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book review

‘Engineers of Victory’ by Paul Kennedy

AP FILE PHOTO/Associated Press

The esteemed Yale historian Paul Kennedy thinks there is something missing from what we talk about when we talk about how the Allies won World War II. Much has been written about the generals, the grunts, and the leaders — FDR, Stalin, Churchill — who formulated the strategies to defeat the Axis powers. But victory, however much it may seem so in retrospect, was hardly assured or inevitable.

For Kennedy, best known for his 1987 book, “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers,’’ and his theories about imperial overstretch, it is not good enough to say that the combined industrial and military might of the United States, the British Empire, and the Soviet Union delivered a knockout blow to Germany and Japan. Kennedy frowns on single causes or turning points — like Stalingrad — to explain the defeat of Germany. He pooh-poohs any attempt to chalk up victory to a particular weapon or service or commander, whether the Royal Air Force or the US Marine Corps or Patton.


Instead, in his new book, he turns to “problem solving and problem solvers” to explain how, exactly, victory came about. In his view, no single factor won the war; many things working together did. Kennedy is fond of management-speak — we get a lot about “feedback loops” and “tactical, technical, operational complementarities” — and “Engineers of Victory’’ is, to use the jargon, a study in military best practices. Focusing on the 17-month period from the Casablanca Conference in early 1943, where the Allies settled on a policy of unconditional surrender, to D-Day landings in summer 1944, Kennedy works up a how-to manual on the way the war was won.

Kennedy highlights five challenges. German U-boats were wreaking havoc on Atlantic convoys; too many bombers were being shot down over Germany; Nazi armored forces were proving difficult to check as they pushed to Egypt and drove deeply into the Soviet Union. The Allies also needed to land men on European beachheads and take on the Japanese in the vastness of the Pacific.


This was a daunting to-do list, and all of the problems were interlinked. The Allies could not invade France until German subs were checked. Anglo-American armies could have never broken through in the west unless German tanks and planes were destroyed in the east, and so on.

Through a combination of trial and error, experimentation, tinkering, tweaking, and sheer dumb luck, the Allies surmounted these obstacles. Kennedy writes: “The winning of great wars always requires superior organization . . . There has to be a support system, a culture of encouragement, efficient feedback loops, a capacity to learn from setbacks, an ability to get things done. And all this must be done in a fashion that is better than the enemy’s.”

An Allied victory was very much in doubt in early 1943. The Atlantic sea lanes had to be secured if men, material, and arms were to make their way to Europe. Here, a host of innovations proved key — air power in particular — in defeating the feared German submarine. A host of new gizmos like the cavity magnetron, a miniature radar device, allowed planes and ships to better locate U-boats. Long-range bombers, flying out of the Shetlands and Iceland, were fitted with powerful Leigh lights that illuminated dark waters. The Hedgehog depth charge launcher gave destroyers added firepower.


Logistics makes Kennedy’s heart beat faster; he wonks out over the Allies’ “integrated command-and-control system.” Such systems told in their favor in North Africa in late 1943, when the British finally checked the tanks of Rommel’s Afrika corps and their Italian partners. How? Kennedy tallies up the improvements made by once-battered British forces under the command of Bernard Montgomery: “superior radar, superior decryption, a much better orchestration of tactical airpower . . . aircraft that were more powerful and more adaptable, the mine flaying-tanks and the acoustic mine detectors.”

The D-Day landings in Normandy required supreme integration among land, air, and naval forces. We know about Eisenhower’s daring, but what about British Admiral Bertram Ramsay? Without his genius for amphibious operations, the men who got ashore on June 6 would have been severely imperiled. Then there was the beach master, who imposed order on chaos, guiding trucks and tanks on their way off the beach. The unsung construction battalions of the US Navy have a champion in Kennedy; as the Marines pushed across the Pacific in their bloody campaigns, the “Seabees’’ performed miracles, building giant airfields in a few short weeks. These airfields allowed the US to ramp up its bombing campaign against Japan, including the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

“Engineers of Victory’’ is a demandingly complex account of a relatively neglected side of the World War II. And it cries out for a touch of Ben Macintyre or a Lynne Olson, popular historians of that era who revel in character and scene-setting. Kennedy sorely lacks these skills; his “engineers of victory” are elusive folk. He only glancingly evokes figures like Major General Percy Hobart, from whose clever head sprang the mine-flaying tanks (known as “Hobart’s Funnies”), but does not bring them alive. Winning wars may require superior management as well as significant firepower, but waging war is still a human endeavor.


Matthew Price is a regular contributor to the Globe. He can be reached at price68@gmail.com.