BOOK REVIEW – Instruments of Darkness: The History of Electronic Warfare 1939-1945

By Dr. Alfred Price, First published by William Kimber 1967, expanded 1977, revised 2005, reissued 2017 by Frontline Books, S. Yorkshire, England. Available from the USNI Press.

Reviewed by Robert P. Largess

Although Dr. Alfred Price died in January of 2017, it is entirely fitting that the first brilliant book by this superb analyst and historian of air warfare should be republished the same year. His many books show the knowledge acquired in his two careers of an RAF officer and academic historian, including penetrating tactical analyses like “Aircraft vs. Submarine” and detailed narrative combat history like “Air War South Atlantic”; they are always insightful, intelligent, and wonderfully entertaining and readable. Many of his works deal with the planes themselves and the experience of flying them (such the AVRO Vulcans in which he served as electronics aircrewman), but his most essential works deal with the role of science in air and sea warfare.

In many ways the history of science IS the history of warfare, all the way back to the advances in smelting that led to the replacement of rare, expensive bronze by cheap, plentiful iron. But it was all in slow motion until World War II, when the ability of nations to mobilize their scientific establishments to counter the work of their enemy’s scientists became the determining factor in victory at sea and in the air, particularly in reference to the new artificial electronic senses, radar and sonar, which proved critical to Allied victory. Both Germany and Japan went to war relying on the tremendous advantage the offense – the attacking bomber, submarine or surface ship – possessed over the defense, their ability to strike without warning due to their invisibility at night, in bad weather, or at high altitudes and distances. Radar stripped the advantage from the offense and conferred it decisively on the defense, making possible the defeat of the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain, Doenitz’ wolfpacks in the Atlantic, and Japanese destroyers in the Solomons, and made possible the effective fighter defense of Allied carriers in the Pacific and Mediterranean.

Still, radar (and radio) has a critical weakness. “All radio traffic is high treason,” as the Luftwaffe Signals Command put it. Every electronic transmission reveals a great deal of important information – the presence and position of the sender at the very least. If decoded, it can reveal the explicit operational plans of the sender. If not, it provides material for the codebreakers to work on and often implicit information for deducing enemy’s operational plans and order of battle. It also reveals the electronic frequency of his radar and radio for the purpose of jamming or spoofing it, as well as intelligence about the level of his electronic technology.

This whole business of frustrating or manipulating the enemy’s electronic transmissions for one’s own benefit is “Electronic Warfare.” In World War II EW led to an intense competition of measure and countermeasure that in the end determined the outcome of the air war over Britain and Germany, a technological chess game matching in scientific innovation and sophistication the anti-submarine war in the Atlantic. And this is the main subject of this book, though it covers the US air offensive over Japan as well.

The principle of radar was discovered in several countries before the war, and Germany possessed effective sets in 1939, but tactically it took the Luftwaffe completely by surprise. Why? Everywhere its development was a secret; the Germans paid no attention to air defense (and little to air search radar) because they accepted the general and hitherto correct view that it was impossible. Their answer was the offensive: overwhelm the enemy’s air force with concentrated attacks on his air bases. In the absence of an early warning and long-range tracking system and a central fighter direction system, controlling interceptors by voice radio, defending fighters could only provide standing patrols over their own bases, unable to reserve their forces and concentrate them to meet actual attacks. Attacking forces would always enjoy local superiority, inflicting heavy losses on enemy aircraft in the air and on the ground. Their predictions were borne out fully against France, which had a fairly large air force with some good aircraft, but no effective air defense system. But the British had both radar and a fighter control system. German suspicions led to perhaps the first airborne EW operation, with which Price begins his story, by the airship Graf Zeppelin which circled the British Isles with detection equipment in August 1939. But she was listening on the wrong frequencies, and the Germans entered the Battle of Britain with little appreciation of what radar would mean for them – that is, costly and unsustainable attrition of their own attacking forces.

But why did the British have it? Exercises in the 1930’s seemed to show “the bomber would always get through,” and a majority in the Royal Air Force accepted that the answer was a superior Bomber Command “to kill enemy women and children faster than they can kill ours.”  But a minority including some of the scientists themselves such as Tizard, Watson-Watt, and Churchill’s friend and adviser Lindemann, saw this as unacceptable at least until every scientific possibility had been explored. And an aspect of the question no one seems to have considered at that time was, even if the bomber can always get through, “how much damage can it do?” When unacceptable bomber losses forced both Britain and Germany to abandon daylight and turn to night attacks, the answer was for a long time very little. Bombers from both sides had great difficulty finding even large cities – without electronic aids. This brings us to the next stage of the EW story, with German development of electronic beams to guide their bombers to their targets, and British development of electronic means to frustrate this, and support an effective night fighter system.

Effective bombers versus effective night fighters created a new war no one had anticipated: victory lay in the balance between what the bombers were able to inflict in deaths and suffering of enemy civilians versus the ruinous cost in very expensive bomber aircraft and their highly trained and superbly qualified crewmen. Max Hastings’ “Bomber Command” focuses on the toll the bombers exacted and its strategic, economic, and moral aspects. It can very fruitfully be read as a companion to Price’s work, which focuses on air tactics and the cost to the bomber forces. But it was a very narrowly decided contest. In November 1943, Air Chief Marshall Sir Arthur Harris urged what became known as the “Battle of Berlin,” saying: “We can wreck Berlin from end to end if the USAAF comes in on it. It may cost us 400-500 aircraft. It will cost Germany the war.” It did not, though Berlin was devastated. Such was the strategic bombing war: a willingness to expend huge resources to inflict huge human suffering for an illusory victory. Still, it was electronics which largely determined the damage the bombers inflicted and the losses they suffered.

So where radar-controlled day fighters inflicted unsustainable bomber losses, and the Germans turned to night bombing. It was their inability to inflict sufficient damage that defeated them. It was electronic beams as navigational aidsaids, “Knickebein” and “X-Great” which allowed the Luftwaffe to find and hit British cities at night. But British countermeasures – jamming, decoys, “Meacon” masking beacons – played an important role in winning the “Battle of the Beams.” Hitler had hoped the bomber offensive would force Britain to abandon the war; when it didn’t he turned to another expedient, a lightning conquest of Russia, and withdrew most of his air force to support the offensive in the east, leaving the British free to undertake a massive night-bombing offensive in support of the Russians.

At this point, the Germans had initially no effective night fighter system either, though they possessed a few effective, high-quality radar sets. Oberst Josef Kammhuber was put in charge of organizing such a system, the “Kammhuber Line” in July 1940, and by the end of the year was replacing searchlights with radars. His defensive line comprised a series of contiguous boxes the bombers had to cross to reach their targets. Each box contained a search and two tracking radars, one to track a bomber and another to track the box’s night fighter, and a ground controller to coach the fighter onto its target bomber. The system was ingenious and effective, taking a steady toll of British bombers – an average of four out every 100 by March 1942 – but it had its limits. First, each box could handle a single bomber at a time. Thus the first countermeasure was to overwhelm it by concentrating the “the bomber stream” (each bomber flew independently – no formations were possible at night) in as brief a block of time and through as few night-fighter boxes as possible. Second, it was dependant on search, tracking, and airborne radars, radio beacons, and voice communication between fighter and ground controller, all of which were vulnerable to electronic interference.

The intricate story of this war, with its tactics created by many brilliant individual scientists, is the main subject of the book. These tricks ranged from: “Boozer,” a bomber-carried radar receiver tuned to the frequencies of German AA gun laying and night-fighter radars; using German-speakers to impersonate enemy ground controllers and misdirect their night fighters; and the very important invention  of “Chaff,” using a cloud of tinfoil strips to create a fake target. Then there was “Serrate,” a receiver homing on German airborne radars, enabling British Beaufighters to enter Kammhuber Line to hunt down and decimate their opposite number German night fighters. And on, and on, with the Germans constantly being wrong-footed and lagging in their response. Price also covers thoroughly the American day bombing campaign over Europe, the bombing campaign against Japan, and the creation of the American radar science establishment supporting them, plus the Japanese air defense and EW effort. The latter followed the same basic steps as the early stages of the American ones but lagged drastically behind them because of a much smaller engineering and scientific establishment.

One of the most fascinating (and I would say most significant ) topics this story raises is why the American and English scientific establishments proved so much more creative and militarily imaginative than their German counterparts, who were still very advanced, and very good. Dr. Price does not go into this, but someone should – this writer guesses it had a lot to do with cultural factors and educational systems. Perhaps Germany fostered pursuit of science as a specialized subject without fostering as broad a familiarity with it and interest in it as our society did? If I am correct, for example, the professional school for German naval officers provided a technical but narrow training, nothing like our Annapolis which graduated our officers with both an engineering degree and an all-around excellent university education. Our CinC of the US Navy in World War II, Fleet Admiral King, provides an excellent yet typical example of the scientific and engineering breadth of interest of the US Navy officer of the period. He was both a submariner and aviator, supervising the difficult salvage of two accidentally lost submarines,

learning to fly as a captain, serving as Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics, as well as captain of the carrier Lexington before World War II, possessing a range of technical knowledge and experience unlike that of any German senior officer, I believe. As for the British, their ability to perceive technical solutions for tactical problems was remarkable. Just a few examples are Churchill’s patronage of the invention of the tank on his own initiative as First Lord of the Admiralty in World War I, Barnes Wallis’ dam-busting “Bouncing Bombs” and the “Earthquake Bombs” that sank the Tirpitz as well as highly innovative airship and aircraft designs, and the investigation of Nicola Tesla’s 1934 claim to have invented a “death ray” which led Tizard and Watson-Watt to the development of practical air defense radar.

Electronic Warfare was a critical element of the air war in World War II; this book is essential reading for anyone interested in the subject. It has remained just as crucial to modern warfare ever since, as vital today as ever. Indeed, Dr. Price’s superb writing makes this an excellent primer for anyone interested in what EW is, what it does, and how it works. The story is inherently exciting, and Dr. Price’s writing and analysis are clear, cogent, and vivid. His focus is on tactics and strategy, and no particular knowledge of physics is required. Finally, this outstanding book is an important contribution to the broad subject of the relationship between science and history.

Robert P. Largess is the author of USS Albacore: Forerunner of the Future and articles on the SS United States, USS Triton, the origin of the towed sonar array, and the history of Lighter-Than-Air.

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