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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92 Comments | Add New

By John Brewer  |  2018-02-24 at 22:06  |  permalink

The author makes a very simple mistake. RADAR was the means of detection, the Dowding system as a whole was what won the battle and is what was revolutionary. The actual RADAR technology was not advanced at the time but it was in service, all around the UK and linked to sector stations. As a result of this, Winston Churchill could sit next to Keith Park and survey the conflict as a battlefield like a general in the Napoleonic wars with all forces and reserves clearly visible and understandable to an interested novice. In 1940 the Luftwaffe was an attacking organisation, its RADAR systems were therefore generally mobile, but the British had mobile RADAR too. When Germany came under sustained attack it developed a similar and effective system, but it didn’t have it before war was declared. That was Dowdings genius. As for “inventing” RADAR, no one invented it, as soon as people started receiving radio messages it was noticed that aircraft interfered with reception, RADAR is just a use of this effect.

By clive wingent  |  2018-10-08 at 20:54  |  permalink

My father worked at crystal palace as a glass blower initially for Cinema Television , and Bairds making prototype cathode ray tubes ,valves and condensers. Then secret work for the government at the palace in connection with radar. Can anyone throw any more light on this work in particular at the Rotunda ( which survived the fire of 1936 )

By julian foynes  |  2020-01-26 at 15:41  |  permalink

This article is not entirely balanced or accurate. Though Chain Home HF was the only British radar in operation in September 1939, others, with higher frequencies and rotatable aerials, were already being assembled and were under test. By the time of the Battle of Britain in 1940 Chain Home Low (with relatively small aerials working split-beam) was in operation, and working in conjunction with CH), and the Army & Royal Navy also had their VHF sets, with the 600 Mc/s UHF naval gunnery sets under test and soon to be installed. The 10-cm magnetron had also been conceived–if not yet installed.
Also 1939 CH did not find direction by “triangulation”–though that was done at the central Filter Room for the sake of accuracy–the goniometer varied the gain of the 2 elements in receiver array.
It is true that the Freya was a more flexible, accurate and more intelligence-secure radar than CH, and so in almost all senses more advanced–and akin to modern radar. But the British were already breaking through into such new radar in 1939 and did not have to copy it from the Germans, whose system they did not discover until 1941.

By julian foynes  |  2020-01-26 at 15:51  |  permalink

I should add that part of the Bawdsey team–i.e Bowen’s–had already successfully rested airborne (fighter) radar by 1939, and once this was linked up with the 360-degree rotating Ground Control Interception VHF stations early in 1941 British night air defence took its decisive leap forward.
I would also agree with Mr Brewer’s comment. Mr Clark is making the mistake that Britain and Germany were the 2 participants in a “race” towards modern radar in the 30s and early 40s and that Germany was winning (till 1941?). As Watson Watt said “Better a second class system today than first class tomorrow”.
Still, at least Mr Clark isn’t the author of the American website which says that “the US Navy’s magnetron radar was later copied by other navies such as the British”!
But he might reflect that the Allies’ 1941-45 magnetron grew out of British research which was underway in 1939.

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