A Natural Curiosity: Norman Fine On Microwave Radar In WWII

By Stephen Willingham

With 2019 marking the 75th anniversary of D-Day, it would seem that everything there was to know about WWII would be known by this time. However, the natural curiosity of Millwood resident Norman Fine has proven this to be a mistaken notion. As it turns out, Fine’s training and career as an electrical engineer has put him in a good position to tell an obscure, but important story that played a key role in the ultimate Allied victory in WWII. 

Civilian and military planners had originally wanted to mount an invasion of continental Europe in 1943. However, the year came and went and still no invasion was mounted. A major factor in postponement was that on average, an effective aerial campaign was being hampered by the fact of only seven or eight clear days per month in which to wage an assault against the Nazi’s industrial-military complex. Without sufficiently crippling materiel output for the German war machine, any invasion was doomed to failure. Fine reports that he found this untold story strictly by accident, while doing research for a project related to his own engineering business. “It’s hard to imagine there was anything left to tell about WWII,” he reflected, in a phone interview. “But here it was. How many people have ever heard of microwave radar? I couldn’t understand why the story had never been told.” 

Fine’s first challenge was how to explain a highly technical subject in layman terms. Fortunately, Fine’s avocation is writing. He has written several books on his “first love,” foxhunting, a pursuit that enticed him to move from his native New England to Clarke County. He is also a past editor of Covertside, a magazine focused on the sport of mounted hunting. 

Microwave technology is based on an earlier invention called the Resonant Cavity Magnetron. This new microwave innovation would allow bombing to continue on cloudy days and would permit night bombing raids as well. There wouldn’t be anymore cloudy day “scrubbed missions” for Allied bombing runs. The first sets were modeled on the British H2S “Stinky”, and were developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Radiation Laboratory.  Upon viewing a prototype of the H2X system for the first time, Major Fred Rabo, an 8th Army Air Force pilot, and commander of the 813th Bomb Squadron, incredulously remarked, “That radome looks Mickey Mouse,” an essentially skeptical assertion, meaning that it appeared to be a cobbled up mess that probably wouldn’t work. Fortunately, with refinements, it did work. From that day forward, H2X would be known simply as, “Mickey”. 

These apparatuses were installed in lead B-17 bombers. Called “Pathfinders,” these Mickey-equipped planes would mark their target with flares and then drop their own load of bombs for the rest of the squadron, who were “blind bombing,” to follow as a focus for their attack. Only one other plane in the flight was equipped with a Mickey. This bomber was referred to as the “deputy lead,” and was there to step up if anything happened to the lead. “Mickey Sets” proliferated in early 1944. With this enhanced capability for around-the-clock bombing in almost any weather conditions, the Allies soon “wrecked the Nazi war machine in short order,” Fine observed. The British, it seems, continued to prefer their own earlier version of the Mickey, an update to the H2S that they had already started deploying in their lead bombers in 1943. Fine agreed that the development of these two nearly identical systems amounted to a question of national pride and resulted in what might otherwise be called a “turf war.” Nonetheless, the desired result was the destruction of the Nazi war-making ability. 

When he first discovered information on the Mickey, Fine was eager to find someone who had actually been an operator. Knowing that his uncle, Stanley Fine, had been a member of a B-17 crew, he asked him if he knew anyone. As luck would have it, Uncle Stanley had served as a Mickey operator himself. Fine marvels at how the source for such a fascinating story had been hiding in plain sight. Uncle Stanley would also direct Fine to one of the Mickey development engineers, who just so happened to live in a neighboring town. This engineer, George Valley, would go on to later be hired by the U.S. Air Force as a chief scientist in the 1950s. 

Fine hails from a family of engineers, and says, “the bug bit” when he was only 12 years old. The occasion was another uncle, David Olken, a chemical engineer, who took Fine and a friend to a gadget show at MIT. From that day forward, Fine says he always knew what he wanted to do. 

On November 30, at the Barns of Rose Hill, Fine will be giving a talk on the Mickey and signing his book, Blind Bombing: How Microwave Radar Brought the Allies To D-Day and Victory In World War II.