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Engineers of Victory:
The Problem Solvers Who Turned the Tide in the Second World War
by Paul Kennedy
I t is almost a paradox that the western allies in the second world war fought many of their battles poorly, but made strategy and organised their nations incomparably better than did the Axis. The British and Americans mobilised their finest civilian brains to remarkable effect as code-breakers, planners and creators of extraordinary new weapons and technology.
The Admiralty's department of miscellaneous weapons development produced all manner of devices to advance the war at sea, prominent among them the Hedgehog anti-submarine projector. This was a large grenade launched from a mortar, invented by a first world war artilleryman in his fifties, Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart Blacker, who turned to good use a lifelong enthusiasm for blowing things up.
Winston Churchill was at his best in promoting scientific and technological originality, for instance insisting on a command for Major-General Percy Hobart, a maverick armoured warrior whom the War Office disliked. Hobart went on to create the specialised tank formations of 'funnies' that played a notable role on D-Day: 'flail' mine-clearers, bridge-layers, amphibious tanks and track-layers.
Nor were the Americans short of original thinkers, such as the former civil engineer Ben Moreell, who persuaded President Roosevelt in 1942 to create the US navy's Construction Battalions (CBs), which became famous as the Seabees. The men in these units were recruited from the building trades, had an average age of 37, and eventually swelled to a strength of 325,000. Their motto was 'We Build, We Fight', and by August 1945 they had constructed 111 airfields and 441 piers, plus hospitals for 70,000 patients and many other facilities. The Seabees made a huge contribution to winning the Pacific war, where vast distances created as many challenges for America as did the enemy.
Paul Kennedy is a British academic who has had a distinguished career in America, and is the author of some important historical studies, among them The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. He makes bold claims for this new book, which examines the history of the second world war through the allies' technological breakthroughs. He describes himself as offering 'major scholarly research and writing' and asserts: 'We have lived with a large gap in our understanding of how the second world war was won in its critical years. Perhaps the present work will help to close that gap a bit.'
Successive chapters examine the impact of technology on the battle of the Atlantic, especially through the contribution of high-frequency direction-finding radio detectors, and on such subjects as specialised submarine hunter-killer groups and the aforementioned Hedgehog. He describes how the American Mustang fighter was transformed into a game-changing long-range escort by substituting a British Rolls-Royce Merlin for its original Alison engine, and celebrates the introduction of the cavity magnetron to radar sets, a breakthrough that reduced the size of radars, increased their accuracy and had an impact on both the war at sea and the strategic bombing campaign. He also applauds the role of the US submarine service in the defeat of Japan. Seldom in history has such a small body of men so changed the course of a war: they strangled Japanese supply lines before American Superfortress bombers even started their fire-raising campaign against Emperor Hirohito's cities.
The problem with all this, however, is that it is hard to identify a single personality or issue in Kennedy's text not exhaustively discussed in every halfway decent book about the war for the past 20 years. He writes as if he has been living in a cave, cut off from contemporary knowledge. For instance, he treats the March 1943 battles around the HX229 and SC122 British convoys as unfamiliar, when they are well known to every student of naval history; Martin Middlebrook published an entire book about them back in 1976.
Kennedy enthuses about the Mulberry artificial harbours towed across the Channel to be sunk off Normandy after D-Day. But many analysts doubt that Mulberries justified the huge resources they consumed, and believe that merely sinking blockships could have achieved the same result much more economically.
He makes many casual assertions that invite dissent. For instance, he says that Churchill's people yearned for retaliation against the Luftwaffe, for the blitzing of Britain’s cities. Some indeed expressed such sentiments, but it is more remarkable how many displayed unease about area bombing. Hitler was foolish to reinforce North Africa in November 1942, but it is cavalier of Kennedy to state that he 'poured in crack divisions', when there were never more than eight German formations there, against 170 in Russia.
It is cruel to continue nit-picking. Kennedy makes a few good points, such as his emphasis on the limitations of the early models of the Russian T-34 tank, a notably crude war machine. He writes that as he worked on this study, 'the ghost of the late, great Peter Drucker hangs around this present book'. Drucker was a famous management guru, and Kennedy's fundamental thesis is correct, that superior allied war management contributed mightily to victory. But almost all the people and issues he discusses in gee-whiz prose are familiar to students of the war, never mind to historians of it. He has written some outstanding books in the past, and I am sure will publish more in the future, but this is not one of them.
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