Accounts of World War II generally focus on battles lost and won : Pearl Harbor , the naval battles of Midway and the Coral Sea , the Pacific campaign ,Dunkirk, the Battle of the Bulge and the Normandy landings on D-Day; on outsize personalities like FDR and Churchill , Stalin and De Gaulle , Patton , Montgomery and Rommel. To be sure, there are some books on the contribution of scientists to the Allied cause but usually they focus on Alan Turing and the breaking of the Enigma Code . That was surely an amazing, super-human effort but it was not the only one . Blackett’s War, by the military historian Stephen Budiansky, is about Patrick Blackett and how he and his eclectic band of scientists helped the Allies counter Germany at a time when all seemed lost . After reading this book , you will come to the conclusion that I did … that without Blackett and Co. , Britain could well have been brought to its knees before the tide of battle turned .
I’d never heard of Patrick Blackett( 1897-1961) before I read Blackett’s War; now , having read it , I’m not likely to ever forget him . Born into a solidly middle-class family, he had no particular desire to go to sea but became a naval cadet at age thirteen . After a four-year education , he graduated top of his class , began active duty as a midshipman in 1914 and saw action in the disastrous naval Battle of Jutland. A full lieutenant by war’s end , Blackett was sent by the navy for a 6-month course at Cambridge University in 1919. At Cambridge ,he discovered his true metier , resigned from the navy and enrolled as a regular undergraduate working towards a degree in Mathematics/ Physics. He conducted research in particle physics under the guidance of the Nobel Prize winning Lord Rutherford and became legendary for his ability to combine physical insight ,mathematical understanding and extraordinary practical skills. His unique combination of abilities was to stand him in good stead when World War II began.
The armed forces have always been contemptuous of civilians , particularly scientists who they feel are intruding in military matters . Luckily , Blackett was appointed to a three member committee, headed by the equally brilliant Henry Tizard, to advise on Air Defence . It was to have far-reaching consequences when WWII began. The list of contributions by Blackett and other scientists is truly astonishing . During the air war over Britain they detected the German bomb guidance system and devised successful countermeasures ; they also dramatically increased the effectiveness of British anti-aircraft fire . When German submarines laid waste to British merchant ships , they came up with innovations in anti-submarine warfare that saved the day by drastically improving the effectiveness of depth charges and by proving that merchant ships in a convoy were far less vulnerable to lone undefended ships. They also worked closely with their American counterparts who came up with their own strokes of brilliance. The book also touches upon the breaking of the German naval code ( ” Enigma”) and how instrumental it was to the Allied effort.
All this was not achieved without the usual bureaucratic snafus and turf wars . There was a constant struggle between various divisions in the armed forces , each intent on having its own way. And of course all of them were resentful of these civilian ” intruders”. Prime Minister Churchill was an enthusiastic supporter of the scientists but he was sometimes too interfering. Worse , his trusted scientific advisor Prof . Lindenman was a thorn in the scientists side , pushing his own theories even when they had been discredited and constantly poormouthing Blackett ad his colleagues . Additionally , when dealing with Americans , the British scientists first had to overcome the latter’s Anglophobia. It is to a credit to their persistence and tact that they were able to do so.
One would think that only mathematicians and physicists would be of use in the war effort but that would be wrong . The ” eggheads ” who served with distinction included biologists , chemists , lawyers and others . Their scientific approach to solving problems came to be known as ” operations research” , a term that is commonplace today.Though the topic of this book is heavily scientific , the author is able to explain scientific concepts in an interesting and easy- to- understand way. General readers will have no difficulty infollowing the action .The seriousness of the book is leavened with flashes of humor . One scientist, reflecting how bonds were forged with the military over drinks , says ” Ninety percent of operations research is beer!”
The book has many other attractions for the general reader. There are glimpses into the behavior and thinking wartime leaders such as Churchill, FDR , Hitler , and the German admirals. The book drives home the horrors of war. We experience vicariously the terror felt by sailors in wartime , both the German submariners and their intended victims , the British sailors on merchant ships . There is one particularly affecting passage that drives home the cruelty of war. When a ship was sunk , the other ships in the convoy could not stop to pick up the sailors struggling in the water , for fear that they themselves would become sitting ducks for the submarine wolf pack.. It was an experience forever seared in the minds of sailors who had to abandon their comrades to certain death in the wintry seas . One of them wrote ” They shout , even cheer , as you approach; the red lights of their life jackets flicker when they are on the crest of a wave and are dowsed as they slip into the trough; their cries turn to incredulous despair as you glide by, unheeding , keeping a stoical face as best you can.But the cold logic of war is that these men in the water belong to a ship that has bought it and that a couple of dozen more ships survive and must be protected… Each time was as bad as the first… we never got used to it .”
The numbers, on both sides , make grim reading.Over the course of the war , of the 830 U-boats that took part in the operations , no less than ( 94%) -were lost . Of the 40,000 men who served on them , 26,000 were killed and another 5,000 were taken prisoner. On the other side , the ineffective Allied bomber offensive cost the U.S and Britain 8,000 large aircraft apiece and took the lives of 76,000 airmen . It also resulted in the deaths of 76,000 German civilians . War is hell.
Blackett went on to win the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1948 but his was not the only such distinction . All told there were six British Nobel Prize winners who figured prominently in British resistance to the Germans in WW II. There were scores of others of the first rank who also contributed mightily to the war effort ( On the American side , Luther Shockley later discredited for his racist views , also won the Nobel Prize). Unfortunately , his later years are not a story of unalloyed success. His leftist sympathies and intolerance of opposing viewpoints , led to his being gradually shunted aside . He did become the President of the Royal Society and held a several prestigious academic posts but his star never shone as brightly as it had during the war years .
Blacketts War . Stephen Budiansky . Alfred A. Knopf (2013) .$ 27.95