An aspect of war seldom considered is how the personalities of the leaders involved – politicians, soldiers, sailors, airmen and industrialists – contribute to victory or defeat. Many of those involved with such people don’t speak about their experiences, sometimes due to a sense of loyalty to their superiors, other times because of obstacles such as Official Secrets Acts or similar legislation.
One example is found in “Winston Churchill’s Toyshop” by Colonel Stuart Macrae.
The book is a light-hearted but intensely interesting look at how many of the secret weapons of World War II were developed, by a department reporting directly to Winston Churchill and thus exposed to many of the “inside” details of the war. The author served as its second-in-command for most of the war, taking over command at the end of the conflict. His sense of humor shines through the pages, and make it a highly entertaining read.
One of the chapters I found most interesting dealt with the personalities of some of the most important people in the British government during the war. Winston Churchill himself was one of them, of course; but a person to whom less attention has been paid (much of it ill-informed) was Professor Frederick Lindemann (“the Prof”), who was Churchill’s senior scientific advisor and aide. His insights influenced many of World War II’s most important technological developments. He’s been heavily criticized in hindsight, but his influence was undoubtedly great, and he made a major contribution to victory.
Since many people don’t know Prof. Lindemann, and few have studied Churchill the man as opposed to Churchill the Prime Minister, I thought you might enjoy a lengthy excerpt from that chapter.
When he first commissioned me to write this book, my publisher, who I should disclose is the Gordon Norwood who was with me right from the War Office days and is, therefore, in a position to make sure I tell the truth, wanted it to be entitled ‘Secret Weapons of the Second World War’ and take the form of a descriptive illustrated catalogue of the products of M.D.1. That struck me as being rather dull, so I induced him to let me write the story of M.D.1. instead and bring people into it as well as mechanisms. I now propose to leave weapons alone for this chapter and deal with the people instead.
Taking them in order of priority at the start, Winston Churchill must come first, and although I could not claim to know him at all well, I might have noticed a few aspects of him that have been missed by his biographers. For, as a journalist before I joined the army, it often fell to my lot to interview celebrities and write articles about them.
To me, the most remarkable thing about Winston Churchill was the way in which, without conscious effort, he would dominate any scene in which he was playing a part, regardless of who else was present. His Midnight Follies meetings, first held when he was First Lord of the Admiralty, were always attended by very distinguished people indeed, including, at various times, the Prime Minister and every member of the Cabinet. Yet so powerful was Churchill’s personality compared with theirs that one hardly noticed they were there.
The amount of information he could store away in that great head of his was fantastic. In discussion, he could without effort remember the present location of almost every important ship in the fleet and could do the same where army divisions were concerned. Millis calculated that it would take about six admirals or generals combined to equal this performance, and I think he underestimated.
One of the myths that sprang up about Winston Churchill was that he would make important decisions on his own without first seeking advice and that nobody could then stop him from putting these decisions into practice. This idea was quite wrong. When faced with any problem, the first thing Churchill would do would be to summon a selection of people best able to give him information on the subject and another selection best able to advise him as to the decision to be taken. Very seldom would he go against their advice. He knew that he had all the power in the world and that it would pay him to be careful how he used it.
It is true that he wrote every word of those wonderful speeches of his — he had to, because nobody else could imitate his style and make words sit up and beg as he did. But every fact in every speech had to be most carefully checked. I was on many occasions one of a dozen or so officers who would be summoned to Chequers at the weekend because he was preparing one of his speeches and proposed to make some reference to the departments we represented or their work. We just had to hang around perhaps for an hour or so until somebody would bring us a couple of typewritten sheets in the enormous type which was the only kind he would allow to be used for documents he was expected to read. These sheets would contain the statements we had to check, and it was our job either to pass them as correct or put them right if they were wrong. Seldom did a correction have to be made, but if it were made, it would be accepted without question.
At our demonstrations at Princes Risborough, we saw another side of Winston Churchill altogether. He would be like a small boy on holiday. The faithful Commander Thompson would be in attendance carrying a Sten gun, and when there was any lull in the proceedings, Winston would lower himself to the ground and bang away with this thing at the nearest target. He could be very troublesome on these occasions through his reluctance to take shelter when necessary — a trait which he also exhibited during air raids, to the intense concern of his staff. I was in charge of these Risborough demonstrations, and on one occasion, after Winston had finished playing with his gun and dusted himself off, I told him I proposed to go on to the next item in the programme. This was the firing of a charge of very considerable size underneath a tank and there was every probability of pieces of shrapnel whizzing around, so I asked the P.M. kindly to step inside the splinter-proof shelter we had put there for his protection. But he perched himself on a little mound nearby and said: ‘No. I’ll watch from here. Go ahead with the firing.’
I argued with him and he got quite cross: ‘Get on with it,’ he said, ‘I’ll take the responsibility.’ I had to tell him that the responsibility was mine not his and that, if he refused to enter the shelter, I refused to give the order to explode the mine. Reluctantly, he gave way but he cheered up at once when the bang was over, because it had been an impressive one and lumps of metal had flown around.
On this particular occasion, Winston had brought along his daughter Mary who was having a grand time chatting away to the kilted Highlanders, who were carrying out the range duties for us. Of course, she asked me the classic question ‘What do they wear underneath?’ I told her she had better go and look and I believe she did.
Mary proved to be a very good friend to M.D.1. We had always been trying to lure the P.M. to Whitchurch after these demonstrations but never succeeded. This time he turned down my invitation once again, but Mary was there. ‘Oh, come on. Daddy,’ she said, ‘I want to go and you know jolly well you can spare an hour. He went off with her like a lamb, and they spent over an hour at The Firs. It made the day for everyone at the establishment and the little Welsh factory girls nearly burst themselves with cheering.
The P.M. did have a drink in the Mess on his arrival and another before leaving. But the other idea that got around that he needed to be topped up with brandy at frequent intervals to keep him going was entirely wrong. Not knowing whether or not it was true, I played for safety, and at these demonstrations, I had a truck fitted up as a mobile bar, the driver being instructed to follow the P.M. around and have his wares handy if wanted. They were never wanted — not by the P.M. anyway. The story that he got through a vast number of cigars every day was not true either. He always carried one — it was a bit of an act, like the funny hats of his earlier days. But it was out a lot of the time and there was no risk of his smoking himself to death.
Finally, to revert to this unwillingness of Winston Churchill to exercise his power unless driven to do so. We suffered from this at M.D.1. as described in the chapter headed ‘More Trials and Tribulations’. Our fate hung in the balance for months. Winston had created us and wanted us. He had only to write a four-line minute stating that we were to come directly under him as Minister of Defence and that would have settled the matter. Nobody could possibly have opposed this move or have the pluck to try to do so. But he just would not do that and wanted the problem to be solved in a constitutional manner. He did turn on the heat a bit in the end, but the Prof. had to work hard on him to get him to do it. The same thing applied when the adoption of some of the M.D.1. devices was opposed. The P.M. would refuse to interfere until he could be assured that there was no hope of persuading the opposers to change their minds. Then, if he were convinced that the cause was a good one, he would put all of his considerable weight behind it and push it along regardless. The ‘Sticky Bomb — Make one million — WSC’ minute is a good example of this.
I find it difficult to stop writing about Winston Churchill once I have started. But I doubt if I have anything to say about him that has not been said before, so I pass on from the greatest man I have ever known or will know to the Prof. Very few people understood the Prof. and I doubt if he understood himself. It would be difficult to find anyone who succeeded in making himself more unpopular than he did. That he did not succeed in making more friends than he did during his lifetime is not so surprising because he never tried to make friends. When, after his death, he was subject to attack in the Press, which seems always to be the fate of great men, it was sad to find that so few people rallied to his defence. Fellow peers such as Lord Snow and Lord Boothby could hardly wait to burst into print with quite absurd statements to the effect that he was an evil man responsible for the bombing of Dresden, that he nearly lost us the war through refusing to recognise the danger offered to us by the German ‘V’ weapons, and that he dissipated the resources of the country by having his own private research establishment (which meant M.D.1., of course) where he insisted on experiments being carried out on his crackpot ideas, none of which proved to be any use at all.
The now-retired managing editor of The Daily Telegraph, Sir Colin Coote, who had known the Prof. was a bit sympathetic towards the Prof. when this campaign started and published an article from me in his defence. But I did not see any others, although some may have been written. It was easy enough to shoot down these assertions. The Prof. could no more have ordered ordered the bombing of Dresden than I could have done — or the P.M. for that matter. The story must have arisen in this way. Early on in the war, it was found that our bombing was ineffective because, apart from failing to hit the targets, we were going for the wrong ones. Some statistics were needed here and neither the Air Ministry nor the Royal Air Force were able to provide them. So the P.M. asked the Prof. to start an organisation to do the job, which he promptly did, taking a house at Marlow as his headquarters for this work and roping in some famous statisticians.
As Winston Churchill says in his history of the war, Vol. II (Their Finest Hour), this department came to be of great value to him by furnishing him with statistics on all kinds of subjects. Where bombing policy was concerned, what it could and did do was to tabulate the results of past bombing raids and deduce from them what kind of target it paid to go for. No doubt Dresden would have appeared in one of these lists, but it is unlikely the Prof. would have put it there himself. He merely controlled the machine that formulated these suggestions. They would then be considered first by the War Cabinet and then by the Chiefs of Staff Committee before any firm decisions were taken. So to accuse the Prof. of being responsible for the bombing of Dresden was quite ridiculous.
As one who was dug out of bed on instructions from the Prof. in the early hours of the morning to go off and inspect the remains of almost the first ‘V’ Bomb to land here, I can state that he was very much aware of this danger. In fact, it had been discussed endlessly at Whitchurch, and for a long time, we had been receiving the most up-to-date reports on the subject. Prof. certainly never suggested that nothing need be done about the ‘V’ weapon; on the contrary, he was always urging us to try to think up some brilliant countermeasure against it, which we were unable to do. What he did maintain, though, was that the weapon as described in the intelligence reports was a non-starter. They claimed that it would have a warhead carrying 10 tons of high explosive. The Prof., who was, of course, a brilliant mathematician, worked out that this was impossible, that the maximum size of warhead for a flying bomb of the sort described would enable no more than 1 ton of high explosive to be carried, and that, therefore, the weapon would not have such devastating effect as had been suggested. He did not say it would have no effect at all. Millis, who was also a brilliant mathematician, was asked by the Prof. to calculate this one independently and he came up with the same answer. They were both dead right. The V1 carried 1 ton of high explosive.
I wish we could have done something by way of countermeasures against the ‘V’ weapons, because this would have been conclusive proof that the Prof. was taking the matter seriously. As a matter of fact, we were working on a guided interception missile, but even with our facilities, we could not produce one quickly. Where the other accusation is concerned, I think I have already said enough in this book to prove that the Prof.’s private research establishment was by no means useless. We were never called upon to work on any of his crackpot ideas because he did not have any. Very seldom would he put forward any proposals in connection with a new weapon and he would content himself with suggesting that we should try to meet some specific requirement which he knew to be vital. For instance, when he wanted a bomb that would damage a battleship more severely than the existing ones, we produced it.
Time and again in my diary there is a note to the effect that the Prof. suggested we should work on some project or other. But he never insisted on our doing so and often there is another note later on stating that we advised him that we would prefer to leave this one alone. He never argued over a matter of this sort. In the same way, although we did not have to get his permission to undertake some new project, we always advised him about it as a matter of courtesy and asked for this permission. It was never refused, although on occasion he might express the view that we were not on a good wicket.
The Prof. was always keenly interested in everything we were doing at Whitchurch, and when he came on his weekly visit to us, I always tried to arrange things so that he could watch a few experiments and talk to the design officers concerned about the progress they were making. Then we would retire to the front office where, after dealing with any paperwork I had saved up for him, he would settle down to a discussion with Millis on some project or other. Generally, some of the others would be there — Norman Angier, Ralph Farrant and James Tuck — and inevitably, sooner or later, mathematics would come into it. Right from the start, it had been evident that this would happen, so in this front office I had provided a nice big blackboard and coloured chalks. They all loved it.
I remember particularly one evening when we had been over at the RAF station at Wing dropping material called ‘Window’ out of aeroplanes to see if it worked. ‘Window’ consisted of strips of silvered tape which, when dropped by our bombers, would fox the enemy radar and put his fighters off the trail. The trouble was that if we started to use this stuff, the Germans would soon get on to it and follow suit, in which case Fighter Command here would be faced with the same difficulty and be unable to locate and’ shoot down the German bombers. So there was a great dispute going on between Bomber Command and Fighter Command about whether or not we should start using ‘Window’. One of the Prof.’s attackers after his death raised this one too and said he was increasing the hazards for our bomber crews by persuading the P.M. not to permit the material to be used. But, of course, this was complete nonsense. The Prof. had no say at all in this decision — it was purely a matter for the Chiefs of Staff Committee and the RAF. His job and ours was to make ‘Window’ work so that it was there if wanted.
On this particular occasion, there was a roll of this material on Millis’ desk. The Prof. asked how much it weighed. Nobody knew, but James Tuck said he could soon find out. He then retired to the blackboard and, after what appeared to me to be an unnecessarily complicated piece of calculation, announced that it would weigh 8 ½ ounces. ‘No, no, James,’ said the Prof., ‘you should try it this way,’ whereupon he proceeded to carry out an even more elaborate calculation which produced a different answer — a fraction over 7 ounces. Not to be outdone, Millis then had a go and came up with yet another answer. During the mathematical argument that ensued, I took the reel into the next office, weighed it on a letter scale, and returned to announce that it was precisely 6 ½ ounces. Nobody was in the slightest interested, and the mathematical argument went on for a further half-hour.
Prof. was not only a teetotaller and non-smoker but also a most sincere vegetarian. He would not even eat the yolk of an egg. This made it very difficult to entertain him. When he was coming to Whitchurch, I would always offer to have any vegetarian dish prepared for him, but he would always refuse and produce his own little packet of sandwiches. He had a very large frame, and how he managed to subsist on so little was a mystery. He made no attempt whatsoever to persuade others to follow his example, and when I went to lunch with him at his rooms at Christchurch or his flat at Marsham Court, he would always provide me with an excellent meal and plenty to drink.
This teetotalism put us in a bit of a spot when he first started coming to Whitchurch. After six o’clock in the evening, one had only to press the bell in the front office for drinks to appear as if by magic; it was a fine system. But with the Prof. there, we did not like to take advantage advantage of it and would sneak away in turn to the bar instead. The Prof. got on to this on about his second visit and said: ‘Please don’t let me stop you from having drinks if you want them.’ From then onwards, the bell was pressed. On one occasion, to our utter astonishment, the Prof. plunged his hand into his trouser pocket and said: ‘Let me pay for this round.’ But, of course, we didn’t.
Why the Prof. made himself so unpopular was because he not only sincerely believed that there was no better brain in the world than his with the one exception of Winston Churchill but also because he made no attempt whatever to conceal this view. Everyone who disagreed with him was a fool. A row had been going on for some time between himself and Professor Tizard, whom he had supplanted as the chief scientific adviser to the government when Churchill became P.M: He ever afterwards referred to ‘that ass Tizard’, which was very stupid of him, because Tizard certainly had as good a brain as he had. Tizard really took it very well, but other scientists did not.
The Prof. did not like people very much or rouse any affection in them. Few of those who worked with or for him would say anything much in his favour, even if they said nothing against him. He was regarded as just a cold fish. Yet he could inspire loyalty in people, one example being the faithful Harvey who looked after him like a mother and served as his secretary, cook-housekeeper and chauffeur all at once. I suppose another example was me, although I cannot quite understand how this came about. When the Prof. first met me at the Admiralty over Operation Royal Marine, it was evident that he regarded me as less than the dust beneath his chariot wheel. I was not a scientist or mathematician but a nonentity — just somebody who worked for that brilliant fellow Jefferis. It was not until we got to Whitchurch that the Prof. began to realise that I had some kind of a brain and was using it. His respect for me greatly increased when he found that I was not only running the establishment, which he had sense enough to see that Millis was not well fitted to do, but was doing my full share of design and development work. In time, he grew to rely on me for keeping the good ship M.D.1. on an even keel, even though I was not the captain.
It would be an exaggeration to say that the Prof. got fond of me but he did find my company very tolerable and quite liked talking to me. Sometimes he would be almost affable and tell me about funny incidents in the House of Lords. He never appeared to have any interest in women but once, when I told him I had met Lady Bath over the weekend and she had sent him her kind regards, his face lit up and he said: ‘Isn’t she lovely?’ When I asked him for advice about a career for my elder son, he said: ‘My dear fellow, make him a university don like me. It’s the softest job in the world.’
Almost bashfully, one day, the Prof. invited me to have lunch with him at Marsham Court and then listen to a speech he was going to make that afternoon in the House of Lords. ‘I doubt if you will be able to hear a word I say,’ he told me, ‘because nobody does.’ He was quite right. After the war, when Millis had left M.D.1. and I had taken over, the Prof. did not come to Whitchurch so much but liked me to run over to Christchurch once a week to tell him what was going on. We would walk round the garden, which went with his rooms and of which he was very proud. When M.D.1. was finally closed down and I decided to quit the army, he made considerable efforts to get me a job, although he was no longer in power and could now pull few strings. When I went after one myself, he wrote me a most glowing reference, and so did Brigadier Hogg.
Nobody could stand more on his dignity than could the Prof., and he was very troublesome over this. He would refuse to attend a meeting which he did not chair unless the chairman was somebody he considered to be of something like equal rank. Once, as the result of a complaint he had taken up about an M.D.1. weapon being turned down, he insisted on a special meeting of the Ordnance Board being called to discuss the matter and announced that he would be present. But when the president of the O.B., Admiral Pridham, went sick and the Prof. was told that a deputy would have to take the chair, the Prof. refused to attend.
The same kind of thing happened when the citizens of Whitchurch got a bit restless and sent in a petition to the government saying that they had put up with The Firs and the noises we made there throughout the war but saw no reason why they should have to go on doing that now, so would they please close down the place. This was a bit unfair, because we had been a godsend to the village during the war, bringing much wanted business to the shopkeepers and pubs, finding employment for anyone who wanted it, and providing free entertainment at our social and cinema shows. And we were still going on doing that.
However, appeasement seemed to me to be the best plan, and as I was now the head of the establishment, I decided to run a whale of a party and invite to it everybody who mattered. In particular, I wanted the Prof. to be there. He said he would consider the matter and would I let him have a list of guests? I did that and thought it quite an impressive one. It included names like that of Sir Charles Ellis, who, like the Prof., was an FRS, Nubar Gulbenkian, who was quite a famous figure, and a host of other celebrities. But after peering through it, the Prof. could find nothing to suit him and said that although he would come if this were a matter of very great importance to me, he would prefer to stay away. Probably the party went better without him, and it did serve its purpose.
The Prof. grew very proud of M.D.1. in time and nothing pleased him more than to bring out some VIP to see the place. Generally, it would be somebody with some technical problem to discuss such as Sir Robert Watson-Watt, the inventor of radar. In one of the attacks on the Prof. after his death, he was accused of opposing Watson-Watt and hindering the development of radar. This too was utter nonsense. He always encouraged Watson-Watt and went on doing it now. I was instructed to give him every assistance should he want to carry out some experimental work at Whitchurch. The same applied to Sir Barnes Wallis when he came out to discuss his cannon-ball bomb with us. Most people had discouraged him, but the Prof. had not.
The Prof.’s enemies did not realise how intensely patriotic he was. His entire energies were devoted to winning the war. I am told that throughout it he refused to accept any salary, even as a Cabinet Minister, and would not make use of the official car to which he was fully entitled or anything of that sort. Harvey had to drive him about in an enormous but ancient Packard. When it passed out at Whitchurch one day, I persuaded him to let our transport section do a bit of work on it and had quite a job to convince him that there was no need to pay. Whilst the Packard was out of action, he would let me drive him about in my own car but would not let me put an army car and driver at his disposal.
It was all too easy to wind up the Prof. into a state of great indignation. Millis had only to suggest to him that somebody was obstructing our work for him to breathe fire and thunder and set about getting whoever it was removed from his job. The difficulty here was that Millis could quite often be in the wrong and would fancy he was being badly treated although, in fact, the other fellow was not being unreasonable but merely wanted more information. I often had great difficulty in smoothing out these situations and preventing drastic action being taken. Indeed, the only thing I could do sometimes was to visit the Prof. on the quiet, assure him that the offending official was now being more co-operative and urge him to forget the whole business. Even when we were all behaving nicely, M.D.1. was unpopular enough in many quarters and we could not afford to be hated.
Although the Prof. was easily put out in this way, he was very slow to take offence where any of us were concerned. I provided him with a very nice office at The Firs, equipping it with a ‘scrambler’ telephone and one of the large-type typewriters we now had to use for all official minutes that might be seen by the P.M.
On his next two visits to Whitchurch, the Prof. inhabited his new office for perhaps five minutes and then joined us in the front office. During the next six months he never entered it at all. By this time, we were desperately short of space in the house so I had this room converted into a bedroom for one of the secretaries. My mistake was in not mentioning this to the Prof. Some months later, on arrival at The Firs, he announced that he proposed to do some work in his office and that put me nicely on the spot. I could only explain the situation as best I could. But the Prof. felt I had slighted him in some way and it took me a little time to get back into favour.
I never saw him get cross with Millis, although he would have done on one occasion if he had known the facts. One time, when Millis was away on leave and I had to visit the Prof., after we had run through a few matters, he suddenly turned quite fierce and said: ‘Now what has happened over that sabotage weapon? This really is too bad.’ I always boasted that I knew of everything that was going on at Whitchurch, but this one beat me. I probed about a little and discovered that over a fortnight back the Prof. had for once actually asked Millis to knock up a sample of some little device for the ready wrecking of radio sets. Millis should have told me about it as this was in my line, but, in fact, it had completely escaped his memory. What is more, when the Prof. had telephoned to ask how this job was going, Millis assured him that it would be finished in another day or so and then forgot it for the second time. I did not find this out until afterwards, but I assured the Prof. that Millis would have put the work in hand and that some unforeseen snag must have arisen since his departure. A little quick work was done, and when the Prof. came out to Whitchurch a couple of days later, I was able to hand over to him a prototype of this device, which he accepted with grace. None of this mattered much because there is an entry in my diary a fortnight later saying: ‘Instructed by the Prof. not to proceed further with the development of his sabotage weapon.’
The Prof. literally adored Winston Churchill. There were one or two other people such as, oddly enough, Ernie Bevin whom he really liked. But there is no question that Millis came top of the form and that he developed a sincere affection for him. The fact that it was not very heartily reciprocated did not seem to worry the Prof. at all. One would think that when Millis tried so hard to duck away from under his patronage and go over to the opposition that would have been the end of a beautiful friendship so far as the Prof. was concerned. When the situation was at last happily resolved, the Prof. simply must have realised that Millis had not returned to his fold under his own power and that we had to drag him there by his heels. Yet there was no sign of his bearing a grudge. On the contrary, he favoured Millis more than ever and took a great deal of trouble to induce the P.M. to have his name included in the Dissolution Honours list for the award of the KBE. This, incidentally, put the cat amongst the pigeons once again, as there were many other major-generals who considered they should have come first if KBEs were being handed out. But the Dissolution Honours list is not subject to the same scrutiny as the normal ones and nobody could stop this award going through.
People used to say that the Prof. was mean-minded, but surely this action proves the contrary. Few big men in such circumstances would have shown such loyalty and generosity to a friend. As I started off by saying, nobody understood him and he did not understand himself. I never became his favoured friend as did Millis, but his death came as a blow to me and I missed him very much.
There you have it: two of the personalities most involved in Britain’s victory in World War II. There are obviously many more such people, but one can’t possibly list them all or go into any detail in a short blog article. Their lives, experiences and writings make interesting reading, which has kept me informed and entertained throughout my life. (That’s the reason my personal library at one time totaled more than 5,000 books! The advent of e-books, and the republication of many interesting works in the new format, has made life much easier [and lighter], since e-books don’t take up bookshelf space.)