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Blackett's War
Cover of Blackett's War
Blackett's War
The Men Who Defeated the Nazi U-Boats and Brought Science to the Art of Warfare
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A Washington Post Notable Book

In March 1941, after a year of devastating U-boat attacks, the British War Cabinet turned to an intensely private, bohemian physicist named Patrick Blackett to turn the tide of the naval campaign. Though he is little remembered today, Blackett did as much as anyone to defeat Nazi Germany, by revolutionizing the Allied anti-submarine effort through the disciplined, systematic implementation of simple mathematics and probability theory. This is the story of how British and American civilian intellectuals helped change the nature of twentieth-century warfare, by convincing disbelieving military brass to trust the new field of operational research.

A Washington Post Notable Book

In March 1941, after a year of devastating U-boat attacks, the British War Cabinet turned to an intensely private, bohemian physicist named Patrick Blackett to turn the tide of the naval campaign. Though he is little remembered today, Blackett did as much as anyone to defeat Nazi Germany, by revolutionizing the Allied anti-submarine effort through the disciplined, systematic implementation of simple mathematics and probability theory. This is the story of how British and American civilian intellectuals helped change the nature of twentieth-century warfare, by convincing disbelieving military brass to trust the new field of operational research.

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  • Preface

    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.

    Applying the basic tools of their trade--a thoroughly scientific mind--set backed by little more than simple mathematics and probability theory--they repeatedly demonstrated to disbelieving admirals and generals ways to double or triple the effectiveness of the faltering Allied campaign against the German U--boats. In the grim fight for control of the Atlantic during those years of uncertainty, the scientists' unconventional insights achieved the near--miraculous in a battle crucial to the larger struggle to defeat Hitler's Germany.

    The scientists who beat the U--boats never numbered more than a hundred in all, a fraction of the thousands who worked to achieve the two far better known triumphs of science in the war: the breaking of the German Enigma cipher and the making of the atomic bomb. Yet they were a collection of scientific talent the likes of which probably has never been seen before or since, certainly the oddest such collection ever assembled in one place: among them were physicists, chemists, botanists, physiologists, geneticists, insurance actuaries, economists, mathematicians, and astronomers. Six would win the Nobel Prize, in physics, chemistry, or medicine. Most were far to the left in their politics: some of the best were out-and-out Marxists, and more than a few had been committed pacifists who had come to see the defeat of the Nazis as a cause that overrode their abhorrence of war. Many were almost caricatures of the sort of unmilitary, awkward, overly intellectual civilians that military men routinely viewed with undisguised contempt.

    That they were there when they were so desperately needed was the extraordinary result of a confluence of events and circumstances that I have set out to describe in the following pages: the onrush of devastating reality after decades of complacency toward the submarine menace, a political awakening of scientists brought about by the Great Depression and the rise of fascism, struggles within the militaries of Britain and the United States that pitted tradition against technical innovation and social change, and the appearance in the right place of a few unconventional political and military leaders who respected science---and of a few phenomenally accomplished scientists of great moral courage and unshakable intellectual integrity.

    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 Germany than Patrick Blackett. Certainly, few who did as much as he did have been so little remembered. Partly that is because he was a difficult, private, and inner--directed man whose political views and personality did not age well in the postwar world. Most people today---myself included---will find his uncritical admiration for Stalin's Soviet Union and his doctrinaire social Marxism painfully naive, at best. But it is worth remembering that that same naïveté was the source of an idealism that we can only wish there was more of today: whatever else, Patrick Blackett was fired by a sense of justice, righteousness, and self--sacrificing courage that drove him to serve his country, and the cause of civilization itself, at the time of their utmost need.

    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...

About the Author-
  • Stephen Budiansky is the author of seventeen books about military history, intelligence and espionage, science, the natural world, and other subjects. His most recent books are Code Warriors: NSA's Codebreakers and the Secret Intelligence War Against the Soviet Union and Mad Music: Charles Ives, the Nostalgic Rebel.
    Budiansky's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, the New York Times magazine and op-ed pages, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, The Economist, and many other publications. He is a member of the editorial board of Cryptologia, the scholarly journal of cryptology and intelligence history, and is on the American Heritage Dictionary's Usage Panel. He lives on a small farm in Loudoun County, Virginia.

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    October 22, 2012
    Historian and journalist Budiansky’s newest (after Perilous Fight) is the little known history of a linchpin in the Allies’ victory over the Nazis: Patrick Blackett. At the outset of WWI, the submarine was a marginalized resource, yet it would soon prove a harbinger of the unprecedented technological developments that would characterize the efficient lethality of modern warfare. Budiansky demonstrates that at the time, the Royal Navy was less a training center for elite combatants than it was “a vocation for the sons of gentleman.” Yet Blackett, who got his first taste of battle as a teen in 1916, was the exception among the navy’s well-heeled students. Between the World Wars, he studied at Cambridge, where he developed into a brilliant physicist and became enduringly committed to left-wing politics. During WWII, he applied pragmatism and scientific acumen to the relatively new field of “operational research,” which favored data (e.g., radar) and improvisation over “tradition, prejudice, or gut feeling.” Described by a contemporary as “straightforward, leftish, Bohemian and unconventional,” Blackett had his fair share of old guard naysayers, yet in the struggle against German U-boats, the efficacy of his tactics spoke for themselves. For military history and science fans alike. Agent: Katinka Matson, Brockman Inc.

  • Kirkus

    Starred review from December 1, 2012
    Little-known story of the Allied scientists whose unconventional thinking helped thwart the Nazi U-boats in World War II. With the largest fleet of submarines (U-boats) in the war, Germany dominated early fighting in the Battle of the Atlantic, destroying much Allied shipping. During three months in 1940 alone, U-boats sank more than 150 ships; U-boat commanders were celebrated as daring heroes back home. By war's end, U-boat crews would suffer the highest casualties of all German forces. Military historian Budiansky (Perilous Fight: America's Intrepid War with Britain on the High Seas, 1812-1815, 2011, etc.) offers an excellent, well-researched account of the unlikely group of some 100 British and American scientists whose ideas halted the Nazi submarine menace. Foremost among them was British experimental physicist Patrick Blackett, a controversial socialist and later Nobel Prize winner, who directed operational research for the Admiralty during the war. His teams of scientists brought "a scientific outlook and a fresh eye" to problems that had previously been addressed by tradition and gut instinct. Drawing on math and probability theory, the scientists developed effective solutions to issues such as armor placement on RAF aircraft, the optimal size of warship convoys to protect merchant ships (larger was better), and the proper use of plane-delivered depth charges. Their work doubled or tripled the effectiveness of the Allied campaigns against U-boats; writes the author: "It is no exaggeration to say that few men did more to win the war against Nazi Germany than Patrick Blackett." Especially fascinating is Budiansky's account of Blackett's successful effort to urge the wartime mobilization of scientists at a time when the military greatly distrusted intellectuals and civilians. The scientists' contributions to the war effort secured "a permanent institutional foothold" for scientific advice in government. An engrossing work rich in insights and anecdotes.

    COPYRIGHT(2012) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • David Walton, Dallas Morning News "[A] terrific story, exciting, illuminating, well told. And what a movie it would make, especially in 3-D . . . [Budiansky] is a fine writer."
  • Marc Levinson, The Wall Street Journal "[T]horough and focused . . . [Budiansky's] lively writing style delivers a fascinating portrayal of how science contributed to winning the war in Europe."
  • Evan Thomas, The Washington Post "Lively and enlightening . . . Writing with an easy command of science and a sharp eye for fresh and telling detail, Budiansky knowingly and entertainingly re-creates the almost constant struggle between hidebound military traditionalists and the clever civilians who saved them."
  • Bob Kustra, Idaho Statesman "Budiansky does a masterful job illustrating the debt we owe to [Blackett's] courage and foresight at a time when innovation made all the difference in the direction of world history."
  • Michael Schrage, Fortune "[E]ngaging . . . the more closely one looks at Patrick Blackett, the more impressive he appears . . . Far more than a scientific or military biography, Blackett's War is also a finely wrought and well-sourced social history of elite science's wartime mobilization . . . [A] wonderful revisionist history of how intelligence derived from Bletchley Park's breakthroughs combined with Blackett's operational research to bypass and destroy the Nazi Wolfpacks."
  • Colonel John J. Abbatiello, Proceedings "A beautifully written history . . . Budiansky skillfully provides biographical sketches of the important contributors as well as the historical context of the issues they wrestled with."
  • David Walton, Dallas Morning News "[A] terrific story, exciting, illuminating, well told. And what a movie it would make, especially in 3-D . . . [Budiansky] is a fine writer."
  • Rob Hardy, The Dispatch (Columbus, Starkville and the Golden Triangle) "A broad history of the foundation of ideas in OR [Operations Research] . . . Revelatory . . . [Blackett's War] should bring renewed admiration for some forgotten scientific heroes."
  • John Martellaro, TheMacObserver.com "Fabulous . . . [Blackett's War] got me thinking. Is there a modern field of endeavor, operations research & analysis combined with historical business analysis, that can create a body of knowledge that describes, in an operations research sense, how to compete against a giant like Amazon, Apple, Google or Microsoft? . . . Perhaps the next generation of CEOs will use the sophisticated OR strategies developed 70 years ago that are still being used today to tackle our nation's Biggest Problems . . . After all, business is war."
  • John R. Satterfield, Naval Historical Foundation

    "[W]onderfully done, well written, suspenseful and full of the personal and organizational conflicts that can make otherwise pedestrian stories so colorful. In addition to its entertainment value, Blackett's War speaks clearly and authoritatively about a multitude of technical subjects."
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The Men Who Defeated the Nazi U-Boats and Brought Science to the Art of Warfare
Stephen Budiansky
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