15083 GCI Training and Action
In order to understand the level and detail of 21 BDS training, it is useful to view the training given to the sister BDS which landed on the beaches of Normandy.
24 BDS was composed of similar units as those attached to 21 BDS and the principal GCI unit that landed was 15083. Listed below is a most informative account of the training, preparation and landing that 15083 achieved on the beaches of Gold. It is written by Sqn Ldr R H McCall, officer commanding GCI 15083.
RAF 15083 GCI Station – D-Day, Normandy 1944
In September 1943, a small number of mobile radar stations were formed at RAF Chigwell, being intended to serve as night fighter control stations in overseas operations. The writer of this note was given command of No. 15083 unit which included controllers, radar operators and mechanics, signals staff, and some very essential back-up trades.
Most of those concerned had been serving in radar stations throughout the UK. 15083 and the other similar units were sent for initial training at Renscombe Down in Dorset, whose inhabitants were terrified for three weeks by the officers and other ranks, all of whom, amongst other things, had to learn to drive heavy vehicles. Only four of the unit’s men, then about 24 but more later, couldn’t even drive a car, let alone a lorry. In addition to stores, we took over lorries, water bowsers, diesel power wagons, operations rooms, transmitting and receiving aerials and signals vehicles. By D-Day, the total was 25 heavy vehicles and one Jeep. The three-ton Crossley lorries had double gear boxes and two of the aerial vehicles were high and unbalanced. By some extraordinary good luck, after three weeks at Renscombe Down, the Dorset hills and Swanage streets had seen no serious accident!
15083 was then sent on a special mission. The 1943 bombing offensive on London had opened; we were sent to Blankets Farm near North Ockendon in the Thames Valley to camp for the winter and to control night fighters at heights above 15,000 feet – the London guns being free to fire up to that height.
We learned a lot that Winter! It was the start of “window”, used by the RAF over Germany in the summer of 1943, and used against us in the Winter. Our radar screens were badly fogged with false blips. We spent the winter in bell tents at Blankets Farm with a marquee for our most important work, eating! I was told that we were the only unit in any of the services which spent the whole Winter under canvas in the UK. This led to our becoming enterprising and club-like.
15083 had been issued by Chigwell with standard rations of blankets and paraffin stoves, which “rations” were devised on the basis that all units using such housing and heating were camping for short periods in the Summer and Autumn, and would be indoors for the Winter. 15083’s sudden emergency posting to the Thames marshes for the Winter just did not fit.
Repeatedly, in response to our pleas for better warmth, Chigwell equipment officers showed us the official regulations stating the allowances. We became enterprising because 2 paraffin stoves – for one whole unit – and two blankets for each man were not something with which we would put up! Friends were made in the stores and sympathy aroused, and the “enemy” dexterously diverted whilst 15083’s best scouts borrowed some stoves and blankets. Shortly after that “attack”, exciting news arrived. Chigwell was on fire! The cry went up: “We must save the stores”, and a first aid “stores saving party” left within minutes of the news arriving; chief boarder my No. 2, Flt Lt Frank Lissimore. In those conditions, a magnificent save of stores was made and the unit was never thereafter short of stoves, blankets and cooking equipment.
Two things stand out as memories of that quite tough Winter assignment. First, the cook, Corporal Johnson, was quite the most popular man in 15083. His fried bread, sausages and beans cannot be forgotten!! Secondly the unit, perhaps long ahead of its time, developed an esprit de corps based on friendliness and understanding between all ranks. Discipline was excellent, morale was quite outstanding… we never had anything other than every man doing his utmost for the work and life of 15083.
We had devised, quite intentionally, a system under which in the evening at the local pub all mixed together and on christian names terms (although I seemed to be addressed by rank or just “CO how about a game of darts?”). I was criticised much later on because my unit had a “soft” approach to formal discipline, but I had seen no way of getting through that Winter and building the first class team we needed without some thoughtfully and planned de-rigidising of the officer/men approach.
15083 could not be drilled by numbers; we had an operational fighter control unit which vitally depended on the complex equipment being ready every night and the operators being ready to use their intelligence to the utmost in reading the tube. When a fault arose on the tube or on the other parts of the radar, you could not order the mechanics to mend it by half-past two; the repair was made by their ingenuity in discovering a fault in a complex which was in most senses still in its infancy. But occasionally a kick on the set in the right place sufficed! Indeed by D-Day our equipment was so complex that the number of mechanics with the ability to maintain it in good condition to operate was less than 10 in the whole country. I remember Corporal Milner (note his rank), who I was told at Wing HQ was probably the best 10cm radar mechanic anywhere in the world. Thus intelligent and happy conditions for all ranks were essential to develop and to hold the skills of the unit. We were enormously helped by an enthusiastic technical officer, Geoff Harpur from Toronto, and a cheerful, outgoing, good mixer in my No. 2, Frank Lissimore from Norwich, who was in addition much the best of us in controlling on the tube.
At Midwinter, 15083 was sent for a week to Troon in Ayrshire for commando training, which included practice landings from the sea. We had much earlier had battle training with the Scots Guards in Buckinghamshire, in which battle drill included the use of live ammunition dropping ahead of us.
A few of our best men were knocked out and lost to the unit through eating bad food; but some of the Scots Guards were nearly knocked out through over-zealous training. I had urged that one of my best mechanics should not be allowed to shoot on the range at High Wycombe as he could not see the hill behind the range, let alone the targets. “Oh, that’s all right, we have men with flags on top of the hill”. However, in a few minutes, the duty guardsmen on the hill could been seen running for their lives. My man was deemed “unshootable” .
Another bad mark for the unit was when Frank Lissimore took a party off to bathe in the local baths, but too enthusiastic driving of our lorry wrote off a London bus. All in a good cause and no one hurt, but the CO was surprised to discover that, while no one worried him about the bus, there was hell to pay over the misuse of RAF petrol!
At some time in early 1944, I was asked to meet Wing Commander Read from our Group HQ at SHAEF. He told me the nature of the operation for which our units were being trained and asked me if I would like 15083 to be considered for a very key role which had been assigned to another of the units but which was deemed unfit. I responded most strongly in the affirmative, particularly stressing that we were a team and a totally happy one. Then, or just afterwards, I was given a code word which was in use to distinguish those with early briefing about ‘Neptune’ and ‘Overlord’ from those not so briefed. No one else on the unit was so briefed but it was obvious to all that the summer would see us on a major landing from the sea somewhere.
In the Spring, preparations for the invasion intensified with operations “Fabius” and “Trousers”. One was an embarkation at Southampton and landing at Bracklesham Bay, all smooth and easy; and the other an embarkation from Southampton and landing over the shingle beach at Slapton Sands in Devon. This last had problems and the memory is still clear of a three-ton Crossley, badly stuck in the shingle and liable to capsize, at the very moment when the highest ranking commanders went by in a jeep. For this exercise we were ‘waterproofed’, i.e. all vehicles sealed against sea water which meant they ran very hot until de-sealed.
The run up to Chigwell after this exercise was a horrible experience. Vehicles were breaking down for short spells all up the steep Devon hills, with our inexperienced drivers doing their best but occasionally having to be rescued by the CO or one of his experienced drivers going to and fro in the jeep. Somehow, the whole unit trickled into Chigwell at one, two and three in the morning, albeit many traffic lights on the North Circular were taken at red.
This Slapton Sands exercise taught 15083 a great deal and in particular that we must work up a set of written instructions telling everyone exactly what to do to set up the station on site, and perhaps particularly important, the order of doing it. There were no written instructions from above, none whatsoever. It was about this time that the unit was sent off to Army stores at Wembley to pick up khaki uniforms. So we had Canadian khaki uniforms and great coats with Belgian buttons and RAF rank stripes and flashes etc. The uniforms had been issued to Free Belgians and then recovered when they were able to don their own. So we got them and odd we looked.
Finally we were sent for special training in our newest radar, 10cm, at Pevensey GCI Station. We got through the Blackwell Tunnel with 2 inches to spare by letting the tyres of our two tallest vehicles down to a minimum and stopping to pump them up when through. At Pevensey, we had a good many nights when the night fighters could fly for long periods and we worked up our latest gear. But the strain on the key people in the unit was intense, little if any sleep by night, and the CO and his driver scouring the country by day in search of spare tyres for the vehicles, steel tow ropes and other missing essentials. Without these, the RN would not allow us on the landing craft. There had developed a desperate shortage of these key things and it was a case of hunting them down at store depots.
On a morning in May 1944, 15083 received the order to move from Pevensey to Old Sarum, taking in a practice landing at Gosport Hards on the way, because doubts had arisen as to whether 15083 could in fact get into two LCTs as planned. The CO can still feel the strain and tiredness of that awful 24 hours. The whole station had to be packed by nightfall, all radar and signals equipment dismantled and all stores packed in the vehicles in their planned order and position.
Like a family on holiday, we had more than we were planned to have, and more than the vehicles could swallow without much re-packing, including a few personal items the men had managed to secrete here and there. We started after dark on the journey to Hampshire and Wiltshire, dimmed side-lights only, no headlights whatsoever. The convoy was led by the CO’s jeep driven by him and his driver taking turns at going to sleep at the wheel. In the early hours, not only did a bad mist slow us down but it was quite exceptionally cold for the time of year. Careful navigation was needed to ensure that the high vehicles were taken off the route where low bridges were sited. Low meant anything under 14 feet and there were some.
Alas, after all our efforts to avoid low bridges, as we entered the Hards at Gosport, we drove under an entrance screen of camouflage, very high and very odd to look at. Careful mapping had enabled me to warn the drivers of the high vehicles of road bridge hazards, but no one had thought to warn us of the camouflage screen which was under 14 feet but not so marked. We were too tired to spot the danger in time, and our most essential high aerial vehicle of all had its aerial wrecked. Not much obvious damage but enough to make a skilled repair necessary. There were only three of these aerials in existence, 15083’s, one on our sister unit on the American beach force and one in store. The last we collected at Old Sarum. However, the practice landing on our two LCTs went perfectly and we fitted on with inches to spare between vehicles. We were, in fact, warmly congratulated on skilfull backing into position with no delays, the logistic people from SHAEF having come to the Bards with the worry that they would have to find an extra landing craft. Vehicles must be backed on to LCTs in order to be able to come off the ramp at the bow.
After a couple of days marshalling at Old Sarum, we were directed to Fareham where 15083 spent two nights and days in a residential street of large houses, whilst waterproofing and other work was done to our vehicles. We were under strict orders not to go into any of the houses, and to accept no hospitality. Security was the order of the day. We were required to stay with our vehicles and to sleep, in or under them. This was the reason why a future Hampshire Town Clerk discovered that there was one comfortable place to sleep if your bed was in, under or over an overloaded jeep, namely the gutter against which one could put one’s shoulder and tuck up very nicely! But it is suspected that some of the men had baths, and whiskies and sodas. We heard one resident grumble “Another bally(!) exercise, why can’t they go and do something?” We did; up the road to Roche Court, where with a whole Canadian tank brigade and other units, we were locked in behind huge barbed-wire fences and machine gun guarded gates. No one was allowed out of this camp for any reason or purpose whatsoever. We had some amusing times trying to explain our unusual battle dress etc with RAF marks of rank.
Here at Roche Court, the whole unit was completely briefed on “Overlord” and shown models and maps of our landing beach and our projected site. To enable our radar transmitters to operate at low heights, a certain configuration of the ground must be sought and we were astonished to find that the site had been chosen as a result of mapping the gradients in the villages near the beach at five feet intervals. Our site had been beautifully chosen and looked ideal; with one snag. In the last day or two an aerial photograph suggested there might be a ditch at the only place where a heavy vehicle could enter the field. We were accordingly told to try to collect two railway sleepers, or more, to put across the ditch to make a temporary bridge. We found the sleepers, and an already grossly overloaded Crossley was further burdened.
Roche Court was slightly unreal – unnerving. We all knew that the next few days would see us in Hitler’s France. But morale was wonderful. No one doubted that we could get there, the training had established in our minds almost a routine operation in which each of us had a tiny part to play. Air activity was very light and the weather was good. The food was not so good so we wanted to go. We were issued with our escaping kits, silk maps of France, phrases in various languages, forged money and two trouser buttons which worked together as a compass (if you felt able to cut them off your trousers). We were issued with a small box of emergency rations – not readily forgotten!
Early in the morning of Saturday 3rd June, we drove out of Roche Court to the Gosport Hards. All went smoothly and the front of the convoy was embarked when the news reached me that our most overloaded Crossley had blown a gasket and was broken-down a mile up the road from the Hard. My jeep was already embarked. Orders went to Titchfield Stores Depot, which was holding large stocks of waterproofed replacement vehicles for these emergencies, which were expected. I realised that the task of emptying the failed vehicle and reloading in the roadway with an endless stream of convoys approaching would be difficult and decided to get to the spot. My attempts to get a lift failed, everyone was busy with their own unit problems. A bicycle was leaning against a fence. I took it and sped off. I heard a shout “Soldier, you’ve taken my bike”. I shouted “I’m not a soldier”. Within half an hour of my arrival at the breakdown, the Titchfield replacement had arrived and we loaded it in about fifteen minutes, the railway sleepers taking some stowing.
I was horrified about the delay to our LCT but need not have worried. We were taken out and round to the mouth of Southampton Water where parts of the Mulberry Harbour was near us. We spent two complete days on our jam-packed landing craft.
On the Sunday, the message came through to me that the operation had been put back for 24 hours owing to the weather. The radios echoed to “Don’t fence me in” and “Mairsy Doats and Dosey Doats and Little Lambs eat Ivy” and other such classics. Some wrote letters and some just slept, where they could. To get round the LCT to talk to the men I had to clamber over or under vehicles… up and down and round about. There was no room in between. The people took the postponement in a quiet and reflective mood. It did make a slight dent in morale which had been so good. It opened an uncertainty which up to that point had been missing. But it gave a last opportunity to check on all preparations including the reading by every man of the detailed written instructions which we prepared as to what each must do in the station assembly and the order of doing the operations. It gave time also to read the inspiring message from the Commander in Chief of the Allied Expeditionary Force which was given to each man on the landing craft.
On Monday 5th June, I received the signal that the operation was on, and that evening we steamed out. During the night and in the early hours lines of destroyers and other craft passed us, an intensely moving experience. We were among the last units to be landed on the beaches on D-Day and therefore were to be the tail of the immense force of ships.
My memory of the ensuing 24 hours is vivid but very patchy because of the need to concentrate on jobs on hand. I spent a lot of time getting round to the men to deal with those who were seasick in particular. The sea had become choppy, and conditions in the LCTs were not good. Alas, our leading M/T mechanic, Joe Mackinson, lost his false teeth whilst vomiting over the side, thus further reducing his diet! But the efficiency of SHAEF was such that he got a replacement set for Joe in about two days! By bad luck, three of my best drivers (two of them key mechanics) were the most affected by seasickness. Offshore, we saw the rockets streaming up from the launchers and heard and saw shell fire, with heavy shells from HMS Rodney or Nelson passing overhead. At one point, waiting offshore a cruiser hove to and we heard a minor but friendly altercation over the megaphones as to why we were waiting offshore instead of going in. We had approached the cruiser to ask to be allowed to land and not to wait any longer. But we nearly collided with the larger ship and we heard over the megaphone, in no uncertain terms, to “get that goddam craft away from here”. So much for going in early. We saw lines of tanks and other vehicles moving slowly, very slowly, up the hills. Owing to the scale of our wide view and the curious light that day, everything looked small and slow. One felt how small we were in this gigantic mass of movement.
I was ready in due course with my measured pole with which I was required to go forward when we reached the point of disembarkation to measure the depth of the water. If over 2’6″ I must require the LCT to move in closer. In fact, the Navy had done a good job and my rod measured an inch or two under mark. We drove off through the water and up the beach in quite good order but the beach was still mined in part. However, the Jeep in which sat our two Group Staff Officers (W Commanders Brown and Mawhood) led off our 2nd LCT a little ardently and driving over a low spot only the heads and shoulders of the occupants showed above the sea. The amusement thus caused eased the tension! I reported to Beach Control, our landing time approximately 1545. There were casualties still lying on the beach in mine fields, some certainly dead being men who had joined us in the pre-invasion exercises. Huge tracked vehicles were pulling broken down trucks out of the water; two wrecked landing craft – German prisoners being marched back to the beach. Poppies were visible all over an adjoining field.
We had a problem immediately after leaving the beach when we met a long convoy of ambulances and other RAMC vehicles coming back from the front with the first casualties. Then we started up the lanes through two villages, Ver-sur-Mer and Meuvaines, to our site, if we could find it!
Our site was easy to find and proved perfect in every way except two. First, there were tanks in it facing in two directions ready to deal with an expected German counter attack. They said the enemy was “just over there” pointing to a nearby wood and that they might have to fire across the site. I said my order was clear, to set up at once which I was going to do. But the second difficulty was that the grass was waiting for hay, long in places and cables around our site, providing power from the diesels to the radar and signals vehicles, were hidden in the grass. It was imperative that the tanks should not drive over our cables. I had to summon up my poor old pre war French, find the farmer and persuade him or her to brave the tanks and cut the grass immediately, or at least those parts near the cables. I succeeded, much to my surprise, and my three or four “Voulex vous coupez ces…grass…ces?” were met with “Ces herbes Capitaine!”
The station began to take shape but, at a key moment when we were ready for a particularly tricky piece of lifting and fitting, Wing Commander Brown from Group HQ interfered and demanded to know why some men were waiting and not doing anything. “You are not shouting at your men… it is all too slow”. My efforts to explain that our written orders at that point provided for eight men to lift an aerial into position and that if they were ordered over to something else the continuity of our assembly would be broken and indeed the key aerial delayed fell on quite deaf ears. There was an unpleasant half hour, at the end of which I told the Wing Commander that he had no right to give orders to my men.
By dark, we had one operations room working but with faults still on the other aerials or sets. We took over our first night fighter, and, at about or just after midnight, our second frequency came on the air in fairly reasonable conditions and able to control. We were not able to find the fault on the third frequency until next day. At one point, Canadian Sgt Bews climbed the Type 15 aerial, in the pitch dark, to make adjustments and was nearly run over by a FW190 which came over a few feet above him and nearly swept him from his perch.
The RAF Official History, Vol III “The Fight is Won” describes the landing of the two GCIs in these words (page 113):
“As D-Day wore on, the controllers of the night fighters, which were to provide protection during the hours of darkness, went ashore. The first Echelon of No. 21 Base Defence Sector Control had made an attempt to land at 1130 in the morning (on the US Army beach at Omaha), but was met with machine gun fire and withdrew until five in the afternoon. It then went in again, but many of its vehicles, driven into over four feet of water, were drowned when they encountered a deeper patch. Only eight remained serviceable, though a number of others were subsequently salvaged. After further tribulation and much exertion, the unit was established in the small hamlet of Les Moulins, but was not able to come into action for four days.
The advance elements of No 24 Base Defence Sector, including No 15083 Ground Control Interception Unit drawn from No 85 Group, were more fortunate. Landing near Meuvaines at about noon, it was intended to be ready to control night fighters that same evening. By the time night had fallen and the Luftwaffe made a series of spasmodic attacks on the shipping and beaches, the sector, despite technical difficulties, was in operation, though able to control only one fighter at a time”.
15083 did not land at noon. It was long after 3.30 in the afternoon and, if the Beach Control book still exists, it should record my report of landing then. We reached our site in the early evening and had every single element of the station in position with all equipment fitted by 10.30 pm or 2230. The faults which delayed operational use of two of the frequencies were in delicate parts of the radar equipment which had been subject to the rough treatment of our crossing and landing, and two of the mechanics were not in the best of shape for much of that day.
This note has been written to record how a highly-trained and most happy unit overcame many difficulties and did in fact control night fighters from the Normandy coast on the night of D-Day 6th June 1944.
R H McCall
Squadron Leader RAFVR Retired
Commanding No. 15083 GCI in June 1944
Order 280240B stating in broad terms the operational duties of 15083 GCI, i.e. to protect the Mulberry Harbour at Arromanches against high and low level bombing.
For the information of all Controllers, it is pointed out that the siting of 15083 in this area was to give the Harbour at Arromanches adequate protection against high and medium level bombing. This is an AEAF policy, and to implement it, night fighters under the control of 15083 must be patrolled to the south and east to guard against this form of attack. If, by chance, a suitable low target should present itself for interception, it may be pursued, providing the cover referred to above is not reduced appreciably. Further, patrols for purposes other than the protection of the Mulberry are not to be undertaken by 15083 GCI.
15121 GCI is being sited to carry out those interception patrols that do not come within the scope of 15083 GCI as outlined above.
Signed D W G Mawhood
Record of 15083 Night Fighter Control RAF Unit
Landed on ‘King Red’ Beach at 16.40 hours
Operational at 23.00 hours
Grid Ref WT 882847 Meuvaines, Normandy
Defence of Beach Head and sea approaches
Destroyed 47 & 1 VI
|18th Aug to Sep 15
Crepon, Normandy Grid Ref WT 918828
Defence of Mulberry and sea approaches
Probables and Damaged Nil
to 6th Oct
Dieppe, Normandy Grid Ref VM 295674
Defence of Dieppe
11th Oct operation to 6th Feb
Lille, Normandy, France
Grid Ref VM 702286
Defence of land approaches to Channel Ports and supplies to Dunkirk
Operating in conjunction with 6342 LWS
Type 15 15083 Unit standing by to move at Panningen, Holland
Grid Ref CE 760043
Defence of Maas crossings and bridges
to 15th [April]
Aldekirk, Germany Grid Ref R 083175
Defence of bases for Rhine crossings and bridges
Kirboitzen, Germany Grid Ref 164716
Defence of approaches to Bremen and Weser Bridges
Operational to 28th April 1945
15083 Unit retired to Brussels until VE Day
Total Destroyed 61 plus 1 VI