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Navigational Aids for Beach Landings

Experiments and Trials Conducted in the Middle East


Navigational aids helped landing craft accurately locate their target beaches, especially at night when landmarks were difficult to see. Accurate navigation was vital to amphibious Combined Operations, otherwise well researched and rehearsed plans would fall into chaos, with potentially disastrous consequences for those taking part and those depending on their support.

[Photo; the author Commander Philip Noel, (1960) VRD RNR.]

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 Egypt's Little Bitter Lake.

At the end of 1941 there was no global positioning, sat nav, Google Earth and mobile phones to aid navigation. The recognised methods for locating predetermined landing beaches was a high-frequency radio beam from equipment known as ‘Lorenz’ and infra-red projectors.

However, both these systems depended on the navigator of the carrier or mother ship, from which the assault craft were launched, knowing 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 and Northern France. In any event, these coastlines had many identifiable features; it was vastly different in the Middle East with its endless miles of unfamiliar, featureless shorelines..

The whole of the northern coast of the Mediterranean was in enemy hands and Rommel was in Africa. Radio direction finding beacons in Egypt and Palestine, which were still in Allied hands, could only deliver very acute angled radio signals to ships off the African coast and the further the ship was to the west, the worse the situation became as the angle between the signals became even more acute. Relying on such narrow angles to pin point a position accurately was risky and no sensible navigator would guarantee his position by such means, even in daylight. Amphibious Combined Operations at this time were limited to landings behind the enemy lines or ‘acquatic hooks'(1) as they were later called in Italy.

Infra Red

I tried the infra-red equipment but 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 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 development was the Type 286 radar. Flight Lieutenant, Hunter-Todd of the RAF Experimental Branch and an RNVR radar officer from Alexandria spent many weeks at Kabret fitting this equipment in an LCA (Landing Craft Assault) and later in an LCP (Landing Craft Personnel), using a special aerial to improve its directional properties. This would allow the approaching craft to home in on an aircraft IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) beacon, modified to be carried by one man in a collapsible canoe (Folbot). This became known as the ‘Saunders Beacon’. The inherent vulnerability associated with the Infra-Red beacon remained but with the advantages of receiving reflections from any coastal features and a much improved range.

A bit of Everything

However, beach-finding still needed more accuracy and less dependency on agents gaining the shore undetected. Against this background the ‘lots of eggs in one basket’ school of thought developed an entirely novel approach.

[Opposite; A sketch of HMS Saunders by Herbert Hastings McWilliams from the vantage point of the base's water-tower. It was presented to Capt. G I S (George Irwin Sanctuary) More, OBE, RN who commanded HMS Saunders from June 1942 to December 1944. McWilliams annotated the sketch "Capt. G.I.S. More with admiration” and under this “H.M.S. Saunders, Kabrit” Displayed here courtesy of Capt. More's grandson, Henry More. Google Earth coordinates N, E.]

An ML (Motor Launch), possibly 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). The rationale was that a couple of craft so equipped would 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 an 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 in producing navigational aids for beach landings. Who knows?


We were pretty isolated in the Middle East and communications were not what they are today. 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

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.


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.

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

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