Deflating British Radar Myths of World War II

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Luftwaffe Doctrine After the First World War, the Air Clauses of the Versailles Treaty of 1919, were intended to end military aviation in Germany ...
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Luftwaffe Doctrine

After the First World War, the Air Clauses of the Versailles Treaty of 1919, were intended to end military aviation in Germany and to prevent the resurrection of the German Flying Corps. The Allied Control Commission oversaw the demobilization of the Air Corps and the destruction of over 15,000 aircraft and 27,000 aero engines. A weakness in the Treaty of Versailles was the less strict restrictions against Germany possessing and manufacturing civil aircraft. Later, the Paris Air Agreement of 1926 removed all limitations on civilian aircraft manufacturing and commercial aviation. The Germans immediately expanded civil and commercial aviation establishing the foundations for a new air force.

General Hans von Seeckt, Chief of the Army Command at the Defence Ministry, 1920, was convinced that military aviation was the key to restoring Germany’s military power. He secretly selected a small group of regular officers from the army to oversee aviation concerns for the Ministry. This small group of officers consisted of future Luftwaffe notables such as Helmuth Felmy, Hugo Sperrle, Walter Wever, Albert Kesselring and Hans Jürgen Stumpff. As early as 1923, von Seeckt issued a memorandum arguing the need for an independent German air force.

Gen von Seeckt made astute political moves to ensure that the military could control the development of civilian aviation which would support a reborn Luftwaffe. In 1924 he secretly trained military pilots in civilian schools and managed to have a previous German Flying Corps officer, Captain Brandenburg, appointed as the head of the Civil Aviation Department.

The Paris Air Agreement of 1926 provided the veil behind which to secretly build up the German air force. 1926 saw the birth of Deutsche Lufthansa with future Luftwaffe field marshal Erhard Milch as chairman of the corporation. Lufthansa, with generous government subsidies, played an important part in building infrastructure, training personnel, and developing aircraft industry for the future Luftwaffe. Lufthansa, in a short period, would become the most technologically advanced and experienced airline in Europe. When Hitler and the Nazi party assumed power in 1933 due to the foresight of the previously mentioned military officers, there was a nucleus of trained personnel and technical expertise to resurrect the Luftwaffe. After 1933, under the new political leadership, civilian production was secretly converted to military applications providing the aircraft to the new Luftwaffe.

In March of 1935, Adolf Hitler and Hermann Göring felt that it was time to publicly announce the formation of the German Luftwaffe. Göring was appointed the Commander in-Chief of this new independent air force. Previously concealed flying clubs and police units were assigned to the new Luftwaffe forming a force of 1,888 aircraft and over 20,000 men at its inception. Now out in the open the Luftwaffe pursued a course of rapid build up and production of modern aircraft. The overt muscle flexing of the Luftwaffe caused deep concern across the English Channel and ultimately caused a critical rethinking of RAF defensive strategy.

Technical and Political Limitations

The rapid and ambitious Nazi rearmament program, as daunting as it appeared to observers, was limited by serious structural problems within the German economy and guided by geopolitical imperatives. Germany’s economic situation of the 1930’s was one of shortages of materials and hard currency to purchase these strategic items. The only natural resource possessed within Germany itself was an abundance of coal; everything else had to be imported. These items were bought with hard currency and were subject to blockade. To earn the hard currencies, the Germans had to maintain a strong industrial economy making export goods, which limited the size of rearmament programs. With the opportunity to build an air force from the ground up, Luftwaffe staff officers were as eager to promote strategic bombing as did their counterparts in America and Britain. Both Erhard Milch, State Secretary of the Air Ministry, and Walther Wever, the Luftwaffe Chief of Staff, felt that the Luftwaffe should provide a broad base of support to the other services, but maintained that the strategic bomber was the decisive weapon of air warfare. After Wever’s death in 1936, Milch took over the administrative and industrial tasks of creating the Luftwaffe. He discovered that the German aircraft industry lacked the designers and industrial capacity to create a strategic bombing fleet and concentrated on tactical and two engine bombers.

The fact that Germany was a continental power also impacted strategic thinking. In any conflict, the Germans faced the threat of immediate land operations. The Luftwaffe could not solely plan on waging a successful strategic aerial campaign without considering the threat of losing a land war. Hitler told his generals after coming to power that if France possessed any statesmen, she would wage war in the immediate future. The Luftwaffe’s strategic role from 1933–1939 was to deter both Poland and France from launching a preventive war against the Reich, further supporting the development of tactical aircraft and two engine bombers.

Reflecting their commitment to Blitzkrieg, Milch and the German High Command felt that the best way to protect the country was through offensive air operations and not in defensive measures. U.S. Army post-war intelligence stated that Field Marshall Milch retarded development of aircraft warning and fighter control systems, because it did not contribute to the offense. Milch always planned for offensive actions and prevented any thinking, planning or action which would allow for extensive and adequate air defence.

The German High Command was focused on the strategic concept of smashing adversaries in short campaigns and the Luftwaffe developed a concept of purely offensive operations to fulfil their air defensive mission. A defensive war of attrition was to be avoided. The goal of the Luftwaffe was to drive enemy bombers away from their bases through offensive bombing campaigns making it less necessary to provide major air defence units for the Reich. What made the offensive argument more desirable was the economic realities of the time. Germany did not have the resources to pursue both an offensive and defensive strategy without taking forces away from the offensive arm. Luftwaffe planners fought any project that would threaten the build-up of offensive air power. This strategy fit well with Germany’s military tradition of the offensive being the best defence.

Lessons From Spain

During the rebuilding years of the Luftwaffe, the Spanish Civil War occurred and provided the testing ground for new aircraft and tactics. The Germans took many valuable lessons away from their involvement. Probably the most important lesson learned was the need for well developed coordination between ground and tactical air forces. Lt Col Wolfram von Richthofen, a cousin of Baron Manfred von Richthofen, recognized the need for close cooperation between ground and air forces. He was responsible for getting radios installed into tactical bombers and Luftwaffe liaison officers into ground units so that air units could be directly controlled by ground units. This concept of close air support provided another key element to the German’s offensive strategy of Blitzkrieg. Von Richthofen came under fire for his support of tactical air roles, which countered the views of the strategic bombing enthusiasts.

The Spanish Civil War also showed other problems with strategic bombing. The first problem was the difficulty of finding and hitting targets during both night and day. The fact that bombers were missing visible targets convinced Ernst Udet, Chief of all the Luftwaffe’s technical departments, that all bombers must be dive bombers to ensure satisfactory bombing accuracy. This flawed assumption would haunt future German bomber designs. At night and in bad weather, the Germans had trouble just finding the target and pursued radio directional systems. This resulted in the Knickebein system which was successfully used in the Battle of Britain.

Other flaws in the strategic bombing theory became apparent during the Spanish Civil War. The Germans saw that fighters and civil defence measures were important, and could minimize the effects of strategic bombing. This heightened Germany’s interest in civil defence and prompted an increase in fighter production relative to bombers. Also one German observer noted that the bombing had a galvanizing effect on the population against Germany contrary to popular wisdom.

From their involvement in Spain, the Germans perfected the technique of close air support and validated the need for tactical air forces. The concept of strategic bombing became more unsettled, but highlighted the need for fighter aircraft and civil defence measures to counter the threat and the need for accurate bombing aids.

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78 Comments | Add New

By DNTME  |  2014-09-06 at 19:59  |  permalink

Why did the Germans not bomb the British radar sites out of existance as their first priority?

By Timothy  |  2016-02-23 at 04:11  |  permalink

I’ve thought that myself, and I think Goering’s poor leadership & refusal to stick to a course of action played a big part in failure to put, and keep, those radar stations out of action.

By DARLENE GATTON  |  2014-10-11 at 22:40  |  permalink

My Father William C Hamilton was used by the secrete service in World War 11, because of his color blindness on bombing missions.
Cant get any of his military records??
his daughter

By ari  |  2016-01-17 at 14:29  |  permalink

Everbody knows that Britain didn’t invent the radar,. But they developed the technology which was invented in Germany and the US long before Britain to a usable miltary weapon of any significance

By Alex  |  2016-02-11 at 17:22  |  permalink

British first’s:
Watson Watt combined oscilloscope with directional antennae in 1923.
Radio location was invented by Edward Victor Appleton in 1924.
Appleton probes ionosphere with pulsed transmission 1926.
Chain Home was the world’s first operational radar, 1936.
Bowen demonstrates, world’s first airborne radar, 1937.
Randall/Boot invent/pioneer bootstrapped cavity magnetron 1940.
H2S, world’s first airborne, ground mapping radar introduced, 1943.

By ari  |  2016-02-12 at 13:18  |  permalink

(Watson Watt combined oscilloscope with directional antennae in 1923)

It doesn’t mean that he invented the RADAR .

(Radio location was invented by Edward Victor Appleton in 1924.)

All Groundwork with regard to Radio was done by Marconi before

( Chain Home was the world’s first operational radar, 1936.)

True, but it still doesn’t mean Britain had invented it .German Freya system which was fully operational during Battle of Britain was far more advanced than British home chain. Watson Watt himself travelled to Germany in 1936 to find out more about this..

Randall/Boot invent/pioneer bootstrapped cavity magnetron 1940.
Magnetron was first invented in the US Albert Wallace Hull and Germans invented the resonant cavity magnetron long before Randall and Boot

Again, not invented in Britain but built in Britain first ..

What this topic is about is the fact that the RADAR was not invented in Britain and Robert Watson Watt is not the inventor. Many countries made contributions to its refinement and development but British didn’t invent it ..

The British have the nasty habit of claiming the 100 percent although sometimes they conribute only 10 percent !

Although they investigated and invented the basic techhology long before the British , neither the germans or the Americans developed the technology to a usable miltary weapon of any significance,the Brits did !

By Alex  |  2016-02-14 at 12:42  |  permalink

The issues should be addressed without bias. The article by Gregory Clark is wildly inaccurate and not an authority.

I fully accept others contributed to the invention of radar.
I fully accept the magnetron and cavity magnetron existed before Randall/Boot’s. However, Randall/Boot’s gave significant advantage to the allied war effort, due to power output/ overcoming frequency drift.

What you are doing, like G Clark is attempting to re-write history inaccurately. Everything you say is geared towards belittling British achievements.

I repeat points made before,
Watson Watt developed the oscilliscope/Adcock antenna combination in 1923.
This was ahead of the USA and Germany.

Radio location was invented by Edward Victor Appleton in 1924. Marconi did not invent radio location. He spoke of pulsed transmission radar, but did not produce any working apparatus or theory. When Appleton measured the Ionosphere in 1924, this was the first time any object had been detected by radio location. His work allowed for the ranging element of radar.
Again, ahead of the USA and Germany.

In 1926, Edward Victor Appleton constructed the basic apparatus of pulsed transmission radar using Oscilloscope/Antenna and pulsed transmitter. He shared this knowledge with the USA.
Again, ahead of the USA and Germany.

You acknowledge that Chain home was the world’s first operational radar. I personally do not think German radar was more advanced than British. Chain Home was only part of the defence system. The technology of both nations of the period, was similar. As Chain home was first however, Britain can reasonably claim to have invented Radar. The USA certainly would if the situation was reversed. There is always the issue of prior art, and this also should be acknowledged. In my opinion you do not invent something by exploring it. You invent something by producing a working design or prototype.

By Simon Ludlow  |  2016-02-10 at 08:03  |  permalink

The Germans failed to recognise the significance of the Chain Home system. Because the transmissions were different to their system, the didn’t believe it was a radar, and any suggestion that it could have been may have been treated with disbelief because they assumed the British were not technically capable. They did bomb it, but ineffectively due to the use of small bombs delivered by the JU87, from which the blast just passed through the lattice structure of the Chain Home towers. This ineffective intelligence cost them the Battle of Britain.

While speaking of intelligence, as for many weapons, it wasn’t the device itself but how it was used. Chain Home wasn’t just the radar, it was an integrated system which was proved to be extremely effective; far more so than any other application of radar in WW2. The Germans did have better radar, but little effective strategy to use it. For them, it was a tactical weapon as opposed to the strategic Chain Home system. It was until the Kammeraur line was established, but even then there were severe limitations on command and control of German radar, something which was exploited to the Allies advantage. (See ‘Most Secret War’ – R V Jones’).

As for the argument as to who invented radar, Watt is credited as he held the patent, much as Edison is credited with inventing the light bulb. However, there were forerunners. Herz had defined the principle in the Nineteenth Century and Hulsmeyer’s Telemobilescope of 1904 could claim to be the first working device operating on radar principles. And the French had an commercial radio ship detection device operational in the 1920s.

As for the paper, it’s a poor piece, mainly ”Brit Bashing” and I think the author could have best directed his efforts towards analysing the development of the use of radar as a strategic weapon. He seems fixated with the device itself, much like the Germans were in 1940.

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