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Getting the radar system into a Halifax bomber


Being given the job of improving the bombing success rate
Bernard Lovell Astronomer
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Having been ordered by Rowe to form this new group, I began to pick up the pieces and the story is this. That in the summer of 1941, Churchill had become our prime minister, had become rather uneasy about our bombing force and he had asked Lindemann who was the scientific advisor, later Cherwell. I shall refer to him as Lord Cherwell, to look into the problem. Cherwell asked one of his staff called Butt to arrange to do a photographic reconnoissance of the effect of the bombing in June and July of 1941. The result was extraordinary. It was found that only one in three of our bombers were getting within five miles of the target and that that was only the fraction of the force that actually got within five miles of the target. And the rest of the force never got anywhere near it, and the net result was that the bombs had been scattered over an area of 75 square miles around the target.

Well, Churchill when he was told of these results, I gather he was not all together surprised that the bombing was so ineffective and he ordered Cherwell and the Secretary of State for Air to take immediate action with the highest priority to do something about it. He said, 'Otherwise, we cannot risk so much life in this useless enterprise'. As a result of that, Cherwell had visited TRE in October of 1941, and at what was called the Sunday Soviet in which Rowe had arranged for many of the high level people and air staff to attend every Sunday, they were glad to escape from London and come into the country and his Sunday Soviets became famous as a free for all. Those of us who were young could say what we liked to the air marshals and so on, and we thought we could also get their views.

Well, the story was this. Cherwell demanded Rowe that he diverted his staff to find some answer to this problem of how to enable our bomber force to get within range of their targets and bomb them. Now, the problem was not exactly new. TRE had already developed a system called GEE and this used two ground stations on the east coast and from a hyperbolic grid which was formed in the bomber, they could get over the Ruhr, they could get within an ellipse of about 8 miles by 4 miles of their target, which was a tremendous improvement. But, of course, that was limited to the range of a few hundred miles because it used ground stations in England, and it only encompassed the Ruhr. The more distant centres of German industry, Hamburg and so on, were completely outside the range, and Berlin, and completely outside the range of this system. Although it was eventually fitted to every aircraft and became an important navigational aid.

Also being developed in TRE and I might say in great... sort of perhaps not quite so friendly but friendly has an odd meaning during the war, friendly opposition to what I'd been given to do, a system known as OBOE developed the idea of a man called Reeves and built by FE Jones. Now, a system called OBOE also used ground stations in England but it sent out two beams and I won't go into the details of the system because they're not really relevant to my story, but they could control a single aircraft over the Ruhr and to great accuracy. They... one aircraft could be given a bomb release with a guaranteed hit on a target of a few hundred yards in the distance of the Ruhr, but again that system could only use one aircraft at a time and was limited to this distance of a few hundred miles. What Cherwell wanted and ordered us to do was to find something in the bomber which was quite independent of ground control or any ground system in England.

Now, in the autumn of 1941, and I'm now relating a story which I learnt later on, because I'd had nothing to do with this until the end of December 1941, Dee who was in charge of the centimetre AI system had... I mentioned Hodgkin's spiral scanner, which was being put into operation. There was also an alternative system made by GEC, which used a rotating scanner, and Dee had asked after Cherwell's visit... he asked two of his staff, O'Kane and Hensby if they would would modify the scanner to press it so it looked at the ground, when the scan rotated to the ground and Hensby and O'Kane filled this 10 cm air raid system at a height of 10,000 feet with a scanner rotating but depressed, so that the 10 cm beam was sweeping the ground. And they took a film of the tube remarkably when this film was developed it showed echoes from objects on the ground, from Salisbury town, from hangers in airfields, and this film apparently it is related that Dee, when he saw this film before it was fixed, rushed it into Rowe's office, and Rowe looked at this. He said, 'This will mean the end of the war'. You see, this possibility that in an aircraft you could see an individual target, and that was the problem that I was given abruptly and unwanted.

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: Megan Argo Alastair Gunn

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.

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.

Tags: World War II, Telecommunications Research Establishment, London, Gee (navigation), Ruhr, England, Hamburg, Berlin, Oboe (navigation), General Electric Company, Salisbury, Winston Churchill, Frederick Lindemann, Lord Cherwell, F E Jones, Alan Hodgkin, Albert Percival Rowe, Phillip Dee

Duration: 7 minutes, 52 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2007

Date story went live: 05 September 2008