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See It Like Jones Would: The Mysterious Case of the ‘Engine-Stopping Rays’

In Most Secret War, Dr. R. V. Jones discusses the human tendency to “conjure up fear under conditions of stress,”1 a tendency the modern Westerner—stalked by fears of terrorism, crime, and economic catastrophe—will no doubt appreciate. The example Jones cites, though seemingly trivial in hindsight, is both entertaining and revealing.
      During the war, rumors began to filter back to Britain about a German “engine-stopping ray.”2 The site of the supposed misadventure was invariably near a television tower. Jones relates,

As usually reported, the phenomenon consisted of a tourist driving his car on one of the roads in the vicinity, and the engine suddenly ceasing to operate. A German Air Force sentry would then appear from the side of the road and tell him that it was no use his trying to get the car going again for the time being. The sentry would, however, return and tell him when he would be able to do so. The sentry appeared in due course, and the engine started.3

Jones and his team were unconvinced, and justifiably so. Later, Jones uncovered a simple but plausible explanation when talking to a refugee from Germany: the ignitions of nearby cars apparently disrupted the testing of the television transmissions. Sentries were posted to stop cars when the testing was underway. Jones, of course, saw an opportunity:

… we thought that it might be a good idea to start the same tale going in England to see whether it would puzzle the Germans. The story spread rapidly, and we heard it from time to time, with ever increasing detail. The last I heard of it was a family of Quakers, who of course never lie, driving across Salisbury Plain when the engine of their car stopped. In due course a soldier appeared and told them that it would now start again, and so they were able to continue on their way.4

      Needless to say, neither side was immune to stress, a fact Jones recognized. He confessed,

I found some satisfaction in learning that the Germans, too, could form their own wild theories when under stress. The pilots of one bomber formation, Kampf Gruppe 100, had been asked to investigate a theory that whenever one of our Observer Corps posts heard a German bomber overhead at night it switched on a red light, so that our patrolling fighters could thus get a rough clue to the whereabouts of the bomber. Actually, we had no such procedure, but after three weeks the pilots of this crack formation reported that from their own observations the theory was undoubtedly correct. Probably we had so many red lights showing accidentally that at least one was always within visual range of an aircraft flying anywhere over England …5

      Obviously fear and stress undermine our ability to think; that’s a given. The thoughtful red teamer understands this and pushes forward to questions like these:

  • What do I fear?
  • Why do I fear it?
  • Is my opponent exploiting this fear?
  • If so, how?
  • How can I negate the effects of this fear?
  • How can I turn the fear to my advantage?
  • What does my opponent fear?
  • Can I exploit this fear?
  • And so on …

Jones, for example, didn’t stop when he guessed that the engine-stopping ray was merely a rumor; he asked himself how he could turn the rumor against his opponent–once again, classic Jones.

  1. Jones, Most Secret War, p. 115. []
  2. ibid., p. 50. []
  3. ibid., p. 50. []
  4. ibid., pp. 50–51 []
  5. ibid., p. 125 []