Veteran Stories:
Desmond David Holt

Air Force

  • Desmond Holt's Medals (against the Air Force tartan) earned during his service in the RCAF as a radar mechanic in England. From left to right, War Medal (1939-1945), Canadian Volunteer Service Medal, and the Defence Medal.

    Desmond D. Holt
Enlarge Image
Listen to this story

"Radar’s a complicated’re sending out a high voltage charge, just fractions of a second in size. It’s hitting an aircraft, bouncing off that aircraft and coming back to you. "


The air force was looking for people who had a little bit of radio background to go into a new trade that they were establishing. They accepted me right then and there. I was sent overseas. Then we were sent to RAF Cranwell, home of the Royal Air Force. It was the first station. There, we were taught the workings of a radar set. There were about four different kinds of radar then. Now there’s hundreds. And it was, of course, where secrecy was the key. We were all sworn to secrecy, never to talk about the job. And I was posted to [RAF] Humberston, a very nice station, up by Grimsby.

Now, we found out a bit there. Two of our wives were talking about their station. And two weeks later, they were being interviewed (laughs) and told to keep their mouths shut. They assumed that we were the only nation that had it. That wasn’t quite true. Germany had it. (laughs) It was a method of following aircraft, finding aircraft. And I’m not meaning anything against the pilots in the air force when I say this, but 40 years after the war, I was attending a reunion in England and a very high civilian in the radar chain gave us a talk. And he said, the Air Ministry is crediting us with winning the Battle of Britain because 24 hours a day, we were searching the skies for aircraft which meant the pilots could sit on the ground and sleep. It was very necessary for them to get their sleep, but they didn’t have to do any patrol or hunt for aircraft. We were finding them for them.

All radar stations were connected to a plotting station, so that they were getting plots of these aircraft from several different places, getting pretty good positioning on them. The Germans failed air radars because they had a radar station connected to a fighter station, one station to one station. Didn’t work very well. So the Scottish border right around to Plymouth, the south coast, at least, could have gone further. And they all reported to Oxford, to a station in Oxford. We didn’t know where the station was. We just knew there was one. And a plotting board, that here were all the senior officers and the guys who were laying out the battle plan.

Radar’s a complicated thing. It’s more complicated now than it was then. But it was complicated enough then. I mean here, you’re sending out a high voltage charge, just fractions of a second in size. It’s hitting an aircraft, bouncing off that aircraft and coming back to you. And you’re able to plot where that aircraft is.

One where we showed a different aspect to our job. The [radar] stream was coming back and suddenly out of it, the operator said, hey, there’s one aircraft [that] came out of the stream and it’s going straight north. It’s going to keep going; it’s going to meet Santa Claus. So our filter room asked us to follow that one aircraft. And eventually, it got fainter and then disappeared. Sorry, the aircraft’s down. About two weeks later, a car pulls up at our station. The guard lets it in. Out step five air crew officers. We wonder, what are they doing here, they’re not supposed to know we exist. They came over and wanted to thank us because we had saved their lives. All the time they were going north, they were sending an air-sea rescue craft behind it, hightailing up as fast as it could. And the air-sea rescue craft arrived there about five minutes after they went down. The crew was still making sure of getting off the wing and opening up the raft; and a voice comes out of the blue, did somebody call for a taxi, in a cockney voice. It was the air-sea rescue craft. So they started asking questions, how did this take place? They found that it was one station on the east coast had been following them all the time. It was us. We were very pleased to think that we had saved their lives. Except we were all amazed; our station had a 200 foot tower and the antenna was mounted on top of that. Out of the five brave air crew, only two made it to the top of the tower. (laughs) One guy looked at it and he says, no thank you very much. (laughs) A couple of them got halfway up and said, this is far enough. Here were guys who flew up 5 000, 10 000 feet, afraid of 200 feet. Don’t blame them.

Follow us