Published in 2019 by The Observatory Press.
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Cover design and origination: Charles Gris
To find our more about Sir Robert Watson-Watt, Dame Katherine Jane Trefusis-Forbes, Professor George Forbes and their remarkable home in Pitlochry, Scotland see: www.observatorypitlochry.com
ith every pedal stroke, the rotund Scots scientist cursed the name ‘Winston Churchill’. His heavy bicycle moved slowly along the narrow ribbon of tarmac that led inland from the Frisian town of Norden. A broken spoke provided an irritating beat to his laboured progress as it hit the mudguard stay with each revolution of his back wheel. The countryside was dead flat, but not level enough to make cycling it pleasurable for an unfit man in his mid40s, he reflected. This part of northern Germany had much in common with his current billet in Suffolk – featureless, productive fields merging seamlessly into the sky and seascape. A combination of June’s midday sun, a headwind and an impractical woollen suit made even slow movement a sticky business. To make matters worse, the reluctant cycle tourist noticed swastika flags crudely nailed to each of the telegraph poles he passed. Fascist displays of this kind had become commonplace across Germany since the election earlier in 1936 when only Nazi-approved candidates had been allowed to stand. For a natural landscape to be despoiled by menacing symbols of Germany’s descent into aggressive militarism added biliousness to his multiplying discomforts. The bicycle had almost ground to a halt and its rider was now interspersing Churchill’s name with crude AngloSaxon terms. Quite what happened to his front wheel at that moment would never become entirely clear. A pot hole was probably to blame. As his attention drifted, his handlebars suddenly wrenched to one side. This tipped
him from the upright, and soon he was entirely unbalanced and tumbling. It was his bad luck that on each side of the road was a deep, steep-sided ditch that was approximately four feet deep. His fall took him and his bicycle to the bottom of the mercifully dry dyke. On the way down, however, his left leg became completely entangled in the dry brambles that covered the channel’s walls. The bicycle crashed beside him a few feet further on. It was some moments after he came to a rest that he was able to appraise his situation. He swiftly realising not only that he couldn’t free his leg, but that his life might well now be in grave danger. How on earth had he found himself here? He felt the blood from his ankle – now ensnared above his supine body – running down his leg. He mused on the trajectory that had landed him there. A few months earlier, in a field in Northamptonshire, he had demonstrated to the British Air Ministry that he could use radio waves to detect the presence of aeroplanes beyond human sight. How impressed the military brass had been was hard to say. A phone call several days afterwards, however, had turned his world upside down. “Watson-Watt, is that you”, boomed the patrician voice from the telephone receiver. “This is Winston Churchill,” the caller continued, once his question received an affirmative. Robert Watson-Watt had travelled a long way by that time in his career, from a modest family in the littlecelebrated Scottish settlement of Brechin, to his role as
scientist in the civil service. It was the first time, however, that he had taken a phone call from a national political figure. No less surprising than speaking with a voice he knew from the wireless, was Churchill’s directive tone. WatsonWatt was used to the cautious ways of the Civil Service, where rank mattered and minuted instructions from on high ruled the way that work was done. Churchill was not even on good terms with Prime Minister Baldwin, much less a member of his government. Watson-Watt was not so guileless not to see how the country was changing, however. Churchill and the group around him seemed to have the measure of resurgent Germany and its shouty dictator. The case that they had been making – for rearmament and preparation for war – seemed more persuasive by the day. “Without developments like the one on which you are working, England as we know it will be sunk”, Churchill enjoined. Watson-Watt might have observed that he was as concerned with Scotland as England, but there was no stopping Winston in his stride. Churchill clearly had important friends on the inside. A few days later, Watson-Watt had the funding he needed to make progress. He took a team to Orford Ness, off the Suffolk coast, a curious, sandy isthmus, populated by birds and MOD huts. His urgent instructions were to make possible the seemingly impossible. There were a few further calls from the future war-time leader to check on progress – although many more of these came from his associates. A call from Churchill in the
Spring of 1936 had taken a rather different tack, though. At first he quizzed the scientist on just how original was his work. “Wasn’t it so that a German scientist had demonstrated something quite similar, earlier in the 1930s?” Watson-Watt agreed. He had never made a secret of this. “What if they are ahead of us on this aeroplane detection, then?” demanded the politician. Watson-Watt thought this unlikely, but could not dismiss the possibility out of hand. It was then that Churchill suggested the cycle tour. “Go to Germany and see what you can see,” he said, suggesting the coast line around Hamburg as the most likely location to find such equipment being tested. Watson-Watt agreed that it was an intriguing possibility, but argued that a younger man would make a more plausible cycling visitor. “No, no, no, it has to be you,” came Churchill’s response, with the weight of an artillery barrage. “Only you would recognise the kit.” So it was, a week or two later that Watson-Watt left his scientific team for Harwich and a ferry to Cuxhaven. The grey north sea had done little for the scientist’s spirits and nor had experiences once he got to Hamburg. The injunction to ‘buy himself a German bicycle’ had sounded simple. In fact it was anything but. In the 1920s Germany had sent almost its entire bicycle production to the Netherlands in a desperate scramble for foreign currency. More recent developments in automobiles and armaments production had starved bicycle manufacturers of
resources. As a result, it had take a day and a half making enquiries up and down the Reeperbahn before WatsonWatt found his steed. It was ill-fitting and over-priced. A train had taken him to the coast, after which he had spent three wholly unproductive days pedalling up and down the windy roads of Lower Saxony. His work in Suffolk depended upon constructing huge connected masts, arranged like airborne fishing nets to ‘catch’ the radio signals. It was an unwieldy solution, Watson-Watt was well aware, but finding sufficient ‘return’ signal to make his system work was an on-going struggle. Accordingly, it was masts of this kind for which he searched the Frisian coastline. Alas he found none. He had taken sightings from half way up telegraph poles and a couple of Church towers. He saw one or two outposts of industry that he thought sufficiently interesting to take surreptitious photographs with the camera Churchill had sent him – a German Leica, he noted gloomily. By the time of the accident, Watson-Watt had enough material to be able to show that he had, at least, tried his hardest. Absolutely nothing he had observed would advance military or scientific knowledge, however. His had been a fool’s errand, was the conclusion that had him cursing his sponsor in the moments before he fell. The first thing that Watson-Watt had done upon coming round at the bottom of the ditch was to check his watch. It was quarter to one in the afternoon. With his bleeding leg stuck, the realisation of just how precarious was his position swept over him. While he was
actually moving around on his bicycle, there was little time for anyone to wonder what he was up to. Now there were bound to be questions. To make matters worse, he realised that both his camera and note book were no longer in his bag. They must have fallen out elsewhere and clearly had the capacity make his situation significantly more difficult. He had deliberately chosen a quiet road and traffic was occasional at best. A couple of light vehicles passed and did not hear his shouts. He kept quiet as what sounded like a patrol of singing soldiers marched by, after which time he possibly slept for a couple of hours. He woke to see the face of a sandy-haired boy smiling down at him and addressing him in German. A few exchanged sentences established that the boy had more English than Watson-Watt did German and an offer of help was made and accepted. First the boy reached into the ditch with an alarmingly long knife. With a few sweeps, he had cut most of the brambles from Watson-Watt’s leg. Then came an arm, proffered to pull Watson-Watt back to the road. And it was as the khaki shirt, with its rolled up sleeve, stretched down, that Watson-Watt caught sight of the epaulet. On it was stitched a white roundel, edged in red, with a black swastika at its centre. It was a strong arm that pulled the stricken scientist up, but Watson-Watt felt nothing but sickness as he scrambled the last few feet onto the tarmac. “I’m Helmuth”, said his saviour, who almost immediately reached down again to pull up the Scotsman’s bicycle. Watson-Watt watched him warily. He was younger
than he had first assumed, perhaps only 11 or 12, with an entirely boyish face. He considered picking up a rock from the roadside and trying to knock the boy out before making his escape. But not only could he not quite imagine being able to hit anyone hard enough to knock them out, the thought of repaying obvious kindness with such an attack appalled him. As soon as the bicycle was back on the road, Helmuth set about trying to straighten its front wheel. Using his bodyweight to bend the rim back into place offended Watson-Watt’s sense of the scientific method, but to his surprise it seemed to work. He made wary conversation. “Do you live near here?” “No, I am from Hamburg, but I am staying with a friend of my fathers in Aurich. What are you doing here?” “I’m just touring around having a look at some of German’s lesser known regions,” he replied. The bicycle seemed to be back in commission and Watson-Watt suggested that he try out the repair. Helmuth agreed. Watson-Watt stepped over his bicycle’s crossbar and took a few lazy turns of the pedal, until he was twenty or so feet from the boy. Seeing his chance, the Scotsman pushed down and started to accelerate as fast as he was able. He didn’t look back, but worked the cranks with all his might. After a few moments sweat streamed down his back. Then lactic acid started to grip his thighs. He gritted his teeth and tried to accelerate again. Eventually, after crossing a humped back bridge, he let up for a moment, allowing himself to freewheel. It was
then he saw Helmuth, almost effortlessly keeping his wheel. He stopped pedalling altogether. Helmuth came alongside him, having apparently put in minimal effort. “You seem in an awful hurry for someone who has just fallen off his bike”. Watson-Watt was sullen and said nothing. “Why would an Englishman on a bicycle want to get away so quickly, I am asking myself? Just stop for a moment, I have some things to show you.” Feeling that he had little choice, Watson-Watt applied his brakes. Sweat now broke out all over his face. His wooden suit felt like a straightjacket. His lungs were on fire. “I found these close by where you came off your bike,” said Helmuth, lifting from his pocket the camera and notebook and handing them back to their owner. Watson-Watt took them ill-temperedly, but still had nothing to say. “So, I am asking myself why is an Englishman who is clearly not much of a cyclist, making an inspection of harbours and shipping installations around the German Bight? Why is he using such an advanced camera? And I am wondering if perhaps he is a spy?” Watson-Watt spluttered and his face grew even redder. “I am not a spy. Never say that. I am not English either, I am Scottish.” “I was not meaning to upset you. Let us accept that you are not a spy,” said Helmuth, with a smile. “But I wonder if you might have the wrong impression
of me? You look at my uniform and you assume that I am a supporter of the Führer. Be assured, I am not.” Watson-Watt made a careful examination of the uniform. He was not wrong. There was a swastika on each shoulder. The knife that had cut him free was now back in its sheath. On its black handle was a swastika. The German’s lose-tied neckerchief also bore the stylised symbol of the National Socialists. Helmuth paused to let Watson-Watt take all of this in. “I am a boy scout. I love camping, and hiking and cycling. I love being with other young people and challenging ourselves. My family aren’t political. Last year, Hitler closed down the boy scout troops all over Germany and most of us were required to transfer to the Hitler Youth. The only ones that did not transfer, were my Jewish friends, who were forbidden from joining. So however many swastikas you can see, you should not make assumptions about me.” “I am not a spy,” said Watson-Watt again grumpily. As Helmuth continued, however, his mood warmed a little. The boy scout observed that his new aquiantance had suffered a serious fall and was far from his boarding house. The German boy offered the hospitality of his father’s friend, who lived nearby. He promised that there would be a good meal and no more questions. With considerable reluctance, Watson-Watt agreed and followed the boy on his bicycle at a significantly more sedate pace than earlier. As he rode, the older man reflected that the return of the camera suggested that the boy was good for his word.
In short measure, they reached a modest farm where after explanations in a Frisian dialect that Watson-Watt could not follow, he was offered a bath, boiled pork and potatoes, and a bed for the night. Watson-Watt awoke the next morning with a sore head and a stiff back, but grateful that nothing worse had happened. He gingerly made his way down the stairs to find Helmuth alone in the house. “Now Mr Watson-Watt, I am sure that you will be keen to get home to Scotland, but I think there might be something that I can show you that will make your trip worthwhile.” The offer was met with scepticism, but Helmuth was persuasive. The boy had cycled all around the area that summer, but conceded that his guest might struggle to match his milage. They agreed to take their bicycles on the train to Wilhelmshaven where more would be revealed. From the ship-building town’s railway station, Helmuth led them by bicycle beyond the urban boundaries until they could look out over the approach to the River Wesser. The attraction that the boy had promised sat surely among the waves, half a mile from the coast. The brand-new ‘pocket’ battleship Admiral Graf Spee, was performing manoeuvres. The rails on its gantries gleamed, fresh paint on the hull caught the sun, and scurrying sailors could be seen along the length of the deck. “They have been sailing it up and down for the past three months,” said Helmuth. “And it has just been commissioned as our navy’s flagship.”
Watson-Watt felt a mix of amazement and terror at what he was being shown. This was clearly vital navel intelligence. By the same token, however, he had now crossed the line into gathering military secrets in the company of a disturbingly knowing boy scout. “It’s not really of interest to me,” Watson-Watt stammered. He did take a turn, however, with Helmuth’s borrowed binoculars. As he scanned the gleaming decks, something unfamiliar caught his eye. On one of the upper decks was what looked like an over-sized grate from a grill, slowly turning on a pole. Watson-Watt nearly dropped the eyepieces as the blood drained from his face. “I tell you what, Helmuth, it is a magnificent sight. I will take just one or two pictures to remember it by.” Trying to be an unobtrusive as he possibly could, he snapped half a dozen exposures before suggesting that they get on their way. Helmuth remained courteous to the end. He showed Watson-Watt to a small ferry that took him back to Cuxhaven. He refused the offer of the bent-wheeled bicycle as payment. This was left leant up outside an inn, and the two parted company with a shake of the hands. As the little boat pulled from the Willhelmshaven, the Scotsman regretted not having embraced the boy and commending his clear-sighted bravery. By the time that thought had formed, however, there were several yards of water between them. He managed a discreet wave that he hoped telegraphed his gratitude. Watson-Watt’s heart did not stop pounding until he was safely on the Eastern Railways steamship bound for
Parkeston Quay on the Essex coast. And once he was back on British soil, he took a train straight to London where he handed the camera to Churchill in person. Watson-Watt was dispatched to a civil service hotel, but an hour and a half later, a messenger summoned him to return to Churchill’s office. The great leader did not introduce the three other men in the room, when Watson-Watt arrived. They had on the table blow ups of the pictures he had taken the day before. They were surprisingly clear, given how much they had been enlarged. Churchill gestured at the pictures. “There is an awful lot here to taken in – not least that I can’t believe that the proportions of this ship are consistent with the Versailles treaty. But tell us about what you spotted”. Watson-Watt looked carefully along the deck until he found the feature that had caught his attention. “There” he said, pointing it out. “It’s hard to be certain, but that looks like the receiver for some kind of radiobased detection system. My guess would be that it is intended to provide early warning of air attack.” “As we feared, gentlemen,” intoned Churchill. “The Germans would appear to be significantly further advanced than we had imagined. Your work, WatsonWatt, has become all the more pressing. Make no mistake, however, there will be no more quibbles about cost. This provides all the evidence we need to justify the investment”.
About this story
This account has been compiled from several sources, some of them note books that could be Watson-Watt’s contemporaneous diaries. This cannot be definitively stated, however. Watson-Watt’s unlikely cycling trip to Germany in 1936 is consistent with information that he shared in letters to Jean Wilkinson, with who he was in a romantic relationship. They would marry in 1952, upon the dissolution of his first marriage. The notebooks tell us nothing more about the boy, other than his first name and the city in which he lived. All his details are consistent with it being Helmuth Hübener, who went on to lead the German resistance grouping Vierergruppe Hamburg and who was executed for treason in October 1942 at the age of 17. Admiral Graf Spee was the German navy’s first pocket battleship. They were so known because the Treaty of Versailles that concluded the First World War forbade Germany from building ‘full-sized’ battleships . The Admiral Graf Spee was built in Wilhelmshaven from 1932 and was tested in the waters outside the town’s harbour during the summer of 1936. It was the first German ship to be fitted with their version of radar, whose antenna bore a marked similarity to the one described here. It cannot be verified when Churchill and Watson-Watt were first in contact. There is no doubt, however, that Churchill operated a shadow defence policy from some time in 1935, or that he was a keen supporter of the development of radar.
Watson-Watt is thought to have first met Jane Trefusis-Forbes around this time. They would work together during World War Two. He developed the radar defences that gave the numerically weaker Royal Air Force a decisive advantage over the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain. Trefusis-Forbes, as Air Commandant of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, provided the operators who ran the ‘radar rooms’. They are not thought to have been romantically involved during the war years, but would eventually marry in 1966. Both spent much of their remaining years in Trefusis-Forbes’ Pitlochry home. She was buried in the graveyard of Pitlochry’s Episcopal Church in 1971. He joined her there in 1973.
About The Observatory Press The Observatory Press publishes material connected with individuals historically associated with the house. Titles published to date include: Star Talks To Boy Scouts (1911/2003), Prof George Forbes, with an introduction by Sir Robert Baden-Powell. Printed facsimile edition 2003. Goodbye Waves, John Grafton (2018). Astronomy, surfing and enduring love come together in an intriguing story from Forbesâ&#x20AC;&#x2122; time in Hawaii. Advance Party, Amal Thea (2018). Based on a mysterious manuscript found among Dame Katherine Jane Trefusis-Forbesâ&#x20AC;&#x2122; papers, it sheds fresh light on German espionage methods in the months before the Second World War. In preparation Shipwrecked, Prof George Forbes, a first-hand testimony of being on board a ship that plunged to the watery depths in the era overshadowed by the Titanic disaster.