Because it was our dads, and also many mums, who developed radar – though no-one even knew of their existence. Indeed, they were deliberately hidden away in a tiny Victorian spa town nestled deep within the Malvern Hills in Worcestershire.. They stayed a brilliantly guarded secret throughout the war. And because their work remained top secret for decades, not even the families talked about it. Rather like the almost incredible stories behind GCHQ, the codebreakers at Bletchley Park and the inventors in Churchill’s Toyshop, their work was so shrouded in secrecy that only decades later are we discovering what they did, and how they lived under the veil of secrecy .
But the story of the radar pioneers has still to be told. The science community knows of their brilliance, but their story must now be openly celebrated – and the genius of their work recognised. Most of them, like my dad, are dead now. Like my dad, many were denied the right to fight because they were scientists. But they were heroes too.
After all, it’s thanks to radar that we won the Battle of Britain.
So where are their medals?
My dad was a working class lad from Glasgow. His mum took in washing to send him to university – and he rewarded her with a BSc – the first ever degree in the family. Later, when war broke out, he almost came to regret it – because it stopped him flying Spitfires.
When he volunteered for the RAF, they literally pulled him out of the queue. Because he had a physics degree, they said, he wouldn’t be allowed to fly. He was needed for other work.
He was furious and distraught. He wanted to defend king and country with his life. He’d almost certainly have lost it because he would have been the first fodder in the looming Battle of Britain. He was by nature such a daredevil, he’d never have survived.
Instead, angry and frustrated, and cursing his degree, he found himself on a train to a little place called Worth Matravers, near Swanage. There, the local landladies were already becoming suspicious of the slightly odd young men in civvies who were renting their rooms . Unbeknownst to all, they were already building an early warning system along the cliffs, to detect incoming enemy bombers.
And that’s how the boffins descended upon Malvern. …because overnight, the boys at Malvern College found themselves evacuated to Eton and Harrow – and my dad and his mates were put on a big bus to God Knows Where, and woke up in House 5 in Malvern College, Worcestershire. Some two thousand scientists were moved there within hours.
Malvern was a sleepy Victorian Spa town, home of Edward Elgar and the Malvern Festival, and of the most fantastic spring water, favoured by the Royal Family – but most importantly, protected and hidden by the imposing Malvern Hills .
So there he found himself in a tiny town on the south coast, beaming microwaves from one end of an aircraft hangar to the other, looking for a blip on a cathode ray tube. Later he flew night ops over occupied France and channel waters, piloted by RAF captain Tony Gunter-Smith who became a lifelong family friend, looking for similar blips detecting enemy installations and submarines. They were nearly shot down several times.
However, despite the carrot propaganda, the Germans sensed something was going on and Swanage found itself being targeted. Enemy bombers were told to divert and use up their last bombs or ammo terrorising shoppers on Swanage high street. Literally ack-ack-acking down the cobbled high street. Churchill suspected there could be an imminent raid.
With those busloads of young geeky physicists, Malvern’s face changed forever and it became a secret scientific centre of excellence. Chief of my dad’s team was Bernard Lovell, the genius physicist who later created Jodrell Bank.
Locals suspected these young men were conscientious objectors. They wore civvies, plain grey suits or brown tweed jackets with leather patches at the elbow. They were quiet, secretive, bespectacled – rather odd and eccentric. They were often spat at in the street and sent white feathers. If only it was known the vital work they were doing. It was only when the young women of Malvern were entreated to do their bit, and support the work being done, that word got around that these young men were alright. And so my mum, who’d wanted to train as a nurse but was bombed out of the Birmingham teaching hospital, met my dad when she worked as a secretary and started taking shorthand for his group…
I was born, about 12 years later, into a community where everyone’s dad – and a lot of mums, too, were brilliant scientists, shaping the very face of the future – way past the war, from guided missile defence to touch screen technology.
It all started in Malvern.
The veil of secrecy which shrouded them then was vital, but they don’t have to remain unacknowledged.
They basically “invented” radar. It is generally accepted we could never have won the Battle of Britain without them. And that’s why there grew the myth that eating carrots help you see in the dark. Apparently Churchill thought that one up to explain why our pilots could find and pursue enemy aircraft so well.
Their work was so highly classified, we families grew up understanding that you simply never asked your dad what he did in the war.
The men and women of the wartime radar years have long been overlooked for too long. It’s not just their science but also their stories I want to gather and celebrate. After all, we all owe them a debt of gratitude and they deserve to be recognised. It’s perhaps too late to campaign for a medal for them. That’s why their story must now be told in its full glory.
Please get in touch with me if you too are a child of those radar years – let’s tell the stories together.
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