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X Beams, Y Beams And General Martini

In my reading of Churchill's Memoirs from World War II, I'm now going through the Blitz of London, or Germany's indiscriminate bombing of England, during the late 1940.

It's very interesting reading. For one thing, it seems as though the whole of England was teeming with a spirit of stout defiance. All alone in the war, with no allies to count on, the British still defended their island with gusto against the German Luftwaffe. Fire corps extinguished fires, men trained for only a few weeks disarmed scores of bombs with delayed fuses, people had dinner while long-range bombers dropped bombs in their yards. "Stiff upper lip and all that, old chap."

But another interesting thing to read about is the signal war (or the "wizard war") which also took place at the same time. The Luftwaffe navigated over England using a secret system of homing radio beams transmitted over the channel; these beams were such that they would have enabled them to bomb England with very great precision. Such was for instance the X Beam, which worked through two flickering signals, designed to overlap perfectly as the bombers were in correct position. But the British scientists found a way to jam the signal, causing the bombers to miss their position.

Then the Luftwaffe developed the Y Beam, a better solution. Before long, the British found a way to jam that one too. In one amusing tale, Churchill relates the story of an officer who was out in the country with his family, and one night happened to observe scores of large enemy bombers furiously attacking a nearby empty field, for no apparent reason whatsoever. While he was lucky to survive the onslaught himself, the officer was confounded by this; but the secrets of the counter-signal operations were so closely guarded, that it was only some time after the war that information about these operations began to leak out. Obviously, the bombers thought they were attacking, say, Birmingham.

And to top it all off, the German officer in charge of the project with the mysterious radio beams, was named General Martini.

Suddenly, I thought it all sounded rather a lot like the movie Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow -- or maybe, the other way around.

Read more about the Wizard War and the British radar developments at this particular link.


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