7. Operational Research

“We will have to want Peace, want it enough to pay for it, before it becomes an accepted rule.” – Eleanor Roosevelt.

Good mathematicians and physicists were much in demand during the war. Many European physicists had emigrated to America in the 1930s and the Manhattan Project, from late 1942, became a massive $2 billion (value then) operation, requiring much scientific expertise. Believing that an atomic bomb was achievable, these scientists were concerned that their counterparts in Germany would be engaged in similar work. On the Manhattan Project the likes of Hans Bethe and Edward Teller complemented Arthur Compton, Ernest Lawrence and Harold Urey. There was also a British Mission at Los Alamos headed by James Chadwick and including Otto Frisch, who became head of the Critical Assembly Group.

Remaining in Germany were scientists such as Werner Heisenberg, Otto Hahn and Max von Laue, men probably more than equal to the task of designing an atomic bomb. After the war had ended, it transpired that Germany had still been a long way from achieving a bomb, for a number of reasons. The domination of the ‘aryan’ physicists (which had caused Heisenberg not to succeed Arnold Sommerfeld at Munich and to be sidelined until late 1942) and the lack of access to international physics was one dimension. The destruction of the Norsk-Hydro plant at Rjukan in 1943 was another. Germany’s military and industrial over-stretch was becoming apparent by 1943 – would there have been the capacity to mount a technical programme equivalent to the Manhattan Project, particularly to conduct the 235U separation on such a massive scale ? At a meeting with Albert Speer in June 1942, Heisenberg deliberately did not mention that Plutonium could be produced in atomic reactors. In reality, by 1943, the German administration pretty well gave up on the idea of an atomic bomb.

But none of Heisenberg, Hahn and von Laue were Nazi sympathisers. Max von Laue’s anti-Nazi resistance became well-known. On his last visit to America before the war he had said to Einstein “I hate them so much that I must go back to be near them when they perish”. Otto Hahn was described by Elisabeth Heisenberg in ’Inner Exile : Recollections of a Life with Werner Heisenberg’ as a man with a “magnanimous and endearing nature”. Mrs Heisenberg recounted an episode from during the war : all the leading scientists had been summoned to Berlin (on Göring’s orders) to attend a lecture on the effects of high-explosive bombs. The speaker had just described how death by high-explosive bombs was actually humane, because blast killed a person instantly, when a large air-raid started. In the cellar, amid the terrific noise of nearby detonations, the lecturer could be heard groaning. Hahn’s voice suddenly rang out : “This guy, Mr. So-and-so, doesn’t believe his own theory anymore !”

In 1926 Werner Heisenberg, while working in Copenhagen with Niels Bohr, had formulated the ‘uncertainty relation’ : Heisenberg had developed matrix mechanics just the previous year and when he applied this new tool to the analysis of both the position and momentum of an electron he discovered that the two variables did not commute, that is they could not be measured simultaneously. The more precisely one is known, the less precisely the other can be known. Heisenberg called this an ‘uncertainty’, Bohr called it a ‘complementarity‘. This lay the foundation for what became known as the ‘Copenhagen interpretation’ of quantum mechanics.

With the onset of World War II, Max Planck, a generation older than Heisenberg, had advised him, in essence, to : “Hold out until it has passed, form ‘islands of stability’ and salvage things of value from the catastrophe.” Yet Heisenberg was mistrusted, largely on account of a 1941 meeting with his old friend Niels Bohr. Mrs. Heisenberg documents that “There has been repeated conjecture about the trip to Copenhagen, and Niels Bohr himself apparently formed an impression of its motivation that was in tragic contradiction to Heisenberg’s true intentions.” Niels Bohr, also remaining in Nazi occupied Europe (until September 1943), was convinced that Heisenberg was making a bomb.

Niels Bohr, remarkable theoretician, was said to be not so remarkable when it came to matters of practical design. During the September 1941 meeting, Heisenberg had handed him a sketch of a design for an atomic reactor. When Bohr later (December 1943) showed this sketch to the physicists at Los Alamos, Bethe’s laughing reaction was “My God, the Germans are trying to throw a reactor at London”. Heisenberg had indeed been working on plans for an atomic reactor, and this was what the American special unit, the ‘Alsos Commission’, discovered when they inspected his Institute at Hechingen in April 1945 (the reactor was located in caverns at Haigerloch). Aage Bohr states in ‘Niels Bohr’ (ed. S. Rozental) : “…in a private conversation with my father, Heisenberg brought up the question of military applications of atomic energy. My father was very reticent and expressed his scepticism because of the great technical difficulties that had to be overcome, but he had the impression that Heisenberg thought that the new possibilities could decide the outcome of the war if it dragged on.”

But the Manhattan Project, although driven by the fear that Hitler might get his hands on a bomb first, had little bearing on the war in Europe. After the appallingly primitive tactics of World War I, there had been some recognition in Britain that any future war should be approached in a more rational manner. The work of Admiralty Room 40 had secretly continued during peacetime as the Government Code and Cypher School under a naval man, Alastair Denniston, and the Bletchley Park site had been established. Two of the newer recruits, Gordon Welchman and Alan Turing were at the heart of the effort to provide timely information (Ultra) from Enigma code decrypts, and there were considerable contributions from some clever Polish cryptographers, notably mathematicians Marian Rejewski, Jerzy Rózycki, Henryk Zygalski and Gwido Langer (the Poles had also provided one of the early Enigma machines). The significance of Ultra was immense.

In the North African arena, decrypting of Italian messages pinpointed supply ships and the ensuing losses caused Rommel’s progress to be slowed in 1941. Ultra from German Army Enigma was slower to provide until mid-1942, but after that time it was continuous and timely. Army and Air Force Ultra gave information of German troop movements in Egypt, Italy and for a crucial period of 1943, in Russia (full details of the German counter-offensive at Kursk were intercepted). For the Normandy landings, with a couple of exceptions, the German strengths were well known in advance.

From June 1941, when the Naval Enigma was broken, Ultra had an immediate impact on the Atlantic war, to the point where U-boats were withdrawn from the North Atlantic between November 1941 and late 1942. German implementation of a new Enigma, involving a fourth cipher wheel, caused an information blackout from February 1942, but hard work at Bletchley Park, coupled with the help of some German transmission errors and the capture of U-559 off Port Said in October, enabled full decrypting to be restored by December. Shipping losses for January 1943 fell back to the sustainable level of late 1941.

However the lack of good intelligence on U-boat positions prior to mid-1941 had meant that other means of dealing with the problem were required. At the start of the war Patrick Blackett had joined the Instrument Section of the RAE and then in early 1940 was appointed Scientific Advisor to Air Marshall Joubert at Coastal Command. He formed an operational research group there and launched an analysis of anti U-boat warfare. He also became Director of Naval Operational Research at the Admiralty during 1940, where he continued his work on U-boat warfare. He worked with naval officers on U-boat tactics and applied statistical analysis to the problems of convoy organisation. It was to Blackett’s operational research group in the Admiralty that Jim was assigned as a Scientific Officer in 1943. Bill McCrea, whom Jim had known from Queen’s and DIAS, also joined Blackett’s Admiralty group in 1943 : it may well be that McCrea and Massey, were among the “senior scientists” who moved Jim to the Admiralty, though it is likely that Blackett himself was also an influence.

Some of Jim’s work was statistical analysis : one of the requirements was a prediction as to how many shells from a gun of a given calibre and elevation would, in all likelihood, be required in order to hit and disable an enemy vessel of a given class. During his time at the Admiralty Jim met and came to respect highly some of the individual Royal Navy captains, who had themselves developed sophisticated techniques for defeating the U-boat. Also at the Admiralty at this time was Jim’s friend from Inst. and Queen‘s, David Bates, who was in the Mining Establishment with Harrie Massey : Bates was researching methods for protecting ships from magnetic mines (wiping, degaussing) and after the war would join Massey at University College, London.

As a Scientific Officer in the Admiralty, Jim was allocated the rank of Lieutenant and kitted out with a naval uniform which he would be expected to wear when on active service or at meetings with senior staff. Jim would later describe how new naval officers would kick their caps around a little, rough up the braid on their jackets and take some of the shine off the brass buttons in order not to appear quite so fresh to the service. A new man, in 1943, might be the subject of considerable speculation. As regards Jim’s impressions of the Admiralty, he would later remark upon the structural efficiency of the various groups attached to the armed forces. Winston Churchill had seen to it that hierarchical communication was streamlined. If there was specialist advice to be had, he was known to speak directly to the source.

Soon after starting work at the Admiralty, Jim had noticed an attractive young woman working in the same office. This was Glen, who would become his wife in the week preceding VJ Day. There is more about Glen in the following chapter. Life in London went on. People had become used to the constraints of wartime and the threat of bombing. In February 1944 there was a ‘Baby Blitz’ (as the term implies, this German bombing campaign was not of the magnitude of the blitz three years earlier). For a while Jim was on a rota for dealing with the incendiary bombs. There were some nights spent wearing a tin hat and from time to time he would need to chase around with a bucket of sand. He recalled that bombs would still be falling during all of this and that there would be a lot of shouting and sometimes confusion, but that at least the sand would be effective.

Before long he was attached to the ‘Overlord’ research staff and was involved in research of suitable sites for opposed landings, and in the development of radar for marine navigation – one of the dangers for any large-scale landing, as for an evacuation or a sizeable convoy, is that many vessels share a relatively small sea area. Following the landings in June 1944, he spent some time in Normandy, returning to London later in the year. A letter to his parents from Normandy reads : “Here the country is lovely. It is like County Down – rolling hills and valleys filled with orchards. The crops are still being tended, although few people remain”. He went on to describe a village scene, the villagers gathered around a padre (“a Dubliner !”) in the churchyard, listening to a radio for news of allied progress.

In one of Jim’s letters to his mother from January 1945, he mentions : “The war goes better because Joe S. has men and generals…” and contrasts this with “…we are about due to start some of the wonderful ’wearing down the enemy’ type of knocking ones head against a stone wall, I would predict.” The generals referred to but not named, Zhukov, Gerasimov and others, had made immense progress during the summer of 1944, regaining almost all Russian territory by June, and had since advanced through Poland to Germany’s eastern border. Their willingness to surround enemy garrisons at Posen, Schneidemühl, and further south at Budapest, had allowed continued rapid progress. For Joe and Jessie, who may well have been aware of Rundstedt’s December counter-offensive in the Ardennes, the suggestion of sustained success on the eastern front would have been heartening.

Still in January 1945 a letter mentions that he had prepared a C.V. for Blackett – there had been discussions between the two of them about what Jim might do when the war was over. In addition, Jim and Glen had become engaged, and there was discussion of wedding plans. These considerations needed to be shelved for a while, because from early February Jim was again away, this time to Colombo, as part of the operational research division attached to the Supreme Allied Command in SE Asia. It was a curious set-up in Ceylon, where scientific officers would wear khakis and sleep in tents, but attend dinners at HQ in full dress. “The outfit consists of a white dinner jacket, black trousers, dress shirt and a bow…I understand that this outfit is suitable for either Calcutta or Bombay but not both, as the rules differ. Black trousers are wrong in one case and correct in the other, I believe. From this you can deduce that the English in India are somewhat nuts…”

His service took Jim to various parts of India and to Burma. In September 1944 Churchill had instructed the British Chiefs of Staff to prepare for a direct amphibious assault on occupied Rangoon (‘Operation Dracula’) with the intention of launching this attack no later than 15th March 1945. Within one month it became clear that the deadline was not achievable. In Europe, Montgomery’s progress had been slow, as Jim had predicted, and the allies had met greater than expected resistance in Italy : the plan for a March assault on Rangoon had relied heavily on resources being available for redeployment from the European conflict. In addition by late 1944, Kunming (in South-East China), which was the delivery point of the American supply air-lift, was in danger of being overrun. Chinese divisions and American air squadrons in Burma, including crucially three air-supply squadrons, needed to be redeployed to China. Mountbatten was instructed instead to plan for an attack on Rangoon in November 1945.

The Royal Navy needed to assess possible landing sites not only at Rangoon, but at other places along the coastline, as far north as Akyab. Some of Jim’s time was spent on this reconnaissance, being flown over long stretches of enemy-held Burmese coast. He would later say that the coastline of Burma cannot in anyway be compared to Normandy beaches and that some of the people back in London did not readily grasp this. The Burmese coast would alternate between jungle and swamp, the monotony of this broken by stretches which were both. Strips of sand would extend inland for only a few yards to the edge of the jungle (or swamp). It was difficult for some of those in London to understand just how difficult an opposed amphibious landing might be. Churchill, who by and large did trust the operational research reports, later recorded : “In the Arakan our troops were held on an active defensive. In that tangle of jungle-covered hills, with its narrow coastal strip of ricefields and mangrove swamps, the monsoon rainfall, which sometimes reached twenty inches a week, stopped serious operations.”

By January 1945 the picture had changed again. The British-Indian 14th Army, under General Slim, had broken through from the north and was advancing on Mandalay. At the same time Akyab was taken unopposed from the northwest, the Japanese garrison there having been ordered north to defend Slim‘s advance. Churchill commented : “This was a strange anticlimax to the long story of Akyab, which for nearly three years had caused us much tribulation and many disappointments.”

An amphibious landing did take place at Rangoon, on 2nd May, but this too was unopposed. South of Mandalay, the 14th Army had continued to advance down the Sittang river and then towards Pegu and this was where the Japanese chose to make their last stand in Burma. The role of the Royal Navy in the Bay of Bengal became one of conveying men and supplies safely to where they were required, and Jim returned to Ceylon. Returning to camp late at night by staff car, his driver spotted a large python stretched over the road ahead. There was some brief discussion which concluded that it might be best just to keep going. Pythons can attain a cross-section of a foot or more, and following the collision the driver did well to keep control of the car. On snakes, Jim would add that there were relatively few incidents involving pythons. It was the cobra and a small, highly venomous and well-camouflaged snake, the krait, which took many human lives.

After the Rangoon landing, there was really not much for Jim to do and his mind again turned to life after the war. A letter to his parents in June refers to his plan to work with Blackett : “I gather that Blackett is having trouble securing two fellowships in Manchester (one of them being intended for me) so it is possible that I don’t go there. It is impossible to make any alternative moves till I return home, but it is awkward for Glen, not knowing where she is going to set up house, or even exactly when.” It was frustrating to be stuck back at headquarters in Colombo and time passed slowly. In the evenings he wrote frequently to Glen and his parents. Alternatively there were usually a few of the staff sober enough for a whist foursome.

With operations research work in SE Asia concluded, Jim was fortunate to be among those who returned to Britain without much further delay. Jim and Glen wasted no time and were married on 8th August. Meanwhile, the uncertainty as regards the position at Manchester University had been resolved and Jim had been awarded a fellowship at £500 per annum.


Churchill, Winston S., The Second World War, Cassell 1954
Heisenberg, E., Inner Exile : Recollections of a life with Werner Heisenberg, Birkhäuser 1984
Hinsley, F.H. and Stripp, Alan, Codebreakers, Oxford University Press 1993
Hodges, Andrew, Alan Turing (The Enigma of Intelligence), Unwin 1985
Powers, Thomas, Heisenberg’s War, Cape 1993
Rozental, Stefan, Niels Bohr, North-Holland 1967