Issue 82 – July 2013


Spock's Pops: How Operational Research became Wartime Magic!

During the Second World War, a new form of applied science emerged called Operational Research (OR). OR scientists came from nuclear physics, engineering, advanced mathematics, physiology and other disciplines and applied their knowledge to a myriad of military problems, from lethality of weapons studies to battle investigations.

In many ways, these talented and unmilitary people are the real-life forefathers of the great literary creation of 1960s science fiction, Mr. Spock from Star Trek. Most were highly logical and strange. Some were hired to become living computers for complex firing tables and bombing strategy. Others used biological and medical knowledge to diagnose the problems of complex systems like fighter production and loss rates. All used highly developed and innovative scientific methods to improve the work and life of soldiers. Here’s Sir Patrick Blackett, the modern father of OR, describing its reason to be:

The object of having scientists in close touch with operations is to enable operational staffs to obtain scientific advice on those matters which are not handled by the service technical establishments. Operational staffs provide the scientists with the operational outlook and data. The scientists apply scientific methods of analysis to these data, and are thus able to give useful advice. The main field of their activity is clearly the analysis of actual operations, using as data the material to be found in an operations room, e.g. all signals, track, charts, combat reports, meteorological information, etc. it will be noted that these data are not, and on secrecy grounds cannot, be made available to the technical establishments. Thus such scientific analysis, if done at all, must be done in or near operations rooms. The work of an Operational Research Section should be carried out at Command, Group, Station or Squadron as circumstances dictate.

Can’t you hear Leonard Nimoy reciting this? As if he’s trying to tell Bones what is the role of a science officer on an away mission? Many OR scientists were, in fact, given the new title of “scientific advisor” to describe their new role in command HQs. Some even served in conflict zones, gathering data and offering advice like a “science officer” on an Away team! And, like Spock, OR scientists were often disdained for their quirks and attitudes by the career soldiers who needed their skills but often bristled at their deportment. SAs were given nicknames like “Boffin” or “long hair” or “egghead,” and they were often as hard to herd as a yard full of cats. But when OR sections worked toward a common purpose in the right environment, they made a distinct and valuable contribution to defeating the Axis. It’s a credit to the flexibility and open mindedness of the Allies that OR scientists could succeed as much as they did. The Axis had a much less encouraging environment for the exchange of ideas and collaboration, a much more rigid, hierarchical and brutal working space. They never produced the same caliber of OR scientists as the Allies.

Here we look at how scientists became entrenched in military affairs in Britain, the birthplace of OR, from radars to tank design to the movement of armadas, and became the Spocks of their age!


Operational research had distinct historical antecedents. Archimedes, Leonardo De Vinci, and Galileo Galilee all applied scientific methods to military affairs. But scientists by their nature preferred to stay out of military affairs until the industrial scale and demands of the First World War put them to work for their governments. In Britain, early precedents of OR were started in the air war. This included the statistical analysis by physiologist Captain A. V. Hill and his team of scientists-soldiers at the Experimental Section of Munitions Invention Development department (“Hill’s Brigands”). Hill’s team produced some pre-“OR” statistical analysis of the war against the German zeppelin raids of 1916-1917. In his only collected work, Hill lamented that their work had made it into a few textbooks in the 1920s, but the ideas were largely forgotten.

During the 1930s, fear of long range bomber attacks on the UK grew. Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin’s quip that “the bomber will always get through” did not sit well with those charged with air defense. Rumors arose about a German “death ray” that could destroy ships in the sky. The Tizard Committee (named after the Chair, eminent chemist Sir Henry Tizard) was set up in 1934 to assess whether or not an effective air defense solution was possible. Physicist Robert Watson Watt dismissed the feasibility of a “death ray” but radio waves might be used to detect aircraft. The embryonic technology we know as radar soon emerged out of these discussions, and in its wake the British began to support the use of scientists in ever closer relations with the military.

While Watson Watt was the father of radar, physicist Patrick Blackett claims the title of father of OR. Blackett had served in the Royal Navy before the war and witnessed the Battle of Jutland. He deplored warfare but knew Nazi victory could not be stopped with pacifism. Initially he worked on bomb sites for the RAF, but as the Battle of Britain raged he was moved to Anti-Aircraft (Ack Ack) Command to work on gunnery efficiency. While radar had been invented, the best doctrine for the new technology had yet to be discovered.

Blackett and his “circus” of engineers, physiologist and other scientific folks worked hard alongside serving officers to find the best way to make the AA command efficient in the cash strapped service. But what started out as a simple job turned into not just the calculation of predicting future enemy positions to use the guns, but also the creation of plotting machines that could be made quickly, modifying the existing ones to be fixed manually, and creating a school to teach all these specifics.

While some soldiers bristled at being pushed around and told their job by scientists, General Sir Frederick Pile, Commander in Chief of Ack Ack, was glad to have Blackett. “He spoke his mind clearly, and was always ready to admit the fact that the most desirable thing may be inadvisable.” The hard truth was “radar was too tricky for the ordinary man,” and the need for scientists grew, including civilian American scientists. “Their enthusiasm and help had to be seen to be believed.” Accuracy increased dramatically. Before the circus, 20, 000 shells were expended for each German “bird” shot. By the time they left, the number had been reduced to 4,000. Blackett was soon transferred to the Admiralty, and when Pile heard the news he exclaimed, “They have stolen my magician!”

Next, Blackett used his scientific magic on the troubled convoys in the Atlantic. After intensive research, he discovered that large convoys generated less causalities and “calculated that convoys with nine escorts had experienced 25 per cent less sinking than those with six. This led him to the conclusion that for each extra escort vessel, between two and three merchant ships could be saved annually.” Blackett soon bumped against naval tradition. His research from 1941-42 revealed that the “small convoys with an average size of 32 ships had suffered a loss of 2.5 percent; whereas the large convoys with an average of 54 ships had suffered a loss of 1.1 percent. Large convoys appeared to be in fact more than twice as safe as large convoys.” Naval doctrine and experience in the Great War argued the opposite: smaller convoys of less than 40 ships were safer, but ones of 60 ships or more were ripe for attacking.

So Blackett pushed back with intensive analysis, including from prisoners of war from sunken U-boat “wolf packs.” Three facts emerged a) the chance that the convoy in which it sailed would be sighted; b) the chance that a U boat would penetrate the screen depended only on the linear density of the escorts, that is, on the number of escort vessels for each mile of perimeter to be defended; and c) that when a U-boat did penetrate the screen the number of merchant ships sunk was the same for both large and small convoys—“simply because there were always more than enough targets.”

Blackett pushed hard and his idea of reducing the number of convoys, but increasing the number of ships per convoy. By spring of 1943 onward, the convoy numbers increased. Sadly, the first “large” convoys lost a lot of ships, but by the summer of 1944 the Admiralty proclaimed many successes of this approach including a successful crossing of the Atlantic by a record 187 ships in a convoy.


Another dynamic use of OR scientists also took place during the Battle of Britain. The ORS at Fighter Command challenged not just operations, but strategy. The most critical case concerned a French request for ten squadrons of RAF fighters to assist against the German invasion of May 1940: an invasion that was headed toward conquest. General Hugh Dowdings, CinC of Fighter Command, warned Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill that agreeing to this request would cripple Fighter Command’s ability to defend Britain. Churchill ignored him, hoping to give the French as much aid as possible. On 15 May 1940 Dowding asked Canadian engineer and OR innovator Harold Larnder and his team for assistance in making their analysis clear.

With less than two hours before the next Cabinet meeting, the team produced documents to bolster Dowding’s case. Larnder credits physicist E. C. Williams with initiating the research, which showed that with the current loss rate of three squadrons every two days, a depletion of ten squadrons would essentially leave Britain defenseless against the Luftwaffe. Larnder, though, realized they needed to make the data have impact.

Feeling that the findings relating losses, time, and force level were not easily comprehended when expressed in tabular form, I transferred the findings to graph form, and attached these to William’s report. The next morning, when asked if our findings had been of any help, Dowding replied “They did the trick.”

Churchill, seeing the visual data of his country rendered defenseless, denied the request. Britain could not save the French, but they could save themselves to fight the Axis another day. Larnder did not want OR scientists taking sole credit for victory in the Battle of Britain, but they were decisive in avoiding defeat at this desperate hinge point of the war. If those ten squadrons had been sent, the final victory in the skies would have been nearly impossible.


Not all OR sections were championed by their commanders, however. In Bomber Command, Commander Sir Arthur Harris agreed to include an OR section led by physicist B. G. Dickins. The section itself included many brilliant minds, including a young Freeman Dyson. But Harris had detested scientists since the First World War, and with some reason. “While I was on anti-Zeppelin defense at Northolt I had a good deal of trouble, as I have said from time to time throughout my life,” he recalled, “with lunatic inventors of weapons who too often obtain the ear of the authorities.” These included a harpoon, cable and grenade contraption for destroying zeppelins created by a mad scientists who was “but one of a legion.”

The major controversy in Harris’s OR unit concerned analysis of the effects of strategic bombing of civilian targets, one of the most heated debates of the war. Basically, the Allies had to decide what was more safe, effective, and efficient: hitting industrial targets to cripple the German war machine, or area bombing cities to kill civilians and defeat the national will. Harris believed area bombing would win the war without need for an allied invasion of France. His staff collected the data on their bombing runs, and Harris argued that their calculations proved Bomber Command could break the enemy’s will by virtually destroying whole cities. Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill’s science advisor, Lord Cherwell, himself a physicist and power broker in the War Cabinet, supported Harris and his calculations.

Blackett disagreed. He and a cadre of other scientists examined the impact of bombing on the British population as well as in Germany. They contradicted Harris OR team’s assessment. If England had only stiffened their resolve when bombed, why would the Germans be any different? Freeman Dyson, who was responsible for collecting data and analyzing Bomber command’s losses, recalled “[i]t was my judgment at the time, and remains so today, that the cost of Bomber Command in men and resources was far greater than its military effectiveness,” costing about one quarter of the British war effort. It cost Britain more in lives and material lost than to what was gained against Germany. He also had no patience for the theories of area bombing. “The notion that bombing would cause a breakdown of civilian morale turned out to be a fantasy. And the notion that bombing would cause the breakdown of weapons production was also a fantasy.” While damaging such technical infrastructure slowed and impeded the German war effort, it was never as “wiped out” as Harris assessed. Bomber Command’s OR section was lambasted for telling their commander what he wanted to hear, instead of collecting the data to find the results first.

When the war ended, many of these scientists were celebrated. Some returned to academia to pursue their original career. Others saw the potential for OR in civilian life, and formed organizations dedicated to using its practices in industry and business. Some stayed on in government service, where their skills were becoming integral to the growing technological tapestry of war and science in the Cold War. Blackett, the father of OR, retreated from military work and became involved in peace and disarmament work dealing with nuclear weaponry.

OR has grown into many forms and variants, especially statistical analysis, but lost the limelight of its wartime efforts. But those scientific advisors made a distinct contribution to allied victory in the Second World War. These magicians of math, sorcerers of science, and boffins of medicine proved to the senior officers their value in solving complex problems by observing how things were done, assessing how they could be done better, and proving it to a tough audience. Charles Goodeve, whose work on naval weapons systems made him an OR pioneer, once reflected that OR was really just “scientific common sense.” A very Vulcan sentiment, even if it came from a human.

Author profile

Jason S. Ridler is a writer, improv actor, and historian. He is the author of A Triumph for Sakura, Blood and Sawdust, the Spar Battersea thrillers and the upcoming Brimstone Files series for Night Shade Books. He's also published over sixty-five stories in such magazines and anthologies as The Big Click, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Out of the Gutter, and more. He also writes the column FXXK WRITING! for Flash Fiction Online. A former punk rock musician and cemetery groundskeeper, Mr. Ridler holds a Ph.D. in War Studies from the Royal Military College of Canada. He lives in Berkeley, CA.

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