RAF High Street 1939 - 1958

DETAILS OF R.A.F. HIGH STREET, DARSHAM:  The transmitting towers, 360' high were constructed of steel and each carried two aerials slung between them weighing some 2.5 tons.  The aerials were hoisted into position by a winch and kept taut by concrete blocks sunk into the ground about four feet and reinforced with angle irons at the bottom end.  Receiving towers, four in number, of a lower height at 240', were constructed of creosoted timber with metal fish plates at the corners and carried copper tubes in the form of crosses serving the dipole aerials situated at three levels.The "C.H.' (Chain Home) stations ranged around the South Coast as far as Ventnor, Isle of Wight and to the north with stations at Darsham High Street, Suffolk, Stoke Holy Cross and West Beckham, Norfolk.  These stations were prominent landmarks with their steel towers with the transmitting aerials slung between them and four slightly smaller all wooden receiving towers.  These big towers were a hazard to low flying aircraft and one of the steel towers at Stoke Holy Cross was decapitated by a bomber.

The two transmitters at each station were housed in solid brick buildings protected by an earth blast wall.  They were of the Metropolitan Vickers Type T.1940 with air cooled valves, the thyrators converted from T.1583 which used water cooled valves supplied from a 400 gallon tank of distilled water under the floor.

 Receivers were in a similar building, suitably protected, situated about one third to half a mile distant, connected by land lines for synchronisation of transmitter and receiver. This was necessary so that as the transmitter was pulsed, the time base of the receiver was also triggered.

 The receivers were of the Cossar RF8 type, Superhet with about 400 R.F. stages and an electrical range marker used to mark up the echo.

Height, range and bearing were marked out by means of a GPO calculator which looked exactly like a small telephone exchange and displayed on a screen in front of the plotting table.

The transmitters pulsed at 12.5, 25 and 50 pulses per minute with peak power at about 1.8 megawatts, the anode voltage being around 35 K.V., Grid Screen about 16 K.V. and the Control Grid at 2.5 K.V.

Tuning the transmitters was delicate and it was necessary to use full power with perfect balance of current on each pair of valves.  The Control Desk was situated between the Output and Drive stages and it was from here that all the fans were started and a tapping switch in the auto transferer capable of winding up the H.T. voltage was also in the desk.

Below are some pictures of the pylons. The quality is poor but that is all that survive.

In picture 1 the William Flegg, a steel erector by trade, is the uncle of Freddy Flegg, a well know character to longer residents of the village.

Two people were killed during the construction of the masts, one fell from the mast and another died when a hammer wa dropped from one.

Pylons from A144

Pylons from the air

Radar Operator

Temporary Accomodation in garden of Stone Cottage (A12 / A144)

Taken from EDP Dec 10th 1958

Light from the top of one of the pylons, currently displayed in Darsham Village Hall

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The last four steel transmitter radar pylons built in 1939 on the Brakes Lane Farm land, 360ft high, were demolished in December 1958, and the Control Room and it associated buildings in the early 1960's.

Four wooden receiving pylons stood on the field beside them on the opposite side of the road, and two of the lights from the top of these pylons it is believed went to Sir Guy Hambling of The Rookery, Yoxford; another was given to the Police Museum at Police H.Q. at Martlesham, and is now on indefinite loan to Darsham Parish Council.   A wooden section of one of the pylons is incorporated in a barn at Priory Farm, Darsham.   These pylons were the last wooden pylons in the County, and possibly in the country.

The Radar Station straddling the A. 144 road to Halesworth was known as R.A.F. High Street, probably because place names were not generally used during wartime and this area of the Parish is known as Darsham High Street.

The main accommodation, administration and underground transmitter site know as "Buried T" on the north side of the road and the receiver site on the south known as "Buried R."

A Guard House stood at the gate together with two houses for senior personnel; a MT (motor transport) section housing a Hillman pick-up truck and a Bedford QL lorry; a small sick bay and recreation room which was also used as a cinema.

The front page of the Eastern Daily Press, Norwich, Wednesday, December 10th, 1958, headed End of Suffolk Landmarks gives a photograph of the four steel pylons being demolished on the previous day.

From East Anglian Daily Times Thurs. 11th Dec, 1958

Under the heading Darsham's Last Tower "The last of the four 360ft high Wartime Radar Towers was demolished at Darsham on Tuesday."

The Control Room of the station appears to have been demolished sometime after 1960.

The W. A. A.F personnel were initially billeted at Bramfield House, Bramfield but later moved to nissan huts in Haw Wood. Some of these are still there in the grounds of High Lodge, Hinton

The R.A.F.High Street station was protected by four Bofors anti-aircraft guns -

1  - On Brakes Lane Farm.

2 - Opposite the A. 144 junction.

3 - A short way down Willowmarsh Lane.

4 - Near the pylons

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The following is an exctract from a book written by Jim Dumouchelle about his father Albert Dumouchelle.

Albert was a volunteer in the Royal Canadian Air Force in which he served as a Radar Technician. Between August 1944 and November 1945 he was posted to RAF High Street and the extract is about his work and life on the base.

This has been published with the kind permission of Jim. The extract is only a small part of the book which wonderfully describes Radar during WWII and the life of his father who it must be remembered was a volunteer and did not have to put himself in harms way.

I have a full copy of the book in PDF format and if anyone would like to read it in full I can email them a copy. Email Derek Reeve

I thank Jim for supplying this material

 

Albert Dumouchelle RCAF

Arriving at RAF Base - High Street, Suffolk 

Background

Dad was assigned on August 28, 1944 to a RAF base located near the small hamlet of High Street in the county of Suffolk. This station was a Chain Home (CH) type station commissioned on February 23, 1940, and numbered CH28. It went online just before the start of WWII. It monitored the approaches from East Anglia and the southern North Sea. As one of the earlier stations in the Chain Home system, it had 4 steel transmission towers of 350 feet and 4 wooden receiving towers of 240 feet. I was able to acquire the original logs from the construction period and they demonstrate that the application of the very new RDF technology came with lots of problems. Transmission waveform issues and serious reflection problems plagued its testing phase. There are even entries where Sir Watson-Watt himself spent a significant period of time at the site to analyze and effect changes to the antennae to deal with the issues.

Since England was under threat of invasion by the Germans during the early years of the war and the base was well within the range of the Luftwaffe, the High Street station had the transmission and receiving areas separately fenced and included guard houses, pill boxes with machine guns and multiple anti-aircraft gun emplacements. While approximately 40 “technical” staff operated the RDF station, the guns were manned by 2 officers and 60 other ranks of the ‘C” Coy Home Defense force and 1 troop of 84 light Anti-Aircraft Battery. These men were also responsible for the evacuation of the technical personnel from High Street (i.e. Dad and Bessie) in the event of an emergency.

Both the transmission and receiving equipment were located underground with re-enforced concrete ceilings. The side walls had additional protective walls and dirt mounded up to provide blast protection. The buildings were also located in a wooded area to provide added camouflage. To provide the staff some additional safety during their off hours, the barracks for the WAFs, the mess, the sick bay and the NAAFI (a commissary where service personnel could buy personal items) with an attached recreation area were located in another wooded area 2-3 miles away. While I could not get it confirmed, it is believed that the male servicemen were billeted in nearby houses in the towns of High Street or Darsham.

The station was part of the RAF Fighter Command’s 11 Group sector. Its detection capability was augmented with the addition of a CHL station at Dunwich just 5 miles away on the coast. There was also an emergency backup mobile RDF station located at Hinton that could be put in operation if High Street was damaged. This station had a much more limited range (50 miles) with only a 105 foot tower but would be useful in filling a gap in the case of a long outage at High Street.

 

Bessie Thomas WAAF


Bessie Thomas (nee Shackley) – An Introduction

Using a veteran’s website, I found a reference to a young WAF that was stationed at High Street while Dad was there. I replied to the site for more information and much to my surprise I got a response. Bessie does not own a computer herself, but her daughter Marilyn Cunningham, was kind enough to act as an intermediary. At the tender age of 88, she took the bold step to call me from England several times on the phone to talk to me about her activities at High Street. She remembered Dad very well. She described him perfectly from memory and she is the only person that I have found that is still alive that served with him.

Bessie is a sharp lady and without her great memory and her daughter’s patient assistance, the details that are contained in this record of Dad’s overseas service would not have been possible. In our first conversation she related to me some of her antics as a 20 year old girl on her own for the first time. When she finished her stories, including one where she got tipsy on her 21st birthday I said that when she was young she must have been a “real pistol”. She paused for a while and said “Yes, I think I really was”. Those are the best words I can use to describe my perception of my new friend. Marilyn and I write regularly, exchanging questions and answers and we also have gotten to know each other and our families. I think Dad would have been happy to know that this effort to document his service has led to new friendships.

Dad’s Service at High Street

Dad arrived by train from Bournemouth to the station at Darsham at the end of August 1944. From there, he would have to “ring up” the base and have a transport pick him up. It was a trip of about 7 miles. According to Bessie, High Street was the smallest of the stations that she served at. As such, it had an informal nature about it. It was rarely visited by the higher ranks and the officers present at the base were not focused on the rigid application of the spit and polish rules of RAF discipline. You worked 8 hour shifts 7 days a week unless you got a leave. There were no parade marches etc. that were common at the other stations. Meals were served in the mess and accommodated the rotating shifts of the personnel. A mess sergeant was responsible for the preparation of the meals and when asked, Bessie said the meals there were unremarkable. You ate what was served which was limited in variety due to severe rationing. The NAAFI was the place that you went to buy special items to augment your food choices and to acquire personal items. Makeup was a big deal when it was available and rumors of the possible shipment of a specialty item would fly through the base. The Recreation Room attached to the NAAFI also had a dart board, a piano and a ping pong table and miscellaneous chairs and a small store that sold items like biscuits.

Upon Dad’s arrival at High Street, he went through a series of inoculation shots. These were given at the Sick Bay on base. Based on Dad’s Service Book, the shots were done by a local doctor since the base did not warrant a full time medical officer.

The High Street site was divided into 3 main areas. The receiving block was located very close to the 4 receiving antennae and housed the electronic equipment which displayed the return echoes from aircraft. RAF and American planes had highly secretive Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) equipment on them which allowed them to be distinguished from enemy planes. Eight WAFs would be on duty at all times watching their scopes for blips, analyzing the information and passing it on to the main screening center. The equipment in this area, due to its lower power requirement, did not require constant attention and Dad would only be present when routine maintenance was required or periodic failures occurred. The 250 foot antennae would also require the same attention.

The transmission bunker located close to the transmission towers was where Dad spent the vast majority of his time while on duty. The high wattage and lower frequency configuration of the CH transmission equipment would mean that Dad had another fast learning curve to master. The system was significantly different from the CHL unit he serviced at Bell Lake NS. There were redundant transmitters at High Street due to the frequent failure of the high power tubes and the need to switch to an alternate frequency if jamming was used by the Germans. When one tube failed, Dad would have to do a quick changeover to the redundant system then identify the defective component. The high wattage of the system required the use of a water cooling system for the output tubes so Dad had to be part mechanic to effect repairs. The high output tubes would have to be brought back to standard air pressure (they were operated in a vacuum) torn apart, the defective component identified and replaced. The tube would then have to be rebuilt and the vacuum re-established and placed back in the standby transmitter in order to bring the unit back online. This process took over an hour to complete. A multitude of systems (Fruit Machine and Big Ben for instance) were present at this base and it was the responsibility of about 8 LACs like Dad to keep it up and running. Besides the equipment in the bunker, the four, 350 foot tall transmission towers would need regular maintenance and repair. Since they were in constant use, care had to be taken when working on them. One LAC said that just getting near the power feed cables or the antennae wires would create a tingling sensation as an arc often jumped to your hand. No doubt direct contact when a 750,000 watt transmission pulse was released would be felt a lot more. Some of the tubes operated at 30,000 volts which would be deadly.

A corporal that worked at High Street reported in his memoirs the following about the daily routine:  “Fortunately the transmitters were duplicated, but it was seldom that both were serviceable. We kept the spare TX tuned to a different frequency, in case we were jammed and had to change frequency quickly. The valves operated at a very high voltage, some 30KV, way beyond their original design parameters. The normal method of getting the maximum power out, which was vital to avoid grumbles from the receiver room, was to wind up the voltage from the control desk until there was a loud bang and then wind back a bit. There were two kinds of bang - the first visible in the form of an external flashover across the tuning capacitors, and very noisy. The other took the form of a dull thud and was an internal flashover inside the valves, which we tried to avoid. There was more voltage available than the equipment could cope with. The two control wheels in the top right hand drawer of the control desk regulated the voltage. The right hand one the coarse control and the left, the fine control. Sitting at the control desk during the long night hours, when everything was operational, and there was nothing to do but look at the cathode ray tube power display and the meters, was intensely soporific, but we developed a sixth sense and would be instantly alert if there was any minute change in the hum of the transmitters. Aerial maintenance involved a race up the ladders to the top of the towers (record 4 ½ minutes) and detailed inspection of the aerials, with the transmitters still operating. Touching anything resulted in mildly uncomfortable arcs to one's fingers.”

Bessie remembers going to the transmission bunker once and talking to Dad about a technical issue. She was preparing for a test on the equipment that would give her a higher ranking and needed clarification on some points. She said that you walked the 200 or so meters from the receiving bunker to the transmission bunker crossing the road that separated them and that you had to clear inspection at the guard houses. Once there, you walked down a ramp to a set of heavy blast doors that opened onto a short narrow corridor which led directly to the equipment room. She said that the men kept the room very neat and the floors were always polished and the equipment was shiny and dust free. Obviously the corporal responsible for the area was a stickler on neatness. The men on duty like Dad were responsible for the cleanliness of the area and when maintenance efforts were not required, the corporal kept them busy with chores. I still cannot get the image of Dad dusting, mopping or polishing a floor out of my head. He certainly did not keep up these skills in civilian life.

Bessie describes Dad as a quiet man, tall, with wire rim glasses who mostly kept to himself. She rarely talked to him when they linked up at the mess. It appears that their shifts did not line up very often so their off hours rarely occurred at the same time. Only one of the other 7 LACs at the station was a Canadian. She thought Dad spent most of his spare time with the LACs. The men were kept strictly segregated from the women’s quarters so much so that Bessie was not even aware of where the men were billeted.

Service here was no doubt very routine but it was not without some excitement. If an antennae fault occurred you had to climb the tower in all kinds of weather to effect repairs. Bessie said the grounds around the mess were frequented by rats and walking around the area at night was a very unsettling experience. On a more serious note, Bessie recalls that she once monitored a V1 rocket that came right for the base. She saw it leave its launcher late at night and monitored it all the way in. For a long time it appeared that it was going to make a direct hit but luckily it passed overhead and the 2,000 lb warhead exploded in a field nearby rousing all the residences of High Street and Darsham.  Bessie told me that if it had hit, Dad would have had a lot of work to put the receiving towers back in service.

While Dad never mentioned the incident with the V1 to me, he did relate that an American bomber crashed near the base while he was there. The High Street station was virtually surrounded by both British and American air bases. Some were bases for interceptors and escort planes but most were bomber bases. Looking up the records for planes lost by the US during the war, I found the record of this crash. On February 6, 1945, a B17 bomber named “Lil Edie”, serial #38054 from the 490th Bomber Group crashed in the Hill Woods near Darsham about 5 miles from Dad’s base. It was on a test flight when engines fires developed and the crew was forced to bail out. Dad went to the site of the crash just as the aircrew returned from being picked up. He said they were nothing but “a group of very scared kids”. This statement was made by a man who was just 29 years old himself. As typical bomber aircrew was made up of 18-22 year old servicemen, Dad’s observations were right on.

While Bessie’s description of the food served at the mess was neutral, Dad’s impressions were not as kind. He developed a real hatred for the food, in particular dishes that were made of mutton (mature sheep). He disliked tea and of course that was a staple drink in England. Bessie said that after the war started, most cheese factories were shut down due to a shortage of milk and the only cheese available was either very old cheddar or a kind of synthetic cheese in tubs. Neither of these appealed to Dad and he didn’t get over his hatred of cheese till the 1990s. They also served field corn to the servicemen. This was a long way from the sweet corn so common in southern Ontario and Dad developed a real dislike to this also. No doubt, whenever possible, Dad would have supplemented his diet with biscuits etc. purchased at the NAAFI. Bessie, in discussing the food at High Street, said that most British service personnel were more understanding about the cooks. She said they were conscripted to do a job that they probably hated. Few cooks received any training and not only did they cook at all hours of the day, they also had to clean up after each meal. Other than the goods that they negotiated from local farmers or the nearby USAF bases, there was strict rationing in place which limited the variety of foodstuff available. Basic cooking ingredients like milk and eggs were powdered. So I guess when you combine bad ingredients, with poorly trained and unmotivated cooks, you get meals of very questionable quality.

I do remember Dad telling me a story about eggs. He said that one day they got a shipment of "fresh" eggs and all the men lined up for breakfast at the mess to have a fresh egg breakfast. Well it turned out that the eggs were far from fresh. The men stood in line while the cook cracked one rotten egg after another trying to get one decent enough to cook. He was really glad that he could not smell as apparently the odor was absolutely overwhelming. He did get his egg breakfast however and was grateful for his determination and a lack of smell as most men couldn't stand the stench and just left.

This routine of regular watches, crummy food and poor accommodations continued month after month. Three events however occurred during Dad’s stint that must have brightened his stay.

The first was the birth of his second daughter on February 7, 1945 about 4 months after he left Canada. Named Lois, she also was born via Cesarean section but with fewer complications than Elaine’s birth 13months earlier. Just like his earlier letter, Mom kept Dad’s first letter home after Lois’ birth which, while shorter, again professes his love for her, expresses hope for a speedy recovery and again says it’s ok that it’s a girl despite their hopes for a boy. I have written his full letter in the section labeled “Letter Written After Lois' Birth”. While he was genuinely happy at the birth, he proclaims that he cannot wait for “this horrible war to end”.

Also evident from this letter is the lack of excitement from his fellow service personnel. The first letter has a big party going on in his barracks and cigars being passed out and the feeling of camaraderie was obvious. Dad’s second letter makes no mention of the staff’s reaction and Bessie recalls nothing about the event. Even though the High Street station was much smaller than the one at Bell Lake, I believe Dad felt much more alone.

Uncle Bob, Dad’s brother was serving as an ERK in the RCAF and was in Europe when he got a leave and used the opportunity to travel to Dad’s base. Uncle Bob, in discussions with him, remembers the visit and talked about how he was treated like a hero while he was there. They went to the Fox, a local pub, for a drink. They also attended a dance at the base that evening. Bessie remembers the dance. It was the only one they ever had while she was there. They invited USAF personnel from one of the local bases to attend. Bessie was also at the dance but does not remember meeting Bob.

Finally, the milestone arrived that everyone was hoping for. On May 8, 1945, Germany sued for peace and the war in Europe ended. There was a celebration on the base for all off duty personnel as the constant threat of death and the long separation from love ones would finally end. Bessie wrote that: “When VE Day came about we celebrated by lighting a bonfire next to the campsite and were allowed into the Sergeants’ Mess that night to have a drink in celebration. This was beer with a red hot poker to warm it up! This is the one and only time I have been tipsy which worried me as I wondered what my mother would have to say if she had seen me!”

Life at High Street wasn’t all work. Dad mentioned that he did get the occasional leave. Records show that he received a 1 week leave in early June 1945 and another from October 22, 1945 to October 28th. A picture survived that shows him and an unidentified corporal in front of Buckingham Palace. He also told me that he did get opportunities to swim in the North Sea. There is a small town called Dunwich along the coast about 5 miles away that would have provided him access to the sea. That water never warms up so Dad must have been pretty desperate to go swimming. Playing bridge also filled some of his spare time. He also told me that he played tennis at the courts at Wimbledon. The courts were open for free to servicemen during the war.

While the RCAF service personnel did have a difficult time while on foreign deployment, there were support organizations working to make their lives easier. One of these groups that made a direct contribution to Dad was The Salvation Army. I was unaware of their great contribution till I noticed that the letter Dad sent Mom after Lois’s birth had a Salvation Army logo on the envelope and the letterhead was the same. Additional research showed that in May 1940 the Salvation Army established leave accommodation for the men in London at the former West Central Hotel. There, soldiers could obtain a bed, breakfast, and bath for less than 50 cents a night. By early 1944, 70 Red Shield supervisors operated 30 centers and 55 mobile canteens in support of Canadian army and air force units. In all, Red Shield services provided Canadians with more than 270 million sheets of writing paper and envelopes, 38 million hot beverages from mobile canteens, and 35 million meals served in huts and hostels. More than 68 million people attended Salvation Army films and concerts. The letter from Dad written after Lois’s birth used a Salvation Army envelope and letter headed paper and there is little doubt that he stayed at their hotel while on leave. It was a generous, freely given benefit that must has been greatly appreciated by all.

While May 8, 1945 was the official end of the war in Europe, there were millions of servicemen and women overseas and getting everyone home took a significant period of time. Dad had two strikes against him in this regard. First, he arrived in England relatively late in the war and the policy was that RCAF personnel who had been deployed the longest were sent home first. Secondly, even though there were no more enemy flights to track at the High Street CH station, there was a tremendous amount of air traffic to monitor. Bessie stated that after the VE party, their lives went on as normal. They served their shifts as if the war was still underway. This time their role was to assist in air traffic control as the sky was filled with planes going back and forth between England and Europe. There were a huge number of rescue and relief flights underway. Germany had starved the civilians in the Netherlands and food flights were underway on a priority basis. There were also numerous flights returning personnel from the mainland to England. High Street was ordered to monitor these flights assisting in tracking arrivals and departures plus monitoring for emergencies and aiding in rescue co-ordination.

This surveillance effort kept High Street open until mid November 1945. Bessie remembers its closing and her being sent to a Personnel Depot where she waited for months for her final release from service. Dad left on November 1, 1945 and went to #25 Aircrew Conditioning Unit for processing where he received a one week leave from Nov. 1st to Nov 8.