Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said that Adolf Hitler banned all “non-Aryans” from government service in 1932. Hitler came to power in 1933; the decree was issued that year. This version has been corrected.
History is endlessly ironic. When Hitler began persecuting Jews in the early 1930s, he drove out the very scientists he needed to achieve world conquest. In 1933, a Nazi edict banned all “non-Aryans” from government service, expelling a quarter of the nation’s physicists, including 11 past or future Nobel laureates, several of whom went to work building the atom bomb for the United States.
In Britain, Hitler’s outrages awakened scholars and scientists to the threat of fascism. Many of Britain’s intellectuals had been turned into pacifists by the Great War, but they began to rally round when Hitler started building his new and sinister war machine. Britain’s military did not exactly welcome the scientists with open arms. In the Royal Navy in the 19th century, engineers were regarded as “trade” — not gentlemen — and serving officers referred to civilians at the Admiralty as “frocks.” (The civilians referred to the officers as “boneheads.”)
But anyone could see that the nature of war was changing, becoming more vicious and indiscriminate, and that technological innovation was necessary. The German U-Boat brought the message home, sneaking up on commercial ships in the night and not bothering to pick up survivors. “War, which used to be cruel and magnificent, has now become cruel and squalid,” Winston Churchill wrote.
Churchill himself was an inveterate experimenter — early in World War I, when he urged the development of the tank, it was known as “Winston’s Folly.” Churchill was perhaps too enthusiastic about science and sponsored some hair-brained schemes, but he had the good sense to encourage the contributions of scientists and engineers to the war effort.
One of them was Patrick Blackett, a future Nobel Prize winner from Cambridge University. “It is no exaggeration to say that few men did more to win the war against Nazi Germany than Patrick Blackett,” Stephen Budiansky writes, and in this lively and enlightening book, he makes his case.
Blackett, a proper gentleman, had been a naval officer at the Battle of Jutland, the Great War’s one and only old-time fleet action. He “enjoyed shooting at the enemy during the war,” as he put it. In the 1930s, the darkly handsome Blackett ran with a crowd of bohemian scientists called the Tots and Quots (derived from the Latin tag “Quot hominess, tot sententiae”: as many opinions as there are men). In the summer of 1940, as the Battle of Britain was raging, this dinner group, organized by a Jewish immigrant from South Africa named Solly Zuckerman, put together a little book called “Science in War.” Blackett “almost certainly” wrote the section on operational research, according to Budiansky.
Operational research (OR) was essentially the application of common sense and the careful study of data to the messiness of war. The term was first used in a study of how radar could improve Britain’s air defenses. As the head of a group of eccentric and eclectic academics known as “Blackett’s Circus,” Blackett put OR to use to defeat Germany’s fearsome U-Boat campaign.
The story of how the Allies broke the Germans’ Enigma code is well known. Less well understood is the fact that the Bletchley Park code-breakers had spotty luck and that Germans, too, had success at deciphering Allied codes. In 1943, just as the Americans were trying to supply Britain for the invasion of Europe, the U-Boat Wolf Packs went on a tear against Allied shipping in the North Atlantic. The answer to the German sub attacks was air power. At first, finding the German U-Boats from the air and catching them before they dived to safety seemed like finding needles in a haystack. But Blackett’s Circus came up with solutions that were ingenious (and, in retrospect, almost obvious). British bombers had been painted black, for night bombing. But that made them easy for sub commanders to spot by day. Blackett had the planes painted white, and Coastal Command aircraft doubled the U-Boat sightings per hour. The effectiveness of air attacks against U-Boats was improved tenfold by simply adjusting the depth setting and spacing of depth charges.
Serving on U-Boats became a suicidal occupation. “Over the course of the war,” Budiansky writes, “830 U-Boats took part in operations; 784 of them — 94 percent — were lost. Of the 40,000 men who served on U-Boats, 26,000 were killed and 5,000 were taken prisoner.” By 1944, doomed U-Boat commanders, who had referred to the early days of the war as “the Happy Time,” had lost heart. “No more parties were given to celebrate the beginning of a campaign now,” one commander recalled. “We just drank a glass of champagne in silence and shook hands, trying not to look each other in the eyes.”
Blackett has been largely lost as a war hero. After the war, he campaigned — ineffectively — against nuclear weapons, publishing a book called “Fear, War, and the Bomb.” Glowingly reviewed in Pravda, the book got Blackett placed on a list, supplied to the British government by George Orwell, of 38 thinkers, writers and actors who were “crypto-communists, fellow travelers or inclined that way.”
Writing with an easy command of science and a sharp eye for fresh and telling detail, Budiansky knowingly and entertainingly re-creates the almost constant struggle between hidebound military traditionalists and the clever civilians who saved them. The official British history of scientific contribution to the war notes that Hitler and his generals neglected operational research. They were burdened by a “romantic view of war.”
The Men Who Defeated the Nazi
U-Boats and Brought Science
to the Art of Warfare
By Stephen Budiansky
Knopf. 306 pp. $27.95