HOW does one write a consistently original book about one of the most relentlessly examined episodes in human history? Unlike most studies of the Second World War, Paul Kennedy’s latest book is not primarily about politics, generalship or battlefield glories.
Engineers of Victory: The Problem Solvers Who Turned The Tide In The Second World War
by Paul Kennedy
Allen Lane, 464pp, £25
Instead, like an engineer who pries open a pocket watch to reveal its inner mechanics, Kennedy tells how little-known men and women at lower levels helped win the war.
He concentrates mainly on the European theatre and on Allied progress during the period from early 1943, when Hitler’s Admiral Doenitz sank 108 Allied vessels in a single month, provoking fears that Britain would be starved of essential bunker fuel, to the almost fantastic summer of 1944.
The first step to victory was ensuring that Allied convoys could cross the Atlantic without being sunk by Germans, which meant cranking out airplanes – especially long-range bombers).
But vital too were innovations like the Hedgehog, a forward-firing ship-mounted mortar (devised by an idiosyncratic British unit called “Wheezers and Dodgers”), and the Leigh Light, which exposed German U-boats that were surfacing at night to recharge batteries so that British bombers could do their deadly work. Unlike all those who have written, often breathlessly, about the Ultra code breakers, Kennedy downplays Bletchley Park’s importance.
Command of the air over Germany was seized only when American squadrons arrived to augment the RAF and demand pinpoint bombing of specifically identified German military and industrial targets.
The zenith of Allied accomplishment in the air, of course, was D-Day 1944, when a previously unimaginable 11,590 planes were sent aloft. “There had been nothing like it in world history,” Kennedy writes, “nor has there been since… There was no chance for the completely diminished Luftwaffe to do anything except lose more and more of its planes and pilots whenever they rose into the air.”
Victory in Europe before the summer of 1945 also required the Allies to make hasty progress in perfecting the art of amphibious warfare.
The débâcle of the Dieppe Raid in 1942 provided crucial lessons, and Kennedy shows how wise the Allies were to restrain themselves from invading France until their commanders and troops had learnt them. D-Day could, he says, have been a rout but for the fact that by mid-1944, British, American and Canadian warriors – from the top down – had transformed their organization into a smoothly functioning apparatus, refined their means of gathering intelligence and designed the now- famous “bodyguard of lies” that misled the Nazis about when and how the Allies would invade Europe.
Succinctly covering the Pacific theatre, Kennedy illuminates some of the main tools that enabled United States forces to make their slow progress across the ocean in order to bomb Japan – new fast carrier groups, new fighters like the F6F and bombers like the B-29, as well as the American submarine service and the 325,000 enlisted members of the Navy’s construction battalions, the “Seabees,” which by the end of the war had erected $10 billion worth of military infrastructure around the world.
While Kennedy rightly elevates the importance of technology and those much-too-unheralded bands of Allied innovators, on a grander scale he fully appreciates that “the winning of great wars always requires superior organization,” which “will allow outsiders to feed fresh ideas into the pursuit of victory.”
An ingredient badly missing from the centralized systems of imperial Japan and Nazi Germany was the willingness, demonstrated again and again by top Anglo-American military and political leaders, to share power with those of more modest rank who had greater expertise in tackling a particular problem and who were closer to the action. Kennedy notes that even the dictatorial Stalin “began to relax his iron grasp once he understood that he had a team of first-class generals working for him.”
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