“Ned” Fennessy joined the Air Ministry research establishment at Bawdsey Manor in Suffolk in 1938. The work there was led by Robert (later Sir Robert) Watson-Watt, who had patented the first British “radio detection” technology three years earlier.
Fennessy played a part in the development of this system – later called radar as an acronym for “radio detection and ranging” – and the planning of a network of early-warning coastal “Chain Home” stations which were to play a crucial role in the Battle of Britain.
On September 29 1938, when war was thought to be imminent, Fennessy had driven through the night from Bawdsey to HQ Fighter Command at Bentley Priory to install the RAF’s first radar operations room. But it was serviced by only five stations, and would have been, in his view, “quite inadequate” to its defensive purpose.
It was Chamberlain’s negotiation of the Munich agreement that same day which bought sufficient time for the Chain Home network to be extended to 18 stations, giving Fighter Command a significant advantage in the air battle of 1940.
By the time war did break out, Fennessy was based at Harrogate, working on the Chain Home installation programme. At the time the only “office” available for him and a colleague was a bathroom; his desk was a door on top of the bath.
A bluff, tough and often outspoken Londoner of Irish parentage, he responded to an invitation to join the RAFVR by insisting that he would do so only in the rank of wing commander. After commissioning, he was shocked to find he was only a Pilot Officer (Probationary) – but he was soon in charge of offensive radio navigation aids in RAF No 60 Group.
Based at Oxendon, a Victorian pile near Leighton Buzzard, and staffed by former BBC technicians alongside regular officers, No 60 Group was known to Fighter Command airmen as “the Group that flaps but seldom flies”, but it gave vital support to British and American pilots throughout the war.
In January 1942 – by now a squadron leader – Fennessy took responsibility for the troubled project to establish “Gee” (G for Grid) ground stations to provide accurate offensive air navigation for Bomber Command and Coastal Command.
In late 1943, on his own initiative, he prepared a master plan for navigation and pathfinding systems to support a possible Normandy landing; but the Air Ministry reacted with horror when he presented his scheme, since he was not privy to the plans for the real landings.
He was briefly detained by provost marshals for breach of security, until he convinced them that his work was no more than a hypothetical concept. He was then “bigoted” – taken into the top-secret Overlord planning process – and so forbidden to tell even his immediate superiors at Oxenden what had transpired.
But he went on to oversee the radio navigation plan for the landings in June 1944, and the operations that followed, using Gee, Oboe, G-H and Loran “C” systems. On D-Day + 6 he landed in France himself, soon coming under fire from US troops unfamiliar with RAF uniforms. He was mentioned in despatches and appointed OBE in 1944
Promoted to group captain the following year, Fennessy took charge of all RAF offensive terrestrial radio-navigation in Britain and Europe. At the end of the war Air Chief Marshal “Bomber” Harris declared that Bomber Command “could not have brought its work to a successful conclusion” without the contribution of No 60 Group. (Excerpted obituary courtesy of The Daily Telegraph)
Video documentary WW2 Radar Technology – Documentary Battle Stations, including interview with Sir Edward: