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"Dear Mum" Chapter 6

J/T Bell G.W. Radar Servicing Flight,

Tech. Wing,

RAF. Ballykelly,



N. Ireland.     18-8-60. Wednesday, Dear Mum,

The above address should find me.   As you see I have arrived. It was not until 10.00. am. this morning though, a total of 30 hours from door to door. The boat journey was the worst. It was just an ordinary steamboat with very few facilities for a 10 hour voyage.  I didn’t get to sleep and in fact haven’t been to sleep since Monday night when I only had about 5 hours so that is a total of 59 hours out of which only 5 have been sleep!   The scenery is marvellous. On the way from Belfast to Limavady the railway runs for some miles very close to the seashore.  And what a shore it is.  Miles of white sand and black rocks sticking up with big rollers coming in all the time - just like a film.


210 Squadron, Ballykelly, 22-8-60. Dear Mum,

As you see my address has changed, but I have been put on a Squadron and so now I will have the chance of trips abroad.  Today I went on the longest walks I have ever had. There is an enormous hill about 4 miles from here and I decided to go up to the top of it.  I couldn’t get to it direct and had to make a detour of about 6 miles and as it is about 1000 feet high, it took some climbing. 


When I left the road, which went about ¼ the way up the grass and heather was so wet that I took my shoes and socks off and went all the way up, about a mile along the top and down the other side, barefooted.


Ballykelly was a tiny little place really.  There was a huge escarpment not far from the airfield that dominated the view.  We used to call it Ben Twitch.  I climbed up it one day. The weather was fine for a change and I went right round to the gently sloping side, via miles of country roads and when I finally got to the top of the steep slope, the view was tremendous.  I did not have a camera in those days, unfortunately, so I did not record it for posterity, like I did so many other things in later days, after I had bought my first Pentax in Changi village, in Singapore - but that is another story.


In the summer of 1960, 210 Squadron were flying Mk 2 Shackletons. These aircraft were equipped with more modern Radar than the ASV 13 on which I had been trained.  The ASV 21 had a lot of new facilities but there were already about 4 guys on the Squadron who knew all about it and I did not have too much trouble picking it up.  After I had  “Arrived” which meant going round all the various sections on the camp and registering my presence, so I got paid and got a medical record, etc. etc.  I gradually started edging into the job.  Everyone knew that new J/Ts were useless.  They were full of theory and little else. (There was a less polite term that perfectly described, with what we were full.)   For a time I was forced to agree and I made a lot of tea and coffee.  Slowly however I became accepted. As I was willing to help with the re-fuelling and the 101 other jobs like marshalling, towing around ramps, PE (petrol / electric generator) sets, trolley accs. (small trailers, full of heavy batteries for starting the engines) behind our tractor, defrosting the planes on icy mornings, and lighting the rest room fire with hydraulic fluid whenever it went out, I was soon one of the boys.  I got a pair of Trogg Boots, with inch thick rubber soles, leggings and a parka which, like those of everyone else, soon became coated with de-icing fluid, oil and grime and stiff as cardboard.  It rained every day for the first 3 weeks after I arrived and the dirtier the waterproof clothing became the better it seemed to keep out the water.  Down on the Squadron we were a mucky lot.  They used to hate us in the mess, when we turned up for meals looking like drowned and very dirty rats.  The Warrant Officer in charge of the mess refused us entry once, but when it got back to our Wing Commander, he went down there and tore the guy off such a strip that they used to ignore us after that.  210 used to be 269 and previously used to fly the old Sunderland Flying Boats, apparently.  It had quite a history and in spite of the location of the Station, our morale was high. There was a lot of flying and we were not over staffed. Everyone used to muck in and the work used to get done. 


210 Squadron 25-8-60.  Dear Mum,

I’m in a proper billet now with central heating and 8 other blokes, all of who are nice blokes. I fired the rifle and the Sten Gun today.  It was super!   I’ll try and answer some of your questions now.  The Mountains of Mourne are “n” mega yonks away.

It said in one newspaper that we have had 5 inches of rain in 3 days.


We often had Exercises, which ran through the nights, and the Squadron used to be on SAR  (Search and Rescue) Duty on a regular basis. This entailed at least one plane being kept ready for instant take off, if there was a ship sunk or some other such maritime incident.  We also had Nato Exercises which meant that a couple (or more) planes would load up with all the spares for a couple of weeks and we would all go off to some remote airfield like Gibraltar or Bodo in Norway.  This included the ground crew of course.  I was very keen on detachments like this and I used to keep a case always packed with essentials for a 3 week trip to just about anywhere.  As a lot of the other guys on the squadron were married and  / or did not like detachments.  I made an arrangement with the Chiefy, that is the Chief Tech. who was responsible for aircraft maintenance, that I would go any where, at any time, as long as my name was always on the “good” detachments.  He could see the fairness of this and so I went everywhere.


I had just come off an overnight duty one morning and was back in bed, when they actually came to the billet to tell me to get the hell down the Squadron as we were going to Norway in 30 minutes.  It turned out to be an exercise that involved a 17 hour flight in the North Atlantic before landing at the Nato Base at Bodo, which was inside the Arctic Circle.  These trips were not popular with everyone and after a 17 hour flog, during which the heater in the plane packed up, I could see why.  I was ready to go to bed - anywhere.  Re-fuelling, however had to be done and I lay on the wing listening to the 145 Octane Avgas gurgling into the huge tanks.  It was late autumn and the Northern Lights were brilliant.  I have never seen anything as spectacular. The sky was full of these rippling curtains of light, as if there was a giant searchlight overhead, but invisible.  All that could be seen were the rays of light shining down as if through fog.  We ate nothing but fish and wholemeal bread and vegetables and drank goat's milk, during our stay on this Norwegian Air Force Station.    I paid several visits to Bodo.  In the summer the sun never set and in the winter it never rose.   It was nice to get back to Ballykelly, however.  Sometimes, a night shift meant no more than drinking coffee till it was late. Then wrapping up in a cockpit cover, - that was a beautiful, soft, thick, padded, cover that was supposed to be used to protect the windows in the cockpit when the plane was not in use,  - and going to sleep. As they were never actually used, for their designed purpose, they were pretty clean, too.


On one trip to Gibraltar I was asleep in the rear observers position, which was right in the tail.  There was a Perspex cone so he could look out and just enough room to lay flat and stretch out, on a foam cushion, - something that was unusual to find for someone of 6’4”.  I was wrapped up in a lovely soft cockpit cover and everyone forgot I was there.   During landing and takeoff we were supposed to be within the two big wing spars but they had forgotten to wake me up.   The plane landed with me there, (fast asleep) and it was a bit bumpy and the movements were magnified because of the length of the fuselage. I was thrown up and down between the floor and roof and emerged bruised shaken and moaning to the hoots of all the crew.


The Aircrew often did not eat all the food that had been provided for them, especially if it was a bumpy flight.   When they had gone, during the after-flight inspection and with a P.E.  set connected, we would cook steaks in the galley.     



In the summer when it did not rain, it was quite pleasant down on the Squadron.  The high point of the morning was the arrival of the NAAFI van. The cheese and tomato rolls were delicious.  If there was no flying there was not much to do.  We sometimes used to wander over to the Radio Servicing Bay.  This is where the Second Line repairs we carried out, that is to say the repairs to the internals of units that we could not carry out in the planes.  If we could not fix anything we used to take it to the Radio bay and get a repaired unit. Everything had plugs and sockets and they were all fixed into trays or racks to prevent things coming adrift in flight.  Some things like the scanner for the ASV or the aerial system for the Doppler radar, (called Blue Silk) were quite big jobs to change. If at all possible we fixed things where they were.   Out on the pan, in the pouring rain.


On the Mk 2 Shackleton, the scanner for the primary radar was mounted under the belly and in use, it used to descend about 6 feet, inside a big fibreglass cupola, pushed down on hydraulic rams.  As can be imagined, there were a lot of cables going to the scanner and the fact that it was moveable, meant that the cables had to be allowed to move too, as the scanner went up and down.   There was a big sloping tray (called the kidney plate, - because of it's shape,) where the cables were fixed at one end and allowed to curl up and down on the tray in a big loop, as the aerial moved.   We had a scanner change on one plane and luckily I had nothing to do with it  (really!)  The two guys did everything perfectly, they thought. They tested it on the ground and everything worked a treat. The plane concerned went off on a sortie, when it returned the Air Electronics Officer, reported that the Radar had worked perfectly until they had dropped the scanner and then it had just stopped working.   When we opened the cover we found a shambles.  There were broken wires, waveguides and cables everywhere.  What they had done was put the clamps round the cables at the wrong point, so that instead of having a nice loop to allow for the scanner to drop, they had clamped the cables with only a few inches movement allowed. The loop so neatly arranged, was formed where the cables all ran down the bomb bay to the clamp, where there was no need for it at all.  There were a couple of very red faces over that one. And the plane had to go off to the Hangars for all the stretched cables to be changed.   They were lucky to get away without a Technical Charge.

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