The Secrets of Radar Museum is a museum located at the London International Airport on the east end of London, Ontario. Dedicated to the massive undertaking of training radar technicians in the London region during the Second World War, and especially with regard to the absolute secrecy in which the technology was developed, the Secrets of Radar Museum comprises a number of lengthy and interesting exhibits. Their mandate is to preserve the memory of everyone who worked on the development of the technology, which played a key role in the victory of Allied forces during the Second World War, to share that memory with the Canadian public, and to provide a therapeutic setting for veterans. For those interested in the Canadian contributions to the victory over Nazi Germany, it’s well worth the trip.
Radar is such a ubiquitous technology in the modern era that it’s hard to believe there was ever a time where you could fly an airplane without it. The first four decades of powered flight, however, were accomplished without it. Like many of the technological advances of the 20th Century, however, it took wartime innovations to create the need that led to it. In the First World War, engineers didn’t even think to affix weapons to airplanes until partway through the fighting. At first pilots were just up in the air as observers, watching inch-by-inch movements in the trenches. Eventually each side realized that the other pilots were a legitimate target and began arming themselves with rifles, handguns, and bricks. This led to some one deciding it would be a good idea to take one of the machine guns they were using in the trenches and bolting it to the nose of the airplane. From there, events followed an inevitable chain. Eventually airplanes were dropping bombs on both military and civilian targets, and this meant that those being bombed had an urgent need to figure out when exactly masses of airplanes were en route to their cities.
Enter radar. It had been tossed around the sciences as an idea since the late 19th Century when Heinrich Hertz found that you could bounce radio waves off of solid objects. Another German scientist, Christian Hulsmeyer, was the first person to use this property to intentionally find the direction of a metallic object – a ship – that was hidden by dense fog. Other scientists would tinker with the idea of using radio technology to find items at long distance – more ships, typically, as well as lightning. Patents were filed, gadgets were cobbled together, but between the First World War and the next Western militaries didn’t feel much of an impetus to look into applications of it. They didn’t think much of airplanes as having military applications either, but they had a brutal wake-up call during the Spanish Civil War. The German air force proved over Guernica in 1935 that strategic aerial bombardment gave Franco’s fascist forces a serious advantage; the rest of the global powers hastened to catch up. When the Second World War broke out, aerial warfare played a key role in early German victories over Poland and France; German air power proved to be a serious threat to the British homeland after the fall of France.
From the mid-1930s onward, eight separate nations worked independently, and in great secrecy, on adapting radio technology into modern radar. After the fall of France in 1940, the British realized that they needed American help if they were going to prevail. This was before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, when America was still unsure of its stance toward a European war. Part of the British package of enticement was technology that the Crown had been working on. Included in this were some devices, including one called a resonant-cavity magnetron. It was something that filled in the gaps in a lot of American research, and the partnership spurred development in both countries. The British, with help from American resources, built lines of ground stations with radar: radio wave transmissions that reported back the position of inbound enemy airplanes and displayed them on a display tube that kept the image for a brief moment, just long enough for the next wave to report in. These ground stations provided early warning of incoming bombers over England during the Battle of Britain; miniature radar apparatuses, made to fit onto airplanes, gave pilots an indication as to the position of their enemies. These innovations, together, gave the Royal Air Force the edge needed to make the war over the English Channel one that was very expensive for the Germans. Incidentally, this is the reason for the common myth that eating carrots leads to having better eyesight. In order to keep the Germans from realizing that there was a technological reason for their struggle to attain air superiority over England, the British government spread the rumour that their training program for pilots included a large amount of carrots. The Vitamin A was supposed to be good for the eyes; in reality, it was the early warning in combination with the onboard radar that let British pilots win out and push the Germans back on to the Continent.
Of course, every new technology comes with a common major problem: no one really knows how to work it at first. It was all well and good to string the southern coast of England with radar stations, but if there’s no one to operate those stations then they’re just a massive waste of resources. This is where the story of radar development turns toward Canada, and the region of southwestern Ontario. The training of radar operators took place in the sleepy, bucolic surroundings of Huron County.
Radar In Southwestern Ontario
Prior to the Second World War, the landscape of what is now the village of Vanastra, Ontario looked quite different. It was part of a 100 acre farm located in Tuckersmith Township, about an hour north of the city of London, owned by a farmer named Norman Tyndall. After the implementation of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, government agents were empowered to purchase land and other resources to be used as part of a staging and training effort for the Royal Air Force. In the spring of 1941, Farmer Tyndall’s farm was quietly bought up, and he was paid enough to not mention the circumstances behind the purchase to anyone. The location was chosen because of it’s proximity to the bluffs over Lake Huron nearby; it was the best place to test the radar operations outside of the southern coast of England itself. Training was difficult on site in England, however, because of all the bombing.
It only took fourteen weeks to go from the purchase of the farm to the first day of the training program. It was fast and highly productive; new roads sprang up and over 40 buildings, both barracks and training facilities, were built in a very short time frame. Construction went so fast that the trainees weren’t even ready to start the practical part of the program. The science course at the University of Toronto was not quite finished, so the final details of the construction program were handled by American air force personnel, who were the first to train on British radar stations. Once the training program got into sync, however, the secret radar training base began churning out radar operators at a rapid pace. 5000 Canadian airmen, 750 Canadian officers, and 2000 American airmen were trained on how to operate inflight radar and ground station radar technology. The Americans were quite impressed at the way the radar training program worked, and later imported the regimen to their own radar training programs later on in the war, and after.
The secrecy of the operation is one of the most amazing parts about the whole story. Keeping a secret is easy when it’s just one person; every additional person added to the secret makes it that much more difficult to keep the secret. The secret of Allied radar technology required thousands to keep it quiet, and from all accounts they did a stand up job of it. It’s all the more impressive when you consider the physical size of the operation. The village of Vanastra as it stands today is built on the original constructions of the radar training base; indeed, many of the apartments are built out of the old barracks and look the part. That original base was 271 barracks-style houses, as well as a fire station, elementary school, hospital, theatre, two distinct churches, a skating rink, a curling club, a public swimming pool, and a small bowling alley. The story of that village-base, and how they kept it as secret as they did, is the focus for a lot of the exhibits at the Secrets of Radar Museum. It’s well worth booking a few hours away to check it out, and to get a better idea of the deep history of Southwestern Ontario.
There’s more to the Secrets of Radar Museum, however, than the history of the town of Vanastra. Radar was also a big factor in security and defence systems during the Cold War, especially once technology had gotten to the point where any war between the superpowers would be both sides firing intercontinental ballistic missiles at each other. The need to know if the other side had launched those missiles became vital, and so strings of radar stations in far-flung parts of Western territories became the norm. From the 1950s onward, this meant that Canada and the United States coordinated their air defence systems; since Canada was the legal owner of the Arctic territory that was directly in the path of Soviet flight paths into the United States, a great deal of money and other resources were invested into building capacity in far northern Canada. These included systems like the Distant Early Warning Line (or DEW Line), the Mid-Canada Line, and the Pinetree Line.
The DEW Line was the furthest north, as the name might imply. DEW Line stations were set up in remote locations along the northern coast of Canada, in otherwise largely uninhabited regions. They were originally authorized by U.S. President Eisenhower in 1954 and were constructed between 1955 and 1957; 58 stations in total were eventually built, and remained in operation until the late 1980s. It was a lonely job, and the operators along the DEW Line needed to be tough and resilient. They were very small little communities, and they needed to figure out some way of getting along since they were stuck there for six months at a time. The pay was good, though, and the experience was invaluable; radar operators were always needed in places that weren’t on the roof of the world, and DEW Line operators were in high demand. It was a rough job to get in the first place, though; there was a 14-week course required before deployment, and if a potential operator got less than 70% on any of the weekly required tests they were dropped from the program. The people that did make it, though, formed an integral part of the nuclear defence system of North America.
The Pinetree Line was similar, although the line of strung-out radar stations was quite a bit further south than the DEW Line stations. The Pinetree Line stations ran coast to coast through the middle of Canada; some of the sites in Newfoundland and Labrador ran nearly as far north as the DEW Line stations, but most of them ran through southern Quebec, northern Ontario, and the southern halves of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia (with three on Vancouver Island alone). It may not have been quite as lonely as being stationed up on the DEW Line, but it was every bit as important to overall air security.
Hours and Directions
The Secrets of Radar Museum is open on Saturdays from 10 AM to 3 PM. Its direct address is 2155-B Crumlin Side Road, which is on the edge of the property of the London International Airport; it’s adjacent to the Royal Canadian Air Force Association 427 Wing headquarters, as well as the Jet Aircraft Museum. Parking is available, but bus service out to the airport is not available on the weekends.