Site Records

Site Name: RAF Sopley ('AVO') R3 GCI ROTOR Station

OS Grid Ref: SZ162978

RSG site visit 23rd May 2000

[Source: Nick Catford]

A brief history of RAF Sopley 1941-45 - Compiled by Pat Sparks

Geoffrey Larkby was commissioned on 12 December 1940 when the Air Ministry requested the help of two engineers from the BBC. He was a member of a small team of engineers stationed in London to keep the BBC going throughout the Blitz, and reported together with another colleague, R. E. Young.

They were sent to H.Q 60 Group at Leighton Buzzard and were assigned to Section TM2A who were responsible for CHL Stations. They were given a day's lectures on radar, by Group Captain Wilson, Chief Engineer of the Group, and then told to report to a Unit called ADRDE at Christchurch, Hampshire

There, with the help of civilian engineers from Malvern and Farnborough, they assembled the first GCI unit.

Mobile convoy at Sopley in December 1940
The basis was two army GL trackers fitted with 12 foot 4-bay 4-stack aerials. One array was fed by a transmitter mounted on an RAF heavy lorry, this transmitter being a pulsed oscillator, i.e. two VT98 valves. The other aerial fed into the Ops wagon, a (similar heavy RAF vehicle). The receiver fed a range display and a PPI display. The height finding facilities were rather hazy at that time as the split aerial technique had not been developed.

The synchronizing of the two aerials was carried out using a simple 'Wheatstone bridge' circuit, feeding two meters, one in each vehicle, one aerial being the master and the other the slave (the slave always trying to zero his meter). The aerials were turned by 'Binders' sitting in the cabins, pedalling to nowhere, as described later.

On completion of the equipment at Christchurch F/O Larkby was given a grid reference of a site at Sopley and was accompanied by the first of his crew. PC Knight met them near Sopley to give assistance with the convoy, and as they approached the site, which was a desolate field, one member of the crew enquired about billets.

Such administrative details had not been discussed with the technical officers, but the village policeman soon arranged for the men to be settled in local houses.

'We set up the convoy in the optimum layout and did our best to get power going' states Geoff. Night fell and with it the problem of guards, as this was perhaps the most secret equipment, in England at that time. The Home Guard was turned out for the night, and AC Bowler remembers arriving with 'Shorty' Naylor and remaining on guard duty that first night with one pistol between them.

Soon the station received crews, controllers and airmen and calibration runs were started. F/O Best took over the station and the story of Sopley is carried on by those who were posted there in the 1941 era and afterwards. F/O Young was posted to Wartling and F /O Larkby went to Sandwich, where their future work covered many GCI Stations, updating them as time passed, before experimental work with FDT (a form of GCI on board ships) which was to prove so useful in 1944.

That was the beginning of radar and interception of enemy planes.

Photo:The Woolpack Inn
Photo by Chris Sprackleton from his PBase web site

Brindley Boon was posted to Sopley at Christmas 1940 from Foreness CHL, together with Corporal Billy Pratley. At almost midnight they drew up outside the massive iron gates of a location they were to come to know as Sopley Park. The village policeman was expecting them and took them to the local inn, the Woolpack. Andrew Lane was not only the village innkeeper, but churchwarden, bell ringer and welcoming party to all who eventually went to RAF Sopley, together with his wife.

After borrowing a wheelbarrow to convey their kitbags, they were taken to meet Charles and Annie Button, with whom they were to be billeted. They ran a small farm and Charlie delivered milk to outlying areas while his wife fed and watered the cattle, fed the poultry and other stock. Chickens had to be shooed off the kitchen table before a meal could be served. The cottage was very cold due to a general shortage of fuel and Annie went around the house singing 'Someday my coal will come' to the tune in 'Snow White'.

Dennis Skeet was posted about the same time, from Newquay, where his wife of a few weeks was also living. Conditions were primitive as he shared a bed at Sopley with a fellow AC2 in a country cottage with an earth privvy in the back garden, but they received a warm welcome from their landlady.

Brindley and his new wife were later billeted with Lord and Lady Manners' butler and his wife, Walter and Ciss Kirtley, at South Lodge, Avon Tyrrell. Tyrells Ford was the wartime home of the Manners after they handed over the big house, Avon Tyrrell, to the military. A very fitting place for our reunion in 1990.

Myrtle Bygrave was housed in Wiltshire Lodge with the early WAAF posted to Sopley. The first group to arrive found the site extremely disconcerting as they had previously been stationed at big ops rooms throughout England. At this 'ghastly new place' there was a very small number of people, no amenities with Sergeants Bowler and Skeet to tell them what to do and last, but not least, the three watch system was very hard to operate. However they quickly came to be very happily part of the system and eventually became the basis of the much larger group there. When Brindley first arrived there were eight airmen and four WAAF, but when he left in 1944 the operational strength was 144. Initially there were six to a watch - Myrtle recalls, Barbara Allen, Beryl Cunliffe, Diana Mc George, John Earl, Brindley and herself formed one watch. Later there were over 40 personnel to each of three watches. There was always the three watch system which was the hardest of all watch keeping to operate. We would start work at 8am and leave at 1pm, returning for night duty at 11pm through to 8am the next morning. A few hours sleep then on duty again 5 - 11pm. And the third day duty was from 1 till 5pm. So only one night off in three, with a 36 hours pass every nine or twelve days. Leave was something we hardly dared to think about but just accepted when told we could go.


Photo:Type 8F Intermediate GCI trailer

Sopley was a small free-and-easy unit from first to last. In the beginning there were no parades (not even for pay or to the M.O.) As the station grew in number we did attend church parades on occasions, sitting in the North Nave of Sopley Church and listened to the service given by the Rev. Charles Kirkham. Sick parade meant a cycle ride to Hurn and back so one was either sick enough to need the M.O. or too sick to bother. One such visit to Hurn was made in the pouring rain and the WAAF concerned became aware of the jeep overtaking her with the sign 'follow me'. She obeyed and on dismounting was taken to the control tower and told that she had been cycling along the main runway.

There were RAF Police on the station but apart from guarding the main gate (and Jack Hardy shouting at me to put my hat on) they were not worked very hard. Doug Wailing entertained us for many hours with his harmonica and he also wrote poetry - one such poem I still have today. One letter I received was from a man, who as a boy living at Ripley at our time and his family billeted a RAF Policeman. He often had to chase the boy from the field housing our equipment, sometimes even late at night. Even more so after the Americans arrived with their candies and gum, I suspect.

Discipline was very relaxed - haircuts were at the discretion of the individual and when Leslie Wise went on a course he was asked where his violin was. As long as the WAAF rolled their hair off the collar for inspections, regulations were disregarded. In the latter days - when we had a 'Queen Bee' this was tightened somewhat, but on the whole life was not very strict. Besides, only the operations personnel could enter the Ops Block, so the administrative officers were not considered as very important, to our way of thinking.

As Sopley was the first GCI unit, there were many visitors. It soon became the eighth wonder of the world and everyone who was anyone came down to be entertained by the fascinating new toy. Churchill, Attlee and other Cabinet Ministers, war lords and foreign diplomats came, as well as service chiefs and military brass hats. Churchill was not in favour of radar and much preferred to use LAM (or MUTTON as it was coded). This was a system whereby aircraft dropped mines connected to piano-wires, in the stream of enemy bombers. The theory was that the hostile planes would get entangled in the wires and blow themselves up with the mine, but it never worked and was soon abandoned - 'as dead as mutton' in fact.

Attlee came one evening and was glad to get away as soon as possible. A PPI was so utterly beyond anything that Eton could have taught him that he was simply bewildered. Therefore it could not serve any useful purpose - It was a perplexing toy, I must admit.

Those early days were a period of carefree routine - if indeed there was a routine, as Sopley Mark I was a small caravan which could easily be towed by even a Mini. This caravan housed a couple of PPI's and had sufficient room for three people to plot and phone. There was also a Dennis truck which housed the usual primitive paraphernalia associated with radar screens and further into the field was the aerial which rather resembled a flattened bird cage. Inside the cabin at the base of the aerial sat two airmen - The Binders - who pedalled a contraption like a tandem but going nowhere. This was the method used to turn the aerial, and was controlled by the CO at the touch of a button, being stopped, reversed or sent in whatever direction the controller wished. In order to keep a complete coverage of the sky the aerial had to keep sweeping, but the erks inside did not even have the pleasure of seeing a blip. Some years later this was operated by power rather than manpower.

The whole area was patrolled by military or RAF Regiment, who taught the radar personnel to use firearms. This was in fact put into some operation after the raid on the German radar station at Bruneval in February 1942, when Wing Commander Charles Pickard led a force of airborne radar personnel to capture vital equipment from the Germans. Sopley was one of the stations considered to be a target for reprisal raids and Fred Bowler kept a pocket full of ammunition handy, just in case. No raid ever did take place trough.

Sopley Mark II was known as the 'Intermediate' - a hutted mobile really. It was fitted with increased power and range; the PPI's were improved and the height system grew better, as the operators improved with practice and technology.

Then came the Final - or Happidrome as it was known. This was a permanent building designed for the purpose, with cabins for interception purposes, proper height-reading areas, and a large room housing a table showing the whole area covered, which was divided into grid squares. Plotters placed their metal arrows as directed, according to the colour-change clock. Details of the raids and flights were put up on a large screen, called the Tote, and plots were told back to Filter. Overlooking all this was the Controller's Cabin, from where he had a complete view of the state of operations. A weather forecast was written up on a board, changing as frequently as necessary.

Colour change clock

Click here to continue Pat Spark's story

[Source: Nick Catford]

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