Sir Robert Watson Watt - Brechin's unsung war hero

Sir Robert Watson Watt is one of Brechin's most famous sons, yet the scientist who made the groundbreaking discoveries which led to the invention of the radar is also one of the world's most overlooked heroes.

Robert Watson Watt was born at 5 Union Street in Brechin on April 13, 1892, the son of a carpenter. From an early age, Robert showed a great interest in science and appeared likely to follow in the footsteps of his distant relative, James Watt, the inventor of the steam engine.

Educated at Damacre Primary School, Robert went to Brechin High, where one of his teachers, Miss Bessie Mitchell, made a lasting impression. "Bessie Mitchell did more than any other teacher to make me whatever I am," Robert wrote later.

Robert excelled at school and won a scholarship to University College, Dundee to study engineering from where he graduated with a BSc and was offered a position with Professor William Peddie, who introduced Robert to the seemingly endless possibilities of radio waves.

While in Dundee, Robert met a Perth girl, Margaret Robertson, who was studying art at Dundee Technical College. They married in 1916 and Margaret made an important contribution to Robert's radio wave experiments, using her skills as a jewellery maker to repair his wireless apparatus.

Robert was convinced that radio waves could be used to detect thunderstorms, providing planes with vital protection from the havoc caused by lightning, which led to the realisation that radio waves might also be able to detect aircraft. In the mid-thirties, Robert's work attracted the attention of the British Government, which was becoming increasingly aware of the threat posed by Nazi Germany.

By the outbreak of the Second World War, and as a direct result of the work done by Robert and his team, a radio defence system was in place along the south and east coasts of Britain. Radar played a crucial part in the defeat of the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain and Brechin basked in the glory of Robert's success.

In 1941, Lord Provost Mitchell of Brechin sent a telegram to Robert, saying: "Heartiest congratulations and good wishes on your wonderful contribution to Britain's fighting efficiency. Your native city is proud of the great achievement of its distinguished son."

Although Robert modestly referred to his invention as 'a gadget', in recognition of his contribution to the discovery and development of radar, Robert Watson Watt was knighted in 1942.

By the end of the war, it was widely acknowledged that radar had made an incredible difference to the eventual outcome of the Second World War and in the 1950's, he was made a Freeman of the Burgh of Brechin. And, perhaps mindful of the difference Miss Bessie Mitchell had made to his educational experience, Sir Robert was delighted to be the guest of honour at several school prizegiving ceremonies in Brechin.

Sir Robert's marriage to Margaret did not survive the war and, in 1952, he married for a second time. Then, having become increasingly despondent about the lack of further acknowledgement of his achievements, Sir Robert moved to Canada. In 1966, at the age of 72, Sir Robert returned to Britain, where he married for the third time. Sir Robert and his wife, Dame Kathryn, lived between London and Pitlochry, making occasional visits to Brechin to visit Sir Robert's friends and relatives in the area. Sir Robert Watson Watt died in Inverness in 1973 and was buried in the churchyard in Pitlochry, alongside Dame Kathryn.

Until recently, there was little to commemorate Brechin's link to one of the 20th century's great men of science, apart from a small plaque on the wall of the house in Union Street where he was born. However, thanks to the Watson Watt Society, plans are now underway for a permanent monument to the achievements of Sir Robert Watson Watt to be sited in the town.

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