Book review: ‘Engineers of Victory’ by Paul Kennedy, about World War II’s innovators

Paul Kennedy has not been afraid to paint with a broad brush. He co-teaches a famous course at Yale called “Studies in Grand Strategy.” He first became known to the general public 25 years ago for writing “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers,” which argued that empires fail when they become overcommitted, suffering from “imperial overstretch.”

The best-selling book was seen as a cautionary tale for the United States, then in the midst of one of its periodic declinist agonies (the rising power in those days was Japan). With the fall of the Soviet Union and the emergence of America as the sole superpower in the 1990s, Kennedy’s gloomy warning seemed premature. Today, as Americans spend themselves ever deeper into debt, it might be prescient after all.

(Random House) - ”Engineers of Victory: The Problem Solvers Who Turned The Tide in the Second World War” by Paul Kennedy

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Kennedy’s new book is, as he might put it, more “nuts and bolts” than grand sweep.“Engineers of Victory” is about the vital importance of people and processes in executing grand strategy. In this valuable addition to the very long shelf of recent books about World War II, Kennedy looks at the 18 months before the D-Day invasion in June 1944. Most historians assume that once the Allied leaders, meeting at Casablanca in North Africa in January 1943, decided to go for unconditional surrender against Germany, Italy and Japan, victory was only a matter of time; eventually, the material strength of the United States would grind down all foes.

Not so, or at least not inevitably, argues Kennedy, the J. Richardson Dilworth professor of history at Yale. As he walks the reader through the critical breakthroughs required to achieve such daunting tasks as attacking an enemy shore thousands of miles from home, Kennedy colorfully and convincingly illustrates the ingenuity and persistence of a few men who made all the difference.

In the winter of 1943, the allies were losing the Battle of the Atlantic. Thanks to the ravages of Germany’s U-boats on Allied shipping, Britain was importing one-third fewer goods than in 1939. Far from building an invasion force to liberate Europe, Britain faced mass malnutrition. True, British intelligence had broken the Germans’ Enigma code, allowing the Royal Navy to better track Hitler’s undersea wolf packs. But German intelligence had also broken Allied codes, enabling the U-boats to find the vulnerable convoys.

Innovation was the answer. Someone had the bright idea to replace a bomb bay with an extra fuel tank in the B-24 bomber, stretching the range of Allied air cover. Someone else invented a homing torpedo, called the Fido, to chase down U-boats.

The best idea incubator, Kennedy writes, “was a small British Admiralty unit called the Department of Miscellaneous Weapons Development (DMWD), fondly known as ‘Wheezers and Dodgers.’ ” Its eccentric cast — scientists and military retirees who had read Jules Verne and H.G. Wells as schoolboys — included a Lt. Col. Stewart Blacker, who, in his inventive youth, had once fashioned a crude mortar to lob a croquet ball into the headmaster’s greenhouse. For the Allies, Blacker invented a fiendish grenade-thrower called the Hedgehog, which sank close to 50 U-boats by war’s end. “That was worth a greenhouse or two,” Kennedy writes.

“By a stroke of good fortune,” he explains, Winston Churchill himself witnessed an early test of the Hedgehog, also known as Blacker’s Bombard, during a visit to an experimental base near the prime minister’s country house, Chartwell, and “breathed life into the scheme.” (It may or may not be true, Kennedy adds, that two handsome Royal Navy lieutenants persuaded Churchill’s youngest daughter, Sarah, to get her father to stay and see the Hedgehog in action.)

With the development of long-range bombers, strategic bombing — sending waves of planes deep into enemy territory to destroy military and industrial targets and weaken civilian morale — seemed like an efficient way to bring down Nazi Germany. But in 1942 and ’43, Allied bombers were suffering horrific losses to the German Luftwaffe. Exposed on daylight raids, the U.S. Army Air Forces badly needed a long-range fighter that could protect the lumbering B-17s on the way to dropping their loads on German targets. The British developed a Rolls-Royce engine, the Merlin, that could propel a long-range American fighter called the P-51 Mustang.

But in Washington, the parochial Air Production Board favored American manufacturers, which were producing inferior engines. It took the intervention of a dashing Ivy League playboy and former World War I air ace named Tommy Hitchcock, who went over the heads of the bureaucracy (he even lobbied his friend Eleanor Roosevelt). The Allied air forces got the Merlin-powered Mustang “not a moment too soon,” Kennedy writes.

The enemy was less resourceful, he points out. The Japanese built huge, long-range submarines but foolishly failed to use them to sink commercial ships. Instead, the Imperial Navy subs went after warships, with only occasional success. In Japan’s strict militaristic culture, it was considered more manly and heroic to target battleships and aircraft carriers than tankers and cargo ships.

Culture, as much as material strength, played a critical role in the Allied victory. With their free and open societies, the Allies were able to adapt to the exigencies of war more quickly and cleverly than their fascist foes. Kennedy does not draw any broader conclusion about today, but most of us, especially those who remember “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers,” will have no trouble reading between the lines. Nations that do not encourage innovation and ingenuity are doomed to fail.

Indeed, we can look to Kennedy’s earlier volume to see the road to ruin that must be avoided. In the empires described by “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers,” the ruling elites drew inward, erected barriers to entry, and stole or squandered their nation’s wealth. What has set America apart from, say, imperial Spain is social mobility, especially from class fluidity and fresh waves of immigration. The key to a culture of innovation may come from constant self-renewal.

Evan Thomas is the author of “Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World.”

ENGINEERS OF VICTORY

The Problem Solvers Who Turned the Tide
in the Second World War

By Paul Kennedy,
Random House. 436 pp. $30

 
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