I began work in the Operational Research Section (ORS) of the British Royal Air Force’s Bomber Command on July 25, 1943. I was 19 years old, fresh from an abbreviated two years as a student at the University of Cambridge. The headquarters of Bomber Command was a substantial set of red brick buildings, hidden in the middle of a forest on top of a hill in the English county of Buckinghamshire. The main buildings had been built before the War. The ORS was added in 1941 and was housed in a collection of trailers at the back. Trees were growing right up to our windows, so we had little daylight even in summer. The Germans must have known where we were, but their planes never came to disturb us.
I was billeted in the home of the Parsons family in the village of Hughenden. Mrs. Parsons was a motherly soul and took good care of me. Once a week, she put her round tin bathtub out on her kitchen floor and filled it with hot water for my weekly splash. Each morning I bicycled the five miles up the hill to Bomber Command, and each evening I came coasting down. Sometimes, as I was struggling up the hill, an air force limousine would zoom by, and I would have a quick glimpse of our commander in chief, Sir Arthur Harris, sitting in the back, on his way to give the orders that sent thousands of boys my age to their deaths. Every day, depending on the weather and the readiness of the bombers, he would decide whether to send their crews out that night or let them rest. Every day, he chose the targets for the night.
“Bomber” Harris’s entire career had been devoted to the proposition that strategic bombing could defeat Germany without the use of land armies. The mammoth force of heavy bombers that he commanded had been planned by the British government in 1936 as our primary instrument for defeating Hitler without repeating the horrors of the trench warfare of World War I. Bomber Command, by itself, was absorbing about one-quarter of the entire British war effort.
The members of Bomber Command’s ORS were civilians, employed by the Ministry of Aircraft Production and not by the air force. The idea was that we would provide senior officers with independent scientific and technical advice. The experimental physicist Patrick Blackett had invented the ORS system in order to give advice to the navy. One of the crucial problems for the navy was to verify scientifically the destruction of U-boats. Every ship or airplane that dropped a depth charge somewhere near a U-boat was apt to claim a kill. An independent group of scientists was needed to evaluate the evidence impartially and find out which tactics were effective.
Bomber Command had a similar problem in evaluating the effectiveness of bombing. Aircrew frequently reported the destruction of targets when photographs showed they had missed by several miles. The navy ORS was extremely effective and made great contributions to winning the war against the U-boats in the Atlantic. But Blackett had two enormous advantages. First, he was a world-renowned scientist (who would later win a Nobel Prize), with a safe job in the academic world, so he could threaten to resign if his advice was not followed. Second, he had been a navy officer in World War I and was respected by the admirals he advised. Basil Dickins, the chief of our ORS at Bomber Command, had neither of these advantages. He was a civil servant with no independent standing. He could not threaten to resign, and Sir Arthur Harris had no respect for him. His career depended on telling Sir Arthur things that Sir Arthur wanted to hear. So that is what he did. He gave Sir Arthur information rather than advice. He never raised serious questions about Sir Arthur’s tactics and strategy.
Our ORS was divided into sections and subsections. The sections were ORS1, concerned with bombing effectiveness; ORS2, concerned with bomber losses; ORS3, concerned with history. My boss, Reuben Smeed, was chief of ORS2. The subsections of ORS2 were ORS2a, collecting crew reports and investigating causes of losses; ORS2b, studying the effectiveness of electronic countermeasures; ORS2c, studying damage to returning bombers; ORS2d, doing statistical analysis and other jobs requiring some mathematical skill. I was put into ORS2d.
Two other new boys arrived at the same time I did. One was John Carthy, who was in ORS1; the other was Mike O’Loughlin, who shared an office with me in ORS2d. John had been a leading actor in the Cambridge University student theater. Mike had been briefly in the army but was discharged when he was found to be epileptic. John and Mike and I became lifelong friends. John was cheerful, Mike was bitter, and I was somewhere in between. In later life, John was a biologist at the University of London, and Mike taught engineering at the Cambridge Polytechnic. After retiring from the Polytechnic, Mike became an Anglican minister in the parish of Linton, near Cambridge.
The ORS consisted of about 30 people, a mixed bunch of civil servants, academic experts, and students. Working with us were an equal number of WAAFs, girls of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, who wore blue uniforms and were subject to military discipline. The WAAFs were photographic interpreters, calculators, technicians, drivers, and secretaries. They did most of the real work of the ORS. They also supplied us with tea and sympathy. They made a depressing situation bearable. Their leader was Sergeant Asplen, a tall and strikingly beautiful girl whose authority was never questioned. The sergeant kept herself free of romantic entanglements. But two of her charges, a vivacious redhead named Dorothy and a more thoughtful brunette called Betty, became attached to my friends John and Mike. Love affairs were not officially discouraged. We celebrated two weddings before the War was over, with Dorothy and Betty discarding their dumpy blue uniforms for an afternoon and appearing resplendent in white silk. The marriages endured, and each afterwards produced four children.