Battling for Britain Prussian style
PROF: THE LIFE OF FREDERICK LINDEMANN by Adrian Fort Cape, £18.99, pp. 377, ISBN 02244063170 During my first term at Oxford in 1938, when walking down the south side of the Christ Church quad, I passed a large man in a bowler hat and a smart London suit. The only persons in the college who wore bowlers were the porters and most dons followed David Cecil's advice to dress in Oxford as if staying in a modest country house. The large man was clearly a man of importance but he seemed out of place. I was no wiser when told that he was Professor Lindemann, the owner of a
chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce and a private bathroom in his college rooms, both unheard of luxuries for a don.
Adrian Fort traces his rise to eminence in this scholarly book which provides fascinating, if sometimes disconcerting, glimpses of the world of science and government in the 1930s and 1940s. Roy Jenkins has remarked on Churchill's penchant for bizarre, even disreputable, friends. Lindemann was eminently respectable but an oddity in English society. Born in Baden in 1886, he remained a German citizen until 1904 when he became a British citizen to escape conscription in Prussia. Ever afterwards he made a persistent effort to be accepted without question as an English patriot and gentleman. But he had not acquired the automatic credentials provided by an English education. The family home was in Devon, but his father, a gifted amateur astronomer, sent him to Damstadt Technical High School rather than to a major public school and to Berlin University rather than to Oxford or Cambridge. He was given an allowance by his father of £30,000 a year and during his doctoral studies he lived in a suite in the Adlon Hotel, the Berlin equivalent of Claridges.
Prewar Germany was an exciting time for a young physicist as the Newtonian universe was being revolutionised by the
quantum theory which Fort endeavours to explain to the lay reader, an almost impossible task. In Berlin Lindemann acquired not merely a reputation as a physicist but the conviction that was to dominate his whole life. Ile feared German aggressiveness and believed Germany's power was based on the readiness of imperial Germany to foster scientific research. If England was to survive it must follow suit. To force it to do so became his mission.
Fort acknowledges that he was ruthless in his desire for power and ready to toady to those who he conceived possessed it — particularly after he himself failed to enter politics as an MP for Oxford University; hence his resolute social climbing. His letters to his father are full of accounts of stays in great houses. A tennis player up to Wimbledon standards, he cultivated Clementine Churchill's friendship on the tennis courts of the rich. The rich only feel at ease with those as rich as themselves. Lindemann was very rich.
His friendship with Churchill was a genuine meeting of minds, between a bon viveur and a vegetarian who survived mainly on salads and white of eggs (his valet keeping a cow in Christ Church Meadow to supplement his needs in wartime England), who neither smoked nor drank and was, Fort asserts, 'essentially humourless'. As Churchill's chief scientific adviser at the Admiralty Lindemann supplied him with the statistics to justify his policies. His faith in his own judgment was absolute and those who opposed him were dismissed as fools or self-interested conspirators. Yet Rab Butler found him 'a more than slightly conspiratorial character'. He used his unrestricted access to the great man to furnish him with the statistical evidence to undermine the advice of civil servants, whom he despised. This entailed treading on other people's turf. P. J. Grigg found his intervention in the affairs of the War Office 'intolerable'. His many enemies —they included Sir Henry Tizard (responsible for the radar which saved our bacon in the Battle of Britain) found him 'prickly, an eccentric, opinionated, sarcastic and unco-operative'.
Lindemann had made his name in the first world war, when working at the RAF research establishment. With immense courage he tested his theory that the fatal spin of a plane could be cured by going into a steep dive himself. He and Churchill came together in their joint battle to waken Britain to the woeful inadequacy of our air defences during the years of appeasement. But to the Prof s host of critics this achievement was overshadowed by his advocacy of area bombing as the only way to bring Germany to its knees. That the deliberate killing of civilians and the destruction of Hamburg and Dresden were morally indefensible is indisputable. Fort argues that it was the only weapon available once precision bombing had proved ineffective and before Overlord and the
Normandy landings. It would have been adopted by Churchill without Lindemann's enthusiastic support. Churchill was his own man. Lindemann had been an advocate of pursuing research on the atomic bomb in England; once the secret had to be shared with the US Lindemann drafted a minute to Churchill proposing the establishment of a form of international control of nuclear development. This was emphatically rejected by Churchill. In the last days of the war, Lindemann seriously underestimated the possibility of Germany producing an effective rocket bomb. But he displayed his characteristic faith in his own opinion. Churchill remarked sadly, 'Why did you stick your neck out so far?' His record as a successful scientific adviser was probably less impressive than that of Tizard. His record as Professor of Experimental Philosophy after the war was of immense importance to Oxford. It had the Clarendon Laboratory, a splendid building financed by the profits of the sale of Clarendon's great History of the Rebellion written in 1704, but was insignificant both in equipment and personnel as a centre of research. Lindemann engaged in the awful chore of fund-raising; no longer himself engaged in research, as his enemies delighted in pointing out, he professed himself to be generally informed and capable of spotting talent in others. He brought distinguished Jewish scientists to the Clarendon from Hitler's Germany. He attracted rich men who could finance their own research: Derek Jackson, a spectroscopist and a millionaire, who found the hunting near Oxford better than that round Cambridge; and Teddy Hall, who could afford to finance his own research that was to bring the Clarendon to media fame by exposing Piltdown Man as a fraud. The Clarendon under Lindemann could rival Rutherford's Cambridge. He had to fight Oxford's inbred humanist distaste for science. He was infuriated with the wife of the Warden of All Souls who, when Lindemann complained of Britain's indifference to scientific knowledge, remarked, 'Don't worry, Professor, anyone with a First in Greats could get up science in a fortnight.' Lindemann reposted, 'Well, what a pity that your husband has never had a fortnight to spare.' He made enemies in Oxford as he did everywhere. He openly scorned 'metaphysicians' like the formidable H. W. B. Joseph who scorned scientists. He was, in his tastes, a philistine; but his crusade saved science at Oxford. Henry Tizard became the first scientist to become head of an Oxford college. It is the sign of our times that the present President of Magdalen is a media man. Lindemann, like Keynes, was a patriot, who feared that Britain, exhausted and bankrupted by a long war, would meet its 'economic Dunkirk', losing its independence as a great power. To recover it, Britain must export. When US Secretary Montague argued that German industry must be destroyed and Germany turned into a nation of peasants, Lindemann argued that this would give rural Germany's export market to Britain as a deserved reward for its contribution to the Allied victory. He was even more alarmed by the relative decline of the Western powers with the setting up of the UN. Equal votes in the Assembly, he admonished the House of Lords, would give petty dictators of 'tiny states, many of whose inhabitants are fetishists who cannot even read or write', powers equal to those of 'the most civilised countries on the planet'. Lindemann may emerge from this wholly admirable book, as it probes the darker recesses of Whitehall, as a snob and an authoritarian. Prussian style, excessively concerned with his comforts and his status as a professor, moving to the Randolph hotel when Wadham gave him inadequate rooms. But he cannot be accused of political correctness.