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Robin Webb

Page history last edited by Ian Gillis 3 years, 11 months ago Saved with comment





Highlights of My Career with Marconi

By Robin Webb

I started work with Marconi in early 1956 after leaving high school at the end of 1955. At the time I had become very interested in TV broadcasting and had aspirations of becoming a TV cameraman (seemed very “cool” when you are 15!) So I applied for a Marconi apprenticeship but initially was turned down as there were no spaces available. The letter came from Mr. Wilder who I believe was the head of the ATC Craft Apprentice department. Feeling somewhat disappointed I got on my bike and cycled to Rivenhall airfield where I knew there was a Marconi site. I had an interview with Paddy Duff and Reg Harmer who offered me a job - not sure exactly what but it was a job with the great Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company so I felt quite proud. Within a few days of accepting I got another letter from Mr. Wilder saying there now was a place available should I wish to accept. This left me with a difficult decision but after some thought and the closeness of Rivenhall to home (Braintree) that is where my career started.

Initially I worked the Rivenhall telephone switchboard under the watchful eye of Cyril French the site administrator. I was told that this would be a good starting point to understand the nuances of site operations. The switchboard was entirely manual (no dial) and had cords and holes into which to put the plugs. Ringing extensions was by winding the magneto handle! The office was located just inside the old wartime building near Sheepcotes Farm and opposite Hangar 1. Just as you entered the building Paddy Duff's office (technical chief) was on the right and Jack Frost's (works chief) on the left. After that you were in the centre of the building that had a corridor running down the middle with some offices and rooms located at both sides of the building and at each end. There were no toilets in the building and if one felt the "call of nature" you had to walk to the "facilities" about 500 yards away. This ritual applied to all site locations so when the weather was good or bad one had to do "the walk".I should point out that the toilets were part of the canteen building. (Please see photograph in the link Rivenhall - The story of an Essex airfield.


The Rivenhall site was not connected to a main sewage so all "waste" was piped to a holding tank that was pumped out each Monday (more on this later!). The canteen was heated by two large “tortoise” stoves that burnt coke as fuel. At times the stove would glow red hot. In the winter they were always a welcome site when coming in from an icy wind blowing across the airfield.

Not all site personnel were local. Each day a van would come from Chelmsford carrying about 5/6 people and was driven by Charlie Judd. In the early days I remember Bill Whale, Ken Coates, Doug Brown, Ivor Barber, were among some of the riders.

After a few weeks of switchboard operation and staff acquaintance I was moved to component test; another room just off the central corridor. Component test was run by a Polish gentleman named Lee Swistun. Other young lads in the department were Terry Lee and Patrick Roach. The test room was equipped with signal generators, valve testers, bridges and high voltage instruments to test capacitors. The fun with the high voltage devices was electrocuting flies or similar prey that happened to be in the vicinity. The department also did some simple assembly and repair work. In this picture I seem to be working on a display unit assembly.


I recall display sub assembly testing was done at the end of the building by Tom Perkins and Don Beckett amongst others. As I became more proficient in various areas I moved onto “big stuff” testing, mentored by Doug Brown. This involved system testing of mobile operations cabins and antennas such as Type 13, 14 and 15. Most of the initial test work took place in Hangar 1, just across from the admin. building. Health and safety didn’t seem to be an issue in those days. I remember transmitters were sometimes loaded with a radiating horn and “squirted” down the hangar. Sometimes the radiated power made the fluorescent lights glow!

At Rivenhall one became a bit of a “gopher” if other tasks needed to be done. One time Paddy Duff wanted S232/233 antenna sections fitted with die stamped labels so that they could be re-assembled correctly (if they were ever taken apart..I never recall that happening). I did hate hanging over the edge of a plinth to drill holes in a moving antenna, in the rain, and fitting those damn labels.

It was during this time that a new building was constructed on the other side of the old perimeter track across from Hanger 1. Naturally, unless one was “in the know” there was much speculation as to what this was for but it was soon revealed that it was for the new S264 antenna and the soon to be developed SR100.

Life at the Rivenhall site was always interesting. There was a carpenter there who was just coming up to retirement when I joined the Company. He produced some beautiful work whenever it was needed. Following his retirement a new carpenter was hired who latterly became known as “the wood spoiler”. Need I say more?

Rivenhall had an electronic assembly shop headed by Dennis Heard and a mechanical shop run by Ken?. There was also the Vast and Rotor stores that was operated by Ted Farley.

During those early years I became more and more interested in what went on in Hut 28. At morning and afternoon breaks and lunch times the canteen was where most people congregated and this gave one the chance to meet people and engineers from other areas on the site. Frank Martyr and Frank Piper were two of the engineers from Hut 28 where I learnt that this is where new technologies and systems were tested and demonstrated. (There was a third engineer in Hut 28 but namewise my memory is blank).    In particular I recall the big NATO event for the demonstration of the S247 and S244.

I mentioned earlier the holding tank for the canteen latrines. This was near Hut 28 and if the wind was in the wrong direction Monday mornings could be considered “memorable” for the smell; one didn’t need a calendar! I recall tank pump out was deferred when major demonstrations took place. This didn’t deter me from wanting to be part of the Hut 28 operation!

Well, somehow my aspirations came true. The two Franks moved onto other fields at New Street I believe so Hut 28 was now headed by Alec Stewart. So there was Alec, Reg Bone, Joe Corfield and myself. Doug Clements and Ralph Matchett were also regular visitors (mainly for tea and coffee) but mainly stopping the oil leaks from the S244! Latterly Alec Stewart moved to New Street and was replaced by Bob Christoe, ex Field Services who drove from Felixstowe every day and was an avid Daily Telegraph crossword addict. Ken Jones was also at Hut 28 but I cannot remember at what point in time.

I spent a few enjoyable and career shaping years in Hut 28 and was involved in the testing and demonstration of many new and upcoming systems including the S264A, S244, S247 and SECAR. New and improved sub- systems emerged; too many for me to list here.
There was one project awarded to Marconi by the then UK Ministry of Civil Aviation to enhance the radar visibility of gliders. This was managed by Frank Dutton’s department (Aerial Group) from Baddow with Rod Brunning as the project engineer. The project involved the fitting of corner reflectors into a glider which was then towed by DH Tiger Moth aircraft. Once released we then had to measure the radar visibility of the glider using the PPI strength 1, 2, 3 PPI method and then compare the two sets of results; with reflectors fitted and without. This went on for a number of weeks. During this time time we learnt that John, the Tiger Moth Pilot was the son of the famous film director Jack Cardiff.

As time went on I became very interested in the operational aspects of air traffic control and spent some time learning all the rudiments of this art. I obtained an aeronautical radio licence so that I could “legally” talk to aircraft. A number of undertakings involved the use of live aircraft for system flight testing. This knowledge served me well for the rest of my career.

After those few years in Hut 28 I was asked to join Military and Naval Projects Group, Radar Division under Len Firmin at New Street. I recall Alec Stewart, Ian Gillis, Robin Bandy, Roger Marshallsay, Bill Houston, Jim Hogan, Bill Whale, Cyril Froggatt and others being there at that time. We were there for a while and then I moved to the ATC group at Church Green headed by Gerald Taylor, known as “Mr. Radar” by some. How that came about I cannot remember exactly. Les King, Don Eastaugh, Gordon Smith and Harry Cole were prominent characters in my life at that time.

In those early Church Green days I became involved in assisting with flight trials on new radar installations, one in particular being the S264 at Heathrow. This meant entering the hallowed halls of the Southern Air Traffic Control Centre alongside the Bath Road. To me this was quite an experience as ATC was one of my major interests. Other sites came up for test too. St. Annes near Blackpool being another.
In 1963 Radar Division decided to exhibit at the Paris Air Show. This was the first time for Paris although the company had exhibited at Farnborough for some years. For a while the Paris and Farnborough Air Shows were held each year. A few years later they alternated to Paris one year, Farnborough the next. I was tasked with supporting the 1963 Paris exhibit through the installation of equipment into a vehicle that would be driven to Le- Bourget. The vehicle chosen was a prototype RAF mobile operations cabin seen in the picture here that had been lying around at Rivenhall for a few years (To this day I never did find out the history of how it got there). It had few miles on the clock but was in rough shape. Brakes and tyres were poor and the aluminium on the underbody had disintegrated. Nonetheless, it went to Paris and back without a hitch driven by Doug Leavett with me as passenger. The ride was most uncomfortable and Doug was unhappy when he had to apply the brakes. The outward crossing on the ferry was rough and many large exhibits also on board were damaged when the ship rolled as they banged together.

AHS, can you remember what we exhibited at that show? I have a picture of you and HWC in a restaurant. (Editor's Note: My memory of the exhibition in Paris is that we took a tabular display demonstration with the control racks containing the storage, character generation and control circuitry mounted in the vehicle.)

The mid 1960’s to me were eventful and adventurous. Sales of the S264 and S264A were beginning to take off. In 1964 one project I was tasked with was to assemble a system to check the performance of a 50cm radar at the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MCA) site on Lowther Hill in Scotland. The MCA’s plan was to temporarily erect an S264 on the site and carry out flight tests. At that time no radar had ever been on Lowther Hill; it was a GEE site (wartime aircraft navigation system still used into the early 60’s). Talk about poor quality vehicles! The MCA delivered a lorry to Rivenhall where the installation was to take place under my direction. Where and what the vehicle had been used for previously I couldn’t find out or the MCA didn’t want us to know as it really was not fit for the job. Readers familiar with S264 systems may recall the massive starter cabinet for the antenna turning gear. Everything was duplicated as there were two turning and “inching” motors each with its own set of contactors; no soft start in those days. The weight of this cabinet required that the vehicle floor had to be strengthened. Once fitted out it with the antenna control rack, T3605 transmitter and receiver assembly it was driven to Lowther Hill and placed under the already erected gantry supporting the S264 antenna.


Two displays were deployed in one of the existing buildings along with the radio communications equipment. One was a SD700 and the other a SD701. The complete exercise took over six weeks. Even though it was in July the weather up on the hill (2,400ft) was often foggy and wet. One day Ron Walter and I were doing “sun runs” and the wind was so strong the inching motors wouldn’t turn the antenna so we had to abort. Other players in the Lowther Hill demonstration were Trevor Oliver (whom I believe eventually became the head of the Hong Kong civil aviation authority) and “big” Ken Smith.

It was around this time that my father (Bob Webb) joined Marconi and worked mainly on the Fur Hat project with Roland Crompton, Tony Bushell, Stan Baynes amongst others.








Another memorable adventure in 1964 was a trip to New Zealand to demonstrate the S3004 and S3006 DVST displays at Wellington and Auckland. I chose to drive down the North Island from Auckland to Wellington with stops to see “bubbling mud” in Rotarua amongst other things. Amalgamated Wireless Australasia had a stand at the Auckland air show. We constructed a control tower replica and fitted it with the bright displays, CCTV and a AD210 VHF direction finder indicator. The S3006 was installed and demonstrated in the control tower at Wellington airport.

1965 saw another Paris Air show event. This time to show off the new “SECAR” radar. Marconi had rented space in a prefabricated building that housed company exhibits. Bruce Woodcock and I were setting up the equipment at the same time as the corrugated roof was being fitted. In the typical French fashion the corrugated sheets were full of holes and we asked what would happen if it rained? “It won’t rain”, was the construction guys response (in French of course!). Next day the heavens opened and we scrambled to find covers for the equipment while the roof was changed.

Trips to other countries to demonstrate the S3004 and S3006 became prominent as word spread that the S3004 was a valuable tool in ATC visual tower operations. Heathrow airport was one, Southend, Stockholm, Frankfurt, Toronto and Montreal were just a few of the places visited. All resulted in sales I’m glad to say. The Heathrow airport equipment stayed there for some months and the back up equipment was in a crawl space under the control tower floor that was less than 4ft high. Sam Woollard will remember that well.

My involvement in the Marconi radar Farnborough Air Show exhibits continued through the sixties and seventies. Les King ran the hospitality side and I the coordinator of the various technical exhibits. In practically all cases we were presenting our latest technology to the world. A lot of “midnight oil” was burned by engineering and system staff in the run up to the show. Personally I felt that these individuals were not given enough credit for the time and effort that was involved. For a few years engineers were not even allowed to go to the hospitality chalet – this was totally “off limits”.


I confronted Les King on this matter and insisted that there had to be changes in the way the engineers were treated as this was affecting morale. (It was like being the head of a Trade Union!). Following my efforts, restrictions were eventually lifted. I am not sure if Les King ever forgave me for this revolution but from that day on the engineering staff, on whom marketing relied heavily for the air shows, were given the respect that they rightly deserved.

Air Show accidents seemed too common. The worst that I witnessed was the crash of a French Air Force Breguet Atlantic in 1968 when all six crew were killed following a single engine fly by.

In 1968/69 Marconi were awarded a contract by the Canadian Department of National Defence for two S654 radar systems; one to be installed at CFB Lahr, Germany and the other in Comox British Columbia. At Lahr there was no operations facility and consequently it formed part of the project. The building itself was there but needed to have rooms converted to “operations” and a radar office. I was asked to take a prominent part in the design of the operations facilities. My personal study of ATC procedures was put to good use and a well equipped facility was created with radio communications, SSR, S3009 displays etc.. These were integrated with existing Lahr ATC facilities including the Precision Approach Radar (PAR). The S654 coverage had to extend to the other CF Base at Baden Soeliggen. Low level cover was a challenge as the operational requirement specified that Baden aircraft had to be directed to the Baden PAR gate. Many system configuration changes were made to optimize this function but it was never completely successful due to the distance between the two bases. One notable occurrence was when a tube imploded on one of the displays and the gun was embedded into the opposite wall. Needless to say operations were closed down until new safety screens were fitted.

During project implementation most people involved travelled from Gatwick to Lahr on Canadian Forces C130 aircraft. We sat down the side of the aircraft on canvas seats with mounds of freight occupying the centre of the aircraft. There was a “pee hole” should one have to go. I don’t know how ladies faired though!

In the early/mid 70’s the development of the radar component for the GWS25 project was a major contract for Marconi. As development progressed considerable flight testing was required to prove system performance. I was asked by “big” Ken Smith to recommend how we could best implement this from an aircraft tracking point of view to ensure that the calibration aircraft carried out the tasks required. So, we set up a control room at Rivenhall and fitted it with two displays, radio communications and SSR. Carrying out flight tests in the Bushy Hill and eastward direction posed many potential problems because of air traffic density both civil and military.
I insisted that we had a direct telephone line to the West Drayton military ATC facility and this was implemented. When flight tests were being conducted Ken Smith directed operations at Bushy while I “controlled” the test aircraft. Canberra aircraft were used mainly for the tests and came from Airwork Services based at Bournmouth airport.


Sometimes two Canberra’s were required for resolution tests. The range resolution was fairly easy to implement as the first aircraft would stream the gunnery drogue and the second would fly close behind it. Azimuth resolution was more difficult to attain but a calibrated “stick” was developed that the pilot held and as long as two uprights on the stick aligned with marks on the aircraft alongside the correct distance was maintained. Helicopter flights were also prominent in the flight test program and a helipad was constructed at Rivenhall alongside Hut 28 so that we could brief the crew on the sortie required. Royal Navy Wessex aircraft played a vital role in the testing that involved long periods of “hovering” in the Woodham Ferrers area. Further specialist tests required low level high speed aircraft and an Airwork Services Hawker Hunter was used. I recall one instance when the police called and said there was a complaint from a school because students kept diving under desks to escape the noise.

In between GWS-25 testing I was involved in proposal writing and other business development activities or “special” undertakings. It was during the mid 70’s that there was much speculation regarding the site of London’s third airport. Readers may recall the proposal to develop Maplin as one of the sites as it was thought this would overcome residential noise problems. However, fog was a hazard there. While these deliberations went on Marconi Radar was contracted to locate radar at various sites around London (Stansted in particular) to “measure” traffic at 3 sites. So, with a S600 convoy off we went and moved from one site to another over a period of about 6 weeks. Traffic was measured by a crew from the Civil Aviation Experimental Unit. Principally the object was to track general aviation aircraft that were not required to a file a flight plan.

The latter part of the 70’s I continued to be involved with the Farnborough Air Show and business development opportunities. In 1979 I decided to leave Marconi Radar after 24 years and joined Storno Communications. This only lasted 6 months as I was offered and accepted a position with Canadian Marconi Company (CMC) in Ottawa to assist with the establishment of a new radar department. CMC had funding to develop a 10cm frequency agile radar system for ship borne use. It was during a visit to CMC by Colin Latham in 1983 that he persuaded me to return to MRSL as there was a shortage of system engineers. So, back to the UK we went.

I joined Harry Cole’s section and one of my first jobs was getting involved with the new Large Vertical Aperture SSR antenna and the sale of them to the CAA. The antenna was in the final stages of development and in competition with a similar product from Cossor. Because of the similarity of the two products the CAA requested that both products had to be tested and were installed at the CAA test site at Bletchley. The Marconi antenna was ultimately chosen as it had higher gain and up to 20 antennas were sold. Very few were sold after that as Cossor had the bulk of the SSR market.

The family and I crossed the Atlantic again in early 1985 as I was offered and accepted a position in the Washington office of Marconi. The various companies of Marconi (communications, avionics etc.) were represented by individuals from these companies whose job was to expand business in the USA. Initially my principal job was to see if the S511 could be sold to the FAA because of the high cost of the ASR-9. Knowing now what I didn’t know then (I don’t think Paul Baird knew either) was that this was an impossible mission but nevertheless a decision was taken to install an S511 in the US for demonstration purposes.

Grand Canyon Airport was ultimately chosen as the location. This airport had no radar (still doesn’t at time of writing in 2011). Grand Canyon Airport is fairly remote and mainly serves the tourist industry with flights into and around the Canyon. The installation of the radar involved complete site preparation and connection to the power grid; overall a considerable cost to the company.

The nearest town to the airport is Flagstaff. By road the travel time was 1.5 hours each way. I recall many trips to Radio Shack and hardware stores when essential items were needed. Personalities involved in the project included Alan Cheesewright, Robin Reynolds and Doug Clements amongst others. Regrettably I cannot recall other key players of which there were quite a number. Cincannatti Electronics people were also part of the team as that company had, around that time, been acquired by Marconi. As hard as we tried we could not get the FAA to look seriously at the S511 although the regional office out of LA did carry out flight trials and gave the system two thumbs up. Other US prospects emerged including the Army but unfortunately no sales were forthcoming. Alan Cheesewright and I had a memorable small plane trip from Flagstaff to the US Army base at Fort Huachuca...the turbulence was unbelievable!

Fortunately I had kept in contact with the Canadian Department of National Defence (DND) and learnt that there was a requirement for five ATC radars with a specification matching that of the S511. DND carried out flight tests at the Canyon airport and following submission of a proposal we won a contract. At least something came of the project but not with US business.

IN 1986 and following the DND contract award I was asked to re-locate back to Canada to oversee the radar program and provide liaison between DND, Marconi UK and Canadian Marconi who would carry out some of the installation. Around the same time DND declared their intention to upgrade the S654 at Lahr, Germany. As an alternative I suggested replacing the S654 with the S511 as one of these was being installed at Baden and the extended coverage of the S654 was not required. We offered the ex Grand Canyon S511 at a bargain price and DND accepted this proposal. As part of the deal Marconi bought the S654 for spares.

By 1989 the Canadian S511 program was complete. Marconi offered me a business development position in Chelmsford but I declined as I wanted to stay in Canada. My career with Marconi ended at that time.

In the years that followed I worked for a small company in Ottawa from 1989 to 1996 producing ATC simulators and radar “stimulators”. That company then exited the ATC business and I joined Raytheon Canada until I retired in 2005. One of the most notable programs I was involved was the replacement/upgrade of a large number of ATC radars for NATS in the UK.

The time I spent with Marconi was the best years of my career. I will always remember the friends I made and what many people taught me.

Great times and great memories.



Comments (1)

Ian Gillis said

at 4:06 pm on Feb 14, 2016

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