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  • Secret Weapons September 22, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Modern , trackback

    Ideas for books very often begin with nagging questions that compulsively irritate authors and that they then work through – think of it as therapy – by writing tens or even hundreds of thousands of words. Beach suspects that the nagging question that saw Brian Ford pen Secret Weapons: Technology, Science and the Race to Win World War II (Osprey 2011) was the issue of why WWII created such unprecedented innovation in so many fields.

    It is easy, after all, to say that necessity was the mother of invention. But most wars include a good deal of necessity yet no others had seen the mainstream use of rockets and computers and the splitting of the atom and even an early attempt (on German submarines) at stealth technology.

    So what was responsible for this huge leap forward? Was it a can-do spirit among the various powers? Was there a determination to ignore normal bureaucratic procedures? Was it just an absolute ruthlessness in, for example, employing human guinea-pigs in medical experiments? Or was it the ideological nature of the war that saw the scientific community implicated in a way that they had never been before?

    As it happens, Brian Ford does not address these questions head on: though they are constantly in the background and they would make for a fabulous companion volume, a Medici Effect for war and technology. He rather produces a complete compendium of the new weapons and defences that came on line in the Second World War.

    ‘Secret Weapons’ books are typically quirky and their authors’ enjoy the curiosities of war without seeing the bigger picture. This is, instead, a sober, scientifically-based work that addresses all areas of Allied and Axis endeavour from the creation of penicillin, to atom bombs, from a plan to drop snakes on Axis targets to America’s comic dalliance with bat bombs towards the end of the war.

    It is not only a good read: it will be the point of reference for general readers and scholars alike for many years to come. Then the volume, as always with Osprey, is luscious, full of illustrations and well-stitched. You could read a chapter a day for ten years before this particularly book starts falling apart.

    One of its many achievements is to place these new weapons in the continuum of nineteenth- and twentieth-century science. Very few came ex nihilo. The computer began with Charles Babbage in 1822. The ‘secret’ enigma machine had already been patented in 1918 and a hundred thousand had been produced by the start of hostilities. Penicillin had been discovered in 1911 and it was already being used in a haphazard way for medical purposes by 1930…

    Bizarrists, as some of the instances above suggest, will also have plenty to look forward to. There is a precious chapter entitled ‘Doomed to Failure’ where only a dry-as-dust sour puss will fail to smile. Indeed, on one single page there is a plan to make Hitler into a woman, treacle bombs, attempts to make the intransitive transitive and ‘erupt’ mount Vesuvius,  planes with swords attached (to cut parachute cords naturally), explosives in chocolate bars and detonators in pencils.

    Then, elsewhere in the book, there is a discussion of sound war: with a nod to Tintin and the Calculus Affair. Or what about the two and a half million sticky anti-tank bombs that destroyed between them six tanks and that occasionally stuck, at the worst moment, to soldiers’ hands or clothes? Or the Russian ‘suicide’ dogs used to blow up German tanks, which very often ran, instead, at Russian tanks that were more familiar from their training?

    There are also the weapons testings that went horribly wrong. Beach has particularly fond memories of the Panjandrum spinning bomb – an enormous Catherine Wheel designed to roll up beaches that is being tested here before a commission on a Devon beach:

    The rockets on the first Panjandrum were successfully ignited and the monster began to roll forward. But within a short distance, the first rocket exploded violently and disintegrated, soon to be followed by others. The great wheel, as it gathered speed , began to weave dangerously from side to side and then erratically to change direction. It was completely out of control, and began to head straight towards a group of terrified photographers. The VIPs leapt behind a sand-dune and fell into a tangle of barbed wire. The roaring device turned again, headed down the beach back towards the sea, then in a cloud of smoke and a series of explosions it crashed heavily on its side. Rockets broke away and screamed across the beach in all directions, at least one being chased by a holidaymaker’s dog. All that remained of the secret weapon was a scorched and twisted hunk of metal beneath a lingering cloud of black smoke.

    Beachcombing is always on the look out for good books on weird subjects: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com