The Scot who was a top secret war hero
There was no shortage of British heroism during the Second World War – pilots, engineers and military tacticians all played a part in the decisive victory. Their bravery and courage is well honoured in the history books but the research of a Scottish scientist responsible for keeping German aircraft in check flies under the radar.
Robert Watson-Watt was born in Brechin on 13 April 1892. He attended a St Andrews University college in Dundee – now Dundee University since 1967 – before graduating with a BSc in engineering in 1912.
The Chair of Physics at the university offered him an assistantship and encouraged his protege to study radio. During the First World War, he attempted to attain a job at the War Office, but nothing was available so instead he joined the Met Office and studied the use of radio waves to detect incoming thunderstorms. Ian Brown, assistant curator of aviation at National Museums Scotland explained how Robert Watson-Watt was drawn into the military inner circle during the Second World War.
He said: “The Prime Minister at the time, Stanley Baldwin, used a phrase ‘the bomber will always get through’ so the Air Ministry was looking at ways to try and provide defence against bombers. Watson-Watt and his assistant pondered ways of utilising radar waves to detect incoming planes, as he had done with storms 20 years previously.
“Eventually, Watson-Watt’s radar system was implemented in a network of towers along the east coast of Britain. You might think that an invention with such a profound impact on the outcome of the war would have made him a national hero, but his work remained shrouded in mystery.”
He added: “He’s not well known primarily because the work they were doing was top secret. Eventually in 1941 there was some information released but that was primarily because they needed more mechanics to work on the radar chain.”
After Pearl Harbour, American forces asked Watson-Watt to consult on their air defences for the Panama Canal. The Scot was finally recognised for his efforts after the war. His most significant contribution was convincing the Air Ministry and Admiralty to implement an air defence system. Germans successfully targeted radar towers on one or two locations, but they ceased when they realised the futility of bombarding Allied communications. Mobile radar towers were concealed in trucks moving around the country to fill the gaps.
Brown said: “At that time it was said that the atomic bomb had ended the war, but it was radar that had won it. It was the most important weapon of the entire war.”