RADAR: The German Side of the Story

Radio detection and ranging (radar) is viewed by most as one of the quintessential technological accomplishments of the Twentieth Century. Radio detection finding or RAD, as it was known in Great Britain, was perhaps the single biggest piece of technology, aside the atom bomb, that came out of the ashes of World War II. The employment of RAD made the defense of Britain more plausible to plan for. The Royal Air Force (RAF) enjoyed a major technological advantage during the Battle of Britain because most of the times they knew where was headed the bulk of the Luftwaffe force. It could be argue that without radar, the fierce battle that ranged over the skies above the British country side would had been lost. Radar also warned the Americans at Pearl Harbor of a massive airborne formation heading towards them. Unfortunately for the United States forces at Hawaii, misinterpretation of the radar data lead to the surprise of the attack. Radar was used extensively by the Americans in their Pacific and Atlantic campaigns. Today, many facts about the development of radar is widely known. What is seldom mentioned by historians and researchers alike is the fact that in the beginning, it was Nazi Germany, not Britain, which was leading the way in the field of radio detection.

On a the clear morning of September 26th 1935, a group of high German naval officers, including the overall commander of the German Fleet, Admiral Erich Raeder and various Nazi party leaders; visited the new Funkmessgerat station (radar finder device) at Pelzerhaken near Neustadt in the Bay of Lubeck. At top of the forty feet tower, the visitors, for the first time, were able to see in action Germany’s new technological marvel: the radar. The rudimentary equipment, which included sets of transmitters, receivers, turntables, monochrome screens and two electrical generators; was designed to located a ship up to a distance of five nautical miles outside the field of view, quiet an accomplishment for the day. As it was setup, the transmitter would send out a radio pulse signal to all directions which would proceed to bounce off the searched platform and return to the receiver. Then the receiver would send a signal to the monochrome display projecting a one dimensional image revealing the platform’s present. To the stunned VIP audience, the demonstration was an eye opener. But to those who knew radio technology it was but just one step towards a bigger goal. Almost a year early, American inventor Robert Morris Page had demonstrated the feasibility of a radar system with his December 1934 experiment near Washington DC. Three months later, Robert Watson Watts, known to many as the father of the radar; made his first active experiment. From there, radar was well on its way. The first German active radar experiment took place on March 1935. A rudimentary set of transmitters and receivers were able to pickup a faint signal bouncing from a German warship one mile away. Similar efforts were also taking place in France, Italy, the USSR and, on a somewhat more limited scope, in Japan.

The system demonstrated at Pelzerhaken on September 26th was the direct result of the research done by the brilliant German physicist, Rudolf Kuhnold. In the mid 1930s Kuhnold was the owner of a small new corporation named Gesellschaft fur Elektroakustische and Mechanische Apparate (GEMA) which specialized in the development of sophisticated transmitters and receivers mechanisms. GEMA had close ties with Germany’s Naval Research Institute. From the mid 1935 onward, GEMA, although not officially linked to Germany’s military industrial complex, was an integrated part of the Fatherland’s war effort. Before the war ended, the small 1935 company would had grown in size and scope. By early 1945, GEMA employed more than 6,000 skill workers, a far cry from the days of a seven staff operation. But although GEMA began the radar revolution, it had by no means a monopoly on the new technology. Within three years, Siemens, Telefunken and Lorenz would push their own radar system programs.

Beside the enormous potential the Pelzerhaken experiment showed, it also seeded a deep distrust between the Navy and the most powerful Luftwaffe. Because the experiment was first showed to the top brass of the navy, many of them resentful of the treatment they had been receiving from the Luftwaffe leadership, wanted it to keep the news of the system in the dark.

No radar story could be develop without mentioned the extraordinary efforts of one man, British physicist Robert Watson Watt. At forty two, Watson Watt, the head of Britain’s National Physicist Laboratory’s Radio Research Station, was summoned in 1934 by the Air Ministry to explore the possibility of developing a transmitting, damaging radiation platform to be employed against possible enemy air incursions, mainly from Germany. He began his research in earnest focusing on utilizing radio signals for early detection of incoming objects. On February 26th 1935, Watson Watt and his trusted fiend and colleague, AP Rowe, turned on the world’s first true radar mechanism at the British Broadcasting Company’s short wave radio station in Daventry, Northamptonshire, almost seven months ahead of the Germans. Watson Watt’s system operated at a 164′ wavelength spectrum. It employed a basic receiver set that gather signals generated from a high frequency alternating current (the number of cycles per second is known as frequency). Radio emissions or waves are electromagnetic radiation similar to light waves, but they have a longer wavelength range. When utilizing radio signals for detection of objects, a beam is emitted, the waves scatter all over the “target” to later return as an echo which the receiver picks up at the point of origin. Radio wavelength are, by definition, large, and those utilized by radio transmitters are measured in feet or meters. A smaller wavelength is require in order to make a much accurate profile of the targeting object. This was the first problem encounter by Watson Watt and the others radar pioneers of the times. The generation of wavelengths less than a feet, also known as microwaves, required massive amounts of raw energy in order to travel long distances. Any mechanism capable of generating such a force was bound to be big. Then the process would be complicated. The mechanism needed to be reduced to its smallish form in order to be fitted on an aircraft’s bay. On Watson’s experiment at Daventry, a heavy bomber flew over the BBC’s radio towers and on the second pass, radar operators saw “beats” on their monochrome displays screens for just over two minutes. They were able to track the bomber flying pattern for up to eight miles.

Although early successes on both sides of the Channel were promising, they by no means were error-free. Mistakes in developing the new technology was a common trend on both, Germany and England. In Germany, the most costly error made was ceasing research into the development of an magnetron, which German physicists tested and later on, discarded for obscure reasons. A fact attributed to the rigid Nazi political system. In February 1953, while giving a lecture on the birth of radar, Watson Watts stated that “I believe that British and American success in radar depended fundamentally on the informed academic freedom which was accorded, in peacetime radio research, to my colleagues and myself…I believe the most valuable lesson from radar history is that of the intellectual organizational environment from, and in, which it grew”. Renowned German historian, Harry von Kroge disagree “The aspect of the German effort that seems to have differed from the Allied was the degree to which corporate rivalry affected the course events. The numerous agreements that had to be made concerning licensing and post-war rights I order to smooth production will certainly seem remarkable to American and British readers”, he went on to said that “a puzzling aspect of German radar research was the delay imposed by severe secrecy in drawing on the many excellent universities and polytechnic institutes until late in the war”. His claim was that the British and, to a lesser extend, the American radar effort ran more smoothly because its was under the auspices of the military with full access to all of the academic and civilian sources of expertise.

His claim has some merit. Germany’s first radar array was sorely developed by a private company with the encouragement of a major naval research institution. This contrasted with Germany’s other top scientific programs such as missile development. Engineers assigned to rocket and propulsion development usually drew freely on the expertise of others, specially on the universities ranks, to achieve their goals. Again, there’s evidence to support the theory. Its true that the British main radar problem, the development of a workable and reduce microwave-based system was enormously enhanced by the program’s ability to recruit the best talent from any source. This, pluralistic effort will eventually find its way to a central research program and thence to full production. In Germany on the other hand, there were not enough collaborative diversity, instead, a series of modern era monopolies worked under the cover of secrecy, not for military purposes but to protect their intellectual rights. This problem was compounded by Germany’s leaders preferences for offensive weapon systems instead of purely defensive ones such as a radar array. This one set mind would have a devastating effect on the overall German war effort. But what is more puzzling about the whole program was the lack of understanding of what a radar system could achieve by the very top political and military leadership. A clear example of this was the Luftwaffe’s technology chief, General Ernst Udet, who objected from the very beginning the massive amounts of money the radar program were being allocated on the bases that if it works “flying won’t be fun anymore”.

Despite all those factors, Germany could had matched or even surpassed Britain’s radar program if its was not for Watson’s obsessive determination. The prominent scientific historian David Zimmerman put it simple, “Much of the rapid early progress in the early years was a direct result of the drive, energy and leadership of Watson Watt”, but “paradoxically, it would be Watson’s erratic, almost manic behavior and lack of administrative skills which would be a significant factor in the failure to mount effective night defenses ready in time for the Blitz”.

– Raul Colon

More information:
The Paperclip Conspiracy: The Battle for then Spoils and Secrets of Nazi Germany, Tom Bower, London 1987
What Little I Remember, Robert Frisch Otto, Cambridge 1979
Quantum Generations: A History of Physics in the Twentieth Century, Helge Kragh, Princeton 1999

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