Lord Cherwell: Churchill’s Confidence Man

‘Love me, love my dog, and if you don’t love my dog you damn well can’t love me,” muttered an angry Winston Churchill in November 1941, when a member of Parliament questioned his reliance on Lord Cherwell, a key adviser to the prime minister. Shortly afterward, Churchill spotted the doubter in the smoking room. The prime minister rose and bellowed at him like an infuriated bull: “Why in Hell did you ask that question? Don’t you know that he is one of my oldest and greatest friends?” When the object of his fury “came up with his tail between his legs and started grovelling,” according to one of those present, the prime minister “told him to get the hell out of here and not to speak to him again.”

The incident helps explains why few men dared question Churchill about his “dog,” a physicist who wielded extraordinary power as a friend and confidant of the prime minister. To Churchill, Lord Cherwell could “decipher the signals from the experts on the far horizons and explain to me in lucid homely terms what the issues were.” In fact, Cherwell offered advice not just on science and technology but on every conceivable topic except the actual prosecution of the war, according to General Hastings Ismay, Churchill’s top military assistant. Cherwell attended meetings of the War Cabinet, accompanied the prime minister to conferences with Roosevelt and Stalin, had access to sensitive intelligence, and dined with the prime minister regularly.

Part of Cherwell’s role was to ensure that certain war-winning ideas by bright young scientists were swiftly made operational. His guidance on nonscientific matters was more controversial. He was a strong advocate of area bombing, which killed hundreds of thousands of German civilians while bringing meager strategic returns. And he supported strategies that contributed to the starvation of millions of Indians—people who were not enemies, but allies.

Lord Cherwell was born Frederick A. Lindemann in 1886 in Baden-Baden, a German spa where his mother, an American of Russian and English heritage, had gone for the delivery. For the rest of his life he harbored a “not unreasonable grievance” against her, because the foreign birth caused him endless trouble with his passport. Lindemann’s father was an aristocratic and wealthy German entrepreneur who lived in Britain while retaining cultural and financial ties on the Continent. Lindemann was sent to Germany for gymnasium, or high school, and at the University of Berlin he studied physics with Walther H. Nernst, a pioneer of thermo­dynamics. He helped demonstrate that quantum theory, then in its infancy, extended to the behavior of solids. He was also exceptional at tennis and reportedly played against the German emperor and the Russian tsar.

When World War I broke out in July 1914, Lindemann was competing at the European tennis championship. He returned to England and joined the Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough Airfield. There he came up with a solution to a vexing aviation problem: At the time, no technique had been developed to get an aircraft out of a spin—a seemingly uncontrollable syndrome in which one wing retains more lift than the other, resulting in a violent nose-down, corkscrew-like descent to the ground. In fighter planes, which frequently operated at the limits of their ability, spins were common and almost always fatal. Lindemann attacked the problem theoretically and came up with ideas that might get a plane out of a spin. He then learned to fly, and by repeatedly putting an aircraft into a downward spiral while simultaneously memorizing measurements such as airspeed, he developed his ideas and demonstrated that they worked. (Although the aircraft seems like it is in a dive, the pilot must, counterintuitively, point the nose further downward to increase airspeed, and at the same time step on the pedal for the rudder opposite to the direction the airplane is rotating.) Lindemann’s nerves and skill saved the lives of many pilots, and endeared him to Churchill when they met in August 1921.

The scientist was then professor of physics at Oxford University. He thought poorly of most academics, and preferred the company of aristocrats. (A joke from Oxford: Why is Professor Lindemann like a Channel steamer? Because he runs from peer to peer.) He had a valet and a chauffeured Rolls-Royce, which combined with his ready, if caustic, wit and brilliant conversation to ease his passage into the circles of the highborn. The Prof, as he came to be called, once thrilled Churchill’s family by explaining quantum physics in five minutes flat. The politician declared that the Prof had a beautiful brain, and was soon seeking his advice on matters such as poison gas and anthrax.

Theirs was an unlikely friendship. Churchill was a self-described “Beefeater” who relished multicourse meals washed down with whiskey, whereas Lindemann was a vegetarian, teetotaler, and nonsmoker who lived on salad, egg white, olive oil, and a specific variety of cheese. Churchill was quintessentially English, but Lindemann had a German accent. Churchill cared about the poor and elderly; Lindemann made no secret of his contempt for social and intellectual inferiors, and “looked upon poverty as a fault.” He believed the intelligent and aristocratic should rule the world.

Lindemann regarded the working class as abysmally “stupid,” advocated “harshness” toward homosexuals, experienced a “physical revulsion which he was unable to control” in the presence of blacks, and thought criminals should be treated cruelly because “the amount of pleasure derived by other people from the knowledge that a malefactor is being punished far exceeds in sum total the amount of pain inflicted on a malefactor by his punishment.” In his youth, Churchill had advocated sterilization of the “feeble-minded,” whose lack of self-control led, in his view, to criminality. In subsequent years his views reversed. Lindemann’s never did.

The scientist and the politician nonetheless shared a profound similarity in character and intellect. “The fact appeared to be inexpugnable, that these two minds moved alike—independently,” wrote Roy Harrod, a friend of Lindemann’s who later became one of Britain’s premier economists. Both Churchill and Lindemann were men of fierce loyalties, full of humor and courage, creative and ingenious in their chosen spheres of expertise. They shared many of the same values. Their mutual devotion to Britannia and her imperial heritage was absolute.

In 1932, Churchill and Lindemann drove around Europe, visiting sites where Churchill’s ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough, had battled in the War of the Spanish Succession. What they saw filled them with dread. “A terrible process is astir. Germany is arming,” Churchill would warn two years later. “That mighty race who fought and almost vanquished the whole world is on the march again.” The trip to the Continent seemed to cement their friendship. Lindemann soon became the most frequent visitor at the Churchill country home in Kent. They were to rise together. When Churchill began to warn about the pace of German rearmament, the Prof was among those who offered figures to bolster the message.

Lindemann also began to rescue a number of Jewish scientists from Nazi persecution by offering them positions at Oxford. As a student in Germany, he had met many star physicists. “I got on very well with Einstein,” he had written to his father at the time, adding that the scientist “has not got a Jewish nose.” Although reportedly anti-Semitic, Lindemann revered genius, and Einstein was a regular visitor to his department. The new arrivals turned Clarendon Laboratory, which Lindemann headed, into one of the world’s premier centers of low-temperature physics.

Lindemann’s relationship with the rest of Britain’s physics establishment was less favorable. In 1935 a small group of scientists headed by Sir Henry Tizard began to study ways to reduce the threat of airborne attack. Tizard and his men zeroed in on radar, which might give warning of enemy bombers. Tizard had known Lindemann in Berlin, and had even helped him gain his position at Oxford. But when Lindemann got a place on Tizard’s committee, “the meetings did not know half an hour’s harmony or work undisturbed,” said physicist and writer C. P. Snow.

Lindemann, who seemed to believe that he should have been heading the committee, sneered at radar as an unproven concept while putting forth his own ideas, such as dropping aerial mines on parachutes in front of enemy bombers. At one point, according to Snow, he laid into Tizard “in terms so savage that the secretaries had to be sent out of the room.” After two of the scientists—one a Nobel prize winner, the other a future laureate—resigned in protest, Lindemann was removed. He would soon have his revenge.

Upon becoming First Lord of the Admiralty in September 1939, Churchill created a small statistics division, called S Branch, headed by Lindemann. It was to serve as Churchill’s personal filter for information on scientific and civilian matters. The two men had offices close to one another’s, and often stayed up strategizing or reading by the fire until 3 a.m. When Churchill ascended to prime minister in May 1940, Lindemann’s department expanded to include several economists and other assistants.

Tizard found himself out in the cold. He sought in vain to make amends with Lindemann. “Now that I’m in a position of power,” the Prof commented to a mutual acquaintance, “a lot of my old friends have come sniffing around.” Radar, meanwhile, continued to progress, largely thanks to Tizard’s efforts.

After the London Blitz began, and their official residence at 10 Downing Street was deemed too dangerous, Churchill and his wife moved into a ground-floor apartment not far away in the New Public Offices, the strongest building in Whitehall. Below, a labyrinthine stronghold became the War Office, and the S Branch got offices in the building as well. The Prof became the most regular guest at the prime minister’s official country retreat in Buckinghamshire, 40 miles from London. He saw Churchill almost every day.

Most of the time, the Prof seemed simply to be helping the prime minister follow his chosen course. As Lindemann’s friend Roy Harrod, who joined S Branch, explained it, the “machinery of government churned up certain proposals, which finally came to the Prime Minister; it was our duty to counter-brief him on what we knew to be the lines of his own thinking.” Whenever Lindemann thought differently, however, he worked to change the prime minister’s mind. The “steady drip, drip of the Prof’s insistence, his air of certainty, his ability to rebuff all arguments,” Harrod wrote, usually did the job.

In June 1940, Lindemann introduced a young physicist, R. V. Jones, to the prime minister. From intelligence reports, as well as a device found on a downed German aircraft, Jones deduced that the enemy had invented a novel way of guiding bombers to their targets. Narrow radar beams, emitted from two Knickebein (“crooked leg”) transmitter stations in Europe, met above the target in Britain; the enemy pilot simply followed one of these beams until he intercepted the other beam, then dropped his bombs. Thus, it was also possible to interfere with the beams to throw the bombers off target. Churchill later recalled that “German bombers wandered around England bombing by guesswork.”

Meanwhile, British bombers weren’t doing much better. By viewing aerial photographs, Lindemann discovered that more often than not the payloads were landing on open fields. This discovery spurred the eventual development of a navigational aid called H2S, based on microwaves, which gave the navigator an image of the ground over which his airplane was passing. Lindemann was closely associated with this effort. He also observed that the addition of aluminum to German bombs made them more effective than British ones, a disparity soon remedied. And he successfully argued that the Germans had far fewer bombers in reserve than British officials estimated—an insight of great strategic importance. When a committee started by Tizard indicated that an atomic bomb might be feasible, Lindemann put aside their rivalry to support the recommendation. It was passed on to the Americans, who decided to build it.

Lindemann also made some expensive mistakes. Some 10,000 of his aerial parachute mines were manufactured, and Churchill put in an order for a million. But when tested in late 1940, they proved to be a flop, as Tizard had predicted.

The Prof’s most glaring technical error came in June 1943, when he—by then granted a peerage as Baron Cherwell—dismissed evidence that the Germans were building a long-distance rocket that could attack London. Casting himself as devil’s advocate, Cherwell derided the evidence—including a photograph—as “a great hoax to distract our attention from some other weapon.” Jones, then head of science at MI6, convinced Churchill the rockets were a threat. It was the only time the prime minister was seen upset with his friend. “I want no more of your advocatus diaboli!” he said, invoking Latin, which he disliked, to stress his anger.

Jones observed, however, that “Churchill’s confidence in Lindemann was far too firm to be shaken.” Snow wrote, “Bold men protested to Churchill about Lindemann’s influence, and were shown out of the room.” Churchill rarely sought military counsel from Cherwell, but on civilian matters such as food supply, shipping, and economics, he often counted on the information he received from his friend.

The Prof’s most far-reaching interventions—those that impacted the lives of millions—had nothing to do with technology. In April 1942, he sent the prime minister his most controversial memo. He postulated that if even half the loads of 10,000 bombers could be dropped on densely populated working-class neighborhoods in Germany’s larger cities, a third of the enemy population would be rendered homeless. “Investigation seems to show that having one’s house demolished is most damaging to morale,” he continued. “People seem to mind it more than having their friends or even their relatives killed.” Although Air Chief Marshal Arthur Harris supported the strategy, Tizard, who saw the paper, said the estimate of destruction was five times too high. After the war, a survey found that the Prof’s guess had been 10 times too high.

The so-called area bombing strategy proved costly because it absorbed as much as a quarter of British war production. It killed more than 600,000 German civilians, and as many as 57,000 British and Commonwealth airmen died in the effort. Although the policy’s chief rationale was that the loss
of morale would reduce productivity, German armaments output continued to increase.

One reason for bombing towns and cities—rather than sites of military relevance, such as munitions factories—was that in the early years of the war, British bombers missed smaller targets. But Cherwell also had an almost obsessive hatred of Germans. “After the ghastly suffering that Germany had inflicted upon the world, and the savage assaults on British cities, he shared the intense desire felt by millions of others for that country to feel the severity of war on her own soil,” his biographer Lord Birkenhead wrote. “His desire to bomb Germany led him to constant efforts to prevent the Army, Navy, Coastal and Fighter Commands from claiming what he regarded as an excessive share of the national resources” in the form of bombers and bomber crews. Bombers were needed, among other things, to cover Atlantic convoys and keep German U-boats underwater.

In late 1942, Cherwell’s trusted lieutenant, Donald MacDougall, became concerned that food and raw materials for British civilians were threatened by heavy ship losses in the North Atlantic. At the Prof’s recommendation, in January 1943 Churchill brought 60 percent of the merchant ships operating in the Indian Ocean over to the Atlantic to increase food supplies for Britain. The move ultimately added two million tons to the United Kingdom’s civilian stockpile. Cherwell may have exaggerated the extent to which British supplies were at risk. The reserves of imported food and raw materials held at the end of 1942 were about 4.5 million tons above the amount consumed during the next six months—after which the ships became more readily available and the British stockpile continued to increase.

Such a drastic shipping cut in the Indian Ocean “must portend violent changes and perhaps cataclysms in the sea-borne trade of large numbers of countries,” the Ministry of War Transport warned. In India, grain supplies tightened because of a combination of natural and war-related
factors. These included the cessation of rice imports from Japanese-occupied Burma, the export of rice and wheat for the war effort elsewhere, a scorched-earth policy in the east to deter Japanese invasion, crop damage from inclement weather, runaway inflation, and hoarding. When British colonial officials realized that fewer ships meant the wheat imports they needed were not about to come, they and their agents bought up all the local grain, causing prices to jump and precipitating famine. Other British possessions bordering the Indian Ocean, such as Kenya, Tanganyika, and British Somaliland, also suffered famine in 1943. C. B. A. Behrens, official historian of British wartime shipping, observed: “In the Indian Ocean area the burden of paying for victory, shifted from place to place to ease the weight, finally came to rest.”

In July 1943, the viceroy of India reported famine and asked the War Cabinet to send 500,000 tons of wheat by year-end. The grain would feed soldiers and war workers, relieving local markets. Wheat was available in Australia, but the War Cabinet would have to release ships to transport it to India. (All ocean-worthy merchant ships in the region, including those registered in India, were under the War Cabinet’s control.) Although the battle against U-boats was being won and ships could be made available, Cherwell advised against sending relief to India. He argued that it would lead to unacceptable sacrifices in Britain: “It is a little hard that the U.K., which has already suffered a greater drop in the standard of living than India, should be mulcted because the Government of India cannot arrange its affairs in an orderly manner.” The War Cabinet scheduled no relief.

According to the Ministry of War Transport, Churchill wanted to stockpile wheat to feed the Greek and Yugoslav civilians he hoped to liberate. The United Kingdom was also building up its domestic stores partly in order to create a cushion against postwar scarcity. So shiploads of Australian wheat passed by famine-stricken India, destined for storage. By the end of 1943, Britain’s stockpile of food and raw materials would reach 18.5 million tons, the largest ever.

Later that year, as famine raged, the War Cabinet approved sending 88,000 tons of wheat and 130,000 tons of barley to India. It was too little, too late. To add insult to injury, Churchill’s Balkan campaign failed by that December and the stockpile was rendered pointless. In India, at least three million people died of starvation.

Harrod observed that the Prof “was lacking in the bond of human sympathy for every chance person who was not brought into a personal relationship with him,” and related an illustrative incident: A close friend of Harrod’s, a gifted young man named Robert Byron, died early in the war. When Harrod went in to S Branch, heavy with grief, he could not help but speak of the loss. “Oh, I thought him a very second-rate person,” the Prof responded. Shocked, the economist retorted that Byron had been very close to him, and was widely admired for his brilliance. The Prof demurred, repeating, “He was a very second-rate person.”

During a 1930s lecture, Lindemann argued that surgery, mind control, and drug and hormone manipulations would one day allow humans to be fine-tuned for specific tasks. At the lower end of the race and class spectrum, he suggested, one could remove the ability to suffer or to feel ambition. This subclass would do all the unpleasant work and not once think of revolution or of voting rights. To perpetuate empires, he theorized, one need only remove the ability of slaves to see themselves as slaves.

But Cherwell also had a soft side. His valet described him as warm and generous, willing to be late for dinner so that he could free a trapped bird, and making discreet gifts to those who had gotten into difficulties. He was fond of children, and his insistence on a vegetarian diet stemmed from an uncommon sensitivity to animal life. And he was popular with women but seems to have had no real loves, nor any friend more intimate than Churchill.

S Branch was disbanded after Churchill lost the postwar election. When he won again in 1951, the Prof returned as adviser on nuclear warfare, moving into 11 Downing Street, where he could visit through an interconnecting door.

The Prof eventually returned to Oxford to live in his old rooms, and in 1957 he died in his sleep. Churchill, 82 and infirm, went to the funeral and visited the cemetery. “He walked beyond the path, advancing over the difficult tufts of grass, with unfaltering, but ageing steps, onward to the graveside of his dear old friend,” Harrod remembered. It was the end of an epic partnership.

Madhusree Mukerjee was raised in India, earned a PhD in physics from the University of Chicago, has served on the board of editors of Scientific American, and currently lives with her husband and son in Germany. Her most recent book, Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India during World War II (2010), describes the political and economic scene in India when the country was simultaneously fighting the Axis and striving for independence from British colonial rule.


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