WW2 land, sea and air forces of the Allied Nations planning, training and operating together as a unified force on amphibious raids and landings against the enemy.

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Navigational aids helped landing craft locate their target beaches especially at night. Accurate navigation was vital to all amphibious Combined Operations otherwise well researched and rehearsed plans would disintegrate into chaos with potentially disastrous consequences. This account by Commander Philip Noel tells of his involvement in navigational experiments while based for 5 years at HMS Saunders, a RN base that was part of the Combined Training Centre Middle East at Kabret on the Little Bitter Lake, Egypt.

Background Infra Red Type 286 Radio A Bit of Everything Postscript Further Reading Acknowledgments


At the end of 1941 there was no global positioning, sat nav, Google Earth and mobile phones to aid navigation. The recognised method of finding the right landing beach was the use of high-frequency radio beam equipment known as ‘Lorenz’ and infra-red projectors. However, both these systems worked on the basis that the navigator of the carrier or mother ship, from which the assault craft were launched, knew his position to within a few yards. In the UK established radar stations for D/F (Direction Finding) bearings provided the navigator with a reliable fix off the coasts of Holland, Belgium or Northern France which, anyway, had many identifiable features; but in the Middle East the situation was vastly different. [Photo; the author Commander Philip Noel, VRD RNR.]

The whole of the northern coast of the Mediterranean was in enemy hands and Rommel was in Africa. A cursory glance of any map of the Mediterranean readily shows that radio direction finding beacons in Egypt and Palestine could only deliver very acute angled cuts for a ship off the African coast and that these cuts would worsen the further the ship was to the west. Using such thin angles to pin point a position accurately was risky and no sensible navigator would guarantee his position by such means, even in daylight. Since night landings were the fashion at the time the best he could expect was an indifferent D/F cut while steaming off featureless and unfamiliar coasts. The extent of any Combined Operation at this time was limited to seaborne landings behind the enemy lines or ‘acquatic hooks(1) as they were later called in Italy.

Infra Red

On the only full-scale test I undertook with the infra-red equipment the telescope failed to function properly. However, various experiments were carried out by others which gave reasonably good results; but the procedure had a major weakness - the success or failure of an operation, possibly involving many ships and hundreds if not thousands of men, depended upon an agent gaining the shore undetected, locating accurately the landing beach, successfully setting up his equipment and signalling to the approaching vessels. The planners were concerned about the vulnerability of this technique and, not surprisingly, sought a new solution.

Type 286 Radio

The next step forward was the introduction of a Type 286 radar. Flight Lieutenant Hunter-Todd of the RAF Experimental Branch and an RNVR radar officer from Alexandria spent many weeks at Kabret. They fitted this type of equipment in a LCA (Landing Craft Assault) and later in an LCP (Landing Craft Personnel) using a special aerial to give increased directional properties. This would allow the approaching craft to home in on an aircraft IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) beacon modified so that it could be carried by one man in a collapsible canoe (Folbot). This became known as the ‘Saunders Beacon’ but the inherent vulnerability of the Infra-Red beacon remained but with the advantages of obtaining reflections from any coastal features and a much improved range.

A bit of Everything

However, it was still felt that beach-finding needed to be much more accurate and less dependable on agents getting ashore undetected. Against this background the ‘lots of eggs in one basket’ school came to the fore. An ML (Motor Launch), I think No.360, was fitted with a direction-finding radio (RAF Type 1155 with rotating loop), a modified Type 286 radar, echo-sounding equipment, a gyro-magnetic compass and ASDIC (Sonar). It was thought that a couple of craft fitted out like this could reliably and accurately lead a flotilla of landing craft to their target beaches. Where long distances were involved it was proposed to use a trawler with taut-wire measuring gear. The same gear, with the exception of ASDIC, was later fitted in a LCP and was, I believe, the prototype LCP(N) (Navigational).

This was the extent of the development of navigational aids in the Middle East, at Kabret anyway. Later in the war the practice of dawn raids was adopted perhaps partly because of the difficulties and limitations we identified. Who knows?


We were pretty isolated in the Middle East and communications were not what they are today. For example I never found out if the results of these early experiments in the Middle East were passed to our counterparts in the UK. Its entirely possible that the two theatres were, on many occasions, working along parallel lines. Anyway, if the work done at Kabret showed the inadvisability of using the early infra-red equipment in operations all the effort was worth while.

My active time in Combined Operations ended on July 1st 1946 when HMS Saunders was paid off. By then I had met and married the lady who was to be my wife for nearly sixty years. We left Port Said for the UK in SS Dunnottar Castle on 12th September 1946, just over five years from the date I sailed for Egypt in SS Strathaird. I remained on the books of HMS Roseneath (beloved of all Combined Ops. personnel) until 30th January 1947 when I was released from active service but not before they had made a real mess of my final pay settlement !

After the war I returned to the re-established Sussex Division RNVR which I had joined as an Ord. Tel. in 1938. I got my half stripe in 1951 and my Destroyer Command qualification a little later. I was promoted Commander in 1960 and placed on the retired list on 21st September 1968. However that, as they say, is another story.

Further Reading

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Special thanks to Commander Philip Noel, VRD RNR, for providing the text for this Webpage. The content and presentation was approved by the author before publication.

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Footnotes; (1) "Hook" as in boxing. The term aquatic hook was used to describe a seaborne landing behind enemy lines.

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