By Sheldon Goldberg, Ph.D.
Since the beginning of time, war has fostered technological innovation and inventions that changed the nature of combat: gunpowder in the ninth century; artillery and firearms in the 13th; the ironclad and the machine gun in the 19th; and the airplane, tank, radar, and atom bomb in the 20th. The marriage of the airplane and radar just prior to the British and U.S. involvement in World War II is the subject of this well-written history by Norman Fine.
This marriage, the result of a small British invention made on the eve of the war, the resonant cavity magnetron, an item so small it can be held in the palm of one’s hand, was the key that unlocked the promise of the primitive radar of the time. The beginnings of radar in Britain go back to 1915 when Robert Watson-Watt, a recent electrical engineering graduate employed by the British Meteorological Office, found a way to use radio waves to detect storms in order to warn pilots of approaching bad weather. His next assignment involved investigating the feasibility of using radio waves to destroy an aircraft in flight, which he found not only impractical but dangerous to the operator, so he proposed focusing on aircraft detection. This led to the development of the “Chain Home” system of radars placed along the English Channel coast of Great Britain and used by the British throughout WWII to give advanced warning of the approach of German aircraft. Fine explains how a series of mishaps on both the German and British side led to the failure of the Germans to figure out how it worked and possibly the RAF’s victory in the Battle of Britain.
Fine’s easy-to-read narrative describes the research in both Great Britain and the United States to seek ways to move to higher frequencies although the American efforts were stymied without the new British invention. Scientists knew that higher frequencies produced a shorter wavelength, thus requiring a smaller antenna and smaller, lighter, and more mobile equipment. Shorter wavelengths also could detect smaller targets with greater detail.
Fine’s story continues on an afternoon in 1939, when two University of Birmingham scientists with no experience in generating high frequency power sketched out a new type of magnetron which would generate microwave frequencies at power levels never seen before. While American systems were limited to 20 watts of power at the 10-centimeter wavelength, tests on the new British magnetron generated 50,000 watts at the same 10-centimeter wavelength.
The Lend-Lease Act, signed in 1941, signaled greater cooperation between the then neutral U.S. and Great Britain. The British, under bombardment and anticipating a Nazi invasion from occupied northern France, decided to disclose to the U.S. a number of their highly secret technological advances, including jet engine technology and the resonant cavity magnetron. From this point on, the author ably describes the testing and development by physicists on both sides of the Atlantic to operationalize this powerful energy source, initially toward the successful detection of German U-boats from the air with 10-centimeter radar and then to develop a three-centimeter radar (H2X) used in United States Army Air Forces B-17 Pathfinders and the 10-centimeter radar (H2S) used by the Royal Air Force. Each could continuously bomb German military and industrial targets day and night regardless of the weather. Fine notes however, that the H2X radar system was used primarily as a backup to visual bombing using the Norden bombsight by the U.S. Army Air Forces. On average, visual bombing was possible only nine days a month at best.
Interspersed throughout the book the author describes the wartime career of his uncle, Stanley Fine. Initially drafted into the Army, he applied for Aviation Cadets and subsequently became a U.S. Army Air Forces navigator. Stanley’s nephew, the author, only serendipitously learned that his uncle was in the very first group of 10 navigators to be formally trained on the newly developed H2X radar system, nicknamed Mickey, and set out to interview him. As a result, the reader gets a first-hand insight into the training of these men and how they ran a radar, or pathfinder mission. The reader also learns of problems the initially uninterested Air Force leadership had in integrating both the men and the system, and the changing combat tactics needed to arrive at a place where they finally recognized the value. Lt. Stanley Fine, who brought the first production model of the H2X to Britain, carried out 32 missions, received two Distinguished Flying Crosses, and a promotion to Captain. He subsequently served as the Special Purpose Mickey Navigator for the 401st Bomb Group until the war in Europe ended.
As a former Vietnam/Cold War era navigator/bombardier, I was fascinated to learn the not well-known history and development of the system that eventually became what I was trained on and used with such precision during my Air Force career. “Blind Bombing” will be just as fascinating to military historians, historians of science and technology, aviation buffs, and those interested in history in general.
Volume 74. Number 3. 2020