Radio operator posted to MAEE

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THE work of the Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment at Helensburgh and Rhu during the Second World War was top secret at the time . . . but more and more information about it is emerging as time goes on.

Former Merseyside newspaper editor Robin Bird, who is currently preparing his second book about MAEE Helensburgh, is the man responsible, and he has been a regular source for this website.

The first book was about his father Bob Bird, who was MAEE's official photographer, and the new book — which has been delayed by a family bereavement and computer problems — will lift the high security curtain still further.

Robin came across the wartime story of radio operator Jim Bossley, first told in the BBC's World War Two People's War series in 2005, which included an account of his posting to a place he called ‘Helensburg'.

Jim had just completed a course in VHF radio at RAF Cranwell and enjoyed a few days leave before being sent to MAEE. He did not know what MAEE stood for, or where ‘Helensburg' was.

So he reported to the Forces Railway Travel Office at London Bridge, and asked: "Where's this place Helensburg, mate?" "Dunno" was the reply. "The only place I can suggest is Glasgow."

Jim got a travel warrant to Glasgow, where he reported to the RTO and was advised to get the train to the nearest sounding place, Helensburgh, as the RTO understood there was an RAF base there.

At Helensburgh Central Jim went into the stationmaster's office as there was no RTO. The stationmaster rang the RAF station, and a bewildered Jim was collected.

Soon Jim was aware that the posting was to the Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment and he would be involved in VHF radar and radio for flying boats.

Jim recalled that his new home was a big house with 60 people living in it. They were mostly RAF types, including pilots but no ground crew. The flying boats were not assigned to active duties but were used for experimental trials, and everyone worked as ground crew when required.

He could not believe his luck when he was sent to a hut on the lochside for his job ‘where  three WAAFs  would be under him'.

It turned out that he would be charging accumulators on flying boats moored in the Gareloch. An RAF launch took him to and fro, and he was kept busy charging accumulators, as Catalinas and Sunderlands were taking off all the time.

One day a milkman turned up at the hut. Jim asked what was a milkman doing there. "Mind your own business," replied a WAAF.

It turned out that all the outlying villages had battery operated radios. When batteries ran down, they were replaced with RAF ones while the original batteries were recharged for sixpence a time.

The milkman was the go-between, but Jim realised that everyone involved was making a lot of money on the side.

Jim said that he loved his time at MAEE Helensburgh and was sorry when he was posted on after a few months.

Robin also has a tale about an RAF tent on Garelochside involving his father, who worked directly for the Ministry of Aircraft Production and wore civilian clothing under his flying jacket, as opposed to a uniform.

Bob was told to report to the tent early one winter's morning and wait for a Sea Otter seaplane to pick him up to photograph secret trials. Inside were two RAF chaps making a brew, and Bob introduced himself. They were reluctant to talk to a ‘civilian', but asked him what he was doing there.

However Bob was unable to discuss his role, having signed the Official Secrets Act, and he moved a short maeedistance away from the tent as those inside enjoyed warming tin mugs of tea.

It was freezing cold outside but Bob did not have to wait too long before the Sea Otter splashed down as close as possible to the shore.

Although it was the last of the Supermarine biplane amphibians, the Sea Otter only went into service in 1943 and was at MAEE Helensburgh for trials.

A ‘whirlwind' from the Otter's spinning propeller caused the tent to start shaking and collapse — which Bob thought this was very funny because the RAF chaps were still inside!

  • The picture shows Bob in the Sea Otter, probably on that dark winter's day. He had been photographing trials of this new seaplane and had to sit in the open nose turret, which was extremely cold. In the foreground is one of MAEE's RAF tenders.