Turbinlite

Imagine you’re at war with Germany, and the Germans are sending planes over on nightly bombing raids. There’s this new thing called radar that could be used to spot the incoming bombers in the dark, but the problem is that this new-fangled radar equipment is way too bulky to fit into a fighter aircraft. What do you do?

Obviously (and yesterday I suggested it was one of Churchill’s barmier notions, based on what I’d been told, but it turns out the idea came from an RAF Wing Commander after a genuinely barmy notion from Churchill failed to work) what you do is this: you take a Havoc, install radar equipment in it and then fit a dirty great 2,700 million candlepower searchlight in the nose, powered by an enormous array of batteries crammed into the bomb bay. And then because the Havoc’s full of radar and searchlight and batteries and doesn’t have any room left for weapons, you give it an escort of Hurricanes flying in close formation so that they can do the shooting.

That’s the essence of the Turbinlite programme that ran for a few months in 1942-1943. It’s not a very well remembered episode from WWII, primarily because it didn’t really work. I know about it because Pete was part of it, piloting an escort Hurricane.

He wasn’t really one to talk about what he did in the war, and when he did he’d mostly focus on the time he was posted to North Africa just after the last German had stepped off the pier and he spent four months without orders and without seeing an aeroplane, commandeering abandoned buildings to stay in, selling kit for spending money and firing shells into the sea. He felt that there was a lot of pompous rubbish talked about the war; that if you were there it was a case of making the best of it and trying to have a good time. Being in a pilot in the RAF allowed for that; he recalled: “We used to go in the pubs and put our footmarks on the pub ceiling; people didn’t mind because they were in an area that was getting bombed and we were protecting them.” And: “We all had cars and petrol allowances. When I was based at RAF Bentwaters we used to go to the cinema in Ipswich, then race back in our cars. People accepted that because of what was happening.”

He played hard because he was 20 years old and putting his life on the line on a regular basis; he only really spoke of the play, though; not what went on in the cockpit. I have no idea how many lives, if any, he took; the answers may be in his RAF log book but it makes for very difficult reading.

One thing he did talk about, late in his life, was the Turbinlite project. So yeah, Havoc with radar and a searchlight, Hurricanes escorting. The plan was simple: the Havoc would look for incoming German bombers on the radar, then when it found one it would turn on the searchlight and provide the Hurricanes with a nice target to fire at. Easy!

It really wasn’t. They were flying at night in the winter of 1942-43, taking off in pitch darkness, in close formation and often in low cloud. Merely staying close to the Havoc was a challenge. And when the Havoc found a German bomber to attack there were plenty of ways for it all to go wrong. Pete recalled that the Germans used to jink – a left to right drifting motion that made them difficult to hit – and that their planes were faster than the Hurricanes, so they’d always get away. Worse, the Turbinlite itself, as well as lighting up the German planes, also proved to be a splendid target for German cannons; even after it was switched off there was an afterglow that made it nice and visible. It would light up and then the Germans would shoot it out.

“You always lost the aeroplane and then you were dumped,” Pete remembered, “sometimes as low as 20 feet in a cloud, to find your way home. You got talked in but they weren’t clever enough to talk you in at the right height or in the right direction. You got into a ‘got to get home’ sort of attitude, then you’d come out of the cloud and see what might be the aerodrome. Once I saw it – or something like it – and they talked me in and I was too high. But I thought I’d get on the ground if it kills me.”

Turbinlite wasn’t a success and was wound up after only a few months of mostly unsuccessful missions, and the whole idea soon became obsolete when centimetre-wavelength radar was developed that could be fitted into smaller planes. The pilots who partook in the Turbinlite flights were visited by Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, Commander-in-Chief of Fighter Command. “He walked round and asked us all what we wanted to fly next,” Pete recalled, “Everybody flying the Hurricanes wanted to fly Spitfires and all the Havoc pilots wanted Mosquitos. Everybody got what they wanted.”

Which is how Pete got posted to Northern Ireland, where there wasn’t much going on, to get the hang of Spitfires. “Unfortunately the Spitfires they had weren’t the best ones, which led to me ending up in the water.”

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