The Wizard War

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

The lifting of the restrictions of the British Official Secrets Act has led to a spate of “now it can be told” accounts, of which R. V. Jones’s is the latest and not the least interesting. His memoir tells of a twenty-eight-year-old budding scientist, swept up by patriotism into the war effort against Germany. Throughout the war, Dr. Jones’s main concern was with German radar and guidance systems. His task was to keep one step ahead of the Germans in this matter. For the most part he succeeded, and as a result he contributed a useful share to the eventual victory. To an extent, German night fighters were thwarted; to a degree, British bombers got through German radar defenses; a percentage of V-1 flying bombs and V-2 rockets went astray from their primary London targets.

One senses, however, that Jones would object to this view of his achievements. The Wizard War often urges us to feel that the author won the war—single-handedly, for the most part, though, on occasion, with the able assistance of Sir Winston Churchill and his scientific adviser, Lindemann. With few exceptions, Jones presents himself as having been almost infallible in his intelligence analyses, although he faced opposition as formidable as Sir Henry Tizard, scientific adviser to the Air Staff. Even Jones’s mistakes, such as the one regarding the fuel used in the flying bomb, are presented as being of no consequence except as vindications of his general method. He depicts himself as a man almost invariably right, whose advice was nevertheless frequently ignored because of envy and obtuseness on the part of others, and always with severe consequences to Britain. When the war ended, moreover, Jones suffered the final indignity when, despite his perfect willingness to head British Scientific Intelligence, his offers of service and organizational advice were unheeded and he was forced to resign. (But then, so was his friend Sir Winston.) At this point Jones quotes the former Prime Minister: “Many people say I ought to have retired after the war, and have become some sort of elder statesman. But how could I? I have fought all my life and I cannot give up fighting now.” Apparently Jones means these sentiments to apply to himself as well.

Although Jones’s memoir does reveal a vain, arrogant, insufferable man propelled into high office too quickly, it also reveals a man ideally suited to the task before him. Jones’s perceptions were clearly beyond the ordinary. Furthermore, his training and interests fitted exactly into an intelligence organization that needed men who loved to solve puzzles, to manipulate, to “fool” others.

For the enemy had to be fooled; Britain was in mortal danger. Until Hitler foolishly opened a second front by attacking the Soviet Union, Britain stood alone—an island no bigger than the state of Michigan, fighting against the combined might of Germany and Italy. Moreover, the Germans were just across the English Channel, some twenty miles away. In the air Messerschmidts and Junkers were more than a match for Spitfires; on the high seas U-boats and mines challenged British shipping. Invasion seemed likely. The Germans code-named the planned invasion “Operation Sea-Lion,” and the British made plans to relocate their seat of government to Canada.

In this context, in a London disrupted by bombs, flying bombs, and rockets, Jones revealed the secrets of German radar and guidance systems. He did this in part by surrounding himself with a small band of intelligent and loyal followers adept at besting not only...

(The entire section is 1457 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Best Sellers. XXXVIII, October, 1978, p. 222.

Choice. XV, October, 1978, p. 1116.

Harper’s Magazine. CCLVII, September, 1978, p. 94.

New Yorker. LIV, October 16, 1978, p. 200.

Wall Street Journal. CXCI, August 11, 1978, p. 10.