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   G.R.U. BRANDY HEAD - Gunnery Range and Observation Post  

Welcome to the Brandy Head Gunnery range and Observation Post information page.  

This Building although situated on the cliffs of Brandy Head and some 10 miles from Exeter Airfield is the former Gunnery Range observation post for the Armament Experimental Establishment (A&AEE) “A” Flight that was based at RAF Exeter, now Exeter international Airport, between 1940 and 1944. Before telling you about the building and what took place here, a few words  about the organisation that operated here during the War.

The Aeroplane & Armament Experimental Establishment(A&AEE)

Was founded in 1917, as the Experimental Aircraft Flight of the Central Flying School The A&AEE was involved in many of the significant developments in the British aviation industry,  At the beginning of the second world war The A&AEE's wartime organisation had two squadrons testing aircraft and armaments and a small number of Flights. One of the Squadrons was the Armament Testing Squadron based at Boscombe Down, in Wiltshire.

Armament Testing Squadron

This Squadron consisted of Three flights. A and B and C Flight which was a Special Duties flight.

A (Gunnery) Flight

B (Bombing) Flight

C (Special Duty Flight)

Following the Outbreak of War and Exeter’s relatively safe position from Air Attack in the south West of  England, it was decided to evacuate certain experimental detachments such as the Central Gunnery School and the Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE) at Farnborough in Hampshire.

Professor G.T.R Hill of the RAE planned to use Exeter for the hazardous task of deliberately flying aircraft  into balloon barrage cables over Pawlett Hamms near Bridgwater to test devices aimed at cutting them ! With the A&AEE under Later Sir, Bennett Melvill Jones undertaking experiments and evaluations of  Ammunition, Aeroplane Rockets and other secret devices.

In preparation for the planned transfer of the Central Gunnery School, RAF Exeter was formally taken over by the RAF from the Air ministry on 1st June 1940 and placed under the control of the Flying Training Command. Whilst this was going on; plans were also drawn up to establish a large tented camp to the south of the aerodrome and to transfer the Central Gunnery School (CGS) here from Warmwell in Dorset.

Exeter Airport was found to be an ideal location as use could also be made of the university’s new physics and chemistry laboratories known as the Washington-Singer building.  Furthermore, the local engineering firm of Willey & Co. Ltd was found to be more than capable of manufacturing the test equipment, Particularly for the RAE.

In June 1940 three 'Hinaidi’ and two 'Bellman' aeroplane sheds were planned for the technical site for use by the CGS However in the event the CGS never came to Exeter but “A “ Flight  (Gunnery) of the Armament Testing Squadron did. So only  one Hinaidi shed was actually built.

Following their transfer from Boscombe Down on 3rd June 1940 the A&AEE were immediately  given their own independent status as the Gunnery Research Unit (coming under 10 Group on 6 July).  Under the command of Sq/Ldr R.H.E Emson. The former CO of the Airfield who had been relieved by  Squadron Leader (Sq/Ldr) John Scatliffe Dewar of 87 Squadron following 87’s arrival  on the 5th July.

In preparation for the GRU’’s arrival it was decided to build a suitable gunnery Range within a short flying distance of Exeter that could be used by then GRU. As a result on 13 July 1940, this gunnery range was opened in the field behind this building, which is a variation of a standard RAF “Laing building” Plus a substantial protective blast wall, because of its proximity to live ordinance being dropped. The observation post was opened here to enable experiments to be observed and the testing of new equipment to be evaluated.   

1940 - 1944

An artist’s impression of the observation post during WW2

1 Fairy Battle

2 Bristol Beaufighters

1 Boulton Paul Defiant

2 Hawker Hurricanes

1 Spitfire

2 Wellingtons

1 Hawker Henley  

A Hawker Henley Towing a Gunnery Target

Although following Air Raids on Exeter ion the 3 and 5 April, two Vickers Wellington aircraft of the GRU (L4252 and L4285) were destroyed and many of the resident aircraft were also damaged in an Air raid in May

The Gunnery Research Unit had meanwhile, despite the loss and damage to its fleet suffered in the air-raids of April and May, persevered with its work. At this time experiments, included trials with, gun and turret equipment for Blenheims, Defiants and Hudsons  . Also cannon trials with Spitfires and Hurricanes, while in May, a Havoc (BD126) arrived.

The GRU however, with another mixed fleet of about a dozen aircraft remained here for another two years and continued to use the range Worthy of note was the work carried out on the first Gyro Gun sights in the spring of 1942 . which included the first gyro gunsights, servo-head mechanisms and the testing of OS ammunition to determine its ballistic characteristics. The Frazer-Nash Ltd, FN 20 tail turret was also being evaluated and improved which led to the type FN 120 with its better field of vision.


Gyro Gunsight

A gyro gunsight (G.G.S.) is a modification of the non-magnifying reflector sight in which target lead (the amount of aim-off in front of a moving target) and bullet drop are calculated automatically.

The amount of lead required to hit a target is a function of the rate of turn of the attacking aircraft and the range to the target. The former is measured using a gyroscope in the sight, while the later is estimated by the pilot by moving a dial or pointer so that a reticle in the sight matches the wingspan of the target.

In the picture The instrument panel of a Spitfire IX showing the Mk IID Gyro reflector gunsight. To set range the dial adjusts the reticle size to match target wingspan. Currently set to the Junkers Ju 88, it ranged in size from the large Fw 200 Condor to the small Messerschmitt Bf 109

As a result of these trials it was found that this type of sight could be used during daylight with exceptional accuracy against all types of attack from enemy fighters.

The sight was found to be the complete answer to gunnery problems associated with bomber aircraft and if a reasonable standard of training could be achieved, adequately armed bombers would be perfectly capable of defending themselves against fighters during daylight operations. Surprisingly it was even announced in the Newspapers.

The Frazer-Nash Ltd, FN 20 four-gun tail turret was also evaluated and improved, which led to the type FN 120 above  with its better field of vision that was used on  late-model Lancaster’s and Wellington’s.

In addition to ordinance and firing systems, aircraft equipment was also tested by this unit, including servo-head mechanisms and the testing of ammunition to  determine its ballistic characteristics. Such Aircraft Rockets   

The Frazer—Nash 120 Gun turret  on  a Lancaster

The Mark II Gyro Gunsight

Molins gun and Mosquito FB Mk.XVIII

In the background, meanwhile, the GRU continued in its use of a mixed fleet of aircraft for trials purposes and work in hand during 1943

Including the testing of the 'Tsetse' (Mosquito) Molins Machine Company 57mm Class M gun: 6 pounder gun fitted with automatic loader built by the Molins company, a manufacturer of cigarette making machines. It was mounted on the Royal Navy Motor Torpedo Boats and in the RAF Mosquito planes, which were referred to as the "Tsetse".

Barrel length: Mk II, III: 8 ft 4 in (2.54 m) 43 cali...

Effective firing range: 1,650 yd (1,510 m)

Maximum firing range: 5,000 yd (4,600 m)

US Takes over Airfield

By the spring of 1944, it had been decided to use Exeter as a temporary American station to provide an aerodrome for the transportation to France of the US airborne troops stationed in Devon. So on 13 April the Beaufighters  which were now working with the GRU were  re-deployed to the little used airfield at Winkleigh, in Devon  whilst the GRU joined other fighter research units at Collyweston

Throughout the course of its stay at Exeter the unit was also visited by detachments of various aircraft types for test purposes.  As such it was to become one of the stations longest resident units and during its stay flew virtually all types of fighter aircraft used by the RAF.

Biography - Sir Bennett Melville Jones

Sir Bennett Melvill Jones, CBE AFC FRS (28 January 1887 – 31 October 1975) was Francis Mond Professor of Aeronautical Engineering at the University of Cambridge from 1919 to 1952.

He demonstrated the importance of streamlining in aircraft design. It had been known since the time of Aristotle, that a moving body passing through air or another fluid encounters resistance (aerodynamic drag), but Jones developed the ideas of Louis Charles Breguet into a refined theory to demonstrate emphatically the importance of drag to the performance of aircraft.

He was the eldest of the three children of Benedict Jones, a barrister, and Henrietta Cornelia Melvill, the South African widow of George William Bennett. His father served as mayor of Birkenhead.  Jones was born in Rock Ferry, a suburb of Birkenhead. After attending a preparatory school in Rock Ferry, he was educated at Birkenhead School from 1898–1906.

He recalled having great admiration for the headmaster who allowed him to give up cricket to give him more time to work with his father on engineering projects. He graduated with a first class honours degree from Emmanuel College, Cambridge in the mechanical sciences  in 1909.

After university he worked at the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich in their workshop and was there until January 1911 when he joined in the Aerodynamics Department of the National Physical Laboratory at Teddington and then at Armstrong Whitworths where he worked on the design of airships until the outbreak of war in 1914.

He was then seconded to the Royal Aircraft Factory, later the Royal Aircraft Establishment, where he worked on aerial gunnery until 1916 when he was transferred to the Air Armaments Experimental Station at Orfordness, which had established by Bertram Hopkinson who was then Head of the Engineering Department at Cambridge.

Whilst there, Melvill learned to fly and served as a gunner for about six weeks in 1918 in a Bristol Fighter in No. 48 Squadron RAF with his younger brother, Benedict Henry Melvill Jones, as pilot. He was awarded the Air Force Cross and promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel (Benedict was killed in 1918 on an experimental flight.)

In March 1919 Jones returned to Cambridge as a fellow of Emmanuel College and a member of staff of the Engineering Department. In October he was elected as the first Francis Mond Professor of Aeronautical Engineering in which position he remained until his retirement in 1952.

At Cambridge the Air Ministry provided aircraft and flying facilities to develop a very successful school of aviation research. With characteristic modesty he said that he expected his small team, usually four, to work with him rather than for him. His work on stalls led to a great understanding of the phenomenon and greatly reduced accidents.

From 1926 his work was principally connected with reducing drag. In 1929 his paper The Streamline Airplane presented to the Royal Aeronautical Society was seminal. He proposed an ideal aircraft that would have minimal drag which led to the concepts of a 'clean' monoplane and retractable undercarriage.

The aspect of Jones's paper that most shocked the designers of the time was his plot of the horse power required versus velocity, for an actual and an ideal plane. By looking at a data point for a given aircraft and extrapolating it horizontally to the ideal curve, the velocity gain for the same power can be seen. When Jones finished his presentation, a member of the audience described the results as being of the same level of importance as the Carnot cycle in thermodynamics.

Before the Second World War, he was asked to return to his work on gunnery. Firstly at Boscombe Down and then at Exeter His four years of work led to the development of the gyroscopic gunsight.

In 1943 he moved to the Ministry of Aircraft Production and became chairman of the Aeronautical Research Committee (later Council) until 1946

In 1946 he resumed his work on drag. After retirement he became a consultant for the Royal Aircraft Establishment.

In the King's Birthday Honours 1938 Jones was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire, and in the New Year Honours 1942 was appointed a Knight Bachelor.

 Jones was elected Fellow of the Royal Society and awarded the Medal of Freedom by the US in 1947 for his work on aerial gunnery and he was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Aeronautical Society and became an honorary fellow of the society in 1951.


In 1916 he married Dorothy Laxton (née Jotham) (died 1955). They had a daughter, Margaret (b 1917) and two sons, Warren (b 1920) and Geoffrey (b 1923). Warren was a pilot who was killed in action in 1940.[2] He was a strong swimmer and keen rock climber. He was regarded as 'one of the kindest and friendliest of men'.[3] He died in Devon on 31 October 1975.

  Southwest Airfields Heritage Trust  © 2017              

During its stay, which was nearly 4 years  the  Gunnery Research unit used this building for the observation of Aeroplane rockets and ammunition testing fired by aircraft flown from the GRU at  RAF Exeter.  Steel targets were placed in the field behind the building and also at floating buoys out to sea.  See Above Pictures Later Redpath Brown Ltd of Edinburgh built an armour-plated target that was located in the field behind the building for use with the more destructive cannon ammunition,

In addition work was also undertaken on the development of the Gyroscopic Gun sights and Gun turrets Led by Sir Bennett Melvill Jones, on Servo head mechanisms with additional work by others  after Sir Bennett was transferred to the ministry of Aircraft Production. Important work was also undertaken on the Molins 57mm Cannon, that was installed in the Mk XVIII Mosquito

The Gunnery Research Unit had a mixed fleet of about a dozen aircraft and by June 1942 had the following Aircraft Located at Exeter: