When I first became aware of radar, then referred to as “radiolocation”, I was aged 20 and approaching the end of a degree course in geology at University College, London, which was at the time (1941) evacuated to Aberystwyth on account of the College having been bomb damaged. I had had my call-up to the armed forces (normally obligatory at my age) deferred on the grounds that I was taking a science degree, but by early summer 1941 I was looking around for an acceptable military niche into which I could volunteer myself.
What motivated me to write to the Air Ministry to enquire about posts in radiolocation work I do not know, but on 30 July 1941 I received a polite reply stating “Radiolocation duties demand an intimate knowledge of highly specialised apparatus. This does not appear to be amongst your qualifications …”.
It was not, so I next applied myself to enquiring about survey duties with the Royal Engineers, in which my ex-professor (WBR King) had become Chief Geologist. Professor, at that time Major, King was well disposed to me as a former student who had done well in his exams and pulled strings which I was reasonably hopeful would have found me a place in a survey unit of the Royal Engineers, a much sought-after job, although it would not have been as a geologist. The relevance to myself was that the survey experience which would have been provided was regarded as being of value to a geological career.
When I was about to commit myself to this route, however, I received a letter from the army recruitment service which I later discovered, or rather was told, had been sent to all 1941 male science graduates, the theory being that since they had had the application to complete a science degree they would also have the application to cope with what was proposed, irrespective of their training to date.
The proposal was to undertake a 3-month high-powered crash course in anti aircraft radiolocation equipment. At this stage of the war such equipment was being mass produced, but there was a requirement firstly for its field deployment and thereafter for constant attention to nurse it through its numerous malfunctions and update it with the many modifications required as the technology developed. There was hence an urgent need to conjure up a cadre of informed army electronics technicians.
Recruits to the Ack Ack Radio School joined as civilians on a pay of £25 per month plus a digs allowance, and assuming successful completion of the course were then commissioned into the RAOC (Royal Army Ordnance Corps) as RMOs (Radio Maintenance Officers). RMOs started with the rank of 2nd Lieutenant at 12 shillings and 2 pence (£0.513) per day and had no military training – even on how to salute or return a salute (an immediate requirement for a 2nd Lieutenant) – before direct posting to AA gun sites or army workshops.
In autumn 1941 I attended Course 20 at the AA Radio School at Petersham, London, billeted in a hotel in Richmond, where I shared a room with John Sutton, later to become Professor of Geology at Imperial College. The course was certainly high powered; in fact to keep abreast of it I found myself studying at least as hard and often harder than during my geology finals, which I had thought not possible. In this I was not exceptional – the atmosphere was stimulating and morale amongst an already well-educated group of students was high.
Wisely it was assumed that this mixed bag of zoologists, botanists, mathematicians…