Archive for December, 2014

How Churchill gave us tanks, radar, DNA…and a velvet green air-raid suit

December 3rd, 2014

Churchill was the first Prime Minister to insist on a scientific advisor, and under his leadership, scientists were given unprecedented access to the government and funding.

“Which other Prime Minister had a scientist continually at his elbow?” said Andrew Nahum, lead curator of Churchill’s Scientists.

“During the war the question was never how much will it cost? It was can we do it and how soon can we have it? This left a heritage of extreme ambition and a lot of talented people who were keen to see what it could provide.

“And a lot of people had gained huge skills and competence through radar work and munitions and nuclear projects in the war, which formed a new science which was ambitious and proactive. There was a huge store of practical talent at that time.

“It’s why in post-war Britain we suddenly have the discovery of DNA and proteins, x-ray crystallography and how nerves signal. There is a very obvious trajectory from war time science to major breakthroughs in peacetime.”

Churchill owed much of his vision to science fiction rather than science. He was a close friend of the author HG Wells, and said that The Time Machine was ‘one of the books I would like to take with me to Purgatory.’

He wrote articles entitled “Death Rays” and “Are there Men on the Moon?” while also coming up with elaborate battlefield contraptions which he dubbed ‘funnies.’

Most of his ‘funnies’ never made it, literally, off the ground. A project to design ‘aerial mines’ had to be abandoned as did his rocket propelled wheel dubbed ‘The Great Panjandrum’ which was scrapped after regularly running amok. Likewise Project Habbakuk aimed to build a floating air-craft from an ice-berg and scientists were established at Smithfield meat market in London to test out different combinations of sawdust and ice. The scheme was eventually deemed ‘impractical because of the enormous production resources required and technical difficulties involved.’

Churchill even invented a green velvet ‘siren suit’ – a one-piece outfit devised by him and designed to be put on in a hurry during air raids.

But he was also responsible for many revolutionary ideas. It is likely that Wells showed Churchill the possibility of tanks, which the author described in the title of his 1903 short story ‘The Land IronClads.’ Churchill became the ‘godfather’ of tanks, and as First Lord of the Admiralty saw their benefits long before the Army caught up. It is why the first examples were known as ‘Her Majesty’s land ships.’

He also saw the importance of keeping Britain soldiers and civilians healthy during the war and set in motion projects to determine the best diets and exercise regimes for peak physical performance.

Food scientists Robert McCance and Elsie Widdowson tested the austere war diet on themselves, and journeyed to the Lake District to determine the beneficial effect of fell-walking. They recorded their findings in The Compostition of Foods – a book that remains the standard work on nutrition and exercise.

Churchill had little science education but was fascinated with the subject, particularly how it might be harnessed to benefit society. While serving in India he ordered numerous scientific works, including Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’, which he studied in detail.

“His schooling was patchy and when he got to India he began to feel his lack of education so he had huge crates of books shipped over,” added Mr Nahum, “He described himself as having an empty and hungry mind with a fierce set of jaws.”

He was fascinated by radioactivity, believing that the way in which atoms degenerated suggested ‘the breakup of empires and independent states.’

And he was also the first British prime minister to foresee the potential of the nuclear age.

As early as 1914, Wells had spoken of a future reality of “atomic bombs” and writing in The Strand Magazine in 1931, Churchill , expressed confidence that scientists would one day be able to harness nuclear energy and pondered the challenges its “tremendous and awful” powers would present to mankind.

He was instrumental in setting up Britain’s nuclear project alongside his scientific advisor Frederick Lindemann whom Churchill dubbed ‘The Prof’. However the US would eventually win the atomic race with the Manhattan Project.

In later years Churchill went on to found Churchill College at Cambridge to further science and technology in Britain.

Churchill’s Scientists opens at The Science Museum on January 23rd to mark the 50th anniversary of his death.

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Dunkirk: from Disaster to Deliverance, Testimonies of the Last Survivors by Sinclair McKay, review: 'a new angle'

December 2nd, 2014

McKay’s narrative suggests that it took a cocktail of events to overcome such conflicting views to bring the nation together. He viagra canadian pharmacy cites Churchill’s passionate speeches as one of the crucial ingredients, but he also includes in his list the man in the street’s realisation that the Army had been saved thanks to a remarkable victory masterminded by the Navy.

Arguably the knowledge that ordinary citizens in their little ships had participated played its part, as did the fact that most British families had a friend or relation in the Army whose life had been in jeopardy. Whatever the true causes, McKay describes the spontaneous exhibition of public spiritedness, as more or less the whole country turned out to treat men who had left the French beaches in the depths of despair as though they were conquering heroes.

McKay’s novel way of analysing the crisis makes for interesting reading. However, such an approach has its dangers. When writing my own book on Dunkirk, I quickly realised that octogenarian survivors often had unreliable memories and did not necessarily have interesting stories to tell. Readers thirsting for vivid accounts of events on the beaches may be disappointed by the rather undramatic testimony of most of McKay’s survivors.

Neither does he always contextualise what they tell him. No one would begrudge his quotation of accounts containing incorrect statements about the Dunkirk weather if they were juxtaposed with more reliable data. McKay’s failure here might lead some to wonder whether he has been misled by the very myth he sets out to explore.

However, such minor quibbles do nothing to diminish the value of his central thesis. This is a worthy addition to the Dunkirk literature. Indeed, McKay’s approach may well play an influential role in how more conventional history books are written in future.

The 75th anniversary edition of Hugh Sebag-Montefiore’s Dunkirk: Fight to the Last Man is published next year by Penguin

352pp, Aurum, Telegraph offer price: £15 (PLUS £1.95 p&p) (RRP £20, ebook £10.44). Call 0844 871 1515 or see

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Unbroken, review: ‘saps the spirit’

December 1st, 2014

The book of the same name, by Laura Hillenbrand, was never not going to be adapted. The author wrote Seabiscuit, which became one of 2003’s Best Picture contenders, and her research into Zamperini’s legitimately remarkable life story looks tailor-made for a saga of American pluck and survival. What’s puzzling, though, is how a big-hitting quartet of screenwriters, including Gladiator’s William Nicholson, Behind the Candelabra’s Richard LaGravenese, and even the Coen brothers, have wrestled with the material and collectively produced a take on it this limp.

Jolie’s a fascinating actress, a fascinating star, and now a film director on whom the jury is out, with worried-face. You can detect her interest in the violence men inflict on each other bodily in war – there are next to no female characters, and for much of the film, O’Connell is stripped bare, gaunt and suffering.

When he’s forced to hoist a plank aloft all day by the POW commandant (Takamasa Ishihara, better known by day as the singer-songwriter Miyavi), Jolie’s pushing the imagery of Christian martyrdom close to breaking point. Beat for beat, the interactions between these two men follow the sadomasochistic rubric of something like Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence, but in a feeble, faxed-in way – when Ishihara garbles the line “You are like me”, it sounds so cardboardy it’s a wonder he doesn’t topple right over.

Jack O’Connell’s smashing trajectory as a star also hits some bumps here, for reasons not wholly his fault. He’s at his best at sea, in the middle stretches when Louie and two fellow crew-members from his shot-down bomber (Domhnall Gleeson, Finn Wittrock) drift 2,000 miles on a leaking life-raft, dodging shark attacks and Japanese strafing runs. The logic of survival here is more practical, the you-can-do-it rhetoric unspoken, and more reliably compelling.

But when Louie’s self-belief is the only subject on screen, which is gormlessly often, Jolie presses her young lead into a lot of face-pulling, anguished grimaces and screams of violent elation. We’re not dragged deeply into either a man’s soul or his character.

Besides, the last part of Hillenbrand’s book – about Louie’s obsession with inflicting a bloody revenge on his tormentor – is wholly beyond the film’s remit. This more troubling layer to his story is sliced off, ruthlessly cauterised. To make a purely consoling myth out of his life, Louie must simply believe, triumph and survive, as inspirationally as possible, and with no inner contradictions to spike the brew. Jolie has made a 137-minute long film that gets us barely further than a poster, and O’Connell is the poster-boy.

Unbroken is released on Christmas Day in the US, and on Boxing Day in the UK

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Grantchester: exclusive prequel starring James Norton

December 1st, 2014

In the first series of Grantchester, ITV’s detective series about a jazz-loving, murder-solving village priest played by James Norton and based on James Runcie’s novels, there were suggestions that its leading man had a dark past.

Canon Sidney Chambers, the fictional vicar of Grantchester in Fifties England, had fought in the Second World War before following his vocation in the Church of England. After the end of the war, despite living a peaceful life in Cambridgeshire, Sidney suffered flashbacks to his wartime experiences and drank heavily in an apparent attempt to cope with his memories.

The life of Sidney Chambers is loosely based on the life of Robert Runcie, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, who was a tank commander in the Scots Guards during the war. Author James Runcie is his son.

Sidney’s wartime trauma has been dramatised in a prequel to the TV series, starring James Norton as Sidney in his Army days and available exclusively to the Telegraph to celebrate the release of the first series of Grantchester on DVD on Monday.

Telegraph critic Michael Pilgrim described Grantchester as “Cluedo with cassocks and just enough noir for the modern palate. Victoria sponge with a tablespoon of battery acid… Stop it, I’m hooked. Sign me up. I’ll give you my cat and house to see what happens next.” A second series of Grantchester will be shown on ITV in 2015.

Grantchester is released on DVD on Monday December 1.

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