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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37 Comments | Add New

By Duncan  |  2011-10-01 at 22:18  |  permalink

Hi. The UK had air warning radars with a range in excess of 100 miles against high altitude aircraft, and these were in service in 1940/41. For example here is HMS Hood’s Type 279 radar performance:

http://www.hmshood.org.uk/reference/official/adm220/adm220-76.htm

and maximum detection ranges exceeded 100 nautical miles.

By Bwriter  |  2011-11-19 at 22:19  |  permalink

This is a very interesting article. But the author displays the usual immoderation of the English. Two people were instrumental in the development of radar; James Maxwell and Robert Watson-Watt. Both are Scots but this fact is never mentioned. Instead we find the usual terms Enland and Britain peppered around.
Keep it up. Every time a Scot reads something like this, they become another potential ‘Yes’ voter in the forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence.

By Richard  |  2012-04-16 at 20:55  |  permalink

“…usual immoderation of the English…”? I think the author of the aricle is American.

In any case, I doubt that anyone coming across any of Watson-Watt’s writings would fail to spot his Scottishness. I think Maxwell, Alexander Graham Bell, Logie Baird, W-W and co. are widelly recognised as Scottish archetypes, even by those of us south of the border.

More generally, it seems a bit pointless to argue about the relative contributions of diferent nationalities to what, like so many technical developments, was a cumulative and international development.

By Bwriter  |  2011-11-19 at 22:21  |  permalink

That should, of course, be England.

By Charles Russell  |  2012-01-07 at 11:24  |  permalink

While it is true that the British did not invent radar, British radar developments were far superior to anything the Germans ever came up with. For example Robert Watson-Watt invented the Cathode Ray Oscilloscope essential to a complete radar system as well as Ionosondes for measuring time delay of received radio echos.

In 1940 John Randall and Harry Boot developed the Cavity Megatron that made 1 centimeter radar a reality enabling its use on aircraft. The combination of Centimetric Radar and the Leigh Light on aircraft were an important element in Britain winning the Battle of the Atlantic against U-Boats.

By John Finley  |  2012-03-16 at 02:02  |  permalink

The German Inventor Christian Hulsmeyer patented “a procedure for reporting . . . metal objects by means of electric waves” in Dusseldorf, Germany on April 30, 1904. He went all over Germany and Europe trying to get anyone to purchase his radar. He had a parabolic radar system that he demonstrated. Because Marconi’s new ‘radio waves’ were the current rage, no one could see that detecting objects was of any value.

Hulsmeyer took his invention to the Holland-America Line and proposed trials, which they accepted, but again, the demonstration did not fail, the observers failed to understand its value.

The source for this is a book entitled “The Encyclopedia of U-Boats from 1904 to the present” by Eberhard Moller and Werner Brack, p.166 to 168.

By Alex  |  2012-10-08 at 13:27  |  permalink

The article is not really accurate. Germany did not have practical radar in 1933 – they merely began experimenting at this time. It seems they had a prototype pulsed system by May 1935. In contrast, Watson-Watt demonstrated his system in Feb 1935. What is important about Watson-Watt’s contribution is that it worked ie could detect aircraft with measures for distance and altitude. The British army had experimented with pulsed system detection as early as 1931.

Detection alone (without range), belongs to Hulsmeyer.

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