Letter from Wing Commander R.G. Grocott, RAF (retired), to Dave Clarke, 28 July 2001
Wing Co. Grocott was a senior officer at Eastern Sector, RAF Bawburgh, 1956
"At about the time of this incident I was
probably en route to a new posting in Germany, but with the Suez
crisis brewing, the move was postponed and I was recalled to
Eastern Sector from embarkation leave.
"I do remember being on duty when a Venom lost its wing tanks, [but] that incident was not followed by all the thrills and excitement reported in your papers.
"At the time [August 1956] I was still in post at Eastern Sector and fully cognizant with current operational procedures, so feel qualified to make some general comments.
"Of all the accounts in your papers, only that by Freddie Wimbledon strikes true. As he says, the story by the American controller [Forrest Perkins] is almost pure fiction.
"Air Defence within the UK was, at that time, the sovereign right and responsibility solely of British forces. As you probably know, command and control were exercised at the highest level by the Air Defence Operations Centre (ADOC) at Fighter Command. Authority to scramble fighters for operational interceptions (ie from QRA) was vested in the Sector Operations Centres, with Eastern being located at Bawburgh. Sector might have delegated authority to Neatishead (perhaps because the former was not operational, or to a achieve a faster reaction time), but Sector would have been kept fully in the picture. In such an incident as this, ADOC and/or Sector would (or should) also have been involved in any co-ordinated actions between the RAF and USAF. It is unlikely that any USAF action at the level of the '7th Air Division Command Post at [sic] London' would have been taken without consulting either of these RAF authorities. It would, I believe, also have been diplomatically improper. I suggest, therefore, that your best sources for valid data on the really important facts and conclusions for this incident should be the higher staff levels (now Strike Command and the MOD). Merely to question participants such as pilots and controllers so long after the event would be to attempt your own very amateur Board of Inquiry dependent upon probably distorted memories.
"Some comments: The radar in the vicinity of Lakenheath was probably Langtoft [G.C.I. in Rutland] with similar equipment, and subordinate to Neatishead. The appointment of the officer at Sector with authority to scramble the QRA was Sector Controller, not Commanding Officer. He would (or perhaps should) have been in close liasion with the USAF, not by R/T but by landline. Although from the papers you sent me there appears to have been little or no such liaison.
"You say that official records relating to this incident appear to have been either destroyed or misplaced. Not too much should be read into this. Consider how much bumph would have to be stored if all details from all such operational watches were retained, and this incident occurred before the days of computerised or digital storage.
"Not having been directly involved in the incident I can say little in response to the questions in your letter except:
"1. The SOC and its staff operated from Bawburgh [near Norwich]. Horsham St Faith provided only domestic facilities.
"2. Lakenheath was an offensive base. So far as I remember no air-defence fighters were there: certainly none were used for UK QRA duties. Any liaison with such bases would have been to establish the identity of an unidentified track: perhaps one of their aircraft not adhering to Flight Plan. Until 1955 the 1st Canadian Fighter Wing (three sqaudrons of F-86 Sabres) was based at North Luffenham, but they were an integral part of the UK air defence system and used by QRA. They redeployed to Germany some time during that year (1955), I can't remember when.
"As to USAF fighters being used for QRA: as I remember it, none at Lakenheath, Bentwaters, Manston or elsewhere in the UK were specifically tasked for QRA, though they may sometimes have been used ad hoc for visual track identification. We had great flexibility in filling our task and the Sector Controller, even at times the Chief Controller at a GCI station, might call on any available aircraft (whether already airborne or ready on the ground) to assist in identifying a track, but control would normally, though not invariably, remain with the RAF Air Defence Control system."
"3. It is possible that the Venoms were told to contact the USAF. Neatishead would normally have passed the order to do so. But, as another report says, the Lakenheath controllers were neither equipped nor trained for air defence control. One of the aircrews makes this point, saying that they were merely told where the target was rather than given instructions on how to intercept.
"4. Though not directly involved, I cannot believe that, if the incident was as significant as your papers suggest, I would not have been aware of it. As to explanations for Unidentified Flying Objects: Freddie Wimbledon has adequately covered the problem of ANAPROP (anomalous propagation of radar waves), ANGELS, etc. In my considerable experience of such operations, from the UK through to Hong Kong, I have experience of controlling fighters chasing balloons, and even flocks of birds.
"For my own part I have an open mind, but would need more proof than the usual apparent assumption that because a track remains unidentified it must be caused by what has so loosely come to be called a UFO, which in turn is commonly and mistakenly defined as something from 'outer space.'
"[During my time at Eastern Sector 1954-57] of course there was cognizance of and interest in UFOs, they were essentially our raison d'etre. But, any object appearing on our detection radars was literally a UFO until identified by flight-plan etc. There were some that were never satisfactorily identified, but this must not be taken to mean that they were caused by phenomena from other worlds."