Canada Recruits the "Man Who Won the War"
Widely acclaimed as the individual who did most toward the Allied victory Sir Robert Watson-Watt discovered radar when looking for a death ray in 1934. The chubby Scottish ex-spy, who happily mixes physics and poetry, is now guiding Canada’s hush-hush first line of defense in the far north
LAST APRIL the Canadian Defense Research Board, which keeps the armed services up to date in weapons, signed on a cheery chubby Scottish knight who embodies the oddly assorted qualities of scientist, spy and dilettante and has been widely credited with the biggest individual contribution to the Allied victory in World War Two.
His name is Sir Robert Alexander Watson-Watt. His job is to advise Brooke Claxton, Minister of Defense, on how northern Canada can best be studded with radar stations capable of spotting hostile aircraft and guided missiles approaching over the roof of the world from Asia. His qualifications, at sixty, are matchless. His background is dramatic and picturesque.
Just before Christmas last year a British Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors, after listening
to forty-four days of evidence, decided Sir Robert Watson-Watt is the indisputable creator of radar, that miraculous electronic eye which won the Battle of Britain, forced Hitler to abandon his plans to invade the United Kingdom, entangled the Wehrmacht in hostilities on two fronts and thereby made certain the ultimate defeat of Germany.
Although he had been knighted for his timely discovery as far back as 1942. the Royal Commission added to his laurels a gift of one hundred and fifty thousand dollars from the public funds. The sum was a mere crumb compared with the millions Watson-Watt would have netted from royalties had radar been invented and exploited under normal commercial conditions. But it was born in the anxious Thirties under a cloak, in a cellar with guards at the stairs. Continued next page
RADAR: "THE GREATEST INVENTION SINCE GUNPOWDER’’
Much of Watson-Watt's story still lies locked in the security archives of Britain, Canada and the United States. Part of it inspired a thrilling British movie called The Small Back Room. Maclean’s here presents more of that story than has ever been told before.
Of all the Boffins—the British fighting man’s affectionate term for the geniuses who gave him new weapons—Watson-Watt, son of a poor Scottish carpenter, was the greatest. Because radar is based on the principle of rebounding radio impulses the RAF fondly nicknamed him Little Sir Echo.
In 1934, when the belligerence of Hitler was beginning to make Europe uneasy and scientists all over the world were walling themselves up, Watson-Watt, with a handful of disciples, set out to invent a death ray. He failed. But by 1935 he had produced the first radar set as "the next best thing.”
Six years later, in the Battle of Britain, he had the satisfaction of seeing the mighty Luftwaffe dash itself to pieces against the guns of a few
Spitfire pilots who had the advantage of being guided to their quarry by radar.
Radar has been described as "the greatest military revolution since the invention of gun powder,” "the greatest innovation in naval warfare since steam supplanted sail,” and "the greatest step forward in aviation since the introduction of the internal combustion engine.”
Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park, who commanded wartime fighter defenses in Britain, the Middle East, Malta and the Far East, has written: "Radar was the biggest single factor contributing to the success of our air operations.” The late Sir Stafford Cripps once said: "Radar is the only invention without tvhich the war would, in all human probability, have been lost.”
Roughly speaking, radar throws out a radio pulse which, on coming in contact with a solid object ahead, bounces back and records the distance, height and character of that object on a screen. Sir Robert, who lightly attributes his invention to "approximate arithmetic and armchair
audacity” defines it as "the instantaneous visual target position finder.”
Although he is a plump, apple-cheeked, twinklyeyed little introvert, who has "never had any healthy taste for exercise,” and who loves luxury, flowers and the arts even more than the intellectual stresses of the laboratory, Watson-Watt is possessed of impressive physical and moral courage.
Shortly before September 3, 1939, he risked a Nazi firing squad by going to Germany as a spy to test the validity of British Secret Service suspicions that Hitler was developing a radar net of his own.
During the first year of the war he steeled himself against vertigo scores of times and shinned up high swaying masts to make sure the electronic "sentries” at the top were maintaining proper
When pieces of captured British equipment and the treachery of French scientists finally enabled the Germans to copy radar Watson-Watt was prepared if necessary to cross the Channel with a troop of Commandos to "inspect” its efficiency.
Like many other inventors he had to drive his ideas through the fortifications of a deeply entrenched, prejudiced and dilatory British bureaucracy. ‘T have toiled with great comrades,” he says, “and I have wrestled with preventive men.”
Ever since the end of the war he has been a major force behind the awesome improvements and extensions to radar in both Western Europe and North America. Today he constitutes the fulcrum of Canada’s frontline defenses against possible attack from Russia. His electronics consulting company, Adalia Limited, named after the Gulf of Adalia, his favorite view in the Mediterranean, las Sheraton period furniture in its London office, modern style in its New York office and French colonial type in its Montreal office. The clients of the company range from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to the J. Arthur Rank movie outfit in Britain, which seeks guidance on theatre television experiments.
Watson-Watt flits between London, Paris, Washington and Ottawa with no more ado than a traveling salesman. He first crossed the Atlantic in 1941, two days after Pearl Harbor, to help the shocked and bewildered U. S. government replace its obsolete coastal warning systems. Since then, by sea and air, he has made the trans-ocean journey about one hundred times.
Lady Watson-W’att, whom he married during World War One, still occupies their pretty little house in Richmond, Surrey, on the outskirts of London. Sir Robert, if he can be said to have any base at all, uses a suite in Montreal’s plush RitzCarlton hotel. They have no children, or, as Watson-Watt would have called them, “micro-
In odd moments Watson-Watt: writes bits of poetry, admires paintings by Matisse and Picasso, listens to Stravinsky, reads James Joyce and, in those somewhat precise tones known as "the cultured Edinburgh accent,” talks more fondly of the modems than the classics in art.
"I love the coolly perceptive awareness of Arnold Bennett, the hotly autobiographical awareness of D. H. Lawrence, the tenderly personal awareness of Robert Burns.” He speaks nostalgically of Jeritza singing in Vienna, Tristan and Isolde at the Metropolitan in New York, and "Bartok trying to say with a piano more than any piano can say.”
Somewhere between the scientist and the sybarite in him lies the sentimentalist. A few years ago he took a cathode-ray oscillograph, the fundamental component of radar and television, to an English orphanage Christmas party. He was billed as "Radar Robert and his Magic Bottle,” and he brought the house down with a comedy act in electronics. Unlike most scientists he has no antipathy to the layman’s simplification of scientific terms by "vulgar metaphor.” Cathode-ray oscillograph or Magic Bottle—it’s all the same to him.
There is a warmth in his personality, a touching wistfulness, a hint of things missed in his upward slog from obscurity. Just after the war, in a philosophical series of BBC talks entitled, In My
A MACLEAN’S BONUS-LENGTH FEATURE
Experience, he told his radio audience: “My
greatest regret is that I didn’t realize sooner how much 1 wanted to dance the tango and the samba really well. And now' there are five feet six inches, fifty-six years and one hundred and seventy pounds and no fool like an old fool.”
He considers his Canadian radar appointment of top strategic priority and admits, “It will be much tougher in Canada than it was in Britain.” Instead of the compact defenses set up around the British coast there must be devised a radar network to scan thousands of miles of uninhabited bush, muskeg, rock and ice extending to the North Pole. He believes that “Here is the country which forms and must at least maintain the northwest frontier of our civilization Canada is a
key area in primary defense in the air age . . . Here is the place where any advice on electronics I have to offer is most likely to be of early use.”
Unfortunately for the curious he adds: “There is little one can say publicly about the details. But we may look at what radar did in the past and learn some lessons.”
It is impossible to follow the birth of radar without going back to its inventor’s youth. Bessie Mitchell, the teacher of Standard Six, the highest class at Damacre Road Board School, Brechin—a small rope, linen, whisky and paper town in Angus, central Scotland —stoutly defended twelve-year-old Robert Watson-Watt, the youngest son of a local carpenter, as “a lad o’ pairts,” and she made a of him in spite of the fact that others dubbed him u “feckless loon.”
Early in life this dreamy cherubic pupil had set his schoolfellows muttering darkly by uttering the
heresy that he didn’t like football. He troubled the school inspectors by his enthusiasm for new subjects and utter boredom with the old ones, and by the weird catholicity of his taste in adult literature from the public library.
But in these traits the enlightened Bessie saw the glimmer of genius. It is exciting to think that Bessie Mitchell, now a spry old woman who follows Watson-Watt’s career with voluble pride, helped to prepare Hitler’s dow’nfall when he too was a schoolboy of similar age in distant Austria.
After young Robert had written i remarkably learned essay on a new marvel called radium she saved him from becoming a carpenter by flouncing into his parents’ home, pointing out that three older brothers were working, and explaining that with the help of bursaries the Watson-Watts might achieve the ambition of most Scots families and give at least one of their progeny a university education.
Instead of becoming a woodworker’s apprentice at thirteen, Watson-Watt became a scholarship boy at Brechin High School. He loathed Latin and Greek but excelled in the living tongues. At sixteen, for holiday reading, he chose Les Cent Meilleurs Poèmes and Die Hundert Besten Gedichte and finished them during six weeks’ life alone in a tent among the glowering Grampians, a range of Scottish mountains.
Communion with foreign verse and preoccupation with English composition so distracted him from a manifest bent for science that the headmaster of Brechin High, wounded by his scholastic vagaries and apathy for the classics, predicted he would be pitched into the pit of journalism and might even
be sentenced to the editorship of the Glasgow Herald.
But letters failed to woo him from the laboratory, although they lived on like the memory of an old flame. Forty years later W’atson-Watt’s divided dedication was discernible to a scientist colleague, who paid him his most cherished compliment: that he was “a poet in physics.”
Pure mathematics never appealed to him “as intellectual gymnastics” as they do to colder scientists. James Taggart, the physics master at Brechin High, perceived the youngster’s hunger for freedom of expression. Taggart lured him into applied mathematics through the thrilling field of dynamics then packed off to the University of St. Andrews a Watson-Watt panting with anticipation and clutching in his dumpling hand bursary in electrical engineering.
From then on he began to change into a human encyclopedia. He graduated with distinction in electrical engineering, while flirting outside his own faculty with natural history and natural philosophy. Later he lived on three hundred dollars a year as a lecturer in physics. Early in World War One he worked at the bench in University College, Dundee, on the physico-chemical aspects of novocaine, the local anaesthetic. At the same time he took a postgraduate course in radiotelegraphy.
He began tinkering with the possibility of locating thunderstorms by radio. In 1916 he was summoned to the Meteorological Office which put him in a wooden hut at Aldershot and told him to apply his knowledge to the problem of forecasting thunderstorms as a warning to Royal Flying Corps pilots. Continued on page 40
Continued on page 40
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During that year he conceived improvements and new uses for the cathode-ray oscillograph.now a familiar component of every television set, and put his ideas in writing to the director of the Meteorological Office, a fact still on record.
Ritchie Calder, in his book Profile On Science, defines the cathode-ray oscillograph:
It looks like an outsize paste bottle with the electron gun in the neck and the inside of the base coated with fluorescent chemicals tthe television screen). The beam of electrons streaming from the cathode is focused into a fine pencil and impinges on the screen as a luminous spot. An atmospheric. the electric outrider of the thunderstorm, perhaps thousands of miles away, invades the receiving system and flicks that point so that it makes a luminous stroke on the screen from the direction in which it is approaching.
This needed a very' sensitive oscillograph. Before he had had a chance to build his own. he saw a demonstration of the first cathode-ray oscillograph suitable for his purpose—built by Western Electric, UJSA..—at an evening meeting of the Institution of Electrical Engineers. Before dawn he sprang onto his bicycle, raced to the station and caught the first train to London, and persuaded the firm to let him have it. It was the first to go into practical use in England.
Now he had the apparatus for finding the direction of a thunderstorm. But how far was it away? Simple, said Watt. He had to have two cathoderay oscillographs, or, as he has called them ever since, “Magic Bottles.” He put one in a station at Datchet, near Slough, Buckinghamshire, and another in a second station four hundred miles away at Leuchars, in Fifeshire, Scotland. The “Magic Bottles” were synchronized. The atmospherics from a thunderstorm now produced two luminous strokes on his screen. Where the strokes crossed was the exact location of the storm. Whether it was in the middle of the Sahara, the Pacific or the polar wastes, WarsonWatt could take his electronic bearings on a thunderstorm and fix its position to within a few miles.
For the next ten years he wandered all over the world studying thunderstorms. He had the unique civilian experience of directing the captain of an RN cruiser—in the Bay' of Bengal where the fathers of all thunderstorms occur—to chase up and down after the best ones. Circlinz around in the sea for weeks on seemingly aimless voyages and constantly amid the clap of thunder and flash of lightning, the crew began to think that Watson-Watt was a kind of scientific Svengali who had bewitched every'bodv on the quarter-deck.
He hunted thunderstorms in the Sudan, pitching his tent miles out in the desert. One day, when he was absent from the camp watching a thunderstorm, a band of Bedouins crept up and stole his tent and all his belongings. Fortunately he was carrying his valuable apparatus on his person.
In 1923 he went to the Arctic and gleaned important new facts about an electric ceiling in the sky which reflects radio waves back to the earth. It was Watson-Watt's name for this ceiling, the ionosphere, which now figures in every electronics dictionary.
In the early Thirties he was still not sure whether every radio picked up the same atmospherics. So he decided to find out. At that time Sir Henry
Walford Davies, the British composer, was giving a series of popular BBC talks called Music and the Ordinary Listener. The talks were broadcast all over the earth.
Watson-Watt got advance scripts and had copies made in large type with every syllable of each word widely spaced. He then circulated the copies to collaborators on five continents. As Sir Henry Walford Da ries spoke the collaborators followed the script. Each time i syllable was destroyed by atmospherics they blue-penciled it. The marked scripts enabled Watson-Watt to prove for the first time that everybody' hears the same atmospherics and that a thunderstorm is therefore traceable anywhere from anywhere.
By now he was superintendent of the radio division of the National Physical Laboratory, a government post. He was also an officer in the Institution of Professional Civil Servants, an organization designed to protect the interests of scientists, doctors, lawyers, engineers and other upper-bracket men in government employ. Watson-Watt speaks of himself in this connection as a “trade-union agitator.” His extra-mural activities brought him into contact with scientists in many fields and through it he became friendly with the staff of the Air Defense Experimental Establishment
at Biggin Hill, a station which later became famous in the Battle of Britain.
They' took him to see their latest wonder, a huge “mirror,” a concave saucer of concrete, twenty-five feet high and two hundred feet across, which gathered up and reflected the sound of approaching aircraft. Its maximum efficiency was twenty-four miles and in some kinds of weather it was useless.
He told them bluntly' it was high time they stopped wasting money on such cumbersome and rudimentary gadgets and got down to the possibilities of radio detection of hostileaircraft. They were hurt. But his words struck home.
In 1934 when Hitler's Brownshirts were beginning to look like a threaten-ingarmy. H. E. Wimperis. then director of scientific research at the Air Ministry, and a brother-in-law of Alice, the late wife of Vincent Massey, now Canada’s. Govemor-General, asked him if he could produce a ray which would destroy or disable an aircraft or a pilot aloft—in fact, a death ray.
Watson-Watt said, “Let me go and do a bit of arithmetic." The next day he told Wimperis a destructive ray was not yet feasible, but a detective ray' was a practical certainty.
He went to work with his first and most trusted colleague, A. F. Wilkins. Much had been done previously. In 1837 Heinrich Rudolf Hertz, a German, knew radio waves were reflected by objects which differed from their surroundings in their magnetic properties. Around 1905 Marconi, the Italian, suggested ships could be detected by receiving the radio waves they reflected. In 1924 Sir Edward Appleton, the Englishman, put the height of the ionosphere, the reflective ceiling later christened by Watson-Watt. at between sixty and seventy miles above the earth
by timing the period it took a radio pulse to hit it and bounce back.
A few months later Gregory Breit and Merle Tuve, the Americans, reported that by jerking out a short pulse of radio they could get an effect like that used in echo sounding at sea.
None of these discoveries constituted radar. But from these discoveries plus many of his own, which included measuring time to one million millionth of a second, Watson-Watt produced
“It was a triumph of pure reason,” he says, “over a mass of unrelated facts which were known to thousands of people. I like to think there was some poetry in it.”
The date of the first demonstration was in Feb. 1935, less than six weeks after Wimperis had asked for the death
Top brass from the three armed services were summoned to an old truck in a lonely field at Daventry, about sixty miles outside London. Motoring out to this secret rendezvous some of the brass had pursed its lips on noting that the soft-hearted Watson-Watt had brought along “just for the ride” his favorite nephew Patrick, aged twelve.
In case Patrick might be gabby later he was left sitting in the ditch by the roadside.
Under the canopy of the closed truck the first radar set was switched on. The screen was so dim, Wilkins, WatsonWatt’s assistant, had to strike matches for illumination. Away to the south an RAF bomber took off on a specified flight path. The radar set picked it up eight miles away.
There was a gasp from the brass. Everybody broke cover and started running excitedly back to their cars. Watson-Watt was in the lead. He was so jubilant he was heading for London when he remembered he had forgotten somebody—Patrick. He turned back and gathered up his nephew who was still sitting stoically in the ditch.
At once Watson-Watt went off to an isolated mansion on a spit of land which had to be reached by ferry at Orfordness, in East Suffolk, the nearest point to Germany. He took scientists from industry, from universities and from government laboratories to help him improve radar and lay the plans for its industrial manufacture.
His early team included A. F. Wilkins. L. F. Bainbridge-Bell, E. G. Bowen, A. G. Touch, R. HanburyBrown. H. Lamder, G. A. Roberts, R. H. A. Carter and Denis Taylor. Early this year the team shared an award of one hundred and fifty thousand dollars, a sum equal to that which Watson-Watt received singly.
For cover they called themselves the Green Spot Club, and local villagers were satisfied they were a bunch of crackpots.
"This small group of young men,” says Watson-Watt, “led by one not so young, set themselves consciously and explicitly the task of saving their country from invasion. They were formed into a team and sub-teams. They lived and breathed their enterprise as they talked about it at breakfast. lunch and dinner, in the boat crossing to the peninsula and in the sitting room until it was time to go to bed. Very much of the most important inventive and design work was done in these unrecorded conversations as well as in the laboratory-
“The team had no caste system. Its pet phrase ‘we are a soviet’ had truth. This was a dedicated community. It was gay and serious, it was effervescent and painstaking, it was cynical and earnest, it was well-informed and enquiring, it was enthusiastic, tireless and hard-working. It was impatient of organizational niceties and respectful
of only one thing—professional competence. It saw visions but it put them aside for immediate production. We hoped the crown would look at this little group of men, look at the quality and consequences of their toil and say: ‘This was a great work.’ ”
The crown did. The late King George VI was one of the first to know of what was going on at Orfordness. He always spoke of it in » hushed whisper as “Watson-Watt’s stuff.”
By 1936 the team was detecting aircraft one hundred and ten miles away. They watched civil aircraft arriving and departing over the coast and would say: “The six-thirty Lufthansa plane from Berlin is three minutes late.” Later they watched Neville Chamberlain’s plane fly on its appeasing mission to Munich.
In factories all over Britain, workers were making tiny fragments of equipment in complete ignorance of their purpose. The fragments were gathered together at shadow factories and assembled into radar sets. All around the coast mysterious masts began to appear and with them sprouted a myriad of local legends that were spoken about out of the corner of the mouth in pubs. Motorists ascribed a faulty magneto, farmers a sick sheep, housewives a blown fuse to these “death-ray guns.”
Fighting against time to create an effective radar screen around Britain, Watson-Watt was frequently frustrated by “the reluctance of public departments to be bold, elastic and speedy in doing new things.” His importunity irritated the starchy desk men at the Air Ministry and they called him “a damned contentious fellow.” They charged him with asking for double the staff every time he had a technical setback and tagged him with that most opprobrious of civil service epithets: “Empire builder.” Even fellow scientists grudged him his growing importance. The injustice of this never quenched his spirit. He took consolation in a part of his philosophy which runs: “Hatred, envy, jealousy, malice, and bitterness are the deficiency diseases of the mind. Reasoned optimism, measured tolerance and constructive discontent are its vitamins.”
He found one titled air marshal, whom he prefers not to name but whose illustrious wartime reputation has never been tarnished by recrimination, “stuffy" and “sceptical” until full-scale demonstrations in combat had proved radar’s w'orth.
Watson-Watt “trod on people’s toes” to get through to Churchill, then a Privy Councilor and member of the Air Defense Research Committee, and complain that the Air Ministry in its dealings with radar was “attempting to work at abnormal speed a preexisting normal machinery.”
For years Watson-Watt had taken holidays in Berlin where he liked to
hear Wagner, see UFA movies and chatter with fellow scientists in their own tongue. But as Hitler wove his web of political tyranny he found German friends of long standing becoming more and more taciturn. “I was scared.” he says.
In the summer of 1936 Watson-Watt was closeted with the British Secret Service whose agents had reported a strange new tower in East Prussia.
Armed with a Baedeker he set off for East Prussia on a supposed walking tour. He looked as cherubic and innocent in his breeches and stout boots as Mr. Pickwick. But in his pocket he carried a tiny telescope.
Among the hills and forests of East Prussia he sought out every church with a tower that gave a view. Then he approached the local clergyman, said he was interested in architecture and got permission to climb it. From the top he would scan the countryside for signs of a radar station.
Often he got into conversation with clergymen by telling them he was seeking the grave of a distant relative in their churchyard. Many times he looked quickly around to see that the coast was clear and swarmed up a telegraph pole.
He will not say whether he was carrying other instruments than a telescope, but he was able to return to Britain with the definite information that Germany had no radar.
Canada Was the Arsenal
The Orfordness team was now swelling fast and had to move to Bawdsey Manor, near Felixstowe on the east coast. Ironically enough the portals of this edifice were inscribed with the family motto ‘‘Rather Die Than Change.” The team reversed this into a motto of their own: “Change Rather Than Die.”
In March 1939. six months before war broke out. the Canadian government was invited to send a representative to England to share knowledge in “a most secret device." Dr. John T. Henderson, chief of the radio section of the Canadian National Research Council, sailed across.
Henderson was not surprised to learn that the principles of radio direction finding were known to the British. As far back as 1926 two Canadians. Colonel W. A. Steel and Major-General A. G. L. McNaughton (who later commanded the Canadian Corps overseas! had patented a rudimentary method of direction finding using the cathode-ray oscillograph.
What staggered Henderson war. the fact that on Good Friday in 1939 when Mussolini marched into Albania. Britain switched on to a nonstop sentry-go twenty stations equipped with refinements in radio direction finding which surpassed his wildest dreams.
Before Hitler marched into Poland
General McNaughton. then President of the National Research Council, put forward a series of plans and secured a number of financial appropriations which initiated mass production of radar equipment in the comparative security of this country. Later, under Dr. C. J. Mackenzie, who succeeded McNaughton, Canada, through her crown company, Research Enterprises Ltd., at Leaside, Toronto, became, in Watson-Watt’s grateful words, “the radar arsenal of the Western world.”
Came September 1939 and the eerie shriek of the air-raid sirens and a single marauding aircraft up the Firth of Forth in Scotland. It was traced by the magic eye and shot down. First blood to radar. Forty million dollars had been well spent. Another fifteen hundred millions, almost as much as the United States spent during the wartime years on the atom bomb, was to go into “Watson-Watt’s stuff.”
Came the phony war and the disaster of Dunkirk, then a few months later the quiet tense atmosphere of the RAF Operations Room. Uxbridge, outside London, was shattered by the voice of a pilot coming through a loudspeaker from far up in the clouds: “Tally ho! Yoicks! Here they come! Ruddy hordes of them! Come and eat, boys!”
The Battle of Britain had begun.
Calmly girls of the WAAF began pushing counters across a huge map. Each counter represented an enemy aircraft or group of aircraft. The moves were dictated by coded information reaching them from the coastal radar stations. The commander, sitting on a gallery above the map, began to play a bloody aerial combat like a game of chess. His instructions went by voice, steadily, in a dull monotone, to the pilots aloft and to the pilots standing by. The radiotelephone which connected them was another of Watson-Watt’s developments.
The commander would say: “Control, calling Red Leader. You are a bit too high to catch your bandit. Drop a little and turn north-north-east.”
Radar enabled Fighter Command in Britain to detect enemy aircraft as soon as they took off from airstrips in France, to determine their number, direction, speed and height, to chart their progress toward the English coast, to predict their targets, to distinguish them from RAF craft and, by choosing the time and place at which to engage them, constantly to hold the initiative and exercise the tactical advantage of surprise.
In the Battle of Britain the Germans had nothing to compare with radar. They could not understand why. wherever they flew, whatever evasive action they took or whenever diversions were staged, the deadly Spitfires were always waiting for them, right in their path. The truth was they could always be seen when they themselves could not see. It was a clash between a lynx-eyed David and i myopic Goliath.
The Luftwaffe was so badly beaten up it never recovered. Yet at that time Hermann Goering. its chief, insisted to Hitler that the constant beat of radio pulses emanating from Britain and heard by German scientists were nothing more than experiments with the ionosphere, a story Watson-Watt had cunningly put into circulation.
Because he lost his air superiority in the Battle of Britain. Hitler had to postpone and finally abandon Operation Sea Lion, his planned assault on the English coast. Since war with Russia was inevitable he was forced into conflict on two fronts, a situation he had sworn to avoid In consequence the Wehrmacht was overextended and its doom was sealed long before it was thundering at the gates of Moscow.
Most military historians agree that
the Battle of Britain was the turning point in the war and that, in spite of the valor of those twelve hundred Spitfire pilots of whom Churchill said “never was so much owed by so many to so few", it could not have been won without radar.
The Orfordness and Bawdsey team moved to Swanage near Bournemouth, then for a while to Dundee in Scotland, moved at night like conspirators out of a novel by Oppenheim, so that German agents might not be attracted by an overlong stay in one place. By the time they got to Malvern College late in the war they were three thousand strong. Even scientists on atomic research were diverted to help them.
By this time they had turned aircraft into flying laboratories for night operations. Newspaper readers saw pictures of pilots eating pills and carrots and wearing dark spectacles to improve their sight. It was largely hooey to mislead the Germans. Improved radar techniques were now putting RAF night fighters within four hundred feet of the tail of a German bomber in thick cloud. “Cats-Eye” Cunningham. Britain's ace night fighter pilot, said recently it wasn't carrots that got him his nickname. He shot down more German aircraft by night than any other pilot because he had radar plus a scientific background.
Watson-Watt’s team produced Gee, a radar device which enabled a bomber to locate its exact position at any time bv means of three land-based stations, one called the Master and the others the Two Slaves. They produced Oboe which guided a bomber pilot to his target and could, if need be, drop his bombs for him. This depended on two Land-based stations, one called the Cat and the other the Mouse. Another advance was Eureka used by paratroops who needed to guide aircraft carrying reinforcements to their position. or by the Maquis awaiting arms drops. Eureka automatically responded from the ground to signals sent out by Rebecca in the aircraft trying to find it.
There are one hundred and fifty different applications of radar all stemming from a half-page minute written by Watson-Watt to Wimperis in 1934.
Radar killed the U-boats as surely as it killed the Luftwaffe. It enabled battleships to steam at full speed in thick fog and sight their enemy far down over the horizon. The Bismarck was but one of radar's many maritime victims. In a modem battleship there are two hundred places where radar functions.
On land, radar fired ack-ack guns with a precision no human gunner could ever achieve. It enabled a field gunner to observe his shell splash at a great distance and correct his aim. It solved the age-old military problem of “what lies on the other side of the hill.”
After the fall of France some secrets of radar were betrayed to the Germans by French scientists who had earlier been invited to share them. In addition odd pieces of British radar equipment were captured, though the sets in aircraft automatically exploded in the event of their being shot down. From these scraps the Germans were able to develop a radar system of their own. One of their -first stations was at Bruneval. on the French coast, facing Britain.
Watson-Watt scoffs at the legend that he asked permission to go over with a squad of Commandos and ''inspect” it. pleading that if he fell into danger of capture one of the Commandos could shoot him so there would be no chance of losing secrets through torture.
But the Commandos went, taking with them an RAF technician, FlightSergeant C. W. Cox. An RAF corporal
should have gone too. But at the last minute he lost his nerve so Cox had to do the job alone.
Cox had been schooled by WatsonWatt’s assistants on exactly which components of German radar they were most interested in. He landed by parachute surrounded by one hundred and nineteen Commandos who shot their way into the German radar station.
While the parachutists held off German troops Cox calmly dismantled their radar as bullets were pinging into it, packed the bits he wanted and ran down to be taken off the beach.
He had been told how to escape to Spain if necessary. But it wasn't. He got back safely. The Boffins examined what he had brought. They then shrugged and said the Germans were still years behind British techniques.
Cox got one of the best-earned Military Medals of the war. He’s an electrician in Cambridge today.
Today in Canada, Watson - Watt eschews personal research. His job is to examine the findings of younger men and expedite the industrial production of what is practical. But his influence will never deter exploration of the most fantastic possibilities.
“My creed as a scientific worker,” he says, “rests on an almost religious conviction about the goodness of measured facts, that all facts are good: they may be facts about bad things, but if they are facts they are good and valuable.”
He sits on the board of Canadian Aviation Electronics, a lusty young Montreal company now working behind locked doors to produce many of the instruments that will be required by the new radar net.
The president of this firm, whose scientific staff averages only thirty years of age, is Group Captain K. R. Patrick, a brilliant young World War Two aviator and reserve officer, and a friend of Watson-Watt since 1940.
Into a Place In History
Before long, at secret spots all across northern Canada, the radar crews wil] see the plump figure of Watson-Watt stepping out of aircraft and stomping around in inspection of “standing patrols” whose vision will extend for hundreds of miles around.
When technical matters have been discussed they will probably be surprised to hear him switch into mellow dissertation on some of his wellremembered views from the air . . . the sands of Morar with the sun setting over the Western Isles, the flame trees on the banks of the Nile, the white snowcaps of the Rockies under the January sun, and the honey and gold of the Parthenon in Athens.
Or he might get into his favorite discussion on the possibility that one day the electronic computor at the University of Toronto may be capable of writing a sonnet.
He rates himself modestly, this warmhearted little Pickwickian with the coldly analytical capacities of an Einstein. “A sixth-rate mathematician, «i second-rate physicist, a second-rate engineer, a bit of a meteorologist, something of a journalist, a plausible salesman of ideas, interested in politics, liking to believe there is some poetry in my physics and some physics in my poetry, thirty years a scientist and now a socialist in private enterprise.”
But his place in history will be symbolized this fall when he attends, as usual, the annual thanksgiving service for the Battle of Britain in Westminster Abbey. Among all the surviving heroes of that great victory Sir Roben Alexander Watson-Watt, a civilian, occupies a place of honor. ★