Magazine article The Spectator

Winning the War with Wheezers

Magazine article The Spectator

Winning the War with Wheezers

Article excerpt

The Engineers of Victory: The Problem Solvers who Turned the Tide in the Second World War by Paul Kennedy Allen Lane, £25, pp. 436, ISBN 9781846141126 The Anfa Hotel in Casablanca has seen better days. Seventy years ago it was the grandest hotel in Morocco, good enough to house Winston Churchill and Franklin D.Roosevelt when they met in January 1943 to devise a strategy that would win the second world war. The views remain as fine and the bedrooms as expansive, but today the carpets are unmistakably worn and the bathrooms are beginning to peel. In its own small way, the hotel illustrates the central theme of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Professor Paul Kennedy's epochal history now more than 20 years old, that a dearth of economic resources progressively enfeebles the mightiest of institutions.

In his latest work, Kennedy sets himself the apparently easier task of showing how the Casablanca agenda - safeguarding the supply of Britain's food and munitions in preparation for an invasion of Europe with the ultimate aim of securing the unconditional surrender of Germany, accompanied by an equally ambitious plan to cross the Pacific and defeat Japan - was successfully executed in the teeth of an experienced, skilful enemy. In little more than 30 months, Kennedy marvels, 'What was ordained at Casablanca had really come about.'

Engineers of Victory is divided into five lengthy chapters, each examining a major aspect of the war - the battle of the Atlantic, the bombing strategy, the war in the desert, the Normandy landings, and the Pacific campaign - but treating them as problems to be solved. Kennedy's heroes are neither generals nor airmen nor even the cryptographers of Bletchley Park (he takes a notably dim view of intelligence), but boffins and engineers, like Percy Hobart, designer of tanks with skirts for swimming and flails for mine-clearing, generically known as 'the Funnies', or the sort of creative scientists recruited by the Department of Weapons Development, who earned the nickname 'Wheezers and Dodgers'. In their eyes, and Kennedy's, the bloodiest conflict appeared as a series of knotted challenges that needed to be unpicked by intelligent inventiveness rather than brute force.

Thus in the Atlantic where the sinking of more than 1,100 Allied vessels in 1942 by wolf packs of U-boats threatened to starve the Allies into defeat, he lifts away the different elements that made up the nightmare - lack of destroyers to guard the convoys, but also of knowledge of how wolf packs hunted, of armaments to attack them, of communication among the convoys' defenders. …

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