How ingenuity helped the Allies win

Paul Kennedy here demonstrates a keen appreciation of the ebb and flow of military campaigns

Sat, Feb 16, 2013, 00:00

Battle formation: ground crew wait with cartridge belts to load a US P-51 Mustang in England in 1944  

Book Title:
Engineers of Victory: The Problem Solvers Who Turned the Tide in the Second World War


Paul Kennedy

Allen Lane

Guideline Price:

In the late 1980s Paul Kennedy rose to international prominence with his study of the rise and fall of the great powers in modern history. His argument was one of elegant simplicity: that relative economic power determined military and political power. As states expanded their territorial reach and influence, they devoted increasing resources to military expenditure, weakening their economy and ultimately undermining their security through what Kennedy called “imperial overstretch”.

The book enjoyed wide acclaim, but one of the criticisms was that Kennedy had privileged economic determinism over contingent events. The outcomes of major battles between relatively equal foes, such as the German victory over the French army at Sedan in 1870, could determine international politics for decades, while the victory of the Wehrmacht against French and British armies in 1940 radically reshaped the second World War.

In this book, Kennedy demonstrates a keen appreciation of the ebb and flow of military campaigns. His focus has shifted from the strategic to the operational level, where commanders implemented the grand designs of their political and military superiors, often using considerable ingenuity. He focuses on five campaigns between late 1942 and mid 1944, in which Allied military commanders solved major operational problems that enabled them to defeat Nazi Germany, fascist Italy and imperial Japan. These are the Battle of the Atlantic; the British and American bombing campaign against Germany; the reversal of battlefield fortunes at El Alamein, Stalingrad and Kursk; the D-Day landings; and the successive American victories against Japanese forces in the Pacific. Each is the subject of a single chapter. These were the crucibles in which the war was won and lost, rather than the stopping of the German offensive outside Moscow on December 5th, 1941, or the American entry into the war following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor two days later.

For each of his case studies Kennedy shows how the Allied commanders overcame specific military, technological and logistical problems. For example, during the Battle of the Atlantic German submarines hunted down convoys with increasing success until March 1943, threatening to turn Britain’s island fortress into a prison. A series of incremental changes – the use of radar, the development of more effective anti-submarine weapons and the extended range of Allied aircraft to cover the mid-ocean “air gap” – rapidly changed the fortunes of the Battle of the Atlantic.

Bombers and fighters

During the bombing campaigns over Germany in 1943, British and American bombers were vulnerable to more mobile Luftwaffe fighters, just as German bombers had been vulnerable to RAF fighters in their raids on British cities in 1940. The solution was relatively simple: to accompany bombers with fighters. Developing a fighter that could fly deep into German territory was much more difficult. There was a moment of serendipity when the Rolls-Royce test pilot Ronnie Harker flew an American fighter plane. The plane’s only flaw was its American-made engine, but Harker noted that the Rolls-Royce engine could easily replace the original American design. It still required months of bureaucratic squabbling, national-industrial posturing and the disastrous American raid on Schweinfurt-Regensburg in October 1943 before the US manufactured Mustangs on a large scale. These fighters were essential in enabling the Allies to establish superiority over European skies. More than half a century later, at the age of 80, Harker was still flying Mustangs.

Kennedy’s story is enlivened by these dashing, irascible and creative characters. After a career fighting in France, Mesopotamia and the northwest frontier in India, Percy Hobart arrived in Egypt in 1938 to train the Mobile Force, the basis of Gen Montgomery’s Desert Rats. Hobart’s forceful propagation of new ideas about armoured warfare, however, upset his superiors and probably irritated fellow officers, one of whom asked Hobart to stop “talking shop for five minutes”. He had been forced into retirement by the outbreak of war. Churchill, a friend to the unconventional thinker, coaxed Hobart back into the armed services. As Kennedy shows, he played an essential role in retooling army equipment into what became known as “Hobart’s funnies”, such as amphibious tanks and armoured vehicles with their own minesweepers. This equipment enabled Allied forces to make the landings on the Normandy beaches in June 1944.

These battles and technological innovations are well known to historians of the second World War. Kennedy acknowledges this, but he also points to the fragmented stories historians tell of the war, isolating each theatre from the overall dynamics of the conflict. In connecting five different theatres of conflict between late 1942 and mid 1944 he elaborates a number of arguments about why and how the Allies won the war.

One of the reasons for the Allied victory, according to Kennedy, is that the cultures of the British, American and, to a lesser extent, Soviet armies provided an environment that encouraged people to think creatively about the solutions to problems. There were some formal institutions, such as the British admiralty’s directorate of miscellaneous weapon development, affectionately known as “Wheezers and Dodgers”, dedicated to coming up with new technological solutions, but for the most part the practice of solving problems was incremental and undertaken by men on the spot. Military institutions, often seen as rigid and statist, proved flexible and open, delivering complex projects under the most difficult of circumstances. Nonetheless, problem-solving was not specifically a trait of Allied institutions. The German army encouraged critical analysis, while Hitler was inclined to support officers proposing radical operational plans.

Evolving military cultures

Explanations of Allied success and Axis failure, therefore, return to the geopolitical and economic issues that Kennedy had identified in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. First, German forces never overcame the “tyranny of distance”, either in Russia or in the North Atlantic. In part, this was simply a consequence of Germany’s location in the heart of Europe. Yet it was also the result of evolving military cultures. British and American forces were used to solving major logistical problems and supplying armies thousands of kilometres from base due to colonial campaigns, the conquest of the American west and the inheritance of the first World War. The German officer corps concentrated on fighting short and decisive battles, but once they were dragged into longer wars they displayed a woeful neglect in mastering the logistic challenges inherent in Hitler’s territorial ambitions.

Second, the Allied war economy, particularly the American economy, easily outproduced the smaller Axis economies. For example, the US devoted just 15 per cent of its total war effort to the campaigns against Japan in the Pacific. Once the Allied “engineers of victory” resolved operational problems, they were able to maximise the solution through mass production.

In the end, the world powers, the Soviet Union and, especially in Kennedy’s account, the British empire and the US won the world war, whereas Nazi Germany, a European power, could win only a continental European war.

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