There are so many inventions that we take for granted today and we don’t realise the crucial role that they play in our lives. Take radar for instance. Just imagine the commercial airline industry without radar! The thousands of commercial airliners and military aircraft traversing our atmosphere would have no warning of other aircraft in their vicinity and the scale of catastrophic accidents would go up exponentially. Did you know that the invention of radar was the key to the Allies’ victory in World War II? The Germans never had radar and if they did, it is possible that Germany might have emerged victorious. Radar was a significant British invention in the war and it was kept top secret. Every military man who worked with the radar was sworn to secrecy because it was imperative that the Germans were kept completely in the dark about this incredible invention and its technological importance.
Technology espionage was a problem and hence the fear of it falling into enemy hands was immense. If you ever visit London, make sure you visit the Secrets of Radar Museum, which is dedicated to preserving the experiences, stories and histories of the men and women who helped build, develop and operate radar.
So what exactly is radar? It is a system that uses radio waves that are transmitted towards objects. It’s the measurement of those waves when they come back that enables us to deduce whether or not there are objects out there and how they are moving. In fact, radar is the acronym for radio detection and ranging.
Radar became a critical element in the technological arms race against the Axis powers and played an integral role in the success of D-Day and the Allies’ invasion of Europe. The Allies were perfecting long-range radar jamming of the Germans a year prior to D-Day that enabled Britain to create white noise that the Germans thought was power fluctuation. So the Germans were unable to see what was coming across the channel until it was too late. It was in the historic Battle of Britain, the aerial battle fought largely between August 1940 and the end of that year, that radar played a stellar role.
By August of 1940 Britain stood alone in the war in Europe, since the German army had crushed their Polish allies in September 1939, and the French in June 1940. Having pushed Britain into a corner, Hitler started planning an invasion of Great Britain, but first he had to deal with the British air force. Hitler had every reason to be optimistic because the British had only 800 aircraft as opposed to 3,000 German planes. But Britain had something special that Germany did not: radar. British victory, though hard fought, was largely due to a series of radar stations that had been built along the southern and eastern coasts of Britain in 1939. These radar stations enabled the British to determine the direction, altitude, and speed of oncoming German aircraft while they were still 50 to 60 miles away, and thus concentrate their limited fighter forces against them.
The men who worked on radar were the ‘unsung heroes’ of the war, because their stories were locked away for five decades. Most of the troops who returned home from the war were able to share their experiences with friends and family but not so for those who worked on radar. They were bound to the Official Secrets Act that stipulated that they were to keep mum about their work for 50 years. This official mandate could be psychologically stressful for some radar personnel, because they knew they had played a crucial role in the war, but could not tell their families. In some cases they might have encountered shame and ridicule because some people would say, ‘Oh you didn’t do much during the war’, when in fact they had done so much but couldn’t talk about it. It was not until 1991 when the ban was lifted that radar personnel were free to talk about what they did during the war. Unfortunately for some, it was too late. The impact of radar on the outcome of World War II was best encapsulated by Winston Churchill who said, “Radar did not win the war but without radar we would not have won the war.”