Obituary: Sir Robert Cockburn
Thursday 31 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.
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