Rob Hardy on books


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Boffins Against the U-Boat Menace



Rob Hardy


Science has enabled us to do a lot of things better, and unfortunately, given the way people and nations conduct themselves, it has enabled wars to be fought with more effectiveness. When we think of scientific contributions to warfare, we think of gadgets, from better guns to better bombs. Hitler had his scientists, and we had ours, and we can all be thankful that ours were part of the effort that brought us victory. One of the scientists who deserves our thanks is Patrick Blackett. If your reaction is, "Who?" that was my reaction too, but he is the central subject of Blackett's War: The Men Who Defeated the Nazi U-Boats and Brought Science to the Art of Warfare (Knopf) by Stephen Budiansky. The author writes, "It is no exaggeration to say that few men did more to win the war against Nazi Germany than Patrick Blackett," and he makes a persuasive case. Blackett would later go on to win a Nobel Prize in physics for work he started before the war, examining cosmic ray tracks within cloud chambers, but his work during the war did not have to do directly with gadgetry or physics. Rather, he championed taking data from battle procedures and formulating tactics based on the data, an idea that seems obvious in retrospect. Blackett is acknowledged as the founder of the discipline known as Operations Research, which has had far broader applications than just warfare. 




Budiansky's book is a broad history of the foundation of ideas in OR rather than a biography of Blackett, but of course Blackett's life is recounted. He was an English gentleman who had been a naval officer in WWI, serving on the battleship Barham at the Battle of Jutland, the only (although inconclusive) fleet battle of the war. After the war he continued his scientific studies in Cambridge, and stuck with a crowd of bohemian, sometimes Marxist, scientists. In the 1930s, although he retained, Budiansky says, "a more than passing gullibility in accepting Soviet assertions about the USSR's unsurpassed support of scientific research," he parted ways with the pacifist British left because of the Nazi persecution of Jewish scientists within Germany. A Jewish immigrant from South Africa, Solly Zuckerman, organized a London dinner group of which Blackett was a part. It was called the Tots and Quots, from "Quot hominess, tot sententiae," or, "As many opinions as there are men." The group often discussed what scientists might do to help military efforts, and one night had as its guest a publisher who heard their ideas and said if they wrote them up, he would publish them in book form. Science in War was published in 1940, and surprisingly sold thousands of copies, making the argument that scientific methods could be brought upon warfare and upon other aspects of society. Blackett was probably the author of the book's section on operational research.  




The timing was right. Churchill was an enthusiast for scientific ideas, and was perhaps overeager to promote the next scientific gadget; he had, Budiansky says, "a weakness for the picture of the lone amateur inventor upending establishment thinking with a revolutionary idea that required a champion to see it through." Such enthusiasm had led him in WWI to boost the tank against the resistance of the army, but it also led him in WWII to promote aerial mines that would drift down on parachutes and intercept enemy bombers, or a gadget that would produce an updraft that would flip the airplane on which it was focused. Blackett and his fellow scientists would be frustrated at the promotion of these idea at the cost of something really useful like radar. Blackett's circle of experts, known as Blackett's Circus, came up with ideas not about the technical physics of radar itself, but about the essential step of connecting radar to anti-aircraft guns. 




The scientists were posted, often against the wishes of generals and admirals, into the military units to see directly the operational problems of warfare. Taking data and analyzing it was their role, and it changed the way the war was fought. The scientists' work meant that tradition and prejudice and the "romance" of battle became less important than what the data said, and it was data and its use that was particularly devastating against the U-boats of the North Atlantic. (Germany stuck to the old ways of warring, and did not develop anything analogous to operations research.) For example, Royal Navy ships were dropping depth charges at about 125 feet underwater for boats that had gone under for extended times. Mathematically, Blackett's team was able to show that U-boats that had dived for more than fifteen seconds should simply be ignored; those that had just gone down were to be attacked immediately with a close pattern of depth charges set to explode at only 25 feet. The kill rate increased by ten. Blackett himself investigated an anomaly of the large number of U-boats at sea (they usually went from point to point on the surface) with the tiny number spotted by British planes. Blackett had the insight that the U-boats were submerging once they saw the spotter aircraft at a distance, and started asking why. The answer: the planes were black, shifted from night bombing duty to submarine spotting, and they were easy to see. The solution: paint the underside of the planes white. The rate of U-boat sightings doubled. 




This last example takes in a larger conflict of how Britain fought the war, and introduces one of the villains of this piece. Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris, always known as "Bomber Harris," did not like sharing his planes. Harris is infamous for the strategic bombing of German cities and incendiary bombs to turn them into firestorms; he was convinced that this was the only way to bring the enemy down. It may be that he was right, and he might be considered a war hero for his efforts, but as described here, he was ill-tempered and unable to see any strategy as equivalent in importance to his own. Whatever good his bombing runs did for Britain, his obstructionist refusal to release bombers for use in hunting U-boats delayed a North Atlantic victory. (He also was convinced that the way to destroy the submarines was bombing them while they were in their protected docks, but their shelters were impervious to the bombs, and indeed are still standing.) Blackett was to write later of how this lack of resources for the war against the U-boats and the "disastrous flop" of attacking civilians was still his great regret: "If we had only been more persuasive and had forced people to believe our simple arithmetic..." 




Operations research as advocated by Blackett and his team was not originally in accord with the way the military wanted to do things. Military men derided it originally as "strategy by slide rule," but it became clear that using numbers increased the effectiveness of military effort. While operations research is now commonplace in military education, and also in MBA programs, it was innovative at the time, as was the idea of having scientists advise on an overall war effort. These were not scientists bent on careers as military advisors, but men who wanted to help win the war against Hitler. And they played a huge role in the victory. Toward the end of this revelatory book, one that should bring renewed admiration for some forgotten scientific heroes, Budiansky writes, "They did it by an abiding faith in rationality, a basic confidence in the enduring power of arithmetic and simple probability, and a determination to vanquish an evil that they took to heart as a personal duty."



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