Radar, the German Invention that Saved Britain

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A Brief History

On February 26, 1935, British scientist Dr. Robert Watson-Watt performed a demonstration that was to lead directly to the development of radar by the British, a concept long anticipated by previous scientists and first demonstrated by German inventor Christian Hülsmeyer in 1904.

Digging Deeper

Back in the infancy of radio, researchers were discovering the phenomenon of radio waves echoing off objects, a fact Hülsmeyer used to demonstrate how such reflected radio waves could be used to show the position of ships that could not be seen due to darkness, fog, or distance.  Considered the inventor of radar, Hülsmeyer’s device was not really practical for widespread use over large areas. Far from being a refined product, other scientists in developed countries were also working on perfecting a practical form of radar.  In Britain the leading researcher was Robert Watson-Watt, who had in 1915 created a primitive form of radar detection of aircraft, as well as weather related subjects such as detecting lightning in the upper atmosphere.

In the 1930’s the militaries of Western countries in Europe and the United States were working frantically to develop radar sets useful for military purposes, both for surface ship detection and for early warning and tracking of aircraft.  World War I had introduced the world to aerial bombardment from airships and bomber airplanes, and the need for warning of such attacks was apparent, as was the need for locating the position, speed, direction and altitude of such bombers so as to intercept the bombing force with fighter aircraft.  In Britain, Robert Watson-Watt was still the leading researcher.  In a rare bit of fortuitous foresight, Britain shared research technology with the United States and some Commonwealth countries which enabled the future Western Allies to get the early advantage in radar technology over the future Axis countries of Germany, Japan and Italy.  Prior to practical radar sets, detecting incoming airplanes was a function of people watching the sky and telephoning in reports to central headquarters, and even giant listening horns for a person on the ground to listen for the faraway sound of aircraft engines!

Once World War II in Europe began, and with the fall of France in 1940, Britain was for a period of time on its own facing the Germans and their mighty air force, the Luftwaffe.  German leader Adolf Hitler sought to use his air force to bomb Britain into submission, or at any rate, destroy the British aircraft industry and ability to mount serious fighter defenses against German bombing and future invasion plans.  The so called Battle of Britain  in the latter half of 1940 and the following “Blitz” over the next few months would be decisive in Germany’s war against Britain.

Some of the factors in the British victory in the Battle of Britain included the excellent fighter aircraft employed against Germany’s excellent war planes, notably the Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire fighters, and the skilled and incredibly valorous British and emigre pilots (Polish, French, American and others) that flew these fighter/interceptors against the Luftwaffe.  A less glamorous (glamourous for you British types) but equally important factor, even a vital, crucial factor, was the radar network utilized by the British air defenses that tracked German air incursions into British airspace, providing the British with the necessary information to launch only that amount of aircraft necessary at the last possible minute (which saved precious fuel as well as wear and tear on aircraft and pilots) to appropriately intercept each German air raid.  The radar system prevented surprise attacks and maximized the efficiency of air defenses.

The British called their radar and interceptor coordinated system “Chain Home,” a name that should live in British history alongside that of Waterloo, Trafalgar, Wellington, Nelson, Tobruk and Churchill, as well as Spitfire and Hurricane.  The Chain Home radar and integrated defense system was as responsible for the ultimate Allied victory in the European Theater of World War II as any other factor.

As World War II progressed, each of the combatant countries, especially the United States and European powers, rapidly developed better and smaller radar sets, applying the technology to detecting submarines from the air as well as detecting surface ships and aircraft.  Night fighter aircraft used radar to intercept unseen intruders in the dark, and bombers used radar mapping to drop bombs at night without being able to see the ground, as well as to navigate in the dark.

With the electronic age ushered in in the 1950’s by the widespread use of transistors instead of vacuum tubes, radar units became smaller and cheaper, allowing police departments to use radar to track speeding cars and even private citizens to equip their pleasure craft boats with radar.  Sports applications such as measuring the speed of baseball pitches, throws, and hits are commonly included in sports broadcasts. Radar, radar detectors, and radar jamming devices are all now commonplace, and aircraft especially designed to defeat detection by radar are a military necessity in modern combat.  Radar has become a staple of weather forecasting.  In fact, early microwave ovens used to be called “Radar Range” by their manufacturer, Amana, based on the mechanism of microwave ovens being inspired by radar sets.

If you are not familiar with Robert Watson-Watt as being a hero of World War II, you have a lot to learn!  Remember him next time you “nuke” your lunch!

Question for students (and subscribers): Has anyone in your family ever invented anything?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Buderi, Robert. The Invention That Changed the World: How a Small Group of Radar Pioneers Won the Second World War and Launched a Technical Revolution. Touchstone, 1998.

Galati, Gaspare. 100 Years of Radar. Springer, 2015.

The featured image in this article, a photograph by Elektrik Fanne of the first workable radar unit constructed by Robert Watson-Watt and his team, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.