Paul Kennedy: "It’s my contention that the story of the 'middle people' hasn’t been told"

The Books Interview.

You claim in your new book that the turning point in the Second World War occurred much later than is often argued. Does that put you at odds with the views of many of your colleagues?

It puts me at odds with many works! There’s a colossally stupid kind of claim, which is to say, “Moscow, December 1941, the battle that won the Second World War”. That would have surprised the Americans and the Japanese!

I’m also tilting against a very popular strand of literature that says, “The decisive battle, the decisive intelligence breakthrough” – I’m saying that history is much more complicated than that.

So I’m tilting against a) a historiography that is very populist and makes large claims and b) the notion that, by late 1942, it was downhill all the way for the Allies. I’m saying, “No, there were some really significant problems to be solved.”

You argue that the problem solvers were those you call the “middle people” – engineers rather than strategists, on the one hand, or troops, on the other.

It’s my very strong contention that their story hasn’t been told. When I was writing the book, I kept bumping into characters and organisations I didn’t know about.

For example, trying to find out about someone you’d think would be an American national hero, Ben Moreell, the founder of the Seabees, was so difficult. Weirdly, the best summation of who Moreell was and what he did is in a Wikipedia article by some anonymous buff.

Can we infer from this that you’re sceptical of history that concentrates on the doings of “great men”?

Yes, indeed. Not that I don’t think someone like Churchill wasn’t extraordinary – but I felt that there was too much history of the great man.

Some individuals emerge from the book with their reputations intact – Viscount Alanbrooke, for instance.

He recognised that without Winston, the British war would not be won. So he recognised that there was a great leader, someone who could articulate, lead, have ten ideas a day, eight of which were really awful but two of which were worth considering.

Alanbrooke’s great qualities were the toughness of mind of the Ulsterman, scepticism, a dislike of flashy people and a profound suspicion that if he and the British chiefs didn’t work every day, Winston would do something really stupid. He was very sceptical about trying to invade France as early as 1943; he just didn’t think it was possible.

One of the things you’re trying to do in the book is to explain how the Allies got themselves in a position to win the war, starting from the low ebb of January 1943.

I’m not just interested in trying to explain how you got out of the stasis of late 1942 and early 1943 but also in who did what. It was about developing a culture where the people in the middle levels could be encouraged to innovate and be eccentric. January 1943 is a good starting point. After the political leaders at Casablanca gave out the political statements – “Germany first”, unconditional surrender – there came the statements about what you had to do to achieve success.

How perilous was the situation in January 1943 when Churchill and Roosevelt met at Casablanca?

Churchill always kept an eye on the Atlantic and said it was the battle that had to be won. So he was anxious – especially when the merchant ship losses in February and March 1943 went shooting sky high. The thing about Roosevelt was that he had this innate confidence that once the massive productivity of the American industrial machine was geared up to full strength, then no matter what the setbacks, they were just going to be overcome. So I don’t think he was as worried as his advisers.

Despite claims that the war in the Pacific had turned at Midway and that the war on the eastern front had turned at Stalingrad, you still had some massive challenges facing the Allies.

Paul Kennedy’s “Engineers of Victory: the Problem Solvers Who Turned the Tide in the Second World War” is published by Allen Lane (£25)

FDR and Churchill at the Casablanca meeting in 1942. Photograph: Getty Images

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The cheap food delusion

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Why Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes were a real horror couple

BBC Radio 4's My Muse sees Kathryn Williams explore the eerie side of Plath's life.

The first in a three-part series in which artists describe the figures that have most inspired them (Mondays, 4pm) followed the English singer-songwriter Kathryn Williams as she went, first, on a pilgrimage to Sylvia Plath’s grave and later to a favourite spot of the poet’s atop Parliament Hill. Williams has written an album devoted to Plath and we heard bits from it – but those weren’t the moments that conjured up the poet. It was when Williams approached the grave in Heptonstall, West Yorkshire – and thunder clapped from nowhere as she reached the headstone (with its inscription from the Chinese: “Even amidst fierce flames the golden lotus can be planted”) – that this story really got going. “It’s baking hot,” she croaked, “and there’s thunder behind me!”

Occasionally we heard Plath herself reading from poems, talking in that Katharine Hepburnish way, a way you can’t quite believe she spoke in actual life, oddly decelerated and lustrous, slowing into a relentless and deeply uncanny imperiousness. Then, just as Williams visited the bench on Parliament Hill where Plath sat wretchedly after a miscarriage in 1961, a rat ran past her feet. “Wow! Look! What is going on?” By now both presenter and programme were deep into the boding mood that Plath can put you – the sort of mood where you’re bound to meet a million portents and omens. Someone mentioned a woman who thought she saw a picture of herself in the newspaper one day . . . and only after some time did she realise that it was Sylvia.

A more spooky Plath-Hughes ­experience you couldn’t make up. Both poets, masters of the harbinger. Sylvia pulling the worms off her body (“like sticky pearls”) after coming to, following a childhood suicide attempt, lying in a nook under the ­family house. Ted with his horoscopes and his dreams, recalling the howling of wolves in the aftermath of Sylvia’s death (London Zoo was just down the road from him). They were the great horror-writing couple: it is an abashingly real element, vital to their appeal. “Need”, “want”, “an addictive pull”, “moon” and “sea” – those were the sorts of words Williams used in speaking about Plath, in her kind and curious Liverpudlian voice, and with her songwriter’s noticing eye. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser