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Engineers of victory : the problem solvers…
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Engineers of victory : the problem solvers who turned the tide in the… (original 2013; edition 2013)

by Paul M. Kennedy (Author)

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206457,211 (3.73)4
Member:jcbrunner
Title:Engineers of victory : the problem solvers who turned the tide in the Second World War
Authors:Paul M. Kennedy (Author)
Info:New York : Random House, c2013.
Collections:Your library, Military History, WWII (1937-1945), Read, Read but unowned
Rating:**1/2
Tags:USA, 1943, WWII, stinkers, military history

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Engineers of Victory: The Problem Solvers Who Turned The Tide in the Second World War by Paul Kennedy (2013)

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This is a management book, sort of. Don't let that scare you away, though. Kennedy has written about what he considers a neglected topic in World War II histories: How middle managers took the material preponderance of the Allies and found ways to organize it to actually produce victory against the Axis. So, while some degreed engineer types play a prominent role in the story, it really is a book about engineering[i], that is, [i]devising victory, rather than about military engineering per se.

The table of contents is unusually helpful at outlining the book, so I'll reproduce it here:

1. How to Get Convoys Safely Across the Atlantic
2. How to Win Command of the Air
3. How to Stop a Blitzkrieg
4. How to Sieze an Enemy-Held Shore
5. How to Defeat the "Tyrrany of Distance"
Conclusion: Problem Solving in History

Perhaps only Chapter 5 is not self-explanatory. This chapter largely deals with the Central Pacific campaign.

Kennedy is strong on the interconnectedness of these problems. For example, you can't possibly be serious about a major amphibious assault until you have command of the seas; thus Roundup (an invasion of France in 1942) was not a serious proposition because the U-boats were not defeated until mid-1943. You can't possibly be serious about a major amphibious assault until you have command of the air; hence, a 1943 invasion of France was equally out of the question, because the Allies did not have air supremacy over Europe until early 1944. You can't stop a blitzkrieg without command of the air, either; hence, the Soviets benefited a lot more from the strategic bombing campaign than their Cold War propaganda would admit, because the strategic bombing campaign drew off most of the Luftwaffe and more or less defaulted air superiority in the East to the Soviets.

So how do you get convoys safely across the Atlantic? Well, first, it will be convoys, the larger the better. This bit of wisdom came from the operational researchers, who then had to convince the British Admiralty, who then had to convince the Americans. The operational researchers are thus the first group of "engineers of victory" at the middle level who made things work. But you also had to have sufficient escorts (whose construction required a lot of middle-level organizing) and, very importantly, air support for the convoys (more middle-level organizing, though there also had to be some kicking of derriers at the top to pry the long-range aircraft away from the strategic bombing cult.) One the pieces were in place, the U-boat offensive collapsed with remarkable speed. But, and this is one of Kennedy's points, mere material preponderance on the part of the Allies wasn't enough and the war could have been lost, or at least not won, right here. The right weapons (such as Hedgehog and long-range bombers) had to be constructed and made available to trained sailors and airmen, who also had to work out the best tactics.

Command of the air? Hopeless until you can escort bombers deep into Germany, thereby forcing the Luftwaffe to rise to the defence so it can be shot down. Unescorted bombers failed miserably. So did the P-51 win the war? Too simplistic, Kennedy tells us. There is a might good engineering story around the P-51, which was originally a mediocre fighter powered by the mediocre Allison engine, but a middle-level wonk somewhere in Britain was intrigued enough by it to find a middle-level test pilot to confirm his intuition, which prompted other middle-level geeks to try fitting a (coincidentally almost identical in size to the Allison) not-mediocre Merlin into the aircraft, at which point the P-51 was transformed into probably the best fighter of the war. With a huge range due to its huge fuel capacity, it could escort bombers deep into Europe, then match or exceed the perfomance of the FW-109s. Then other middle-level wonks had to go palaver with the corresponding American middle-level wonks, who persuaded the high-level muckety-mucks to actually mass produce the thing. Which led to Goering seeing the first P-51s over Berlin and, according to legend, declaring that the war was lost.

How to stop a blitzkrieg? This chapter is full of surprises, which I hesitate to spoil. So I'll just drop a hint: The Russian answer to the German blitzkrieg was almost certainly not what you think, unless you've already read this book. Kennedy is disappointed that the Russian archives are so unrevealing on just who the middle-level Russian wonks were and how they organized Russia's considerable resources to drive back the Germans.

How to seize an enemy-held shore? Part of the answer I already gave, but there is also the matter of Hobart's "Funnies." Hobart was an eccentric retired general who Churchill insisted be brought out of retirement to try out some of his innovative ideas on specialized armor. Hobart was given an entire division of tanks to fix up for the Normandy invasion, and his subordinates (more middle-level geeks) devised minesweeper tanks, bridging tanks, bulldozer tanks, and so on. These helped quite a lot at the British and Canadian beaches. However, Bradly was unimpressed, and the troops at Omaha may have suffered for it.

Defeating the tyrrany of distance? Kennedy is much taken with the Hellcat fighter and the Essex-class carrier -- and, weirdly, he is not shy about praising the Wikipedia articles on these topics. Well, whatever. He actually gets some details wrong here: Guam was not the first American territory recaptured during the war (that would be Attu); resistance in the Aleutians was not negligible except at Kiska (that would, again, be Attu); and a few other nits. But the basic story seems plausible enough.

The final chapter talks about the importance of having a culture of problem-solving. The Axis lacked this; for all their skill at tactics and operations, their grand strategy was boneheaded and their ability to turn resources and ideas into victory very limited. The Messerschmidt jet fighter is an interesting contrast with the P-51 in this respect.

Surprises? Aside from how to stop a blitzkrieg, Kennedy was most surprised at the chapter in his original outline that he felt compelled to drop after doing his research: Intelligence. Alied intelligence had some spectacular successes, but Kennedy offers a corresponding long list of spectacular failures, and argues that intelligence was useful and pervasive but simply not decisive. The Battle of the Atlantic was won when the Allies decided they could drive right through the German U-boat lines and destroy the boats in their path, ignoring the intelligence on where those lines were.

Two thumbs up. ( )
  K.G.Budge | Aug 9, 2016 |
It's hard to disagree with the thrust of jcbrunner's review, even if he errs occasionally in his damnation of this unfortunate book. For example, Kennedy is explicitly using a very broad definition of 'engineer' (see the Introduction, p.XVI). He is not only talking about military engineers - those guys in khaki who go out and blow things up to hinder the enemy or build things to help their own forces. He is also not only talking about civilians with tertiary qualifications in civil, mechanical, chemical or aeronautical engineering, although he does talk about them too. Instead Kennedy is talking about problem solvers in general, from all walks of life and with whatever qualification, to all of whom he applies the sobriquet 'engineer.' Which is fine by me, even if it has caused some confusion amongst those who prefer a purer use of the appellation.

But otherwise, yeesh. This book is a mess. Even given his any_problem_solver = engineer definition, there is not very much material about problems being solved - in a lot of cases the problem is identified then, hey-presto, it's solved! with little discussion of the individuals, groups, and processes that led to the solution.

The book is also chock full of - to borrow a phrase - Ancient Aliens type history. We learn, for example, that the British at El Alamein were liberally equipped with Bazookas (p.162) while on p.194 we learn that the Panzerfaust came into service before the Panzerschreck. Meanwhile, apparently the Russians stopped the Germans at Kursk with masses of 'PaK bazookas' (p.194) ... a term so incoherent it makes my head hurt.

Unfortunately, the fault history is overshadowed by the idiosyncratic analysis. The discussion of warfare, and in particular Blitzkrieg, on pages 150-158 would be good if it were written by a high-schooler, but is less than superficial in this context.

Finally, the book's research rests primarily (exclusively?) on secondary sources, and usually very old ones. There are few references which were written in this century, while references to the Official Histories from the 1960s, and populist and generalist accounts from the 1980s, 1970s and even earlier abound. The mean and median age of books used by Kennedy is 1983/1984. In one section of the book a painter is referred to as "an aviation expert" (p.253), and the execrable Journal of Historical Review gets a positive mention. gets a Kennedy's former mentor, Liddell-Hart, gets lovingly and uncritically referred to again and again and again leaving the impression of a conflict of interest, and even Irving gets a look in in this list of eccentric research. The terrible references Kennedy has used cause me to half suspect that with this book he is just trolling his readership for laughs.

Overall this is an unfortunate book, a poor choice to have purchased, and the time spent reading it wasted. ( )
  JonSowden | Jul 31, 2015 |
As someone who works as a computer programmer, I found this book very inspiring. It was good to read about others in the past who've needed to overcome incredible engineering challenges to achieve their goals. ( )
  kvandenbreemen | Jan 3, 2015 |
"Engineers of victory" is Ancient Aliens WWII edition, an abysmal effort that is not worthy of the author nor his employer. That Random House shows no editorial control is unfortunately not news. Those who expect to read about actual engineers will be disappointed. The engineers are only mentioned in the final third of a chapter. The meat of the book is devoted to a condensed "USA wins WWII for the world" version to which are added battle vignettes for the imagined ADD readership.

The five parts of the book deal with convoys (air cover, hedgehog mortars, radar), air superiority/strategic bombing (Spitfire, P-51 Mustang), tanks (T34/85), landing craft, long-range naval capacity (carriers, seabees, submarines). The cases include a lot of poor quality research. What is correct, usually isn't new. Some that is original is solely because it is wrong and some claims are mostly based on ignorance. Readers without prior knowledge will be in the Fox News watcher situation: They will be dumber than before they started reading the book. Let me explain this on the first example, the convoy system.

First of all, the convoy system is not chiefly an engineering solution. The inventions and innovations listed were only marginally responsible for defeating the German submarines. Secondly, convoys were not an innovation. They were already in heavy use during the First World War (and the Spanish long ago used convoys to ship the gold back to the Old World). This was an all too typical case of the men in authority having forgotten the lessons learned of their predecessors. A recent example of this is the re-discovery of counter-insurgency which was practiced abundantly but futilely in Vietnam. When Petraeus and his merry men presented the old stale ideas as a rediscovery, Washington was amazed and full of praise. During WWII, it took all too long to adapt the convoy system to a WWII environment. When they did, success was immediate (as the chart presented by Kennedy shows). The change was organizational not technical: Add enough protection and keep close to the land (air cover!). Just like Donald Rumsfeld's unwillingness to adapt to the circumstances in Iraq ("You go to war with the army you have ..."), the early losses incurred in the convoy system were a total failure in leadership, because the admirals were not bearing the costs of their faulty thinking.

Secondly, the book is filled with a jingoistic message of Americans winning the war with its strange base line of 1943. Admittedly, it would be hard to uphold the idea of the war being won by US participation with few to none US troops in actual contact with the enemy. Where the book differs from the standard patriotic messaging present in most books authored by Americans is its unnecessary marginalization and disdain for non-Americans: After a battle vignette recalling the brave action of a French frigate sinking two German submarines while a torpedoed Dutch merchant ships is going under, it is truly atrocious of thanking only the Americans, the Canadians and the British for their service in the lines that follow that paragraph. Was it too hard to add the Free French, the Dutch and others who contributed to the Allied victory to the list? In order to sustain the jingoistic USA won WWII, the people that are shortchanged by the author are the Soviets who paid so dear in lives and suffering. Based solely on the fact that the Americans wrote a memo how to improve the Soviet T34 tank, the book naturally considers improvements to the later versions of the tank as US achievements (probably an early version of patent trolling).

The third and major flaw is the mistaken message of the book that innovations can be achieved quickly. It regularly misses to mention the decade-long prior work that was necessary to unlock those innovations. America benefited greatly from the knowledge of European emigrants and also the wealth of knowledge in British institutions.

If it is true that the author started teaching a course ""Military History of the West Since 1500" at Yale, it is sad for the future George W. Bushes that his understanding of military history is atrocious at times: "Unlike a classic land battle (between Greeks and Spartans, or Wellington and Napoleon), where each opponent was roughly similar in composition, the two sides’ forces in the Atlantic struggle were very different." First, the Spartans considered themselves Greek too. Secondly, it is completely wrong that opponents have similarly composed armies. Even in special cases such as the American Civil War where both sides were basically equipped with the same weapons, they started specializing: The Union in artillery, the Confederates in mobility. Napoleon's and Wellington's armies were very different in structure. It was the very genius of Wellington that made him negate the French advantages in both artillery and cavalry by the judicious use of terrain and his superior riflemen. There are multiple other howlers but that seems to be only fitting for a truly terribly awful book that should never have been printed. ( )
3 vote jcbrunner | Feb 28, 2013 |
Showing 4 of 4
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.
 
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.
 
Histories of world War II tend to concentrate on the leaders and generals at the top who make the big strategic decisions and on the lowly grunts at the bottom who do the fighting from foxhole to foxhole. There are usually very few pages devoted to the people in the middle, the implementers who turn great decisions into a workable reality. Engineers of Victory, by Paul Kennedy, the Yale historian and author of the seminal Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1987), seeks to fill this gap in the historiography of World War II and does so triumphantly.
added by sgump | editWall Street Journal, Andrew Roberts (Jan 28, 2013)
 
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"Engineers of Victory" is a new account of how the tide was turned against the Nazis by the Allies in the Second World War, the focus being on the problem-solvers: Major-General Perry Hobart, who invented the "funny tanks" which flattened the curve on the D-Day beaches; Flight Lieutenant Ronnie Harker "the man who put the Merlin in the Mustang"; and Captain "Johnny" Walker, the convoy captain who worked out how to sink U-boats with a "creeping barrage".… (more)

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