'Radar changed the war,' says 96 year-old former RAF technician

Julien Olson was just 20 when he left his Alberta farm to be trained as a radar technician in 1941.
Ninety-six-year-old Julien Olson served as a radar technician with the RAF during the Second World War, servicing a squadron of Mosquito Pathfinders. (Courtesy of Christine Trankalis)

This article was first published in December 2016.


Julien Olson of Ottawa is remarkable for many reasons, apart from being as sharp as a tack at 96.

In the early 1950s, for example, he was involved in the restoration of 24 Sussex Drive, from a historic mansion into the official residence for Canada's prime ministers. He still has the blueprints.

And prior to that, as a 20-year-old, he signed on as a radar technician with Britain's Royal Air Force.

He wound up on an air base on England's east coast — servicing Mosquitoes for a squadron of Pathfinders, like the Johnny Kavanagh ghost pilot in Frederick Forsyth's short story, The Shepherd.

He was responsible for installing and maintaining the state-of-the-art Oboe radar systems in the planes.

"I would go into the cockpit of the aircraft and switch on the gear," he told As it Happens host Carol Off in 2016.

"Most of the problems [were] with the tubes. The tubes would get hot [with] the vibrations of the aircraft. They had quite a short life. So we would have to find out which tube was causing the trouble and replace it. We were replacing tubes left and right."

Former RAF radar technician Julien Olson during the war. (Submitted by Christine Trankalis)

Olson said hat despite the dangers of wartime and the job, he didn't experience too many nervous nights because of the superiority of England's radar systems.

"At the beginning of the war, of course, the Germans would send their bombers over. But when the war got under way, they had no ability to have any aircraft fly across the Channel," he said.

"They switched most of their energy back to the Russian front, because the radar system was so good. It enabled the ground station people who were monitoring the skies, [and they] were able to pick up the German bombers as soon as they left France and Belgium. So radar changed the war completely."

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