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to quote9 the AOC Fighter Command, 'By the end of October the night offensive had become in many respects a bigger threat to the kingdom than the day offensive, which, for the moment at least, had been beaten off.'

At that time (October 1940) the principal method of air defence at night was the anti-aircraft gun. During the night raids in September and October 1940 less than half of one per cent of the enemy bombers were destroyed and nearly all of those were shot down by anti-aircraft guns. There were night-fighters equipped with AI radar, but in the night raids of 1940 they proved to be of little use.

Although Tizard and Watson-Watt had foreseen that airborne radar was essential to air defence at night, practical experience soon showed that it was not the whole solution. Intercepting and destroying an enemy aircraft in the dark proved to be an intricate operation requiring considerable skill and a great deal of complicated hardware, of which airborne radar (AI) was only one important part. In almost all interceptions attempted before the late autumn of 1940 AI proved to be almost useless because it demanded very precise control of the fighter from the ground, which the coastal chain could not provide, and there was no radar cover inland; the only system of locating enemy aircraft once they had crossed the coast comprised the visual reports from the Observer Corps. The importance of developing a ground radar specifically for controlling the night-fighters had not been foreseen and the necessary work was not started until the end of 1939; the first such radar - called GCI (Ground Controlled Interception) - was delivered to the RAF in October 1940.

After the first of these GCI radars was put into service it took only a few months for the night-fighters to develop the procedure and skills needed to make a controlled interception in the dark. By the beginning of 1941 they had evolved a remarkably successful system and in the heavy night raids during the first few months of 1941 the AI-equipped fighter under GCI control proved to be the principal weapon of air defence. In May 1941 about 100 bombers were shot down by AI-equipped night-fighters and 30 by the guns: in May the Germans broke off the night offensive.

There was, as is well known, a host of other applications of radar which developed from the original work started by Watson-Watt; for example, the use of airborne radar to detect ships and submarines (ASV) and to aid navigation (H2S etc.), the extensive use of radar by the Army and Navy for early warning, for the control of guns and searchlights and so on.

After the war

Immediately after the war we find Watson-Watt acting as Scientific Adviser to various Ministries and leading delegations to international meetings on radio aids to marine navigation and civil aviation. Later (1947) we find him setting up a private firm of consultants in Westminster: 'Sir Robert Watson-Watt and Partners'. In the early 1950's he moved to Canada and later to the USA. He died13 in Inverness on the 5th of December 1973.

Personally I like to remember Watson-Watt in the great days when he reigned over us at Bawdsey Manor. He was always good with junior staff, and in 1936 I was the most junior. If the overworked word charismatic is taken to mean, as it should, the ability to inspire followers with devotion and enthusiasm then it describes precisely how I shall always remember him. Taking a wider view, we are all deeply indebted to a man who helped set Great Britain and her allies on the road to victory in the last war, Sir Robert Watson-Watt, the Father of Radar.


1 WATSON-WATT, R. A.: 'Three steps to victory' (Odhams, 1957)
2 GARDLNER, G. W: 'Origin of the term ionosphere', Nature, 1969, 224, p.1096
3 SWORDS, S. S.: 'Technical history of the beginnings of radar' (Peter Peregrinus, London, 1986)
4 BURNS, R. W: 'A prehistory of radar', IEE Review, 1992, 38, (4), pp.143-148
5 ROWE, A. P.: 'One story of radar' (Cambridge University Press, 1948)
6 HANBURY BROWN, R.: 'Boffin. A personal story of the early days of radar, radio astronomy and quantum optics' (Adam Huger, Bristol, 1991)
7 NEALE, B. T.: 'CH-the first operational radar', GECJ Res., 1985, 3, (2), pp.73-83
8 BOWEN, F. G.: 'Radar days' (Adam Hilger, Bristol, 1987), p.30
9 report by the Air Officer Commanding Fighter Command (Sir Sholto Douglas), London Gazette, 14th September 1948, p.5018
10 HODGKIN, A. L.: 'Chance and design' (Cambridge University Press, 1992)
11 LOVELL, Sir Bernard: 'Echoes of war: the story of H2S radar' (Adam Huger, Bristol, 1991)
12 Third report of the Royal Commission on Awards to Inventors (HMSO, 1953)
13 RATCLIFFE, J. A.: 'Robert Alexander Watson-Watt', Biog. Mem. Fellows Roy. Soc., 1975, 21, pp.548-568

Some important UK patents by Watson-Watt are:

252263, application date December 1924: Cathode-ray direction finder
593017, application date September 1935: General patent on Radiolocation using pulses
591130, application date September 1936: General patent on the use of what we now call transponders for locating mobile craft

© IEE: 1994

Professor Hanbury-Brown can be contacted at White Cottage, Penton Mewsey, Andover, Hants SP11 ORQ, UK.

The above article by R. Hanbury Brown, "Robert Watson-Watt, the Father of Radar", appeared in the "Engineering Science and Educational Journal", IEE, Vol 3 number 1, February 1994 and is reproduced with the kind permission of the Editor.

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