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THE EARLY DAYS OF RADAR
Secrets and my Recollections of World War II

Gardner L. Friedlander 1990, 2000

England

We landed without any enemy complications (frequent rumors on board being without substance) at Liverpool, England, on Christmas Eve, and took an overnight train to London. Christmas dinner at the railroad station lunchroom was very austere and a bombing raid that night gave us a preview of what to expect for the next ten months.

We were attached to the U.S. Embassy for our stay. We started by receiving technical training at a number of British radar schools, four or six Americans at each school with perhaps a hundred British. My first school was at Petersham (near Richmond, Surrey, on the outskirts of London) for training on search light control, antiaircraft gun control, and airborne radar. Next I and five others of our training group went to Bawdsey, Suffolk for training in operations command rooms and aircraft control. The manor at Bawdsey was England's headquarters for radar development and tactical use.  

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Bawdsey, Suffolk, England.

According to the July 1990 "Smithsonian" magazine, radar had been "in the works" in Germany as early as 1933. Not long after that it started being developed in England, France, Italy, Russia, and the United States. Only England, however, really pushed radar and its practical use. By the time the Nazis were ready to start the blitz of England in July 1940, England had 29 radar stations making an invisible curtain along its southern and eastern coasts.

Operations command rooms had been established in several places in England (including the main radar tactical and technical  research center at Bawdsey, Suffolk) to receive reports of the positions of ships and planes from the radars. There the decision was made on whether to use intercept fighters or antiaircraft fire, or both, to deter the targeted hostile bombers. This operations room coordination made the system effective...but had not been started in any other country. This seems so elemental!

'Mass Raids on Britain too Costly' - Nazis.
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At about 7:00 A.M. December 7th, 1941, hours before the Pearl Harbor attack, some of our 5 U.S. Hawaiian based radars "spotted" the hundreds of Japanese planes approaching. Without an operations command room to take action, their reports up the chain of command were useless.

The Germans never realized the importance of radar to the allies. At the end of the war the Nazi radar was not much improved over the sets they captured from the British after the fall of France in June 1940. They had not figured the tactical use of it other than on battleships.

In Petersham, I first lived on the top floor of a boarding house in a frigid garret room where the roof and ceiling had temporarily patched holes made by a German bomb that was still (defused, unexploded) in the cellar. A week or so later I moved to a modern "pub", sharing the only guest room with a British captain going to school with me. This "digs" was very good; it had central heating, a "fridge", and we were treated as part of the publican's family, eating and recreating with them. I got to like "half and half" beer, the "locals", and like them, now stayed in bed during air raids.

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My Digs, The Fox and Duck.

After schooling each of us was posted to operational units to replace a British technical officer. Among vividly remembered experiences:  being in the middle of the blitzing of Bath, during which our operations room took a direct hit from a bomb, but continued in bloody operation. I controlled the interception and destruction of a German weather reconnaissance airplane. I was personally doing my part in the war effort, and it was gratifying.

While on duty with British units I was treated the same as any British officer, including having my own "batman" to take care of my clothes, be my driver, etc. I have a letter I wrote home describing a number of various nationalities of batmen (and batwomen) I had enjoyed. It included a Scotsman who said about 4:00 A.M. after a harrowing blitz, "Begging your pardon, sir, but I've taken the privilege of making some tea."

Our technical training had been excellent and thorough, but many of our problems had easy solutions, such as replacing whole "bad" radar components rather than trying to repair a faulty one at night in the rain as we had practiced in school. A frequent problem was to start the diesel power units. When one wouldn't start, you gathered half a dozen enlisted men; tied the middle of a 12 foot length of one inch rope to the crank (no electric starters!). Three men pulled on each end of the line, and a non-com at the crank bawled "pull left...pull right" while he kept the crank engaged. This sweaty method usually got the engine going. Next day, I'd tear the diesel down to find out why it had been so balky...and repair the bad radar units in the comfort of a shop.

Possibly in September 1942 I was asked (through military channels) to be an instructor at the Bawdsey operations training school, but this was denied by my American command. Instead, the six of us listed in an order of October 4th, 1942 were posted to the Mount Royal Hotel near Marble Arch, London, to work on "special projects" for the American embassy. Most of the others of our original group of fifty were returned to various assignments in the U.S. Some went to work at the newly created Radiation Lab at MIT. Others trained personnel in the tactical use of radar or joined newly formed U.S. operational radar units. We bumped into some of these forty-four at various times; one eventually joined our battalion in Italy, and we saw others in newly created radar battalions.

One interesting Embassy assignment: two of us were to study and report how warships in harbors correlated with shore installations during air raids. This took us some three weeks of travel (a good part of it on small British Army motorcycles, driving of course on the left side of the road). It included visiting an aircraft carrier and battleship in Milford Haven, South Wales. Another job was to write in detail how operations rooms function. I understand these reports were widely read in the U.S., and meant a promotion to 1st Lieutenant for me.

Promotion
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The officer with whom I collaborated on these reports was engaged to and married a lovely English girl who was in the WAFS. I was best man at their wedding in her hometown of Hull. We had a wonderful weekend, with other American officers as ushers, and her bridesmaid friends to keep us company.

While we worked very hard, for long hours, and existed on the British meager rations (no butter, sugar, eggs, milk, fruit, ice cream, candy; little meat, coffee, etc.), there were some joys. We found the British to be superb under the most trying conditions, and we tried to emulate their attitude. They tried to make us feel less lonely but wanted and welcome. For instance, there was a weekly "Allies Only" dance at the Grosvenor House, a large downtown London hotel. This was extremely colorful with the variety of uniforms.

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(Signal Corps Pliers.)

We occasionally received a note from the Embassy: "You will report in Class "A" uniform for bridge at Mrs. (lieutenant general's wife) Sm... at (address) Kingston Surrey, time...". She was old (55?) and her daughters there most unattractive. Nothing to eat, but they tried to be hospitable despite the cold. One time I played bridge wearing my gloves, overcoat, and overshoes!

While stationed near Bath at an RAF sector operations room, I took some off duty time to meet friends of the Milwaukee William Van Dyke family. They were Mrs. George B. Britton who lived not far from my post, and her son Jack and daughter Nancy. Mr. Britton (deceased) had been Lord Mayor of Bristol. They were very hospitable on their rural estate, and I returned a number of times. In April I was asked to be an usher at Nancy's wedding, which I happily did. She was a senior officer in the WAFS; he an important Member of Parliament. Bristol Cathedral was opened for this wedding, the first time in 37 years, and the bells were tolled afterwards, the first time since the war began. Unfortunately the groom was killed a year later when the airplane carrying him (and among others the actor Leslie Howard) was shot down near Gibraltar.

Invitation and Note.
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Announcement in London Times.
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Last Section:
Goodbye

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Last Updated:
Wednesday, 30-Aug-2000 08:04:52 MDT

Gardner L. Friedlander 1990, 2000
Page created and maintained by Craig S. Buchanan. Email buchananc@acm.org.