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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92 Comments | Add New

By alex  |  2012-10-14 at 09:42  |  permalink

The author has not explained the development of radar correctly and accordingly reached inaccurate conclusions. Firstly, Germany did not have practical radar in 1933; Freya, Germany’s wartime system, became operational in 1938. Germany merely began experimenting in 1933.

Radar, by definition, is radio detection and ranging. If you are considering radio detection alone, then Christian Hulsmeyer patented the first apparatus for this purpose in 1904. It would take the development of pulsed transmitters for ranging to be incorporated.

Pulsed transmitters were developed in the 1920s in the US and Britain, as a result of the work of meteorologist, Edward Appleton. He understood that radio echoes could determine range. Watson Watt worked at the Meteorological Office in Britain. There, he developed the cathode ray oscilloscope with long lasting phospher in 1923, for the purpose of detecting thunderstorms. He also used directional antennae at this time.

The first experiments for Radar with pulsed transmission were by Butement/Pollard for the British army in 1931 to detect shipping and then by American Robert Page in 1934 in detecting an aircraft.

Watson Watt conducted his initial radar experiments in Daventry, February 1935. Over the course of the year he developed what would become Chain Home, with the first stations operational by 1936.

Chain Home incorporated various elements that the author has omitted. As well as Chain Home antennae, which worked wherever aimed, there was Chain Home Low with rotating antennae which operated at 1.5 metre wavelength, and seaborne radar, type 79y. In addition, Britian had mobile units (gun laying) which could transmit and receive from a single tower, and coastal defence systems with rotational antennae and lobe switching, before the outbreak of war.

What is important about Chain Home was that it worked. Ranging consisted of direction, altitude and distance. CH gave coverage and was easily maintained with a typical range of 120 miles. Freya, could not determine altitude and was shorter range.

The most important development in the war however, was the cavity magnetron invented in Britain in 1940. This device enabled centimetric radar, detecting objects as small as 9.1 cm. Aircraft could now have quality systems and the Lancaster bomber, fitted with H2S, was the most successful night bomber of WW2. Escort ships with sonar and radar won the Battle of the Atlantic. Swordfish had airborne radar. Anti aircraft guns with proximity fuzes downed most of the V1/V2 rockets.

In summary, who invented what is obviously debatable. Germany, also had formidable technology in various fields throughout the war. However, when writing an account, I do think it should be truthful; the title reveals the author’s bias.

By carl howard  |  2014-03-04 at 03:32  |  permalink

Nobody downed V2 rockets. A small correction.

By alex  |  2015-04-04 at 09:01  |  permalink

Thank you for the correction. Operation, “Big Ben” was used, however, to locate and destroy most of the launch vehicles.

By Jim  |  2012-11-26 at 00:58  |  permalink

Highly biased. Another US guy with his knickers in a knot. Not really worth reading in detail due to omissions and inaccuracy.

By Jonathan Walker  |  2015-07-04 at 09:22  |  permalink

Can’t help thinking conspiracy theorising has become a national pastime in our former colonies.

By ari  |  2016-01-17 at 15:04  |  permalink

Radar invented in Britain is another British delusion, a bedtime story for 3 year old..In 1886 when the German physicist Heinrich Rudolf Hertz discovered electromagnetic waves ,the race started . Germans and the Americans were in the forefront . German engineer Christian Hülsmeyer invents in 1904 “telemobiloscope” the first practical radar tested . 1921 the US-american physicist Albert Wallace
invents the magnetron as an efficient transmitting tube , in 1922 American electrical engineers Albert H. Taylor and Leo C. Young of the Naval Research Laboratory (USA) locate a wooden ship for the first time. in 1930 the American Lawrence A. Hyland (also of the Naval Research Laboratory), locates an aircraft for the first time.The first CXAM-1 antenna went to sea aboard USS Texas in 1938 the reason why the term radar entered the english language from the American .The German Hans Erich (Eric) Hollmann invents the cavity magnetron in 1935 ,filed a patent in 1936 long before the Brits and granted a patent in 1938 ..Robert Watson Watt was the one who demonstrated that this could be a usable miltary weapon he didn’t invent anything..Most of British inventions claimed by the Brits are like King Arthur pulling the Excalibur from stone.

By ari  |  2016-01-17 at 15:07  |  permalink

Oh talking about conspiracy theories my god nobody can beat Brits on that score..Remember the TSR.2 story ? my godness…What a fantasy .

By ari  |  2016-01-17 at 15:34  |  permalink

Biased? absolutely not..Very informative and factual ..

By Jim  |  2012-11-26 at 01:07  |  permalink

This author misses the point, probably deliberately. The Chain Home was crude and had to be. W Watt took existing devices and produced a working system. I quote him ‘ Third best will do if second best won’t be available in time and best never at all.’

There was a deeply dim Discovery Channel show on the other night showing how excellent the German fighters were and how useless Chain Home was..flying a prototype ‘stealth’ 1946 German fighter that never left the drawing board against AMES Mk1 Chain Home. Golly Gee! The Brit radar is useless! Enter graphics of toppling Chain Home towers…by 1946 the 12M band Chain Home had been replaced with 10cm PPI search radars whichof course the program completely failed to mention. What is it with the Yanks and British radar? They still haven’t got a national net in 2012..Europe has!

By jim  |  2012-12-07 at 13:49  |  permalink

This is a link to a UK 1948 Air Force Manual which explains the various systems in use in simple terms along with the various strengths / weakness etc. Major Clarke should read it, he might learn something!

By Ewan S Fallon  |  2013-03-28 at 06:32  |  permalink

A great example of sour grapes
Dr Muller sounds kind of German — what else would he come up with.
It was the first successful in action radar detection system and the cavity magnetron the Brits invented
I would suggest the Major should check out the myth of the US inventing the moving tail to get through the sound barrier, or that their airplane did not benefit from the information supplied by the British.
Or go further back for Fulton inventing the steam driven ship, after he had already been a passenger on an English steam driven vessel. Need one go on?

By Jonathan Walker  |  2014-05-25 at 09:19  |  permalink


I have lived in Germany for 25 years and am constantly amazed by German claims in general and about WW2 in particular.

My conclusion is that every invention has two inventors:

The actual inventor and the German inventor.

Moreover, I conclude that Germans are especially resentful of being beaten by another European nation, and go out of there way to try and belittle British WW2 efforts.

By ari  |  2016-01-17 at 15:31  |  permalink

Jonathan, you guys have never beaten Germany..It was the USA ( money , hardware) and USSR ( flesh and bones) who did 99% of the job..I would say, there is always the world history and the British version of it

By ari  |  2016-01-17 at 15:42  |  permalink

Cavity magnetron was not invented in Britain mate..Another British delusion even worse than the claim ‘ Computer was invented by Charles Babbage in 1830’s ‘

Birmingham profs simply plundered the German patent..

I never heard that any US scientist or engineer saying that the all moving tail was invented in the US..
Actually it was invented by Alfred Fokker the flying Dutchman during WW1 as aerodynamic stabilator.

M52 is another story, a conspiracy theory in which the Brits excel really. Unfortunately nobody believes it outside Britain or possibly in Australia..
I love how the brits persist in the myth that the Stabilator was invented during the Miles M.52 project lol!!! Fokker Eindecker featured a stabilator in 1915….

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