Churchill 1940 Club medal
Society of Engineers Medal
Sir Robert Watson-Watt's role in developing radar is well-known. Churchill’s assertion that Watt’s Chain Home radar system saved Britain from the German Luftwaffe and likely 1940 military invasion contributes to his legacy. We have recently discovered over 5,000 pages of previously unknown personal correspondence, documents, photographs, unpublished radar research, speech notes, books and medals. All of these newly found artifacts allow for a new and comprehensive multi volume biography series.
**Please see our crowd-funding page to learn how you can contribute to telling the Sir Robert Watson-Watt story.**
The life and times of Sir Robert Watson-Watt are as complex as the man himself. His adult life and career could have been the plot of an Ian Fleming James Bond novel. From Nazi death rays and World War 2 intrigue, to Cold War espionage. From intense and ongoing battles with his superiors to multiple, adulterous affairs, Sir Robert was a complicated and enigmatic figure in the world of science and technology.
Sir Robert Alexander Watson-Watt, (born 13 April, 1892, Brechin, Angus, Scotland- December 5, 1973, Inverness, Inverness-shire, Scotland), was a Scottish electrical engineer credited with the development of radar in England. Watson-Watt attended the University of St. Andrews and later taught at University College, Dundee. From 1915 to 1952 he held a number of government positions, beginning as a meteorologist working on devices for locating thunderstorms . In early February 1935, while heading the radio department of the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, England, he wrote a memorandum to the British government in which he explained how radio waves could be used to detect aircraft. He quickly followed with an experimental demonstration. By July 1935 Watson-Watt was able to locate aircraft consistently at a distance of about 140 km (90 miles). His system grew into a series of radars called Chain Home, which typically operated at frequencies of 22–50 megahertz, which were much lower than radars developed in other countries prior to World War II .
Plaque dedicated to Sir Robert Watson-Watt and Arnold Wilkins for their radar contributions .
Watson-Watt justified his choice of a nonoptimal frequency for his radar with his often-quoted “cult of the imperfect,” which he stated as “Give them the third best to go on with; the second best comes too late, the best never comes.” In September 1938 the first of the Chain Home radars began 24-hour duty.
By the time World War II began a year later, there were 18 radars defending the United Kingdom, and this number grew to 53 before the war ended in 1945. Chain Home radars are given much credit for the small Royal Air Force’s turning back the German Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain in 1940.
The meteoric rise in German Nationalism in the 1930’s sparked major concern across Europe the World. A new global conflict seemed imminent.
Rumors of a newly developed German death ray raise serious concerns within the British military. Robert Watson-Watt is asked to investigate whether such a device could be feasibly built and utilized against British aircraft.
Adolf Hitler during a notorious Nazi rally.
The Death Ray was apparently capable of destroying towns, cities and people using radio waves. It was first given attention in January 1935 by Harry Wimperis, Director of Scientific Research at the Air Ministry. He asked Watson-Watt about the possibility of building an English version of a death-ray, specifically to be used against aircraft. Watson-Watt quickly returned a calculation carried out by his young colleague, Arnold Wilkins, showing that the device was impossible to construct, and fears of a Nazi version soon vanished.
However, as the German air force grew in strength, the fear of air attack became intense. Then Prime Minister Baldwin had warned that ‘the bomber would always get through’, but a minority, including Winston Churchill and his scientific advisor Frederick Lindemann argued that some form of technical defense must be possible. In February 1935, a pilot from the flight research establishment, Farnborough, was told to fly a bomber to the Midlands and back. He was not told why, but the course took the aircraft past the BBC’s short-wave transmitter at Daventry. Hunched in a van on the ground nearby, Robert Watson-Watt from the National Physical Laboratory and his colleague, Arnold Wilkins, intently watched a cathode ray tube on a cumbersome radio receiver.
They hoped that the powerful BBC signal would be reflected strongly enough from the bomber to be detected. As the aircraft flew past about eight miles away, a green spot on the screen appeared, grew, and shrank away again. The two men had ‘seen’ the aircraft by its electronic echo. Watson-Watt turned to Wilkins and reputedly said ‘Britain is an island once more’. Following this trial – the Daventry Experiment – cash secretly began to pour into developing radar technology. Research took off at immense speed, first at Orford Ness in Suffolk and then nearby at Bawdsey on the mouth of the River Deben. Just a year after the first trial, the detection range had improved to 75 miles and 120 miles was later achieved.
Soon, a series of stations with massive 360 feet (110 m) radar masts began to spring up around the coast until there was an unbroken chain watching out to sea for enemy aircraft called the ‘Chain Home’.
This radar system was not, for its time, especially ‘hi-tech’, but it was designed to be built fast. It was incorporated into a comprehensive control system for reporting and plotting raids, for steering RAF fighters to their targets and for directing the air battles of World War II in real time.
It was this integrated system that changed the nation’s fortunes in the Battle of Britain.
After France was defeated by Germany in 1940, Germany and her allies had beaten all their enemies in mainland Europe. The United Kingdom was the only enemy country left unbeaten. The mood in Britain was close to despair. Winston Churchill made the first of his memorable speeches in which he tried to prepare the British for the battle he knew would soon start.
I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin... Upon it depends our own British life... Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war... Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, "This was their finest hour." Winston Churchill
In 1942, Robert Watson-Watt was knighted by George VI and received the US Medal for Merit in 1946. Ten years after his knighthood, Watson-Watt was awarded £50,000 by the UK government for his contributions in the development of radar. He established a practice as a consulting engineer. In the 1950s, he moved to Canada and later he lived in the US, where he published Three Steps to Victory in 1958.
In 1942, Sir Robert commenced a 10 year affair with Canadian, gold medal winning obstetrics nurse, Jean Drew. They would marry in 1952. Sir Robert divorced his first wife of 36 years to marry Jean. There are over 300 love letters to Jean from Sir Robert in the Parnham/Watson-Watt Collection.
The Collection also includes a 285 page diary written by Jean in 1952. It spans the first year of her marriage to Sir Robert. Originally intended to be published under the title ‘Radar Wife’, it will be part of the overall Sir Robert Watson-Watt story.
Sir Robert and Lady Jean led a prosperous, jet setting life in Canada, the US and abroad. They met everyone from former soldiers, to ex-Nazi’s, to upcoming politicians, to famous film directors. The Watson-Watts loved their time in these social circles.
From Jean’s diary— April 15th, 1953, upon seeing a former German Field Marshall being greeted by his former soldiers after being released from prison: ’The Field Marshall sat at our small table and between extremely lively conversation with his tablemates, jumped up to greet a steady stream of military looking civilians who came to the table, clicked their heels and bowed low over his hand. Most, it not all had served under him during the war, many of them having been imprisoned themselves. I felt the tears close to my eyes. Everyone around us was visibly moved.’
After a series of failed business ventures, Jean and Robert were forced to sell their home in Toronto. In 1960 they moved to Sterling Forest, New York.
In 1962, the pair re-located to Montecito, California, where Sir Robert worked as a consultant for Encyclopedia Britannica and for the Center for Democratic Institutions.
Sadly, Lady Watson-Watt suffered a sudden and fatal cerebral hemorrhage at a Christmas brunch on December 19, 1964. She was only
63 years old.
Between 1964-1972, Sir Robert married for a third time, and re-located to Scotland.
His third wife was Dame Katherine Jane Forbes, noted for being the first director of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (1939–43).
Dame Katherine would pass away in 1971.
Sir Robert Watson-Watt died on December 5, 1973.
The Parnham/Watson-Watt estate, and the team at United Front Entertainment, are committed to telling the entire, unabridged story of the life of Sir Robert Watson-Watt...innovator, hero, and extremely complex character to the world for the first time.
There are many, many insights into Sir Robert’s thoughts on life, education, technology and humanity in the many speeches and letters contained within the Parnham/Watson-Watt Collection.
“There, by the grace of God, goes a brother, a sister, greater in this dimension than I, but of the same kind and essence as I.”
**Speech made in Montreal, St. James Literary Society, circa 1954**
Please visit our crowd-funding page on this website to learn how you can participate in helping us bring the complete Sir Robert Watson-Watt, and Lady Watson-Watt project to the world.