Gathering to mark 
80 years 
of radar

Eddie Izzard.
Eddie Izzard.

In a unremarkable field close to Litchborough, two men armed with little more than a truck, some basic instruments and two antenna made history by successfully bouncing radio waves from Borough Hill in Daventry off a Handley Page Heyford Bomber flying up to eight miles (13km) away.

This demonstration in 1935 by Robert Watson-Watt and Arnold Wilkins, later known as the ‘Daventry Experiment’, was crucial in paving the way for the radar (Radio Detection And Ranging) installation at Bawdsey Manor, Suffolk in September 1937.

After the outbreak of war in 1939 this technological innovation would be a key advantage in the Battle of Britain that was to follow, helping the outnumbered RAF to intercept Luftwaffe bombers and to effectively manage its resources in what became a hard-fought war of attrition between the opposing air forces.

All that remains now of the famous experiment is a small memorial by a field off the A45,yet the role of researchers Robert Watson-Watt and Arnold Wilkins and the contribution their research made to the war effort has not been forgotten.

On Thursday last week, braving blustering wind and rain, volunteers from Coventry Amateur Radio Society and Bawdsey Radar Trust came together to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Daventry Experiment.

They were joined on the day by comedian and actor Eddie Izzard,who had a special interest in the event having played Robert Watson-Watt in the BBC drama Castles in the Sky. The star toasted the occasion with the volunteers before taking to the airwaves to speak to Bawdsey Manor.

In the spirit of the original experiment radio volunteers set up their own 40-metre band station in the back a car complete with an 8ft antenna.

They made contact with stations across Europe including the old transmitter block at Bawdsey Manor which specially opened for the occasion. You can watch the Bawdsey volunteers in radio contact with Eddie Izzard on the day by visiting:

Mary Wain, chairman of the Bawdsey Radar Trust, also visited the memorial to lend her support.

Her family were deeply involved in the radar project. She said:“The reason I’m involved in this, the reason I have turned out in the pouring rain in a field in Daventry is because my mother died when she was 93 and she had been a radar operator.

“She and my father had met as radar operators and they married in 1942 so their whole engagement was life at the beginning of the war.”

Mrs Wain, who was born and brought up in Bawdsey, said her mother had never talked much about her experience of serving as a radar officer because of the top-secret nature of the project.

“Bawdsey was a big part of my life, but she never really talked about it. She did say on one occasion she had met Watson-Watt and it was a nice memory for her.”

The Bawdsey Manor transmitter station closed in 1991 and remained crumbling until the Bawdsey Radar Trust formed in 2003 to oversee the site and promote its historical significance.

Mrs Wain said: “We have been working towards doing something with the transmitter block to commemorate what happened at Bawdsey and what radar meant for this country. For the funny thing that it is, we can barely cope with the interest.”

The group are working towards gaining Lottery funding for the project, but say they are still £300,000 shy of their target.

Mrs Wain added: “Radar was absolutely ground-breaking in its day, and people don’t know about it.

“My mother was very proud of her role but she wasn’t allowed to talk about it because of the secrecy.

“It’s just as interesting as Bletchley Park but it’s not a story that has been told.

“People take radar absolutely for granted, totally for granted and it’s a scientific and technological discovery and development that has changed the world.”

Brian Leathley-Andrew, press officer for Coventry Amateur Radio Society, helped to organise the occasion. He said: “We made contact with Bawdsey and Nottinghamshire.

“It was a fantastic day. I was soaked to my undergarments but I would still call that a good day.”