Britain's good show fails to cast leading Nazi stars

The Effect of Science on the Second World War
April 6, 2001

The title of this book disturbed me: in the second world war science was not an optional "add-on", whose effect could be isolated, but an integral part of the warfare. However, I was won over by the the amount of material Guy Hartcup had gathered, by the fluency of his writing and by the excellent organisation of the subject matter.

The first chapter details the organisation of science for war. It rightly stresses how well (and usually sensitively) the British, and later the Americans, handled the vital links between scientists on the one hand and serving officers and politicians on the other. The contrast with the Axis powers is starkly drawn (perhaps too starkly), but I was hoping for a little more sociological analysis. Did this difference arise because the Axis powers had very militaristic attitudes? This meant perhaps that the officer corps felt so superior to other professionals (such as scientists) that there was an unbridgeable gulf between them. A militaristic outlook may also imply that war is seen to be the business of the high command, while the rest of the population should just do as they are told. Nor should we leave out of the account that some scientists in Germany and Italy were not happy with their rulers and did not feel keen to leave their labs for war work. This possibility is sensitively explored in Thomas Powers's book Heisenberg's War and in Michael Frayn's play Copenhagen .

Each chapter is devoted to a particular set of techniques, such as radar or signals intelligence. The author has gathered a great deal of information, which he presents in a lucid and readable manner. To add a personal note, I worked (in a junior capacity) in naval radar research from April 1942 to July 1945. What the book says about this field fits my recollections. I am impressed by the author's knowledge and ability to carry his reader with him. Anybody interested in the wartime development of these topics will acquire a great deal of information in a painless manner.

But I must be frank about my misgivings. The book has a strong British bias. For the author, science in the second world war is what British scientists and service officers achieved. What was done elsewhere is barely counted. Most ludicrous is the neglect of the V-1 as a German technical achievement. It figures mainly as a good target for defences. Even the V-2, the first of all long-range weapons, is rather grudgingly described as "premature". In fact, it was a dangerous attempt to degrade the UK as the crucial base for the Allied campaign on the Continent. What was potentially so bad for morale at all levels was that no defence against a V-2 in flight could be dreamed of. Only because the Allied bombing campaign made it impossible for the Germans to fire greater numbers did this weapon fail to have a serious impact on the war.

There is a British bias in another, perhaps more pernicious way. The book regards research as the really meritorious and essential part of innovation, with development (and technology) a poor second, and production engineering bottom of the pile. This absurd ranking still damages British industry because it discourages young people from going into the less glamorous fields, and so is self-justifying. I saw this in my war job: the novel circuitry, aerials and valves were designed brilliantly by excellent teams often led by scientists. Putting them in boxes for shipboard use was done reasonably well. But it was an agony to wait for the design and production of the pedestals on which the aerials were to be mounted.

To be fair, in a number of places, Hartcup steps outside his bias, nowhere more so than when he relates with glee how John Cockcroft beat the system to obtain in quantity the American version of the proximity fuse, which was much better developed than the British one.

This book is an excellent description of science at war, but the reader should be aware of the author's prejudices.

Sir Hermann Bondi is a fellow, Churchill College, Cambridge.

The Effect of Science on the Second World War

Author - Guy Hartcup
ISBN - 0 333 67061 2
Publisher - Palgrave
Price - £45.00
Pages - 214

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