The Air Ministry and the Bomb Dropping Problem: Bombsights, Scientists, and Techno-Military Invention, 1918-45

Activity: ExaminationResearch


This thesis presents the first history of the British mechanical bombsight, from 1918 to 1945. It provides new evidence on the efficacy of military scientists, the interventions of prominent war scientists, and the influence of the scientific elite. It demonstrates that British bombsight development was located entirely within the military, facilitated by specialist engineers, entrepreneurial inventors, and small firms located mainly within the environs of London. The bombsight story does not conform to the standard civilian centric role in techno-military invention; science, heroic private inventors, corporate laboratories, and large armament firms contributed little.
This thesis shows that the military engaged effectively with the bomb dropping problem during the interwar years, as exemplified by the work of Leonard Bygrave, a quasi-paramilitary defender of the Empire, and his Air Ministry colleague, Frederick Meredith, a Russian spy. Post 1935, bombsight development was disrupted by death, espionage, and ill-advised interventions by two members of the scientific elite: Henry Tizard and Melvill Jones. This, not development failures, led to what I call the 1940 Bombsight Crisis. Secondly, it shows that Frederick Lindemann invented, promoted, and politicized bombsights during the Second World War. Lindemann was instrumental in prioritizing the development of the SABS, Britain’s most accurate bombsight. The SABS story, in turn, reveals the thinking behind the Barnes Wallis earthquake bomb, Tallboy, to be fundamentally flawed.
Finally, the thesis recovers the lost history of Patrick Blackett’s wartime career as a techno-military inventor and bombsight scientist. Blackett, Nobel laureate, ‘father’ of Operational Research, and noted scientific intellectual, has been extensively studied by historians and biographers. Until now his career as a bombsight scientist, which he sought to censor by omission, has remained closed. In the telling of this new history, our understanding of Blackett and the invention of the most important wartime bombsight, the Mk XIV bombsight, is transformed.
Period20 Dec 2018
ExamineeStephen Marsh
Examination held at
  • King's College London