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Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment

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MAEE emblem
MAEE emblem
© Robin Bird

The Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment (MAEE) was set up by the Air Ministry in 1924, to evaluate the performance of water based aircraft. Originally based in Felixtowe, the onset of World War II led to MAEE being classified Top Secret, and moving to the area of Helensburgh and Rhu in 1939, to ensure that its work would not attract the attention of German spy planes or bombers, which could easily reach the original site. After the war ended, MAEE returned to Felixstowe in 1945, until it was finally closed down in 1956.

MAEE was partnered with the Airborne Forces Experimental Establishment (AFEE), which began life at Ringway (now Manchester airport) in 1940, and was also to move, first to Sherburn, near Leeds in 1943, then Beaulieu in 1945.

As part of its security precautions, MAEE Helensburgh was not generally known by its proper name, but was simply referred to as RAF Helensburgh to avoid drawing any particular attention to the site.

Little detail was known of MAEE's activities, and no pictures were known of when we first learned of the establishment in 2005. However, we are grateful to the generosity of Robin Bird, who has given permission for us to include details and images from his book TOP SECRET WAR BIRD OF WORLD WAR TWO, which tells the story of of his father, Bob Bird, who was "A Government photographer taking top secret pictures of weapons to sink U-Boats and experiments by airborne forces preparing for the D-Day Invasion".

Published as a memorial, Top Secret War Bird is no longer available, however Helensburgh Library has retained a copy for reference.

Information Appeal

Robin Bird continues to research the history of MAEE, and would be grateful for any information that may be available. He may be contacted directly by email at [email protected]

If you do not have email, you may also use our Contact Form to pass any details, and we will forward them on your behalf.

MAEE Helensburgh drew on a number of local facilities, such as the the seaplane base at Rhu, and the weapons testing tank at Glen Fruin. MAEE also worked in close co-operation with RAF bases at Stranraer and Lough Erne, which operated flying boats, in particular, Catalinas. After the Sunderland, the Catalina was Coastal Command's most important flying boat, and both aircraft were important to MAEE, offering fully enclosed facilities for the photographers who had previously occupied an open cockpit position in the nose of both Otter and Walrus bi-planes. The work was still hazardous, none of the aircraft had heating or oxygen for high altitude work, and Bob Bird was hospitalised for a week after suffering frostbite when he removed a glove in order to change a lens, and his fingers were frozen to metal body of the camera. His diary notes for January, 1942, note it was so cold that the pilot's vision was affected and they crash landed on their return. His earlier arrival in Helensburgh, in November, 1941, had been marked by a Sunderland crash at Rhu, which had killed the two MAEE crew, and highlighted the dangers associated with the work.

Testing carried out by MAEE included aircraft weapons designed for use against submarines and ships (in particular the Tirpitz), depth charges, rockets, and Barnes Wallis' Tallboy earthquake bomb and Highball bouncing bomb. There was also flight testing of maritime patrol aircraft, including the all important Sunderland flying boat built in the Blackburn aircraft factory, located next to Denny's shipyard on the Clyde at Dumbarton.

All types of flying boats and seaplanes were put through their paces there, including a Spitfire fitted with floats. Also based at the establishment was a flight of captured Heinkel 115 float planes, used to drop agents into Europe.

Sea Otter at Rhu
Bob Bird at Rhu
© Robin Bird
Sunderland bombing trial
Sunderland bombing trial
© Robin Bird


MAEE staff accommodation

An article was published in 2010 with further information regarding the utilisation of accommodation for MAEE staff posted to Helensburgh.

A number of houses were identified, including Ardenvohr, Rosslea, and Ardenconnel in Rhu.

Ardenvohr was a former private house which had become the home of the then Royal Northern Yacht Club (now the Royal Northern and Clyde Yacht Club) in 1937, became MAEE’s new headquarters for the duration and also served as the officers' mess.

Ardenconnel had been built by the Buchanan family (famous and wealthy Glasgow merchants, and namesake of the city's Buchanan Street) in the late 18th century, then a holiday association home, it became the sergeants' mess for the duration.

Rosslea was then a large house, and has survived to be extensively developed as the Rosslea Hotel

Guest houses were also used to provide accommodation, and it seems that a number of other private homes were also requisitioned. [1]

Projects

The book describes a special mission assigned to MAEE, with the aim of sinking the Tirpitz. Most will be familiar with the 1955 film Above Us the Waves, which portrays Operation Source, in which six X-Craft were used to mount a partially successful assault on the Tirpitz in 1943. Less well known is Operation Title, in which chariots, or human torpedoes, were used to launch an earlier assault on the battleship in 1942. The team was forced to call the attack off when a storm caused the loss of the chariots. Scuttling their vessel, nine of the team were able to return home via Sweden, however the tenth member was caught and shot as a spy.

MAEE worked on two projects concerning Tirpitz. The first followed on from the chariots, and involved modifying Sunderlands to drop and retrieve chariots. This option was not developed past handling tests, and the second was to proceed and be successful. This was the use of the Tallboy bomb, which was finally to sink the Tirpitz after two direct hits (a third direct hit bounced off her armour) resulted in a 200 foot hole in her side, and set off internal magazine fires.

Catalinas were equipped with parachute delayed depth charges, and were referred to as Stuka Catalinas.

Catalinas were fitted with Magnetic Anomaly Detectors, used for, detecting submerged U-Boats, and were referred to as MAD Cats.

Rocket Assisted Take Off Gear (RATOG) was tested, intended to reduce aircraft take off distance. This could be hazardous for all involved, as film taken at the time has shown aircraft wings being ripped off as the rockets are ignited.

According to a listing in Scotland Scanned, other aircraft flown there included the German Arado Ar196 seaplane, a heavily armed single-engine aircraft with twin floats (the Bismark could carry four), and the Heinkel He111 medium bomber.

Royal visit

Robin Bird's research has revealed a confirmed visit to the establishment by the Duchess of Kent, and which led to security concerns for the local police, as a photograph of the royal visit was published in the Helensburgh and Gareloch Times. However, although the Duke and Duchess of Kent were known to have had a home at Pitliver House, Rosyth, and the Duke would have been expected have an interest in the facility - in his role as Air Commodore, there does not appear to be any record of the couple visiting together. It would therefore be of interest if anyone who had information regarding such a visit by the Duke was to get in touch.[2]

Personal accounts of working at MAEE

The following are reproduced under the 'fair dealing' terms offered by the BBC in association with their WW2 People's War project.

WW2 People's War is an online archive of wartime memories contributed by members of the public and gathered by the BBC. The archive can be found at this link

Lily, Bob, and a Cat called Pyro

Lily nee Neilson, of Liverpool, served as a teenager with the National fire service in the Liverpool Blitz. In her diary, she describes the horror of bombing and cheers herself up with a new hair style, up rather than down to her shoulders.

Bob Bird was a Government photographer assigned to top secret projects. In 1941, aged 21, he was posted to Ringway to photograph Britain's first paratroopers and looked up Lily, a distant cousin. Romance blossomed.

They wed in 1942, when Bob was posted to RAF Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment, Scotland. He photographed torpedo and Tallboy bomb trials designed to sink U-Boats and German battleship Tirpitz.

Bob flew in flying boats with a cat called Pyro and teamed up with fellow photographer Keith Medley for the rest of the war. They were posted to Sherburn-in-Elmet, where the Airborne Forces Experimental Establishment prepared for the airborne invasion of Europe in D-Day. Bob flew in bombers and gliders. AFEE then moved to Beaulieu to be nearer the Allied invasion of Europe and to prepare for the airborne invasion of Japan.

Lily and Pyro also moved to Beaulieu. Pyro was killed by 'friendly fire' in May 1945, run-over by an RAF lorry while waiting for Bob to return from a flying mission. Bob continued to photograph top secret projects, including the Flying Jeep, captured German flying machines and V2 rockets.

Demobbed in 1947, Bob and Keith returned to Merseyside to open a photographic business on New Brighton promenade, taking pictures of day trippers. This developed into a successful photographic business.

Bob died in 1999. Keith in 2004. Lily lives in New Brighton. Son: Robin Bird has produced a book: 'Top secret War Bird of WW2,' telling their wartime story.

© Robin Bird, WW2 People's War.

Memories of my wartime days as a Scientific Assistant working at the Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment

As an evacuee from Clydebank and billeted at Rhu, I took the advice of a girl friend’s father to apply for a job as a Scientific Assistant at the Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment (M.A.E.E.) which was an outstation of R.A.F. Farnborough and controlled by the Ministry of Supply. They were the civilian workers attached to the R.A.F. Station, Rhu, Dunbartonshire, Scotland.

I gained my Scottish Senior Leaving Certificate at the Hermitage High School, Helensburgh where I was studying Maths, Physics, Chemistry, English, French and Latin. This entitled my entry into Glasgow University where I hoped to gain a B.Sc, that I might teach Maths and Science subjects.

This plan, however, came to nought as the Clydebank Blitz actually happened while I was taking my exams. My family escaped to safety which I learned only after five days. Had they not moved out after the first night raid, they would certainly have been killed when a land mine hit our building on the second night.I therefore applied for the position of Scientific Assistant at M.A.E.E. where some of the men had chosen to leave to join the fighting forces. Consequently the Principle Scientific Officer, Mr. H.M. Garner (P.S.O.) who was in charge of the establishment, had decided to recruit women, although no official ruling had been made by M.O.S. till later.

I duly attended an interview by the P.S.O. who accepted that my knowledge of Maths was quite adequate for the research work which I would be asked to do. I also took courses of Applied Dynamics and Electrical Science at Glasgow Technical College and passed first class. I shared the Pier Technical Office with two Junior Scientific Officers, Mr. Frank O’Hara and Graham White. Along with me they worked with Mr. A.G. Smith, a Scientific Officer who set us to work on both model scale and full scale aircraft. The model scale aircraft were tested on the Hull Launching Tank. Taking off and landing tests were made on Sunderland and other sea planes. The films and readings from the tests, I analysed on a magnifying machine called a Metaphot, which resembled a type of microscope.

In the spring of 1941 I went with Mr. A.G. Smith to Islay, an island about 80 miles west of Scotland where there was an R.A.F. Station, at the town of Bowmore, Rockets were fitted under each Sunderland wing and we flew out to sea where a marine standby boat anchored a large rubber dinghy as a simulated submarine. Seated in the second pilot’s seat, I took various readings in the cockpit of 1) Start of dive, 2) Release of rocket. 3) Start of pull out of dive, 4) Final levelling off. The test pilot, a F/Lt. Reid who was a Canadian, became so expert, hitting the target each time, that we ran out of dinghies — and on one occasion we only cleared the sea level by 80ft!.

In the spring of 1942, I was placed in a small back room at the civilian H.Q., a lovely villa called “Rosslea”. There outside, I was guarded by two R.A.F. men while I analysed films known only to me as Top Secret — “Highball Trials”. Only after the “Dambusters Event”, did I know what I had been working on!

The facts and figures gained from all the aeronautical and hydrodynamic tests done on model and full-scale land and sea planes are those used today for our modern aircraft. So it is gratifying to know the privilege I had in working with so many brilliant scientists who were also my friends, and we left our mark on aviation history through our “Backroom”, endeavours.

I would add just one final thought that although our flight testing was often done in bleak, cold and wet conditions and film analyses in a dark room could be tedious and eye burning — especially living in lodgings with food on points and clothes on coupons and still growing at 18 years old. If we were killed in a flying accident, the only compensation our dependents received was Ł7 for a coffin. I was not issued with any warm clothing like a duffle coat etc. All I had was a “Mae West”, and a parachute to fit me; and a women’s salary rate was less than a man’s. However I have no hesitation in saying that my wartime work with M.A.E.E. was some of the happiest days of my life, both with civilian and service personnel who were always cheerful and helpful, working as a team.

© Frances A. McLaren (nee Shedden), WW2 People's War.

Jim Bossley's Posting to MAEE

I was working for the Engineer-in-Chief’s Office in St Martin le Grand, for the Post Office. When I was sixteen I joined the Home Guard, the local Home Guard in Catford, which you was allowed to do. So I did some initial training there with the other men. When I was 17 I volunteered for the Airforce, up at Kings Cross. Now if you volunteered for the Airforce you were given 6 months grace because they wouldn’t take you until you were 17 ˝ .

From there you were recruited, sent on a train and I went to Warrington. That’s where they kit you out with all your gear and you stay there about a week I suppose, getting measured up for your clothes and all your equipment. Then you’re sent to Blackpool. Blackpool used to be the training centre for the RAF, and we used to do all our marching and armed drill, attending lectures in the cinemas which were shut all the morning. And we used to go in and listen to all this stuff about gas attacks, medical advice… We were billeted with landladies. Landladies were allowed 4 RAF and then they could have their summer visitors, but they had to take 4 RAF. Well looked after, I’ve no words to say about them. The only thing was, you had to be in by 11 o’clock at night, otherwise you were arrested.

So the long and short of that was, I’m at Blackpool and I did all the courses up there and you get aptitude tests in the RAF. And suddenly I get a posting from Blackpool to Cranwell College, which is the RAF equivalent of Sandhurst. What on earth I am doing down here? I’m going on a radio course, which was at that time top secret. The RAF used to have transmitters to aircraft which were only good for about 18 miles, useless old things for aircraft. The story we were told was that the Manchester Police, nothing to do with the war this, had developed a VHF, Very High Frequency, which was 90 mile, trouble free, nothing. So the RAF thought, this is much better than what we’ve got, so they took it over. So when I went to Cranwell I was put on a VHF course. It was a bit tricky, 14 weeks. And my official title was RT Operator VHF. Now included in that course, apart from talking to aircraft, was learning air traffic control, maintaining these sets. In every fighter aircraft he’s got a set of buttons, different channels and this operates the transmitter/receiver (TR33) and you’ve got to learn to tune that, put it all together.

So anyway, I come out of Cranwell and thought, so what happens to me now? I go on three days leave, come back here to see my Mum, and I get a posting to a place called Maee. Where on earth’s that? So I goes up to the RTO (Railway Travel Office for the Forces) at London Bridge. “Where’s this place, mate?” “Dunno. We’ll give you a travel warrant,” he said. “The only thing I can suggest is Glasgow.” “Oh, thank you very much.” Nobody even knew the name of this place but it looks a Scottish name. So I gets to Glasgow, don’t know where I am, goes into the RTOs office. So I says to the RTO “Where’s this place mate?” And he says “I dunno, I‘ve never heard of it. The only thing I can suggest is that you get a local train to a place called Helensburg.” I said “what’s up there?” and he said “I think there’s an RAF place up there, but I’m not sure.” So eventually I get to this place called Helensborough and went into the Station Master’s office — there wasn’t an RTO. “Do you know where this place is mate?” “No, but I’ll contact the local RAF Station, a little way down the road, and tell them you’re here and they’ll come and get you.”

Well when I get there it’s the Marine Aircraft Experimental Establishment. That’s what MAEE is. Its flying boats. And we had 60 people in a great big house in the village. That’s all, RAF. We got pilots but no aircrew. So when these flying boats took off - they didn’t go on active service, they were just experimental - they made up their own crews from ground staff, especially on the Sunderlands. We had to go and read radar screens. So I’m thinking, what am I going to do here? I get sent for, and he says “Down on the loch is a hut, you get down there, you got three WAFs underneath you.” “Right, I’m a lucky fellow.” And he said “No, you’re charging accumulators.” “Accummulators, what are you talking about?”

To get out to the flying boats - they were out in the middle of the loch, anchored on buoys - you had to go a little way down and there were RAF launches to take you out. Now flying boats got to start on batteries (accumulators), same as launches, so of course we’re charging up all these accumulators all the time.

One day a milkman turned up, and I said to a WAF, “What’s that milkman doing in here, we don’t have milk?” “Mind your own business” she says. “All outlying villages have battery driven radio sets and when their batteries run down, we fetch them back down here, we lend them RAF ones, and we charge them sixpence a time.” So everyone’s making a bomb.

So I spent this time on the flying boats, different types of flying boat: Catalinas, Kingfishers, two Sunderlands. And I’m thinking to meself, this is a good old number, this will suit me. Only trouble was, after a few months I got posted again.

© Charles John Bossley, WW2 People's War.

Related references

Separate note about the Bouncing Bomb near Bute

Some early tests of Barnes Wallis' bouncing bomb were carried out on Loch Striven. Wellingtons and Mosquitoes based at RAF Turnberry flew past Rothesay and up the loch, bouncing the bombs up towards old ships moored across the loch as targets. Wallis was developing an anti-ship bouncing bomb called Highball, together with the dam-busting bomb called Upkeep. Some of the bouncing bomb shots in The Dam Busters film are from the Loch Striven tests. The main target for Highball would have been the Tirpitz, but the ship's anchorage rendered a Highball attack difficult, and preference was given to the attack by X-Craft, originating from Bute, which disabled the ship. She was later sunk using Wallis' Tallboy bombs.

Some of the Highballs may still be found on the bottom of the loch.

If you have any more information about the tests here (or elsewhere), please drop me a line and I will be pleased to add it to my site with Barnes Wallis information at: http://www.computing.dundee.ac.uk/staff/irmurray/wallis.asp

The loch shores are devoid of houses, and the area would have been secured due to the submarine tests. During the actual drops, a smoke screen would be laid across the mouth of the loch, hiding it from Rothesay. The bombs were carried internally on the Wellington and Mosquito, unlike their portrayal in The Dam Busters, so there was little external evidence that the aircraft were other than standard.

There may have been better locations. Later tests were conducted near 618 Squadron's base near Wick, off Islay and off the northeast coast, but the first Scottish tests were carried out on Loch Striven, and it continued to be used throughout 1943 and 1944 for this purpose.

MAEE was involved in the tests, and Robin Bird has further confirmed that the establishment worked closely with Barnes Wallis and 618 Mosquito Squadron in developing the Highball bomb to attack the huge battleship. He said, "Barnes Wallis used the water testing tank at Glen Fruin to develop his bouncing bombs. As he was also working with Upkeep, the larger bomb used for dams, and 617 Squadron, MAEE Helensburgh was told to work closely with 618 Mosquito squadron, which had been specially formed to attack the Tirpitz with Highballs".[3]



Unidentified bouncing bomb test footage

References

1 District home to World War Two boffins Retrieved April 21, 2011.

2 Did Duke visit RAF Helensburgh? Retrieved April 14, 2011.

3 Bouncing bomb research in burgh Retrieved April 14, 2011.

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