Revisionist History, Season 2, Episode 5, “The Prime Minister and the Prof [ Frederick Lindemann ],” podcast by Malcolm Gladwell.
A popular weekly half hour podcast, Revisionist History takes aim at shibboleths, real and imagined. This episode is Churchill’s turn in the barrel.
The villain, aside from Sir Winston, is his scientific adviser, Frederick Lindemann, later Lord Cherwell, aka “The Prof.” You’ve probably never heard of him, says narrator Malcolm Gladwell. You should have. It was Lindemann who made Churchill bomb innocent German civilians and starve the Bengalis.
Ironically, the program begins with an ad for its sponsor, Chanel Perfume. After World War II Coco Chanel—“fierce, precious, sovereign,” the ad says—was spared from prosecution as a Nazi collaborator. Churchill, renowned for his loyalty to friends, rescued her. I doubt Mme. Chanel would have sponsored this program.
Accompanied by background music, uplifting or ominous as required, Mr. Gladwell unfolds his case. He claims to have read six books on Lord Cherwell (whose title he mispronounces). But his only two quoted sources are the British scientist C.P. Snow1 (very selectively; Snow admired Churchill); and Madhusree Mukerjee, author of a widely criticized book on the Bengal Famine.2 There are no contrary opinions or evidence.
The Prof: Facts and Fantasies
Lindemann met Churchill in 1921; they became fast friends. Prof had the knack of being able to reduce complicated scientific theories to a form anyone could understand. Churchill relied on his insights during Germany’s rearmament in the 1930s. In World War II, Lindemann played a key role in development of Britain’s “wizard weapons.” One of these was “H2S,” a surface mapping radar, one version of which enabled aircraft to locate surfaced submarines. He was a crack tennis player, a dazzling conversationalist, a formidable debater, a brilliant scholar. Colleagues compared him to Isaac Newton.
But Gladwell, often quoting Snow, sees Lindemann in the worst light. He cites unprovable mental attitudes—“ill at ease in the presence of black people,” for example. (We could equally ask: was Snow envious of Lindemann? Who knows?)
Snow describes Lindemann as tall, thin, pallid, Germanic, “quite un-English.” He dined on cheese, whites of eggs, rice and olive oil, and drank only at Churchill’s table. He carried with him “an atmosphere of indefinable malaise.” He was “venomous, harsh-tongued, malicious, with a sadistic sense of humour. He made a novelist’s fingers itch.” The Prof is described as “lacking in the bond of human sympathy for every chance person who was not brought into a personal relationship with him.” This, Gladwell says, was “the crucial fact about him.” It would seem a crucial fact about many people.
Was Lindemann Anti-Semitic?
Lindemann, Gladwell notes, once even tried to upstage Albert Einstein—“he didn’t like Jews very much.” He asserts this without evidence. We don’t know the truth of it. But here is a counterpoint: Lindemann booked Einstein’s lectures in England and, after Hitler came to power helped Einstein rescue Jewish scientists from Nazi Germany.3 Surely this must be considered in evaluating Lindemann’s attitude toward Jews. There is more on this, in Lindemann’s official life by the second Lord Birkenhead:
Lindemann’s dislike of Jews and the sneers which he sometimes directed against the Jewish people [was] an unworthy prejudice which was never more than skin deep. In Berlin he had come into contact with many brilliant Jews whom he had admired, and when the Hitler persecution began he went to Germany and persuaded some of the greatest Jewish physicists in Europe to join him at the Clarendon Laboratory. With all these men…he remained on terms of admiration and affection, and Professor [Sir Francis] Simon in particular became a lifelong friend.”4
That’s the wind-up; here’s the pitch: We are asked why a leader like Churchill could promote such a flawed adviser. Why Lindemann had the power to overrule everyone, even to dictate policy? C.P. Snow: “If you are going to have a scientist in a position of absolute power, the only scientist among non-scientists, it is dangerous whoever he is.”
But Mr. Gladwell is misled. Churchill did not give Lindemann absolute power. Nor was he Churchill’s only scientific adviser. Gladwell makes the error of many revisionists before him: attributing to a single crony far more influence than he had.
Lindemann and Bombing Policy
Snow deplored Lindemann’s influence on Britain’s bombing of Germany.5 “The Prime Minister and the Prof” says Lindemann’s support for bombing civilian over military targets was accepted without qualm. This, we are told, led to the devastation of “innocent people” in German cities. According to Gladwell, Peter Blackett, another scientific adviser, believed that “the war could have been won six or twelve months earlier had bombers been used more intelligently.”
But hold on: another scientific adviser? Was Lindemann not the only one?
Not mentioned by Gladwell is a pantheon of scientific advisers—including Sir Henry Tizard, Solly Zuckerman and J.D. Bernall—who declared Lindemann’s estimates of civilian bomb damage 500% too high. Ironically, Lindemann had brought all of them to Churchill’s attention. For a loner so disdainful of others, Prof had an odd knack of recruiting brilliant people who disagreed with him.
* * *
Also contrary to Revisionist History, Churchill maintained independence of thought. His private secretary, Jock Colville, wrote: “Many people made the mistake of thinking that somebody—it might be General Ismay or Professor Lindemann—for whom the Prime Minister had the utmost respect and affection—would be able to ‘get something through,’ [but] unless the Prime Minister was himself impressed by the argument, pressure by others seldom had any effect….he was never persuaded by the fact that those who argued a certain course were people whom he liked and respected.”6 We do not get this impression from “The Prime Minister and the Prof.”
Actually, Churchill’s ultimate decision on bombing completely pleased neither Lindemann nor his opposition. To understand this, we need to know something about the argument—which the podcast doesn’t cover.
Britain’s Air Staff formuated its area bombing strategy during late 1941. The War Cabinet approved it in February 1942, before Arthur “Bomber”Harris’s appointment to Bomber Command. While Lindemann had a hand in the decision, his famous 30 March memo arguing for prioritizing bombing cities and made no difference to the policy already agreed, though it reinforced the case. The scientists did not argue over area bombing—which had already been decided—but over Lindemann’s statistics.
The real argument was over allocation of new bomber production, and bombers sent by the USA to the skies over Germany (under Bomber Command) or the U-boat menace to the Western Approaches (Coastal Command). Although Lindemann favored the former. Bomber Harris questioned his figures, saying, “Are we fighting this war with weapons or slide-rules?”7 Professor Antoine Capet, in a recent study of Lindemann’s role, explains what really happened:
It was a wonderful row by serious people, all devoted to Churchill and the war but pulling in opposite directions…. Blackett, for instance, was known for his principled opposition to bombing civilians (and, it must be mentioned, his profound dislike of Lindemann)…. Tizard, who also disliked Lindemann, was a great believer in attacking the U-boats…. Zuckerman and Bernal agreed.
Bomber Command had a slight priority, if only to placate Stalin, who was loudly denouncing Britain’s lack of enthusiasm for a Second Front. Bombing Germany was the only “front” Churchill could offer. Likewise, the British public demanded retaliation after German air raids. Nevertheless, planes allocated to Coastal Command were sufficient to rid the Western Approaches of U-boats by the end of 1943.8
Thus, contrary to Revisionist History, Lindemann did not get everything he wanted. Churchill, as usual, made up his own mind. Paradoxically, Professor Capet adds, Lindemann’s role in the development of H2S enabled bombers to sink U-boats in vast numbers. “The postwar official history apportioned praise: ‘Cherwell did for Bomber Command what Tizard did for Fighter Command—he gave it the scientific means of becoming an effective instrument of war.’”9
The Bengal Famine
Mr. Gladwell next turns to the Bengal Famine, which broke out in autumn 1943. “Pleas for grain to relieve the famine went to Lindemann,” we are told, and “Lindemann said no.” Interviewed, Madhusree Mukerjee says Australian ships loaded with wheat sailed “right past India.” Churchill “was adamant that England could not help India.”
Whereas Lindemann played a key role in bombing policy, there is little to connect him with decisions on the Bengal Famine. Those involved the War Cabinet, the Ministers of Food and Transport, the fighting departments, and the Secretary of State for India Leo Amery. Lindemann is not prominent in War Cabinet discussions of India. Churchill, however, frequently expressed his sympathy for the suffering. A sample from the small mountain of evidence:
• Churchill to the new Viceroy, Field Marshall Wavell, 8Oct43: Churchill enumerates Wavell’s duties: 1) defense of India from Japanese invasion and 2) “material and cultural conditions of the many peoples of India.” Churchill implores Wavell “to assuage the strife between the Hindus and Moslems and to induce them to work together for the common good.”10
• Leo Amery, House of Commons, 12Oct43: Shipping was provided for “substantial imports of grain to India in order to meet prospects of serious shortage.” Despite a good spring harvest, another shortfall occurred. Britain is making “every effort to provide shipping, and considerable quantities of food grains are now arriving or are due to arrive before the end of the year.”11
• Churchill to Mackenzie King, Prime Minister of Canada, 4Nov43: Churchill thanks King for offering 100,000 tons of Canadian wheat, but this would compromise King’s shipments of Canadian timber and Chilean nitrate for the war effort. Canadian wheat would take “at least two months” to reach India. From Australia it would take only “three to four weeks.” So the War Cabinet is shipping wheat from Australia, adding the 100,000 extra tons.12
• War Cabinet Conclusions, 14Feb44: Churchill is “most anxious that we should do everything possible to ease the Viceroy’s position.” But the Minister of War Transport says he cannot continue 50,000 tons a month of imported wheat. Instead he proposes sending Iraqi barley, “cutting the United Kingdom import programme.…”13 (Alas Indians refused to consume barley.)
• War Cabinet Conclusions, 24Apr44: India’s needs have grown to 724,000 tons, far beyond the latest shipment of 200,000, due to unseasonable weather and the loss of 45,000 tons in a Bombay explosion. Given the danger, “we should now apprise the United States of the seriousness of the position.” Churchill says the government will replace the 45,000 tons, but can provide further relief only “at the cost of incurring grave difficulties in other directions.” At the same time “his sympathy was great for the sufferings of the people of India.”14
Appeal to FDR
• Churchill to President Roosevelt, Personal Telegram, 29Apr44: “Last year we had a grievous famine in Bengal through which at least 700,000 people died…. I have been able to arrange for 350,000 tons of wheat to be shipped to India from Australia during the first nine months of 1944. This is the shortest haul. I cannot see how to do more. I’ve had much hesitation in asking you to add to the great assistance you are giving us with shipping but a satisfactory situation in India is of such vital importance to the success of our joint plans against the Japanese that I am impelled to ask you to consider a special allocation of ships to carry wheat to India…. I am no longer justified in not asking for your help.”
Roosevelt replied that while the appeal had his “utmost sympathy,” the Joint Chiefs were unable to divert the necessary shipping.15
These are a few of the statements, letters, minutes and telegrams attesting to Churchill’s and the War Cabinet’s effort to ease the Bengal Famine. Together they provide overwhelming evidence. The Cabinet tried everything possible, in the midst of a war for survival. And it accomplished a great deal. Without that aid, the famine would have been worse.
What Churchill Believed
“In wartime,” Revisionist History correctly states, “countries operate right at the brink.” There is scant evidence that Mr. Gladwell comprehends this. Ms. Mukerjee quotes Churchill in his war memoirs: India was “carried through the struggle on the shoulders of our small island.” It is more illuminating to consider the rest of Churchill’s statement:
But all this is only the background upon which the glorious heroism and martial qualities of the Indian troops who fought in the Middle East, who defended Egypt, who liberated Abyssinia, who played a grand part in Italy, and who, side by side with their British comrades, expelled the Japanese from Burma….
The loyalty of the Indian Army to the King-Emperor, the proud fidelity to their treaties of the Indian Princes, the unsurpassed bravery of Indian soldiers and officers, both Moslem and Hindu, shine for ever in the annals of war….upwards of two and a half million Indians volunteered to serve in the forces, and by 1942 an Indian Army of one million was in being, and volunteers were coming in at the monthly rate of fifty thousand….the response of the Indian peoples, no less than the conduct of their soldiers, makes a glorious final page in the story of our Indian Empire.”16
Let us consider those fine words before labeling Churchill an unrepentant racist who hated Indians and was content to let them starve.
From Counterfactuals to Howlers
Revisionist History commits a number schoolboy howlers: “Throughout his life Churchill lost huge amounts on investments.” (No, he mainly lost in the Depression, like everybody else.) “There was no order to Churchill’s life.” (How could a life without order produce fifty books, 2000 articles, 5000 speeches, a Nobel Prize, and high office for half a century?) Churchill’s champagne cost “the modern equivalent of $62,000” in 1935. (Yes, but as a politician he entertained lavishly; it was part of his overhead.)
Counterfactuals abound: “Churchill hated Gandhi.” (At times perhaps, but they ended with mutual respect.17) Churchill becomes prime minister “just after the war breaks out.” (Nine months later.) “There should have been a proper debate about strategic bombing in the British War Cabinet.” (There was: see above.) “To an Englishman of that generation, the only living creature you’re allowed to show affection for is your dog.” (Churchill alone contradicts that.)
“Bombing innocent people,” an appalling practice, began with the Luftwaffe over Warsaw and Rotterdam. Most of the adults among those innocent people put Hitler in power. Most loved what he said about Jews and other Untermenschen, and sustained him to the end. The worst of them then claimed they were just following orders, or didn’t know what was going on. Give us, please, broader examples of innocent people.
“He sweetened English life”
Mr. Gladwell quotes C.P. Snow so liberally to condemn Churchill that it is necessary to correct the record.“Brilliant, but without judgment” was the common description of Churchill before the war. But judgment, Snow says, has two meanings:
The bad thing is the ability to sense what everyone else is thinking and think like them. This Churchill never had, and would have despised himself for having. But the good thing in “judgment” is the ability to think of many matters at once, in their interdependence, their relative importance and their consequences….Not many men in conservative Britain had such insight. He had. That was why he could keep us going when it came to war and we were alone. Where it mattered most, there he was right. And that is why we shall never deny our gratitude.18
Writing after Churchill’s death, Snow penned words “The Prime Minister and the Prof” doesn’t include. I warmly recommend them to its sponsors and producers, and to anyone whose lack of understanding leads them far afield:
It was Churchill’s own high-hearted behaviour that became the substance of his myth. People wanted something to admire that seemed to be slipping out of the grit of everyday. Whatever could be said against him, he had virtues, graces, style. Courage, magnanimity, loyalty, wit, gallantry—these were not often held up for admiration in our literature, or indeed depicted at all. He really had them. I believe that it was deep intuition which made people feel that his existence had after all sweetened English life.19
- C.P. Snow (1905-1990), novelist and civil servant, technical director in the Ministry of Labour in WW2. At Harvard in 1960, Snow heavily criticized Lindemann in his wartime arguments over strategic bombing with Sir Henry Tizard.
- See for example Arthur Herman, “Absent Churchill, India’s 1943 Famine Would Have Been Worse,” (review of Madhusree Mukerjee, Churchill’s Secret War), in Finest Hour 149, Winter 2010-11, 50-51.
- See Klaus Larres, “Churchill and Einstein: Overlapping Mindsets,” Hillsdale College Churchill Project, 22 November 2016.
- Lord Birkenhead, The Prof in Two Worlds (London: Collins, 1961), 24.
- “A Point of View: Beware of Experts,” BBC News Magazine, 9 December 2011.
- Sir John Colville, The Fringes of Power: Downing Street Diaries 1940-1955. 2 vols. Sevenoaks, Kent: Sceptre Publishing, 1986-87, I 145.
- R.V. Jones, “Churchill and Science,” in Robert Blake & Wm. Roger Lewis, Churchill: A Major New Assessment of His Life in Peace and War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 437.
- Antoine Capet, “Scientific Weaponry: How Churchill Encouraged the ‘Boffins’ and Defied the ‘Blimps,’ in The Churchillian, National Churchill Museum, Winter 2013, 13.
- Martin Gilbert & Larry P. Arnn, The Churchill Documents, vol.19, Fateful Questions September 1943 to April 1944 (Hillsdale, Mich.: Hillsdale College Press, 2017), 421.
- Hansard, the Parliamentary Debates, ibid., 474-45
- Churchill Papers 20/123, ibid., 784-85.
- Cabinet Papers, 65/41. ibid., 1740-42.
- Cabinet Papers, 65/42, ibid. 2553-54.
- Churchill Papers, 20/163, ibid., 2587. Roosevelt to Churchill, 1 June 1944 in The Churchill Documents, vol. 20 (Hillsdale College Press: forthcoming).
- Winston S. Churchill, The Hinge of Fate (London: Cassell, 1950, 181-82)
- Richard M. Langworth, “Welcome, Mr. Gandhi,” The Weekly Standard, 21 July 2014.
- C.P. Snow, “We Must Never Deny Our Gratitude,” Reader’s Digest, 26 February 1963, 67-71.
- C.P. Snow, A Variety of Men (London: Macmillan, 1967), 129-30.