Friday, April 10, 2015

The Possible Weapon Alternatives

Tales and legends of all kinds have grown up since World War II: stories of super-bombs, deadly ray-guns and covert deals. Some sources say that the Nazis had flying saucers ready to roll and had even exploded an atomic bomb. Yet there are still dramatic new lessons to be learned. Although we think of the United States as the home of atomic power, we should also recognize how far it developed in Germany, Britain, Russia and Japan - all of these nations had their own atomic bomb projects. 'Shock and awe' did not begin in the war with Iraq, but was born back in World War II. We will find that many of the greatest war criminals of all time were secretly pardoned and illicitly given sanctuary in exchange for continuing their work on secret weapons, but this time for the other side. Although the devastating raid on Pearl Harbor by Japan is so often spoken of as unprovoked and unexpected, it is surprising to discover that neither is true; while many daring deeds by British heroes would now be classed as war crimes. Did you know that Americans were killed by secret weapons launched from Japan during World War II? Probably not - they were secret then, and they remain secret now. Were you aware that an astronaut (as well as a satellite) was launched with V-2 rockets? Would you ever suspect that huge stocks of phosgene, the corrosive, blinding, suffocating gas that was stockpiled in World War II, are now available in industrial cities across the world? Calder Hall in Britain is famous as the world's first nuclear power station, but there was another that existed years earlier, about which few people have ever heard. Did you know that lethal secret weapons from World War II are currently threatening residential areas of the United States, or that a sound cannon developed by the Nazis was recently used to stop pirates from boarding a cruise ship? America is famous for its first nuclear reactor, but the biggest by the war's end was actually in Canada; and a form of radar, one of the most celebrated secret technologies of World War II, was in fact in use before 1914. You will have heard of the British 'bouncing bomb', but you probably don't know that the Germans also had a bouncing bomb of their own - or that The Dam Busters movie had a direct line of inspiration to Star Wars.

In reality, World War II gave us the science on which our modern world depends. Nothing like that pace of progress had occurred before, or has been seen since. War is a more powerful stimulus to progress than peace. The demands of the Napoleonic wars gave us canned food. It was India fighting the British that bequeathed to us the first steel rocket (invented by the Indians, not the British). The Wright brothers had military aircraft in mind when they started their experiments with flying machines. But World War II -above all - led to an unprecedented upsurge in inventiveness and innovation. After World War I, Europe and America were in a post-Victorian era where progress was steady and the major preoccupation was the preservation of social stability and the maintenance of wealth. Engineers were gentle innovators, rather than the brash adventurers of the previous century. The progress of pure science was slow and methodical, and technology proceeded at a steady pace, interspersed with revolutionary new notions in fields like radio, television, aircraft and ocean-going liners. The rocket enthusiasts were hobbyists; pioneers of jet engines were widely ignored. Development proceeded logically and progress was a methodical unravelling of realities.

With the dark clouds of war approaching, science and technology took on a new and terrifying urgency. Now the pace of progress was unprecedented - and yet it was different, depending on whose side you stood. The Japanese, intent on territorial acquisition of the relatively undeveloped nations of South-East Asia, put much emphasis on planes, guns and bombs. They saw the subjects of these nations as inherently inferior, hardly worth rating as civilized humans at all. The Americans, arriving late in the battle, rushed to produce innovative aircraft and state-of-the-art shipping, and gathered together experts who were harnessing the atom to produce the most terrible and destructive weapons ever used in warfare. The French were content for decades with their Maginot line, and carried on with domestic developments without paying much heed to the international perspective. The Italians, Spanish and Russians were all developing weapons of war and stockpiling ideas as much as materiel.

Germany was different. The sole aim of her leaders following Hitler's ascension to power was the domination of Europe and, with time and good fortune, the world. Germany was surrounded by highly developed countries with a shared sense of strength and a belief in progress towards a future free from warfare, and the Nazis were well aware that they needed to overcome nations just as ingenious and as civilized as Germany herself. With the exception of Italy, whose leader Benito Mussolini had grandiose ideas of his own, all the other European nations lacked one thing, however: fanaticism. For Germany, domination was increasingly painted as a right, a destiny. And the scientific developments leading up to the war were aimed squarely at preparing for the long-term occupation of nearby nations. As war began, Hitler was emboldened by the capitulation of Czechoslovakia's allies over the Sudentenland in 1938; and when Britain declared war in 1939 as a result of the German attacks on the narrow corridor of land towards the Baltic port of Danzig, Hitler was stunned. He had never imagined that Britain would declare war in this way, and for such a small piece of territory. Then, with the bit between his teeth, he ordered the rate of progress to roar into top gear and yet - as German victory seemed assured, in the early years at least — he was just as quick to withdraw support from many revolutionary and highly innovative fields of research and development, so that progress in these was nipped in the bud. At the time, Hitler optimistically concluded that these new technologies would not be required after all. Victory, he felt, would easily be his.

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