Newsletter 2010

Wartime Marconi Memoirs

John Brown, ex-Comms Division Design Office

On leaving school in 1942 (half way through WW2) at the age of seventeen I moved from my home near Marlborough, Wiltshire, to Chelmsford to take a course in radio engineering.  I did this with a view to doing a few months work at the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company before joining the RAF.  Things didn’t work out quite as planned, and much to my dismay at the time, I failed the RAF medical.  Consequently ‘those few months’ at the Marconi Company turned out to be just over forty five years.

The remainder of the war years were spent in Receiver Test, mostly testing, calibrating and fault finding on maritime receivers and direction finding equipment.  The tuned circuits those days were notoriously unstable and variations in the parameters of the thermionic valves added to the necessity to individually calibrate each receiver, the tuning scales were then engraved or in some cases hand-written in black ink on tubular white scales.

I was ‘billeted’ in a home where there was no bathroom.  Another colleague suffered the same problem, so we met up during the week to enjoy a bath and a game of billiards at the Social Club which was situated above the canteen in the building next to the New Street railway bridge.  There were frequent air-raid warnings but mercifully few actual air raids. On one such occasion my friend and I were in adjacent baths when the siren sounded and instead of dressing and rushing to the air-raid shelter we decided to stay put. This time the emergency was real and all the lights were switched off. I cannot remember just how long my friend and I were left soaking in our baths in utter darkness, waiting for the all clear to sound.

About the same time I was a member of the works fire brigade.  There were some duties when we remained on the premises and others when we were ‘on call’ should the siren sound. One night in the small hours the siren sounded and I crawled out of bed to make the five minute cycle ride to New Street.  There had been a string of incendiary bombs dropped across the works and the Fire Chief (Bill Mundy) ordered me to ‘keep an eye on’ one which was harmlessly burning itself out in the cycle sheds. When everyone was happy that there were no fires still burning we met in the canteen for a ‘char and wad’ before being sent home for the remaining few hours of the night.

Arriving for work at 8.30 am we were astonished to find a large hole in the canteen roof which must have been burning merrily away while we were enjoying our cuppas down below.

The fire brigade was not normally allowed to operate outside of the works premises, but when Archer’s suet factory across the road caught fire so spectacularly (Apparently even Lord Haw Haw reported it. Ed.), rules were ignored and we assisted the town brigade.  Ever afterwards if any item of equipment went missing it was always said to be ‘lost’ in the Suet Factory’.