Air Traffic Control, Bomber Command-style

Around the time that Jack Purcell and his crew were on active service with 467 Squadron (January – May 1944), Bomber Command was routinely sending forces numbering six or eight hundred aircraft on large-scale raids against German cities. Even the ‘smaller’ raids on French targets still involved a couple of hundred aircraft each. Landing everyone safely at their airfields after the operation, in the dark, with no lights or radar, and contending with fatigued aircrew, battle damage and the odd German intruder attack, required the development of some remarkably sophisticated and highly efficient systems, and thus laid the foundations for what we now know as air traffic control.

There were a number of local variations depending on which Group the airfield fell under, but the basic procedure was that incoming aircraft would call up the control tower as they approached their home airfield to identify themselves. Flying Control would respond with instructions to either land immediately if there was no-one in front of them, or to circle the airfield, stacked above earlier arrivals at 1,000’ intervals. As No. 1 was in the circuit at 1,000’ and preparing to land, No. 2 would be circling at 2,000’, No. 3 would be at 3,000’ and so on. No. 1 flew around the circuit, following the ‘Drem’ lights located around the airfield, and the pilot would report on the radio as he passed each position: ‘crosswind’ as he passed over the upwind end of the runway, perpendicular to it; ‘downwind’ as he passed the mid-point of the runway, flying parallel to it (which is also where he would begin a slow descent from 1,000’ to land), and ‘funnels’ as he made the final turn to line up with the runway, facing into wind. Then he would wait for the green light from the aerodrome controller (who was located in a caravan parked next to the landing end of the runway) before landing and taxying off the runway to dispersal. Meanwhile, No. 2 became No. 1 and would leave the stack. He would adjust his circuit spacing and speed to position himself one reporting position behind the aircraft in front. As each aircraft left the bottom of the stack, everyone else still circling above them could be stepped down a level until, in turn, they were at the bottom and next to land.

Arrival over base could be inside 10/10ths cloud. In this case, according to 49 Squadron veteran rear gunner Hugh McLeod, the navigator would use the ‘Gee’ navigation aid to home in to the airfield. He would be calling instructions to the pilot in much the same manner as the bomb aimer would while over the target: “Starboard a bit, Skipper… hold it there… should be coming into view now”. Hugh says it was accurate enough to take the aircraft all the way to ‘funnels’ – quite astounding accuracy for the time. In the event of an intruder alert (“this happened to me on three occasions,” Hugh said), an emergency call would come over the radio, lights everywhere would be turned off and the arriving bombers would all scatter until the all-clear sounded or they diverted to other ‘dromes.

It’s interesting to study how the ‘Quick Landing Scheme’ worked in practice on a typical operation. My interest was piqued by an entry in the 467 Squadron Operational Record Book, following a Berlin raid on 15/16 February 1944. Pilot Officer Clive Quartermaine, flying in Lancaster LM338, said this in his interrogation report:

Had to circle base for 40 minutes before landing. Quick Landing Scheme disappointing.

This was an intriguing comment, I thought, and warranted further investigation. Happily, the ORBs for both 463 and 467 Squadrons record landing times for each aircraft at Waddington. I plotted reported landing times in five-minute blocks, for all aircraft landing between midnight and 1 a.m. LM338 landed at 00.53 (in red). The resulting table looks like this:

Time Aircraft   Landing Times
0000-0004 0001 0001 0003 0004
0005-0009 0008
0010-0014 0010 0011 0012 0014
0015-0019 0015 0015 0015 0017 0019
0020-0024 0022 0023
0025-0029 0025 0029 0029
0030-0034 0032
0035-0039 0036 0039
0040-0044 0040 0041 0043
0045-0049 0045 0047 0048
0050-0054 0053
0055-0059 0056

During this hour, thirty aircraft landed at Waddington. The longest gap between arrivals is five minutes (it comes immediately before Quartermaine landed). Without a modern-day radar controller judging approach paths and in darkness, the odd ‘blow out’ of a few extra minutes in the landing sequence is quite understandable. Shorter intervals are far more common and, assuming the times recorded in the ORB are indeed accurate, there were an amazing three arrivals in a single minute at 00.15. Tellingly, this was about 40 minutes before Quartermaine landed, so was quite possibly about the time that LM338 arrived overhead – to find a large stack of aircraft already awaiting their turn to land.

In the next 40 minutes, as Quartermaine and his crew circled overhead the field, a total of 21 aircraft landed. At a rate better than one aircraft every two minutes, this is actually a reasonably efficient use of the runway given wartime conditions (blackout, no lights, no radar control, fatigued crews etc). There is insufficient evidence about the timing of when other aircraft arrived over the field, but there is a good chance that other captains faced similar waiting times.

So while P/O Quartermaine may well have felt a little hard-done-by having needed to wait for so long, it was a simple case of too many aircraft arriving at once and not enough runways for them to use. This basic cause of airborne delays is still a common occurrence in modern-day air traffic control. Nothing ever changes… someone still has to wait!

Descriptions of aerodrome control come from C07-014-123, The Trenches in the Sky by Dan Conway, and C07-050-023 Takeoff to Touchdown by Don Charlwood. Hugh’s recollections were related in a phone call in May 2013.

© 2013 Adam Purcell

Flying around the bases

In the very back of my great uncle Jack’s wartime logbook is a list of places and dates. It records the places at which he served, from Air Observer School right through to the Squadron. Jack evidently wasn’t the world’s most fastidious record keeper because the list is missing some places that are shown on his service record, but it does list all of the airfields he was stationed at.

jacklog-postings copyThe last eight names on the list are in the UK. When I was over that side of the world in 2009 I hired a light aeroplane and a local instructor from Tatenhill Aviation and flew over four of them, plus a number of others.

Tatenhill was a satellite airfield for 27 Operational Training Unit, RAF Lichfield. As it turns out, Lichfield itself is not very far away. Just after we took off we turned left – and there it was, less than seven miles to the south.

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At first it took me a moment to recognise it as an airfield. Parts of a runway and a number of hangars are still extant, but on top of what used to be a runway is now a great big Tesco warehouse. The northern corner, with half a runway, some taxiways and a couple of blister hangars, is the best-preserved section of the old airfield, though now in considerable disrepair.

Morton Hall was not an airfield, though it is very close to the remains of RAF Swinderby. It became No. 5 Group Headquarters a few months later but it appears that it was a venue for lectures about security and significant physical training at the time that Jack was there (C07-014-067). It was a prison when I drove by in 2009 and is now an immigration detention centre, so no photos. On my flight however we did see Swinderby.

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I was quite pleased to discover what appeared to be a relatively well-preserved RAF airfield when I visited on the ground a day or so later – but just a few months later the whole site was flattened for development.

But enough of that. Onwards with the aerial tour through Jack’s logbook. Winthorpe was a Heavy Conversion Unit, where Jack and his crew got to grips with the Lancaster for the first time.

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One corner of the airfield is now the Newark Showgrounds, and across from those is the fantastic Newark Air Museum.  There’s very little remaining of the original airfield, and the runways, which were used for gliding until recently, are no longer fit for use. But at least one corner of the old airfield still has some sort of aviation activity taking place on it.

Bardney is only a few miles from Lincoln. From the air, the triangle of the runway layout is still visible, though most of the hard surface has been removed.

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The old airfield has reverted to the farmland it one was, with thousands of chickens now occupying sheds on what used to be the runways. Jack was only here for a few months serving on 9 Squadron, losing his pilot in a ‘second dickey trip before flying operationally himself. The crew did record some training flights from here however.

After losing their pilot Jack and (most of) his crew were posted to another Heavy Conversion Unit, this time at Syerston, where they joined up with Phil Smith. We skirted around Syerston on my flight but didn’t actually go over the top so I have no aerial photos of it – though I did visit the RAF Gliding squadron that now occupies the site on weekends.

The last unit in Jack’s logbook is of course 467 Squadron at RAF Waddington. This is where, on 10 May 1944, he and his crew climbed aboard B for Baker and took off in the direction of Lille on their final flight. Waddington remains an active RAF station and retains very little of its wartime ‘feel’, though remnants of the original triangle runway layout are still used as taxiways.

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There were a number of other airfields that we also flew over on this trip, with names like East Kirkby, Conningsby, Metheringham, Bottesford and Tollerton. What was perhaps most telling for me, used to the wide open spaces you get flying in Australia, was how close by everything is. I logged 1.5 hours for this trip, out and back, and we flew over at least ten separate wartime airfields that I could recognise, with a good few others nearby that I couldn’t identify. It’s not hard to imagine how crews could get lost and land at the wrong airfield, particularly during the wartime blackout, and the proximity of the bases would have considerably heightened the collision risk.

Most poignant, however, was at the most easterly point of our flight, near East Kirkby. From there, the coast is about fifteen miles away. That coast line was extraordinarily significant to the aircrew of Bomber Command. On the way out, it marked the end of friendly territory – beyond it was the enemy. And on the way home some hours later, it meant they were back among friends.

© 2013 Adam Purcell

Bonus Photo Post: Bomber Command Commemorative day, Amberley, Queensland

While many of us were in Canberra last weekend for the annual Commemorative Day Weekend, simultaneous events were also being held elsewhere around the country. Groups of veterans, families and interested others gathered to remember the men and the deeds of Bomber Command at ceremonies held in Sydney, Adelaide, Melbourne and Brisbane.

I had a ‘spy’ at the Brisbane event, held at RAAF Amberley (itself the site of the wartime No 3 Service Flying Training School, to which Phil Smith was posted in 1941). Diane Strub, the Honorary Secretary of the 467-463 Squadrons Association in Queensland, was there and sent me these photos:

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It looks like a fair-sized crowd was there, with a good number of veterans present (I counted 23 in the above photo). Everyone looks a little warmer than we were in Canberra!

Good show, Brisbane. And thanks to Diane for the photos.

Bomber Command in Canberra 2013

It was a very wet weekend in south-eastern Australia.

It rained so much in Adelaide on Friday that the automatic rain gauge at the airport gave up. 70mm fell in Melbourne on the same day. It was still raining when I walked to the train station in Sydney on my way to the airport on Sunday morning and, as we were taxying out, the heavy jets weren’t so much ‘landing’ as ‘splashing down’. We were in cloud all the way to Canberra.

Things were not looking good for the sixth annual Bomber Command Commemorative Day.

Though the tarmac was noticeably wet on arrival, the sky showed signs of clearing as I took a taxi to the Australian War Memorial. On arrival I discovered that, because the grass near the Bomber Command sculpture was still rather squelchy underfoot, the ceremony had been moved to the Commemorative Area within the War Memorial itself. As the clouds gradually moved off parts of the crowd were soon sitting in that glorious autumn sunshine for which Canberra is famous.

The Commemorative Area was a spectacular location for the ceremony.

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The crowd was sitting underneath the thousands of names on the Roll of Honour. A statue of an airman, on the eastern side, in turn cast his bronze gaze down onto the gathered crowd. To the rear, immaculately dressed members of the current iterations of 460 and 462 Squadrons, Royal Australian Air Force, were lined up in parade order. Those veterans who could were invited into the Hall of Memory to watch and take part in the wreath-laying, at the Tomb of the Unknown Australian Soldier. As the bugler sounded the Last Post, the notes echoed off the cloisters and faded away to silence. The singing of the Australian National Anthem, with the support of the Australian Rugby Choir, was spine-tingling stuff. The ceremony was enhanced by the atmosphere of the place it was in.

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The speakers, too were excellent: in particular, former Defence Minister and Leader of the Opposition Dr Brendan Nelson who is now the Director of the Australian War Memorial. His opening address, delivered mostly without notes, was impressive. He quoted the words of Charles Bean which are scribed on the wall in the Welcome Gallery of the War Memorial:

Here is their spirit, in the heart of the land they loved; and here we guard the record which they themselves made.

Some of those who made that record, of course, were the veterans of Bomber Command.

Following the ceremony itself came an organised photo opportunity in the shadow of G for George, with almost all the veterans present. My count is 32 (including one who is not in this photo):

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And then to lunch. Once again, the networking and reunion opportunities offered at this function for someone like me in this country are second to none. Among others, I met a Mosquito navigator named Alan Beavis, and his good mate Alan Pugh, who was training at 1661 Heavy Conversion Unit (Winthorpe – Jack Purcell was there in 1943) at the end of the war. And of course I also caught up with many of the usual suspects again – Don and Ailsa McDonald, the three other Dons Southwell, Huxtable and Browning, Keith Campbell, Harry Brown and Tommy Knox (the latter commenting to me, ‘you can really see it this year… age is certainly catching up with them!’). There was some good discussion on a few potential projects for the next couple of years, much reminiscing and many stories.

The Southwells dropped me off at the airport again, and I flew home to Melbourne with a notebook full of ideas and addresses to follow up on.

Bomber Command, over the last few years, is finally beginning to see some recognition for its deeds during the Second World War, and acknowledgement of the legacy it left. This was a common theme among many of the speakers at the weekend this year. Peter Rees (who recently published Lancaster Men and is rumoured to be planning a follow-up for the next couple of years) spoke briefly at the lunch and cited this as one of his key motivations. Air Marshal Geoff Brown, current Chief of Air Force, also gave a good talk at the lunch about what today’s Air Force can learn from the bomber offensive. His main points were that a coalition of nations in a common cause is far more powerful than trying to do it alone, a reminder of the importance of close links with technological and research organisations, how vital it is to gain and maintain control of the air in a combat scenario, the continued value of electronic countermeasures and the critical importance of teamwork and people all united by a common purpose and common aims. He effectively demonstrated that, while the airmen of Bomber Command fought their battles so long ago, and while they fought a battle so unique in scale and circumstance, what they did has continued relevance in current operations – and that in that very practical way their legacy will live on.

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Remembering the history – the raids, the stories, the men – is of course vital. But learning from that history and applying the lessons in practical ways in modern times can also form part of the legacy of Bomber Command. It is far too late for most of those who served, but I hope that some of the veterans who were in Canberra over the weekend can take some comfort in the knowledge that this legacy is living on and will continue to do so.

© 2013 Adam Purcell

A photoset by the Australian War Memorial’s official photographer is available to view here.