A few months ago, I read Electric Universe by David Bodanis (ISBN 1400045509). There are two chapters on radar during the Second World War, #7 dealing with Britain’s defences and #8 dealing with the area bombing of Germany, a tactic down to ‘Bomber’ Harris, which to this day gives rise to doubt in Britain, such that we feel a conflict between honouring the bomber crews who sustained the heaviest proportional loss of all our armed forces, and disturbance at the methods of their commander, who went for mass slaughter of civilians rather than military or industrial targets.
What makes it a topic for Science 2.0 is the rôle of Churchill’s scientific adviser, Frederick Lindemann (aka Lord Cherwell) who (a) nearly scuppered Britain’s radar project before it got really going, and (b) foisted ‘Bomber’ Harris on to Churchill. With the following extracts, I will let David Bodanis tell the story (hoping I don’t get a visit from the Urheberrechtsstasi.) It starts with the invention of radar by Robert Watson-Watt:
But despite the RAF’s support, Watson Watt, like any outsider, needed a stronger protector in the government bureaucracy. As his first memos floated along the corridors of Whitehall, they ended up, luckily, being noticed by the kindly Henry Tizard, a superb administrator. Tizard had test-flown World War I Sopwith Camels, been a lecturer in thermodynamics at Oxford, then the head of Imperial College, and – most usefully for the bureaucratic battles to come – an excellent, scrappy lightweight boxer in his youth.
There was an especially precarious moment for the [Radar] project, when Parliamentary twists briefly gave Churchill more influence on the government. Churchill was all for increased defenses against Germany of course but when it came to science, he depended completely upon the advice of Frederick Lindemann – an angry status-obsessed ex-academic who could be serenely charming when he wished, and who had the knack of making upper-class individuals feel that they were as wise as the greatest thinkers. Since Churchill’s own scientific education hadn’t quite reached the levels of the early nineteenth century, he had no way of recognizing Lindemann’s incompetence.
Churchill pushed Lindemann onto Tizard’s committee, and Lindemann immediately explained that he knew for a fact the newfangled radar defenses they were planning were never going to work effectively. It didn’t help that when Lindemann and Tizard had been young researchers, visiting in Berlin in 1908, they’d once agreed to settle a point of honour in the boxing ring. Lindemann was a much larger man and couldn’t bear it that the wiry Tizard had pummelled him; he refused to shake hands afterward. Now in London, Lindemann slowed the constructions that Watson Watt was preparing for several months until, through still more deft bureaucratic footwork, Tizard managed to get Lindemann expelled. He created a dangerous lifelong enemy but for the time being he had also cleared the way for Watson Watt to proceed.
. . . . .
It’s doubtful that there was a more disagreeable character on the Allied military side in World War II than Harris. He could be kind to his immediate family, but he had few friends and no hobbies. He never read a book, and he never listened to music He had only one great passion in his life, and it was a hatred. It wasn’t directed against Germany. It seems – from the evidence of his actions – that it was directed against blue-collar workers.
Harris was an extreme reactionary. Like many well-off individuals of his time, he often expressed great distaste for the British working classes, and for their German counterparts as well. The writings of even many ostensibly gentle literary intellectuals from this period are disturbing when it comes to this topic; indeed, they bear some resemblance to the racial hatred that Japan and America came to feel toward each other as their battles in the Pacific went on. For American military leaders, this led to the burning down of entire Japanese cities, with few moral qualms; for Harris, it led to a cold and pitiless view of any workers or children on the ground who would be forgotten when his bombers came overhead.
Many officers aware of his plans were appalled at what he wanted to do …
Watson Watt was frantic. This was never what he’d devised radar for, but he was just an underling now, and despite a last desperate rush of words and memos, he could merely watch as the remarkable defensive weapon he’d helped create was lifted from his control. He even tried getting Henry Tizard to help him. Tizard was the man who’d headed the original committee that created Britain’s radar system, and that had been so crucial in the 1940 Battle of Britain. Tizard also despised Harris, and now he started building alliances that in normal times might have been enough to stop him. But everything had to get past the man Tizard had humiliated at the radar committee in 1936 – and Lindemann had the exclusive ear of the prime minister now. It was with the greatest pleasure that Lindemann ensured nothing Tizard proposed was seriously considered by the government.
By early 1943, Tizard and Watson Watt knew they had lost. At one point Harris sponsored a talk at Bomber Command’s Buckinghamshire HQ on the Ethics of Bombing. After the talk, the Bomber Command chaplain Rev. John Collins stood up and said that, on the contrary, this was the Bombing of Ethics. But he was firmly corrected, and no one else there dared to speak in his support.
. . . . .
So see what harm one bad egg of a scientific adviser can do!