back to article 75 years ago, one Allied radar techie changed the course of WW2

Would you give up your comfy technical desk job to join a military raid into hostile territory? Would you jump at the chance to put your world-leading technical knowledge to use in the most extreme of circumstances, even if your own side was under orders to shoot you if you got captured? This was the choice that Jack …


  1. Hans Neeson-Bumpsadese Silver badge

    Pinch raid

    There was an interesting documentary on the tellybox a while ago. It posited that the Dieppe raid, despite looking like an invasion attempt, was a very large scale deception to cover an operation to steal some code book material. Such a large scale operation was justifiable, as it would allow the codebreakers at Bletchley Park to get a route back into some signals which had recently had their codes changed.

    1. SkippyBing Silver badge

      Re: Pinch raid

      I've just read 'Ian Fleming's Commandos' by Nicholas Rankin which tells how the 007 creator had a large part in setting up 30 Commando who's job was specifically to go in with the vanguard and acquire anything that might be of intelligence value. E.g. code books, cypher machines, plans, weapons, etc. etc. including on one occasion the entire German Navy historical archive! Their first raid was Dieppe so it was definitely their reason for being there. Worth a read if you can get a copy, more so for the Bond fan who wants to see where some of Fleming's ideas came from.

      1. John Smith 19 Gold badge

        "I've just read 'Ian Fleming's Commandos' "

        Then you know that the 30 Intelligence Assault Unit was (re)activated in 2010.

        Thing is whose high tech kit are they looking to get their hands on?

        An Issis commanders Apple?

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: "I've just read 'Ian Fleming's Commandos' "

          I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you. ;-)

          AC, obviously.

          1. John Smith 19 Gold badge

            "I could tell you, but then I'd have to kill you. ;-)"


            The original 30AU targeted things like new radar units, code books and later, when Germany fell, jet engines, torpedoes, submarines and IIRC things like IR lighthouses to stop friendly naval shipping running aground during a landing.

            The UK just does not seem to be facing that sort of high tech aggressor at this time.

            Or does it?

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    R V Jones

    There's a lot of interesting background to this in the book Most Secret War by Dr R. V. Jones who was head of scientific intelligence during the war.

    At one point Jones himself was under consideration to join the Bruneval raid as the technical expert. It was his lofty position that first caused the order to be issued about being shot by his own side if in danger of being captured. Of course, he didn't go on the raid but Jones maintained that because the order had been part of the operational planning the inertia of typical British military planners meant that the order was transferred to Cox for Bruneval and then became SOP for Dieppe and Nissenthal, despite it probably not being necessary

    Most Secret War sheds a lot of light on the scientific problems thrown up by WWII. Well worth a read.

    1. Neil Barnes Silver badge

      Re: R V Jones

      Second recommendation for 'Most Secret War' - but also for the way things were dropped chaotically after the war ended... too many power games.

      Another one to try: 'Between Silk and Cyanide' by Leo Marks.

      1. Rich 11 Silver badge

        Re: R V Jones

        Thirded for 'Most Secret War'. It doesn't just shed light on the scientific and military problems, but also the deeply maddening political and bureaucratic power games being played out at that time.

        1. John Smith 19 Gold badge

          Re: R V Jones

          His post war work at the University of Aberdeen was also very impressive.

          It's described in "Instruments & Experiences"

          He had developed machines capable of nm movements (in air) in the 1950's, along with sensors in the femtometre range using capacitance.

          Aberdeen was also at the time a world leader in single crystal growth methods.

          His later work included active laser stability control for ever more precise metrology.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: R V Jones

        Yes, 'Between Silk and Cyanide' is another good read.

        Apparently there is a new book due 15th Sep called 'A Most Secret War' which looks at the history of scientific intelligence. It seems to rely heavily on Jones' book (hence the title) along with access to his and other contemporary archives.

        Sounds promising enough to have put it on pre-order.

      3. ridley

        Re: R V Jones

        A long time ago the BBC made a documentary series "Secret War" which is well worth the effort of finding.

        (Still think the "Connections" series is worth a look too)

        1. OhFFS

          Re: R V Jones

          Been watching it recently...

          All seven episodes are on YouTube as "The Secret War".

          A couple of people have made playlists.

          1. ecofeco Silver badge

            Re: R V Jones

            Playlist also made. Thanks for the heads up.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: R V Jones

          It must be time for a second series of Connections.

      4. John Smith 19 Gold badge

        "'Between Silk and Cyanide' by Leo Marks."

        IIRC he was the SOE crypto expert (he also wrote the Times Crossword).

        His family owned the bookshop at 84 Charing Cross Road described by Helen Hanff.

        His (anonymous) poem is the one used in the film "Carve her name with pride."

        Some of the SOE codes had keys that were poems. To avoid the Germans working out if they were being pulled from a book of poetry (and brute forcing any transmission they recorded) he made them up.

        Sounded like a bit of a character.

    2. TReko

      Re: R V Jones

      There is a TV series loosely based on RV Jones' book, Most Secret War.

      Some episodes are on YouTube.

      Robert Buderi's "The Invention that Changed the World" is also worth reading.

  3. TechnicianJack

    In 1942, a 22 year old was sent to another country to capture enemy equipment under enemy fire knowing he would be shot by his bodyguard if he was captured, managed to work out how the system roughly worked by looking at it and thought outside the box to alter its operation so it could be detected and successfully analysed remotely.

    22 year olds today seem to cry and hide in a safe space if you don't identify them with their correct made up gender pronoun. What a world we live in.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      22yr olds today

      22 year olds today seem to cry and hide in a safe space if you don't identify them with their correct made up gender pronoun. What a world we live in.

      A.K.A. The 'cotton wool generation'.

      My grandkids think that of the tales I tell them about my childhood are fiction. Then I show them the photos taken on a pre-ww2 Box Brownie and later an Instamatic.

      We did things 'because we could' especially in the summer hols.

      Three of us cycled the 20+ miles to Adhown Forest one day to play 'poo sticks' at the home of the game. Then we rode home in time for tea.

      Sounds like something out of an Enid Blyton story...

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: 22yr olds today

        I remember as a lad going out with my friends and cycling to Bury and Rochdale from central Manchester in the summer holidays. We were after the detonators in the rail depots which is more Edith Nesbit to be fair. You can't beat playing with explosives.

        In retrospect I was a stupid kid but yes, kids these days have no idea.

        1. Dave Bell

          Re: 22yr olds today

          Yes, there have been some big changes.

          Can we really blame the kids for them?

          Should we judge them by how the group might live up to the examples set by a very few really exceptional people?

      2. 2+2=5 Silver badge

        Re: 22yr olds today

        Three of us cycled the 20+ miles to Adhown Forest one day to play 'poo sticks' at the home of the game. Then we rode home in time for tea.

        Ew! "Pooh sticks", if you please.

        1. OnlyMortal

          Re: 22yr olds today

          He meant what he wrote :-)

      3. Lars Silver badge

        Re: 22yr olds today

        There are some nice clips about 22yr olds in France entering the WWI happily singing,

        I really hope our 22yr olds have more sense in their heads. It's also good to remember it was the fairly old farts who started the war (every war).

        As for the sentence "Robert Watson-Watt, widely regarded today as the father of radar" I would mend it to "..regarded today mainly by the British as...." or simply "Robert Watson-Watt a British radar pioneer".

        Reading about the radar in the Wiki we find that the story starts:

        "As early as 1886, German physicist Heinrich Hertz showed that radio waves could be reflected from solid objects. In 1895, Alexander Popov, a physics instructor at the Imperial Russian Navy school in Kronstadt, developed an apparatus using a coherer tube for detecting distant lightning strikes." .......

        "the German inventor Christian Hülsmeyer was the first to use radio waves to detect "the presence of distant metallic objects".

        And "The term RADAR was coined in 1940 by the United States Navy as an acronym for RAdio Detection And Ranging".

        And "Before the Second World War, researchers in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, the Soviet Union, and the United States, independently and in great secrecy, developed technologies that led to the modern version of radar. "

        And, as always those who have absolutely no experience of war are more obsessed with it than anybody else.

        1. Steve Evans

          Re: 22yr olds today

          How about:

          Robert Watson-Watt, widely regarded today as the father of a radar system that was actually useful for something more than casual amusement?

          There are plenty of historical instances where someone has been about 5 seconds of thought away from a huge breakthrough, but then wandered off for a smoke/tea break.

    2. Hollerithevo Silver badge

      Yoof today

      Mr T. Jack, you might have said similar things about the 22 years olds in the 1930s. I think we would be surprised to find out what 22 year olds would do if push came to shove. I would rather have a world where 22 years olds could be special snowflakes than they died on cold beaches in a war. I am thinking of the Canadian troops that went with Nissenthall.

      1. Anonymous Coward

        Re: Yoof today

        A little patronising don't you think?

        Do you think kids were any different in the 50's 60's and 70 when sent to Vietnam / Korea.

        Think the kids of most "stable" parts of the middle east (such as Syria) were super-tough nuts? How about Ukranian kids?

        As pointed out, many of the 22 year old pre-war will not have been the tough nuts you make out, especially those in the USA who were living a quite comfortable lifestyle compared to the Europeans.

        However, when it comes to fighting for your beliefs (be that freedoms, religious doctrines or family life), a lot of "softie" kids will do what's required.

        I regard myself along those that are happy we are worried about gender alignment, rather than if my entire family are going to slaughtered in cold blood.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Yoof today

        I would rather have a world where 22 years olds could be special snowflakes than they died on cold beaches in a war.

        You do realise that the only way the 22 year old snowflakes can exist today is because the the 22 year olds of the 30s and 40s helped to make the world a place where that is possible.

        If we had had to rely on todays snowflake then the world would be a much darker place now.

        1. Alien8n Silver badge

          Re: Yoof today

          You are aware that these "snowflakes" as you term them are even now fighting in the armed forces and facing prejudice from the top of the armed forces down. And that's before you look at the prejudice and bigotry they have to suffer from the general public in most cases. If I was ever unfortunate enough to be drafted at my age I'd be far happier to be drafted into a company of men and women who feel their assigned birth gender is wrong than a company of whinging chavs who's idea of bravery is beating up old ladies for their bingo money, but only when they're with their mates as most of them would be too scared to tackle a toddler without backup.

          Downvote to your heart's content, I'd rather see myself downvoted for speaking up than be a small minded, prejudiced asshole who still thinks it's the 1980's.

          1. Chris G Silver badge

            Re: Yoof today

            Back in the 70s we had a 2nd Lieutenant, 19 years old and looked and sounded like a prime candidate for Upper class twit of the year. Roll on a couple of years and he was a 1st Lieutenant and about to get married, so we took him out for a curry as a part of his stag do.

            Some local lads started taking the piss, thi gs got heated enough for us to step outside whereupon the lieutenant pushed us back and told us ' in the field or anywhere else he was responsible for us, then promptly floored the gobbiest pisstaker. Everything went silent after that as without his boots on he probably didn't top 9 stone.

            Turned out he was quite a keen boxer at his public school.

            Don't judge people by appearances judge them by their actions when they need to act.

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: Yoof today

              The novel/film "Virgin Soldiers" gives a bitter/sweet illustration of what it was like for ordinary young men to be conscripted in peacetime - and then end up fighting insurgents in the Malaysian jungle.

              1. Stevie Silver badge

                Re: Yoof today

                There is a school of thought that Hitler was empowered in his curious Anglophile stance by a 1930s Cambridge University debate in which it was resolved that "this house would not answer the call to war" (paraphrase). Apocryphal, maybe, but resonant with the perenial American equivalent in which there is always a popular uprising waiting to happen as soon as troops invade (I'm told the meme goes back as far as the war of 1812).

                I imagine aome of those applauding the debate teams were soon flying Hurricanes, storming beaches or facing fown Rommel like everyone else and with just as much gusto.

                Here in the USA I am bewildered by the attitude that one can disenfranchise a large sector of the young people in the country then expect them to become enthusiastic soldiers in the next war.

                Tell young people they aren't real Americans and don't belong often enough and when the chips are down the middle fingers are likely to come up.

                Why do I say this?

                Happened on a larger scale when the Rome reneged on the deal to make closely allied Italian cities "Roman" rather than "Italian".

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Yoof today

          Rubbish - generations have always decried the 'weakness' of the following generation, and complained that they are soft and we were so much tougher. And time after time the young generation have stood up when they had to and done what had to be done. Look at recent history - the young soldiers who fought in Helmand weren't 'snowflakes' any more than the aesthetes of Oxford in the 1930s who a few years later were slogging through the Western desert. And sadly when grumpy old men next decide that the best way to keep themselves in brandy by a warm fire is to send men off to kill and be killed, it will be the 'snowflakes' who pick up their guns and do their duty.

          Meanwhile thank god for the enthusiasm and passion of youth reminding us that some things, like freedom, and tolerance and not being Nazis are actually worth fighting for.

        3. samzeman

          Re: Yoof today

          Wanting to get away from the youth who have their own gender pronouns is also wanting to go to a safe space, friend. Safe spaces are actually good things, because being safe is a good thing. Living standards today are so, so much better than back then, and that is a bottom line good thing. No caveats. If our culture gets softer, and less /elite/ and /demanding/ it's a good thing. The more we can just let people exist (How does other people's pronouns affect you anyway?) the better a society we'll be.

        4. DuchessofDukeStreet

          Re: Yoof today

          I'd need to do more searching that I have time for, but if you look into the records of the Mass Observation project, you'll discover that in the late 30's, as the government planned for war, the expectation was that there would be a massive intake of the population into the lunatic asylums as they would unable to cope with the psychological horror of war and aerial bombing.

          Not just the "youth" but the entire population was deemed to be incapable of coping, being too soft and weak to cope with modern war. That would be the generations that we now laud as being so resilient, as to brand their great-grandchildren as snowflakes.

          When I were a lad....

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Yoof today

            "[...] but if you look into the records of the Mass Observation project, [..]"

            The rosy picture of civilian reactions during the war was later corrected to contain more downbeat elements. The blackout gave many opportunities for crimes against people and property. The Black Market also made some people relatively rich.

        5. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Yoof today

          You haven't been out in Portsmouth at night lately have you?

      3. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Yoof today

        22? More like 19.

    3. hmv

      And that's not a good thing?

      And you may well find today's 22-year olds just as capable if push comes to shove.

      1. not.known@this.address Bronze badge

        Given how stressed they get when someone says something they disagree with or Farcebook or Twatter go down for a short time, I don't hold out much hope for a 'Red Dawn'-style reaction if the sh*t hits the fan.

        With most schools now teaching that competition is bad and that striving for mediocrity is to be applauded (you can't tell someone they are not as good as or are better than everybody else at something - you might hurt someone's feelings), I would rate the chances of anybody having a clue beyond 'look it up on wikipedia' as not very high either.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Still, you are a bit out of date - recalling Daily Fail type moaning of the 70's perhaps

    4. phuzz Silver badge

      Try telling a 22 year-old who just got back from their posting in Afghanistan that they're a special snowflake and see how far that gets you. In fact, someone I grew up with got a Queen's Commendation for Bravery at twenty two, for refusing to leave her comrades despite being wounded by an RPG.

      The fact the more kids don't have the 'opportunity' to go to war like their grand parents did is a good thing.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        I find it fascinating that the youth today have a hard time with comprehension.

        Obviously those who signed up and hold the line for the rest aren't snowflakes.

        Our Soldiers, Police officers, Firemen etc aren't the ones plagued with snowbanks of flakes.

        We're talking about those who can't even get up to look for work, believe in reparations and have the time to worry about emotional issues instead of how to find their next meal. We have a hard time finding good hires here since they can barely be counted on to look up from their smartphones and believe in the strangest things.

    5. Jamie Jones Silver badge

      22 year olds today seem to cry and hide in a safe space if you don't identify them with their correct made up gender pronoun. What a world we live in.

      You could have maybe had a valid debating point relating to "kids today don't know how lucky they are" etc.

      If you look at the way they some whine on google-play about having to pay for things, you would see you could also maybe have had a debating point about a lot of today's youth being freeloaders.

      You may also have had a debating point about them some of them being over sensitive.

      But no, you wasted your opportunity with your homophobic rant. I certainly don't understand a lot of this identity stuff, but I know it's not something people enter into lightly - especially when closed minded uncaring fools like you can't wait to mock them.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Not forgetting that Alan Turing was homosexual. Where would we have been if he hadn't been allowed to flourish? I'm sure the authorities at the time knew but turned a blind eye.

    6. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      My mum, age 22, joined up in 1942 and at the end of the war, was supervising a room full of crypto techs as a WAVES Lieutenant (jg). She was part of OP-20-G, the US codebreaking operation on Nebraska Av in DC. She went on, briefly, to work at CIA.

      Her working life ended when she had me in 1954.

      We, her children, knew some of this. When my son joined the Army and got his security clearance, I had a bit of fun. One of the questions they asked him was if any of his family had ever had a security clearance. He asked us, and I supplied my mum and dad's names, DOB and SSN. Dad was career CIA.

      My son said the interviewer did mention that he did not very often see a married couple with high level, broad access clearances. Greatest generation, indeed. Although, you never know what you are capable of until it is asked of you.

      1. PhilipN Silver badge

        Greatest generation

        An acquaintance of my grandfather left Uppingham in 1913 and bought (or possibly a gift from well-to-do emigre Jewish parents) an Open Torpedo. All of 16 hp. Could have gone on to live the life of Riley.

        Instead one year later war broke out and he joined up.

        One year after that - 2015 - he was commissioned and sent to the Front.

        Three years later - three years!! - he succumbed to wounds from an action for which he was awarded the M.C. Age 22.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        A similar thing happened to me. When I joined up, my security interview was easy once they saw what my dad did.

        I'd like to think things may have changed after the Walker spy case.

    7. Adam 1 Silver badge

      "The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers."

      -Socrates (469–399 B.C.)

      /Now get off my lawn

      1. I3N


        /Now get your drone out of my airspace

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Kids today!

        Now, when I were a lad...........


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