"Early Birds" 25th reunion Dinner, 1964. Clockwise from far left: Bert Allen, G2UJ, (SK), Jim Pollard, G3IY (SK), #Vernon West, 2DYW, #Vernon Rayner, G6FZ, *Bernard Wynn, G8TB, Les Coupland, G2BQC (SK), Maurice Brookes, G5OI, *Merton Trier, G8VH, Geoff Mason, G5BR, Roy Stevens, G2BVN (SK), John Clarricoats, G6CL (SK) Courtesy guest – Gen Sec RSGB, Les Hill, G8KS (SK) (partly obscured), Ernest Dolman, G2DCG, (SK) Organiser of the dinner, #Ted Howard, G4FZ, Harry Willetts, G2FPI (partly obscured), *Vic Flowers, G8QM, Doug Legge, G3MP, *Archie Davies, G4JY, #Maurice Newman, G3DZ, NB.

Those marked with an asterisk WERE still listed in the 2003 RSGB Yearbook. Those with a hash mark were NOT in the 1965 Call Book and presumably did not renew their call-signs post war.

Some of those active on the bands after the war did not attend the dinner for various reasons. (G2FMF was in the USA, GW6KY in Malaya, and myself G3AH 1937 - 1950, ZL1AH).

Here is the story of the Civilian Wireless Reserve, nicknamed "Early Birds" by the RSGB. by ZL1AH


By 1938 the Armed Services in Britain had realized that, in the event of war, they were going to face a serious shortage of wireless operators. With the co-operation of the Radio Society of Great Britain, the Civilian Wireless Reserve was set up and radio amateurs were encouraged to join. Very shortly, however, the CWR was absorbed into the R.A.F. Volunteer Reserve and, at the time of the so-called Munich Crisis in September, we all received mobilization instructions and travel warrants to report to our designated places of assembly.

At the end of August, 1939, war appeared to be inevitable. In that final week, I talked twice to the operators at the amateur station SP1ZK, located at the Warsaw Radio Exhibition, and they were in no doubt. At 11 pm on the 31st August I listened to the BBC News and heard that all British radio amateurs were to close their stations from midnight. I went back to my transmitter, had two final contacts with the USA and then pulled the plug for over six years.

Next morning, 1st September, we awakened to the news that Germany had invaded Poland. I went to work as usual in the city of Manchester but, when I returned from lunch there was a phone message from my mother. A telegram had arrived, telling me to report to London. This was completely different from what I was supposed to do but the telegram obviously overrode my orders, so I took myself off to London by train and eventually arrived at the Air Ministry at about 10 pm, almost the last of our group to get there. (There were about forty of us, of whom thirty-seven were radio amateurs.) I was partly kitted up and then taken to a very nicely appointed hotel, where I spent my first night in the Air Force in a private room. The following morning a three-course breakfast and a choice of newspaper but, green as I was, I knew this sort of caper wouldn’t last long. How right I was! We were collected and taken to draw steel helmets, gas masks and identity discs. We were assured that the latter were fireproof, so that even if we were burned to crisps, we could be identified for our grieving relatives. This was an early introduction to the gallows humor which is such a feature of the Services.

We were marched through the streets to the nearest tube station and thence to Liverpool Street Railway Station, where we entrained for Saffron Walden in Essex. This was the nearest the railway came to our destination, RAF Debden, one of the Fighter Command sector stations which was responsible for defending London against attacks which came in from north of the Thames.

The rest of Saturday was spent in queues, collecting various things. The worst queue was for injections - three of them; Paratyphoid, Anti-tetanus, the third I forget. We took off tunics, rolled up shirtsleeves and ran the gauntlet. It was two injections in the left arm and one in the right. In these days of AIDS and Hepatitis-B, it seems incredible that the orderlies used the same syringes and needles throughout, pausing only to put in a new ampoule at intervals! And were those needles blunt by the time the last victims were done! I was amazed to see some of those ahead of me fainting, odd ones even before they reached the needles. Perhaps fortunately, I had had two or three courses of flu injections in the years before the war, so I was not adversely affected. However, worse was to come. Debden was not equipped to handle more than its normal complement of personnel so there was no accommodation for us, not even mattresses. We slept Saturday and Sunday nights on the concrete floor of an empty hangar, with just two blankets and a ground sheet. Like everyone else, my arms were swollen and painful, so sleep was fitful and disturbed. Then at 4.30 am we were blasted awake when a flight of Spitfires took off on the first patrol of the day.

The British Government had given Hitler until 11 am on Sunday the 3rd September to withdraw from Poland but of course no reply was received. Promptly at eleven the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, broadcast the declaration of war and we sat and listened to it on the PA system. It is said that in America everyone remembers what he was doing when President Kennedy was assassinated. Presumably everyone of my generation remembers what he was doing when the Second World War was declared. I was sitting on the grass outside our hangar and enjoying the warm sunshine, aware that this was a defining moment in my life but I had no concept of just how much of an upheaval was in store for the world. The rest of that day was spent packing kit and getting ready to move, though nobody said where.

On Monday, 4th September the 4.30 am Spitfires did not bother us because we were up already. After an early breakfast we were taken by truck to Saffron Walden station to await our special train. This was another learning experience - how the military mind works. We were delivered to the station at 6 am but the train did not arrive until nearly mid-day. When we finally got away, the sun indicated that we were traveling north and this caused a flutter. If we were heading for Grimsby or Hull, then we must be bound for Poland, a prospect that thrilled none of us! Eventually our route turned west and tension eased. At this remove my memory is uncertain of the exact route but most of it was undoubtedly on lines which no longer exist (part of the thousands of miles of railways which were closed in the 1950’s). With this proviso, I will say that I think the route was Saffron Walden - Cambridge - Bedford - Oxford - Reading - Southampton.

Eventually at about 9 pm, we detrained on the quay at Southampton. No doubt about our destination now! We boarded one of the Channel Island ferries, "Isle of Guernsey", in company with a large number of troops and sailed at about 11 pm. Since breakfast at Debden, all we had had to eat was bully beef and "hard-tack" biscuits washed down by water. However, when we were bedded down, an angel appeared in the shape of our senior NCO, and the only "regular" in our outfit. He had bullied the ferry cooks into making a dixie of tea for us and he brought it round to us in our bunks. That was one of the best cups of tea I ever had. I often thought of this episode when, later in the war there was a comic song :-

"Kiss me goodnight, Sergeant Major.
Tuck me in my little wooden bed."

Before I dropped off to sleep, I peered through the porthole and could just see the shape of a destroyer escorting us. I think this finally brought it home to me that not everyone out there was disposed to be friendly. However, I had no trouble in falling into a deep sleep, having been on the go for about twenty hours.

Tuesday, 5th September was another eventful day. We berthed at Le Havre before daylight. The two destroyers which had escorted us, turned back just short of the port, no doubt to go and pick up another ferry load. We were one of the first units of any of the services to set foot on the Continent in WW2 and were later nicknamed "The Early Birds" by the Radio Society of Great Britain. Once off the ferry we were placed aboard a train which was standing at the quayside and there we sat, and we sat, and we sat. It was now more than twenty-four hours since breakfast at Debden and apart from that mug of tea on the ferry, all we had was that damned bully-beef in those trapezoidal tins, those tooth-breaking biscuits, and water. (No food was provided on the ferry). Now sitting on the platform was a pile of wooden boxes and according to the stencils, these contained tins of crab. One of our unit was not a radio amateur but a former naval telegraphist (God knows why he had joined the RAFVR). Unlike us innocent ex-civilians from sheltered homes, he was skilled in the art of converting things for his own use. Making sure he was unobserved, he nipped out, grabbed a case and was back on the train in a flash. The army guys, further up the train, saw this and repeated the operation but with much less skill and were spotted. All hell broke loose among the French railway officials; the train was shunted out of the station; we were marched back and made to wait while the carriages and our kit were searched. The soldiers were caught red-handed but we were as blameless as choirboys. While the train was being shunted out of the station, our telegraphist friend smashed up the wooden case and threw it out of the window (As the train was moving, no way of knowing which window the wood had come from). Then he proceeded to hide the tins of crab. The coaches had "concertinas" for access between adjacent ones and each concertina had two steel plates which folded down to form a floor. The crab nestled cozily under these plates and the railway staff did not have the gumption to look underneath. Once we started our journey, out came the crab and instead of bully-beef and biscuits, we had crab and biscuits. Our RAF issue knives, equipped with a tin-opener, did a sterling job of opening those tins. I was rapidly developing a part of my education which had been neglected in my previous life.

Eventually the train deposited us at Amiens which was to be our base for a couple of weeks. We were accommodated in an unoccupied convent completely devoid of furniture. We slept in the refectory on a parquet floor with no mattress - just two blankets. The only good thing was that the blankets were new French Army issue and were magnificent - roughly twice the size and thickness of the RAF ones we had used at Debden. (The only other French issue we got was tinned meat for emergency rations and we were grateful we never had to make use of it because dates embossed on the tins indicated that it was fifteen years old.)

That evening we were let loose in the city but it was a case of, "Look but don’t touch,"because we had no French money. Of course, I had damned little English money either. But give the RAF credit; the next day we were paid and could also change our own money into francs (about 240 to the pound). So that evening it was out on the town in a big way. Food, glorious French food! With our rates of pay we in were in much the same position as the Yanks in Britain later on. From now on we went out for dinner each evening to a good hotel. We discovered that we could buy a five-course meal, including wine, for the equivalent of one shilling and sixpence, which was about the cost of a seat in a London suburban cinema in those days. It was here that I first encountered the heavenly "escargots en aspic" served as hors d’oeuvres.

As soon as we had settled into the convent, we were informed in strict secrecy that we were now part of No.1 Wireless Intelligence Screen and that we should soon be going out on location. Our days were spent in driving around the countryside in the vicinity of the Belgian and Luxembourg borders. I found myself co-opted as a driver of one of the new Renault vans, which had been delivered to us, direct from the factory in Paris. It was an interesting experience! Not only was it the first time I had driven on the "wrong" side of the road and used my right hand to operate the gear lever, but the said gear lever went through a hole in the dash board. The whole area was very fascinating, because it had been fought over with great ferocity during the First World War and British troops had been heavily involved. We took time out to visit places like Arras, Cambrai, Vimy Ridge, etc. It was eerie to see the old trenches winding across the countryside and often still quite distinct, even though the outlines had been blurred by weather and cultivation over the previous twenty years.

At the end of two weeks we were split up into individual stations and spread out along the Belgian border. This was obviously a dry run because after a fortnight, we were recalled to base and the whole unit was moved to a new HQ at Metz. This was the centre of another very historic area which had been the scene of bloody battles and sieges involving French troops; places like Verdun and Douaimont. Our HQ was in the "caserne" at Metz but we were rapidly deployed to our posts and I finished up at Station N, which was at the south end of our screen. As a twenty-year-old (just), I was senior wireless operator, with an eighteen-year-old as my second op, plus four Royal Artillery spotters to feed the plots to us. We established our station in an empty cottage in the village of Bellange, just eight kilometers down the road from the town of Morhange. This was in the Maginot Line defense area so, apart from us, all the troops were French. We were just dumped down with our equipment, a two-burner cooker and some ration money and told to get on with it. We were given what the RAF called "Higher Rate Ration Allowance", with which to buy food locally. This was quite generous and each of us was receiving more money for food than we were getting in pay. We made little use of the cooker as the cottage had a wood-burning stove which did double duty for heating and cooking. As there were six of us, we did duty in pairs on a three day roster. It was a most interesting experience! One day I made a jam tart for dessert - a real work of art, with twisted strips of pastry across the top. Sadly, after cooking, it was impossible to cut it and, when banged against the corner of the stove in frustration, it shattered like glass. I was not aware that fat had to be rubbed into the flour and water mixture! One of the others made a milk pudding - he took a large bowl, poured in rice up to the rim and filled in the spaces with milk. After a while a smell of burning came from the oven and when the door was opened, the pudding billowed out. Strangely enough, our salvation was cigarettes. The British ones were as superior to the French variety as home-made bread is to hamburger buns, so our Players, Capstan, Gold Flake and Senior Service were extremely popular with the French troops. We were each issued with a free tin of fifty every week and could buy extra at duty free prices from our support van which called several times a week. As bribes went, cigarettes were cheap. Across the road from our cottage was the officers’ mess cookhouse of the French battalion occupying the village and the senior NCO was formerly the chef at a large hotel in Anger. We put him on the payroll - a tin of fifty twice a week and in return he acted as adviser and supplier. Most evenings he sent over a large dish of whatever the officers were having for dinner but if we were having something special, e.g. goose, suckling pig, etc., he would come over and supervise its cooking. He kept us supplied with fresh vegetables and gave us a crash course in cooking. One of the exotic dishes he showed us was a rum omelet for dessert. (The last one I made used twenty-three eggs.) The total cost of the two tins of cigarettes was less than one day’s ration allowance for one man.

If we went as far as Morhange we could buy liquor and, at that stage of the war, there was a wonderful range available at low prices. I did very little drinking, but, as the winter advanced, our cottage gave a fair imitation of an icebox at night and I took to having a rum toddy on retiring - three fingers of Jamaican rum in a large tumbler, a desert spoon of sugar, the juice of a lemon and topped up with boiling water. I used to get into bed before drinking this and then slept like the proverbial top all night. It’s laughable to think that the lemon was more expensive than the three fingers of rum. One other delight in the cold weather was morning tea at any small cafe, except that it was not tea but coffee, thick and black, with a shot glass of brandy on the side.

This was the period known as the "phony war" because nothing very much was happening. We were located in the Maginot Line defense zone, which was checked out regularly by German reconnaissance aircraft, with the occasional one shot down. For some time I kept a piece of the Heinkel He111 which came down close by. I did not know then that, a few months later, when I was in Kent, downed German aircraft would barely raise a flicker of interest. Propaganda leaflets were dropped on us by these same planes and I donated mine some years ago to the archives section of the Tauranga library.

To use one of Winston Churchill’s figures of speech, this was "The End of the Beginning", though he said it later at a quite different stage of the war. There have been a number of accounts of the adventures of this group of thirty-seven radio amateurs and each raconteur seems to remember different details. In 2009 there are pitifully few of us left.

This is an extract from material I wrote for the NZART magazine "Break-In".

As a pre-war member of the RAFVR (Civilian Wireless Reserve) from 1938, I was mobilized within hours of Hitler's troops invading Poland. After a hectic few days I found myself in Amiens, France, two days after Britain's declaration of war, along with approximately 35 other hams. We were told we were to form No.1 Wireless Intelligence Screen, which was essentially a chain of Field Day stations, reporting on the sighting of Luftwaffe aircraft. Each station had two operators and the Royal Artillery supplied four observers, all intelligence being reported back to the HQ station in Metz. The gear consisted of the T1083 / R1082 duo, powered by lead-acid batteries and a small petrol-electric set for charging. Up to the minute the gear was not. The 1083 transmitter, like most if not all British military gear of the time was MO/PA and of course the MO drifted - and drifted. The antenna system consisted of a random length inverted L - known to hams in Britain pre-war as the AOG. (Act of God - because no-one knew how the hell it worked.) I cut ours to a half-wave long and I guess, being hams, the other stations did the same. The antenna was supported by two guyed steel masts which came in four foot sections in a canvas bag with assorted guy ropes. Power was from lead-acid batteries which we re-charged with a portable petrol electric set.

Some inspired individual had decided that we should use a frequency in the 6 Mc/s band (no Hertz then) and at certain times the band was full of US broadcasters. We became quite familiar with shows like “Amos 'n Andy”. At this remove my senile memory cannot recall the power out from the PA but it was just a few watts. Efficiency was poor. Remember when we used to tune for “minimum dip” with no load, as a rule-of-thumb measurement of efficiency? The 1083 had just a small variation in plate current at resonance.

As we were located within the Maginot Line defence zone, there were few civilians left in the village and we occupied an empty cottage, the observer post and the antenna being in the garden.

John Wightman, ZL1AH, ex - G3AH.

Info and Photo courtesy of ZL1AH