he treated me, and he showed me all the things he did and how to do
things that I couldn’t do until he’d shown me. Now he knew quite a lot about
electricity although we didn’t have it on the farm. I knew quite a lot more than my
colleagues did, my contemporaries, and of course he showed me all the animals. And
I could ride a horse, I had to, because we only had a tractor and a lorry and you can’t
go visiting in them, so I had to learn to ride a horse, but I’m not really a horse person.
I’ve ridden twice since, once on a – I joined the navy, which you’ll learn about in due
course, and the WREN officer had a horse. We had an open day and I had to ride the
horse, I almost but not quite fell off. And then I was in The Hague in Holland, with
the Germans there, and the safe house, the daughter there wanted a horse, so I went
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out and nicked a German one, which I had to ride bareback and I didn’t know German
words of command.
Could you describe what the farm you grew up on was actually like to me?
We had 600 acres. That might sound [inaud] and we had hay, which – we had
animals and, what do you call them, corn. And I do remember one cornfield was
absolutely shattered because the night before it was due to be harvested a rainstorm
killed it. It was a big – a big house and I’ve been back there a couple of times since,
once with my late wife and once with my daughter who went. And I could recognise
things that the present occupants didn’t. When I went with my wife there was still a
farmer there. He didn’t farm animals, he didn’t farm arable; he farmed golf balls,
much more profitable. Now the whole place is swamped by the Five Lakes resort.
There was – there weren’t any lakes in my time, and I have been back there with Janet
since and able to recognise bits of the house that they didn’t know. In particular there
were four bolts in my room in the floor, just sticking up. What are these for? That
was for the separator that separated the milk from the cream. And I actually wound
the handle of it, so I handled the churn on my own and made butter. Not very big but
I knew what to do. Haven’t used it much since. [laughs]
What sort of farm was it? What did they grow?
Oh, as far as I can remember hay and corn on the – oh, it had a kitchen garden and we
grew asparagus. I do remember that bit ‘cause the asparagus was very nice. And we
had chickens of course with eggs and the – the bailiff who looked after the farm had a
very friendly dog and I managed to escape authority one day but not the dog, it came
and pounced all over me. So I took refuge in the chicken run, big mistake, chickens
peck and I couldn’t open the door. [both laugh]
You said that your father had a bailiff to actually –
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To run the farm. I was just wondering what would your father actually do on a daily
basis then if not running the farm.
Well, he went to town, when he had to, or dealt with things by post and telephone.
Well, he went away for long periods at a time. He went across to Antwerp,
presumably to review stocks from over there. The thing about the bailiff was he had a
wireless set, so I could listen to Uncle Mac. Chelmsford stationed there, 2MT, was
not very far away. And I went in there, they had bright emitter valves like lamp
bulbs, that much I do remember. And we had a crystal set in my nursery but it never
worked. Why my father didn’t make it work, I cannot now imagine but he didn’t, so I
didn’t learn an awful lot about radio. And I also heard Two Hello calling, that was the
call sign of London in the days when the BBC as it – the British Broadcasting
Company as it then was, announced it by call sign. 2MT – MT for Marconi’s
transmission and the two is a British call sign or you start with GM or two.
Who was Uncle Mac?
Oh, he broadcast for children, he ran a children’s programme in the 20 – late ‘20s.
Remember we didn’t start broadcasting till 1922, the Dutch beat us to it. Why? The
postmaster general who issued the licences said that the British public would not want
broadcasting, end of – and we did the same over television. I’m in touch with Baird’s
son. Baird went to school with Lord Reith, as he then became, and Lord Reith said,
‘Well we’re not interested in television. The British public won’t want it.’ So that’s
how broadcasting in television reached this country.
What was the radio station you said you visited?
I have visited where? The navy had a transmitter which worked on sixteen kilohertz.
This particular frequency goes quite a long way into water and submarines can receive
it even though they’re submerged, and I went round that. That didn’t broadcast in
Morse. Now destroyed of course, so that if we have another proper war the satellites
that the navy uses will be shot out of the sky.
I’m sorry –
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I went round Alexander Palace to see the television, this was in 1949 or thereabouts. I
had been the advisor to a technical firm for the navy, actually on the magnetron and
Klystron, and never mind what they are. And the producer said, ‘Look, would you
like to come round Alexander Palace and have a look see?’ That was our one and only
television station in that era and I said yes. And he said, ‘Oh, some of your friends
might like to come but’ he said, ‘they must come in uniform.’ So three of us went
there in uniform and we had a meal in the canteen. A door opened, the doors from the
studios opened directly into the canteen, and a lot of actors rushed out, looked at us
and said, ‘What are you in?’ ‘for real.’
We had a good look round and of course television was a good cover for radar
research. The – if you listened on a radio receiver you might not have been able to
distinguish radar transmissions from television transmissions, and that was a disguise.
And the ham radio world were advised not to complain about buzzing noises heard
around about twenty megahertz, it would have been our radar. And so it was never
mentioned, it was a very well kept secret equivalent to that over Bletchley Park and
decoding the German signals, the same degree of secrecy.
Is this in the pre-war days?
This was just – yes, from ‘35 when we started radar work until war broke out when
we had complete cover of the east coast.
You mentioned that you visited a radio station as a child nearby your parents’ farm?
That would be the one at Chelmsford but I didn’t visit it. We ought to have done but
for some reason or other we never did.
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I was wondering if you could just give me an idea of what you used to do for fun as a
Do, what?
What did you used to do for fun as a child?
As a child, what did I do? Oh, went for walks and made friends with the animals, and
of course played with my Meccano, that took a lot of indoor time. But regular walks
every day, I was quite used to that, I enjoyed it very much. We went up – we went
round a jam factory in Tiptree, one thing I remember doing, otherwise not much
happened. Various relatives came down and saw us from time to time and sampled
our food, and took the dog. We had a lovely Labrador retriever, used to sit under my
pram and look after me. And we had a railway line that went through our property
road with level crossing gates, not electric of course. The driver of a steam train
opened the gate and the guard shut the gate and threw out our newspaper, and the dog
walked up and brought it back for us. We took it to Ireland when we went to Ireland.
You mentioned –
So I was very friendly with the animals.
You mentioned you had a Meccano set.
What does one do with a Meccano set?
One builds models of things. You – there were various ones going up from model 00
up to I think model or set six, which is the – you built model cars, trains, various
mechanisms on their own. Basically there were strips of metal of varying sizes which
you bolted together, and I tried to pass this onto my son who just didn’t want it, ‘You
can’t make things with all those holes in them.’ But it gave one experience in
building things which came in very useful during the war in my activities.
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What sort of things did you build out of Meccano?
Cranes, very fond of them. Oh, I built a lorry and a cousin of mine had an electric
motor, and the electric motor ran off the mains. We didn’t have health and safety
rubbish in those days, I didn’t get a shock. Well, I did get a shock actually but not a
fatal one. I learned about back-emf for motors, which is too technical to continue
about, at a very early age.
How much Meccano did you have?
I finished up by making a mantel shelf clock. I didn’t design it, it was in the Meccano
magazine, so I made that, it used all – I think it might have been a couple of feet wide,
so you imagine a foot or so, a large dial. I’ve still got it and of course I can’t pass it
on to my daughter, she wouldn’t want it, and my son didn’t want it either, so it still
exists. And that continued until I learned about radio, and that absorbed my building.
That will be 1938 when my grandfather died. We had to move house and I realised
that I didn’t know much about radio, and I should know something about it.
What did you like about Meccano?
Building things, starting from nothing and creating something, that’s what I liked.
I always wondered, do you build things from plans or are they your own?
I started – oh, when I started my fingers were so weak I couldn’t do the bolts up, my
nanny did that. I started by building from plans and then I start – and then I went on
to designing my own things. But Meccano was actually used in the war for designing
parts of radar equipment, so – not the parts I built but other people’s. So it had its
uses, the trouble was it was fiendishly expensive.
Did you actually buy it yourself or was it bought for you?
Oh, it was all bought for me, I didn’t know what money was, lovely days.
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[laughs] What sort of background did your parents come from?
My mother – my grandfather was in money, in a bank. I’m not exactly sure what he
did, so I can’t actually provide that because he was retired when we went to live with
him. He had to go up to London occasionally and sign documents. I don’t think he
was a merchant banker but I never actually found out. All his male children went into
banks or stock exchange, all the females except my mother married into money,
which didn’t interest me one little bit apart from having it.
What about your father’s background?
He came from, I think, a farming background in Lincolnshire, so in fact he became
the chairman of the honourable company of butchers, that being – that nearest
profession to his and Edward VII, he had the privilege of carving at his coronation.
Not Edward VIII, Edward VII, so that was a privilege of being the boss man, the
nearest – he wasn’t a butcher, no, but he knew what to buy at a butcher’s shop all
right. He’d look at the meat and say, no, don’t want that one.
Who did he actually work for?
Himself, had his own company, it was called Messrs Perfect and Co, and I think it’s
still going. A few years ago, travelling out by air, a chap in the next door seat had
heard of it. And in the war had a branch – he had an office in London and a branch in
Liverpool. During the war I had to go Liverpool, I looked up the branch there which
was going quite happily but this wasn’t to be.
Do you know how your parents met?
I know where they met, I don’t know how. It was on the – a bridge over Liverpool
Street Station [laughs]. That’s all I know, I don’t know the background to it at all, but
that’s where. I also know where I began, that was in Belgium. [both laugh]
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I was wondering if you could give me an idea of what life was like living at the farm.
I didn’t have much, you know, I was very naïve. I went to Ireland, this was southern
Ireland, the northern part of southern Ireland, just north of Dublin, at a place we call
Drogheda and they call Drogheda [different pronunciation]. Came back from Ireland
with a frightful Irish accent which was rubbed out of me at my prep school, it didn’t
last for long.
Why did you go to Ireland?
He set up a branch of the company in southern Ireland. Then we were going to set up
a branch in New Zealand, I was looking forward to, but he went and died, so we never
got to New Zealand.
What happened to you after your father died?
We went and stayed with my grandfather, who took us in because we were virtually
penniless and he looked after us very well, perhaps a wee bit strict. Because he had
no idea of my science interest at all, he couldn’t help me there.
What was your grandfather’s name? Is this your mother’s father or your father’s
It was my mother’s, so he was Henry Rogers, and I – one of his sons, the clergyman,
his daughter is very interested in our family history, which I’m not terribly interested.
She’s married to a Frenchman, came over the other day, and we met in a friend of
mine’s house who is very computer literate on the subject of family history. Oh, we
had a whale of a time. Fortunately we didn’t have to speak much French but – and
that was the first time I’d ever seen her, with the father Reverend Murray Rogers who
died recently –
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What was your –?
After my eightieth birthday.
What was your grandfather like?
Oh, very strict, this religion, which Reverend Murray said we were – just said earlier I
think we’re not Christianity, your Christian act was having us in to stay. And he
brought us up very well. We were totally different from him and he was – he
managed to overcome this, but if friends came to tea they never came again.
Couldn’t get on with him.
Whereabouts did you live with your grandfather?
Oh, Croydon, South Croydon. And he was chapel of course.
What denomination?
Oh, it’ll be C of E, chapel. He had at me from going to a thing called crusaders. It
was a sort of slightly religious activity for young people, on a bicycle on a Sunday.
My mother said, ‘You have a car and you stop the driver from going to church.’ He
said, ‘Your son, I will not interfere again’ and he didn’t. Full marks to him.
What was your house like in Croydon?
Oh, a standard bank chap's house, two storeys with an attic, and in the attic the maids
were supposed to live but they didn’t in my time. I had it as a workshop and one of
the – one of his son’s or daughter’s room became the maid’s room, we were down to
one maid then. That type of person always had maids, he didn’t do anything for
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You mentioned that you had a nanny as well.
Yes, I did. She was disposed of when we came to live with my grandfather, I then
went to school, otherwise I was taught by her. I’m terribly slow at learning because I
wasn’t taught the right way. Some people have the knack of teaching, I didn’t have
teachers that did that until I got to school.
What did your nanny actually do? I’ve never had a nanny so I’ve no idea.
Our one just looked after you and see you didn’t do too many dangerous things, and
took me for walks and tried to explain things to me, most of which were wrong. I’d
already learned not to believe all I was told until I’d got verification of it. And I
suddenly found I could read, and that was a good thing. I had a book called The
Wonder Book of Why and What. So I read that from cover to cover –
Sorry the –?
Learning how things worked.
Oh, why and what.
Yes, why and what.
Sorry, I was thinking about Watt in terms of steam engines.
No, no, not steam engines, why and what. There’s a library at home which has a
couple of books, one is an encyclopaedia of science and the other one’s called How
Does it Work? They’re both oversized books. The children of today look at neither
of them, they do not wish to know.
Did you wish to know as a child?
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Oh yes, I always wanted to know. I must have been a horrible child, I was always
asking questions. But I had an uncle who was not a stockbroker, the aunt married for
money, and he was of independent means. He had a farm, it was a something aircraft
company, and they never actually made an aeroplane, they made accessories for
aeroplanes, and that is less risky. Aircraft companies go bust, he didn’t. His father
was a war profiteer in World War One, and he was in World War Two, but he was my
guardian and he could speak my language so I learned a lot from him.
What sort of chap was he?
My uncle Howard was a typical chap who’d been educated privately. It’s a bit hard to
say. He wasn’t snooty or anything like that but he was interested in various things.
He lived at Weybridge near Brooklands where they had the racing cars, you could
always hear those going round. I never actually witnessed any, he did. Took a
photograph, a cine photograph, in the ‘30s with sixteen millimetre film of cars racing
round. When the film ran out a crash happened and he missed it. Oh dear. But he
taught me a lot about radio and physics and chemistry. He knew – he’d learned all
that privately.
When do you actually first become interested in radio?
When we moved from my grandfather’s house to near Weymouth. There I was given
– well, I tried to make crystal sets, none of which worked. The reason was you
couldn’t buy a little sealed crystal like you can today, you had to have your crystal
wand material and either prod it with a steel probe or with another crystal, and I never
got them to work. I was given a valve set and I got that to work.
How old were you?
I would have been about what, fourteen, fifteen. Oh, yes, and my father – my
grandfather thought that the wireless, as it was then called, was unholy so he didn’t
have one. He found out you could get cricket commentaries on it and he liked cricket,
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so it suddenly became holy. On this wireless set if you – you had a control marked
reaction which just fed some of the amplified signal back to the beginning again, so to
give you increased gain. If you turned up too much it would oscillate, you fed the
output back to the input and that made it oscillate. I did that and other people who
were listening to the same station hear a squeal. So I made one squeal, back came two
squeals from somebody else, so I did three squeals. And that was the first time I had
what in ham parlance you call a QSO, a conversation by radio. We didn’t convey
much intelligence but we were in touch with each other. I don’t know where he lived
and he doesn’t know where I lived. And that would have been in the early ‘30s, the
mid ‘30s after – no, up till 1938 when he died, somewhere between 1932 and ‘38, I
can’t place it more accurately.
Where did you actually get the valve set?
Somewhere in that period it was given to me by the headmistress of my primary
school, she’d got a bigger and better one. So it was it in that period, and it had the
valve. I knew how valves worked, I didn’t have one.
How do valves work? Just briefly, it’s –
Oh, well, it all works in a vacuum to start with. If you heat up certain things, certain
metals or compounds in a vacuum, they become capable of emitting electrons. These
are the things that carry electricity through wires but they don’t go into space.
However, they are negatively charged here. If you go to the antimatter world they
could be positively charged but we aren’t there. If you put a plate of metal inside the
vacuum and heat up this stuff the positive – and make the plate positive, it will attract
electrons. It will therefore turn AC into DC and pass current only one way. If you
put a wire grid in between the emitting device, called either an emitter or filament,
and the plate which is called an Americano plate, and in England the anode, you can
control that current, that will amplify. The diode, the thing with only two electrodes
in it, the emitter and the anode, the rectifying valve, discovered before the turn of the
century. Eight years later the grid was put in to control the current, but a gentleman, a
German gentleman who invented the cathode ray tube which you’ve probably got in
your radio, unless it’s a modern one like ours here, that had a grid in it to control the
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brilliance of the screen. It took eight years to realise that it controlled the current and
could be used to amplify. What will future generations say of us? They had it but
they didn’t know how to use it.
What’s the benefits of amplification?
Well, if you have an aerial, a thing which can pick up the radio waves and turn them
into AC, alternating current, and that can be made somehow to convey either Morse
or as we have it, television or sound, it is very weak so you want to make it bigger.
So it can drive either the screen, which today is not a cathode ray tube, it’s like the
one you have here, and this is essential for radio transmitter intelligence and of course
for radar.
How much about how radio works do you think you think you actually understood as
a child? Were you about fourteen you said?
I was a wee bit primitive. There were some bits of it I didn’t understand properly but
I don’t think I can recall at the moment, I might later. I was more concerned with the
practical than I was with the theory. That came later when I made things and
understood how they worked rather than blindly making them, some of which
worked, and that occurred at the moment I got valves. I didn’t really appreciate
exactly how the receiver worked, that came to me slowly by reading books, by going
up to the Science Museum from Croydon for a whole day. I took a notebook and I
spent a lot of time in the children’s section but not only there. I must have asked
innumerable questions of people and I got my lunch from the Victoria and Albert
opposite and I came back with a notebook full of ideas, which I tried to make myself,
not all of which worked [laughs], which shall we say [ph] some of which actually
What sort of things?
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Oh, mostly concerned with radio and electronics. For example, I made up a thing
which would separate light coloured balls from dark coloured ones, had a photocell
and sub-electronics, so it hit the dark coloured balls but didn’t hit the light ones. And
that’s one example I made. A local school borrowed that for their open day.
And you mentioned you had this valve radio as a child.
Yes. I had to have headphones, didn’t need a loudspeaker, that came later.
What does one actually do with a valve radio? I mean to me now I just a turn a radio
on and that’s it.
Well, that’s what I did, I turned the radio on and I listened to things. At my prep
school in Eastbourne, which was run on similar lines to Camp 020, which you
probably hadn’t heard of because it’s kept fairly kept, it was our torture camp in the
war. We did not fight clean, made the Gestapo look like benevolent aunts. This – I
went to Camp 020A, run on much the same lines but nobody actually got shot. I built
a wireless set there from a design I got out of a magazine, Practical Mechanics to be
precise, but I had to build it in the holidays. If I’d have built it at school it would have
been smashed. I built a little electronic switch which, when I opened my desk, put a
light on inside it. That was smashed with the approval of all but one of the masters,
we don’t like scientists. So I built it at home. And surprisingly enough, it worked.
My mother – I remember my mother saying, ‘I can remember your face when you
said it’s going to work.’ It did. I only made it from the diagram of course. And that
was made in the Croydon days before we moved out, and in fact when my grandfather
was ill he used it, he had it in his bedroom –
You mentioned –
To listen to cricket commentaries.
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[laughs] You mentioned that your grandfather was very religious. Did religion
feature much in your childhood?
Did – ?
Did religion feature much in your childhood?
Not much. I went to church because everybody did in those days, it didn’t mean a lot
to me. I didn’t sing because it caused distress to the neighbours [laughs], so I’m not
particularly religious but I did go to this crusader thing which had a religious touch
about it. We used to go camping up in Scotland – in that case [ph] up in Scotland, and
this I enjoyed. We had totally non-religious talks from time to time and it just suited
me. It was better than going to three hours of church service.
What sort of things did the crusaders do?
Taught you to live with respect for other people mostly, though that’s closely related
to religion, and organises dos, camping. There were other sort of activities and I went
camping up in the Isle of Islay, in the tent was a chap who lived in Glasgow and he
said, well, come and stay with us. This was when there was an empire exhibition in
Glasgow, so we went to the empire exhibition.
What is an empire exhibition?
We had an empire, lots of foreign places, we ran them successfully. You didn’t get
murdered, shot or stampeded and they exhibited various things. If you came from
Africa then you’d see fruit and things that were common in Africa. That was a major
one of our empire because they couldn’t look after themselves, we ran the place very
successfully until just after the war, you know who was the prime minister, gave it
away. Life isn’t safe there, not for Brits anyway.
What do you remember of the empire exhibition you went to?
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Not a lot I’m afraid. Oh, there were – yes, of course, there were various mechanisms
like waterwheels which – and pumps which we used in our empire. Those are the
things I remember. I didn’t remember any of the politics of it.
I was just wondering if we could talk for a bit about your schooldays. When did you
first go to school?
Well, came back from Ireland. I went to a primary school whose headmistress gave
me the wireless set but also we had to learn the tables. And I remember there was one
girl who was streets ahead of me on the tables, and this worried me at the time ‘cause
she was better than I was, and that wasn’t very good. I eventually learned them,
including up to the thirteen times table which I haven’t used all that much. Oh, yes,
we were basically very well looked after. Then I went to a local prep school in
Croydon and we moved to Purley, out of my grandfather’s house to our house. This
was – tell you, that was from mid-1932. And it was late 1932 that I got appendicitis
having made myself some cocoa. I got an awful pain in my tummy and I blamed it on
the cocoa but my mother having been a nurse said no, it’s not that, it’s probably
appendicitis. Rang up the doc, went down to the hospital, out that night. And who
took it out? The Brigadier Cowell. He’d been a doctor in the First World War. He
had a son, Robert Cowell, who had been at school with me. He flew Spitfires in the
war. After the war he found he wasn’t Robert, he was Roberta, changed sex. I think
he only took my appendix out. Well, you’ve seen my daughter [laughs].
What was the prep school you were at?
I’m not going to say what it was because – well, it’s not running now but the
headmaster’s still around. Rather the son of the headmaster. The headmaster of my
time lived for cricket and I hated it, but surprisingly enough he had one period of
science a week. No other prep schools in the Eastbourne area, and a lot of them did
[ph], and of course I got on very well with the science master. He was very sensible.
One example, if you have a cup and you put some tea into it and you have to go away
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for a time and come back, and you want your tea as hot as possible, do you or don’t
you put the milk in it? What he said was, well, you do put it in because that lowers
the temperature of the mass and because it’s a lower temperature it loses heat less
rapidly. I said, well, this was another thing. You increase the height of the liquid in
it, and it depends on the thermal conductivity of the material. Yes, he said, yes, I
wonder which is the dominant effect? He didn’t say no. I think probably he was right
but there is another effect and he appreciated the fact that I had spotted this. I was
also allowed to make fireworks. We never had an accident because we knew what we
were doing. Very slight supervision but he taught us what not to do. You wouldn’t
be allowed to do that today would you? Oh, no, lawyers just waiting to pounce.
And tell me a bit more about making fireworks.
Well, you have to have two constituents at least, something that will burn and
something that will provide the oxygen to make it burn. It doesn’t have to be oxygen
but I think nearly all do. And you probably want something to alter the colour of it if
you’re not satisfied with just a flame, you want a red or a blue or green, or perhaps
you want sparks. And most of the information came out of Encyclopaedia Britannica
in our library and wasn’t vetted by the science master and we made them.
Actually in school?
Actually at school. Come November we fired them off, or he fired them off, which is
surprising for a headmaster who didn’t like science. If you weren’t very keen on
rushing around a field with a bag of wind or throwing lumps of leather at other boys
then you got bullied. I’m not sure whether he actually organised it or turned a blind
eye to it but it was good for you to be bullied if you didn’t like games.
What sort of form did the bullying take?
What sort of –
What sort of bullying was it?
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Oh, mostly sons of not terribly well educated people like generals, lawyers, judges.
Maybe educated in Latin or something like that. Oh, but had to learn Latin which
came in useful later, or might have done. If you go to Oxford you have to – you had
to learn Latin because there’s a little exam.
Were you bullied at all?
Did I –?
Were you bullied?
Er – ?
Were you bullied at prep school?
New boys?
Were you bullied at prep school?
Bullied, yes, yes, I did not like that school. And when I went to Wellington it was a
great relief not to be bullied. I’m sorry, my hearing does leave something to be
desired, as you know. Noisy old aeroplanes in the war, shooting to get out of cricket,
swimming, because I was good at it, all of which are not very good for you or your
Was there anything about prep schools you did enjoy?
Well, I enjoyed the science lessons. And oh yes, we were taken for walks or in the
summer time swimming in the sea, that I did enjoy very much. And when I sat the
scholarship for Wellington, after I’d done the work I was allowed to take the dog, the
headmaster’s dog, for a walk on the Eastbourne downs on my own. That I enjoyed
with a bit of relief from the school –
What sort of school –?
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But I was given a good education there and I was taught things which many other
people weren’t. I was grounded in maths. I was never very good at maths but I got a
good grounding in maths there, which has never let me down.
Which other subjects did you enjoy or dislike there?
Well, I didn’t like history for a start, I wasn’t terribly keen on Latin but I didn’t have
any trouble doing it. We learned French of course, not the sort of French that the
French speak, the pen of my aunt is in the garden sort of French. They don’t say that
very much [inaud] I want that. My mother went to a finishing school in France and
she had a friend there who I met in Le Havre. I sailed over there and I met this chap,
‘Oh’ he said, ‘come and have supper.’ As we were going in the door he said, ‘Outside
we speak English. When we get inside we only speak French.’ And I said, ‘It can be
your problem, not mine.’ I never had any trouble with my French but the French did.
Why did you dislike history at school?
Just didn’t enjoy history. That’s my failing of course, I shouldn’t have – we didn’t do
the history of science, we learned an awful lot about dates of kings. Something
happened in 1066, I believe we got invaded, next one was 1087 but I can’t remember
what happened then. I found it boring.
It sounds –
They also had natural history, one period of that a week, which was really biology,
and that I enjoyed of course. And I liked swimming, which I was good at.
What were the science classes actually like?
Mostly chemistry, and very well done by this one man. He was the one chap who
would – who supported me when my things were broken, ‘cause this was one against
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the rest. He only had one leg, I was quite impressed with [ph], and we’re not quite
sure how he lost one, but he was very good.
What was his name, do you remember?
Yes, I do, Smith, always called Mrs.
What do you think made him a good teacher from your point of view?
You’d find that he could explain things that he understood, who didn’t understand.
Some people have that gift and others don’t, they just read it from a book. Most of
my Oxford dons read the same things they read for the last forty years, but a couple of
them, which I won’t tell you about, didn’t. They did experiments for us, we could
see, and that makes a world of difference if you’re doing science. Just to have it
written up on a blackboard copied from forty year old notes isn’t all that helpful,
particularly if you’re not very bright.
Did you actually board there or were you a day pupil?
I was a boarder, I had to be because – because of these illnesses of 1932 I was a
boarder, so we kept that on, I was used to boarding. I had to go to a boarding school.
I went to one in Croydon first of all. Oh, and then I got bronchitis, except it wasn’t –
passive smoking. So a doctor advised me to go down to a school by the sea so I could
smell the rotting seaweed under the impression it was ozone. Ozone was used in the
underground railways as a disinfectant. It is poisonous today, it was not in the ‘30s.
You’ve mentioned a few illnesses. Were you a sickly child at all or –?
Only from this so called bronchitis, that’s all. I was very well otherwise, and I’ve not
been very ill since and I’m still alive.
And you mentioned that your mother was a nurse as well. Did she carry on nursing
when you were growing up?
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No, that wasn’t – no, she retired. She retired when she met my father but, yes, she
carried on nursing me, which I got proper nursing practises but she didn’t nurse
professionally at all in my lifetime.
I was wondering as well, you said that your mother encouraged you in your activities.
Without understanding them, yes she did.
What did you mean by that?
What did I think about?
No, what did you mean by that?
Well, I meant that she allowed me to do experiments in the house, this sort of thing,
which in those days was not done, you didn’t do that sort of thing, and generally
supported me. Oh, she used to buy the various bits I needed when – when we could
afford them, that is. And it was still a very tight budget but we managed to get things
either thrown out by radio shops or not wanted by people but some things had to be
bought, and she did. She went without so I could have.
What sort of experiments did you do at home?
Oh, mostly radio ones, getting radio to work. Earlier I had done a bit of chemistry at
home but not much. Had the war not have happened I would have been a research
chemist but you will hear about that in due course.
Can you tell me about maybe one of these experiments you did at home?
Well, I made a – I made a small transmitter. Oh, I’ve told you one and a thing which
would distinguish between light coloured balls and –
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And that’s one. And I made a small transmitter, highly illegal.
You’re not allowed, you had to have a licence and I didn’t. And I had a friend, this
was in the Weymouth, when we moved to Weymouth after my grandfather died. I
had a friend who was similarly inclined, so we got on very well together. He went
and died long ago, the same sort of age but he died shortly after the war, he would be
in his twenties.
What was his name?
Hawkes. If you go to Weymouth, I don’t if it’s still – Hawkes Freeman were a firm of
upholstery sellers. I’ve forgotten how we met. I think somebody said, oh, you ought
to meet him and we went – stuck together ever since doing things like that. And when
the war came I managed to get bits off a scrapheap at TRE and he managed to get bits,
so we made all sorts of things.
Did you make things when you were children as well?
Yes, simpler things. Oh, that Meccano is making things out of – you start with
nothing, you finish with something, and that appealed to me.
[laughs] You mentioned that you had a workshop as well.
Oh, yes, it was the garage, didn’t have a car.
What was it like?
Like it is today, a complete mess.
Could you describe what’s in your workshop?
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I knew where things were but other people didn’t. I am not very tidy.
What did your mother and grandfather make of your workshop?
Oh, this was down at Weymouth. My – I didn’t have a workshop, I just had a
playroom which was my bedroom, oh and the room opposite, a small room opposite
where I played with Meccano mostly. Down when we lived in Weymouth we had
this garage which I fitted out for doing electronic experiments and carpentry.
Amongst other things I made a gate [interviewee meant radio] from Practical
Mechanic and a canoe, the 1939 summer, a canvas canoe. That was the summer war
broke out. You start off with a lot of wood and ribs and you eventually cover it with
canvas. When the locals at our village saw this they said, ‘Oh, that’ll never work.’
And when I put the canvas on they didn’t say any more.
You mentioned Practical Mechanics a moment ago.
That was a journal edited by a gentleman called FJ Camm. Have you ever heard of
him? Oh, he edited the various technical journals and Practical Wireless with one of
the others. He was not very technical himself and I met somebody who knew him in
the editorial world and didn’t like him very much, but he was very good at pinching
other people’s ideas and publishing them. There was Practical Wireless, Fifty Tested
Wireless Circuits, FJ Camm. They were almost the same, each one. In that era he
was very good at publishing that sort of thing because there weren’t many, it was not
What sort of things do you find in Practical Mechanics?
Oh, articles on how to use a lathe, for example, and various tools, power tools and
hand tools. This is where I started learning. I finished learning, well, I never finished
learning, I continued learning when I was at TRE and at Oxford. And when we come
to that you will learn that we had to spend Thursday evenings working in the
workshops. The classics people didn’t work in the afternoon, and there weren’t many
of them in the war. I don’t think Mr Churchill wanted Hitler’s speeches translated
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into Latin somehow, and if he had have done he’d have done it himself, he went to
On the subject of reading –
Did you read much when you were younger?
Yes, I did.
What sort of things?
Oh, I read mostly adventure stories. This horrible prep school I went to, I usually got
the top of the form and I got given first of all Heroes of Modern Adventure, More
Heroes of Modern Adventure the next year, and Recent Heroes. And I read that sort
of book and what else? Oh, Robinson Crusoe and things like that, apart from the
technical books. We used to be taken for walks into the town on one afternoon a
week, must have been weekend [ph] I suppose. I always went in the library and read
Practical Wireless, the others went and spent their pocket money on sweets.
You mentioned –
Trying to learn something of the theory of what I’d done in practice, ‘cause I didn’t
understand half of what I did until much later. Oh, yes, that’s how it works.
Do you think –? Was that something you appreciated at the time, do you think, or is it
something you think about looking back now?
No, at the time when I came to study radio probationary up at Oxford then I realised
how some of the things I’d not understood before actually worked. We had
particularly good lecturers on the subject of radio. We had particularly poor ones on
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mathematics, and physics is very mathematical and I wasn’t very good it, I had to
work like hell.
You mentioned that you thought the prep school gave you a good mathematical basis
It did, yes, but that was only arithmetic. We had to do mental arithmetic in those days
and of course we didn’t have calculators or complex calculations such as they were
done with log tables and later with slide rules. Tedious but were less tedious than
doing long multiplication or divisions.
You mentioned as well that you moved to Weymouth.
When was that and why?
1938, September, can’t tell you the exact day but I went to school from Croydon and
came back to Wey – to near Weymouth, a little village called Preston which is the –
it’s in the east of Weymouth.
And did you go back to prep school from Weymouth or to a different school?
No, I was fourteen and I was at Wellington, so I – I just went to Wellington from
Croydon via – via Paddington and came back via Yeovil.
What sort of place was Wellington, could you describe it to me?
Wellington? It was one of two public schools before the war where you could
actually study engineering. And to start with I had the headmaster who’d been the
headmaster there for thirty-eight years, brought it up from being a small country
school to a public school. And he had to retire, the governors wouldn’t allow him to
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go to forty which he wanted to do. He was extremely good. In the engineering
workshops were a whole lot of these four inch lecture slides, which you had in those
days, of the things he’d made himself. He’d obviously given a talk somewhere. Not
only were there slides of these taken, photographic slides, but the actual little models
themselves. He’d made little gas engines, for example, about six engines long, that
sort of size. When he left they were kept there, they were thrown away later. You
can study engineering at Wellington but not to the extent I did. There are no
workshops there.
Why did you go to Wellington?
Well, the only other option – because I was an obvious engineer, I wasn’t any good at
anything else, and the other possibility was Oundle. And an uncle of mine said if you
can get a scholarship there I’ll make up the difference between that and the thing. My
mother said no, don’t go to Oundle because you will find there are people with much
more money than you have. I went to Wellington and she was exactly right, and my
somewhat unusual requirements were filled up. I was allowed to work in – I was
allowed to work in the chemistry and the physics labs alone because I was hopeless at
art, and still am. I said, ‘Look, I’m wasting an art master’s time and he’s wasting
mine. May I work?’ And the authorities said yes. There weren’t lawyers waiting to
sue the teachers in those days. I didn’t have accidents because after the two years of
engineer headmaster we had a chemistry master, a chemistry headmaster, who was an
excellent teacher and he just taught us what was dangerous and what was not. We
didn’t dress up as if we were going into outer space, we just – for example, I boiled up
something on an oil bath. You heat the oil and you put a flask on top of it. We used
diesel oil because it had a diesel engine to provide our light. The engineer headmaster
didn’t want the mains in 1934, he said no, that engine gives – the engineer – my
engineer students a sense of responsibility, and we looked after it. So we had this
chemistry headmaster who I’m sure could have taught anything given half an hour to
swot it up. And I was boiling this stuff up and the flask burst, of course forced up
with the oil and a thing rather like a miniature atomic explosion because we didn’t
know about atom bombs in that era. And he said, ‘Dick’ which is what he called me,
‘what are you doing?’ And ‘I think I have poured water on troubled oils.’ He liked it.
But I wasn’t leaning over it, I was standing from it when it burst in case it burst, and it
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did. If you act upon potassium permanganate, which is quite a common sub, or was
then a common substance, with sulphuric acid, you get a pink vapour coming off.
And he said it’s so dangerous that nobody’s ever lived and – seen it and lived. So
what did I do? I wanted to make it didn’t I? I had a microscopic bit of potassium
permanganate and I attached a test tube with sulphuric acid to the end of a metre stick,
hid behind a bench, and poured it on. There was a little crackling noise and the pink
vapour came up. I’m still alive.
And how –?
He taught us how Bakerlite was made, so we made some.
How does one make Bakerlite at school?
Oh, how – you get phenol, which is carbolic acid possibly, and you treat it with
formaldehyde, it’s quite simple. A Belgian baker invented it.
It was the first of all the plastics, not an ideal one but it set the thing going. Much
better was polythene, and this was discovered in the labs of ICI. You require an
enormous pressure and an enormous temperature to make it. And the managers and
director of the firm said you mustn’t do this but they did. Now what’s so good about
polythene? It enables you to make flexible radio cables that are suitable for radar. So
what did ICI do? Sold it to the Germans, in the war. How? The Americans weren’t
in there, in the war at the time, so ICI sold it to Du Pont who sold it to the Germans.
Oh, that’s not all we did in the way of giving the Germans things. In your microwave
oven, if you have one, is a thing called a magnetron. The magnetron provides the
microwave that’s to up your whatever you’re cooking. In the war this thing, which
was invented in April 1940, enabled our, amongst other things, our bombers to get a
map, a radar map, of the ground underneath them. Churchill had to decide whether
this benefit, which allowed you to bomb through clouds from a great height, the
benefit to the bombers was outweighed by the risk of the Germans capturing it.
Churchill decided that it should fly. The RAF on the other hand didn’t feel that they
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should be the only people with a magnetron, so they gave it to the Germans. They
force landed an aircraft with this equipment in it at Rotterdam. Because it was a
forced landing the inertia switch, which in a crash would have fired a charge of
explosive inside the radar, didn’t go off, it wasn’t a crash. They didn’t press that
button that would have blown it up, they ran off instead. The Germans had a
complete working model. Their immediate comment on it was not good [ph]. The
boxes of the radar are full of air. If you had a German radar set, and we did, there
isn’t room to put another quarter Ohm resistance in. In ours you could put your whole
hand. Where it was – came an advantage when you came to repair it. You know, the
Germans, I don’t suppose, did repair. They curiously over engineered their things but
we got it just right.
Did you know about the fact that the Germans had captured the entire radar during
the war or was it something you learnt after?
I didn’t know this at the time – during the war. I’ll tell you – when we come to
talking about my wartime things I will tell you something based on my not knowing
it. There were lots of things one didn’t know about, for example, what went on at
Bletchley Park. And radar was just the same degree of security before the war as
Bletchley Park activities.
To go back to your school days for a moment –
I was thinking you mentioned you went to Wellington because you were an obvious
In what sense an obvious engineer, obvious to whom?
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Oh, you know how you tell an engineer, washes his hands before he goes to the toilet
[laughs]. No, I just liked – I just liked being in the engineering workshops, because
you can go in out of the instructional hours and get out – you can make things. And I
did, I spent a lot of time making things for my own amusement, mostly to my own
design. For example, I did my first soldering iron, soldering with an iron you stuffed
in a fire to heat it up, belonged to my father. So I made an electric soldering iron, this
sort of thing. Oh, yes, in the holidays when we were are at Weymouth I was a sea
scout. And the sea scouts have a scarf round their neck held by a ring called a
woggle. Well, I turned one up in the – in the workshop to make one, this sort of – I
made a handle. We did woodwork, wood turning in the work, I made a handle for a
file, this sort of thing. It was obvious I was – had that bent.
Had you had much thought about what you wanted to be when you grew up –
Oh, yes.
By this point?
I was quite certain I wanted to be a research – well, to start with I wanted to be an
electrician because I was given a book on it. Now I realised that wasn’t quite me. I
was given chemistry sets, Lotts chemistry sets, so I wanted to be a research chemist
and had it not been for the war I would have been. And when, you know, interview
me a little later you’ll find out why. I had radio as a hobby, yes, but it was only a
hobby, I hadn’t intended to make electronics my profession. It’s turned out that way
and I’m not sorry.
Shall we take a short break?
Shall we take a short break?
Yes, certainly yes.
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Track 2
I was wondering whose idea was it that you actually went to an engineering school at
Well, my parents – my mother’s, aided and abetted of course by my grandfather who
advised her, because of my obvious liking for that line. I would not have made a good
classicist or a modern linguist though they did teach me at my – at Wellington they
taught me German, which helped.
What else did you –?
Yes, they taught Latin as well. Well, my headmaster, the chemist headmaster, said
look, you’d better take an additional subject to a school cert, that was our O level of
that era. If you got five O levels of that era you were allowed to take an additional
subject, not like today when you can take one, two, three, and I had got five. He said
if you don’t and you want to go to either Oxford or Cambridge you’re going to have
to take a Latin exam, so get accredited school cert and you are exempt from that
exam. And I did, I managed to get the credit I wanted through one work – one term of
working Latin at Wellington because we had a good Latin teacher.
Was going to Oxford or Cambridge something that was on your mind at the time?
Well, I was told that it was. My headmaster said it has to be, and the chemist
headmaster was Oxford, so it had to be Oxford.
Did you have any good friends at school?
Yes, I had one or two I kept in touch with from time to time and unfortunately most of
them have died. Yes, one or two.
Any you remember in particular?
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Well, yes, there was a chap called Bath whose father was actually a naval officer, he
was a paymaster, called a pusser in naval slang. He was a year or so behind me but
very similar in outlook, so we got in touch very well. And, who else from Wellington
days? Oh, a chap called Cook. Three or four of us got a little private study going
above what had been a stables in the days of horses, and we had a secret study there.
I’ve kept in touch with Cook but he’s gone and died, so that’s that. Bath, I haven’t
been in touch with recently. He came down to see us once in Havant where I lived,
and he joined the constructor branch of the navy but I’ve lost touch since, so I’m not
in touch with anybody. In the war I had to stay in London, I remember a chap who
was quite a bit junior to me and I must have found the address from a school
magazine, I stayed with his father overnight. The father was a doctor, the son became
a doctor, anaesthetist, and became the president of the society of anaesthetists or
whatever it’s called. But the father said to me, ‘If you think you are right, keep at it.’
That was a very good piece of advice. He wasn’t a science – he was a doctor, not a
scientist, but I took that advice from him. And I had to give a talk on the Greenland
exhibition in the Plymouth area where the son, who was a couple of years or so junior
to me, so didn’t know him very well, invited him to come, he couldn’t come,
immobile, too old. He’d probably be about eighty-five or eighty-four, so he didn’t
come, and I haven’t met him since. I go back from time to time to the school, we
have an old boys’ thing, I may well be going back in February on my way down to see
my son who lives in Cornwall, to give them first of all some of the artefacts of World
War Two radar which I borrowed at the time and haven’t returned. And ‘cause
they’ve now got a head of physics who doesn’t stick to 'not in the syllabus, don’t learn
it,' like the previous one did, as you weren’t to know [ph]. He wants pictures of these
things. What I’ve decided to do is, when I do pop off, leave them to him. They’ve
got a wind tunnel down there, and that’s not in the syllabus.
Is that in the school?
Speaking of schools again –
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What’s life actually like as a boarder in a school?
Well, I didn’t know anything else.
So describe perhaps what a typical day is like ‘cause I –
Well, you get up in the morning, you make your bed, you go down and have
breakfast. Now we – breakfast is not in our houses but we breakfasted in a common
eating hall. Some schools you breakfast in the house, at Malvern, where the TRE
was, they did. And then in the case of Wellington you went to chapel, had that every
day, and then to classes. The difference between that and a prep school is the masters
have their room and you go to it. In the prep school you have your room and the
masters come to you. Well, you obviously have to, you can’t move a chemistry lab
around the place. Then you do your lessons and you have lunch. Everything has to
be done – or had in those days to be done on time, that was important, we were
punctual. If you weren’t you didn’t get any.
What was the food like?
In the early days awful, adequate but unpalatable. Then when we got the chemistry
headmaster it improved a lot, not in quantity but then the war came and that was
always a bit difficult. I actually got thrown out of my house when the war came, it
was given to a prep school in Lee on Solent. We were billeted out, in my case with
the chairman of the governors. But it was a long walk, it was a couple of miles, and
you had to be on time, as I said no excuse, I couldn’t walk fast enough or it was
raining or snowing, you had to get in. And then either lessons in games or in the
winter games first because of the light and then lessons, and then homework or
preparation in the evening. And you’d go to bed at the appropriate time, which in
those days was nine o’clock. In the house, when I was there, we had coal fires.
You mentioned that you had to be everywhere on time. What happens if you’re not?
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Oh, to start with you got beaten. That was abolished when we had the next
headmaster. You just got a severe reprimand, you learned to be on time or you
missed it.
And you mentioned games in the afternoon.
What sorts of games?
It was cricket in the summer, rugger in the winter, we didn’t play football, and then
athletics in the Easter term. I wasn’t terribly good at them, I found out by accident I
was quite good as a hooker in rugger, the reason being it was a house match. The first
fifteen hooker couldn’t play for some reason, he was ill, but he taught me the tricks of
the trade and I was hooker, and I was good at it. This was two days before I left
school, so it wasn’t much of a discovery. You will find out why in due course.
What did you say you did for fun in school?
What, hobbies?
Well, engineering most of the time, making things in the engineering lab, and when I
was allowed in the chemistry lab on my own, making chemicals that you mainly
didn’t find in the text books. I didn’t actually make nerve gases. You won’t believe
this, we did not know about nerve gases in the war, Porton Down didn’t. I did
because I read about it in the common room in a tabloid newspaper, the Germans used
them in the – in their wars down in Spain. But of course at Porton Down they didn’t
read the Mirror did they? They read The Times, and since you can’t kick it around on
a field or flog it on the stock exchange, The Times wouldn’t want to know. So why
didn’t the Germans use nerve gases on us? Because first of all, their synthetic rubber
gas masks perished, so we won’t use it on them. They thought we knew about them
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because we knew about DDT, the anti-louse powder, the insecticide much used by the
army where you can’t wash. We actually had it when I was in Belgium but we didn’t
need it. However, it was a very good anti-insect solution..
When did you read the article about the nerve gas?
Daily Mirror or something like that, in a tabloid newspaper.
In the Spanish Civil War, the Germans used it and we didn’t know, or at least Porton
Down didn’t know about it. Porton Down being our chemical research place.
What do you think attracted you to chemistry in particular?
Being given a Lotts chemistry set of around about 1933, 1930’. When we came back
from Ireland I was given one, and that really fascinated me.
What’s a Lotts chemistry set? Could you describe it to me?
Yes, it was a box rather like a Meccano box, and you have lots of very small samples
of chemicals and a book of all the experiments you can do, including making
gunpowder, which I made of course. And this was a good introduction to chemistry,
mainly what’s known as inorganic chemistry. That’s the chemistry of everything
except carbon, and organic chemistry had certain types of carbon compounds of
which we’re made of, sugars and things like that.
What did you –?
I just thought chemistry, it came naturally to me.
What do you do with the gunpowder once you’ve made it?
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What would you do with it? Blew things up.
Like what?
I made rockets and things like that. I made some use of it when I got to Oxford,
which I will tell you about.
What did adults make of your interest in blowing things up, and in science more
Well, at Wellington this was the norm, other people did it. It wasn’t like my prep
school. You weren’t alone in doing things like this. Oh, we had our ration of
classicists and modern linguists but we also had our chemists and engineers, and
physicists, so you are among people who did the same things.
Are there any teachers who stick in your mind in particular?
Oh, yes, the headmaster, the chemist headmaster, was particularly good. And when
he came he sacked a lot of the older masters. We got first of all [inaud] one term after
he came. We had a master, a young master, come who wasted a whole year before
higher cert teaching us geometry we didn’t need. He got the push and we had a
conscientious objector. I have nothing against them but he was extremely good at
teaching maths, and that is what we had at Oxford, stuff I’d learned from him. Oh,
and our language master was extremely good too but he managed to teach me French
and German. German because a lot of scientific work’s written in German and it pays
you to know something of it. Consequently my German is not terribly good at
conversation but I can read the summaries, technical things, particularly on radar. I
got a report from the Germans from the German firm Lorenz by their director, he sent
it to me, on the work they did because we had in common a German writer on radar
and he got the director – he wrote about German radar and he got the director of
Lorenz to send me a book on what Lorenz did, which I’ve still got, all in German.
So you were at school when war broke out?
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What do you remember of the outbreak of war?
1939, September the third. I can remember that, I – yes, in the holidays. I was out
canoeing in my canoe that I made with a girl whose father was in the electricity
supply business in London and got called back to London because of the imminence
of war, and this girl stayed with us. And we were out canoeing when war broke out.
We actually canoed from Bowleaze Cove, which was very near where we kept the
boat, out to Portland where there was a battleship. We thought we might have seen –
they might invite us on board. No, they didn’t. When we got back my mum said
we’re at war. I didn’t hear that speech of Chamberlain’s.
Had you been aware much about the growing tensions in the run up to war?
Oh yes, yes, it was pretty obvious. Well, one thing I was in the scouts and we had to
dish out gas masks to people, voluntarily. It was obvious we were going to have a
war. Well, we couldn’t have had one a year earlier, we just weren’t ready. I’m not
sure we were entirely ready in ‘39. If they’d have raided us I don’t think – well, I
suppose that we would have done but we didn’t have any night fighters. Well, we did
but they couldn’t fight – they didn’t have radar so we couldn’t – radar for night
fighters came a bit later.
Did the outbreak of war make much difference to your life?
Oh, immense yes, particularly food to start with and then everything else, travel and
restrictions, blackout. If you didn’t black out then you got bombed, it was in your
interest to do so. I went to Malta for Christmas. On Gozo some people didn’t bother
to black out and they got bombed in the war by the Italians and the Germans.
Oh, in Malta, you mean Malta now?
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Yes, in that particular town a lot of people got killed by bombs because they didn’t
black out. The Germans didn’t have the right sort of radar to bomb them, it would
have been indiscriminate, but when you see a lot of lights then you go and bomb it.
While we’re on the subject of holidays for a moment, you mentioned as well that
you’d gone overseas during – you visited Belgium as a child. I was just wondering,
what other places did you go on holiday to.
Where did we go? We’d go down to The Scillies, we’d go down to Malta and we
went to Cairo the year before with Mustafa’s father. Well, when Mustafa was born,
so we went to Cairo to see where he was born.
This is your wife’s husband?
Yes, yes, you met him when he was over here. He’s Mustafa, him, or so he alleges.
What about holidays as a child, did you go on many?
Yes, we did. Where did we go? My half sister and her husband took us from the farm
to Angmering for a start, so we went there. When we were in Ireland we went to
Lucan and my father decided he wanted salmon for supper. He said there’ll be a
slight delay while we go and catch it. There was, and it was very nice. When we
came back we went to Bognor and a chap with a dinghy persuaded us to come with
him. It was fairly obvious to me after we’d left for shore that the chap had no idea of
how to sail a boat. Well, I’d never seen a boat, a dinghy, in my life before but it was
obvious you can’t sail upwind. But when you’re aged seven or eight you do not tell
adults how to sail a bit, so we eventually got back to the land. And I often used to go
on holidays with various aunts. I had two sets of aunts on Laleham on Thames, near
Staines, and my uncle Howard near Brooklands at Weybridge. And we had a – I had
an uncle about three miles away at Sanderstead but he never came near my
grandfather, they didn’t get on well, so that was – he was the father of the parson
whose daughter is collecting data on our family history. That’s the tie up. He wasn’t
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in the – he was in the money business. Well, they all were except uncle Howard, he
just made the money in his firm.
I was wondering if you could describe to me what you were liked as approached the
end of being in school.
Awful I think. Well, I left school suddenly, I’d better tell you why here. My
headmaster sent for me one day, not an entirely unknown occurrence, and what the
hell’s he caught me at this time? And when I went there again he said, ‘Dick, do you
want to go to Oxford on a government bursary to read physics?’ And I said, ‘I
thought I was going there to read chemistry.’ He said, ‘That wasn’t what I said. Do
you or don’t you want to go to Oxford to read physics?’ Instant decision, I said,
‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Pack your bags, go tomorrow.’ Mr Churchill wanted forty boys to
read physics to work on radar and this is the beginning of it. He got Lord Hankey to
organise this, Lord Hankey of course didn’t do it himself, he got the civil service to do
it. The civil service got it all wrong and didn’t ask headmasters to recommend people
till after term had begun, which is why I was sent for in the middle of term and told to
leave tomorrow, which I did. And that’s how I avoided having to be hooker, which I
could have been.
Well, when was that?
In 1941, October, I can’t tell you the exact date, so I went up to Oxford, a schoolboy
one day and an undergraduate the next. And because they’d made such a cock of it I
had to go to what was then a non-collegiate society, you couldn’t sleep there or eat
there. It wasn’t a college, it is now, St Catherine’s. So what did we do? The first
thing I went to was practical physics. We did a thing called the Wheatstone’s Bridge.
What happened at Wellington when I did my first experiment? The Wheatstone’s
Bridge but when you go at Oxford they estimate the sort of errors that you got, what
precautions have you taken against them. The same experiment but in much greater
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What is the Wheatstone Bridge?
It wasn’t invented by Wheatstone, it was invented by his assistant and pinched by
him, but basically it’s a means of measuring resistance, it’s a circuit. And it’s still
used today but not in the original form, and the principle is widely used. You can
compare resistors, which is a useful thing to do. Of course if you do it today it’s all
automated, you don’t turn knobs any more, and like your machine here it does it itself.
How did you feel about the sudden move to Oxford?
How did I feel about what?
How did you feel about suddenly being sent to Oxford?
Oh, I enjoyed it very much even though I had to do a subject that I wasn’t all that
good at, I just had to work. We worked in the afternoon and on Thursday evenings
we worked in the workshops because it all went very well. As they found out with
people from Oxford earlier, you may be terribly good at solving differential equations
but no idea on how to use a soldering iron.
What sort of things did you do in the workshop?
Oh, I said I’ve done all this before. Yes, they said but just show us. What did we do?
Filing, cutting, lathe work, all of which I’d done at Wellington. Oh, yes, they said,
you really do know what you’re doing. What do you want to do? So I said I want to
make a chassis for my radio. Yeah, okay go ahead. So I made what I wanted.
So that’s Thursday afternoon in the workshop. What do you do for the rest of the
Oh, work – Saturday mornings we had to do army type training, it was called SCTs,
senior training corps, at school it was OTC. They taught us how to operate a twentyfive pound gun, the army. Terribly useful when you’re going to design a radar set
isn’t it? And what’s more they never allowed us to fire one because you know what
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will happen if we did. What we did learn was cooperation. We were taken by lorry,
or a thing called a quad, to a remote part of Oxford, given a map and told you’re here,
we’re going to pick you up there at a certain time, we do not wait. So we had to cross
rivers, we had to help the fat slobs among us to cross the rivers and through hedges
and we got there on the appropriate time. That was the important thing they taught us,
the rest of it wasn’t much use. We had a second lieutenant, I suppose in the Royal
Signals, come down and try and teach us about radio sets. Well, the first thing he
said, ‘I suppose you chaps know what a frequency is.’ And we had a north country
man who let him have it in good Manchester talk. He realised we did know what a
frequency was, thank you. That was my first official conversation over a radio, not
like the one I told you about previously, this was on speech.
Well, it was useful, we had to use radio in the aeroplanes in the war to talk to other
aeroplanes. And the Swordfish, I think Nelson’s Swordfish didn’t have any electrical
intercom, it had voice pipes. Our Swordfish did have electrical intercom but it also
had voice pipes. Now if you had a Spitfire or a Hurricane, the endurance wasn’t all
that much but you may have wanted to have a pee. This was provided for you in the
Sword – in a Hurricane or a Spitfire. I don’t know what to describe it, something
which would allow you to do it, but not in a Swordfish. Swordfish you’d stay
airborne for much longer but however it had speaking tubes didn’t it? I don’t need to
explain do I? Very useful. It had electrical intercom and radio of course. One had to
learn that.
Did you know –? Did you have any idea what you were being trained for when you
were at Oxford?
We didn’t know much about radar, we did the basic principles of it but not the fine
detail or some of the very clever electronic circuits, mostly designed by this chap FC
Williams who was, after Blumlein, number one circuit man. Blumlein was a second
generation refugee from Hitler, he was number one man, he worked for EMI on
television and then went to – to TRE. He had this gift, like FC Williams did, of not
only being able to do things but able to – he taught you things. We didn’t have
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managers, we had group leaders. If you were making something and you got stuck
you could say, look, I can’t get this to work and your boss would say, yes, have you
tried this? No I haven’t. Well, go away and try it and let me know. He was usually
right. And these two people, I never met Blumlein, he was killed in an aircraft
accident, but FC Williams had this gift of being able to explain things to you, things
which he understood but you didn’t until you’d finished with him, then you did. And
very few people have that gift, and they seemed to be collected at TRE in these
important positions.
And you –
And another thing about TRE, it was certainly not school [inaud], is that it didn’t
matter how old or young you were, if you had an idea which was outside your
particular activity you’d pass it on to people who did work on it and they would study
it. As a junior scientific officer you could say, look, is this good, and they would
work on it and say, yes or no. I had one, for example, if you get shot down you’ll
finish up in a dinghy because that’s strapped to your arse, dinghy drill [ph], but that’s
another story. However, you do not give a very good radar echo sitting in your
dinghy. You had a personal dinghy so it isn’t very big. If you get two mirrors and
you hold them at right angles and look into them you will see your face. You can do
it in three dimensions by having three mirrors. So I thought this would be a good idea
if you could get flexible material which will reflect radar waves, and this is called
lame you use for dresses, and we tried this. It worked. Unfortunately we gave it, I
can’t remember whether it was to the doctor or the parson, I think it was a parson but
somebody else said no it wasn’t, it was a doctor. Never mind which it was, we gave
them a radio set and a dinghy and I flew round and saw if I could see him with this
model that we made, and I could. But unfortunately the dinghy leaked and I’m certain
there were some rather unecclesiastical words said. So we got back our reflector and
a rather crude portable radio that the navy had, built on the lines of ham radio,
amateur radio, of the late ‘30s I think. You have to – it didn’t have a whip aerial, you
had to take an aerial out to a tree. Well, you don’t find many trees on a dinghy on a
warship, but the navy wouldn’t borrow an army portable radio would they? No, we
had to use this thing [laughs]. So we got back a wet radio and few not ecclesiastical
words, and it worked. And my boss said, yes, you’ll pass this on, write it up. So I
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went to the library and I got a book out. We had a very good librarian who said – I
would tell her what I want, yes, she said, that book is what you want. So I read that
book and there were all the mathematical explanations of – which I could adapt to
how it worked. I showed it to my boss and he said, ‘Tear that up, the naval staff
won’t understand one word of it, tell them what it does’, so I did. The war went and
ended but it was a good idea. My uncle Howard, who had this firm of making
aeroplane accessories, would have made a prototype for me but it wasn’t required.
You mentioned FC Williams’ circuit designs a moment ago. I was just wondering,
were you actually using them at Oxford or did you only encounter them when you go
to TRE?
Oh, no, we did – took exams in Oxford, yes. Mind you, we had a radio exam and we
weren’t – we weren’t told what sort it had to be, you had to design it.
How does one actually design a circuit?
What’s it like?
How does one actually design a circuit?
I haven’t the faintest idea, it’s built in there and I can’t explain it. You tie together
such experience as you have that might be applicable to what you don’t have. But FC
Williams, and Mr Blumlein for that matter, were exceedingly good at inventing
circuits for doing in the smallest possible way something which is fairly complicated
but you want. In other words, you use one valve instead of ten, this sort of thing.
And of course valves in those days, or still do, consume a lot of current. If, for
example, you designed in a transformer you might save two valves. You don’t do that
today, you use 2,000 transistors to save one transformer because one’s components
like transformers are labour intensive, and labour is expensive.
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To return to Oxford for a moment, I was wondering as well as learning a little bit
about how to actually use radio what else did you actually do with the OTC?
Well, all we did was learn how to play with twenty-five pounder guns at school. Or
amongst other things you learnt map reading, and that was useful but probably – oh,
and of course shooting. I used to like shooting, I was good at that. I actually shot at
Bisley once. That amused me but of course it didn’t do my ears any good, we didn’t
wear pads in those days and we used 303 rifles, a big bang. ‘Cause they’re not much
used today. World War One, yes, the rifle accuracy was good and we had the Bren
gun in the Second World War, which was far too accurate. You don’t want to send
twenty bullets through somebody when one’s enough.
What else did you actually do at Oxford? You talked about the workshops and the
Oh, yes, well we did – the various subjects we did, we of course did electronics and
radio, and we did electric – we did heavy electricity and when I – with big motors and
generators. When I tried to join the Institute of Electrical Engineers I was told, oh,
you don’t know anything about motors and generators. When I talk to you about my
wartime activities I will tell you what I had to do with motors and generators. So
what else did we do? Oh various branches of mathematics, most of which were not
aimed directly at radio and they should have been. That wasn’t very good. We did
one period of meteorology a week, and the chap who taught it had this gift of
teaching, so I learned something about meteorology. We didn’t do much Latin.
That’s about all we did, things directly tied to – it was electricity of course,
magnetism, that ordinary physics, plus radio. Heat, light and sound, electricity and
magnetism and thermodynamics. I realised fairly early on that thermodynamics was
intensely logical, I didn’t really need to learn it. I had to learn five basic equations,
everything was derived from them. And the morning of the final exam I did a bit of
swotting, so I got through.
When you said the basic physics, normal physics, what did that consist of at the time?
Well, I would say heat, light and sound –
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What do they –?
The property – and mechanics of gravity, this sort of – sort of thing, electrics, Ohm's
law and Wheatstone’s bridges, you see. And the radio, learn about valves and how to
use them. In radar you are dealing with very short pulses of electricity. If you want
to find – if you’re out at sea, say in the Solent, and there’s a cliff and you can’t see it,
you can clap your hands or you can shout and hear the echo come back but you must
not be shouting when the echo is coming back. You do the same sort of thing with
radio valves, radio waves. You must not be transmitting when you expect the echo to
come back ‘cause you aren’t going to be able to receive it. So we dealt not with
steady flow, even simple alternating current sine waves, but with short pulses, this we
learnt. And this is where the mathematics was very badly taught.
Thank you. Yes, shall we take a short pause?
Shall we take another short break?
[End of Track 2]
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Track 3
I was wondering if you could describe to me what the physics class was actually like
at Oxford.
To start with it was very bewildering compared with school, they took far deeper
interest in explanation of things. At school, unlike today, we invariably started off
with the discovery of some particular aspect and worked up to the present day. Now
you don’t do that today, you learn a lot of disconnected facts and there doesn’t seem
to be any encouragement to put them together. But in our case it did. And in Oxford
we did a lot of things that – which I’d done at school but in much greater depth, much
greater explanation of how things happened and what one might have derived –
derived from it. Now I was forever asking questions because – partly because I didn’t
understand and partly because I wanted to see what the next step was. This and one
other thing, in one of the exams, I think it must have been the finals, we had to find a
certain property out using bits and pieces we were supplied with, including a
protractor and lots of pins and a beaker full of some liquid. What we had to do was
find the refractive index of that liquid. Never mind that, we had to assemble things
together and trace the path of light through it using these pins. I said, ‘Can bore a
hole through the centre of a protractor?’ They went in – the examiners went in a
huddle and said, ‘Yes, but if you damage it we can’t give you another one.’ So I
made an instrument for doing this and I got the answer before the other people had
even lined things up. That got me to TRE, that is the sort of person they wanted. I
was by no means the brightest chap but I was inquisitive. Today’s pupils are not.
Having never actually been a physic – I’ve never been a university science student at
You know, been a student, not a science student. Could you describe to me what
actually –? How were you actually taught science?
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That’s a good question. By most of the dons by scribbling on a blackboard. Oh,
mainly equations at school. No, I never saw a single experiment in the physics
classroom. Yes, in the labs but our physics teacher never used a single picture or
model to show us. But I, as I told you earlier, was allowed in the labs alone. I did a
lot of experiments but many advanced versions of the things that were in the
textbooks. That was how it taught physics.
Were the labs and the classrooms separate then at school?
Pardon me?
Were the labs and the classrooms separate at school?
They were in Wellington, yes. We had a physics lecture room adjoining the physics
lab, which adjoined the sixth form physics lab which was a separate little lab. Above
the physics lecture room in the roof space was a limelight. You know, we can talk
about in the limelight? In the early days before electric light was good, projection of
slides, which you can make photographically, was done by heating up a lump of lime
with an oxyhydrogen flame. And this is what had been done previously at
Wellington. So what was I doing in the top of a lecture room? I was studying with
another boy, Peter Barrett in the sixth form lab, and the science master came and
locked the door, this was in the war. We were locked in. What do we do? Well, if
you leave the light on the blackout prefect will see it. Who’s the blackout prefect? I
was, so that wouldn’t be any good. But up there is a hatch. We have a table, we have
some stools, so we got up into the top and down in the physics lecture room but on the
way we saw this device. I bet it was thrown away, nobody would have known what it
was. But in my time we had an arc lamp, an electric arc, carbon arc, which I used to
operate. When I have given talks to schools today I don’t get questions or very few.
Every time I get a question you get a groan from the peers who don’t like it. In my
time I had peer pressure all right to ask the questions, the exact opposite. So I always
went up to the lecturer afterwards and asked him questions. How things have
changed, not I think for the better.
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Could you describe –? Are there any lecturers who stick in your mind in particular?
Two Oxford ones. One got a small bowl of mercury, and in that era mercury wasn’t
poisonous, and for that matter nor is what he was going to do in the experiment. He
heated it up just a little. He had a mercury vapour lamp, you know, the bluish
coloured street lamps, had one of them, and he shone it through the vapour that was
coming from the warm mercury and onto a screen, a white screen, and you could see
the see the shadows of the mercury vapour. Why? Because mercury vapour is
opaque to mercury light. This is why today’s low energy lamps all have very small
tubes. The earlier ones, they couldn’t do this, the ultraviolet light from the mercury
vapour had to traverse a lot of mercury vapour and so it was lost. But now they can
and this is why they have small tubes. That was one, and the other one was slightly
more technical. If you magnetised a piece of iron, the little chunks of the iron inside
consist of a few atoms called domains. When you bring a magnet up near they all
swing like a compass needle does to a magnetic field, and in so doing they change the
magnetic flux that’s been generated. If you wind a coil round that and connect it to an
amplifier you hear a hiss as you approach the magnet to its assembly. I will always
remember those two, they were shown to us and explained. But that was the
exception rather than the rule I’m afraid.
In what sense the exception?
Well, those were the two exceptions being showing us things rather than just
explaining them.
Were these at school or at Oxford?
No, this is Oxford. Oh, it was Oxford, as I said, we didn’t have any – have any
demonstrations other than what I did for myself in the labs, except chemistry. I was
talking about physics, you asked about physics. Chemistry, we had an enormous
number of experiments, which the headmaster did and we followed him.
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How much freedom was there to actually work at Oxford? Did you have to follow a
very set curriculum or could you branch out and learn other things?
Oh, I think you were kept into the rather narrow confines of your subject. And we
was allowed to – yes, I asked a lot of questions outside the subject and they were
always answered, but you weren’t invited – you weren’t taught to do it, it was just my
habit. And, as I said, I think, you know, I was probably the only one who did, which
got me out of it [ph] and got me to TRE.
Was what you would do after your course had finished a topic of discussion at all
when you were at Oxford?
What were the –?
Was what you would actually be doing after you’d finished your course a topic of
No, not really, no. It all finished and then we went on a long vacation. I was
supposed to do industrial work during the vacation and I applied to GEC at Wembley
because one of my Oxford friends lived up in London, not very far from Wembley,
and we both applied for this. He forgot so I didn’t get much of an impression about
industry. And when the administrator of the Clarendon lab came round and looked
up, when he saw me he said, ‘Oh, yes, you’re going to TRE’ I thought I’d failed the
finals exam, I knew I hadn’t. TRE did not deal in failures, so I went to bed happy. I
didn’t know for a day or two if I got through but I thought, no. We weren’t told much
about TRE because it was that secret.
What were you told, do you remember?
That they did work on radar, that was all, we didn’t know – oh, yes, there was one
thing which is relevant, the atom bomb. We were invited to go to a job in Canada on
radioactivity. Well, that was the atom bomb but we weren’t told that. Naturally
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Churchill would have said it was for radar, it wasn’t only. I didn’t go on that but in
the Clarendon lab, the physics lab, were areas that we couldn’t go in. We were called
into the lecture room one day by the administrator, TC Keeley who said – we were
ticked off as we came in against our list. He said, ‘Ladies and gentleman, there must
be some – you must realise there’s something going on here which is very secret but
you’re not allowed there. It is work on the magnetron’ the magnetron was fairly
secret then, ‘you’re not to talk about it.’ That was very clever. Oh, he said, it was –
it’s got a cover name of tube alloys. Tube alloys of course was the separation of the
isotopes for the atom bomb and I thought only Oxford could think of that because if
we had a plan it wouldn’t have mattered. [both laugh]
Are there are any teachers who stick in your mind from your time in Oxford?
Well, only ones that I’ve told you about who did good things, who demonstrated to
us. Oh, yes, there was one demonstrator. This is a chap in the lab with a degree, not a
lab boy but he doesn’t give you lectures, he helps you with the lab work. We had one
who was a refugee from Hitler. Now he was a – and we called him Sas, he had a
completely unpronounceable name, he was as big a rogue as I was, so we got on very
well together. He had access to a minister of defence scrapyard, I had access to an air
force one nearby because in the vacations I helped with the Air Training Corps, the
ATC, and we went to camp there, that’s how I actually started learning how to fly.
But we used to swap bits that we had acquired. I can remember him, and he was a
good teacher, he could – and the other chap who was actually in the army, he was
educational corps. When I read the Wireless Engineer afterwards he appears
Who was he?
Major Dee, he wore army uniform all the time. Sorry Dye, D, Y, E, not D double E.
Did you have a personal tutor or –?
Well, I had a tutor, yes, yes.
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Who was yours?
That’s a good question. I had – we had group tutorials and for physics I had Wills, he
married one of the, not our students but later there was Dr Wills and Dr Wills, they
were both doctors. He was my physics don and Earnest Jones was my maths one. He
had a terrible job trying to teach me maths. I’m just trying to think. No, there’s no
What actually happens in a tutorial?
He asks you questions to see what you know and you ask him questions to tell him –
to tell you things you don’t know. He has access to the little exams called collections
which you do weekly. Now he has access to the papers, he can go and say, look, you
didn’t get this right or if you got that right but I didn’t know this way of doing it, this
sort of thing. That’s what happens with them but because there were so many of us
and so few of them we had these group ones, not just one to one.
Where were you actually living?
I started off by living in 3 Divinity Road, Oxford and then I had to move to another
one in Beechcroft Road.
What sort of places were they?
Digs, they were bed and breakfast, oh and supper. The meals you had to sort out
yourself, you weren’t going back there ‘cause we rode bicycles everywhere. You
were allowed a car but of course outside our means, and in any case there was a war
on so you couldn’t have one. Hard luck if you couldn’t ride a bike.
I’ve just got a quick clarification question, which is how much –? What was the
balance like between theoretical teaching and practical hands on stuff?
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On the whole it was just about right, so we did practical in the afternoons and we did
theoretical in the morning, whereas the classic set went on the river in the afternoon.
So nearly every afternoon we were on a practical of some sort, not necessarily
directed to radar because we were not doing a radar course, we were doing physics, so
we had to do that and radio as well. And one or two of the experiments did border on
radar, in other words using short pulses rather than continuous waves. And I think
they got it right.
What was –?
My only objection is that we didn’t have enough demonstrations of things. We
should have had more ‘cause I learn visually.
What was the workload actually like?
Hard. Well, for me it was, some people find it very easy but I didn’t because I was
not very good at maths and you can’t do physics without maths. I suppose you can
today if you don’t do heat, light and sound, you look for imaginary particles that don’t
exist on someone else’s money, job for life. Or you send signals faster than light, or
say you do.
Did you ever doubt the fact that you’d gone into physics rather than chemistry?
Oh, to start with I did. Actually I got on very well with the storekeeper in the Dyson
Perrins chemistry laboratory, that’s the Lee and Perrin’s sauce people, the money
from there. I’ve forgotten why I did it. Oh, I think a friend of mine reading
chemistry, and the storekeeper wanted a loudspeaker for his wireless set, which I gave
him. He gave me a little workplace all of my own and any substances I wanted that
were available, so I did some chemistry. The professor came up to me one day, he
said, ‘Are you getting on all right?’ I said, ‘Yes, thank you sir,’ he moved to on
[ph][laughs]. So I did continue a bit of chemistry because it interested me, organic
chemistry in particular.
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I was going to ask as well, you mentioned you lived in digs. Well, what were your
digs like, can you describe –?
A bit rough and primitive but adequate, that would describe them. The second one, I
had to move from the second – from the first one because I got cystitis and had to
miss a whole term, and I didn’t see why I should pay thing and I moved out from her
to another one. The next door people would keep their wireless on really loudly, so I
said to the landlord, ‘Look, I can fix that. This device you just switch it on, it’ll jam
them’ and it did. He reported that he’d seen a service vehicle come up and take the
wireless set away. That fixed that all right.
What was your social life like when you were at Oxford?
Apart from the thing we had at St Catherine’s called St Catherine’s Night, negligible.
On St Catherine’s Night – I’ve told these two stories to the present master. He wasn’t
called a master in my time, he was called a censor, but not terribly relevant. But there
were little one act plays amongst other things, a bit of music. But some reverend
gentleman wanted to do a little one act play called The Hole in the Road. And the
hole was caused by some trouble with the gas mains, and they wanted a bang, and
they wanted a bang with some smoke. So I got some gunpowder, which I mentioned
before, and I got some zinc powder, and I mixed the two and fired them electrically at
the appropriate time in the rehearsal. Oh, we got a bang and we got smoke all right, it
smoked the whole place out. I would say the college but it wasn’t a college, it
smoked the whole building out. The censor sent for me and said, ‘This will not
happen on the night.’ So I cut a lecture, I made some gun cotton, it doesn’t make any
smoke whatsoever. We put it in a tin like a coca cola tin without a lid and we put the
gatekeeper’s hat on the top, the idea being it will blow into the air. It didn’t, it cut a
neat round hole in the cap and deafened everybody. It didn’t break the windows
fortunately but they had ringing ears. It was very successful. The other one was a
thought reading act. I got an RAF cadet there and built a small radio transmitter, this
was in the valve and batteries days, which went on a sort of belt round you. He had a
Morse key in his pocket and I had a receiver, headphones on and a turban. And he
went round the audience getting items and asked me what they were. The first one, he
got a pen. He said, ‘What have I got? I hope you’ll get it right’ so I said, ‘pen.’ He
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then gets a watch and he says, ‘What have I got this time?’ and, ‘you’ve got a watch.’
The audience [inaud] didn’t like this and, ‘Hey, wait a minute.’ I said, ‘All right
then.’ ‘You get a penny out of your pocket, show it to him and you ask me the date,’
but he sent it in Morse to me. That shut them up. I’d shown the master this
beforehand, well, he wasn’t, he was called the censor. I showed the censor this and
one of the psychology chaps came up to me, he said, ‘That was pretty good you know.
We can do it but not quite as well as you can.’ I said, ‘I’ve done it by radio’ he said,
‘don’t be silly.’ I said, ‘Well, go and ask the master – the censor.’ So that was social
life and virtually – oh, yes, we used to go round to the girls’ colleges playing them at
table tennis, otherwise it was virtually nil. Remember there was a blackout and we
had to work.
Were you a member of any societies at all or –?
No, I wasn’t. There was a junior scientific society which, well yes, I was a member of
it. I went to one lecture, this was on ghosts, Harry Price, and it was at Borley Rectory,
it was reputed to be haunted and he’d investigated it. He gave us a lecture on it and –
the only thing I ever went to but he was a fraudster, they were all fiddled by him,
there wasn’t a ghost.
How do you know?
Well, I’ll tell you later about a ghost I might or might not have met but I didn’t speak
to him and I didn’t see anything, that comes later in the wartime.
Why weren’t you convinced by Harry Price?
I – well, I was at the time but he was later revealed as a fraudster. I didn’t bowl him
out, it all seemed quite good, but it wasn’t, a complete fiddle. There were various
other ghostly occasions I’ve been to, it’s happened that the ghost wasn’t available that
night. They may exist. I have a brother-in-law who’s a parson who said, ‘Well, you
may already have seen a ghost. How do you know that all the people you see in the
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street are real? Some of them may be ghosts?’ I don’t think so. When I see and
speak to one, then I will believe it, I haven’t done so yet. You might be for all I
It’s interesting. You’ve mentioned, you know, growing up with a religious
grandfather –
Yes. Well, he didn’t believe in ghosts [laughs] –
I just –
Apart from the Holy Ghost – yes.
Well, what’s your own take on religion?
Well, I think I’ve told you, I go to church occasionally, fairly regularly, but when my
wife died none of the churchy people came to comfort me or do anything. It was the
people outside the churchgoers who came. I try to live by the principles but – but I
get a bit tired in church services. I had to go to one locally here because I missed it.
Our local church near me, where I would have gone for Easter, went down there and
they’d burned it out and I didn’t know this, so I went here. You stand for prayers.
Well, I don’t like standing very much, that’s why I have a stick, I can walk with it and
I use it for standing but I get backache. I’m trying to do something about it but that’s
something that’s coming on with old age I’m afraid, so – oh, I went through catechism
and all that and I said I would go at Easter, so I do go at Easter when I can. And I go
to communion because I promised to do so, if I make a promise I try and keep it. It
isn’t always possible. Some of the neighbouring places were having church service
every Sunday and you don’t have much option. This is not very – one when I was at
Dartmouth, I used to – and I was on the staff at naval college there. Admiral would
come along and try and tell you things. One came along, did rather well in the ward
room beforehand, middle of the sermon his PA – he went to sleep, his PA woke him
up, he said, ‘Gin please’ in a loud voice in church. [both laugh]
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I was just wondering, you know, you’re at university studying a sort of scientific
degree though –
And I was wondering how you sort of square that scientific training with the lecture
no ghosts that you believed in, which –?
Well, they don’t disagree all that much, I don’t think they do. I believe in evolution,
I’m not a creationist, but if you listen or read Professor Hawking on time he says the
universe is going to slow down. That’s not in our spatial unit [ph] but eventually it
will, and time will reverse. So when you die you will immediately, because you’re
switched off for God knows how many million years, and then you come back to life
again. Isn’t that what the resurrection’s all about? You come out of your graves. It’s
word for word the same. He may well be right. Now I wouldn’t know of course
[laughs]. All the other things he said are right, so he could be. There’s such – bits of
it I can understand.
Did you take to any particular aspect of physics when you were a student?
Well, of course radio. Before the war I went up to a thing called Radio Olympia,
which was an exhibition of radio equipment, domestic type equipment, at Olympia
Hall. And the Radio Society of Great Britain, the ham club, had – on the desks they
had a transmitter with five buttons on it, and on a shelf nearby a receiver with five
lights on it, and if you pressed number four on the transmitter, number four light
would light up. And the demonstrator, unlike I’m afraid today’s ones, was keen. Oh,
he said, ‘Does this interest you?’ I said, ‘My God, does it ever? Oh, he said, ‘You’d
better have this copy of the magazine.’ It was called TR Bulletin in those days, so he
gave me a copy. In it was how to make this thing, and I eventually did make it when I
was up at Oxford. We tried it up there and it worked, with my friend, but it described
a field day. When you take your radios into a field, and you mustn’t be in a building,
and you try and make contact with people. This I thought I must do, I must become a
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ham. I didn’t know – he said, ‘Do you know what ham radio is?’ I said, ‘No.’ He
told me – what I’ll do, I’ll keep this till later, this comes in of interest later in the war.
And so that’s how I got interested in ham radio as opposed to just radio. And in those
days you didn’t go and buy cheap Japanese equipment, you made your own, you had
Did you meet many other people at Oxford who were interested in radio?
There was a ham club there but not during the war. Well, yes, quite a lot of our
people were interested as well as having to study it, yes.
Who were your closest friends?
Who were your closest friends while you were at university?
Ah, that’s a long question. A chap called Williamson-Noble, whose father was a
Harley Street doctor, an eye surgeon, and I went and stayed with him in Harley Street,
and he was certainly my closest. I think, oh –
Why were you –?
Yes, there was a history student who lived in Bridport or near that area, and we
overlapped on the railway station. I got on quite well with her but I didn’t marry her.
And I’m just thinking of anybody else. Oh, well yes, there was another chap who I
didn’t know terribly well at Oxford, he went and joined the navy, then I met him
again, we became quite friends because he lived locally, and we recalled Oxford days
Who was that?
A chap called Townsend, he was in the navy when I was, and so we met
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The friend –
There was not exactly a friend of mine but in the Oxford days he was one of the fat
slobs that we had to get across rivers and through heaths. He went in for post-design
services like I did but in India. When peace in VJ Day broke out he went and found a
young elephant and painted it pink and took it into the officers’ mess. Well, when
you get tight you’re supposed to see pink elephants, and they did, this real one. That
was his claim to fame.
You mentioned –
Orgell, his name, O, R, G, E, double L. He went to TRE, he was one of the few of us
that did. Presumably he was inquisitive enough to get there.
The first chap you mentioned, you said was your best friend, who was that again
I’m sorry?
Who was the first chap you mentioned who you said you were closest to?
Ah, Williamson – Williamson hyphen Noble, whose father was an eye surgeon in
Harley Street where I stayed once.
And why do you think you got on with him?
Why? Because we both thought the same way. He’d been to Stowe, he knew – to
start with he knew quite a bit more about radio than I did but I caught him up on it.
And he got directed into industry and we lost touch. Well, we have been in touch
occasionally ever since but he’s died, so that’s that. He came down to stay with us in
Preston, near Weymouth, once and I stayed with him.
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I was wondering if you could describe, is it the Clarendon you’re actually working
We worked in the Clarendon lab doing physics, we worked in the electrical lab doing
mostly electricity but we did some electronics there as well as in the Clarendon.
Could you –?
And that is where we did heavy electricity, which he told me I knew nothing about.
What is heavy electricity?
Mains supply, lots of amps and volts as opposed to microscopic things that need
amplifying like the radar I told you about, that we call the heavy electrics.
Was there any particular sort of emphasis to the way it was taught?
No, I don’t think so, but taught in the same way it was twenty years earlier because I
met somebody who’d done exactly the same course but twenty years earlier. And he
– he wasn’t a physicist, he was in the diplomatic service, he was the last governor of
what is now Zimbabwe, Southern Rhodesia, and his hobby was radio, Sir Douglas
Hall. And what do we know about him? When he went out – he did the same course,
as far as we can see exactly the same with twenty years difference between us. When
he went out to Africa he got a telegram from his boss saying, ‘Come at once Hall,
trouble’. So he gets in his equivalent to a Land Rover and drives up country, sees the
boss and ‘Come in Hall, come and have a drink.’ And they’re chatting away and he
said, ‘Well, what about this labour trouble?’ ‘Labour trouble Hall, what are you
talking about?’ ‘Well, I got a telegram from you,’ ‘Oh, that’s not labour trouble, my
wireless set doesn’t work, fix it.’ So that was where his radio experience came in
How did you come to meet him?
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Through the editor of Radio Bygones, which was a paper of ancient wireless sets who
I used to write for. Oh, he said, you’d better – you ought to meet Sir Douglas Hall. I
said ‘He won’t want to talk to me.’ ‘Oh, yes’ he said, ‘he will.’ So I rang him up. He
said come down and stay, which I did, and he explained all of this to me. He’s gone
and died unfortunately. Now he had a brother who was a master at Dartmouth when I
was there, and his brother’s love was the Rolls Royce car. And he took me out in it
one day, so I said, ‘Do you want to come for a flight?’ And he said, ‘I wouldn’t mind
that’ so we went to Rover airfield and the manager there said there’s a slight problem,
the Tiger Moth, which belonged to the navy, has a defective exhaust manifold and he
said, ‘but I’ve got one.’ I said, ‘Well, that’s all right. He’s an engineer and I can sign
for it’ so we fixed it. Unfortunately by this time it was dark and the Tiger Moth isn’t
particularly well fitted for flying at night. I said, ‘I’m not going to disappoint you.
What we’re going to do is we’ll get into this thing and we’ll fly down the road till we
get to the roundabout. We will turn round on the roundabout and we will come back’
and that’s what we did.
I was wondering did you do much electronics.
At university.
Well, we did it as part of our course, yes, I didn’t do any – I did a very little at home
and the digs ‘cause there wasn’t time. I did a little, yes, but most of the time I got
permission to go in the labs over weekends unsupervised, so I did a lot on my own,
And what sort of things did they teach you or did you build?
Well, all the physical principles of radio which you’re going to need for radar and the
peculiar properties of circuit elements, such as resistance, capacity inductors, under
pulse conditions but to do this you need – we talked about these short pulses. The
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behaviour is governed by differential equations, which are not easy to solve. You
basically have to guess the answer and see if it’s right. Well, there’s a thing called
operational calculus, which we weren’t taught. We didn’t find out about that till we
get to TRE, which reduces it to arithmetic, so you don’t have to bother with these
fiendish equations, and that’s what I learned at TRE. Amongst other things I learned
about transformers, and I learned about them at school, I learned about them at
Oxford. If you have a transformer with five turns on the primary of it, and twentyfive turns on the secondary, you are going to get five times as much voltage out of it
as you put in. But how many turns do you put on? Didn’t learn that until I got to
TRE. The turns ratio, yes, but not when you’re winding a transformer with iron core,
or for that matter any core, how many turns. And that, at the training school at TRE,
this is something you need to know. And so I said, we used one transformer possibly
to save two or possibly even three valves, very necessary.
How much do you think that your physics course at Oxford actually prepared you for
the work you were going to do?
Apart from the secret stuff, very well, and things like that. Just a few very practical
details which were just not taught. This is where the course at TRE, which taught you
things that were too secret to know when you were at Oxford and in some cases not
taught or too difficult for Oxford days. But then we had these first class teachers
How do you actually do in your exams?
What do I do for?
How did you actually do at Oxford in your exams?
In the exams?
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I don’t know because I’ve got a wartime unclassified degree, I think it’s probably only
a third but, as I said, I was inquisitive. I didn’t fail anyway, that’s what matters.
Some people did but not me. Oh, they went in the army.
So how did you decide what to do next?
Ah, yes, I was asked when I gave a talk to a school in Oxford and a boy said, ‘Did you
actually enjoy working at TRE?’ so I said, ‘yes.’ What he didn’t ask was then why
did you leave. The answer to that one is because the group under FC Williams all
broke up and all the good people, not only his group, all the good people were leaving
and the place was rapidly becoming a civil service establishment rather than an
extension of university - ‘oh well I can’t stay here’. There was an instrument which
we used called the Cossor oscilloscope, made for television servicing just before the
war. And that was – every unit had one and I thought I might go and work for Cossor,
because there were two names associated with the design of this, so I wrote to one of
them and he wrote back and said if you are writing to me as an employee of Cossor,
don’t come – I’m sorry, come. If you are writing – if you’re writing to me as an
individual, on no account come. And you have something to do with the History of
Science Museum at Oxford, the – well, it says so on your thing. The curator there
explained why, useless management. Nobody’s ever heard of Cossor oscilloscopes
Can I just –?
They had it made and they threw it away. So one of the lab assistants produced an
advert for me, just showed it to me, for the instructor branch of the navy. I thought,
well, I’ll try that, being under the impression that peace time navy was like the
wartime navy, that’s how I came to leave, I – he applied and I applied, and I got the
job. I had to explain what I was doing to a couple of captains and an admiral, it was
quite obvious none of them knew what I was talking about, so I got in. And because I
was working on the child’s risk blind landing [ph] thing, FC Williams said, ‘Look,
can we keep him for another month because if he goes away there’s a lot of work will
have to be redone?’ And so I joined the term a month late, they allowed me to do late.
Oh, there were times I enjoyed it in the navy and – but it became increasingly obvious
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that it wasn’t my forte, so I left when I could to get a pension and I went to the
Admiralty Surface Weapons Establishment, which was run nothing like TRE. They
were running down, so I applied for early retirement and then became a private
consultant, which is much more fun. If you ever go on an A320 it was my design but
I hope you aren’t going to use it, it belongs to the emergency generator. I was going
to ask Mr Branson who has an airline, Virgin Airlines, if I could have a flight. Oh, we
were always going to have a flight in the prototype, never managed it because the
French are not like us. If they have a meeting it stops when it’s finished, it doesn’t
stop at five o’clock. Some of our meetings went on past midnight, so we never got a
chance. The Aérospatiale factory is on the edge of Toulouse Airport and you go in
the back door, just as the aircraft’s taxiing out, so that sort of lately, so we had a good
understanding, so we never got a flight. But I was going to have a – ask if I could go
up in the A380 when he gets them. The only trouble with that is it doesn’t have an
emergency generator. The engines are so reliable aren’t they? What about Singapore
Airlines? Maybe they’d better have one.
How did you actually come to be at TRE in the first place though?
Ah, yes, the administrator, TC Keeley, came and told me I was going to TRE, as I
said, on my behaviour at the place and probably on that experiment which I made the
instrument to do rather than follow instructions, and he looked up and said you’re
going to TRE. That’s when I said I knew I hadn’t failed. So nothing happened for a
long time. I got a letter directing me to a factory in Bournemouth, it was a Ministry of
Defence factory making H2S, the bomber radar. I thought, that’s very odd, so I went
there. They made me an assistant third class, so I went there. And in less than a week
I said, ‘This isn’t me. I didn’t get a degree to get – to test equipment.’ Oh, they said,
you’re very good at it. I said, ‘Maybe. I was told I was going to TRE, and to TRE I
am going. If I am not there by the end of the week I am joining the Fleet Air Arm and
you can’t stop me.’ At the end of the week I was at TRE as a junior scientific officer,
which I should have been, because the so and so civil servants didn’t understand at
Oxford you get a – you don’t get the degree, you pass the exam then you have to have
the degree conferred on you. It wasn’t till 1992 that I actually got my degree, I got
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MA thrown in. And the blooming civil servants didn’t understand that. What I
should have done is told my MP and got him to fix it, or told the people at Oxford,
actually I got there on my own efforts.
How did people actually take to you saying I shouldn’t be here, I should be at TRE?
Yes, well, they said you’re very good at it. I said, this is not what I joined – I got a
degree for. We didn’t have an argument, I just said I’m moving to TRE and if I’m not
at TRE I’m in the Fleet Air Arm as a pilot. I’d already learnt to fly with the ATC, so
that didn’t matter. And the – in the war my flying ability was accepted. I had to go
do checkouts on types, yes.
When did you actually learn to fly?
Where? At RAF Warmwell where, what’s his name, Laurence of Arabia, met his
death, sometimes called Morton or RAF Morton, but it was RAF Warmwell in my
time. Went there with camp with the ATC and I found two things, a Tiger Moth and
somebody who’d teach me to fly it, and a certain type of radar valve which was very
difficult to get called the 807, so I did rather well out of that. And the headmaster of
the Weymouth Grammar School was the CO of the – he said, ‘Well, come to camp
with us. We can’t make you an officer, we’ll make you a sergeant. Get you off all
the bullshit but as long as you turn up for meals we won’t ask you any questions.’
Oh, had a fighter thing called a Defiant, which was late, just before the war. It had a
turret in the middle with a gunner and a pilot, and that’s where I sat in the turret. On
the radio some chap’s saying, ‘Can’t get the wheels down.’ And I called the pilot and
said, ‘He’s got a problem’ he said, ‘it isn’t his, it’s us, do you mind if we do some
rather violent aerobatics?’ And he got them down [laughs].
Why did you think about joining the Fleet Air Arm?
Because it was the only thing that had a higher priority. I’d been to the – when I
suspected things weren’t right, I knew that TRE was not at Bournemouth, I went to
the recruiting office to ask, I wanted to have something up my sleeve. I said I’m not
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going to join now but I will come back in a week’s time, and I told him why, and I
didn’t go back in a week’s time, I went to where I thought I was going.
What were you actually doing at Bournemouth?
What was I doing? Testing H2S.
How does one test H2S?
How do you test it? Oh, there are sort of electronic tests that you do on it because in
that era the tolerance on components was very high, numerically high, five per cent
was rare and most things were twenty, which meant you had a lot of adjustments to
do. And this had to be done by the ground crew on – whose job was to see the
adjustments actually did what they were supposed to do because the components, a lot
of them are colour coded, and the people who make them are liable to get the wrong
values in. This will be bowled out on test, so I didn’t last there very long. [both
Shall we take a break?
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Track 4
When did you actually start at TRE?
When? In – it will be October of 1943, when I – after the week of threatening.
What was your first day like?
On your first day the director sent for you, well, he wasn’t a director, he was the chief
scientist. He knew what you looked like. If you met him again casually he knew your
name, he would ask how it’s going. He obviously didn’t know exactly what you were
doing and if you said, well – I then went to the school, so he wouldn’t have met me,
but he was that sort of chap. He knew who you were.
Who was the director?
AP Rowe. He got a knighthood.
Could you describe him to me?
I’m afraid he looked rather like a typical civil servant, which he was of course, but
didn’t behave as one. And, oh, he had – we were at Malvern College when I was
there, there was a film called School for Secrets. Well, I had to lend them my
Wellington which I was using for blind landing trials, they wanted ATC cadets to
drop window chaff, you know, foils that fool radar. The only trouble with that is the
flare chutes, which you were going to drop it down in a Wellington, the draft blows
up it. Well, you soon got over that, you didn’t open the bundles. One went through a
local doctor’s conservatory, broke the glass. The RAF loved court marshal, they’d
have loved to have me, I was on holiday, on leave. I did not see this in – I saw it in a
clip I think in a TRE cinema because I have seen it but it’s not in the video disc of the
film. The film is awful, it bears no resemblance to what we did at TRE. The reason it
moved to TRE, the research started at Bawdsey on the south – Suffolk because we
thought that’s where the threat’s going to come from and then we thought the French
were on our side in those days. When it was obvious that they weren’t it moved to
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Worth Matravers near Swanage, carried out a raid on the Cherbourg peninsula and
stole a bit of a German radar. It was thought that if we can do that on them, they can
come over and pinch the whole establishment, all the scientists, which is much better
than pinching one bit of the – moved overnight to the college, the boys were thrown
out. The civil service are not geared to moving overnight. They have a community
that sits on for three months and decides they’re not going to move anyway, absolute
hell. I wasn’t there at the time, there were no proper arrangements over anything.
Anyway, it got going and I joined the school. He had an office right at the top and
there was one rather portly gentleman who arrived at the top puffing. And AP Rowe
said, ‘Well, don’t you ever feel like taking exercise?’ And the chap said – and
pinched Oscar Wilde, said, ‘Yes, I do, but I take a rest until the feeling’s gone.’ Not
original, that was Oscar Wilde.
What was Rowe like?
What was life?
What was Rowe like?
Well, I didn’t see an awful lot of him but as I told you, if he met you casually he
would take an interest in you, which was quite something. Most directors of places
don’t know who worked for them but he did. And he – he wasn’t the world’s best
scientist, I don’t think he ever claimed to be, but he had these Sunday Soviets which
were invaluable in getting the equipment from people’s minds into service. We’ve
had this one thing which I can’t understand, the thing with our bombers to detect
fighters. I don’t know how that passed him because he would have understood. You
were asking for trouble.
What was the problem with that system?
Only that the fighters shot our bombers down because they detected us, detected our
radar long before our radars detected them. Laws of physics.
Is this Monica?
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Yes, it is Monica.
Just a –
And when this was discovered it was removed overnight, no messing about with
When you said Rowe looked like a civil servant but didn’t behave like one, what did
you mean by that?
Well, I suppose he might have worn pinstripes but he actually did some work, which
admin civil servants don’t. And he knew what he was talking about too.
He was on the Tizard committee, he was the secretary of it, so he was the ideal person
for the job. Well, he had all these different abilities to weld together, and he did. He
didn’t put square pegs into round holes like the Admiralty Surface Weapons did I’m
afraid. They decided to hold an open day and I got asked to – if I could have any
hints as to some sort of emblem for them. I said, well, I can think of two, one is a
male fist firmly hammering a square peg into a round hole, and the other is the
goddess of plenty with one of those cornucopias full of sovereigns, this was part of –
just pouring them down the drain, and the motto underneath ‘All out to contract’.
Neither of them were accepted. Was I asked to take an admiral or a captain of
industry around? I was but I didn’t, I took Sir Alex Roe, Rose, the only chap who
sailed round the world. Alex Rose, I took him round. I said, ‘Do you want me to take
you?’ and he said, ‘yes.’ Much more interesting.
Is this on a daytrip later at –?
A daytrip – well, it had an open day for that sort of person, not –
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The place is no more, it’s become a test facility.
What did you make of the prospect of actually joining TRE?
Prospect – ?
What did you make of the prospect of starting at TRE?
As soon as I realised what I was going to do I thought this is me. It’s just exactly
what I felt I was trained for.
What did you think you were going to do?
Well, I didn’t know to start with, I thought I was going to spend a long time in labs
designing things. Well, I did to start with. This business of what we called the postdesign services, and what the Americans called combat scientists, are introducing this
highly technical equipment to the services, which in our case was the air force and the
Fleet Air Army. The army and the navy didn’t really go in for that, it was just a TRE
thing. My predecessor, he was a junior scientific officer, was unsatisfactory for the
job. He actually stayed in the civil service and became a director but he was thrown
out by a chap called John Banner. And I went – I did some lab work on the SP11,
which I will call my radar for simplicity, I was only a – don’t forget, I was only a
minor cog in it. And this chap was no good at all in the field, so he slung him out. I
went up there. After a fortnight John Banner called for me and said – I thought he
was going to throw me out. He said, ‘Look, I’ve got to go away on something more
important, you’re in charge.’ I’d been there just after the labs, and so I was in charge.
That was all right in a way. The commander of the air station was an RNVR
commander and he was a gentleman. He didn’t send for me, he asked me to come and
see him. He said, ‘Look, this radar of yours’ the WREN mechanics, when we had
WREN mechanics who were extremely good, had probably never seen a radio set’s
inside before they joined but they were good. Some were a bit worried that the
radiation might make them sterile, some were worried that it won’t [laughs]. I said
the same as I would say today, ‘As far as we know it has no effect whatsoever but it is
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better to be safe than sorry. Now one thing you must not do is look down this part of
the radar.’ Now radio – radar waves of a frequency we were using were only three
centimetres long and rather than send them down wires we sent them down a tube,
rather like – you’ve heard of fibre optics, well, it’s much the same thing but a rather
longer wavelength. You have metal tubes and the wave travels in the space inside,
and you don’t look down that tube, not if you don’t want your eyes cooked. You
know what happens when you cook an egg, the transparent liquid becomes opaque
white, so do your eyes, so you must not do that.
Otherwise no – as far as we know there is no effect but we don’t know everything.
What actually was ASV-XI?
It was a radar which, like the H2S radar that gave the bombers a picture of the land
underneath it, gave you a picture of the sea underneath you. You were looking for
submarines, submarines are not that stupid, they have a breathing pipe called a
snorkel. Nelson didn’t have a snorkel on his submarines did he? So ours didn’t have
it. Except for our first submarine, Holland One, which had a snorkel. It had to
because it had a petrol engine, not a – but the navy being what it is, it didn’t have it.
The Germans didn’t invent it either, or reinvent it, the Dutch did. If the sea wasn’t too
rough and you didn’t get echoes from the waves, you would see a snorkel of a
submarine charging itself. This was quite something. One thing I could see, I went
for a flight – you couldn’t fly the aeroplane and see radar at the same time, so when I
wanted to test I had a pilot. He wanted to do some low flying about ten feet up, and
he did off Scotland. I was getting radar pictures forty miles away. Well, the
curvature of the earth says you can’t do that, but I did, so I reported it to TRE. A long
time later it was found that this was caused by the sea evaporating, as it does when it’s
warm, and forming a wave guide like these pipes, the wet air against the dry air. But
this wasn’t known at the time, you can’t get – but I did. And a little sidetrack of that
one, there was a destroyer and a battleship, we believed in battleships at the beginning
of the war. The destroyer was getting radar echoes and the battleship wasn’t, so the
battleship captain court marshalled his radar officer. The battleship’s aerials were
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above the duct, and the destroyer was in the duct, when – the evaporation duct. So he
got the ranges and the battleship didn’t, it was above it. When this was found, oh, no,
the radar officer was dismissed from the service. When it was found out, when this
was the cause, nothing was done. Remember the Winslow Boy case, Terence
Rattigan? A naval cadet in the ‘20s was wrongly dismissed from Dartmouth College,
and Terence Rattigan made a play out of it. Which of course, when it was discovered
they’d got the wrong boy nothing was done, he was dismissed from service. The navy
are never wrong. That’s not anything to do with me, I didn’t know it at the time but
certainly it’s a sidetrack which might interest you.
What did ASV-XI actually look like?
Look what it looked like? I could show you this, I’ve got a picture, it’s an artist’s
drawing. Between the wheels of a Swordfish, remember it hadn’t got a retractable
undercarriage, is a radome, a blob inside which a scanner, which is a mirror, rotates
and it is fed by this wave guide. It spins round and sends out a narrow beam which
scans the sea, and that is between the wheels. So very good at looking forward, not
terribly good at looking sideways where the wheels get in the way, and it blocks the
path of a torpedo, you can’t carry on. Well, you don’t drop torpedoes onto
submarines, you don’t know how deep they are. You have either rockets or bombs or
depth charges, which you’re fitted with, and that’s where – it gives you a picture. The
rotor – the picture of the map underneath you is called a PPI, plan, position, indicator.
You’ve probably seen them on your telly I expect or –
What does it look like? What are you seeing?
What does it look like? Well, you have a round screen, unlike a square screen for
your telly, and you see a spot of light that starts at the centre of the screen and moves
rapidly to the outside of the screen but it is invisible at that stage. When an echo
comes back it brightened up, and the further the echo is, the further the bright patch is
from the centre. That’s all very well except that when you’re trying to home on
something at the centre everything’s a bit crowded, so you open it out. Instead of it
being a round one it becomes a square one. It moves rapidly from side to side – oh,
no, it moves from side to side as the scanner now, instead of going round, moves from
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side to side, looking forwards. Moves from left to centre, to right, to centre, back to
left and so on. And the spot starts at the bottom of a screen and moves vertically
upwards according to whether it’s left or right, so you have opened a V out into a
square, and that is called a range azimuth display, that is much more convenient when
you’re trying to bomb something or depth charge. It had that facility, it also had the
facility to interrogate beacons. A beacon operates on a particular radio frequency, not
the same frequency as your search radar but on a different one, and you have two
aerials looking to the left and right, port and starboard, and if you get a bigger echo
from the beacon, which is merely sending back the radio pulse it’s generated, if you
get a bigger one on the left then the beacon’s on your left, so you can home. You
need to home in an attack Swordfish with – if you attack something you lose all track
of where you are and you’ve got to get back. And we had that as a display. This was
a little of equipment called Lucero. Who was Lucero? The inquisitor, yeah, the
interrogator, like you. Dr Lucero. [laughs]
How effective actually is this system for hunting submarines?
Oh, extremely effective, not only, it killed – in the Channel, when it was linked to the
RAF, it killed E-boats, those fast boats. In fact the squadron I was with, 119
squadron, destroyed the last German submarine in the war. It was stuck on a sand
bank and they dropped a bomb on it. It wasn’t ASV-XI at all [laughs].
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Track 5
I was wondering if we could start today by me asking you, could you actually describe
what TRE was like.
It was rather – it was rather like an extension of university, it carried on in that sort of
way, with freedom of thought, you went to lectures. Lectures were available during
the whole of the time there, and of course when I was out in the field I couldn’t attend
lectures but in the year afterwards I frequently went back. And they examined you to
see you weren’t wasting their time and money.
Lectures on what sort of subjects?
Oh, on the thing – mathematics mostly, to do with radar, relevant to radar.
What did the place actually look like?
What did –?
What did TRE look like?
Well, it was Malvern College, it looked like a public school with a lot of huts built
round it for excess accommodation that the school couldn’t provide. And it was on
the house principle and each house had its own workshops.
Which house were you in?
House four. And then in the year after the war in the pavilion, which is where FC
Williams operated. And downstairs in the pavilion there were clips for cricket bats
with names on them. There was somebody from my prep school there because he
wasn’t at TRE. The people at TRE were mostly from the smaller public schools and
grammar schools. At the state schools there was nobody who could – weren’t up to it.
What did you do when you first got there?
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First got there. There were two of us in the same E-boat down at Bournemouth, my
arguments apply to the other chap as well. The first thing we had to do was go into
the administrator’s office. He went out to get something, we sat on the table, which
collapsed, that was the first thing I did there. We got it up again before he came back.
And then I told you yesterday, went to see the chief scientist but he knew what we
looked like, and then to the school. Because I was a wee bit late joining I couldn’t
join in the regular course, I had to join one for the aircraft inspection department but it
was all good stuff.
What was the aircraft inspection department?
Well, when you have equipment in an aircraft it has to comply with certain
specifications, they see that it does. And in order to simplify the process we had
chassis on which we built things. We started off on a wooden bread board doing the
experiments, then on to these metal chassis which were already approved for aircraft
and they came in different sizes and they fitted into slots in a sort of carrier in the
aircraft. And I’m not sure whether this part of the story is correct or not. A junior
scientific officer like me put in a stores demand for an aircraft carrier, being the thing
that he thought you plugged into. However, the system thought otherwise.
Eventually an admiral rang up and said, ‘This aircraft carrier you want, we can’t let
you have a fleet carrier. Would an escort carrier do?’ Whether that is true, I do not
know, but is typical what could have – of what could have happened up there. That
was the sort of cooperation that we got.
What did they teach you in the school?
In the school? We did lab work and we did the theory, then we did the practise
corresponding to it. In particular, we’d done nothing about these wave guides I’ve
talked about, the substitute for cables for the higher frequencies at shorter
wavelengths. That was entirely new to us, we hadn’t done that at Oxford, not because
it was secret, because it was beyond our syllabus at the time or wasn’t wanted. And
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then these pulse circuits which I mentioned, we did all of those. We were taught them
and made them, and I have a couple of samples back home which you must see some
I was wondering, where was the actual school at TRE.
The –?
Where was the school at TRE?
In Malvern College, in College Road.
Could you describe what the actual set up was like there to me?
That’s a bit difficult. There were lab facilities in the various houses and you did your
work at the bench there, and I think I told you I had – like I had in Oxford, I had a
private lab in one of the houses, which I bought things for me instead of King George
for ham radio. So you did soldering and this sort of thing, assembling components
together. If you had to do any structural work then you had your workshops in the
basement and, as I say, if it was beyond that there was the intermediate workshops for
more advanced work. And then if it was a production job we wanted yesterday, then
we had a proper workshop so it can turn out things suitable to put into service aircraft,
which is rather like being at school again.
When did you actually finish at the –? Were you in the school as well as working, or
just at the school?
I started at the school. When you finish your course, then I started lab work, and I
was told that I was going out into the field but I had to work on it beforehand. A
particular job I had to do was making a simulator for training.
Simulating what?
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Simulating the planned position indicator, that’s the map that you get of the land, or in
my case, the sea below, which to do then could be a rather difficult job –
What did you –?
But too technical to explain, so I’ll leave it.
Could you –?
I had to produce the same sort of picture on the cathode ray tube as the real radar
we’ve got, the scan which starts in the middle, travels outwards in the direction that
the scanner’s pointing, and I had to make – do the circuitry for that. When I finished
that I was told to go off to the airfield up north.
How do you actually simulate on the planned position indicator without having a
radar attached to it?
By generating false echoes, either from scanning a map of the ground or just
producing false echoes with one of those circuits I described the other day where you
can produce a pulse in any point just by turning a knob.
Are you the only person working on this?
Oh, no – well, yes, on that particular aspect of it, then there were people who had to
produce a false picture, which wasn’t for me, I merely produced the means. It’s
surprising, I had to do this again recently. The local technical college had an open
day. They had been helping me prepare some demonstrations for a talk I gave to what
was then the IEE, the IET now. And they wanted a PPI, so years later, oh fifty or
sixty years later, I had to do the same thing, slightly improved technique and just a
coincidence. They used this for their open day, I use it for lectures that I give or gave.
I think you know I don’t give them any more because of this attitude of not in the
syllabus, I’m not going to learn it, don’t want to know.
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Where did you actually do the work on the training simulator?
In the lab.
Was that in hut four you mentioned or –?
In the – ?
Was that in hut four?
No, it wasn’t, it was in hut eight because hut eight was the ASV-XI development
place. The hut four, rather house four, was the administrative headquarters where MV
Wilkes operated from.
Who was actually your boss?
My boss lived there. My boss operated in house four.
Who was your boss?
A chap called Hodgson and he – KR Hodgson, he’d been a schoolmaster, a physics
master, in peace time. And when the war finished he immediately went back to it and
left MV Wilkes as my boss for a few days and it was he who got me into the elite
group of FC Williams, presumably on the work I’d done in the field.
What was Hodges like?
What was –?
What was Hodges like?
Oh, a very helpful chap, easy to get on with, saw your problems, and he was the chap
who when I produced this idea for increased echoes when you’re sitting in a dinghy,
used to say tear it because the naval staff won’t understand a word of it, that was the
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chap. We didn’t see an awful lot of them once I was in the field but you could always
ring him up and ask for advice. You had to send a most secret letter to him once a
week telling him what you did that week, so he knew what you were up to. And if for
any particular thing you’d be doing something wrong he would tell you or have you
thought of this, sort of attitude.
What’s a most secret letter?
The most secret thing was this magnetron which had what’s known as strapping, and
this benefit to the user is that it is easier to set it up, to put it in plain language. I’m
not going to – I won’t attempt to explain why because I have to draw some pictures.
I’m sure you’d understand but I can’t do it without pictures.
You’ve mentioned the magnetron a few times, what actually was it?
A magnetron is a device which will turn direct current into very high frequency
alternating current. We’re talking about frequencies recorded on kilo megahertz in
those days, today they’re called gigahertz. A particular magnetron in my set was the
highest used in the war, and that was ten gigahertz, which is 10,000 million cycles
every second, and your house has fifty cycles every second. Why do you want such a
high frequency? The answer to that is it enables you to build a small aerial to give a
narrow beam like a searchlight. It depends on the size of the wavelength measured.
The size of the reflector, the scanner, is inversely proportional to the wavelength
you’re using, so if you have very short wavelength then you make a very short – a
very small reflector. [Inaud] is directly proportional to the wavelength, so small
wavelength, narrow beam. The narrow beam sweeps round the target area. If you had
a wide beam like the CH [Chain Home] radar that won the Battle of Britain, that
didn’t have a beam it all, it floodlit the area that was likely for attack. And ordinary
direction finding use – used well before the war, used in World War One, found the
direction of a target, you didn’t get a planned position indication from it. A lot of it
depended upon the skill of the operator, and of course they were all very skilled in
that era.
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Who else actually worked in hut eight with you?
Ah, that’s a good question, er, I was on my own because when you were in PDS you
operated – perhaps with another chap like I did to start with, with John Banner, but
then you’re on your own. When you came to the lab, if you were in the field and you
wanted to do an experiment, then you worked with the people who worked on it all
the time. I can’t remember many names from that era in the lab, I know what they
looked like but I can’t put names to them.
What sort of facilities did you have there?
Electronic equipment appropriate to the ‘40s, all different types. We had this Cossor
oscilloscope but FC Williams wasn’t satisfied with that, he designed the TRE scope,
which was rather better. So you had anything you needed for test equipment and of
course you had the soldering iron, a great big fat thing which would not be much use
with today’s surface mount components.
What do you use an oscilloscope for?
Looking at the wave form, that is the variation of voltage with time that your
equipment circuit produced. You want a sweep voltage to sweep the cathode ray tube
spot across the tube, and that is a voltage which increases proportional to time. When
it gets to a certain time, say ten microseconds, it will then stop and jump back to the
beginning and do it again. And we were wanting to produce that in, first of all, an
accurate way and then in a simple way if you could. This was the sort of thing you
spent your time doing. And you wanted a short pulse to make the magnetron transmit
for only a very short time, you had to do that. This was typical of the work we were
doing. Oh, and then if you – if the time involved was very short or you wanted to
look at, in other words, short range, there was a lot of dead time. You wanted to black
this spot out then so you didn’t see it, so that means producing accurately timed pulses
that go up to a certain voltage, stay there for a very short time measured in
microseconds, and then disappearing. That’s the sort of thing we did. People still do
it but with rather more modern equipment than we had. Television founded this. On
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your television set, pulses are used, so it drew heavily on television experience and we
did have television before the war –
I was wondering –
Despite Lord Reith not – saying that the British public wouldn’t want television, oh
I was wondering if you could very briefly describe to me what the basic principle of a
pulse radar actually is.
Yes, I can. Radio waves travel at a considerable speed, 186,000 miles per second in
reasonable terms. In an SI unit we know what it is, unless you’re at school when you
don’t know what it is. You send out a radio wave, because you want to hear the echo
from the target you’ve got to send out a very short duration pulse of radio waves so
that you are not transmitting when the echo you hope to receive is coming back. So in
the war we were dealing with pulses in the order of one microsecond, one millionth of
a second. Today you deal in pulses much shorter, they’re a tenth of that, but our
techniques of that era made one microsecond a reasonable thing to do. So that is the
basic principle of radar. When the pulse comes back it is of course very weak and
you have a receiver tuned to the same frequency as the magnetron, and you have to
amplify it up. In those days we could not amplify the actual radar pulse, we had no
means of doing it. We had to change its frequency to something we could amplify.
This is called a superhet and your radio today, unless it’s a digital one, will be a
superhet receiver. You always change the frequency of the incoming signal to a fixed
one. In our case this was forty-five megahertz, much the same frequency as the prewar television, so this technique was available and in fact the amplifier that was used
in my radar was a pre-war television amplifier made by Pye. And we didn’t have to
do any work on it, it came, it had already been done before the war, so that was one
thing we didn’t have to design.
I was perhaps wondering if –
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And then you have to display it somehow. You can display it by – in a cathode ray
tube, just having a spot move across, and when the echo comes back it is converted
into a voltage which makes the spot jump upwards. That is what they did in the CH
radar at the Battle of Britain one, but in ours when we had the PPI the spot moves
outwards in the direction of a target but it is blacked out until it gets an echo. Or in
fact there is a slight background noise, it speckles a bit in the background, and when
an echo comes back the spot has moved away from the centre in the direction of the
target and brightens up the trace. That’s radar in a few words.
Thank you. Were there any technicians there to help you with your work?
We had technicians, yes. Don’t despise them, they are very essential people because
they will do a lot of the routine work and save you doing it, and they were people
without degrees. In fact one technician who worked for Baird on television who had
to work for me on the trials and he knew far more about it than I did, he had several
patents to his name. He didn’t have a degree and I did, so he was really very good
and we had a vast number of people without degrees.
Do you remember the name of the chap from Pye?
The chap –?
From Pye.
From Pye? No, from Baird’s chap we –
Oh, sorry, from Baird, yeah.
Baird’s chap was Dave Pugh. And I’m in touch with Baird’s son, he knew Dave
Pugh, who’s died now of course.
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What sort of –? You said that technicians would do routine jobs. What is a routine
job of that kind?
Making up a circuit, improving a layout of a circuit, you’ve done it perhaps on a
wooden board and screwed the round holders in, this sort of thing. He would convert
it to something that would go in an aeroplane, in the aeroplane carrier, aircraft carrier.
And that sort of job they could do. They weren’t able to design, no, they were lab
assistants and they would improve on your rather crude work where you made lots of
mistakes on, they would tidy it up and make it presentable, a most important thing to
do. And I don’t like the idea of some people who pour scorn on them.
How do you actually go about designing a circuit? You said that you –
Well, first you have to have a – you must know what it’s supposed to be doing, then
you draw upon your experience. And if you don’t have enough you try and find
something in books and that, in those days, was very difficult. But at TRE we had a
most excellent librarian who if you went to her and said I want to do this, oh, so that
book will do it – help you, and it did, Miss Drake. And a few years ago she was still
alive but I don’t think she is now. So you think up what you know and apply it to the
problem that you’ve been given and you try it but it doesn’t work so you’ve got to
find out why.
How do you try it?
We build it up. You can start with a concept in your mind, you then draw it out using
conventional symbols of a valve, resistor, capacitor or whatever, and you then make it
up but it doesn’t work. You find you’ve put the wrong value in somewhere or you’ve
connected something that would go to plus, you’ve connected it to minus, this sort of
thing. It’s so easy to do.
What do you actually make it up with?
Oh, radio – that brings up another point, radio components. And before the war there
weren’t many manufacturers of radio components for wireless sets. When the war
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came this had to be magnified several times on making close tolerance. Close
tolerance in those days was five percent, it’s of course point one per cent or better
today but it wasn’t then. So you get the components from the store that you think
you’re going to use and then you wire them up, hopefully according to the circuit
you’ve drawn, and you try it with the Cossor oscilloscope or the TRE one of FC
Williams which was much better. Why was it better? Because you had amongst
other things two traces on the cathode ray tube, you could do two things at once.
There were means of measuring accurately the times and the voltages involved, which
the Cossor television scope, supplied for every radar maintenance unit everywhere,
didn’t give. So you could do accurate measurements, that was the big thing about it,
calibrated both in time and in voltage. It’s only a volt meter with a visual display.
I was wondering if you could – I’m sort of thinking about the working atmosphere at
TRE and I was wondering if you’d give me an idea of what it was like working there.
Maybe we could talk through perhaps what you do in a typical day, starting off from
when you wake up in the morning as it were.
Right, you wake up in the morning, this is the worst of it, in a wooden hut on a
deserted area on Malvern Wells train station. You then walk to TRE and have
breakfast in the canteen. Having had the canteen you then start work. Now what am I
going to do today? Oh, yes, that didn’t work yesterday, I’d better sort that out, so I’ll
get working on it. Stand easy comes and you have coffee or tea. In fact we had tea
because – in those days because coffee grounds, powder, hadn’t been invented, so on
very rare occasions we did have real coffee but – you then chat with your friends and
unlike the Bletchley Park people we’re encouraged to talk to each other, like
somebody else might accidentally produce the answer to your problem. This
frequently happened. They had a different approach from yours, yours wasn’t right,
theirs happened to be. This frequently – this did happen. And then you carry on, you
have lunch and you carry on until the afternoon, and eventually the day ends, you
have your supper and you go back to the – to the deserted railway station. The thing
there, although we were degree people we were not goodie goodies. There was one
chap who was a bit fond of the bottle and he came in tight one night, so we put him
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and his bed on the – on a truck in the railway station. What we didn’t know was that
it was attached to an engine, a steam engine of course, which chuffed off to
Letchworth. He woke up in Letchworth in a bed. That’s the sort of thing we got up to
I’m afraid.
What sorts of –? Just trying to get an idea as well what sort of thing you did socially
as well.
Well, there was much social life because at times you didn’t go back to your thing,
you worked all night because there was a panic on, you had to get it done by
tomorrow. So hours were flexible, if you’d been on it all night then you’ve obviously
got to have some sleep, so you slept it off.
You said you sort of talked to your colleagues about things, what sorts of things did
you talk to about?
I’m afraid mostly work but not the whole time. There were three of us in much the
same E-boat, myself and Douglas Gray, now dead, and Malcolm Greenhill, at least
that’s what we knew him as. He was actually the honourable Malcolm Greenhill, and
as far as I know he is still alive today. Lord Greenhill, his father died, he was a
Labour peer, but he will never come to reunions, I’ve lost touch with him. A few
years ago I used to go and see him and offered to take him, but he didn’t. He lives in
Newbury, I must found out if he’s still alive. We spoke about things not in the least
concerned with our work. One particular thing, we were walking down the street in
Malvern together and a chap passed us who looked for all the world like George
Bernard Shaw. So he said, I wonder – I think either one of us said, ‘I wonder if he’s
Shaw’ and the bloke turned round and said, ‘I am Shaw’ he was George Bernard
Shaw. He was a frequenter of Malvern apparently, though some of his plays were put
on in the Winter Gardens there. But there was a club for young people in Malvern run
by the inhabitants who did approve of our existence, not the ones who didn’t, and this
was working [inaud] so we used to go in the evenings. If you had time you’d go and
meet the other people there and talk.
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But I spent most of my time in the field where my colleagues were in the service, and
they sort came and went, so I don’t know many of them.
What sort of interaction did you have with the local population there?
Very little because they didn’t – most of them didn’t want to know us but nevertheless
these people who ran the, it was called the Piers Ploughman Club, they realised that
we were doing something terribly secret and we couldn’t talk about it and weren’t in
uniform. It was like I had uniform, it was not done to wear your uniform out in
Malvern. You came back from the field and either changed on the railway station or
in a train.
What was the Piers Ploughman club?
It was a social club for young people in Malvern, mostly the young people from TRE.
We weren’t all from TRE but most of us were, and a bit of relaxation. Social life, as
it was. We never went to a cinema or anything like that because there wasn’t time.
What did the locals actually know about what you were doing, do you think?
Nothing, fortunately. A lot of pipes went into the place and a big tank. This was
static water in case we set the place on fire. We didn’t but it might have happened or
we might have been bombed. One of the popular rumours was we were working on
poison gas, we weren’t. So they had no idea, intentionally, and it did work because
we weren’t bombed. If the Germans had got the message they would have come but
they didn’t.
Did the locals ever ask about what you were doing?
Oh, they did, yes, they tried to pump us but they never succeeded. I think I told you
that the things on the shelf above the fire started vibrating, that was possibly due to us
but of course it wasn’t. And ‘When you chaps are working we get a whining noise on
the radio’, ‘oh, that’s nothing to do with us.’ That was the nearest they got to it.
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Well, they could have seen aerials all over the place so we obviously weren’t working
on poison gas.
So you’re working in hut eight, what sort of interaction do you have with the people
who are working in the other huts?
Oh, social when you met them in the canteen but I’m afraid the conversations were
usually technical, this is where we interchanged ideas. The tablecloths were full of
what would have been secret circuits. But of course this was encouraged and a little
bit of purely social chat, so where do you come from, what was it like at your school.
And how seriously did you have to take secrecy when you were working there?
Oh, completely, you had to sign the Official Secrets Act, and when you did you were
told what the consequences would be if you didn’t, first of all how you will be treated
and secondly the effect it will have on the war, if you go and blab you will be serving
Mr Hitler. And this was very important.
Could you perhaps give me an illustration of what that secrecy actually meant though
in practise?
It meant that you didn’t talk about what you were doing or exist as a radar to anybody
who wasn’t in the business. It didn’t have to be at TRE or at an airfield, you refrained
from any idea on what it was. You didn’t give them any clue to work on; you
changed the subject as quickly as you could.
Did you ever have any moral qualms about working on military systems?
I didn’t but some people did. I told you about the chap who took me up to see his
radar and then I flew the aeroplane. He was very unhappy about working on radar
because it killed people. But he did, he overcame his fears, as soon as peace broke
out he ceased to work, he left TRE. So some people were worried about it but in a
war you’re going to kill people. And I do take my hat off to conscientious objectors
who say I’m not going to kill people but I will take any risk that you like, they drove
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ambulances without any weapons. And they of course suffered the condemnation of
their friends but they stuck to their guns. But you’re not going to win a war if
everybody does that.
How much control over what you’re doing was there when you were working at TRE?
I’m not sure I understand. Control by whom?
By your boss.
Well, our bosses all had much more experience than we did, they would – you would
have a problem and if you couldn’t do it you could go up to your boss and say, look,
I’m having trouble. And he would think for a while and say, ‘Look, have you tried
this?’ ‘No,’ ‘well, you go and try this and if it doesn’t work come back and see me
again.’ That was the sort of control exercise or if it was particularly difficult and if
your boss was FC Williams, he would give you some help before presenting you with
the task, do you know about something or other, no. Well, he would then tell you.
And in the case of FC Williams, he had this gift of explaining where his predecessor
was Alan Blumlein, the chap who was killed in the crash, he also had this. I suspect
that most of the other group leaders had that gift of explaining to their people and
chosen for it. It came with the appointment.
How much freedom did you have to go about your work as you saw fit then?
How much –?
How much freedom did you have to go about your work?
Oh, complete freedom. And if it was fiendishly expensive you had to justify it, and if
it was – in my case I never wanted anything fiendishly expensive but there must have
been some people who did. And it would be considered, is it worthwhile doing. So
the freedom was immense because I never had anything like that. And I was asked a
question when I gave a talk to a school, a boy said, ‘Did you enjoy working at TRE?’
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And I said, ‘Well, yes I did.’ He didn’t follow it up by saying, ‘Why did you leave?’
Well, the answer to that was because it ceased to be TRE.
Why did you enjoy working there?
Because I felt I was doing something which suited my peculiar abilities. I was a
square peg in a square hole, and most of the people there were like that, I think with a
few exceptions. I know with my friend who’s now Lord Greenhill, he didn’t enjoy it
working there, but he stayed on in the civil service, he became a patent officer, patent
I think. So in his time he never patented anything. I don’t think he enjoyed it there
but the other chap, Douglas Gray, did, we all – both enjoyed it. But he went – he left
to set up his own business, recording. He was a Scotsman, he recorded Scottish
country dances, tapes of music, various stories.
What was the supply of components like? Were you ever affected by wartime
No, the store organisation was extremely good, I never found anything that I couldn’t
get, it was always there. It was amazing, unlike the naval stores which never seemed
to have what you want. How that was organised, I don’t know, but it was, we got
everything we wanted. From an industry which before the war was microscopic, it
expanded beyond all measure with these high grade components.
I’m just going to have to –
Pause this for a second.
[End of Track 5]
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Track 6
What rank actually were you?
A junior scientific officer. I was first appointed there as an assistant, third class, so
we went over this yesterday, due to civil service incompetence.
Where does a junior scientific officer fit in the big scheme of things at TRE?
Right at the bottom of the graduates, it’s the lowest grade. It doesn’t exist today, if
you join you become a scientific officer straight away, but a junior scientific officer
straight out of university and then in due course, if course wasn’t due enough, you
would become a scientific officer. He was quite someone. A senior scientific officer,
RV Jones, the intelligence man, was a scientific officer, he got nothing in reward from
the British because senior scientific officers aren’t senior enough to get an award of
any description. The Americans gave him some. Eventually he did, he solved a lot of
the intelligence problems, find out how things worked. But scientists are all right, you
need them in the war but when the war’s finished, off with them. In the war, please
Mr Scientist, do something to keep the horrible enemy away.
Did you feel valued in your work there?
Do –?
Did you feel valued in your work?
I – well, yes, by my bosses, yes but of course we didn’t get any recognition from
authority. As I said, they didn’t want to know when peace had broken out, but you’d
get personal satisfaction when things worked. And I’ve told you that it didn’t always
work in my case, and I made my fair share of mistakes I think.
Can you –?
These are just through not knowing or not thinking properly.
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Could you give me an example of a mistake you made?
Yes, I can, I gave you one yesterday, the – oh, trying to mark a spot on the water by
dropping oil on it. You know how it shimmers to light? Well, it didn’t shimmer to
radio waves. I should have known this, it was a simple physical principle, because the
film of oil on the water is much the same thickness as a wavelength of light, and the
radar I used was three centimetre waves, the oil is not three centimetres thick. If it
had have been, it had been one of these modern oil spills, it would have been
detectable by radar. But the whole object of this was to avoid the thing they called the
marker marine that marked a spot of the sea for you. When you’ve found it by radar
you’ve got to go round and do a bombing run on it, so it gets you back, this is all in
the middle of the night, say.
Sorry, all the –?
So –?
All in the –? I didn’t catch the last thing you said.
Well, you drop this thing called a marker marine and it produces a light at night and a
smoke at day, so you can see it without having to trace it on the radar amongst
thousands of other things. It may have been just a weak thing on the radar, like a
snorkel pipe, so you mark it and then you go and bomb it or drop depth charges, hope
that it was a submarine and hope that it was German.
Did you ever have anything to do with the Sunday Soviets?
No, I didn’t because I was away most of time and I would liked to have done to sort
out the Monica problem, which we mentioned yesterday when the active radar on the
back end of our bombers saw a signal to German fighters to where they were because
they had receivers to pick it up. But how that got through the Sunday Soviets I will
never know.
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As a junior scientific officer did you know the Sunday Soviets happened?
Oh, yes yes.
What did you know about them at the time?
We knew what they were talking about on occasions. I’ve told you about why H2S
was called H2S, because the senior RAF people couldn’t understand it and said it
stinks, that was its nickname. Y is what the Americans called chaff, the stuff that
confuses radar, we call window because they wanted a name for it and somebody
looked out and said, oh, let’s call it the window because you didn’t want to give away
– chaff tells you what it is. And again, we were a little shy of using it because we
feared that the Germans might use it on our radar. We were using radar far more than
they were but we did use it, and in particularly on D-Day, and it created artificial
echoes indicating that we were landing somewhere further up the Channel. And that
was all done by window dropped from aircraft and ships simulating radar echoes. A
thing called Moonshine produced false radar echoes, something for the Germans to
play with.
I was wondering if you could give me an idea what were the other people like who you
worked with there.
Well, nutcases like us. There was a high degree of friendship between us all. I don’t
think there was any personal animosity, which was the curse of Bletchley where they
weren’t – not encouraged to talk to each other about the job. And I’ve read books on
this saying, you know, there was a lot of friction which – because they were even
nearer nutcases than we were. And this just didn’t happen in our place, we were all
very chummy. And the older people tolerated us younger people quite happily, which
I suppose doesn’t happen quite today. You know, age or – and ability didn’t matter.
If you weren’t terribly good at something, that didn’t matter. And as far as I can
remember everybody was most hopeful to you. Eventually we moved out of the
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railway hut to a converted mansion and we were looked after. We had supper there
and this was good.
When you said nutcases, what did you mean by that?
Well, I mean psychological cases.
In what sense?
A bit off the beaten track, not conventional. Well, we weren’t conventional, some of
us were less conventional than others. Remember radar was unconventional at the
time, there was no experience to – or very little experience to draw on. I’ve told you
of the Tizard committee that worked on this and in fact when the idea of using radar
waves to detect the presence, rather than to destroy the enemy, it was not realised that
a scientist called Appleton, later Sir Henry Appleton, had been sounding the
ionosphere. That’s the layer up in the sky which reflects radio waves and is created
by sunspots, it’s an eleven year cycle. We’ve been at the bottom of a cycle for the last
years, or so it seems from a ham radio point of view. He had been sounding the
ionosphere by what was effectively radar. He sent a short pulse up there on a
particular frequency, and if it came back he recorded it. He saw aeroplanes which
interfered with his experiments. He was a junior scientific officer and at that stage his
opinion was not asked. A ridiculous experiment was done, called the Daventry
experiment, to show that aeroplanes did in fact give echoes. If they’d asked any radio
ham who worked on the VHF band they’ve had told them but they didn’t. Anyway it
all worked, so – and it was known that they worked but not to the – these rather
elderly scientists beyond their sell by date.
Is this in the pre-war period then?
The –?
Are you talking about the pre-war period?
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I’m talking about in 19 – early 1930s. 1935 was the time we started on radar, and that
is when this experiment was done. They flew – they did it on the BBC shortwave
transmitter at Daventry. They sent an aircraft over, who couldn’t find Daventry with
all the aerials up in the place. Eventually they did and they found that the reflection
from this aircraft interfered with the direct transmission from Daventry, it made it
flutter but if they’d have asked hams they’ve have told but they didn’t.
Were there many women working at TRE?
Were there many women working at TRE?
A few, yes, graduate technicians but very few. The ones we had of course were very
What sort of things did they do?
Mostly technicians’ jobs and certainly one of them, who I got to know fairly well
because she worked very near in the pavilion, was a radio ham as well. There weren’t
many radio hams there because we weren’t working on communication.
Who was the female radio ham?
Who was the female radio ham?
Miss Jebb, G3YL, Yankee Lima, that’s a call sign. Call signs either begin with M, G
or 2. In those days only G but there are a lot of hams today and we’ve had to expand
using M and 2. 2LO, that wasn’t a ham station, that was a broadcast station, but the
two signifies it’s in Britain.
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What was Miss Jebb like?
Oh, a good experimenter. On one, I think it was the Easter holiday, I went and stayed
with them. She nearly became Mrs Knowles but not quite. She’s not Janet’s mother.
She’s not Janet’s mother [laughs]. She went and married a doctor who went and died,
I don’t know what happened after that.
Was there much sort of radio ham activity amongst TRE people?
No, because it was – there weren’t many hams there because we were not
communication people, there were one or two. In the FC Williams group the chap
who was the servo-mechanism man, Ritson, he was a ham. DE5RI, he got his initials
which is RI. In fact after the war I did in fact speak to him on Morse. I think he’s
dead, most of us are dead now. The thing about hams of that era is they were all
experimenters, today you buy a cheap Japanese thing. Well, that wasn’t available,
people had to make their own rig, so they were used to experimenting. Changing over
from communication to radar was fairly easy for them but don’t forget it was all new,
so it was as new to them as it was to us. And they had – oh, hams had the advantage
of being experimenters by nature, which they’re not today, very few are, they’re just
operators, and in some cases not very good ones either.
How long were you in hut eight for?
Hut –?
How long were you in hut eight for?
How long was I –?
In hut eight.
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In hut eight. Well, on and off for two years, from 1943 to ‘45. Whenever I had
something I couldn’t do in the field I came back to hut eight and did it with the benefit
of the people who worked there. In fact I could help them on some things. A
particular thing was the people there not on ASV-XI wanted a thing called induction
heater that could heat up things inside a vacuum, so I made one of those for them in
return for the things they did for me. This was a monstrous radar – radio transmitter.
We got some of the valves, the sort CH radar used, two of them, found a transformer
on the scrapheap that was designed to produce 11,000 volts. From 230 we worked it
– rather 230 volts from 11,000, we worked it the other way round and got 11,000 volts
which ran these valves. It produced long sparks, you couldn’t get near it ‘cause one
might leap out and get you. And that fed into a coil and heated up things inside a
vacuum that you couldn’t touch. A well known technique but they didn’t have the
thing to do it, and I made it for them. Hut eight is now the girls’ college – house at
the college.
When were you sent out to the field?
I went out to the field pretty much all the time after I’d done the original work on the
simulator. So I went up there, I’ve told you, to replace a JSO who was incompetent,
and then I was left on my own by – my boss walked out and said you’re in charge. A
bit later the squadron’s radar officer got what we call in the navy a draft chitty, he had
to go away, so I became the air radio officer as well, in charge of all these WRENs
and mechanics.
Sorry, where were you sent?
Onto a ship, that was more important than being on an airfield. I don’t remember
which ship, if I ever did know. I met him occasionally since, DB Geake by name,
initials DB.
What sort of ship was it?
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Well, I don’t know, a ship with radar but – because he vanished like that overnight,
well, these sort of things were slightly secret where – and I’d had no need to know, so
I wasn’t told, and I was sent for by the CO, he said, ‘Look, you’re a radio officer
now.’ He gave me a little advice on how to handle people, which was very helpful.
What did you make of the prospect about being sent off in a ship?
The advice he gave me is, ‘Don’t try and cover up something which is not very nice
that they’ve got to do by giving them sticks of chocolate. They’ve got to face up to –
some of the work won’t be very easy.’ But as I said, I think yesterday, they were
good, very good, because the observers of the radar had no idea of what was inside,
they couldn’t put it right, whereas the WREN radio mechanics knew how it worked
and could put it right, and would have made good observers if the time came up. We
didn’t have lady fighters in those days.
What did you actually have to do on the ship?
What did I have to or the –?
What did you have to do?
Well, I had to – I was sent out by Hodgson to deliver six magnet – of these most
secret magnetrons to the ship, just – I had a pistol in my pocket because they were
most secret. And he tried to book a sleeper for me, they were all booked, and civil
service bent the rules, I went first class. But you try sleeping with a pusser’s pistol
about – about a foot and a half long in your pocket, so I got there. When I got there,
there were certain problems which were – they were worried about. I don’t think I can
remember the detail of them now, which I sorted out for them. And of course I was
very close to the captain who could ask the opinion of a nineteen year old scientist but
couldn’t ask the opinion of a nineteen year old midshipman without losing face. So I
got on very well with the captain who got in touch with Hodgson and said, ‘Look, can
we keep him?’ And Hodgson said yes, so I got kept and sorted out the various
problems and certain design defects which I dealt with. I’ve told you about the
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blower motor yesterday, that was – the radar was sometimes given much more
interference speckles on the screen than it should have done, it was all over the screen.
It wasn’t German jamming because they couldn’t and in any case it would have been
picked up directionally. Turned out to be that the little blower motor that prevented
the magnetron from getting too hot was not particularly efficient, some of the
electricity, at least a lot of the electricity goes into it, doesn’t come out as radio waves,
it comes out as heat, so you’ve got to get rid of it. The blower motor did this. The
blower motor caused radar – radio interference on the screen, and this I found out for
them by a series of tests of isolation. You found that by moving the cabinet that the
thing was in slightly it changed the interference, so it was therefore being generated in
that particular box. I sorted that out and I was allowed to be kept, helping them solve
any design faults or spotting failure faults which I could do rather quicker than they
could. Actually I met in the radar workshop there a chap who’d been in the modern
sixth at Wellington with me, a year ahead of me, playing with radar. I don’t think he
understood much about it, he became a lawyer later.
What sort of ship was it?
An escort carrier. It had been a passenger liner on the South Africa line and it had a
flat top put on side – on top of it for landing on, and a diesel engine. The funnels for
the exhaust were on one side, on the right hand side, on the starboard side of the ship,
so you could land on. It had a lift to lower the aircraft down into the hangar below
and it had accommodation for everybody on board but not quite as good
accommodation as when it was a liner, and on many of these things, converted liners,
mainly on the South African line run. It had been HMS Pretoria Castle – rather it had
been Pretoria Castle and became HMS Vindex.
And were you dealing with the same sort of radar you’d been using before?
Say it again.
Were you dealing with the same sort of radar systems you’d been using at TRE?
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Well, this was an ASV-XI in the Swordfish. The ship’s radar had a ship’s radar
officer to look after it. Oh, we got on well together, I helped him as well. He was
involved in this trial that we did of my corner reflector made of lame material, he gave
me a lot of help on that. And he was a bassoon player. On our navy portable radio
we heard another station, they were – from what we gathered they were an aircraft,
anti-aircraft battery, talking to each other, so the ship’s radar officer – we called them
up but they wouldn’t speak to us. We said, we’ll play you a bassoon solo, and he
played to them. That was just one of the little incidents that happened.
Sorry, what’s a Swordfish?
The Swordfish was – saw the light of day in 1935 along with the Hurricane, not the
Spitfire, and the start of radar. It was a biplane and I think Nelson had biplanes, so we
had to have one, which was designed basically as a torpedo bomber in the pre-radar
days. When radar came along it was impossible to carry a torpedo because radar got
in the way of torpedo, and it also used to have three people, a pilot, an observer and a
telegraphist. You don’t see Nelson had a telegraphist. It was changed to have a radio
which was for speech, it didn’t need a telegraphist, but it had the observer who did the
navigation and watched the radar. And we didn’t have helicopters, it was slow, just
exactly what you wanted, so it was a – instead of a helicopter during the war it did the
job which helicopters do today. Couldn’t fly quite as slowly as a helicopter could but
used for reconnaissance and as soon as it found a target, for destruction of a target.
So what did you have to do?
Most people laugh when you say I flew a Swordfish but it really left out of World
War One, for some reason it got built along with the Hurricane.
What sort of duties did you have to do on board Vindex?
Mostly concerned with the radar, I didn’t have to keep watch even when they put me
into uniform because I was not an executive officer, I was a specialist. That was all
making certain that the radar did what it was supposed to do, and if didn’t was it a
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temporary fault or was it a design fault. If it was a design fault, could I rectify it, and
if I could tell TRE who would notify other users of it.
What sorts of problems did you come up against?
Oh, mainly component failure, apart from this interference one which was a design
fault. We sorted it out by putting a different sort of motor in, a blower motor to keep
the magnetron cool.
Did you do much flying yourself?
Yes, I did, when I could. Having got something right I wanted to go and see if it was
right. And I told you of the time when the pilot wanted – I couldn’t fly and observe a
radar at the same time, and I was not allowed to land on carriers, I hadn’t been trained
to. When I got to forty mile range flying at ten feet, and we didn’t know why at the
time, but it was said to be impossible and I believed it but it was there in front of my
eyes. We later found out about this duct from the evacuated sea water. Though
sometimes you get ducting overland.
How did you actually take to naval life?
Well, I suppose had I not have gone to TRE I would have joined the navy if I’d have
been called up, because I was a sea scout before the war and I – I could learn the
naval jargon. They taught me it without looking foolish, with this jargon you don’t
talk about toilet, it’s a heads. And there’s this word gash which means surplus to
requirements. In other words, rubbish is gash and also you can have a gash breakfast,
a spare one, so that’s the meaning of that word. The pusser meaning the paymaster or
a system generally. And I learned all these words which, when I joined Royal Navy
later, were very useful, I knew them all, you speak their language. All the
departments of the ship wanted to show me their side of things. I looked round the
engines, I looked round the guns and I looked at the feeding arrangements,
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everything, and the officers in charge took great care to show me their thing, so I got
to know a lot about the navy that I wouldn’t have otherwise known.
Could you give me an idea of what life’s actually like aboard an escort carrier?
What was it like?
Maybe again, what do you do in a typical day perhaps?
Oh, much the same as at TRE, to get up, have breakfast. The food on board was
magnificent compared to what one got to eat as a civilian at TRE, and then get on
with the job. Occasionally there was recreation. We were in Glasgow, we went out
skating one day, ice skating, then I went sailing, I’ve done – I’ve told you the story of
that, and I think that was it. It was rather like TRE, there was plenty of work to do, it
was never shy of that, and sometimes we had to stay up a long time overnight to get it
ready for tomorrow. Something turned up which hadn’t happened before and it was
my job to find out why, and then discuss things with the senior officers of the ship.
How did the naval officers actually take to a specialist like yourself?
Oh, they were very good to me, they – well, I was helpful to them I suppose and they
were all extremely good to me, they put up with me.
What’s social life like as a sailor?
Once again, when we were at sea there wasn’t much but when we were ashore it
happened that the air radio officer was a Glaswegian, and so it wasn’t very far from
Greenock to Glasgow. I went to his home and I went skating. I did go to a cinema, I
hardly ever went to that, there wasn’t time. You can’t for a walk and it was too cold
to go for a swim. In the – in warmer waters you normally have a swim before
breakfast in the sea. Anybody who wants to can but not in the North Atlantic in
winter you don’t.
[laughs] And how much did you head back to TRE?
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How much –?
Did you go back to TRE at all when you were there?
From time to time, mainly to discuss things that couldn’t be discussed through a
phone, because although there were scrambled phones you could train somebody to
read it anyway. It was a very primitive system that basically stopped the telephone
operators from understanding what’s going on but any spy of the Germans could and
did read it just like that. So I had to go up from time to time, and then there’s this
occasion when I volunteered to join the CJR [interviewee meant Fleet Air Arm], I
went back on the mat [ph]. I didn’t go back all that much. If there was some problem
which needed lab facilities I would go back and do them, and get back to the naval air
station or ship as quickly as I could, which I usually flew up there, but I was not
allowed to land it on the carriers. On one occasion when I got this recall back to TRE
to be told that I was going to Belgium, the – we had an ex-lower deck commander,
that means promoted from rating because the proper commander, who was a lawyer in
peace time, got taken sick, ill. And he reduced that ship from being a happy ship to a
miserable one within days. I had to get back, I had arranged to get a ferry, an aircraft
ferry, flight, back from Kirkwall to civilisation. I was waiting at the gangway for it to
come and he said, ‘Go and sit in the ward room, I’ll call you.’ He didn’t, he forgot. I
met the commander (flying) in the ward room. He said, ‘Look, you’ve obviously got a
problem. I have a Swordfish and I want to go to Perth.’ ‘You’re not allowed to land
on carriers but I think you can take off.’ Sitting in the aircraft, having – it starts by
hand, the propeller was going and a sailor came up to me and said, ‘Sir, the
commander wants to speak to you.’ So I didn’t quite say go and tell him to get stuffed
but words of effect, stand clear, off, and I arrived at Perth.
So you actually took off on an aircraft carrier. [both laugh]
Yes. And I think I’ve told you that the Swordfish was provided with a speaking tube
but not with another facility that you wanted. I found it very useful [laughs].
How did –?
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‘Cause it looked quite a long flight. The Swordfish can remain airborne for five hours
without any trouble at all, it had a 750 gallon tank on it.
How did the new commander actually reduce a happy ship to an unhappy ship?
I don’t know what makes a happy ship but certainly a commander makes a happy
ship, and the captain doesn’t make a happy ship but he can destroy one easily. It’s the
commander’s attitude who makes – I suppose it’s a matter of applying discipline
without upsetting people. You’ve got to have discipline on a ship and when people
have problems being sympathetic towards them. This chap created problems, I had
frequent arguments with him, I’d only got one ring and he had three but I was a
civilian and he knew that I had the captain’s ear but that didn’t – I had so many rows
over things.
Over what sorts of things?
Well, take one. When I got this signal saying come back at once when I was sailing, I
had to go and phone up TRE and that meant again a ferry ashore. The commander
fixed it for me and a couple of the engineers said do you mind if I come – they came
and I said, no, come along. And the commander said be at that – that stage at a
certain time, the ferry will fetch you. We were there, there was no ferry. Some
Chinese officers came by who were serving with our navy, they said, ‘You have
problem?’ ‘Yes, there’s our ship and we’re here.’ Oh, they said, ‘Come with us.’ So
I went to HMS Dido where they were saving, they sent a signal by Morse, flashed up
the ship, along came a boat and picked us up. There was the commander at the top of
the gangway ‘Why weren’t you at the ferry stage?’ ‘Why wasn’t your ferry at the
stage sir?’ That shut him up. I didn’t get on with him, nobody did.
What was HMS Vindex actually doing?
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On this occasion escorting convoys to Russia and taking up stuff which Stalin never
used but appreciated the gesture. We had to keep Stalin happy. Without Russians
we’d have lost Leningrad and this [inaud] chaps in merchant ships who had no
defence for themselves, the object of course was to keep submarines away. They
torpedoed frequently and you don’t last long in the Arctic waters.
What did the other people on board think about, you know, doing Arctic runs?
I don’t suppose they were allowed to think. You do what you’re told in the navy.
Well, was it never discussed?
What was the –?
Was it ever discussed?
That sort of thing goes on in the ward room anyway, things nothing to do with the
war. We were actually in the ship when D-Day happened. We weren’t told it was
happening but we guessed something might be afoot because all the radio call signs
changed. Later on the BBC news we heard that the continents had been invaded but
we were not told. Well, it was kept a secret and it worked. We just carried out the
usual conversation between people of different backgrounds. Particularly the naval
people would tell me what the navy was all about and I could tell them what TRE was
all about. [Doorbell rings]. That was discussed, how did you come to be here sort of
thing, and you’d tell them.
I think that was the doorbell.
I think that was the doorbell.
Oh, was it? Oh
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Track 7
How long were you aboard Vindex for?
That’s a good question, I was in there intermittently, I suppose a couple of months, of
that sort of time but I can’t be more accurate I’m afraid. I had to go away to do
something else, I can’t remember what it was, and then I came back again, so I was
there for two periods that probably total up to something of that order.
Was Vindex actually on active service then or training?
Not engaging in the enemy, yes it was, but mostly working up in the Clyde area, so I
learned a lot about how ships worked.
When did you leave it?
When? It would have been around about September of 1944 because I was called
back and then I went across to Belgium where a squadron, a naval squadron, was
operating from Knokke and – just to see what was going on. Then I came back to
TRE and I’m not sure why, then to RAF Bircham Newton, which is in Norfolk where
the squadron which was going to work at Knokke was working up. I joined them
there then went across the Channel and joined them.
What was the squadron actually –? The squadron of what?
It was the squadron of Swordfish. My radar is the Swordfish mark three, linked to the
RAF. And we’ve had several problems, which I’ve described to you already, and
doing much the same work because these were RAF people who never got much
experience of naval equipment.
So were you still a naval officer?
No, they didn’t want a naval officer on an RAF station, they made me a flight
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Was that a promotion or –?
Yes. It didn’t make much difference anyway.
How does working with the RAF compare to working with the navy?
Oh, it’s slightly different but they made me feel very welcome. I was very lucky, I
got a room to – being a flight lieutenant I had a room to myself in the hotel, which
was the mess. And on one of the naval air stations, even as a sub-lieutenant, I had a
nice little cabin to myself and the steward brought me tea in the morning.
It all sounds very civilised.
Yes [laughs]. I’ve told you about the motors problem, how I sorted that one out, that
involved speaking French as well as the technical ability.
Yeah, you mentioned the –
The RAF are very slow in paying up for things. Eventually the chap who sold the
motor got his money but in the meantime I spoke with him, his wireless set didn’t
work, a valve had gone in it of the type which was virtually unavailable to him and
not very common in England. But one of the radio valves in my radar, with a little
alteration, became suitable. I had to change its base. I let him have that and he was as
happy as a sand boy, got his radio working again.
Sorry, what was the motor problem?
The fact that the distribution of electricity in Belgium is rather different from ours, it’s
a technical one which I’m not going to explain. It meant that the lighting was all right
except that when you have a switch here it breaks the live mains but leaves the neutral
on switch. In the Belgium system, both type wires are live. In fact the distribution
uses three wires, they’re all live, ours has three wires as well and they’re live but the
arrangement is different. It meant that motors did not get the same voltage in
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Belgium as they did from ours. The lamps did but the motor didn’t, and of course the
RAF didn’t know that did they? Having learned all about this in Oxford I couldn’t
change the motor. I looked at it, it was impossible, it meant rewinding it which would
be on the [inaud]. We couldn’t rewire it, it had to be completely rewound, and I went
to buy one.
They had to use a thing done by a generator to generate the aircraft supplies without
running the aircraft’s engine, it was driven by a petrol engine. And this was winter
and it was a true so and so to start, so very pleased when I got them on, but
unfortunately one of the three wires of this system would be – would fail [telephone
rings] no, I’ll leave that there. [break in recording]
Sorry, you were saying?
Yes, I was saying this meant if you’ve only got two lives wires out of three the motor
didn’t produce enough power, stalled and would have burnt out. So I devised
something which measured the voltage of the generator attached to the motor. If it
was not right it disconnected the motor, and that saved them from disruption. I
realised this was going to happen when they reported that there were frequent failures
and it was a – you had to press a button, an initial button, when you started it short
circuited it – this detector to – you can start it and if the volts got too low or the motor
wasn’t running fast enough then it would save it. This was the sort of job one had to
do because the RAF radar officer didn’t know anything about that sort of thing, and I
don’t think he knew about radar either. The signals officer, with whom I shared an
office, did know about things, his job.
What was Knokke?
What was –?
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What was the place called again, sorry, Knokke?
Knokke, K, N, O, K, K, E, Knokke-Aan-Zee in Flemish and Knocke-sur-Mer in
French, and Knokke on Sea in English. It’s to the north of Belgium, on the seaside.
What was it like there?
Er … well, we did have a cinema we went to. The cinema sound was awful but the
French subtitles were easily readable. And we didn’t fraternise much with the locals,
except in my case with the chap who provided the motor for me and somebody else.
He had … not tricycles but things you sat in and pedalled, and I got to know him.
When I wanted to go down to the airfield in the middle of the night I borrowed one of
these things and pedalled my way down to the airfield. We didn’t have much in
common with them, they were called, despisingly, poor starving Belgians. They
drove around in luxurious cars. We had a thing called pipelines under the ocean,
Pluto, we got fuel over there, and they used to drill holes in the pipes and pinch the
fuel. Unfortunately they never knew quite what fuel was coming, it could be petrol,
it’d be lubricating oil and kerosene and so – well, they didn’t put up much of a fight
either. And the social life was limited to between ourselves.
What sort of place was Knokke?
A seaside resort.
And you were on an airfield there or –?
Oh, that’s right, there was an airfield there. When I went over to Belgium from the
farm in my childhood days Bleriot-like aeroplanes came over from Knokke and I
didn’t know that some, what, twenty years later I was going to be flying Bleriot-like
aeroplanes from Knokke [laughs].
What sort of things were you doing at Knokke?
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Much the same as on the ship, sorting out their problems, and a little more, making
them familiar with what was strange equipment to them, being naval equipment, and
we got on very well, I sorted them out. There was one thing which I was working on
purely by chance, and that was the observers were reporting that German fighters in
the night were approaching them with what appeared to be a red light, infrared
probably. I had been to Eindhoven earlier, I think I told you about this, and I went
back to Eindhoven, I got a photocell that would respond to ultraviolet light but I never
got it made in time, the war finished. That was one thing I had to do.
What was the actual squadron there doing?
Chasing E-boats in the Channel.
What’s an E-boat?
Fast motor boats with torpedoes like gunnery but they were torpedoes. These were a
terrible hindrance to our invasion. And they were very successful at it. Once they
found an E-boat it had no hope.
Were they actually on active work when you were there or training?
Were the – ?
Were they actually on active service when –?
Oh, yes, very much so. I mean – I said I was allowed on active service because they
had an observer only, they didn’t have radio operator, but then the radio was speech
radio, that was dead easy, it was the same VHF radio that the Spitfires and the
Hurricanes had. It didn’t need any sort of operation but for some reason or other –
well, I wouldn’t have known much about navigation, so I didn’t go on ops but for
testing changes I’d made or the radar repairs, for testing I did a lot of flying around
the place for – somehow the squadron got hold of a book, a German Bücker, a
Jungmeister, a small light aircraft. I used to fly that and I went for a flight in a thing
called a Sea Otter. The navy had an amphibian called a Walrus but the engine was
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backwards, it was a pusher, it didn’t have the engine in front, it was high wing aircraft
and they turned the engine around and called it a Sea Otter, and this was used for air
sea rescue, not in the navy – well, it was in the navy, it was for spotting. You can
carry one on a battleship and launch it off on the water, and I used to go and fly in that
[laughs]. Fortunately we didn’t ever – nobody ever got shot down but they could
have done.
Are there any incidents that stick in your mind from your time there?
Er, that’s again a good question … I’m not sure. No, I don’t think there’s any
particular incident. There was one which I can always remember because I had to go
some way on transport and the RAF chap came and pinched the seat beside the driver.
The adjutant came out and said get out of it, it’s his seat. That I do remember.
But there were pictures taken by the observers of the German radars on the coast of
The Hague, by The Hague. I saw these and I saw the CO with whom I had very close
liaison who’d also been left behind in Brussels. And I said, ‘I want to go and see
those.’ ‘No, you can’t, the Germans are there.’ ‘Yeah, but there’s no fight left in
them. It’s all right, I’ll give you a truck and a driver’ and off we went and drove into
The Hague. Well, this was leading aircraftsman Norman Chambers. Well, to start
with of course it was driver and sir, within a few minutes it was Norman and Richard.
He was excellent. Of all the people that the RAF could have provided he
complemented my abilities and we went and saw German radars very successfully.
Could you tell me about one of these visits to a German radar?
Yes, we went to see a thing which was – they called Mammut, which means the
mammoth, it was an enormous structure. Because it worked on very long
wavelengths to get a narrow beam it had to be very big. You couldn’t swing the beam
by moving this enormous structure in a narrow beam like a searchlight, so this was
done electronically, something we didn’t know about. They showed it to me,
explained it all, allowed me to work out, so I learnt quite a lot from them. And I told
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RV Jones about this. ‘Oh, yes’ he said, ‘we didn’t know very much about it.’ They
also used the radiation from RCH radar, that was the 1938 one, our radar transmitters,
they had radar receivers that could receive our transmissions reflected from our
bombers going to bomb them, and RV Jones had never heard of this. I didn’t go to
see it. They had a station on an island near The Hague and the resistance chap in
charge looking after me said, ‘No, don’t go there because first of all you’ve got to go
by boat. There are mines around and the people there haven’t realised they’ve lost the
How did the Germans actually take to you turning up at these radar sites? So the war
ended by this point?
Oh, they were most cooperative. Well, as a German officer said, you and I are going
to be on the same side shortly, opposing the Russians, and he was right. Oh, we got
on famously. My German isn’t all that good but their English was usually extremely
Had the war actually ended by this point?
Had the war actually ended by this point?
No, it hadn’t, when we got liberated I think the Dutch would rather had the Germans
than had the Canadians, who weren’t terribly popular.
Forty years later, 1985, I and Norman Chambers got invited back to a thank you
liberators weekend, week. How did I remember Norman Chambers’ address? When
peace broke out I broke a – I pinched a – no, it was before peace broke out, I’d
pinched a German radio set. I got onto a ham band and sent blind if anybody receives
this will they tell my parents and his parents that we’re alive and happy. And I gave
them of course my address and his address. I remember his address from sending it in
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Morse. Forty years later I got in touch with a newspaper in Huddersfield, where he
came from, and they found him and we went back. One of the entertainments was at
the top of a hotel in Scheveningen, the Dutch Brighton. At the door was a young boy
who wasn’t alive forty years ago. He shook us all by the hand and said, thank you. It
was very moving. But being Canadian the entertainment was a Canadian high school
band, scraping away on violins on some lugubrious dirge, it just wasn’t taking off. So
I went up to them afterwards and, ‘Look, can you play Glenn Miller?’ He said, yes, I
said, ‘Well, you’d better do so’ and he did. It took off from that moment onwards.
And a Canadian high school girl asked me to dance, I’m not very good. I said, ‘Look,
you lead. If I tread on your toes don’t scream.’
How did the German equipment you saw in Holland actually compare to the British
equipment you were used to?
Oh, far better engineered, grossly over engineered. It was slightly difficult because of
this to repair but by and large I don’t think it had many failures. Our equipment I
think got it just right because of this over engineering it’s going to be more difficult to
make and so you won’t get so many of them in a given time and a given number of
people. Ours were more prone to failure, yes, but many more of them, and I think we
were nearer the perfect than they were. And they of course didn’t use the magnetron
very much. They did, having been given it by the RAF. I went to see the equipment,
which is very similar to H2S but ground based, and they couldn’t make the magnets,
they had to use electro magnets, we used polar magnets. Today you can get
exceedingly powerful magnets made with some neodymium which is a rare earth
element, boron but for borax, and iron. We could have had those in the war, they
were invented but the people who made them didn’t know that magnetrons needed
them, and the people who made magnetrons didn’t know they existed. We used the
same sort of magnets as loudspeakers did, great big things, ‘cause you can’t know
everything and we didn’t. I didn’t know about these pre-war very strong magnets
until well after the war I was reading the Wireless Engineer of 1930s, and there it was
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Did you see any other German equipment when you were out there?
Did you see any other German equipment apart from the Mammut station?
Well, yes, amongst our things I saw an Enigma machine. I blundered into an SS
office or a barracks by mistake, I didn’t realise it was, I could have been shot but I
wasn’t, they didn’t bother, and there was an Enigma machine. I thought it was an
electric typewriter. Well, Churchill ordered all the ones at Bletchley Park to be
destroyed but not everybody destroyed them. You can sell them for a vast amount,
but I haven’t got it.
How did the Germans actually take to you turning up in their bases and asking to look
at things?
Oh, they didn’t seem to mind. Oh, cooperation because you and I were going to be on
the same side shortly, so they were helpful. Oh, their engineering was good, I think
possibly too good, they didn’t have quite the same resilience that we had. We were
very good on counter measures and they weren’t quite so good. We used to fool some
of their systems. That’s too technical to explain but one of them that is easy to
explain, they had a radio beam that their bombers read where RV Jones produced a
jammer for it. We had a thing called identification, friend or foe. This was a little
receiver and a transmitter, when it received a radio pulse, a radar pulse, it retransmitted back to you a pulse which encoded the information on it, which told you
that it was a friendly aeroplane. The Germans of course captured this and they used it
as a blind bombing aid. They made them because it amplified the radar signal, it
picked up and re-transmitted it, so you got a greater range, and they used it to control
with their radars. And they had a commentary to tell the pilot where to see it and the
bomber aimer when to bomb. Ours – our system like it didn’t. It had the same sort of
echo repeater but the information to the air crew was continued in the pulse, it was not
a speech thing. At Knokke we had a WREN officer who didn’t seem to do anything
but she rushed off one evening, said I’ve got to go to work. What she had to do was
do the commentary for this thing in German because they changed from a human,
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which we used to simulate, to a female, that was her job. We didn’t know this but the
thing, having sent out a pulse in response to your interrogation, it was then 150
microseconds. What we did was to receive their transmissions from the top of a hill,
where you could get it, from the bottom of a hill send out a pulse, which would
paralyse it for 150 microseconds. When the German pulse came along it ignored it,
that fooled that. That was the other way apart from the WREN officer. But they
didn’t do things like that, and of course for D-Day we simulated the invasion in the
wrong place.
What did you actually learn from looking at the German equipment?
Well, the great use of space involved. Modifications would have been difficult
because you hadn’t any room to put things in. Engineering, first class, ease of
operation, first class, performance, first class. To sum them up briefly.
Did you write up reports when you saw this?
Oh, yes yes. Well, I got interviewed by RV Jones, that’s how I got in touch with him,
and also interviewed by a chap at TRE, Cockburn, who was responsible for counter
Robert Cockburn?
Oh, he was a principle scientific officer at TRE, working on counter measures. This
was really after the event, the war had finished, but filling in the gaps in the
What was RV Jones actually like? It’s one of those names that pops up in radar
history now and again. What was he like as a person?
Oh yes, a very approachable chap. A possible failure, he was always right, he knew
everything, but he didn’t. Like the admiral down in the Falklands, he knew
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everything but unfortunately he didn’t. We lost a warship if you remember. I found
him very easy to get on with and years later I wondered how come the equipment
facility at TRE was available regardless of expense, somebody must have authorised
the money. This is how I found out it was Chamberlain. He said he thought it was
Chamberlain but wasn’t sure. On the telly much later was Lord Home was
Chamberlain’s PA in that era. I wrote to him and said was Chamberlain responsible
for radar being developed, and he said yes he was, he was scared stiff of the
Luftwaffe, and he realised that the only people who could deal with it were scientists,
whom we never saw from then onwards, but it was him. And we know that he went
to Hitler in 1938, came in with a miserable bit of paper. He fooled a lot of journalists
and he fooled Mr Hitler, but he didn’t defend himself, he accepted the fact that he was
considered very wet and useless. Well, it was a good thing, if he was bad we’d had
lost the war but we didn’t. He accepted all this and, well, he wouldn’t have been in
my opinion the world’s – the country’s best wartime prime minister but he laid the
foundation for Churchill. Who didn’t go much on him. And I thought Lord Home
might be able to put the record straight, but he went and died. I can’t put it straight
but I can tell people like you. That’s my hobby horse, so [inaud].
On the subject of other senior scientists, what was Cockburn like?
Oh, I don’t remember much about him. He just asked me questions like you are, and I
answered them. I only saw him once, all … he got all he could out of me. And he
must have been very good because our counter measures for fooling Germany were
very good, we went in for it [ph], means of jamming and creation of false echoes, a
thing called Moonshine very much used on the invasion for creating echoes when
there weren’t any ships or aircraft. Jammers, to jam both communications and radar.
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Did you ever have any trouble when you were driving round what was once occupied
Well, I pinched a German car [inaud]. Yeah, well, I didn’t quite get away it. The
generator, the dynamo, failed which meant that I wasn’t going to be able to restart, so
I went and borrowed one from a parked German car. He wouldn’t be able to start
[laughs]. They didn’t have any – and when we got liberated I put the appropriate
plates on there. I used to write out the certificates for Norman and he wrote out
certificates for me, and the army gave me a thing called a T-force pass which allows
you to bypass army red tape, you can do what you want. And by and large I didn’t
have – I had a bit of trouble for punctures in the German car.
How long did you actually spend driving round looking at things?
Well, I went there the beginning of – in April, came back at the end of May, so we’re
talking about six weeks.
How many sites do you think you saw in that time?
That I – a large number. I’ve got a series of pictures of about six different ones and
I’ve got other ones which I don’t have pictures of, which I went round. The thing I
did have a picture of, we call it the Würzburg, they pronounce it rather differently.
This was a thing like a searchlight designed for anti-aircraft guns and when Goering
saw this he said, ‘Because we have this device on German territory, no British bombs
to fall will’ or words to that effect in German. Well, of course it was virtually useless
like a searchlight, you had to put it on and they weren’t very good at doing that. And
they were making improvements and I actually had sight and worked in an
improvement being made. A chap doing it, ex – a German, not TRE because they
didn’t have a TRE, from the manufacturer of it, he’d show me the ideas that – of
which I know it used the Doppler effect, you know, if a train comes through a station
with a whistle or noise the pitch is increasing when it’s coming to you and decreasing
– it used that principle on radar just to give you a better result and allow you to
operate in rain, which unfortunately gives you radar echoes. So, yes, I enjoyed that
and I think he did too. I’d love to meet these people again but I tried through one of
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the German radio stations but they didn’t want to know. Not much hope now because
they’ll all be older than I am and I’ve got near the age when I can’t expect much more
Well, when did you actually return?
Ah, that – I can’t remember the date, it’d be some time – it was after VE Day of
course, and when was VE Day? Twenty second of May was it? End of May I came
back. I flew back from the squadron, got back to Knokke, flew back to RAF
Warmwell, which was near where I lived, and that was the airfield on which Laurence
of Arabia was serving. I got all the equipment which I had borrowed from the
Germans but not sent to me at home, near the airfield. And then selected items, gave
them to RV Jones. There was an exhibition in London of captured German
equipment, a lot of mine was there. I wanted to go to it and it was NV Wilkes who
approved of my going and I went with Miss Jebb, the lady engineer, and we had a
good look round.
Could you actually describe what that exhibition was like?
Well, I’d seen most of the things before but they had a tape recorder. We were
dabbling with steel tape recorders, they were lethal things, if the steel tape came off
the drum it could cut your leg off. And the BBC used these, I don’t think commerce
were interested, and they also had, I had, use of a wire recorder which recorded not on
tape but on wire.
We did – in the Vindex the air radio officer said, ‘Why don’t we take an ASV-XI set,
turn it upside down, and put it on the back end of an aircraft carrier to use to talk
aircraft down to land?’ And yes, this was approved, and I had to arrange the trials of
it in HMS – oh, something like Pretoria Castle again, and the newer Pretoria,
remember the earlier one was HMS Vindex, this was the later one which was again a
carrier but keeping the original name, and I had to arrange the trials. And I got a tape
recorder from RAE at Farnborough or rather a wire recorder to record the
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conversations talking the aircraft down. If the wire broke, it was steel wire, you had
to – you had your knee on the steel it was suggested that you tied a reef knot it and
pulled it tight over a cigarette. I don’t smoke but we did break it. But the Germans
had a tape recorder and that was shown but it disappeared, EMI had it to copy. Well,
that was something new, they were working on tape while we weren't – while our tape
was this [inaud] recorder used by the BBC. I don’t know how many accidents it
When were you doing the carrier trials with the upside down ASV-XI?
Where or when?
When? This would be, oh, heaven knows, some time in 1944. This is one of the
occasions when I come back to TRE to get a brief on what it was and then go not to
Vindex but this ship with a Norwegian from the admiralty place, which in those days
was called the Admiralty Signals Establishment, it’s [inaud]. I had to go them and
they’re totally different from TRE, a totally different attitude. A Norwegian officer
accompanied me on this and we had to share a cabin in the ship, which is splendid
apart from one thing, fleas. We spent the night catching them. This was the
lieutenant Martman-Moe. When I went to Oslo in HMS Devonshire later I looked
him up in the phone book and I went to see his father. He had emigrated to America,
so that was useful.
When you said that the Admiralty Signals Establishment were completely different to
TRE, how so?
Well, they didn’t have this sort of freedom of information, it was run more like a ship
than it was a university, and there was a very definite pecking order. Later they
decided that they should admit they were doing radar after the war, they went and
called it the Admiralty Radar and Signal Establishment. Well, what’s the short title
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for that? ARSE [laughs]. They realised this after a time and then to change it, so it
became the Admiralty Signals and Radar Establishment, and later ASWE, which I
worked for when I finished with the navy.
What did you –? Can you actually talk me through what happened with the trials of
the deck landing system?
Oh, yes yes. Well, we had various different types of aircraft landing on this, like
fighters. The navy had Spitfires called Seafires and of course Swordfish, and some
American things, they all underwent trials. But we had admiralty staff came down, on
one day it just didn’t work. There was a rainstorm and there this was officer, ‘It’s no
good, it doesn’t work in any old rainstorm.’ It was the heaviest storm recorded for
years and it had – it didn’t work in a heavy thing like we had the other day. That was
just repeated deck landings done with this system.
How did the system actually work?
Well, it just gave you a picture on your radar screen of the aircraft coming in. Just a
dot, you didn’t get an image, no, and you told him to go left or right. You didn’t have
an up and down facility, you couldn’t distinguish – you couldn’t measure the height,
he had to sort that out. This was a slight problem where height is measured in an
aircraft by a barometer because as you go up the pressure is less, you have lower
pressures at the bottom. If you are very low down there is not a lot of difference in
pressure between no feet and ten feet. You have a radar altimeter. The wartime ones
didn’t work very well, you couldn’t just – nothing like the eyes, so he had to use his
radar or radio altimeter to measure his height. He could tell you that but you could
say up a bit or down a bit. There are just endless recordings of this on the machine I
How did –?
It would have been nice but the war went and ended.
How effective was it when it wasn’t raining?
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Oh very, yes. Well, not done under adverse conditions but it could have been, and so
this was a bright idea, you were encouraged in the navy to have ideas and submit
them, unlike the army, unauth – ‘This is an unauthorised modification.’
When did you actually return to TRE?
When? A few days after I came back, I spent a few days at home, we’re talking about
the end of May. I spent a few days at home and then went back to TRE by train from
Weymouth. And so first of all to Bicester, and then from Bicester to Walmwell. I
managed to liberate a vast carboy of Dutch gin, which came back as V2 fuel. I
suspect they were much the same anyway but at Warmwell the customs officer was
the duty air traffic controller, and he accepted it was V2 fuel [laughs]. So we lived on
that for quite some time.
What did you do when you got back to TRE?
Well, this is when NV Wilkes got me into FC Williams’ group.
What was Wilkes actually like as –?
I didn’t see much of him. He authorised me to go and see the captured equipment
exhibition and then when I got back he said you’re going to go to the pavilion and
meet FC Williams. Of course I’d heard of him, I didn’t realise I was going to be
directed to him. This was a terrific act on their part, we were very carefully chosen
apparently, and I went and he told me what it was I was going to do. So I think I said,
he had this gift of explaining things.
Could you describe what his personality was like to me?
Oh, very forthcoming. He wasn’t a nutcase at all, he went on to deal in computers
after Manchester, which you know about, with Tom Kilburn. But he was so
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approachable, any sort of problem you didn’t understand, you could ask and you got
told in language you could understand. And if you couldn’t understand it, well, he
would have another go at it, it was not his fault, it was yours. And when the group
broke up we had a party in one of the hotels in Malvern. Most of the conversation
was technical, various problems were presented. He could always produce the
answer, except for one thing that fooled him, this surprised me. If you have a
barometer which consists of just a glass tube with mercury in it, dipping into a little
pot of mercury and with a vacuum at the top, if you put that on a balance to weigh just
the tube, will it show the show the weight of the tube or the weight of the tube plus
the mercury? He said, ‘Only the weight of the tube, it’s floating in there.’ It isn’t. It
would show the weight of a tube plus – minus – and the mercury plus – sorry, minus a
little bit of upthrust due to the glass standing in the mercury. If you go to Trieste, as
we did in a ship I was in, in the university they have a barograph that works on this
principle. It had a balance weighing the tube and the mercury with a balance weight
which is moved in and out by a motor. If the balance is tipped one way the motor will
drive the balance weight the other way, and the balance weight has a pen on it, it
records on paper. So it’s obviously – that’s how it worked. But all the other problems
that it will produce, it answers instantly, we answered this one instantly, but to my
surprise got it wrong, which I thought was most unusual for him.
What was he like to work with?
Well, I didn’t work with, I worked for. Oh, yes, he would play technical tricks on us
and we would play on him. What sort of tricks you’re going to ask. Well, the
components, many of them were colour coded to read their values. Some were’t,
some had the values written them. Now little things called capacitors which were
plain, just had the number writing on them, we painted on them the colour coding of a
particular resistor which he used for a particular purpose, a capacitor would not do.
So we painted them to look like the resistors he was using, that was one of the tricks.
He would do this sort of thing on us, just to keep us on our toes. Another thing, there
was a particular valve of which I actually have a pre-production sample. They were
made for television by Philips at Eindhoven well before the war. My sample is the
same type of valve but it looks slightly different to the production one, it’s got a
notice on it in English and in German but not in Dutch, saying this is a prototype
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sample, we cannot guarantee there will be any more. Millions were made in the war,
and why not in Dutch? You tell me another valve manufacturer in Holland than
Philips. There isn’t one. What we did, there was a bigger version of this made, so we
took one of the small ones, we called it EF50, and put it into the can of a bigger one.
While it did work, it only – it couldn’t handle enough current, and that fooled him for
a while but not for long. And this was the sort of place it was. This did not happen at
the admiralty place, and it kept us on our toes. And of course with the social contact
had benefits.
What sort of benefits?
What sort of –?
What sort of benefits?
Er – ?
What sorts of benefits?
Ah, well, you got on with each other. It’s not like today when you have a manager
who doesn’t even know the names of the people underneath him. Those were the
benefits we got and we were friends, we were on the same wavelength.
Who else was actually in the group?
How many?
That – in my lot, well, there was myself and another JSO. There was Moody, Ritson,
Tom Kilburn, Marsh. How many have we got there, six is it? And FC Williams, six
or seven, that sort of number. And there were also technicians but all the scientists,
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six or seven, and three or four technicians. There was Popple. Yeah, six or seven, that
sort of order.
What were you actually doing?
In this – in my particular aspect of it was this blind landing system, this was a postwar activity. The need for producing circuits for other people’s radar vanished when
the war finished, so he concentrated on – we all did different aspects of it, we’d done
– Tom Kilburn worked on a digital means of storing on an ordinary oscilloscope tube
because although digital storage wasn’t much used it was obviously a good thing and
we would go that way, and so he did that. Moody was very good on pulse
transformers, and these transformers saved films, and he developed a technique which
made the calculations very simple. Ritson did server mechanisms, and once you’ve
got the information on your autopilot you’ve got to move things. My Wellington was
very fine but it had – it was a geodesic construction, meaning it looked like a network
of aluminium rods. All right but you can’t home gliders with it, it stretches and the
control wires aren’t wires, they’re rods, they jam, so you try and tow them down and
it won’t respond to your control. So we never – they were never used for that in the
Could you perhaps give me just a little sketch of each of the people you’ve mentioned,
at least the ones you remember best?
Oh, dear, that is very difficult. Ritson was very much a solo operator but being a ham
I had contact with him because although I wasn’t a ham I think I’ve said that we
didn’t get licensed until a year after the war, when the Germans did. He could explain
things to you, a wee bit offish but not seriously. Tom Kilburn was very computer
literate as one could be, which was just not me in those days, I didn’t have much to do
with him.
In what sense computer literate?
Well, digital computing. He had it in his mind but I didn’t, so I couldn’t get much
from him.
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What was he like as a person?
Much the same as the rest of us, easy to talk to. The other JSO, he read about thought
transference. If you have a series of numbers in front of you which you are reading,
and then you can transfer a thought to me, I can read it and tell you what those
numbers are. Well, this was done by somebody and I think we got him off the BBC.
And he thought, well, let’s make a decent machine that does this. He had a random
number generator and that read a number which the sender looked at, and you sat –
you couldn’t see him or anything and you, I think it had a light signal, you know,
when the light flashed you pressed the number you thought it was and we compared
them with what you would get by chance, and we got very slightly higher than
chance. SW Noble, one of the other people, said, ‘Well, what you’re saying is by
taking thought you can alter the random number generator.’ We never explained it
but we did have this means of automating it. We also built a television set because –
well, at Malvern it was very difficult to pick up the signal from Alexander Palace, as
it then was, but we did succeed, we got – we had to cheat a bit and we got the
synchronisation off the mains because they – they did as well. The fifty hertz mains
told the – said we had – they had a new picture every fiftieth of a second, and we had
to do the same, so we used the mains to synchronise it rather than the radio signal,
that’s cheating. But my friend, Dave Pugh, had contact with the television people and
he got us a lot of information, so between us we built a telly set.
What was there to watch then?
Not a lot I suppose. Is there any today? [both laugh] It was merely an exercise to see
whether we could do it. Well, we learned a lot.
What was the system you were actually working on?
Well, it was a very simple system, it was 405 lines on what’s known as interlaced
scan. What it did, because the eye can be fooled by things that happen twenty-five
times a second, what it did was transmit it – it was 405, it transmitted 202 and a half
lines, and then it jumped the half line and did another 202 and a half, and that was
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done fifty times a second overall, which is twenty-five whole pictures a second.
That’s called interlaced scan, and today’s is all done like that. It means that you do
not require quite so much bandwidth or you don’t occupy so much of a radio spectrum
as if you transmitted twenty-five full pictures of if you transmitted twenty-five full
pictures your eyes would see flicker. So that was the basic system, and that was not
Baird’s invention, and it was much more done electronically than it was in Baird’s
mechanical system. But Baird’s mechanical system, it could be done for colour,
which he did, could be done for infrared to see at night, he called it Noct –
Noctovision . It’s all been discovered and one [laughs].
You mentioned Ritson and Kilburn. Do you remember anything of Moody and
What were they like? Well, mainly competent at their jobs, and Ritson being a ham
taught me a lot about ham radio because I couldn’t become a ham, it wasn’t licensed.
I had to admit that I did become a pirate, quite a lot of people did. Well, he said you
shouldn’t be a pirate but they were so slow.
But do you remember anything of Moody and Marsh as well?
Well, yeah, Moody, I didn’t see much of him. The information I got from him was on
a TRE secret document, so I didn’t – he worked in a different lab and so I didn’t see
an awful lot of him. What we did do, we all met over stand easy, we had coffee, but
boiling this up for some reason or other bees got interested in it. Spencer Noble was
over the pot boiling this up and a swarm of bees came in, and that’s when one met
Moody, didn’t see much of him. Marsh had acquired a motorbike from someone, they
sold off cheaply to keen cyclists. I wasn’t technically associated with him, so I don’t
know what he worked on, it certainly wasn’t the blind landing system, so I didn’t see
much of him except on a motorbike.
Who was Spencer who you mentioned a moment ago?
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Spencer Noble. He was self taught and I worked with him on the blind landing
system, and he was extremely good but he was a deaf as I am but he overcome it. He
did have his deaf aid things, he didn’t have an ear trumpet, but what we did have for
short range trials, I arranged a field telephone between our moving vehicle and the
chap who adjusted things. And with the army field telephone you have to press a
button when you talk, merely to stop noise getting in when you’re not talking, it’s not
like press to talk on a radio system. He didn’t press the button, we could hear him
because the earphone acts as a microphone and he shouted [laughs]. But he was very
easy to get on with. He’d actually worked for a firm called Hartley-Turner, they made
loudspeakers I think, and he made a unit to allow you to couple an extension speaker
to a radio. It wasn’t terribly heavy, he thought, well, let’s put some transformer
laminations, that’s the iron [ph], just into the box to increase the weight of it, which it
did. And I went and stayed with him once after the war, he was keen on time, on
watches, because we didn’t have these digital watches then but a near approach to it, a
thing called a Bulova Accutron which used a very small tuning fork to keep time, he
had one.
Hmm. Was he a JSO as well?
Was he –?
A JSO as well?
No, he wasn’t, he was a technical officer I think, he might have been a scientific
officer but we got on extremely well.
What’s actually the difference between a scientific officer and a technical officer?
Oh, a scientific officer had degrees, and I think he must have been a scientific officer
although he was self taught, so maybe he couldn’t have been. I didn’t bother to
enquire because it didn’t matter.
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What was the blind landing system you were actually working on?
Oh, this was one of FC Williams’ ideas which gave you, or at least gave a machine,
your height and position on a line of direction towards where you’re going to land and
you can program it. It so happened that the aerials’ radiation pattern coincided with a
desirable approach pattern, so you didn’t have to do any transformation. It gave you
information which could be fed to an autopilot. The autopilot of that era was suction
operated, didn’t have electronics. The only electronics of course was in the giro
mechanism. It used – well, aircraft instrument to start with were all suction operated,
you had a Venturi tube on the outside of the aeroplane. Even the giro horizons were,
though they later became electronic, but the early ones, the giro was run by suction of
air. The translation from radar – radio type information or radar type information to
movement of the controls, that was Ritson’s job. And he was very good at it, he made
a little device, which was really a toy, it was a little moveable – self moving toy that
would climb to the top of any mount hill that you gave it. It sensed whether it was
going up or down, and it climbed to a point where it was doing neither. And this sort
of thing when people did, they made these things as an exercise in thought. And I told
you, he was a ham, so he taught me a lot about ham radio.
I was interested in how this system would actually function. So from a pilot’s point of
view does the aeroplane land itself or does it just feed him instructions or –?
No, it would have landed itself. In – the last trials I did it didn’t get that far, it merely
gave us – gave me the indication which was recorded on an analogue system, and it
was giving me perfectly adequate information, it would have landed. Apart from the
throttle, it didn’t tell me anything about that. That’s easy to mechanise, it’s not the
difficult part, it’s knowing where you are, and it was telling me information that I
could have used. Now Ritson would have converted information to move the control
surfaces of an aeroplane but I left at that stage and I went and joined the navy.
Before we move on to that, I was interested when you were talking about trials, what
sort of trials?
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Of flight – of rather tedious flights approaching this thing visually and seeing what the
records came from it, how did they – did they make sense? Miles and miles of
recording paper, which went to Ritson for appreciation, and of course keeping it
serviceable. That – you did that for days on end. When it was fine you had to have
visual [ph]. On one occasion I wanted to get to 10,000 feet to take a picture of the
ground that we used a comparison, that told us where I was. It took half an hour to
get up to that height [laughs].
How successful did it actually work?
How did it work?
How successfully did it work?
Oh, completely yes, it would have worked but it was English so it wasn’t adopted. A
much worse system was adopted which – not nearly so proof against interference
from radar, radio echoes from unwanted objects.
Which system was this?
What’s it called? ILS, instrument landing system, but – well, all aircraft now are
landed by machine, very – only on very rare occasions a manual one, that’s when the
machine fails, which it did on one occasion in the Britannia.
Shall we take a little break as we’re –?
Would you like to stand easy?
Not a bad idea.
[End of Track 7]
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Track 8
Had you enjoyed your time at TRE?
Oh, I did yes, very much.
What did you like about it?
Well, I think I just fitted into the job, I enjoyed doing it. And when it ceased to –
when the group broke up and it became a typical civil service establishment it ceased
to be interesting, and all the good people left so I thought I’d better.
How did it actually change?
The sense of urgency vanished and it began to be run on civil service principles. We
had a manager, we had accountants, and it just became uninteresting and I thought I’d
better go. I should have gone back to university, that would have been the real thing
to do, but I made the second decision – the snap decision was the wrong one, I went
and joined the navy.
Why join the navy?
Because one of the lab assistants showed me a cutting he’d got from the – one of the
newspapers calling for instructor officers in the navy. He applied for it and I thought,
well, this might suit me. So I went up to interview and they thought I might suit
them, so I did. Well, I did almost. What happened was that I hadn’t quite finished the
trials and FC Williams asked the navy if they could retain me for another month, so I
was about a month late joining. And the navy accepted that, they let me stay on at
TRE to finish the work.
What was the interview actually like, do you remember?
What was the interview like? I had to explain what I was doing to a couple of
captains I think, and an admiral, none of whom understood what I said [laughs].
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Didn’t understand the principles of a blind landing system but they seemed to think
that I understood, so they said, right, that was it. I had I think a week’s leave coming
from TRE but I went to Greenwich immediately, I just got the pay for the week but I
didn’t take the leave. I left from TRE and went to Greenwich on a course which was
to teach me navigation, because instructor officers taught navigation. Not that I did
much of it, I did one spell in HMS Devonshire which was training naval candidates in
navigation, most of the time I spent acting as an electrical officer ‘cause they were so
So after you’d had that first course where did you go then?
What did I do in the course?
The mathematics of navigation at Greenwich, and the practicality of it, went down to
Portsmouth to HMS Dryad, which was a navigation school. Did some near
navigation, plotting. You keep a plot going on a piece – on a blank chart of enemy
actions, so we had exercise ones, we did that. And then we went to sea in a small ship
to do observation of the sun and the moon, and the stars, called sights, you observe
these things, which went very well apart from the fact that there was complete cloud
cover all the time. In the middle of the Atlantic ship flashes up and said where am I?
So we gave them where we thought we were. When we came back, anchored in the
Solent – oh, yes, the ship’s radar packed up. Somehow the captain, or the commander
in command but we’ll call him captain, knew I’d been working on radar, designing it.
Oh, he said, fix it, repair it. Oh, I’d never seen it before but the fault – eventually it
boiled out [ph]. And I arranged for the operator that it would always go wrong when I
was on watch on the bridge, where it was very cold. This was January of 1946, ‘07,
that was particularly cold, so I had to go and fix the radar in a nice warm place
[laughs]. And when we finished we were anchored in the Solent and I was on watch.
The shore station flashed us up and I couldn’t raise a signal. I had to read this
message, it was a gale warning, so that was that.
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Where were you actually sent next?
I was sent from there to HMS Collingwood, which was nothing whatsoever to do with
navigation, to try and turn torpedo officers into electrical and radar officers, a
hopeless task.
What’s HMS Collingwood?
It was the training, electrical training school. In the early part of this, in the war, it
was a new entry training school, and I told you that I’d been a sea scout. The scout
master, a man of independent means, was called up to undergo training there. He was
again what’s known as a CW candidate, he’s a rating but he’s going to be an officer.
You wear a white band round your cap. And he shot such a line about the scout troop
he ran that the commodore, the top man, said, ‘I’ll have two of these, of your chaps,
as my guests’ and I was one, for a whole week. Well, this was lovely and we ate with
the ratings, which was a bit rough, we ate with the officers, which was a bit highbrow,
and we ate with the chief and petty officers who had sons of our sort of age and knew
exactly how to deal with us, and it was a good introduction. I didn’t realise that the
peace time navy was nothing like the wartime navy, and that was a big mistake.
Why? What’s the difference between the peace time navy and the wartime navy?
Oh, right yes.
What’s the difference between peace time –?
Oh, the – well, the officers in HMS Vindex, all except the captain and his secretary,
were RVR or RNR, volunteers, they weren’t permanent career people. The captain
was an exceptional one, and such a good chap he was then made admiral. Admirals
are two a penny but chaps who can run a ship like that are not. So that – and, well,
it’s all very artificial in the peace time navy, cocktail parties and this sort of thing
count. I’m not very good at that.
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Can you describe HMS Collingwood to me please?
What sort of –?
Can you describe HMS Collingwood to me please?
Well, it was an enormous hutted place. I had to share a cabin as a lieutenant, which is
not really on, with a chap. When I went there, there was snow on my pillow that had
come through, it was that sort of place. There are lot of deadbeat commanders who
weren’t really up to the job. There was no love lost between instructor officers and
the would be electrical officers, they didn’t like us knowing about – more about their
job than they did and trying to tell them. However, it was not very happy, it was too
big. It’s very big now, it’s no longer the electrical school, it’s the school of maritime
warfare, so everything goes on there. I went back there the other day because they
have a museum, a radar museum, or a radio and radar, of which I have contributed
quite a bit of ex-German stuff. And of course that’s going to be packed up but I’ve
had an email the other day saying those things are not going to be thrown away, which
is good, they’ll go to store somewhere. I don’t suppose it’s any happier now than it
was, too big.
What were you actually teaching to people there?
Oh, radio and radar theory. Oh, yes, not much in the way of electrics, they had other
people do that, it was radio and radar theory, oh, and radio and radar practice.
Have there been any developments in radio and radar theory since you’d been taught
it at TRE?
Well, yes, things have become less operator dependent. You had to have skills as an
operator and the requirement for the human operator getting less and less. In other
words, the electronics are sorting out the problem and presenting you with a much
clearer picture, both a physical picture and showing you what you want to see and
suppressing what you don’t want to see, which clutters up the picture. That has
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improved enormously over the years. Most of it is almost human independent, the
weapons [inaud] will fire themselves if you’re not careful.
How did you actually take to teaching?
Erm, I’m not sure, you’ll have to ask the people I taught [both laugh]. I don’t think I
was as good as the – as the headmaster at Wellington but I always believe when I’m
trying to teach to have things to show people. I don’t like just talking, because when
we had it at school it didn’t go down well. If you can show people they will
remember it, and remember visual images far longer than you can writing on
blackboards, at least I think so. I wrote that way, I think most people do, but I may be
What sort of things did you have to show people at Collingwood?
Well, in the case of the – at Collingwood, bits of, or simulations of, bits of a radar
system which, as I told you the other day, of this Phantastron circuit, which would
allow a voltage to produce a known time delay. Well, it had a thing that did that
because that is part of a radar set, all made up components. So we had a lab assistant
who made them, I did the design, that’s one thing, so they will remember you used
this particular circuit for that particular job. But they will remember it for a week and
forget it.
What were you trained –?
In the case of radio communication, in the war the maintenance and communication
were done by the same people. If you had a warrant telegraphist, he was extremely
good at maintaining. Mountbatten, when he came in charge, decided that he would
divorce maintenance from operation. Oh, very good idea but you can get people in
one category or the other, they didn’t have to be in both, that was the slight problem.
He solved it in the merchant navy by making them officers but in the royal navy only
ratings, so people weren’t going to join. When he died it was reversed but
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unfortunately there aren’t any volunteers today. Communication is going to be a
problem if they shoot out the satellites, they won’t be able to operate. But to divorce
operation from maintenance meant that when a signal didn’t get through, each side
could blame the other. The command doesn’t understand it anyway and will be
fooled. In my time signals did get through, they weren’t any excuses. But if the
operator said it was a fault and the maintainer said it wasn’t, then the operator had to
put it right.
Did you have any –?
And if it was a fault another – in those days the same person would repair it. It got to
the point of cannibalising bits which weren’t 100 per cent necessary for one bit of
equipment to make a – put them in another where they were absolutely necessary.
And if you didn’t have a stores or if you were in the middle of the Atlantic and
something goes wrong you can’t send to stores to get a new one. You had to
Did you have any other duties at Collingwood apart from –?
Did we have a –?
Did you have any other duties at Collingwood apart from teaching?
Not really, no. The Indian navy found that they could explain a lot of things very
readily from stores by saying eaten by ants because the civil servants ashore knew this
was a hazard, and one ship managed to write off an anchor they’d lost, eaten by ants.
Well, we didn’t teach them that.
What sort of –? Where did you actually live when you were at Collingwood?
Where did I –?
Where did you live when you were at Collingwood?
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In Collingwood ‘cause I wasn’t married. You had to live on board, and when you say
on board it’s not a ship. It started off in a wooden hut with leaking roof for the whole
of my time in Collingwood.
How long were you actually there?
Ah, it’d be three years, two and a half years, then I went to HMS Devonshire, which
was a sea going ship, where I had to teach navigation, which was the job of my
branch, and I did. And we used to go on cruises confined to the upper hemisphere, I
never went below the Equator, but in the winter we went somewhere warm like the
West Indies or in the spring we usually went to the Med. Er …
What sort of ship was HMS Devonshire?
She was a three funnel cruiser, a county class cruiser, not much – it saw war service.
Reasonably fast, it can do thirty odd knots, not in my time but when it was new it
could. Guns, anti-aircraft and surface guns. Made an awful noise, and that didn’t do
my ears any good.
What was it actually like living on board her?
What was –?
What was it like living on board her?
Oh, not too – the food was good of course but it was a cadet training ship and it was
all a wee bit artificial. Some of them were trying to run on old navy lines with a lot of
sort of hierarchy and very little liaison but the – one or two of the cadets forced into
the navy by dad. One in particular, the honourable Roper-Curzon, his father was Lord
Teynham. Lord Teynham unfortunately got court marshalled, not through any fault of
his. He was in charge of a squadron, I think minesweepers or something like that, and
for some reason or other he was away and the commander, his deputy, moved them
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but didn’t tell anybody. They got shot up by the RAF, who didn’t know they were
British. The captain in absentia got court marshalled and blamed but his son, though
he had several sons, his son did not like the Devonshire, there were one or two – I
tried to make their life a little less unpleasant ‘cause they didn’t like it. And in fact I
did, I got on quite well with it because I liked sailing, I went sailing, I did a couple of
trips in a ship’s boat, in the cutter, which is rather bigger than the whaler. We sailed,
oh, a hundred miles or more across an ocean. These were called Bligh, Captain Bligh
troops, sailed for Barbados, to St Lucia, for example, where I had to navigate. In fact,
I took an army type radio, a portable radio, which had a label number, and I had met
the cable and wireless people in Barbados and I arranged to talk to them while I was
sailing, which I did. What I should have asked is could you give me a free call to my
mum? I didn’t, I should have done, but I think they would but we chatted for quite a
time over this.
What did you actually do on board Devonshire?
Well, I taught navigation, so that was my official job but, all right, I had to go ashore.
We used to swim in the morning if we wanted to before breakfast. I was about to dive
off the quarterdeck when a hand landed on my shoulder and said, ‘Stop.’ It was a
commander. He said, ‘Don’t go in the sea, go and get changed into the appropriate
rig’ which was white, ‘and you’re going to accompany cadets ashore to the
broadcasting station at Nice, and you are going to speak in French.’ So we went
there, and they were very good to us, they gave us a typewritten sheet of what they
were going to ask us, a space for us to put the answers, and a French dictionary. The
only thing that went wrong was that we finished a wee bit soon, it wasn’t recorded, it
was live and the chap tried to speak English. We couldn’t understand him, ‘Could
you speak French please?’ Oh, yeah. That was one thing. The year before I joined,
in the West Indies a cutter, this was the sort of ship I went in, capsized and a cadet
didn’t have a knife, he was trapped under the sail and killed, he should have had a
knife. When I went there more or less the same thing happened. We had motorboats
in the ship and the officer walks in, ‘Go in, take this motorboat and sort it out.’ I
went, ‘I’m not the executive officer,’ ‘never mind you can drive, you know how to
drive it’ so I had to. We now call them fish heads but that word wasn’t invented for
executive officers, no. So I drove the thing and sorted it out.
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What do you think were your most memorable trips on the Devonshire?
Did I –?
What do you think was your most memorable trip on the Devonshire?
Ah, yeah, I ought to be able to think of this.
Can I just mind your foot a second by the cable?
Oh, right yes.
Oh, no it’s still a bit – okay.
I suppose one of these Bligh trips when we were – and in particular I suppose the one
from Barbados to St Lucia. When we landed on St Lucia we didn’t know it but we
landed in a leper colony [laughs]. Well, we know now. One of the natives said, ‘Oh,
did you lose your way?’ He wondered what we were doing there and the ship picked
us up. I suppose that was the most memorable thing I ever did, I enjoyed it very
Now bearing in mind I’ve never actually been a sailor, I’ve never been to sea, what’s
it actually like living on a Royal Nnavy cruiser in the post-war period?
Er, that, yes, well you can’t go ashore for a start while you’re at sea, and there’s a
very rigid hierarchy, which is even more so in shore establishments. Well, it has to be
and, erm … well, all the departments stick strictly to their jobs. There’s a lot of
opposition if you try and do it for them. If you can see that they’re making mistakes
you have to keep quiet. I suppose this is very necessary because they all work by rule
and rote from the book, there’s very little encouragement for initiative. Unlike the
war, when there was, you had to get on with it then no matter what it was. I suppose
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that’s the main difference and of course you are cooped up with a lot of the same
people. I have never been in a ship where the ward room, apart from this type of a
commander, disagreed with each other and I left the ship HMS Vindex fairly soon
after this awful commander came, so I didn’t have much of him.
How did you find that the cadets you were teaching actually took to being taught?
Well, they were fairly well trained at Dartmouth and they took to it, there was none of
this not in the syllabus nonsense. Well, they had to learn it, didn’t have much choice,
and by and large they were interested. Even the engineers had to navigate. I once
went for a trip in a submarine, just after the – no, it was when I was at Collingwood, I
went there after the war, they were trying out the snorkel device. They spent the
whole day under and then stuck up the snorkel. What struck me there was that an
engineer could navigate the ship, albeit not very well, if he had to. If the captain was
killed then you get the – the other way round, if the engines went wrong and the
engineer was killed, the captain had some idea of what to do with engines. They were
all extremely competent, not only in their own branch but in other ones, and that’s the
difference between a submarine and a service ship. Again, I suppose you have to, it’s
survival. There’s no point in dying ‘cause you don’t understand how a diesel engine
What do you actually do for recreation on board?
Well, you can’t play billiards for a start and ping pong. Oh, the ratings played
tombola and there is also a thing rather like ludo that they play. On board there are no
games you can play really for the officers. For landing football is very common. In
my days later when I was at the ASWE we had a ship assigned for trials, they
wouldn’t do the trials because the football team was more important. I had to go
down there and sort that one out. Unfortunately the captain thought – there was a
commander in command, thought he was going to be promoted to captain, and
probably on my report he wasn’t. This had repercussions later when I was sailing.
He was on the naval staff at Portsmouth and I wanted to use their radio
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communication facilities, and I knew he was there so I did not say my name, I said I
am the skipper of the yacht so and so, may I use the facilities, which I got. If I’d used
my name I know what would have happened. Yes, I suppose when one could get
ashore, various forms of sport. I ran the shooting team I like that, I used to go ashore
and shoot.
Did you enjoy your time on board?
Most of it, yes I did.
What are the good and the bad bits about it?
Well, the good bits were travel, which I like, and I suppose the bad bits were all the
bullshit [laughs]. Well, the artificiality of it all. Well, I suppose on the whole I did
enjoy it and I was sorry when I had to leave. I went down to the naval air station in
Cornwall but for some reason or other I never got the information that I ought to go. I
knew I’d left Devonshire, I didn’t know where I was going next, I eventually got rung
up by the CO who said, ‘Why aren’t you here?’ I said, ‘Where?’ I had to get a train
and go down there. That was the place where I went out with the Battle of Britain
chap in the Harvard, that I told you about. Just before Greenland, I spent a year down
there –
Doing what?
A very happy year.
One second [break in recording]. What were you doing down in Cornwall?
Teaching in the air weapons officer’s – teaching air weapons officers course to pilots
and observers, the scientific aspects of it, which since I could fly was a very good
appointment for me. And I kept in flying practice, some of course were for flying
instructors, so I could learn aircraft I wasn’t used to.
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Now what does actually training air weapons officers involve?
In the most effective use of weapons against particular type of targets, for example,
transport as a target, what do you do about trains? Power stations, I had to go round a
power station and ask them the best way to destroy it, which doesn’t make you
terribly popular with them. And of course the details of the armaments you got, the
guns, the rockets and the – I didn’t teach that that. That was taught by people whose
responsibility was but all these things have some sort of scientific basis, why do you
do it this way, and that’s what I did. Now we went for example to the rocket
establishment and we were told about rockets. Well, I went there, first of all I did the
course and then I had to take it. When I did the course we had – there was a German
demonstrator, hydrogen peroxide, the stuff you put on hair, it’s concentrated, it was
used for propulsion of the German – some German aircraft and the rockets. So this
chap had some, he accidentally spilt some on the floor where he’d got some fuel and it
burst into flame, made the point immediately. And the next time I went there we had
an English man who didn’t show us anything at all. Hydrogen peroxide’s an acetone,
you buy acetone for nail varnish remover and other purposes which you can buy.
Concentrated hydrogen peroxide is a troublesome substance, the Germans were
forever having explosives, but you can make it yourself, and this is the liquid
explosive that people in aircraft use. That’s why you can’t take liquids with you
because it’s unusual. It’s a reasonably safe liquid explosive, nitro glycerine is not, it’s
too dangerous.
Did you actually have to do any sort of research into weapons effects yourself or was
it just all –?
No, none at all. Well, I had to do a study of how to attack tanks, which meant I joined
the tank regiment at Old Fareham, near Salisbury, went for a ride in a tank [laughs].
There was a tank officer there, I explained that I was an instructor officer, we got
talking. I mentioned log tables, he’d never heard of log tables. Well, he was an army
officer wasn’t he? He didn’t need to know.
Why did you need to know about log tables?
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Oh, sometimes people had to – had in those days to do calculations. Today you don’t
need to except the answer to some differential equations come out as logs. You’ve
got to know they exist but you don’t use them as a tool, they come – you can’t control
them but to use them. I’ve still got my school log tables, which I had at TRE and used
up to the point when these little machines took over.
I was wondering as well, how much do they actually train you in teaching other
people along the way?
I did one course on instructural technique where they said for heaven’s sake show
people things. And your voice is rather monotonous, try and do something about it.
I’m not sure whether I have done, you can decide that [laughs]. It’s rather difficult to
alter. Yes, we had a course on it. We all had to have degrees and I didn’t get a first
because there weren’t any firsts, it was restricted to first class degrees. There were
school masters in the navy who didn’t necessarily have degrees, they taught ratings.
Instructor officers taught officers and had to have a first. You could have it in Latin
or – as long as you had a first that was what mattered. So what happened was the
admiralty – the admirals of the instructor one contacted Oxford to see what I’d done
and they obviously accepted it. I must have done better than I thought I did.
Had you been keeping up your ham radio activity in this time?
Oh, yes, I belonged to a thing of the RSGB, the Radio Society of Great Britain, called
the technical forum. When hams have problems they submit it to members of the
forum in the hope that somebody will be able to sort them out. The normal technical
problems are aerials, a bit of an eyesore, for example, and you have to get planning
permission, and they will help you on doing that and tell you what to do. You have to
be very careful these days. And there are of course technical problems and I get them
by email, they’re sent to all the members. If you think you can answer it you then
feed back and say I’m prepared to, and you do. Prior to that the journal that we got
called RadCom, the technical content was frequently full of errors and I tried to
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correct one and I got a very rude answer back with I didn’t – they had a system which
didn’t work and I did not tell the editor what the fault was, I left it on purpose. He
wrote back and said you seem to like nitpicking. What the fault was, it was in two
parts, using a component outside the range which it was specified for, and the other
fault was you got the pin out, these modern things have pins sticking out and they got
the wrong connections to them. Now if you’re a beginner you’re going to read this
article, you will make it and it won’t work. You’ll think what have I done wrong and
they must be right. Well, he got rid of this chap and now it’s submitted to people who
volunteer to get it right, and I do this. I had to give a talk last October to a technical
convention in a place called Little Horwood. Well, you probably don’t know where
that is, and I didn’t either, it’s near Milton Keynes [laughs]. If you can get there
you’re doing pretty well.
You mentioned – you were talking about being a radio ham now.
What was it like being a radio ham back in the 1950s?
You made your own equipment then, you didn’t buy cheap Japanese. Now the reason
for that is the system of trying to measure a voice has changed to a more efficient one
which his more difficult to make yourself. You need to buy very expensive test
equipment to make it. If you’re going to make 10,000 of them that’s fine, if you’re
going to make one where do you get it from? You’re not going to spend a lot of
money on it. Consequently the Japs do very well out of making the equipment you
buy, and I regret to say I have got some because I cannot afford all this. I’ve got some
test equipment and I do still make things.
Looking back at being a radio ham in the 1950s what do you actually do?
Made equipment and then you spoke to Australia, that was the thing. The first time I
spoke to Australia the effect on me was enormous, the fact I made it and it worked.
That was one achievement, it’s quite easy now. Well, it’s not as easy as it was then
because of the lack of sun spots. This sun spot cycle which is supposed to be eleven
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years long and we’ve had ten years of not very strong sun spots. Way back in
seventeen something there weren’t any sun spots at all.
What’s the relevance of sun spots?
They call – they cause this reflecting air in the upper atmosphere, called the
ionosphere, they create them. But in this period way back in sixteen something the
Chinese observers couldn’t see any sun spots. What did the hams do then?
What do you actually talk about to other hams on the radio?
These days it’s usually trivialities. In the ‘50s it was all technical, on how I made my
rig and how did you make yours, what are the difficulties you had and how did you
get over them, ‘cause you might be having the same difficulties. Now it’s just
telephone type chatter and unfortunately there are some people – you have a group
called a net, organised by somebody, and they all speak in turn. Some of these people
speak very slowly and repeat the same thing over and over again, that ties up all the
time. I’m used to communications in the services where you say what you want, over
Were you a member of –?
With a minimum of tying up time. Even when I was up in Greenland we didn’t waste
time chattering, we moved from one to the other as quickly as we could.
Were you a member of a radio club at all or –?
A member of the Horndean and District Amateur Radio Club, of which I am the
technical manager, which means I have to sort out technical problems and see that
unfortunately the things that we have when we exhibit them publicly obey all the
health and safety, and that is an absolute pain in the so and so.
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Were you a member of a radio club before? When did you first join?
Oh, yes, I was a member of the one at Brighton when my mum lived at Rottingdean,
on leaves when I came back, I was a member of a club there, and it was a very good
club. They had a chap who had been in the intelligence in the First World War,
Captain Rex Dainty, he went and died, as people do. The – and he lived in a home
but when he died the club turned out for his funeral. We have these meetings, of
which a large proportion have nothing whatsoever to do with radio, they are
interesting subjects. And for somebody who’s a widower, it’s all good value; you
meet people which otherwise I wouldn’t do. And ham radio’s not all about radio.
What sort of things did you do at a radio club back in the 1950s?
Er … talked about the problems that I had and other people had, it was all technical
talk entirely. For Brighton there was a skater, a professional skater, who did acts and
he decided, he was also a member of a ham club, that it would be a good idea to have
a radio mic like you do today, and we made one for him so he could skate and give a
commentary. This is one of the things we did.
How does that actually compare to what the clubs do now?
Well, today’s things are almost invisible and much better. It doesn’t matter if you
speak too loudly, the gain will go down, and much easier to use. I have actually worn
one, I went in for the Great Egg Race that the BBC ran. This was started by, given an
egg, you had to design something that could transport it from A to B most effectively,
and it sprung from that. The chap called Heinz Wolff, who was a near scientist with
an attractive German type accent, so he did very well. And in fact a friend of mine, a
pre-prep school friend of mine who was a medical doctor, knew him when he’d been
a lab assistant at the Radcliffe Hospital. He was a good presenter of these things, and
the particular case that we did was with a couple of friends of mine, or a friend and his
boss in analogue devices, you can see my back pack, I’ve got analogue devices on a
battery. We had to have – take a photograph. We didn’t have a camera and we didn’t
have any film, we had the film paper but not the film. We had to manufacture a
pinhole camera and take pictures, that was our task, so we came second. There were
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only three entries [laughs], so – my friend wanted to bring me some flash powder but
we didn’t know what we were going to do and I said, ‘You can’t bring that’ [makes
muttering sound], ‘Well because you’ll fill the place with smoke.’ Had we have had it
we could have taken pictures much better. Because we had to take – our photograph
was of the audience in the middle. Heinz Wolff was in it, and because we had to use a
pinhole camera, it’s a long exposure and he was just a blur. Well, we couldn’t do
anything about that. It was all great fun but we had these radio mics on us, which
when you went to the toilet you couldn’t take it off [laughs]. Yes, it was a complete
fiddle. It’s supposed to last three hours, it lasted all day. For lunch, for example, you
can have as much drink as you like and nobody drank anything, they didn’t want to be
drunk in the afternoon.
When abouts was this?
When –
When about –?
When about –?
Oh, this would be about ten years ago, my wife had died at that time, I went with my
friend who lives in Newbury. Oh, it was great fun but the thing’s a complete fiddle.
Shall we take a break?
Yes, we’ll go –
[End of Track 8]
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Track 9
You mentioned that you wanted to say a little more about your time in The Hague.
Yes, all right. Yes, after peace had been declared I went with a resistance movement,
a young lad in fact, to see a piece of radar a bit out country, a place called Wijk aan
Zee. Went up there in the 1500 weight, which I drove, and Norman didn’t come with
me. On the way up it was rather rough, and it unfortunately broke the mantel on my
pressure lantern. When we got to the place we saw the radar, and looked at it, and
then decided we were going to stay the night, we were going to do that anyway. We
broke into a house in what the Germans call a sperrgebiet which is a forbidden area,
so it meant breaking in. We went in the back door and locked it up. We had our
supper, we turned in fairly early because the only light I could get was to use the bell
battery from the house with a bulb from the radio I had in the vehicle. When we
turned in there were noises from down below, and I went down, there was nobody
there. The door hadn’t been opened, there were no windows open, and I couldn’t see
any animal. I had my pistol out but I didn’t see any Germans, and I was rather more
afraid of Germans than I was of ghosts. So not having seen anything I went back to
bed and slept again, and that was the end of it. When I got back to squadron in
Knokke and I told the parson, oh, he says, that must have been a haunt. But I don’t
believe in ghosts and I won’t until I actually see one.
What were you doing with the resistance chap?
Well, he was just accompanying me, the resistance people looked after me when the
Germans were there. The chief man was a captain – corporal, CM corporal [ph], who
was a lawyer in peace time. Amongst other things he said you ought to the Dutch
West – the East Indies some time, Indonesia, a lovely country. And of course I
haven’t been and I can’t now. He looked after us and provided us with support, and I
think he must have died this many a year, but he had a small son and I don’t know
what happened. He was a child and the child learned a bit of Dutch and so did I but
not really fluent in it.
Did you see much of the resistance?
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Yes, quite a lot. We had a technical support man, Mijn Heer Braun. His line of
business was explosives. When we wanted anything blown up, he did. And of course
the Germans left behind a perfect air traffic control radar system. They didn’t blow it
up; the Dutch did because it was German. They didn’t go much on Germans in The
Hague. They actually starved themselves so the Germans didn’t get the food, they
were very anti-German. A bit further up country there was a battalion of Dutch in the
German army. Well, they were next door to Germany and it seemed reasonable at the
time but The Hague resistance were very, very fiercely anti-German.
Was it actually dangerous for you driving round?
Was it dangerous for you driving round on your trips?
Well, I think a chap took a pot shot at me but missed, and that’s about the only danger
that I got into. Oh, yes, I thought something was a bomb. I was going into a German
store to get some radar – radio bits and pieces and I thought – on reflection I thought
it had been a bomb. If it had have been and I’d have touched it, it would have gone
off, but it wasn’t a bomb, it was a lampshade [laughs]. But by large and there was
very little in the way of danger.
What sort of things did the resistance help you with then?
Knowing where to find things and knowing there’s radar here, how do you get to it,
that’s what they were very good at. And one had to do things like pinching German
food, and he assisted with that. We did have some food, we took it in with us but
unfortunately at the first safe house we went to they ate all our food. So we moved to
the house of this young lad, where they looked after us. Unfortunately from his point
of view his father was an accountant, he disapproved of resistance, so the son was in
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To turn to the sort of point which we left off in the last recording, you were talking
about your time at an airbase down in Cornwall?
How did your time –? How long were you there for?
How did I get there?
No, how did you come to leave there?
To leave Cornwall? I had been in HMS Devonshire, in contact with the major
marines who had been on the public schools exploring society’s expeditions, and he
said well, why don’t – ‘You’re interested in expeditions’ which I’d read about in a
book, ‘why don’t you apply to go to them?’ Which I did, ‘Oh, we don’t want you.’
Two days later, a few days before they were due to leave, ‘Oh, can you come?’ I
went, ‘No, the admiralty doesn’t work that fast.’ This happened for two or three years
but one year they said they did want me as a signals officer, the admiralty were
prepared to let me go, so I was sitting in the Empire Society at the time, it’s now the
Commonwealth Society, in Northumberland Ave, and I rang up Commander Simpson
in the admiralty, who I thought had been on an expedition to Greenland. I’d known
him from Collingwood time and I asked him about wind generators. He was
responded by saying why aren’t you coming with me? I said, ‘Well, you’ve already
been.’ Oh, no, he said, ‘That was the reconnaissance, I’m going in July. Come round
for an interview.’ I did and he’s accepted me, so the only thing you can do is to be a
navigator of the seismic team, that’s sounding by explosive charges. ‘Anyway’ he
said, ‘you know something about explosives because you were in the air armament
school.’ So that was it, and I went.
Did you actually decide beforehand where you were going to go or was it just –?
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No, just on the spot, I didn’t know. I’d read about it in the papers. I thought he’d
been on the expedition. Well, he had, but this was just seeing whether it was possible.
Because I have to say this, he – well, if you compare him with Scott, Scott was
extremely good at dealing with people but he couldn’t plan, he was hopeless. If you
read Cherry-Garrard’s book you’ll realise that. Our man couldn’t deal with people
but extremely good with making plans. When we were let down, as we were
frequently by firms who sent the wrong equipment, ships that broke down, he sorted it
all out but he couldn’t handle us. I didn’t know this when I went. One benefit from
this was we were cooped up together for two years, very few arguments took place
between expedition members. They didn’t last if they did but arguments with
Simpson, the leader, never sorted themselves out. I actually shared a cabin with him,
myself, Captain Banks of the marines, and Simpson the leader. None of us smoked
fortunately. The doctor organised the tobacco ration, he smoked. When he said what
did I want I said, ‘Nothing, thank you’ and none of us did. As Mike Banks said, the
atmosphere was slightly unfriendly but it was. And he might make – got on even
worse with Simpson than I did. I managed to cope with Simpson because he came on
the seismic trail later and we got on reasonably well but we would never go alone
with him on the glacier in case he fell into a crevasse. The rest of the expedition
would support you but it wouldn’t believe you [laughs].
What sort of chap was he to meet?
Oh, a very good planner but just didn’t know about people, he couldn’t – if I had my
time again I would still go with him. If he had been knighted in 1954 when he came
back I would be very worried. I am now very worried because he wasn’t. You get
knighted for kicking up – organising grown men to kick a bag of wind around a field,
to organising thirty people to explore for two years, you don’t. I felt very strongly
about it then, I thought he was going to be then. We went to an expedition
presentation in the Festival Hall, to which Green came, and it was said Simpson is,
and I thought it were going to say knighted but it didn’t. Got away with that but he
should have been.
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Should have been or shouldn’t?
No, he should have been knighted.
He deserved it but I didn’t think so at the time. He organised it, he got it going in
spite of all the opposition. A lot of people don’t want an expedition to go, and this
was the first proper one since the war. But recently I had to give a talk about it and
we got a professor up from the Scott Polar Research Institute. In about three months
she did what we took years to do. Modern methods, we didn’t have an aeroplane, we
should have done. An aeroplane with floats, skis and wheels. Two of us were pilots
and I’m sure we could have taught some of the others. If you wanted to see what lay
in the distance you had to go and walk to it if you – or use a vehicle if you could.
I think we need a little bit of background information here. What was the purpose of
the trip and where were you going?
I won’t say you tell me. It was said to be threefold, first of all, scientific – these are
not in any order, scientific exploration, finding out facts, training or finding
experience which would be useful in polar warfare in case we had a little argument
with a country a wee bit north of us, and showing the flag of British exploration which
had died during the war. It was the first major expedition since the war.
Of those three missions which do you think was the most important?
Oh, I don’t know, I think probably finding out things. Had we have had a war a lot
we learned up there would have been useful.
What sort of things?
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Oh, particularly communication and personal survival, what to do and what not to do,
and how to look after yourself.
Just jotting some – I’m sorry. What sort of preparation did you have for going?
Well, it didn’t have very long because this was – I started asking questions in May
and we went in June, so – or July, so we didn’t have very long. The first thing I had
to do was learn how to navigate. Well, having taught navigation in the navy at sea, I
had a basic foundation but you can’t use a sextant on land, so use a theodolite. I’d
never seen a theodolite but I knew what it was. And I had the admiralty manual of
hydrographic surveying which described a theodolite which was the precisely the
instrument which the admiralty lent to us, well, it would be because it’s in the book. I
went down to Cambridge to the Scott Polar Research Institute to learn how to use a
theodolite. It didn’t take me long to realise that having read the book I knew a damn
sight more about it than the chap who was trying to teach me, so that ended that. I
then went to the Royal Geographical Society to learn how to calculate the results. We
they do that in the navy, so I knew more than they did about it, but I had never
actually used one. The first time I had to was a trip from our main base to our ice cap
station called North Ice some 250 miles away on the ice – featureless ice cap. The
first time I took what you call a sight, it’s an observation, or in this case the sun, and I
worked out our position. What you get from looking at the sun, working the
theodolite and doing your calculations, is a position line on a blank piece of paper,
your chart, and you have to be somewhere on that line, it doesn’t tell you where you
are. If you take two of these on different bearings you will get – they will cross.
You’re not necessarily there because your readings aren’t quite correct. If you take
three they cross in a triangle which the navy calls a cocked hat. If you get a small
cocked hat then you haven’t made many errors. If you get a big one then you’ve
made a lot of errors and something isn’t right. I had a backup in case this didn’t work,
I made a directional aerial for our communication radio in the vehicles, the vehicles
called Weasels, and we used the army number nineteen set. If I just couldn’t get the
position by taking sights then I could do a radio bearing, so I had a backup.
Fortunately I didn’t need it. When I took the first sight, the first three sights and
worked them out, I got a small cocked hat, so every night when we stopped I took a
sight. I took three sights separated by hours. I worked them out and when the time to
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see – we should have seen North Ice we saw the North Ice. Mission accomplished.
Very, very rewarding.
What does a theodolite –?
And getting back was no problem at all, just follow the tracks we’ve just made in the
snow, you don’t need to navigate.
What were you actually told to expect it was going to be like out there?
Very little. All I’d read was Scott’s expedition of course. I hadn’t read CherryGarrard’s book called The Worst Journey in the World, which I should have done, but
I was done at this horrible prep school I was given books on exploration as a form
prize and one of them described Scott’s expedition. Aside from that we did have dogs
and we had to fetch those, and they were very friendly animals. The Scott Polar
Research people told us they were dangerous. Well, ours weren’t. A story which was
in one of these exploration books was Lieutenant Evans on Scott’s expedition, who
later became Lord Mountevans, was ill and two sailors, Crossley and Lean – Lean,
had to push him on a sledge. Well, they didn’t have radio, though they could have
done, and they met up with a dog team of course by chance because they didn’t have
radio. The king dog realised that the chap on the sledge was ill and went to try and
comfort him, in this case lick his face. The king dog knew, they were very wise
animals. I had before – when we were setting up I had to take a team of dogs from
our base on a lake, Britannia Lake it was called, from the base to the edge of the local
glacier called a Storstrømm, actually we called it Storstrømmen because in Danish the
EN at the end is equivalent of the, so we called it the Storstrømmen which was
grammatically wrong. But I had to take these dogs, which we had in a round floating
raft, I towed it behind it behind a dinghy with an outboard engine. The scientists on
the shore yelled – and they were tied together to stop them jumping overboard or
falling overboard. Scientists on the shore hailed me and they all rushed to one side of
this dinghy and capsized it. One dog was in danger of being drowned, it was
underwater, and I picked him out of the water and you could see the look of gratitude
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on that animal’s face. Didn’t know how to say thank you but it said it with its eyes,
they were that sort of animal.
What’s –?
They knew much more than we did on some aspects.
Had you been expecting to use dogs or vehicles or motor vehicles?
It’s called Weasel which was designed [coughs] sorry, by the Americans for jungle
warfare. They were amphibious and had tracks. We didn’t need the amphibious
facility except for unloading them from the ship when they swam ashore. What did
happen was snow drifted in. Snow does not have surface tension, water couldn’t get
in but snow could, and it formed up in the bilges and you find yourself driving a
swamp around the place. So we bored holes in the bottom to let the water out. And
they were very good vehicles for the purpose but there were certain snags. One was
these tracks, the steel they were made of didn’t seem to like the cold and they fell to
pieces. Well, while you could probably put one right in quarter of an hour in the
temperate climate, it would take an hour or more to do because your hands froze, you
could – sometimes you couldn’t use gloves and you’re talking about minus forty and
you don’t have to ask whether it’s Fahrenheit or centigrade because they’re both the
same at their temperature, and that was a common temperature for us to work in.
Take an hour because your hands and you want a drink, you want to have a meal, and
it was difficult, very difficult to maintain. And apart from that they had the same
gearbox back axle – the gearbox in the back axle as the jeep did but they had a 135
horsepower engine in them. A certain combination of back gear and your forward
gearbox did a lot of damage to the gears. I can’t remember what it was now but you
had to avoid that one, and they were very difficult to maintain.
And apart from that – and a little story, this was very near the end of the expedition.
Coming back from North Ice before the winter came in – sorry, it was not, it was at
the end of the first year and getting on for the second year, we were coming back in
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two vehicles. We didn’t normally travel alone, though we did on one occasion, with
setting up a dump, we had continuous radio contact with the other one. But coming
back my vehicle had developed a leak in the exhaust manifold. And of course the
engine output’s carbon monoxide, which is not very good for you, and what we
agreed to do was travel until it became impossible from carbon monoxide poisoning.
The radio acted as intercom, I had two passengers and they spoke to me as the driver,
and being very noisy I had headphones on and I agreed that I would call them every
quarter of an hour, if they didn’t answer we’d stop. They didn’t answer once. I knew
I was being poisoned, I knew they were so poisoned they couldn’t talk to me, it didn’t
worry me, I carried on. Eventually the other vehicle called me and said it’s time we
refuelled, I got out and I sank gracefully to the snow. The worst part was the fact that
I just didn’t care, knowing quite well that I was on the way to die, and had the other
chap not have called I would have done. The leader was with us in the other vehicle
and I think he thought we had three vehicles because he didn’t come to help me. This
was not because he was Simpson, it was because he didn’t realise what was
happening. I had to get these two out and wake them up, put up their tents and mine,
put them to bed in the sleeping bags. I didn’t bother undressing them, I just stuffed
them in. But we had left over from a crashed aircraft setting up North Ice tins of
emergency rations for the RAF that contained Benzedrine tablets. I took half one. I
thought if I die, if I go to sleep I’ll die and so will they. It kept me awake and I put
them to bed and I put myself to bed, and I woke up the next morning with a monstrous
headache. Oh, I felt awful.
What does the Benzedrine do?
It keeps you awake. It was called energy tablets, which aircrews could use, it doesn’t
feed you any energy it all, it merely prevents you from going to sleep.
Why was it so important you took one?
Well, I wanted – if I went to sleep we’d have all died, all three of us.
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From carbon monoxide poisoning.
Even though you’re out of the vehicle?
Yes, but they were on the way to it, they had to have artificial respiration, they would
have died otherwise. I was lucky in as much as I could do it. And the other vehicle
didn’t volunteer to help me because, as I said, I think Simpson thought there was a
third vehicle. There should have been but it got burnt out. If you read the book it
reads as if there was a third vehicle, which I was driving, and I was okay. He didn’t
realise the problem I was in, it wasn’t because he didn’t like me. And we got away
with it.
So what did you do for the two people in the back?
Artificial respiration and put up the tent and put them in their sleep sacks once they
were breathing properly, because you can get – the carbon monoxide combines with
the blood. It makes you go pink rather than red, you’d think they had pink lips. Of
course having learnt some chemistry at school on biology I knew what to do … and
that was the end of that little episode. The Weasel mechanic was one of them and we
had a spare exhaust manifold and we changed it round. We didn’t do it earlier.
You’re going to say why not. Because we wanted the time, we were in a hurry to get
back and we agreed to take this risk. Unwisely with hindsight, we shouldn’t have
done, but you don’t always make the right decisions.
What were you actually told about the risks before you went out?
What did they tell –?
Well, one knew about carbon monoxide certainly, it goes for any vehicle. What we
weren’t told about were crevasses. A crevasse will bridge over, so you’ve got a V
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shaped hole in the glacier with a covering over the top of the V, which in many cases
won’t even stand your weight. What one – yes, we were told about this, you stick
your arms out either side when you’re walking across a known crevasse area, so if
you fall your arms are a help. Or for vehicles you were tied onto another vehicle and
you took it in turns to lead. You’re not going to save the other vehicle but you can
slow its fall down and the occupants will survive. Strapped in, in the ‘50s, we had
seatbelts and that’s – we did lose a vehicle that way. Mike Banks, Major Banks’,
Captain Banks as he then was, vehicle went down. Nobody was killed because they
were strapped in. You couldn’t cover, recover it, had to climb up the rope. I regret to
say when Simpson was driving in front of me I’d switch off my engine and let him
tow me.
Can we go back to the start of this? And I was just wondering, when you first signed
up how did you feel about it.
When I first signed up I joined the expedition in Queen Anne’s Mansions, which is a
branch of the admiralty, and I just went up to the office. I was told what I was going
to do, I had no idea what I was going to do. To start with we hadn’t got a
seismologist. I was going to have to act as a seismologist knowing nothing about it.
And I was given a big fat text book to read which, with hindsight, would have told me
nothing about the practice of doing it. Fortunately we did get a professional and I was
able to help him, yeah. He used geophones which are microphones which pick up the
sound that is reflected from the bottom when you fire the explosive. That’s all right
but you have to lay these out, you don’t do it and just do one, you have a pattern of
them, and the geophysic – the seismologist will say where he wants them and you
help him by putting them out. You then clear them up, so much for that. They want
to know where you are, so you take the sight, but you need accurate time for that and I
had three watches, two wristwatches and a chronometer watch which I kept in my
breast pocket, against the advice of the navy’s chronometer people because the
temperature is going to vary between plus and minus forty in a vehicle. It’s going to
be very hot sometimes and it’s going to go down below minus forty even. If you keep
it on you, you will shake it up but no more than the vehicle will but you’ll keep it at
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constant temperature. I kept it in my vest pocket, I carried – and one day it had
gained twenty seconds, checked by radio. How does a chronometer watch, a wind up
turnip type watch, gain twenty seconds in a day? Thinks. The hair spring, must have
got magnetised. How the hell does that happen in the middle of a Greenland ice cap?
I carried around full of geophones with permanent big fat magnets. How do you
demagnetise it in the middle of the Greenland ice cap? Well, you have a lot of wire
which you use for firing the explosives, you have a battery in the vehicle, you have a
thing, a five ton shackle because you need it for a trailer, and you have a thing called a
vibrator which is used both in your radio and in the seismic recorder. This turns
battery DC into AC. You take a wire and you wind it round the shackle, you take the
wire ends and you join them to a vibrator. The vibrator has four terminals on it, two
of them go to this coil and you take the other two to the battery. You pull the pin out
of the shackle and you push the watch in and you pull it out again, which should
demagnetise it. It wasn’t my watch after all, it belonged to the admiralty didn’t it?
When I pulled it out and tested it, it had regained its original rate – rate. Completely
cured. I gave a talk to the Oxford University exploration club at which a fourth year
physics student came. I asked him, having told them about the existence of these bits
and pieces, how would you demagnetise it. He said I haven’t the faintest idea, I
couldn’t even do it in a laboratory. A fourth year physics student, but he spends his
time looking for non-existent particles doesn’t he? [both laugh] Ordinary heat, light
and sound type physics, no, he didn’t know any.
Why were you actually doing the seismology experiments?
Me personally or why was the expedition doing it?
Why was the expedition doing it?
Ah, because they wanted to know the depth of the ice. To start with, we didn’t get
any echoes back. Now had I been doing it, if they hadn’t had a professional, I’d have
been rather disappointed. I fired off my charges in a big bang but no echoes. The
Germans, on their submarines had camouflage, first of all against active infrared,
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which we didn’t actually use, but against sonar, which are sound pulses. I thought the
bottom of the ice cap must be like this camouflage, which in occasions [inaud] started
off with a fine powder on the outside and worked up to the metal of a submarine. I
thought we’ve got sand at the bottom. We didn’t know whether it was ice or liquid, it
could be either, but you’ve got somewhere that’s going to be a solid and you’ve got
big rocks and eventually you’re going to finish up with sand. Very similar to Aztec,
then called, sonar camouflage. Oh, the professional geologist said, ‘Oh, no, no, you
don’t know anything about it, it can’t be that.’ He’s now accepted that that is the
reason. When we passed a certain line on those you could draw on the map, we then
got echoes, where those conditions didn’t exist. The French had done exploration on
the other side of this line, so we knew it must be possible but didn’t know why we
couldn’t get results and that – it had to be the answer but the geologists didn’t know
anything of the physics of it.
What did you do to help the seismologist?
I’m not sure. I don’t think we did anything. We had a physiologist doctor but we
didn’t have a psychologist.
I’m sorry, I said seismologist.
Oh sorry, I thought you – what do we do with the results? Oh, we sent them back to
the RGS, the Royal Geographical Society, to whom this was important. We didn’t
ask why.
What did you actually do though to help him?
Oh, what did I do? Nothing about seismology but when I came back I had to work for
quite a long time on the signals. We had an army signals officer who planned it very
well but was quite hopeless up there. So hopeless that when we came back he got
promoted to colonel, full colonel. He went home and the leader said well, if that’s the
best they can provide then they don’t want the second best, would I care to take it
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over, I said yes. So I became the signals officer, I had to write up all the signals data,
which would have been important had we have had Arctic warfare.
This writing up the signals data when you’re still out there or when you’ve returned?
Oh, I had to – I had all the data available, I had to write it up into reports. I lived at
the Admiralty Surface Weapons Establishment with my two signals and we wrote
reports, all of which were important to the admiralty. So that’s why they – they
eventually went back to naval life again.
Why did you want to go out there in the first place?
Why did I –?
Why did you want to go out to there in the first place?
Oh, I had, and it was the first book I ever actually read and I’m very slow at reading,
I’d got a book called The Wonder Book of Why and What. In it was a picture of
Shackleton standing on Elephant Island, and I thought I wanted to do this. And I had
been given these books of exploration and when the chance came I took it. That’s
how I came to be on it, and I don’t regret it, and I’d still do the same although I was
told if I went on it I’d get no further promotion. The admiralty kept their word, so I
got out of the navy as soon as I could to get a pension, not much but I did get a
Did you get any training before you were sent out there?
No because of the short time. I was sent out there with only two months’ notice.
What sort of preparation could you do in that time?
Rang up people who did know.
Such as?
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Oh, people who had been on various pre-war expeditions. Dr Fuchs for example, who
led an expedition in the Antarctic, he was a Cambridge man. Mainly him and, as I
say, I went down to the SPRI to learn how to use a theodolite and I went to the RAS
to learn how to work it out. And of course we were fitted out, we had to get clothing
that fitted, and that’s how I spent the time, sorting out what I thought I was going to
have to do, and not getting it right always.
What help was talking to someone like Dr Fuchs to you?
Well, he’d been before, he could suggest things that I ought to know about and didn’t,
and I could ask him about things I didn’t know. And he was very helpful, I had met
him down at – when I went to the SPR, SPRI. You’re no use talking to them, you talk
to people who had actually been there, who gave us faulty advice but he had –
Could you give me maybe just one or two examples of the sorts of things that he
helped with?
No, I can’t remember now I’m afraid. Probably how to look after yourself in the cold;
don’t get cold. But there were certain things you can’t do with gloves on. It’s very
difficult to adjust the theodolite.
Did you have any sort of cold weather training before you left?
Only advice, no cold weather training. No, we had a merchant navy chap who
merchant navy equivalent to a commander who did all our stores work, you know,
very good at that, but he was going to come with us on the seismic trip. He decided
he knew about navigation, so I let him have a go. He didn’t level the theodolite,
which you must do, you’ve got a bubble on the thing and you’ve got to make certain
that you’re right. If the bubble is out on my particular theodolite by a hundredth of an
inch at this level, then the error is going to be twenty-seven – twenty-three seconds of
arc, that’s the constant [ph] of it. So you’ve got get that right. He didn’t bother. He
then looked up the data of the sun on the wrong page, and I think we’ll stick with
naval methods in future. And he was hopeless as a travelling companion. When it
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was his turn to cook he always overslept, so he got the sack and Simpson took over.
Now Simpson was perfectly good on the trail, he was very good at it, he did more
than his share of work and, oh, we got on reasonably well. Right at the end, our final
journey of seismic surveying, we had to find North Ice for my last sight. There was a
snowstorm on which made life a wee bit difficult but the snow lifted for a moment
and I saw the structures around North Ice but I didn’t say so. I just said, ‘Right, keep
on the course we are’ and eventually we got there. That was pulling the wool over his
eyes, he didn’t know this but I did [laughs].
I think we should perhaps stop there for the day. That seems a good point. I think we
should go to Greenland in more detail next time, so –
Yes, all right, yes.
[End of Track 9]
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Track 10
Well, the important one is the magnetron, which because it can generate high power,
very short wavelengths, enables you to get a radar picture of the terrain below you,
whether it’s towns for bombers or submarines for fleet air arm.
What sort of thing would you –? What sort of radar set would you put one in?
With your aircraft you mean? Would you put the aircraft –?
No, what sort of radar set would you put a magnetron in?
Ah, well, they’re called centimetric radars because the wavelength used is all in
centimetres, so you’re going to need that if you need a narrow beam. The size of the
beam depends upon the size of the aerial inversely. In other words, if you have a big
aerial you get a narrow beam but it has to be big in terms of wavelengths. So if you
have a very short wavelength you can get a narrow beam in a small reflector. You
can put it onto a bomber or in the case of the navy onto a Swordfish or Barracuda and
get a narrow beam, which is what you want to get the picture called a planned position
You mentioned before as well that you had a planned position indicator simulator as
What I – the job I had to do when I first finished the training school at TRE Malvern,
was to make a simulator for training observers, so you didn’t have to do it in the
aeroplane, which would produce a PPI, a blank PPI, on which you could superimpose
fake echoes to train the observer so you can turn the knobs in the right direction.
I was think though you said – I think you mentioned you had a modern simulator of it
as well, or am I confusing things?
Yes. I had to rebuild one for South Downs College, which is local to me. They’d
done some work for me and I had built a simulator with modern techniques on a little
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printed circuit board, what, about two inches by four inches. The one I built used
four, five bit – of valves which we have in the other room and took up half the lab
[laughs]. So it was inconvenient to use the actual device because that means having a
rotating aerial. They wanted something in a little box, and that was my first job.
But what does the modern one actually show? Does it sort of –?
Well, if you have a yacht you will want to – probably want to have radar in it and you
won’t have the faintest idea how it works. One of the firms that makes these yachts
will give you a disc which will give you [break in recording].
[End of Track 10]
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Track 11
I’d like to start today with some clarification questions and follow ups from last time
really. And the first one was actually about your own name. You mentioned that it
changed from Knowles.
Yes, because my father married twice. His first wife he had – by his first wife he had
a son and a daughter. She went and died, he then went and married my mother. Well,
the – his daughter was to me an aunt, she was Auntie Ruby, she was very nice. I only
me the son once when he came to try and borrow money off my father, he was an
undesirable character and we – my mother and I did not wish to know him or get
involved with him, which is why we added the Brett bit which comes from my
mother’s side.
When did you change the name?
Has it caused you any sort of confusing having to change your name at that –?
No problems. No, you just do a thing called Deed Poll.
The other questions I had were about some of the things you’d mentioned about TRE,
and in particular you mentioned that you were in the same section as Tom Kilburn.
And I just wondered, you mentioned that he was keen on digital electronics and I was
He was indeed.
I can’t – what did you mean by that?
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He – in that era we stored analogue information. There was wasn’t much in the way
of digits, the people at Bletchley Park were very good on that, Turing and his lot. A
big advantage of that is you always get noise, not necessarily that you can hear but
you can see or upsets your machinery. In the case of digits, you have to make a
decision as to whether your signal was a nought or a one, and that is much easier than
trying to solve an analogue thing that may be from one to a hundred. That is why
digital methods were used. They were not used in radar in the war but they are now
of course.
When you said that Tom Kilburn was keen on digital technology, what did you mean
by that?
Well, what he did was found a mean of storing digital information, the noughts and
ones, on the face of a perfectly ordinary cathode ray tube. I’ve got one next door
which you’ve seen, and this was a terrific advantage. We didn’t have magnetic
memories or compact discs in those days.
So you’re working on this while you’re actually at TRE with him?
No. Well, I think he probably had it in his mind when – when FC Williams’s group
broke up he was able to work on it and develop it. He was a real pioneer of it.
Did Williams or Kilburn ever talk about computing while you were at TRE?
Not to me. They may have done but certainly not to me.
Was it something that was ever discussed in general in the section you were in?
Not among my peers, no. We just didn’t get the message, that came much later.
There was one other thing I was going to ask you as well about something you
mentioned over tea last time which was something to do with TRE and the making of
the, is it the Bletchley Park bomb?
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Yes, I went round Bletchley Park and they told me, in fact it was written in a book,
that the – a chap called Flowers who was a post office man [bell ringing].
Shall we wait for this to stop its pinging?
It’s got a lot to do [laughs]. Flowers wasn’t particularly good at making things and it
was all done actually in the pavilion, the cricket pavilion, where I later worked under
our noses by a chap called Wynn-Williams. And he was used to soldering up and the
sort of things I showed you earlier, that’s how it was made in those days. So you
might – I think it was probably attributed to Flowers, again for security, he didn’t
want to say it was being done at TRE.
Was Wynn-Williams someone you actually knew at TRE or –?
Well, I knew of – I knew him but I didn’t know what he was doing.
What was he like?
In – oh, just another of us, we were all nutcases, he was a similar one.
I think that’s all –
We were allowed to discuss our projects with each other but, well, I didn’t meet him
sufficiently because I spent most of my time out in the field, and after the war the
secret was out.
I suppose the next thing I was going to ask about was to return to the Greenland –
Expedition part of this. And I was just wondering – to sort of work through it in a sort
of narrative form, I was wondering how did you get there at all in the first place.
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Ah, that dates back to a book I was given shortly after I – this in fact contained the
first piece of text that I actually read. And in it was a picture of Shackleton on
Elephant Island, and I thought I’ve got to do this. I was only seven, six or seven, at
the time. A little later I got my prep school in Eastbourne, [inaud] Camp 020A in
Eastbourne, I was given for prizes, form prizes, first of all Heroes of Modern
Adventure by Tiltman and Bridges, and then More Heroes of Modern Adventure, and
then Recent Adventure, three books. In there were amongst other things Scott’s
expedition and other expeditions, which reinforced my desire to do them. It wasn’t at
Oxford, the university exploration club didn’t exist, or if it did it couldn’t do anything
in the war. So well, we didn’t have time to do that, any expeditions we did were
against the late Mr Hitler. And I heard somehow that Commander Simpson had done
an expedition to Greenland. Well, in the ship I was serving at the time, the major of
the marines was very keen on the British Public Schools Exploring Society, as it was
then called, and I applied to go with them. We got, ‘Oh, we don’t want you.’ Two or
three days later before they went they said, yes please come. The admiralty doesn’t
work that fast. This happened for two or three years and one year they said, well, we
do want you, the admiralty agreed. I rang up Commander Simpson to ask about wind
generators because in my mind he’d already been and would know. He said ‘I
haven’t been, that was the reconnaissance party.’ He said we didn’t – it wasn’t the
expedition, we didn’t have wind generators, he said, ‘Why aren’t you coming with
me?’ And I said, ‘Because you haven’t asked me.’ He said, ‘Well, I am now’ this
was on the phone. I was in – the Royal Empire Society it was then called. He said,
‘Come round to Queen Anne’s Mansions and have an interview.’ I did and I was in.
He said, ‘The only job you can do is that of assistant to a seismologist but since you
know navigation the navy taught you, you can do the navigation for him’ ‘cause you
didn’t have GPS in those days.
Why were you interested in wind generators?
Fuel. If you have diesel or petrol generator – it doesn’t generate wind, it uses wind.
Wind turbines, you don’t have to take any fuel for it because it’s already provided it.
Well, we did have them, they weren’t terribly successful.
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I just wonder why you were interested in them in the first place.
Well, because I was interested in the supply of things.
How did you physically get to Greenland?
We went from the same place as Scott sailed from, Deptford docks, up to – first of all
to Ivigtut in Greenland to collect the dogs, then round the corner of Greenland to
Reykjavik in Iceland, where it happened our physiologist doctor knew somebody
there. They didn’t go much on us because we invaded them in the war, we had to for
the Iceland, Greenland gap, so we very friendly treated by her. And we actually
bathed in a swimming bath heated by geothermal water from the heat of the earth.
And then we got to the Young Sound which was halfway up Greenland, where the
RAF took over. We unloaded all our stores from the ship and we flew up in
Sunderland aircraft to a lake in what was then called Queen Louise Land, and still is
for that matter, but the lake we christened Britannia Lake. The Sunderlands were
used before the war, they were used much in the war for coastal command, and they
took seven first class passengers to India, stopping overnight in lakes in bits of the
map that were coloured red. There aren’t many left today.
What do you actually do on the course of that journey there?
Only – going up there? Trying to accustom ourselves to the environment. A lot of
reading of books, and in my case some navigation to help the captain of the ship. This
was a Cedar, a Norwegian Cedar, and he didn’t mind being helped and being told
where he was.
And what sort of things did you talk about on the way there?
I suppose what we thought we were going to do up there.
What did you think you were going to do up there?
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Well, in my case I didn’t know much about seismology but I was given a great fat
book on theoretical seismology and we didn’t – we nearly didn’t get a seismologist so
I tried to make some sense out of this. This is all mathematical theory, not how to do
it. So I tried to get how to do it from the seismologist. We actually went before this
to Sweden to collect an instrument, so he gave me quite a good briefing on what to
So where did you actually land then, what, Lake Britannia?
Well, we stayed in a ship to start with and then set up a camp, using the same tents as
we would use on the trailer, the same tents as Scott used. He got it right. They
haven’t changed much today, more modern fabrics and nylon’s a bit of a disadvantage
really. If you had an accident with your cooker the flames, it’ll destroy, whereas
cotton might just singe.
Could you actually describe what that little tented camp was like at the start to me?
And bearing in mind I’ve never been to Greenland, I’ve no idea what it looks like,
what does it look like?
Well, first of all it’s very cold. You are therefore dressed to cope with the cold, which
means you are clumsy, you’ve got heavy great gloves on and great big boots, and
things which take only a few minutes in a temperate climate may take you a long time
to do up there. In particular, this has nothing to do – in camping in particular, if you
want to find out where you are you have a theodolite. With that you have to wear just
thin silk gloves, you must retain your feeling in your fingers. If you lose it you’ve got
to light up a Primus and warm your hands again, because it’s a very delicate
instrument. And of course cooking, you’ve got to eat and again we had Primus
stoves. Nowadays you have bottled gas, you can’t get paraffin, it’s used for driving
aeroplanes [laughs].
And what was the food like?
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We had the stuff called pemmican, nothing to do with a bird called the pelican, but
what we imagine was if you drove a cow into the machine, turned a handle, and out
came blocks of pemmican. As the signals officer of previous expeditions said,
‘Pemmican revives the body but not the soul.’ It’s a rather dull stuff to eat but it’s got
the right amount of protein and the other stuff that you need. We had vitamin tablets
of course and a lot of chocolate. That was good for calories. I’m told that I have – just
recently when I had my personal MOT, I’ve got the body of a teenager but I’ve got to
put on weight, and I was recommended to have a bar of chocolate every night
To return to the question, sorry, I originally asked you before I distracted you, what
was it like sort of standing there, what do you see at Lake Britannia?
What I’ve got to say, I daren’t. Miles of nothing. If you stand in the ice cap and look
round you are always at the bottom of a valley, it’s uphill wherever you look. This is
not because it’s built that way, it’s due to the refraction of light which makes you
think it’s uphill but any – we didn’t have an aeroplane and we should have done. If
you want to see what’s the other side of that hill you’ve jolly well got to walk there or
use a vehicle. In an aeroplane two of us were pilots and I’m sure we could have
taught some of the others but the fleet air arm advised us not to have one.
Did you stay in the tents the whole time you were there?
No. On the trail, yes. We had a base hut so we lived in that. Stayed in tents at the
southern base, yes, ‘cause we didn’t have any hut down there but there was a nice
warm hut to stay in. The only trouble was that the diesel oil – the diesel heaters
burned far more oil than was anticipated and the diesel engines were charging the
batteries that supplied the light but it didn’t get all that much. I thought that one
might be able to run a diesel engine on petrol, which we had, but I put just a little
petrol in the – with the diesel oil and I was actually having a bath, hip bath, sitting on
top of three Primuses when this happened in the radio office. The engine stopped, it
got dark and cold. A little petrol in a diesel engine kills it, so we just had to be rather
careful on the heat.
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What was the base camp like with the hut you mentioned?
Well, it had most of the facilities we wanted, a galley, it had heaters, it had nice warm
beds to sleep in. We used our sleeping bags of course, and there were lots of people
to talk to.
Could you –?
We had radio of course, and every evening when we were out we had a – what is
professionally called a net, we all speak to each other, except on one occasion near the
end it was necessary to shoot some of the dogs ‘cause we couldn’t get them back.
There was complete silence when we heard that. The dogs were our friends. But a
story, not of our expedition but it’s in one of the books that are here as an honorary
mention thing, in Scott’s expedition when they didn’t have radio and they could have
done, a couple of sailors were pushing the chap who became Lord Mount Evans, it
was Lieutenant Evans at the time. He was ill on the sledge. They met up with a dog
team purely by chance, with Scott’s dog team, and the king dog realised that this man
was ill and tried to comfort him by the only way he knew, to lick his face. That dog
knew. And I think I’ve told you of the occasion when I was ferrying dogs in a dinghy
That one, yes. That dog thanked me by his look.
I was interested in the fact you mentioned you had Weasel motorised vehicles as well
as dogs.
Why both?
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Well, our dogs were – wouldn’t have been able to carry the seismic equipment or the
gravity of equipment which amongst other things needed power, and dogs didn’t have
pedal power and they can do far more in a day than a dog team can. Dog teams were
all right for the surveyors who only had a theodolite to take in the way of
instrumentation, and the geologists, they both had had dog teams whereas the gravity
team had to take a gravimeter, which is nothing more than a very accurate spring
balance, to measure the effect of gravity. And we had the seismic equipment which
needs explosives, the heavy explosives,and the seismic equipment itself, that needs
I was wondering if you could describe to me what the living quarters were actually
Oh, they were rather like a sleeping carriage on a railway. There was a central
passage with the cabins either side, four people to a cabin, and then there was a –
you’re coming from the end, you go past them. You then get into the recreation hall
where we’re going to eat or we – in Scott’s room, we did Scottish country dancing.
And at the further end of the – of this hut was the galley and our gas stove. Off that at
right angles to it, a little metal section. Why? Because fire is a hazard out there. If
you had an accident and burnt down the living quarters then you had an impenetrable
to fire section into the workshop area so we could at least survive, and if the workshop
area set itself on fire it wouldn’t set the living quarters on fire. In between the two
was the heads, which was naval for toilet, beyond that the workshops, my radio – I
took a radio in the second year, photographic workshop, ways to develop films. The
geologists and the meteorologists had their tools and the generators and their
associated batteries.
How big is it?
Oh dear, I’ll have to look in the book, I’ll email that to you, I’m not sure. The living
room was about the size of the room we’re in at the moment.
Oh, a typical suburban – largish suburban living room.
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Yes. Just probably a little wider to accommodate berths either side of it, not like
Scott’s expedition where they were packed in like sardines.
You keep referring to Scott’s expedition –
Well –
Was this something that was on your mind when you were out there?
Yes, because we were the modern equivalent of it. We were supposedly a scientific
expedition, there were three objects of it; the scientific exploration, training on or at
least experience in possible Arctic warfare for war against the people up north, and
showing the flag since Scott’s day. And he was – he was the pioneer. The Natural
History Museum in London had a little expedition inside devoted entirely to Scott,
which Janet took me to the other day, and it was very good. They collected artefacts
from all around the world. One example, there was a chap called Cherry-Garrard who
wrote a book called The Worst Journey in the World. And I could have met him but I
didn’t, he died in the late ‘50s and I could have met him. But Primus stoves which
they used and we use come in two varieties, the silent and the roarer. The roarer has a
little ring around the burner which concentrates the flame and makes it less noisy. It
will burn if you don’t have that ring. The silent one has two movable and losable
parts and it will not burn unless both are there. On Scott’s expedition there comes a
chap, lost one. They had to make one out of silver paper.
Which sort of heater did you have?
Oh, we had the roarer, except that in the trapper’s hut I found a silent burner but then I
camped with myself and I didn’t lose the bits. You can wire them – you can wire
them on. When I give a talk to a suitable audience I can light these things up. To
avoid losing it people help you move your bits and pieces and lose them for you, I
prefer not to have help, but they’re wired on so you can’t lose them.
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I was wondering as well, you talked about arriving at Lake Britannia. Where do you
go next?
Where –?
Where do you go next once you’ve arrived there at Lake Britannia?
Ah, you set up the base hut and my personal travel from there was to go over to about
fifty miles away to a Danish weather station where our vehicles, which couldn’t be
put into some aeroplanes to be flown up there, were going to be driven up there by a
team on which I was not, but four of us went. Unfortunately on the way I broke an
ankle and with the Weasel mechanic, he was a big tough chap but he couldn’t carry a
heavy load, we went first of all to a hut in a fjord called Morkefjord, Morke meaning
murky or dark, and there was a heather field, a bright field. This was a hut which a
Danish expedition had used and the other two of the team, the four of us, went on to
Denmark Town, and Spike and I lived together in this place. Now I’ve talked to you
about the ghost story. We both felt uncomfortable in this place and didn’t like it, we
couldn’t explain it, so I hobbled and he held – he hobbled as well probably about ten
miles or so to a trapper’s hut where we were both very happy.
What was –?
There was something we just didn’t understand and we weren’t happy. We were in
the trapper’s hut.
What was so bad about that place?
Well, we don’t know, we just – when we talked about it to each other we discovered
that both of us just didn’t like it, inexplicable.
What sort of place was it?
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Oh, it was well run like our base hut as opposed to a trapper’s hut, which is rather
basic, but we got on terribly well together in the trapper’s hut, in fact we found a lot
of axe heads. We set about building an ice yacht so we could sail over to Denmark
Town. About halfway through we found out that neither of us actually wanted to get
to Denmark Town, so we stopped building it.
Ice yacht, sorry?
Er – ?
What’s an ice yacht?
Oh, an ice axe.
No, no, an ice yacht you said you were building.
Oh, an ice yacht, sorry, is a yacht that sails on ice, on skis, and you can use axe heads
as the runners, and as a rudder. Oh no, it would have worked, if we'd gone
somewhere [ph] for some canvas. So we stopped work really.
What do you do with a broken ankle though in that sort of situation?
Oh, you just had to wait, there was nothing I could do about it. I got it x-rayed – we
had no means of x-raying it of course. When we got back I got x-rayed by the Everest
doctor, Pugh, and it was broken. I can’t even remember which one it was now, it
healed itself, it just hurt when I walked. I don’t know how I did it but carrying sixty
pounds on my back must have got it caught somewhere and not noticed it.
So where did you go from the trapper’s hut, how –?
Eventually the Weasels came and picked us up, and having no radio we didn’t know
when. Suddenly there were a lot of people there and we – we couldn’t get them back
in the winter they – the Weasels stayed at Denmark Town and only the Danes said
you can’t walk across the glacier back to your base on your own, you must have dogs.
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And that was – well, we didn’t know did we? We had to carry the dogs in some
cases, it – we could have done it on our own, after all we walked over there. In one
case I had to abseil down an ice cliff. Well, I’m not a mountaineer and I’d never
abseiled before I got taught, and I had to abseil down a cliff with a dog in my arms. If
the necessity arises, you know how to do it [laughs].
So just so I’ve got this sort of sequence of events straight in my mind though, where
did you go from trapper’s hut?
Well, we went back home to – we’re talking about October on 1952, went back to
main base. It’s now getting dark. When we crossed Storstrømmen it was dark most
of the time. I said the Storstrømmen, and that’s bad grammar in Danish. En at the
end of a word is the in Danish, but it’s not the Storstrømm to us, it always was the
Storstrømmen, and we go to base. And we had to do a lot of repair work and building
things that we knew we were going to build, and it was dark outside. Outside and
dark at that time were synonymous. Well, twenty-four hours of darkness. Well, you
get twenty-four hours of sun in the summer. You get it made up [laughs].
Does being trapped in, you know, perpetual darkness make any difference to your
mood at all?
Well, I think it does, yes, you get what’s known as dark time fever [laughs].
What’s that?
A bit of introspection I think. Again, a bit of nutcases, you become more of a nutcase
I think [laughs].
Did being up there in the dark have any effect on you?
Any –?
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Any effect on you?
No, I don’t think so [laughs]. Oh, it must have done but I don’t realise it. Well, you
get to accept it. There are certain things that have got to be done outside, the work
you can’t possibly do inside, and you just put on the appropriate clothing and do it.
Or some of us did, there were one or two who were a wee bit workshy but on the
whole it worked.
What’s a typical sort of day like once it gets dark?
Well, you’ve got to have breakfast, and you have three or four in a cooking team. We
were three, myself, Mike Banks who was a captain in the marines and a merchant
navy chief officer, that’s a commander equivalent. We weren’t terribly good cooks, it
was just about eatable. Mike Banks, the first time we went on cooking poked his head
round the door and said, ‘Look, they’re eating it.’ A dog died one day and it was
popularly supposed that it was in the curry we served up. It wasn’t. No, it was
eatable, we did have some people who were good cooks, yes, but not us.
What did you have for breakfast?
Porridge usually and burnt toast. We could have had eggs but we didn’t. We didn’t
know you could keep eggs in the cold, the Danes had eggs. We had powdered eggs,
yes, but basically porridge and bread. Pemmican was reserved for lunch and not
necessarily at base, you had that when you were backpacking if you had to – you
carried the minimum possible. Carrying round about sixty pounds, that was the
normal weight and it’s not very nice.
And what do you do after breakfast?
Well, cornflakes – or porridge and cornflakes. We had porridge on the trail always
but cornflakes were available at base and milk, powdered milk of course, Nesquik
made by Nestles.
What do you do after breakfast, after you’ve had breakfast in the course of your day?
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Well, what do you do next?
Probably some sort of work, there was always something you had to get on with, or
discussion on how to do the work with – we had experts on various fields. If you had
a problem you could discuss it with somebody and then go and do it. Or we did have
lectures given by the various people on – mainly on their work so you knew what the
other people were doing. And in my case I had to teach the other people how to use a
theodolite and navigate if they had to. They might have run out of knowledge of
where they were. That would have helped. We tried to teach people Morse for radio
but radios of our time, voice was perfectly adequate, we didn’t need to use Morse.
Morse, yes, back to UK, to the admiralty. In fact I had to send a very large message
from the place. We got chivvied out all of a sudden because icebergs arrived at our
southern base, and the southerners don’t like icebergs. Now my two radio operators
were somewhere else and the commander said, ‘Look, can you send a signal?’ And I
said, ‘Well, yes, I’ll have to’ and I did.
What sort of work do you have to do in winter? Do you still actually go out and do
things or –?
In the second winter the tracks of these Weasels, the material they’re made of,
suffered from the cold. While they had been prepared specially for use in the cold and
all the bolts, and God knows how many thousand there were ‘cause there were eight
on each track, had to be re-tapped and redone. They messed up the threads so they
wouldn’t come undone, we had to deal with that. Now we had several hours of solid
work on track. If you were involved on Weasels, that was plenty. The other people
had to make certain that their instruments, if they needed recalibrating, were
recalibrated and suitable for the job they had in mind, so it was all – never any – oh,
reading, we had a lot of rather dull polar books and they came in rather useful for
pressing photographs and making them flat. We didn’t read much of them, we should
have done, but then we weren’t perfect, so –
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Do you have sort of – sorry, I’m just trying to think through how a typical day goes
again still, and so you’ve had lunch, you’ve had breakfast, you do some work –
We had breakfast, lunch and supper, and of course stand easy coffee or tea.
Yeah, are you working all day?
Oh, yes, I mean – or night. We actually split up, we had a night watch, people who
worked at night but slept in the day, they found it more convenient. Some people
found it more convenient to do so. And all that seemed to work out very well.
How do you keep your spirits up when it’s dark?
That’s a good question. I’m not sure how we did but we seemed to manage to do it,
by chatter I suppose. So I’ve told you that we didn’t get on with the leader, this in a
way was good. There were never any serious arguments between any two people, one
of whom was not the leader, it kept us together. I thought he was doing it on purpose
but he couldn’t help it. And if in 1954 when we came back he’d got a knighthood I’d
have been most upset. I’m upset now because he didn’t, he deserved it.
What sorts of things do you actually talk about when you’re out there?
Mostly conditions in the job. Oh, we listened to news, we had a communal radio and
we’d always, nearly always get the BBC overseas service. On one occasion – if
you’re using the theodolite you need to know the time very accurately and I had three
watches, two ordinary watches and a chronometer watch, I told you about this, but I
needed a time check. The only station that I could receive, this was out on the trail,
was the BBC overseas service. They gave it every hour, except the hour I was
listening to when the chap must have forgotten, sitting in a nice warm studio. So I
had to go on the stored time, which gives you a certain amount of error.
What sorts of things did you do for entertainment?
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Oh, the Scottish country dancing, that took us some [ph]. And the University of
Greenland, the lecturers we had for the various members on their – not necessarily on
their work but on something. There were people who took photographs, I didn’t take
them, I had plenty of work to do on developing them and printing them, had a very
good darkroom. And what else did we talk about? I can’t remember it. We never got
bored so we must have found something, or at least I didn’t get bored, I must have
found something to talk about but I just can’t recall it.
So other than yourself, who else was out there?
Twenty-eight other people. Well, twenty-nine, one died I think, I’m told he fell off a
mountain. Now he was a Dane in the – he was a surveyor, and a very accurate man, I
could always trust the navigation information I got from him, I never had to check it.
And he wasn’t very good at speaking English to start with but one day he said a very
naughty word. We said, ‘Hans you mustn’t say that when you get back to England,’
but unfortunately he never did get back to Denmark or England.
What was his name?
Hans Jensen – Jensen is a very common name. The Danes, Denmark, didn’t think
much of him but I did. I think we all liked him.
Who else were your closest friends out there?
I suppose the people who disliked Simpson the most [laughs]. Mike Banks, who was
the marine and of course, who else? Jim Walker agreed only to do one year. He’d
been before so he knew quite a lot of it. We had in our cabin Simpson, Jim Walker,
Mike Banks the marine and myself. So I got on well with them except of course
Simpson. I discussed things with Simpson, yes, and of course my two radio operators
were in the second year when I became the signals officer. They – I inherited them, a
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lot of – well, professional and learning tricks of the trade because I was a ham
operator, not a service one. As I told you earlier, I had to send the last message.
Are there any women out there?
Well, there were but not with us. Our trapper – we had a trapper to help us who’d
been with the Danish expedition, he had an Eskimo wife who came and helped us set
up. When we passed this Danish weather station on our way in at Denmark Town,
they got their glasses out and, my God, there’s a woman there, and they’d got some
flowers which they gave to her. She promptly ate them [laughs]. She went back with
the trapper. I’ve told you about the polar bear. Polar bears don’t normally go onto
the ice cap, they stay on the edge, but in a Danish expedition where this chap had
helped them they were all in a tent and one chap had to go outside for a pee. Came
rushing back in and said, ‘Polar bear out there.’ The leader said, ‘Don’t be silly, there
aren’t any polar bears on the ice cap.’ So he sent the biologist out and he came back
and said, ‘There really is.’ The trapper was seen to be taking off his big boots and
putting on much smaller ones. The leader said, ‘You won’t be able to run faster than
a polar bear.’ The trapper said, ‘I know that but I’ll be able to run faster than you.’
I’ve been as close to a polar bear as I have to you but I didn’t know this at the time.
We were in a party of two Weasels, a party of two people in each Weasel, so that’s
four, and we camped two of us in a tent and the other two in a tent. In the middle of
the night we heard them roaring their Primus away, that’s funny. It went out, they lit
it again. In the morning they said to us, ‘What the hell were you doing with your
Primus?’ We said, ‘It wasn’t us, it was you.’ We looked round the tent, there were
polar bear tracks all round it. It obviously wasn’t hungry. I had a rifle by my side but
I wouldn’t have been able to do anything, I’d have been dead if he’d been hungry.
And so we didn’t make our acquaintance.
I was wondering, once winter has set in are you doing things out and about or are you
confined to base.
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Well, we didn’t do much travelling in the winter, the – well, we could have used the
Weasel but when it was getting dark some of the time we travelled on Weasels but by
and large we stayed in the base. Hans Jensen and the English surveyor did a lot of
theodolite work establishing exactly where the base was, almost to inches, which is a
tedious job, you can’t do it in one night, you have to do it continuously so the errors
average out, and Hans Jensen was very good at that. The Danes called him Lillepigen
which means little girl in Danish. There was nothing like that about him.
You’ve mentioned sort of Simpson a few times –
The commander. What was he like?
Well, he was – in the war he was a torpedo officer and transferred to the electrical
branch. When I was in HMS Collingwood he was the first lieutenant, that’s how I
came to know him. And … well, he got the thing going. There are a lot of people
who don’t want you to go, mainly because it costs money and they don’t want to pay.
But yet from that point of view he was an extremely good planner, he got the thing
going and when things went wrong, as they invariably did, he was supplied with the
wrong things and the RAF dropped food depots, sometimes in the right place, he
could sort that sort of thing out, but he couldn’t sort us out, he couldn’t talk to us.
And I told you we didn’t dare go alone with him on the glacier because if there had
have been an accident they would have supported you but wouldn’t have believed you
[laughs]. He wasn’t that bad but I’ve told you a time when I was nearly snuffed out
by –
Carbon monoxide.
He didn’t help at all because reading his book he thought I was – must have thought I
was in another vehicle, because what he says, I was called BK, he said my two
passengers had passed out. I had headphones on to talk to them, we had agreed that
we would talk every quarter of an hour. We knew we were being poisoned but we
reckoned that until they passed out it was safe. They didn’t answer. I think I may
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have told you but I had to put them – I put the tent up. The thing that saved my life
was the Bob Bruce in the other vehicle, he was the second year seismologist, called
me and said it’s time we refuelled. That saved my life. I got out and sank gracefully
to the ground. I knew I was being killed, it didn’t worry me. I knew they were almost
dead and it didn’t worry me, that’s the insidiousness of it. So I had to put their tents
up, put them into the sleeping bags, and then turn in myself.
Did you have any –?
And that’s when I took half a Benzedrine, except you’ve got it spelled wrong in your
thing, a tablet. That came out of the RAF flying rations. They were called energy
tablets, well they’re not, they stop you going to sleep, they’re survival from bombing
people who are in trouble or I suppose fighter people for that matter.
Did you have any other close escapes when you were out there?
Not really, no.
How did Simpson actually run the expedition when you were out there on a daily
basis? You know, I mean what was his command style if you like?
I think he ran it very well. There were all sorts of problems arise – arose, which only
the leader could put right, and he usually managed to do it. So I must give him praise
where he needs it but he couldn’t manage people, that was his trouble. He could
manage things, yes, and he’d planned the expedition extremely well unlike Scott who
planned it very badly. Cherry-Garrard would never have gone with Scott again.
I’m interested in just sort of thinking about the sort of people who were there as well.
How is it actually led? Is it, you know, that you have a leader and you follow the
leader, or is it more of a democracy or what’s the –? How do things get done?
Well, there shouldn’t be a democracy, you can’t afford that up there, you’ve got to
have a definite leader. If a job’s got to be done you find yourself doing somebody
else’s job, you’ve got to have somebody in command to allocate you doing certain
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jobs. We all got used to helping other people. For example, the dog team people had
a sewing machine to sew up your tent and this sort of thing. But by and large we tried
to learn other people’s jobs in case they got killed.
Is there sort of any –? What’s discipline like in that sort of context?
Well, I think depending on how you look at it, compared with naval discipline nonexistent, but compared with personal discipline very good. You didn’t – there is an
expression which you won’t be able to print there called bullshit. It originally started
in the army by unnecessary work. You’ve got to keep soldiers occupied, so if there
isn’t anything for them to do they’ve got to be given something or trouble. We didn’t
have any of that – that sort of trouble. Eventually bullshit came to mean trying to
pretend you knew more. I bullshit you into knowing – saying I know more about
your job than you do. It’s lost – well, this goes for all the services, you can’t stand
there doing nothing or airmen, they’ve got to be made to do something, painting grass
green and this sort of thing. But, yes, as I said previously, there were no serious
arguments between – between us. Yes, disagreements but all over tomorrow, but not
necessarily with Simpson. A disagreement with him might last several days.
What sort of things would you disagree about?
How things were done. But that was the most important thing to disagree on but he
did have some way out ideas from time to time, but he’s bound to.
Like what?
I don’t know, I can’t remember now. He came into – this is not really [inaud]. He
came into the wireless office one day where I was and said, ‘Have you seen BK?’ so I
said no, and he walked out again. I don’t know what he meant [laughs].
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You mentioned that there were – there were three sort of purposes for this expedition
Showing the flag –
And doing some science and the polar warfare training.
Could you talk to me a little bit more about each of those in turn, perhaps with
showing the flag?
Yes, I don’t – I can’t allocate any priority to them but obviously survival in an Arctic
environment is one, and Arctic communications of course are important, this is where
radio came in. We had to monitor various stations, including GBR which NV Wilkes
mentions, we had to monitor that. That’s the station that could talk to a submarine
nearly anywhere in the world underwater. And of course we’ve destroyed it now, we
use satellites don’t we? And if there’s a proper war they’ll be shot out of the sky.
What other stations did you have to monitor?
Er, no, only Wick radio we used to have to listen to. That’s Wick right at the top of
Scotland, their coast station talking to ships to see when – well, we listened to the
BBC but that was purely for our entertainment.
Are there any particular issues with radio communication in the Arctic you don’t get
anywhere else?
Well, one was that back home if you’re doing the same sort of travel, summer, winter,
night and day, you have to choose a suitable frequency. Well, we thought we’d have
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to do that out there but one of our allocated frequencies was 3.8 megahertz, served for
long distance, short distance, summer, winter, night and day, which meant that you
can adjust to what we call fish heads in the navy and technical officers, how to use
their radio. To expect them to change frequency would mean that you lost contact
with them, they wouldn’t have known what they were doing. That was one thing.
And very low power with a decent aerial was a good thing. We did have some hand
crank generators to run radios but by and large they were not successful, they were
not man enough for the job. What we did however was a hand crank generator for an
ordnance signal lamp, and we found we could use that to run the radio as long as
somebody could pedal like a bicycle.
In what sense were you showing the flag?
Just by doing a major expedition and publicising it.
Was there much publicity before you left?
Well, apparently there was. Well, not so much before we went but during. We had an
admiral who was the chief of our committee when Everest was climbed. We heard
about this on the radio. There was some exhibition at which the admiral was and he
said – and he said, ‘Of course our chaps carried their own loads, they didn’t have
Sherpas.’ [laughs]
Did you all sort of think you were out there, you know, for some particular national
Not really, no, that’s bullshit.
What did you all think you were doing out there?
Think we were doing?
What was your opinion of your work when you were out there though, if you like?
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I’m just trying to compose my thoughts. I enjoyed it very much. Towards the end I
was counting days to the end, not because I wanted it to end because I didn’t, I
enjoyed it so much. Freedom from money, you couldn’t buy anything so we didn’t –
we didn’t have to do income tax returns or anything like that. That was one of the
things I enjoyed, and I think we all did. And in my case doing what I’d always
wanted to do as a small child. I don’t know why seeing Shackleton’s expedition in a
book, the Wonder Book of Why and What which I’ve still got, I can pass it on to Janet,
I was just born that way, a glutton for punishment [laughs].
What sort of Arctic warfare research were you doing?
Oh, communications mostly, that was it, that was important. The need for lightweight
radio equipment. We should have had but didn’t army portable ones, the ones you
wear on your person. They were big in those days compared to today’s. Well, think
of the size of your mobile telephone but we – that we didn’t have and should have
had. Untold [ph] what battery supplies, the batteries wouldn’t have liked the cold, we
couldn’t keep them warm but that’s probably why we didn’t have them.
Do you know what the sort of the outcomes of the polar warfare research you did
actually was? Any key findings, for instance, or –?
I don’t know, all I know is we had to write – as the signals officer I had to get a write
up and the navy certainly took a lot of notice of what we’d done. Whether the other
services did, I do not know. I had one chat up there from my Weasel to a warship
where the senior officer of my branch, I spoke to him from the ice cap.
Did you carry on doing ham radio up there as well?
Yes, we did, but completely illegally, we had the chap with the ham in Scotland
who’d relay messages to our people for us. That is not allowed, it may have been
intercepted by the post office but they turned a blind eye. Oh, yes, we couldn’t have
radio telephone calls because our system of transmission was not compatible with the
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GPO of the time. I was building a transmitter that would be compatible, our receivers
were all right, and the – one of these merchant navy chaps came in and said, ‘What
are you doing?’ so I told him. He said, ‘Well stop, don’t do that. The field range for
telephone calls, our wires are going to keep us talking for an hour. We’ll have a
monstrous bill.’ So I stopped. But this ham, George Brown up in Scotland, used to
pass messages for us.
Well, what was the GBR station you mentioned for?
What was it for?
Talking to submarines, built for that and nothing else.
And what were you doing in relation to it when you were up there?
Just listening to it and recording its strength to see whether it could talk to a
submarine up there at any time of the day or year, and by and large it could.
You talked a little bit about the military part of this, the showing the flag big, what
about the scientific part, what sort of things were done?
Oh, yes, a lot of work was done, for example, global warming was investigated then.
What, by your team?
By our team and there’s a film of the – made of the expedition where global warming
is actually mentioned, so we can’t say that it’d be wise after the event because our
glaciologists were measuring the rate of, it’s called ablation, the evaporation of the ice
cap. It was – that was one thing that was found. The detail of other scientific work –
oh, a lot of personal work. We had to be – we had to have sleep tests. Well, we had a
thing called a tickle test where our senses were examined. You had to go into – you
were woken up early in the modern and had to go into the doctor’s caboose and try
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and get to sleep again, and then the bit I didn’t like, had blood taken out to be
estimated because when you’re on the ice cap, which is 10,000 feet up, there’s not
much – the pressure of the oxygen isn’t as much as it is down below. If you run a
short distance you pant and this was measured, and this wasn’t terribly popular, at
least I didn’t like it.
What sort of work did the glaciologists actually do up there?
Measuring motion the ablation of the ice and the movement of it, the evaporation.
Water below nought degrees cannot exist for very long as a liquid. It’s either a gas,
water vapour, or it’s a solid, ice. It can exist for a little while in a meta stable state. I
used to boil up some ice or heat up some ice at night so I didn’t do it in the morning
when I woke up, so I got water. And that, in the morning, was still water. The
moment I touched the pot it froze because it’s not stable. Some turns to vapour, not
very much, and some turns to ice, there is no liquid left. There are few other things
that are rather like that, iodine, not the solution, the element iodine, can’t exist as a
liquid at normal temperature. Camphor is another one, there are very few so – if we
didn’t have these funny properties in water, life as we know it just can’t exist. This is
why they want to find water on Mars, to see if there is any possibility of our type of
Was global warming one of the things that the glaciologists –?
I’m all for global warming, I like it warm [laughs]. But some people will be flooded
if it gets too warm because all this ice on the poles is going to turn into water.
Did the glaciologists talk about the global warming when you were actually up there?
Oh, yes, yes.
What sort of things?
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Well, they’re telling us about it, the dangers of it, in other words the melted water’s
got to go somewhere. It’s going to flood people in low lying areas.
This was things they were actually talking about back then at the –?
Yes. Our glaciologists were but then these were very good glaciologists weren’t
Who were the glaciologists?
Hal Lester and Peter Taylor. Hal Lester has died, I’m not sure whether Peter Taylor
has or not. Hal Lester was a glutton for work, he was never idle. He was always
saying wait a minute, and before you – before we left to come back, ‘I haven’t
finished.’ I think Peter Taylor’s still alive but we don’t keep much in touch with each
other. I’m about to ring up, but Janet on the phone has free phone facilities, Dicky
Brook who was the other surveyor. He keeps the memories going and he’s having
trouble with his eyes. I’m going to ring him up and find out how he is. If you want to
have a word with him and ask him questions, by all means do so. And he’s arranged
reunions, to which I have never been.
Why have you never been?
Why? Because the first one I didn’t get the message, and the later ones I thought I
don’t want to meet Peter and a lot of old fogeys like I am, I want to remember them as
they were, so I don’t want to spoil my illusions, which is my reason for not going now
– any more. We didn’t have them every year, I think the first one was ten years, and
Simpson couldn’t find me. Well, I was in the navy at the time, all he had to do is
write to me care of the admiralty and it would have been forwarded but he didn’t.
You mentioned what it was like up there in winter. How does it change when summer
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Oh, the summer was lovely, so lots of sunshine, very few clouds, there were – oh, we
had some, yes, we didn’t get much in the way of snow in the summer and very – in
fact almost warm, it almost got above freezing [laughs]. At the main base it did
actually have some rain. And one of the things in the winter was the approach of a
snowstorm was signalled on the radio, the noise level went up and you – we knew it
was a snow storm coming. And the other thing that happens with snow is that the
snow particles are electrically charged. They land on your aerial and charge it up.
Eventually it’s going to spark over and that makes interference. When I was at school
I read about aeroplanes that had exactly the same trouble and how it was cured, and I
reconstituted that up there and it made radio possible in a snowstorm. It wasn’t in the
syllabus but I had read it [laughs].
What do you actually do once summer has arrived up there, compared...?
Oh, we were out travelling, doing our seismic work, firing off charges, explosives and
recording the sounds, then fixing where we were and moving to another place. But in
the first year we didn’t get any echoes back, and the seismologist said he thought it
was due to his incompetence and he left after a year. He had another chap, Bob
Bruce, who was the chap who saved my life by calling me up. He knew all about it,
he did exactly the same experiments and he didn’t get any echoes whatsoever. What
we found, and the French had done some work up there did get them, we found this
old divining line, one side of the line no echoes, the other side of the line lots of
echoes. Why? What my theory was as a physicist was the camouflage which was
applied to German submarines to protect them against the detection by sonar, sound
waves, we had an ultrasonic transmitter and it transmitted – it’s like radar, transmitted
high frequency sound in the water, the submarine reflected it back. Well, it didn’t
want to do that obviously, so they had camouflage which started with fine powder on
the outside and gradually became tougher and eventually on the metal. Now that
doesn’t reflect very well. Below the ice, 10,000 feet of ice, there might be liquid,
there might be solid, you don’t know which. Well, what I thought was you start on
the top with sand, you then go and get pebbles, eventually boulders and then finally
there must be solid ground. That will not reflect sound. Oh, said one of the radio
geologists, ‘That can’t be the answer. You wouldn’t know anyway.’ That is the
accepted answer now. Our geologists weren’t very good, one went home, couldn’t
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stand Simpson, couldn’t stand the environment. He’s a professor but not of
Greenland [laughs].
How do you actually do a seismology experiment?
Ah, you get some geophones, which are microphones that listen to radio frequency
sound, and they’re big magnets with a coil in them, and you know what the big
magnets did to my watch. You plant them out, you don’t just have one, you lay out a
pattern of them. And various experimenters have found different sorts of pattern,
mostly on the surface of the snow but not necessarily, you can stick them up on poles
if you want to. You then wire – wire these all up to a recording machine, which in
those days was an analogue recorder, it wasn’t a computer, it took a great big thing
needing lots of power. You then have to have an explosion, so the seismologist works
out how much explosive he wants and you – most of the time that will be either on the
surface or just below. Again, you might wish to put that up on poles, have a pattern of
that, and you’ve got to have some means of telling the recorder the moment that the
explosive charge is fired because it needs to know that. And most of the time you
have a wire but on one occasion, this was right at the end of the time when we had
1700 pounds of explosive left over and we did what was called a refraction shot.
Instead of sending a wave straight down and back to where you were, you send it
down and it bounces, or is refracted by whatever’s at the bottom, to some distance
away. Mostly you ignore that but on this occasion Bob Bruce in his vehicle with a
geophone was thirteen miles away. He’s got to know the incident of fire. This we did
on the radio. What I did was took a wire to the 1700 pounds of explosive and just two
wires, cable, short circuited the end, and put that in series with the supply voltage to
the transmitter that I talked to him on. So when it fired the connection will be broken
and the transmission would stop. I had the – when I was in the navy I had to do a
course on targets for attack by air and the effect of explosives. I learnt that I only had
to be 100 yards away from the 1700 pounds and I dug a pit for it to be quite safe, and
I was. But if you read Simpson’s book you will find that we had a collection of
people up at North Ice at the time when we did this, all with cine cameras, so I gave a
countdown, five, four, three, two, one – misfire. Simpson thought I did it on purpose,
I did [laughs]. I’d warned Bob I was going to [laughs].
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How do you think your colleagues actually saw you?
How –?
How do you think your colleagues out there in Greenland saw you?
I’m not sure. Probably as a good physicist. Oh, yeah, Mike Banks, on one occasion
when the RAF went – Spike and I were in this trapper’s hut, the RAF came over and
dropped us a message by parachute. The only trouble was the message referred to a
date that had already passed. I tried to semaphore the aeroplane but they don’t read
semaphore, and Mike Banks said, ‘BK was trying to signal them but all they saw was
somebody gesticulating violently.’ He said, ‘BK, possibly the most versatile person
on the expedition.’ I think that might sum it up. In other words, when people wanted
something that they didn’t understand done they came and asked me if I could do it.
If I could I did, and if couldn’t I didn’t, it’s as simple as that.
Can you think of maybe one or two examples of that sort of thing?
No. Did I, sorry?
Can you think of one or two examples of that sort of thing if you’re helping out
somebody else?
Well, er, yes, like we wanted – the seismologists wanted to do some experiments on
the lake in the winter. We didn’t want to lay out miles of cable to send him the
incident of firing and I didn’t really want to use radar that way round. What we
wanted to do was the other way round where he could fire the explosive by radio
when all was quiet acoustically. He could look at his machine and if the pens were
doing this [demonstrates] he’d wait until they weren’t doing this. So that was why I
devised a device for doing that, that was one. And then he wanted his geophones
calibrated and I showed him how to do that. We put up a pendulum, swung – of
which the geophone was the weight at the bottom … swung it to measure the time,
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from that you can measure the voltage as it was outputting so he could calibrate it,
that was one thing. Yeah, we were – I was given, or rather lent, by the firm that made
them, Curta, a little hand crank calculator. I’ve got it at home, I haven’t got it here.
You hold it in your hand, it’s virtually a Babbage machine; it can subtract and add,
multiply and divide. Well, I had to devise a means of dealing with the theodolite
observations. What you have to do with a theodolite is look at it one way round, then
turn the thing through 180 degrees, and look at it the other way round. That cancels
out one error. And the theodolite measured in seconds of arc, my tables worked with
fractions of a minute of arc. What I had to do was arrange to sum all these differing
scales and divide them by four with this calculator. How I did it I cannot remember,
it’s in my notes of the time. That was something which I originated. And I’ve told
you about the snow noise reducer. Oh, yes, I put up on the lake a thing called a
rhombic aerial, this is a rhombus of wire. It has the great property of being very
directional because we knew where England was but we did not know the best
frequency on which to work them. Most other directional aerials are frequency
sensitive, the rhombic is not, it takes a lot of real estate out and there’s plenty of real
estate. When the lake unfolds of course we couldn’t use it. I took it down to our
southern base at Zachenburg and I actually used it to send the last message. And if
you – you saw the film didn’t you?
The one on Youtube?
Yes. There’s a picture of me. They say it’s taken down, it might have been, but the
fingers sending Morse are mine, because I didn’t know what frequency was the
optimum to use. You had to listen and find out. Well, the rhombic aerial is ideal for
that and real estate is cheap up there.
What was the last message?
Oh, coming home, we were chivvied out by icebergs. We had to get underway so I
could let the admiralty know. Well, it was actually the post office at Portishead that I
worked on Morse.
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And I wish I can find the operator I worked because the radio I had, the – oh, I’d
better explain. Ships when they send – oh, this is old hat now, they don’t do it to pick
up radio, your mobile phone will have it. The Portishead radio sends its call sign out
on various frequencies and of a selected frequency in the band, it stays on there, it
sends its call, in this case probably GKV, it keeps sending that. There is a band of
frequencies on which you can call him, so he can transmit and receive at the same
time. You can’t do that if you’re receiving on the same frequency as you’re
transmitting, you have to wait. So I couldn’t set my transmitter into that band because
the calibration accuracy was not enough, so what I did – and I knew I could always
retune the receiver to Portishead. I listened – I tuned my transmitter to the same
frequency with the receiver as the merchant ship talking to Portishead. When he’d
finished I rapidly transferred – called Portishead on Morse and they came back
instantly because it was not – XPN was our call, it was X-ray, Peter, Nan then, it’s Xray, Papa, November now, and we heard this was going to change but it didn’t while
we were up there. It came back instantly because I said I’ve got an operation
immediate signal for him. That’s how I sorted that one out. I told Simpson that I
couldn’t promise to get it but I did. And I cannot remember now which of the
Portishead radio frequencies I used. I would love to.
How did the expedition actually come to an end?
How? Well it was –
What happened at the end to put it another way I suppose?
Well, we got – what happened at the end, we got taken to Reykjavik where we were
supposed to – well, a good meal was waiting, except I didn’t get it. We had to – we
took some dogs back, the ones that weren’t shot, and they were on a barge with an
Icelander, and we had to have somebody from the expedition, so I did my watch on
there. I was supposed to have been relieved by this merchant navy chap who knew all
about it. Oh, he tried the sextant, the theodolite, up there. He didn’t level it and he
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got the wrong day on the ice – on the almanac. I think we’ll stick to navy matters. He
came four hours late drunk. He wasn’t in the least apologetic either, so I wouldn’t
really want to see him again, he’s dead now. So we spent the night at Reykjavik and
flew back to Pembroke dock, which was the home of the Sunderlands where they fed
us well. What else happened there? I – oh, I made – when I was in this trapper’s hut I
put together bits of a rifle that had been left behind. That got pinched from me at
Pembroke dock unfortunately. And what else? Oh, my tent got pinched. Well, it
wasn’t mine, it was the expedition tent, but I would like to have had it but the – the
RAF at Pembroke dock, when they were going to – they knew they had to bring us
back on the day. Their signals officer, wing – the wing commander wanted to send
five tons of radio equipment out. We sent back, ‘Don’t send one ounce. We do the
radio.’ Well, he wanted to get promotion didn’t he, or a medal.
What sort of reception did you get when you got back to Britain?
Well, I think we all went to our homes. Eventually, yes, we saw the Queen in the
Festival Hall. Like Simpson gave a talk and the admiral gave a talk, and I’ve got a
picture at home of the Queen talking to me.
Do you remember what she said?
And she saw as off from Deptford, where Scott left from. This is where we had to
dress up in our uniforms and she had something different to say to each of us.
What did she say to you?
I can’t remember. What I can remember is what she said to one of the radio
operators. She said, ‘Aren’t you over warm under there?’ ‘No ma’am,’ he said, ‘I
haven’t got anything else on,’ and she roared with laughter but the ladies in waiting
didn’t go much on that. Foreign office dandies and guard officers are more in their
line. Oh, she was very nice.
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What sorts of things did you have to wear out there?
Well, I’ve got them at home, I can show them to you. Mostly stuff that the army had
proved in the Korean war. We did have the Eskimo thing, which was a windproof
outer called an anorak, and anor is the wind and anorak is anti-wind in Eskimo-ese.
That is not very warm but it keeps the wind out, and you wear jerseys underneath.
That wasn’t 100 per cent successful. What we had was a combat jacket which was
windproof with a zip up the front on – oh, and a shirt. I had – underneath my shirt I
had a nylon shirt, actually it was a vest. A mail order firm I got in touch with, and
when they found I was in Greenland they sent me some of these things. Well, they
were very good as wet vests because they wash easily. We didn’t do much in the way
of washing but you could keep a clean vest, a number of these, and the – when you
were on the trail backpacking, when you rest you get cold and when you walk you get
hot. Well, that’s very difficult to deal with if you’ve got an anorak but the army
things where you have a zip, and on top of that was a large fluffy thing which had a
zip on it and was both – not all that windproof but very warming, and it had a hood.
That I found very successful. On your feet, if you had mountains, you had
mountaineering boots on, shoes rather, which had crampons on, spiky things, for
walking on ice. Dogs don’t need crampons, they’ve already got them built in, but we
do. And I found that the canvas boots, which had a fluffy inner liner, very good for
driving. There wasn’t an awful lot of heat in the Weasel, the engine was on your right
hand side but it had a fan and it blew heat through the bilges of the vehicle. Yes, they
would have gone up to about plus forty, which is why I kept the chronometer on my
person rather – against the advice of the chronometer people. It’s going to get shaken
up in the vehicle just as much as on me. If I have it on me it’ll be at more or less
constant temperature but I hadn’t realised I was going to magnetise it.
What were your favourite times out in Greenland?
Favourite time?
Yeah, your favourite times out in Greenland?
Sorry, time?
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What were your favourite times out in Greenland?
Time, sorry –?
I’m sorry. What were your favourite times out there?
Oh, favourite times, that’s a good question. Probably right at the beginning, proving
that I could carry heavy weights when we went over to – we had a trial run first
because people my height aren’t usually able to do that. And being able to do that and
successfully, apart from a broken leg, getting to Denmark Town. Oh, and the first
time I used the theodolite. I’d never used one before, I had read about it a book and I
think I have told you when I went down to learn about it in Cambridge, I found I
knew more about it from reading a book than the chap who tried to teach me. When I
went to Royal Geographical Society to learn how to work it out, the same thing
happened, the navy had already taught me. I think finding out where I was the first
time, that – that was really satisfying. If – what you do is you get one observation
which gives you a line of position on which you must be. It doesn’t tell you where
you are because imagine you’ve got a globe in front of you and you have a big coffee
tin that coffee comes in, if you put it on the globe and that represents the sunrays
coming to you, you could be anywhere on the line that that tin meets the globe. Well,
this happens on the earth and the globe is so large – the coffee tin is so large that the
circle is effectively a straight line. You do it again, there will be – the sun moves, so
you will get a line that crosses, so you’re at the point. Ah, yes, but there are errors. If
you do it three times and you get a big triangle, then you’ve got a lot of error. I didn’t
get a big triangle. That I think was probably the most satisfying thing of all. And in
case I made an absolute cock up of it, I did have something in reserve and that was
direction finding on my radio in the vehicle. If I couldn’t find North Ice by that
means I could have direction found their radio.
But what was North Ice?
Our ice cap station, 200 or more miles away from base, on the top of the ice cap.
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Just as –
There was three people manned it in the winter.
Just so I’ve got an idea of where you’re operating, so if – could you sort of paint me a
little map of where all these bases are in relation to each other?
Well, if you imagine Greenland as a rather large triangle, fat at the top, it does of
course come to a point and slowly tapering to the bottom, we were about two thirds of
the way up on the right hand side. We can’t record it now, that’s the best I can do.
And where were the other bases in relation to that?
The French had explored the area a bit south of North Ice. There was a Danish
weather station well to the north but on the coast. Then there was Denmark Town,
which was roughly the same latitude on the coast again. Why do you need weather up
there? Because aeroplanes of that era were rather subject to the wind up there. If they
can divert and get a jet stream, they want to do that. It’s not so bad today when
aeroplanes fly a lot faster but it was very important in that era. And on the left hand
side, as I said, there was a big American base called Thule, T, H, U, L, E, and that was
clearly anti-Russian.
Why do you say that?
They – what?
Why do you say that?
Well, why would they have one up there for any other reason?
Did you ever consider what you were doing up there as anti-Russian?
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Oh, yes, they knew what we were doing. And a Russian aeroplane did come over us
one day. I wasn’t very good at aircraft recognition, which is why in the war I was
allowed to fly of course but not with arms in case I shot down one of ours. But I used
to talk to them on the radio from my Weasel.
The Russians?
Not the Russians, no, the Americans. And one chap there used to take 150 words of
text and, well, this is all in Morse, and send it to my mum, so – he wasn’t allowed to
but he did. We never met. But we was travelling one day, this is in the second year
when Simpson was – he was good on the trail, I must say that about him, and on the
radio I missed – I tuned off to see what else was there. I heard this chap and gave him
a call, and back he came. If we were in crevassed country we used to tie our – each
Weasel together with a great fat rope, the sort of rope that divers used in the war,
wartime diving, yeah. When I was being towed by Simpson I used to get in his tracks
and switch off my engine, so I did rather well on miles per gallon. He never rumbled
it, which meant I didn’t have to do anything, I could play with the radio. I told him I
was going off net so he couldn’t talk to me.
What did you actually –? What was waiting for you when you got back to Britain?
How did you find being back in Britain in fact?
Civilisation once again. I had to be a bit careful on language, we weren’t – some of
our talk wasn’t quite Tunbridge – Tunbridge Wells drawing room. And of course we
had to get – to use money again. And I went home. One of my naval friends came
down with my mother to pick me up and we went to my home, which was then near
Brighton, at Rottingdean. Oh, I suppose I was glad to get back to civilisation in a
way. I had a little leave and then had to go to writing up the radio [inaud] which I did
at the Admiralty Surface Weapons Establishment, they gave me an office to work –
Shall we take a break?
And then gradually restore to normal, so called, civilised life [laughs].
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Shall we take a break as we’re –
Yes, let’s do that.
An hour and a half in?
[End of Track 10]
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Track 12
What happened to –? Where did you go next after you got back from Greenland?
Oh, from Greenland. Oh, back to normal routine after a bit of leave. I had to go up to
the Festival Hall for this talk that Simpson gave before the Queen, as our admiral, and
write up all the radio results for the admiralty. I didn’t have to write up the seismic
results because I helped but only –
Where did your career take you next?
To the naval college at Dartmouth where I was on the scientific staff, I taught physics,
and I also used to sail, take the cadets out sailing.
What sort of place is Dartmouth?
What sort of place was the naval college at Dartmouth?
Well, built in right – just after the First World War I think. It was just like an
academic college except that they weren’t terribly academic. In 19 – it would be ‘59 I
think it was, an admiralty fleet order came out that says from henceforth nonexecutive officers will now do executive duties but it didn’t say the reverse. So I had
to do rounds of the college. Now rounds, if you have an admiral, you have an
admiral, captain or whatever, down to the ship’s cat, they go round the place in a ship.
You need it in a ship but they have it in the shore. And we got to one of the
dormitories, sitting on the wall was a large red thing with a pipe on it and a handle, so
I said to the chief captain, ‘What’s that?’ He said in a very sarcastic voice, ‘That sir is
a fire extinguisher.’ I said, ‘Do you know how to use it?’ ‘No, I can get it down.’ It
was one of the sort where you press a button and a jet of water comes out. I made him
press the button and I made the jet – I pointed the jet in the right direction. He didn’t
try to take the mickey out of me after that [laughs]. Well, some of those cadets are
now admirals or retired, be retired by now, we’re talking about over fifty years ago.
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How do naval cadets actually take to being taught physics?
No, don’t like it, most of them. An awful lot were forced into navy by dad and didn’t
like it, so that was – that was that. And they wouldn’t be there if they were bent on an
academic career. Yes, there were one or two who did and they wanted out, the navy
wasn’t for them. It was a bit hard luck if your father was a captain and forced you
into it but when I was in HMS Devonshire, the cadet training cruiser, there was one
chap there, the honourable Roper-Curzon whose father was Captain Lord Teynham.
The poor captain got court marshalled. In the war he was in command of a flock of
minesweepers, had to go away somewhere and left a commander in charge. The
commander moved them but forgot to tell anybody.
Ah, yes.
The RAF beat them up. When you’re flying an aeroplane you can’t tell that they’re
British –
I think you –
But the captain is responsible.
I think you mentioned this last time.
Yes, well he – this poor chap was forced, and he didn’t like it, and I tried to make it as
easy as I could for him. It was a terribly artificial life but we went round the world in
the northern hemisphere, well, apart from Russia and China, we didn’t go there.
But was there any particular emphasis in the physics teaching you were doing?
All directed towards naval use of explosives with guns and mines, this sort of thing,
and a little bit of physics for radar. They didn’t know much about it but they do learn
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that there are radio pulses and radio waves. Yes, it’s all heavily oriented to the
service life, to make the fish heads, as you nickname them, appreciate something of
what’s going on.
How did you find that other naval executives of – executive officers regarded you as a
Well, I’m not sure whether – I tried to look this up. I’m not sure whether at
Dartmouth I got a report saying – it said my best seaman officer. Well, I wasn’t a
seaman officer [laughs] but I was allowed to command yachts and their picket boats,
which the fish heads didn’t like, like a non-executive [inaud]. I had on the – left over
from Greenland I had dog traces, ropes with a snap hook on one end and loose on the
other for tying – you put the snap hook onto the dog’s collar and the other end onto
your sledge. Well, I brought some of these back and I said to – when I took the boats
sailing. We had boats called windfalls that came – captured from the Germans for
Luftwaffe recreation in the Baltic, we had these, they had no engines. If you couldn’t
go there by engine you didn’t go, and I think it was there when I got my best seaman
officer but they said, ‘Oh, you are wet.’ I said, ‘Yes, but I haven’t lost anybody yet.’
The year before I joined a cadet was washed overboard and killed. I had a VHF aerial
up the top, ‘Oh, that doesn’t look very pretty,’ ‘it might save my life.’
Do you think there was a difference in mindset between you and typical naval
Yeah, we got on very well. Well, we firstly – we were selected to go there. Well, I
enjoyed most of my time there.
What rank were you?
Two and a half, lieutenant commander. That’s what I was when I went to Greenland
and I was told I wouldn’t get any further. But I think the captain tried – the captain
tried, I said, ‘Well, you won’t get anywhere because there’s an admiralty promise.’
So I stayed in just long enough to get a pension.
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What’s life actually like outside work at this time?
Well, I got it – the Admiralty Weapons Research Establishment where I went to, to be
near the sea, after this – I got married just before this, so I went to there. It was
nothing like TRE unfortunately but officers were – I was the trials project manager. I
didn’t like project management, it wasn’t me. I apparently did it quite well because
they promoted me. But I got onto a much more interesting job, unfortunately I can’t
tell you about it but it was not quite like TRE but it suited what I could do.
Who did you get married to?
Who did you get married to?
My wife. A certain Miss France, who I actually met up in Oxford but not really to
talk to. I belonged to the junior scientific society and there was a meeting. I suspect
it was Harry Price on Borley Rectory ghosts, and her partner in the lab wanted to
come to it so I spoke to the partner, that is when we crossed. Years later when I had
done the meteorology course I was on a naval air station up in Scotland, which is now
Renfrew Airport. It wasn’t then, it was an RNAS Abbotsinch. There wasn’t anything
else to do there, so we flirted, we got married [laughs].
What did you like about each other?
Well, she was a physicist but she couldn’t fit the – she couldn’t think physics like I
can. She was a meteorologist, and I couldn’t think met like she could. We were both
slightly academic and we got on well together. And, you’ve seen Janet, you haven’t
seen Jamie. I may not have told you that he was adopted. Well when she had Janet
she got an embolism in her leg and we were advised by the doctor never to have
another child, that is if she wanted to live. It killed her eventually. Some years later
she couldn’t breathe. We lay on the same bed together, not the one we slept in, I had
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to call the doctor, he was a locum; he hadn’t read the notes. I didn’t have enough
courage, I was so worried, to say, look doc, I’m not a doctor but at least I’ve got a
higher school cert in biology, it’s either heart or lungs, you tell me. She died in the
ambulance going up to the hospital. He gave her the wrong medicine, gave her beta
blocker, which I’ve still got, instead of an aspirin. If she’d had aspirin she would have
lived. That is why we adopted Jamie, we took the advice. I wish the doctor had.
When did your wife actually die?
When? Twenty years ago this November, so I’ve nearly done twenty years on my
own, so that would be what, ‘92. Oh, awful time but I went up to the hospital and the
first thing I was told was she’s dead. But there was a male nurse there, I suspect he
was gay, but he didn’t half comfort me. I’m not worried about what he was, he got
me to stay with a friend of mine in Rowlands’s Castle which is very near to where I
live, the chap I went to the Farnborough exhibition with. He sorted all that out for me
and I couldn’t care less what his feelings are. He was kind to me when I most needed
Could you give me a little idea of what family life is like for you with two children?
Is what like?
Can you give me a little idea of what family life is like for the Brett-Knowles then?
Well, yes.
Earlier on perhaps.
Well, yes, well we got – Janet was born in, it would be ‘61, in a few days’ time, in
March, so we’re talking about, what, fifty years – fifty years plus ago, so we had a
[inaud]. We got our silver jubilee in, and her father was an honorary chaplain at
Canterbury and I got married in the Cathedral, in the crypt. And he, in the war, had to
– because he’d been in Japan as a missionary he was fluent in Japanese. He had to
translate official documents, one of which was in Japanese from the Japs asking for
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surrender before the atom bomb. It was wholly unnecessary to drop those bombs.
Well, they had to do it didn’t they? It was Americans, yeah. We got canvassed when
I was up at Oxford when I finished up with – nearly finished my time on whether we
wanted to go to Canada to work on radioactivity, wasn’t told it was a bomb. But the
administrator had all our physicists into a lecture room, ticked off our names, and said
ladies and gentleman, [inaud] that it must be obvious to you there’s something very
secret going on here because you’re not allowed in some parts of the Clarendon. He
said it is work on the cavity magnetron. Well, we’d seen this being done in the
workshops and it all made sense. He said that there’s a cover name for it, tube alloys.
Does that mean anything to you? Yeah? Oh, it was a cover name for the work on
separation of the uranium isotopes, that was what was going on. He said you are not
to talk about it. Well, it wouldn’t have mattered if we did, we’d already given the
Germans the magnetron so they knew about it. They didn’t know about the bomb, or
they did, they wanted heavy water for their atom bomb and Heisenberg, their chief
scientist, said – well, I’d better explain what happens in an atom bomb or you’ll get –
you have an atom of uranium and if you hit it with – the right sort of uranium core,
uranium 225, if you hit it with a neutron it explodes and gives on average two
neutrons in the explosion. If one plus a little bit of those finds a target it will go on
expanding. He, Heisenberg, said you need both to find a target. Well, any schoolboy
who’d studied atomic physics in those days would say it, but you don’t say the boss is
wrong when you’re in Nazi Germany do you? I thought he was doing it intentionally
because he didn’t want them to have the bomb. His daughter on the telly said – when
interviewed said, no, he firmly believed it. Well, I don’t think she knew much about
it. I’m sure he would because he’s a well known name in physics.
When you were actually sort of teaching, you know, naval cadets and I suppose out in
Greenland as well, was there much sort of discussion on what the bomb actually
meant for the navy?
No, no, they didn’t want to know, they didn’t discuss it at all. We actually had on the
staff an atomic physicist.
At Dartmouth?
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On – yes, one of the masters, or lecturers as they’re called, he brought some uranium
in for us and actually had a miniature – it wasn’t an atomic explosion but it
demonstrated it to us. I don’t think they think about these things, you’re not allowed
to think in the navy.
Could you actually give me an idea of what’s a day like outside work with your family
in say the 1960s?
Oh, in the ‘60 –
Once your children have arrived.
Well, what did we do? We didn’t go much to the cinema. Margaret said she wasn’t a
very good cook, she hadn’t been allowed to do it as a child, but she was – when she
was in the WRENs and she had about a fortnight’s course on it, she was terrific. We
used to discuss food. We had an arrangement; if you cooked it you didn’t wash it up.
If she cooked it, which we often did, I washed up, but then she let me cook and she
would do the washing up, so we didn’t have a washing up machine, we decided it just
wasn’t us. And I think we did an awful lot of discussion on physics, because she read
physics, so we were able to discuss present day findings on the improvements. And
of course the usual sort of family things. She had a family and I had a family, and in
fact the daughter of a cousin of mine had married a French person. She’s terribly
keen on the family tree and she’s produced a terrific one, it leaves me cold I’m afraid.
But we discuss her family, maybe Norfolk people.
Did she carry on working as a meteorologist?
No, she didn’t. When we were in Malta, just before Janet was born and she was
heavy, she met the headmaster who was a captain in the instructural branch, of the
naval school in Malta, and she suggested she might do some teaching. And like I got
a report [inaud] who told them no, the next day she was invited to come for interview,
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and did, and taught. [laughs] And the girls and boys all called her Miss when she was
obviously heavily pregnant.
What were you doing in Malta?
I was in a ship, HMS Girdle Ness. This was a trial ship for the Sea Serpent missile,
where I was officially instructor officer and the meteorological officer, and also
allowed to command the motor fishing vessel that I went to take round the Med. But
this is where we had a very strict captain. I’ve always been rather unlucky on ships’
captains. The previous captain was very nice, this one wasn’t, but one day he said
why don’t you take the MFV [Motor Fishing Vessel] away. And he said I only went
white for a few seconds. I had to get special permission because I was not a fish head,
and I used to take this thing, I used to go to Sicily. On one occasion I went to
Pantelleria, an island in the Med, and there were two things there, or three. The first
thing was that the dynamo stopped turning because it was slack on its mounting. In
order to remount it I had to stop the engine. Now do I stop it now and tighten the nut,
then find I can’t restart the engine, or do I keep on going, minimise the electricity and
sort it out at Pantelleria? And that was my decision, and it turned out to be the right
one. And when I went there, the Italians who lived there thought this was the second
coming. The story about Pantelleria had nothing to do with this. In the war, I assume
it was a Swordfish ran out of fuel and couldn’t get back to its carrier, so they landed at
Pantelleria expecting to be imprisoned because it was Italian. Oh, no, they
surrendered to them. All they wanted was some fuel, so they shoved off. We had this
trouble in The Hague. We were liberated by Canadians, so I think the Dutch wouldn't
rather have the Canadians than the others [] but German Tommies tried to surrender to
me. I said, ‘Sorry, I’m not in that business, go and find a soldier.’ I did pinch things
but not off people, some of the soldiers stole watches. I didn’t mind acquiring things
off what I call a German pusser, a purser, their government state property, I would not
steal things from people.
When did you actually move to ASWE?
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That will be after I left the navy, 1965, ‘06, that sort of period.
How did it happen?
Well, I wanted to go back into research and I wanted to sail because I was then
involved in the London sailing project, which is based on Gosport, so we moved
down there where Margaret had some friends anyway. And when I was up with the
admiralty in London we lived in Tonbridge where she had some friends, so we then
went and lived down there. I got my sailing and discovered that the ASWE was not
like TRE.
Was there –?
We were developing a system right from the start. This wretched man, Solly
Zuckerman, had persuaded Mrs Thatcher that the firm should do it, and what in fact
happened was Mr Weinstock didn’t wish Marconi to do it and they wouldn’t do it
very well. We had to do all the research work again ourselves.
Which system is this?
Seawolf, that’s the self defence one. And that went very well but I didn’t really want
to be a project officer, I was forced in it. When I got the chance to move out and do
what I can’t tell you about, I took it.
When did –? So –
My introduction to it was to give a presentation to the ASWE people on it. What I did
was I went round the hall first turning off all the radiators so they didn’t want to go to
sleep. And I didn’t have any obvious notes, I just want headings and I talk off – like I
am here. Then I had to go to America, in the Pentagon, and that was all right. We
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used a particular system which hadn’t been used before in a surveillance radar, and I
had to explain that to this vast audience, it’s called Doppler, pulse-doppler but neither
here nor there. All that happened was that the Americans knew that pulse-doppler
would work. There was one chap in the audience who kept pestering me with
questions, and afterwards one of the Yanks said, ‘Do you know who that chap was?’
‘No.’ ‘Skolnik,’ ‘Well, who’s Skolnik.’ The author of the book on radar, American.
I think the door just went.
I’ve probably told you about that one.
I think the door just went.
Oh, did it?
[End of Track 12]
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Track 13
What actually was ASWE?
The Admiralty Surface Weapons Establishment, the navy’s equivalent TRE. In the
war it was called ASE, Admiralty Signals Establishment. Well, they did signals and
they also did radar but in separate branches. I did have to go to the radar place, which
was at Witley near Haslemere, and I found them totally different. The reason I had to
go was the air radio officer in the Vindex suggested we might take my radar, turn it
upside down, and put it on the back end of a carrier to talk aircraft to land. And I got
the job of organising this with the ASE, as it then was.
Right, okay, yes I remember you talking about that one.
What do they actually do at ASWE? What’s the place for?
What did they do? Radar for the navy, for – they also did signal communication for
the navy, where TRE did no communication work apart from unofficial ham radio.
Where actually is it, ASWE?
Where was it? It was at Haslemere, the communication half, and the other one was at
Witley which was very close, in Surrey.
Could you describe what the actual site you were working on at ASWE was like? If I
was to turn up there one day –
Well, it was run more or less like TRE except building, not huts. I was lucky, I was
never in a hut in a TRE, I was always in the building, but a lot of good work was done
in huts on the playing fields.
What did the place look like? If I were to turn up there one day what would I see?
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Oh, I’m not certain that it wasn’t a school. Yes, it was, it was King Edward’s School,
Witley. You would see a public school. I have been there to give a talk on radar.
What was it like when you actually worked there later on?
Well, it wasn’t – it was at Portsdown Hill then, it had moved when the war finished,
moved out of Witley and gave it back, like we gave – TRE gave back Malvern
College to there and they got it back at the King Edward’s School. Yes, come to think
of it, I had to give a talk there but on Portsdown I got put into this management job
which I didn’t like. Eventually when it was all finished I got back into research, into
sort of active research, which unfortunately I can’t tell you about but it’s – it was
again rather like TRE, it suited my rather unusual abilities –
Could you –?
Frequently put me into conflict with authority.
Could you describe to me what Portsdown Hill is actually like?
Well, it was built on the hills overlooking the Portsmouth area because it would then
get good radar coverage from the hill. There were a lot of purpose built buildings, a
vast mass of different types of radar aerial, and interconnection between the buildings.
Some had no aerials at all, the ministry work, or radar research work, not much of it,
which didn’t need an aerial. There was a lot of research work that was done. Well,
not so much at TRE, I would say some research work was done there.
Where do you actually work there?
Where did I work? I had an office in a purpose built building. At that stage I didn’t
have a lab. Later I did in the work I can’t discuss, which is a pity because it’s very
interesting but I do not want little men coming round and shooting me in the middle
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of the night like Mr Turing. He wasn’t shot, it was prussic acid wasn’t it? And don’t
say that or you’ll get visited. Oh, we’re as bad as Germany for that, people disappear.
People get murdered, get killed, by blunt instruments, suicide, people get killed in
their car. I don’t think that was intentional, Princess Diana. Oh, yes, not for that
Princess Diana story, put out I think by Prince Charles. You know how she flounced
around? The same age as Janet, right. She went into a geriatric home and met some
miserable old sod in a corner and said, ‘How are we today?’ ‘None the better for your
asking.’ ‘Do you know who I am?’ ‘If you don’t know who you are, you’ll have to
ask matron.’ Don’t put that down [laughs].
When you first got there and you arrived at ASWE, what was your job?
At ASWE? This Seawolf project.
And that was your first job when you arrived there?
When I arrived there, yes. There were – there was the boss man, myself and the
office staff, and just – just the two of us doing a feasibility study. And this is how
come I had to go to America to talk about it. We thought they might help, and of
course they didn’t, they just pinched – they realised that there must be something in
this [inaud] system.
What’s a feasibility study?
What’s a –?
What’s a feasibility study?
Examining whether it’s worth spending money on it for what you hope you’re going
to get. Is it feasible? We didn’t bother in the war, we did it, and very few things
misfired. I can tell you one, this concerns the Sunday Soviets that NV Wilkes went
to, this is why I’d liked to have met him. It was thought sensible to put an active radar
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that sends pulses out in the back end of our bombers to detect fighters. Well, the laws
of physics are such that if a fighter has an intercept receiver he will detect you long
before you detect him. Why was this ever accepted? Well, the air force people
wouldn’t understand the laws of physics, the scientists would and thought, I suspect,
that the RAF did understand and did accept the risk. Why AP Rowe, as
superintendent, didn’t say look chaps unless you want to get shot down you don’t do
that, and NV Wilkes might have been able to help me but he’s gone and died so we
can’t ask him. I didn’t realise that he was where he was at the time, I could have got
in touch with him.
Obviously parts of this might be secret, so we ask you to remember you’re still
obliged by the Official Secrets Act.
There’s a lot of things that were secret aren’t now. There are some which are secret,
there are some which would not be good for my health to broadcast it.
Right, as long as you’re still aware that, you know –
Well, these are fear of repercussions.
As long as you’re still aware that you are still, you know, bound by the Official
Secrets Act, so that’s – that’s good.
I’m bound by the Official Secrets Act and when I got invited to go to Bratislava for a
tripartite US, UK, USSR conference, I asked is it safe to go and the security man
came along and said yes but you know what the risks are and you know the Official
Secrets Act. Because, and this story not for the book –
Well, this all gets recorded, so –
Oh, yes, well I think it may be well known but don’t publish it.
In this case we’ll have to lock it up for thirty years, we –
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Oh, right, well I won’t tell you it, yes. No, there was a case of extreme stupidity
where a chap got captured. Should never have been sent to where he was. And so
they warned me, so for your own life do be careful. We hadn’t the slightest idea what
we were going to talk about but the – the leader of the party who I hadn’t met said –
rang me up and said, ‘Prepare a five minute talk on something relevant.’ I would like
to have taken that magnetron but at the airport when your luggage is ‘What’s that?’
‘Magnetron,’ ‘oh, can’t take that.’ The magnetic field will upset their compass. ‘You
stupid man, this is not a package magnetron, it’s just a magnetron, there’s no magnet.’
‘Let me have a compass,’ ‘I haven’t got one,’ I have [laughs]. Well, you can’t argue
with them, they’ll steal it and you can’t do anything about it.
Did you actually take it to the airport or decide not to?
No, I never went.
Oh, right.
The reason I didn’t go was the volcanic ash.
Oh, right.
I had to get back because I’d agreed to give a talk somewhere, so I never went.
Oh, right, so this is recently.
This is recent.
This was 19 – 2010 –
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Which was seventy years – or to the day after the magnetron was discovered, so I
thought the magnetron might be suitable to show them. I didn’t know what they
wanted, I still don’t. But I did get a message from their professor’s PA telling me I
hope we’ll meet you again – meet you some time, so maybe I’ll go. But my mother
said to me never go to Russia [laughs].
In broad terms, with the Official Secrets Act in mind here –
In broad terms what was Seawolf supposed to do?
It was a fast reaction self defence missile, which was good against anything except a
ballistic missile, couldn’t deal with that, a rocket, it could deal with flying things. But
it’s only defending you, it did not defend other people like Sea Dart should have done
down in the Falklands if they’d only fired the darn thing.
So early on in the project, at the start when you were doing the feasibility –
To start with I was just a feasibility student, as it were, studying it.
What were your hopes for the system compared to the existing systems already in use?
Well, one that had that capability. It was a quick reaction system and, what else? It
then – it was a command to line of sight system. You have it either in visual or radar
sight, and the missile follows your line of sight, because your radar or your eyes can
see the target, it’s got a light in the back, and it sees the target and it sees your missile
with a light in the back and it directs one to hit the other. This involved – it had a low
angle capability where radar’s not terribly effective, this is visual, aided by infrared.
We wanted to get some flying done, so we asked the Red Arrows if they’d do it. Oh,
no, no, no, precision flying at ten feet over the water? Can’t do that. And there’s no
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publicity in it either. So I got the hack airwork pilots to do it from Bournemouth
Where does one actually start designing a surface to air missile in the 1960s?
Oh, well it starts with what’s known as a staff requirement. The board of admiralty
and the staff officers decide that they want something. What actually happens is
they’re told they jolly well ought to have something or there’s going to be trouble, and
in theory they issue a staff requirement. In the case of Seawolf, the ASWE issued the
staff requirement because naval staff don’t understand anything like that but, you
know, they don’t know what they want until they’re told they should have it. One of
the things which I did indeed actually work was the corner reflector. If you get two
mirrors and put them at right angles, wherever you stand looking into them you see
you. If you have three mirrors you can do it in three dimensions. This is a very good
thing and it would be rather nice if when you’re shot down and sitting in your dinghy
you could have a corner reflector. Now unfortunately you can’t because they’re quite
big things and then it’s strapped to your arse, so I thought well why don’t we get lamé
fabric, fabric with interwoven metal strip, why don’t we make one of those, put it in a
balloon which you sit on. When you come to sit in your dinghy you take it out and
you blow it up. It will give an enhanced radar echo to somebody who’s trying to find
you. That is if the dolphins don’t find you first and send you to land where they know
you live.
That was earlier in your work at TRE you mentioned that.
That was TRE work.
I suggested this and my boss at TRE, as opposed to my boss in the field, ‘cause I’m
my own boss there, said look, write it up for naval staff. And it is very critical on
getting the ninety degrees exact, and I produced a mathematical explanation of this,
and the librarian at TRE was good, she went, ‘Oh, yes, this is the book you want’ and
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I read it. I showed it to my boss who said, ‘Tear it up. Our naval staff won’t
understand one word of it. Tell them what it does.’
How did working at ASWE compare to that earlier experience at TRE?
Oh, well, it’s so totally different. There wasn’t this immediacy of the war on and
certainly not the same calibre of people.
How so?
Well, the best people went to TRE. When I was told in finals exam, and I thought I’d
failed, by the administrator, TC Keeley, oh he looked up and said, ‘Oh, yes, you’re
going to TRE.’ I knew I hadn’t failed, they didn’t have failures. The admiralty
people, when I met them in the war, they were not – well, of course with exceptions,
they were not up to the TRE standard. Nelson didn’t have radar [laughs]. He didn’t
have an ASWE. And believe it or not when it was – TRE became RRE, Royal Radar
Establishment ‘cause the King looked round, they became the Admiralty Radar and,
erm, Signals Establishment. Now what’s the initials? Admiralty Radar and Signals
Establishment, you can’t call yourself that. So they swapped the signals and radar
around, then it became ASWE, Admiralty Surface Weapons Establishment. But
somebody without much imagination, I saw it on a board outside.
On a daily basis when you’re actually working there what sort of –? In terms of the
work you’re actually doing, what are the differences between working at ASWE and
working at TRE?
Oh, well, at TRE I was involved very much in bits and pieces, and the theory behind
them. At ASWE I was, apart from things I can’t tell you about, this was all project
management and I didn’t consider myself the world’s best project manager though the
trials went all right, we did them, so there must have been some good but I didn’t
think I was all that good. And I hated money, project managers have to deal with
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What does one actually have to do to manage a project at ASWE?
In the case of trials, organise the trials, decide what needs testing, how to test it, how
much it’s going to cost, where it’s going to be done, if it needs a ship, get a ship, then
go and see it. That’s straight off my head but I’m sure I could think of more but those
are the immediate things. And for some reason I was chosen to do it, which is not
really the best thing I could have done, but it wasn’t like TRE and there wasn’t a war.
Did you still think of your work as being important?
Important? At ASWE?
At ASWE, yes.
Oh, well, yes because the system is available in the fleet now, and the trials as far as
I’m concerned went very well.
What does –?
The thing about the trial site at Woomera, it’s not used now because you can’t launch
rockets from it. If you’re going to launch a rocket into orbit you do it with using the
earth’s spin to help you. Well, when Woomera was built they didn’t think of doing
that and they built it so if you had near fallout it will be in populated areas, so there
are other places you can do it. But rockets being what they are, they don’t always
Why did you have to go to Woomera?
Because they had a test site there, you couldn’t test the – we don’t have one. Even on
Salisbury Plain you can’t fire missiles like that ‘cause you’re going to have misfire.
It’s going to land somewhere anyway.
When you say you’re doing trials, what do the trials actually involve?
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Well, firing off a missile under test conditions, making lots of measurements of where
it is, where it should be, any faults that it showed up at the time, like it fizzed and
never took off, things like that and the propulsion wrong. And a lot of detailed
measurements, you have radar, if you’re firing a missile you’ve got to watch it on the
range’s radar, all these sort of facilities are provided. There’s a nice camp – there’s
the base camp at Woomera, thirty miles away there is the actual range, and I was
given a car when I was down there. Well, there was little point in using it, it was dead
straight roads, so I did a ton up and then handed it in. But the telegraph poles
alongside the road merge into a fence apparently, you can see that far along a straight
road, it goes up and down yes, and there may be kangaroos or emus on it, those are
How long were you actually out there for at Woomera?
Oh, well I – usually about a fortnight or so, just went down there to see what was
going on and how well things were going, had meetings with the people down there.
What’s it actually like as a place to visit apart from driving fast?
Oh, Woomera to visit? Miles of nothing, just a few firing emplacements for whatever
was being tested and miles of desert. Oh, and a lot of fossil wood, I’ve got a little bit
at home.
What are the sorts of living conditions like out there?
Oh, you lived in absolute comfort but not out – not out on the range. Yes, they fed us
very well. One time I went out there with my boss and I told you yesterday the chap,
we chartered this flight, which as far as we were concerned started off at Victoria
Station in a bus. Well, my God, my boss got into the bus, he only came down once,
and I got there just after him. Just before him – I came, he told me a chap put his head
in the door of the bus and said, ‘Here, does this bus go to Birmingham?’ And my
boss said, ‘No, Adelaide actually.’ So it took us to Luton by bus and then we went --
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we were all a manager of some sort. And to get thirty or forty managers onto a plane
on time is not easy.
How do you actually get to Australia?
How to Australia? In the Britannia.
What’s that?
It’s an aeroplane with four engines, four gas turbines. It never made the market
because when they designed it the gas turbines weren’t available and it had a piston
engine, so overtaken by the Americans of course. Oh, it was quite a comfortable
aeroplane but it wasn’t very fast. It was so out of date even then that the airports we
had to refuel at didn’t have the right steps to get out of. Yes, so we went to Bombay,
which is called something else, and there was a chap I was at school with on Bombay,
I remembered his name. I look up in the phone book and there was his father’s name.
Well, their system in Bombay, telephone system, is identical to our old fashioned A
and B buttons, do you remember that? Oh, you had a metal box in the thing that
collected your money. You put your money and it allowed you to talk but not to
listen. When you got through you pressed button A if you wanted to talk, B if you
didn’t want the call, you got money back. Well, there’s quite an easy way to defeat
that, and this was available in Bombay. So I rang this chap up, he’d unfortunately
gone out but his brother was there, so we had a long chat and we went to – from there
to Madras where the airport is partly air conditioned. The part we went to wasn’t.
What are conditions like aboard the plane?
Well, we were [inaud] equivalent first class, excellent. And I’ve told you about the
port, I don’t know whether you recorded it. Well, this is part of the story. I asked on
the way out, we were all very chummy with each other, I asked if I could go up front
and have a go and the – yes. And to start with the captain sat next to me, then he
found that he didn’t need to, he went out and had a chat. On one particular flight he
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came out, then we had severe electrical trouble. This was from Singapore to Bahrain
and you couldn’t run any of the equipment on board, it had batteries but they couldn’t
even run the autopilot. And the captain said, ‘Look, we’ll let you fly this thing.
Would you mind doing an hour while we get a bit of rest?’ Now the CAA wouldn’t
like that but they took the sensible decision at the time. I flew this thing for an hour
while the people, the practised and well trained people got a rest they needed. And
another thing, I rather liked the port that they served after the meal and asked if I
could buy a bottle. No, and that was that. When we eventually got to Luton the
stewardess gave me a parcel containing a bottle of port with thanks. I thought it was
rather nice. And the other thing I thought was rather nice was, as I have explained, in
the war I had to dress first of all as a naval officer and then as an RAF officer. The
admiralty gave me the campaign medals when they could have said you weren’t really
in the navy, you’re not entitled, but they didn’t, they sent them to me. The admiralty
did, the RAF didn’t.
How did the Seawolf trials actually go out in Australia?
As far as I was informed, very well, they did what was told. The Seawolf was on time
and on budget, unlike today’s projects.
Did you –?
I had to recommend whether the Marconi company should get a bonus or not, and I
didn’t think they should. And they took me out to lunch that day when they knew I
was making the decision and I said to my boss, ‘Look, I don’t think Marconi are up to
it.’ He said ‘I agree with you.’ He supported me, they didn’t get the budget – bonus
and I didn’t get a job at Marconi but I didn’t ask. But the man Weinstock, ‘When I
want an engineer I will hire one.’ That is good for morale isn’t it? They had good
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No, er, Marconi. Well, Marconi and GEC are hand in glove anyway but this was the
Marconi place at Chelmsford, near where I was born, where I listened to Uncle Mac
on the radio.
Did you have to deal with industry much while you were working at ASWE?
Oh, a lot, yes yes.
Could you give me one or two examples please?
No, you didn’t record that, I told you over lunch I think, the – I took the British – BA
as it was then, BAE Systems now, I took their engineers down to EMI at Wells where
they have a facility that can measure the performance of a target against the radar. It’s
a model, it’s called target modelling, and when we went into this place. The manager
showed us an ammonite on his desk. He said, ‘Do you know this took three million
years to make? And you might get this contract then.’ The thermometer on the wall
dropped several degrees, so that was one of my contacts with industry. And the other
one was I shared an office with a commander whose father actually was involved in
the River Plate action, you know, where we shot up the Graf Spee. That action was
not actually run by the navy, it was run by a civil servant who organised careless talk
between the civil servants in Rio de Janeiro. Nearly scotched by the ambassador who
said, ‘Don’t be silly, there is no big fleet out there.’ They had to sort that one out, it
nearly got ruined. But I said I want to take the missile engineers round a ship. ‘Of
course you can’t do that. There has to be a ship in dockyard.’ I said, ‘In that case you
are never going to say in my hearing that the contractor does not understand the
environment.’ An example of this, the Sheffield was lost for many reasons, one of
which is it couldn’t fire a Sea Dart. And why not? They couldn’t open the hatch.
Why not? Because the micro switch was encrusted with salt. I wouldn’t mind betting
the chap who designed it was never told it was in a ship, and that the ship would have
sea spray on it. This did not happen at TRE, which is one reason why we were taught
to fly, you can’t say you don’t know anything about flying. And so we went to sea.
We took their engineers on a nice flat calm day, this was HMS Glamorgan, had
stabilisers, their manager was seasick. He understood that ships moved, the point was
made. Well worth it.
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Did you ever have any bad experiences working with industry?
Well, I’m sure I must have done. Well, yes, because of the work we had to redo.
Marconi didn’t do the work properly and Weinstock wouldn’t pay them to do it.
Is this the work on Seawolf?
Yes. Yes, we had to redo a lot of it ourselves. But my introduction to their engineers,
went down to Chelmsford to see the place with some people who had been at ASWE
for much longer, we went down there. A thing called a travelling wave tube, which
was part of the radar transmitter, was broken in my presence. It cost more than I was
paid in a year and it was bust because they didn’t understand a certain principle in
electronics. That was my introduction to it. Those were the people who Solly
Zuckerman recommended Mrs Thatcher should employ.
Did you ever have any good experiences working with industry?
Oh, I’m sure I did, yes, it’s hard to think of them. They had some very good
engineers, and particular – yes, particularly when we went down to Australia with
them, they were very good. And their firm’s attitude to expenses was different from
ours. We got a fixed rate, so we went to the cheapest places, they got the expenses as
they spent it, so they went to the highbrow places didn’t they? And, yes, they were
very good to us down there, knowing this, they would look after us. And on a
personal basis both the BAE and Marconi people were very good.
I was wondering as well, what actual civil service rank are you at this point?
Was I then? Well, I went there – when I was at TRE I was a junior scientific officer,
which is I’m going to say lowest form of animal life, it’s actually the lowest form of
graduate life there, you start as a JSO and work up. The group leaders were our
principals. So you’ve got – in between you’ve got a scientific officer, senior scientific
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officer, then principal. When I joined ASWE I was a senior scientific officer. I went
before a board for promotion and I didn’t think much of the board, I wouldn’t have
passed their chairman, and much more I wouldn’t have passed me either, but I did get
through. I was asked a technical question about the Seawolf’s guidance and I gave an
answer and one chap said, ‘Oh, that’s not right.’ And I thought, what do I do? Do I
accept this or do I contradict him? I thought, no, I’ll accept this ‘cause if I contradict
him I’ve got one enemy on the board and the others won’t understand what I’m
talking about, and that turned out to be the right decision. It wasn’t a very good
board. And later I had to sit on boards and pass people for promotion.
So what rank did you progress to after the board?
So I finished up principal scientific officer, commander navy equivalent.
What was your own experience like sitting on interview boards for other people?
Oh, most interesting. What went on at some of these places was awful. One chap
said he didn’t know who wrote his report, well, that can’t be right. We checked, he
hadn’t been told. So he had no idea of what had been said about him.
What was the relevance, sorry?
Well, he’d been told – we found out what he’d done and how he did it. And you start
as a junior boy and you finish up at the top as the chairman. I can’t remember where I
was at the time but we passed him anyway and with a note to the establishment, and
they told them what to tell their people. And the message had obviously got round,
this was about the time I was the chairman and I was very keen on bits and pieces
because a chap brought up something he told me he’d designed, he hadn’t. He didn’t
know anything about it, he didn’t get through.
What sort of things actually you get you through a civil service promotion board in
your experience?
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I’m not sure, I know – I know what I recommend in people, people who know their
job and are able to put it over properly. And I think possible who you know rather
than what you know helps. I suspect but can’t prove it. Anyway, I got through and
my boss must have liked me. We were totally different backgrounds.
Who was your boss?
A chap called Ploughman. Now he – he wasn’t a good handler of people, he wasn’t
anything like Simpson, he had no idea how to handle people but he did on one
occasion, he actually praised me for something. That altered my whole day, and he
must have written me up well or I wouldn’t have got anywhere. And he was very
sensible, he did a very good job and a very hard one.
Just can you give me an idea of where you actually sit within ASWE as an
organisation? So, you know, I can’t quite see where you relate to all the people
around you.
Where I fit into the organisation?
Well, as a principal scientific officer and the trials project manager I had to make all
the arrangements for trials. I had to submit the costs to the group leader, in other
words to Mr Ploughman, and I had to make certain that they’re done properly. On
one occasion a thing, a ship’s system, we got a ship off the navy, HMS Penelope.
There was one slight trouble with HMS Penelope, that was called football. The
captain – the commander in command paid more attention to his football team than he
did to us and there was – we had a principal scientific officer down there and he told
me all about this. He went away on leave or something, I went down there for a
week; he did not get promoted. He was there to try – to serve a weapons system but
yet football played more – there was a programme on the telly called, what was it,
Penelope Pitstop, this was Penelope Portstop, couldn’t prize her out of port. Now in
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my sailing time I wanted to use the communication facility at Portsmouth dockyard
from the London sailing project boat. I knew this chap was there on the staff, he’d
been taken out of command because he was – because of this and I knew it was him.
I did not say my name, I said the skipper of Lily Maid. I got what I wanted. I
wouldn’t have done if I’d said who I was [laughs]. And he didn’t know who he was
talking to.
Did you have anything to do with other systems as well as Seawolf?
Er … no, I didn’t directly.
You mentioned Sea –
My advice was sometimes sought by other people but that was the only weapons
system. In HMS Girdle Ness we were in charge of Sea Slug and they weren’t
officially mine, they were conducted by scientists from ASWE and the gunnery
What was Sea Slug?
Well, Sea Slug was an air defence weapon that again could shoot down anything that
flew except a guided missile, a rocket. We actually had a drone target flown by
remote – radio control, and on one occasion – we used to cause them to turn very
rapidly and try and deflect the missile from destroying them but they frequently did.
And on one occasion we got cameras but the missile was always instructed not to
destroy it, and of course the cameras were provided by the RAF and I had to go and
fly one didn’t I? So they sent out the second dickie and let me drive the thing. That
was a very good weapon system. Oh, it was ten years out of date by the time it ever
got passed, and in its day it was very good.
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I was going to say actually, you know, working on missile systems, do you actually –?
How effective do the people actually designing the things like yourself actually think
they will be?
Well, all we can do is base them on the trial’s results, this is how I know they can
destroy anything that can fly because you compare what it can do, which you’ve
found out, with what the aircraft or the target is advertised to do, and then boost that
up a bit because nobody’s going to say how bad it is are they?
But that was very interesting, this is why we had meetings from time to time where
people who know one fact pass you over to people who know another fact.
What were the meetings?
Oh, the meetings with all the managers of the various departments of the system, not
only technical but financial and procedural.
Do you have links to –?
Oh, because the RAE at Farnborough, who were responsible for the missile, and we at
ASWE for radar, so we used to have to talk to each other.
Do you have links –?
And if you did, the chap at Farnborough, Tommy Smith, he was extremely good. He
was a good manager of people, the meetings were always fruitful.
Do you have links with any other establishments apart from Farnborough?
No – not there, I did when I was at Cornwall with the Air Armaments School, went
round places examining how to destroy them, make the – went round Battersea power
station, it was on telly the other night, and asked how you – how you destroy it. It
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didn’t make you all that popular. And on one occasion – I first of all did the course
then I had to teach it but I never did because I went to Greenland instead. I went to
the Rocket Propulsion Establishment and the Germans were very keen on rockets,
they made successful ones, and they had an aeroplane driven by hydrogen peroxide,
very pure hydrogen peroxide and fuel. But unfortunately very few – very pure
hydrogen peroxide is a potential explosive, the terrorists use it with acetones to make
a liquid explosives but the Germans use it for propulsion. The first time I went there
they had a German, an ex-German, demonstrator who accidentally spilled some on the
floor which he had prepared and it burst into flames. Convincing. The next time I
went, which was just before I left for Greenland, we had an Englishman who just told
us about it. And he made the point, it was quite obvious. But Hitler had this
aeroplane that could fly to 100,000 feet, had an endurance of a quarter of an hour, and
you stopped the engine you switched it on again at your peril, it was likely to explode.
We didn’t have many allied aircraft at 100,000 feet in those days, so it wasn’t really
up to much. Hitler could have had a jet engine for the war, so could we. In the – if
you go to Derby, in the industrial museum there is a jet engine 1928 made by a
scientist at the RAE in Farnborough. Now I suspect that its life will be measured in
minutes, it didn’t have the high temperature alloys and that will be why they were
refused, and probably the same for Hitler. He pinned his faith on rockets, oh, it was
very successful.
I was going to ask as well, you mentioned a trip to the Pentagon. Did you have much
to do with other countries while you were working at ASWE?
No, not really, only the Americans but nobody else – well, who could we sell it to?
We used to have to go to America from time to time.
For what sort of reasons?
To try and get them to cooperate with us. Actually to tell them what we were doing
and let them develop it and think that they invented it themselves.
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Let them pinch our ideas and think that they invented it themselves.
Was that an actual objective or –?
Well, that wasn’t our objective, that was theirs [laughs]. No, one time when we went
to – oh, we went to a NATO meeting in Brussels once to try and talk to NATO and
that went quite well except that the minister for procurement came with his PA.
Marconi had made some quarter scale models of the radar in wood and these were
shown. I heard the minister say to his PA, ‘Oh, these are very small today’ and the
chap said, ‘Well, sir, they’re only quarter scale models.’ This fool didn’t understand,
and he’s the minister. The TRE became the Royal Radar Establishment just as I was
leaving, 1946, the King came round and it could reveal that it was in fact doing radar
and he was shown round by the senior people there. I got a good view it from the
house that I’d worked in before my first job there I went up to the top and we saw all
this. But at the end of it one of the senior chaps said, ‘Well, your majesty, are there
any questions?’ The King said, ‘Yes, there are. I don’t understand how the pilot can
hear the radar echoes above the roar of the engines.’ He thought it was all done on
sound. He hadn’t understood a word but that man, the King, went down to the East
End where they’d been bombed to allay – and were thinking of suing for peace with
Hitler. He said, ‘Look chaps, I’ve been bombed and I don’t like it. I could run away
to Canada but I’m not. I’m staying in my bombed palace.’ He stopped that riot. I’ve
got a lot of time for him and his speeches. He had an impediment of his speech and
he still spoke.
I was wondering as well, just to get back to ASWE –
What was it actually like working there?
Well, I had friends there, I made friends with people who were like minded and that
passed the time away.
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What would –?
I didn’t really enjoy it but it wasn’t like TRE.
What was a typical day like there? What sort of things would you do?
Mostly paperwork I’m afraid until I got this – gave up on the management. The job
was finished, the trials were done, and I got the job I can’t tell you about which I did
enjoy doing, it suited my rather peculiar abilities. And that was good value but one
unfortunately came up against authority from time to time. I’d love to tell you but for
my – no, I was advised not to say anything about this to anybody –
That’s always good to know where the boundaries are.
Because it was directed against somebody who might carry out personal, what do you
call it, a personal attack, so I don’t want – I don’t –
I think perhaps we should say no more.
Not our own people, somebody else, so revenge.
How did your career at ASWE actually progress?
Well, I got principal scientific officer and I did this management job, then I got back
into this thing I can’t tell you about, which interested me, I enjoyed that.
But what did you do after that?
I left.
Oh, retirement or –?
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Well, they wanted to run down. They offered me early retirement with a considerable
financial inducement. Like they are doing at the moment, so I took it. I then went
into private consultancy. And one job I was – again, the first one was a refrigerated
vehicle for some firm, a mobile deep freeze. They wanted a control mechanism for it
and I did it for them. And the owner of this little company said, ‘Well, I’m doing a
job for Vickers Systems. They want somebody like you, why don’t you come and
ask?’ So I did, and they had me. This was working on the A320, the work on the
A320, the Airbus.
Oh, right.
[Inaud] for – this was on the control unit for the emergency generator. I’ve got a
prototype one at home given to me by Vickers. While it would still work it may not
fit – I think it would fit the space but it’s only a prototype and I want to go on the
A380 but of course they have very reliable engines, they don’t have an emergency
generator. But Janet knows Mr Branson’s cousin’s brother or sister or something, and
I want to get in touch with him because he was a chap who went exploring on his
own, he would like it and I’d say can I have a flight in one. And he’s got some finger
in the Singapore Airlines pie, he’s got his own aircraft which he’s going to fly next
year, so I might be able to go to their training place and fly the darn thing.
Shall we take a tea break?
You don’t fly them today. Yes, you take off, you then give it to a computer. You tell
the – because I was allowed to sit in on an A320 on the way to Malta once, before
terrorists, sat up there with the pilot, so he threw the second dickie out. And I told
him all and he said, ‘Well look, there’s nothing to flying these things. I taxi it out, I
wait for an hour behind British Airways who get priority over Air Malta, and I take
off. They go roaring down the runway, the second dickie says rotate’ that is aviation
slang for take off, you rotate, ‘and I climb to the appropriate height. Now there are
things called quadrantle heights. When you’re above 10,000 feet your height is
dependent on the course you’re flying, so you don’t meet people coming your way.
And so I tell the computer, it knows the quadrantle height and it flies me to Malta
‘cause I’ve told it I’m going to Malta.’ When I get near Malta I call them up on the
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radio and they tell me which runway, so I tell the computer. When it’s landed I take
over again. I taxi it out to the terminal and you get out.’ But one time coming back
from Australia in a – in a Britannia I sat up the front and the chap said, ‘Well look, I
can’t really let you land the thing but you can have the headphones on.’ Thick cloud,
intermittent radio, he was being talked down. The first thing we saw were the runway
lights in fog. He earned his money that day. He can do it but he doesn’t have to do it
very often, is the answer.
I’d like to ask a few sort of concluding questions about your time in the civil service
and I think we should take a quick tea break. And I was wondering how much did you
have to worry about things like, you know, the financing of projects and –
Well, in my position not in the least. That did not concern me and I suspect that
finance wasn’t of great importance because of the things which were tried out, and
most of them worked. We didn’t spend ages working out how much it cost because
Mr Chamberlain had provided the money when he was in a position to do so before
the war.
How about while you were at ASWE later on?
Er, yeah, I was put in a project management position which I said I didn’t want
because it would have involved doing all that, I got out of it. I was hopeless at it and I
found something else to do, this thing I can’t tell you about, so I did that because it
just was not my ability.
How much administration is there, you know, in your managerial job at ASWE?
How much –?
How much administration do you typically have to deal with?
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In looking after the trials, only organising them, that’s all. I didn’t have to worry
about the financial side because the project manager had to do that, so –
How well resourced were you at ASWE?
How well –?
How well resourced were you?
How well resourced were you, I mean how much –?
How much money?
Did they worry about you spending too much money, for instance, or –?
Well, you lose your civil service attitude to expenses, very minimal. Yes, during the
war as a junior scientific officer one didn’t get first class travel, but I had to take six
magnetrons with – the strapped ones, the most secret ones, up to the ship Vindex in
Glasgow, and they couldn’t get me a sleeper or boat. They bent the rules, I went first
class, with a blooming great pusser’s pistol in my pocket in plain clothes. They did –
but they did bend the rules on occasions when it was suitable to do because it did not
run like a civil service establishment, it went much more like a university.
How did ASWE compare?
[laughs] I can put that into words, it didn’t. Well, there wasn’t the stress of a war and
the war was industrial, which we lost.
Any struggle after the war was in industry, not by armed forces, and we had Mr
Attlee. We didn’t make money out of war like the Americans did. He spent all our
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money on hair brained schemes in Africa instead of building roads, so … there was
just not the incentive.
What about the cold war, didn’t that ever come into your work as a consideration at
Not directly, no. I don’t think we’re properly prepared for it. If it blossomed out into
a real war we’d have lost I’m afraid, we just weren’t that way – the wartime spirit
somehow had evaporated. Why, I know not.
Did you ever have any, you know, moral worries about working on weaponry at
ASWE or –?
I didn’t but one of the chaps in the next door group to me gave it up after the war. He
worked on weapons of destruction, i.e. radar, and he didn’t like it, Alec Smith. He
was working on some sort of radar. He took me up in a Hudson, it was a twin engined
aircraft, and his pilot said, ‘Look, you fly this thing for a moment, I want to see what
the radar looks like.’ He knew I could fly so – and I drove it for him. He looked at –
Smith was looking into his radar on the hood, he didn’t see his finest pilot was
looking in too. And another flying thing, I was wondering around the airfield in my
last year up there when war had finished and a chap in RAF uniform came out and
said, ‘Oh, do you know anything about G?’ that’s a navigational aid which I’d learned
about in – it’s in the book, I learned about it in a training course, and I said yes. ‘Oh,
well’ he said, ‘come up, our navigator can’t come.’ So I sat down in front of a map,
the G system at my feet, and we were not allowed to switch the radar on while taxiing because the engines were going slowly and the generators ran at engine speed.
There wasn’t any regulation on the frequency of the AC. The transformers were
designed to work on two kilohertz, not at lower frequency, it would damage. So I
didn’t switch it on till we were airborne, only to be greeted by a burst of flame and
lots of smoke. Behind me, my right ear, was a fire extinguisher, so I grabbed that and
pressed at it and got an eyeful of methyl bromide. I put the fire out and the RAF chap
said, ‘Look, you’ve gone and bust our navigational aid. You’re jolly well going to
navigate it by eye’ and I did. I can’t remember where they wanted to go to but we got
there and back.
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Shall we take a break?
[End of Track 13]
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Track 14
I think we were talking about consultancy jobs and I was wondering, how did you
actually set yourself up as a consultant?
Because of this chap for whom I did a job on a refrigerated vehicle, the control of the
temperature. He said there was a job at Vickers Systems, why don’t you ask them if
they want somebody. And they did want somebody and they wanted me, and so I had
to design a bit of it in conjunction with the French.
Well, which bit of it?
It was the – it’s called a GCU, the generator control unit, and this controlled the
emergency generator. There was a windmill actually called a ram air turbine, that’s
more expensive, and if you had trouble with the power supply you opened the thing
like a bomb door and out popped the windmill. And that produced, first of all,
hydraulic power to operate the controls in the aeroplane. If it had any reserve of
power it generated electricity. A tiny little thing about the size of your car’s starter,
all of ten kilowatts.
How easy a job was it to make?
Oh, reasonably engaging but of course they would not let us use digital techniques, it
all had to be analogue, which means a lot of adjustments which have to be done
before it can be flown. In that era, and what are we talking about 1981, ‘02, that sort
of period, Aérospatiale would not tolerate digital methods.
Why? I do not know. I’m – my French isn’t that good.
Where did you actually do the work?
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Where? In Havant – in Bedhampton to be precise, not very far from where I lived, I
cycled in. And I used to have to go over to Aérospatiale who made the aeroplane, or
Artus, who made the electronics. They did some of the electronic, we did some of the
electronics, and I used to have to go over there and sort out their problems. I think I
was probably a better electronic engineer than they were but they – when they have
meetings they’re not like us, it doesn’t finish at four o’clock and everybody goes
home, it finishes at midnight if necessary. They do the job. I got a good impression
of them.
Aérospatiale or the British companies?
Oh, both. Artus made one or two technical errors which are too complex to explain,
which I didn’t think much of, but very cooperative. And a circuit called a bootstrap
circuit, which I’m rather fond of, it was an Americanism, and the shoelaces were the
equivalent to hoisting yourself up by your own shoelaces. I had to explain that in
French to them and they didn’t understand it every time I went, and my French isn’t
all that good, I didn’t learn much about bootstrap circuits in French at school but I
managed to convince them.
[Bell rings]. Let’s wait for this to stop its pinging.
Oh, all right it’s …
I’m interested in the fact that you’d worked on, you know, airborne electronics
systems back in the 1940s –
Yes, most of my work has been on that.
And I suppose, you know, sort of taking a break with –
Apart from the ones I can’t tell you, which are not airborne.
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With the Greenland and the ASWE work in between. What was the sort of difference
between –? Thinking about the sorts of technology that was used between the stuff
you were doing in the 1940s, with 1940s electronics, and the 1980s airborne systems.
Well, the basic equations were all the same but you were able to do things which are
outside the technical possibilities of the era, things a transistor can do that those
valves I’ve just shown you couldn’t do, both in performance and in the space they
take, and the power they take, that’s the difference. The mathematics behind it all is
just the same, nothing’s changed there. But what had – did change was the behaviour
of these circuits, one learns at school AC and DC, you do not learn pulses. Short
pulses, when they impinge on resistors and capacitors the effect is rather different
from DC or ordinary AC. And dealing with the mass of this was not done really well
at Oxford, it was at TRE I learned how to do it. There are shortcuts known as
operational calculus, which we weren’t taught and should have been. Oh, we learned
a lot about steam, which is terribly useful when you’re designing a radar set.
Are there any other sorts of differences between 1940s airborne electronics and 1980s
airborne electronics?
Well, apart from weight of course and the capabilities of the modern – well, weight
isn’t an advantage, just put more in, that’s all. There’s no benefit from the weight,
you get more facilities for the same weight or space. Yes, there’s a point here which
is relevant and not so much the modern but the Germans. Their equipment, be it
communication or radar, you could hardly get another small resistor in, they were
grossly over engineered and very precisely engineered. Ours were made cheaply, had
a relatively short time between – for maintenance, whereas the German stuff they
made for the war is still working perfectly. Not much of ours is. We got it right.
You’re not going to spend money improving the techniques of things that are going to
be blown up in five minutes’ time. All it’s got to do is one flight.
Did you pick up any other consultancy jobs in your retirement?
No, I didn’t. My father was a keen photographer, I – when he died I got his vest
pocket Kodak. He had a lovely plate camera which would also take film pack. That
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must have been thrown away by unthinking relatives, I never got that, but I didn’t
consider I was a photographer.
No, sorry, not photography, a consultancy job when you were –
Oh, sorry consultancy. Yes, I’ve done my various casual jobs, people have asked,
we’ve got a problem with this or that, and I’ve solved it for them.
Could you give me maybe one or two examples?
Offhand no, I’m just trying to think. This was some time ago when I first started, and
then after I left Vickers. Oh, yes, the chap who was for a short while the electronics
manager at Vickers., I was offered a job and I said, ‘Look, this isn’t me’ so he got the
job – a chap. And he wasn’t very suitable, they sacked him, but I did a job for him
which I’d have known the fact I wouldn’t have done. It was presented to me that the
firm has a conveyor belt which things aren’t moving on. This is scanned by a one
man television camera that scans across it, and if it sees something white it sends out
an artificial hand to grab it and throw it out. Unfortunately it is a illuminated by a
fluorescent lamp, and they flicker 100 times a second, please produce something that
doesn’t do that. Of course the obvious answer is turn the AC into DC and use that but
I didn’t, I designed what is now used for fluorescent tubes, an electronic ballast.
Electronic ballast – these low energy lamps, we haven’t got one here, those are the
ordinary ones, are a form of – not counting LED ones are a form of arc. Now an arc
possesses negative resistance. In other words, if you increase the voltage across it,
over part of a range, it doesn’t take more current, it takes less, and you’ve got to sort
that problem out. Originally it was done by iron core, we core ironed [ph] it. We
don’t like cores, they’re labour intensive, so now all have electronic ballasts. I had to
design an electronic ballast, the same that they use today. What was going on under
the thing? Tobacco. I wouldn’t have done it, not – and I wouldn’t encourage
smoking but I did it, and that was one job I did privately. And I’ve told you the
controller for the refrigerated vehicle, that was before I went to Vickers, and Vickers I
was there, what, for four or five years with them.
Is that a full time job or part time or –?
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Oh, no, full time including weekends sometimes. This improved my attitude towards
industry because in the war in the long vacation, you were supposed to, you’ve got
this in the notes I think, go for industrial training. And GEC at Wembley as I was
going to cocked it all up, they didn’t tell me that it was confirmed until after it should
have started, so I didn’t think much of industry. But my impressions of industry were
so different from ASWE, it was almost back to TRE again.
How so?
How so? They wanted to get it done yesterday, and in my case they did get it done.
Well, not quite yesterday but today, in the morning. And there was this attitude of
working all night if you had to, to fulfil a contract.
Do you know if the system actually, the emergency system’s actually being used?
As far as I know, no. I’ve got no information, it might have been. It would have
worked anyway. And when we were testing it, by mistake I left it on ten kilowatts for
a long period, it was only supposed to do that for seconds, but it didn’t damage
because the turbine part of it was made by Vickers. They were into turbines but not
into electronics, I did the electronics with the French firms.
Hmm-hmm. How else have you actually filled your retirement?
Oh, well, there was sailing with the London sailing project. That was started by Lord
Amery to encourage youths doing something. And the Radio Society of Great Britain
more recently have called upon my technical expertise in a thing called a technical
forum. And we get a magazine out called RadCom once a month, it used to be
dreadful. There was a chap called Pat Hawker who contributed regularly to it. He got
a ham licence before the war when he was about – he’s about my age. But the agency
of the time fouled up his text and didn’t give him a chance of correcting it and I got –
when I said, look you’ve got something wrong but I carefully didn’t explain what it
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was, I got a very rude letter back saying that you love nitpicking. What were the
mistakes were, were the pin connections to an integrated circuit and using a circuit
beyond its manufacturer’s specification. Now if you’re just beginning you will copy
this and it won’t work. And you’ll think why doesn’t it work? It’s in the RadCom.
Now they have this technical forum with all the – they’ve got rid of doctor, I think he
was a doctor of flower arranging or something, he was a fellow of the Institute of
Electrical Engineers, but he knew bugger all about it, they got rid of him. We now
have this technical forum that does a service to [ph] opt to vet certain articles, and I do
a lot of that. Bletchley Park were going to start up, and in fact are supposed to be
starting up even as we speak, a national radio centre run by the Radio Society of Great
Britain. And over a year ago I had to finish doing a prototype for something there by
mid-January. That was last year, it still isn’t open because the Radio Society of Great
Britain never terribly efficient, their general manager was fiddling the accounts and its
acting – there’s a chap called Don Beatty who, before this was revealed, got me to do
this for the National Radio Society – for the National Radio Centre, and when they
sacked the general manager he took over the job unpaid and he’s still in it. But he
wrote me – he emailed me the other day and said it’s due to open any moment now,
I’ll write you a letter. He may well have done but it will be sitting at home, so
something there will have been designed but not finalised by me, they got a
professional model maker to do it. I’ve been around Bletchley as a guest of an IEE
chap, and very well worth going to.
Looking over the course over your whole career what do you consider to be the high
Well, yes, I really don’t – oh, I suppose getting married, that was one aspect of it, but
technically … I suppose not making a mess of things at TRE, when I was relied upon
as a child. I went there at nineteen, it wasn’t – it didn’t last long, I was soon twenty
but I was given more responsibility then than I’ve ever had since and I was trusted, so
– and I don’t think I let them down. At one point I thought I wasn’t doing a good job
and I volunteered for a fleet air arm pilot and that got squashed because one of the
squadron officers rang up my boss and said, ‘What are we going to do when Mr
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Knowles goes?’ He said, ‘He isn’t going,’ ‘that’s what you think.’ On the mat, AP
Rowe. But he was very kind to me, he said you are – ‘You are doing a good job. Get
on with it.’ So I did.
I guess that brings us pretty much up to the present day and I was – that was more or
less my last question. I was wondering how you found doing this interview.
Oh, hopeless, dreadful! [laughs]. No, I’ve enjoyed every moment because you’re so
good at it. You could have made it so impossible but you didn’t, you’ve got the
knack. It’s like teaching, some teachers have the knack and others don’t. And our
headmaster, and for most of my time at Wellington, the second headmaster was a
brilliant teacher but a hopeless headmaster, but he got me through that [ph]anyway.
Not I think because he thought I’d make it good, he wanted to get rid of me [both
laugh]. That’s my theory anyway. No, I don’t regret having decided to do physics
although my maths is not good, I just had to work at it. You cannot do physics
without maths. Oh, you can, yes, you look for non-existent particles on somebody
else’s money. Money for old rope as they say in the navy.
I’ve noticed this in sort of – I guess you’ve mentioned your disbelief in abstract
physics a few times. I’m just interested in what doesn’t convince you about it as an
electronics engineer.
Well, the reasons for the existence of these non-existent particles are somewhat airy
fairy I feel but then remember we discovered the electron and the proton fairly early
on. The neutron was discovered in 1932 and I wasn’t told, but if we hadn’t known
about the neutron we wouldn’t have had the atom bomb, so that was a useful thing
wasn’t it? There’s a thing called Higgs Boson which they think they’ve found, like
they think they’ve sent something faster than light. None of this has been proved but
what will happen if we really have found the Higgs Boson? I really don’t know, I
don’t think it’ll alter our lives like the neutron did, atomic fission that generates our
power and destroys our enemies. It will destroy us before long. Yeah, we drip about
exposure to radioactivity, it’s coming in all the time from the sun. And my son in
Cornwall, when I was helping at the Amberley Chalk Pits Museum, I borrowed a little
thing about the size of that [demonstrates] which measures radioactivity. Went down
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the stairs of my son’s home, one patch on the right going down the stairs, two reds.
Three reds, you’ve got to hop it quick, so it was – and the Cornish people lived with
radioactivity. If there hadn’t been radiation there couldn’t be any evolution, wouldn’t
change the genes, so why do we complain about microscopic quantities of it
compared with what’s there already? We’re being bombarded by it.
Are there any developments in modern science and technology that you’re
particularly interested in or scientific issues?
Oh, yes, anything I don’t know about already, and there’s plenty I don’t know about
already. I’m a bit vague on biology and that sort of thing. It has to be somehow
related to physics or chemistry. And I think there’s room for plenty of development
because the more we find out, the more we find we don’t know about things, ‘cause
we just open a door into an avenue that’s never been explored, and that will go on.
Do you ever think your career, how your life might have differed, if you’d become a
research chemist rather than –?
Well, I’d have had the ground opened for me because there was a chap from
Wellington School who was their manager, I’d have got on very well at ICI, he –
[inaud]. My second headmaster was a chemist but he was a chap who was a very
good teacher and, well … I’m going to say we never had an accident. Things went
wrong like when I had this flask that burst. That was not my fault, it was – it was a
happening rather than my doing something wrong. We never had an accident as such
because we knew what was dangerous and therefore tried not to do it. Or in my case
did it once, you’ve got it written up there, it wasn’t as dangerous as he led us to
believe, which was sensible.
Are there any I guess words of advice you would pass down to the future physicists
and electronic engineers?
If it’s not in the syllabus learn it. Learn as much as you can, even if it isn’t your
particular line. One day you may find it useful, as I have done.
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That seems a –
Yes, don’t stick to in the syll – of course that’s out of date today. The teachers buy
the exam questions, so if it’s not going to be set don’t study it. Learn as much as you
can and for heaven’s sake be inquisitive.
[End of Track 14]
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