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Just as it had in the Battle of Britain, radar proved crucial in the

successful defence of Malta WORDS: ROBIN J. BROOKS

BELOW: ear the Maltese village of to give early warning of approaching to help protect the Grand Harbour.
The No 501 Chain Maghtab stands a concrete enemy aircraft. When completed it faced out to sea at
Overseas Low
sentinel from a bygone age. Known colloquially as the listening a bearing of 20 towards Sicily.
(sometimes referred
to as No 501 AMES) Known as a sound mirror, ears, the mirror on Malta was With the electrical equipment
station at Fort it was constructed during 1934-35, completed in the summer of 1935. installed, testing began in the first
Tas-Sil. and is similar to structures that can It had been decided that five such weeks of September 1935 using a
also still be seen at Greatstone on the mirrors would be built on the island, Supermarine Scapa flying boat as the
Kent coast. They were all intended the first at Maghtab being designed enemy. It was found that the range
of the mirror was 21 to 37 miles,
and further estimates showed that it
would provide a six-minute warning
of enemy aircraft approaching. Not all
the tests proved successful, however,
and it was deemed impractical to
build the other four mirrors.
By May 1937 the Maghtab mirror
experiments had been abandoned, but
with the rumblings of another war
against Germany and the possibility
of a Rome-Berlin axis it was obvious


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that Malta would need an early
warning system to ensure the security
of the region for Britain. It had long
been said that whoever had control of
Malta controlled the Mediterranean.
Only after a visit to Malta in
October 1937 by A. P. Rowe, the Air
Ministrys co-ordinating officer for
air defence, were plans formulated for
such a system. Reporting back to the
Chief of the Air Staff, ACM
Sir Cyril Newall, Rowe finished his
report by November. In it he stated
that there was a considerable security
risk to Malta and ultimately Britain.
The island therefore had to be held.
the island already possessed the first AMES 241 and 242 became ABOVE: Filter room
transportable RDF, he recalled. It known as Chain Overseas High personnel on top
of the Lascaris War
With Malta being given the was this early warning system which stations capable of plotting high- Rooms. The women
highest priority, it fell to a small helped the gallant pilots to meet flying aircraft. Enemy formations were British and
party of signals tradesmen to begin daily the numerical odds which the at approximately 20,000ft were Maltese civilian
the task of setting up an RDF Regia Aeronautica stacked against normally detected at a range of 65 to plotters while the
(radio direction-finding) station in them. Setting the equipment up and 75 miles. However, fading occurred men were RAF.
January 1939. They constructed a making it work would not have been between 30 and 50 miles. To alleviate
transportable system on the highest accomplished without the expertise the problem a Chain Overseas Low
point of Malta, Dingli Cliffs. Known of a one-time BBC engineer, H. T. (COL) station was operational by
as AMES (Air Ministry Experimental Roberts. When he was required in December 1940. Known as No 501
System) 242, it was the first another theatre, nine of us were left COL, it was located at Fort Tas-Sil
transportable mobile RDF system to keep the station at Dingli running and, once in service, was joined by
outside the UK. The transmitter was and man it under what became very No 502 COL at Fort Dingli.
a Type MB1 built by Metropolitan active operational conditions. We
Vickers, and the receiver a Cossor received co-operation and kindness
Type RM2. from the command signals officer, By February 1941, with sporadic
AMES 242 was intended to be a Sqn Ldr A. D. Messenger. air attacks by the Regia Aeronautica,
stopgap pending the arrival of more One cannot, however, forgive the the radar coverage of Malta was found
permanent Chain Overseas stations, Air Staff s lack of understanding to be adequate. That was until the
but in the event it was capable of of what it was that we were trying Luftwaffe arrived in Sicily. A visit
detecting aircraft at a range of 50 to achieve. Thus, when we had by Wg Cdr Tester, the chief radio
miles and a height of 5,000ft. A demonstrated what RDF could do officer from headquarters Middle
second mobile station known as it became plain that some form of East Command, coincided with the
AMES 241 arrived in July 1940, fighter control would have to be realisation that with the increased
again sited on Dingli Cliffs. Malta established. Consequently all wing air activity and raids on Malta some
now had continuous RDF coverage, commanders and above were given the enemy aircraft were getting through
something no other part of Middle job of controllers. The idea of anyone the radar screen undetected. He
East Command could boast. below the rank of flight sergeant realised that not only was there a
One of the first airmen to arrive on being trusted to put tiddlywinks on need to conduct a better method of
the island with the signals flight was the plotting table showing aircraft radar sweeping but also to initiate
Flt Lt R. Tomlinson. Few knew that tracks or plots sent by our solitary an air defence system based on the
when Italy came into the war in 1940, RDF station was unacceptable. UK model. This had worked well

LEFT: The main

bomber used by the
Regia Aeronautica
over Malta during
1940 was the
SM79, like these
aircraft from the
216 Squadriglia.


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was developing fast and they needed

trained operators to go to Malta.
When we docked in Grand
Harbour it was the heat that first hit
us. Although I arrived in Malta as a
radar operator, I was soon told that
I would be transferred to the filter
section. From the harbour we were
transported to Hal Far, a Fleet Air
Arm base, where I stayed until 21
January 1941. Shortly after, I was
posted to RAF HQ Valletta and
worked in the first filter room that
had just been opened at 3 Scotts
Street. For security reasons it was
known as Room X and was situated
in a cellar under a block of flats. It
was very small and, you could say,
The original nerve centre, often
ABOVE: during the Battle of Britain when UK. A months delay saw Maltas called the Navy and RAF control
One of the the purpose was to identify enemy fighter defences suffer at the hands room, was in St Johns Cavalier
operators of the aircraft early via the Chain Home of Luftwaffe Messerschmitt Bf 109s. where we used to send the filtered
early mobile radar
systems on Malta. radar stations, allowing RAF fighter The lack of experienced pilots plots and information from Room X.
aircraft to get airborne and be placed and a plea for better fighters such The section consisted of male RAF
in the most advantageous position to as Spitfires again went to the Air personnel only, but on 3 May we were
attack them. Ministry, backed up this time by a moved to the new Filter and Fighter
Testers reports sought to make the letter to the Chief of the Air Staff Operations Room that had recently
Air Ministry aware of the difficulties from the governor of Malta, Lt Gen opened at Lascaris, deep down in the
on Malta, such as the fact that the Sir William Dobbie. bastions under Barrakka Gardens in
main policy at that time was never Valletta. I was in the filter room to
to permit the fighters to leave the start with but was soon transferred
islands airspace. This may have been After further correspondence, to the new fighter control room as a
for several reasons, not least that an the Air Ministry undertook to send floor supervisor.
acute shortage of pilots and aircraft officers and men to organise a sector In the first instance I helped to
ensured that if a pilot were to bail operations room, to advise on the train the newly employed civilian
BELOW RIGHT: out he would land on the island and control and tactics of the fighters, and ladies in their plotting duties in
A group of No 501 that parts of his aircraft would at to provide trained sector controllers. fighter control. Once they were
COL personnel. least be recoverable. Consequently, Included in the initial party was trained I had to listen in on the
although the radar stations could Corporal Douglas Geer. line between the filter room and
BELOW: give early warning of an enemy I had joined the RAFVR in our fighter control to check that
In April 1942,
the arrival of the aircraft approaching, once the raiders October 1938 for the sole purpose of the plots were being placed on the
rst Spitres to had crossed the coastline it was not training for and manning the fighter correct grid reference on the large
join the Maltese possible to vector the defending control room at Biggin Hill, said table maps. I also had to supervise
campaign further fighters to a position from which to Geer. I was called up 10 days before the girls in the direction-finder
helped turn the intercept. the war started, when Biggin Hill room, which received bearings on our
tide. This MkVc is The Air Ministry was asked by was fully manned and ready to go. fighter aircraft picked up by the DF
launching from the
USS Wasp as part the Air Officer Commanding Malta In January 1940 two persons were stations. The only officers that I can
of the Operation in March 1941 to send trained filter taken from each of the control rooms remember in Lascaris were Gp Capt
Calendar officers in order to set up a similar in the group and trained as radar Woodhall [who had been the station
deliveries. fighter control system to that in the operators. I was one of them as radar commander at Duxford during the


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Battle of Britain], who was the chief LEFT: The original
fighter controller, Sqn Ldr Cohn radar towers at
[filter officer], Flt Lt Hall, Sqn Ldr Dingli Cliffs, now
W. Farnes [both fighter controllers], used by Malta
International Airport
Sqn Ldr Williams [CO HQ RAF air traffic control.
Valletta] and Sqn Ldr Mallia
[Maltese adjutant].
On 28 September 1942 I was sent
on exchange to an Observer Corps
post at Tas-Silg near Delamara Point,
Marsaxlokk. We had an instrument
sandbagged on top of a small tower room, which was situated about 20ft the trace ran from the centre
building, and we had to line up the underground in a bastion beside (representing the transmitting station)
aircraft through an eyepiece on the Grand Harbour. What a noise the to the end of the screen, rotating in
instrument. This would give us a grid raid made, with the worst thing conjunction with the aerial, which
reference, which was passed through being that dust and the force of the revolved continuously through 360.
to fighter control. We also had to plot explosions would blow through the As the trace hit an aircraft, a glowing
many visuals of crashed [aircraft] and filter room. spot was left behind on the PPI when
pilots baling out. Despite this the progress of the the beam swept by. A separate aerial
With an increase in enemy activity, raid was plotted by the girls working was able to produce the height of the
a fourth Chain Overseas Low the plotting table. Radar stations aircraft.
station was located on the island of around the island would report With the arrival of Spitfires to
Gozo, north-west of Malta. Once positions of aircraft massing over replace the ageing Hurricanes and a
operational the unit was recalled to Sicily, and then counters representing comprehensive radar system in place,
Malta on 29 April 1942, it having the numbers of aircraft and height Maltas battle for survival took on a
been decided that Gozo could not be of the formations would move down new dimension. From May 1942 the
adequately defended. towards Malta. My job for most of enemy showed signs of flagging. By
Sgt Peter Hewlett was another the time was to tell the plots and this time Malta had 14 RDF stations
RAF technician sent to work in the relative information through to comprising Chain Overseas High and
filter room at Lascaris. One of the fighter control. Chain Overseas Low together with
heaviest air attacks on the island took With a fighter control system two GCI stations. Upon the invasion
place on 7 April 1942, incidentally in place, the intention of the Air of Sicily, which began at 03.00hrs on
the day on which the 2,000th air Ministry was to build up Maltas RDF 10 July 1943, and the surrender of the
alert was sounded. Valletta suffered a stations to give complete coverage Italians on 8 September, Malta went
very heavy attack with considerable around the coastline, and to introduce on the offensive.
damage including the destruction of a system of ground-controlled The modern radar golf ball on
the opera house [and] the Castille interception (GCI) for the fighters. Dingli Cliffs is a worthy successor
I was on duty at the time in the filter As the way of intercepting enemy to the concrete sound mirror and the
aircraft accomplished by combining wartime AMES stations. Walking
radar information from the chain across this wild and bleak part of
radar stations with the HF/DF the Maltese coast, there are still
information of fighter positions was the original radar towers left. Used
proving too slow, a GCI station was by the countrys air traffic control
set up at Gudia. The site proved system, they recall the struggles of
unsuitable and it was moved closer 1941-42. The sound mirror is a listed
to St Pauls Bay. With GCI, the construction and together with the BELOW: The sound
mirror at Maghtab,
radar display was on a plan position wooden towers will stand for eternity,
still showing signs
indicator (PPI), a circular screen permanent reminders of the first of its wartime
superimposed with the local grid methods of listening for echoes camouflage.
reference squares. A line of light from the sky. ROBERT FEELEY


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