The cogs of war

Engineers of Victory: The Problem Solvers Who Turned the Tide in the Second World War, by Paul Kennedy, Allen Lane, RRP£25/Random House, $30, 464 pages

The history of high politics and strategy has inherent interest; history from below has popular and political appeal. The history of the middle level – bureaucracies, businesses, managers, machines, organisations – can appear neglected by comparison, despite being of obvious importance, not least in the 20th century. Perhaps this is because it has often proved surprisingly difficult to write critically and intelligently about it. Paul Kennedy, best known for his 1987 blockbuster The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, has thus achieved a notable feat in bringing a large dose of common sense, historical insight and detailed knowledge to bear in his refreshing study of what might be called the material history of the second world war. His subject is how the war was won, with what machines, tactics and organisations.

Like the problem-solvers he follows, he defines his problem in a manageable form. Engineers of Victory narrows down its story to the 18 months between the Casablanca conference of early 1943 and the summer of 1944. Kennedy focuses on five major questions that faced the Allies: how to defeat the U-boat; how to bomb Germany effectively; how to push back the German army in the east, managing large amphibious operations; and how to take the fight to Japan across the vast Pacific Ocean.

None of these things were possible at the beginning of the period, but all were being achieved by the end. By mid-1944 Operation Bagration in the east, and the Normandy landings in the west, had succeeded; strategic bombing was already causing great damage to Germany and was soon to be unleashed on Japan. There was no doubt that the Axis powers were close to defeat, which was not the case in early 1943.

What made this possible is not easy to describe. It is nicely acknowledged through the book that writing seriously about the nuts and bolts of war-fighting is challenging, not least because neat, simplifying assumptions need confronting if the story is to convince. Thus although in early 1943 the United Nations (as the allies styled themselves from January 1942) had greater war production than the Axis powers, what mattered was the effective use of resources in the right places, something not captured by war production statistics, not easy to comprehend or achieve. Nor can one grasp the essence of the problem by taking a few selected weapons as war-winners. Once one looks, as Kennedy has done, at what was in use, what worked, and how and why it worked, standard stories about the centrality of this or that machine often turn out to be misleading.

For example, if one were to add up all the claims to war-shortening innovations, the second world war would have ended before it had started. But such stories arise, as Kennedy recognises, from experts with credit to accumulate and expertise to sell. Although Hiroshima and Nagasaki do not fall within his period, Kennedy is clear that the atomic bombings of Japan added little to the destruction already meted out by other bombs. But he needs to take one seemingly authoritative claim head-on: that British cryptographic genius (Alan Turing and all that) shortened the war dramatically. The claim is that codebreaking was central to the defeat of the U-boat, without which D-Day would have been delayed by two years or more, and this would have delayed the end of the war by the same time. But the Red Army did not depend on an Allied advance in the west and would not have been stopped by the absence of one.

Kennedy’s point is that the very rapid defeat of the U-boat in spring 1943 cannot be put down to codebreaking, as at this stage it was the Germans who were winning the intelligence battle at sea. Other machines and innovations were critical – radio direction finding, centimetric radar, long-range aircraft, larger numbers of humble escorts, Leigh lights, the Hedgehog depth charge launcher and, crucially, new and better tactics. There are no wonder weapons in this story, only intricate systems, of gigantic scale and scope, developed by incremental innovation and often through trial and error.

To take another case, for all the lazy claims made for the power of the Soviet T-34 tank, it did not outclass its opponents, and it was only towards the end of the war, through adaptation and improvement, that it became very successful. War against and with tanks depended not just on the quality of tanks, but on anti-tank guns, the landmine (and the mine-detector), combat engineers, and so on.

What made a particular machine successful is indeed not easy to describe, nor to plan for. The P-51 Mustang long-range fighter made an important contribution to the destruction of the Luftwaffe, because of the particular combination of qualities achieved by bringing together an otherwise underperforming American fighter with an existing British engine – a combination suggested by a British test pilot. Sometimes weapons did not work as they should. The B29 bomber and its engines in particular were troublesome in development and operation, and US torpedoes worked badly for much of the war.

What is especially clear from the book is the complexity, the contingency and indeed the sheer speed of wartime developments. One of the most remarkable examples of the latter was in construction. Vast airfields were built in weeks in mid-Pacific islands by the US Navy’s construction battalions (Seabees) to allow among other things the atomic bombing of Japan. The capital expenditure by the Seabees alone was five times the total cost of the atomic bomb project.

This material history of strategy asks the right questions, disposes of clichés and gives rich accounts of neglected topics. But one cannot help wishing that Kennedy had stuck more rigidly to his mission and said more about the middlemen, the organisers, problem-solvers, managers and innovators. For machines loom larger than men and organisations – a reflection of the fact that they are better known, not least through the work of enthusiasts. Even so, such men do appear here, and it is worth remembering that those with names barely known to history – for example, Admiral Ramsay, who administered the D-Day landing, or Air Marshal Freeman, the chief executive of the British Ministry of Aircraft Production – achieved astonishing managerial feats and for salaries today’s celebrity entrepreneurs wouldn’t get out of bed for.

David Edgerton is founding director of the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine at Imperial College, London. He is author of ‘Britain’s War Machine: Weapons, Resources and Experts in the Second World War’ (Penguin)

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