Interview with James Burdin


Interview with James Burdin


James Burdin went at Hutton Grammar School and worked on radio repair and sales. He volunteered for the Royal Air Force but had to wait and joined the Local Defence Volunteers instead. He did some rifle practice, general infantry training and patrols. James had his initial training at Blackpool where the winter gardens had been converted into a Morse school. Owing his background in radio, he later went to work on radar: he discusses his postings at different training establishments and provides details of radar technical advances, installation, modify and repair, vulnerability and equipment mobility. James served in mobile equipment units in Algeria (Operation Torch), Tunisia, Egypt, Normandy (D-Day landings), crossing of the Rhine, Netherlands (Operation Market Garden), Mauthausen camp (Operation Meerschaum). Discusses the end of the war, continuing to work at 4 Maintenance Unit at RAF Ruislip developing equipment, components and technologies. He then worked at the Technical Research Establishment until demobilised in 1947.
After an unsuccessful attempt to run his family business, he applied for the civil service and worked until 1985 on radar development, auto triangulation, Cathode-Ray Direction Finder, Identification Friend or Foe, infrared devices, laser and chain radar stations.




Temporal Coverage




01:51:55 audio recording


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CB: My name is Chris Brockbank and today is Monday the 6th of February 2017 and I’m in Longton near Preston with James Roy Burdin and we’re going to talk about his work in the RAF in the war largely to do with radar. What is your earliest recollection of life Roy?
JRB: Living on our small holding in Longton and helping my dad from a very early age with his, with his work on the small holding.
CB: And where did you go to school?
JRB: I started school at five I think I would be. I’d be five when I went to Longton, Longton Primary School. That’s not a very satisfactory [question?] is it? You know, the local village school. Longton Primary School and I was there until I was, I went in for the scholarship examination as we called it then. It was before the eleven plus day and it was virtually the entry to grammar school. Only the ones that the teachers at school thought had a chance were put in for the exam because we had to go to Preston to sit the examination and I passed and was awarded a place at Hutton Grammar School and I studied there for the school, for the, what did they call it in those days? It wasn’t the GCE was it? The equivalent of today’s GCE anyway and I I passed that and got my certificate for that but there was no question in those days, very few people went on to further education after that. For one thing I knew that there wasn’t money in the family to support me to go on to university or anything of that sort even if I’d been eligible for it so I I left school with that qualification and it was at the time of the big Depression in the ‘30s and jobs were very difficult to get but eventually I went to work for a small business in Preston. Radio repair and sales. Just a one man business [at that point?] but that didn’t last very long because the main trouble was that it was I had to use a bus to get into Preston. Although I’d only been with this situation for a short time the proprietor usually had calls to make on his way down to work from his home in Longridge and I was left to open up the shop although very inexperienced at the time and very often he’d be out either delivering or collecting radio sets for repair until quite late at night and the shop hours were very long anyway so my dad thought that I was, shall we say, I don’t know how to put it really. Anyway, my dad thought that I would be better off coming and helping on the, on the small holding so I went to the agricultural, or horticultural rather, training station at Hutton and took their course which was only a short course and I continued working on the holding. We had greenhouses and market garden mostly and orchards and it was quite a pleasant life but not exactly a pot of gold, you know but I was doing that until, until the war started and eventually of course as I said before, I think, I joined, I volunteered for the RAF.
CB: Why did you choose the RAF rather than one of the other forces?
JRB: Well, some of my ex schoolmates discussed it all and we thought that the RAF would be a good unit to, to get into. We thought the conditions were better for one thing and you wouldn’t get involved in the dreadful trench warfare of the previous, previous war which everybody expected might recur again and so it was actually at the time of Dunkirk that I realised, I seemed to have rather a blank in a way about the international situations and that sort of thing and I wasn’t very, very quick to realise the danger that Germany was presenting to the, to the world and when the near disaster occurred at Dunkirk and the Germans were more or less on our frontier I decided it was time to, to join up so that’s when I volunteered for the RAF. When I first went for my interviews for the RAF they said, ‘Well there will be a, a gap. We won’t take you right away. We’ll call you at a bit later date.’ So in the meantime the, what became known as the Home Guard but started off as the Local Defence Volunteers was formed and I joined the local group and we did a bit of rifle practice and general infantry training really and we had a patrol on Longton Marshes. We did a night patrol down there and from there we could see the, the German bombing of Liverpool but of course we were a little country district so we didn’t attract any of the, of the bombs and I I was with that until the RAF called me up and then -
CB: When did they do that?
JRB: I was posted to Blackpool and billeted in one of the boarding houses there. We, we were kitted out and given basic training, foot drill and all that sort of thing on the promenades at Blackpool and the Winter Gardens became a Morse school. It was all fitted out with tables with Morse keys and that was where a lot of the air crew in the RAF got their Morse training. As I mentioned to you my speed didn’t build up satisfactorily on Morse. I could, I could learn the code easy enough but I couldn’t get, I wasn’t confident enough to get any speed up and so they said, well there’s a new branch opening up and since you’ve had experience of radio repair work and actually radio had always been my hobby right from school days so they said, I think they said, ‘Do you know what a supersonic hetrodyne is?’ So I had to tell them that which a lot of people didn’t know and that got me on to the, it was, it was highly secret at the time, nobody would mention the word RDF which was our original name for the, what became known as Radar. It wasn’t until the Americans came in that they started calling it Radar but to us it was RDF which was Radio Detection Finding. So there was some delay in starting the course that I was destined to go on and in the meantime I was sent over to a place called Bircham Newton which was a Coastal Command station on the Norfolk coast and I spent some months there waiting for my course to be organised and there I was just doing ordinary general duties. You know just, it was a sort of a standby position but I saw quite a bit of the, the Coastal Command life and I was there when the, what do you call it? I’m not very good at this I’m afraid. I was there when the Fleet Air Arm, I think they were Gladiators. Would they be Gladiators?
CB: Yeah.
JRB: Or would they be -?
CB: Yeah. No. They’d be Swordfish.
JRB: Swordfish probably. The old, the old biplane.
CB: Swordfish.
JRB: I was there when they dropped in at our station to refuel and have a break and a meal before taking off to bomb the German battleships.
CB: Oh Scharnhorst and Gneisenau.
JRB: Yeah. And of course most of them were lost anyway on that raid. So I was there at that time. And then I was sent to London to join a course at Battersea Polytechnic on general radio principles and that type of thing and at the time we were billeted in premises that the RAF had taken over next door to the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square so we had the whole place taken over and converted into RAF billets really. We were taken each day by coach to Battersea to do the course at what later became London University or part of London University. The end of that course I was posted to Yatesbury on Salisbury Plain and that was the first glimpse we got of radar equipment or RDF equipment. They had obviously, they’d got the school all set up there and they’d got the equipment, the transmitters, receivers and ancillary equipment for a radar station and we studied there for several months and on, on passing out there it was practically Christmas time. This would be in ‘41 wouldn’t it?
CB: Ahum.
JRB: So we were all posted to our various units and my friend and I got postings to St Bride’s in the Isle of Man. So we duly arrived at Liverpool expecting to get a sailing across to the Isle of Man but they said, ‘Oh, no more boats sailing until after Christmas. You’d better have Christmas leave.’ So we weren’t displeased about that and went off home. He to Manchester where his home was and I to Longton. And on reporting back again, beginning of January they said, ‘You’re not going to the Isle of Man anymore. You’re going down to a place called Ruislip near London.’ So we went down to Ruislip and reported there to find that it was a small unit that was building up convoys into radar stations. The, the equipment, the transmitters and receivers and other equipment were made by commercial firms obviously such as Metro Vickers, they made transmitters and Cossors and other people made receivers and so on but I think the reason they were scattered about in that way was because they didn’t want the people to know what it all, put together, what it all became when it was assembled together. Anyway, we, that was our job. To, to set up mobile radars ready for going overseas mostly. I seemed to gravitate to, to being on the transmitters which were a very massive piece of equipment made by Metro Vickers of Manchester and they were about two tonnes a piece. Well we had to manhandle those into, into vans which were on the old Crossley vehicles of which the RAF had a lot. Big hefty thumping old, old type vehicles and they, they had bodies specially made at Park Royal body builders and so on at, at London. So we had to receive these by road from the manufacturers and manhandle them with crowbars and and whatever equipment we needed to get them in to place in these vehicles. Then we had to tune them up to the required frequency and check their output and all the functions and alongside us the receivers were being treated in a similar manner. And a convoy would consist of a transmitter vehicle, receiver vehicle, a trailer for the antennae and the wooden towers which they used for the transmitters, for the signal for the aerials for the transmitters so altogether there would be oh and there would be a diesel generator on a, on a separate trailer and all that together would form a radar station and after, after us doing all the tests and cabling all the connections and everything they would be sent off to wherever the army or the RAF wanted them. So I worked on that for quite a while. Do you want me to carry on in this –?
CB: Please do.
JRB: Yes.
CB: What was the crew, the number of people who would be on this crew for the convoy? How many people?
JRB: We never saw the full, we never saw it go out as a full unit. I don’t know how -
CB: Oh so you -
JRB: There would probably be, well you see with radar it would have to work pretty well twenty four hours a day so they’d have enough people to, to form crews to cover the twenty four hours and -
CB: So these were, you were able to move them around but what, what were they used for? Was it for training other people or were they used inland because the chain radar didn’t read inland?
JRB: Oh this, no this was, the chain radar was already in place.
CB: Yes.
JRB: Now the chain radar had heavier equipment still and the transmitters for that were pretty well built on sight, you know. They weren’t moveable really but that was operating because there had already been the Battle of Britain and the chain stations were very active during that time.
CB: Yeah.
JRB: But these were mobile convoys which would go overseas and wherever the theatre of war needed them they’d, they’d go but that didn’t, that didn’t tie up directly with the chain stations because as I say they were a very, a fixed, absolutely fixed installation.
CB: Yeah. And only -
JRB: They used, they used three hundred and sixty foot transmitter towers, steel towers and they used two hundred and forty foot receiver towers. You know, the chain system had fixed antennae which, looking back on it, it seems quite a primitive type of equipment to us but in its day it was the front of technology and we all thought we were very big stuff to be associated with it. But the purpose of the chain was to cover mostly the south and east coast although there were stations further, further afield along the coast. Every so many miles you would have a chain station and they all had to work together.
CB: So those were large and static. You’re using mobile but I thought, what I want -
JRB: These were, these were very static stations.
CB: Yes.
JRB: And of course the chain with these aerials and the frequency they worked on only looked one way.
CB: Yeah. Outwards.
JRB: The transmitter aerials or antennae were a fairly widespread beam. Not the, not the highly directed beam that we associated with higher frequency stations but the, the frequency they were working on was what we would consider very low today but obviously aerials of that sort couldn’t be swivelled around on a gantry. They had to be fixed. The receiver aerials likewise on separate towers were what I refer to as cross dipoles. That means to say that one aerial is north south and the other is east west and by using an instrument known as a Goniometer the operator on the receiver could swivel this knob that was a Goniometer which was graduated in degrees of the compass and could differentiate the direction from which the echo was coming. The whole system of radar of course as you are probably well aware is that you transmit a pulse and you measure the time it takes for that pulse to get back reflected from an aircraft or whatever, it might be a flock of seagulls and when you measure that, that time interval of the return trace you know since electromagnetic waves travel at the speed of light you know what the distance is so that’s how we were able to forecast the approach of bombers and the operators were largely recruited from the WAAFs and they became very adept at, at this work. From experience they could tell pretty well how many aircraft were involved. If it was a raid with say fifty aircraft in it they would be able to tell the controllers pretty well the size of the numbers involved in the raid which was very useful of course. So that was operational all during the Battle of Britain time and continued on right through the war actually but other forms of radar came along later on. Higher frequencies as you know with the, with the rotatable antennae. The first one I knew of that type was what we called CHL. That was Chain Low. CHL, Chain Low, because the original chain stations didn’t see the aircraft if it was quite low down so they wanted this other. Now that was on a higher frequency and it could detect aircraft at lower levels and also it used what we call a PPI which was a Planned Position Indicator tube which was a round tube. The original chain station drew a straight trace across the Cathode Ray tube and aircraft caused a downward deflection of that trace so it was like a V would form on the trace. That meant it was picking up a return signal.
CB: On the screen you mean?
JRB: Yeah, on the, on the -
CB: Cathode Ray tube.
JRB: Cathode Ray tube screen. Now the PPI, the aerials rotated and you had the display more like a map. It looked, as it swept around the, the location of your station was the centre point of the, of the tube and the trace would turn about it actually, axially so that you could get the direction and the distance of the incoming echo which was a big improvement really. I don’t think anybody would think of a radar receiver without that facility nowadays because now that we’re on much higher frequencies that is a generally accepted way of displaying it. So back to 4 MU at Ruislip where we were setting up the, the stations which were working on the same principal as the, as the chain station. They had fixed aerials and had the same drawbacks you might say as the, as the chain as the big chain stations but they were supposedly mobile but they were rather clumsy awkward things to, to consider as mobile. Then a lighter equipment called, what did you call them? [pause]. Anyway, it was a sort of a much more mobile and much more, much lighter equipment than the, than the forerunners and they started to arrive at Ruislip for us to set up and so there was a separate flight formed. B flight, which I was put into and we, we used to fit those into fifteen hundred weight trucks or vans and they had, they had a rotating aerial. They ran off a petrol generator which was adapted from a motorcycle engine I believe and then of course there was a receiver vehicle and the, the aerials were mounted up on the top of the same vehicle.
CB: Was the principal of these the same as chain? You weren’t on to parabolic aerials by then were you?
JRB: We’d got, we’d got a step forward on to higher frequency so that’s why we could use rotating aerials.
CB: Right. Rather than parabolic ones.
JRB: Yeah. And the whole equipment was very much lighter and more mobile than the previous one. Well some of these we were fitting into, into these fifteen hundred weight trucks which were very common in the army and the air force in those days and we also had, to accompany them, a jeep with the radio communications equipment so all told that made up a convoy which again were ready for going out to, well again they were used quite regularly in, in the desert and later on in, on the continent.
CB: So they’re main, mainly going to the desert were they in those days.
JRB: Yes.
CB: To North Africa in other words.
JRB: A lot went to North Africa and of course when we invaded D-Day at they went over to the continent with them and that was what I worked on for most my time there.
CB: So you were loading up these vehicles but who were the crews to look after them? Were you training the crews for the equipment or did they -
JRB: No. The crews -
CB: Come already trained?
JRB: The crews were trained at the radar schools, I expect. At Yatesbury and places like that you see. All we did was just put the convoys together and get them ready for operational use.
CB: And were they air force people who were running these radars or army?
JRB: Mostly air force I would say. Yeah. So that’s what we were doing.
CB: So they went to Algeria after the Torch landings and then on to Tunisia and then they were coming from the other end. That’s what you’re saying are you? In other words coming across the desert from Egypt.
JRB: Yes. So wherever radar was needed to follow up the forces. Of course the, being an RAF scheme it would be directing our aircraft where necessary to attack the enemy.
CB: And detecting the German attacks on the British forces.
JRB: Yes.
CB: Now you mentioned the fact that later version could the CHL gave you, gave the lower altitude detection. Was that only on the Gee, on the CH chain or was it on your mobile ones as well?
JRB: No. On the, on the mobiles as well. That was -
JRB: Various other equipments came along and they more or less all passed through our hands at Ruislip. I don’t know. I think we’ll have a break.
CB: Ok. We’ll have a break. Thank you.
[recording paused]
JRB: I don’t think I’m doing, completely ready to switch on.
CB: So in those days -
JRB: [When it left us?]
CB: In those days everything was done by using huge valves, well valves anyway, but big, how big were the valves that would be used in your mobile radars?
JRB: In the mobile, in the lighter one they were very much smaller. I should say about six inches tall. Something like that. Probably a bit less than that. More like four inches.
CB: Each valve.
JRB: But -
CB: Was the different, was there a difference in valve size between the transmitting part of the radar and the receiver?
JRB: Oh definitely.
CB: So how big were the transmitter ones?
JRB: Well the transmitter ones I’m talking about really.
CB: Oh right.
JRB: Because I had more to do with the transmitters than the receivers. For some reason I always seemed to be picked to be a transmitter man.
CB: Right.
JRB: And I quite enjoyed working on the transmitters. Of course they were using very high voltages and a lot of people didn’t want to know about them. They were a bit scared of them.
CB: Yeah.
JRB: We’d a, I remember on one occasion at Ruislip we had a, I don’t know what his rank would be but he was, he was Ministry of Defence and he was not exactly like a signals officer but he was, he was, he classed as an officer and he used to come around more or less overseeing what we were doing and one day I believe that he got a bit too near the high voltage and got himself knocked out but he came around again but the transmitting side you’d be talking about two thousand five hundred volts and that sort of thing you know which were really very lethal if you didn’t know what you were doing but anyway that’s -
CB: So what was the process? You mentioned earlier that the equipment was built by different companies so that it wasn’t obvious what the package was.
JRB: What it was going to be when it was all fitted together.
CB: So it arrived with you from the manufacturer. Then what did you and your colleagues do with all these parts?
JRB: Well as I say we fitted them in to the respective vehicles and did all the cabling and necessary inter-connections and tuned then up to the correct frequencies that was designated and that was about it.
CB: And with the convoys was -
JRB: Any, any, any faults we had to correct and put new parts in if necessary.
CB: And each convoy had a generator.
JRB: Each convoy had a generator.
CB: What, what was that and what was its capacity?
JRB: Well, the, the ones for the original mobiles, that is the ones that were very similar to a slightly smaller version of the, of the chain station the, the generator was a, I think it was a three cylinder Lister diesel engine driving a three phase generator. Quite a hefty piece of equipment and these particular diesels, diesel isn’t very easy to turn over by hand anyway but there were no self-starters on them. The only way to start them was by a crank handle and in cold weather in the winter it was very difficult to, to turn that handle around. In fact we resorted to tying ropes to it and having a couple of men on either end of the rope and push pull to get, to get it over the top dead centre of the starting point but that was that. We had to use whatever equipment was sent to us. I think these, like a lot of the wartime equipment I think it had been adapted from some civilian usage but the ones for the lightweight convoys they were much more manageable. They were a two cylinder horizontally opposed engine. I think they were a firm at Coventry called Climax I believe had those.
CB: Again, diesel was it?
JRB: That was, that was a petrol driven generator. It was adapted from a motorbike engine. Now going on from that eventually we, they were stepping up the frequencies anyway. It was always, always trying to find equipment which would work on a higher frequency which was preferable for radar purposes and also it meant that the aerial size was smaller and we were supposedly, the magnetron was developed which would, which would operate where the old, the old type valves wouldn’t and we could, we could use much higher frequencies with that.
CB: So the magnetron was the key to reducing the size of the kit was it?
JRB: That was the key, the key to improving the radar system altogether really.
CB: What was the key point about magnetron? It’s ability to handle high frequency?
JRB: Well it worked, it worked on an entirely new principal.
CB: Right.
JRB: It would be a bit too to difficult to explain [unclear] but it involved especially designed core which had a number of cavities on a cylindrical pattern and by, its difficult to explain really. By subjecting this to a very strong magnetic field you could get, you could develop an oscillation from it whereas an ordinary valve wouldn’t oscillate above a certain, certain frequency so that was, that was much, a big improvement for it.
CB: So that was the key to the centimetre wavelength.
JRB: Yeah.
CB: Now when you go first, fast forward now to D-Day, how was the equipment handled there? Packaged and handled.
JRB: Well, prior to D-Day we had a programme for water proofing equipment and we had to, we had to make up convoys which were swathed in [blue?] fabric and Bostik cement to keep the sea water from getting on to them but they were still in the same vehicles so they could only go in shallow water virtually. They weren’t on a tracked vehicle of any sort but we all got in a horrible mess with all this Bostik and stuff around and it got on to all our tools and you couldn’t pick a screwdriver up without sticking to it [laughs] but that apparently saved them from being damaged on the landings. I don’t say they went in at the very first landings but they’d have probably followed on very shortly afterwards. So that was, that was -
CB: Now -
JRB: D-Day.
CB: Was, were there two sizes of equipment all the time or was it simply that they were being made smaller as time went on? In other words was there a bigger one for longer range and the shorter one was for -
JRB: No.
CB: More tactical use.
JRB: I don’t think so. I don’t. I think I think the original mobiles were sort of gradually phased out. I think we went more on, on to the lighter weight ones. LW. Lightweight Receivers they were called and there was another occasion when we, when we had a special job. At some stage, I think it was before D-Day the Germans started a night bombing campaign which became known as the little blitz. I don’t know whether you’ve ever heard of that.
CB: Yeah. Yeah.
JRB: But the little blitz was designed to renew the, the bombing campaign against Britain, against London in particular and the Germans thought that they’d got an advantage because they’d developed a rear, a rear looking radar which they would fit to the tails of the bombers and so they could see our night fighters coming up from behind. ‘Cause as you probably know the object of downing a bomber is to put the rear gunner out of action first and then it’s the bomber’s a sitting duck virtually so with this they thought they could get away with it and come up behind our our aircraft and -
CB: So how did that link in with you?
JRB: Well I was going to say, [pause] just a minute I’ve got something [unclear].
CB: This is interesting because they actually lost -
JRB: Lost something there I think.
CB: They actually lost sixty percent of their aircraft in that mini blitz, so, shot down -
JRB: I’m not talking about our raids on Germany.
CB: No. No. We’re talking about their, their mini blitz.
JRB: Of the German’s raids -
CB: Final fling.
JRB: On this renewed bombing against London. Now -
RB: You were going to say something about Meershum the other day weren’t you? Is that to do with it?
CB: Did you get hold of one of these as a result of it being, the aircraft being shot down?
JRB: That was, wait a minute. I’ve got a bit lost I’m afraid.
CB: Ok. We’ll have a break.
RB: I’ll make another cup of –
[recording paused]
CB: So we’re just talking about the mini blitz and the fact that the Germans had got a rear facing radar detector.
JRB: That’s right.
CB: So what came out of that?
JRB: Now then, it turned out that the frequency that their rear, rear radar was working on was quite near to the frequency of our, some of our transmitters so we were asked to retune to get on to the German frequency and to put out a jamming signal which we did by modifying a transmitter so that instead of sending out the usual radar pulses it would send out a continuous noise signal which would block the display of the German rear radar and we always presumed that we were successful with that because we did a [panic?] programme, modifying equipment and setting it up. We went out on fitting parties along stations, the old chain station sites such as Pevensey, Pevensey and along the south coast and we went and fitted up this modified equipment in, in these mobile vans that we were using for the, the radar, anyway but instead of sending, you know that radar sends out a pulse from the transmitter and then it, it shuts off. It’s just a short pulse and you wait for the echo to come back. Well, now we were, we were asked to modify a transmitter so that instead of doing that it would send out a noise signal continuously and we set these stations up, mostly at the existing sites of chain stations and it wasn’t very long before the Germans called off their night raids so we always, we never got any direct feedback on it really but we always claimed that that had, that had influenced them in deciding to call it off and for some reason or other they named that Operation Meershum which of course is the name of a German type of pipe isn’t it?
CB: How is it spelled?
JRB: I think you spell it M E, M E, would it be M E E R S H U M or something like that. Meershum.
CB: Ok. We can look it up. So these mobile transmitters were placed where to achieve this?
JRB: They were sited on -
CB: On the CH stations.
JRB: Mostly the old, the old existing stations, you see.
CB: Yeah.
JRB: We were -
CB: Facing inwards.
JRB: Eh?
CB: Were they facing inwards in to the country these, these mobiles because they were on the back, the German radar was on the tail of their aircraft
JRB: They were -
CB: So to jam them they’d need to have, would they -?
JRB: Do you know I can’t quite remember.
CB: Was the idea to get the Germans before they reached the UK or more -
JRB: No. It was too -
CB: When they were inside.
JRB: After they got inside I believe.
CB: Yeah. So, so the, what I’m asking is if the mobiles were facing inside to be able to do the jamming.
JRB: Well I imagine that -
CB: They must have been mustn’t they?
JRB: The aerial would be sweeping around. On it’s usual -
CB: Ok.
JRB: Every time it came around it would -
CB: Ok.
JRB: Block them out wouldn’t it?
CB: Yeah.
JRB: I’m not quite sure about that but I know that we always thought that we stopped this mini blitz on London anyway.
CB: Right. Right. So there’s an important point here isn’t there? The CH stations only were for the protection and identification of aircraft coming towards Britain. In this particular case we’re talking about aircraft that got through the coastal area and were inside but your aerials were effectively giving a rotating beam whereas the CH stations were only directed out.
JRB: The CH stations were just directed outwards. Yeah because of course the equipment of the CH was, it would be quite impossible to –
CB: Yeah
JRB: Have it rotating anyway.
CB: Yeah. Yeah. I’ll stop there.
[recording paused]
CB: So -
JRB: The landing like Arnhem and that -
CB: They used gliders extensively.
JRB: They used gliders a lot and we, we had a, you’ve heard of the old Hamilcar glider have you?
CB: Yes. A big lifter.
JRB: A big one. Well the manufacturers sent us a dummy body of one of those to our station at Ruislip and the idea was that we were to build equipment which could fit in to this Hamilcar. So the thing was they wanted to make sure it would drive in as opposed to do it on the rule of thumb you might, might say and we had, we had specially set up equipment. These transmitters and other equipment which were in vehicles. I think the, I think the radar, yeah the radar would be in a specially built up body in a fifteen tonne truck and it had to be possible to drive it in and out of the Hamilcar so we, we had those made up locally and we’d one or two, not, not everybody could drive in those days you know.
CB: No.
JRB: And we’d one or two people who were quite good drivers and we trained them up to get these vehicles in and out the Hamilcar car. Well, we made up, I think it was six convoys like that to go with the troops and there was -
CB: That was for Arnhem was it? Or for D-day? D-day was a sea landing.
JRB: No.
CB: Was it for the vehicles.
JRB: It would be the -
CB: For Arnhem?
JRB: The river crossings wouldn’t it? The, like -
CB: Oh ok for crossing the Rhine.
JRB: Arnhem and that type of -
CB: And the Rhine. Yeah.
JRB: Wouldn’t it because that’s where the gliders were mostly used wasn’t they?
CB: Ok. Yeah.
JRB: We had special equipment for that and there was one, there was a station down near Bournemouth, Tarrant Rushton and that was a big depot for the gliders. I suppose quite near the coast to make a fairly short crossing and we took one set down there and there was some snag about it and it was suggested that I and one of my mates would accompany it. They were, they decided to do test flights to about six different stations up and down and one of them was a station near Bedford and we said well we’ll go on that one and there was a fault on it or something. I can’t quite remember just what it was at the time. So we got a trip in the glider which was quite an experience.
CB: To Twinwood Farm.
JRB: And -
CB: Twinwood Farm was the -
JRB: Yeah.
CB: Airfield there.
JRB: But you know when you, when the, when the glider casts off its rope you’re entirely at the mercy of the glider pilot and he knows that there’s no case of going around again and trying again. He’s got to put the thing down somewhere and pretty quick and it was a grass field and he, he had to land on the grass which was a bit, a bit hairy really but anyway.
CB: Were you looking our or did you close your eyes?
JRB: [laughs] No. We were looking out. But I don’t think we were very, very happy about it but of course a lot of the gliders were lost weren’t they? They were shot up and shot down before they ever got there [I reckon?]. That was about the only excitement we got with it really.
CB: What was the purpose of the tests? Was it to see whether the equipment would survive?
JRB: To see if it would be, the operational feasibility to do it, you know.
CB: I was thinking of terms -
JRB: To get out of the, to get the equipment out and rolling and get it set up isn’t it?
CB: I was thinking of the vulnerability of the valves to a heavy landing.
JRB: Well they had to take their chance didn’t they? And also it had to carry goodness knows how many jerry cans of petrol for the generator so it was a thing liable to go up in smoke at any minute sort of thing.
CB: I’ll stop there for a mo.
[recording paused]
JRB: The space between D-day and VJ, wait a minute. Not D-day.
CB: Arnhem.
JRB: No. No. I’m moving on.
CB: Oh ok so crossing the Rhine.
JRB: Yeah but after, after VE day.
CB: Oh yes.
JRB: Victory in Europe.
CB: Yes.
JRB: We concentrated on the war in the east of course and we expected that to go on for quite a long time. Now the, we got reports back that the termites were eating all the insulation off the wires and that in the, in the ordinary sets so we had to strip them all down and rebuild them with this new development. PVC wiring. Because apparently they couldn’t eat that and so we had a big job taking all the receivers and transmitters to pieces and rewiring them with this termite proof wire and things like transformers and components of that type, they had to be immersed in a solution of Perspex or something very similar and dried off so that they were coated in a something that the termites wouldn’t eat which of course as you well know the American atomic bombs put a rapid end to that war so these things weren’t really needed much longer than that.
RB: Although I suppose in, would they have termites in Korea after that.
JRB: But we’d, we’d modified quite a few equipments ready to go over there.
CB: Yeah.
JRB: But that was about the end of the war wasn’t it?
CB: So that was August ‘45. Then what did you do?
JRB: Well I stayed on at Ruislip and of course things got very quiet and we didn’t do very much more until the end of the, until getting demobbed but of course as you know we all had to wait our turns for, for demob.
CB: How did they keep you busy during that period? From August ‘45 to when you were demobbed?
JRB: What did I?
CB: How did they keep you busy from that, during that period ‘cause we’re talking about eighteen months?
JRB: I think there were one or two new developments coming out because there was one case where we, it was when the parabolic reflectors started coming out more and we had one or two sessions with developing or testing those of different types. I’ve got a photograph somewhere of, of a team of us setting up one of the parabolic reflectors but I just couldn’t lay my hands on it at the moment. But that was about it really you know just thinking about new equipments coming along and developing for peace time use I suppose. More or less.
CB: So the development of the parabolic aerial. What did that do to the overall size of the convoy.
JRB: Well it wouldn’t make much difference to the convoy but they were gradually getting more into microwave technology and just general, general developments that were coming along, you know but nothing very outstanding as far as I -. The pressure was off, you know. It was -
CB: Yeah.
JRB: But we were getting, going down to TRE and setting up -
CB: So what was TRE?
JRB: Technical Research Establishment I think it was and no, it was just, of course I suppose the modern radars are a big advance on what we were using at the time but we were just experimenting and testing out some new developments during that period.
CB: ‘Cause that was at Malvern at that time wasn’t it? So did you go up there?
JRB: Malvern was a centre for that sort of thing.
CB: How many vehicles were there in these convoys? What were, what were, what were the vehicles?
JRB: Well, the big the original ones. The heavy ones there would be a transmitter, a receiver, a communications, a trailer of the aerial and a trailer for the diesel generator so there would be about five, five items in a convoy really.
CB: And as time went on they did -
JRB: And then of course when we got on to the light, the light warning system
CB: Yeah. Yeah.
JRB: There would more or less be only a transmitter, a receiver and communications vehicle but all all very much smaller vehicles. More manoeuvrable.
CB: And where was the petrol stored when you were travelling? With the generator or in a different trailer? ‘Cause you used a lot of petrol or diesel.
JRB: Well as I say the ones that we did for the airborne landings they’d got to carry the petrol with them in jerry cans. Enough to run for a good time and then I suppose they’d get their supplies through normal channels you know but it wasn’t a good thing to be carrying loads of petrol on board when you’ve got troops in as well on the gliders. But I always think that I had a very easy and comfortable war compared with many, many people.
CB: So what was the accommodation like at Ruislip?
JRB: Our site, it was only a small unit, our site I think we’d two, two billets. Two huts about thirty men to a billet in the middle of a field. No, no heating unless you could scrounge some coke and get the coke stove going. No proper toilet facilities. No, no baths but there again you rely on somebody to keep the, keep the coke fired boiler going to give you hot water and and of course a few toilets but quite basic accommodation really at that place but we, we had to put up with that for several years. When I was promoted up to sergeant I had the choice of going either into, we, we were just across the, the railway tracks from the records office at Ruislip and I could have used the sergeant’s mess there but I elected to take up an option of being billeted with some friends in the area.
CB: Yeah.
JRB: So I finished off being in in billets with these people.
CB: You had to pay them rent.
JRB: Well that was all done automatically through the, through the exchequer, you know.
CB: Right.
JRB: I just had to, I suppose they got, they got sort of postal orders or something like that. They never complained. They always, always seemed to think they’ve been paid alright for it.
CB: They had your ration book.
JRB: They had my ration book yes. They [could draw?] my rations.
CB: So the accommodation for you -
JRB: ‘Cause you see in, in, when you were in RAF billets in the camp you didn’t need ration books anyway. They just -
CB: No.
JRB: You just had a cookhouse.
RB: Were you always segregated in the accommodation?
JRB: Well, eh?
RB: Were you always segregated? I mean, in your hut there would only be radar people or would there be other RAF personnel as well?
JRB: No. Just reckon that we, we were all working together in the radar.
RB: So you were all in the same boat.
JRB: Yeah all -
CB: What was the unit called? MU was it?
JRB: 4 MU.
CB: 4 MU. Yeah.
JRB: 4 MU. 4 MU at Ruislip.
CB: And where did you eat in the daytime?
JRB: We had a little cookhouse and meals were, meals were done there. And we had a NAAFI. Again, just sort of temporary. I think the NAAFI was just a, like a wooden hut but we were only a very small unit altogether you see. So that’s about what I -
CB: Good. Thank you.
[recording paused]
CB: Now yours was mobile radar but the whole concept was based on the original chain radar. So how did that work Roy?
JRB: Well the -
CB: And where was it?
JRB: The British aircraft carried a special piece of equipment which would send out a signal when, when it, when the initial pulse from the transmitter reached the aircraft it triggered this equipment in the aircraft which would send a, a varying signal back and if the, if the echo on the CRDF was pulsing they would know it was, it was this IFF responding.
CB: So what was IFF? Identification -
JRB: Identification Friend or Foe.
CB: Right.
JRB: IFF. So if it was a British aircraft it would be, it would enable it to send out a signal which would cause the echo on the tube to vary and that’s why they would know that it was a friendly.
CB: So where were the chain radar stations?
JRB: Where were the chain stations? Well they were all along the coast. They were at Pevensey. Isle of Wight. You name it there was a whole string of them all along the coast. Every so many miles apart. I can’t tell you -
CB: And what was the purpose of the chain system?
JRB: The purpose was virtually to detect incoming raids. ‘Cause you see there, there were various systems. They realised, when war was pretty imminent they realised that we’d no way of detecting incoming bombers until they were right overhead and they tried various systems. One of them was based on the sound of the aircraft engine. They built, they built a few of these big concrete dishes supposed to pick up the sound of an engine and amplify it and give warning in that way but of course that didn’t work awfully well at all and the principal of radar was well known because it had been used, it had been, been experimented with before the war and one of its uses that they foresaw was that they would be able to measure distance to planets and so on because the same, the same theory applies. If you, if you send out a radio pulse it becomes reflected from anything it hits so if you, if you directed it towards the solar system you could, by measuring the time lapse and converting it from the well known formula of the speed of electromagnetic waves and time you could, you could work out the distance so the scientists of the day were experimenting with that sort of thing and it was just that Watson Watt seemed to get the credit for it but I think that the principal was already known before that and I have always believed that the Germans had quite good radar equipment although we always claimed it was a British invention and it was, it was a big saviour to us. Which, no doubt, it did help a great deal in the Battle of Britain but its main reason for its success was the fact that with our coastline we could form a chain of stations which would detect incoming aircraft. Now the Germans were at a disadvantage because they had such a long and dispersed coastline that they couldn’t very well cover it anyway but I’ve always had in my mind that the Germans knew quite a bit about radar and in fact do you remember we sent over a party, RAF, an RAF flight sergeant I think in charge of it. A secret landing on the French coast to capture equipment from a German station and I’ve no doubt at all that the Germans knew quite a bit more about radar than what we would admit. We were always, always, always claiming that it was an entirely British invention but it was, I think it was common knowledge in the scientific world that a radio transmission would be reflected by a solid object.
CB: What did you do after the war? You were demobbed in ’47 so what did you then do?
JRB: I came back here. My dad had carried on with his little smallholding business all during the war years and I came back fully intending to take over because he was retirement age and becoming less able to do the work and I thought that would be my future which it was for quite a few years wasn’t it Ray? When you were born it was.
RB: About, about ten years wasn’t it?
JRB: About ten years I was, I was running that.
RB: I think it was a combination of -
JRB: And we -
RB: Of cheap imports and fuel prices.
JRB: Yeah. We were, we were producing well a very nice orchard in those days which is now defunct and greenhouses and we were making our living from that. I got married just after the end of the war and my wife came. She was a girl from London but she came up here and threw her lot in with, with me helping on the smallholding and that’s what we did for, as Ray says, about ten years and then there was a time when prices were very bad for produce and unless you’d a lot of capital to develop in a big way the small, the small units were beginning to get faded out. You know, they were getting superseded and I think it was when, we used to sell our produce on the market at Preston you see. Well you could go, you could go and set up your stall on Preston Market and sell your own produce but that all seemed to fade away didn’t it Ray? You know I don’t think they have that your way now do they?
RB: I think supermarkets really -
JRB: And supermarkets.
RB: The nail in the coffin weren’t they?
JRB: Supermarkets were beginning to come along and of course they were only interested in making contracts with the, with the big producers and it just got it wasn’t really a viable thing and of course with having had my wartime experience and knowledge of radio I applied to -
RB: The civil service. Barton Hall.
JRB: I think, there was an air traffic control centre just outside Preston just on the A6 going north from Preston called Barton, Barton Hall and that was, it, there was a Met section and what do you call it Ray? A meteorological section.
RB: Oh yeah. Yeah.
JRB: And there was a civilian section which was connected with Manchester Airport and that was, it had an airline for civilian aircraft coming down from Scotland into Manchester and that was like a first contact point this, this civilian air traffic control and also running alongside it more or less the RAF had got a emergency system. The idea being that we did twenty four hour coverage and but we had what in those days was considered to be state of the art technology which enabled us to position accurately an aircraft anywhere over the north of England virtually which was called auto triangulation. Now the idea being that we had, of course, remember this was entirely before the days of the, of the satellites and the the navigation that they’ve got today. We had a selection of RAF airfields in the area. Woodvale, Bishop’s, what were it? Bishops Court Northern Ireland, one on the Isle of Man, another up on the Cumbrian coast and one or two further inland over the Pennine areas and with this equipment which was put in by Standard Telephones we could get a position from each of these, each of these RAF stations could give you the bearing of on aircraft.
CB: They could triangulate it.
JRB: They could triangulate it by, we had this big, big screen with the map of the area on it and the position of each of our forward relay stations as we called them and if an aircraft, it was, it was designed specifically for aircraft in distress, civilian or RAF and when an aircraft transmitted on the international distress frequency it would draw traces from the various stations on our big map and a cross, well it was never a perfect cross it was always a little bit ambiguous but roughly call it, they called it a cocked hat. It would form a little, maybe like a little five sided area of probability so that you could say, you could, you could call the pilot up again on a forward relay station. You see all this, we’d got land lines, GPO lines to each of these stations so our controller could use, well, say for instance valley in the isle, in the -
CB: Anglesey.
JRB: Anglesey was one of them. We could use their transmitter if the aircraft was in that area.
CB: Yeah.
JRB: Or we could use one of the other transmitters, speak over the landline to that local transmitter and of course you’d get a better signal than if it was coming all the way from Preston and, and we could give him, give him his position pretty accurately and we could say, you know, ask the nature of his emergency and say well fly such and such a vector to such and such an airfield you see and direct him to try and get down.
CB: This is because you were using a big planned position indicator with a map on it aren’t you?
JRB: Yeah.
CB: And when he squawks then the line comes out.
JRB: We used, you know the television, the early television projector sets? They had a little, a little tube which would project on to a bigger screen hadn’t they? Not very distinct I would always thought but anyway we used those same -
CB: Same principal.
JRB: Those same tubes to project on to this big map that we had on our control desk and so it worked very well that did but we, we had to run on it on a watch system because it was covering the twenty four hours.
CB: Yeah.
JRB: And it was the emergency service you see.
CB: So what were you doing there?
JRB: I was maintaining all the equipment.
CB: Right.
JRB: At the Preston end.
CB: Now, you were, you during that period you trans -
JRB: You see, we had to, over our land line we could talk to the people at, at each station and if the, if we suspected that their signals were not quite right we’d have to call them to go and have a look at their equipment on the airfield and check and of course we, we used to have the authority over them to call them out if necessary for that sort of thing but it was quite a, quite a good system really but of course the sat nav type thing has entirely put that into the history books hasn’t it now?
CB: Yeah.
JRB: You’ll have heard of the RAF equipments called CADF and CRDF. Well they were installed on the airfields and each control tower if the, if the aircraft in his area called up his own station could give him his bearing to fly to the station but it couldn’t give him how many miles away it was or anything like that so this would give him a fixed position. So we used to have, thankfully we didn’t have a lot of emergencies, true emergencies but we used to do a lot of test, tests with aircraft in the area. So call, call up on the emergency channel and just check that everything was in order you know. It worked very well I thought.
CB: Now that was a transition. During that period you were, the technology was moving from valves to printed circuits. Well to -
JRB: Only just. This equipment -
CB: Transistors was what I meant to say.
JRB: This equipment was still on valves.
CB: Was it?
JRB: But -
CB: So we’re talking about the fifties and the sixties are we?
JRB: A friend, a friend of mine who served with me in the RAF after the war, this is Terry Parnell, he got a job at Standard Telephones and he, the two direction finding equipment that I mentioned CADF and CRDF they were in use by the RAF using the valve technology and I believe he converted it and brought out the transistorised versions of it and that worked alright for quite a long time.
CB: So when did you retire?
JRB: When did I retire?
RB: Well there was, there was another stage in your career when Barton Hall closed down in the early 70s. You went to Sealand didn’t you and you were working for the civil service at the, on laser, laser guided things.
JRB: Oh that was later on wasn’t it? Yes, of course.
RB: After Barton Hall closed down. So you actually retired from the laser -
JRB: Originally –
RB: Thing.
JRB: Originally we had five control centres. There was Preston, Barton Hall, Uxbridge and one up near the Scottish borders somewhere wasn’t there? Anyway there were about five, five areas. Well gradually they combined them. We took over the Yorkshire stations as well as our western stations and Uxbridge took over from somebody else so it was centralised from five to about three and then eventually it was centralised all on Uxbridge so of course the Barton Hall equipment was superfluous as regards this auto triangulation system. It was all being done collectively through Uxbridge.
RB: That’s when you were transferred to Sealand.
JRB: And that’s when, that’s when I transferred to Sealand which as you know is on, near Chester and I worked there until the end of the war er till the end of the, of my service.
CB: Which was 19 -
JRB: To my retirement and -
CB: 75 was it? 1970’s
RB: ‘85.
JRB: Sixty five wasn’t I?
RB: Yeah but ’85 you were sixty five.
CB: 1985
JRB: Yes I retired at sixty five and the last bit of my time there I was on, 30 MU at Sealand was a big RAF station. It had been a wartime flying station.
CB: Yeah.
JRB: And it became a central maintenance unit for airborne radio for the RAF. Most of the, most of the stations, if they had faulty equipment it would be sent to Sealand to be sorted out at that one place you see instead of each station doing their own repair work.
CB: Yeah.
JRB: It would come to a sensible point which was Sealand. So I worked on that for several years and then the Cossor’s, not Cossor’s, Ferranti’s. Ferranti’s of Edinburgh, they developed a laser equipment.
CB: At Sealand.
JRB: Now laser as you probably know is quite similar to ordinary radar but it’s using a different part of the spectrum.
CB: Infra-red.
JRB: It’s using infra-red and they, I don’t know whether it’s still in use but they fitted it in the Jaguars and I think in the new, the new fighter that replaced, well it was the Jaguar wasn’t it but I can’t remember what that was called but anyway but that was known as, I’m just trying to remember the [pause] Oh mark, laser ranger and marked target seeker. Now that had two purposes. From an aircraft it could, it could detect and range on a target or alternatively somebody on the ground, hopefully a little squaddie with a pack set, could direct this laser on to a bridge say that he wanted eliminating and that would be detected by the aircraft who could then range on that specific target you see so that’s why they called it the marked target seeker. So I worked on that which was a new technology again altogether using, as you said, infra-red instead of -
CB: To illuminate the target.
JRB: Radio waves. And I believe they used that in the Shetlands.
RB: The Falklands.
CB: In the Falklands war.
JRB: In the Falklands. Sorry. In the Falklands and one or two incidents since I believe but I don’t know whether it’s still, you see this, this is, we’re going back now what thirty years Ray. Something like that.
RB: Well yeah it was before Kit was born. Kit’s thirty at the end of this month.
JRB: Yeah.
RB: That’s my son, dad’s grandson.
JRB: Yes. That’s right.
RB: He’s thirty in a few weeks.
JRB: So presumably that equipment is now out of date anyway.
CB: Well just more sophisticated isn’t it?
JRB: It was the start of the, start of the laser usage for this purpose.
CB: Yes. Right. Excellent.
JRB: And then of course that was what I worked on right up to the end of my civil -
RB: Until you retired.
JRB: Service type of thing.
CB: So how many years did you do in the civil service? About thirty I suppose.
JRB: Something like that.
CB: ‘55 to ’85.
JRB: Something like that. Yeah. At, I was up at Barton Hall for quite a number of years wasn’t I Ray and then at Sealand again.
RB: Yeah.
JRB: About thirty years I suppose. Yeah.
CB: Right. We’re stopping there for a mo.
[recording paused]
CB: As a final point Roy what was the most memorable point about your service in the RAF?
JRB: In the RAF.
JRB: I don’t know. It’s hard to say really.
CB: Ok. What about in, in, when you, in civilian life? Was there a memorable part of your activities when you became a civil servant with radar, laser and so on?
JRB: No. There was nothing very exciting about it I’m afraid. It was just, just the same humdrum stuff.
CB: And what was your interests in the background in all that time? Were you keen on sport or some other -?
JRB: Never been much of a sportsman but I think, would you say our, our overseas holiday trips? That sort of -?
RB: Yeah. Well you went on foreign language courses didn’t you and did evening schools in various things.
JRB: Yes.
RB: Did you do a maths course? What was that -
JRB: No. I didn’t do a maths course.
RB: You didn’t do maths. Some, some
JRB: You see Peter, Peter -
RB: Sort of, was it a City and Guilds course you did? Something in -
JRB: Yes. Well that was more to do with my service life wasn’t it? The City and Guilds. It was qualification for -
RB: You did sort of later, qualifications in later life didn’t you?
JRB: Yes.
RB: And did you do Italian courses? And French.
JRB: Well I did one or two study courses. Yeah.
CB: Good. Thank you.
[recording paused]
CB: Just clarifying the mini blitz because clearly that was a memorable thing for you. You had to react quickly did you to this situation and so was this a particularly memorable event? The Meershum.
JRB: Yes it was because it was a sudden request that we got and we had to pull the stops out and design a modification to the equipment and get it, get it out to the airfields. We’d quite a hectic time going around and installing it at the various -
CB: At the CH stations.
JRB: Fields.
CB: Was it at airfields or CH stations?
JRB: It was at CH stations.
CB: Right. Thanks.
RB: That the [unclear?] isn’t it?
CB: Yeah.
JRB: Have you got it there?
CB: How long did it take you to do this? Literally a weekend or was it weeks?
JRB: Literally, literally just over a weekend.
CB: Amazing.
JRB: We were going all over the place, split up into different fitting parties and took one, one equipment to each station you see and set it up. So we landed down at Pevensey and that was the one that I was most involved in and the rest of our company did likewise. We were all separate, separate little fitting parties going along the various -
CB: You went by road -
JRB: Stations.
CB: I presume.
JRB: Yes.
CB: Yeah.
JRB: Yes. They laid transport on for us and of course we went, went straight to these stations.
CB: Good.



Chris Brockbank, “Interview with James Burdin,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed March 4, 2024,

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