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Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Remembering The British Women Who Were To Be The First To Track A Rocket By Radar …







A photograph from Mrs Ranson’s album showing her colleagues at work on the range – National Army Museum, ref: 2014-10-20 111748

Take a break from work out on the firing range, posing for official photographs, and relaxing…. four photographs recently discovered at the National Army Museum shed light on the lives of Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Army (ATS) personnel who worked at the Ynyslas top-secret rocket testing range at the end of World War II.

The photographs, donated to the museum by Mrs M. Ranson, are of the small team of highly skilled Experimental Gunnery Assistants who helped track the trajectories of prototype rocket missiles, developed to respond to Germany’s flying bomb technology.

In 1945, a new Guided Missiles Project (under the leadership of Sir Alwyn D. Crow, CBE, ScD, Director of Guided Projectiles, Ministry of Supply) brought together some 40 civilian and service personnel—from the Radar Research Defence Establishment (RRDE), Signals Research and Development Establishment (SRDE), Sir Frank Whittle’s Power Jets (Research and Development) Ltd, and the fuel companies Asiatic Petroleum Company (formed by Shell and Royal Dutch Oil Companies) and Laporte Chemicals Ltd — to push rocket technology forward.

The firing range was manned by nine officers and 202 ordinary ratings (excluding cooks and ratings) under a Superintendent of Experiments (S of X). Only one official document survives relating to the trials — the minutes of a visit on 2 January 1946 by Major L W Jubb, the chairman of the Guided Projectile Working Committee. After a tour of facilities with the S of X, Lt Col T. L. G. Tod, Royal Artillery, discussions centred on how photographic observations might be improved using the Akeley and Ascania cameras operated by Women’s ATS staff.  However the oral testimony of Margaret Herterich, in the collections of the Imperial War Museum, reveals how the tests were conducted:
‘Our main work was the start of experimentation on rockets, the beginning I believe of the Blue Streak, the British rocket. Four of us were trained as Kinetographers on modified kinecameras as used in the film news industry. The first instruction was in one of the loading bays where a system of knots and rope-pullage had been devised. We pulled the ropes in a fashion to follow the knots, although we didn’t know why we were doing it at the time. Eventually we worked these two kinecameras mounted on posts. Each was worked by two girls for bearing and elevation. After loading and switching on, we followed the flight path and booster-drop of rockets fired from a ramp on the range. The films were taken back to the dark-room where we four girls wound them on large circular reels and developed them. We were responsible for the results of the experiments costing thousands of pounds. The film was then evaluated, frame by frame, through a grid machine and then plotted onto the longest piece of graph paper you’ve ever seen. The trajectory was then studied by the Officers.

We knew that we were working on something special when we girls received letters from the Ministry of Supply, asking if we would like to go to Woomera, Australia, to carry on the work of the Blue Streak Rocket. Our officers were excited about this work as they had just received some new Canadian radar equipment. Knowing that I had been an Operator Firing Control on radar in the Ack-Ack, they invited me into the new set to be, as they said - ‘The first woman in Britain to see a rocket on radar’. We didn’t see a thing!’
You may not have been able to see the rocket on radar that day, but it is on record that your commander, Lt Col Todd, greatly lamented the loss of his skilled Women’s ATS personnel when they were  demobilised in 1946 (document ref: AVIA 48/16, National Archives, Kew).

The Ynyslas experiments contributed to Britain’s post-war space progamme, which lead to the establishment of the European Launcher Development Organisation in the early 1960s - the forerunner of today’s European Space Agency.
 
We would love to hear from anyone who had a relative who also served at MOS EE AA Ynyslas. Or who could tell us more about the women featured in Mrs Ranson’s photos.

A very special thank you to the Ben Fellowes, Public Information Curator, National Army Museum. The Museum is closed for major refurbishment until 2016, so we are especially grateful that staff were still able to provide access to the album.

Follow these links to read the story of the firing range and the military camp MOS EE AA Ynyslas:
http://www.peoplescollectionwales.co.uk/content/ynyslas-stars
http://www.peoplescollectionwales.co.uk/collections/381339


Group photo from Mrs Ranson’s album – National Army Museum ref: 2014-10-20 111746


The heart of the military camp of MOS EE AA Ynyslas shorlty after receiving orders to transfer to Aberporth – RCAHMW Aerial Photographic Collections ref. DI2010 0090
One of the rocket firing test ramps referred to in Margaret Hertereich’s oral testimony, where they observed the trajectory of its flight and the dropping away of the first-stage propulsion unit – RCAHMW Aerial Photographic Collections ref. DI2010 0091
The outline of the hut groupings of the main camp still visible from the air in 2005 – RCAHMW Aerial Photographic Collections ref. AP2005 1501


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