RAF Station Habbaniya in Iraq
by Clayton D. Alway

many thanks to his son Walter Alway for providing the story and photo's

My Dad (died in 1995) was in the American Army Signal Corps During WW2. He was for many years also w8unf. He wrote an paper in College after the war describing his experiences in setting up a radio station/direction beacon in Iraq.

RAF Station sign.JPG (12605 bytes)
An excerpt from a paper Clayton D. Alway wrote in college shortly after World War 2 describing a radio control tower he helped set up in Iraq during the war. Ninety miles up muddy the Euphrates [from ancient Babylon], near a flat open field along the west bank of the river, stands a tower of much more recent date. It is made of burnt brick and mortar and steel and concrete. It is not tall but rather short and squat. Near the top the bricks give way to large rectangular panes of glass, which encircle the whole tower and give it its eight-sided shape. Above these glass panels the roof projects out on all sides to shield the occupants of the tower from the rays of the blazing sun. Here, on the banks of the Euphrates, where the ancient caravans ferried across the river on their way to Baghdad, is RAF Station Habbaniya, with its control tower, hangers, runways, and barracks.
The field and most of the buildings were completed in 1938, but no permanent control tower was built until early 1945. In 1941 a revolt of Arab tribesmen was here put down by a few British officers and a handful of loyal native troops, who, though quaking in their shoes, marched out to do battle. They fooled the Arabs into believing that they faced a far superior force and the tribesmen fled in wild disorder. The day was saved and the British Empire was once more secure in the Middle East.
The function of the airport control tower is to control and direct aerial traffic in the vicinity of the airport. To facilitate this the control tower is usually located so that the operators enjoy an unrestricted view of the runways and the sky. To communicate with arriving and departing aircraft, the operators are provided with a system of radio transmitters and receivers. Such a system usually consists of three or four transmitting channels and perhaps twice the number of receiving circuits. To the uninitiated this seeming duplication of equipment appears to be useless and sometimes positively undesirable. To a limited extent this is true, but generally speaking the various circuits complement each other so that they form a complete and highly versatile communication system that cannot be disrupted by the failure of one or even several elements. Antennas.JPG (17072 bytes)

Air Field Control Tower.JPG (13033 bytes)

Habbaniya is a British field, but so many American aircraft were landing there for servicing, that when the control tower was built, half of the space available in it was allotted to the Army Airways Communications Service. I was a member of the Signal Service team that installed the communication equipment there.
We were a team. Here were the men who comprised it. There was Gus Beck from Long Island. He was the leader. He never commanded but only requested, "Would you like to do this?" or, "Lets do that." We liked him for it and tried to do as he asked. He was a lean, lanky fellow and a mathematician before he enlisted.
John Maples came from Arkansas and had been a farmer. He knew about building and structural steel and welding and concrete. He was the oldest and was short and heavy.
John Kurz had his home in Connecticut. He had sold automobiles before the war and was full of wind and not much else. He helped maples and did well enough at it.
Aaron Meyer came from Brooklyn. He had been a student, but now he was and electrician. We called him Finnegan, but I don't know why.
Fred Bryan came from Mississippi. We used to tease him about white supremacy and lynchings and such. He was our engine man and he could dismantle diesels with ease.
There was I, the radioman. I was green as grass on the job and not afraid to tackle anything. I was proud and eager to show what I knew.
Army Radio Team.JPG (28005 bytes)
We started in March 1945, and completed it a few weeks after V-E Day. By that time we had put into operation two VHF (very high frequency) radio channels and on low frequency channel and a radio range control panel. The VHF channels were capable of communication with aircraft no more distant than 100 miles or about a half hour's flying time, but they had the advantage or being nearly impervious to static and other interference. The radio range was installed so that a pilot attempting to find the field, during periods of poor visibility (which often occur when high winds fill the air with flying sand and dust) might be provided with a radio pathway down which he might fly to find the runway.
Thus the control tower operators have at their command the means to communicate with all aircraft in the vicinity and to direct them through safe landings and take-offs. Provided, that is that the visibility is of the order of a mile or so.
Our first task in equipping the control tower at this desert field was to set up the radio range transmitter and its associated antennas. We decided to place it about 3 miles from the end of the main runway to that the radio beam it generated would flash straight down the runway to guide the homing pilot safely to earth. Another beam we would beam we would aim at Lydda Palestine, for that is the route to Cairo. A third would lead to Abadan, where the oil of Iran flows into the long low tankers of the Standard Oil and Texas Companies. The fourth course of our range would point toward Tehran and across the Caspian Sea into Russia. From those places and to those places we would guide the planes.
But we must first have a building to house our transmitters with their multicolored indicator lights, their dimly glowing tubes, their blue flashing rectifiers, their clicking relays, and humming fans and keying meters. There must be shelter too for the  diesel-electric generators. Many Kilowatts of electricity are needed to generate the strong unfaltering beams that we intended to have, and there are no handy power lines out there.
So we set about to build us a building in the desert where the only living things are big black beetles and the foot long yellow lizards that pray upon them.
We had plenty of bricks and mortar, and Arabs to help. We had an Indian surveyor, and Armenian foreman and an English contractor. When finally they were done we had a building of sorts. The roof was not waterproof. The floor was not smooth and flat. The foundation was not level. The wind and the sand penetrated the walls unhindered, for the mortar had dried before hardening and was now falling out. The windows would not open and the doors could not be kept shut. The lumber had been green, so it shrank in the dryness and the glue would not stick. We had a mess of a building and I could have kicked it down with my bare feet, but we called it a building and went to work.
Radio Transmitters and Generator.JPG (26902 bytes)
In went the transmitters, two of them, at on ton apiece and were bolted down. In went the engines and generators. Twice that each weighed and there were three of them. Then there were wires and switches and transformers to connect. Tubes came out of their excelsior packed cartons and were twisted into their sockets. I hunted high and low for the little cloth bag of dots and dashes that I knew must be there. We needed them to fasten to a slowly rotating wheel; they make our transmitter send, hour on hour, day after day for months on end, automatically in Morse, its call letters "HN". "Dit dit dit dit dah dit," it would go, and all who listened would know that this was the way to Habbaniya. "Follow me," it would say in its cryptic tongue, "and I will lead you to Lydda, to Cairo, to Tehran, to Russia, to Abadan, to Karachi, to China and beyond, where my brothers will lead you still further, unafraid, in sure straight lines, over oceans and seas, over cruel mountain peaks and over strange countries." On and On we will guide you till you may circle the globe and return again from the west." I had to have those dots and that one dash. But there were none. I asked the others, " Have you seen a little white cloth bag of dots and dashes?" They, wise ones, laughed, thinking I joked, for a dot is not found in a bag. It is something you make tapping your fingers on a telegraph key. I searched no more but sent a message to Cairo for spares. The answer was short but complete. "Improvise." it said. "Bakelite and file." Said the Lieutenant. For three days I filed and fitted. My fingers were sore and the Bakelite was gone, but I had them, the Morse letters "HN". They'd know our station when they heard it.
Next came the antennas. Four of them there were, arranged in a square 300 feet on a side with our building in the centre. They were thin steel lattice works projecting one hundred feet into the clear air or the Syrian Desert. Each was kept from falling by three strong steel cables and each was topped by a bright red light to warn away low flying planes. We wanted no repetition of the affair at Cairo where a B-29 had clipped off thirty feet of a steel antenna like ours. The steel we erected by a peculiar method. It went up in sections. First the top section guyed by strong ropes, was lifted into the air by crane and the next lower section bolted to it from the bottom. Then both were lifted again and the third section was attached at their lower end, and so on. Thus our antennas were literally put up from the top down.
Radio .JPG (26108 bytes)  Radio Panels .JPG (21158 bytes)
The hard work was at length done, and the riggers lay in the sun or swam in the lake while our Arabs dug trenches and buried the cables that would feed electricity to the Obstruction lights and powerful radio waves to the four antennas.
Our station was finished. All that remained was to adjust the shiny chromium dials and watch the emotionless needles of the meters as they told their story of what was happening in the orderly maze of wires, coils, and electron tubes that lay behind the dull black panels. That would be my job alone, I thought. I was proud that I knew how to manipulate those dials so that our range would lay its courses straight and true and unwavering. The evening plane from Cairo brought us a new team member. He smoked a huge cigar and was called "Stogie" Worral. "The best ranger tuner upper in the whole Middle East," the Lieutenant said. I was to be an errand boy, it seemed, on this, the most critical part of the job. Should I refuse to admit that I was resentful? He was good, darn good, and soon I found myself admiring his swift, sure knowledge. It was not long till I had to admit to myself that I liked him. How can you dislike a man who agrees with you while making sure you do the right thing and saves you from the time wasting errors? I couldn't.
Our range was done. The pilots had checked it and said that it was reliable. The aerial highway it laid out was marked on their maps. We could leave our jerrybuilt shack and go elsewhere. The maintenance men would keep the engines going and sweep the dust away from the door. We could turn our backs on it.
We went back to work in the tower. They wanted the VHF circuits in first. Sweating, grunting Arab laborers dragged the small but heavy transmitter up the narrow stairs of the tower. The antenna went up quickly, the tubes went into their sockets, and we were on the air. It worked from the start and gave us no trouble.
One day while we worked in the tower a British Mosquito bomber come into land. The pilot said, "Landing instructions please." The tower operator said, "The wind is north, fourteen miles per hour. The altimeter setting is 29.75. Land on runway 34. Call again on your downwind leg." The pilot said, "That is fine but my wheels wont come down." The engineering officer was called and said, "Add more Hydraulic Fluid." After the pilot had carried out this advice the tail wheel still remained hidden, nor was there any more fluid aboard. There was 15 minutes of gas in the tanks, though, and the pilot becoming uneasy was able to solve this problem in a natural way. He landed safely and had nothing whatever to say concerning the matter.
We worked on that tower with vim and vigor and soon had installed and array of speakers and microphones, receivers and switches. The top of the tower bristled with antennas. They were vertical whips of various lengths. Each was attached to its particular receiver and each was attuned like a sensitive feeler to some distant station that we wanted to hear.
Iraqi pilots were trained in Habbaniva. They spoke no English and we spoke no Arabic. This situation seemed certain to lead to complications, and did in short order. Two planes cannot use the same runway simultaneously, especially if on pilot is unaware of the other and not particularly interested in using his radio because he dislikes being told what to do in a language he doesn't understand. I have seen good brown English hair turn white while an operator was trying to prevent an Iraqi training plane from taking off in the path of an incoming British transport.
French planes occasionally landed there. It was startling to see a French operated, German Junkers Ju-52 come floating in without warning or a by-your-leave.
There were Russians who would loop a transport or make a take-off without with out first warming or checking the engines. Damn fools they were, perhaps, but I never saw one crash. There was the plane loaded with passengers that found refuge from a dust storm by following the beam of our range down to its origin and landed safely at our field.
There was a thunderbolt fighter that failed to reach the field and crashed on a ridge 2 miles away. They buried the pilot that night. There was a B-25 pilot who landed his plane tail down and nearly tore off the stern of his airplane.
During the few short month I worked in the brick and glass tower and on the nearby desert there were many occurrences to laugh about and others that brought tears to some. A few of them I shall never forget. Many I have already forgotten, and others I wish I could not remember.
It is not likely that any of the work we did there helped in any way to shorten the conflict, but at least we had the satisfaction of knowing that we did a good job with the materials and tools at hand.
I can recall no three months, which were more pleasantly occupied than those I spent in a modern "Tower of Babel."
Radio building.JPG (29955 bytes)  Radio Repair Bench .JPG (23078 bytes)
Radio Station Parts.JPG (28174 bytes)

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