Force History – Squadrons and Units

Fighter Control Units

Brief History

The `Dowding System of Control and Reporting that had proved so effective during the Battle of Britain and the rest of the war was extremely manpower intensive, with its radar stations, Filter Room, Sector Operations Rooms and extensive lines of communication. Moreover, it was evident by the end of the war that, with its limited range of just 90 miles and slow response times, the System could not counter the threat of fast jet bombers armed with nuclear weapons. It was therefore decided to develop a new long range radar, the Type 80. However, as this new System would not be ready to enter service until 1953, it was decided to protect the existing radar stations in the interim period with thick concrete, and, in the case of those in vulnerable locations, to re-site them underground. Manpower shortages following the demobilisations at the end of the war had led to a number of RAuxAF Fighter Control Units being formed from 1948 onwards. All were disbanded by 1961.

List of Fighter Control Units

3500 (County of Kent)
3501 (County of Nottingham)
3502 (County of Antrim – later Ulster)
3505 (East Riding of Yorkshire)
3506 (County of Northampton)
3507 (County of Somerset)
3508 (County of Northumberland)
3509 (County of Stafford)
3510 (County of Inverness)
3511 (City of Dundee)
3512 (County of Devon)
3513 (City of Plymouth)
3602 (City of Glasgow)
3603 (City of Edinburgh)
3604 (County of Middlesex)
3605 (County of Warwick)
3608 (North Riding of Yorkshire)
3609 (West Riding of Yorkshire)
3611 (West Lancashire)
3612 (County of Aberdeen)
3613 (City of Manchester)
3614 (County of Glamorgan)
3617 (County of Hampshire)
3618 (County of Sussex)
3619 (County of Suffolk)
3620 (County of Norfolk)
3621 (North Lancashire)
3631 (County of Essex)
3700 (County of London)
3701 (County of Sussex)


1. The last 2 units to be formed, Nos 3700 and 3701, were called Radar Reporting Units; however, their role was essentially the same as that of the Fighter Control Units.

Detailed History

‘In the early and uncertain days of the Cold War, the Fighter Control and Radar Reporting Units of the RAuxAF were largely responsible for manning the entire UK Control and Reporting system.’

By the end of the Second World War, there were some 168 radar installations around the coast of the United Kingdom. Many were run down or in need of maintenance. Moreover, the Control and Reporting system at that time was extremely manpower intensive; reaction time of the defences, based on the wartime organisation of command – Group – Sector – Station and the relatively short range of current radar systems, was too slow, passing through several levels of command. Manpower was at a premium, the Soviet Union was becoming more belligerent and this country was on its uppers, rebuilding its factories and businesses after five long years of war. In short, the air defences were inadequate to meet an emerging threat. Something had to be done and although new radars and systems were being developed, it would be some time before they came to fruition.

Therefore, in 1948, it was decided to form a number of Royal Auxiliary Air Force Air Defence Units, later Fighter Control Units (FCUs) and two Radar Reporting Units (RRUs), the first of which started recruiting in February of that year. There were to eventually be 28 FCUs and two RRUs. Each unit conducted its training at Town Headquarters, located in the town or city within the county in which it was raised and the units bore the same number as its county flying squadron, where applicable, but prefixed with the number three, therefore 604 (County of Middlesex) Squadron was matched by 3604 (County of Middlesex) Fighter Control Unit although it did not follow that the two formations worked or trained together. As an example, 3604 FCU had its Town HQ in Queens Square London and weekend training was shared at the two radar stations at Bawdsey, near Felixtowe in Suffolk and Wartling near Bexhill in Sussex.

Each unit was self contained, with fighter controllers, air defence operators, radar mechanics, cooks and so on, so that an FCU could deploy as a complete shift to man the radar installations. The Town HQ contained a fully equipped operations room and full classroom facilities as well as a well appointed canteen and both officers’ and sergeants’ messes.

By 1950, the first of several plans to improve the Control and Reporting (C&R) system was tabled. It involved the overhaul and restoration of several wartime Chain Home (CH) and Ground Controlled Interception (GCI) stations and placing all the early warning C&R elements deep underground. This plan was code-named ROTOR and turned out to be the largest and most costly civil works programme undertaken at that time. During the 1950s, there were three other key developments. First, the introduction of a new search radar, the AMES Type 80 which had a range of over 200 miles and revolved at 4 times each minute which enabled it to `refresh’ an echo before it had chance to fade, which, together with improved height finding radars, enabled Ground Controlled Interception to be undertaken from the same underground facility that provided early warning, unlike the war-time GCI stations that were established remotely on the coast Secondly the improvement of the Plan Position Indicator (PPI), a sweeping line emanating from the centre of the circular screen which showed both attacker and defender, the latter being able to identify itself electronically using IFF and, finally, the introduction of the Photographic Display Unit (PDU), a system which photographed the image from the PPI, developed and processed it for projection onto a horizontal screen in 15 seconds before the next image was taken. To these improvements were added the introduction into service of the Bloodhound Surface-to-Air Guided Weapon.

ROTOR was followed by other C&R proposals during the 50’s but what was becoming clear was that the system was depending less and less on manpower. Soon to be gone were the plotting tables, the Sector Operations Rooms, the Filter Rooms and the lengthy reaction times, but in the period from 1945 until 1955, elements of the old system had to be retained until the new and more powerful Type 80 search radar came in to service. It would then be possible to report a raid, identify its height and bearing and scramble fighters to deal with it, all from the same underground C&R facility. It was, therefore inevitable that the days of the FCUs and the RRUs were numbered and by 1957, eight of the FCUs, and one RRU were disbanded. Continued manning difficulties meant that the remaining units soldiered on until 1960 when they too had disappeared. By the mid-1960s, the number of Radar Tracking Systems had been further reduced and were having their data extracted and transmitted by microwave link to two combined military and civil Air Traffic Control Centres, at West Drayton and Preston, thereby drastically reducing the C&R manpower bill even further, so the FCUs and the RRUs were always going to be a short-term solution, pending the arrival of more sophisticated systems.

One final point needs to be made. The C&R system has always been (and remains) a `24-7’ operation. Any attack on the United Kingdom would not have respected weekends and it was then that the FCUs and the RRUs joined their regular counterparts deep underground, `watching the skies’ whilst the civilian population spent their time in weekend pursuits after a long working week. Short-lived, they might have been, but the FCUs and the RRUs made a significant contribution to the defence of these islands during the early and uncertain days of the Cold War. Indeed, due to the shortage of regular manpower, the Fighter Control and Radar Reporting Units of the RAuxAF were largely responsible for manning the entire UK Control and Reporting system in the event of war until such time as manpower was replaced by technology.

F A Freeman