Deflating British Radar Myths of World War II

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Birth of Radar Memorial at the site of first successful RDR (radio detection and ranging) experiments by Robert Watson-Watt and Arnold Wilkins near Daventry, 26 February 1935. At the time, there was no plaque and no publicity; the first British radar experiments were so secret that only three people witnessed them on the ground. What is not obvious is the fact that this British effort took place two years after the development of a practical radar in Germany .
[kintalk, via Wikimedia commons]

British and Allied memoirs and histories have contributed to the rise of three myths concerning the discovery and employment of radar. These myths are as follows. The first myth is that Sir Robert Watson-Watt is the father and sole inventor of radar. The second is that Germany’s discovery and realization of radar’s military worth occurred after 1940 following exposure to British systems. The third myth gives radar the pivotal role in the defeat of the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain. To deflate these myths the origin of radar is traced from James Maxwell’s discovery of radio waves to early radar theorists and inventors. Their role in the story of radar illuminates and contributes to the deflation of the radar myths. Both the rebirth of the Luftwaffe and evolution of the RAF during the 1920’s and 1930’s shows how each service independently arrived at the development of radar technology for different reasons. In 1939 Germany possessed some of the world’s best and most enduring radar designs, as well as essential navigation and bombing aids. England’s Chain Home radar was a dead end technology with serious shortcomings, but was skilfully melded to an innovative command and control system. The illumination of German radar achievements and a balanced analysis of British defensive systems essentially deflates the radar myths.

Wizard War

“This was a secret war, whose battles were lost or won unknown to the public; and only with difficulty is it comprehended, even now, by those outside the small high scientific circles concerned. No such warfare had ever been waged by mortal men.”
Winston Churchill

With those words Winston Churchill immortalized the British and Allied scientific war effort against the German enemy, giving credence to several long-held myths about superior and innovative British radar techniques. Post-war histories and autobiographies have concentrated on what the Allied forces did right against the Germans and tend to favourably promote the success of government programs and their administrators. The sheer destruction, defeat, and partition of post-war Germany has made the other side of the story harder to discover and attribute. In the late forties, the world was not in a mood to praise German scientists and technological innovation, with the sole exception being the German rocket scientists. From the wealth of World War II histories and accounts, a theme has evolved and received support over the years concerning British radar at the beginning of the conflict. These themes, essentially myths, concerning radar are the following.

  1. The British invented radar and that scientist, Sir Watson-Watt, was the father of this technology.
  2. The Germans did not have pre-war radar, and failed to grasp the importance of this technology. The Germans only developed radar in response to their defeat in the skies over Britain, or from stolen British plans and equipment.
  3. The British radar system played a unique and pivotal role in the success of the Battle of Britain.

In order to deflate these myths to their proper size, this material will be organized into four sections. The first section will explain some basic radio theory and history in warfare. Section two will cover the development of German Luftwaffe defensive strategies and then the existence of German radar. The third section will do the same analysis of the British approach. In section four, the radar myths will be re-examined in light of the previous discussions. The focus of this research is on pre-war Germany and Britain; comparing and contrasting tactics and technology that existed prior to hostilities.

The Technology of Radio

The theories and scientific insights into the technology of radar became available to the world in 1887 when Heinrich Hertz in Germany discovered the existence of radio waves. The scientific journey leading to this discovery started with James C. Maxwell’s Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field developed around the 1850’s which theorized that there existed invisible rays, not seen by the human eye, created by oscillatory electric currents. The search for other types of radiation was a fierce scientific competition leading to discovery of Roentgen’s X-rays and culminated with Hertz’s discovery of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Hertz experimented with electric sparks, and in 1888 he found that a spark jumping from two metal spheres in a loop of wire would cause another spark to jump between two other metal spheres in a similar loop, even with this loop being meters away. This simple effect had tremendous implications and gave an alternative to the wire-linked telegraph, the wireless.

In less than a decade later Guglielmo Marconi obtained a British patent for his wireless design, and stations were transmitting across the English Channel in 1898. The needs of the British empire for a means of global communications fuelled and accelerated the use of the new wireless technology. This invention was immediately duplicated or rediscovered throughout the world. Notably in 1909 both a German named Karl F. Braun and Marconi shared the Nobel Prize for their work in the area of radio.

Rival commercial companies arose from their work, with the Marconi Company in Britain and Telefunken in Germany. They supplied equally capable technology to their countries’ military and exported it to others.

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41 Comments | Add New

By Ewan S Fallon  |  2013-03-28 at 06:47  |  permalink

Did the major forget about this:

The story begins in September 1940 with the arrival in Washington of a team of British scientists bearing England’s most closely guarded technological secrets, among them the cavity magnetron, a revolutionary new source of microwave energy that was to pave the way for radar systems small enough to fit on planes and ships. The magnetron’s arrival triggered the most dramatic mobilization of science in history as America’s top scientists enlisted in the “war within the war” to convert the British invention into a potent military weapon.

By alex  |  2013-09-11 at 07:55  |  permalink

Further to previous, pulsed transmission radar actually existed from 1926 onwards. Physicist, Edward Victor Appleton, used frequency modulation radar to accurately measure the ionosphere in 1924. This was the first time that an object was measured by radio location. He repeated this experiment in 1925 using directional antennae. Also in 1925, Merle Tuve and Gregory Breit invented the ionosonde in the USA. In 1926, Edward Victor Appleton adapted the ionosonde for use with the oscilloscope developed by Robert Watson Watt and his own pulsed method of measurement. He used the resulting pulsed transmission radar to measure the ionosphere.

Edward Victor Appleton was elected Vice-President of the American Institute of Radio Engineers in 1932.

By Dick McCue  |  2014-05-15 at 14:39  |  permalink

The article does indeed contain some inaccuracies, but so do many of the commentary.

Dr Hans Hollmann patented-secretly- the cavity magnetron in Germany during 1935. At the time Hollmann was on the developmental team of the prototype Seetakt radar then being tested. GEMA engineers dropped the magnetron from the Seetakt design by 1936 because the natural instabilities of the magnetron did not work with Seetakt’s sophisticated system of using a master modulation to regulate the timing of pulses and to measure fine range by phase differential.

The Japanese also discovered the cavity magnetron independently. It was used in the 10cm naval radars operational from mid 1941. The Japanese did not discover strapping, however, and this limited the power output of their centimetric radars.

By Jonathan Walker  |  2014-05-25 at 08:58  |  permalink

I have not yet read your whole text but you mention the Wizard War, which is the title of an excellent book by Dr. R.V. Jones – English Title Most Secret War.

No one who has read this book or taken an interest in the technology of WW2 will have any doubt that the original Chain Home radar system was pretty crude – or that radar was developed more or less simultaneously in several countries.

The area where Britain led was the development of the system of communications and information appraisal that allowed Fighter Command to put its assets in the right place at the right time and otherwise use them rationally and economically.

This was because Britain started at an early stage to develop radar as the basis for air defence system, while their enemies were occupied with the offensive use of air power.

But as the war progressed, British innovations like the Cavity Magnetron and the Plan Position Indicator far outstripped developments on the German side, so that by the end of the War, overall British superiority was no myth.

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