October 27, 2021

Jennifer Moody rememebers her Dad Harold {Cecil} Stanesby

My name is Jennifer Moody. I was born in 1936 and was raised in Bushey, just north of London. My father worked on the radar project at Malvern during World War Two. I am the only surviving member of my childhood family (my parents and brother are deceased), and so the only one who remembers anything about his involvement. I know very little because my father said hardly anything about it due to the requirements of the Official Secrets Act. But I do remember him taking my brother and me up to Bushey Heath when I was either four or five and us watching the glow of London against the sky, as it was burning early on in the war. I have also found one or two things, including an article which discusses some of his work with J. H. H. Merriman, that may be of interest. The article describes a radar technique that seems to have been particularly useful in defending the country during the Battle of Britain and the Blitz. It was called Meacon.

My father was Harold {Cecil} Stanesby, born in 1906. Because of family financial difficulties – his father guaranteed a friend’s business debt – he had to leave school before his Higher School Certificate, and joined the General Post Office’s Youth In Training scheme at Dollis Hill. There he thrived, and shortly after the start of World War Two in September 1939, Sir Robert Watson-Watt led a team of engineers, of which my father was one, from Dollis Hill to Malvern. The Post Office Research Station and Colossus electronic digital computer The Engineer

As war broke out we all learnt to cope with gas masks (mine was a Minnie Mouse one!), the blackout, rationing, how to hide under the dining room table when bombs fell and, a little later, when the screeching wail of the air-raid siren pierced the air we learnt to march to the end of our narrow garden to our standard Anderson air raid shelter where we sat on a wooden plank and tried to keep our feet out of Bushey’s clay soil groundwater. We were kept company by a vocal, local frog. It was not for some time that a liveable air-raid shelter was built, furnished with electric light and bunk-beds for all four of us, so we slept routinely every night for many years in that shelter until the end of the War.

It was not until years later that I connected the construction of the shelter to my father’s departure. You see, he had come up with the idea of Bending the Beams i.e. taking the early German radar echoes, redirecting them along co-axial cables to, (because of a much later casual remark by of all people my Yorkshire husband-to-be’s ex-R.A.F. uncle in 1958) Birmingham and rebroadcasting them back from there, suitably deflected, to the unknowing Germans (see below for a link to the story found on the internet).

After the War, it was said that this technique had stopped the devastating onslaught on London’s docks. It was also said later to have been responsible for diverting the bombers to the Bushey/ Watford area, which was then largely countryside and suffered few casualties, either of people or of property. But every night for a long time my brother and I would watch the nocturnal son et lumiere of searchlights, anti-aircraft fire and the relentless hunting-down of lost enemy bombers caught in the beams. I am sorry to say that we cheered lustily when any German aeroplane was set on fire and trailed dramatically like a firework to the ground. One night, after a particularly heavy air raid, we heard a grunting outside the door of the shelter, and my brother and I thought of going out to investigate in case it was a wounded pilot. My father, on one of his rare overnight visits home from Malvern, insisted on cautiously accompanying us outside, where we all found nothing but a hungry hedgehog, whom we henceforward fed with bread and milk.

Many years after the end of the War my mother said my father had not realised that the diverted bombers would now end up over Bushey until the Committee stage of the development of the Meacon technique, but many other people were now in the front line and he was very sorry but we must share in that danger!’ I guess that that was the reason for the special bomb shelter!

A year or so after the hedgehog incident, my mother, gossiping with our next-door-neighbour over the garden fence, heard the fateful cut-out of the buzz of a VI engine and noticed that the fire at the end of its tail had gone out. The neighbour, who hadn’t noticed the absence of sound and light, lazily waved the VI on its way like a dozy traffic policeman; my mother who HAD noticed, must have seized me round the neck as I found myself propelled through the air like an arrow through the door into the shelter. The VI which was plunging, also like an arrow from the bow, directly at us, was luckily caught briefly in an up-draught, levelled up for a few yards and landed harmlessly if noisily half a mile away.

After the development of Meacons the role my father played is far less certain.

He may have been in some way connected with the response to VIs, as I do remember his telling us that he had been sent one day from Malvern to Dover to see how radar-controlled gunfire was coping with them, at that time at their maximum, and had been alarmed to become aware for the first time of skies darkened by incoming missiles, which were being winnowed out of the skies by radar-controlled gunfire until there remained only the odd few getting through.

After the war, my father returned to Dollis Hill and at some point thereafter became its director of research (I am not sure of his exact title).

I would love to know more about the happenings at Malvern. Here’s the beginning of the Bending the Beams article I mentioned above (the rest is at the link and it names many people who were involved in this particular early response technique). The story’s a bit hard to follow as it winds its way through the pages of the magazine. The science is also hard. But the tale is, I think, rather gripping. And fortunately for me, it provides a little light in the darkness that otherwise envelops my father’s boffin service during the war.

BENDING THE BEAMS

In the early months of 1940 Harold Stanesby and I began to speculate on ways in which we could manipulate the enemy’s radio navigation systems without his knowledge. We began to develop all sorts of theories to do with relative phase and amplitude of masking signals and the possibility that we could provide even greater cover and confusion by injecting additional phase variations. The idea was that whenever the enemy set up a radio beacon we might be able to pick it up and re-broadcast it on an identical radio frequency carrier and with identical modulation. This Masking beacon became known as a Meacon. There were two problems which had to be solved. The first was to preserve absolute identicality – since any distortion in the re-radiated signal would identify it as such and would nullify the objective. The second was to organise the directional characteristics of the receiving aerial so that the re-radiated signal picked up by it was negligibly low……………………………………….. ”

2009 – January (mhas.org.uk)

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