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September 1, 2014 will mark the 75th anniversary of Hitler’s invasion of Poland and the start of WWII. One of the least considered, but most critical, aspects of the War was the contest for control of the sea. The pervasive conflict, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill called “the Battle of the Atlantic”. Germany dominated early fighting in the Battle of the Atlantic. The Battle of the Atlantic, in its scope and significance, the sea was vast. It covered more area and lasted longer, 1939-1945, than any land campaign. More than 70,000 allied naval personnel and merchant seaman lost their lives with German Unterseeboots (U-boats) sinking more than 3,500 commercial vessels and 175 warships. The Kriegsmarine had a 75 percent casualty rate.
Stephen Budiansky has focused the book on battle science. From 1941 to 1943 a small group of British and American Scientist, most without military experience or knowledge revolutionized the way wars are run and won. Blackett’s men taught allied military leaders to use their resources effectively and asked hard question to challenge established wisdom. In the process they created a new discipline, operation research, which plays a vital role today. Blackett emphasized more efficient and effective use of existing systems rather than costly development of new weapons. Blackett’s group focused mainly on the war against the U-boats. They developed a radar guidance system that greatly improved the accuracy of anti-aircraft guns. They advocated the installation of radar in British warship and patrol air-crate to locate U-boats. They developed tactics for aircraft depth charge attacks to increase kills by a factor of ten. The Group suggested new aircraft camouflage to avoid early detection by U-boat lookouts. The scientist also coordinated with British code-breakers to facilitate U-boat location. Blackett proved that large convoys were safer than the smaller groups the Admiralty championed.
The real hero of the story is Winston Churchill who was in charge of the British Navy in WWI and later minister of munitions. In the 1930s Churchill was a back beach warmer of Parliament. Churchill pressed the government to bring scientific advisors into military affairs as early as 1934. The government did so and this group in 1935 developed Radar. By 1939 the British coast was lined with tracking stations, which was vital to the battle of Britain. But the British navy was resistant to Radar which deprived the British Navy of a potential early advantage against the German fleet.
Blackett received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1948 for his work on cosmic rays, high energy sub-atomic particles, many other in the group also went on to receive the Nobel Prize. The book is well-written, contains suspenseful and lots of personal and organizational conflicts that can make the stories so colorful. I have only highlighted a few of the interesting stories and accomplishments in this book. This book is not intended for the casual reader. The subject matter is often quite technical. If you are interested in math and science or WWII history you will enjoy this book. The golden voice of John Lee helped bring the scientist stories to life.
3 of 4 people found this review helpful
Is there anything you would change about this book?
The analytical elements of the story are most compelling. When the book describes the politics and bickering of different science and military factions, it gets repetitive and tedious quickly, turns into a game of "Who wrote what memo".
Who was your favorite character and why?
Churchill. Finally a more multi-faceted profile of him.
What aspect of John Lee’s performance would you have changed?
What's with the childish mimicking of foreign accents, especially the German ones. It's ham-handed to say the least, also extremely illogical using them even for written documents like orders or letters. Really taints the listening experience.