Churchill's London Wartime Wizards

Laurence Scales
By Laurence Scales Last edited 36 months ago
Churchill's London Wartime Wizards

During the Second World War, many an ingenious plan — by many of London's greatest scientific minds — was hatched in the capital, with the aim of standing up to Hitler. Here are our favourites.

Hiding London

Alexandra Palace.

Where better to start than with a filthy story? Bombs began raining from a dark sky in September 1940. Navigation was an inexact science and London was blacked out. But the silvery meanders of the Thames were like a huge sign put out for the enemy. So, someone had the opposite of a bright idea and decided to try blanketing the river in coal dust. However, apart from wet coal dust clogging the machines laying it, all the whites on local washing lines caught a liberal coating too. People complain about that sort of thing even when there’s a war on. The pull of the moon also flushed the riverine bowl clean round the bend twice a day and the idea was finally brushed aside.

Unbeknown to the coal crumblers, the bombers were not looking for the river, they were following invisible radio guidance beams transmitted from enemy territory. On the lookout for these was the physicist RV Jones, based at MI6, 54 Broadway. He studied the wreckage from downed enemy aircraft but found no unusual equipment. It was only uncovered when a captured air crew, held at a large mansion near Cockfosters, had their conversations bugged. It became clear that the necessary receiver was hidden in plain sight. The receiver looked just like the short range aircraft homing system provided to assist the final approach back at base.

In retaliation, Jones had his own gadget to baffle the bombers — Alexandra Palace. Built for TV broadcasts, it transmitted in the right frequency range to confuse the navigators. But it was not completely effective. Clear moonlit nights and frequency shifts still provided opportunities to the raiders.

The Battle of Richmond Park

Anti-aircraft guns stationed in Hyde Park. The crews were rather inaccurate until physicist Patrick Blackett applied his maths skills to the problem.

Many of those bits of London’s parks not dug up for growing cabbages played host to early warning radar and anti-aircraft guns. Unfortunately the guns rarely hit anything. For the gunners, it was difficult to gauge how fast, how high and in what direction the planes were flying — and then allow for the flight time of a projectile. By the time the calculations were done the planes were gone.

A team was established close to the guns in Richmond Park under physicist Patrick Blackett. Just by looking at various tactics and the resulting hit statistics it was possible to come up with better rules of thumb and a mechanical ready reckoner. This increased the probability of a hit five-fold. Having sorted out the army, Blackett moved on to help the other services with what became known as Operational Research.

Pot Luck with Churchill

But back to those cabbages. Boffinry was not just for shells and antennae, it could also be found at the grocer. Britain was blockaded by submarines and food was in critically short supply. The government was worried about food contamination by poison gas. The obvious answer — packaging — eluded them until they had recruited an expert to the Ministry of Food, biochemist Jack Drummond.

Wartime food advice helping on the home front.

From an office in Portman Square he concocted the national diet. In the First World War many men of fighting age had been found unsuitable for military service due to rickets, the result of endemic malnutrition. The inter war years saw huge progress in understanding nutrition, but it was one thing to establish a healthy menu, another to supply it, and yet another to foresee how the poor would spend their limited income. On the eve of war Jack Drummond had published a book, The Englishman’s Food, embracing 500 years of history. As it spanned several wars, he had a better idea than most how to answer all these questions. He brought to the front the powdered egg, which saved shipping space. Bananas were banished and sugar was left short. Drummond left people better nourished on less food.

Treading in something nasty

A key part of the war effort? Photo by Pikakoko from Flickr.

There is a plaque called The Spirit of Resistance inside a room at the Natural History Museum. It commemorates the location of a James Bond-style demonstration room for novel weapons of sabotage, ranging from miniature motorcycles to exploding poop.

An exploding cow pat could put a vehicle out of action. If a more exotic excretion was needed — such as for use in the Sahara — the camels at London Zoo could provide a sample. Getting it to explode was a job for engineers.

Radio Normandie was a commercial radio station at 35 Portland Place. Its income dried up with the Nazi occupation of France and the radio technicians found themselves working on specialist gadgetry under the command of Millis Jefferis. Until the Blitz forced it from London it turned out other offensive products such as the sticky bomb for resistance fighters, and the Blacker Bombard (a new kind of mortar) for Dad’s Army. The unit became known as Churchill’s Toyshop and it came under the wing of his personal scientific advisor Professor Lindemann of Oxford.

The Prof

The Prof took a pied à terre near Downing Street. Churchill’s tame scientist (not that anyone else found him tame) advised — not always correctly — on everything from rockets to statistics. Winston’s enthusiasm for science was not matched by his knowledge and Lindemann had to write hundreds of technical summaries, each constrained to one side of paper. He eventually joined the cabinet.

One problem defeated the boffins: bombing was very inaccurate. It was impossible just to strike at the key factories and airfields so Lindemann was the vigorous supporter of the policy of flattening German cities, to crush morale. It remains controversial and was enormously destructive both in German civilian lives and the 55,000 British and colonial bomber crews killed. A Bomber Command memorial was only added to London’s streetscape in 2012.

Last Updated 19 February 2015