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The bombing of Hamburg and Dresden


Sent to Bomber Command
Freeman Dyson Scientist
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[Q] '43 you get your degree from Cambridge and the decision to have you go to Bomber Command is made by...?

CP Snow, the man himself. He was, of course, a famous novelist, but he was actually a Civil Servant whose job it was to put technical people into the appropriate positions. So he had a long list of these young men who were coming out of the Universities, and he had slots to put us in. Some of us went to Bletchley to do crypto-analysis; some of us went to Malvern to do radar; and some of us went to High Wycombe to analyse bomber operations, and he decided that I should go to High Wycombe. And that was fine - I mean, I would go wherever I was sent - but he wanted to make it sound beautiful and so he gave me an interview where he told me more lies in twenty minutes that I ever heard anywhere else about all these wonderful things I would be doing.

[Q] Was this the first time you had met him?

Yes. He was just... as far as I was concerned, he was just a functionary. I'd never read any of his books, but he described to me this wonderful job I was going into and I would be able to fly with the crews and to have this glorious adventure of taking part in the hardships of the bombing campaign and seeing what was really going on and so on. So I was just bamboozled totally, and I think it was just his novelist's imagination got the better of him. He can't have believed that, he must have known better. But anyhow, I was very happy I was going to such an exciting job. When I got there of course I found that it was nothing but sitting in a dingy office all day long, and I never got anywhere close to flying in an operational bomber.

Freeman Dyson (1923-2020), who was born in England, moved to Cornell University after graduating from Cambridge University with a BA in Mathematics. He subsequently became a professor and worked on nuclear reactors, solid state physics, ferromagnetism, astrophysics and biology. He published several books and, among other honours, was awarded the Heineman Prize and the Royal Society's Hughes Medal.

Listeners: Sam Schweber

Silvan Sam Schweber is the Koret Professor of the History of Ideas and Professor of Physics at Brandeis University, and a Faculty Associate in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University. He is the author of a history of the development of quantum electro mechanics, "QED and the men who made it", and has recently completed a biography of Hans Bethe and the history of nuclear weapons development, "In the Shadow of the Bomb: Oppenheimer, Bethe, and the Moral Responsibility of the Scientist" (Princeton University Press, 2000).

Tags: 1943, Cambridge University, RAF Bomber Command, Bletchley Park, Royal Radar Establishment, Malvern, High Wycombe, CP Snow

Duration: 2 minutes, 3 seconds

Date story recorded: June 1998

Date story went live: 24 January 2008