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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92 Comments | Add New

By John Brown  |  2010-10-14 at 10:53  |  permalink

Supplement to my last post, the Germans did produce a 10cm radar for AA use ( Marback ) in small numbers, and by January 1945 had about 40 sets of a 10cm AI installed in aircraft, ( using salvaged/reverse engineered components from allied radars ) but by then the critical fuel situation meant that I doubt if any saw combat use. Certainly the German record on centimetric radar seems to have been ‘ too little, too late ‘. Interestingly, according to Wikepedia, the Germans had developed magnetrons pre-war, as had the Russians, but never made the step to employing them in radar. Were our scientists better, or just more flexible in their thinking?

By Vic Ludlow  |  2010-11-20 at 19:34  |  permalink

Pre-WWII magnetrons would have been of the Split Anode variety – they were Negative Resistance devices and relatively low-powered.

By paul steinmetz  |  2011-03-25 at 13:16  |  permalink

Robert M. Page in 1934 first developed practical monopulse radar at NRL. If there be an “inventor” and pioneer of radar, it is him. I refer anyone with a fair and open mind to read “The Origin Of Radar” by Robert M. Page (Doubleday,1962). It clarifies the matter with overwhelming well-documented evidence.

By Arthur Alloway  |  2013-07-21 at 02:40  |  permalink

Hi Paul – while Page is a recognised contributor to the advancement of RADAR the progression of development of true detection and ranging was an evolutionary process with many contributors. The idea to effect ranging in addition to detection actually in all probability belongs to Barnett who as a Rhodes Scholar and Postgrad under Appleton suggested and implemented much improved ranging technology in his experimental equipment to measure the height of the ionisphere in 1925 (this is documented in papers held in family records – not mine incidentally so I have no vested interest here). Barnett and Appleton also observed that aircraft were interfering with their experiments ie they could detect and range them with their experimental equipments. It may or may not be significant that Barnett’s brother who rose to be Air Chief Marshall of the RAF Sir Denis Barnett was at the time a junior officer of the RAF and had regular social contact with his brother. I have no proof of this connection and of its influence on the acceptance and development of the British military RADAR program but it’s noteworthy that Watson Watt was also a professional collegue of Appelton and Barnett. Appleton went on to get a Nobel, Watt much public acclaim and Barnett got little or no recognition.

By Arthur Lander  |  2011-06-17 at 02:30  |  permalink

Everyone seems to overlook the fact that the original radar invention (whomever it is credited to) fell short of the needed range to defend Britain from German bombing due to the fact that it was limited to detecting “friend or foe” aircraft at a distance of 25 miles away max. In order to give the British enough time to decide if incoming aircraft were “friend or foe” from the radar echos, the range had to be extended out by another 100 miles. This was accomplished during a secret us army project from 1938-1941 by a very small group of scientists along with a young army private (turned lieutenant after 3 years on the project) who acted as the scribe to record everything in a lab notebook. This scribe was my uncle Harry L. Lander (see US patent office database for his later plastic inventions), who told me the whole story before he passed away in 2006. The 125 mile extended range improvement to the original radar invention remains to this day as the range limit used in all radar applications. Also the necessary antenna design changes made from 1938-1941 were actually stolen from the Japanese Yagi antenna design through OSS operatives to be used for the secret project.

By Stehlist  |  2011-07-20 at 12:45  |  permalink

In the book by Rolf Strehl (a German), the ‘Rotterdam Geraet’ is described in more detail. The HS2 was put up in a tower near Berlin when reconstructed, and much to the amazement of the Germans it showed the contours of the city rather than the simple delay pulses on their own simple radar scopes. The fact that there were practical problems, as in many of the new British inventions, does not diminish the great achievement of the sine/cosine controlled oscilloscope with slow phosphor, attached to a synchronized rotation antenna: the modern radar. The deflation of a myth did not succeed. Clark provides some interesting details, but it’s WW-II and the actual use of radar in warfare that counts. I have no special sympathy for Brits, on the contrary, lately, but truth is truth.

By Stehlist  |  2011-07-20 at 13:50  |  permalink

@Arthur Lander – the horizon-limited range of radar is exactly the point that Rolf Strehl makes, the height of the tower determines the radius of line of sight. Therefore, not surprisingly, mounting of a unit in reconaissance fighters such as the Spitfire was experimented with (they were heavily used for photoreconnaissance, already).

From Ums genau zu klären, wie weit die deutsche Technik war, die entsprechende Passage aus dem Giessler: “Auf alle Fälle war der Vorsprung der Alliierten durch den praktischen Einsatz der Radargeräte auf 9,1cm und der neuartigen Panoramaanzeige so groß geworden, daß dieser bis zum Kriegsende nicht eingeholt werden konnte.”

“In any case, the allied progress due to the practical use of 9.1cm radar devices and the new type [sic!] of panorama display had become so large that it could not be taken over until the end of war”.

H. Giessler, Der Marine- … Radar, Deutsche Ausgabe, Warschau 1/1979; R. Woller/J. Rohwer.

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