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‘The bomber will always get through’ was the oft-repeated mantra, first coined by Stanley Baldwin in 1932, which emphasised that the only realistic form of defence was offence. This belief determined the UK’s military strategy, with more attention, and resources, being devoted to bomber production rather than fighters. With bombers able to fly at hundreds of miles an hour, by the time the incoming aircraft had been detected, it would be too late to scramble fighters to intercept them. That was until Sir Henry Tizard and his colleagues first demonstrated that radar (or Radio Direction Finding as it was then called), could detect an aircraft approaching Britain at a considerable distance, allowing fighters to take to the air before the intruders reached British soil.
This was shown in the ‘Biggin Hill Experiment’ when a young Arthur Macdonald led three biplanes from RAF Biggin Hill, and which were directed by radar sets on the ground to intercept incoming aircraft. At the time Macdonald was told, ‘that the whole future of this country depends on the results which you obtain’. Macdonald succeeded and, having demonstrated that bombers could be stopped, Britain turned its attention to building fast, modern fighters, and to developing a radar network – just in time for the Battle of Britain. For this work Macdonald received the Air Force Cross.
In this enlightening, and light-hearted autobiography, Air Marshal Sir Arthur Macdonald, as he was to become describes those early radar experiments – the first non-cooperative interception was an unsuspecting Dutch airliner! – and of another of his achievements, the Duxford flare path. This lighting system was so cleverly designed as to be visible to landing aircraft but not to enemy attackers.
In his subsequent career, Macdonald became Air Defence Commander in Ceylon in 1942, Air Officer Training at Headquarters Air Command of South East Asia Command in 1943 and Air Officer Commanding No.106 Group in April 1945. He was the last commanding officer of the Royal Pakistan Air Force and held many senior posts in the RAF until his retirement in 1962. But it his part in the development of Britain’s air defence at the most crucial time in its history, for which he will always be remembered.
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