Fred Heath – Personal Recollections
Bloodhound and 112 Squadron
I first became involved with the Bloodhound system in 1967 at 390MU, RAF Seletar,
Singapore when I was employed in the 3rd Line bay servicing missile and LCP PCBs
from 33 and 65 Squadrons. Much against my wishes (overriding service
requirements – haven’t we all heard that at sometime) I was posted in 1968 to
‘E’ Flight, RAF North Luffenham to do the same job. As it turned out I only
remained there until September 1969 before undertaking a T87 TIR training course
at RAF Newton. My memories of Newton are ones of happy abandonment as the
social scene was quite full and very entertaining, we certainly didn’t let the
training get in the way of our enjoyment. Knowing that we were going to Cyprus
afterwards was just the icing on the cake. Charlie Jance, Brian Guy, Brian
Wells, Tony Bristol and Mick Kemp were all on the same course.
After a very brief visit to North Luffenham, I arrived at RAF Akrotiri en-route to 112 Squadron in May 1970, Tony Elkin and Tony 'Ginge' Aldridge arrived about the same time. I was billeted in the 112 block at Episkopi with Cos Corrie, Ginge, Jock Dempsey, Paddy ?, Bernard Carling ('Barny Rubble'), Dave Boden, Jamie Mather, Brian Wells, Tony Howlett and others I can't call to mind; about 12 of us in all. The billet was at the top of the hill and 112 Squadron personnel had the whole block to themselves, much to the vexation of the SWO. It took him about six months after I arrived to get his own way and get us moved into a block where he could keep an eye on us.
It was intended that all us new arrivals would take over from the personnel that had come with the equipment from Woodhall Spa, they handed over after a period of familiarisation and within six weeks were gone. I count myself very lucky that the radar I worked in (MS1) was reliable, much more so than MS2 and MS3. Within six more weeks our inexperience and unfamiliarity with the T87 showed up as a very high equipment down time and unserviceablity. It was so bad that the original crew were sent back for a few weeks to sort it out. As MS1 had remained serviceable for the most part I gained the undeserved reputation as a safe pair of hands; sheer good fortune really.
With experience it all came together at last and peace and calm descended on the T87 crews. I worked in MS1 with Ginge, Ray Maitland, Dougie Cooper, Dave Boden and Brian Guy and later, members of the RAAF; we made a good team.
In summer, our working day started about 0700 and finished by early afternoon when the beach called. On normal days, once the daily checks were completed, operations were carried out. This entailed starting up the two 210kVA Dormer diesels, phasing them in and switching the power to the equipment, the mains supply being insufficient and too unreliable for actual operations. The TIR was then handed over to the control of the Engagement Controller (EC) in the LCP so that live targets could be acquired and tracked. These exercises were repeated day after day for several hours to enable the controllers to keep up to speed. The ECs were often squadron pilots on a break from flying duties but controlling the missile section enabled them to keep up their flying hours.
The most exciting episode was during June 1971 when we were called out at dawn to provide air defence cover as it was anticipated that the Arab/Israeli confrontation could spread to other areas. Apparently an intercept of an Arab radio message suggested that they were up to no good and were going to try to involve other states in the ongoing conflict. I got Ginge (LCP operator), Barney (telephonist) and myself from Episkopi to the Parimali site 5 miles away within 10 minutes of the call out (if you’ve ever driven ‘Happy Valley’ you would know that this was some feat). We had communications up and running and the T87/LCP/missiles run up and serviceable within the next 10 minutes. A few minutes later the EC arrived at a run as Barney, in the telephone exchange, had informed him that we were operational. He was somewhat surprised as he expected the Squadron to take an hour to be manned.
Shortly the EC was informed of an unidentified aircraft that was approaching at speed. The radar was directed to illuminate/track the target and the missile was locked on. The engagement controller was within ten seconds of Bloodhound launch when it was finally identified as a civil aircraft escaping from Egyptian airspace. The EC was not amused since he would have been the first (and presumably the last) to launch a Bloodhound in anger.
The story emerged later that the civil aircraft (Boeing 707) was on a scheduled flight to Egypt when the trouble blew up. The Egyptian controller had informed the pilot that as a state of war now existed any aircraft entering Egyptian airspace was considered a potential enemy and would be shot down. Naturally this message somewhat unnerved the pilot and he decided to seek the protection of the nearest friendly airspace, Cyprus. As the aircraft was flying at 36,000 feet and therefore rather vulnerable to a SAM2 the pilot switched off his SSR, turned though 180° and put the aircraft into a shallow dive to gain speed. This was now the unidentified aircraft that was approaching at just below Mach 1 heading straight for RAF Akrotiri, hence the concern. The pilot had underestimated his rate of approach to Cyprus airspace and only switched on the SSR, so the aircraft could be positively identified, at the last minute when prompted by frantic calls from the ground controller.
After this episode a ‘Projection of Air Power’ demonstration was ordered to show the world how good we were. A Vulcan demonstrated a bombing run off Episkopi by dropping 21 1000lb bombs into the sea at low level, unfortunately 3 bombs did not explode and presumably remain on the seabed to this day. Witnessed by most of the Squadron personnel I imagine.
During the winter, usually after Christmas for two months, we would watch the waterspouts develop off the coast with the radar’s CCTV. Although they could not be tracked as such the Doppler signature showed them to be travelling between 30 to 60 knots. Occasionally one would come ashore and uproot anything not nailed down leaving a layer of frost in its wake, although once ashore they tended to collapse.
Despite the general dryness after the winter season we could gather fresh mushrooms on the site for much of the year. They grew underground, pushing up the soil like a mini molehill; you had to be careful as you picked so as not to let the soil get in the gills. A small cooker in the billet came in for a lot of use as the messing arrangements were on trial for a time. Meal tickets were issued for each meal and one would be collected at the door of the mess as you entered for your meal. Needless to same many meals were not taken and most nights we went to ‘Halil’s’ or ‘The Romantic’ kebab restaurants in Limassol. At the equivalent of 65p each for a slap-up feed and free wine (and a free four fingers of five kings brandy at Halil’s, Halil used to treat us like his own sons; what a guy) we could afford to snack throughout the day to afford the night out. At the end of the trial period each unused ticket handed back was paid back to us; so we went out to celebrate again at ‘Halil’s’.
I had a few weeks in May 1972 at RAF Aberporth with the Bloodhound firing unit; a 112 missile was being sent over for a test firing and a 112 EC was to do the honours. Several missiles were successfully launched, but not the 112 missile as it had developed a fault in transit, so the EC pooped off someone else’s missile. I had a wonderful time at Aberporth and took some leave before returning to Cyprus.
I left 112 in November 1972 (after a suitable going away party in the New Romantic, Halils being too small) for RAF Newton to instruct on T87 radar but was back at 112 in October 1974 as part of the 'reforce' after the Turkish invasion, finally leaving in December 1974.
While at Newton I had a few weeks at RAF Aberporth while the T87 was reinstalled in a prepared site on the edge of the cliff. Having given a number of courses and, together with Dougie Cooper, reworked the T87 training course down from 27 weeks to 19 weeks I was posted off Bloodhound to RAF Bishops Court, Northern Ireland; what a reward. Drawing a veil over what was the worst two years of my career in the RAF, I was unexpectedly posted to RAF Aberporth in1977.
I was to replace John Lancake on the T87. John had been one of my students on my first training course at Newton and had been dumped in this post straight from the course; the RAF never seemed to learn from past errors.
As the firing season at Aberporth ran from early May through to late September, the equipment tended to be put on a care and maintenance basis for the intervening period. The WO, John Dyball, decided that, as equipment serviceability had been an issue in other years from May onwards, the equipment would be maintained serviceable throughout the down period. By the first week in May all the faults were cured, all the servicing completed, let firing commence.
All the existing Bloodhound Squadrons sent personnel to Aberporth during the firing season for the experience. Blessed with good weather the number of missiles test fired reached a record that year and the Swiss came to test fire theirs also. On one occasion a missile malfunctioned at launch. Looking out of the rear doors of the radar I was presented with the frightening spectacle of an erratic Bloodhound just breaking Mach 1 a few yards away skimming over the radar aerials and rolling over and over with a booster failure. It never did come back under control and had to be destroyed in flight.
Posted off Bloodhound in 1980 to finish my career at Locking as an instructor I still had to field queries on Bloodhound although by 1986 these had all but dried up. For me, the Bloodhound system gave me the best years of my career and that last of the valve equipments, the T87, gave me the most enduring memories of both frustration and satisfaction in equal parts.