Fighter pilot, Royal Navy 1945, Hydrographer Iraq 1947-52 India 1952-53, Canadian Hydrographic Arctic explorer 1953-1960, Writer-producer Canadian National Film Board 1961-72, Freelance journalist, audio-visual producer 1972-2009, National Press Club of Canada 1961 - 2006

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Guiding the big guns on target

Simulations for the attack on Japan

On foul weather days when we were socked in as regards flying our squadron’s Seafire XV fighters we had various training aids to keep us busy.  The most notable and best enjoyed was the Operational Crew Trainer.  This elaborate contraption took up a sizeable amount of space in a large darkened building.  Its purpose, already somewhat outdated in 1945 though probably still ready for operational use in the forthcoming final assault on Japan, was to teach us to direct the guns of large warships onto their targets.  
Of course, by this time most of the world's great battleships had been sunk by attacking aircraft, but we carried on in proper naval tradition.
  Two of us at a time, one to act as pilot the other as observer, would climb up into a mock model of an aeroplane and, as the lights dimmed right down, instrument dashboard lights would glow, the aircraft would come to pulsating life, earphones would hum and curtains would draw back to reveal, down below and seemingly ahead a couple of miles, the vista of a shadowy coastline as viewed by moonlight from about a 3,000-foot altitude.  By using his controls, the pilot could turn the aircraft and fly along the coast in either direction with harbours, towns and villages, rivers, inlets, railway lines and stations, woodlands, hills and factories all passing by in realistic fashion and appearance.
The observer would receive information and instructions regarding the selected target, perhaps a railway marshalling yard or dockyard.  Then the code word ‘Flash’ (the guns have fired) would come over the headset followed by a varying number, ‘seventeen’ (meaning the warship’s high-explosive shells will land near the target in seventeen seconds time).  And sure enough in seventeen seconds the shells would burst with a small flash of light down below.  Perhaps a fountain of water would rise up if the shells missed short and fell into the sea or a river, or several trees rise up and fall down if the salvo fell in the woods, or perhaps buildings in a nearby town would be seen to topple.  
As the pilot turned the aircraft to pass by that part of the coast again, the observer would be radioing the compass bearings and distances off of the shooting errors back to the ship. 
 Then again we would hear: ‘Flash, seventeen’ (or sixteen or eighteen) and the game would go on until the target was hit.  The realism was amazing.  After a few minutes of turning this way and that in the dim, muted light, the murky illusion of actually flying became very real.
After many sessions, we were allowed to see the trainer's workings.  The aircraft was mounted on a stationary pedestal, but could be turned through 360 degrees.  The mock-up coastline and inland topography was a vast relief model resting on a thirty-foot-diameter turntable, which had its turning speed synchronized in ratio with the aircraft's heading and indicated airspeed.  
The relief model itself was a mass of little pegs which when activated by electrical impulse would rise up differing fractions of an inch accompanied by a flash of light.  These pegs underpinned tiny model houses, trees, locomotives, factory chimneys and other fragments of infrastructure and landscape, some of them hinged so they could topple over in lifelike fashion.
Underneath the turntable was a bewildering spaghetti-like mass of electrical wires and tiny electric bulbs of varying intensity.  Through a wonderful system of relays and switches, the controller, hidden away in her hidden cubicle, could select appropriate pegs to rise up sharply with a burst of light and then sink back more slowly into their recesses.  All this long before transistors or computers appeared.
We loved playing this game.  Especially Goff Parker.  His Wren girlfriend, Mary, who was one of several who shared many of our evenings in the lounge of the nearby Ugadale Hotel, was one of the trainer's controllers.  At war's end they were married and I expect carried on playing similar such games by moonlight happily ever after.