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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High explosive, damp squibs: the history of bombing raids

Governing from the Skies by Thomas Hippler examines the changing role of aerial bombing.

Bombing from the air is about a hundred years old. As a strategic option, it eroded the distinction between combatants and non-combatants: it was, Thomas Hippler argues in his thought-provoking history of the bombing century, the quintessential weapon of total war. Civilian populations supported war efforts in myriad ways, and so, total-war theorists argued, they were a legitimate object of attack. Bombing might bring about the collapse of the enemy’s war economy, or create a sociopolitical crisis so severe that the bombed government would give up. Despite efforts to protect non-combatants under international law, civilian immunity has been and continues to be little more than an ideal.

Hippler is less concerned with the military side of bombing, and has little to say about the development of air technology, which, some would insist, has defined the nature and limits of bombing. His concern is with the political dividends that bombing was supposed to yield by undermining social cohesion and/or the general willingness to continue a war.

The model for this political conception of bombing was the colonial air policing practised principally by the British between the world wars. Hippler observes that the willingness to use air power to compel rebel “tribesmen” in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa to cease insurgency became the paradigm for later large-scale campaigns during the Second World War, and has been reinvented in the age of asymmetric warfare against non-state insurgencies: once again in Iraq and Afghanistan – and, indeed, anywhere that a drone can reach.

The problem, as Hippler knows, is that this type of bombing does not work. A century of trying to find the right aerial platform and armament, from the German Gotha bombers of 1917 to the unmanned missile carriers of today, has not delivered the political and strategic promise that air-power theorists hoped for. Air power is at its best when it is either acting as an ancillary to surface forces or engaged in air-to-air combat. The Israeli strike against Arab air forces at the start of the 1967 war was a classic example of the efficient military use of air power. In the Second World War, the millions of bombs dropped on Europe produced no social upheaval, but the US ­decision to engage in all-out aerial counterattack in 1944 destroyed the Luftwaffe and opened the way to the destruction of Germany’s large and powerful ground forces.

The prophet of bombing as the means to a quick, decisive solution in modern war was the Italian strategist Giulio Douhet, whose intellectual biography Hippler has written. Douhet’s treatise The Command of the Air (1921) is often cited as the founding text of modern air power. He believed that a more humane way to wage war was to use overwhelming strength in the air to eliminate the enemy’s air force, and then drop bombs and chemical weapons in a devastating attack on enemy cities. The result would be immediate capitulation, avoiding another meat-grinder such as the First World War. The modern nation, he argued, was at its most fragile in the teeming industrial cities; social cohesion would collapse following a bombing campaign and any government, if it survived, would have to sue for peace.

It has to be said that these views were hardly original to Douhet. British airmen had formed similar views of aerial power’s potential in 1917-18, and although the generation that commanded the British bomber offensive of 1940-45 knew very little of his thinking, they tried to put into practice what could be described as a Douhetian strategy. But Douhet and the British strategists were wrong. Achieving rapid command of the air was extremely difficult, as the Battle of Britain showed. Bombing did not create the conditions for social collapse and political capitulation (despite colossal human losses and widespread urban destruction) either in Britain, Germany and Japan, or later in Korea and Vietnam. If Douhet’s theory were to work at all, it would be under conditions of a sudden nuclear exchange.

Hippler is on surer ground with the continuity in colonial and post-colonial low-­intensity conflicts. Modern asymmetric warfare, usually against non-state opponents, bears little relation to the total-war school of thinking, but it is, as Hippler stresses, the new strategy of choice in conflicts. Here too, evidently, there are limits to the bombing thesis. For all the air effort put into the conflict against Isis in Syria and Iraq, it is the slow advance on the ground that has proved all-important.

The most extraordinary paradox at the heart of Hippler’s analysis is the way that most bombing has been carried out by Britain and the United States, two countries that have long claimed the moral high ground. It might be expected that these states would have respected civilian immunity more than others, yet in the Second World War alone they killed roughly 900,000 civilians from the air.

The moral relativism of democratic states over the century is compounded of claims to military necessity, an emphasis on technological innovation and demonisation of the enemy. For all the anxieties being aired about militant Islam, the new Russian nationalism and the potential power of China, it is the United States and Britain that need to be watched most closely.

Richard Overy’s books include “The Bombing War: Europe (1939-1945)” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times