UFOs in History: Operation Charlie> [prev ¦ 1 ¦ 2 ¦ 3 ¦ 4 ¦ 5 ¦ 6 ¦ next]


3. Chain Home
In the post-war era, Britain’s air defences continued to rely upon the Chain Home (CH) radar system for air defence. CH was a network of coastal stations characterised by aerials mounted on tall wooden towers. CH appears crude by today’s standards but the stations were at that time the most advanced Early Warning system in the world. Radar was developed in great secrecy before the outbreak of war and by 1939 its coverage stretched from the Isle of Wight to the Scottish border. CH gave Fighter Command advanced warning of enemy aircraft approaching the English coast and the development of Ground Controlled Interception (GCI) made it possible for fighters to be guided towards them. Chain Home allowed the RAF to win the Battle of Britain and ensured that radar would play a major role in future air defence systems.

On occasions in 1939 and again in 1941 before the Battle of Britain, stations on the CH chain had detected unusual echoes approaching the English Coast that were reported to wartime Filter Rooms and RAF Fighter Command. On several occasions fighters equipped with early versions of airborne radar were scrambled to investigate but nothing was found and the phenomena were attributed to anomalous propagation (AP) or “unusual atmospheric conditions.”[3] As Britain was fighting a war no in-depth investigation of the reports was made by the scientific staff, but the Air Ministry were becoming aware that the radars which helped to defend the British coast were prone to AP and other spurious returns nick-named ‘angels’ which could on occasion be interpreted as intruder aircraft.

At the end of the war the CH chain was largely mothballed and with power shortages only the GCI stations remained active, mainly in daylight hours. Once or twice per month the system was switched on for a time during the evening for ‘Bullseye’ training exercises organised by Bomber Command. These involved convoys of lumbering wartime bombers flying south from their bases in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire. On reaching the coast they would cross the North Sea towards the Low Countries as the GCI’s guided fighters onto their tails to simulate ‘live’ interceptions.

4. 16 January 1947 – The North Sea incident
On the evening of 16 January 1947 Flight Lie
utenant David Richards was a senior controller and 2nd in Command of the filter room of RAF No. 11 Group, Bentley Priory. This was situated in the grounds of Hill House, a large Victorian mansion at Stanmore, northwest of London. A Bullseye exercise was in progress, involving mosquitoes of 25 and 29 Squadrons, from RAF West Malling in Kent. Two aircraft from 29 Squadron were operating off the East Coast under the control of the GCI at Trimley Heath, near Felixstowe, Suffolk. GCIs reported to 11 Group Operations Room at Uxbridge, who ‘told’ their plots to the Filter Room at Stanmore. The first clue that something unusual had happened came when Richards received a call on a landline. He recalled:

‘Trimley came up on my direct phone to report a strange plot which was either stationary at a great height or moving erratically at a great speed and then stopping again. If this was a conventional aircraft it would have travelled in a straight line, but it did not do that. This was not an aircraft, it was something very odd. 400 mph [quoted in the Daily Mail] is a pretty disappointing figure, as it is within the range of some 1947 aircraft types. Somebody – either at one of the [radar] stations or at Uxbridge [11 Group Operations Room] – had computed speed between the rather intermittent plots and had come up with a startling figure of 1,000 mph.’ [4]

A speed of 1,000 mph was truly startling, for it was not until October 1947 that US test pilot Chuck Yeager first broke the sound barrier (760 mph/1,220 kph at sea level) in a Bell X-1 rocket plane. Richards continues:

‘This [estimated speed] emphasises that the thing did not appear to move in a straight course, but faded and reappeared and sometimes stood still, before fading again. Without visual identification – there was none – it would be impossible for the [crew] to be certain it was investigating the same object. Note that it [the Mosquito] carried out an interception on a Lancaster during the 40 minutes between. In this time, at even 400 mph a straight course would take the aircraft from the East Coast to Scotland! I can recall this question of plot identification arising in conversations between us, our stations and Uxbridge at the time. They [Trimley Heath GCI] were looking at the tube and could judge if the echoes were the same object or a new one. This probably gave rise to the estimated speed, based on reappearances in a different place and a different height. Trimley were interrogated on this both by ourselves and Uxbridge, but stuck to their guns. After some talk between Uxbridge and the scientific officers at the stations making the observation on the validity of their plots, not a meteorological balloon etc (which I had already done), it was decided to [divert] a Mossie to investigate.’ [5]

If the target was a plane, it was displaying unheard of flight characteristics. Yet if it wasn’t a plane, what could it be?

Flight Lieutenant Easterling was also present at HQ No 11 Group when the incident began. He recalls the initial radar track occurred somewhere above the Dutch islands before it was acquired by the GCI. “It came across towards us during the course of an hour or so, stopping and starting, towards Norfolk where it crossed the coastline towards Lincolnshire. Mossies were the only aircraft we had that could reach that height with oxygen.” David Richards corroborates this impression. He said that since initial contact was made near the Dutch coast “the object was almost certainly detected by our Chain Home stations. These did not normally operate overland and only looked seaward.”

Details of the incident which followed have been preserved in the RAF operations record books (ORBs). ORBs were the logbooks compiled by RAF stations and squadrons to record daily and monthly activities, including everything from sporting events to exercises and operations. During the Cold War, security restrictions meant that few, if any, entries were made in ORBs that refer specifically to investigations of ‘unidentified’ radar tracks. For this reason, the records for 1947 are unique as they allow us to reconstruct how the RAF reacted when confronted by the unknown.

The ORB of Eastern Fighter Sector HQ, RAF Horsham St. Faith (Norfolk), dated 16 January 1947, reveals:

‘An unidentified aircraft had been plotted in WC 9585 at 38,000 ft., and Eastern Sector Ops were requested by Group to scramble a Mosquito of 23 Sqdn. to intercept. However, as there was no aircraft available with oxygen this was impossible, and Sector Ops were informed by 12 Group that an aircraft of 11 Group which was already airborne on a Bullseye exercise would try to intercept under Trimley Heath Control.’ [6] »

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