19 February 2020

The Dark Haven - F.T.K. Bullmore

As I've been busy working on manuscripts, now the kids are back at school and I can actually do some work, the writing of reviews has been slower than usual. While frustrating, especially as I have some interesting books to write about, I have been blessed with several guest reviews from authors I hold in high regard. Here, then, is the oldest book to feature on ABR. As many of you know, I created ABR expressly to generate an online presence for some of the older aircrew books I had encountered, but could find nothing about. Such books had every chance of being forgotten, not shared with future generations, and I wasn't about to let that happen. While I've succeeded on that front to some extent, the vast majority of books featured on ABR have been relatively new. Thanks to Phil Vabre, an air traffic controller by trade, and an aviation historian otherwise, for this superbly, and thoughtfully, written review about the development of Flying Control. Andy Wright

Accounts of the Second World War in the air that focus on non-operational aspects are pretty rare. The Dark Haven, F.T.K. Bullmore’s account of the development of what was termed ‘Flying Control’ in the RAF, is such an account and nonetheless interesting for that.

In 1927 Bullmore was seconded from the Territorial Artillery to the RAF. He learned to fly in Egypt and then specialised as a night bomber pilot – experience he would draw on to good effect during the war. Bullmore was transferred to the Reserve in 1932 and joined Sir Alan Cobham’s Flying Display, remaining with him until 1935 when he settled down to life as a flying instructor. With the expansion of the RAF in the late 1930s, Bullmore was invited to re-join the RAF in 1937 as one of the original members of the Flying Control branch.

From the outset, the reader needs to understand Flying Control, as practiced in the RAF in the late 1930s and the early part of the war, is not the same as Air Traffic Control as we know it today. While Flying Control did have some limited aerodrome control functions, its role was primarily what we would term ‘operational control’. That is, each base maintaining a watch on who departed and who arrived and, in the case of bombers and patrol aircraft, communicating with the base’s aircraft while in flight.

This brings us to the biggest problem for modern readers with Bullmore’s otherwise fascinating book: it assumes a great deal of underlying knowledge about how the Flying Control system operated at that time, confining itself to primarily describing Bullmore’s (significant) role in bringing about improvements during the war. Written in the mid-1950s, Bullmore’s original intended readership was no doubt much more familiar with the operational systems of the day than we are. Many would have had first-hand experience with the wartime Flying Control system. Nevertheless, while the present-day layman might find it difficult to understand the context in which Bullmore’s account takes place, modern readers who are students of RAF operations in Europe during the Second World War will have at least some grounding in the technical aspects of the story.

Bullmore describes how, as Senior Flying Control Officer at Boscombe Down in February 1941, he became involved in attempts to recover a lost Bristol Beaufort circling at night above fog off the Isle of Wight. Although the Beaufort eventually ditched (the crew being rescued), the experience got Bullmore thinking about the problem of assisting lost or damaged friendly aircraft to a safe landing in blacked-out Britain. At that time, Bullmore’s station lay under the regular route for bombers from their bases in East Anglia to attack the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau in Brest harbour. So, in those days of relatively unreliable radios, there was plenty of such traffic about.

As a starting point, Bullmore arranged to visit the Royal Observer Corps (ROC) Centre at Winchester. We need to remember that in those days there was – deliberately – little or no RDF (radar) coverage over land. Instead, aircraft were tracked over Britain by the extensive network of ROC posts. These fed their reports to ROC centres and from there the plots were transmitted to Fighter Command’s Sector and Group Operations Centres. Having had his eyes opened to the air situation information available, Bullmore set up an unofficial arrangement with the Winchester ROC Centre for them to call him whenever they detected a possible friendly aircraft in trouble. Bullmore could then use the Flying Control network to assist the aircraft by, for example, turning on aerodrome lighting.

Although the surveillance, reporting and control system established by Dowding’s Fighter Command in the immediate pre-war period is well known for its contribution to winning the Battle of Britain, not so well known or understood is just how jealously Fighter Command guarded its access to what we would call the ‘air picture’, or indeed how uninterested other RAF Commands were in it. Quick successes achieved by Bullmore’s unofficial arrangements with the ROC convinced him more could and should be done. However, Fighter Command rigorously protected access to its air defence apparatus for non-air defence purposes – even if it potentially meant valuable friendly lives and aircraft saved. Bullmore describes how he managed to convince the AOC of 10 Group to allow him access to the Group Operations Centre, against the opposition of many subordinate officers, where the value of the expanded Flying Control scope quickly demonstrated its value. 

According to Bullmore’s account, it was by force of personality and dint of working around numerous obstructive staff officers that he was eventually able to extend the new Flying Control services, firstly into the 12 Group area and then, from the Air Ministry under the Directorate of Air Safety, into the rest of Great Britain. It is interesting to note it was 11 Group that resisted longest in allowing Flying Control personnel into its Operations Centre. The ambit of Flying Control eventually grew to incorporate the RAF’s Air Sea Rescue and specialised Mountain Rescue services. Innovations introduced included the ‘Sandra’ system of coned searchlights above selected aerodromes, serving as aeronautical lighthouses. Although the book itself does not say so, it is clear to see in these innovations the origins of Britain’s unique, modern-day ‘Distress and Diversion’ service, used by military and civilian aircraft alike.

Statistics kept by the Flying Control branch showed beyond doubt the value of the services it provided. Many thousands of aircrew, returning from operational sorties with their radios inoperative, or lost on a training flight above fog, owed their safe return to assistance provided by Flying Control. In his foreword to the book, MRAF Sir John Salmond pays tribute to the persistence of Wing Commander Bullmore (as he ended up) in establishing this enhanced form of Flying Control. Salmond describes it as '…a heartening story of lives saved in thousands in almost miraculous fashion – lives which, but for the Flying Control and Air Sea Rescue Services, would have been lost.'  That it is.


  1. Really helpfull and quite fantastic! Good work on this article. It’s worth reading.

  2. Thank you for profiling this gem of a book on Flying Control in the RAF in WWII.

    Our museum, the Military Aviation Museum in Virginia, acquired the actual Watch Office (control tower) from RAF Goxhill, and we have rebuilt that tower using the original materials. The Watch Office has been returned to wartime layout, and hundreds of wartime bits of furniture and equipment allow our guests to step back into history in the rooms of the tower.

    One of our major challenges is to acquire and understand all facets of Flying Control in the RAF at the time, with so much of that arcane and specialized knowledge diminishing with time. This book added greatly to our project, and we would love to hear from other people who have knowledge of those functions!

    Please email Mike Potter at mhpotterone@gmail.com if you have resources that might be valuable.

    Mike Potter
    Board Member, MAM

  3. great description of an important book

  4. If you can find a copy of this book it is extremely informative as to Flying Control in WWII, and it is written with a wonderful wit, especially as regards Bullmore's ability to slip past many senior officers who regarded him as a nuisance.

    Does anyone know what F.T.K. Bullmore's full name was?