I thoroughly enjoyed reading Blackett’s War: The Men Who Defeated the Nazi U-Boats and Brought Science to the Art of Warfare by Stephen Budiansky. If you’re expecting a history of the Manhattan Project or the story of scientists developing weapons systems, you’re in for a surprise. It is a very different history of World War II than many you’ll read; it concentrates on the science and scientists that changed how militaries looked at things during the war and changed military thought and science to this day. Budiansky concentrates on Patrick Blackett but also includes the contributions of other scientists; in doing so, he tells the story not just of how these scientists helped the Allies win the war but began a new type of science: Operational Research.
“As director of the antisubmarine analysis effort for the Royal Air Force and Royal Navy during World War II, Blackett not only helped win that battle, and the war, but in doing so founded the new science of operational research; it has been an indispensable part of military training and planning ever since, a revolution in the application of science to the art of warfare.”
Budiansky first develops Patrick Blackett as a character, describing his World War I service in World War I and his subsequent development as a scientist before going into how he contributed to the development of a revolution in military thought. He describes how Blackett’s experiences and education made him the perfect person to be at the forefront of development of Operational Research. It wasn’t easy to convince the military to accept the suggestions of scientists who weren’t trained in the art of war; you have to think that Blackett’s prior military experience helped him get a foot in the door and get the Admirals, Generals, and politicians to listen. Scientists had always had a role in inventing and developing the tools of war but because of Blackett, scientists and mathematicians of various backgrounds were brought in to study things that they themselves had no background in; with no axes to grind they transformed the Art of War in to the Science of War. They began to have input into not just the development of weapons, but how those weapons were used through the application of the scientific method.
“The traditional military view was that the scientists’ role was to develop “weapons and gadgets,” hand them over, and that was that. But now scientists were intimately involved in what previously had been the exclusive purview of military commanders: the running of operations.”
As mentioned above, it wasn’t easy and Budiansky describes the struggle the scientists had being accepted in both the UK and in the US. We learn about successes and failures and we learn about which military political leaders and political leaders picked up on the advantages the scientists offered and which ones resisted the move toward Operational Research. One of the successes for the scientists was the Battle of the Atlantic. Naval leadership accepted their suggestions and the scientists were able to develop ways of using existing weapons systems and methods, from depth charge patterns to the convoy system, more effectively. On the other hand, the scientists never really were able to break through to air force leadership and convince them of the inefficiency and futility of area bombing cities. When it came to the submarine and bombing wars, I found this quote from Blackett’s War not only an interesting one but one that many don’t consider when looking back at World War II:
“It was the final irony of the modern industrialized slaughter of the Second World War that the two fronts about which so much romantic and heroic nonsense would be spilled were the most barbaric and pitiless, for the men who fought upon them and their victims alike.”
Blackett’s War was a fascinating, five star read. I enjoyed the way the personalities of Blackett and the other scientists were developed, the glimpse into the science world between the world wars, and the explanation of how science and critical thinking changed the way war was waged. It really is a fresh take on World War II history and perhaps that’s what I enjoyed most. If you’ve grown tired of normal military histories, give this book a try. Likewise if you’re into science – and even if you’re not a fan of military history – this could be a book for you. While writing this review, I have come to think that this book would make an excellent documentary; perhaps The History Channel or Discovery Channel could curtail their slides into the Reality TV universe to make some enlightening TV.