Greenwich resident Lee Davenport's story begins almost exactly 66 years ago, soon after July 20, 1944, a few weeks after the D-Day invasion, when Davenport, as a civilian scientist, was flown from England to Normandy on orders of General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Davenport was on a secret mission to test out a radar targeting system he had "cobbled together" that would direct the dive bombers of the Ninth Tactical Air force to their targets.
The fact that Davenport as a civilian scientist was being permitted to experiment with an invention so near the front lines was, as he puts it mildly, "somewhat revolutionary."
"They issued papers for me to be known as a captain in the Signal Corps," Davenport said, during a recent interview with the Citizen. "I had all the dog tags and identification. When you are a civilian and are overseas in a war zone, that civilian would need protection, for if he was caught by the enemy for any reason he would be shot as a spy."
Davenport did not know that a few days after his arrival, he would witness one of the most massive bombing "blitzes" of the war, one that employed more than 2,000 aircraft that would drop a reported 60,000 bombs over five square miles of Normandy hedgerows. The raid was intended to break the stalemate with German defenses near the city of St.-Lo, allowing General George Patton's Third Army to make its push to Paris.
"I knew the Breakout was coming," said Davenport, "as I had met up with General Patton's forces moving at night, but I didn't know when. I wanted to make that radar application work."
Davenport's expertise was in radar. His baby was the SCR-584 (Signal Corps Radio), a radar tracker built into a semitrailer with a parabola on top that was first tested in England in 1943, directing the antiaircraft batteries shooting at German planes. By early 1944, the device had played a major role in breaking up the Luftwaffe's concentrated air attacks on the Anzio confined beachhead in Italy. And, by the time D-Day rolled around, it was seriously crippling German air power, thus aiding the success of the D-Day invasion.
Since the fall of 1940, Davenport had been working alongside hundreds of other scientists in a top secret laboratory at MIT -- the Radiation Laboratory or Rad Lab -- to create the advanced microwave radar systems that would help to bring an end to the war. An early adaptation of the SCR-584, with Davenport's help, gave the British the ability to track the night-bombing German planes that did so much damage in the Blitz.
"My wife didn't know what the secret of the SCR-584 was," said Davenport, "Neither did the wives of families of any of the team who worked there."
Davenport was one of the very few to know the date of D-Day -- two months before the invasion. "I had to go to England to waterproof the 39 SCR-584 radar semitrailers that would be floated ashore in Normandy to direct antiaircraft fire," he said.
But while he was at Rad Lab's British Branch Radio Lab at Great Malvern overseeing the waterproofing, Davenport received a request from the Pentagon in Washington to see if he could adapt the SCR-584 to direct dive bombers to their targets. "They knew the SCR-584 could track enemy planes," he said.
Davenport was confident. "I think we could cobble something together with some string and sealing wax," he said. "The dive bombers and small bombers had trouble when they were dive-bombing. They were flying 200 mph at 1,000 feet with a map strapped on their knee looking for targets that would be shown on the map. So I cobbled up a plotting table and we installed it inside the SCR-584 fitted semitrailers. A controller would sit at the plotting table and find or ID the friendly plane. Then, working from a surface map identical to what the pilot had on his lap, he could talk to the pilot and direct him to his target."
"The Ninth Tactical Air Force was anxious to try it," said Davenport. "The plan was to try out the plotting system in actual combat before the St.-Lo bombing. No one knew if it would work. I knew it would."
"So they shipped the cobbled SCR-584 to the St.-Lo area with the Signal Corps troops in charge. I flew into the St.-Lo area three days before the Breakout," Davenport said.
He would spend those days sitting cramped in his SCR-584 semitrailer some two to five miles behind the front lines. "I was educating the (Air Force) controller on how the plotting system worked. The radio contact between us and the pilots was working. `If you look on your map, you will find there's a city over here, in front of you.' So we could talk them to the proper target. We were helping those Ninth Tact pilots find their targets. This was something new. Those tests were successfully completed before the St.-Lo bombing. I was ready to get out there--but then St.-Lo happened."
On the morning of July 25, all hell broke loose.
"I was in the SCR-584 semitrailer," said Davenport, "but there was no controller present. We were not running any tests, but I was tracking airplanes. Well, the big bombers from the Eighth Air Force started arriving. I was close enough to hear the rumble of bombing. I watched (on radar) as they bombed St.-Lo. I tracked those bombers, and I began to notice something peculiar out of this. When the bombers came over and dropped their bombs, they would then turn away and head back. So I was watching the turn away phase. Well, the turn-aways were coming closer and closer to me. I wasn't in danger, but the American troops were who were up there close to those lines.
"So I called the Ninth Tact headquarters in Normandy right away, and I said there's something that's going wrong. The bombers are not bombing the same place anymore, they're bombing closer to us. They're bombing short. I said, will you tell the Eighth Air Force that something's going wrong and they'd better move off and stop this."
But Davenport learned that the Ninth Tact couldn't talk to the Eighth Air Force. "Communications did not exist between the two in France at that time," he said. "They had to go back to London, where our headquarters were, then get across to the Eighth, and they never could complete that telephone call. The communications were so bad. It was too late."
Davenport watched helplessly on his radar as many hundreds of American troops and untold French civilians, and the only general to die in combat in the war, General Leslie McNair, were killed by friendly bombs.
"The strange part of it all," said Davenport "was that I was trying to make things user-friendly, as I could track our own planes very easily. It was very difficult to be in a situation when you were so helpless. I felt terrible about that. They (the British and American pilots) never knew about the radar there, and my only contact was with the Ninth Air Force. That was a disaster. They didn't know that it could have been corrected. Nobody knows it, except me."
Davenport has carried the weight of this story while collecting many official reports and analyses of the St.-Lo Breakout. "They just say it was an accident, friendly fire. It was a correctable accident, but the powers that be did not know that there was a radar (system) there. This was experimental. It was the first time we had tracked our own planes."
The tragic killing of so many by friendly fire at St.-Lo, Davenport said, "has gone down in history in many ways but not a single one mentions this account of mine."
Now 94 years of age and alert as ever, Davenport was informed not long ago that he was to be presented with the French Legion of Honor -- the highest tribute of that country, but he declined it. He is a modest man.
And now, 66 years later, Davenport has come to a new realization. "This St.-Lo episode," he said, "was a whole new concept for my radar. Up to that time, I was engaged in a defensive activity. It was used as a defense against invading aircraft. Up to that moment the SCR-584 had never been tried for an offensive role. This was an unplanned use for the SCR-584. But its later history turned out to be offensive, rather than defensive."
Davenport's SCR-584 offensive targeting system came into its own a few months later, aiding the Allied pilots' targeting in the weather-bound Battle of the Bulge. And Davenport would go on to make other war-winning offensive adaptations of his SCR-584.
For more information about Lee Davenport's contributions to radar development in World War II, a 2008 transcribed interview of Davenport conducted by the Greenwich Library Oral History Project is available at the Greenwich Library.