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


5. 17 January 1947: Operation Charlie phase 2
On the afternoon of 17 January two Chain Home Low stations in Lincolnshire (Skendleby and Humberstone) tracked what they described as “an exceptionally good track” (U294) at 10,000 feet above the North Sea. With Eastern Sector on alert, Meteor jets from 245 Squadron were placed on standby to scramble if Charlie came within range, but the plot faded from their screens. At 1945 hours the radar station at Humberstone, near Grimsby again tracked an unidentified target over the sea for a period of 30 minutes at a speed of more than 200 mph. The station log records:

‘U. 306 [unidentified plot] was followed continuously for 90 miles at 10,000 feet, moving east to west over the North Sea before changing direction towards the south, moving once again across the Wash towards the Norfolk coast.’ [13]

The tension can be measured by an entry that says this was ‘the longest watch period ever experienced since the termination of hostilities, operational six and a half hours being released at 01.30 hrs’.

By the evening, Mosquitoes from 23 Squadron were on ‘stand by’ for the return of Charlie under the control of RAF Neatishead. Situated in the Norfolk Broads, Neatishead is the oldest operational radar station in the world. It began life in 1941 and became a GCI radar station the following year. In his station log, Squadron Leader S. L. Cruwys, reported how on 17 January one mosquito from 23 Squadron had been ‘scrambled just before midnight to intercept an unidentified high flying aircraft.’ Cruwys records how an attempt was made to close when contact was made at 18,000 feet but ‘the observer was unable to hold it as the target was jerking violently’[14]. Further contacts were obtained as the target fell rapidly to 2,000 feet, when both the blip and the mosquito disappeared below radar coverage.

The logbook of Eastern Sector HQ, adds further details:

“One Mosquito of No. 23 Sqdn, pilot F/L Kent, was at readiness at Wittering to attempt interception of the unidentified aircraft which has been plotted several times lately. At 2040 hrs the Bogey was plotted in WN 6038 [grid square]. The plot was at one time heading south and the Mosquito which had been brought to standby was returned to Readiness, but when the plot again headed into Eastern Sector area the Mosquito was scrambled at 2327 hrs. Although getting within 1-2 miles several times, no interception was made on the target which took violent evasive action. The plot faded at 0015 hrs and after patrolling on a North-South line for some time the aircraft returned to base at 0045 hrs.” [15]

The pilot of the mosquito was a Sheffield-born World War II night-fighter veteran, William Kent. His log book confirms the incident, with a red ink entry recording an unusual night sortie of 1 hour, 45 minutes – ‘a scramble interception’. In 2001 we were able to trace and interview Kent, who retired from the RAF at the rank of Group Captain. He recalled the incident clearly:

‘I, being one of the very few pilots with any wartime experience and therefore having some understanding of the request, yelled for my navigator and the duty ground crew and leapt off the ground in under four minutes. On a “scramble” we never listen to any briefings on the ops phone – speed in the air is paramount – and so I had no idea what was brewing until, climbing to height and taken over by the close controller, I was given a brisk brief on the R/T [radio telegraph]. The ORB record is correct except that on reflection with hindsight the unidentified “aircraft” was almost certainly not an aircraft. It lost height as stated and the airborne radar contact was far more difficult to establish and hold with the aircraft in descent pointing towards the ground. The navigator’s screen became swamped with ground returns and the blip was in amongst the cluttered screen, somewhere...” [16]

Kent’s encounter with ‘Charlie’ over East Anglia continued for 20 minutes as the ground controller supplied instructions and the navigator tried to capture the object on the Mosquito’s radar.

“At no time at any height despite sporadic radar contacts did I sight anything visually, but on a dark night closing on a target at a speed of 10–20 knots [11–23 mph], extreme care is needed to avoid colliding and then only by steering a few degrees off centre does one’s night vision show a darker silhouette – often frighteningly close!”

After loosing the ‘blip,’ the adventure ended and Kent continued to patrol the area without further success. The following day he discussed the incident with the Neatishead fighter controller and a report was sent to the commanding officer of 12 Group. They decided that the ‘unidentified aircraft’ was, most probably, a leaking meteorological balloon. The radar target, if this theory was correct, would have been produced by reflections from metal cannisters as the balloon dropped towards the ground. ‘The report, which I saw, had no comment except a margin sketch of a pricked balloon,’ Kent recalled.

Kent’s scepticism was typical of the RAF’s pragmatic attitude both to the ‘ghost plane’ and, in later years, towards the flying saucer enigma. Nevertheless, the intrusions continued and Charlie appeared again on the night of 23 January whilst three senior officers from the Central Fighter Establishment were visiting RAF Neatishead to control an interception exercise. This was cancelled when ‘an unidentified high altitude aircraft’ appeared on the GCI radar at 28,000 foot. Mosquitoes from 23 Squadron, who in normal circumstances would have been scrambled were unavailable as they were moving to RAF Coltishall. The nearest available aircraft, mosquitoes of 264 Squadron from RAF Linton-on-Ouse in Yorkshire, were scrambled but before they could reach the Norfolk coast Charlie had faded from the radar screen. [17] During the alert, Eastern Sector turned for help from 74 Squadron’s Meteors and Flight Lieutenant Lawrence was scrambled “to intercept an unidentified aircraft out to sea.” The ‘aircraft’ disappeared before an interception was possible and with the weather closing in, Lawrence’s Meteor suffered severe icing and was forced to return to Horsham St Faith. [18] »

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