Science of War:
Canadian Scientists & Allied Military Technology During the Second World War

by Donald H. Avery,
ISBN: 0802059961

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Pawns in a Scientific War Game
by Tim Tokaryk

In my backyard, I, like most North American children, took up arms against my neighbour's children-with plastic guns and rifles that popped or cracked as we chased each other over fences and through gardens. That was our concept of war. We knew nothing about chemical weapons, biological warfare or detonation fuses, and we could only imagine what effect an atomic bomb would have on our "war game". In reality, however, our backyards were proving to be the laboratory for the development of just such military technology, born by scientists out of the pressures of war for use in a much more serious conflict.

We are most familiar with America's development and deployment of the atomic bomb, that ambiguous symbol of scientific and technological achievement in the Second World War. In The Science of War, Donald Avery, a History professor at the University of Western Ontario, examines Canada's contribution to the development of new weaponry, such as artillery fuses that detonated charges at a "lethal distance" rather than requiring a direct hit. He argues that our contribution to the war effort was significant, even when mired in the conflicting agendas of Great Britain, the United States, and Canada, and in the labyrinth of secrecy protocols.

Fearing that the Germans would not hesitate to use biological or chemical weapons, Frederick Banting, a Canadian hero for his work in helping to discover insulin, warned that Canada must be prepared to defend itself. His stature as a scientist and the collective memory of the use of mustard gas in the previous war sparked our development of chemical and biological weaponry.

However, The Science of War is not as much about the scientific development of weaponry (be it chemical, biological, atomic or new explosive devices), as it is about the political and bureaucratic manoeuvering that went on behind the scenes. The scientific infrastructure was often a pawn in a larger power struggle between the rapid technological advancement of the Americans, who were not immediately drawn into the conflict and who were much more reserved about jumping into a technological union with other countries, and the self-assured superiority of the British, who were at times "uncooperative and condescending". The British had immediate concerns about Nazi Germany and expected its Commonwealth charges, like Canada, to fall immediately in line by providing technological support as well as military personnel. The Americans, who had their own research objectives, were in many ways easier to deal with: while the British wanted all proximity fuses to configure to their own bombs, for example, the Americans had the capability to mass produce; and although the British and then the Canadians pioneered this form of weaponry, it was the Americans who would eventually become the supplier.

As Avery points out, while many of the scientific resources in Canada came from universities-primarily from the University of Toronto, McGill, and Queen's-it was the National Research Council (NRC), headquartered in Ottawa, that directed the research projects to various laboratories and research facilities across the nation. At one time, 1,400 scientists, technicians, and other staff were on the NRC payroll. However, the demands of the British and the lucrative offers of the Americans threatened to skim off the Canadian scientific cream. When a radar specialist from McGill University was about to leave with one of his prize students to take up an American position, NRC president C. J. Mackenzie cried, "I could not possibly facilitate any young man of military age leaving Canada for what amounts to a job in a foreign country, without any real authority in connection with his future service."

The Canadian contribution to chemical and biological weaponry was first-rate. This was in part because the project administrative leader, Otto Maass, understood science and politics and could appeal to all levels of the scientifically illiterate Canadian government and its military, but also because Canada was one of the first nations to fear deployment of this type of weaponry. Another factor was the development of testing facilities, like the military base near Suffield, Alberta, where Canadian, British, and American officials and scientists were able to gauge the progress of new instruments of warfare, now called weapons of mass destruction, and their defence capabilities. Because the Canadians had taken the lead in this field, the United States and Great Britain were able to look upon Canada as a true partner.

With limited resources and more immediate concerns of war on the homefront, the British enlisted the aid of Canadians to develop technologies for extracting radioactive elements for possible use in atomic bombs. The Montreal Atomic Laboratory was formed. But by this point, the Americans were already ahead of the game, and a more mutual relationship developed between the Americans and Canadians. The British, realizing they couldn't match the effort and resources of the Americans, dropped out of the race. Canadians could then provide technical support for the Americans, as well as plan for the post-war industrial use of atomic energy. One of the lucrative spinoffs was the emergence in the 1960s of the CANDU reactor.

Apparent throughout The Science of War is the labyrinthine thickness of bureaucracy and the need for security and secrecy (the last two conclude Avery's book). The number of committees, departments, and projects during the Second World War made it extremely frustrating for the typically free-spoken scientist to practice his trade, and also causes some difficulties for the reader: Avery lists two-and-a-half pages of acronyms at the beginning of the book. As unavoidable as it is, the continual inclusion of acronyms throughout the text does disrupt the flow of the book; but it also illustrates the degree to which efforts were made to contend with all contingencies.

The legacy of Canadian science during the Second World War is still in place and is illustrative of science in general in this country. Our resources, human and natural, are considerable, but we continue to be, for the most part, a junior partner in the global scheme. Although we are no longer "a pawn in... [a] scientific chess game", E. Stacie, a later president of the NRC, contended that we are "by no means helped by our [low] attitude" toward our resources, and we continue to be "dominated by our neighbor" to the south. This is no more apparent than in the way our country continues to lose human resources to more lucrative academic or industrial opportunities in foreign lands. We still have burps and hiccups on the radar screen of scientific achievements, but initial support for these non-wartime activities is given almost grudgingly. Our own complacency and scientific ignorance are our enemy now.

The Science of War uncovers many of the roots of science in Canada. In spite of our stereotypical Canadian dilemma of whose side of the yard to play in, as well as bureaucratic and political bungling, scientific stars did shine through, like Frederick Banting and the University of Toronto chemist, George Wright, who worked on explosives. These two, along with many others, contributed to the end of one of the darker periods in our species' history. As Avery points out on the last page, whether we cringe from this fact or not, "[o]ne reason why Canada has assumed a significant role in attempts to ban weapons of mass destruction is directly linked to the degree of expertise it possesses in these fields." For this reason, The Science of War is a useful, in-depth reminder of our history-one we hope not to repeat. 

Tim Tokaryk is an historical scientist in Eastend, Saskatchewan.


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