Churchill’s Shadow Raiders: The Race to Develop Radar, World War II’s Invisible Secret Weapon
© 2020 Damien Lewis
A decade ago, in reading Electric Universe, I was delighted to learn about Operation BITING, one of World War 2’s more extraordinary stories. Having learned of an advanced German radar station, British command dispatched a unit of paratroopers, in addition to radar specialists with airborne training, to dismantle the thing and spirit it back to England. The details of the operation – -a scientist suddenly given military rank and raining joining hardened commandoes, a desperate fight on the beach trying to escape, the last minute rescue by Scottish highlanders screaming Gaelic battle-cries — made it unforgettable, and wholly worthy of a book-sized treatment. That is what Damien Lewis delivers in Churchill’s Shadow Raiders, appraising the raid in the context of both England’s SAS operations and the ‘Battle of the Beams’. Although it doesn’t quite live up to its title, being more about the SAS and the raid than the advancement of radar, it’s enormously fun pop history.
The radar bag-and-grab was crucial for England in two respects; despite mounting evidence that Germany’s aerial operations against the British military and her people were radar-assisted, its role in winning the Battle of Britain (allowing RAF command to make the most of its meager resources by concentrating flyers where they were needed) had created a conviction that radar was a British weapon, not something the Germans could use. Recon, though, made it difficult to ignore the array of unknown installations – and closer inspect made command realize that the Germans not only had radar, but they had gone beyond British technical capabilities. Seizing a device would make it possible to understand what the Germans were capable of, and to allow the creation of countermeasures. The raid also salvaged the reputation of the Special Air Services, however, in the wake of its first mission, COLOSSUS, which Lewis treats in the first half of this book. There, a drop into the Italian winter went badly, making it impossible for the men to fully realize their objective of destroying an aqueduct. Unable to communicate with their operatives, SAS command assumed the men were captured, and their pickup boat was called off.
The narrative at the time was that COLOSSUS was an abject failure that proved airborne operations were overreach for Britain, but Churchill and others doggedly insisted they be retained: Britain needed a way to strike back at Hitler, instead of remaining on the defensive. Lewis attacks the failure narrative, arguing that the men performed outstandingly despite equipment shortfalls, and achieved more success in their attempt than was admitted at the time. Even so, BITING, covered in the second half of the book, went far to redeem the potential of SAS, showcasing what is capable of – and Lewis’ full treatment of BITING corrects some parts of the story as featured in Electric Universe while offering far more detail in general. The dramatics of it are no less successful, however, and Shadow Raiders made for great real-adventure reading.