If you ever read a book about science and the war (the war, there is only one), pick this one. It is long, but rarely overlong on detail, and fascinating. The book consists of 53 chapters with titles like "The X Apparatus" and "Wotan's Other Eye". Most deal with the never-ending new problems and new solutions that arose during the coarse of the war. It documents a kind of technological evolutionary arms race run amok. The author, R. V. Jones, had his fingers in it all (except decryption and computing). The author refers to most people by initials and last name which is quite helpful. After all, one should not use ones Christian names until one has been properly introduced.
Operation Crossbow is a pretty good WWII movie starring George Peppard. The plot centers on a spy mission to destroy Germany's underground V2 production facilities. There really was an operation with that title, and many aspects of the movie are true or close to true. I raise it because it opens with two British officers named Sandys and Lindemann arguing about Germany's rocket program. These were real people. Lindemann was portrayed more or less correctly, but in reality Sandys, the officer hero of the movie, was a glory seeking boob who was obstructionist and more than happy to take credit for other people's work, including that of R.V. Jones. Jones was the real hero of that story, and we should all be glad he had Churchill's ear.
The early part of the 20th century was unique in that major scientific breakthroughs resulted in technology that could be implemented by your average schmuck. To build a crystal radio, for example, all you need is a diode, aluminum foil, a cardboard tube or two, tape, some wire, and an ear-piece speaker. All of this might cost a buck or two. Like many a budding scientist, Jones played with such things as a boy. This not something we can do today. Try building a TV from bubble gum and bailing wire. Many of the technological advances and insights during the war came from Jones and his team. There are too many to mention individually, but most fell under the umbrella of radiation physics (radio, radar etc) and chemical physics (the V1 and V2). They all paved the way for the communications and computer age that we know today.
A German plan came down on the English coast undamaged. This was a rare opportunity to examine the German electronics first hand. An officer instructed two soldiers to keep absolutely everyone away from the site. They even kept other soldiers away when they pointed out that the tide was coming in. Such was the thinking of the common soldier. Luckily, after they got the sand and salt out, the find was an intelligence coup.
One cute story, included to lighten the read a bit, told of a colorful major Wintle. He was so upset that he did not get the posting that he was certain he should have (namely, being a spy in France) that he pulled out his pistol and waved it in front of his commanding officer in frustration. He was soon in front of a Court Martial and the conversation went something like this:
"There are three charges against you, Major Wintle. First you attempted to deceive your medical exam doctor into thinking you could not see out of your left eye, and are therefore guilty of attempted malingering. Did you attempt to deceive your doctor?"
"So you admit your guilt?"
"No sir. I was blinded in WWI. I did deceive the doctor… into thinking I could see with my left eye, and thus, here I am."
"Right. Forget that then. The second charge: you suggested that several politicians and a number of ranking officers should be lined up against a wall and shot. Is that true?"
"Yes sir. And I believe it is my patriotic duty to repeat what I said and why. The following people should be shot…"
By the time he got to number eight, the judge interrupted and said "Right. Forget that then. The final and most serious charge: you attempted to intimidate a superior officer with your pistol. What say you?"
"Oh no sir. I could never intimidate Colonel so-and-so. He is a British Officer and a gentleman! If I burst into the room and said the building was on fire, I am sure he would spend ten minutes writing a strongly worded memo about fire safety before even standing up."
"Right. Forget that then, too. Bugger off and don't do it again!"
One of the major inventions of the British was "window"… very thin strips of aluminum (or aluminium) of a length tuned to reflect German radar. Window was dumped by the ton, blinding the German's to incoming bombers, or blinding them to the fact that there were no incoming bombers. Dirt simple, and extremely effective.
A good trivia question: What city got hit by the most V2s during the war? Nope… not London. Antwerp.
Jones learned early that getting his reports read by the powers that be was not easy. He discovered by accident that if someone took offence to the reports and demanded that distribution be stopped and all copies returned, he could count on everyone reading the report before handing it over. This helped cut red tape a good deal, once he learned to manipulate it. Want people to hear or see something? Censor it. Just like today!
One passage in the book was quite surprising. In it Jones sang the praises of Werner von Braun in "bravely" saving his rocket research papers from a fire caused by British bombing. Von Braun was a de facto Nazi and was well aware of the horrid treatment meted out to the slave labor that built his toys. If not for the high demand on his talents, he would have almost certainly gone to jail for quite some time. Even scientists see other scientists through rose-colored glasses.
Lee Moller is a life-long skeptic and atheist and the author of The God Con.