Learning the sideways look
When we arrived at HMS Macaw, the Royal Navy night vision training establishment at Bootle, in what was then Cumberland in northwest England, we were at once treated to a very effective demonstration.
As our group of two dozen pilots stood outside the main building in the bright early summer sunshine in 1945, we were each handed a pair of what appeared to be welders goggles of extreme obscurity. After putting these darkened goggles on, we could hardly see each other. Only dimly could we make out the division between earth and sky despite the sunny day. Then we were told to remove our goggles and one pair, chosen at random, was given to one of the institution’s Women's Royal Navy staff officers. After she put them on a box of matches was scattered on the ground. With no hesitation or fumbling she bent down and picked them all up one by one.
We were amazed. But we were warned that by the end of the course we would certainly not have that Wren's expert proficiency, but that we would be able to see in the dark much better than we could before.
And it was true. We could. It worked.
For the next two or three weeks we spent at that school, we had a routine of every day being a hardworking play day. After one full day of lectures concerning the elements of night vision, the physical make-up of the human eye and the role played by the eyes' so-called rods and cones, we went straight into the serious daily business of playing day-long games.
Every morning before sunrise, we were woken by a loud buzzer in all the rooms. This was the signal for everybody to reach out for a set of white-light opaque goggles and put them on. Then it was back to sleep until still begoggled we went to begoggled breakfast, followed by begoggled teeth brushing and all the other little duties of the morning. Then a typical play-day would take us into a completely blacked-out hangar illuminated only by dim red lights or alternatively artificial lights that could simulate various degrees of starlight or faint moonlight. Once everybody was in, we removed our goggles and the fun began.
One game we played in the dark was negotiating an elaborate obstacle course marked out with white painted objects and trip wires. Though at first we could only feel our way along in slow motion to avoid the traps and bumping into our fellow students, we soon improved to a slow walk, then a walk, then a jog and eventually we raced against each other on bicycles. We also played soccer and basketball with white-painted balls. Another more punishing game employed a circle of large diameter drawn in white on the hangar floor. We stood on the perimeter of this circle facing inwards to where a heavy white medicine ball was suspended from the high hangar roof. When given sufficient impetus to swing like a pendulum, the ball's silent travel was diabolically about nose high when it reached our positions on the circle. Thus it was in the student's significant interest to keep a keen lookout at all times as the ball could arrive from any of about 160 degrees of direction-very suddenly. Naturally in such a situation, we kept our hands up in a defensive position at all times in order to try and catch the ball and push it away into the darkness towards another of our unseen colleagues. But occasionally the ball would swing in and penetrate these defences and result in a rare bloody nose.
So by learning to be conscious of seeing with our eyes’ offset eye rods, by looking about twenty degrees to one side of any discerned object and strictly shielding the eyes from any bleaching white light, we hoped to improve our ability to be triumphant in darkened battle — even against the suicidal native sons of the benighted rising sun nation itself.