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Lindemann, Frederick Alexander, Viscount Cherwelllocked

(1886–1957)
  • Robert Blake

Frederick Alexander Lindemann, Viscount Cherwell (1886–1957)

by unknown photographer

Lindemann, Frederick Alexander, Viscount Cherwell (1886–1957), scientist and politician, was born on 5 April 1886 at Baden-Baden, where his mother was taking the cure. He resented all his life the accident of his birthplace being in Germany. He was the second of three sons of Adolphus Frederick Lindemann (1846–1927), whose family was of Catholic (not, as was often stated, Jewish) French Alsatian origin, and his wife, Olga Noble, American daughter of a successful British-born engineer and widow of a rich banker called Davidson. She was a protestant and insisted on her four children being brought up as Anglicans. Lindemann's father, born in 1846, emigrated to Britain in his twenties and later became naturalized. He was a wealthy man, and his and his wife's combined income was about £20,000 a year. He was also a scientist and astronomer of distinction, and built a private laboratory at his home near Sidmouth.

Early life

Lindemann and his elder brother, Charles, were educated at Blair Lodge, Polmont, in Scotland, a school now extinct, and from 1902 first at the Realgymnasium then the Hochschule in Darmstadt. They both distinguished themselves sufficiently in science to be accepted as PhD students by Professor Nernst, the celebrated head of the Physikalisch-Chemisches Institut in Berlin. Lindemann gained his doctorate, although oddly not with the highest honours, in 1910. He must have been an unusual student. His comfortable allowance of £600 a year enabled him to live in the luxury of the Adlon Hotel. Somewhat incongruously he was a vegetarian—a temporary fad of his mother having left a permanent influence on him. Moreover, all his life he neither smoked nor drank alcohol except upon the rare occasions when, at Winston Churchill's insistence, he would take a carefully measured glass of brandy. He was fond of music and an excellent pianist, but he was indifferent to the visual arts, and to the end of his days had a ‘lowbrow’ taste in literature. Lindemann and his elder brother were first-class tennis players, and won many prizes. Later Lindemann achieved the probably unique distinction of competing at Wimbledon after he had become a professor. Lindemann had a playboy younger brother nicknamed Seppi. He lived in Paris and owned two Rolls-Royces—a white one with a black chauffeur, and a second with the colours reversed. Lindemann did not approve.

Lindemann was playing tennis in Germany just before war broke out in 1914, but left in time to avoid being interned. In March 1915, after vainly seeking a commission, he joined the Royal Aircraft Factory at Farnborough, the chief centre of experimental aviation in England. His most notable contribution was his solution to the problem of ‘spin’ in aircraft. According to official records he learned to fly in the autumn of 1916, invariably—to the surprise of his colleagues—appearing at the station with the bowler hat, black Melton coat, and furled umbrella which were to be his characteristic uniform all his life. During June and July 1917 he tested empirically the theory that he had worked out to explain the nature of a spin and the way to get out of it. He was not the first person to extricate himself from a spin, but he was the first to establish the correct scientific principle—an achievement which not only entailed great courage, but the remarkable power of memorizing in nerve-wracking conditions no fewer than eight different sets of simultaneous instrument readings. The theory has been advanced that he performed this feat in June or July of the previous year, but the weight of the evidence is against it.

In 1919, thanks partly to Henry Tizard, who was a colleague of his Berlin days, Lindemann was elected Dr Lee's professor of experimental philosophy (that is, physics) in the University of Oxford. The chair was attached to Wadham College, where he remained a fellow until his retirement. But in 1921 Lindemann was also elected, as was legally possible in those days, to a 'studentship not on the governing body' at Christ Church, which had provided the endowment for the chair. This entitled him to rooms more spacious than Wadham could provide, and from 1922 for the rest of his life he lived in Christ Church.

Scientific career

Lindemann's most important personal contributions to physics were made between 1910 and 1924. His first papers under Nernst's influence were concerned with low-temperature physics, and his doctoral thesis on the law of Dulong and Petit was a criticism of Einstein's formula for explaining the startling decrease in the specific heat of diamond at the temperature of liquid hydrogen. He and Nernst devised a formula which gave a better explanation, but it was later caught up and replaced by the Debye formula, the superiority of which Lindemann at once recognized. At the same time he was working on the connection between the characteristic frequency and the melting-point of a solid, and produced a theory relating melting to the amplitude of oscillation of atoms. He was exceedingly versatile while in Berlin. He invented, along with his brother Charles, a glass transparent to X-rays, which he patented. He endeavoured to improve the electronic theory of metallic conduction. He contributed to the theory of solids and was probably the first person to notice the paradox that their breaking stress is nothing like as great as theoretical considerations would suggest. He wrote papers on astronomical problems including one in conjunction with his father on the use of photo-electric cells in astronomical photometry. In the same paper he gave the first account of his ‘Lindemann fibre electrometer’ which, with modification, became a standard instrument and was his main contribution to experimental techniques. In 1919 he collaborated with F. W. Aston in a paper on the possibility of separating isotopes. He did some valuable work on certain geophysical problems and in 1923 with G. M. B. Dobson produced a paper which, although some of its suggestions are not now accepted, was the beginning of the modern theory of meteorites. In 1920 and 1922 he made important contributions to the theory of the mechanism of chemical reactions.

Lindemann's strength as a physicist rested on his remarkable capacity for simplifying problems and in his very wide range. His relative weakness was in mathematics, and this was reflected in the limitations of his Physical Significance of the Quantum Theory (1932). He was a man of intuition and flair in widely diverse fields, but he never pursued any one subject long enough to become its complete master. Much of his brilliance was shown in discussion at scientific conferences, and has not survived in published form. For this reason later generations have not found it easy to understand the high esteem in which he was held by such persons as Albert Einstein, Max Planck, Max Born, Ernest Rutherford, and Henri Poincaré. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1920.

The chair at Wadham gave Lindemann the headship of the Clarendon Laboratory, whose prestige had sunk to a very low ebb. It had no research staff, and no mains electricity. Its principal contents were packing cases full of unused optical instruments. Although Lindemann's career is in many respects controversial, no one has disputed his massive achievement in turning this museum piece into a great laboratory. He was adept at extracting money from the university and from outside sources. Long before he retired, the new Clarendon which he had persuaded the university to build was one of the foremost physics departments in Britain. Lindemann did not concentrate on any one line, although there was a slight bias towards the nucleus. Among the earlier research workers whom he picked were T. R. Merton, A. C. G. Egerton, G. M. B. Dobson, and Derek Jackson. In the 1930s he was active in recruiting to posts in Oxford Jewish refugee scientists from Hitler's Germany. The most prominent of these was Francis Simon, who became one of Lindemann's closest friends and in 1956 succeeded him as Dr Lee's professor.

Lindemann's academic career was not without friction and he had more than one clash with the university authorities. He was apt to make wounding and sarcastic remarks. He was both prickly and aggressive in the cause of natural science, which he regarded with some justice as a slighted subject in Oxford. He did not readily suffer fools. His wealth—his father, who died in 1927, had handed on a large sum to each of his sons—allowed him to move in circles very different from those of the academic middle class. He preferred ducal houses to north Oxford. In 1919 he was introduced by J. C. Masterman to Lord Birkenhead—tennis being the link—and it was at Birkenhead's house that he received the nickname of the Prof, by which he came to be almost universally known. In 1921 through the duke of Westminster he met Winston Churchill—the beginning of a lifelong friendship.

Air defence

Lindemann's political views were well to the right. He was an out-and-out inequalitarian who believed in hierarchy, order, a ruling class, inherited wealth, hereditary titles, and white supremacy (the passing of which he regarded as the most significant change in the twentieth century). It was fully in keeping with this attitude that he should have mobilized some of the personnel (not wholly willing) of the Clarendon to help produce Churchill's British Gazette during the general strike of 1926. Exceptionally for a person of these views, Lindemann was one of the first to recognize the danger of Hitler. His pre-war sojourn in Germany had given him an acute awareness of that country's formidable strength and aggressive potential. Filled with these apprehensions, he became gravely perturbed at the inadequacy of British air defence, and at the seeming fatalism of the government.

In 1934, both independently and through Churchill, he pressed for the creation of a high-level committee to consider the problem urgently. In fact, the Air Ministry had decided towards the end of the year to set up a departmental committee of its own, the committee for the scientific survey of air defence under Tizard's chairmanship, with Dr. A. V. Hill, H. E. Wimperis, and P. M. S. Blackett as members. The Tizard committee was to be responsible for one of the most important achievements in British defence: the effective application of radar to the interception of enemy bombers. But Churchill and Lindemann were convinced that a mere advisory departmental committee would not carry enough weight. In the spring of 1935 the government partly gave way and agreed to set up the air defence research sub-committee of the committee of imperial defence, with Sir Philip Cunliffe-Lister as chairman. Both Tizard and Churchill were members, but the sub-committee's functions were limited and in practice it seems to have been regarded as little more than a sop to Churchill. There was, however, one important by-product. Churchill insisted that Lindemann should be put on the Tizard committee.

Lindemann, who joined the sub-committee at the end of June 1935, treated his colleagues from the start in a spirit of criticism bordering upon hostility. Relations between him and Tizard—which had previously seemed friendly enough, at least on the surface—deteriorated rapidly, to the consternation of their many mutual friends, and the breach was never healed. A year later the committee broke up with the resignation of Hill, Blackett, and Tizard in protest at Lindemann's tactics. It was promptly reconstituted in October, but without Lindemann.

The conflict has been wrongly presented by Lord Snow and others as a dispute about the priority to be given to radar. The evidence of its inventor, Sir Robert Watson-Watt, is conclusive that Lindemann very strongly backed radar, although he was more apprehensive than the others about the possibility of enemy jamming. It is true too that Lindemann favoured the simultaneous exploration of various other defence devices which turned out to be impracticable, such as aerial mines. But the real conflict was over the status of the committee. Lindemann with his grand social and political contacts was prepared to go to almost any lengths, including publicity and political lobbying, to obtain real executive powers for it. His objective was sound, but his methods difficult to defend, and Tizard and his colleagues found it intolerable that Lindemann should report behind their backs to Churchill on the air defence research committee. With their service background and orthodox approach, they considered that it was not for them to try to change the terms of reference laid down by the Air Ministry.

Their doubts about Lindemann cannot have been allayed by his efforts to enter parliament for Oxford University on a programme of revitalizing British air defence. He failed to secure the second Conservative nomination at the general election of 1935, when he was defeated by C. R. M. F. Cruttwell, principal of Hertford College, who to Lindemann's glee subsequently lost his deposit. In 1937 there was a by-election. Lindemann resolved to fight with or without the official nomination, which in the event went to Sir Farquhar Buzzard. They were both easily beaten by Sir Arthur Salter, standing as an independent.

Churchill's personal assistant

The next few years were a period of frustration for Lindemann, but with the outbreak of war in 1939 he moved at once to the centre of affairs as personal assistant to Churchill at the Admiralty and head of his statistical section. He continued the same work when Churchill became prime minister in May 1940.

Lindemann was made a peer in 1941 with the title of Baron Cherwell of Oxford. In 1942 he became paymaster-general, in 1943 a privy councillor. Although never a member of the war cabinet, he frequently attended its meetings. His loyalty to Churchill was absolute, his influence on him profound.

Cherwell was a master at the art of lucidly presenting highly complicated matters with the greatest economy of words. He wrote about 2000 minutes to Churchill during the war on a vast range of topics. The prime minister greatly admired this gift, and would often pass on bloated memoranda from other departments with the request, 'Prof. 10 lines please'. Cherwell's advice was by no means only on scientific matters. He had a staff of economists, headed by Donald MacDougall, one of whose tasks was to produce charts and graphs for Churchill so that he could visualize changes in such areas as weapon production, food imports, and shipping losses. Another task—and a very unpopular one—was the critical scrutiny of departmental statistics. For example, Lindemann correctly discovered that the German front-line strength in bombers in 1940 was grossly exaggerated, and after an inquiry by a High Court judge into the rival statistics Lindemann's became the basis of policy. He also came to the less agreeable, but no less correct, conclusion that British night bombing at that time was less than one-third as accurate as the Air Ministry claimed. Navigational aids were at once improved. Another result of his quantitative analysis was to cut by a factor of more than two the ships going to the Middle East and America in the summer of 1942.

Lindemann actively supported experiments in new weapons of every sort. Hollow charge bombs and proximity fuses were among those whose development he pressed. One of his major contributions was the ‘bending’ of the wireless beam on which in 1940 German night bombers were relying for finding their targets. R. V. Jones, a former pupil then employed at the Air Ministry, was the first to suspect that the Germans possessed this device. Tizard appears to have been sceptical. If Lindemann had not pressed for counter-measures with all his weight, the consequences might have been disastrous. Cherwell also strongly backed the researches of his old pupil Derek Jackson into microwave radar. One of many important results was the invention of H2S, the name of the device which gave a radar picture of the country to the navigators of the Pathfinder night bombers. It is probably fair to say that what Tizard did for Fighter Command Cherwell did for Bomber Command.

Cherwell's judgement, like that of most persons in high places during the war, sometimes went astray. He greatly overestimated the damage that could be done to war production by the massive area bombing of German towns, and was rightly criticized by Tizard and Blackett. But it seems unlikely that his famous minute in 1942 to Churchill on this theme was the determining factor in a decision which had its roots far back in recommendations of the chiefs of staff in 1940. Area bombing did not stop German war production. It rose until the winter of 1944–5, by when German air defence had been pulverized. But Cherwell's calculations were based on a bomber front-line strength of 4000, never remotely attained. And critics have seldom taken account—nor did Cherwell himself—of what is now known to be the huge diversion of resources from the eastern front in order to defend German towns. Cherwell accompanied Churchill to Potsdam in 1945. They surveyed the scene of destruction in the city where Lindemann had spent his happy formative years. Whatever his feeling, Cherwell did not say a word.

Cherwell was wrong, too, to advise postponing for nearly a year the use of ‘Window’, the technique of confusing enemy radar by dropping strips of tinfoil. Although he had encouraged its development he feared lest the enemy would be alerted to use it too, and it should be said in justice to him that many radar experts took the same view. Another error was his excessive scepticism about the German rocket bomb, or V2. He was right in ridiculing the danger of its possessing a 10 ton warhead, but he was characteristically extremist in maintaining that it did not exist at all. Still, when all criticisms have been made, the value of his war work must be regarded as immense. Churchill, and through Churchill the whole country, owed him a great debt of gratitude.

Return to Oxford

With the fall of the Churchill administration in 1945 Cherwell returned to Oxford and the Clarendon. He was at the same time a member of the shadow cabinet, and principal opposition spokesman in the House of Lords on economic affairs. He was also prominent in discussion of the atomic bomb, and had nothing but contempt for the arguments of those who wished to ban tests. In October 1951 he reluctantly joined Churchill's cabinet, again as paymaster-general. His main achievements were to defeat the Treasury proposals to bring in immediate sterling convertibility together with a floating rate of exchange and to prise the control of atomic energy out of the Ministry of Supply and into the hands of an independent authority. He had a great dislike of Whitehall ‘bureaucracy’, though happy relations with many individual civil servants. One of Cherwell's ‘causes’ after the war was the creation of a new technological university on the lines of the Massachusetts Institute. He failed to overcome Treasury objections, and although he welcomed the foundation of Churchill College, Cambridge, it met his objectives only in part. There is still no British MIT.

In 1953 Cherwell's leave of absence from Oxford ran out and he resigned his government post. He was made a CH, and three years later was created a viscount. Although he possessed life tenure of his chair, he retired in 1956 but was allowed to reside in college, for, whatever friction there might have been in the past, he was now regarded as the most interesting and entertaining of companions. His last important speech in the House of Lords was an acid analysis of the United Nations in December 1956. For some time his heart had been giving him trouble, and he died in his sleep at Christ Church on the morning of 3 July 1957, and was buried in the North Oxford cemetery. He never married and his titles became extinct. Two-thirds of his estate was left to Christ Church, one-third to Wadham, with a wish but not a legal obligation that it should be used for 'Lindemann scholarships' in physics.

Lindemann was on any view a remarkable person. Reinforcing with his scientific expertise and his clarity of mind his personal friendship with one of the greatest statesmen in British history, he exercised more influence in public life than any scientist before him. He had a brilliant mind, 'one of the cleverest men I ever met, as clever as Rutherford', to quote Tizard's generous judgement. He was a man of extremes: passionate loyalty to friends, implacable detestation of enemies. And he inspired correspondingly extreme sentiments, deep devotion on the one hand and something near to hatred on the other. There were curious apparent contradictions about him. He was an ascetic who deeply distrusted asceticism in others. It came as a surprise to many to learn how vigorously he campaigned in the war for the plain man against austerity and meagre rations. Yet he knew singularly little about how the vast majority of his fellow countrymen lived—even the middle classes, let alone the masses. He was reputed never to have been on a London bus or tube train. He believed that most people were stupid and needed to be governed for their own good by an élite. He was a most amusing, indeed fascinating, conversationalist, but he could utter sentiments so cynical and sardonic as to shock his hearers, especially the young. 'One shouldn't kick a man when he's down', said a guest in the Christ Church common room. Lindemann replied, 'Why not? It's the best time to do it because then he can't kick you back'. Yet he was kind-hearted and secretly most generous to those in need. The sinister picture of him drawn by Rolf Hochhuth in his play The Soldiers was to anyone who knew Cherwell an absurd travesty.

Lindemann's voice was curiously frail, and his rather mumbling mode of delivery somewhat marred his lectures and speeches, which read better than they sounded. In appearance he was a big man with broad shoulders, and an aquiline countenance. He dressed conventionally and immaculately, but he was a striking figure in any company. Few who met him ever forgot him.

Sources

  • G. Thomson, Memoirs FRS, 4 (1958), 45–71
  • R. Harrod, The Prof (1954)
  • C. P. Snow, Science and government (1961)
  • C. P. Snow, A postscript to ‘Science and government’ (1962)
  • Earl of Birkenhead, The Prof in two worlds: the official life of Viscount Cherwell (1961)
  • R. W. Clark, Tizard (1965)
  • C. M. Bowra, Memories (1966)
  • Lord Moran, Winston Churchill: the struggle for survival, 1940–1965 (1966)
  • personal knowledge (2004)
  • R. V. Jones, Most secret war (1978)
  • T. Wilson, Churchill and the Prof (1995)
  • Lord Blake and R. Lewis, eds., Churchill (1995)

Archives

  • IWM, corresp. and papers
  • Nuffield Oxf., corresp. and papers
  • TNA: PRO, papers, CAB 127/194–203
  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. relating to Society for Protection of Science and Learning
  • CAC Cam., corresp. with R. V. Jones

Likenesses

Wealth at Death

£101,390 18s. 7d.: probate, 25 July 1957, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]
Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society