Secrets and my Recollections of World War II - Operations

Secrets and my Recollections of World War II

Gardner L. Friedlander 1990, 2000


Life settled down to a debilitating routine. We lived in the cave next to the operations room. The three of us radar officers alternately slept in a small room, our sleeping bags on the rock floor. Seven hours of sleep before the wakeup call; a shower and toilet in the adjoining French Foreign Legion primitive enlisted men's washroom, then eat. Eat --- until we were it Italy a year later, alternately (a) baked beans and crackers (b) Spam and crackers or (c) stew and crackers, all out of cans, never varied, morning noon and night, except when we were chasing Jerry in Tunisia, where we had exactly 1/3 rations per day. No fresh anything. Powdered coffee, yes, plenty, hot, but always with powdered milk included, no choice. After cleaning one's own mess gear, we'd brush teeth and go to work in the ops (operations) room.

The ops room was much as has been depicted in movies: a balcony surrounding a plotting table map which was perhaps 20 x 20 feet square. Possibly ten or fifteen enlisted men (plotters) around the table, each man with a telephone headset connecting him by a telephone line  to one of the radars, to a radio operator, or to ground observers for visual reports. To augment the primitive radars, the ground observers (we had possibly 30 posts scattered over 200 miles of coastline) were essential to spot low flying aircraft; for positive identification; for determining numbers of planes in a formation; and for estimating how high they were flying. Ships were similarly plotted.


When planes were spotted (by radar or visually) and reported to the ops room, the plotter would start a track with plastic arrows on the table map showing position and direction and with an accompanying plaque showing plane (or ship) identification, number, and height.

On the balcony was the duty air corps officer. He had lines to the airfields and radio communications directly to the planes he might send up to intercept the H (hostile) or U (unidentified) target. A naval officer was there to coordinate ship AA (antiaircraft) fire and to run air-sea rescue of downed airmen; an army AA officer; a few French officers, including one in charge of pushing the button for the civilian air raid siren. We had a language difficulty. None of us spoke much French and the French not much English, so German was often the common language with the French.

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Pistol carried through Africain and European campaigns.

And we, the filter officers. In rotation one of the three of us was the supervisor in charge of the operations room for the shift. Through our inventive AT&T guys and a "liberated" civilian switchboard we had instant communication with all of the above characters plus the radar and observation posts. And one more important unit, "PEEPER". Only after the war did I find that Peeper was really a British  top secret listening post, with access to the cracked German (Enigma) and Italian codes. Peeper was always near enough to our ops room to use a land telephone line, never radio. While we regularly visited our ground observers and radars, and occasionally the airfields, we were never to meet Peeper face to face. Yet Peeper was invaluable to one of our most important jobs, that of deciding whether a track was friend or foe.

A typical call: "Peeper here, F." They recognized our voices. "You might look out for half a dozen FW 109's headed your way in ten minutes or so. They probably will be at 1000 feet or less and plan a low-level strafing run of the Oran harbor."

This type of call made our identification job much simpler. We were "fed" all known friendly traffic, air and sea; planes coming from Gibraltar, Casablanca, Malta, Algiers, and Cairo. And, of course, what was taking off from nearby airfields, and ships leaving harbors.

The allies did have a radar airborne add-on call IFF (Identification of Friend or Foe), but it was not reliable electronically, and the Germans had captured enough of them to carry one once in a while on their own planes. We never told anyone, not our own men or the air corps duty officers about Peeper helping us make identifications. This caused many hostile questions from our fellow officers, because we rarely had "U" (unidentified) plaques showing.

Commendation of 9 January 1943.
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(Click to enlarge.)

When there was no action (most of the time), there was always a mountain of mail to censor. Every enlisted man's letter had to be read, the envelope stamped "censored" and initialed. With no action, the men at the plotting table had little to do between half hour communications checks except to write home. No, we didn't have USO books or magazines or movies or anything that was not sent to us individually from home. Books and periodicals were read and reread, then passed on to others. The special miniature editions of Time and Newsweek magazines were very prized. We learned from them how the war was going and what part we were playing in it. Without these magazines (there was no radio or TV), our horizons would have been extremely limited.

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After 4 or 8 or 12 hours of working in the ops room we had other duties after eating: visit the radar sites, including taking them parts and trying to help with their technical problems; paying the men (in occupation money: special gold seal dollars or francs or pounds) or advising the men on their personal problems. We had to lead training of all sorts: 1st aid; calisthenics; close order drill; periodic inspections...and then back to ops or sleep. We tried all sorts of different rotating shifts: twelve on, eight off, four on, twelve off etc., and never were caught up on sleep and jobs. On being relieved by our successor duty officer we would often ask whether it was night or day, sunny or rainy.

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I had exactly one half day off in several months. Another ops officer and I walked the few blocks to downtown Oran to see the sights and visit a bar. My first alcohol (wine) since leaving England!

This is copied from page 20 of the September 1945 "Air Force", an official service journal:

The radar men who had to set up shop in many of our combat zones in the early days of the war had to be missionaries, salesmen and electronics experts all at once. Not infrequently the highest ranking man in the group would be a second lieutenant, whose gold bars conveyed nothing...about his long, specialized training in electronics labs on both the U.S. and England. He would arrive at some remote outpost with several tons of strange crates and some orders about setting up an aircraft warning system.

"It was sometimes a tougher problem to sell your own CO on the idea than it was to replace all your (equipment)....sunk on the way over," said one veteran radar officer. "Most of the time you'd find that in the first place radar had been kept so secret that he hadn't the remotest understanding of what it was supposed to do. And then, being a 'fighting man himself' he'd distrust on sight a bunch of pampered (which we weren't but had to prove) lab technicians. You'd really be out of luck if his attitude also happened to be that of we- got- along- without- it- all- right- in- the- last- war- why- do- we- need- it- now? Anyway, who is a second looey to argue with an eagle?

"But after a few raids, particularly if our planes were caught on the ground, things would be different"....

Even as late as the Anzio campaign the boys were having selling troubles. "A number of officers around there didn't have too much respect for the gadget until one night we happened to pick up a ground target and passed it along for routine investigation," related a member of a Mediterranean Signal Warning Company (US!). "When it turned out to be six enemy tanks behind our own lines, tanks which nobody knew about until that moment...well, our stock went up considerably."

One of my letters home reminds me that one day in Oran during an air raid, a sentry called to say that some officers wanted to see the operations. I told him that I couldn't come right then.

When I did get down to the entry to our rock, I was startled to se General Doolittle waiting. He was commanding general of all the North African Air operations, but was not miffed that I had been busy. He was of course welcomed, but some of his accompanying officers did not have proper security clearance and could not be admitted. He understood.

I became the "chief" operations officer. This meant a little more responsibility but nothing in the pay envelope. I think it did indicate a job well done.

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Gardner L. Friedlander 1990, 2000
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