Deflating British Radar Myths of World War II

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As a casual military history buff and a previous operator of the USAF’s radar platform, the E-3 AWACS, I have always been keenly appreciative ...
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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 Roger Beardsley  |  2010-08-29 at 00:29  |  permalink

I suspect Major Clark’s position is a position of ‘sour grapes’. How good was the US radar system at Pearl Harbor? Oh, I forgot, several years after the British had a system that worked, Pearl Harbor did not.

By William Butler Yeats  |  2010-10-08 at 16:41  |  permalink

Actually there WAS a functional radar installation at Pearl and it DID detect the first wave of Jap bombers coming in but the warnings were ignored as they were misconstrued as an incoming flight of B-17 bombers coming in from the west coast. You Brits would be speaking German if it weren’t for the Yanks and this mistake.

By Roger Beardsley  |  2010-10-25 at 00:17  |  permalink

Exactly!! I said ‘a system that worked’. The ‘system’ is not just the hardware, but includes the people that operate and interpret it. And I do not believe that we would be speaking German were it not for America’s entry into the war in December 1941. Operation Barbarossa helped ensure that.

By Dr Bob Matthews  |  2011-06-29 at 21:46  |  permalink

If the Brits had not made the major technical contribution to the Manhattan project, a) you wouldn’t have been able to use the atom bomb on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
b) The Russians would not have been able to develop a nuclear weapon in the time they did because you would not have been able to lose the technology due to your incompetent security.
c) You would not have had the magnetron which like everything else we gave you for nothing.
d) You would not have had the jet engine which was something else you got on the cheap.
As usual yanks trying to make out that they are the saviours of the world by sitting on the fence until they could work out the winning side. It really makes me puke, the only armed forces who manage to bomb their own and allied troops, and when shooting at the enemy use about 1,000 rounds expended before managing to hit anything that can return fire. In a word a modern version of the wild west.

By Arthur Murray  |  2010-10-02 at 09:30  |  permalink

There may be something in the view that the Germans improved their radar from captured British technology. The cavity magnetron, invented at the University of Birmingham, was installed in fighter-bombers intercepting night-flying German bombers. I believe that these fighter-bombers were forbidden to fly over enemy territory in case they got shot down, because cavity magnetrons can survive a crash more or less undamaged.
An aircraft was indeed shot down and, as I recall, the Germans had made their own cavity magnetron within six weeks.

By Gazza Tee  |  2010-10-05 at 23:16  |  permalink

Radar development is in itself a fascinating history as well as a fascinating science. From the earliest days of the use of radio direction finding for military use – defensive rather more that offensive – it has been a game of out-doing the enemy by using exploiting their technology advantages to gain “the higher ground” from a technology point of view. The war of radar during WW2 follows this very pattern of play.
To say one adversary had better systems is an argument that does not hold up – because it was the manner in which the RDF or radar systems were deployed that yielded results. Germany was extremely good at producing high quality radar technology, but failed miserably to implement these into the field. Only in the mid-war years, when the Reich was under air-attack did Germany actually pull the stops out to field an effective air defence network of sensors and co-ordinated fighter response. The British had this in place in 1939 with Chain Home and continued to develop other forms of HF, VHF, UHF and eventually microwave systems that operated together on land, sea and in the air. The difference between the adversaries was that Britain continued to roll out variations of sensors and develop methods new ways to implement them in the battlefield, while Germany, sat on its hands and failed to evolve its radar technology and counter measures until it was too late.
One must remember that one of the major turning points of the radar war was the capture of German radar equipment from Bruvenal in 194. From that point, Britain had it’s hands on German technology and was able to develop similar systems and counter-measures to field against Germany hence forth. Britain had a major scientific and engineering arm working on radar developments right from first day of war. TRE was the main driver behind British radar developments and applications and this arm of scientist and engineers were instrumental in turning the tide against the Germans. This was the main factor that won the radar war.

By Tim Price  |  2010-10-13 at 00:27  |  permalink

This article is the best summary of British/German radar I’ve ever read. Far from deflating myths, it puts the record straight about this aspect of the technological war. Both sides made huge errors in assessing each other’s radar capabilities. I’m particularly interested in the German evaluation of Chain Home, I once heard a story that the National Grid emitted something that confused the Zeppelin surveillance equipment, is there any record of this?

As your next project you might like to look at Bletchley Park. Our ability to decrypt Enigma and other codes was nowhere near as widespread as we are often led to believe. Some Enigma variants were never broken regularly, others only for limited periods. In any case the sheer volume of intercepted traffic precluded any universal reading of messages. And it’s worth looking at how the Germans cracked our (much less sophisticated) codes. Once again, neither side correctly assesed the other’s capabilities in this vital area.

By John Brown  |  2010-10-14 at 10:13  |  permalink

In reply to Arthur Murray, he may be recalling the ‘ Rotterdam Geratte ‘, the Germans managed to piece together a working H2S from components salvaged from British wrecks, the resulting tests were a real jolt to the German radar designers. I haven’t heard of Germany having a working centimetric radar before the end of the war, even the night fighter versions of the Me262 were encumbered by the drag inducing ‘ antlers ‘ of Litchenstein etc.
I’m writing from memory, so I’m not 100% certain, but I seem to recall reading ( or it may have been in a documentary ) that the Chain Home transmissions were synchronised between stations, so the elint flight didn’t detect any changes as it progressed up the coast, and they interpreted the signals as being radiation from the National Grid, which worked in the same range of cycles. But I’m open to correction!

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

The Germans did have operational centimetric radars before the end of the war. FuMO81 Berlin operating on 6cm was operational on the battleship Tirpitz, and the cruisers Prinz Eugen and Nuernberg by mid 1944. The Germans found that the centimetric technology of H2S could be quickly reverse engineered for quick deployment of naval panoramic (PPI presentation) surface seach radar sets, with Seetakt still providing accurate firecontrol services. Airborne versions of Berlin were also available but PPI presentation was not practical for Air Interception use. There was also the conversion of existing decimetric radar sets to centimetric operation during 1944.

According OKM Tagung March 1944, the Germans knew about Chain Home all along. The Kriegsmarine detected its pulses from the earliest. It is not clear if this information was not passed on to the Luftwaffe or if these other explanations were invented to cover up more bad leadership by Goering.

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