Technology helped win WWII (and it wasn’t radar or the atomic bomb)

12 Seconds of Silence: How a Team of Inventors, Tinkerers, and Spies Took Down a Nazi Superweapon by Jamie Holmes (2020) 492 pages @@@@ (4 out of 5)

A Nazi V-1 “buzz bomb” exploded here, on Sloane Court East in South London on July 3, 1944, taking the lives of 74 American soldiers. Image credit: MyLondon

This WWII technology breakthrough saved thousands of lives

  • “In the early weeks of the Blitz, the ratio of fired [artillery] shells to downed aircraft — a metric described in RPB, or rounds per bird — was twenty thousand to one.” In other words, antiaircraft guns brought down Nazi planes only by the sheerest luck.
  • The challenge, then, was to design and produce a gadget that would detonate an artillery shell only within striking distance of an attacking aircraft — not by hitting it directly but by exploding just closely enough for shrapnel to tear the plane apart. American and British scientists and engineers approached this challenge by testing a wide range of options. And the Americans found the one technological fix that proved to work.
  • A micro-transmitter in the proximity fuse within the shell uses the shell’s body as an antenna and emits a continuous radio wave. As the shell approaches a reflecting object, the wave bouncing back triggers the detonation when it signals having reached an optimal distance from the target.

Bureaucratic hurdles and brickbats blocked this WWII technology breakthrough

Astonishing results once the military fully deployed the new technology

If the word fuse conjures up an image of one of those little things you plug into the fuse box in your home, guess again. The proximity fuse was an immensely complicated piece of technology. Image credit: Wikipedia

A large cast of colorful characters

  • Merle Tuve (1901–82), the brilliant and short-tempered physicist who gave his name to Section T, driving a team that ultimately numbered more than a thousand scientists, engineers, and support staff
  • Vannevar (sounds like achiever) Bush (1890–1974), who headed the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), the massive American military R&D enterprise in World War II that developed over two hundred new weapons and devices
  • Col. Max Wachtel, the German army officer who managed the Nazis’ dreaded V-1 Vengeance-Weapon program
  • R. V. Jones (1911–97), who spearheaded scientific espionage for the British and (sometimes) reported directly to Winston Churchill
  • Private Edward (Ed) Hatch, an American soldier in the 130th Chemical Processing Company who was on the receiving end of the V-1 explosion in London that took the lives of 74 US soldiers; Hatch’s unit had been rushed to London because the British military leadership feared that the expected onslaught of V-1 rockets would carry chemical or biological warheads
  • Jeannie Rousseau (1919–2017), the beautiful young French spy who gathered extensive knowledge about the German superweapon development program at Peenemünde and sent it through Resistance channels to MI6 in London

A book that’s about a lot more than a WWII technology breakthrough

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