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by JohnMacDonaldSmith

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John MacDonald Smith
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13 July 2005

A Boy in the War: Radar

I am looking at the front cover of One Story of RADAR by A P Rowe (CUP 1948) at a photograph of ‘Jimmy’ Rowe and ‘some senior men of TRE (Telecommunications Research Establishment. One of them is my Father, half my present age, looking very smart in a double-breasted suit with a waistcoat.

Four years before war began Sir Robert Watson-Watt had carried out a simple experiment in the detection of enemy aircraft. A piece of simple equipment was set up in a van near Daventry to see whether signals in the 50-metre band were affected by the presence of aircraft locally. As it happened, I gather Father had a hand, as an aerial theorist, in the design of the aerials at Daventry. The signals were affected, and that was the beginning of RADAR, and eventually of TRE.

At the time Father was a BBC engineer but in 1938, moved to the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough. Schooling for my sister and me went a bit haywire from then until 1940 and I think Father may have gone from Farnborough to join TRE (as it became) in Dundee. I’m not entirely sure. But we went to Grandparents in Bolton.

What I do know is that in 1940 TRE moved to Worth Matravers on the Dorset coast and the family moved to a Victorian house in Swanage nearby. Father had been recruited into TRE.

Then France fell and Dunkirk followed. I had been in Fleetwood on holiday with my sister and Mother when war was declared and I remember Chamberlain’s broadcast well. Now, we were also at the seaside and very pleasant it was; but the Germans weren’t very far away and might invade at any time. We never knew why they didn’t.

Meanwhile the Battle of Britain was being fought, and won using the relatively primitive RADAR, which was then available. There was surprisingly little evidence of German activity in Swanage apart from a bobl or tow at the end of the road and is surprising that that rather obvious RADAR masts along the coast did not receive more attention. They were, after all, about 100ft. high and supported what looked like a very large bedspring on which the aerials were mounted. These were called Chain Home and Chain Home Low.

A word on secrecy. I didn’t know any of this at the time. I never even heard the word ‘RADAR’ or anything like it pass my father’s lips. And until I trained as an RAF RADAR Fitter seven years later I knew nothing about what had been going on all round Father at work. ‘Jimmy ‘ Rowe writes of his office cleaner telling him after TRE moved to Malvern, that he thought they’d got some device on the south coast to monitor enemy aircraft!

Because of the threat of invasion, firstly my sister and I were removed to schools near each other but in the depths of Herefordshire. We were (perhaps rather privileged) evacuees. And secondly TRE moved from Worth Matravers to Malvern where it took over Malvern Boys College. Each department took over one of the Boarding Houses and Father, as Head of Department, was known as Housemaster of House 8.

TRE grew from a few dozen people when it was at Orford Ness and Bawdsey in 1937 to 3,000 in Malvern, and with that population influx, you lived anywhere you could find. We eventually ended in a huge ugly house opposite the Boys College, which came with people in a flat upstairs, in the Basement and a lodger in our part.

What I remember most clearly is the number of, in some cases, very great scientists and engineers who worked on RADAR at Malvern. The war had brought them from their universities and from industry to help create a defensive weapon, which did at least as much to bring about victory as any other, without exception. Many of these excellent scientists who were kind enough to give their friendship to my sister and me and they were constantly in and out of our house. AT least on of them was my teacher at university. This is not an account of great suffering in the cause of freedom. It is one person’s reminiscences – brief reminiscences – of a very dedicated group of people in a time of national emergency, seen from the outside. I will always be grateful for their contribution to victory in World War 11.

(Rev) John MacDonald Smith

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