Harry Cullum, Braintree ‘beam bender’

IN April I had the privilege of spending several hours with Harry Cullum as he recounted his Second World War experiences in Braintree.

Sadly just 11 weeks later I attended his funeral.

Colchester-born Harry joined the RAF at the age of 18 and was trained as a wireless mechanic.

In November 1943 he was posted to a detachment of 80 (Signals) Wing, Bomber Command at their hastily erected site in Queenborough Lane where he remained until VE Day.

After that he saw out his war-time service in India.

The work of this little-known Braintree site was to disrupt a German system called Knickebein for guiding bombers to their targets using a VHF beam on to which the pilot ‘locked’.

Various measures were taken, including jamming, distorting or muffling the Luftwaffe’s signals – radio countermeasures which became known as 'beam-bending'.

Harry’s memory was so clear that I was able to draw an accurate plan of the hutted site of which very little was known.

No trace remains as the Maylands Drive estate was built on it.

The 60 airmen worked round the clock and were billeted with families.

Bicycles were issued to the airmen who in their off-duty time were allowed to travel anywhere in a ten-mile radius of Braintree.

Harry risked, but was never caught, cycling the 15 miles to his Colchester home.

During his time here, Harry met future wife Nancy Sparkes and set up home after the war.

Their CO lived with the Joscelyne family in London Road.

Unlike the RAF, which had a navigator on every bomber, the USAAF typically allocated a navigator to just the lead aircraft in a flight of six.

So, in addition to the invaluable work of disrupting the German bombers, our beam-benders regularly transmitted homing signals to bombers from Wethersfield returning in failing light or poor visibility. This was particularly useful if the lead aircraft had been shot down or if an individual aircraft had been separated from its leader.

Harry Cullum, who was 94 when he died, was a most generous and well-respected man and thanks to him knowledge of the town’s history in those dark days of war has been preserved for ever.

Like the Battle of Waterloo – and the Battle of Britain – it was a near run thing.