Wartime experiments at Rhu

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maeeMORE information is being sought by the author of a book on a comparatively little known World War Two activity in the Helensburgh area — the Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment.

Robin Bird wrote ‘Top Secret War Bird of World War Two’, which is about his father, photographer Bob Bird.

He visited the burgh in 2006, and he says he was amazed how little local people knew of the establishment, which included the water tank testing centre in Glen Fruin.

“I would like to hear from anyone who served with MAEE Helensburgh circa 1942, or people who knew Bob Bird, MAEE photographer,” Robin says.

The establishment was originally set up by the Air Ministry in 1924 to evaluate the performance of water-based aircraft.

Originally based in Felixtowe, the onset of World War Two led to the MAEE being classified Top Secret, and moving to Helensburgh and Rhu in 1939, to ensure its work did not attract the attention of German spy planes or bombers. Returning to Felixstowe in 1945, MAEE was finally closed down in 1956.

MAEE was partnered with the Airborne Forces Experimental Establishment, which began life at Ringway, now Manchester Airport, in 1940, and was also to move, first to Sherburn, near Leeds in 1943, then Beaulieu in 1945.

Bob was a Government photographer taking top secret pictures of weapons to sink U-Boats and experiments by airborne forces preparing for the D-Day invasion.

MAEE Helensburgh drew on a number of local facilities, such as the seaplane base at Rhu, and the weapons testing tank at Glen Fruin.

The establishment also worked in close co-operation with the RAF's bases at Stranraer and Lough Erne, which operated flying boats, in particular, Catalinas.

After the Sunderland, the Catalina was Coastal Command's most important flying boat, and both aircraft were important to MAEE, offering fully enclosed facilities for the photographers, who had previously occupied an open cockpit position in the nose of both Otter and Walrus bi-planes.

The work was still hazardous, as none of the aircraft had heating or oxygen for high altitude work, and Bob Bird was in hospital for a week, after suffering frostbite when he removed a glove in order to change a lens, and his fingers were frozen to metal body of the camera.

His diary January 1942 notes that it was so cold that the pilot's vision was affected, and they crash landed on their return. In fact his arrival in Helensburgh the previous November had been marked by a Sunderland crash at Rhu, which killed the two MAEE crew, and highlighted the dangers associated with the work.

Testing carried out there included aircraft weapons designed for use against shipping, depth charges, rockets, and Barnes Wallis' Tallboy earthquake bomb and Highball bouncing bomb.

There was also flight testing of maritime patrol aircraft, including the all-important Sunderland flying boat, built in the Blackburn Aircraft Factory in Dumbarton, located next to Denny's shipyard.

The book describes a special mission assigned to MAEE, with the aim of sinking the Tirpitz. Most will be familiar with the 1955 film ‘Above Us The Waves’, which portrays Operation Source, in which six X Craft were used to mount a partially successful assault on the Tirpitz in 1943.

Less well known is Operation Title, in which chariots, or human torpedoes, were used to launch an earlier assault on the battleship in 1942.

The team was forced to call off the attack when a storm caused the loss of the chariots. Scuttling their vessel, nine of the team were able to return home via Sweden, but the tenth member was caught and shot as a spy.

The establishment worked on two projects concerning Tirpitz. The first followed on from the chariots, and involved modifying Sunderlands to drop and retrieve chariots. This option was not developed past handling tests, but the second was to proceed and be successful.

This was the use of the Tallboy bomb, which was finally to sink the battleship after two direct hits — a third direct hit bounced off her armour — resulted in a 200ft hole in her side, and set off internal magazine fires.

Robin published the book as a memorial to his father and it is no longer widely available, but he does have a few copies left at £7.99 including postage. He can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Helensburgh Library has retained a copy for reference.

  • A veritable treasure trove of information about wartime activities in Scotland can be found on a website entitled Secret Scotland. It is the work of Des Gorra, and aims to provide a common resource where secret, hidden or otherwise notable points of interest around Scotland can be shared.