This article is taken from the July 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
In an age when my phone can tell me exactly where I am and how to get where I’m going, it’s hard sometimes to imagine a time when navigation was one of any traveller’s great challenges. At the outbreak of the Second World War, the advice to Royal Air Force pilots trying to find their way was, more or less, to look out of the window and see whether anything on the ground looked familiar. The Luftwaffe, though, had a rather more sophisticated means of finding their targets.
As Britain braced herself for the bomber onslaught of 1940, there was comfort in knowing that radar would give Hurricanes and Spitfires advance warning of where the attack was coming. As soon as the sun went down, so did the fighters: at night, relying on their eyeballs, they simply couldn’t find the enemy.
That wasn’t so bad, as long as the German pilots had the same problem, but one young British scientist began to suspect that the Luftwaffe had developed a technology that allowed them to find their way even in the dark, guided by radio beams. In June 1940 he found himself explaining to Winston Churchill that German bombers could accurately reach any spot over England that they wanted, even in darkness.
Reg “RV” Jones was the original boffin: a gifted physicist who was recruited to the Air Ministry at the start of the war to help make sense of intelligence reports that offered clues about enemy technology. It was a role to which he was perfectly suited: a man who liked puzzles, with the ability to absorb lots of information and see links, as well as the arrogance to insist on his conclusions, even when his superiors didn’t like them.
The story of the radio battle has been told before, not least by Jones himself. His 1978 memoir Most Secret War was a bestseller and remains in print. It is 700 pages long, though, and it assumes a lot of knowledge about the way 1940s radios worked that readers probably had 50 years ago. Since few people under 50 have much clue why a radio would need a valve or what you might do with a slide rule, there is definitely room for a fresh telling.
Tom Whipple, Science Editor of The Times, has taken advantage of the release of classified wartime material to produce an account that is half the length of Jones’s and significantly more accessible. It’s Whipple’s day job to make complex ideas comprehensible, so he’s well placed to explain the intricacies of how radio waves travel through the atmosphere.
Those who have heard of Jones will know that he wasn’t held back by modesty, and Whipple raises an eyebrow at some of the scientist’s claims. It’s not clear that Jones’s attempts to jam the German radio beams were as successful as he believed. Although Jones, understandably, felt in 1940 like he was in the frontline of a fight where failure might lose the war, the reality is that, however good their guidance systems, the Luftwaffe lacked the capacity to bomb Britain out of the war. Both the British and German publics showed far more resilience to bombing than either of their governments had believed they would.
Although it gives Whipple’s book his title, the Battle of the Beams, as Jones christened it, is only the first half of the book. The second half covers the British attempts to build their own radio guidance systems, to understand and then defeat German radar as the RAF begins to strike back against Germany. Zooming out from Jones, Whipple takes us to the River Plate, where the battleship Graf Spee lists half-sunk, and to Belgium, where resisters pace out the distance by which British bombs have missed their targets.
There are tales here to delight and excite: a gripping description of paratroopers landing on the French coast to take apart a Nazi radar installation and bring it back so that Jones and his colleagues can study it; an RAF bomber crew setting off on what looks like a suicide mission to identify the radio signals used by Luftwaffe fighters as they home in on their targets; the Dane who borrowed a biplane to fly to Britain with film of a German radar installation. Whipple freely acknowledges that much of what he tells us isn’t new, but that doesn’t stop this being a highly enjoyable account of a largely forgotten slice of wartime history.