Three books on Chain Home Radar
Reviews by Graham Crisp
Britain’s Shield – Radar and the Defeat of the Luftwaffe. David Zimmerman, 2001. Sutton Publishing, 256 pages. ISBN 0-7509-1799-7 (Out-of-print, was £25, expect to pay £60+)
RDF1 – The Location of Aircraft by Radio Methods. Michael Bragg, 2002. Hawkshead Publishing, 400 pages. ISBN 0-953-15440-8 (Out-of-print, was £20, expect to pay £100+)
Building Radar – Forging Britain’s early warning chain 1939-1945. Colin Dobinson, 2010. Methuen Publishing, 665 pages. ISBN 978-0-413-77229-9 (RRP £30, available for around £19)
Since 2001, three in-depth publications have appeared, the most recent being the English Heritage work by Colin Dobinson. In the preface, he states, ‘This volume stands apart from previous studies in two main respects. First, it is an essay on the physical creation of the radar system from its origins to the end of the Second World War, with an emphasis upon the geography, functionality and design of the stations themselves.
He adds, ‘The sources for this inquiry (and here a further modest claim to novelty lies) are the primary records of the bodies concerned with radar’s development and applications, chiefly those available in Britain’s National Archives. Post-war records management has been kind to the radar archive. Papers on the most recondite technicalities survive in staggering numbers – sufficient indeed to have deterred some of radar’s historians from using them at all. Their hesitancy is understandable, for while the radar archive is large, it is also difficult to use and riddled with traps for the unwary, partly because planning was constantly in flux. But nonetheless this is the core body of sources for the history of radar in Britain.
This is important, other major sources such as Watson-Watts own published memoir, ‘Three steps to Victory’ is notoriously inaccurate. The reviewer has attempted radar research in the past and found it extremely difficult.
All three authors have noted that the development of RDF was not purely an engineering challenge; it was also a political confrontation, with the Tizard and Lindemann conflict being efficiently described.
Two other events, of which the reviewer had prior knowledge, were also investigated in the three volumes:
The ‘Daventry Experiment’ was a major milestone in Chain Home development. It is well described in all three books with a few minor anomalies. The pilot of the Heyford bomber is not mentioned by Dobinson. Bragg correctly states it was F/Lt RS Blucke. Zimmerman calls him W/Cdr Bucke – two mistakes in one sentence are not good.
The ‘Battle of Barking Creek’, (6 September 1939) was an unfortunate but crucial incident in the development of the UK reporting system. It resulted in the shooting down of two Hurricanes by the RAF as a result of misinformation from the air defence network; important lessons were learned. Zimmerman describes the incident, strangely Dobinson doesn’t, whereas Bragg reveals that the most significant issue in the event was the fact that due to a wiring error in the Canewdon aerial array, that station was unable to differentiate between aircraft approaching from the sea, and aircraft flying inland behind the station. Hence the increasing threat from across the Channel was actually defensive RAF units taking off from their UK airfields.
In general Zimmerman was ‘good in its time’ – it is very readable but doesn’t really go into any detail beyond the Blitz. It also lacks maps and diagrams. Bragg is a very superior work; it seems in many cases no stone has been left unturned. Despite the complexity of the text, it is quite readable.
Perhaps the most disappointing factor in Dobinson is the publication itself. I showed my copy to an established publisher who noted:
1) The binding is not sewn; this is a cost-cutting exercise which will result in pages coming loose in a few years.
2) The line drawings have been scanned at too low a resolution resulting in dotty images. He regarded them as barely acceptable.
3) Photographic reproductions are poor. As an experiment we scanned a couple and dropped them into Photoshop. A few seconds adjustment to the gamma produced very superior images.
This publication and printing of this book must be compared with ‘Cold War’, another English Heritage publication. Look at the photos and drawings in the latter; the quality far surpasses anything in ‘Building Radar’. These two volumes were similar in price. It can be done – why wasn’t it?
Dobinson has also been quoted in another review of his book by one researcher as ‘misinterpreting the primary sources’. This is very easy to do. Despite the above criticisms the book is probably the most useful of the three to the typical ARG member who is less concerned with precise technicalities, but gleans, in particular, maps and site plans – there are 64 of these. There is ample coverage of the CH Low and Extra-Low stations as well as Ground Controlled Interception sites. As it is currently available for significantly less than the other two books, my advice is to get one quick.