The Nerds Who Won World War II
In 1943 the war looked unwinnable for the Allies. Marc Wortman on historian Paul Kennedy’s story of how unsung innovators turned the tide.
“A sniper shooting at you is not science,” a scientist acquaintance who fought for Israel in several wars once said to me. He was, however, a mine remover, à la The Hurt Locker. “A mine is a task. It plays into the scientific mind.”
Amid the violence, chaos, and terror of war, some people must apply their rational minds to sorting and solving dangerous stumbling blocks like mines. On a larger scale, smart, inventive and diligent engineers behind the lines must draw on data from the battlefield to come up with solutions to myriad problems, many of them completely novel.
In Engineers of Victory: The Problem Solvers Who Turned the Tide in the Second World War, historian, international security authority, and Yale professor Paul Kennedy turns on their heads many standard notions about how the Allies won. He lays out what he deems the five great battlefield challenges the Allies faced in 1943 and early 1944. These were the U-boats lurking along the shipping routes through the North Atlantic, the Nazi fighters waiting for the Allied heavy bombers flying over Europe, the blitzkrieg tactics that had overwhelmed Western Europe and threatened the Soviet Union, the fortified shores of Europe that stood in the way of amphibious invasions, and the ocean separating the American forces’ home base from Japan. He then explains how the behind-the-scenes engineers solved those problems through experiment, ingenuity, and resourcefulness.