Thu, 04/26/2012 – 8:10am
Patrick L. Sullivan
Historian Paul Kennedy spoke April 20 of the joys, challenges and triumphs of unconventional thinking. Photo by Patrick L. Sullivan
LAKEVILLE — Yale University professor and historian Paul Kennedy was sitting in an armchair on the stage as people filed into Elfers Hall at The Hotchkiss School Friday, April 20, for his Salisbury Forum appearance.
He never budged.
He disclaimed any intent to create an F.D.R. fireside chat image. He had already spent the day teaching and wasn’t enthusiastic about the prospect of standing in front of a lectern for that evening’s talk.
Seated, he still managed to cover a lot of territory as he talked about his latest book, “The Engineers of Victory 1939-1945: The Forerunners of Steve Jobs.”
Kennedy said four years ago his literary agent asked if there was something he’d like to publish for his own pleasure. Kennedy replied he’d like to go back to the subject of World War II; he had started his writing career as a research assistant for Sir Basil Henry Liddell Hart, a prominent military historian.
Kennedy, who is a professor of history and is the director of international security studies at Yale, said he didn’t want to write a general history, but was “interested in a particular level of people who worked for victory.”
“There are lots of books about the men at the top, and lots of grunts. The people in the middle get little attention.”
The people in the middle “are the problem solvers, the people who get things done, who think through knotty challenges and work toward solutions.”
Kennedy read a magazine article about Steve Jobs which got him thinking about the role of the problem solver. Jobs “was not an inventive genius,” said Kennedy. “He was not a Leonardo. He was a borrower, an adapter, an organizer and a manager.”
Jobs was one of “the people who, when given a problem, see it can be done in a better way, a different way. Such people have to be given freedom.”
Kennedy’s book focuses on four “tweakers” whose contributions, largely unsung, were crucial in winning the war.
Kennedy said in the middle of the war, “the Allies hadn’t lost but hadn’t won either.”
The Allies needed to do five things: protect merchant shipping in the Atlantic; control the air over France and Germany; assist the Soviets in blunting the German Blitzkrieg; “figure out how to land millions of men on hostile shorelines”; and be ready to move troops and materiel 7,000 miles across Pacific.
Kennedy said these goals were set in January 1943 at a conference in Casablanca. Two months later, merchant shipping losses in the Atlantic were heavier than ever. Allied bombers, the B17s and B24s, “were getting shot to ribbons.”
And in October 1943, 66 Flying Fortress bombers were shot down in a single morning.
The Allies suffered from bloody and futile landing attempts at Dieppe in France and Dakar in what was then French West Africa (now Senegal).
And in the Pacific 1,000 Marines were killed in a few hours at the island of Tarawa.
“The end of the war was not inevitable,” said Kennedy, but “given the preponderance of productive power, the Allies would win eventually.”
Solution: The Mustang
Enter the problem solvers and tweakers.
Ronnie Harker, an Englishman, was a World War I and Rolls Royce test pilot. During World War II he was also testing captured German aircraft and generally making himself useful.
The Royal Air Force (RAF) in the spring of 1942 had a bunch of P51s, a low-flying pursuit fighter commissioned by France. The RAF was not happy with them and was ready to scrap them.
Kennedy said someone at the RAF’s training facility suggested getting Harker to give the P51 one last look. Harker flew the plane three times.
“He marvels at its ability to turn on a dime. He can’t stall it — but he can’t get it above 19,000 feet,” — not nearly enough altitude, when Allied Liberators flying at 24,000 feet were getting shot down by Germans fighters flying at 30,000.
Harker noticed the distance between the P51 cockpit and nose is 93 inches, the same as the RAF’s Spitfire fighter, and suggested putting the Spitfire Rolls Merlin engine in the P51.
It was a success. The nimble plane, with the additional power, did things previously thought impossible.
But this particular bit of tweaking didn’t have an effect until 20 months later, because bureaucrats in Washington blocked the P51.
“Only when the 66 B17s were shot down did [U.S. Army Air Force General] Hap Arnold lose his temper and demand a long-distance fighter that could protect the bombers,” said Kennedy.
Production then cranked up and gave the world the plane subsequently known as the Mustang.
“What if?” asked Kennedy. What if nobody had thought of Harker? What if the distance from cockpit to nose had not been 93 inches? What if nobody read Harker’s report?
“By D-Day the Allies had 11,000 aircraft; the Luftwaffe had 875.”
Admiral Ben Moreell, who was friendly with F.D.R., was in charge of building new naval harbors and airbases before the war. He visited Pearl Harbor in 1938 and noticed there were no dry-docks for repairing ships.
“He says, ‘This is stupid, there are no docks for repair and it’s 4,200 miles to San Diego.’”
Moreell ordered the construction of two repair docks, saying, “Suppose our ships are damaged by a Japanese surprise attack?”
Two weeks after Pearl Harbor Moreell sold F.D.R. on the need to create construction battalions, better known by the nickname derived from the acronym CB — the Seabees.
Kennedy said Moreell went to New York City and recruited skilled construction workers — 75,000 of them in the first couple of months. Eventually the Seabees had almost 400,000 men, causing the Army to scramble to try and find men for their equivalent outfit.
The Seabees were critical in the Pacific Island-hopping campaign, which had been foreseen back in 1919 by Marine Captain Pete Ellis, an eccentric man who, bored after World War I, wrote a paper called “Advanced Fleet Bases in Micronesia.”
The paper “forecast the entire island-hopping Pacific war,” said Kennedy. He wrote about special forces and landing craft — radical innovations at the time.
Ellis died young but when World War II came the Marines still had the paper. “Only Marine historians know about Ellis.”
Commanded Desert Rats
Percy Hobart was the first commander of what became the British Seventh Armored Division, or The Desert Rats.
Hobart had insulted a superior officer while stationed in Cairo and, as a result, in the middle of the Battle of Britain he was serving as a corporal in the Home Guard, protecting installations from German aircraft with a .303 rifle.
Kennedy’s mentor-to-be Basil Liddell Hart “writes a piece in the Times on ‘The Shame of Not Using Our Talent.’ Churchill reads it, and gets boiling mad.
“He orders Percy reinstated and gives him an experimental division, not a battalion, to get through Normandy.
“Churchill said the war was not going to be won by gentlemen officers who ride their horses around Hyde Park.”
Hobart’s group came up with several innovations for tanks — known as Hobart’s Funnies.
Tweaks included modified Sherman tanks with a flail to explode mines and carve out a path through minefields; a tank equipped with a flamethrower; a tank with a rolled up “sort of Aladdin’s magic carpet” device that enabled the tank to go over hedges or tank traps.
“The Germans had never seen anything like it.”
The Canadians, Kennedy said, especially the ones who got shot up at Dieppe, loved Hobart’s Funnies, but U.S. Gen. Omar Bradley refused to take advantage, referring to it as English public school silliness.
“So Omaha Beach had 3,500 casualties but the Canadians had 28,” Kennedy said.
As much as innovation, “this is a story of obstructionism and blindness,” said Kennedy. “In what circumstances or cultures do the problem solvers operate? Are there CEOs, bosses, university presidents who say ‘Yeah, try it out.’
“The audiences that respond best to this are engineers, scientists and middle management — people dedicated to problem solving.”
The challenge is in transferring the tweaker mentality from the “cultures of encouragement” to the “culture of dislike of changing systems, or rocking the boat.
“I never had as much fun with any book,” Kennedy said of his research for this book. “There were names I didn’t know after 40 years of reading.”