Tuesday, 17 May 2011

From Schoolboy to “Reserved Occupation”

Through my parents, I found out that the Post Office was sponsoring a City and Guilds course in Radio Telephony. I started this whilst still at school when I was 14 and  unaware that there was a shortage of technicians at the top secret Malvern TRE (Telecommunications Research Establishment).  

As I had a flair for radio and motor bikes, I was sent to TRE in 1943 a long interview. Questions included, “How does a radio work?” and “How would you design one?” Having thrown my gas mask away years ago and replaced it with a 2 valve radio set, I was able to give all the right answers.  So it was that I suddenly found myself conscripted to a “reserved occupation”, a Laboratory Assistant at Malvern College and at the tender age of 15! 

TRE was the brains in the world for radar and I found myself working on airborne radar and DC amplifiers, the latter forming the basis of the early analogue computers.  I was required to sign the Official Secrets Act which meant that I not divulge any information about the radar project I was working on. Even now, over 60 years later,  I feel I have to be careful in what I say; doesn’t the Official Secrets Act mean for life?

The work hours were long & unpredictable, for example, you could be asked to work nights during the week, then we had to work on Sundays too, giving only Saturday as day off. As I wasn't of military age, I was able to work on projects that were not of a military nature, which gave me plenty of scope; my first day at TRE was in Mr Hodgkin's laboratory, helping to make an electronic brain with hundreds of condensers and resistors.  I got all the pieces assembled ready to start, when a day or so later Mr Hodgkin said “I am sorry to leave all your hard work but I am off to Canada”.  We later we found out that he was working on the atomic bomb.  I read in the Daily Telegraph that he was a Nobel Prize winner for his work on the electronic brain but it did not mention his work on the atomic bomb [Alan Lloyd Hodgkin].

In 1945,  the 18 wire scanner cables, part of the air radar fitted in Lancaster and Lincoln aircraft were becoming damaged and breaking. The aircraft, from this time, had begun to fly at a much higher altitude of 20,000 feet, here the outside air temperature dropped to -20 to -50 C.  The scanner kit worked automatically, so I had to test these cables wires in the altitude chamber, taking the wires down to -50 C to discover exactly how long it would take to freeze  and break.  After 2 hours of tests, I had managed to produce a graph from my results which I presented to C J Carter (the head of Malvern), from these observations, l was instructed to go to the industrial side of TRE and order 50 wire scanners to be made up for the following morning.  I was to be collected by an official driver at 9 am who would take me across to the airfield.  All this, was of course, top secret. 

After collecting all the equipment, we set off for the airfield, the other side of Cambridge, in a Hillman estate car.  I slept for most of the journey as l was absolutely shattered, not having slept for 2 days.  We reported to the Radio Officer and instructed him to replace the cable after every sortie;  needles to say, he was not too happy about his new orders.  I remember, he asked me “How old are you laddie?” I replied that l was nearly 17 years old.  Still not convinced of my authority,  he contacted my department boss at Malvern.  He eventually got through, registered his concern about the young lad, but was informed that he must do what I had said based on the tests that l had carried out.  It was rather amusing, judging from the smiles on the faces of the junior airmen.

When World War II ended, our old Lancaster took half of the TRE team on a 'jolly' over Germany to observe the destruction caused by the RAF, flying over the ruined cities & towns of the Third Reich.  When it cam to my turn to go, the flight was grounded; the aircraft which was deemed 'highly secret' and the powers that be, decided that the plane could not be let it out of the country. 

I remember that at Christmas, all members of our group had to report to C J Carter’s office, however, when it was my turn, he apologized profusely saying that he was unable to give me an extra bonus, despite the fact that he was aware that I was doing the same level of work as the Grade 2 and 3 Assistants together with some Junior Scientific Officers.  I thanked  him very much for trying, then surprise, 2 weeks later I received my Christmas increase!
Note: The grades of scientific staff started at: junior wireman, wireman, laboratory assistant (equivalent to a sergeant), assistant grades and scientific officers. The last two were all ex-graduates.

Saturday was my day off & the only day you could call your own, to me time was at a premium. It was the only day that l could shoot rabbits, go into Gloucester or play with motor bikes.  At 16 I had moved on to a Redwing Panther 250cc as my father said you should learn to ride a 250cc before you get a larger bike.  He told me years later that he had a ride home in a hay cart after a motorbike accident at up Leadon Cross. Grandpa Bisco was one of the first motorcyclist in Newent & founder member of the Glos motorcycle club.
I didn't have much time for girls either, they did not like my motor bike or my dog and I did not share my toys plus I did not have any spare cash either!  My father was not at all happy about me riding to Malvern everyday on my motorbike, he suggested that I perhaps buy the chimney sweep's Morgan 3 wheeler.  This had a twin 1000cc engine and cost me 10 quid to buy and a further 3 months to get it all working!  My father had thought I would be safer in the Moggy but he had no idea what it was like driving to Malvern in all winds and weathers. For example, when it was foggy you had to drive at 27mph to keep the battery charging or else the engine died on you.  The battery itself was only 6 volts and the gearbox and generator were on the rear wheel.
By this time my next brother up was stationed at TRE with the RAF too. He wasn't allowed in our lab which l thought rather funny, with him being a defender of our realm and all that jazz. 
I didn't manage to drive from Newent to malvern unscathed having several near scrapes, one  standing out more than others after all these years; - towards Ledbury there was a long sweeping corner and as l was driving along, minding my own business, a lorry came screaming around the corner on the wrong side of the road, fortunately for me, a farmer had left the gate open so taking avoiding action headed for and drove through the gate into the field, turned quickly around and returned to the road, no problem.  l think l can say that it was pretty hair raising driving that Moggy around and fortunately a chap at TRE who wanted to swap the Moggy for his Velocette 350 cc.  I was glad to see the Moggy go and really loved that Velocette, it was a super bike - you can't beat a bit of breeding and quality.
Years later a friend of mine sent his boys to Malvern and I asked them if they knew the history of their college in the war.  They said they had put up some plaques to the Free French in one of the houses. I pointed out the radar brains of the world were at TRE, and asked if they had heard of the Preston lab, they replied that they hadn't.  l was so angry about this considering that the lab had been home of centimetric radar, HAS, AGLT, OBO, the rugby scrum and a lot more.  The man who invented HAS worked in the lab up the front stairs (whilst the basement was full of machinery and very handy for repairing motor bikes) but was killed near Goodrich Castle, in a Lancaster, about a month before I got posted there.  I did asked whether there were any plaques to commemorate the British achievements. No was reply again. In my opinion, the contribution of the French and the Americans in the Second World War is debatable and one of my pet hates is all those boys going through that college without knowing anything about its history, it suppose it is because it was all secret.

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