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Chapter 3 - CTU "Woodlands"

The CTU was initially formed at Headquarters (HQ) Fighter Command at on the 10 June 1940 (exactly 18 years later the RAF received a further boost with the enlistment of this history's author!). Flt Lt J R T Bradford was appointed to command the unit with the acting rank of Squadron Leader, the initial J stood for Joseph leading to the colloquial name of "Joe's Academy" being assigned to this first attempt at a School; subsequent nicknames may not have had such a friendly connotation. It was originally intended that the unit should function at HQ Number 11 Gp, utilising the equipment and building of the old operations room, however, the scheme was abandoned and the Unit was formed in another old operations room at RAF Northolt. The tricycle school (see explanation later) which was used for simulating intercepts used the stadium at Uxbridge. At first the CTU consisted of a lecture room, a Sector Operations Room, one synthetic trainer and an office. The staff was equally small comprising one squadron leader (sqn ldr), one flight lieutenant (flt lt) Adjutant, two corporals (Cpls) and six airmen. Originally the course lasted two weeks and was designed to standardize the training of controllers throughout the Command. Lectures on background subjects were given as well as the practical training. A speech expert from the BBC recorded the voices of the students and criticised them in replay. He particularly did not like the "one-er, two-er, nine-er" being the old style of numerical phonetics. Some people would say there is still scope for such an appointment at the current school since Mr Al Hughes arrived! On 1 Aug 40 the trade Clerk (Special Duties) was introduced to be used as filter room staff plus other ops type duties, the forerunner of assistants everywhere.

Lack of space for training was proving to be a most difficult problem, Yatesbury had insufficient as the only school for training Radio Operators (RDF) and ops room plotters. Extra space was also required at Northolt as they were running additional courses training sub-controllers and deputy controllers. In Aug 1940 experiments using CHL for directing fighters was completed. Sector HQ were reluctant to hand over control to sub-controllers at CHL stations as they ceased to provide information on other a/c whilst controlling (we are still having the same problems at the School today!) There were also other indications of the need for special radars in addition to the early warning/reporting radars; it was then that the requirement for a Ground Control Intercept radar was first postulated. In Oct 1940 the first experimental GCI station was opened at RAF Sopley. Also in Oct the Army vacated the premises known as "Woodlands", Clamp Hill, Stanmore which were subsequently handed over to the RAF, and became the CTU on 8 Nov 1940. The pilot R/T courses were now complete and the R/T unit moved from Uxbridge to Woodlands and augmented into the CTU along with the tricycle school.

As the training commitments undertaken at "Woodlands" were on a far more ambitious scale, a considerable amount of equipment had to be installed and modifications made to the building and grounds. The unit reopened on 5 January 1941 when the staff consisted of a wing commander (wg cdr) - Commanding Officer, one sqn ldr - RDF, one flt lt - Adjutant and a fg off - Deputy Controller Courses. At the same time the R/T speech unit at Uxbridge consisting of one sqn ldr, one fg off and a cpl moved to the CTU at "Woodlands"; presumably the BBC expert was dispensed with at this stage.

On 1 Jan 1941 the first mobile GCI equipment was manned at RAF Sopley. The idea being that each GCI station would be integrated into its section with the sector controller directing fighters to suitable positions to be handed over to a GCI controller. Therefore GCI training was to be based at Sopley.

Between January 1941 and Christmas 1942 the School rapidly expanded to a compliment of 12 officers and 113 other ranks. Another house "Dearne" (19) Uxbridge Road, Stanmore, had to be requisitioned in Oct 42, and additional buildings erected, to accommodate the increase in personnel and equipment. The property was vacated on 3 Oct 43 due to subsidence and being de-requisitioned.

The Unit dealt with a considerable variety of courses for Sector Controllers, Flying Control Officers, Controller cadets (pre-commission), and other ranks of the RAF, United States of America, Dominion personnel, Czechs, Poles and other Allied forces as well as Army and Navy personnel. Courses covered the principles of aircraft control, the organisation of Fighter Command, the art of interception, R/T speech and procedures, meteorology, RDF, including AI and GCI techniques, which had moved to the CTU on 16 mar 41. From the opening of the School in June 1940 until 25 December 1942 the number of students trained by the CTU was 2140, an average of just over 71 students per month! It should be mentioned that the CTU not only catered for Controllers but also ran Deputy Controller courses for NCOs and airmen and even Naval Fighter Direction Officers' courses. The main room of the CTU was laid out like a normal Sector Operations Room of the time with a large GSM on the floor on which plaques were used to indicate the position, height, heading and speed of both fighter and target aircraft. At the foot of the GSM was a raised dais from which the controller issued his directions and orders. These were relayed over the R/T by deputy controllers on a smaller dais in front of and below him. In an adjacent room was the R/T fixer table on which the relative target and fighter positions were determined.

To add realism to the controllers task of directing the fighter plaque onto the target plaque, whilst at the same time educating them on some of the problems facing their pilots, tricycles were acquired from a well known ice cream vendor to simulate fighter aircraft and their targets (21/22). The hostile or target tricycle, bearing a large red flag to show its identity and propelled by a U/T controller, was pedalled at a fixed speed and predetermined course across a nearby field. The aim was for the intercept controller to guide a similar but more elaborately equipped tricycle to intercept the target tricycle. Sporting a large blue flag, the interceptor tricycle was equipped with a compass mounted between the rider's knees and an R/T set carried in the box section normally used for transporting the ice cream. A headset, volume control and transmit switch were also provided on the box in front of the rider. A metronome was fitted in front of the rider to enable the tricycle's speed to be carefully regulated in accordance with the controller's radioed instructions.

On the signal for the exercise to commence, the target machine set off on its predetermined track across the field. Detected by visual observers around the field, the bearings were passed by phone to the fixer room, where the position of the target was fixed and passed as a position plot to the GSM. A decision to intercept was taken by the Sector Controller who ordered the fighter into the air. The "fighter pilot", who was, presumably, the student controller who lost the toss of a coin, leapt onto his blue - flagged tricycle and reported, "Airborne" on his radio. Following the instructions given over his R/T set he proceeded on his bumpy way to intercept the enemy tricycle. Further bearings on the fighter were taken and these also were passed to the fixer room, there they too were converted to an appropriate grid reference and passed to the GSM. With continuous updates on the fighter and target's positions the controller was able to direct a successful interception.

Only one documented example of one of these synthetic interceptions exists. As such it warrants a place in our history and is reproduced for interest.

"Dogsbody Red one, Dogsbody Red one" came a call through the heavy background interference that was, and is, always present on the HF R/T. The ageing trainee controller perched uncomfortably on the hard saddle of the blue tricycle strained to hear the text of the message he was receiving over the unfamiliar R/T. "Vector 170 degrees, vector 170 degrees, Buster, Buster, Bandit Angels two zero, range twenty, over." Struggling to compose and transmit acknowledgement of the message in the newly learnt R/T procedure, the "pilot" endeavoured at the same time to increase his pedalling rate to that required by the codeword "Buster", and measured by the metronome, with its wagging arm, oscillating on the vehicle box in front of him. Setting the new course on the compass fixed between his knees the tricycle was turned onto the new heading. Cold and tired, exhausted with the effort of pedalling the heavy tricycle across the rough field, the "pilot" found that the compass needle refused to settle down. Exasperated and discouraged, he ceased pedalling, dismounted from his machine, lifted the rear wheel and dragged it sideways until the compass course lines were parallel to the compass needle. He then remounted and carried on with the interception."

Life was hard in the "good old days". Despite a long and intensive search I can find no evidence that they would blindfold the cyclists to simulate night-flying!

Further evidence for this type of training is contained in the F540, the one time classified operational record of a unit, for "Woodlands" for June 1944, I quote, "An interesting innovation on the tricycling field is the use of walkie-talkie R/T sets. Loudspeakers around the field have heretofore directed the airmen who take the part of the hostile bombers. This has had two distinct disadvantages, the first being that the loudspeakers were heard in the neighbourhood by residents, and the second the trainees taking part in exercises might take advantage by lifting the telephones from their ears and listening to instructions given to the bombers, thus being able to effect interceptions by improper means." Surely this serves as an early example of intelligence gathering!

These embryonic attempts to provide some standardised training for controllers may seem crude by today's standards but fighter control in the early days obviously lacked the refinements modern days radar and communications. As an introduction to the art of Fighter Control, however, it served the Branch well and typified the spirit of the times when would be adopted to improve development and training, provided it was based on realistic principles.

Throughout these tough times the sense of humour, ever present in the fighter controller, was able to push itself to the fore and the fields were not just used for controller training, as verified by a quote from the "Woodlands" records for June 1944.

"The very welcome and badly needed rainfall has helped the growth of crops generally, and it is expected that there will be a good result. Hostile squirrels have made a number of raids, and have inflicted considerable damage on peaches and peas. Counter measures have been only partly successful as the enemy is highly skilled in jungle warfare and retreat to prepared positions in the local woods whenever our troops attack. Firearms and garden rakes have accounted, so far, for three certainties and one probable. Unfortunately enemy reinforcements have appeared and the result of the campaign is, as yet, undecided."

Regrettably the records leave us uncertain as to the eventual outcome of this particular phase of the conflict and I suspect that is because the squirrels won.

The CTU remained at "Woodlands" throughout the war. As a career move the post of Officer Commanding would appear to have been exceptional; acting Sqn Ldr J R T Bradford was promoted to Wg Cdr and remained the Unit's Commanding Officer until 1 January 1946, when the CTU moved to RAF Rudloe Manor.

There is some confusion as to when the School moved to RAF Rudloe Manor as Mike Shaw was trained at Leighton Buzzard in 1943. Mike had been piloting Wellingtons and was subsequently employed in various training posts before volunteering for training as a controller. Mike believes it possible that "Woodlands" and Leighton Buzzard may have been operating at the same time. I also have it on good authority, thank you again Mike, that the first radar used for GCI was in fact the Type 8 which Mike remembers controlling on in 1944. It may not surprise too many of you readers that the Type 8 came into service before the Type 7. Furthermore, Mike recalls helping to train members of the Turkish Air Force using Type 8s that had been recovered from Egypt in 1946.

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