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story:Science in war

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On completing his degree at Cambridge during the Second World War, one young mathematician was called to an interview with a civil servant to discuss his future. The official remarked: ‘In the last war you'd have been sent to the trenches, but we've been thrown out of France now. Have you heard of a place called Farnborough?’

That seemingly casual allocation of the young mathematician to Britain's main aeronautical research centre was in fact part of a highly organised system that had been set up to use all the country's scientific manpower in the most effective way. Here we look at wartime science in Britain, and compare it to Germany and the USA.


As the U-boats attempted to cut off Britain’s imports, food was rationed to ensure an adequate healthy diet for everyone. The best scientific advice was used to set the weekly amounts of all foods that would be available for infants, children and adults. picture zoom © Science Museum/Science and Society Picture Library

All the combatants used science to an unprecedented degree during the Second World War. Britain, in the opinion of the physicist J. D. Bernal, had ‘an absolute shortage of trained scientific men at all levels’. But, if this was so (and some historians disagree), British science was carefully rationed across a whole range of strategically important tasks, and not just in obviously military fields either. As U-boat attacks threatened British imports, Minister of Food Lord Woolton was advised by the biochemist Jack Drummond about the levels of rations for different foods that would be tolerable and healthy.


A U-boat ’kill’ in the Atlantic. The first two depth charges explode around the stern while the rear gunner’s fire straddles the bows and conning tower. picture zoom © Imperial War Museum c4288

In Germany there was a failure to engage scientists and research engineers directly in operational problems in spite of spectacular progress in advanced research areas. Striking progress was made in rocketry, guidance and high-speed flight, but these emerging technologies made little difference to the course of the war.


Looking up the 300-feet-high mast on a radar station. picture zoom © Imperial War Museum ch15336

Like Britain, the USA used science in a highly practical way in the service of actual operations and in weapons research and development (R&D). However, it also had the resources to undertake the huge Manhattan Project, through which it developed the atom bomb.

Resource Descriptions

As the U-boats attempted to cut off Britain’s imports, food was rationed to ensure an adequate healthy diet for everyone. The best scientific advice was used to set the weekly amounts of all foods that would be available for infants, children and adults.
A U-boat ’kill’ in the Atlantic. The first two depth charges explode around the stern while the rear gunner’s fire straddles the bows and conning tower.
Looking up the 300-feet-high mast on a radar station.
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