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Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Review: Blackett's War: The Men Who Defeated the Nazi U-Boats and Brought Science to the Art of Warfare by Stephen Budiansky

Outstanding read. Patrick Blackett’s career is used as a metaphor for an examination of the role played by scientists in defeating the Nazis during WW II. Budiansky begins by discussing the profound effect WW I had on scientists, many of whom had served in the war and returned with deep-seated antipathy to war in general. Many turned to pacifism and Marxism as a perceived alternative, but the ill-considered racist actions of the Hitler regime against Jewish intellectuals and scientists, many of whom fled the country and were instrumental in the Allied war effort, coupled with Nazi militarism pushed them in the opposite direction.

Budiansky argues successfully that it wasn’t just new weapons and countermeasures developed by the scientists, it was also a new way of doing business for the military. They questioned the traditional ways of doing things in favor of a reliance on quantitative analysis. Focus on operational aspects often produced startling results. By looking at the statistical results of aircraft operations against U-boats depth settings were changed on depth charges and bombers were repainted white instead of black to make them less visible from the sea. These small changes resulted in the likelihood of air attack success from less than one percent to over ten percent.

In another very prosaic example, a scientist noted that long lines formed at the sinks after eating as soldiers washed their kits. Ana analysis showed it took much more time to wash the plates in the first sink than to rinse them in the second sink. Instead of having an equal number of sinks for both rinsing and washing, two thirds of the sinks were devoted to washing and that totally eliminated the lines.

Some of the conclusions reminded me of James Surowiecki’s Wisdom of Crowds ( see my review at who postulated that the best decisions were made by groups made up of differing experiences and points of view, especially naysayers. I tried to utilize this concept as head of IT at the college. When we were doing strategic planning I always tried to include faculty from the anti-tech crowd and they often made very significant contributions that we, as IT types would never have thought of. Blackett insisted similarly in his operational activities, trying to include scientists who had no obvious experience in the area under discussion.

Mathematicians were obviously extremely important in dealing with ciphers, but their experience with probability was crucial to many important operational changes in the conduct of the war. But sailors had their own operational experience to share. Generally the word among convoy sailors was that if you were on a ship with a heavy cargo, like iron ore, you slept in your clothes on deck because, if torpedoed, it would sink like a stone. In a ship lightly cargoed, you slept in your clothes below decks, and slept lightly so you could rush on deck if hit. The only sailors getting a good night’s sleep unclothed were those in tankers. If they got torpedoed you went up in a flaming cloud so it didn't matter where you slept. Similarly, it was rapidly learned ships in convoy never stopped to retrieve survivors. Any ship that stopped became a perfect target for the U-boat and it was better not to lose another ship.

Sometimes the results of the analysis was not welcome. Blackett’s group discovered that only an estimated 400 Germans were being killed in bombing raids per month while 400 airmen were killed during the same period, hardly a fortuitous ratio. (After the war when more accurate data was available, it was learned the number of Germans killed was only about 200 per month.) They also discovered that production was more influenced by holidays rather than bombing. They recommended putting more resources into the naval battle and protecting ships that were in convoys delivering much needed goods and military supplies, i.e., the war against U-boats. That was not a message the RAF wanted to hear. They were basically told to back off and the RAF changed the justification for their bombing to the importance of “dehousing” the population. Note that the fire bombings of Hamburg, Dresden, Pforzheim and Tokyo produced substantially different results. (