12 Seconds of Silence: How a Team of Inventors, Tinkerers and Spies Took Down a Nazi Superweapon, by Jamie Holmes, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020, $28

In 12 Seconds of Silence Jamie Holmes chronicles how the little-known proximity fuze played a vital role toward the Allied victory in World War II. In his preface the author succinctly describes the fuze:

Known as the world’s first ‘smart’ weapon, the proximity fuze was a 5-pound marvel of engineering, industry and can-do spirit. The gadget, screwed into the tip of an antiaircraft shell, had a brain. It was able to sense nearby aircraft by sending out a radio signal and then listening for the signal to bounce back off the airplane. If it did, the fuze would trigger the high explosives in the shell, unleashing a lethal barrage of shrapnel. 

The reason the fuze proved so crucial was that until its introduction British and American anti-aircraft guns had been egregiously inefficient against Axis aircraft and German V-1 unmanned aerial bombs. Pearl Harbor and Nazi air raids on Britain had offered appalling proof.

Before the United States’ December 1941 entry into World War II two American scientists and colleagues, engineer Vannevar Bush and physicist Merle Tuve, realized the nation had better start mobilizing on the science and technology fronts in the likely event it entered the conflict. Thus in 1940 Bush persuaded President Franklin D. Roosevelt to approve the National Defense Research Committee (soon supplanted by the Office of Scientific Research and Development), while Tuve convinced Bush to establish a special unit within the office named Section T, for its supervisor. Among the latter’s objectives was the creation of a viable proximity fuze.

It was a grueling assignment. The final device contained 500 parts, each of which had to withstand high temperatures and g-forces. Section T itself had to overcome resistance by military Luddites. The team faced many other complications.

In late 1942 the government distributed the new fuzes to the Navy in the Pacific, and they soon proved their worth protecting American ships from Japanese airplanes. Then came another challenge. In June 1944 the Germans commenced V-1 attacks on London. Antiaircraft batteries lacked the new proximity fuzes, and RAF fighters could do little to stop the “buzz bombs,” which decimated the British capital. In July, however, the British obtained Section T’s fuzes and by September the V-1 assaults were “effectively over.” During the 1944 Battle of the Bulge fuzes adapted for artillery inflicted devastating casualties on German infantrymen, no lesser a figure than Gen. George Patton asserting the fuzes “won the Battle of the Bulge for us.” Little Boy, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, also contained a proximity fuze. Holmes finally brings to light the “lost tale” of the little fuze that could.

—Howard Schneider

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