Blackett’s War

Books about World War II rarely discuss probability theory, mathematics, and observation of logistics procedures, which makes “Blackett’s War: The Men Who Defeated the Nazi U-Boats and Brought Science to the Art of Warfare” (ISBN: 978-0307595966) by Stephen Budiansky a refreshing change. But the horrors of combat are not overlooked (warning; graphic descriptions ahead).

Author Stephen Budiansky begins “Blackett’s War” with a straightforward sentence containing a bold proposition: “From 1941 to 1943, a small group of British and American scientists, almost entirely without military experience or knowledge, revolutionized the way wars are run and won.” And then he goes on to prove it.

book - Blackett’s WarYou might think this means the book shows stuffy professors sitting in messy offices, droning on about their pet theories while smoking pipes and playing chess, but there are two counters to this static image: First, many of the conversations are fascinating — especially their battles with the typical idiots, dweebs, and hidebound bureaucratic clowns who are so often part of government and the military. (There are several maddening stories involving Winston Churchill.)

And second, Budiansky often plunks you down with the troops who are fighting the battles.

Here, for example, is his description of what it was like aboard one of the small “cheap and nasty” ships that were hastily built to be convoy escorts in the Allies’ frantic attempts to foil Germany’s insidious campaign of submarine warfare:

The ships were originally planned for a complement of 29 officers and men but that was increased to 47 and then 67, with the result that 55 enlisted men shared two 20-by-14-foot compartments, two toilets, one urinal, and three wash basins. There was no forced ventilation system and the first fifty ships that were built had no insulation either, which caused the walls to sweat with heavy condensation, causing epidemics of pneumonia and TB among their crews. In rough weather water simply slammed down through the standing ventilator pipes, flooding the mess decks and wardroom and washing up a tide of spilled food, sodden clothes, and loose gear in chaotic piles.

But that was nothing compared to life aboard those dreaded German U-boats the Allies were so desperately trying to scuttle:

Whenever the boat was running on the surface four men stood watch on the bridge, each assigned one quadrant to scan constantly; in even a small chop waves crashed over the deck drenching the lookouts. Still, the fresh air was a welcome relief for most; below the stench was a constant presence; it hit you like a physical force, a mixture of diesel fumes, lubricating oil, engine exhaust, damp rot, cooking odors, and the acrid and omnipresent fug of unwashed bodies, ineffectually masked with cologne. After a few weeks green mold grew on leather belts, black mildew on shirts, thick crusts of yellow fuzz covered the bread, and faces and arms were pocked with infected scabs and boils.


For most people, thinking about WWII involves recalling sequences from Hollywood movies. For many of us, the war in the Atlantic may be a matter of imagining quietly romantic and stoic naval officers seeking out the German battleship Graf Spee while dreaming of the girl back home. For everyone so deluded, “Blackett’s War” changes that dramatically while powerfully displaying how close the Nazis came to winning the battle for the seas, and thus perhaps winning the entire war.

The U-boat campaign was catastrophic. From the moment the Germans decided to defy the rules of a century’s worth of admiralty court practices, the situation was dire in the extreme. For example, in July-August-September of 1940, the U-boats sank more than 150 ships totaling nearly 1,000,000 tons of shipping. During 1941, the U-boats sunk 2,250,000 tons of shipping. In March of 1942 alone, U-boats sent ships totaling a half-million tons to the bottom of the sea.


What was it like being on a merchant vessel crossing the Atlantic to deliver food or vital supplies?

On a ship carrying a heavy cargo like iron ore or steel plate, you slept on deck because the ship would sink like a rock if it were torpedoed and you had only seconds to scramble overboard. On a ship carrying a lighter load you slept belowdecks but left your clothes on and the door open to giver yourself a chance of getting out quickly. If you were aboard a tanker, or a freighter loaded with ammunition, you got undressed, shut the door, and got a good night’s sleep because you didn’t have a prayer anyway if the ship were hit.

And what if you survived as your ship went down? Most of the time, you were abandoned to your fate. It sounds shocking but if another ship in the convoy stopped to pick up survivors, it became a sitting duck so “there was nothing to do but steam on.” No one involved in these decisions was ever the same again. “The image of passing literally within feet of helpless men left to die in the dark and freezing waters of the North Atlantic was a horror few would forget.”

Mind Over Matter

There are many heretofore unsung heroes in this book. It begins with Blackett:

Patrick Blackett, a British physicist, ex-naval officer, future Nobel winner, and ardent socialist, stood at the forefront of those scientists of penetrating insight and courage. It is no exaggeration to say that few men did more to win the war against Nazi German than Patrick Blackett. Certainly, few who did as much as he did have been so little remembered… 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 so doing 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.

But the book doesn’t concentrate on Blackett; there are also compelling tales of E.J. Williams, Cecil Gordon, and several others. Their work resulted in many unheralded triumphs that saved Allied lives and shortened the war. Among them: the ideal configuration of ships in convoy; the proper search procedures to sniff out Nazi U-boats; effective settings for depth charges; the proper allocation of crews for maximal results in aircraft maintenance.

At one point, Budiansky puts several of their successes into one sentence, pointing out that Blackett and his cohorts recommended “the optimal height of patrol aircraft to fly, the most effective allocation of a plane’s payload between fuel and depth bombs, and the right spacing and pattern for depth charges fired by new weapons being developed for ships that could throw a salvo of charges over the bow so that an escort vessel could attack a U-boat ahead of the ship without losing sonar contact.”

For WWII buffs, some of these stories will fill in historical blanks they didn’t even know existed in their knowledge of the war.

Different Perspective

Budiansky has many books in print, and as may be discerned from the titles, he is fond of approaching a topic from a different perspective — “Battle of Wits: The Complete Story of Codebreaking in World War II,” “The Bloody Shirt: Terror After the Civil War,” and “Her Majesty’s Spymaster: Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Walsingham, and the Birth of Modern Espionage.” With this new work, he has done it again.

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