A Most Enigmatic War: R.V. Jones and the Genesis of British Scientific Intelligence 1939-45

By James Goodchild.

Following publication of my book A Most Enigmatic War: R.V. Jones and the Genesis of British Scientific Intelligence, Helion have kindly asked me to write a short article about the importance of the research into this fascinating subject.

At the beginning of the Second World War, there was no such arrangement as British Scientific Intelligence – it simply did not exist! Owing to the advancements of warfare technology in the first four decades of the twentieth – obviously accelerated by the First World War – there had been mooted discussions within the small cadres of RDF ‘boffins’ that the Committee of Imperial Defence (that reported to the Cabinet of the British Government) knew very little of German scientific and technological capabilities. For this reason, Reginald Victor Jones – a young academic from the Clarendon Laboratory in Oxford – was attached to the Secret Intelligence Services (SIS, forerunner of MI6) to ascertain what Britain and the British military forces might encounter. Jones’s wartime experiences are well-known because of the 1978 publication of his war memoirs entitled Most Secret War. All historians have since accepted his account uncritically, which has created the common misconception that Jones was some kind of heroic lone crusader in the quest to understand Axis science and technology (S&T). My first book corrects this historical anomaly, and subsequently opens a new field of research into British scientific and technical intelligence (STI).

A Most Enigmatic War is the culmination of five years of research into wartime STI. Over fifty archival collections were consulted in order to understand the complexity of the extensive network of organisations, involving thousands of men and women who contributed to the intelligence on Axis S&T. What was especially amazing is that there were at least 25 members of Jones’s team who contributed to the successes (and failures) of ADI (Science)! This is certainly not the impression given by Jones in his memoirs. Of particular surprise and, again, something entirely forgotten by Jones (or perhaps he was concerned about national security even after the ULTRA secret was revealed in 1974) was the 3G(N) organisation housed in Hut 3 at Bletchley Park which contributed significantly to the discoveries made by ADI (Science).

Bletchley Park – Home of the Codebreakers, from where ADI (Science) obtained much intelligence, especially from 3G(N) in Hut 3. Source: Author’s own collection.

ADI (Science) did have some impressive successes, such as the scientific deductions that revealed the navigational radio beams used by the Luftwaffe to bomb the major cities in Britain, and the discovery of the Würzburg and Giant Würzburg radar dishes that that was the root cause of so many losses for Bomber Command from 1941 through to at least 1943.

Arguably, the greatest success of ADI (Science) during the Second World War was discovering the Giant Würzburg. With a 9-metre diameter, the Giant Würzburg was as tall as adjacent buildings and trees and could detect incoming aircraft from as far away as 50 miles. This particular Giant Würzburg was acquired by the Imperial War Museum at Duxford in 1981, photographed by the author in 2011. Source: Author’s own collection.

Yet the ADI (Science) watchdog was too late to bark in some situations, for example the Channel Dash of February 1942, the failure to discover the HS293 guided missiles that sunk battleships in the Mediterranean, and the lateness of intelligence on the V-1 ‘doodlebugs’ and V2 rockets that caused so much loss of live, especially in London and Antwerp.

The Hs293 guided missile was arguably the weapon that surprised British Intelligence the most during the Second World War. This photograph (taken in 2012) is of an Hs293 hanging in the Deutsches Technikmuseum in Berlin. Note the rocket engine attached to the underbelly of the missile. Source: Author’s own collection.

I can truly say that I loved researching for A Most Enigmatic War and, for readers interested in writing their own work of history, I would suggest that passion for the research project is the fundamental requirement to success. Ideally, there also has to be a gap in historical understanding. My initial motivation stemmed from reading Jones’s war memoirs, but then the more I read around wartime STI, the more I realised how remarkably influential Jones’s book had become since the late-1970s. And so, Jones and STI became the core of my doctoral studies at the University of Exeter, and then the subject of my first book. There is much in A Most Enigmatic War that should excite both the academic as well as the casually-interested reader. I am currently working on my next book – the research of which is complete – on the subject of S&T developments of the First World War. Inevitably, the modern pursuit of intelligence emerged during the Great War (the war Jones’s father fought). Yet the difference was that S&T became the root cause of many intelligence developments, rather than the target.

A Most Enigmatic War: R.V. Jones and the Genesis of British Scientific Intelligence 1939-45 is now available to order here.

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