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Reviewed: Engineers of Victory by Paul Kennedy

Boffins at war.

Engineers of Victory: the Problem Solvers Who
Turned the Tide in the Second World War

Paul Kennedy
Allen Lane, 464pp, £25

Seventy years ago, in January 1943, Winston Churchill and the then president of the United States, Franklin D Roosevelt, plus their chiefs of staff, were closeted together for ten days in a hotel in Casablanca, reviewing the Allies’ war aims and the strategy necessary to achieve them. The conference – and the declaration that emanated from it, calling, at Roosevelt’s insistence, for the “unconditional surrender” of the Axis powers – came at a time when such an outcome seemed a prospect that was far distant, if attainable at all.

The period from 1942-43 was the lowest point of the war for the Allies. The terrible attrition of the “battle of the Atlantic” intensified in the months after the Casablanca conference. In March 1943 alone, German U-boats sank 108 Allied convoys bringing much needed food, fuel, materiel and men across the Atlantic – an unsustainable rate of losses that negated Britain’s historic advantage as an island power and threatened to starve its war industries and people of essential supplies.

Yet if control of the sea seemed a chimera, control of the air over western Europe, which would enable Britain to serve as a launch pad for the invasion of Europe and as a base to take the bombing campaign deep into the heart of the Third Reich, was equally elusive. Without it, all hopes of mounting the “second front” that Stalin was urging to relieve the staggering losses Russia was suffering in the east would be in vain.

Resources were also needed for a fightback in the Pacific and the Far East, where Japan had more or less wiped out Britain’s colonial empire (though Churchill’s insistence on a “Europe first” agenda was ratified at Casa - blanca, despite the grumblings of the US navy top brass). Yet, 18 months later, most of these aims had been realised (unconditional surrender excepted). Paul Kennedy’s new book joins those such as Richard Overy’s Why the Allies Won (1995) in trying to explain how this happened.

He does so by concentrating not on grand strategy and the manoeuvres of military commanders but on the practical solutions of war carried out by those he calls “middlemen”, engineers in the widest sense of the word, who worked to solve problems by expert reasoning, bold experimentation and the very occasional eureka moment.

For example, success in the war at sea against Admiral Dönitz’s ferocious submarine “wolf packs” became a reality through a combination of escort ships that were equipped to detect and kill while accompanying the convoys all the way across the Atlantic and the increased range of planes that allowed the Allies to close the “air gap”. Round-the-clock bombardment gave German industry little respite and fatally weakened the country’s infrastructure but this would not have been possible without the development of long-range fighter support.

The Allies did not win the war simply by gradually developing more powerful and effective war machines to pit against the enemy (nor, in Kennedy’s view, by superior intelligence gathering) but by the intelligent application of these and other resources. This was facilitated by Churchill’s ability to pick the right men for the job and what Kennedy calls a “culture of encouragement” that nourished the boffins’ work.

Engineers of Victory is not based on new discoveries in forgotten archives; rather, it is a careful stitching together of already known elements, a demonstration that it was their interconnectedness and interdependence that made Allied victory possible. The decisive combination of new technologies included: dramatic refinements in radar; deadly “hedgehog” grenades; offshore Mulberry floating harbours; the Merlin engines that transformed the performance of the P-51 Mustang fighter plane; Leigh lights that dazzled surfacing U-boats; Major General Percy Hobart’s various “funnies” – converted tanks deployed to clear the Normandy beaches of mines. It was advances such as these, coupled with a greater understanding of the vital contribution of logistics and supply lines, plus the imagination, practical abilities and dogged hard work of the “problem solvers”, that eventually coalesced to achieve an Allied victory.

What also contributed were the overstretch and miscalculations of the Germans and Japanese, on the one hand, and civilian morale, on the other. Before the Blitz in 1940-41, there was concern that the British people would not be able to “take it” when faced with nightly attrition by the Luftwaffe and that the war would be lost on the home front as disastrously as it could be on the battlefield, at sea or in the air. This did not happen – for a fully rounded explanation of “why the Allies won”, perhaps that also needs to be taken into account.

Juliet Gardiner’s most recent books are “The Thirties: an Intimate History” and “The Blitz: the British Under Attack” (HarperPress, £12.99 and £8.99 respectively)

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Assange Alone

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide