Book review: ‘The Battle of the Beams’ by Tom Whipple
Image credit: Ilkin Guliyev/Dreamstime
An account of real-life WWII technology is as engaging as a thriller and provides a ‘howdunit’ rather than a ‘whodunit’.
As I was reading this book, a succession of seemingly far-fetched associations and recollections were projected - or perhaps should I say ‘beamed’ - onto my mind.
I was reminded first of Times Radio, which has recently replaced BBC Radio 4 as my favourite station. Tom Whipple, the author of ‘The Battle of the Beams’ (Bantam Press, £20, ISBN 9781787634138), who also happens to be the science editor at The Times newspaper, is a regular commentator on science and technology for its radio counterpart. With a good radio voice and engaging presentation manner that is just like his writing style, he is always a joy to listen to.
As the book’s publisher characterises Whipple in its cover blurb, “He has seen the inside of the world’s hottest sauna and the world’s most irradiated nature reserve. He has interviewed Stephen Hawking and Jedward. He has been arrested in three different countries.” What better credentials for an experienced, if somewhat eccentric, storyteller?
I was also reminded of one of the favourite books of my childhood and youth – ‘The Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin’ by Alexey Tolstoy (a distant relation of Leo). First published in 1927, it is the story of a talented yet over-ambitious Russian engineer, who wants to control the world with the help of a powerful laser-like beam he has developed which is capable of destroying everything in its path. Pacy, superbly plotted and unputdownable, it was one of the best sci-fi thrillers ever to come out of Russia.
Believe it or not, the narrative and structure of Whipple’s book, starting with the classic in medias res “Reginald Jones was late” and with chapter titles like ‘The Clues’, ‘The Chase’, ‘The Killing of Sheep at a Hundred Years’, at times made me forget that ‘The Battle of the Beams’ isn’t a thriller, but a work of non-fiction – a howdunit rather than a whodunit. Whipple’s narrative fluctuates with ease between the past and the present tense, adding a feeling of immediacy to the story.
There were some unwelcome personal associations too – with the ongoing war in my native Ukraine. It was only a couple of days earlier that a Kyiv-based friend of mine became an unwilling witness of one of Russia’s fiercest missile strikes on Ukraine’s capital. Her block of flats is not far from the temporary location of a USA-made mobile surface-to-air missile system targeted by Russians. Ukraine’s air-defence units had managed to shoot down several of the allegedly indestructible supersonic Kinzhal (‘dagger’) missiles. The debris from those was falling from the sky, damaging buildings and cars.
If there was a positive side to that barbaric indiscriminate attack, it was the fact that Ukraine now seems capable of tracking down and destroying high-velocity and high-calibre Russian missiles. It also meant that the Second World War ‘Battle of the Beams’ which is described so grippingly in Whipple’s book, has entered a new technological dimension and – sadly - is showing no signs of subsiding.
Whipple’s story is based around Reginald Jones, a young British engineer who had a theory of how Germany’s Luftwaffe was able to successfully find bombing targets at night: its aircraft were following ground-based radio beam transmissions. He convinced Winston Churchill of the importance of this aspect of aerial combat, and Britain was soon able to develop its own cavity magnetron (radar capable of amplifying electromagnetic waves) and other countermeasures.
The truth was that, contrary to popular opinion, at the start of WWII Germany was superior to Britain in radar technology, which partly explains its initial success in attacking British targets, both military and civilian, during the Blitz. So sure were the Germans of their superiority that when they managed to capture a mobile British radar set in France in 1940 (it was left behind despite Churchill’s strict orders to have all such sets destroyed prior to evacuation), they pooh-poohed it after a cursory inspection as hugely inferior to their own devices.
It took Reginald Jones, Bernard Lovell, and other British radio scientists and engineers considerable effort and perseverance to turn the tide by developing a new radar technology and - eventually - win the ‘radio war’.
The masterly crafted plot of this ‘documentary thriller’ is such that retelling it here would be a certain spoiler. Yet, I cannot refrain from revealing a totally unexpected (for me at least) final twist from the book’s short postscript, in which the author introduces us to another real-life character – Admiralty scientist Raymond Whipple. Yes, the author’s namesake. More than that: his own grandfather, who met his wife, Mary, the author’s beloved ‘Granny Mary’, while researching radio waves.
“I dedicate this book to my grandparents,” Whipple writes in the postscript. “They met because humans were hubristic enough to think they could harness, and manipulate, the light we cannot see. Because they met, I exist.”
And so does this excellent book.
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