Momentous Conjuncture

Geoffrey Best

  • Prof: The Life of Frederick Lindemann by Adrian Fort
    Cape, 374 pp, £18.99, October 2003, ISBN 0 224 06317 0

They made the oddest of couples, Lindemann and Churchill. A German-born bourgeois bachelor, scientist, airman, pianist, social climber, near teetotaller, non-smoker, vegetarian, buttoned-up loner and through forty years the most disliked don in Oxford. A rogue English aristocrat, family man, soldier, historian, journalist, MP and PM, drinking, smoking, eating and tirelessly talking his way through more than fifty years of politics, statecraft and war. Yet these two supreme egotists became as close friends as their personalities permitted, and it may be argued that anyone who is thankful that Britain ended the Second World War on the winning side should count ‘the Prof’ as one of those who helped win it. Adrian Fort, in his good-natured but shrewd biography, comes down on that side of the argument, and so do I. But it was touch and go at times.

The momentous conjuncture of Churchill with Lindemann did not occur until both were in their middle age. Lindemann in the early 1920s was Oxford’s recently appointed professor of experimental physics and director of its Clarendon Laboratory, embarking on an ultimately successful endeavour to make it more of a match for Cambridge’s Cavendish than it so far had been. Everything about him was un-Oxonian. His Germanic origins might have been expected to matter, but in practice they didn’t. He told everyone that his family was from Alsace, which was true, and if anyone dared to ask where he spent his childhood, he could truthfully say, Sidmouth; it didn’t have to be spelled out that his mother had been in Baden-Baden in 1886 when he was born, and that some at least of his mysterious wealth came from Germany as well as Alsace. What mattered most in this respect was that, although himself rather Germanic, he disliked Germany, and made no secret of the fact.

Much more obviously un-Oxonian was his education. It became a permanent annoyance to him, especially after securing a fellowship and a fine set of rooms at Christ Church, that he couldn’t sport one of the few approved old school ties. His parents had whimsically sent him to a private school near Falkirk in Scotland, and from there to Germany: first to the Lycaeum at Darmstadt and then to Darmstadt’s Technische Hochschule. The consequence was that he received a first-class education, and not just in science, but it was not the sort of education that Oxford appreciated.

Still less was that capital of the classics prepared for a physicist who, between 1908 and 1914, had been one of his subject’s international elite in Berlin, and was proud of it. It is impossible to judge exactly how many days – perhaps only hours – elapsed between his arrival and Oxford’s realisation that it had caught a tartar, but the interval must have been very brief. Aware that Oxford prided itself on not being like Cambridge and that its prestigious degree in classical philosophy was considered the non plus ultra of civilisation, he was determined to assert science’s equality with the arts. Fort tells how Lindemann never forgot an early exchange with the warden of All Souls’s wife, who met his lamentations about England’s backwardness in science with the cheering rejoinder: ‘Don’t worry, professor, anyone who has a first in Greats could get up science in a fortnight.’ ‘Well, what a pity that your husband has never had a fortnight to spare,’ was his admirable reply. Of Maurice Bowra’s claim that he never slept without a book of Ovid under his pillow, Lindemann remarked that it would be more creditable if the book were Kaye and Laby’s physics tables.

A product of the Cambridge history tripos who has never found the (doubtless longer) time needed to get up science, I have to take on trust Fort’s descriptions of Lindemann’s scientific achievements. How far he himself understands them, I can’t say – he is described on the dust wrapper as sometime barrister and financier – but he offers readable, simple accounts of them, and the professional side of Lindemann’s life appears to be as adequately dealt with. As a physicist, the young Lindemann was up with the foremost: quickly moving from pupil to associate of Nernst, he was an early discussant of the theories of Einstein and Planck, a brilliant designer of experimental equipment, and by the time he left Berlin on the eve of the war, distinguished in the field of low temperature physics, which he later made the Clarendon’s speciality.

What cannot be got up but what no one can perfectly explain is why Lindemann was such a seriously flawed and peculiar human being. Fort avoids psychologising beyond noting, as any reasonable person might, Lindemann’s several grounds for grudges against his mother, the way his schooling jarred with his snobbery, the contrast between his lengthy and profitable experience of Germany on the one hand, and his yearning to be more English than the English on the other. Of his potty-training and such, nothing is known; of his sex life, no more than that he did have girlfriends in Berlin but that he seemed to be a complete bachelor once he was in Oxford. Dark rumours inevitably attached to him, but nothing was ever found out and Fort doesn’t think there was anything to find out. He could be comparatively genial with his few friends and when he wanted to be liked. He found Oxford places for Jewish scientists fleeing Nazism; he was unostentatiously generous to needy dependants; he looked after his staff and servants. But his dominant social mode was supercilious and disagreeable. He made enemies – if he did not exactly like making enemies, at least he did not dislike doing so – and once he had started a feud, he never let it go. To most people he was a cold fish, sarcastic and discouraging.

And yet, he became a welcome and frequent visitor at Chartwell, a friend of the Churchill family. How did this happen? It began in his social climbing phase, and on the tennis courts of the Duke of Westminster. Tennis was one of his many striking accomplishments. This, along with his chauffeured Rolls-Royce, eased his entrée to those country-house parties where the rich, the celebrated and the nobly-born got together. Winston’s wife Clementine was a very good player, too – when she could get away from home for long enough to show it. She met Lindemann in mixed doubles at Eaton Hall in the summer of 1921, and rather took to him. At the same time, the duke came to suspect that Lindemann and Churchill would get on well together, had them both to dinner, and was proved right.

That two such different and such opinionated men should have taken to one another and become friends for life might be thought puzzling. Fort’s explanation is that ‘Churchill’s readiness to open his mind to new themes and subjects, and to blend them with his deep feeling for history, complemented Lindemann’s associative faculties and his ability to relate the rules and discoveries of science to everyday experience.’ They would certainly have talked about the First World War, sharing their particular interests in the military applications of science and technology. Churchill had been one of the foremost promoters of military aviation (leading from the front by actually learning to fly), armoured fighting vehicles and, once Germany had started it, chemical warfare; Lindemann had spent the war as a boffin at the Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough, improving aircraft production and performance and inventing or trying to invent novel aids to combat. In 1916 he, too, learned to fly, and what he did with his new skill was very courageous and remarkable, something that won Churchill’s hearty admiration. Airmen at that time were troubled by the tendency of their shaky little biplanes to go without notice into spins from which no means of recovery could be found. Many good pilots lost their lives. Lindemann worked on this phenomenon as a problem in applied physics, came up with what he thought was a solution, and tested it by putting planes into the dreaded spin again and again and proving that a pilot could recover from it. One physicist I’ve consulted thinks that this feat was ‘superior to any contribution he made to physics’.

Thus the partnership began. Lindemann became a frequent visitor to Chartwell and an occasional companion on the Churchills’ travels, providing (as Winston put it) ‘agreeable and always instructive company’. When Hitler’s peace-threatening drove the British government to begin rearming, their friendship took a more serious turn. Churchill, only a backbencher in the 1930s, though a powerful one, didn’t believe Britain was rearming fast enough or in the best way, and loudly said so. For much of his material he relied on Lindemann, well equipped to help him thanks to his German background, statistical dexterity and Farnborough experience. Britain need not, they argued, be thought indefensible against the bomber. Tardily aware of the UK’s grim situation, the air ministry called in the scientists in early 1935: a Committee for the Scientific Survey of Air Defence, chaired by the rector of Imperial College, Henry Tizard. For whatever reason – but probably because neither Tizard nor his chosen colleagues liked him – Lindemann wasn’t invited, and it took a grand remonstrance from Churchill to get him there.

Now began some terrific rows. Lindemann resented the way he had been neglected and he disliked Tizard. (Fort suggests the dislike may even have begun when they were both still in Berlin, and Tizard had downed him in a ‘friendly’ boxing match.) He also disliked the other top scientists already on the committee, Patrick Blackett and A.V. Hill, who disliked him in return. The atmosphere got so bad that, after little more than a year, Blackett and Hill resigned and Tizard said he, too, would resign unless Lindemann were removed. The committee did some good things, however, and Lindemann did not obstruct Watson-Watt’s work on radar, as later alleged by the ill-informed C.P. Snow; what he did do was to annoy the others by sniping at the civil service (to which Watson-Watt belonged), using Churchill’s influence to resurrect matters the others thought they had disposed of, and by pushing ideas for aerial defence (e.g. aerial mines) which the others, like most subsequent commentators, thought impractical. These were not Lindemann’s finest hours.

Air defence was such a vital matter that Tizard’s committee was soon reconstituted, and two years later Churchill got Lindemann reappointed to it. He had not been inconspicuous in the meantime. He’d stood for parliament at the Oxford by-election (plenty of new enemies made there) and had come to feel some Remains-of-the-Day-like affection for one of his supporters, Lady Elizabeth Lindsay. Nothing came of it. She died of pneumonia early in 1937, and the Prof never loved again. Back on the committee, he seems to have behaved better, even being bracketed with Tizard in R.V. Jones’s account of the completion of the radar chain and its linkage to fighter command. This was a signal contribution to the nation’s defences. But it was nothing compared to what was yet to come.

Six days after Churchill returned to the admiralty in September 1939, he installed Lindemann as his scientific adviser and, four weeks later, head of his ‘statistical branch’. This colourless title concealed one of the secrets of Churchill’s mastery of war management. He was determined to be the boss but he knew he must be a well-informed one. His capacious mind sought a panoramic view of everything that was going on and up-to-date quantification of such forces and resources as he had at his disposal. He distrusted the departmental self-interest of professional civil servants, and in any case they took too long to do things. The Prof and his team of young economists and statisticians had powers to override departmental norms, to extract instantly the information they wanted, and – which did not add to their popularity – to nose into areas where something seemed to be wrong; Churchill once referred to the branch as ‘my Gestapo’. Collectively, they acquired the Prof’s striking talent for digesting complicated matters into the brief statements and clear tabulations that Churchill insisted on. Having served its apprenticeship at the admiralty, the statistical branch moved en bloc with Churchill to Downing Street in May 1940 and expanded its empire to cover everything. Its contribution to the success of Churchill’s leadership of Britain’s war effort is immeasurable.

Besides running the statistical branch, Lindemann – Lord Cherwell of Oxford (yet more enemies made) from June 1941 – had much else to do. He was responsible for ‘Churchill’s toyshop’, a small engineering outfit dedicated to inventing special weapons; he had bombing-related research going on in the Clarendon; and he was still offering scientific advice. This is where his account acquires some debit items. For example, he was for many months unreasonably sceptical about Germany’s development of ballistic missiles – we may be thankful that others took the threat more seriously – and he was consistently on the side of bomber command’s city-bombing whenever its lion’s share of resources was in question and the virtue of alternative strategies was canvassed. His espousal of the ‘Morgenthau Plan’ for the deindustrialisation of postwar Germany unattractively revealed his undying animus against the land of his fathers and his higher education.

Recalled to government in 1951-53, his expertise in economics and the persuasive exposition of it gave him influence in the cabinet which on one extreme occasion outweighed the chancellor’s, and he successfully argued that the proper place for developing atomic energy was an independent authority, not Churchill’s son-in-law’s ministry of supply. Fertile as ever in bright ideas, he godfathered the applied science of ‘archaeometry’ – carbon dating. He died in 1957. Fort closes with a sentimental retrospective reverie. I prefer the austere conclusion of Thomas Wilson, one of the original statistical branch and author fifty years later of the excellent Churchill and the Prof. ‘No doubt he might have achieved still more had it not been for the difficulties posed by his personality.’ Fort maintains that the Prof mellowed towards the end. I’m not so sure. ‘He was like Dracula,’ a colleague who then was young at Christ Church told me. ‘When he came into the room, you could feel the temperature fall.’