The word ‘boffin’ became widely used during the Second World War as an affectionate term to describe the scientists who worked quietly in the background developing new military technologies. The origins of the word are not clear.
There was a strange-looking character in the Dickens novel Our Mutual Friend called Nicodemus Boffin. However, the word was probably an acronym of the words ‘back office intern’. The word also carried with it associations of being rather eccentric and unusual, of a character who labours long and hard in secret to invent devices that are incomprehensible to most people but which had dramatic and revolutionary military effects.
School for Secrets (produced, written, and directed by Peter Ustinov in 1946) is ‘the story of a handful of boffins’. An opening caption explains the film is ‘a tribute to all scientists, to the men and women of all ranks in all three services, and the civilians who worked side by side with them on the development of radar’.
Another opening caption offers its own explanation of the etymology of the word boffin saying that it emerged in RAF slang alongside words like ‘prang’, ‘scramble’, and ‘wizard’. It goes on to suggest humorously that it derived from the mating of a Puffin with a Baffin (‘an obsolete service aircraft’) to produce a bird that ‘bursts with weird and sometimes inopportune ideas’ of ‘staggering inventiveness’!
The film opens in July 1939 with five eccentric scientists being called to a meeting at the Air Ministry. They are asked to do immediate war work on developing new uses for radar. ‘If and when war comes,’ explains the man from the Ministry, ‘we will need to conscript science just as we conscript soldiers.’
The leading figure of the group is Professor Heatherville (played by Ralph Richardson). He is a zoologist who specialises in the study of reptiles and cannot imagine why he has been asked to join the distinguished group of physicists. He is wanted for his inquisitiveness, explains the man from the Ministry.
The other four scientists are the rather grand Prof Laxton-Jones (Raymond Huntley), a Scottish academic Dr McVitie (beautifully played by John Laurie), Dr Dainty (Ernest Jay), and a young engineer from a radio company called Mr Watlington (David Tomlinson). The five scientists each have different and rather odd characteristics from which much humour is derived through the film.
The five boffins are rather improbably sent off with their wives to an imaginary seaside town called Kipping Hampton, where they are billeted in a big Victorian house run by Mrs Arnold (nicely played by Marjorie Rhodes as the typical, nosey landlady). She is suspicious of her guests and tries repeatedly to find out what they are up to.
But engaged on secret war work, they cannot reveal anything. Instead it is her son Jack (played by a young Richard Attenborough, who was by then well on the way to stardom), an RAF pilot who discovers that they are ‘the greatest scientists in Britain’ when he is asked to fly some of their experimental missions. Towards the end of the film, when Jack reveals this to his mother, the landlady replies ‘Oh, if I had known, I’d have treated you all much better.’
The film features several scientific technologies, but all the actors struggle to bring their characters alive. Each comes across in a rather forced theatrical way, probably because Peter Ustinov was an experienced theatre-writer. Even Ralph Richardson finds it hard to pull off the role of the boffin who is a mix of whacky inventiveness and pompous self-importance.
John Laurie at least brings his Scottish scientist alive in a way that is both entertaining and endearing. Of course, Laurie went on to be inseparably associated with the Second World War to a later generation by playing the dour Scot Private Frazer in Dad’s Army.
The most interesting sections of the film tell the story of the men and women who worked on radar and developed it into new areas. The film flashes forward to August 12 1940, when the Luftwaffe stepped up its attacks on Britain. The film convincingly portrays a group of WAAF radar operators at Ventnor under attack from Luftwaffe bombers. They continue to pass on the bearing and number of the raiders to Fighter Command headquarters even though the roof is blown in above them. This is based on fact. The radar station at Ventnor was bombed heavily that day and was put out of action for ten days.
Even though several radar stations along the Kent coast were also bombed, Goering’s Luftwaffe did not realise how central they were to the fighter defence of Britain and the raids were never repeated. It was a dreadful blunder and the radar stations were soon back in action, enabling Fighter Command to plot each new raid as it appeared and to scramble Hurricane and Spitfire fighters accordingly. There are many reasons why the Germans lost the Battle of Britain, but without radar it would have been impossible for the RAF to have won it.
In the autumn of 1940, as the German bombing of the Blitz brought regular night-time raids on the cities of Britain, the group of scientists are called upon to improve the night-time operation of radar. Heatherville and Dr McVitie test out the night radar known as Airborne Interception (AI). One of them is to fly with Jack Arnold in a night fighter.
When Jack realises the boffins he is to work with are the lodgers in his mother’s guest house, he asks his commanding officer in amazement ‘Do they know about AI?’ To which he gets the answer ‘They invented it.’
This is the one section of the film where the story is historically completely wrong. The two scientists help the ground controllers and the pilot to get within a few yards of the German bomber and shoot it down.
In reality, the RAF had no night radar that was effective at this point of the war. A pilot would normally need to get within about 300 yards of another aircraft to be able to visually identify it at night. The ground radar did not have anything like the level of accuracy needed to guide a fighter that close to an enemy bomber.
The scientist ‘Taffy’ Bowen had developed a primitive form of airborne radar at Bawdsey before the war known as AI, but it had proved immensely difficult to miniaturise the heavy, valve-based equipment so as to carry it in a night-fighter.
The aircraft had to mount two dipole aerials, one along the wing and the other under the fuselage. The navigator had a cathode-ray tube, and by switching between the strength of the radar echo on each of the dipoles he could instruct the pilot to fly up or down, or right or left.
It was an incredibly difficult system to operate in the best conditions. At night, flying into a fleet of hostile enemy aircraft, it proved almost impossible. Unlike the triumph in School for Secrets, by the end of 1940 only one German bomber had actually been shot down using AI.
The next big scene in the film dramatises one of the regular meetings that took place at TRE (Telecommunications Research Establishment) at Worth Matravers in Dorset. Here scientists, senior RAF officers, and top civil servants met together and openly discussed problems in the hope that someone present might come up with solutions. The meetings were nicknamed ‘Sunday Soviets’.
In School for Secrets a senior officer from Bomber Command comes forward and admits that his force is losing too many men and machines and that they are too often missing their targets, sometimes by several miles. He says the accuracy of their bombing is not good enough to justify the losses they are suffering.
To most cinema goers in 1946, this would have been a remarkable revelation. Everyone watching the film had for years heard BBC Radio announcers give details of the ‘target for tonight’ usually followed by glowing reports of factories in flames and enemy cities destroyed. To find that at this stage of the war the RAF did not have the navigational aids to hit their targets would have been a big surprise.
Sadly, however, it was true. The RAF crews were not trained and equipped to fly hundreds of miles at night across a blacked-out Europe; unlike the Luftwaffe, they had no navigational aids to guide them to their targets.
The final sequence in the film is in many ways the most interesting. It is a dramatisation of the Bruneval Raid of February 1942 (see MHM 34, July 2013). The film explains that there is a gap in the scientists’ knowledge of the German radar system and they need to capture a radar station intact, dismantle it, and bring it back to Britain.
Many aspects of the raid are accurately reconstructed. A Para force is dispatched to carry out the mission, and even the detail that recovering the Wurzburg bowl radar was the main objective is correct. One of the technical advisers on School for Secrets was Captain John Timothy, who had actually taken part in the Bruneval Raid. He enjoyed a few weeks before demobilisation at Denham Studios, where the film makers were eager to get the details correct. Ustinov offered him a cameo part in the film, but the actors union Equity blocked his appearance.
The one element of the raid in the film that was completely wrong historically was that one of the boffins actually went on the raid. Ralph Richardson as Prof Heatherville is the unlikely figure who parachutes into enemy territory. He gets caught in a tree and a Para has to help free him. He then dismantles the enemy radar under fire, as the engineers had actually done at Bruneval. Eventually all the Paras escape on landing craft that come in to take them and their precious cargo away, just as happened for real.
A fitting tribute
School for Secrets has countless flaws. It is stilted and over-theatrical. It tries to tell too many separate stories and makes too many improbable jumps from one to another. An experienced director might have been able to pull it all together. But working with his own script, Ustinov was not up to the task in his directorial debut. Nevertheless, it is fascinating that so soon after the end of the war there was a film celebrating the tremendous achievement of the backroom scientists in developing radar.
In the last scene, with the war in Europe over and some of the scientists heading off to America to help build a bomb to end the war with Japan, Heatherville is asked what he did in the war. ‘I was a boffin,’ Ralph Richardson proudly answers. It is a fitting tribute to the British scientists who had contributed so much to the final victory.