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Churchill's Bomb: A hidden history of Britain's first nuclear weapons programme Paperback – 6 Nov 2014

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Product details

  • Paperback: 592 pages
  • Publisher: Faber & Faber (6 Nov. 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0571249795
  • ISBN-13: 978-0571249794
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 3.6 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 250,538 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Graham Farmelo is a By-Fellow at Churchill College, Cambridge, and an Adjunct Professor of Physics at Northeastern University, Boston, USA. He edited the best-selling It Must be Beautiful: Great Equations of Modern Science in 2002. His biography of Paul Dirac, The Strangest Man, won the 2009 Costa Biography Award and the 2010 Los Angeles Times Science Book Prize.

To find out more go to www.grahamfarmelo.com

Product Description


Authoritative and superbly readable. (Max Hastings Sunday Times)

Churchill's Bomb tells a dramatic story and tells it brilliantly. (Daniel Johnson The Times)

Dazzling ... Farmelo recounts this important story with skill and erudition. (Piers Brendon Guardian)

Graham Farmelo's very fine book ... illuminates the nexus between science, politics, war, and even literature better than anything I have read for some time ... It is not yet Book of the Year time but this has to be a contender. (Peter Forbes Independent)

A remarkable and important book. (Claire Tomalin)

A superb account of the politician's little-known interest in atomic power ... Sheds light on a little-known aspect of Churchill's life and does so with flair and narrative verve. (Ian Thomson Daily Telegraph)

A story as gripping as it is elegantly argued and precise. (Lisa Jardine Financial Times)

Provides us with a vision of a great leader, Churchill, who hesitated fatally when Britain was given, by the US, the offer of an equal share in the development of the A-bomb ... [an] intriguing insight into the pursuit of science now and then. (Robin McKie Observer Books of the Year)

Book Description

In Churchill's Bomb, Graham Farmelo - the author of the Costa award-winning biography The Strangest Man - offers us a strikingly fresh view of Winston Churchill's long political career.

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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By The Brother on 16 Nov. 2014
Format: Paperback
This is a brilliant contribution to our understanding of Anglo-American relations, the history of the British nuclear programme and the decline of British power. It is also a very original study of Winston Churchill, who has been the subject of so many books but almost none that focus on his attitudes to science. It is extremely readable, wears its enormous learning lightly and includes good portraits of the great British scientists of the 1930s and 40s, with whom Churchill and his science adviser Frederick Lindemann had an often difficult relationship.

Britain couldn't build a nuclear bomb on her own, despite leading the world in nuclear research at the beginning of the war, but lost out further, as the book argues, because Churchill failed to guarantee British access to the technology developed by the Americans. The 1945 Labour government then felt it had to develop a bomb of its own, arguably a disastrous and hubristic attempt to maintain Britain's status as a Great Power.

It's a sobering narrative, full of professional and political intrigue. Churchill was endearingly eager to master the new physics in the 1920s, but by the 1950s was appalled by what the science had unleashed on the world.

Thoroughly recommended. Farmelo also wrote The Strangest Man, one of the finest scientific biographies to have appeared for many years.
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Format: Paperback
Churchill was a visionary who got many things wrong but a few big things right. He was recognised for his second world war predictions and leadership but not as well known for his sustained efforts to harness brilliant scientists in developing an atomic bomb before Hitler did and then, despite his forebodings of its devastating effects, correctly predicting its ability to deter either side – Russia or US – from war.

As a professor of physics, Graham Farmelo provides an exceptionally clear description of the fundamentals of nuclear science but also the ethical dilemmas of the scientists. From the graphic accounts of discovery of splitting the atom by Rutherford and his team at Cambridge in the 1920’s and 30’s, through two refugees, Otto Frisch and Rudolph Peierls, showing in 1940 that nuclear bombs could be built to Oppenheimer’s Manhattan project.

He describes how Churchill assiduously follows the developments in nuclear science from the early predictions of HG Wells. His friendships and cultivation of scientific thought leaders was very wide including the novelist, HG Wells, his long serving scientific advisor , Lindemann and key scientists like Bohr, Tizard, Chadwick, Cockcroft, and Penney. Although there were clearly great rivalries between scientists and between the USA and UK, Farmelo describes their respective contributions.

Farmelo contends that Churchill provided the political clout and the influence with Presidents Roosevelt and Truman to ensure that the bomb technology, devised and developed in the Cambridge labs, was successfully brought to fruition in the Manhattan project.
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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Prof D. J. Unwin on 6 Dec. 2014
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Not as good as his Strangest Man, but still a great read and still of relevance as governments world wide continue to take bad scientific advice, as for example on 'global warming'
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0 of 11 people found the following review helpful By martin packer on 7 Nov. 2014
Format: MP3 CD
Letter sent to the author: From Martin Douglas Packer

Dear Dr. Farmelo, Visiting Academic, Churchill College, Cambridge; re. “Churchill’s Bomb” (2013),

In reply to your recent e-mail message to me, I am writing to confirm what I consider to be the several serious errors and omissions in your 2013 book: “Churchill’s Bomb”; errors are as follows:

Page 120: “the less distinguished (sic) Lawrence Bragg”; he won a Nobel Prize in 1915, James Chadwick won “first Nobel Prize to be awarded for nuclear physics” in 1935 at 44; Bragg was 25!

Page 171: “Rutherford’s successor William Bragg” (sic); it was of course Lawrence Bragg, above. William [Henry] Bragg was the father of (William) Lawrence Bragg; see two Index entries page 535.

Page 186: “a cat was thrown among the pigeons by Charles Darwin” should read “Charles Galton Darwin”; to distinguish between the two, the grandson is now always referred to with a ‘Galton’.

Page 197: “When he (Oliphant) and Charles Darwin paid a visit to Lyman Briggs” should read Charles Galton Darwin; the same as above, he was ‘Charles Galton Darwin’, and not just ‘Charles’.

Omissions include all of the following:
1. The 1951 Festival of Britain, in particular for the Science and South Bank Exhibitions?
2. The Festival Ship “Campania”, an aircraft carrier later used for ‘Operation Hurricane’?
3. ‘Operation Hurricane’: far more detail of which is readily available on the internet?
4. Maurice Hugh Frederick Wilkins: a member of both Manhattan Project and “Pugwash”?

I am copying this letter to Dame Athene Donald, the new Master of Churchill College and to Allen Packwood, Director of the Churchill Archives Centre; the latter is referred to on page 459, of course.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 20 reviews
19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
Britain's arduous struggle to achieve The Bomb in face of US opposition 9 Oct. 2013
By M. Frost - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Anyone wanting "professional" reviews of this book should read the ones published by The Economist magazine (October 5th, 2013 issue) and The Wall Street Journal (October 5th-6th weekend edition). Both are quite informative.

This is the important story about how Britain, which led the world in nuclear-weapons-related research and theory from about 1938-1942, trusted the US to work together to develop the bomb only to be unable achieve the actual bomb itself either during or immediately after WW II, as the USA legally shut off such contacts in 1946. This stab-in-the-back by her ally was a truly sad moment in US foreign relations.

I think the work suffers a bit from over emphasizing the role of Frederick Lindemann, physics don and Churchill's scientific advisor. Britain's nuclear weapons program was the result of a plethora of decisions by a wide variety of people, both scientific and military. And it further suffers from not fully understanding or appreciating Stalin's intensive spy program that stole our nuclear secrets and their huge reverse-enigneering program that allowed the USSR to begin full-scale production of their B-29 bomber copy (the Tu-4) in 1947!

Anyone interesting in Britain's development of nuclear weapons should also read Clark & Wheeler's great work, The British Origins of Nuclear Strategy 1945-1955 (Clarendon Press, 1987) and Robert Paterson's Britain's Strategic Nuclear Deterrent (Cass Books, 1997). A decent book (though from America's left-wing) is Michael Gordin's Red Cloud at Dawn: Truman, Stalin and the End of the Atomic Monopoly (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2009), which ties together the WW II era nuclear-related activity of the US, USSR, Nazi Germany, Canada, and UK. As Gordin points out, a huge irony is that the various security mistakes and breaches allowed by the USA and UK helped the USSR develop the bomb years before the UK, as the US shunted Britain off in 1946.

Oddly, the title of the book is somewhat misleading. It was Clement Atlee's moderately pro-Soviet Labour government (1945-1951) that authorized Britain's independent development of atomic weapons. The Cabinent approved this in January 1947. The Cabinent also approved the development of Britain's nuclear delivery systems, the amazing V-bombers. Ultimately Britain would build and field (starting in the mid-1950s) nearly 300 Valiant, Victor, and Vulcan bombers, which were her strategic nuclear deterent until about 1969 withh the acquisition and deploment of the US's Polaris SLBMs. It was Churchill's government that authorized the development of the UK's hydrogen bomb.

Like Gordin's book, this is securely "left-wing" historical politics. A bit too utopian in regard to the motives and desires of the USSR. A bit too willing to blame the US and UK for various post-WW II nuclear issues vis-a-vis the Soviets (and later China).
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
More input on a GREAT topic! 2 Jan. 2014
By John H. Jennings - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
A review of “Churchill’s Bomb”, by Graham Farmelo.
There have been, in recent years, a spate of books written on the subject of the development of the atomic bomb, from, the turn of 1900 , forward. This is a fascinating study, and, yet, perversely, no single book does the topic justice. Part of the problem is, of course, is the fact that it is a rather technical subject. Yet an adequate answer to the question still eludes me.
This is a British book, written from a British perspective, by a Briton. The real story, here, is not about the development of the atomic bomb, but about the decline and fall of the British Empire: about how Great Britain entered World War Two as a first rate power, yet emerged, afterwards, exhausted, worn out, and second rate. The United States and Soviet Russia emerged as the two great superpowers. When the music stopped, they had the greatest standing armies left in the field. Britain was exhausted, France a tired joke, and Germany beaten into the ground.
As regards the atomic bomb, Britain provided much technical expertise, yet, in the final game, Franklin D. Roosevelt raked in all the chips and told the British to go piss up a rope, albeit it an in an appropriately politically obscure fashion.
The United States developed dominance in the nuclear sphere by the self evident power of its vast economic resources. Pre-war physicists thought the atomic bomb was impossible because no nation could possibly bet vast economic resources on the extremely long shot that the bomb could be developed. (At one point, the efforts to develop the American bomb consumed one-seventh of the total electrical output of the United States.)The United States went to the GCV (great cosmic Vegas), laid down its bets, covered them all, and by covering them all, won.
The race to develop the bomb took many odd turns and twists. No one book tells them all, this book is better than most.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
The Unknown Churchill 24 Oct. 2013
By Charles Schwager - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
As an American I am fascinated by Churchill's loss of the Premiership after WWII. This book, though not focussing on that, gives a plausible explanation for something that Americans have long been pondering. For here Churchill is shown with all his flaws, especially in his reliance on The Prof, and his administrative shortcomings, as they relate to the development of the Atomic bomb. Who knew that Churchill and H G Wells were friends and that Wells' books helped Churchill to understand and appreciate science and what it could bring to politics?

The prose is lucid and many interesting asides make for easy reading and moments of "I didn't know that!" I thoroughly enjoyed the book both as hidden history and as a narrative about one of the great historical figures.

Full disclosure: I am a friend of the author.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Not Richard Rhodes, but a Solid Contribution to WWII Atomic Bomb History 22 Sept. 2014
By Tech Historian - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
To anyone trying to get a full history of the development of the atomic bomb in the west, this book is a valuable addition. While the author is no Richard Rhodes, he does add historical context of why the British lost the lead in developing the first atomic bomb.

The background of Churchill's life long connection to H.G. Wells was fascinating. But even more surprising was Churchill's interest in, and understanding of nuclear research in the 1930's. However it raised the larger question of why, if Churchill truly understood the basics a decade before any other political leader, he was so slow on the uptake once the MAUD report laid out that building an atomic weapon was looking more like a massive industrial effort not a speculative research project. It was the dissemination of the MAUD report in the U.S. by a British scientist that convinced the country by the end of 1941 to fund serious nuclear research and pilot plant production.

My short take away from this book is that the British understood the theory, but didn't have the organizational skill, industrial capacity or leadership to make a big bet during wartime. (Ironically these same issues would see the British squander their lead in developing a commercial computer industry from their lead in Bletchley Park with the Colossus.) Lacking an understanding of what the ownership of a nuclear monopoly would mean, Churchill dealt away the early lead Britain had. By late 1942, when the British woke up to what was happening in the U.S. the Manhattan project had already become a U.S. Army military weapons system project and no British assistance or cooperative effort was wanted.

The book also helped me understand the role of Churchill's scientific advisor Frederick Lindemann. In most military histories Lindermann often appears as a footnote with a bit of disguised disdain, but with no real reasons given. While not quite a Lindermann biography the book helped me appreciate his outsized influence on Churchill's thinking about weapons systems.

(As an aside, somewhere, someone must have done a study comparing the weapon systems bets each side in WW II made; the Germans on V1, V2, battleships/cruisers versus aircraft carriers, U.S. bets on aircraft carriers, atomic bomb, long range bombers, Britain on fighters and medium range bombers, the Soviets betting on T-34 tanks Il-2 ground attack aircraft, multiple rocket launchers, and etc. It would be interesting to see which were the right/wrong bets.)

While I understand the authors intent of telling the arc of Churchill's life and the bomb, the post WW2 discussion seemed forced, thin and stretched the book out longer than necessary.

Finally, the book put in context the contributions and role of British scientists in the Manhattan project: William Penny, Otto Frisch,Rudolf Peierls, Geoffrey Taylor, Marcus Oliphant, Patrick Blackett, James Chadwick, Philip Moon and John Cockcroft. I had heard of these names in isolation but never quite understood their relationship to each other and their prewar research.

Just as a note, early on I almost put the book down a bit put off by the breezy writing and heavy use of English colloquial terms. (At times I had to refer to the web to translate them.) I'm glad I stuck to it. A worthwhile read for anyone interested in the British contribution to WWII nuclear weapons program.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Interesting, but a bit of Alternate History 10 Jun. 2014
By John Hayward - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Yrs the Brits were far ahead of the US in nuclear research initially, but they were in a disparate situation during the war: militarily stretched, economically nearly bankrupt (recall that this was the second global war they were involved in thirty years - during The War to End All Wars they sold off many capital assets to fund that war and by 1940-41 were relying on US war loans and Lend-Lease to survive) and just about cut off by U-Boats in 1942.

To fund the bomb on a timely basis was well beyond their means. That the US might have taken advantage of them . . . Well even friends do that from time to time.

Was Churchill well advised, perhaps not. But for an excellent overview of this strengths and weaknesses read: "Winston's War" - Max Hastings. He was a great man, but not a perfect man. Without Churchill England would not have survived but some of his decisions past "Their Finest Hour" look less than wise in retrospect.
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