Book review: ‘Churchill’s Shadow Raiders’ by Damien Lewis

By LARRY BALLWAHN | Wilton

The County Line was contacted a while ago by Kensington Publishing Corp. wondering if its book reviewer might like to receive one of their books from time to time to review. After stating that I couldn’t guarantee either a review or the content of the review, I agreed. The following review is of the first book that I received.

The book is subtitled, “The race to develop radar, WWII’s invisible secret weapon.” The story of radar’s development is interesting, and it has largely been pushed aside by recent technological developments. What makes the book valuable is that it is well-researched nonfiction. It is so well researched that it has an overabundance of detail about English officers and English acronyms. The competition to develop and use radar turns out to be one of the keys to winning the Second World War.

Sir Walter Alexander Watt is usually credited as being the father of radar. Referred to in Britain as RDF (range and direction finder), it was seen as a sure way to defend the island. Britain was surrounded by a series of stationary radar stations, named the Chain Home, that threw an invisible wall around Britain. While that was a sound defensive strategy, Churchill believed that the country must go on the offensive. To that end, he was a prime mover in developing the Special Air Service. The idea was to parachute a fighting unit deep into enemy territory to make a strategic strike and hopefully retrieve them for yet more missions.

The first mission of any note had the Special Air Service SAS flying deep into Italy to bomb an aqueduct that transported water to several coastal cities and a military base. Less than adequate airplanes, a long flight and less-than-accurate dropping of the parachutists and their supplies made for a less-than-successful mission. One of the three bridges that supported the aqueduct was destroyed, and the water line was broken. But the photographs taken after the mission seemed to indicate that the mission had failed because the three bridges had not fallen. Since the mission had seemingly failed, it was assumed that the troops had been captured and thus no submarine was sent for their rescue. The troops were captured near the intended rescue site.

So, a dark cloud was cast over the Special Air Service. Even so, Churchill still saw the concept as valuable. He wanted some offense, not just defense. Much of Britain’s military still felt that they exclusively had a meaningful radar system. This was put into question by the accuracy of the weapons used against British airplanes. Germany seemed to have a lot of information about where British planes were.

Britain made considerable use of photography in an effort to be aware of what the enemy was doing. Study of some of the photos taken on the French coast showed a strange paraboloid dish. Slowly the thought emerged that it might be a radar system. The only way to know for sure was to obtain it. That was to be no small task since it was in a well-defended location. Though it was an ideal assignment for the emergent Special Air Service, a large support network would be necessary, along with much secrecy and considerable luck.

Parachute troops would necessarily consist of a fighting unit and enough radar experts to dismantle the unit and transport it to the coast. Though the “experts” were not aware of it, because of what they knew, they were not to be allowed to fall into enemy hands at any cost. Also needed was a significant sea force to wage warfare from the departure point and get the pilfered paraboloid dish and accompanying equipment loaded and back to Britain.

The site proved to be very well protected; with considerable difficulty, the dish and supporting equipment was dismantled, transported, and loaded. To disguise what they had done, the site was blown up. Churchill’s parachute raiders had proven their worth. But to the military’s dismay, they learned that Germany not only had radar, but also that it was much more versatile than Britain’s stationary system.

Now that the allies know Germany has effective radar, what are they going to do about it?

Damien Lewis has written several books about World War II. You may want to investigate.

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