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Engineers of Victory: The Problem Solvers Who Turned the Tide in the Second World War, by Paul Kennedy, Random House, New York, 2013, $30

Few people realize that North American Aviation originally designed its famed P-51 Mustang with an underpowered engine that limited its usefulness as a combat fighter. That changed when a British test pilot by the name of Ronnie Harker suggested outfitting it with the more powerful Rolls-Royce Merlin 61. With the Merlin in place, the P-51 became one of the most capable fighter aircraft of World War II.

In Engineers of Victory author Paul Kennedy argues that in wartime such small changes can have a big impact. He highlights five situations—the Battle of the Atlantic, the air war, defeat of a blitzkrieg, invasion of an enemy shore and the obstacle of distance—to explain how Allied military forces combined engineering know-how with better tactics to gain the advantage during World War II.

Achieving air superiority was one of the primary factors that helped the Allies gain and maintain the upper hand. One hurdle they faced was range, as bombers and fighters were limited in their reach. Solution: Extend the range of aircraft through the use of external drop tanks and other means. During the Battle of the Atlantic, the Allies managed to neutralize Germany’s lethal U-boats through the use of long-range bombers as convoy escorts, providing cover from above. By combining air superiority with advanced naval weaponry—such as the tube-launched Hedgehog anti-submarine weapon, improved depth charges and radar—the Allies kept their edge in the theater through war’s end. A similar story played out in the Pacific.

Kennedy also stresses the importance of improved organization and communication. Before Operation Overlord—the June 1944 invasion of France—the Allies had mounted amphibious invasions at Dieppe and in North Africa with mixed results. Allied leaders realized the need for a central command in order to orchestrate the chaos of such landings. That goal came to fruition on D-Day, as a joint command structure, anchored in intelligent planning and clear communication, won the battle.

Kennedy’s central thesis is that success in World War II depended on such multidisciplinary coordination. One must assess the engineering improvements and tactical changes in context, as one without the other could have led to a drastically different outcome. His book makes a convincing argument about the powerful role Allied problem-solving played in World War II.

—Chris Kelly