Virtual Lecture - The Woman Who Saves Pilots

7 April 2023

At 6.00pm on Friday 7 April 2023, Thomas Withington will be lecturing on Joan Curran’s vital, pioneering work on chaff during the Second World War. The lecture will be live-streamed online via Crowdcast.

Avro Lancaster B Mark I, NG128 'SR-B', of No. 101 Squadron RAF, piloted by Warrant Officer R B Tibbs, releases bundles of 'Window' over the target during a special daylight raid on Duisburg.

Talk Outline

She had the “scientific equivalent of gardening green fingers” according to the late Scottish politician and peer Sir Tam Dalyell. That was putting it mildly. It would be impossible to calculate just how many aircrew lives Lady Joan Curran saved, but it is in the thousands. During the early years of the Second World War she revolutionised airpower by inventing chaff; small strips of metal that jam radar.

Like all great inventions, chaff uses a simple principle. Thousands of tiny metallic strands are dispersed by an aircraft into the atmosphere. These form a metallic cloud reflecting radar transmissions and helping to camouflage the aircraft from radar detection. Chaff was first used by Royal Air Force Bomber Command during Operation Gomorrah, the bombing of Hamburg in July 1943. It made an immediate difference. Bombers were masked from radar detection, hampering the ability of German air defences to engage them. 80 years later, chaff is still used by air forces around the world saving pilots’ lives, its basic principles unchanged.

This presentation will look at the fascinating life of Joan Curran. It will chronicle the obstacles she faced as a woman in the overwhelmingly male-dominated field of physics. Her vital, pioneering wartime work on chaff will be explored in detail, along with the major impact this had on Bomber Command losses, and its legacy. The presentation will also discuss her work later in the war, and during the Cold War, helping to develop the hydrogen bomb.


This virtual lecture will be held on the Museum’s Crowdcast channel on Friday 7 April at 6.00pm.


This lecture is free to attend via the RAF Museum’s Crowdcast channel, but registration is required. Booking is quick and easy.

About Thomas Withington

Thomas Withington is a writer and analyst specialising in electronic warfare, radar and military communications, and is a research associate at the Royal United Services Institute. He has written widely on these subjects for a range of specialist and general publications over the last two decades. He also works as a consultant providing insight on the military’s use of the electromagnetic spectrum. In addition to his consultancy and written work, he regularly provides comment on these subjects for media organisations around the world.

About the RAF Museum Research Programme

The RAF Museum’s 2023 programme includes Lunchtime Lectures at the RAF Museum, Cosford; Air Power Lectures, co-organised with the Centre for War and Diplomacy at Lancaster University; and Air Power Seminars, co-organised with the University of Wolverhampton. You can attend these lectures in person or join us online as we live-stream from the venue.