192 Squadron Washingtons by Dave Forster 

 WZ966 on the ground at RAF Watton

WZ966 on the ground at RAF Watton

192 Squadron acquired three RB-29As as replacements for its three Lincolns in the first half of 1952. The first two aircraft (WZ966, WZ967) arrived at Watton in April and were joined by the third (WZ968) in June. Work then got underway at the CSE to develop an Elint fit for the aircraft.

The modifications, carried out by the CSE, involved the removal of all gun turrets and bombing equipment; fairing over of the rear observation blisters; the conversion of the rear pressurised compartment into an Elint compartment accommodating six Special Operators; the installation of two radomes under the rear fuselage for direction-finding antennae and the fitting of a number of other external antennae.

The primary tasks of the aircraft were to intercept, analyse and plot the positions of Soviet radar stations; and to intercept Soviet radio communications (including. transmissions between Soviet GCI stations and fighters). The six Special Operator positions comprised two VHF communications intercept positions (AN/ARR-5); two metric radar intercept and D/F positions (AN/APR-4); and two centimetric (X-band and S-band) radar intercept and D/F and positions (ARI 18021, AN/APR-9, AN/APA-11). Wire recorders were also carried to capture signals for later analysis.

Modification and installation of the first Washington, WZ966, began in May 1952. After a few minor problems work was finally completed at the end of September and the installation cleared early in October. Work was then started on the remaining two Washingtons. Using the experience gained in the first conversion these proceeded quickly and were completed in December.

During the first half of 1953 the squadron devoted its efforts to the training of its Washington crews and to the installation and trials of equipment in the aircraft. Training Special Operators was a particular problem since the Washington carried three times the number previously carried by the squadron’s Lincolns. The training programme was helped by the acquisition of an unmodified Washington (WW346) in April, primarily for pilot continuation training. This aircraft helped take the load off the three Elint aircraft which were flown intensively on combined navigator/special operator training sorties. Training flights were also made to the Middle East for pilot/navigator training. The squadron took advantage of Exercise Jungle King, a NATO naval exercise, in March 1953 to fly a series of Elint sorties using all three Washingtons to locate and track the ‘enemy’ fleet using radar and voice intercepts.

The first Washington Elint operation carried out during 1953 (Operation REASON) was a one-off operation to intercept the new Soviet cruiser Sverdlov just north of the Shetlands following its visit to the UK in August 1953. This highly successful operation revealed the presence of X-band fire control radar on the ship.

The squadron took part in a further NATO naval exercise at the end of September when a Washington carried out two long-range sorties in support of Exercise Mariner. The Washington was tasked with the detection and location of the ‘enemy’ Blue force fleet; the detection of AEW and anti-submarine aircraft radar transmissions; and interception of radio traffic between ships and between carriers and their aircraft on both VHF and UHF bands.

Operational flying began in earnest in October 1953 when two Washingtons, accompanied by WW346 as a support aircraft, were detached to Nicosia. Two Elint flights were carried out during the detachment, probably over the Black Sea.

During the next four years the Washingtons were flown on three basic types of Elint operation. The first, and least controversial, was the routine Border sortie. These were daylight sorties over West Germany, flown approximately 15 miles or so from the East German border. Roughly four of this type of sortie were flown each month, although these were often cancelled to make way for more important operations. The second type of operation was the shadowing of Soviet naval units. These operations were flown on an opportunity basis and occasionally required the diversion of aircraft from pre-planned Elint sorties. Strict rules governed the conduct of these flights, limiting how close the Washington could approach the Soviet vessel or vessels. The third type of operation, and the most risky, was the monthly series of Elint sorties flown in neutral or international airspace along the borders of the Soviet Union and its allies. The main area of operations for these flights were the Baltic Sea (from Watton or Germany), the Black Sea (from Cyprus) and the Caspian Sea (from Iraq). The Washingtons normally operated in conjunction with the squadron’s Canberras – the Washingtons standing-off a minimum of 70 miles from Soviet territory and monitoring reactions to the Canberras, which approached to within 30 miles of the border. Each of these sorties was reviewed and authorized by the Foreign Minister, before it was flown. Although these operations were flown in international airspace at a respectable distance from Soviet borders they still risked a hostile reaction. To minimize the risk they were always flown in absolute darkness during the period of the new moon. Since very few Soviet air defence fighters then carried AI radar this offered some protection from interception.

In February 1956 Washington WZ966 carried out the first RAF Elint sortie into the Barents Sea. The 18 hour mission was made even more arduous by the failure of the aircraft heating system and the loss of one engine after 12 hours flying. Following this operation the Barents Sea was added to the list of regular operational areas. However subsequent sorties into the Barents Sea operated from Norwegian airfields.

In the autumn of 1956 a single Washington was detached to Malta for several months to compile an Egyptian electronic order of battle prior to the joint UK-French operations to reclaim the Suez Canal.

The Elint suite in the Washington was subject to rolling programme of improvements during the aircraft’s service. The main problem was the accuracy of direction-finding, and thus the accuracy with which Soviet radar stations could be plotted. A number of improvements were made to the ARI 18021 equipment, and also to operating procedures; the ARI 18021 was later supplemented by the addition of US-built APA-17 direction-finders. Provision was also made for an alternative fit of additional HF and VHF receivers to enhance the aircraft’s communications intercept capability. By the time the Washington was replaced by the Comet the intelligence-gathering ability of the aircraft had been transformed. Many of the lessons learnt with the Washington were applied directly to the Comet.

Maintenance of the 192 Squadron Washingtons was complicated by the withdrawal of the type from Bomber Command service in the early 1954. This made spares harder to obtain and as a result the aircraft were sometimes flown with non-essential equipment inoperable. The autopilot seems to have been an early victim of the spares situation. Mainplane corrosion problems were also encountered. By 1956 the squadron was complaining that it was becoming more difficult to meet its tasks as “the age and flying hours of the Washingtons increase”.

The end for the Washington came December 1957. By then the maintenance situation had deteriorated to the point where it was considered unlikely the aircraft could successfully complete a sortie without some major unserviceability. As a result all three operational aircraft were stood down. Luckily the Washington replacement, the Comet R.2, was nearly ready for operations. In the end only two months were lost in the changeover, the Comet flying its first operational Elint sortie in February 1958.

© Dave Forster, 2002

See also The Washington Times page here


  • Dave , what a splendid review of 192 , I have just received this from Julian via email. As previously stated I served oon B flight (Canberras) and in 156 was posted to DeHaviland Aircraft for Comet training and Smiths for auto pilot training.
    We had several trips to Nicosia, Bodo Norway and Guttersloa?, near Cologne.The Suez was definitely on the agenda and B flight was all prepped to go.
    B flight CO was W/C Wade, “gimpy or wimpy” if my memory serves me right.
    Great squadron, too bad we lost it to become 51 Squadron.

    • Brian and I arrived together in 1954 I was on A Flt Ist/Mech Nav. Very many happy memories from 62 years ago

      • Hi Brian, great to see you are still alive and kicking, how is everything with you two, all well I hope, my email address is 2anctbrit@gmail.com, got skype? 250-498-2291.All the very best.
        Are you in touch with anyone else from 192?

        • Yes still alive and kicking as you put it, the Sdn.CO was Wing Commander Norman Hoad (I think I’ve got the spelling right) and he was referred to by some, but not within his hearing I suspect, as Jimpy who was a cartoon character in the Daily Mirror in those far off days. My email is brianhgc@sky.com Joyce and I are OK thanks no one I’ afraid I was in touch with an armourer and an electrician from Scotland both, sadly, now deceased. Suspect there are not too many of us left.

      • l remmember you brian,,my name is don rimmer cpl electrical and others were mick farmer chuck james sam kidson you will know Gimpy hoad died about twelve months ago he was a great Co tho he did give me and MO roberts jankers for delaying take off from Wegberg with 346,,I went to Watton in september 1952 shortly before the east coast floods I left ln 1957 just as the Comet arrived.The first B
        B2 canberra on BFlight had just arrived just before me and there were 2 or 3 Mosquitos parked in retirement inthe hangar I did officers quarters guard duty on the day of the Coronation in the rain All the Best, DON

        • Hi Don, thanks for email, yes I do remember, too bad about Gimpy, I called him wimpy for some reason. Both him and B flt officers were great , ran the peri track with F/O (Hardy) ??
          Rex and Doug , fitters were pals and Stu Ramsey, radar tech.We used to go into town for some great concerts.
          Take care,

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