The Battle of Britain couldn't have been won without UK's homegrown tech innovations

Radars, aeroplanes, radio: Don't forget the boffins on this 80th anniversary


Comment Today marks the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, where Britain saw off Nazi Germany's air force and briefly stood alone against Hitler's military might. Yet while the occasion is marked by flypasts and parades, it's important to remember that tech also played a part in Britain's victory.

Fought over the skies of southern England, the Channel and France, the battle ran throughout the summer of 1940. As Germany conquered northern France and pushed the British Expeditionary Force back to the mainland, the entire defence of the UK fell on the shoulders of the Royal Air Force.

Vastly outnumbered by the German Luftwaffe, the RAF nonetheless held out – and on 15 September 1940 inflicted a decisive 2:1 blow against the Nazi air force, breaking the Germans' resolve and frustrating their plan to invade Britain and cement fascist rule over western Europe.

Some 544 RAF pilots, including British, American, Commonwealth and European aircrew, died during the battle along with 312 ground personnel.

Technology played its part, mostly behind the scenes – yes, we mean the backroom boffins – in equipping Britain to hold firm and defeat the Germans. As today's commemorations focus on the pilots and ground crew who saw off the Luftwaffe, spare a thought for the technologists whose efforts also saved the western world.

Radar and radio

Chief among the technological innovations that gave the RAF the edge was radar. In the 1930s Britain was one of the world leaders in radar (thanks in part to a bizarre and unsuccessful experiment to kill sheep with a death ray) leading to the building of radar stations all around the British coast.

Sir Robert Watson-Watt, today regarded as the father of radar, was instrumental in devising a method of bouncing radio waves off a flying aeroplane to figure out its location. He turned that 1935 concept into the fully operational Chain Home and Chain Home Low air defence networks inside four years.

Without radar, the RAF was totally reliant on humans with binoculars spotting incoming formations of German bombers; radar gave the air force an early warning capability as hostile aircraft formed up over France before crossing the Channel.

Before radar came radio direction-finding. The RAF's Home Defence Units were first established in the 1920s and mastered the art of pinpointing an aeroplane's location from radio transmissions made by its pilots. Though less high profile than radar, the HDUs' activities allowed the RAF to "see" beyond the range of radar as Luftwaffe bomber formations, transmitting to each other over France, formed up ready for a raid over British soil.

Signals intelligence and compsci

Not far behind radar was the crucial role of what was then the Government Communications and Cipher School (GC&CS), based at Bletchley Park. Today the site is home to the National Museum of Computing but in the dark days of the 1940s it was where codebreakers deciphered German military communications.

Breaking Nazi Germany's encryption was a vast task, and in the days before computers extremely labour intensive; between 9,000 and 12,000 personnel worked at Bletchley during the Second World War. The demands of RAF and other military commanders for speedy decryption of enemy messages directly contributed to the development of early computer science; Alan Turing worked at Bletchley Park, helping devise improvements to electromechanical crypto-breaking machines that resulted in the Bombe, a very early computer.

GC&CS's modern-day successor, GCHQ, remains proud of its ancestor's achievements, noting that from spring 1940 GC&CS was decrypting and reading Luftwaffe messages.

Don't forget the planes!

With slightly less of a digital link are the RAF's aircraft and the technological edge they gave. While this was generally slight, the Spitfire Mk.I and Mk.II had a tighter turning circle than their main Luftwaffe rival, the Messerschmitt Bf109. Meanwhile the Spitfire's more rugged stablemate, the Hawker Hurricane, was able to absorb more battle damage while remaining flyable.

Constant innovation was a feature of the Spitfire design: early in the Battle of Britain the eight wing-mounted machine guns were replaced on the experimental Mk.IC with four machine guns and two 20mm Hispano cannons, packing a far heavier punch for destroying armoured German bombers. Though that experiment failed (the cannon kept seizing up, the feed mechanisms being unable to cope with violent aerobatics in a dogfight), it laid the ground for later marks of Spitfire (particularly the Mk.V and Mk.IX) that outclassed their Luftwaffe opponents.

The RAF was also able to meld its superior aircraft technology with that of radar: at the end of the battle the Luftwaffe was switching to night bombing, foreshadowing the Blitz against London. Early portable radar sets were fitted to Boulton-Paul Defiant aircraft. While the Defiant had mixed success in the daytime fighter role (it looked a bit like a Hurricane but packed a gun turret behind the pilot, giving Luftwaffe fighters a nasty shock when they thought they were sneaking up on a Hurricane), fitting it with radar made it a very useful night-fighter.

An example of a Defiant night-fighter, the sole remaining one of its type, is preserved in the RAF Museum at Cosford today.

And aside from the technological victories was the multinational contribution to winning the Battle. While the Few were overwhelmingly British, more than a handful hailed from nations fighting against Nazi Germany. Famously, enough Polish airmen had fled across Europe ahead of the German war machine to man several RAF squadrons, the most famous of which was 303 Squadron based at RAF Northolt. Czechoslovaks and Belgian airmen did the same.

Lured by the excitement and glory of war, some Americans crossed the Atlantic too, while British Empire dominions – Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Jamaica and South Africa – contributed young men in search of danger and adrenaline.

While the country pauses to remember the Battle of Britain and Churchill's famous Few of RAF Fighter Command, it is important to remember that had Britain not invested in the science and technology capability to come up with such innovations, it is probable that the Battle of Britain may have gone the other way.

Technology, even for military use, can be put to very good purposes. ®


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