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Churchill: Love & the Bomb

Imperial War Museum
Winston Churchill (second from right) and his scientific adviser Frederick Lindemann (far left) watching a demonstration of antiaircraft gunnery, June 1941

This book is the story of a love triangle. The three characters are Winston Churchill the statesman, H.G. Wells the writer, and Frederick Lindemann the scientist. Churchill was in love with war and weapons, ever since he was a small boy playing with a historic collection of toy soldiers. Wells wrote books about war and weapons, real and imaginary. Lindemann invented weapons and enjoyed trying them out. War and weapons brought the three of them together. But Churchill could only listen to one guru at a time. The chief source of Churchill’s ideas about the application of science to war was Wells in World War I and Lindemann in World War II. Lindemann and Wells, being rivals in love, had nothing but contempt for each other.

Churchill was deeply involved in the prehistory of the atomic bomb for forty years before the bomb existed. More than any other politician, and more than any of the leading scientists of that time, he took seriously the possibility of nuclear weapons. He was born with a romantic attachment to soldiering, enjoyed applying high technology to military problems, and found kindling for his imagination in the science-fiction stories of H.G. Wells.

His personal friendship with Wells began in 1901, when he read Wells’s nonfiction work Anticipations and responded with an eight-page fan letter. The friendship lasted until Wells’s death in 1946. Churchill reacted enthusiastically to Wells’s book The War in the Air, which appeared in 1908 with vivid descriptions of the military uses of the newly invented airplane. In January 1914 Wells published The World Set Free, a story that gave starring roles to two new inventions, “land ironclads,” later known as tanks, and “atomic bombs,” later known as nuclear weapons. Churchill pushed the development and use of tanks in World War I. He understood that they would give soldiers a chance to break out of the horrors of the trenches, making warfare quick and mobile. His tanks came too late to get the boys out of the trenches in that war, but they arrived in time to have a decisive effect in World War II. He gave full credit to Wells for the idea.

Churchill’s thinking about nuclear weapons was summarized in a piece, “Fifty Years Hence,” published in Strand Magazine in 1931. “There is no question among scientists,” he wrote,

that this gigantic source of energy exists. What is lacking is the match to set the bonfire alight…. The busy hands of the scientists are already fumbling with the keys of all the chambers hitherto forbidden to mankind…. Without an equal growth of mercy, pity, peace and love, science herself may destroy all that makes human life majestic and tolerable.

The match to light the nuclear fire was the fission of uranium, discovered in 1938 by Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann in Berlin.

Lindemann worked at the Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough during World War I and became famous for solving the problem of tailspin. Many pilots were losing their lives because their aircraft would stall during combat maneuvers, fall into a tailspin, and helplessly spin into the ground. Lindemann worked out the theory of tailspin and found a remedy. He calculated that the pilot could give a counterintuitive push to the rudder, which would convert the spin into a straight dive and allow the pilot to regain control. He then borrowed an airplane, put it into a tailspin, applied the push that he had calculated, pulled out of the straight dive, and flew the plane safely home. This combination of scientific wizardry and courage won him the lifelong admiration of Churchill.

Lindemann met Churchill for the first time in 1921 and explained recent scientific discoveries in simple language. Churchill found him to be a kindred spirit, an old-fashioned patriot who saw no shame in using science to win wars. In 1924, Churchill wrote an essay about the future of warfare with the title “Shall We All Commit Suicide?,” describing apocalyptic visions of anthrax weapons and “a bomb no bigger than an orange…[with] a secret power to concentrate the force of a thousand tons of cordite and blast a township at a stroke.” Before writing the piece, he turned for advice to Lindemann and not to Wells.

Still Wells remained faithful to his old love. In 1908 he had written a piece for the Daily News, “Why Socialists Should Vote for Mr. Churchill.” In 1940 he wrote a piece for Colliers magazine, “Churchill, Man of Destiny.” His verdict on Churchill in 1940: “He has pulled himself together. He is pulling us all together. It is like awakening from a nightmare to think of what might have happened to my country without him.” When the chips were down, Wells was an old-fashioned patriot too.

Wells was a spinner of fanciful tales while Lindemann was a real scientist. Paradoxically, the information that Wells gave to Churchill was mostly right, while the information that Lindemann gave was mostly wrong. Wells had been right about airplanes and tanks before World War I. Lindemann was wrong about radar in 1935, when it was first proposed for defending Britain against attack from the air. He gave low priority to radar, which turned out to be the decisive technology of World War II and was crucial to the defense of Britain in 1940. One of the offshoots of radar was the proximity fuse, which enabled an antiaircraft shell, guided by radar, to destroy an aircraft without hitting it directly. The proximity fuse multiplied the kill rate of antiaircraft artillery by a factor of ten. In 1944, when the V-1 drone airplanes were attacking London, a massive line of antiaircraft guns with proximity fuses was deployed along the coast and succeeded in shooting down 70 percent of the V-1s before they reached England. If the Germans had had proximity fuses for their antiaircraft guns, they could probably have stopped our large-scale bombing of Germany.

Lindemann gave the highest priority to aerial mines. Aerial mines were his pride and joy. The idea was to destroy airplanes with mines floating in the air, just as ships were destroyed by mines floating in the water. The big difference between air and sea is that the air has three dimensions while the surface of the sea has two dimensions. An aerial mine has to kill airplanes over a wide range of heights. The mine with the explosive charge must hang at the bottom of a long steel wire with a parachute at the top. If an airplane flies into the wire, the wire will bite into the skin of the wing until it reaches solid metal. Pulled upward by the drag of the parachute, the wire will slide up through the wing until the explosive charge reaches the airplane and detonates. Lindemann continued to play with this toy all through the years of World War II. It absorbed a large amount of money and attention that might have been put to better use.

It was obvious to almost everyone except Lindemann that aerial mines could not be an effective defense. The wire had to be thousands of feet long and correspondingly heavy. Even with a big parachute, it would not stay in the air for more than a few minutes. To defend an important target, a fleet of airplanes would be required to continue sowing mines over the area as long as the attack continued. If many targets were to be defended, the defense would quickly run out of mines. And it was easy to invent countermeasures. A system of small clippers along the leading edge of an airplane wing could cut the wires and make aerial mines harmless.

When I was working for the British Bomber Command toward the end of World War II, we would from time to time receive inquiries from some high level of government, asking whether damage to returning bombers gave any evidence that the Germans were using aerial mines. Our answer was always negative. My boss told me confidentially that the inquiries were coming from Lindemann.

Lindemann was enthusiastic about technical toys such as aerial mines, but he remained unenthusiastic about nuclear weapons. One week after the beginning of World War II, he moved from Oxford to London to become full-time scientific adviser to Churchill, who was then First Lord of the Admiralty. Lindemann was well aware of the discovery of fission and the possibility of nuclear weapons, but he waited for two years before advising Churchill to begin a project to develop a British bomb. Toward the end of the war, Lindemann visited the American bomb laboratory at Los Alamos and remarked privately to his friend Reginald Jones, “What fools the Americans will look after spending so much money.” Jones had been Lindemann’s student before the war, and worked closely with him as head of scientific intelligence. Jones said that until the bomb exploded at Alamogordo, Lindemann never really believed that the thing would work.

The title, Churchill’s Bomb, is misleading. The title was probably chosen by the publisher to attract readers rather than to describe the book. Graham Farmelo’s main subject is the personal rivalry surrounding the British nuclear weapons project, in which Winston Churchill played a leading part. But the book is not a history of the bomb. It does not answer some of the obvious questions that a reader might ask. What were the technical obstacles to be overcome? What did the scientists actually do while the politicians argued about it? How was the bomb built? How was it supposed to be delivered? What effect has it had? Is the bomb still relevant in the world of today, sixty years after it was built? Why is it called Churchill’s bomb rather than Attlee’s bomb? After all, it was Clement Attlee and not Winston Churchill who gave the order to build it.

The subtitle, “How the United States Overtook Britain in the First Nuclear Arms Race,” is also misleading. There was never an arms race between the United States and Britain. There was an arms race between Britain and Germany, beginning in 1939 and ending in 1942. During that time the United States was still neutral and not seriously engaged in the race. Britain won the race when Werner Heisenberg and Albert Speer secretly agreed to abandon the German nuclear bomb project. Then, in 1942, with the United States at war, Britain and the US still believed that they were in a race with Germany, since they did not know that the Germans had given up. The choice for Britain was whether to join forces with the US or to try to build a bomb independently.

Churchill made the decision to merge British efforts with the American project. A merger meant sharing secrets, and the sharing of secrets was always a delicate problem. A year went by before sharing became effective and British scientists were working at Los Alamos. During that year, the American project took a great leap forward and the British project stalled. Enrico Fermi with his American colleagues built the first nuclear reactor in Chicago and explored the new world of nuclear power. British scientists spent the year waiting for the American authorities to allow them to participate. It was true that the United States overtook Britain, but Churchill was not racing. Churchill had already decided that he wanted a partnership with America and not a race.

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