The unsung story of the men and women who helped win the Battle of Britain 80 years ago

Radar operators 2

As we prepare to mark the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain – which began on 10 July 1940 – much of the focus will rightly be on the extraordinary bravery of our fighter pilots who managed, over four gruelling and deadly months, to defeat a German airforce with more than twice the number of planes and flyers.

Far less well known is the vital contribution of our secret weapon: radar. Invented by a small group of brilliant physicists and operated by an army of intrepid woman technicians, the early warning system gave the RAF precious time to scramble fighters and intercept the German Luftwaffe, robbing them of the element of surprise. So effective – and so top secret – was the technology that the government felt obliged to divert attention by circulating ‘false news’ that the RAF’s success was due to feeding their pilots plenty of raw carrots, which promoted superior eyesight, especially at night. The myth became widely accepted among British and Germans alike, and perpetuated long after the war.

It is this remarkable story that inspired me to set my latest novel Under a Wartime Sky (published by Pan Macmillan) at Bawdsey Manor, a gothic Victorian mansion on a remote part of the East Anglian coast, where a group of the country’s brightest minds were gathered, tasked by Winston Churchill to develop a ‘death beam’ to defeat the German airforce. The Manor became the first of dozens of radar stations hastily built along the south and east coasts of Britain, staffed largely by women operators who found themselves on the front line as waves of German bombers set their sights on Britain.

Radar helped to win not just the Battle of Britain but also the rest of the war, particularly during the later phases such as the Blitz, ultimately changing the course of history. Yet apart from a small museum housed in a former transmitter block at Bawdsey Manor, the invention and the dedication of thousands of female radar operators is far less widely recognised than the code-breakers of Bletchley Park. Radar later developed into microwave technology which has multiple applications today such as speed cameras and air traffic control, as well as in space.