Frederick Lindemann: Churchill’s Eminence Grise?

Frederick Lindemann: Churchill’s Eminence Grise?

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.

Scientific Nemesis

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
Simon was Lindemann’s cho­sen suc­ces­sor to the Chair of Exper­i­men­tal Phi­los­o­phy. The Prof was “strick­en,” Birken­head adds, at Simon’s death in 1956.

Lindemann’s Influence

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.

Bomber Allocations

The main ques­tion involved allo­cat­ing 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, Arthur Har­ris of Bomber Com­mand 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 then had to offer him. 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:

1943

• 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

1944

• 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

Endnotes

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. See Klaus Lar­res, “Churchill and Ein­stein: Over­lap­ping Mind­sets,” Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project, 22 Novem­ber 2016.
  4. Lord Birken­head, The Prof in Two Worlds (Lon­don: Collins, 1961), 24.
  5. A Point of View: Beware of Experts,” BBC News Mag­a­zine, 9 Decem­ber 2011.
  6. Sir John Colville, The Fringes of Pow­er: Down­ing Street Diaries 1940-1955. 2 vols. Sevenoaks, Kent: Scep­tre Pub­lish­ing, 1986-87, I 145.
  7. 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.
  8. Antoine Capet, “Sci­en­tif­ic Weapon­ry: How Churchill Encour­aged the ‘Boffins’ and Defied the ‘Blimps,’ in The Churchillian, Nation­al Churchill Muse­um, Win­ter 2013, 13.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Mar­tin Gilbert & Lar­ry P. Arnn, The Churchill Doc­u­ments, vol.19, Fate­ful Ques­tions Sep­tem­ber 1943 to April 1944 (Hills­dale, Mich.: Hills­dale Col­lege Press, 2017), 421.
  11. Hansard, the Par­lia­men­tary Debates, ibid., 474-45
  12. Churchill Papers 20/123, ibid., 784-85.
  13. Cab­i­net Papers, 65/41. ibid., 1740-42.
  14. Cab­i­net Papers, 65/42, ibid. 2553-54.
  15. Churchill Papers, 20/163, ibid., 2587. Roo­sevelt to Churchill, 1 June 1944 in The Churchill Doc­u­ments, vol. 20 (Hills­dale Col­lege Press: forth­com­ing).
  16. Win­ston S. Churchill, The Hinge of Fate (Lon­don: Cas­sell, 1950, 181-82)
  17. Richard M. Lang­worth, “Wel­come, Mr. Gand­hi,” The Week­ly Stan­dard, 21 July 2014.
  18. C.P. Snow, “We Must Nev­er Deny Our Grat­i­tude,” Reader’s Digest, 26 Feb­ru­ary 1963, 67-71.
  19. C.P. Snow, A Vari­ety of Men (Lon­don: Macmil­lan, 1967), 129-30.

One thought on “Frederick Lindemann: Churchill’s Eminence Grise?

  1. Ter­rif­ic response and very fac­tu­al. There are a lot of sen­sa­tion­al­ist pod­casts out there .

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