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Those Who Missed Dunkirk

by bev_beaven

Contributed by 
bev_beaven
People in story: 
Frank Edward Beaven
Location of story: 
France
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A2284472
Contributed on: 
10 February 2004

Do not forget all those who were cut off and never made it to Dunkirk. This part of the story is often overlooked.

My father, Frank Edward Beaven (b.1919), worked for a merchant bank in the City. Shortly after being called up in 1940 he was sent to France with a small unit of the Royal Artillery, to try out two new and very secret anti-aircraft RADAR sets. They missed Dunkirk and were fortunate to get out on a collier from St Nazaire with one RADAR cabin — the other one they blew up. They witnessed the sinking of the Lancastria by dive-bombers, with the loss of several thousand troops on board. This disaster was kept out of the news at the time, presumably because it would have been so bad for morale. If one of those RADAR sets had fallen into the hands of the enemy, that could have had serious implications too.

Frank Beaven subsequently became a specialist in RADAR (WO2,Technical Instructor Fire Control) serving with the Home Forces and then in Italy in 1944-45.

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Message 1 - Anti aircraft radar

Posted on: 10 February 2004 by paul gill - WW2 Site Helper

Hi Bev. Thanks for the info on your father. I'm also post ww2 but have worked on software for more modern radar systems. Could I ask a few questions? I realise you may not know the answers but it's of real interest to me!

Do you know what type of radar it was?
Was there more than one type? There is often a large aerial to try and find a group of aircraft at long range and another to track individual aircraft.
How big was the aerial?

Was your dad there as an operator or did he decide which aircraft they were to engage?

The key component on British radar was the cavity magnetron which gave very stable high frequency. If that had been captured it would have been a massive disaster.

best wishes

paul

 

Message 2 - Anti aircraft radar

Posted on: 15 February 2004 by bev_beaven

I will have to ask my mother regarding your questions, as she may know some of the answers. Mum was a gunnery sergeant in the ATS when they met just before Christmas 1943. Although she joined later in the war she became very conversant with the different types of radar equipment.

You are absolutely right about the magnetron and I have always found it astonishing that such equipment had been sent into France at that time - just to see what it could do! (And with soldiers who had only had a month of basic training.) I mentioned that there were two radar cabins. My father recounted that after they were cut off from Dunkirk they were ordered west across France, towing the radar and a 25 pounder with their trucks. On their way they had to take down copper telephone wires which were then stored on a large drum but later abandoned. Here is the amazing bit: the time came that one of the radar sets was ordered to be destroyed. The small unit of which my father was a member then came to the place where the other set had been blown up. The components were apparently made in modules and on the ground they found one such key module which had somehow survived the explosion. They slotted into their own set and it still worked. He always said that if they had not had happened upon it and blown it up again, then the course of the war may have been very diffrerent. I may not have the details exactly right, but that is how I recall he told it to me.

Anyway they got to St Nazaire with the remaining set in its cabin and could not get on the Lancastria but were then ordered to load it onto a collier and come ashore. But their own officer told them to hide inside the radar cabin until they were at sea, which they did. Before that they had blown the breaches of the guns with gun cotton (remember the guns ARE the colours in the Royal Artillery) and drained the sump oil from the trucks and run the engines until they seized.

They came ashore somewhere in the west country. I think their officer was Johnny French, who I believe is still alive.

Bev

 

Message 3 - Anti aircraft radar

Posted on: 16 February 2004 by paul gill - WW2 Site Helper

The fact that components couldn't even be destroyed with explosives limited the use of airborne radar on bombing raids over enemy territory. I think your dad might well have been right -had the Germans recognised the components for what they were.

I look forward to your mum's answers.

best wishes

paul

 

Message 4 - Anti aircraft radar

Posted on: 17 February 2004 by bev_beaven

Hello again -

My mother says that it was a 'Mark 1'. Her description of the wheeled cabin is based on her own experience later on, but she describes the aerial as a ladder on the cabin roof about 12 feet in height with a main cross-bar projecting each side about half way up and an array of smaller bars too.

Hope this makes sense.

Bev

 

Message 5 - Anti aircraft radar

Posted on: 18 February 2004 by Peter - WW2 Site Helper

Dear bev_beaven

I found your story of great interest both from a technical point of view and from the security aspect.

In 1940 primitive radar still used the longer meter waves in the 300MHz-1M band and the equipment for each station was quite bulky. In 1938 the government had approved orders for a thousand ant-aircraft and searchlight radars, and it must have been two of these early sets that your father was sent to France for. I can only wonder at who it was that approved sending the sets to France given the utter secrecy of the work. I wonder if someone's head rolled at the War Office over what seems like crass stupidity to test secret equipment in the front line in France. Fortunately it was too early for a magnetron to have been sent.

The big breakthrough for radar came with the invention of the cavity magnetron on 21 February
1940, paving the way for both miniaturisation and the use of 300MHz-10cm microwaves. Only the Americans had the capacity to produce the magnetrons in the quantity needed, so the secret was shared with them. To give some idea how much had changed regarding secrecy, under Churchill,
between June 1940 and 29 August 1940, when the magnetron and other small secret items were sent to America, one needs only read part of the account of the physicist Eddie Bowen's trip with the black box containing the cavity magnetron, about the size of a car headlamp.

He is at Euston station, en route to Liverpool, at this point he knew only that a first-class seat had been reserved; but when he got on the train, it appeared an entire compartment had been set aside for him. The blinds were drawn and reserved notices placed on the windows: "A few minutes before departure a man with a school tie entered the compartment. With scarcely a glance around, the man took up the seat diagonally across from Bowden and began reading a newspaper. The mysterious man didn't speak until a few a few minutes after the train began edging out of the station, when some late-comers opened the door, happy to have found an empty cabin. 'Out!' he ordered. 'Don't you see this is specially reserved?'. Bowen was struck not so much by the man's words as the commanding tone of delivery." The rest of the journey passed in silence, on arrival at Liverpool Bowen had been told to stay put until a military escort arrived, which he did "his compartment mate also remained in place, ostensibly absorbed in the paper". Then the military escort arrived, he had expected a couple of soldiers, it consisted of a sergeant and twelve heavily armed men.

I have recounted this to show the extreme importance of what your father did and the trust that was placed in him. One can only wonder at the slap-dash way these sets must have been sent to France prior to Churchill taking over!

Kind regards,

Peter

 

Message 6 - Anti aircraft radar

Posted on: 22 February 2004 by bev_beaven

Dear Peter

Thank you so much for giving some better perspective. An earlier correspondent asked about how the anti-aircraft RADAR was used in France in 1940. My father's account, as I recall he told it, was that they were basically told to just "see what it could do".

I agree, with the benefit of hindsight it seems crass to have risked the equipment in France - but then I think the strategic imagination was perhaps a little constrained at that time because the Great War had been so static on the western front. Perhaps it was the very secrecy of the work that led someone, in ignorance, to send the equipment overseas?

Thanks and regards.

Message 1 - Wartime Radar

Posted on: 07 September 2004 by Bob Borland

Dear Bev

I trained in Air Radar in 1957. On my course there was a discussion on the use of half power switching. In the Battle of Britain the Germans had got hold of a British fighter which had radar but although they reconstructed the radar system, they did not realise the significance of the half power switch. If the radar system was not switch to half power prior to power up the system burned out.

If this also applied to Ground to Air Radar then the system would have burnt out on switching on.

My father left St Nazaire at the same time that your father did.

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