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 DNTME  |  2014-09-06 at 19:59  |  permalink

Why did the Germans not bomb the British radar sites out of existance as their first priority?

By Timothy  |  2016-02-23 at 04:11  |  permalink

I’ve thought that myself, and I think Goering’s poor leadership & refusal to stick to a course of action played a big part in failure to put, and keep, those radar stations out of action.

By DARLENE GATTON  |  2014-10-11 at 22:40  |  permalink

My Father William C Hamilton was used by the secrete service in World War 11, because of his color blindness on bombing missions.
Cant get any of his military records??
his daughter

By ari  |  2016-01-17 at 14:29  |  permalink

Everbody knows that Britain didn’t invent the radar,. But they developed the technology which was invented in Germany and the US long before Britain to a usable miltary weapon of any significance

By Alex  |  2016-02-11 at 17:22  |  permalink

British first’s:
Watson Watt combined oscilloscope with directional antennae in 1923.
Radio location was invented by Edward Victor Appleton in 1924.
Appleton probes ionosphere with pulsed transmission 1926.
Chain Home was the world’s first operational radar, 1936.
Bowen demonstrates, world’s first airborne radar, 1937.
Randall/Boot invent/pioneer bootstrapped cavity magnetron 1940.
H2S, world’s first airborne, ground mapping radar introduced, 1943.

By ari  |  2016-02-12 at 13:18  |  permalink

(Watson Watt combined oscilloscope with directional antennae in 1923)

It doesn’t mean that he invented the RADAR .

(Radio location was invented by Edward Victor Appleton in 1924.)

All Groundwork with regard to Radio was done by Marconi before

( Chain Home was the world’s first operational radar, 1936.)

True, but it still doesn’t mean Britain had invented it .German Freya system which was fully operational during Battle of Britain was far more advanced than British home chain. Watson Watt himself travelled to Germany in 1936 to find out more about this..

Randall/Boot invent/pioneer bootstrapped cavity magnetron 1940.
Magnetron was first invented in the US Albert Wallace Hull and Germans invented the resonant cavity magnetron long before Randall and Boot

Again, not invented in Britain but built in Britain first ..

What this topic is about is the fact that the RADAR was not invented in Britain and Robert Watson Watt is not the inventor. Many countries made contributions to its refinement and development but British didn’t invent it ..

The British have the nasty habit of claiming the 100 percent although sometimes they conribute only 10 percent !

Although they investigated and invented the basic techhology long before the British , neither the germans or the Americans developed the technology to a usable miltary weapon of any significance,the Brits did !

By Alex  |  2016-02-14 at 12:42  |  permalink

The issues should be addressed without bias. The article by Gregory Clark is wildly inaccurate and not an authority.

I fully accept others contributed to the invention of radar.
I fully accept the magnetron and cavity magnetron existed before Randall/Boot’s. However, Randall/Boot’s gave significant advantage to the allied war effort, due to power output/ overcoming frequency drift.

What you are doing, like G Clark is attempting to re-write history inaccurately. Everything you say is geared towards belittling British achievements.

I repeat points made before,
Watson Watt developed the oscilliscope/Adcock antenna combination in 1923.
This was ahead of the USA and Germany.

Radio location was invented by Edward Victor Appleton in 1924. Marconi did not invent radio location. He spoke of pulsed transmission radar, but did not produce any working apparatus or theory. When Appleton measured the Ionosphere in 1924, this was the first time any object had been detected by radio location. His work allowed for the ranging element of radar.
Again, ahead of the USA and Germany.

In 1926, Edward Victor Appleton constructed the basic apparatus of pulsed transmission radar using Oscilloscope/Antenna and pulsed transmitter. He shared this knowledge with the USA.
Again, ahead of the USA and Germany.

You acknowledge that Chain home was the world’s first operational radar. I personally do not think German radar was more advanced than British. Chain Home was only part of the defence system. The technology of both nations of the period, was similar. As Chain home was first however, Britain can reasonably claim to have invented Radar. The USA certainly would if the situation was reversed. There is always the issue of prior art, and this also should be acknowledged. In my opinion you do not invent something by exploring it. You invent something by producing a working design or prototype.

By ari  |  2017-02-05 at 10:49  |  permalink

Hello Alex.

If you read the link below, you will recognize the fact that all British radar developments were based on German research, entirely …

The first modern Cathode Ray Tubes, CRTs, were invented and built by Manfred von Ardenne who was a close friend of Hollmann and who also had a research lab located in Lichterfelden, Berlin, across from Hollmann’s lab. Click here to see his work on the CRT.

In 1929, Watson Watt visited the Lichterfelde labs of Hollmann and von Ardenne and purchased several hundred CRTs over the years.

By Alex  |  2017-10-15 at 09:56  |  permalink

Hello Ari,

Again you are cherry picking your evidence. The article to which you refer, is not accurate.

By Albert  |  2017-11-16 at 13:54  |  permalink

‘You invent something by producing a working design or prototype.’

Dear Alex,

Based on your above statement we all can acknowledge the fact that it was the Germans who invented the j et engine because they designed ,built and flew the first jet powered aircraft ( 1939 ) two years before the British ( 1941)

By Alex  |  2018-01-01 at 11:54  |  permalink

The website to which you refer is inaccurate. As with Major Clark, the arguments are confused and dates incorrect. Chain Home represents the world’s first operational radar.

Cathode rays were first identified by Michael Faraday/ William Crookes. However this is a different issue. You are simply cherry picking arguments in order to support a false assertion.

By Simon Ludlow  |  2016-02-10 at 08:03  |  permalink

The Germans failed to recognise the significance of the Chain Home system. Because the transmissions were different to their system, the didn’t believe it was a radar, and any suggestion that it could have been may have been treated with disbelief because they assumed the British were not technically capable. They did bomb it, but ineffectively due to the use of small bombs delivered by the JU87, from which the blast just passed through the lattice structure of the Chain Home towers. This ineffective intelligence cost them the Battle of Britain.

While speaking of intelligence, as for many weapons, it wasn’t the device itself but how it was used. Chain Home wasn’t just the radar, it was an integrated system which was proved to be extremely effective; far more so than any other application of radar in WW2. The Germans did have better radar, but little effective strategy to use it. For them, it was a tactical weapon as opposed to the strategic Chain Home system. It was until the Kammeraur line was established, but even then there were severe limitations on command and control of German radar, something which was exploited to the Allies advantage. (See ‘Most Secret War’ – R V Jones’).

As for the argument as to who invented radar, Watt is credited as he held the patent, much as Edison is credited with inventing the light bulb. However, there were forerunners. Herz had defined the principle in the Nineteenth Century and Hulsmeyer’s Telemobilescope of 1904 could claim to be the first working device operating on radar principles. And the French had an commercial radio ship detection device operational in the 1920s.

As for the paper, it’s a poor piece, mainly ”Brit Bashing” and I think the author could have best directed his efforts towards analysing the development of the use of radar as a strategic weapon. He seems fixated with the device itself, much like the Germans were in 1940.

By Jonathan  |  2016-05-19 at 12:22  |  permalink

Quite simple – See ‘Most Secret War’ – R V Jones (as per Ludlow) brilliant book, brilliant man, where have they gone when we (are going) to need them?

Reply to clive wingent