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.