Blackett’s War: The Men Who Defeated the Nazi U-Boats and Brought Science to the Art of Warfare

By Stephen Budiansky. 336 pp. Knopf, 2013. $27.95.

Admiral Karl Dönitz’s U-boats posed the single greatest threat to the Western Allies in World War II. Nothing gave Churchill greater worry, both before and after the United States joined the Battle of the Atlantic in force. He recalled, “Dire crisis might at any moment flash upon the scene with brilliant fortune or glare with mortal tragedy.” One man played a decisive role in neutralizing that constant menace: British physicist Patrick Blackett, the complex central figure in Blackett’s War, in which author Stephen Budiansky stirs a fascinating and skilful blend of naval warfare, science, and British social history with a richly diverse cast of characters.

The son of a “reluctant stockbroker,” Blackett served in the First World War as a midshipman and saw intense action at the Battle of Jutland, where he was dismayed by the weaknesses in British gunnery. Determined to find ways to improve it, he began to pore over science textbooks. After the war, the Admiralty sent him to Cambridge University, where he studied at the famous Cavendish Laboratory, a hotbed for some of Britain’s most brilliant young physicists.

With the next war’s outbreak, Blackett came into his own, making a crucial contribution to the design of the Mark XIV bomb sight, which allowed bombers to release their loads without first making level runs on targets. From 1942 to 1945, as the Admiralty’s Director of Operational Research (a field he practically invented, Budiansky notes), Blackett applied scientific methods to develop ingenious tactics that considerably improved the fragile survival odds for convoys—and thus Britain. Crucially, he argued that much larger convoys with many more escorts stood a better chance against Dönitz’s wolf packs. As Blackett explained, “Increasing the average size of convoy even by 50 percent would reduce the total number of merchant ship sinkings by half.” And as with almost every one of his perceptive recommendations, history soon proved him right. By May 1943, with other improvements in combating U-boats on line as well, the Battle of the Atlantic had swung in favor of the Allies. Dönitz was forced to withdraw his wolf packs, conceding, “Losses have reached an intolerable level.” Blackett and his fellow scientists had saved untold thousands of merchant sailors’ lives.

Dönitz’s raiders were not Blackett’s only foes. He battled Bomber Command for planes to combat the U-boat threat—a tactic proven to be quite effective. Sadly, Bomber Command’s leader, General Arthur Harris, was intransigent about devoting his air fleet to his strategic doctrine of area bombing; only when senior Allied planners grew anxious about the U-boats still at large before D-Day were adequate air resources devoted to fully defeating the undersea menace. For his part, Blackett viewed Harris’s pounding of heavily populated German cities as verging on the immoral, and called the general’s ideas about how best to deploy his force “nonsense.”

A natural maverick, like many civilian scientists, Blackett lacked the military’s usual deference to rank: he thought, for instance, that Churchill’s judgments were “very unreliable.” Astoundingly, such opinions did not derail his career. His powers of analysis had become invaluable—as had his rare ability to work with the Yanks on antisubmarine warfare.

Budiansky concludes that the Allies “outfought the Germans at sea: but most of all they outwitted them.” That was, as he so capably demonstrates, thanks to the professorial men in tweed jackets more than the warriors in uniforms (see Budiansky’s article “Dead in the Water,” September/October 2010). And no civilian mattered more in the Battle of the Atlantic’s struggle of “ambuscade and stratagem” than this engrossing book’s socialist-scientist hero.

 

Originally published in the April 2013 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.