It's never too early to start thinking about the shape of the next war, even if the current one is still being fought. At the end of May 1945 -- only three weeks after V-E day and over two months before V-J day -- some discussion on the subject was held in the House of Lords by interested peers. On 29 May, Lord Vansittart proposed an international commission of scientists to monitor Germany to make sure it did not develop or use 'any scientific discovery or invention considered dangerous to the safety of mankind'.1
He said we were dealing with a periodically homicidal nation, and unless we kept a firm hand on them we should have V10 in less than 10 years. There had been an insufficient answer to V 1, and no answer at all to V 2 except the old-fashioned one of conquering the sites. Science had not given the answer. The second world war had been within measuring distance of the atom bomb. Where would the third begin? We had had the very devil of a lesson, and it would be our own fault if we had another.2
He also called for something like 'a world inspectorate in order to guard against the development or over-development of secret devices',3 which could lead to 'a secret armaments race of a far more terrifying character' than any that had gone before.
Vansittart was clearly disturbed by the effects of the German V1 and V2 missiles on London. At this time, London was (along with Antwerp) the only great city in the world with experience of missile warfare -- the last one had fallen in March 1945. V2s in particular were very unsettling, as no defences and no warnings were then possible for objects travelling on a ballistic trajectory four times faster than the speed of sound.
But wait a second. Vansittart also said that 'The second world war had been within measuring distance of the atom bomb' (emphasis added). This is two months before Hiroshima, over a month before Trinity even! The Manhattan Project was extraordinarily secret (to everyone but the Soviets, that is). I doubt know if Vansittart even knew about it -- he had been permament under-secretary of the Foreign Office from 1930 to 1938, but then was kept out of the loop for the next three years until he actually retired. Even if he did know about the Manhattan Project, he shouldn't have been talking about it; and even if he did talk about it, the censors shouldn't have let the newspapers print it. So I think he must have been referring to some public revelation about the German bomb programme, the remnants of which had recently fallen into Allied hands. But if so, The Times itself doesn't seem to have reported it, and I don't know exactly what the public may have been told.
The following day, Lord Brabazon (a pioneer aviator and, more recently, Minister of Aircraft Production) further speculated on where the V1 and V2 might lead. He thought that in the immediate future, there was little danger of war, as its horrors would be fresh in everyone's minds, but
It was after 10 years that troubles would occur. The techniques of rocket propulsion would go on. It would be chased by scientists of different nations, and some would chase the subject with revenge in their hearts. He [Brabazon] could well imagine some Power roping off a few miles of their territory, sinking what were nominally mine shafts, making the parts of these instruments all over the country, and getting all ready for a really efficient V 2 attack upon their selected enemy. When they were about to attack no navy, army, or air force would be apparent, but they would have the power latent to launch an attack on the great cities of their enemy and the power to devastate the moment they declared war. Before armies could be possibly assembled, and still less march, the great cities of the enemy would be destroyed.4
So the knock-out blow is already being adapted for the missile age -- and now you don't even need an air force to deliver one! Brabazon was evidently impressed by the underground V2 factory at Dora, and worried that such a facility would enable an agressor to build a massive missile force in secret. So like Vansittart, he wanted 'some international committee with power to enter into works anywhere in the world, to see what they were up to'5 -- or else Britain and the United States had to make sure that they kept well ahead of the rest of the world in missile technology.
Another peer revisited the possibility of atomic warfare; he hoped that the big United Nations conference at San Francisco then underway might take up the matter.
The EARL of DARNLEY said that this method of warfare might not only destroy humanity but also the globe on which humanity resided. The atomic bomb, which was almost ready at the end of the war, might in a generation accomplish even that. One as big as a man's hand could have destroyed the whole of a city as large as London. The war of the future might only last a few minutes, and as it was the fashion to make war without warning the whole thing might be over before anyone was aware that it was taking place. The fighters would be a band of troglodyte alchemists who would deal out death to millions of people. From now on the chemists of the world in every country would be in a race to improve these hellish machines, and it needed little imagination to see that the end of this mad race could coincide with the end of the human race.6
Again, the knock-out blow is being redeployed for a new warfare. The old-fashioned kind, fought with bombers and high explosive and lasting days or weeks, is superceded by an atomic version, lasting only minutes, killing millions of people and possibly destroying the planet.7
So, German ballistic missiles plus (I think) German atomic bomb research equals an early, pre-Hiroshima preview of the atomic war fears that became so prevalent from the 1950s on. And this is not in America, but in Britain. (In fact, it seems almost inevitable that this should be so.) I have often speculated here on the parallels between the aerial age's knock-out blow and the atomic age's apocalyptic scenarios; it seems that this is one point at which they were not parallel but actually convergent, where the one began to turn into the other.
The Times, 30 May 1945, p. 8. ↩
The Times, 31 May 1945, p. 8. ↩
A huge exaggeration of course, as is the claim that an atomic bomb 'as big as a man's hand' could destroy a city -- which all serves to confirm that Darnley, at least, wasn't getting his information direct from the Manhattan Project. ↩
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://airminded.org/copyright/.