There are numerous figures of whom it is said that Britain and her allies would have lost World War Two but for their contribution – Sir Robert Watson-Watt among them. Which of these was the most significant is hard to tell, but Watston-Watt’s pioneering role in the development of radar, and his direction of its establishment along Britain’s coast line in the late 1930s, was certainly pivotal during the Battle of Britain. Until Radar, there was no dependable way of knowing if enemy aircraft were approaching, until they could be seen or heard.
The combination of Watson-Watt’s technology and the Radar operators from the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force gave the RAF just the kind of advantage they needed to defeat the larger and better equipped Luftwaffe. It is hard today to imagine the atmosphere in which Radar was developed. As the possibility of war in Europe became real, dozens of new technologies were considered in London and Berlin in the hope of gaining decisive advantage.
To ensure that Radar was deployed, Watson-Watt had to be an advocate, a committee man, a project manager and leader of a large team, as well as being scientifically brilliant. Those who worked with him at the Bawdsey research station on the Suffolk coast, from where the project was run, say that he was all of this and more. Professor Robert Hanbury Brown who was a junior member of Watson-Watt’s staff described him as ‘charismatic’.
Little in his background provides any clues that this is the course he would follow. Born in 1893 in Brechin, his father and grandfather were carpenters. He was schooled at the High School in Brechin, from which he gained a bursary to study at St Andrews – which he took up studying electrical engineering at University College in Dundee (then a constituent part of St Andrews). In 1915 he joined the Meteorological Office where we worked on methods of using radio to locate thunderstorms. It was this that would eventually lead him to radar.
The extent to which Watson-Watt actually invented Radar has been questioned. Certainly elements of Radar had been demonstrated well before the Second World War. What is without doubt, however, is that it was Watson-Watt who created a system that tied together the technological elements necessary to create an effective system and established a network that worked in the real world. To detect planes, huge masts were necessary, placed at strategic points along the coastline. In less than a year, 250 masts had been errected from Southampton to Scapa Flow and would eventually cover the entire British coastline.
After the war he was reportedly disappointed that he did not gain more recognition for his contribution to the allies’ victory. He established a practice as a consulting engineer, but in the 1950s moved to Canada, and later to the USA.
Quite what brought about his marriage to Kathryn Jane Trefusis Forbes is unclear. Even Watson-Watt’s keenest defenders concede that he had a tendency to pomposity and if he could use five words – particularly if they were long and technically derived – instead of one, he would. Certainly his autobiography bears this out. And, it is said that he left his first wife, who he married when he was 24, because he felt that she could not ‘keep up with him socially’. Their marriage was dissolved in 1952.
Nevertheless, at the age of 72, in 1966, he proposed the Dame Kathryn, and she accepted – although she herself was 67. From that time, they lived together in London in the winter, and at The Observatory in the summer. The marriage was not considered a universal success – certainly by members of Kathryn Jane’s family. Nevertheless, the couple stayed together until they died – Dame Kathryn in 1971, Watson-Watt in 1973. Both are buried in the church yard at Pitlochry.
There is an excellent article about Watson-Watt’s work on radar at
It is written by Watson-Watt’s close friend, collaborator and business partner, Professor Hanbury Brown, himself an eminent astronomer – he is credited with the establishment of Jodrell Bank and is a former President of the International Astronomical Union. His obituary appears elsewhere on the Radar pages.
Tayroots.com has also made this excellent video biopic:
In 2014 the BBC commissioned a feature-length biopic about Watson-Watt and the story of Radar, in which Eddie Izzard carries off the tetchy inventor with considerable aplomb. It can be viewed in its entirety here: