on 12 June 2013
The author is a historian and the history parts are very good indeed (except one wonders at the need to go back to ancient Greece when discussing seaborne invasions - padding?)
But then when you get to the bits about "the problem solvers who turned the tide" it all gets a little vague. A couple of engineers are named (book title!) but I formed the impression that the technical aspects of their work were a little beyond the comprehension of the author. For instance, I know what a cavity magnetron is and what it does but reading this book it never gets beyong the realm of clever gizmo.
Read the historical backgrounds - they are excellent- but don't expect to get any understanding of the more technical stuff or knowledge of the problem solvers.
on 1 August 2015
One thing to bear in mind with this book is that Kennedy is explicitly using a very broad definition of 'engineer' (see the Introduction, p.XVI). He is not only talking about military engineers - those guys in khaki who go out and blow things up to hinder the enemy or build things to help their own forces. He is also not only talking about civilians with tertiary qualifications in civil, mechanical, chemical or aeronautical engineering, although he does talk about them too. Instead Kennedy is talking about problem solvers in general, from all walks of life and with whatever qualification, to all of whom he applies the sobriquet 'engineer.' Which is fine by me, even if it has caused some confusion amongst those who prefer a purer use of the appellation.
But otherwise, yeesh. This book is a mess. Even given his any_problem_solver = engineer definition, there is not very much material about problems being solved - in a lot of cases the problems are identified then, hey-presto, it's solved! with little discussion of the individuals, groups, and processes that led to the solution.
The book is also chock full of - to borrow a phrase - Ancient Aliens type history. We learn, for example, that the British at El Alamein were liberally equipped with Bazookas (p.162), while on p.194 we learn that the Panzerfaust came into service before the Panzerschreck.
Unfortunately, the faulty history is overshadowed by the idiosyncratic analysis. The discussion of warfare, and in particular Blitzkrieg, on pages 150-158 would be good if it were written by a high-schooler, but is less than superficial in this context.
Finally, the book's research rests primarily (exclusively?) on secondary sources, and usually very old ones. There are few references which were written in this century, while references to the Official Histories from the 1960s, and populist and generalist accounts from the 1980s, 1970s and earlier abound. The mean and median age of books used by Kennedy is 1983/1984.
Kennedy's former mentor, Liddell-Hart, gets lovingly and uncritically referred to again and again and again leaving the impression of a conflict of interest, and even Irving gets a look in in this list of eccentric research.
Overall this is an unfortunate book, and a poor choice to have purchased.
on 7 May 2015
This was a deeply frustrating read and not at all what I was expecting. Paul Kennedy has a reputation as a top class historian. I got the impression this book was more to boost his best seller credentials than to be a serious work of history. His writing style is irritating, making quick asides (in the discussion about "how to win command of the air" he dismisses the bombing offensive against Japan with "the story of the strategic bombing offensive against Japan is beyond our narrative") and lapsing into journalistic phrasing that just annoys - and I'm no lover of dry academic tomes (and I very much like "popular" historians such as Max Hastings, Anthony Beevor and Tom Holland). As several reviewers have pointed out the book is riddled with lots of factual and technical errors (one example: in talking about Rommel versus the 8th Army he refers to the Bazooka as vital weapon, when it was only introduced late in 1942 by the Americans during Operation Torch). Kenedy was supposed to have been a research assistant to Basil Liddell Hart - from this book you get the impression that he was totally new to military matters. He has a tendency to simplify - the victory in the strategic bombing offensive is just down to the P-51 Mustang according to him. The topics in this book are very interesting. War is much than just the fighting history and the problems of logistics, engineering, production and melding various military and civilian skills together could be a fascinating story. It just needs a more committed and expert historian in this field than Kennedy.
on 12 January 2014
The author provides good overviews of a number of the theatres of war and the techniques developed for them - but the emphasis is more on the historical narrative and emphasising the huge operational complexity and breadth of developments needed rather than much detail on the actual contribution of engineers. As a number of essays on aspects of WW2 I found it interesting and readable, but it said little about the actual engineering contributions or the engineers themselves.
on 4 December 2014
Not quite what it says it is. I decided to read this book expecting to read about the engineering side of things, but although there were honest attempts to cover some aspects of the war from that side, I felt it fell a bit short. As someone who knows very little about the different campaigns, there was much of considerable interest - as a fairly good overview was provided. I did feel that some of the engineering could have been covered in more depth. There were a few obvious misunderstandings, or perhaps more correctly misuse of terms, most surprisingly some to do with ships - given the birthplace of the author. I had expected more details dealing with some aspects such as the mulberry harbours. Also, more about the work of the Engineering corps.
on 31 July 2013
I was somewhat disappointed with this book. I have the impression that the author does not really know his subject in the detail that is required as there are numerous factual errors such as those mentioned in other reviews (Spitfire night fighters, and four-engined Vickers Vimys being just a couple) but also the author refers to Tom Blakeslee; his name was Don Blakeslee and, as one of the most famous fighter pilots in the 8th Air Force, this does matter. In a short listing of Allied fighter pilots he includes Guy Gibson; Gibson was a bomber pilot - he led 617 Squadron in the Dambusters raid.
I do realise that it is utterly impossible to cover a conflict such as the Second World War in a book of this length but better accuracy with the facts could have made it so much better.
on 7 March 2013
I have to say this volume was hit and miss for me.
I did enjoy Dr. Kennedy's premise of "looking under the hood" at various conflicts during the war, rather than just taking the more normal broad brush approach of walking through high level strategies and their outcomes... as a result, for me, there were real insights as to how a particular front was turned around to the allies' favour. I also liked the considerable effort made to be balanced - there simply were no wonder weapons developed by one person from one country as some sometimes wish to attest. It just rings true that a lot of hard graft, insight and collaboration across many discplines, people and nations went into creating the war winning weapons systems Dr. Kennedy describes.
Finally on the positive side, I do enjoy books which challenge me to think again - I find that general histories of the war understandably tend to look at bits of the conflict in relative isolation. Here Dr. Kennedy has, through the approach he has taken, been able to stich together the impact from various theatres of conflict which in turn allows one to reconsider the whole - so for me, one of the major insights from this book would be the evidence that maybe Britian's role in much of the conflict, at all sorts of levels, was more crucial than the recent rash of WW2 histories currently suggest.
I did, however, struggle with Dr. Kennedy's writing style which felt a little repetitive in forcing home various points - fine for hung over graduates in a lecture hall, but I can generally pick up the import of a message by the second time of reading. At times I almost had the sense that I was reading a series of separate scholastic papers subsequently moulded together to make the whole - perhaps poor editorial? I also became concerned that the book may have been a litte wobbly on facts, especially those around D-day and the Mulberry harbours. The final thing which frustrated me a little was that after some quite masterful scene setting, especially the chapters dealing with the Battle of the Atlantic, the Air War in Europe and the conflict in the Pacific, the nitty gritty details around the actual inventions and innovations required to provide the war winning weaons systems felt a little glossed over.
I really wanted to like this book more but perhaps that is just an issue of style - I have to say that there is no doubt that this books makes for stimulating reading and so I can easily recommend it to others.
on 17 July 2014
I was looking forward to this book, reading the reviews and its status as a NYT best seller; I was disappointed. Like many of the prospective readers I have a reasonable knowledge of the second world war and was expecting some deep insight into how technical solutions were found to turn the tide towards victory (I'm also an engineer so the title doubly tempted me) My impression is of an historian who is not a technical expert or even a great expert of ww2 running off something to keep up the mortgage payments. The only sections I felt delivered any fresh 'problem solving' insight was the narrative on the fight to have the merlin powered P51 Mustang accepted and the story of the cavity magnetron (which gets it 2 stars rather than one) Other areas like: the mulberry harbours, long range fuel tanks, the Leigh light, Hobart's funnies are dispatched in a few sentences. Some, say the British development of the 17Ib anti-tank gun combined in a Sherman tank, increased accuracy of aerial bombing, proximity fuses; even the competing developments of the jet engine receive not a mention.
Without this it becomes a mediocre overview of the turning point of ww2, with - as other reviewers have pointed out - too many basic inaccuracies and lazy conclusions: "a B29 probably had as much wiring as a squadron of bf109s" - well did it or didn't it? On top of which the writing hardly stirs the blood the death of a German air ace is described as "he was blown into the sky" - forgive my levity - but what was it a big gust of wind?
In summary if you are looking for fresh analysis or even if you've been on the moon for the last 70 years and never seen or read anything of ww2 - spend your money on something else. Richard Overy's "Why the Allies won" would be my recommendation.
on 11 October 2015
I want to like this book but.......
The author sets out to discuss how technology was utilised to address the key questions or problems that had to be solved in WW2.
It doesnt address how the allies actually identified the issues and organised to address them. For instance the development of the Mustang fighter came about because a British test pilot flying the original design with the underpowered US power plant thought the Merlin engine would be better. He then set out to get the Merlin engine used in the fighter that ultimately allowed a fighter escort to be provided to the USAAF Daylight bombing campaign....this is only a small number of instances where an example of what happened at a personal level is actually recounted. The whole chapter on the conduct of the Pacific campaign of the US doesnt have a single example like this (Who for instance developed the designs of the US aircraft carriers or the Vought Corsair fighter that allowed the US Navy to out fight IJN in the various carrier battles?)
I'm afraid most of the reviews here on Amazon are right. Unfortunately there a lot of factual errors (and the technology is lost on the Author) and if the facts are not right you have to question how the conclusions have been reached.....
If you want some insight into the technology I would look elsewhere (Alfred Price - Instruments of Darkness - electronic warfare, RV Jones - Most Secret War - British Scientific Intelligence, Richard Anderson - Cracking Hilters Atlantic wall - specialist armour on D Day)
There is definitely a gap in the published history of WW2 on the startegic thinking behind the decision making and the direction of the war economies of the Allies
The concept behind this book is great but it fails to deliver unless you want a general understanding of how particular problems were solved
I don't know of any other author who has attempted so wide a task and covering so many different areas.
Other writers have looked at one aspect or another or are essentially a biography of their war years' involvement (plus or minus one or two either side) of which one by Dr R.V. Jones was turned into a successful TV series in the 70s. Others are by or about some military participant, or hero should you prefer. Whereas Dr Jones' book deals primarily with scientific successes in radio and RADAR, this covers the same technologies and others, the men, the machines and conceptions. However, whereas Dr Jones was a scientist who kept copious notes on his work which were used for the book (which ensured high accuracy), Kennedy is an historian investigating subjects such as radio and RADAR, aircraft and engine developments, anti-submarine warfare and others and the reader cannot expect a deep knowledge in the technical areas. However, that should not preclude or excuse the possibility to consult with a relevant authority to infill omissions, to avoid errors (of which there are many that most readers will probably miss), and the few instances of extreme carelessness. Were such precautions utilised, or utilised more thoroughly and extensively, the book could have been a work of unquestioned value.
Whether or not its errors and omissions can be accepted is for the individual reader to decide. For an overview, where its faults will be of lesser importance, it is sufficient as it provides sufficient insight. For those with detailed knowledge in one area or more of its coverage, its errors are of greater significance. However, for its wide coverage, the book is exceptional and a valuable basis for further reading. It is imperfect but could be dramatically improved in a later revision and reprinting.
Other reviewers have chosen to criticise the author's writing style. Although it can be mildly annoying, sometimes, style is personal to any author and they are essentially different from one another. Some readers will easily accept the author's choices, others will do so less readily. Overall, it is akin to the curate's egg - good in some parts, less good in others.