ANNE DIAMOND: Why aren't radar inventors feted like Bletchley heroes?
ANNE DIAMOND: My dad was one of the brilliant radar inventors who helped win World War Two – so why aren’t they feted like Bletchley Park’s code-breaking heroes?
There is a picture of my parents lying on the grass in Priory Park in Malvern, Worcestershire, taken one summer when Britain was still at war.
They are wearing civilian clothes, rather than uniforms, because at the time both were working on a pioneering, secret military project.
They never, ever, spoke after the war about what they did – and I was never allowed to ask.
As far as the rest of the world was concerned, the success of RAF pilots in locating Luftwaffe planes in the dark was based on the claim, propagated by Churchill, that eating carrots gave them better night-time vision.
There is a picture of my parents lying on the grass in Priory Park in Malvern, Worcestershire, taken one summer when Britain was still at war. They are wearing civilian clothes, rather than uniforms, because at the time both were working on a pioneering, secret military project
The real reason, of course, was radar. And I am a radar child, brought up in the Victorian spa town where it was developed and which supposedly had the highest concentration of people with PhDs anywhere in Britain during those war years.
Their efforts were every bit as significant as Alan Turing’s famous code-breaking at Bletchley Park but they have not been recognised in the same way.
Churchill’s great propaganda cover-up – carrots were our secret weapons – worked all too well.
Such was the secrecy that, at that time, the brilliant men and women involved were bussed to Malvern in the dead of night in what was known as a ‘Moon window’ (when there was little or no moonlight, making a German attack highly unlikely).
Some locals, who didn’t know better and presumed they were conscientious objectors, spat at them in the streets. They were also sent white feathers for cowardice and threatened for being spies.
Today, their heroism and patriotism remains almost as hushed as radar itself.
But prompted by the recent death of my mother Marguerite, I feel impelled to tell this story of the war generation before we risk losing touch with it.
I am a radar child, brought up in the Victorian spa town where it was developed and which supposedly had the highest concentration of people with PhDs anywhere in Britain during those war years. Researchers are seen above at the Radar Research Centre in Malvern College
My father was Jimmy Diamond, a young graduate who, as soon as war broke out, volunteered to join the RAF, fully expecting to fight in the Battle of Britain.
However, when service chiefs discovered he had a physics degree, they wouldn’t allow him to fly and instead put him on a train without even telling him its destination. All he had with him as he embarked on this new life was a small cardboard suitcase.
He was furious and heartbroken, but within days he found himself on a different kind of front line, in a team led by the genius physicist Bernard Lovell, who later created the radio telescope observatory Jodrell Bank.
My father’s first experience of this covert war work was beaming microwaves from one end of an aircraft hangar to the other, in the hope of detecting a blip on a cathode-ray tube.
His enduring desire to fly paid off when he persuaded mates to teach him, got his wings, and took to the air in a Tiger Moth – looping the loop was his speciality. He often said that it was just as well he had not become an RAF pilot as he doubted he would have survived – he was a self-confessed daredevil.
As a 16-year-old, my mother dreamed of training as a nurse but her widowed mother was so terrified by the bombing at Birmingham’s teaching hospital in 1940 that she begged her to stay home. This paid off when a new secretive organisation came looking for secretaries and Marguerite got a job.
No ordinary job, though, as she had to sign the Official Secrets Act and would be supporting the scientists in their work. And so she joined my father’s team after it moved to Malvern, taking the notes that would codify the second-by-second struggle to build radar for Britain.
Anne’s father tested radar in Lancaster bombers over enemy territory. As far as the rest of the world was concerned, the success of RAF pilots in locating Luftwaffe planes in the dark was based on the claim, propagated by Churchill, that eating carrots gave them better night-time vision
That’s the bare outline of my parents’ story. I wish I had sat them down in front of a camera and interviewed them.
Sadly, I never did and now I have only a few fractured tales of what it was like, falling in love while fighting a secret war.
Before going to Malvern, Dad’s initial destination had been the village of Worth Matravers, near Swanage on the Dorset coast. There, local landladies were fast becoming suspicious of all the oddball young men renting their rooms.
What they weren’t to know was that these men were building an early warning system along the cliffs to detect incoming enemy bombers – the nerve centre of Britain’s radar development.
However, their work had been spotted and reported to Berlin. And after British commandos raided a German radar unit at Bruneval, France, in a daring mission codenamed Operation Biting, the payback was Hitler’s targeting of Swanage and Worth Matravers.
Luftwaffe bombers were ordered to divert from other raids and use up their ammunition strafing shoppers on Swanage High Street.
Radar workers, too, were peppered with bullets while eating Spam sandwiches in the canteen. One scientist and his wife died in their beds in their rented room on the High Street.
Churchill had suspected that a major retaliatory assault on Swanage and Worth Matravers had been imminent because Enigma intercepts suggested a crack German parachute battalion was ready to move from Normandy.
It was against that background that Dad ended up in Malvern, where he would meet my mum.
He was put on a blacked-out bus, again with no knowledge of his destination, and woke up the next morning in House No 5 of Malvern College. Churchill had chosen the town for Britain’s radar project because it was, he thought, in the middle of nowhere and hidden by the hills beloved by the composer Edward Elgar.
‘The Nazis will never find them there,’ he said. And he was right – they never did.
The schoolboys of Malvern College were evacuated to Harrow and, overnight, 2,000 scientists, Jimmy Diamond among them, arrived from Swanage and Worth Matravers.
One of the biggest problems in the move was that the boffins had built their equipment too big to manoeuvre through doors and into the removal vans. One got his enormous radar receiver stuck in a stairwell and had to saw it in half before they could get it down the stairs from his workroom.
At the time, my mother had been in love with a handsome young US Army officer, who took her to a dance back at his camp. He’d arrived in full dress uniform at her front door, with a fresh corsage for her dress. She’d never seen glamour like it.
The band playing was led by Glenn Miller, whose plane would be lost over the English Channel in 1944; my mother always insisted she had jitterbugged at one of Miller’s last ever gigs.
Shortly after that, her dashing US beau was deployed to France and my mother never heard from him again, though she did later learn that he was fit and well, and after the war he returned to Florida where he became a doctor.
My father, in his flannel trousers and elbow-patched tweed jackets, could hardly compete with the dashing Yank, but my mother always said he was ‘a rock’. Dad worked on both the ground-based dishes so familiar to us all today and radar units fitted inside the RAF fleet.
He regularly took to the skies over the Welsh coast with his great friend Tony Gunter-Smith, a Royal Canadian Air Force pilot. One of their jobs was to create a system capable of detecting submarines.
The Royal Navy provided an old sub for them to test with and hence began a life-or-death game of hide-and-seek. Dad’s mission was to locate the sub and then drop a low-power depth charge to pinpoint it.
Tony would make an aerial pass a few times while Dad waited to see if a blip appeared on his display screen. Suddenly spotting one, the crew delightedly dropped the depth charge. But when they circled around to return, they saw the submarine had surfaced and a group of enraged submariners were standing on top of it, angrily shaking their fists at the plane.
The experimental drop had been so accurate that it had blown out every rivet in the sub’s frame and it was taking on water. It was a bad day for the Navy as the submarine had to be towed home; but it was a major breakthrough in radar.
Dad and Tony made many such sorties together, testing radar over enemy territory in Lancaster bombers. Dad was given the rank of Squadron Leader and a uniform in case he was shot down.
We still have his sheepskin flying jacket, leather helmet and log book, discovered after he died in a box among his treasures in the garage.
The story of radar and Malvern isn’t just about the men though –there were many brilliant women, too. One was Joan Curran, who invented ‘Window’, probably better known by its American name, chaff.
Joan had gained a BSc in physics from Cambridge, at a time when the university didn’t officially award degrees to women, and she rowed in the first Oxford-Cambridge women’s boat race.
She established that thousands of foil strips dropped from a plane could scatter a radar signal until it was meaningless. Her team also created ‘phantom’ signals that could fool a receiver into thinking there were incoming ships that weren’t actually there.
Joan discovered this at her kitchen table after spending hours cutting up tin foil in precise sizes. The countermeasure she created would be critical to the success of the Allied landings on D-Day.
Joan and her husband later moved to America to work on the Manhattan Project, creating the world’s first nuclear weapons, but many of Malvern’s wartime pioneers, including Jimmy and Marguerite Diamond, stayed on.
This meant that children such as me grew up in a world where everyone’s dad – and a lot of mums, too – were brilliant scientists.
They shaped the face of the future way beyond the war years, working in areas from guided-missile defence to the touch-screen technology we all depend on today.
We lived in ‘ministry houses’ – the equivalent of military married quarters, or council housing.
One of my best friends at junior school was a girl called Karen, who became a prominent engineer. She took after her dad, Professor Cyril Hilsum, a hugely decorated physicist. Her little sister, Lindsey, is the distinguished International Editor for Channel 4 News.
The Hilsums were an ordinary family like the Diamonds but, as you’d expect with so many quirky people corralled into one place, the eccentric often became the norm.
A radar research station is seen above in Malvern. Churchill had chosen the town for Britain’s radar project because it was, he thought, in the middle of nowhere and hidden by the hills beloved by the composer Edward Elgar.
Another well-known scientist dressed very bizarrely at weekends and walked through the town with a shopping basket on his head and his children tethered by rope behind him.
For me, Malvern didn’t offer a wealthy or privileged upbringing but it was secure and homely, with the occasional perk. I remember that even though my dad was a civilian, he still bore the rank of major and, when he organised a wedding anniversary party for my mum, he was afforded an Army batman to oversee the planning and a team of white-gloved caterers.
It was a magical night with us kids knocking back Babycham on the front lawn.
That party was also, for me, the beginning of the end, the high point after which modern life began to bustle us all towards a future in which the magic of radar would become blunted by its everyday use.
Those houses in which we grew up, we radar children, have since been done up and sold off, and the extraordinary scientific community which once lived there is scattered, its collective memory vanishing. That’s why I want to tell the story of that generation.
As historians have already pointed out, Malvern is the forgotten Bletchley Park – there is no blockbuster Hollywood film like The Imitation Game, which starred Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley, celebrating its achievements.
As former radar scientist Mike Burstow says: ‘Yes, Bletchley’s code-breakers were vital in identifying U-boat operations… but it took aircraft equipped with Malvern’s radars to find them and kill them.’
Mum was the keeper of the Diamond family’s archive of memories and photos. After opening it up, we found images and read letters that hadn’t seen daylight in decades.
I am sure other radar children must have similar experiences and that’s why I’ve set up a website to reach them. I am determined to build a social history of our parents’ legacy and of our own childhoods.
We take their achievements for granted yet we still rely on them today for everything from air traffic control to weather forecasting. It’s my job to make sure their stories do not, as you might say, fall off the radar…
Visit radarfamilies.com and upload pictures and stories – anything you remember.
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