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A Most Enigmatic War: R.V Jones and the Genesis of British Scientific Intelligence 1939 - 1945

A Most Enigmatic War: R.V Jones and the Genesis of British Scientific Intelligence 1939 - 1945

James Goodchild
ARRSE Rating
4 Mushroom Heads
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day:

Shakespeare might have been writing of R.V. Jones’s wartime memoirs. “Most Secret War”, published in 1978 when Jones was sixty-seven, made an instant celebrity of its author; hitherto largely known to the public via his work as a Professor at Aberdeen University.

Most Secret War details Jones’s experiences as head of Scientific intelligence, more formally ADI (Science), at the Air Ministry during the Second World War. As such, he was largely – or sometimes singlehandedly – responsible for some key intelligence breakthroughs. These included identifying the German ‘beams’ (the Luftwaffe’s radio navigation aids), the German radar defences used to defend against the RAF’s attacks on Hitler’s ‘Festung Europa’ and the intelligence campaign that identified the ‘V1’ and ‘V2’.

Yet, in most cases, Most Secret War had remained the primary source for much of this part of history. James Goodchild, the author of ‘A Most Enigmatic War’, has explored the truth behind the legend. What he found what that the broad thrust of Jones’s history was true, but that Jones – intentionally or otherwise – had tended to downplay the importance of other people, intelligence sources or intelligence agencies. And in some cases, Jones had glossed over the intelligence failures of his department. Jones indeed had been ‘remembering with advantages’.

None of this detracts from the immense importance or the work Jones carried out, nor the vital role it played in Britain’s wartime fortunes, but it does set it into a broader context.

The book itself is meticulously researched, largely from original papers held in varying archives. Each page contains extensive footnotes, enabling the interested reader, should they wish, to identify and access the original source material. As such, the author has been able to add considerable detail to Jones’s sometimes simplified explanations of the information and train of thought that led to his intelligence breakthroughs.

The result is a book that is perhaps slightly less readable than Most Secret War, but which sheds considerable light on it. If the book does point up some of Jones’s failings and tendencies to gently airbrush other people’s contributions to his intelligence work out of history, it does little to reduce the stature of the man himself – Jones was responsible for some of the key intelligence breakthroughs of the Second World War.

The book itself is a substantial one, weighing in at 600 pages. And because it is a detailed history, dealing with the role of sometimes arcane departments, it can be slightly heavy going in some places. Yet, by shining a light on a hitherto neglected area of the Second World War, that of the role of Scientific Intelligence, it is a substantial contribution to the history of that period. As such, it comes highly recommend.

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