History of the RAF Signals Service, 1945 - 1975



Air Commodore Dennis Reader





Status - Volume 1

Status - Volume 2




I have been asked by the Air Historical Branch of the Ministry of Defence to write the post war history of the Royal Air Force Signals Service. My main sources of reference documents are those files that the Ministry has retained and those that can be accessed via the Public Record Office at Kew. Although these are accurate records, they do tend to be dry and lacking in human interest. I am anxious to contact those who maybe able to add a little colour to my account, or possess suitable photographs that will illustrate events.

As used by the RAF, Signals as a term spanned different disciplines at different times. At the end of the war it comprised radio communications (air and ground), radio aids to navigation, radio as an airborne bombing or interception aid, airborne and ground radars (both those used for fighter control and for air traffic management) electronic intelligence and electronic warfare, and teleprinter, telegraph and telephone services. This list is not exhaustive. It spanned both the operation of these services and maintenance of the equipment used. In some circumstances it included the design of this equipment.

At the time of writing (January 2000) I have completed the first draft of Volume 1 of the History, which covers the years 1945 to 1958, and I am about half way through the research for Volume 2, which will span 1959 to 1974 (approximately).


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Contact Information

My e.mail address is denreader@aol.com
or alternately write to me at
Room 313
3-5 Great Scotland Yard
Ministry of Defence
London SW1A 2HW


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Biographical Notes

Air Commodore Dennis Reader, Ma, CEng, FRAeS, FIM, RAF (retd)


I joined the RAF in 1952 as one of the first entry of Technical Cadets to enter RAF Technical College. After a years cadet training I read for an Engineering degree at Trinity College Cambridge. After graduating and returning to the RAF I underwent flying training and served for three years as an Air Electronics Officer (AEO) on Valiants. Then, after a tour as an engineer on a Victor Station, I served as a project officer on the TSR2 programme. When the TSR2 was cancelled I returned to Bomber Command as a Station Signals Officer. I was a student at the RAF Staff College in 1969 and was then appointed to 'exchange' duties with the USAF. After 2 years as a staff officer at HQ SAC, Nebraska, I again reverted to the status of student, this time at the US Armed Forces Staff College, Norfolk VA. When I returned to England it was again to the RAF Staff College, but this time as one of the Directing Staff (an instructor). Subsequently, after a tour at Ministry of Defence dealing with 'future projects,' I was posted to Command the Radio Engineering Unit at Henlow. I then joined the staff of HQ RAF Germany as the Command Electrical Engineer before returning to the Ministry of Defence as Director, Weapons and Support Engineering. In 1982 I was moved to the Procurement Executive as Director of Airborne Radar and Electronics. My last tour was as the Commandant of the RAF Signals Engineering Establishment at RAF Henlow.

I left the RAF in 1986 at the age of 52 and spent 10 years with GEC-Marconi before joining the Air Historical Branch to write this history.

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Status of Project - Volume 1

The Chapter outlines below will give some idea of the coverage of Volume 1.

1. Early years: a Resume of the History of the Signals Service before 1945

Mainly a summary of "Signals in the Second World War", a 7 Volume Air Historical Branch Narrative History, but includes relevant material from other histories of the time. It is intended as an introduction to my work and definition of the span of "Signals" in the RAF at the end of the War.

2. Radical Change in the Immediate Post-War Years

The International (eg. outbreak of the cold war, the Berlin airlift, the Korean war, etc.) and the National events (desperate shortages of money and materials, etc.) which determined defence policy in the immediate post war years. The RAF has to meet increased Signals commitments with obsolete equipment and declining numbers. The Service reorganises to cope with the challenge. The introduction of a new trade structure for airmen and a new Technical branch for officers, which contains Signals, Engineering, and Armament Specialisations. The formation of 90 Group.

3. The Rise and Demise of the Air Member for Technical Services

Describes the high level politics of the time. For the first time, a Member of the Air Council is appointed with specific responsibility for Technical Services, and who was also to act as the head of the new Technical branch. The first incumbent was Air Marshal Sir Roderic Hill, a pilot with a long background in engineering, but eventually, the appointment was to be filled by a Technical officer. The two dimensions of a Signals officer's job - one technical and one operational - and the extreme difficulty in filling such posts. AMTS advocates formal separation into GD (Sigs) and Tech (Sigs) branches, but there is a general lack of agreement on the matter. The post of AMTS first questioned, and - after long and confused discussions - ultimately disestablished.

4. No. 90 (Signals) Group

Need to provide a single focus for all Signals matters. Creation of No 90 Group to manage the design, manufacture, installation, operation and maintenance of RAF Signals systems. The Group's structure and its early tasks. Roles of its Departments, and of its principal units - the Central Signals Establishment and the Radio Engineering Unit. Tasking, and the problem of priorities. Turbulence and indecision prejudice the future of the CSE and RAF Watton. No 90 Group becomes Signals Command.

5. Radio Warfare and the Central Signals Establishment

Definitions. Radio Warfare - management structure and committees. The CSE's structure, its flying and engineering tasks and the problem of its considerable exercise commitment. Research and development tasks, active and passive EW equipment. Reorganisation and devolution. 199 Squadron's EW development task and 192 Squadron's operational role; their aircraft and equipment. The job of the calibration squadrons . Changes in policy and decentralisation. RAE assumes the design task. Demise of CSE.

6. The work of the Signals Wings and Units

The work of the Special Signals Units and their associated training establishments.

7. Radio Navigation Aids, Air Traffic Management, and the Problem of Frequencies

The problems of squeezing enough frequencies into the available radio spectrum to satisfy international demand. The work of the International Telecommunications Unioon and the rules for aeronautical communications. The need to migrate up the frequency spectrum. Responsibility for these matters assumed by NATO. Air Traffic Communications and the RAF's responsibility for providing Air Traffic Services to civil aviation. Frequencies allocated for Air Traffic Control services at airfields and for flight information regions. Introduction of the Flight Information Service. Transmitter and receiver development. Radio Aids to Navigation - types and development. Introduction of GCA and ILS. Air Traffic Control radars and other approach and landing aids.

8. Telecommunications

The wartime legacy and plans for expansion of the RAF's Main Telecommunications System. Units in the NTS and their role - transmitters, receivers, signals centres, exchanges etc. Methods and procedures - evolution from the Morse to the Murray codes. Engineering the network - equipment and techniques including SSB, DSB, ISB transmissions, double and triple diversity aerials. Dramatic expansion of the MTS to become the Commonwealth Air Forces Network. Introduction of Tape Relay methods and their benefits. Introduction of on-line Cryptography systems. Royal Signals support of the RAF and the role of Air Formation Signals. Mobile systems. Administrative systems. The RAF Airmove Network. Communications for Meteorological Services.

9. The Control and Reporting System

Post-war air defence policy - or lack of it. Weaknesses of the UK's air defences system. Need for new radars, IFF, and data transmission and display equipment. The Master Radar Station concept. 90 Group and the restoration of air defence radar cover of the UK. The ROTOR and VAST programmes. New radar development. Radar convoys for overseas. The C&R System post ROTOR. Need for automation of information display, but high hopes founder. Requirement for the relay of radar data in the C&R network. The premature announcement of the demise of the fighter. Development of SAGW and their radars, and their impact on the C&R System.

Whilst many of the events chronicled in Volume 1 are not strictly Signals issues, they had a profound affect on every facet of RAF life, and particularly affected Signals. The first Volume ends with the formation of Signals Command in 1958; the Signals Service was then at the apogee of its authority and influence.

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Status of Project - Volume 2

Volume 2 is well underway but I have yet to brigade the text into Chapters. However, it will begin with a summary of the portentous events of the late 50's and early 60's - the advent of thermonuclear weapons, the Soviet acquisition of the hydrogen bomb, the introduction of ballistic nuclear missiles, and the adoption of the strategy of deterrence. Again, whilst not strictly Signals matters, they had a profound effect on the discipline. The UK realises that Defence expenditure on the scale of previous years just could not be afforded. In his annual policy statement for 1957, the Minister of Defence (Duncan Sandys) emphasised the part that the RAF's V-Force had to play in collective defence, but points out that Blue Streak and Skybolt will make it redundant in the same way that surface to air guided weapons will replace manned fighters. However, for financial and technical reasons the Blue Streak and Skybolt programmes have to be abandoned, and following the Nassau agreement the RN's Polaris force takes over the deterrent role. The Defence Review of 1964 leads to the abandonment of more prestigious British programmes, including those for the TSR2 and P1154 aircraft.

A common Signals staff serving all three Services is one of the outcomes of the creation of a unified Ministry of Defence. The RAF signals staff is reduced to just one branch, and Signals Command reverts to Group status once again - 90 Group in Strike Command. However, further inter-Service rationalisation leads to the RAF assuming responsibility for all strategic Defence networks. Reductions in the UK's commitments overseas mean the return of overseas garrisons and headquarters, and a consequent reduction in the telecommunications task. The advent of satellite communications leads to a fundamental shift in military communications concepts, and sees the birth of the Skynet programme.

The advent of the carcinotron transforms the science of electronic warfare - many recently introduced radar systems become very vulnerable. The introduction of computers and integrated circuits revolutionises electronics - particularly avionics systems and air defence radar systems. The Linesman/Mediator programme is initiated, and is soon in trouble - the first of many military programmes to underestimate the difficulties implicit in the new technologies.

Volume 2 will end with the demise of 90 Group, or more strictly its "downsizing" to become Support Command's Signals Headquarters (SCSHQ).


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There may be those who feel that an official history such as this should contain only facts relating to policy and Very Important People, and that there is no place for those whose contribution to the development of RAF Signals was modest, or whose recollections are only about everyday life and events. They will argue that there is no place for humour in what should be a very serious endeavour, and that no material should be included that cannot be confirmed from at least three sources. That is not true: a history is as much about people as about events and an anecdote can give life and colour to a dry fact. Of course I would be delighted to receive recollections from people who were close to the decision makers and saw policy unfold - information from official sources is scant because so many of the official files have been burnt. However, I would also like to hear from those who implemented that policy, those who had to make theory work and turn speculation into certainty. Everyone who has served in the Armed Forces has a story to tell, and those who were responsiblefor making things happen can often introduce that overlay of irreverence which makes the story interesting and stimulating. Some of the liveliest anecdotes I have received, and which illustrate the triumph of sense over absurdity, are from NCOs and airmen who were in the RAF for only a few years, some just for two years National Service.



Content Copyright: © 1999 & 2000 by Dennis Reader

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Last Updated: 03 February 2000