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Marconi at War

Page history last edited by Alan Hartley-Smith 2 years, 3 months ago

Charivaria

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Don Halstead writes:

Early in 1995 I realised that we were on the verge of celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War 2 and that many younger staff would have no appreciation of just how much Marconi contributed to victory. Encouraged by Pam Reynolds, editor of Marconi Radar’s in-house paper News and Views, I generated a two-page spread about Marconi at War.

 

Just before we were due to print I realised I had missed a trick: could Bob Telford be persuaded to add a personal recollection? One gracious phone call later I was promised something within 48 hours – now read on!

 

“In the summer of 1939 I started working as an assistant to the Works Manager at Chelmsford, C. J. Strother (those were the days before the Head Office came to Chelmsford when the Works Manager was "Mr. Marconi" as far as Chelmsford was concerned). One of the tasks I was given was to liaise with Airborne Radio Development at Writtle about a potential large order from the R.A.F. for a version of the Radio equipment fitted in the Empire Flying Boats of Imperial Airways. The current RAF equipment was many years old and the RAF was desperate to get the Marconi equipment without which they could not fight the approaching war.

The outbreak of war in September hastened a decision to go ahead and in October an RAF officer visited Writtle to agree the specification with the Engineer in charge of the project, C. S. Cockerill (later to become Sir Christopher Cockerill, the inventor of the Hovercraft). The Flying Boat equipments were designed for manufacture in tens whereas the RAF equipment would be wanted in thousands (in fact over 70,000 of these T1154/R1155 equipments were made during the war) and thus extensive design change for quantity production was required as were some technical changes including the addition of direction finding facilities. The specification was agreed that day (Christopher claims on the back of an envelope), work went ahead and prototype equipment was produced, flown and approved by mid-January 1940! In parallel a crash order for 1000 equipments was given to Marconis to start delivering to the RAF in June followed by larger orders subsequently to us and to 4 "daughter" companies, Plessey, EMI, EKCO and Mullard for tooling up and subsequent production.

 

It was decided that manufacture should be at Hackbridge near to Croydon Airport where the Air Radio Division had been located and which had a small highly skilled "model shop" and I was told that I was responsible. So began six years of intense effort and certainly our feet rarely touched the ground nor our heads touch a pillow for the few weeks until the equipments started to be fitted in RAF bombers in June. I suppose there were about 30 of us when I first arrived and this grew to about 1200 over the next year or so as we acquired large premises nearby which had been a "silk-printing" works. The initial small work-force was all male (and highly skilled) and early on I had to fight and win a battle to bring in women to train for assembly work which was a completely foreign concept in Marconis. Later as recruitment grew the age of the ladies we recruited rose fairly considerably and many no doubt had grand­children and nearly all were old enough to be my mother! But how they worked with cheerfulness and humour and produced the various equipments for the armed forces (including "suit-case" sets for the Resistance and Partisan movements across Europe).

 

One particular incident I will never forget. In Autumn 1943 the "Buzz-bomb" assault commenced and the location of the launch sites trained on various parts of London meant that we in the Croydon area were unluckily at a crossing point for at least three of the missile tracks. The main assembly building was of four floors with the majority of the ladies on the top two floors and the air raid shelters were of course at ground level. For the "buzz-bombs" the procedure, unlike normal air raids, was to identify missiles crossing your area and to evacuate to shelters for the short period whilst the missile passed over (or cut out and dropped!). On a particular day the attacks grew to several an hour with consequent frequent trips up and down stairs. It didn't take long before a deputation of ladies came to see me and told me in forceful cockney terms that it might be alright for a young man like myself but it wasn't for them. "Guv'nor - the "blankety" bombs might kill us, but as sure as God made little apples going up and down those "blankety" stairs will "blankety" well kill us". So quite against all the rules and regulations and the expostulation of our Air Raid Wardens I agreed that anybody who preferred to stay could put on their helmets and sit under the work benches which as it happened had wide steel tops.

 So peace was preserved!

 


I remember all who worked there with enormous affection, pride and respect. (RT)

 

DFH Footnote:

Croydon was subjected to very heavy V1 (doodlebug) bombardment. This may have been in part due to the machinations of R V Jones and his colleagues misleading the Germans into programming the V1s to fall short of central London (see Jones’ Most Secret War plate 24.)

 

Marconi and its people, '39 -'45

 

In the entrance hall of Marconi House hang two memorials. One is the Roll of Honour from the original Marconi House in The Strand, commemorating Company staff who died in World War I. The other, vivid with enamelled logo and shining brass, is a direct reminder of how The Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company itself stood in the front line in World War II. [Editors note - now in Chelmsford cathedral -  see here] It is inscribed:

 

This plaque, made by some of their colleagues in the factory, is placed in affectionate memory of those who lost their lives by enemy action on Hay 9th, 1941.

 

Below this are the names of the seventeen who died in the early morning of that day when a single enemy plane came in low over Chelmsford, dropped two bombs, turned, and dropped two more. Three fell directly on the New Street Works. One exploded in the centre of the Machine Shop, probably just to the north-east of Marconi House. The second detonated on the floor of the transmitter erection shop, starting a major fire in the paint-shop which was eventually brought under control by the Company's own fire brigade. Seventeen were killed, forty injured.

 

Next day tapping sounds were reported from under the debris in the wrecked transmitter erection area. Frantic efforts were made to get to the source of the signals with crow-bars and shovels until it was concluded that nobody was buried there, at least alive, and rescue work was suspended. Next day the great pile of debris was finally cleared away. Underneath, still ticking, was the third bomb. It had to be blown up where it lay, wrecking the paint-shop and the sand and blast section. For a long time after those processes had to be done in the open air. An electricity sub-station, wrecked by the initial explosions, had been replaced within hours by the Works Engineer's Department with a temporary 'sub. Unfortunately it was so close to the third bomb that it too was wrecked by the delayed explosion.

 

When I first came to the Company as a vacation trainee in 1955, a small exhibition of Marconi memorabilia stood in the main entrance to Marconi House. Along with Marconi's notebook, cocked hat and sword, a Fleming diode and the famous Melba microphone, there was a scale model of the Marconi Works and the neighbouring Hoffman ball-bearing factory. Based on aerial photographs, it was found by RAF officers in June 1945 on a German airfield. So why were we the subject of so much unwelcome attention?

 

In the Boer War, Marconi wireless equipment had been useful but was never critical to the outcome. In World War I the Company supplied a great number of communications equipments and systems, particularly direction-finding apparatus, being the only British firm capable of doing so on the scale required.

 

Marconi's weathered the post-war years despite severe storms, internal and external. In the early thirties a choice had to be made between contraction or expansion, particularly in research and development. Judicious expansion won the day. The need for an integrated research establishment led to the Great Baddow Research Laboratories, finally completed in March 1939. Staffing it was more difficult. Engineers and physicists looked askance at the spectacular new laboratories built by a Company whose recent profits had not been impressive, seeing not an act of faith but one of commercial suicide. The onset of World War II was to change all this.

 

The Munich agreement of September 1938, optimistically hailed by Neville Chamberlain as ' Peace in our time' was regarded by others as purchasing a limited breathing space in which to put the country's defences into some sort of order. Marconi's had been warned of the possibility of war, involving Company management in some difficult crystal gazing. 'Wait-and-see' would not provide for a dramatic increase in production if war came; but if the crisis blew over there would have been ruinous capital outlay and gross over­capacity.

They opted for accelerated expansion. A large metal-bashing factory was acquired at Vauxhall, whilst the new office building and Works extension at New Street were commissioned with all speed. The buildings were camouflaged just after Munich, a defence system and shelters were dug out, the fire brigade was douhled in strength, a reinforced Control Centre was built and emergency; generating plant installed to meet 80% of normal load.

 

Immediately war broke out the Works went to 24-hour working seven days a week. Thereafter the Works never shut, except partially and temporarily as the result of enemy action. At first enemy bombers passed overhead all the time, for Chelmsford was in Bomb Alley, and everybody went to the shelters when the alert sounded. Once spotters were installed on top of Marconi House, shelter was only taken after direct warnings from the roof.

 

In 1940 premises at Parsons Green, Fulham, Hackbridge and others along the Albert Embankment were taken over. Marconi-Ekco Instruments, soon to become Marconi Instruments, moved from Essex to premises at St Albans and High Wycombe. The Company's total floor space in 1937 amounted to 33,007 sq. ft.; this reached 399,005 sq.ft by 1939 and 807,388 sq. ft. by 1943 (including Marconi Instruments). Works Cost Price of the Company's output rose from £830,000 to £3,950,00 in the same timescale.

 

Shortly after war was declared, the Baddow Laboratories vanished. In 1940 the Air Ministry took over T L Eckersley and his propagation team, followed by a group under R J Kemp to design and construct apparatus to implement the Propagation Group's findings. The Kemp Group ultimately was assigned control of part of the operational intelligence service. In 1941 the Admiralty took over the rest of Baddow as an extension of the Admiralty Signal Establishment. This gave rise to endless confusion, the Laboratories being simultaneously an Admiralty establishment, an Air Ministry Research Station and an RAF operational station. Mail was even addressed to 'The Royal Naval Dockyard, Great Baddow'.

 

Perhaps the first panic assignment were the Blue Trains. On 6 October 1939 the Works was instructed to install SWB8 high-frequency transmitters and other communications equipment into eleven commandeered luxury motor coaches. By round-the-clock working, one man working for 48 hours non-stop, the first Train left the Works on 12 October, the second five days later.

 

Shipped to France shortly before the German armies poured through Belgium and into France, the Trains provided the only communications between British headquarters in the field and the War Office in London during the chaos and disintegration that ended at Dunkirk. Their job done, one Train was destroyed in Marseilles, the other was driven over a cliff into the Channel. The Works became adept at such conversion work. In 1943 one vehicle was completed every nineteen hours, 380 in all.

 

Another crash exercise was the introduction of the famous T1154/R1155, the communication and direction finding units installed in all the aircraft of Bomber Command, in numerous fighter-bombers, flying boats, reconnaissance aircraft, ground stations, vehicles, air-sea rescue launches and elsewhere. Based on an existing Company design, 'work on the first of these sets started on 22 October '39 and was completed on 2 January '40; from the back of an envelope to flying and production in quantity in five months.' One up to Writtle, the birthplace of broadcasting.

 

More than 80,000 of these units were manufactured during the war years, although not all by Marconi's. Production, spread across four or five firms, was co-ordinated by one Bob Telford, still in his twenties. To use the country's electronics resources to the full whilst preserving security and minimising the potential effects of enemy action, piecemeal manufacture was the order of the day. Parts of units would be built in diverse factories and then brought together for assembly in others.

 

Early in the War, R V Jones predicted that German aircraft, particularly night intruders, were using a navigational guidance beam system, code-named by the enemy as Knickebein (Crooked Leg). An aerial search found the beams one bleak December night, almost overhead as I slept in the heart of Nottinghamshire. Jamming measures were introduced, at first with modified medical diathermy equipment, subsequently with more powerful equipment adapted from the SWB8 series. The Company even modified its Alexandra Palace television transmitter, closed down by the War, as a jammer.

 

The Germans retaliated with the more complex X-Gerat navigational system, requiring further countermeasures. Then Wotan appeared, a sophisticated bombing aid giving the Luftwaffe an advantage until an ingenious countermeasure was devised which misled enemy aircraft with false but credible range measurements causing bombs to be dropped on open country or into the sea. 'Beam-bending' techniques also led aircraft astray.

 

Then there was the network of stations radiating signals from the UK to make the enemy believe a completely new navigational aid was about to be used. This ruse was so successful that when the RAF suddenly introduced the completely different Gee scheme it took five months for the Germans to develop effective countermeasures.

 

It was recognized early on that sound broadcasting could be both a weapon and a weakness; the means of disseminating news and propaganda could also provide navigational beacons for enemy aircraft. Daventry, the key to our overseas broadcasting, was a prime target in its own right. A 'shadow Daventry' was manufactured and installed by the Company at Rampisham, in Dorset, and a second at Skelton, Yorkshire.

 

The risk of transmissions being used for guidance was dealt with by widely separated transmitters around the British Isles sharing a common wavelength, making it impossible for enemy bombers to home onto a given station. An exact phase relationship had to be held by the various transmitters, work carried out by the Company.

 

But by far the greatest volume of the Company's output was for the Allied navies. The Battle of the Atlantic was fought with ferocity from Day One. By 1943 two-thirds of the total production capacity and design and development resources were devoted to the naval sphere. Marconi's made major contributions to the network of direction-finding stations which kept watch over the whole Atlantic area. A single battleship could carry up to 50 transmitters and even more receivers such as the Marconi CR100. The Merchant Navy had to be serviced too. At the outbreak of war Marconi Marine had about 2,000 sea-going radio officers on its strength, a year later over 6,000. If forced to take to the lifeboats, they took a suitcase containing an emergency transmitter made by the Company. But there was a price; by the end of hostilities some 960 had died of the 9,048 who served at sea.

 

The new and highly secret RDF (later 'radar') was of the highest priority. At the outbreak of war the UK relied on it for defence, with the Company heavily involved in the erection of the first twenty-six Chain Home radar stations, including their antenna arrays. After the fall of France our convoys through the Straights of Dover faced very accurate large-calibre shelling from France, not only in daylight but at night and even in fog. In November 1940 two Marconi engineers, N E Davis and 0 E Keall, became temporary RNVR officers investigating possible countermeasures. The operating frequencies of the German radars were identified and jamming equipment was set up, first in a small van at the South Foreland and then at 126 other sites along the coast, maintaining a listening watch and jamming enemy transmissions at will despite endless changes in German wavelengths.

 

Initially radar only operated at metric wavelengths, conventional valves being incapable of generating significant power at the centimetric wavelengths needed to improve directivity and reduce size. Work on klystrons and magnetrons in the pre-war years yielded only low output power, but in November 1939 the first resonant cavity magnetron was constructed at Birmingham University. The device had two drawbacks; the difficult transition from lab model to large-quantity production, due to the high degree of precision and the specialist techniques called for in its manufacture, and its dire frequency instability.

 

Nevertheless development and production went ahead, with the Vacuum Laboratories at Baddow undertaking production as from August 1940. Even by the end of the year only twenty a week were being turned out but much was learnt. In August 1941 frequency instability was overcome by the anode strapping technique. In May 1942 magnetron production was transferred to Waterhouse Lane where they were produced by the hundred, peaking at almost 2,500 a month in 1945.

 

The magnetron allowed quantity manufacture of relatively high power centimetric radars for Navy and Air Force. By April 1942 batches of units for Naval radar Type 271 were being shipped out of Chelmsford. Together with centimetric ASV (air to surface vessel) equipment used by RAF Coastal Command, these led to a dramatic increase in the number of U-boats destroyed or damaged from late 1942 onwards and a steady reduction in the Allied merchant ship losses.

 

Other 'difficult' special-purpose items were in large-scale production. Small quantities of Stabilovolts had been made at Baddow pre-war; in 1943, one was produced every eight minutes, 55,000 in the year. When the Company pioneered the production of quartz crystal oscillators in 1926, the output was one a week. In 1943, 92,400 were produced; 3,000 a week in the months before D-Day. The Company used forty tons of quartz during the War. As well as conventional radio equipment there were lots of special assignments such as the 'Cloak and Dagger' portable equipments used by British Intelligence agents behind enemy lines, radios for Major General Wingate's Chindits in the Burma campaign and large quantities for the Russians.

 

Another special assignment carried out at short notice was the mass production of systems to nullify radio controlled flying bombs (not the V1) launched against shipping at the end of 1943. Launching aircraft could control the bomb on any one of twenty pre-selected frequencies; ground stations could also exercise control. Countermeasures were simplified when a 'Chase me Charlie' bomb was recovered intact, followed by control equipment from a wrecked German aircraft. A design defect was identified and very large quantities of sets were produced to jam the i.f. circuits in the bomb's receiver, proving most effective in removing control from the launching aircraft. Each set weighed three-quarters of a ton and was assembled in the local roller skating rink.

 

In the late summer of 1944, the Company was involved in a feverish attempt to jam the radio control of the initial trajectory of the supersonic V.2 rocket. The receivers were believed to be active for only fifteen seconds after lift­off, in which time the control frequency would have to be measured and signals transmitted to force the rocket off-course. In seven weeks the Works produced and modified a mass of equipment and installation was well advanced when the whole scheme was dropped; the launching ramps had been overrun.

 

Another significant contribution was the supersonic buoy, meeting a fierce Admiralty requirement dated January '42. The buoy had to radiate supersonic signals to be picked up by suitably equipped ships up to 4-5 miles away, but not by standard submarine hydrophones. It required an operational life of three months, radiating for a predetermined period every one or two hours, day and night for only for fourteen days out of twenty-eight. The clockwork timer had to be accurate to within a quarter of an hour over three months, the buoy must not drag its moorings or tilt from the perpendicular, and it had to self- destruct if swept up or adrift!

 

By October '42 the buoy was in production and sea trials were under way. First used in the invasion of Sicily to guide transport and beach-landing craft and later at the Anzio landings, many other uses were found for them. A version was even developed to be laid through a submarine's torpedo tube. Their biggest role was on D-Day when large quantities of the buoys were laid in advance to mark minefields, wrecks and other hazards off the French coastline. Not one failed throughout the whole of the landing operations.

 

Other Company contributions to D-Day were Bagful and Carpet. Bagful was airborne equipment to intercept and record the characteristics and position of enemy radar stations and used prior to D-Day to build up data on the German radar networks. Then on 6 June Carpet, a multiplicity of jamming stations, went into action, blinding those German radar stations not already pulverised. Also prior to D-Day, Marconi Marine established twenty-three depots from Ipswich to Littlehampton to service the vast amount of radio, echo sounding and radar equipment carried by the invasion fleet.

 

Once bridgeheads were established, portable radios carried by the assault troops and small wireless vehicles used in the initial phases were supplemented by large and complex mobile stations installed in prime mover vehicles and trailers. Typical was the Marconi-equipped Control Centre for the Second Tactical Air Force.

 

One of the last special assignments was in January '45 when a Marconi engineer and a hastily recruited workforce boarded the Franconia at Liverpool, gutting the smoking room to make it fireproof prior to installing two large transmitters, receivers and ancillary equipment. They took ten days to do a four-month job and provided round-the clock communications for the fifteen days of the historic Yalta conference between Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin. At the end of the conference Churchill and the Controller of the Navy both expressed their thanks.

 

But what of the people behind all this, the Marconi people, the "ship's company" as Admiral Grant, Chairman of the Company, called them?

 

At the outbreak of war, skilled craftsmen and women were essential to the Works. But from the earliest days of the War the Company suffered from a constant drain of its scientific staff and skilled labour resources. Physicists, engineers, technicians and specialists became back-room boys in Government laboratories or temporary officers in the Armed Forces whilst Service reservists, many highly skilled, were recalled to the colours in large quantities. By 1943 some 500 highly skilled men had been drafted, mostly on special duties.

 

So the War imposed dramatic burdens on the Company whilst taking much of its skilled manpower. The huge increases in production taxed to the limits the resources of a Company used to individual hand-crafted production. The only solution was to introduce new staff, initially unskilled and much of it female! 'Such dilution was introduced with considerable misgivings, particularly as to the value of the girl recruits. The pessimistic foresaw friction between the sexes ... some questioned the capacity of women for precision work. Both fears proved ill-founded. In every department girls and women did extraordinarily good work.' The 1937 head-count of 2,600 rose to 7,408 by 1943, with a further 1,072 at Marconi Instruments.

 

At any time, but particularly when war imposes terrible stresses and strains on the human nervous and physical systems, the quality of work depends on the health and well-being of the worker. By the winter of 1940, in addition to its existing Welfare, First-aid and Hospital organisations, the Company was taking steps to maintain the health of its staff and throughout the War the Company's people were remarkably fit. The Company's figures for illness and absenteeism were low, comparing well with plants far away from Bomb Alley. Good lighting, warmth and ventilation all made their contribution, as did the introduction of the twice daily Music While You Work broadcasts. The dangers of fatigue were recognized, with periodic rest intervals, Rest Rooms and trained nursing staff available around the clock. The absence of the common cold was attributed to the Company making halibut-liver oil available to all!

 

New Street was not the only casualty of war damage. The Vauxhall works were hit twice in the autumn of 1940, with one killed and two seriously injured, and had to be abandoned. At Broomfield the small factory used to make the CR100 receivers took a direct hit from a land mine in May 1943, fortunately without casualties. The Fulham premises were gutted by incendiaries in February 1944, work being switched immediately to Romford.

 

So great things were achieved in extraordinary circumstances by the Company's people. George Godwin's book Marconi: A War Record, together with Bill Baker's History of the Marconi Company the source for much of this article, ends with the words of a research engineer standing on the lawn at Marconi College and trying to explain how they did it. He said, as if stating an objective scientific fact: "It is, I think, that the Marconi Company has a soul."

 

It has been a delight to renew contact with Sir Robert, our Life President, as positive and as busy today as an almost octogenarian as he always has been. But I want to end this brief salute with a footnote from someone else. I remember VE Day 1945 not only as a splendid day off school but for the spirit of national rejoicing caught by the BBC, especially in The Mall as the crowds called for the Royal Family and Churchill to appear on the floodlit Palace balcony. Doubtless Admiral Grant commanded his ship's company to splice the mainbrace. But in the midst of the crowds in The Mall was a young Pam Reynolds, then a Wren.

 

DFH Footnote:

I persuaded Pam to add her own memories of VE Day. A Wren based in London, she and her ‘ship mates’ were part of that vast throng who filled the Mall. She particularly remembered the drunken matelot who kept on bellowing “I want the Queen – my god how I want the Queen!” and of being given a lift back to barracks in a limousine driven by Jack Buchanan.

 

“VE Day – the nation erupts!

 

I’m in London one of the Wren crew of HMS Pembroke III ,a stonebound frigate permanently moored in Hampstead [a London accounting centre and recruit reception unit]. Six of us hot-foot it that evening to the West End. We are in uniform so we’re fêted – hauled into pubs, plied with drinks, shaken by the hand, thumped up on the back.

 

By the time we reach Baker Street we’re two feet off the ground and feel we’ve won the war single-handed. Have no compunction removing an enormous flag pole and Union Jack from the entrance of Daniel Neal’s store.

 

We’re joined by a drunken naval bugler. Flag aloft, our bugler ripping the air with discords, we act as a magnet to other naval ratings. In tumultuous Piccadilly Circus more naval types detach themselves from the swarming crowds to tag along with us to Trafalgar Square.

 

We are now about 100-strong but this is our greatest catchment area. The Navy’s there in force, celebrating under the single benevolent eye of its patron saint high on his column among the pigeons.

 

The Mall – here it really starts – a solid phalanx of naval personnel marching down The Mall towards the Palace headed by six delirious Wrens, a half-stoned bugler and a huge flag. The crowds part to make way for us and we finally join the thousands outside the gates roaring with one voice “We want the King!” The Royals come out onto the balcony again and again.

 

The roars continue until, suddenly a silence falls as it sometimes does in a crowded room. Booming over the heads of the throngs comes a lonely beery voice; “I want the Queen – my Gawd I wnt the Queen.”

 

Time passes; slowly the crowds disperse our vast naval column breaks ranks and the bugler subsides in the gutter. We make our way back euphoric but very, very weary. It is 2 a.m. In Oxford Street a taxi draws up. A man leans out of the window.

 

“Where are you for girls?”

“Hampstead.”

“Jump in, I’ll drop you off.”?

It’s Jack Buchanan. Magic, or what?

 

 

DFH Footnote:

To complement the article I staged a mini-exhibition in Eastwood House, its centrepiece being the famous Luftwaffe model of industrial Chelmsford which stood for many years in the foyer of Marconi House. I felt all the effort had been worthwhile when I overheard a new recruit to the Company gazing at the model and saying to his colleague “My God, isn’t it scary!”

 


 

Interesting references 1.  2.

 

Charivaria

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Comments (1)

Chris Gardiner said

at 11:00 pm on Aug 21, 2018

Para 9, Hay should be May

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