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The Battle of the Beams

The Secret Science of Radar that turned the tide of the Second World War


Tom Whipple

North Sydney, NSW: Penguin Random House, 2023

Paperback    320pp  RRP: $35.00


Reviewer: Robert Dixon, March 2024


In 1939 the Germans were more technologically advanced than the British as they didn't just have radar to detect planes entering their airspace, they had ground-based radio beams to guide their own planes into enemy airspace. This allowed German bombers to operate effectively at night. The system also allowed the bomber crews to know exactly when they were over their intended targets. It was Reginald Jones, a British scientist working in the Air Ministry, who realized that the Germans had developed a radio navigation system which enabled an aircraft to fly along a chosen heading with great accuracy by following radio beam transmissions.  With the support of Winston Churchill Jones was able to obtain the resources he needed to discover the exact method being used by the Germans including the frequency they were transmitting on and to then develop very effective counter measures.  This ‘Battle of the Beams’ continued throughout the war as both sides developed new measures to enhance the ability of their own bombers to find their targets and to reach them with minimal losses while at the same time trying to thwart their enemy’s ability to do the same to them. This book covers advances in electromagnetic warfare on the British side up to the landings in Normandy with a focus on the contribution of Reginald Jones who is primarily concerned with: (i) obtaining detailed information on new navigational aids being used by the German bombers and finding ways to render them ineffective, and (ii) developing new navigational aids to allow  RAF bombers to find their targets and to do so without their location and heading being accurately determined by German radar. 

Clearly the book deals with an important aspect of RAF and Luftwaffe bomber operations in the Second World War and the scientific ‘war’ taking place in the background. The Battle of the Beams is well written and entertaining but a potential reader should note that Reginald Jones himself has written a superb autobiography titled Most Secret War: British Scientific Intelligence, 1939–1945 which not only covers the topics to be found in The Battle of the Beams but much, much more besides. For those who have not read Jones’ autobiography this book will be a good ‘light’ read and hopefully will serve the purpose of encouraging them to read  Most Secret War, a copy of which is to be found in the RUSI library.  For those who have read Jones’ autobiography before reading The Battle of the Beams it will be obvious that The Battle draws heavily upon the material in the autobiography.


Comparing the two books there are some important differences I should draw attention to. First, The Battle of the Beams is considerably shorter (half the number of pages) than the autobiography and has a more reader-friendly font size. However the difference in length is mainly because there is much of interest in the autobiography not covered in The Battle and also what is covered in The Battle is not covered in as much detail as in the autobiography.  Second, unlike the impression given in the autobiography, in The Battle of the Beams it is clear that the Germans were ahead of the British on almost every aspect of waves research invention and innovation (radar and windows, to take just two examples).  Interestingly, in relation to windows (aka chaff) both sides knew how to use it to jam the other side's radar but had both refrained from doing so for fear that this would inform their (assumed ignorant) opponent of the technique and they would reply in kind. This (mistaken, but understandable) fear delayed its deployment by both sides for more than a year! Third, the intention of the authors is quite different. In the preface to Most Secret War Jones writes that his manuscript ‘has been pruned of undue anecdote’. This approach is totally different to that adopted by the author of The Battle of the Beams who writes (p 266) ‘My book does not pretend to provide a definitive historical account. More than anything, I want the book to be read.  … This is, most of all, a book I want people to read and enjoy – a racy story of clever people doing important things, packed with anecdotes and tales …’. A good example of the author’s approach is in the sixteen pages devoted to the famous Bruneval Raid (aka Operation Biting), which took place in February 1942. (Jones’ book also has a chapter devoted to this Operation.) The Bruneval Raid was a very successful Combined Operations raid on a German radar installation situated on the northern coast of France. The aim of the raid was to seize parts of the radar equipment to be taken back to England for examination. While the author does provide an accurate description of the raid as it unfolded space is also devoted to recounting the thoughts and experiences of a number of the individuals involved. Thus the reader is told in some detail about the songs which various participants sang at different times and the behaviour and thoughts of the paratroopers on the aircraft before they reached the drop zone, including details of the inevitable consequence of their drinking copious amounts of tea during the flight – this is mentioned a number of times! Personally, I find such material distracting but others, and especially younger readers, might find it entertaining. 

Tom Whipple, author of The Battle of the Beams, is the science editor of the (London) Times, a post he has held since 2012. As would be expected he writes extremely well and his explanations (not that there are many) of the relevant theoretical physics and his descriptions of pieces of scientific equipment are very clear. The book has eighteen illustrations - mostly very useful drawings but some photos, 21 pages of helpful endnotes and a two-page bibliography which draws the attention of the reader to many important works published since Jones’s autobiography appeared.

An aside:  This book, along with any study of RAF bombing operations in the Second World War, gives passing mention to the 1941 Butt Report. This was a study which showed that in the summer of 1941 only 5% of the aircraft which set out on bombing raids actually bombed within 8kms of their target and of the aircraft which claimed to have successfully reached the target only 33% bombed within 8kms of their target.  Also given the high costs in men’s lives involved in these operations things clearly had to change. Directly or indirectly the Butt Report led to the introduction of much improved navigational methods to be used by Bomber Command (amongst other things, the RAF adopted and improved on the ‘beams’ method). It also led to a change in the leadership of Bomber Command and to adoption of a policy of ‘area bombing’. The reason I am devoting a paragraph of this review to the Butt report is that there is rarely any mention of the author, David Bensusan-Butt (1914-1994), someone who spent much of his working life in Australia. He was an English economist who worked alongside Churchill’s scientific advisor (Frederick Lindemann) and it was in that capacity that he was asked to conduct a review of the activities of Bomber Command. As mentioned above, the review led to major changes in the leadership and operations of the Command. After the war Butt moved to Australia and was appointed a Professor at the ANU, a position he held for fifteen years until his retirement in 1976. While at the ANU he spent much of his time writing about economic growth and advising the Australian Government on tax reform.



The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.

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