Obituary: Sir Robert Cockburn

Robert Cockburn, scientist: born Belford, Northumberland 31 March 1909; science teacher, West Ham Municipal College 1930-37; researcher in communications, RAE Farnborough 1937-39; researcher, TRE Malvern, Worcestershire 1939-45, AERE Harwell 1945-48; OBE 1946, KBE 1960; Congressional Medal for Merit 1947; Scientific Adviser to Air Ministry 1948-53; CB 1953; Principal Director of Scientific Research (Guided Weapons and Electronics), Ministry of Supply 1954-55; Deputy Controller of Electronics, Ministry of Supply 1955- 56; Controller of Guided Weapons and Electronics, Ministry of Supply 1956- 59; Chief Scientist, Ministry of Aviation 1959-64; Director, RAE Farnborough 1964-69; Senior Research Fellow, Churchill College, Cambridge 1970-77; Chairman, National Computing Centre 1970-77; Chairman, Television Advisory Committee for Posts and Telecommunications 1971- 73; Chairman, BBC Engineering Advisory Committee 1973-81; married 1935 Phyllis Hoyland (two daughters); died Aldershot 21 March 1994.

Robert Cockburn was head of the team of scientists and engineers who developed radio countermeasures in support of the Royal Air Force in the Second World War. He was thus a main contributor both to the reduction of civilian casualties in the blitz and of losses among British bombers when their turn came to attack Germany.

Cockburn was born at Belford, Northumberland, in 1909, and took a London BSc degree in 1928. Then, having in the meantime spent seven years teaching science at West Ham Municipal College, he joined the staff of the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough in 1937, and gained a doctorate in 1939. Early in 1940 he moved to the Telecommunications Research Establishment near Swanage, where in June 1940 he was given the task of developing jammers for the newly discovered radio beams with which the Luftwaffe intended to direct their bombers over British cities in the blitz. The successful operation of these jammers, which resulted in many German bombs missing their targets, gave rise to the legend of 'bending the beams'. It was the first important development in electronic warfare towards the scale on which it is widely used today.

As the Germans produced new beam systems, Cockburn expanded his team, first at Swanage and later at Malvern, and then went on to the next phase of electronic warfare, which was to counter the effectiveness of German radar in detecting British bombers. One of the principal weapons for this purpose was the dropping of metallic strips, of which a small bundle cut to the right length could cause a radar echo as big as that from a four-engined bomber. Cockburn and his team, among them Joan (later Lady) Curran, who did many of the flight trials, developed the idea from wires, which would fall too quickly, to thin foil, which besides being more economical, would drop so slowly as to give an echo persisting for several minutes. It was potentially such an effective counter to radar that both Sir Robert Watson-Watt and Fighter Command opposed its use by Bomber Command because of the extent to which our own radar defences would suffer, if the Germans reciprocated by using it against Britain.

After many months of tense argument Bomber Command was ultimately allowed to use the technique for the first time on 24-25 July 1943, in the big raid on Hamburg, with a spectacular reduction in our losses. Under the British codename 'window' and the American 'chaff' it became a principal item of electronic warfare; and, as the Falklands and the Gulf war showed, it remains effective today.

By September 1943 such had been the successes of radio countermeasures in Britain that the Americans set up their own laboratory (ABL- 15) alongside Cockburn's team at Malvern and started with some of the best of their electronics men. The resulting collaboration was, in American words, 'a huge success' and was credited with saving, in the 8th Army Air Force alone, some 450 planes and 4,500 men.

A further contribution of Cockburn's was to the plan to beguile the German defences on the night preceding the Normandy landings on D-Day in June 1944. Cockburn worked with Leonard Cheshire and others to create all the electronic signals that, while using little more than two squadrons of Lancasters, would suggest that large armadas were heading towards Fecamp and Calais, well to the west of the intending landings, and so tie down much German armour where it would wait in vain.

At the end of the war Cockburn's services were recognised by an OBE, and by the United States' Medal for Merit - the highest honour for war service that can be offered to any civilian, American or foreign, and a direct award by the President. In 1945 Cockburn joined the atomic energy staff at Harwell, but in 1948 he returned to his air interests as Scientific Adviser to the Air Ministry, for which he was appointed CB in 1953. He went on to become Controller of Guided Weapons at the Ministry of Supply and Chief Scientist at the Ministry of Aviation, where he was promoted KBE in 1960. His last official post was as Director of the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough for the five years from 1964 onwards.

As a colleague he was generous, recognising that 'across the havoc of war' there was sometimes merit on the other side, be that side German or opponents in Whitehall; and he was an unfailing source of provocative ideas to challenge conventional wisdom.

On retirement he was made a Senior Research Fellow at Churchill College, Cambridge, and an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society. In later years he developed his talent for sculpture, where he was remarkably adept at catching the facial expressions of his subjects.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR Manager

£36000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, - 1 Year contract

£50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, Stock...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Human Resource Officer and Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join one of...

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before