~ FIGHTER DIRECTION TENDERS ~
Fighter Direction Tenders were, in effect, floating command and control centres which bristled with antenna and aerials for radar, communications and intelligence gathering purposes. They were the eyes and ears for the large scale invasion forces off the beaches of Normandy in June of 1944. There were 3 Fighter Direction Tenders designated FDT 13, 216 & 217 and this is their story.
The formation of the Inter-Service Planning Staff in London in May 1942 signalled the start of planning for the invasion of mainland Europe. At the time there were many other issues and concerns so their work was not accorded a high priority. However following the Washington conference of May 1943 the pace increased dramatically. AOC Fighter Command appointed Group Captain RG Hart to determine the role that radar should play in the planned invasion of mainland Europe. Five months later HQ Allied Expeditionary Air Force (AEAF) was set up to ensure the co-ordination of American and British radar. In the end AEAF decided that RAF mobile radar would provide Ground Control Intercept (GCI) and Early Warning (EW) of day and night fighters.
It was realised that the 'Chain Home' (CH) radar stations, along the south coast of England, could not provide the early warning and fighter direction cover required. Even their name suggests that their primary purpose was more to do with the defence of the UK rather than offensive action on mainland Europe. It was therefore essential to locate effective radar and communications close to the Normandy beaches during the critical days from D-Day until mobile land based radar and communication units could take over - a period of around 3 weeks.
Two other kinds of radar units were involved in the D-Day landings: Base Defence Radar Units which, in the British sector, came under the command of No.85 Group and were responsible for providing radar cover for bridgehead beaches, dumps and ports; and Mobile Radar Units under the 2nd Tactical Air Force in No. 83 and No. 84 Composite Group. They would move ashore and by planned stages take over from of the FDTs.
In May 1943 trials of sea-borne radar were conducted off the south coast of England using the converted Landing Ship Tank (LST) 301. In July LSTs 305, 407 & 430, fitted with Ground Control Interception (GCI) radar, were tested in operational conditions off the beaches of Sicily and Anzio. Analysis of performance proved the value of such ships and with future major landings in mind AOC Fighter Command argued the case for four craft using the latest available technology. Against a background of competing demands for landing craft in October 1943 three new Fighter Direction Tenders were allocated from USA yards under the codename BACCY.
LST 13 was laid down on 1/9/42 by the Dravo Corporation of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, launched on 5/1/43 and transferred to the UK on 3/4/43. LST 216 was laid down on 23/1/43 by the Chicago Bridge and Iron Co., of Seneca III, Illinois, launched on 4/7/43 and transferred to the UK on 4/8/43. LST 217 was laid down on 2/2/43 also at Seneca III. It was launched on 13/7/43 and transferred to the UK on 5/8/43 (7/8/43?).
They were delivered to John Brown's Shipyard towards the end of 1943 and on completion of their conversions in January (FDT 13) and the middle of February 1944 (216 & 217), they were renamed Fighter Direction Tenders (FDTs) 13, 216 & 217.
In preparation for the manning of the FDTs and associated HQ ships, a section of Gailes camp in Ayrshire was taken over by HQ105 wing for the training of RAF personnel. Training varied according to need but common to most was a week's basic training at the Combined Operations School (HMS Dundonald 2) near Troon, and a short practical course in survival at sea.
In late February advance parties moved from the training camps to John Brown's Shipyard to help install radar, wireless and communications equipment. Amongst these was the Type 11 radar operating on German frequencies. The development of this radar was most likely assisted by the information gathered from the successful Bruneval Raid when German radar components were removed for detailed examination in Britain.
Also during February the composition of the wider group of radar and communications vessels to be used off Normandy was agreed as follows: H.Q. Ships - HMS Largs [Force S, Sword Beach]; HMS Hilary [Force J, Juno Beach]; HMS Bulolo [Force G, Gold Beach] Assault Ships - HMS Nith, HMS Goathland and HMS Albrighton, FDTs 13, 216 and 217.
By the time the three vessels left John Brown's Shipyard they were bristling with antenna and aerials and below deck was filled with the most sophisticated communications equipment of the day. The inventory included;
Below deck there were various rooms to receive, interpret and communicate data including a radar room, a control room and a filter room. This was in effect a very sophisticated command and control centre. Little wonder secrecy was paramount and remained so for decades. The normal ships complement was about 250 - 7 RN Officers, 53 Seamen, 174 RAF radar & communication personnel plus other specialists. There's more information about the RAF cadre at the bottom of this page.
Sea trials started in the Clyde estuary on the 27th February 1944. Aircraft were provided by 29 Squadron RAF, 409 Sqd. RCAF and 516 Combined Operations Sqd. RAF all flying from RAF Dundonald the home base of No. 516 Sqd. (For those interested in the detail see the extract from 516 Operational Records. The trials were generally satisfactory but the type 11 radar had a blind spot 20 degrees either side of the bow. This was largely rectified by raising the gantry on which the aerial rotated. Some trials were undertaken in the Forth estuary and by mid April 1944 they were completed.
These were followed by further trials, codenamed 'Driver', in the Humber estuary with No.12 fighter group based at Church Fenton. These trials, up to 40 miles off shore, included the use of "window" but AOC No.12 group was not happy with the fighter control. Fresh trials were arranged with the help of No.11 group in the Portsmouth area. It was about this time that F.D.T.217 took part in the ill fated Operation TIGER when hundreds of American men were lost in a training exercise.
Len Betts recalled that FDT 217 docked in Portsmouth Naval Dockyard at the end of May for the fitting of an 'anti -window' console by TRE. "It proved to be very difficult to set up and the TRE engineer was still on board when we joined the convoy for Normandy." On the 5th June FDTs 13 and 217 sailed from Cowes on the Isle of White. The following day FDT 216 sailed from Cowes with convoy 13 for Sword beach; there were 12 LCT's and one ML in that convoy, escorted by HMS Burdock and the Greek corvette, Tompazis. They joined the assault task force at 22 hours as part of the 9th flotilla. In charge of the vessels were: Lieutenant Commander R A Crozier, RDRNR, FDT 13, (photo opposite courtesy of John Deering), Lieutenant Commander G D Kelly, RDRNR, FDT 216 and Acting Lieutenant Commander F A Smyth, RNR, FDT 217 (More Info). The RAF personnel were under the command of Squadron Leader Walters the Chief Controller on FDT 13 and Flight Lieutenant Smith RCAF as Radar Officer. On FDT 216 similar positions were occupied by Sqd. Ldr. The Duke of Newcastle and Flt.Lt. Miles RCAF and on FDT 217 by Sqd. Ldr. Bennett and Flt Lt. Tracey RCAF.
The three ships took up their positions on June 6 1944 - FDT 217 about 5 miles off the Sword, Juno and Gold beaches, FDT 216 off Omaha & Utah beaches and FDT 13 in the main shipping channels about 40 miles off Gold Beach. Full radar operations started at 07.25 hours.
[Photo Back Row (l to r): Cpl. Ted Parfitt, Cpl. Charles Pinell, LAC Robert Stalker, F/Lt Tracey, LAC Bennet Howe. Centre Row: Flt.Sgt. John Glen. Front Row: LAC Len Betts, Cpl. Lionel Cook and LAC Karl Work.]
Extracts from the diary of LAC Karl Work provide a valuable benchmark for the sequence of events during the critical period of the Normandy landings.
FDT 217 acted as the Master Control vessel with responsibility for ordering fighter reinforcements across the area of conflict as the disposition of enemy planes dictated. FDT 216 was prepared to take over this pivotal role if 217 was lost or disabled. Daylight air cover had two distinct components. Low cover up to 5000 feet was a British responsibility involving 6 Spitfire Squadrons (12 aircraft per squadron). High level cover between 5000 and 20000 feet was the responsibility of the Americans who used 3 squadrons of P47s (16 planes per squadron). During the hours of darkness air cover was provided by around 38-40 night fighters equipped with airborne interception radar (AI). Their deployment and distribution were controlled by FDT 217 and the other FDT's. [Photo; Port Watch on FDT 217 courtesy of Pam Wright and Jennifer Robinson.]
Continuous daytime low level air cover over the five assault beaches was provided on a rolling basis with wave after wave of sorties - 15 minutes for the outward journey from bases in the south of England, 15 minutes patrolling over the beaches, 15 minutes for the return journey and 15 minutes for re-fuelling and where necessary rearmament. To keep one squadron of Spitfires over the beaches involved at least 4 squadrons totalling 48 planes. Similar arrangements were in place for the American high level cover. Added to this were 100s of bombers and other aircraft with unconnected missions of their own; all in all a truly impressive sight! During the hours of darkness precise numbers of night fighters were difficult to estimate but they could be heard patrolling the area. The activity of Navy gunners often provided colourful displays as tracer bullets lit up the night sky.
Enemy air activity was described as minimal during the first day probably due to spoofing and concealment activities on the part of the Allies. Throughout the 17 days or so the ships remained on duty only tip and run attacks by Junkers 88s, Messerschmitt Me 90s and Focke Wulf 190s were experienced. A total of 76 enemy aircraft were destroyed as a result of the activities of the three FDTs. More difficult to quantify was the vital work of the intelligence sections on board who listened in to German radio transmissions and helped interpret their significance. [Photo; LAC Frank Dummett wireless operator on FDT 217. Courtesy of his daughters Pam Wright and Jennifer Robinson.]
The three HQ ships (Headquarters Landing Ships or HQLS) were concerned with the management, control and monitoring of the landings and landing craft in their particular beach areas. They played no part in the management of the main land battle, control of which was initially held by HQ in the UK and later on the mainland of Europe as German forces were pushed back. The ships had mixed Combined Operations crews drawn from the Royal Navy and the RAF. Effective communications between the HQ ships, the beaches, landing craft, the FDTs and other HQs aimed to ensure that operational decisions were based on reliable and up-to-date information... all within the constraints of the usual chaos of war.
On June 15 FDT 216 returned to base for repairs having incurred some damage. FDT 217 took over her position off the American beaches to the west. This transfer caused no gap in radar cover since 15083 GCI .(land based radar) had taken control of the British sector in which 217 was operating. FDT 217 finally left the Normandy beaches for Cowes on June 23 after 17 days of continuous operation.
There was virtually no enemy air activity during the first week in the main shipping channels so on June 14 FDT 13 returned to port for fuel and supplies. On return to duty she took up a position ENE of Barfleur to track enemy mine laying and torpedo aircraft around the Cherbourg peninsular. On June 27 FDT 216 took over FDT 13's role and she most likely returned to home waters (to prepare for duty in the Mediterranean?). At 00.59 hours on July 7 FDT 216 was hit by a torpedo released from a Junkers 88. The ship was severely damaged and soon took on a 15 degree list. The order to abandon ship was given and around 250 men were saved by her escorting corvette HMS Burdock before the ship turned turtle at 02.25 hours. FDT 216 was regarded as a risk to navigation and was deliberately sunk by friendly fire under the glare of searchlights. Sadly five RAF radar crew were lost in this action - 1565310 AC1 J H Ferguson RAFVR, 1036266 LAC J Gaughan RAFVR, 1001089 Cpl G Logan RAFVR, 1434174 LAC R J Peckham MID RAFVR and 1681468 AC1 T C Rolt RAFVR.
FDT 217 remained off Cowes, Isle of Wight on standby until mid November. She returned to Inveraray, Loch Fyne arriving there on the 30th November where she wintered with a skeleton maintenance crew including all the radar crew of one officer, 8 technicians and 15 other RAF trades personnel. In February RCAF radar personnel began to be replaced by RAF personnel and in June 1945 FDT 217 sailed for the London Graving Dock. The purpose was to fit her out for tropical duties with the addition of large portholes, steel work for tarpaulin covers, cooling fans and radar equipment appropriate to the war in the Far East.
FDT 13 in the meantime had a very different experience. Shortly after Normandy she sailed for the Mediterranean and saw action off southern France (Operation Dragon), when the radar personnel were largely American, and then onwards to witness the liberation of Greece. Her return journey to The London Graving Dock took over two months and included a period in a dry dock at Bizerte, North Africa, to sort out a serious engine malfunction due to contaminated diesel fuel. Sabotage was suspected. Despite this delay she was the first to undergo the 'tropical conversion.
Sub/Lt. Arthur Quinton, based at HMS Mercury, Petersfield (?), Hampshire, was one of 12 RNVR (sp) [sp = special branch] midshipmen who earlier underwent training for this mission. His particular job was Wireless Telegraphy (W/T) maintenance and he was involved in the refit. He recalled; "the wiring in the control room was a mess. Everything had been yanked out and the RAF who departed leaving no labelling or wiring diagrams. It was left to a Scots engineer and me, a very raw Sub/Lt., to sort it out. The German Type 11 radar was removed and replaced by a new unit designated type 279 (277?). (See photo below courtesy of Arthur Quinton).
On completion of all the work FDT 13 left for the Far East in July '45.
Neither vessel saw further hostile action. FDT 13 was off Malta on the way to the Far East, and FDT 217 was still undergoing conversion in the East India Dock in London, when the Atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August 1945 effectively putting an end to WW2. FDT 13 arrived in Malta's Valetta Harbour on August 22nd and later undertook trials of her equipment with aircraft in the area. Arthur Quinton remembers " I was relieved to find that all my gear worked despite the rawness of us all. It was an entirely new crew as far as I remember." Within a week or two FDT 13 left Valetta arriving back in the Clyde on September 14 and spent several weeks in Loch Fyne off Inveraray, Scotland before returning to the London Graving Dock on October 29. Here she was decommissioned and repairs where carried out for her return journey to the USA. On December 28th FDT 13 was in Plymouth and by February 27 she was returned to the US Navy at Norfolk, Virginia. On June 5th she was struck from the US Navy list after 1870 days in service.
As part of the decommissioning process on FDT 217 Flt/Sgt John Glen recalled an order to carefully remove and catalogue 217's sophisticated, top secret radar equipment. This done, in his usual meticulous fashion, he accompanied the resultant lorry load to a storage facility in a large hanger somewhere in S.E. England. There his precious load was unceremoniously dumped on a mountain of discarded electronic equipment - proof indeed that the war was well and truly over!
LST 13 was returned to the US Navy on 27/2/46, struck from their lists on 5/6/46 and on 14/10/47 was sold to Luria Brothers and Co Inc of Philadelphia for scrapping. LST 217 was transferred to the US Navy on 12/2/46, struck off their lists on 5/6/46 and on 12/12/47 was sold to James A Hughes of New York for scrapping.
[Photos below taken on board FDT 13 after her Far East refit. L - R the transmitter room, the receiver room and the ships officers at Inveraray c1945. Back row right Arthur Quinton who supplied information about FDT 13 & the photos.]
In 1946 the UK Air Ministry sent around 6000 personalised certificates of appreciation to the Defence Department in Ottawa, Canada, in recognition of the magnificent contribution Canadian volunteers made in the field of radar during WW2. They were involved on land, in the air and at sea mainly in and around the UK but also around the globe (see Canadians on Radar book listed below). Those who served in radar did so in small units seldom under the control of high ranking Canadian officers. This and the secrecy that shrouded radar work in the post war years, resulted in there being little understanding and awareness in the corridors of power in Ottawa. With no one in authority able to represent the interest of the men, a decision was taken, in secret, not to forward the certificates to the men and all but one were destroyed. After nearly 50 years the existence of the one remaining certificate came to light and evoked a high level of response from veterans when details appeared in the media. The end result was that certificates were belatedly issued at a radar reunion held in Calgary in June 1996. The copy opposite was provided by Karl Work who served on FDT 217.
Geoff, I hope this email finds you well. I'm pleased to let you know that my father, Robert Edward Williams, now 91 years of age, who served on FDT 13 off Normandy on D-Day, has been awarded the Legion d' Honneur. I have also attached some additional photographs that you may find interesting along with the letter from the French Government. Phil Williams
~ FDT 13 ~ I attach a number of photos of FDT 13 which I found in Lt Commander Bert Crozier's lost photo album. This turned up when clearing his brother's house in Dublin. They appear to be taken in warm climes, perhaps in the Med when with the Americans? John Deering.
4/5/09. My father, who is still alive, served on FDT 13 through Normandy etc. In one photo HSL 2595 is tied up alongside. This HSL was based at Bizerta so it's likely the picture was taken there. Phil Williams, South Wales.
~ 1 - Books ~
There are around 300 books listed on our 'Combined Operations Books' page which can be purchased on-line from the Advanced Book Exchange (ABE) whose search banner checks the shelves of thousands of book shops world-wide. Type in or copy and paste the title of your choice or use the 'keyword' box for book suggestions. There's no obligation to buy, no registration and no passwords. Click 'Books' for more information.
On this website; D-Day Diary of a Leading Air Craftsman (LAC) on FDT 216
Ships Without Names by Bruce Macdermott. The Story of the Royal Navy's Tank Landing Ships of W.W.2. Published by Arms & Armour Press 1992.
Radar Reflections - the Secret Lives of Air Force Radar Mechanics in World War Two by Michael Cumming. ISBN 1-894255-10-0
~ 2 - Public Records in the National Archive, Kew, London ~
The records below are available to be viewed (personal callers or paid researchers only - NOT available on-line). Click Here to visit the Online Catalogue. Copies of documents can be ordered on-line.
Before the FDTs could be used in action their radar equipment had to be calibrated against known positions of aircraft within the range of their equipment. It was essential to achieve a very high level of accuracy since operational decisions such as the deployment of fighters would depend upon it.
The task of providing the air support for this work was given to 516 Combined Operations Squadron and planes from RCAF and RAF squadrons on attachment. Below is an extract from their operational record books. Ref; Air 27/1983. All the trials referred to took place in the area of the River Clyde. Subsequent trials were carried out in the Forth Estuary, the Humber Estuary and off the south coast of England.
Each FDT carried personnel from the three services; mainly the Navy to operate the craft and the RAF and RCAF to operate and maintain the radar and communications equipment and to man the control room. Below are the numbers of RAF personnel with job titles. In summary there were; Officers: 3 S/Ldrs; 14 F/Lts; 2 F/O.s = 19 and Other Ranks: 1 F/Sgt; 17 Sgts; 13 Cpls, 126 A.C.s = 157. [Information Source; Air Defence Battle Command & Control Museum Newsletter provided by Phillip C Jones.]
Thanks are due to John Glen, Karl Work, Len Betts, Maurice Harding all of whom served on FDT 217, Arthur Quinton (FDT 13) and Phillip Jones, John Deering, Pam Wright and Jennifer Robinson.