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Blackett's War    by Stephen Budiansky order for
Blackett's War
by Stephen Budiansky
Order:  USA  Can
Vintage, 2013 (2013)
* *   Reviewed by Bob Walch

In Blackett's War: The Men Who Defeated the Nazi U-Boats and Brought Science to the Art of Warfare, Stephen Budiansky tells the story of how a group of Allied scientists used unconventional thinking to cope with, and ultimately defeat, the Nazi U-boat campaign that was so successful during the early years of World War II.

From 1941-43 this small unit of American and British civilians managed to revolutionize the way wars would be run and won in the future. Using their scientific mind-set backed by mathematics and probability theory, these individuals convinced the doubting military officials they could piece together a much more successful campaign against the German submarines than had thus far been used.

This unit, far smaller than the groups assembled to break the German Enigma cipher and create the atomic bomb, was perhaps one of the most scientifically gifted and oddest units every to come together. There were physicists, chemists, botanists, physiologists, geneticists, insurance actuaries, economists, mathematicians and astronomers.

Six would eventually win the Nobel Prize and the bulk of them were far to the left in their politics. While some were outright Marxists, others in the unit were pacifists and the military men who had to work with these scientists often displayed outright contempt for them.

That being said, this unique situation, the dominant German U-Boat service, forced these odd bedfellows to collaborate and set aside their differences to try to find a way to blunt this lethal naval campaign.

Patrick Blackett, a British physicist, ex-naval officer, future Nobel Prize winner, and ardent socialist, was in the forefront of this scientific menagerie. 'It is no exaggeration to say that few men did more to win the war against Nazi Germany than Patrick Blackett,' writes Budiansky. 'Certainly, few who did as much as he did have been so little remembered.'

Why was Blackett overlooked or relegated to a historical footnote about World War II? Budiansky explains that Blackett 'was a difficult, private, and inner-directed man whose political views and personality did not age well in the postwar world'.

As director of the antisubmarine analysis effort for the Royal Air Force and Royal navy during the war, it was Blackett and the team he assembled that eventually turned the tide of battle in the Atlantic. In so doing, Blackett and his colleagues also created the new science of operational research that has been an important part of military training and planning in the post war years.

An amazing story that has finally been discussed in a book dedicated to this group of scientists, Blackett's War is a must read for anyone interested in military history and the science of modern warfare.

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