In early August 1943 1 was stationed at RAF Wattisham, Suffolk, as Leading Aircraftsman, wireless/radio operator High Frequency/Direction Finding. The station was then part of the U.S. 8th Army Air Force and the RAF personnel gradually were being reduced and being replaced by American servicemen. Concrete runways and a perimeter track at that time were being constructed at Wattisham prior to the arrival of the 479th Fighter Group, equipped with the heavy twin-engine Lockheed P-38 Lightning long-range escort fighters.
About that time, a signal came in instructing me to report to the USAAF station at Wendling, Norfolk, together with LAC George Crouch and Cpl. Dave Evans, who were also part of our WOP/DF team. We arrived at East Dereham railway station, phoned Wendling for transport and arrived at the base late in the afternoon. After reporting to the RAF Orderly Room, which was in a Nissen hut near the Beeston crossroads, we went to our billet, one of two large Nissen huts which had been allocated to the RAF personnel, totaling around 30 airmen, and under the command of an RAF flying officer.
There was an orderly sergeant and a corporal who handled the administration of the station with the 392nd Bomb Group's own personnel. They were mainly engaged in the maintenance side, the heating, lighting, water and coal supplies for the Nissen and Quonset huts, in addition to liaising with the Air Ministry and local authorities, etc.
All RAF personnel used the various cook houses, or mess halls, on the base, one mess hall being quite close to the RAF's quarters. After two years of RAF food, the quality and quantity of the USAAF rations was a revelation. Tomato juice and toast for breakfast, pork and lamb chops for lunch, peanut butter, all kinds of fresh fruit, coffee by the gallon, etc. The food was abundant and we all fully realized how very fortunate we were.
I also recall that on the day of our arrival the RAF team were very impressed with the Post Exchange which already had been opened and was in operation. We soon were issued our own PX cards.
The station at that time was swarming with 392nd Bomb Group ground personnel who had traveled across the Atlantic from New York in a convoy. They had traveled to New York by train from their training base at Alamogordo, NM. A short time later the flight crews arrived at Wendling with their four squadrons of B-24 Liberator heavy bombers, having flown across the Atlantic via the northern ferry route. They began flying practice missions one or two days after arriving.
As far as the RAF Signals Unit was concerned, our duty was to start up the HF/DF station located in a field about 200 yards from the end of the main NE/SW runway. Some of the other RAF personnel were involved in operating the radio transmitting station located in a wooden hut near Beeston crossroads. Two RAF staff slept in the hut so that a 24 hours watch was maintained. The Weather Unit, or meteorology section, also was located near the crossroads, and the weather statistics, wind, temperatures, visibility, etc., were obtained hourly and telephoned to a central weather control.
The HF/DF station had been constructed and equipment installed by a RAF Maintenance Unit and was equipped with the usual RAF receiver and transmitting unit, all communications being by Morse code. The RAF wireless/radio operators were trained to read and transmit Morse at a minimum speed of 20 words per minute.
The RAF system of air-ground communication applied to all USAAF stations and RAF stations. Throughout the United Kingdom, all 8th AF and RAF aircraft had one common system to use and thus could communicate with each other's bases. When the need arose, i.e., inclement weather, battle damage, injured crewmen, etc., 8th AF planes could land at RAF stations and vice versa.
All stations had their own individual call signs and a restricted book was carried at each DF station. A similar book was issued to all aircraft giving the wavelength and the call sign of all 8th AF and RAF operational airfields. All DF stations transmitted their own station call signs for one minute every 15 minutes throughout the 24 hours. Aircraft from a different base contemplating landing at another base could retune their own transmitter and receiver on to a new wavelength when the call sign was transmitted at 15-minute intervals. During emergencies, and there were many, the I5-minute call sign could be interrupted.
The DF sets had a fine-tuning control and operators used this to scan and monitor the wavelength. The strength of the Morse signal depended on the distance from the aircraft to the ground station and the time of day. The most frequent request to a DF station was for a QDM, i.e. a magnetic compass bearing from the DF station to the aircraft requesting assistance. This was obtained by the radio operator in the aircraft being instructed to hold the Morse transmitting key down to enable a magnetic bearing to be taken and read off on a special screen. Other types of messages could be, and were, sent using the standard RAF signals code. It was the normal practice for the working of the DF station to be monitored at the main Signals Headquarters. An operator would listen in to all transmissions to cover the possibility of the DF operator being unable to pick up or miss a call for assistance. Other DF stations on nearby frequencies would also call the home station if that home station didn't respond to a call.
It was the practice for two operators to be on duty for a four- or eight hour watch, each operator taking it in turn to listen in and transmit. The second operator would handle the telephone and relay the relevant information to the Wendling control tower. In some cases, where stations had surplus operators, the shifts would be shorter and only one operator would be on duty.
Blocks of batteries/accumulators were used at the DF station and these had to he recharged from time to time. About 100 yards from the DF cabin there was a small brick building which housed the charging equipment. Batteries in that building were kept ready, fully-charged, and changed on a regular basis, frequently at the change-over of a shift.
As the 392nd Bomb Group flew daylight raids, the night watch at Wendling tended to he the quietest. This was from 11 p.m. until 7 the following morning. Any night calls would come in from an RAF Bomber Command aircraft requesting a QDM, although occasionally checks would come from bombers on the ground being prepared for a mission as ground crew radio specialists could tune into the 15-minute transmissions.
The RAF personnel were just as much involved with the tense atmosphere of an impending deep penetration mission as the American ground and flight crews were. At that time it seemed as if the war could go on for several years and the grim sight of severely battled-damaged and crashlanded B-24s and the occasional RAF Lancaster bomber brought that home most forcefully.
In common with a number of RAF personnel, I had my bicycle with me for getting to and from various locations on the 500-acre airfield. Hundreds of bicycles were supplied to the American airmen for personal transport around the base as well as for trips to local scenic and picturesque villages and towns of north Norfolk County.
As the DF station was operating 24 hours a day, the two RAF airmen coming on duty would collect a jeep from the Signals Headquarters and drive round the perimeter track, then onto the road before turning into the field where the DF station was located. The relieved shift then drove the jeep back.
One day, after relieving the two operators, I had my first driving lesson from one of the American lads. He told me how to steer round the field, changing gear, stopping and starting, reversing, etc. I did this several times after we'd changed shifts before being considered competent to drive all the way back to the Signals HQ. Afterwards I frequently drove the jeep on the trips to and from the DF station.
Occasionally, during the winter months of 1943-44, Wendling Airfield was closed down by dense fog. I recall the bizarre happenings of one such evening. Two of us collected a jeep at about 10 p.m. from the base Signals HQ and set off to relieve the two airmen on duty at the DF station.
The fog was extremely dense as we drove slowly and cautiously, keeping to the outside edge of the perimeter track. This was fine until we came to a hardstand which had a B-24 parked thereon. We very soon became completely lost when we attempted to take a short cut straight across the dispersal point. The fog was so thick that after nearly colliding with the quarter-ton propeller of a Liberator, I sat on the jeep's bonnet and tried to act as a lookout and guide for the driver. In addition to the density of the fog, it was very cold, but we continued creeping our way forward although we both realized what we were hopelessly lost.
However, we eventually saw a dim pin-prick of light through the gloom, which gradually grew brighter as we headed in its direction across the airfield. It turned out to be a powerful type of search light erected beside the runway by several Irish construction workers to enable them to continue with their runway and perimeter track repairs throughout the night.
We immediately realized that we were round on the far side of the airfield. We were able to reorient ourselves and managed to locate the road which took us near the DF station, which we eventually reached at about 2:30 am. In the meantime, the two RAF personnel on duty there had apparently been making frantic phone calls to Signal HQ and had almost given us up for lost! However, on their return trip in the jeep, they drove close to the inner edge of the perimeter track, and apart from having to drive straight across the ends of the 50-yard wide runways, they had far less trouble.