Working Lives

The electrical engineer. Missiles and communications. (1947-2021)

Location: Norwich

Bill talks about his working life, in particular about his work on the Bloodhound missile during the Cold War and his time with Ferranti in Manchester.

I was born in Balby Road, Doncaster in 1931. My father had served with the Barnsley Pals for the whole of the war from 1914 and was then a teacher at the primary school, which I attended. My mother was a housewife when I was born but along with my father and her father she had been running a small grocer’s shop in Doncaster called Rusby and Kennett. My mother was a Rusby.

I went to Doncaster Grammar School and managed to get a Higher School Certificate in physics, chemistry and maths. At that time when you were 18 you had to register for National Service but I got a position at Manchester University to study electrical engineering.This postponed National Service for me and after graduating I took a job which was regarded as work of national importance so I was never called up for service.  It was the time of the Cold War and the military were looking for trained engineers. I only realised all this once I was much older, I didn’t know what the Cold War was then.

After finishing my degree course I tried to get a job with the various companies that I’d worked for as a vacation apprentice.

During the course I had studied light and heavy electrical engineering which included mechanical engineering, so for my first years vacation apprenticeship, summer 1951,  I went to a power station at Ferrybridge, Yorkshire, not far from my home in Doncaster, to work through the various departments.

The next year, 1952, I went to work for British Thomson-Houston, Rugby, when I was 21 and was working as a vacation apprentice on the design and development of equipment for the conversion of DC power to AC power and vice versa, heavy current engineering, which I didn’t really find interesting. I was only there for about four weeks, during the vacation.

I graduated and went for interviews including to English Electric and GEC. None of them offered me a job except the last one which was Ferranti. Ferranti had always been connected with the military from the First World War. Their first factory in the north of England was for making high voltage power transformers at Hollinwood, Oldham. Funnily enough I ended up at that site when I finished work and retired in 1959.

I was interviewed for the job at the Moston, near Manchester, site which was the radio factory, which I didn’t know until later. I went for the interview and they asked me very little about what I’d done as a degree, they were mainly interested in why I particularly wanted to work for Ferranti’s. I said, ‘Well my girlfriend lives in Stockport’ and that was a good enough reason! Well later on I realised that my whole career had been part of the scheme of the Ministry of Defence to produce engineers to help the Cold War effort.

I had little holiday at the end of the degree and started working there in Moston in September 1953. I was an assistant to one of the engineers working on the receiver (and guidance part of a ground to air missile. The missile was called Red Duster, which was its codeword for what eventually turned out to be the Bristol Bloodhound. I knew what I was working on but didn’t realise exactly what the relation to Red Duster was. I knew that I was working on something special as I had to sign the Official Secrets Act, and as far as I know I’m still not allowed to tell you any of this, but things have moved on, I can tell you, things have changed a lot since then.

The government were investing a lot of money into this research and development, ours came under the RAF but there was competition, the army were developing a similar missile with English Electric, but of course I didn’t know this at the time.

I was working in quite a small team, three radio mechanics and I think about five engineers lead by a Mr Allen Sharples. We worked in a long hut, and our bit at the end was just a small lab really. The original missile, Mark1 had been completed and was already going into testing at Woomera in Australia. In fact I rather fancied joining the test team for the travel abroad experience.  The missile operation was quite simple really. The ground radar would illuminate the target and the receiver in the Red Duster on its launching site would pick up any reflections from a target and when it was fired off it would continue to receive the reflections which were pulses of a very high frequency signal and the Ferranti Guidance would direct it to its target. The receiver could only detect the direction, like an ordinary radar like they use on civil planes at the airport.

The MOD were thinking of developing a Mark 2. The high frequency radar pulses would be modulated with a “continuous wave” CW just like the signals that come into your telly or radio are. From the reflected signal they would demodulate the CWs and that would give them the idea of the speed, using the Doppler Effect for the difference in speed. So what we were working on was a receiver and guidance to use this principle.

The engineer who I was assisting was Gerry Hawkins, he was doing his PhD at Jodrell Bank, Sir Bernard Lovell’s radio telescope, at night. You could tell that he didn’t get much sleep because there was a big pile of flat radar dish boxes outside our lab and if the sun was shining he would take his shirt off and lie on them and of course I would join him, sunbathing and having a sleep. I was only there for about six months, as I say they were developing the Mark 2 and Ferranti’s were mainly involved in the receiver and guidance which of course are the most critical things. It’s alright having a rocket or whatever but it’s got to have some control. So effectively they took over the whole job and eventually the radio factory which by then made televisions as well. That became the production factory for the missiles and they would have rows and rows of these missiles, which I think came from Bristol Aircraft, and they would fit the receivers and guidance sections.

Telecommunications Research Establishment, Malvern

The government had the Telecommunications Research Establishment (TRE) at Malvern and they were wanting to back further development on the missile, which was going to be a Mark 3. The people working on the Mark 2 had to supply an engineer and an assistant to join the team setting up at TRE in Malvern. This development was really far too ambitious  though. The idea was to have both a transmitter and a receiver in the missile. The ground transmitter would take the missile to a distance from the target so that it would then be able to carry on with its own transmitter and its own receiver and home onto the target. The nearer that you got to the target the bigger and bigger the received signal would get and therefore more accurate. So I went down to Malvern with this guy Dave Robertson and was his assistant. I’d never met him before but we got on alright.

This was really where it all happened, those twenty-four months were like ten years in my development. I mean I was working in the place where radar and the developments from radar had been invented. TRE along with Bletchley Park, which of course we didn’t know about then, was on the same level, in forwarding the vital development of radar).

TRE used to be based near Swanage on the South Coast and funnily enough I found out about its moving when I was on a geology field trip years later. We went to a lecture at a school and I think that it was the headmaster who told us about why TRE eventually ended up at Malvern. Before the war he said one of the pupils was a German. This was the story, I later found out afterwards that it wasn’t true, but apparently a plane came over one day and dropped a bomb in the sea off Swanage. They reckon that the pilot of that plane was the ex-pupil at the school and he had disobeyed orders to bomb the school. I’ve been reading recently about the Intelligence service use of Enigma and Bletchley Park, they had to capture a German radar in Bruneval just off the coast of France, they did an SAS sort of thing, took all the relevant bits of the German radar so that they could, you know, find out exactly what frequencies they were using so that they could jam them.

R.V. Jones who wrote the book was the head of the RAF intelligence during the war and he worked with the TRE in order to tell them what they were up against and what they were getting from the Bletchley Park decoded messages. As a result of this he said that it would be a good idea to move away from the coast ‘cos the Germans will have the same idea as us!

I was working with some very bright people, they were out of this world, I was part of it but I was in the background to them. I got to fly in a Tiger Moth at Defford which was the RAF Aerodrome used for any flying work for TRE.

I was in the laboratory that had been set up for the purpose of developing a logarithmic amplifier and Dave Robertson was one of the people running this project, although he was from Ferranti he was on a par with the senior TRE engineers. My bit of the job was making a tape recorder to record the output which was audio frequency but higher than normal audio. It went up to 100 KCs (kilocycles) so I had to make this special recorder which was about a foot cube in size, perhaps a bit bigger, but to fit under the navigator’s table in a Canberra bomber. The logarithmic amplifier was connected to the planes radar system and would record the output.

I never fail to sort of think how bloody lucky I was to do all this. Yeah, so my boss Dave Robertson would go up in the Canberra and they had pen recorders as well to record, fortunately, because the tape spilled out and went under his feet. I would have loved to go up in the Canberra myself but I was too junior. Anyway they came to the conclusion that they had finished the receiver bit and that the idea of the missile carrying a transmitter as well as the receiver was not worth pursuing. They took the stage two and a half back to Ferranti’s who had been working on stage two and as you know I was working for Dave developing the receiver which would fit onto the existing Mark 2 Red Duster.

Returning to Manchester

Meanwhile while I’d been away they’d built a special research and development factory at Wythenshawe, near the airport. I’d got married in 1956 and HR in the factory had got us digs in Withington.  Ringway had been an RAF station and had become a civil airport, Manchester airport now. In those days it was just made up from the original buildings of the RAF station.

This was where we were developing the sort of two and three quarters stage version. Although without carrying its own transmitter it had a midcourse guidance still being developed. This was effectively a computer which had to take in the information that the receiver was giving it. Namely the direction that it was flying, the speed that it was flying, relative to the missile and then it calculated the angle that it should fly. If the target moved from where it was to a different angle it had to follow it and use the controls of the missile to keep directing it on course. Not directly to the target but to a point where it would meet it. It was a very complicated thing and they had a whole section working on this midcourse guidance.

I was still on the amplifier, the logarithmic amplifier amongst also trying to solve other technical problems as they arose. By logarithmic I mean, you know when you see graphs on telly about Covid or whatever they have the numbers of cases in the Y axis, well in our case it was the speed in terms of frequency with a 100 KCs maximum displayed. They don’t have it going from 0 to 100 linearly, they have a band 1 to 10 and 10 to 100, the scale is logarithmic and that’s why the amplifier had to be logarithmic, that was the main special thing about it. In other words the output of the amplifier would rise logarithmically with speed and would remain within its operational range while its input could swing over a scale of 0 to 100 KCs.

The people working on stage two had completed their work and they had trials off Aberporth in Cardigan Bay, they destroyed the target and there were big cheers all round. Shortly afterwards the Minister came round and said, ‘Well done chaps you’ve done a great job’ and closed the development of missiles at Ferranti. This was about 1962 and I moved within the factory to the new Semiconductor research and development department where I stayed for the next 27 years.  They were selling the missiles for a time to Sweden, Switzerland all over the place. They were used around RAF stations too of course, I can’t remember the exact name but I was told that one airfield had at least 20 all round the field defending it against bombers. We had bomber planes which were continually in the air with nuclear bombs on, ready to act against Russia if they acted first. That was the deterrent you see, we were protecting the airfields where the bombers were based.

The move to Norfolk

My daughter married a Norfolk man and I came down on holiday with my then partner. After some complications, it ended up me living with them and it was then that I met Helen.

We have been doing some editing and publishing some books about Harleston. I got a legacy from my brother which enabled us to buy this house and we then bought a big Apple desktop and the CS3 Adobe which means that we can do the publishing ourselves.

My son-in-law got a Heritage Lottery Fund grant for the Harleston Players to put on the play ‘Bacon and Bungay’ by Robert Greene. We published a book called, ‘Harleston Fair: The story of Robert Greene’, that was distributed to the audiences at performances round the area of Harleston.  Other books that we published included  ‘Harleston Riots’ and ‘The Hazards of Harleston’.

We are certainly keeping busy in our retirement, we never stop.


Bill Kennett (b.1931) talking to WISEArchive on 7th December 2021 in Norwich.

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