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Work with Edward George Bowen on airborne radar

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Work on Radar at Bawdsey Manor
Bernard Lovell Astronomer
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Instead of taking my equipment to the Pics du Midi, I began an entirely different life. This was before the Second World War began, in August ’39. I covered, reluctantly covered my cloud chamber with a dust sheet and drove to the east coast, to a place called Bawdsey, Bawdsey Manor, and that was a revelation. I had no idea. It would be impossible to maintain today the secrecy that had surrounded the evolution of Bawdsey Manor and Watson-Watt’s work on observation of the so-called radar arc a few years earlier. I arrived at Bawdsey sometime in August with a group of other people, who had been seconded from universities to help with this new system, and was met by A.P. Rowe, the superintendent of the establishment, and the first thing I saw was a cricket bag in the hall, and I thought, Oh cricket, oh what a dissolution. It was the last time I saw a cricket bag for nearly six years. The Bawdsey was then the embryonic, what became known as Chain Home. It was an operational radar defence station with an enormous mast, steel mast 300 foot high carrying the transmitting aerials, and the receiving aerials on the wooden mast I think about 200 foot high. Enormous transmitters and receivers, and from there I was taken to the place near London where, the operational station where they were testing the system and we were demonstrated by a spoof invasion by a French squadron, and there we saw all the RAF girls with their- on their plotting and the high officer above, directing the fighters to intercept the friendly aircraft. Well, I had then been sent to a place in Yorkshire called Saxton Wold, near Scarborough and to be trained further in the use of radar. Now, Saxton Wold was another of these giant chain home radar stations and it was at an operational status and we were- with one or two other people I was sent to the different departments there, the transmitter room, the receiver room, the operations room, to become acquainted with all that was happening in this entirely new science. I had been utterly bewildered by the technology. I had thought that Manchester was- must have been one of the most foremost physics department certainly in the country and perhaps in the world, but the techniques we were using there were obsolete to what I found in Bawdsey. For example we were still heating our soldering irons in the Bunsen burner. I’d never encountered an electric soldering iron until I saw them at Bawdsey. It was that sort of dramatic change, not only in one’s lifestyle but also in the equipment with which one was to become associated. I was at Saxton Wold on that epic Sunday morning in September 1939 when Prime Minister Chamberlain, in a famous broadcast at 11.00 o’clock in the morning, made the announcement that we were at war with Germany. Now, the operator had this enormous cathode ray tube and on it there appeared suddenly masses of echoes, transient echoes on the time base and I said to the operator, I said, Why don’t you report that we’re about to be bombed? Why don’t you report immediately to Stanmore that this- and he calmly said- Oh they’re not echoes from aircraft, they’re what we call ionosphere.

Bernard Lovell (1913-2012), British radio astronomer and founder of the Jodrell Bank Observatory, received an OBE in 1946 for his work on radar, and was knighted in 1961 for his contribution to the development of radio astronomy. He obtained a PhD in 1936 at the University of Bristol. His steerable radio telescope, which tracked Sputnik across the sky, is now named the Lovell telescope.

Listeners: Alastair Gunn Megan Argo

Alastair Gunn is an astrophysicist at Jodrell Bank Observatory, University of Manchester. He is responsible for the coordination and execution of international radio astronomical observations at the institute and his professional research concerns the extended atmospheres of highly active binary stars. Alastair has a deep interest and knowledge of the history of radio astronomy in general and of Jodrell Bank in particular. He has written extensively about Jodrell Bank's history.

Megan Argo is an astronomer at the University of Manchester's Jodrell Bank Observatory researching supernovae and star formation in nearby starburst galaxies. As well as research, she is involved with events in the Observatory's Visitor Centre explaining both astronomy and the history of the Observatory to the public.

Tags: Pics du Midi, World War II, Bawdsey, Bawdsey Manor, London, Royal Air Force, Yorkshire, Staxton Wold, Scarborough, Manchester, Germany, Stanmore, Robert Watson-Watt, Albert Percival Rowe, Neville Chamberlain

Duration: 5 minutes, 15 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2007

Date story went live: 05 September 2008