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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