Cover image of "Engineers of Victory" by Paul Kennedy, a book about problem-solvers

What use is history? This question has been kicked around for centuries, but I’m not certain that those who venture opinions about it have bothered to ask a follow-up question: What do you mean by history?

Most of what we’re force-fed in school—even, all too often, in university courses — consists primarily of a recitation of “facts” (dates, names, events, trends). To make matters worse, those facts typically revolve around the reigns of kings and the battles they fought. That sort of “history” is not only boring, it’s essentially useless.

To be truly useful, I believe, a work of history must be informed with deep knowledge of a particular event or period of time and include some judicious analysis of what’s most important about it, so I can understand why things happened as they did—and cull lessons from the experience that will help me make more intelligent judgments in the future.

Engineers of Victory, historian Paul Kennedy‘s penetrating study of what mattered most in World War II, is precisely that sort of book.

Engineers of Victory: The Problem-Solvers Who Turned the Tide in the Second World War by Paul Kennedy (2013) 464 pages ★★★★★

Why and how did the Allies win World War II?

Unlike the superb story-telling about the war in Rick Atkinson‘s brilliant trilogy and other books that bring the period back to life but offer few if any judgments, Kennedy’s work—in a single volume, after all—sifts through the accumulated evidence in official records and memoirs and the opinions of other leading historians to arrive at conclusions about why and how the Allies really won the war. It’s fascinating—and, in the end, it’s useful, because there are lessons to be learned about management and leadership that can be applied in so many other spheres of work as well as military planning.

Kennedy focuses on the period from the beginning of 1943 until the middle of 1944, during which the Allies turned the tide in the war and set a course for victory. He explains what happened then, and why, concentrating on five strategic campaigns: the Allies’ desperate and protracted effort to clear the North Atlantic of German submarines; the Russians’ monumental resistance to the Nazi invasion (occupying three-quarters of Germany’s troops); the war in the air in both Europe and the Pacific; the Allies frequent use of amphibious landings in both theaters; and the strategy employed both in Russia and the Pacific to take advantage of German and Japanese overextension.

Challenging the conventional wisdom

Some of Kennedy’s judgments challenge the conventional wisdom about the conduct of the war:

  • For example, was the breaking of the Germans’ Enigma code the “secret weapon” that won the war, as so much popular historical writing has suggested in recent years? No way! The Ultra project, as the Allies called it, made a valuable contribution by eavesdropping on the German general staff, especially in the late stages of the war, but it was far from decisive.
  • Was the US and British strategic bombing of Germany’s cities the key to victory? Not at all. In fact, Kennedy and many others, including some senior commanders in the air war, judged the strategic bombing an utter failure.
  • Did General Douglas MacArthur win the war in the Pacific? No. While MacArthur’s drive from the far south to the Philippines and points north chewed up enormous numbers of Japanese troops, the winning strategy of the US rested more squarely on Admiral Chester Nimitz, driving from Hawaii to capture Japan’s island outposts and provide a platform for the B-29 bombers to attack the Japanese homeland.
  • Was the American entry into the war in Europe the decisive factor in the Allies’ victory, as so many of my countrymen seem to think? Perhaps not. The war in Europe was won on the plains of European Russia and in the North Atlantic sea lanes, Paul Kennedy suggests. Clearly, the phenomenal output weapons and ammunition by US factories and the addition of millions of American soldiers to the front lines were strategic factors. But it was Soviet Russia who ultimately won the ground war against Hitler and the US and Britain together who won the war on the seas and in the air.

The true reason the Axis lost

However, digging a little deeper, the true cause of the loss of the war by the Axis (principally Germany and Japan) was their territorial overextension—in other words, they bit off more than they could chew. Hitler’s thrust so deeply into Russia was ultimately the death knell for the Nazi regime, as was the Japanese militarists’ foolish expansion throughout China and in South Asia as far as the borders of India. Neither country possessed the resources to defend all that territory.

Another clearly significant factor was micromanagement of the war from Berlin and Tokyo by Hitler and Japan’s Imperial War Cabinet. Again and again, decisions made by those at the top—based on rigid ideology or flaring tempers—hindered the Axis generals’ management of the war at the front. (While Churchill constantly intervened in military decision-making, he proved to be a supremely talented strategist and was usually proved right. Roosevelt trusted his generals and admirals.)

So, who was it who really won the war?

The thesis of Engineers of Victory is that subordinate officers were the ultimate architects of their militaries’ successes. These were the men whose brilliant inventions of new weaponry, detection technology, or organizational design accounted for the breakthroughs in the field:

  • The test pilot who insisted on installing the newest and most powerful Rolls-Royce engine in the poorly performing P-51 Mustang fighter plane, eventually bringing it into service on the front and delivering a devastating blow to the Luftwaffe.
  • The major general whose seemingly whimsical inventions to turn his tanks into mine-sweepers helped make possible the Allies breakthrough from the Normandy beaches.
  • The admiral who persuaded FDR to allow him to establish the Construction Battalions (CBs or SeeBees) within the US Navy, a force that played such a critical role in the Allies’ many amphibious landings, including Normandy.
  • The graduate students whose breakthrough on sonar technology played such a large role in enabling the Allies to destroy the Nazis’ U-boat fleet and free the North Atlantic for the merchant marine to save Britain from starvation.
  • The admiral who was the organizational genius under Dwight Eisenhower, designing and coordinating the Normandy invasion on five beaches simultaneously with significant problems at only one.

These are just a few of the many fascinating vignettes in Engineers of Victory. For any student of military history—or anyone who seeks to understand the most consequential event of the 20th century and the largest event in all human history—this book is a must read.

For further reading

You’ll find this book listed on my posts, 5 top nonfiction books about World War II and 10 best books about innovation.

If you enjoy reading history in fictional form, check out 20 most enlightening historical novels.

Enjoy reading general nonfiction? Here is my list of The 10 most memorable nonfiction books of the decade.

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