The last Mosquito Night Fighter Navigator

 

Training

I joined the R.A.F. in July 1950 as a trainee navigator, and after ITS at Jurby in the Isle of Man, in December 1950 commenced navigation training at No. 1 ANS at Hullavington. By this time the Government had become concerned at the Russians possession of nuclear weapons and the build up of their bomber force, based upon the B 29 copy which Tupolev were producing. As a result the Meteor NF 11 was produced as an interim lash-up night fighter and there was a rapid expansion of the night fighter force in Fighter Command. In consequence extra crews were required and my course was removed from navigation training at the completion of the Basic stage and posted at the end of August 1951 to the Night Fighter OCU, No. 228, at Leeming, before we had been awarded our wings and whilst we still held the rank of Officer Cadet. In normal circumstances we would have proceeded to the Advanced stage and spent a further 5 months or so training before being awarded the 'N' brevet and then going on to an OCU.

No. 1 squadron of 228 OCU was then equipped with the Bristol Brigand T4 and Wellington T18 on which we were trained in the use of AI Mk 10 (SCR 720). We also received instruction on the Hispano 20mm cannon with which all British fighters of the period were equipped, and by this stage in our training we were capable of stripping, cleaning, reassembling, and firing the service revolver, 303 Lee-Enfield rifle, Bren light machine gun, and the 20mm cannon. The first time I was issued with a weapon which I was expected to use for real, it was the Sten sub-machine gun, which in untrained hands was at least as lethal to the user and his companions as to any potential attacker.

Some 15 out of the 32 who had started the course at Jurby completed the AI school in October and were awarded a navigator/radio "N" flying badge, about half were commissioned as Pilot Officers and the rest promoted to Sergeant, which was the norm for the time. We then joined No 2 squadron of the OCU and were introduced to the bunch of pilots with whom we were to crew up to fly the Mosquito NF36. One of these was a Pole, Flt Sgt Joe Halkiew, who had wartime Mosquito experience, who several people wanted to fly with. Luckily he chose me and we subsequently had almost five successful years together. I can still remember my first flight in a Mosquito on 21st Nov 1951, this was with a staff pilot and called an A.I. staff check. This was to assess our competence when left to our own devices, all previous flights having been with an instructor at ones side, and so was almost the equivalent of a pilots first solo. What really sticks in my mind however is that, while taxying out to take off, I saw a lark rise from the grass and quite distinctly heard it singing. That seemed like a good omen, people who have flown in the Mossie or similar aircraft will know that the engine noise, R.T. etc., would make that impossible, but I was absolutely convinced I heard it.

We had one dodgy incident at Leeming when we did our first high level (25,000') night cross country on the Mosquito, and was about the first time I had used oxygen. When at about 45 minutes after takeoff I turned to Joe and complained that I did not know how to use the Dalton navigational computor, he realised that I was suffering from lack of oxygen and found that we had in fact run out. He immediately descended to 10,000 feet and we carried on, I did not receive a very good mark for this exercise and it had to be repeated. This course lasted about eight weeks with some 38 hours on the Mosquito and my log book records on 14 January 1952 "Awarded Fighter Command Category 'C'" as a Navigator/radio. Joe and I, in company with another NCO crew, were posted to Egypt and early in February '52 we boarded a York at Blackbushe for Fayid in the Suez Canal Zone. On arrival we were given transport to Kabrit which was home to two night fighter squadrons, 39 and 219, both equipped with the Mosquito NF36. It also housed 13 Squadron with the Mosquito PR34, but in the process of converting to the Meteor PR10, and 683 Squadron with Lancasters which was doing an aerial survey of Africa and which soon departed.

 

A.I. Mk 10 (SCR 720)

I feel I should explain the radar we had been taught to use. While the early night fighters had managed reasonably well with the older sets, particularly A.I. Mks IV and VIII, the advent of A.I. Mk 10 in 1943 at last gave a really capable radar to our nightfighters and it remained standard equipment in both the RAF and USAF well into the 50's. However it did demand a well trained operator, to quote Lewis Brandon "Mark 10 had a greater range and better coverage than anything I had previously used, but it had two tubes to watch [see the donated files page for a picture of the indicator unit for an AI Mk.10 - Andy] and lots and lots of knobs to twiddle. It worked all right, but it would certainly need a great deal of practise, and the ideal operator for it would be one with three arms and three eyes". It was a development of the set which had been produced in America by A.G.Bowen, in conjunction with the best brains of the American electronics industry. He was one of Watson Watts original whiz kids, and when he took the original magnetron with the Tizard mission in 1940, we gave the U.S. the greatest gift we could.

Transmission and reception was via a scanner just like your satellite TV dish, this was driven round at 360 rpm, whilst being nodded a small amount at each rev, signals were blanked out to the rear 180 deg. The tubes comprised the "B Scope", which was a rectangular display giving range vertically and angle off (azimuth), each 30 deg horizontally. Sounds daft, as the bottom represented the fighter, but it meant that as one closed the range towards the bottom of the tube any lateral motion of the target was magnified and so it was far easier to follow an evading target. Also any target on a collision course came straight down the tube paralelling the azimuth markings. The other tube was the "C Scope" which showed a clockface with radial lines at each "hour" and circles every 15 degrees. There was a strobe line across the B Scope which one had to keep positioned just below the target and the relevant slice of range would be transferred to the C Scope with the target blip. Interceptions were controlled by the nav, once contact had been obtained, by a standard commentary which we were taught. Instructions to turn, climb etc. were standardised and a running update on the targets position relative to us was given. To give the pilot sighting information it was only necessary to say something like "one o'clock 10, range 4000 feet". He had to visualise his screen as the C Scope while searching for the target, and look up the one o'clock line by 10 deg. The area scanned could be adjusted by means of the "tilt" switches which controlled the upper and lower limits to which the scanner nodded, this allowed one to scan at search say 5 deg below and 5 above, but the top scan could be opened right up to hold the target when turning, as also the bottom limit be raised to reduce the ground returns. Minimum range was set by the permanent echo, which on a properly adjusted set would be 300 ft, the blip being also about 300 ft it meant that the blip kissed the p. e. at about 600 ft and disappeared completely into it at 300 ft. I once lost a blip in this manner on a very dark night, and we both had to search visually while continuing to gently close the range. We both saw the target at the same time, the Mossie had very well shrouded exhausts which only emitted a small pinpoint of light when dead astern, but generally it was possible to pick them out by about 600 ft. It was amazing that once one had seen these little spots of light the whole aircraft immediately became visible. Maximum range on another Mossie would be about 5-7 miles, and on a large metal aircraft about 10-12 miles. The B Scope could be set to give 5, 10, 20 and 120 mile ranges, the latter being used for map reading although because of the method of display the ground was very distorted. Flying towards a straight coastline one would see an arc protruding down the screen, it was only possible to make out water features or very prominent ground features, but could be very useful, and would also show ships at long ranges. One had to work hard as the controls were spread among three boxes and three had to be under ones hands all the time. One hand controlled the gain and the strobe, which were close together and the other hovered on the tilts. It was also necessary to fiddle with a tuning control to keep the received signal adjusted to the transmitter.

 

39 Squadron RAF Kabrit, Suez Canal Zone, Egypt

When we arrived the situation in Egypt was total chaos, and because of the rioting which had occurred in Cairo the previous year and the subsequent attempts by the Egyptians to remove us from the Canal Zone, our forces had been doubled in strength. Unfortunately stores and food supplies did not keep pace and at times our rations were extremely short and often of poor quality. Beer and bread were only available on about three or four days a week. We were expected to carry a service revolver and 12 rounds of ammunition when flying, the stores however had no holsters or ammo pouches so we were forced to carry our armament loose in our pockets! Initially there were no sheets for our beds, and when we were eventually issued with one each we had to wash them ourselves. We had only been there a few weeks when there was the most almighty sand storm which lasted about two days, the room the four of us then shared had a crack in one window and the man whose bed was beneath it woke up with about 2mm of fine dust all over him. There was also a small sand dune inside the doorway caused because there was a gap of about 12mm under the door. It was very difficult to walk against the flying sand and I can remember stumbling across to the mess, not being able to see my feet at times, whatever one tried to eat or drink crunched and tasted of sand. When it was possible to resume work we found that because our hangar doors would not close by about 400mm at one end the hangar was some 150mm deep in sand. After the aircraft had been pushed out and brushed off someone had the bright idea of opening the hangar at each end, reversing the tail of a Mosquito in, and, by running up both engines, assist a line of men with brooms to sweep the floor. This worked a treat and created another sand storm, much to the annoyance of the Wing Commander Flying, whose office roof had been blown off and whose clerks had almost finished straightening out his paperwork, and which bore the full blast. Our CO got a rather different one!

One of the more arduous duties we NCO's had was that of guard commander, the whole camp, except for the actual airfield and the control tower, was enclosed by a barbed wire fence which was patrolled at night by armed guards. In addition the unit was responsible for guarding a dredger when it was working on our section of the Sweetwater Canal, so in total the guard comprised some 60 men, who would be organised into the standard three shift system of two hours on and four off. The guard commander had to be awake all the time, and his orders stated that on no account must he leave the guardroom, however the supplementary orders for guarding the dredger instructed him to visit the dredger guard every two hours. It should be remembered that the majority of the men comprising the guard were young frightened National Service airmen whose weapons training had been minimal. One of the most important duties of the guard commander was to physically check the breech of each rifle as guards were dismounted, to ensure that they had been properly unloaded. Joe twice had men accidentally discharge a round through the guardroom roof from supposedly empty rifles, this was not an unusual occurrence, and the guard commander would be put on a charge.

Flying in Egypt was a new experience and we were sent off on cross country flights which included traversing the Nile delta at high and low level by day. At night we had a cross country which included a turning point at Neckl in the middle of the Sinai desert, I found a few faint lights and concluded that I had missed the town shown on the map, later we had a look by day and found there were only a few scruffy buildings at a crossroads of desert tracks. Most of our flying took place over the Sinai which was a strange landscape of shifting sand dunes in the North and barren rocky mountains to the South. Occasionally we would see a Bedouin walking along totally alone and miles from anywhere, also small groups with a cluster of black tents and small herds of goats or sheep. We came across one of these herds with a few Bedouin in attendance whilst low flying one day, I am ashamed to say we amused ourselves by flying low over them and stampeding them in the direction of some soft sand. By flying low over the dunes in a wide circle we made three runs across them and had them well and truly scattered and floundering about. Another time we saw a ship going up into the Great Bitter Lake which was about eight miles across. Joe put the aircraft down to within feet of the water and we flew across, looking up at the bows of the ship as we passed ahead. He pulled up at the far shore and turned back and we could see a wake as though a speedboat had been across. There was a tank unit nearby and we would see them exercising in the desert. Joe found a new game in flying down the trail of sand thrown up by a fast moving tank, and zooming over the hapless commander standing up in the turret. Later on we had a visit from the officers of this unit, which caused considerable amusement in the crewroom. Nearly half the Squadrons aircrew were NCOs, and nearly all the Squadrons aircrew were sat around the crewroom playing cards or drinking tea when our CO brought in the tank CO to introduce us. We shambled to our feet as only aircrew can, as this officer appeared. When he realised that there were NCOs present when he apparently expected all aircrew to be commissioned, he stopped with a horrified look on his face, turned to our CO and said, "I suppose you have to take an NCO along to do the work", turned on his heel and hurried out. We were not so amused when some of the tank officers were given rides on air to ground firing sorties and most were airsick over our radar sets!, we then had to do an NFT (night flying test, in which the radar would be set up against a target and all equipment checked) and go night flying with them.

 

Gunnery

We soon settled into the standard night fighter squadron routine of NFT's and ciné, with PI's (practice interceptions) under the control of a local GCI (Ground Control Interception) radar. I should explain that ciné was an exercise using the gun camera, carrying out high quarter attacks, to give the pilots practice in deflection shooting. The Mosquito had a simple ring gunsight and so pilots had to learn the basic lead-off gunnery as one would use when firing a shotgun, to this end the camp had a clay pigeon range where our gunnery officer used to organise Saturday morning shoots. I used to help him by doing some of the ciné film assessing, i.e. running the film 1 frame at a time and measuring the range, the deflection allowed and angle off of the target, to assess the pilot's accuracy, and in return he would allow me to have a go at the clays. There was also a strong emphasis on air to ground firing which was carried out on a range at Shallufa. This range was on bare rocky desert and it was absolutely essential to turn sharply away from the line of fire when pulling out from the firing dive to avoid ricochets and lumps of rock. We did have an aircraft written off because a ricochet dented the laminated wooden main spar, if the main spar was damaged within 18" of an engine mounting no repair was allowed and the aircraft was a write off. During the day the local women and children could be seen running about under the aircraft as they were firing and picking up the 20mm cartridge cases as they fell. At night it was even more entertaining as the navigators had to fly so that they could read off the altimeter and remind the pilot to begin the pull out from the dive at the specified 400', this meant that recovery was often well below 300'. A pilot from 219 seriously frightened his navigator one night when he opened his throttles abruptly during this manoeuvre and the torque rolled the aircraft onto its back! He had the presence of mind to complete the roll and regain control. The 10 foot square canvas targets were indicated at night by the use of 3 gooseneck flares, one on each side and one positioned behind at such a distance as to just be visible at the correct 30° angle of dive. Each target was fired on by 4 aircraft, the rounds being dipped in coloured paint, so that individual pilots scores could be made by the range controller, I acted as range controller one night and it was quite difficult to decide on scores by torchlight.

In May 52 we went to Nicosia in Cyprus for the annual armament practice camp, there the concentration was on air to air firing against targets towed by Beaufighters on a range just off the north coast near Morpheu. Scoring again was by paint marking, here the hours of ciné practice paid off but accurate flying was essential if any hits were to be obtained. Pilots were not allowed to fire at a deflection angle of less than 30° to avoid danger to the tug from ricochets and tug pilots were quick to chastise offenders. Joe had been a tug pilot prior to the course at Leeming and had considerable sympathy with them. When carrying out firing exercises it was normal to carry 50 rounds per gun for 2 guns, this made the calculation of percentages easier. Scores rarely exceeded 25 and some pilots were quite unable to hit the target at all, incidentally on air to ground an exceptional score was over 80, and would usually be 30 to 40 by day and about half that at night. Firing the guns was an experience, the cockpit floor was a sheet of ply, immediately below which were the 4 20mm cannon and, while the pilots feet were raised on the rudder pedals, for the nav. it felt as though there was someone belting the floor beneath with a baulk of timber.

 

Escape and Evasion

The powers that be laid on an "escape and evasion " exercise in which we were dropped off somewhere near Nicosia from the back of a lorry in pairs at night, with instructions to find a certain house on the coast about 40 miles away. We carried the normal 1:500,000 topographical map (approx 8 miles to the inch), which we used for map reading in the air, the resident Army forces, including a regiment of paratroops were sent out to catch us, and the local police and population alerted to report and apprehend us. One of our pilots was shot by a nervous Turkish-Cypriot who thought he was being robbed, but Joe and I made it to within about 2 miles until we were the last crew to be captured and were thrown into the local police cells, stripped to our underpants and handcuffed. There were already about 4 other aircrew in the cells, and we were transported some 35 miles to the interrogation centre at RAF Nicosia, handcuffed together in the back of an open 30cwt truck while still only dressed in underpants. It was meant to represent the type of treatment we might expect from the Russians, all in all quite an experience. However, after the delights of the Canal Zone, Cyprus was paradise with nightclubs, which had cabarets and taxi dancers, where we were treated like lords.

 

Piloting the Mosquito

We returned to a normal routine at Kabrit carrying out all the usual exercises, amongst which pilots were required to undertake two practice single engine overshoots, and one single engine landing per month, so that they could cope when it really mattered. When on one engine the decision to land had to be made at 800' at night, and 300' by day, as the aircraft had to be dived while the undercarriage and flaps were retracting, to enable a safe climbing speed to be attained. While the Mosquito could be safely flown on one engine, it would not maintain height above 5,000', and full power was required which could soon lead to the live engine overheating. It was an endurance test for the pilot as he had to keep the rudder held against the live engine. At the maximum speed under those conditions of about 155 knots it was fairly heavy, even with full rudder trim wound on, but the load increased as speed was reduced until at about 137 knots the pilot could no longer keep the aircraft straight and level. This so called safety speed had to be determined whenever an engine was shut down, as losing control under these circumstances was one of the leading causes of Mosquito accidents. Incidentally, the advice if an engine failed on take off and safety speed had not been attained was: put the aircraft down straight ahead. To attempt to turn led to the aircraft rolling over and diving in and many crews crashed in this way, I suppose it was a crash either way, but at least, as my roommate at Leeming proved, straight ahead one had a chance of getting away with it. He and his pilot had an engine go immediately at takeoff. They went through the boundary hedge, across the road and out into the next field, losing pieces of aircraft as they went. Luckily the live prop was the starboard and came off and travelled about 100 yards laterally. The port prop stood in the field like the proverbial blasted oaktree, but they got away with the obligatory bang on the head, and were none the worse after a night in sick quarters. The hazards of Mosquito flying were vividly demonstrated to me one day when I flew with one of the more exuberant pilots, who asked if I would like to see some aerobatics (strictly forbidden). Naturally I agreed and we flew a nice gentle barrel roll followed by a loop which was very slow over the top, and then he decided to try a roll off the top. All went well until he pushed the stick over to roll out while inverted, then all hell broke loose with land and sky rapidly changing places several times while we banged our heads together at the top of the cockpit. Meanwhile the pilot, who could just reach the top of the stick, was vainly stirring it round until we entered a conventional spin, which seemed like a series of flick turns, from which he eventually recovered, and we very steadily and soberly returned to Kabrit. We concluded that we had managed about three or four turns of an inverted spin followed by the same of a normal spin, it certainly used up a lot of height, but we remained friends and I kept my mouth shut!

There were various exercises during which we would simulate day bombers so that the four Vampire squadrons based at Deversoir could have a go at us. Joe would make me kneel on my seat and try and assess when the Vampires were reaching firing distance and call the break. With a little flap we could easily outturn them but with their superior speed I expect we were all held in their sights long enough for a kill at some time. During one of these, at about 11am one day, two Vampires collided while attacking an aircraft behind us and crashed into the Sinai desert some 40 miles east of the Canal. One pilot was killed and the other got out at very low level and had very serious injuries, including a broken hip and was unable to move. The only means of recovery was by Landrover which took over 24 hours to reach him, but luckily for him some Bedouin had seen him come down. They came up to him late in the afternoon, did not touch him but erected a small tent over him and gave him some dates, then returned at dawn and left some water. Bomber Command Lincolns had a regular "Sunray" exercise to Shallufa and we normally did a night exercise with them. On one of these we intercepted a Lincoln and in accordance with the rules pulled up on his port side to claim the kill by flashing the navigation lights on and off. There was no response to several seconds flashing and Joe, who was an excellent formation flyer, became impatient and drew up close with our wingtip tucked well inside that of the Lincoln. Then he turned on the nav lights again and illuminated the Lincoln cockpit, that got a response all right and there were torches flashed at us from the length of the aircraft.

One day the nav leader called me into his office and said that the Group Navigation Officer had discovered that I was not qualified as a navigator, never having completed nav school and was thus quite incapable of navigating in the Middle East. To complete my training it had been decided that I should do a trip with one of the Transport Command Valettas at Fayid, with their navigator supervising and the log and chart sent up to Group. When my turn came I had to take a Valetta to Aqaba, have a meal and a swim, and return. This was ridiculous as the round trip took under 3 flying hours, and the only available nav aids were my eyes and the map. Group must have realised this because a few months later I had to do another trip, to take a Valetta home to Lyneham, have a weeks leave and return as a passenger. This happened in December 1952 and eventually the call came for my log book to go up to Group HQ and the entry qualifying me as a navigator was signed, dated 5/3/54!

We had been told that we were to be re-equipped in early 1953 with the Meteor NF13, which was an NF11 still equipped with AI Mk10 but with a radio compass, and Rebecca/Babs fitted in lieu of the SCR 729 beacon system which our Mosquitos carried, also a refrigeration unit to civilise the cockpit. Incidentally Mosquito cockpit temperatures could reach 160°F(70°C), and we had a nasty experience while night flying after having done 3 hours low level during the day. While climbing at 25000' Joe announced that he was unable to read the instruments, I took my head from the radar visor and found that my eyes were not a lot better, so we very gently returned to Kabrit to be met by the ambulance, they filled us full of salt and tucked Joe up in sick quarters for the rest of the night. However the Meteors were delayed and the Mosquitos were getting tired, I do not understand the technicalities but there was a tolerance on a glue joint which was measured periodically and aircraft were scrapped if this tolerance was exceeded. The M.U. however was getting short of replacements so a technical conference decided that the tolerance could be increased to keep us going, but after another month or so there was again a shortage of aircraft, and a further technical conference decided that perhaps this tolerance was not so important after all and could be ignored! Because of the shortage of aircraft 219 Sqdn were temporarily re-eqipped with Meteor NF11s and we borrowed a couple for a week or so in order that the pilots could be converted and we could do some PIs. Finally in March 1953 the Meteor NF13s arrived and we embarked on a period of intensive flying in order to get fit for a large exercise at the end of the month, which went off fairly well.

 

The end of the Mossies

However we were not finished with the Mosquito, when our Meteors were delivered the ferry pilots took a Mosquito back with them but left several behind under repair in the MU, these were returned to the UK by squadron crews as they were repaired. We were required to sent a crew up to the M.U. if they needed to fly an aircraft and my logbook records an occasion when they required RL113 to be moved the few miles from Kasfareet to Abyad. We took off all right, but on lowering the undercarriage to land the red lights stayed on. No amount or rocking and shaking would persuade the down locks to work, but a fly past the tower confirmed the undercarriage was down and appeared OK so we chanced it. We were met by a very jumpy Warrant Officer saying "You were not supposed to retract the undercart!". What a joke, it was necessary to have the gear up before the aircraft would accelerate to safety speed or climb, the undercarriage being a massive drag producer.

The last one, RL141, was appropriated by our CO, Sqdn Ldr Cogill who chose me to accompany him home where I enjoyed a months leave, that and the week in December 52, being the only leave I had during my 2˝ year tour. We left Fayid on 24th July 1953, refuelled at Luqa and at Istres, where we spent the night, and arrived at Benson on the 25th. In terms of todays air travel there is nothing to such a trip, I guess a 747 would make it in about five hours nonstop, the passengers would be fed and watered and it would really be little more than a glorified bus ride. For us it was a good experience because we would get some home leave, but we had to work for it. We airtested the aircraft and did a fuel consumption check on 22nd July. Take off on 24th was at 0640 GMT (0840 local time) for the 4 hours 35 mins trip to Luqa, Malta; this was an interesting leg passing places with historic names such as El Alamein, Mersa Matruh, Bardia and Benghazi. Incidentally the Egyptian-Libyan border was plainly visible as a rusty stain across the desert caused by the barbed wire fence. We landed without incident, had lunch and saw the aircraft refuelled and pressed on to Istres, near Marseilles in the South of France. This was another 3 hours 5 mins, arriving at 1700 GMT, my real memory of this was a Frenchman getting up on the wing, while we were still in the cockpit, to refuel us. From his lip dangled the mandatory Gaulloise fag!, I soon told him what to do with it, but he was in a hurry, I guess it was past his knocking off time. The next morning we set off at 0635 GMT determined to be home in good time. However we were unable to contact the French "Cassis" fixing service, so I was reliant on good old dead reckoning and map reading. I was very pleased that we crossed out over the Cherbourg peninsula spot on the position we were briefed, and hit Portland Bill spot on. However we were unable to raise anyone on the radio which was a requisite when crossing in. I got lost on the map, having been used to deserts with the odd road and so fumbled our route towards Benson. The first real pin point I got was the old airfield at Harwell, marked on the map as a three mile exclusion zone because it was the atomic research establishment. I couldn't care less as at last I knew where we were and could give a sure course and ETA for Benson. All this time the pilot had no joy with the radio, but we finally spoke to Benson when we were very close to them. I think the aerial connection had failed and we only had a very short range, also when we landed we found oil running back along the port engine nacelle and dripping off the tail, so I guess that engine wouldn't have carried us much farther. So a total 10 hours and 45 mins flying time at last had us home. I believe that this was the last time a Mosquito night fighter was flown by a squadron crew in the RAF, and it is a great pity that none were preserved.

 

Peter Verney (ex Sgt nav/rad), February 2002

 
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