Isle of Wight Radar During The Second World War Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Isle of Wight Radar During The Second World War

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The History of Radar | Radar History: Isle of Wight Radar During The Second World War | Radar: The Basic Principle
Radar Technology: Main Components | Radar Technology: Side Lobe Suppression | Radar Technology: Airborne Collision Avoidance
Radar Technology: Antennas | Radar Technology: Antenna Beam Shapes | Radar Technology: Monopulse Antennas | Radar Technology: Phased Array Antennas | Radar Technology: Continuous Wave Radar | Theoretical Basics: The Radar Equation
Theoretical Basics: Ambiguous Measurements | Theoretical Basics: Signals and Range Resolution
Theoretical Basics: Ambiguity And The Influence of PRFs | Theoretical Basics: Signal Processing | Civilian Radars: Police Radar | Civilian Radars: Automotive Radar | Civilian Radars: Primary and Secondary Radar
Civilian Radars: Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) | Military Applications: Overview | Military Radars: Over The Horizon (OTH) Radar
How a Bat's Sensor Works | Low Probability of Intercept (LPI) Radar | Electronic Combat: Overview | Electronic Combat in Wildlife
Radar Countermeasures: Range Gate Pull-Off | Radar Countermeasures: Inverse Gain Jamming | Advanced Electronic Countermeasures

Radar on the Isle of Wight during the Second World War is a unique tale - for the Radar Station at Ventnor was the only radar station in the British Isles to have been destroyed during World War II.

The first mention of radar on the Isle of Wight took place in September 1935, when the RAF planned to build a chain of 20 radar stations covering the area from the Tyne to the Isle of Wight. This did not happen immediately, as the radar1 stations2 were the earliest of their type in the world.

Background Behind The Radar System

By June 1937, despite the inevitable teething problems and the attitude of Governmental officials - who thought that, as there had been peace for 18 years, there was no need to hurry Britain's defences - radar was ready for use as more than a lab experiment, as a relied-upon weapon of war. After the opening of the Dover Chain Home station in July 1937 it was estimated that a twenty-station chain would take two years to establish - however, with improvements to equipment, the job could be done with 15.

When this was drafted, the approximate position of the island's primary RDF station, the furthest west of the original stations, was further west near St. Catherine's, near the lighthouse and Pepper Pot. Soon, however, the site for the station had been moved to St. Boniface Down, above Ventnor - the highest point on the Isle of Wight.

There was a major drawback with the Chain Home system - it was incapable of detecting low-flying aircraft. C. S. Wright, Director of Scientific Research at the Admiralty, had developed Coastal Defence Radar, known as CD. This detected enemy ships' positions in order to assist coastal batteries in pinpointing precisely the ships' locations, thus ensuring their destruction. The Air Ministry saw in this a solution to the problem of detecting low-flying aircraft, and - re-labelling it Chain Home Low, or CHL - began work on constructing a second network of radar stations across the country, the first opening on 1 November, 1939.

By the time the Battle of Britain began3, there were 21 operational Chain Home stations and thirty Chain Home Lows.

Ventnor Chain Home Radar Station

Between 1938 and early 1939, the radar station's tall pylons were erected over Ventnor. As, at the time, radiolocation was Top Secret, locals did not know the purpose of the pylons. By January 1939, Ventnor Chain Home Station was operational, with four 350-feet-high steel masts for the transmitter aerials, and four 240-feet-high wooden towers for the receivers. Equipment was originally housed in wooden huts by the foot of the masts, although later it was transferred to protected buildings.

Before the start of the war, Ventnor Chain Home Station was used to further RDF trials. Cierva autogyros were used in long-range exercises, increasing the efficiency of the radar chain. On Good Friday 1939, Ventnor along with the complete Chain Home network, began a 24-hour watch for enemy aircraft.

Ventnor Chain Home Destroyed

Ventnor Chain Home had, during the opening stages of the war, given effective warning of large raids from 11 July. This included detecting the large force of German bombers flown on 8 August4, and the even larger force sent across the channel on 11 August5. However, on 12 August, for the first time, the Isle of Wight was a prime target. The Chain Home station at Ventnor was one of four radar stations6 as well as Portsmouth docks and several airfields targeted for attack by the force of 100 Junkers Ju88s, 120 Messerschmitt BF110s and 25 Messerschmitt BF109s. A detachment of 20 Junkers Ju88s broke from the main formation and turned to attack the Chain Home Radar station at Ventnor. As they began their dive, spitfires from 152 Squadron intercepted, destroying some of the Ju88s before they could release their bombs. Fifteen, however, got through. Each of the bombers were armed with four high-explosive bombs and many added to the confusion by strafing the area with machine guns.

Despite the efforts of local firemen, who were hampered by the lack of available water on the site, most of the service buildings had been destroyed.

Several delayed action and unexploded bombs were located in the site of the radar pylons, forcing the whole site to be evacuated and delaying the start of repairs. Luckily, only one soldier was injured in the attack. The radar station was put out of action, the only one in the country in the entire war to have been destroyed.

The Second Attack

On Friday 16 August, the Luftwaffe again attacked Ventnor Chain Home Radar station. The station had not yet been repaired since the last attack, when 7 Junkers Ju87s dived on the station. Five of the Ju87s dropped 7 bombs precisely on the radar station, destroying all the below-ground buildings and all but two of the buildings above ground. The Ventnor Radar Station remained out of service until after the reserve station at Bembridge was completed on 23 August. After it was repaired, only six pylons were built.

By March 1941, most of the senior posts at Ventnor were allocated to Officers of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force. In February 1942, the experimental Naval Type 271 ultra-high frequency RDF equipment was installed, capable of detecting aircraft flying at heights between 50 and 200 feet up to 45 miles away.

Today, Ventnor Radar Station has remained operational in the 60 years since it was built. It is run by the National Air Traffic Services, which is joint owned by the Ministry of Defence and Civil Aviation Authority.

The Consequences Of The Attack

After the two successful attacks on Ventnor Chain Home Radar Station, Germany never again attacked any of Britain's radar sites, a fact which puzzled British officers for some time. The reason behind this has since been discovered.

German Intelligence assumed that no serious damage had been done to any of the radar stations that were attacked. This was based upon reports from General Martini who had continued to detect transmissions from the Ventnor area after both attacks, which they assumed meant that the station was still operational. Intelligence assumed that the radar operations room and the equipment were deep underground, and that further heavy bombing would be wasted.

No German agent during the war learnt much about the British radar system. Had they done, German Intelligence would have discovered that the power and receiving rooms were extremely vulnerable to attack, and that the raid on Ventnor had been a devastating success. It is certain that had German intelligence discovered the full effect of their attack on Ventnor, more radar stations would have been increasingly bombed, with devastating consequences.

German intelligence also assumed that radar was not organised nationally, but on a decentralised, local level. They believed that Britain's fighter squadrons were tied to the radio range of their home station, and that the radar information was only used on a local level, a view which was wrong in every respect.

In any case, the radar stations were difficult targets to attack and destroy, as the aerials themselves prevented dive bombers from accurately targeting the area without crashing into the pylons. The problem of how to target radar stations increased when, two days after the attack on Ventnor, the Ju87 Stuka, which had proved so effective across Europe, was withdrawn from the war due to its high loss rate and vulnerability to the British Fighters.

All of which contributed to Goering's speech of the 15 August:

'It is doubtful whether there is any point in continuing the attacks on radar sites, in view of the fact that not one of those attacked has so far been put out of action.'

Ventnor Radar Station "Captured"

Between 1940 and 1942, Britain was determined to find out exactly how far advanced German radar was, and so a raid was planned on the German radar installation at Bruneval, France. To ensure success, a mock raid was made at an almost identical externally radar station in Britain - that of Ventnor, on the Isle of Wight.

Without warning, No. 2 Special Services Battalion under the command of Colin Newman7 undertook a night raid, and successfully penetrated the outer minefield and other defences, bursting into the operations room and then putting stickers on equipment which, if it had been a real raid, they would have taken for study.

The real raid on Bruneval on 17 February, 1942, was a complete success.

The Needles Batteries

Ventnor and Bembridge were not the only radar stations on the Isle of Wight. In July 1941 a CD/CHL Triple Service Station was set up at the New Needles Battery. This was a station manned by the Army which monitored both low-flying aircraft and ships at sea.

History Of The Batteries

The Needles Batteries were built to guard the two-mile gap between the Island and Hurst Spit during the French Invasion threat of 1858, the same threat which led to the building of HMS Warrior. The Old Needles Battery was built between 1861 and 1863, 250 feet above sea level, on the edge of the cliff behind the Needles, at a cost of £6,958. At this point, the gap between the Island and the Shingles shoal is only 2,000 yards wide, forcing all enemy ships entering the western end of the Solent to come within range of the battery.

However, by the 1880s, torpedo boats had been invented which could, in a fleet, speed past the battery whose guns were too slow to stop them all. Initially, five sea-level caves were built housing Quick Firing guns, with a lift-shaft connecting them to the battery above, later a new battery was built in 1893 at a cost of £9,821 and armed with three 9.2 inch Mark IX breech loading guns, weapons that cost £12,750, weighed 28 tons each, and fired 380 lb. shells.

The Old Battery was still in operation. In 1913, for example, it trailed Britain's first anti-aircraft gun, firing at a kite towed behind a boat below.

The Batteries During World War II

During the Second World War, the Needles Batteries were still in use, armed not only with the 9.2 inch guns, but also anti-aircraft weapons and searchlights. Despite this, the Needles Batteries were unable to work effectively at night.

This changed when on 29 July the CD/CHL Radar became operational at New Needles and was manned by the army. By February 1942, however, it was in the care of the RAF. In January 1944, the Old Needles Battery also had Radar, manned by the Royal Artillery to defend the Needles Passage at night.

Radar dramatically increased both batteries effectiveness against both planes and ships, but it also brought an increased danger of attack. Deep trenches were dug, 700 land mines laid and barbed wire was strewn everywhere.

Sadly, the greatest danger faced by the men at the Needles was not Germany, but the weather. Twice men were blown off the cliff to their deaths on the rocks below.

On 5 June, 1944, the batteries watched part of the D-Day Invasion force pass the Needles on its way to the Normandy beaches.

Since the Second World War, the Needles Batteries have no been in military use. The Old Needles battery was used from 1956 to 1971 by the Saunders-Roe Space Programme as a test site, although launching took place in Woomera, Australia. Since 1975, the National Trust has owned the headland.

Other Radar Stations

There were two more fixed position radar stations on the Isle of Wight during the Second World War, both of which were on the Island's southernmost coast.

RAF St. Lawrence, like Bembridge, was a single-masted reserve station for Ventnor, in case the main Chain Home station was once again destroyed. Aerial stumps, nissen huts and bunkers now used for farmers livestock survive today, hidden amongst the trees at Woody Bay.

RAF Blackgang, however, was different. Although official records contain very little about this station, RAF Blackgang had a crew of over one hundred, billeted in the village of Niton. It was a ground control interception station, and was equipped with a mobile rotating aerial. Its role was to report to fighter command with highly accurate up-to-date information on the enemy's exact local location. Using this information, Fighter Command was able to effect a closely-controlled interception of the enemy, which proved invaluable, especially at night.

It is possible that a 'tip and run' raid made by four FW190s on 1 June 1943 was aimed at destroying this radar station8. The raid destroyed the nearby Undercliff Hotel, where RAF and Army personnel were housed, perhaps under the impression that it was the radar operations room. The operations room survives today, where it is used as a cow shelter.

The final radar station on the Island during the Second World War was a radar site which very few people knew about. Operated by the Army, especially the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers from the beginning of 1942 onwards, the radar was housed in two lorries stationed around Arreton. Its purpose was to provide an early warning for the Gun Operations Rooms at Newport and Fareham on up to a 45-mile radius. By the beginning of 1943, this had moved into a site at Macketts Farm, where the radar equipment was properly housed in concrete buildings with only the 32 aerials showing above ground.

More Isle Of Wight History

History: The History of Radar | Isle of Wight Radar During WWII
Technology: Basic Principle | Main Components | Signal Processing | Antennae | Side Lobe Suppression | Phased Array Antennae | Antenna Beam Shapes | Monopulse Antennae | Continuous Wave Radar
Theoretical Basics: The Radar Equation | Ambiguous Measurements | Signals and Range Resolution | Ambiguity and PRFs
Civilian Applications: Police Radar | Automotive Radar | Primary and Secondary Radar | Airborne Collision Avoidance | Synthetic Aperture Radar
Military Applications: Overview | Over The Horizon | Low Probability of Intercept | How a Bat's Sensor Works
Electronic Combat: Overview | Electronic Combat in Wildlife | Range Gate Pull-Off | Inverse Gain Jamming | Advanced ECM | How Stealth Works | Stealth Aircraft

1Then known as Radiolocation, or Radio Direction Finding (RDF)2Known as Chain Home Stations3When exactly the Battle of Britain began is hard to tell as minor bomb attacks had begun as early as the beginning of June 1940, however 8 August is regarded by many to be the start4Including a force of Dornier Do17s, another force of roving Junkers Ju 87s, one force on 57 Junkers JU87s, 20 Messerschmitt BF110 Fighter Bombers and 30 BF109 Fighters, another force later on of 90 Junkers JU87s and 70 BF110s.556 Junkers Ju88s, 25 Heinkel He111s as well as 65 Messerschmitt BF110s and 30 Messerschmitt BF109s.6The attacks on the radar stations in Dunkirk destroyed two huts, but did not damage the transmitter. The towers were slightly damaged in the Dover station raid and all the huts were destroyed at Rye, but the transmitting and receiving blocks were unscathed and repairs were concluded by noon.7Who won the Victoria Cross in the raid on St. Nazaire.8Another possibility is that the raid was against the nearby ship-to-shore radio.

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