• Discover Hidden Britain

VISIT | Finding Innovation at the Radar Memorial To The Daventry Experiment | Northamptonshire

The Memorial to the Birth of Radar
The Memorial to the Birth of Radar

Learn about the very beginnings of radar in this quiet rural part of Northamptonshire

Find the very beginning of where scientific innovation took place

Discover the role of individuals like Watson-Watt and Wilkins

Here in this corner of Northamptonshire lies the very heart of British air defenses in World War Two

Overlooking the Fields of Historical Significance
Overlooking the Fields of Historical Significance

"...this most amazing of stories - hard to believe it all began in these fields..."

Description |

They called it the Daventry Experiment. Except no one knew. Not the locals. Definitely not the locals. But on a hill in a field in the Northamptonshire countryside somewhere in the vicinity of the small village of Litchborough on the 26th February 1935, Robert Watson-Watt and his friend Arnold F. Wilkins stood next to their equipment in an old lorry and waited. They were using radio waves from the BBC Empire Transmitter in Daventry. They were waiting for a sign.

Meanwhile a Handley Page Heyford bomber set off from Farnborough Airfield heading out on a pre-planned flight path with twists and turns, jinks and ascents.

At some point on that February day, a blip began to appear on their oscilloscope – it was the reflected radio signal of the plane. Their experiment using the Heaviside Layer – a layer of gas in the ionosphere many miles above the earth to allowed radio waves to bounce back down to earth but showing any objects in the sky. And on that day it showed them the presence of the Heyford bomber. This was the beginning of we now know as Radar but that they called Radio Detection.

The successful test information was passed on to the Air Ministry who immediately began to set up the new air defensive system. They had initially asked Watson-Watt to investigate the possibility of a ‘death ray’ but were more than impressed with this new innovation. It was an idea which had begun for Watson-Watt some decades earlier whilst working for the Air Ministry as a Meteorologist and the predictability of thunder storms. But this, this was something more…

In 1936 the British government went on to fund the first operational radar station at Bawdsey in Suffolk. It became the centre of the Chain Home – a series of radar stations that operated as one to become efficient in airplane detection. Remember this was three years before the start of the Second World War; how many believed there would be a war? And of them – how many knew how important radar would become in staying in the fight?

Watson-Watt was proud of being an Angus man, he was born of Brechin in Scotland and often described as quiet, softly-spoken and modest. He wore horn-rimmed spectacles and was interested by many things. By the war, Watson-Watt would be Scientific Adviser of Telecommunications at the Ministry of Aircraft Production and eventually he would be awarded a knighthood.

But there is a story that Watson-Watt and his wife took a holiday in 1937 after hearing whispers of a radio tower at Elbing in what was then East Prussia in Germany. Dressed in walking shoes, a Baedeker tourist guide and a telescope; they undertook walking tours of the area interested in the history, the landscape, the churches and their steeples. But possibly with one eye on the radio masts and their towers. Was it innocent or something more? We can only guess.

The name who is often forgotten next to Watson-Watt is his collaborator in this venture - Arnold F. Wilkins. He was born in Chester, studied at Manchester University and St John’s Cambridge. He would go on to be awarded an OBE but by 1943, during the war he became a Scientific Adviser to Fighter Command and in charge of the Operational Research Section.

But as Bawdsey was being set up, Wilkins and Watson-Watt ended up at Orford Ness testing out their theories and their science with this new technology. Radiolocation was beginning to be seen as a secret weapon – a wireless means of discovering the presence and position of an enemy aircraft or ship.

Its success can be demonstrated in one single part – the Battle of Britain. When the heroes of the skies – as part of the R.A.F. and the Free fliers from other parts of occupied Europe – were supported by realtime information on numbers of enemy aircraft attacking the skies. The Few would simply never have survived the onslaught of the vast Luftwaffe numbers. Radar gave them a heads-up, it gave them a chance.

For down below in radar stations across the chain, men and women tracked blips on screens as Watson-Watt and Wilkins had done at Litchborough just a few short years before. Except now it wasn’t about success, it was about survival.

And so in mid-1941, this tiny area of Northamptonshire during the war, the county found itself proud but confused at being the place where the new war innovation – the ’radio location device’ – had first been developed. They knew nothing of course. They hoped they would hear more after the war was over as it had been created in their part of the world. But even then, few details came their way and life as they say moved on.

So Radio Location or Radar changed the war. And it began here in a field in Northamptonshire. Without question this innovation saved lives. It also incidentally allowed for the roles for hundreds of women during the war as they worked as radio operators for the W.A.A.F.. In fact Watson-Watt said that the role was more made for women than men.

The job description of radio operator reads:

“Young women between the ages of 17 ½ and 35 able to assume responsibility under active war conditions, mentally alert and accurate, 
with exceptional eye-sight and sound nervous control are needed.”

Hundreds were needed. And hundreds stepped forward.

Watson-Watt and Wilkins would go on to further their careers. But nothing it seems came quite as revolutionary as the blip of a screen telling them that something, somewhere was above them in the skies.

Directions and Map |

Find the Radar Memorial near Litchborough off the A5 west of Towcester in Northamptonshire

Longitude: -1.050086

Latitude: 52.195952

what3words: ///reacting.lunges.masks