Brian joined the RAF in 1963, starting as an apprentice radar fitter. He was posted to Neatishead from 1975-1978, and there he was the Secondary Radar Specialist who ran the electronic workshop. In 2005, a while after leaving the military, he joined the Neatishead museum as a volunteer.
Early life and joining the RAF
I was born in a little town called Melbourne in Derbyshire on St. Patrick’s Day 1947. My mother was Irish, and my father was from Derbyshire. He was very keen on the outdoor life and when my grandfather in Ireland decided that his farming days were over, he asked my father to go to Northern Ireland and that happened around 1952. My mother would have preferred to have stayed in England, but I finished my education at Belfast High School.
When I was in the fifth form, a friend of mine had decided to join the RAF. I’d had enough of school, so I decided to join as well. We went off to Cardington in Bedfordshire to be assessed.
RAF career from 1963-1972
I was selected as an apprentice radar fitter, and commenced my training at RAF Locking in September 1963. This was a three-year apprenticeship, at the end of which I came out with the rank of Junior Technician. I did reasonably well as I got a year’s accelerated promotion.
I have always had a keen interest in music and became a member of an apprentice group which we called ‘The Pack’. That’s me below on the left, believe it or not!!
At the end of my three-year apprenticeship, I passed out with a year’s accelerated promotion, and was posted to RAF Topcliffe. This meant that I was promoted to Corporal in two years’ time instead of three. On my promotion, I was made responsible for the serviceability of all of the station’s ground radar systems.
From RAF Topcliffe I was posted to RAF Penang and detached to the Royal Australian Air Force Station Butterworth in Malaysia. We had sold the Australians an AR1 Radar, which was made by Plessey, and they hadn’t been trained to maintain it. Training always seems to be the last thing!! Anyway, I was sent out there for a year to hold their hands. It was an interesting posting. I joined a group there called ‘The Night People’, and we played in various venues in Penang.
When I was posted back to the UK in 1969, I went to RAF Bishops Court in Northern Ireland. Although only 23 miles from my home in Belfast, I was awarded a medal!!
The IFF system (Identification Friend or Foe) was made obsolete shortly after my arrival and replaced by the SSR 750 (Secondary Surveillance Radar). I was trained on this and made responsible for it in 1971.
In August 1972 I was promoted to Sergeant. I looked after the Electronic Workshop, ensured test equipment was serviceable and up to date, and was responsible for trade training for the radar fitters and mechanics. In December 1972 I passed promotion exam number three. This was a requirement for promotion to Chief Technician if selected.
Stories from RAF Bishops Court
At Bishops Court we had a Station Warrant Officer, Jack Murray, who was quite a character. You’d hear him saying, ‘four o’clock,’ and that meant come back with a haircut at four. The RAF band used to come occasionally, and they had a string section. They were playing in the Sergeant’s mess on one Saturday night, and I remember Jack going up there and talking to them. We thought he was asking them for a request, but he was telling them all to get a haircut and that he’d see them on Monday morning.
Jack also had a sister called Ruby, yes, the famous Ruby Murray. From time to time, she would sing for us in the Sergeants’ Mess.
There was, of course, trouble in Northern Ireland at the time, so we had a detachment of the RAF regiment. There was an RAF Regiment sergeant who’d go out in a Land Rover and used to machine gun rabbits on the airfield that he’d take to the mess. Usually, the mess manager would tell him that there was more lead than rabbit.
Once there was an explosion in the nurses’ home in Downpatrick. It was thought it was a bomb, but when the RAF Regiment got down there, they found that one of the nurses had been making beer and it exploded. Subsequently a three-ton truck went to Downpatrick on a Saturday night to bring the nurses up for the dance in the Sergeants’ mess.
We played golf now and then in Ardglass, and when we finished, we’d go to a pub called The Anglers Rest. We’d stay there for much longer than we should have, and one evening when it came to about 1am the Landlord banged his glass on the bar and said, ‘ladies and gentlemen, the constabulary is on its way. Would you please get under the tables until he’s gone.’ So, we all went under the table, the policeman came in, had a pint, and left. After this, we carried on until the early hours.
RAF Akrotiri, Cyprus
In April 1974 I was posted to RAF Akrotiri just in time for the Turks to invade. That was the only place I’ve ever been shot at.
In May 1975, I was posted to RAF Neatishead, which was responsible for the air defence of England. Apart from my year at Akrotiri, this was my first exposure to a large radar station, so much of it was new to me and it took some time to figure out how everything worked. Fortunately, one of my jobs was responsibility for the SSR 750 which I had looked after at Bishops Court so this gave me some time to get up to speed on the remainder of the hardware.
We had the Type 84 Radar, which is the radar scanner that is still there today. You can see it on the skyline for miles. We also had the Type 85 Radar, which was even bigger, and it used to sit on top of a building called the R12. It was the most powerful radar in the world, of which there were only three. The other two were at Staxton Wold and Boulmer. Later, the Russians refused to sign the SALT treaty until all the Type 85’s were destroyed.
About 400 people worked at RAF Neatishead. Most of them were on shift, of which there were four. I was one of the day workers. We came in every day and supervised the various maintenance tasks which needed to be done by the equipment specialists.
I was the Secondary Radar Specialist and the RPERDS Specialist. RPERDS (Radar Plot Extraction and Remote Display System) was a system of digitising analogue signals (both primaries from the Type 84 and Type 85 and their secondaries) and sending them to RAF West Drayton and RAF Watton, which was then Eastern Radar.
I ran the electronic workshop in the R12. There, we had specialist fitters for each of the equipments. On shift, the fitters on duty would change a unit if it was faulty. The next day, it would come into my workshop where the relevant specialist would fix whatever problems had come up the night before. If they couldn’t fix them, they would go back to the third line, which was at RAF North Luffenham. If North Luffenham couldn’t fix it, it went back to the manufacturers, which was a very rare occurrence.
We had regular periods of maintenance where the individual radars would be stopped for maintenance. We would change all the thermionic valves every three months. It would take about six weeks for the new valves to settle into their new homes, so during this time we’d be adjusting levels continuously. After they’d settled, we’d have about six weeks before we’d need to replace them all over again.
At certain periods of time, generally between six months and a year, the turntables for the radar scanners would be lifted by a crane and the bearings would be changed. On the Type 85, these bearings were about a foot in diameter. When brand new they went into the turntable perfectly globular, and when they needed to be changed, they were egg shaped as a result of running 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Civilians from the local area could get jobs on site too. There were two civilian engineers who worked in my workshop, specifically for maintenance of the Type 85 radar.
The Commanding Officer of Neatishead was a Group Captain Fighter Controller, and then there was a Wing Commander in charge of each of the wings. There was a Wing Commander Engineer, a Wing Commander Fighter Controller, a Wing Commander Admin. Each of these had their own individual squadrons. Everyone had their individual responsibilities, too.
My boss was a Flight Lieutenant, and there was a Flying Officer nominally in charge of each shift although it was really run by a Chief Technician. These young officers were normally straight out of training. A friend of mine trained some of these young officers, and on one occasion one of them asked him what they would be expected of them at a real radar station. Jim told them they would sign leave passes and travel claims, and that if anyone asked them anything, they should yell ‘Chief!!’. One of them on a later course confirmed with him that this was the case!!
There was a Warrant Officer Engineer who would stand in when one of the Flying Officers was on leave, but generally he’d be a day worker and would offer advice to them.
Domestic life at Neatishead
I was fortunate enough to meet my lovely wife while I was at RAF Neatishead. We got married at North Walsham and lived in Sprowston in accommodation provided by the RAF until I got posted to West Drayton in 1978. There were different forms of accommodation. The single men lived at RAF Coltishall and depending on their rank, they’d live in Airmen’s barracks, the Sergeants’ mess, or the Officer’s mess. The Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) people working on site lived the same way in separate accommodation. Married staff were allocated quarters at Horsham St Faith, or hirings in Norwich.
You could get transport to work from an RAF bus that did shift changes and day-to-day changes. Most of us used our own cars though, as it was much more convenient. You’d get your little pass, stick it on the car window, and then you were in.
There was a mess on site run by the RAF. There was a section for the airmen/airwomen, another for the Senior Non-Commissioned Officers (SNCOs), yet another for the Officers. It wasn’t free, you had to pay for your food.
There was a very active social community. There was always something going on in the Sergeants’ Mess. We also had a number of formal occasions, such as the Summer Ball and the Battle of Britain Cocktail Party. Jaguar aircraft have mobile hangars resembling huge marquees, and we’d have one of those at the rear of the Sergeants Mess with a chef doing steaks all night. One summer ball I remember having my last dance at quarter past seven on a Sunday morning and being back in the mess at lunchtime for the cricket. I was fit then!!
We had one Warrant Officer who was the president of the Norfolk Vintners Association, and he used to bring his own cocktails to the Battle of Britain Cocktail Party. Few survived a couple of those!! From time to time a couple of Senior NCOs would go down to the Theatre Royal in Norwich and pick up whoever was the star of the show that night and bring them back to the mess for the evening.
Individual shifts would often go out to their favourite pubs together when they finished. We had fun with the RAF Coltishall guys, as well. One of their favourite tricks is what they used to call ‘dead ants.’ They’d go up to The Dog in Ludham where all the holiday makers were, and someone would shout ‘dead ants.’ They’d all roll over on to their backs in the middle of all these people and stick their hands up. Another trick was for someone to order a pint and seven halves of bitter. When the beer appeared, the buyer would call out ‘Hi-Ho!!’ and in would march seven chaps on their knees – very silly!!
We had some real characters as well. One man to whom I won’t put a name was renowned as having the dirtiest mac in the RAF, so everybody knew him as Columbo.
Impact of the Cold War
Because the Cold War was going on, we had Tactical Evaluation (TACEVAL) to establish our readiness for war. Basically, these people would turn up and say, ‘right, we’re at war. This, this, and this is happening. Get on with it!’ And we’d have to pretend it was real. They’d put people in to be enemies, to sabotage and that sort of thing. And we cheated a little bit, because the pub in Coltishall would tell us if men in suits turned up with a briefcase a few nights in a row. So, we’d know they were coming.
Technical people were required to be military as well, no one was exempt. The TACEVAL team would bring in the RAF regiment, and I remember seeing one lot sneaking down the road. I knew which way the wind was blowing, so I sneaked up behind them and tapped them on the shoulder and said, ‘gotcha.’ They reckoned I was cheating because I wasn’t supposed to go out the station gates. It was great fun really, except when you were running across the field in hot weather with a Bren gun in each hand. We had to wear these NBC (Nuclear Biological and Chemical) suits and you got fried in them.
You never really knew how often these exercises would happen, but it usually depended on how well you did in the first one. If you did badly, there’d be another one shortly, and you’d be told. If it was very bad, you’d know because the Commanding Officer would be replaced. This never happened at Neatishead to my knowledge. I’ve heard of it happening elsewhere, though. There was no mucking about.
Stories from Neatishead
One day we had a fire alarm go off in the HF3, which was one of the height finding radars. The fire section had a brand-new man who immediately rushed in with his axe and chopped the door down. Of course, the door was unlocked.
Another fire, this time a real one. The Tannoy said, ‘if you’ve got a car in car park number three, please get it out as soon as possible.’ I went outside and there were flames leaping up from the hedge of about 20-30 feet. We managed to get all the cars out and the heat died down. What had happened was between two sets of fences, one of which was barbed wire, there was grass which couldn’t be trimmed. The Station Warrant Officer and the RAF Regiment Warrant Officer had decided to sprinkle non-leaded petrol over the grass and set fire to it. Of course, we had lots of cables for lighting and communications running through these fences. After that the two of them had a very short interview with the Commanding Officer and we didn’t see them again.
Every Senior NCO was supposed to have a secondary duty, something else to do to keep you occupied alongside your main job. For my assignment I had to go and see the Engineering Warrant Officer shortly after I arrived at Neatishead, and I was assigned responsibility for the LORAN (Long Range Navigation system) beacon at Weybourne. This was similar to GEE as used in the 2nd World War, but vastly improved, and was paid for by NATO.
On a Thursday morning my Corporal would meet me with the RAF minivan, and we’d drive up to Weybourne. We had a civilian there who used to do the general stuff, and he’d put the kettle on. We’d read the papers, have a cup of tea, and then we’d go down to The Crown in Sheringham. There people would buy us drinks and tell us what they’d done during the war. Then we’d drive back through North Walsham, pick up my future wife from school, drop her off at home, and then go back to Neatishead.
In May 1978 I was selected for Programming Wing at RAF West Drayton. Shortly after that, in August 1978, I did a real time programming course at RAF Locking, in which I got an A1 pass. I didn’t realise how much I would enjoy programming.
In September 1979 I received the long service and good conduct medal, which was known in those days as ’15 years of undetected crime.’ In 1980 I did the Senior NCOs’ management course, and in October 1980 I was promoted to Chief Technician. While I was stationed at RAF West Drayton, I completed the Higher National Certificate (HNC) in Computer Studies and joined the British Computer Society.
While at RAF West Drayton, I was selected to work with Plessey Defence Systems at Titchfield, near Fareham, writing software for the networking aspects of the IUKADGE (Improved United Kingdom Air Defence Ground Environment). This turned out to be the most enjoyable job I have done, and from which I learned a great deal. It was formed from three companies – Plessey for the network, Marconi for the displays, and Hughes Aircraft in California for the radar database. Most of the networking software was written in RTL/2, a language used by ICI for its real time applications.
That’s me below in my Chief Technician’s outfit!
When the software was written, we moved back up to the Test Facility at RAF West Drayton, where, in 1987, I left the RAF.
ITL and Reuters
I left the RAF to join Information Technology Limited (ITL) in Hemel Hempstead as a software development team leader. It was difficult to transition from the RAF to a civilian life. In the RAF if I asked someone to do something I knew it was going to get done because they knew what would happen if it didn’t. In civilian life that’s not the case, and I had a hard time learning how to persuade people to do what I wanted them to do. It wasn’t much fun initially, but I got to grips with it after a while, and we learned to understand each other. We established a small military enclave in civilian life.
I had various jobs in ITL, and then I joined Reuters on contract. I eventually joined Reuters as Technical Support Group Manager living in Norwich and commuting to London. I retired in 2003 as Head of Project Management at Radianz. Radianz was Reuters networking arm, since acquired by BT. I retired in 2003.
The Neatishead Museum
In 2005 I started volunteering at the museum in RAF Neatishead. Doug Robb, who used to be the Warrant Officer Ops, was the Museum Manager, and started the museum way back in the nineties. A lovely man, but if he asked you to do something, you did it and didn’t ask why.
Back then the museum was not as it is now, it was a very small place. Very few people knew about it. The good thing about it was that the Ministry of Defence was paying all our bills because they hadn’t figured out a way of separating us from everything else. In those days we only opened on Tuesdays, and then later we started opening Thursdays too. That was how it was for a while.
The museum has expanded a lot over the years. There have been various things added on to it, like the Crumbs café that used to be very small but is quite big now. We have a proper reception now too, and a card reader so people can pay with cards. It’s been modernised a lot. Some things haven’t been touched. The History Room hasn’t been changed much, and the Cold War Ops Room is much as it was when the RAF left.
As a volunteer, what I do is on the IT side of things. I have used my computer programming skills to some effect. I still look after the network there and the History Room, which contains many of the things I used to work on in the RAF, which is quite frightening.
I hope to carry on volunteering there for some time to come!!
Brian Crane (b. 1947) talking to WISEArchive on May 24th 2023 in Sheringham.
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