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Book Review: Engineers of Victory

Engineers of Victory: The Problem Solvers Who Turned the Tide in the Second engineers of victoryWorld War

by Paul Kennedy

Random House, 2013

Although characterized in the popular imagination as a matter of trenches and barbed wire and machine gun nests, the First World War actually turned on many feats of humble engineering. In October 1914, for instance, somebody came up with the idea (since it proved successful, there were no shortage of claimants) of opening the locks of Belgium and flooding the low-lying countryside between Nieuport and Dixmude, thus bring the German advance toward Calais and Dunkirk to a compleate halt – and potentially altering the shape of the entire remainder of the war. And regardless of who grandstands for credit of the idea, it was the skill and efficiency of Belgian engineers that made the move happen, changing everything in the process.

In his new book, Paul Kennedy, best-selling author of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, concerns himself with exactly that kind of mid-level engineering breakthrough. Engineers of Victory is about the Allied idea-men, the fix-it men, the specialists and innovators who found the ways to make grand strategy work. His starting point is the Casablanca Conference the Allies held in January of 1943, at a time when German U-boat offensive in the North Atlantic was reaching its height (in March of that year, U-boat attacks on Allied convoys would all but sever sea-lane traffic between Halifax and Liverpool, 141,000 tons sunk with the loss of only one U-boat), and this is cannily deceptive – it’s just the kind of lead-actor narrative simplifying to which Engineers of Victory is a gentle, implied rebuke. Kennedy is less interested in following the witticisms of Roosevelt and Churchill than he is at chasing down the practical point-by-point results of their decisions.

His strategy is to look at gadgets and the people who developed them. We get quite skilled sketches of such men as Captain Pete Ellis, who pioneered the practical science of marine landings that would shape the war in the Pacific; Ronnie Harker, the British test pilot whose inspiration it was to install the powerful new Rolls-Royce Packard Merlin engine into P-51 fighters, invaluably boosting their performance; Major General Sir Percy Hobart, whose ‘flail tanks’ looked like something out of a science fiction novel and could carve through virtually any obstacle; and Admiral Ben Moreell, the architect of the famed Construction Battalions (SeaBees) responsible for bringing the full technology and ordnance of the U.S. to the fight against Japan. These men and their colleagues were the engineers of victory, and in all the vast literature of the Second World War, they’ve never received a more intelligent or more convincing collective tribute.

They faced almost overwhelming numbers, at first, as Kennedy readily admits:

But the Third Reich was also gearing up its war production and had added seventeen new U-boats each month during that year [1942] … Although victory in the Second World War was critically affected by each side’s inventiveness, technology, and organization, not just by sheer numbers, the blunt fact was that numbers did count.

But all throughout this book, he hastens to add that even overwhelming numbers have predictable stress point weaknesses. Speaking of rampaging tanks, he reminds us, “If its caterpillar tread was damage, the behemoth was immobilized, its capacity for attack destroyed.” And that vulnerability, when writ large, alters the shape of entire campaigns:

If German mines were still producing masses of coal but the rail lines were destroyed, that increase in coal output meant nothing. If fantastic new U-boats were being assembled at Kiel and Bremen but the diesel engines could not be transported from the Ruhr, they were of no use. The Battle of the Bulge in the winter of 1944 saw German panzers run out of fuel.

With the crucial role of engineering in mind, Kennedy takes his readers through key areas in five long chapters, the title of each – “How to Get Convoys Safely Across the Atlantic,” How to Seize an Enemy-Held Shore,” etc. – poses the problem facing Allied technicians and tacticians at the height of the war. It’s a scheme for a very tightly-controlled study, but Kennedy is by nature what an earlier generation of analysts used to call a “big picture” historian, and we should be glad of it; at every point where his narrative slips away from its ideological framework, it soars – in “How to Stop a Blitzkrieg” the technical analyst yields the floor almost immediately to the justly celebrated university lecturer:

Even in Europe, there were historic exceptions [to settled battlefield set-pieces]: dramatic and swift campaigns that threw the enemy off balance, because the attacking army was so well trained and motivated that geographic obstacles seemed to shrivel. The Duke of Marlborough’s dramatic march up the Rhine from the Netherlands to upper Bavaria (the Battle of Blenheim, 1704) is a good example. A half century later, Frederick the Great often stunned his enemies by the speed at which he switched his armies from one front to another, and sometimes divided his forces so that while one half contested the field of battle, the other was making a flank attack obscured by hilly terrain. Napoleon’s capacity for moving armies – very large armies, and at high speed – is legendary, and in 1866 and 1870 Helmuth von Moltke the Elder hit the Austrians and French so fast and decisively that those wars ended very swiftly.

(This broader reach is also evident in his plentiful asides; this is a writer who’s just as happy praising movies like The Longest Day and The Eagle Has Landed as he is lauding Das Deutsche Reich und der Zweite Weltkrieg for “taking scholarship to new levels”)(although he indulges in the modern scholarly vice of citing his own work in his Notes, a little egotism now apparently inescapable among professional historians)

This is the enviable small embarrassment of Engineers of Victory: although its author takes pains to point out that he is not writing a comprehensive history of the war, this book’s comprehensive sections are its most compelling. As fascinating as the stories of those less-known engineers are, Kennedy seems far more in his element when he’s painting on a larger canvas:

The battle over the Atlantic convoys was a mixed struggle of sea and airpower. The strategic air offensive against Germany was a contest between aerial forces. Blunting the Nazi blitzkrieg was essentially a bare-knuckle fight on land, with increasing airpower contributions. Only amphibious warfare, whether in Europe or in the Pacific, involved land, sea, and air operations in triangular harmony – or lack of it. Some historians describe the Normandy campaign as “triphibious,” an awful-sounding word but not an inaccurate one.

And he can’t resist weighing in on some of the war’s bigger questions, such as in his fantastic chapter “How to Win Command of the Air,” where he digresses on the decidedly non-technical question of moral culpability for the carpet-bombing of cities:

There is ample evidence of the citizens of Darmstadt, Hamburg, Dresden, and other cities being unable to believe the intensity of the destruction around them and yearning for relief and an end to it all. But there is absolutely no evidence that such desperation ended the war in the way that the meeting of American and Soviet soldiers on the Elbe did. Rather, the continuation of the West’s area bombing (or “carpet” or “blanket” or “indiscriminate” or “general” bombing) stained its reputation and produced a moral equivalent to what the Luftwaffe had done to Warsaw, Rotterdam, and Coventry.

(Although he follows it up with the practical point: “Turning German cities into heaps of rubble and destroying all the bridges actually slowed down the advance of Allied armor”)

But grander asides notwithstanding, the book certainly accomplishes its main goal, giving recognition to the “middle people” who “turned the Second World War from being the blunting of Axis aggressions in 1942 into the irreversible Allied advances of 1943-44. In fact, it’s the balance of the two – small-scale and large-scale focus – that makes Engineers of Victory such an intensely enjoyable reading experience, ready to take its place in the ongoing 21st century Golden Age of WWII scholarship.