Monday, June 12, 2017

Book Review: Blackett's War

Blackett's War: The Men Who Defeated the Nazi U-Boats
Stephen Budiansky
History, biography, mathematics

Round about page 100 of Blackett's War I started thinking: "This is great stuff, but it's all background. Where's the foreground?" It turns out that the whole book is like that. The facts are fascinating, the writing is excellent, the detail is good, and the math is accessible; it's just that the book reads as a collection of anecdotes rather than as a whole.

This is a case where a simple chronological organization doesn't necessarily work well. The eponymous Patrick Blackett sidles into and out of the story, never remaining on-stage for long. Other characters do similarly, as do a succession of political intrigues, military-technical debates, and side stories (including, naturally, the many-times-told Enigma tale). If I'd been editing this material, I might have advised a thematic approach. What Blackett and his colleagues accomplished is really interesting in its own right: the ideas, not the people, are arguably the main characters.

What makes those ideas so interesting is that, in many cases, the key insight was that someone had to ask the question. Once the question was asked, answering it didn't require a Bletchley Park--just basic math and statistics--and yet the answers were no less consequential than the work of the codebreakers. Do larger convoys require substantially more protection? (No.) Why is the line to clean mess kits so long? (Washing takes longer than rinsing; you need three wash tubs and one rinse tub, not two of each.) What's the right depth setting for an air-dropped depth charge? (Shallow. Once your target sub has reached 100' depth, it's also had time to turn, so it won't be where you're aiming anyway.) Should we use bombers to attack cities, or to attack submarines? (Submarines.)

That last one was an obvious fact, by the way, which was ignored. That's the other reason the idea content of Blackett's War needs to be promoted: the staggering arrogance, incompetence, and all-around stupidity of the military men whose job it was to win the war, but whose hobby was insisting that everything they already knew was correct and that being smart was bad. Sir Henry Tizard, for example, had a meeting with a senior naval officer who sniffily explained that it simply wasn't possible to put radar on warships, my dear fellow . . . because there was no space for another aerial on the mast.

The upshot, then, is that I was fully interested and engaged--but I'm not sure that a general reader would be. I'd recommend Blackett's War for readers who have an interest in the Battle of the Atlantic and/or mathematics and/or military stupidity. If you're expecting a character-driven biography, you may be disappointed.

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