February 9, 2013
‘Engineers of Victory,’ by Paul Kennedy
By Michael Beschloss
Published: February 8, 2013
The historian Daniel Boorstin once complained to me about the Smithsonian Institution’s decision in 1980 to delete the final two words from the name of its Museum of History and Technology. Boorstin had a point.
Scholars of other fields do often tend to underestimate the influence of technology. Although most of us know that World War II brought us radar, the literature of that titanic conflict is by no means exempt from this phenomenon. For instance, the biographer Joseph P. Lash subtitled his 1976 wartime account of Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill “The Partnership That Saved the West,” in response to which I once heard a British scholar carp, “If Lash is right, then why did all those scientists and intelligence officers and factory workers bother working so hard?”
With this fresh and discursive new work, the Yale historian Paul Kennedy, best known for his widely debated “Rise and Fall of the Great Powers,” published in 1987, calls attention to the way “small groups of individuals and institutions” surmounted seemingly insuperable operational obstacles to enable Roosevelt, Truman, Churchill and Stalin ultimately to grasp the laurels for an Allied triumph.
“Engineers of Victory” achieves the difficult task of being a consistently original book about one of the most relentlessly examined episodes in human history. Unlike most studies of the war, this one is not primarily about politics, generalship or battlefield glories. References to the Big Three are few. 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.
Kennedy concentrates mainly on the European theater 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 England would be starved of essential bunker fuel, to the almost fantastic summer of 1944, when British and American troops scrambled onto Festung Europa. By Kennedy’s telling, a number of concurrent accomplishments spelled the difference between victory and, if not defeat, then, at least, a struggle that might have dragged on past 1945, with countless additional casualties.
The first was ensuring that Allied convoys could cross the Atlantic without being sunk by Germans. As Kennedy acknowledges, this was the first war in which sea power’s success was decided by air power, so part of the solution was 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. In contrast with the cadre of popular and scholarly authors who since the 1970s have written, often breathlessly, about glamorous code breakers, Kennedy is skeptical of Bletchley Park’s importance, because the intelligence operation known as Ultra “could do only so much.”
Command of the air over Germany was seized only when American squadrons arrived to augment the Royal Air Force, upend the existing British doctrine of restricting attacks to nighttime 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.” Kennedy goes on to describe how the Allies stopped the ferocious blitzkrieg assaults of 1939 to 1942 by deploying “stronger, tougher and better-equipped forces (with panzers, bazookas, mines, better tactical aircraft)” in concert with the western thrust of the Soviet Army, aided by their T-34-85, which Kennedy calls the “most all-round battle tank” of the war.
Victory in Europe before the summer of 1945 also required the Allies to make hasty progress in perfecting the art of amphibious warfare. After World War I, Kennedy notes, with “a badly defeated and much-reduced Germany, in a badly damaged and scarcely victorious France and Italy, and in an infant Soviet Union, there were many thoughts of war, but none of them involved the projection of force across the oceans.” The disheartening debacle of the one-day Allied trial effort in August 1942 to breach the Atlantic Wall with a raid against the modest German garrison at Dieppe, France, provided crucial lessons that led directly to the world-important success on D-Day two years later.
Kennedy shows how wise the Allies were to restrain themselves from invading France until their commanders and troops had gained more experience in amphibious landings and until control of the Atlantic had been secured. He insists that D-Day could 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 theater, 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.”
Although occasionally prolix and repetitive, Kennedy’s volume is an important contribution to our understanding of World War II, and it sets a high standard for historians writing about other conflicts by reminding us to keep a close eye on technology. The curious reader may well finish this book and wish that scholars would pay more attention to how much American setbacks in lesser wars like Korea and Vietnam might have been influenced by gaps in our technological mastery.
Michael Beschloss, the author, most recently, of “Presidential Courage,” is writing a history of American presidential leadership in wartime.