Townsend Brown - a story much like hanging glass wind chimes....

Where Do We Hang The Gewgaws?

The stripped-down Townsend Brown narrative in “Just the Facts, Ma’am” is bereft of the glamorous enhancements that add drama to his story.

For example, the tale of how Townsend lost a finger (in a post war snatch-and-grab mission) added a super spylicious touch to the TTB mythos. But the reality seems to be that it happened in a much earlier, more mundane, machine shop accident.

However, in the interest of covering all possible bases, I have to report that at one time (and perhaps, still) Linda believed, was told, or imagined, that the event  happened in the thirties, in a nefarious  covert action (of the German American Bund, I think?*).

But then, finger aside, there is the bigger gewgaw story of the whole secret mission at the end of the war. I have seen the telegram from Intrepid to Jo, informing her that Townsend was healing in an English hospital (Chapter 56, Eerily Quiet), so I think that one hangs nicely in April/May/June 1945.

But Smyth/Smythe tells of Townsend leading another clandestine mission at the beginning of the war:

As I recall, it was in November of ’39 that the first magnetic mine was captured — right in the Thames Estuary — and defused, just as Bowen took charge of the NRL. A secret NBO [Naval Bureau of Ordinance] salvage operation led by [T.T.] Brown brought back the mechanism [emphasis mine] of another captured magnetic mine and Francis [Bitter] discovered that when the residual magnetism of a ship distorted the local geomagnetic field of the sensor, it activated the magnetic needle of the trigger. (p.31)

That’s a new gewgaw entirely. It doesn’t “hang” with anything else we know or have heard about Townsend Brown. It may, however hang with the famous Oslo papers of 1939 and the later activities at China Lake Naval Ordinance test lab.

On 4 November 1939, Captain Hector Boyes, the Naval Attaché at the British Embassy in Oslo, received an anonymous letter offering him a secret report on the latest German technical developments. To receive the report, he was to arrange for the usual announcement of the BBC World Service’s German-language broadcast to be changed to “Hullo, hier ist London”. This was done and resulted in the delivery of a parcel a week later, which contained a typewritten document and a type of vacuum tube, a sensor for a proximity fuze for shells or bombs.

If the atom bomb and radar were the two greatest secrets of WWII, research into proximity fuses was the third. Many former Cal-Tech folks were working beaverishly to build and test functioning models of them at the Naval Ordinance test center at China Lake. We have surprisingly good accounts of this time, immediately after the bifurcation point, from the oral histories left by folks  such as Smyth/Smythe, and Nobel Prize winning physicist William Fowler, a protege of  Robert Milikan, who won his own Nobel in 1923

Personally, I think al these things hang together nicely: Smyth/Smythe’s story, the Oslo Report, and the subsequent focus of the work at China Lake. But that’s just me.  All we (Paul and I) can do is  to share the gewgaws as we find them, and leave it to you, dear reader, to decide where you want to hang them, or even if you want to hang them at all.


*ETA on October 6. The only reason I have thought this is because I have assumed that the incident happened in America. But there is always a possibility that Townsend was elsewhere and the newspaper story was planted as cover.

‘Glass Wind Chimes” image atop this post courtesy Wikimedia Creative Commons

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