"Gertie Is All Right"



IT WAS a zebra in a Duke’s back yard which bit me into rader in 1939. Otherwise I should have known nothing about it. Zebra stallions are uncommon in our quiet English countryside. They are not, as zoologists would say, indigenous. But just before war broke out, it chanced that I was badly chewed by a vicious specimen and was rushed to the operating table of a hospital which — embarrassingly — specialized in maternity. After that, not even radar surprised me very much.

In those early days, the War Office was besieged by volunteers, and officers were harassed. Perhaps that explains it.

“What happened to you?” asked the man to whom I offered my services, as he eyed my sling and bandages.

“I’ve been bitten by a zebra,” I replied, believing, quaintly, that one should always tell the truth to Full Colonels.

“This,” he replied, reddening like a fighting fish that has just seen another, “is no time for levity! Go away!”

I think he must have had ulcers.

I did not know the Wing Commander well, but we had sometimes had a drink together at the Club. One night he tackled me before I had even had time to order. “Will you join the RAF tomorrow morning?” he asked abruptly.

“Does the RAF mind zebra bites?” I countered, still smarting from the Colonel.

“They need men so desperately for certain duties that you could have been sat on by an elephant for all they care,” he replied.

“There is no man in England,” I protested, “who knows less about the RAF than I do. I had planned to join the Army. I’m too old to fly. What do you want me to do?”

“It’s so secret I can’t tell you,” he replied.

“How would I start?” I asked.

“Be at the Air Ministry at nine o’clock tomorrow and I’ll send you in a car,” he answered. “And can you bring two others with you?”

I sipped my drink and asked a few questions. It all seemed genuine enough and urgent.

“Would you take a Member of Parliament and a man who has spent all his life in China — Wu-Hu or Hu-Wu or somewhere?”

“ We are up against it. We’ll take almost anything. That’s why I asked you,” he said, with what I thought was unnecessary candor.

Much telephoning and several drinks — with the result that the man from Wu-Hu, the Honorable Member, and I reported in Whitehall at nine o’clock the next morning. An Air Ministry car was waiting and bore us swiftly out of London to our secret destination.

“You must be prepared to serve for weeks without uniforms or pay” were the Wing Commander’s parting words. “There’s no time to wait for that sort of thing. I’ve told ‘em you’re coming and are ready to start right away. And remember — what you will see is the most important secret of the war. You must not breathe a syllable to any living soul.”

“Where are you taking us?” we asked the driver.

The driver put his finger to his lips. Obviously another Phillips Oppenheim fan.

Another Wing Commander met us. He was plainly unused to assorted civilians. “Will you tell me,” he asked with some embarrassment, “what your civilian experience has been?”

“This man,” I said breaking an awkward silence, “is a Member of Parliament, that one has spent all his life in Wu-Hu, and I am a newspaperman.”

The Wing Commander was visibly shaken. But he rallied himself with an effort. “Thank you,” he said. “I think we had better get right on with it.”

We followed him as he led the way to the most amazing room in the world. It was a large, lofty room, and in the center was a huge table covered with a giant map of England and adjoining waters — all ruled off in numbered squares. Around it sat “plotters,” connected by telephone to many distant radar stations and ready to put down a symbol on the map as soon as an approaching aircraft was reported. For a long time no aircraft had been able to approach or leave England without its being known in that room. The plane that took Mr. Chamberlain to Munich had been “watched” by the high-power radar stations of the “coastal chain.”

Around the walls and overlooking the map was a gallery from which “controllers” and other officers with multifarious and unintelligible duties could supervise what was going on below. Ours were to be some of these unintelligible duties.

The inmates were — for the most part — friendly but far too busy to give any detailed explanations or to show us how to do what we were supposed to do. “ You must pick it up for yourselves,” said the Wing Commander later, “somehow. No one has time to train you. You had better go to the coast tomorrow and see one of the stations. And I want you to be trained to go on watch within a week. These fellows on the job here are wanted urgently somewhere else.”

“This,” said the man from the Far East, “is very different from Wu-Hu.”

“I must get a book on cathode-ray tubes — or whatever they call them — to read in bed,” said the Member of Parliament.

But a twinge from my zebra bite made me wonder whether Science or Fate was the more remarkable.


A MILE away, silhouetted against a scudding English sky, the giant, grotesque towers of a high-power radar station suggested something H. G. Wells might have dreamed up in an exalted moment. But in the taproom of the “Goat and Compasses” inn, where we went to restore ourselves after a dazzling introduction to radiolocation (as we used to call it), everything was much the same as it had been for two hundred years or more.

Conversation soon drifted to those mystery towers, though we, of course, kept silence. “Them’s to stop them German airyplanes,” observed the little man in the corner. “They does it with a ray wot comes out of the top and mooks oop their engines. Then they falls into the sea — and sarve ‘em dang well right.”

“That’s a daft word,” retorted a cynic, lounging against the bar. “Them’s got no ray. ’T ain’t sinse. Them’s for they RAF chaps to climb up — seed ‘em doing it — so’s they can see the Germans a-comin’. Then they blows a whistle to them young gals down below in the ‘uts.”

“Proper cold for ‘em, pore fellers,” commented a practical-looking ancient with a clay pipe.

“No. It’s a ray wot does it orlright,” interposed a lorry driver. “Only a week come Tuesday, pal o’ mine saw three lorries and two cars stuck on the road right by them towers. Saw it with ‘is own eyes. Couldn’t do nothin’ with their engines till an RAF bloke come out and saw wot was ‘appenin’. Then ‘e went inside and turned off the ray and they all started up a treat. Me pal didn’t ‘arf larf!”

We finished our beer and left, reflecting that some Security Officers must have done a pretty good job.

In the far-off United States they had begun to talk about a “phony” war. But to the RAF there was nothing phony about it, and in the secret Radar Control Room (they called it a “Filter Room”) vigilance was never relaxed day or night. Many times each second, for twenty-four hours a day, the coastal chain of huge radar stations flung etheric “pulses” far over the North Sea; and scarcely an hour passed but that a returning radio “echo” brought tidings of some enemy activity to the quiet room with its huge maps and innumerable telephones.

Tonight there was unusual excitement. A new station was going “on the air” for the first time, and scientists and senior officers waited expectantly for results.

They were not long in coming. Aircraft were detected off the coast approaching England on an unusual course. A rapid check indicated that they must be hostile. It was a wild and dirty winter’s night with sleet and snow on the coast. No friendly aircraft in their senses would be flying in that area, and no fighters could possibly take off to intercept the enemy.

Hostile aircraft were still sufficiently infrequent to cause some excitement. (This was late 1939.) The alarm went out. A large part of England was put under a red.” In a few minutes, in distant towns and villages, the screaming sirens brought air-raid wardens tumbling from their warm beds to stagger through the blizzard to their posts. All stations in the neighborhood were warned to check on the approaching enemy, but all reported that they could “see” nothing.

Very Senior Officers came into the Filter Room. Away in Whitehall, their Lordships of the Admiralty viewed with concern and diverted certain naval vessels and warned all merchant shipping in the afflicted area.

All this happened in a matter of minutes. Then the new station reported that the aircraft had disappeared. But before the warnings could be called off or the excitement subside, more aircraft were sighted in the original position and on the original course. Excitement revived. Then some alert expert had the presence of mind to work out the speed of the approaching enemy. He found it was sixty miles an hour.

An aircraft doing only sixty miles an hour must be a new and sinister form of German secret weapon. Excitement grew and tension mounted. “Perhaps, sir,” I suggested to a Very Senior Officer, “the new equipment is not working properly?”

The VSO glowered at me as if I had snickered in church. “Sure no other stations are picking ‘em up? Make another check.”

Feeling put in my place, I flicked the phone keys under my hand and talked to six radar stations in rapid succession. The tone of the replies suggested that I was casting aspersions on the sobriety of the operators. As I reported this to the VSO the message came that the aircraft had disappeared again.

Six times that night the same thing happened — aircraft at approximately sixty miles an hour, with the wind behind them, following the same course, and always disappearing in the same position.

“I believe,” said the VSO reluctantly, “that the new equipment needs some adjustment. Send down a maintenance party and tell ‘em to drive like hell. Give ‘em the O.K. to use headlights, and warn the police.”

I made the necessary calls.

“And you might ask the new station once more,” said the VSO, “exactly what they think they are seeing.”

A young Scientific Officer at the other end of the line was palpably hurt. “ German aircraft, of course,”he replied in an offended tone.

“Well,” I said caustically, “if you’ve been seeing German aircraft all night, you’ve got a private and exclusive blitz in your part of England which no one else has noticed.”

His reply suggested that I was a crude fellow with no appreciation of the wonders of science in general and of his new equipment in particular. But the VSO decided to take the station off the air till the scientists could look it over.

The order went forth and the room resumed its early morning calm. The alerts were canceled, wardens staggered back to bed, and the WAAF “tellers” and “plotters” resumed their knitting or their detective stories, according to their tastes. In the Admiralty, their Lordships no longer viewed with concern. The VSO went to bed.

It was not until next day, after the Scientific Officers had been in a lengthy huddle, that the awful truth emerged. No Luftwaffe had been abroad that night. No sixty-mile-an-hour monstrosity had menaced the safety of the English coast. But Central Europe was freezing up, and geese were flying to wherever they go when Europe gets too cold for them. In their migration, successive gaggles had flown into range of the new station, which had plotted them accurately till they alighted on sandbanks to rest and thus faded from its sight.

Even now some of the die-hard Scientific Officers will not openly admit that this story is true. But I was kept from a cigarette for over five hours and have reason to know that it is. And if that is not enough, I can report a conversation I overheard later in the mess.

One of the scientists was talking to a colleague, a can of beer in one hand and a slide rule in the other. “I have just worked out,” he said, in the tone in which an artist discusses his masterpiece, “that the wing span of an Average Goose is a by no means impossible harmonic of lambda.”

“That’s significant,” said his friend with a look of admiration. “ Very significant.”

This was clearly a Turning Point in Science and the two men enjoyed the exaltation of the moment. No man in history had ever before calculated the wavelength of an Average Goose. Even the Athenaeum would be shaken when victory made it possible to publish the discovery. This was a moment for celebration.

“This is a great occasion,” said the man with the slide rule as he pressed the bell for the waiter. “Let’s have the other half-can.”

In the Admiralty, when they heard the story, their Lordships viewed it in a rather different light. Many people had lost their sleep, and much fuel oil had been expended.

Only the geese resumed their untroubled way.


AT 0400 human vitality, it is said, is at its lowest ebb, and the human mind is apt to miss on several cylinders. Officers on watch in the Radar Filter Room were no exception to this rule. To make matters worse, many of us were only days from civil life and still hazy about the technicalities, complexities, and code words that were spoken unceasingly over the secret telephone network that linked radar stations from Scotland to the South Coast with the incredible Control Room where we worked.

Few of us knew anything about the RAF and its procedure, and none of us had dreamed that radar was even a possibility till a short time before, so well had the secret been kept. Now we were supposed to understand — and act on — a strange new jargon in a strange new world where daylight never penetrated, where telephones never stopped posing conundrums, and where senior and genuine RAF officers regarded the likes of us with an understandable suspicion. For in those early days we might easily have confused a cathode-ray tube with an Air Vice Marshal.

Only that evening one of us had cracked under the strain. The Controller was in a bad mood. Three stations had had technical trouble at an awkward moment and the stand-by equipment, which was switched on to cover the gaps, was never entirely satisfactory.

“Get hold of moss at once,” he snapped to my colleague at the other position in the gallery, which overlooked the great plotting table with its squared map of England.

My colleague had not fully recovered from ten minutes on the phone with one of the stations in trouble which, probably from sheer malice towards the Filter Room, invariably reported its technical dilemmas in the most impenetrable Glasgow accent . And now this was too much. “I will, sir,” he said politely but wearily, “if you will kindly tell me whether moss is a code word, a piece of apparatus, or one of the airmen.”

Then, at 0400, I fell right into it myself. My mind, I confess, was wandering. A few feet away sat a WAAF teller placidly knitting “tiny garments” for a pregnant married sister, apparently oblivious of the miraculous nature of her duties and of the incongruity of knitting woolly panties in such a Wellsian atmosphere. Yet I knew she watched the map the whole time with one eye, ready to warn the fighter stat ions of approaching German bombers.

I was wondering whether I should ever again be able to see a baby wearing pink woolly panties without remembering this fantastic place, when a light flashed on the long switchboard under my hand. I touched a key and picked up the receiver. It was a station in the far North; the voice was pregnant with urgency.

“Gertie,” it said, “is all right.”

“What’s that?” I asked, trying to remember what “Gertie” stood for in the code book.

The voice became even more insistent and impressive. “Gertie is all right,” it repeated with renewed fervor. Then, by ill fortune, the line went dead and I had to warn the engineers to fix it.

“Gertie” was not in the code book. But obviously the matter was urgent. I roused the Controller from his crossword puzzle.

“Gertie, sir,” I said with all the assurance one can muster at 0400, “is all right”

I might have known from the look of blank astonishment that the Controller had not the faintest idea what Gertie was, and did not like to admit it. But in those days I thought Controllers were supermen and knew everything.

“Quite so,” he said hesitantly, reaching surreptitiously for a code book. “ Quite so.”

After a few moments he came over to my position on the gallery. “The message,” he said, “is not quite clear. But as we cannot query it till the line is repaired, we had better not take any chances. Tell the Groups.” The gist of what the Groups replied sleepily was that Gertie’s condition did not interest them at all.

“Better warn the Army,” said the Controller. “Might be one of their ack-ack parties.” The Army, after much telephoning, disowned Gertie in no uncertain terms.

“Get onto the Admiralty and ask them what they think should be done,” said the Controller. But after much nautical ribaldry from the recesses of Whitehall it appeared that the Royal Navy took much the same view of Gertie as the Army. They suggested, however, that it was probably a matter for the Ministry of Home Security.

Every department or agency connected with the Radar Control Room was told about Gertie. The result was the same in each case — except for one free and independent civilian in one of the departments, who dared reply that he did not know who or what Gertie was and at that hour of the night was in no particular mood to make a study of the subject.

Both the Controller and I were on the spot. For by now a large part of England had been alerted about Gertie’s condition, and the more conscientious officers — having thumbed their code books in vain — were now calling back for further details from every corner of Britain’s defense network.

“I think,” said the Controller in a voice which showed he was a born leader, “we had better make sure the original message was passed correctly. If the line’s been fixed, call the station and tell them we think they must be using the wrong code. Be careful what you say — you must not discuss code words too freely even on our lines.”

I got through to that infernal station in the far North and asked, with as much dignity and discretion as I can summon at 0400, exactly what they meant by their message about Gertie.

“Blimey, sir, I’m sorry,” came the reply. “Didn’t know I’d been talkin’ to you. Thought I was speakin’ to me brother-in-law.”

“Yes,” I said irritably, “but who is Gertie and why is she — or it —all right?”

“Gertie, sir,” replied the station in the North, “is me wife. ‘Ad an operation this evenin’. Come through it fine.”

“I am delighted to hear it,” I said, and walked over to the Controller.

“I am sorry, sir,” I said, “but it appears that the original message was not intended for us.

The Controller was human after all, even at 0400. “No harm done,” he said, winking solemnly. “Good thing to keep everyone awake and on their toes. We understood each other perfectly.


SINCE before Munich, Britain’s North Sea approaches had been effectively protected by an invisible bastion of radar. But after war started, additional radar stations were rushed to completion in the South and West as new and improved equipment poured from secret factory production lines. These stations had to be tested and calibrated by flying aircraft on known courses in the neighborhood. Sometimes autogyros were used, since they could remain more or less stationary over fixed points while the scientists checked the radar instruments. Unfortunately, the scientists found church steeples most useful as fixed points. This practice led to the Regrettable Episode of the Vicar and the Autogyro.

None of the British public knew even of the existence of radar in those days, and autogyros hovering for hours over steeples were bound to lead to some comment and misunderstanding. Even so, all might have been well if the scientists had been a little less preoccupied.

The story is best told in the words of the official report, though nothing would induce me to reveal by whom the report was written. It caused quite enough trouble at the time. In the normal course of events it would have been lost forever in the files of Whitehall. But when, in 1940, Britain gave the United States free access to her radar secrets, all files were thrown open to American scientists. It was one of them who dragged this report from merciful obscurity and republished it — with an illustration — in a restricted scientific paper. He is said to have done so to prove to his incredulous colleagues that the British have a sense of humor.

That is how the lost report came to the United States and how I saw it again after many years. Now that there is nothing secret about it, I can quote it in full, merely deleting all clues to the identities of those concerned.

REPORT: To Officer Commanding . . .

1.In view of possible repercussions from the Church and the Press, you may wish to be advised of the regrettable and unusual results of an experiment conducted under the direction of the Research Staff.

2. The facts, as far as we have been able to ascertain them, are as follows.

3. On Sunday morning, the Scientific Officer in charge of tests instructed the pilot of an autogyro to proceed to the village of——— and to hover over the church spire, which afforded an admirable fixed point for calibration purposes.

4. It would appear that, in their concentration on this vital aspect of the national effort, all concerned had momentarily forgotten the day of the week and the fact that Matins would be in progress.

5. In accordance with his instructions, therefore, the pilot brought his autogyro into position, at a low altitude over the spire, and hovered during the entire progress of the service, thereby, it is feared, making devotions difficult and the sermon inaudible.

6. The pilot observed the congregation leaving the church and regarding the autogyro with expressions of annoyance and distaste, but continued hovering in accordance with instructions.

7. Shortly afterwards he was startled by two loud explosions and, looking down to ascertain the cause, was surprised to see the Vicar standing in the graveyard with a smoking shotgun with which, the pilot deduced, he had just attempted to secure a left and right at the autogyro.

8. Considering that the interest of science would best be served by withdrawing from the danger area, before the Vicar had time to reload, the pilot returned to his base.

9. The Scientific Officer, however, was of the opinion that he was fully justified in ordering the pilot to risk further salvos of ack-ack from the Vicar, in view of the urgent importance of completing calibration tests. He accordingly instructed the pilot to return and to continue hovering over the spire.

10. The pilot, to whose intrepid sang-froid you may wish to draw the attention of the appropriate authorities, resumed his station over the spire during the late afternoon and evening, a period which unfortunately coincided with Evensong — a fact which the Scientific Officer, doubtless by sheer inadvertence, had overlooked.

11. No further ack-ack was encountered, but signs of alarm and despondency among the parishioners were not lacking, and the Vicar was observed to be marshaling his flock and giving them urgent instructions.

12. There was much coming and going from the vicarage and the village. The pilot observed objects among the graves in the churchyard. Slightly reducing his altitude, he was able to identify these objects as bed linen, towels, sheets, pants, vests, nightshirts, and so forth. It is understood, however, that these articles were specifically brought from the vicarage and neighboring cottages and that any reports that may be received, to the effect that the parishioners were disrobing in the churchyard under the Vicar’s instructions, should be treated with reserve.

13. Eventually, this assortment of linen and underclothes was seen to take the form of huge letters spread across the churchyard, which the pilot was able to identify without difficulty as a message clearly intended for himself.

14. The message read: “In the name of God, go!”

15. In our view, the pilot was correct in interpreting this as a sign that his presence was unwelcome to the civilian population; and, not desirous of unnecessarily hazarding his aircraft to further ack-ack fire, he decided, no doubt wisely, to terminate the test and landed safely at his base.

16. It is not unreasonable to anticipate the possibility of unfavorable criticism being directed against this branch of the Service through the usual channels, and you may wish to be apprised of the facts in order to consider appropriate action.




FROM the Olympian heights of Whitehall, the finger of authority unaccountably reached down to a very low level and jerked me out of my duties just as I was beginning to learn the difference between a goniometer and a Group Captain.

“You,” said authority, “will recruit radar personnel. We want as many as you can get.”

Already, early in 1940, British radar equipment was flowing from the factories in quantity. But trained men and women to operate and service it could not be produced so rapidly. Simply stated, the problem was to find in sufficient numbers people who did not exist, to undertake entirely new duties which could not be specified, at places which could not be mentioned. And for certain types of work, no one yet knew what civilian experience was the most useful.

We went, first of all, after the radio “hams.” We snatched scientists from laboratories; we wheedled service men from radio shops; we scrutinized lists of radio societies. We interviewed university authorities. In the colleges and hotels of Oxford and Cambridge, I persuaded young men to join the RAF at once without giving a hint of what it was about. Fortunately their enthusiasm to serve was as high as the information I could give was meager.

Women, too, were wanted in large numbers to operate the secret equipment. They could not be told what they were expected to do. At times, we interviewed some eighty a day —allowing three minutes to size up each. Fortunately women officers took part. For only a woman’s intuition could tackle such a problem effectively.

The word went round that we needed various types. Lawyers, journalists, mechanics, businessmen, society novelists, explorers, advertising agents, engineers, mathematicians, professors, and adventurers -all passed through the office in a ceaseless stream. All had to be interviewed — any of them might provide a type which was urgently wanted.

With the fall of France, authority decided to evacuate certain departments from London. I appealed. It’s hard enough finding people for secret duties at secret places,” I explained. “If my office is to be moved to a secret building in a secret location and people cannot find me without discovering the secret, things will become impossible.”

Authority relented. But demands for personnel of various kinds increased. “I want a lot of new officers immediately,” came a peremptory demand one morning. “Get ‘em at all costs. You know the type of work and must find the best civilian types. Must have ‘em in uniform within a week.”

One of the Club’s incomparable cocktails — of which I never remembered to ask the recipe before the building was bombed — brought inspiration. I abandoned lunch and hailed a taxi. “Drive me to the Stock Exchange,” I said with some misgiving.

My uniform gained me immediate admission to the Secretary. “I want a lot of arbitrage men to join the RAF immediately,”I replied to his friendly inquiry. " It’s vitally urgent, but I cannot tell you more than that.”

For a moment he looked as startled as if I had asked him to list a flotation of Sixth Mortgage Debenture Consolidated Swindles. Then the tradition of the City of London — not to be surprised at anything — took hold and he reached quickly for the phone.

“ I don’t know how many are available,” he said, “but I will see what I can do for you.”

The Stock Exchange rallied round with lightning speed. Within a week the required officers, with arbitrage or similar experience, were on their way. They were trained and fully experienced just in time for the Battle of Britain and did a wonderful job.

One day I must get someone to tell me exactly what arbitrage is. Whatever it is, the RAF found that it could use that type of brain.

I shall always be grateful to those men in the Stock Exchange. I wish I could give them more business.