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Start of 10cm Radar in the Fleet Air Arm
Recollections from Mrs Margaret Carmichael, Dorrery Lodge, Caithness

Margaret Carmichael preparing a Walrus for its search and destroy mission.Margaret Carmichael
preparing a Walrus for its
"Search and Destroy" mission

When I left school in July 1939 the war, of course, was imminent. By the time the war broke out I wanted to join the Wrens and so I went up to Liverpool and was sent home and was told to keep myself ready. I was sent for again and this time I was sent down to Haverford West. I was told that we were going to de-Gauss ships for mines but when it was discovered that little Wrens were going to have to wear swimming costumes and swim round the ship with this wire - oh that couldn't be, so we were sent home again. A few months later I got another summons - was I interested in becoming a radio mechanic, was I good at maths and had I a mechanical aptitude? I was hopeless at maths - I only got 3% in my matric. exams - and I really couldn't say I had a mechanical aptitude, but I was so fed up with waiting, I said 'yes'. So in July 1941 I went down to Westfield College in Hampshire, a most beautiful college which is still part of the London University. There we stayed for over 6 months without being kitted out My generation only had Sunday clothes and nondescript jerseys and skirts so by the time we did get our uniforms we were practically in rags. Every day we were sent over on local buses to the Chelsea Polytechnic to do a course. There were about 18 of us in all kinds of dress and we straddled along on the buses and I always remember going down Kensington High Street and the conductor saying "Barkers, Pontings, Derry & Thom's, Tiddliwinks and Ludo" and we thought this was hilarious.

Back at our digs in Westfield College we had no lighting or heating. It was dark at night and you had to feel your way around, - we women Wrens trying to find our clothes and trying to dress. There was one bath between 36 of us and 6 got in at a time. You can imagine what it was like at the end of it, but never mind we really didn't mind so much.

Although we didn't know what the course at the Polytechnic was for, it included electricity, magnetism etc. and how to make our own screwdrivers, temper steel etc as well as how to use ammeters and other instruments. It was very, very hard work. We didn't have a clue about the purpose of the course or what it was going to be used for. After we'd been 6 months in London we were sent to various northern naval air stations. We were known as radio mechanics which really meant nothing to us. It was all to do with radio-location which was being introduced into the fleet air-arm (we didn't know that). Well 9 of us were sent to Donnibristle by the Firth of Forth. There were at least 1000 men and we had to march down behind the men after the morning parade over the aerodrome and we had to march with our gas masks on our backs and our terrible tin hats banging us all the way down. Now we didn't have proper uniforms yet, it was before the Wrens had bell-bottoms, and we had to wear the most awful boiler suits which were discarded by the men and passed on to us. It was bitterly cold and we all wrote home for our father's and grandfather's 'long-johns'. We must have been a sight because in those days the then Captain (& this is before the Wrens had jurisdiction and came under the Commander) as we didn't have officers, made us roll up our trousers of these boiler suits and put great safety pins to hold them up and away from our shoes. We weren't allowed to walk around the camp with the legs down. Now in the Navy, every day the tannoy gave the rig of the day - off raincoats - right off came the raincoats. We had to march behind the men with these great safety pins keeping our trousers up above our ankles - it really was ludicrous but it was the way things were.

Well what were we doing, which to me now, I can hardly believe I did it - we had to fit into the Fleet Air Arm aircraft, what was known as the ASV9, Air to Surface Vessels; it was known as Special WT - no-one ever said radar then. Now it was, I think, 6 or maybe 5 different pieces of equipment, almost the size to fill a small room, and we had to fit it into Swordfish, Albacores, Sea Otters, Walrus. We had to fit this equipment into the 'planes which took 2 or 3 days.

It was very bulky stuff, you had to lie down on your back and fiddle away with pipes, plugs and wires and then hope it worked. We had what was known as a 'squegger' on the ground and we had to line up the aerials, which we also had to fix on the 'plane. It was a very difficult job.

We had these cores of wrapped twisted flex and the core was probably 7 or 8 pieces of wire which we had to solder onto the aerial and then fill it with "berry wigan", horrible compound. All the time our hands were freezing and it all had to be cut absolutely accurately. Now you can imagine in the winter time with the very thin clothes, we were frozen doing all this on top of the 'planes. This fitting really wasn't funny. However when we got that part of the work done we had to line up the 'plane on the polar base pointing the front of the 'plane in the direction of the squegger which was sending out a signal. Then we had to line up the aerial so that it gave the correct response and you read on the receiver the height of the echo and plotted that on a polar diagram and you were supposed to get a shape like a shamrock. It had to be exact otherwise you went back to the beginning and you shortened this and lengthened that until the plot looked just like a shamrock. We then went up in the early days in the aircraft with the pilot and a rear-gunner. We had to go over the Bell Rock from the Inchcape Lighthouse off St. Andrews. We were very young. We had never flown. We had a few trips to show us sort of how to be sick over the side without it going into the chap's face behind and that kind of thing. We had to get the pilot onto the Bell Rock and read each blip accurately and write it down which was difficult if the 'plane was doing twists, and do every point of the compass each run over the Bell Rock. It was very time consuming and very sick making. However when we got more used to it we could do 4 or 5 points of the compass at one run. When we landed, if the diagram was not as it should have been, in the shape of the shamrock, we had to go back to base and start at the beginning again.

The aircraft that we used during this time were the Swordfish, the Albacore which was rather like a Swordfish but with a cover, and the Sea Otter and the Walrus. The Swordfish and Albacore planes had fixed undercarriages but the Walrus had a pump known as an OLIO. After take-off one had to pump like mad to bring up the undercarriage and again to lower it before coming in to land. Sometimes OLIO jammed and the plane had to circle until we got the wheels down. The Walrus was wonderful, really a gentleman's aircraft. I never flew in anything but bi-planes, of course, and they all had a single engine.. I remember coming home from over one of the trips over the Bell Rock in a Walrus and in the Walrus the pilot is up front with a superb view. I was flying as navigator this day, going backwards as it were, and there was another Wren in the air-gunner seat, she was doing morse and signals; there was an awful smell of burning and we realised that one of our transmitters was on fire Now the Walrus had two big hatches, one forward and one aft, and we managed to get the transmitter, which was a huge piece of equipment, loose and we opened the rear hatch and we tipped it out without telling the pilot and without knowing where we were. The 'plane gave a tremendous lurch and we only had speaking tubes, so I got on to the pilot "It's alright, sir, we've tipped a transmitter out, it was on fire."

When we got back to Donnibristle and we landed, there was a message came over the tannoy - "would Leading Wrens Parkinson and Trevor report to the Captain's office immediately". So we little Wrens, who were absolutely terrified about what it was and didn't know why we had been called, went up to the Captain's office and were ushered in. There was an enormous irate farmer and would you believe, this bally thing had fallen out of the aircraft right on to one of his cattle and killed it! This was over Burnt Island and it was the daftest thing you could imagine but I must say we were the 9-day wonder on Donnibristle and we thought we really were rather clever!

In the early days we were quite unique - there is no question of that. We were the first Wrens to fly. The pilots had let us take over the controls on many flights and we picked up the technique of flying. On one occasion when we were due to fly a Walrus, an amphibian, the pilot had not turned up, so I took the plane up and, on returning, landed on the sea. You can't imagine the excitement when you are just 20 years something. Really it was a wonder we weren't killed! These activities were not permitted and when 'their Lordships and their Ladyships' discovered they were stopped.

During this time it was very important that we didn't tell anybody the number of centimetres were that we were working on because if the Germans found out they could take counter measures. It was found out, we never knew how, and we had to have all our 'planes recalled to Donnibristle to have adjustments made.

Most of our Swordfish were white and they went off with what they then called Macships up to Russia. These were ordinary merchant ships, maybe carrying grain and supplies of other cargo, and they were painted absolutely white in order to camouflage the white aircraft which were on board; the poor 'planes had only about 2 ft. on either side to take off. It was a miracle that they ever did get off and most of all that they ever got back. (Before that, as you may know, only battleships carried aircraft.) Of course, the whole idea of the Fleet Air Arm and their torpedo bombers was to find, fix and strike. So, in the merchant ships, your 'plane and pilot had to wait patiently in the catapult until they had either seen the enemy or knew where the enemy was and, at very short notice, the poor pilot and 'plane were catapulted into the air. How did he then get back? Many of them did not. The ship had to try to provide some clear water for the pilot to land close by and then hope, by the Grace of God, that he could be picked up and the 'plane lifted by crane onto the ship. Usually the sea conditions precluded this manoeuvre and the pilot had to bale out while airborne and hope he would be picked up. Meanwhile his 'plane just ditched. Today I think the men who did this deserved far more than the Victoria Cross. A lot of them never got back to their mother ship.

To revert to Donnibristle, as a Wren it was the most wonderful place to be.

In those early days we were the very first technical Wrens and we were extremely lucky that we worked with sailors - some were just ordinary sailors, some were Leading Hands, Petty Officers, and Chief Petty Officers. We really were very lucky and I well remember when we were marching down to our work on the aerodrome, we 9 little

Wrens with our tin hats bumping on our backs, we had to cross what they called the 'dope yard'.

This was where the older 'planes, made of wood, had canvas stretched over them and this was sprayed with dope (a special varnish) and then they were put into a sort of wind tunnel to dry. Now this was all done by what we called dockyard Maties and this day as we were marching along, they switched on this tremendous blower and it blew us all over - we 9 little Wrens were all lying on the ground. Well, our dear sailors went and fought them and there was a raging battle and our sailors won, so that was the end of that. But the dockyard Maties got about ten times more pay than we did so we thought that was a very fitting end.

There was also a light-hearted side to our life. There were lots of men. One of my friends, who is still my dear friend today, was a cypher officer and she and I were friendly with a couple of chaps. They asked us if we would appear in the ship's concert. Oh yes, of course, we said. Why not? Little did we realise that we were going to have to sing on stage. I think I could very well do it today but in those days -ghastly! -. Dorothy sang the Carmen Miranda song" and would you believe it - I sang songs from "Show Boat": "a fish has got to swim, a bird has got to fly, I have to love one man until I die" - and my boyfriend was in the wings! It really was wonderful and later on we were in pantomime and I have photographs of myself as a fairy, would you believe it. The items were all written by a delightful man who was a Manchester cotton dealer. He was very much older than us and had been in the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service in the First World Was. He was so kind to us youngsters. We were so naive, just straight from school. I well remember him saying to us - .... not all men are very nice, be careful and you must remember who you are and that sort of thing. We were lucky with the people who were there and we enjoyed these ship's company concerts. They really were hilarious, especially if they could get the CO up on the stage.

Also at Donnibristle, because we were working out-of-doors, they thought we ought to get the rum ration. Of course, for Wrens to get it .had never been heard of before. So we used to get it and we made it last us for 10 days because if we drank it at once - oh ho, we sort of went to sleep in the back of the Walrus for the rest of the day In those days the chaps used to line up for their rum ration and they didn't have to drink it on the spot, they were allowed to keep it - they were supposed to drink it on board of course. Well what happened? They were searched when they went ashore but we Wrens weren't. So we had a marvellous arrangement with various chaps we worked with, we used to put their rum in bottles and leave it ashore for them to pick up later - the 4th telegraph pole on the right belonged to Nelson, the one on the left belonged to someone else and so on.

As a Wren, Donnibristle was a most wonderful place to be. We were the only outdoor Wrens in those days - one or two transport Wrens but the others were mostly cooks and stewards, writers and Cypher Officers. One of my friends who is still my dear friend, today, was a Cypher Officer and she and I were very friendly with a couple of chaps, you know, and it was lovely. There were lots of men and they asked us if we would appear in the ship's company concert. Oh yes, of course, we said. Why not? Little did we realise that we were going to have to sing on stage. I mean I think I could do it very well today but in those days - ghastly - and Dorothy, she sang the Carmen Miranda song and would you believe it I sang songs like "fish got to swim, birds have to fly, I have to love one man till I die." and my boyfriend was in the wings! Oh boy! It really was wonderful.

Later on we were in pantomime and I have a photo of myself as a fairy, would you believe. They were all written by a delightful man called Bill Machen who was a Manchester cotton dealer, very much older than us. He took us under his wing. He had been in the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service in the First World War. He was so kind to we youngsters. We were so naive just straight from school almost. I well remember him saying to us - you know not all men are very nice, be careful and you must remember who you are, sort of thing. We were lucky with the people who were there and with these ship's company concerts. They really were hilarious, especially if they could get the CO. up on the stage.

An unexpected end came to my time at Donnibristle. I had two accidents in one day which put paid to my flying. The first was when our aircraft landed in a corn field, having run out of petrol. That wasn't very pleasant. We weren't seriously hurt but we were very badly shaken. We got a lift back to our quarters in an army transport but it had an accident on the way back. I was away then for a whole year.

After that they didn't know quite what to do with me and I went to Greenwich to get my commission. We were bombed out and sent to Buckinghamshire. After that, because I had done radar - it was known as radar by this time - I was sent up to Glasgow to a ship being fitted out in the Clyde. I had never done secretarial work and I was to be the Captain's secretary in what they called the CB office (confidential books) and my officer was Donald Carmichael who eventually I married. I thought he was awful. He first of all said to me would I like him to show me around, would I like a drink and, of course, I said I would love a drink. That was a very different kind of work. I wasn't cut out to be a secretary. I didn't know anything about it and in fact got into terrible hot water because the Commander from Greenock called up one day and asked to speak to my officer and I said would you hold on please. Now you don't say 'hold on' to a senior officer like that.. The work was quite interesting but of course, a lot of the excitement had gone out of life by that time. We went down the Clyde and visited ships. On board one of the 'Queens' I was given, believe it, a case of tomato ketchup and a pair of nylons, - both unobtainable during the war. That work really wasn't quite so exciting as the flying. After the war ended I had meant to stay on in the Wrens, which I could have done, and then along with 2 or 3 other girls we put an advertisement in the 'Scotsman' and we put 'refined young ladies'! I got an answer would I like to be housekeeper in South Uist so I went out to the Outer Hebrides. And that was the end of the war.


Squegger � a simple generator of radio frequencies. It would have provided a reference signal for aerial alignment

The invention of the Magnetron heralded the use of 10cm RADAR. This permitted detection of the Schnorkel, hitherto successfully used by U Boats to avoid detection by existing, longer wavelength, RADAR. R V Jones, in "Most Secret War", writes that this crucial advantage was expected to last for a few month�s before the Germans became aware of it. To prolong this period the Allies "let it be known" that they had developed an infra-red detector. This diverted the enemy into developing an infra-red absorbent paint instead of putting maximum effort on centimetric RADAR. The German Admiral D�nitz said this episode changed the balance in the battle of the Atlantic.