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Nations at war
Price, Alfred. Instruments of Darkness: The History of Electronic Warfare, 1939-1945. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2005
Foreword; Acknowledgements; Prologue; photos; maps; diagrams; Glossary; Index
Appendices: Main types of German surface radars; Main types of Japanese surface raiders; Air Force equivalent ranks
The third edition of Instruments of Darkness has been revised and expanded, and it's a good survey of some aspects of electronic warfare during World War II. Howeverand we've griped about this sort of thing plenty of times beforethe title proves misleading, because Dr. Price mostly ignores electronic equipment not directly related to the air war and only the air war, and his pages are overwhelmingly devoted to battles between the Luftwaffe and the RAF. Readers looking for information on that topic should be satisfied, but anyone hoping for information on sonar, sonobuoys, huff-duff, homing torpedoes, or other aspects of electronic warfare will be disappointed.
Price opens his book with an odd juxtaposition of one old, discredited technology and one new, pioneering technology of the futurealthough he never quite frames it in those termswhen he describes the August 1939 cruise of LZ 130 Graf Zeppelin. In one of the first airborne electronic snooping missions, the huge airship carried a team of twenty-five German signals specialists and passed along the coast of Britain while examining the radio spectrum in an effort to identify communications, navigation, and radar transmissions. The Graf Zeppelin played little further role in the conflict and was dismantled in 1940, but electronic warfare grew immeasurably in importance over the next six years.
By the time of the Battle of Britain, which Price covers in his first chapter, the two most important electronic systems in use for the air war were Germany's Knickebein bombing guidance aid and the UK's Chain Home radar line. The Luftwaffe's use of Knickebein was discovered and solved by the British partly by chance and partly by careful effort. Indeed, the book repeatedly makes clear how much each side was able to learn about opposing systems and electronic countermeasures from sources such as scraps of paper recovered from cockpits, battered components from crash sites, and loose talk by POWs. In this case, the British effort to understand and thwart Knickebein brings British scientist R.V. Jones into the book. The story of cracking the mystery of the German guidance beams is one of the great tales of "the wizard war" (as Jones titled his book on scientific intelligence and electronic warfare), and Price retells it in fine fashion. He also debunks the myth of "bending" the beams. The author has also revised his text to alter some of the book's original conclusions.
The British 'official line', published in several books including
the earlier editions of this one, was that the jamming was so effective
in disrupting the Knickebein beams that the system fell soon out of
use. The truth of the matter is rather different, though the outcome
was the same.
The Knickebein transmitter at Greny, 120 miles from London,
often provided the main beam to the British capital. The Beaumont-Hague transmitter,
150 miles from the capital, was well placed to
provide the necessary crossbeam. If those two transmitters trained
their beams on London they could mark out a diamond-shaped
patch of sky with sides measuring about 900 yards and 1,600 yards.
The threat of over a hundred German night raiders delivering bombs
to that degree of accuracy was a fearful prospect, but it never
Luftwaffe bomber crewmen who flew over Britain at that time
have told the writer that usually they could easily hear the beam
signals through the early jamming. Yet, even if it was not fully
effective, the presence of the jamming was unsettling to the attackers
because it indicated that the defenders were aware of the beams'
existence and probably knew their location. One Luftwaffe bomb
pilot told this writer:
At first we were very excited about Knickebein, a fine new method
of navigation and a big help to find our targets. But after we had
used it on operations once or twice, we realised that the British
were interfering with it. Initially the jamming was weak and it
hardly concealed the beam signals at all. But that fact that our
enemy obviously knew that the beams existed and that they were
pointing towards the target for the night, was very disconcerting.
For all we knew, night-fighters might be concentrating all the
way along the beam to the target. More and more crews used
the Knickebein beams only for range, and kept out of them on
the run up to the target.
Other German aircrew echoed those sentiments, which became
progressively stronger as the jamming became more powerful and
the night defences became more effective.
The primary effect of the jamming had therefore been its effect
on the morale of the bomber crews, rather than the disruption it
caused to the Knickebein signals. Yet the 'bottom line' of the
makeshift efforts of No. 80 Wing and Dr Cockburn's team was that
they had successfully neutralised the German beam system. That gave
a considerable boost to their prestige both in the RAF and in the
corridors of power at Whitehall. It was also a triumph for Dr R. V.
Jones and the cause of scientific intelligence; the next time the
watchdog started to bark, people would listen. That would soon
happen, for the Luftwaffe still had its other beam system.
Following the first chapter, Price's book focuses on electronic warfare almost exclusively as it applied to Bomber Command's navigational aids for locating and hitting targets at night, the Luftwaffe's efforts to locate and destroy the intruding night bombers, and each side's efforts to neutralize the other's electronic systems. This seesaw war played out with devices like Airborne Cigar, Bernhard and Bernhardine, Boozer, Duppel, Flensburg, Freya, Gee, Heinrich, H2S, Korfu, Lichtenstein, Mammut, Mandrel, Mannheim, Monica, Naxos, Nurnberg, Oboe, Perfectos, Tuba, Wassermann, and Wurzburg. Price tracks the entire story and relates how each advance by one side caused the other side to scramble for means to counter the latest technology.
Although the first edition of Price's book broke new ground in the field, since then almost every book about Bomber Command's campaign includes the same basic information about how each new device was unveiled and countered. For example, Bomber Command by Max Hastings, A Time for Courage by John Terraine, The Bomber War by Robin Neillands, and The Hardest Victory by Denis Richards all do perfectly acceptable jobs of integrating electronic warfare with all the other aspects and controversies of the bomber offensive. Because he focuses on such a narrow topic, Price can't compete when it comes to the wider air war. On the other hand, in The Other Battle, Peter Hinchliffe provides even more detail about the nitty-gritty workings of the German systems with a great deal of inside information, including transcripts of ground control conversations with night fighters. Price includes a much smaller amount of that kind of material, but Price and Hinchliffe plow some of the same ground, with both, for example, devoting a couple of pages to the death of night fighter ace Major Wittengenstein, quoting his radio operator, Feldwebel Ostheimer.
Of course, while Price has intentionally chosen not to write a complete account of the entire bomber campaign, he delves more deeply into the science and technology of electronic warfare, and he doesn't entirely ignore everything else. Notably, Price recounts the Battle of Hamburg (sort of a condensed version of Martin Middlebrook's book) and he also looks at the integrated air-ground-sea electronic deception campaign for Operation Overlord. In addition, the book devotes a few pages plus one short chapter (new for this edition) to Japanese radar and US counter-measures, although apparently there's not really too much to be disclosed in that area.
Interestingly, Price provides no bibliography and no notes about his sources. Based on his Acknowledgements and some of his quotations, it appears he interviewed a number of the principal players, including Robert Cockburn and R.V. Jones. Jones' Wizard War, in fact, largely parallels Price, although Jones covers quite a bit of other territory (and also exhibits a tendency to ramble and digress from whatever topic is at hand).
When Instruments of Darkness was new in 1967, although it was less complete and less accurate than in its latest incarnation, it was an important and ground breaking book. It remains a pleasant, informative account of a fascinating subject and certainly worth reading by anyone interested in electronic warfare as it applied to the Battle of Britain and the bomber offensive against Germany.
Available from online booksellers, local bookshops, or directly from Stackpole Books.
Thanks to Stackpole for providing this review copy.
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Reviewed 24 April 2005
Copyright © 2005 by Bill Stone
May not be reproduced in any form without written permission of Stone & Stone