Near the end of World War II, Hitler boasted he was about to unleash Vergeltungswaffen, or “vengeance weapons.” These would terrorize and overwhelm Britain and its allies, winning the war for Germany.
The Vergeltungswaffen were the V-1s and V-2s. Indeed, they rained down on Britain and Belgium, causing immense damage, but they were too little and too late for the Third Reich, which succumbed in April 1945.
At the beginning of World War II, under immense secrecy, the British developed another technology that arrived at almost the precise moment and in just barely the proper quantity and quality to save Britain. In saving Britain, it saved the democracies. It was defensive radar and—together with flesh and bone and splendid fighter aircraft—it won the Battle of Britain.
“Never before in our history,” wrote David E. Fisher, “has one invention borne such a distinct and significant role in the outcome of such a pivotal war…. Radar was a device invented not just once, but again and again in many countries at many different times, but in only one of these countries was it implemented at the precise time that would make all the difference.”
Deciphering Germany’s “Enigmas”
Although one might argue that the deciphering of the German “enigma” codes arrived just in time and allowed the Allies to win the war, it was a near thing. Indeed, Fighter Command leader Hugh Dowding was reading decoded “enigma” messages in 1940. These, however, were not nearly so vital to the RAF fighters during the Battle of Britain as the radar warnings. It was radar that tipped the balance. Without it, the British very likely would have lost air superiority in the late summer of 1940, and following that, their island. It is difficult to believe that Nazism would have been defeated if it had controlled Britain from October 1940.
Events proved otherwise, however, and one would not be wrong to lay the honor on radar.
In the early 1930s, much air strategic thinking revolved around the mounting strength of bombers. These were thought to be developing so swiftly and in such numbers that in a future war fleets of them would obliterate industrial complexes, even whole cities. Planners believed that wars might be won merely by air fleets destroying enemy infrastructure and breaking the will of the civilian population. Stanley Baldwin, Britain’s prime minister during portions of the 1920s and 1930s, reflected this thinking when he said in 1932, “The bomber will always get through.” In a sense, this was a mantra for peace: The prospect of mutual destruction by bombers would prevent future wars.
But it also meant that Britain was no longer an island refuge. In minutes enemies could span its surrounding waters and wreak havoc upon its people. Britain’s successful barrier to invasion for a thousand years was suddenly of little consequence. Britain decided to build bombers—in the wan hope that such aircraft would be a deterrent to future war—and to build fighters with which to defend against bombers. But money was scarce and the fighters would be few, especially compared to the numbers of aircraft of the burgeoning menace of Nazi Germany.
If, as some people suspected, Germany would wage an air war against Britain and with superior numbers, then under conditions as military planners understood them, British fighters would eventually dwindle owing to attrition. Tactics called for fighters to patrol sectors, looking for invaders. This required lots of fuel and fatigued the pilots. Moreover, once the pilots descended for more fuel—they could only stay in the air about an hour at full power—they were vulnerable to destruction while landing, taking off, or refueling.
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On the other hand, if fighter coordinators knew where the invaders were, pilots could be led directly to where they were needed. Pilots would not have to waste fuel or time in wearisome searches. They would be efficient, far more efficient than if they merely patrolled and fought with whomever they might run across. But how to do it?
With observers on the ground? Not likely. Clouds were pervasive and invaders that were spotted would probably be so close at that point as to pounce on grounded fighters. By engine noise? No, again it did not give enough lead time. The British fighters designed in the middle 1930s and beginning to come off the assembly lines in the later 30s—Hurricanes and Spitfires—needed about two minutes to get into the air (a “scramble”) and about 15 minutes to climb to 20,000 feet. Thus, they would need about 20 to 25 minutes’ lead time if they were to properly position themselves to attack, or just two or three minutes less than the time it took for aircraft rising from northeastern France to reach the English coast.
“Any War Within the Next Ten Years is Bound to be Lost”