Boffins and other Backroom Boys

Highlighting the importance of scientists and engineers in defeating Germany is the noble aim of Paul Kennedy’s new book, but ultimately he goes too far

Books Military

Supremacy in the skies: Technical innovation helped win the war

In the aftermath of the Second World War, backroom boys who helped make victory possible were led, blinking, from their laboratories, studies and workshops and out into the limelight. For the first time in history boffins were cool and the likes of Barnes Wallis and R.J. Mitchell were portrayed as quiet heroes in such movies as The Dam Busters and The First of the Few

In his new book the American-based British historian Paul Kennedy broadens the category to include a host of characters who were instrumental in solving the major operational challenges confronting the Allies as they forged their victory strategy. The “engineers” of the title are not only boffins, though there are plenty of scientists among them. He uses the word in a wider sense, as someone who “carried through an enterprise through skilful or artful contrivance”.

Most people will never have heard of John Randall, Harry Boot or Ronnie Harker. After reading this book you may believe that their part in defeating the Axis was possibly as great as that of some military commanders who are household names.

Randall and Boot miniaturised radar sets so they could be carried by aircraft hunting U-boats and thus contributed vitally to victory in the Battle of the Atlantic — the crucial struggle in the West’s war. 

Ronnie Harker was the RAF test pilot who, after taking up an unpromising American-designed fighter, the P-51, perceived in it the potential for greatness. The P-51 became the Mustang, the long-range escort that allowed American bombers to range far into Germany and cripple the Luftwaffe — an essential prerequisite before the Normandy landings could go ahead.

There are many more such “problem solvers”, some of them colourful individuals like Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart Blacker, “interested in blowing things up” since boyhood, who devised the Hedgehog, a grenade launcher that did for nearly 50 U-boats.

Mostly these success stories are broad team efforts, involving individuals and instititutions both civil and military. In the case of the Mustang, Harker’s intuition was backed by the science of a Polish mathematician turned engineer, Witold Challier, the bureaucratic muscle of Air Chief Marshal Sir Wilfred Freeman and the diplomatic interventions of the US ambassador to Britain John “Gil” Winant and his polo-playing assistant air attaché Tommy Hitchcock (allegedly the inspiration for two Scott Fizgerald characters). And of course nothing could have happened if there had not been a superb powerplant — the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine — to drop into the airframe. 

The narratives often follow traditional lines, with the heroes having to battle with vested interests and institutional obtuseness before the final triumph. They, and the themes and ideas they support, are presented in a bustling, enthusiastic style and the professor’s lectures at Yale must be a lot of fun. He has an open-minded approach to sources and this book contains what I think is a notable first. In the acknowledgements, the author pays tribute to Wikipedia. Historians tend to be rather sniffy about the online encyclopedia. Kennedy admits to being “mightily impressed” by some of the lengthy and scholarly anonymous entries and cites them in the notes. Recognition of the quality and value of much Wikipedia content is overdue and those of us who use it should give proper credit — as well as putting our hands in our pockets.

Kennedy says at the outset that this is a new treatment of the Second World War, but not an attempt to reinterpret it. The “engineers” aren’t being given all the credit for final victory — they just helped it mightily along. War stimulates innovation. It was much easier to be an innovator in a Western democracy than it was under Nazism or Communism, where any display of free-thinking was potentially dangerous. It’s no surprise then that most of Kennedy’s material comes from the Anglo-American side of the fence.

Superior problem-solving mechanisms, though, are not in themselves enough to win wars. For that, as well as intelligence, you need superior resources and stamina — in short, brute force. Kennedy is right to say that only a multi-causal explanation can answer the question of why the Allies won. He perhaps underplays the role of might in deciding on the outcome. Of all the elements in the defeat of Hitler, the most important was the latent strength of the Soviet Union and its willingness to expend it in the endless blood-letting of the Eastern Front battles. It was there that the struggle was decided. And it was brute force rather than boffin-power that won the day.