Life At The Ventnor Radar Station

Anyone who heard the interview on R4 this morning with a former Radar worker may’ve had some old memories sparked.
If you did, prepare for more, as we are very pleased to have had contact with a former RAF member who has agreed to put together …

Anyone who heard the interview on R4 this morning with a former Radar worker may’ve had some old memories sparked.

Life At The Ventnor Radar StationIf you did, prepare for more, as we are very pleased to have had contact with a former RAF member who has agreed to put together his account of the previous life of the Radar Station up on St Boniface Downs.

The seemingly lifeless National Air Traffic Site at the top of St. Boniface may be well known to all Ventnorians, but fifty years ago the scene up there was very different. It was the home of an Early Warning Radar Station and the area was dominated by a huge rotating radar and three weird looking nodding height finding radars.


A small grey bungalow concealed the entrance to a deep and massive underground bunker the walls, roof and floor of which were made of ten feet thick reinforced concrete. Down there, working in shifts, members of the RAF kept a constant watch for suspicious aircraft up to 300 miles away, for in those Cold War years there was a very real threat from our perceived enemy. On-call fighter aircraft could be guided to such intruders and indeed there were regular such incidents, though not in Ventnor’s area of coverage.

Life At The Ventnor Radar StationMost of the RAF radar operators and technical personnel were still teenagers, serving their period of compulsory National Service. No “gap” years in those days! In all they numbered about a hundred and were housed in brick built huts at the Domestic Site situated at the end of Lowtherville Road : part of Chestnut Close now replaces the hut in which I once lived.

At any one time, a third of these young men would be working and another third would be sleeping. The remainder would be out in search of amusement. In summer one spent much time on the beach eying up “the talent”, but in the evenings perhaps after a round of putting at Flowersbrook, the long gone Prince of Wales was generally the pub of choice. Or else The Hole in the Wall, where the speciality was Merrydown cider, a glass of which was the same price as a pint of beer, but far more potent.

The Rose was another port of call and the evening usually wound up at The Coconut Grove, a coffee bar attached to The Metropole Hotel on the front almost opposite the pier. The popular Saturday evening venue was of course The Winter Gardens for ballroom dancing, the perfect place in which to meet girls, both holiday makers and the local variety.

Life At The Ventnor Radar StationMany brief attachments were formed and some long lasting ones – 50 years so far for me. I wonder how many Island girls were carried off by those boys in blue over the period of twenty one years that the RAF presence existed?

Some lads dissipated their energies in other ways. Quite a few played football or rugby for both the RAF teams and for the Ventnor clubs. One friend of the writer became the Island Cross Country champion in 1958.

Others attended local churches and some performed in the local operatic society. All in all it is believed that a very amicable integration existed between the RAF and the local populace.

My time at Ventnor proved to be the most significant turning point in my life and I’ve written at greater length about those days on my website at and also about his similarly modest adventures at home and abroad during his three years of service in the RAF.

It is fashionable to mock or decry National Service, but this honest and sometimes humorous account, which in no way promotes military training, may give any curious member of the current younger generation a better idea of the harsh finishing school endured by all young men in those distant days. I welcome email contact from anyone associated with RAF Ventnor, the address being found on my website.
Don Adams

[Radar images courtesy of Ventnor Radar]
[Winter Gardens image courtesy of Isle of Wight Historic Postcards]

Monday, 4th June, 2007 10:52am

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26 Comments

  1. Craig's comment is rated +2 Vote +1 Vote -1

    17.Dec.2007 10:51am

    im a student who is doing a research project about ventnors radar and im just wandering if you could send on any information about it to me. Would be much appreciated thank you.

    Reply
  2. Sal's comment is rated +2 Vote +1 Vote -1

    17.Dec.2007 6:30pm

    Hi Craig, we don’t have any more info than you’ve read on here, but suggest you get in touch with the author, Don Adams, who previously worked at the radar station and runs Ventnor Radar website.

    Reply
  3. Zoe's comment is rated +3 Vote +1 Vote -1

    23.Jul.2008 5:35pm

    Hi, Um Just Wondering If Anyone Has Infermation On The Underground Village Up On St Bonaface?
    Or Pictures Of It?

    Reply
  4. darren's comment is rated +2 Vote +1 Vote -1

    28.Aug.2008 1:37pm

    hi, i believe my grandfather ran the hole in the wall about this time wondered if you had any recolection of the pub and who ran it ? thanks .

    Reply
    • Barrie Melrose's comment is rated +2 Vote +1 Vote -1

      15.May.2010 5:02pm

      Dear Darren, Don’t remember who ran it but as ” Hairy Airmen ” we used to go there on a Saturday night. We could only afford one pint of bitter each plus a bottle of Merrydown Cider which was used as a chaser. Then off to the dance to pick up some poor unfotunate girl. BM.

      Reply
      • Don's comment is rated +2 Vote +1 Vote -1

        16.May.2010 8:49am

        Barry, so you also served? If you’d like to tell me about your time on the top of St.Boniface, I’d be interested to hear it. My Email address is on the HOme page of my website.

        Reply
  5. Daniel Paynton's comment is rated +2 Vote +1 Vote -1

    17.Sep.2008 6:41pm

    After speaking to a couple of people (oldish) on the island on two seperate occasions they have both mentioned a deep level shelter up on the down. Its not the Rotor bunker they describe it as having a spiral staircase down. Places on the mainland had deeplevel shelters some of which I have been to myself in Portsmouth and so forth. They were usually used by the upper class people and the important people within the community if there was a thret or attack close by. Obviously the island has nothing like this or does it maybe there is one at Ventnor and thats where people went. It seems strange to build a radar station 5 ROC Posts, a hell of a lot of batterys and anti aircraft posts and have nowhere for the important people of the island to go. Have you ever heard of something along these lines maybe something that was never realeased by the MOD after it was decomishioned like so many in the past.

    Your thoughts would be greatly appreciated

    Regards

    Daniel Paynton

    Reply
  6. Don Adams's comment is rated +2 Vote +1 Vote -1

    15.Mar.2009 9:19am

    Hi Zoe & Daniel, sorry to disappoint you both, but there just isn’t any underground village up there on St.Boniface, just the radar bunker I describe on my site. However, the IW Council took it over when the RAF left and kitted it out as an HQ from which to run any remains of the Island after a nuclear attack. But now they too have abandoned it, and it is sealed up.

    Darren, I only went into the Hole in the Wall a few times, and it was a pretty low dive I can tell you. They sold Merrydown red current wine and a glass of that cost the same as a pint of beer. It was an ideal way of getting sloshed quickly if that was what you wanted. Yes, we oldies did that too sometimetimes!

    Craig, I hope your research project went well. You never did get in touch did you? But I expect you found enough from my site and elsewhere on the Internet to get you through.

    Don Adams

    Reply
  7. Barry Bates's comment is rated +2 Vote +1 Vote -1

    4.Apr.2009 10:43pm

    Hi, I would like to chat with Don Adams to ask if could give the Cowes Radar Ex-Employees Assn a talk on his days at the old ventnor Radar Station. Thanks.

    Reply
    • Don Adams's comment is rated +2 Vote +1 Vote -1

      5.Apr.2009 5:11pm

      Barry,

      Sorry I don’t do talks, but I’m flattered to be asked, and you are the third to do so. The fact is that I’d have very little to add to what I’ve written on my site, so if you would just point your blokes in it’s direction anybody can Email me at the address given there if they wish to do so. But note that my radar knowledge belongs to that period only.

      Don

      Don

      Reply
  8. seb's comment is rated +2 Vote +1 Vote -1

    6.Apr.2009 12:06pm

    many years ago ventnor’s the hole in the wall was listed in a gay guide (can’t remember the name – found magazine on a tube)as a place to meet gay men.

    struck me as somewhat unlikely – although i’d never drunk there so didn’t know what `delights` lay within!

    Reply
    • Don's comment is rated +2 Vote +1 Vote -1

      6.Apr.2009 1:58pm

      In the fifties we didn’t have ‘Gay’. As I recall it, the H in the W was more likely to have been a resort for a few ladies of the night.

      Don

      Reply
  9. Colin Urry's comment is rated +2 Vote +1 Vote -1

    17.Jul.2010 8:54pm

    Hi, I was born in Carisbrooke in Jan ’41 and moved to Ventnor in ’47.
    I’m trying to find further information on the Anson aircraft which struck one of the transmitter pylons on, I believe, the day of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. The day I recall, was very foggy and a cousin of mine, who was walking her dog on St. Boniface when the collision occurred, heard it, but couldn’t see a thing. The aircraft and it’s cargo of papers, was scattered in Combe Bottom, near the small arms range and lay there for many years, but what was a military aircraft doing with a commercial cargo?

    Reply
    • Don's comment is rated +2 Vote +1 Vote -1

      18.Jul.2010 9:59am

      Hi Colin
      I think you may be talking about the November 1947
      crash which demolished one of the wooden receiver towers situated outside R Block (that’s where the kids have their raves these days. Do the police know about that I wonder?)
      It was an Anson (Goverment surplus perhaps?) taking newspapers from Croydon airport to the Channel Islands. The two crew were killed. The headlines were about Princess Elizabeth’s engagment to Phillip. I heard this from Jim Berg of Newport who lived at Ventnor at the time and examined the wreckage.

      There was another crash in 1962 which you can read about at http://www.farvis.com/ventnor2.htm

      Don

      Reply
  10. Peter Snowden's comment is rated +2 Vote +1 Vote -1

    29.Oct.2011 6:39pm

    Hi Colin and Don,
    The aircraft crash you are referring to was an Avro Anson G-AIWW flown by my father George Snowden with navigator Corrie on 20th Nov.1947 which was the Queen’s wedding day to Prince Phillip.
    They were in thick fog trying to land at Ventnor airport.
    My father was a Battle of Britain Hurricane pilot with 213 Squadron,he scored 5 1/2 confirmed and 2 damaged and 2 probables and was shot down twice himself and force landed on each occasion.
    I was only one at the time ,so never knew my father.
    I hope this clears up what happened on that day.

    Peter Snowden

    Reply
  11. Don's comment is rated +2 Vote +1 Vote -1

    30.Oct.2011 9:09am

    Peter
    There is no Ventnor airport. It is reported that “they were probably making for Portsmouth” and had they been a 100 metres to the west would have safely done so as St.Boniface slopes down severely there.
    Don

    Reply
  12. Don's comment is rated +2 Vote +1 Vote -1

    30.Oct.2011 9:25am

    Peter
    Sorry I had my wires crossed there. I was confusing the Anson crash with the later Dakota crash. Your dad was reportedly going to the Channel Islands with newspapers with headlines about the royal wedding. The Dakota was returning from there with flowers.
    Don

    Reply
    • Peter Snowden's comment is rated +2 Vote +1 Vote -1

      1.Nov.2011 7:55pm

      Don,
      Yes my dad used to deliver newspapers to the channel islands and I believe the Isle of Wight.
      As a kid I took my first flight in a Gemini aircraft piloted by an ex ferry flight woman named Jean Bird on the Isle of Wight.I thought it was Ventnor,maybe it was another airport.It would have been in 1954 or thereabouts.
      Thanks for info,and no problem with using info in your blog.

      Regards,

      Peter

      Reply
  13. Peter Jacob's comment not rated yet. Add your vote Vote +1 Vote -1

    16.Jul.2012 1:10am

    Thank you Don for a very interesting site about RAF Ventnor. I was a bit young to see it in those days, but remember it when the CAA ha a large Radar there on the late 60’s. I am trying to find out about that and their use of the remote tx and rx sites. My grandparents lived in Wroxall at the bottom of the downs and I remember they erected a 2nd mast there, presumably for standy use. Do you have or know where I might find information from that era?

    Regards Peter

    Reply
    • Don Adams's comment not rated yet. Add your vote Vote +1 Vote -1

      16.Jul.2012 9:24am

      Peter,I’m sorry but I can’t help you with your query as I was out of RAF radar and into commercial omputers from 1960 onwards. I remember the CAA having three medium sized close to the ground (thus high looking)search radars up there, two of them at the Shanklin end of the compound.
      The towers on Stenbury were originally for RAF Tx & Rx VHF ground to air voice communication, that is how the radar station spoke to aircraft whenever it needed to.
      Don

      Reply
  14. wallace clayman's comment not rated yet. Add your vote Vote +1 Vote -1

    20.Jul.2012 12:38pm

    I was at ventnor between June 1953 and May 1954
    went down the hole many times but spent most of the time stood down especially when there was a major changeof equipment I believe to Bendix P1
    The only NCO I remember clearly was Flt.Sgt Marsden who was not my favorite.At one time the C.O> went to America on a course and the acting C.O.was a Pilot Officer.

    Reply

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