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Engineers of Victory

Meet the engineers, scientists, technicians, and logistical experts whose ingenuity and innovations caused the Allies to win World War II.

By Terry HartleBook Reviewer / February 6, 2013

Engineers of Victory by Paul Kennedy Random House 464 pp.

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Conventional wisdom about World War II holds that by early 1943, the Allies had turned the tide of battle and that it was largely a matter of time before the Axis Powers were defeated.  The reasoning is simple: by this time the Russians had decisively defeated the Germans at Stalingrad, the British had beaten them at El Alamein and the Allies had successfully landed in North Africa.  Moreover, things were looking up in the Pacific theater where the United States had crushed the Japanese Navy at Midway and was about to secure Guadalcanal after months of hard fighting. 

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In Engineers of Victory: The Problem Solvers Who Turned the Tide in the Second World War, Yale historian Paul Kennedy disagrees. According to Kennedy, the most critical period of the war was much later – from January 1943 to July 1944 – than is generally realized. Moreover, he attributes victory not to any single battle or major turning point but rather to the ability of the Allies to solve a handful of problems that, if unaddressed, would have prolonged the war significantly or even altered the outcome. These challenges were not addressed by grand strategists or military commanders but rather by a large number of engineers, scientists, technicians, and logistical experts whose ability to solve problems proved decisive in several key areas. 

Consider, for example, the absolute necessity of getting men and supplies across the Atlantic Ocean.  Absent this, it would have been impossible to supply the Russians and to accumulate the men and materiel that were necessary for the D-Day invasion.  By early 1943, the U-Boats were enjoying their greatest success of the war in sinking Allied shipping. So great was the crisis that, according to Kennedy, British imports that year were less than they had been in 1939.  But by that summer, the Allies had made a number of strategic and tactical changes that gave them a decisive edge in the North Atlantic. 

The advances themselves – long-range and better equipped bombers to provide adequate air cover for the convoys; improved radar developed by university scientists in England and the United States; a new mortar that began as a “quirky schoolboy’s dream” but became an effective anti-submarine weapon; and the creation of far more effective naval escorts to combat the German U-boats – seem to be little more than incremental changes.  But they stemmed from experience and the application of analysis to problems that needed to be solved.  And taken together they became the key factors in winning the Battle of the Atlantic.    

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