Peter 4456's excellent photographs include (in reply 37) the front cover of the Feb 1954 edition of Meccano Magazine which featured an article by the late John W R Taylor entitled "Night Sortie at West Malling". John W R Taylor was a renowned British aviation expert and was the editor of "Jane's All The World's Aircraft" for 30 years before retiring at the end of the cold war in 1989. The article is a good nostalgic read and gives a taste of RAF operational life during the early 1950's. For those interested I have taken the liberty of attaching scans of the article together with a typed transcript.
Night Sortie from West Malling
By John W. R. Taylor
The Royal Air Force Station at West Malling in Kent was not opened until June 1940; but in just over 13 years it has built up a tradition of achievement and courage second to none.
On the walls of the Officers' Mess hang the badges of its squadrons; with an imposing record of decorations earned by their pilots and portraits of some of the great squadron commanders who flew from West Malling - men like Guy Gibson V.C., D.S.O., D.F.C., heroic leader of the wartime "dam-busters", who wrote that: "Of all the airfields in Great Britain, here many say (including myself), we have the most pleasant. It is near London and also near the sea. The local people are kind and generous, probably because they saw the Battle of Britain rage above their heads, and know more than most what the Air Force has done for this country".*
Guy Gibson goes onto explain that the Germans did their best to destroy West Malling in 1940 but it was put up again quickly amongst the trees, which made it difficult to see from the air - a hornet's nest cradled amongst green trees and green fields - a lively sight.
Unfortunately I was able to see little of the beauty of Kentish countryside when I drove down from London recently to find out something about West Malling's present role in Britain's defences. The glare of my car headlights picked up only the hedges of country lanes, until the unique "pub sign" of the Startled Saint, showing Spitfires buzzing round the poor gentleman's halo told me I was nearly at my destination.
I could hear the roar of Vampire and Meteor night fighters taking off on practice interceptions as I drew up at the Station Guard House and presented my impressive-looking Air Ministry Pass.
Fifteen minutes later I was trussed up like a Christmas turkey in the dark, cramped cockpit of Vampire N.F. 10 night fighter "E for Easy" resplendent in borrowed flying suit, complete with embroidered squadron crest, yellow Mae West "lifebelt", helmet and oxygen mask. I had clipped together the four straps of my parachute and four more straps of the seat harness, and plugged in my radio-telephone (R/T). Despite which I discovered that, by releasing a small catch on the side of the cockpit, I could lean forward quite comfortably and have a good look at the complex radar screens and maze of other equipment which surrounded me.
Soon the commander of West Malling's Vampire squadron, Sq. Ldr. D. C. Furse, D.F.C., clambered into the pilot's seat to the left and slightly forward of my navigator's position. After strapping himself in and explaining to me the layout of the cockpit which is very similar to that of the Mosquito fighters he flew during the war, he slammed the hood shut and started the aircraft's Goblin turbojet by simply pushing one button on the instrument panel.
There was a muffled explosion as the engine lit, and if I could have been in two places at once I should have seen a burst of flame from the tail of the jet-pipe. As it was, the instrument panel showed what was happening. R.P.M. and temperature indicators began to spin round like the second hand of a supersonic clock and the whistle of the turbine grew steadily more shrill until it settled down to a barely-audible whine.
The R/T crackled permission to taxi to the runway and we began to trundle round the perimeter track, with strings of amber and blue lights flashing under our port and starboard wing-tips respectively. There was little else to see. The Station buildings were dark on the skyline. Nearer was the double ribbon of the runway flare-path, more darkness, then the green wing-tip navigation light of our Vampire, outlining the square-cut wing and the big silver fuel tank beneath it.
We waited while another Vampire landed - flown by one of the squadron's two Polish pilots. Then, a quick turn on to the runway, whose lights flashed past faster and faster as Sq. Ldr. Furse pushed forward the throttle. Slight pressure pushed me back against my seat; the air conditioning system whisked warm air past my face; and in an instant we were climbing and banking gently in a left-hand circuit, with the lights of Tonbridge twinkling like an immense diamond tiara to our right.
Had we been on a proper interception sortie, we should at this stage have been passed from Local Control to a Ground Controlled Interception radar station. "Climb to angels twenty-five (25,000 ft.) Vector one eight zero." We should have been guided towards our target by an unseen, unknown "somebody" inside a concrete building miles away on the ground - somebody who could see both us and our target as tiny blips of light on a radar screen, slowly drawing together.
After a time we should have been brought close enough to the enemy bomber for our own A.I. (Airborne Interception) radar scanner, mounted inside the Vampire's fibreglass nose, to pick it up. The greenish screen in front of me would have indicated the bomber's range and bearing, as I guided the pilot in for the "kill."
The finest radar in the world is, however, no substitute for a pair of good eyes, and at a distance of about 1 1/2 miles from the bomber the pilot would have started peering around for a first glimpse of tell tale exhaust glow. A few seconds later, the bomber would probably have become visible as a dark silhouette that must be properly identified, for there were tragic cases of friendly aircraft being shot down by mistake in the last war.
Once seen and identified, the bomber would have had little hope of escape from the Vampire closing in stealthily and invisibly from behind. Its silhouette would have become larger and larger in the gyro gunsight. The fighter pilot's thumb would have closed on the gun button on his control column, and the night would suddenly have become brilliant with the flash of the Vampire's four 20mm. cannons.
Such is the pattern of a night interception - a pattern calling for the closest possible co-operation between pilot, navigator and ground controller. There is no room for "one-man bands" in night fighting, which demands steady, precise flying and tremendous patience and concentration. The more spectacular "dash and dogfight" methods of the day-fighter boys have no part in it; and no more than a few seconds of accurate, deadly gunfire can normally be expected during each long, lonely patrol.
The fact that night fighting involves such complete understanding and high standard of training from its crew prevented us from making a practice interception during my sortie from West Malling, for I am no navigator or radar observer. But, sitting there in the darkness, gliding along so smoothly and quietly that it was almost impossible to believe the 300 knots on the airspeed indicator, it was easy to imagine the tense excitement of a night interception.
All too soon the G.C.A. controller was beginning to "talk us down" to a landing. "You are seven miles from the airfield, two degrees left of the centre-line, 500 ft. below glide path. Adjust your rate of descent."
There was a slight bumpiness when Sq. Ldr. Furse extended the air brakes. The airspeed indicator dropped back quickly. "Five miles from airfield. Hold your course." More bumps as the undercarriage was lowered and the speed dropped to about 120 knots. "Four miles .... three miles ... two miles ... one mile ...." still the calm voice of the controller came over the RT., only to be silenced as we glided down to a beautifully gentle landing.
Soon I was back in Sq. Ldr. Furse's office, admiring two battered propeller blades covered with little metal swastikas, each representing a German warplane shot down by members of his squadron in World War II.
We were joined by a young pilot from West Malling's Meteor N.F. 11 squadron, and it was apparent why the Station has achieved such a high standard of efficiency, because the friendly rivalry between the Meteor and Vampire crews has to be seen to be believed. Both are famous squadrons, and the hexagon badge carried by the Meteors has adorned the fighters of many famous airmen, including two 1914-18 War V.C.'s - Billy Bishop and Micky Mannock - as well as John Cunningham in World War II, when its pilots destroyed 278 aircraft.
When I visited the crew rooms, I was not surprised to find a high proportion of pilots and navigators with wartime medal ribbons on their battledress, for the kind of temperament needed for night fighting is best found in older, more experienced airmen. But the young Meteor pilot who showed me proudly over his sleek, aggressive aircraft told me that when he first become operational a few months ago he was just 20 years old, and his navigator only 19!
Nor should the ground crews be forgotten, for it is their devotion to duty and skill that keeps the Vampires and Meteors flying, and maintains the efficiency of the all-important radar and radio devices needed to ensure a successful interception. Many of these men are young. All seemed happy and proud of their squadron's record, although they often have to work long hours to keep aircraft in fighting trim, because so few youngsters today seem to realise the value of a free Service training in radar or aircraft engineering.
I saw many other things at West Malling - things which renewed my confidence in the Royal Air Force as the world's greatest fighting Service, and in the ability of its airmen to protect these islands from attack by any force of fighters and bombers in the world. Under the leadership of its Station Commander, Group Captain P. H. Hamley, A.F.C., West Malling is undoubtedly an elite Station. It will be better still before long, for its Vampires and Meteors are scheduled to be replaced first by faster, more powerful Venoms and then by the R.A.F.'s superb new super-priority Javelin delta-wing, all-weather fighters - the finest aircraft of their type in the world.