Book review: ‘Churchill’s American Arsenal’
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The technological special relationship that proved decisive in ensuring Allied victory in World War II.
Whether or not you agree with the claim that emerged from the MIT Radiation Laboratory in the wake of the Second World War – that the atom bomb ended the conflict, but radar won it – the critical aspect of the statement is that the war was fought as much in the R&D space as it was in the theatres of battle.
While warfare technology is hardly an overlooked field, within ‘Churchill's American Arsenal’ (Oxford University Press, £22.99, ISBN 9780197554012) there lies a seldom investigated tale of innovation that may raise a few surprised eyebrows.
Unlike many documentaries of the conflict, rather than examine leadership and strategy, Pulitzer-shortlisted author Larrie D Ferreiro’s account looks at the engineering. In particular, he weaves the complex tale of the Anglo-American technology alliance that saved the day. There were many jointly developed technologies that played their part: the P-51 Mustang Fighter, the Liberty ship, the proximity fuse. All were “products of the close partnership between British and American scientists, engineers and workers.”
Prior to WW2 there had been numerous examples of technology transfer between the nations. But such instances tended to take the form of either peace-time developmental work or the adoption of allied weaponry as commercial purchases: the American Civil War was fought with British Lee-Enfield rifled muskets, while British officers in the Crimean War were issued with American Colt pistols. But by the time America entered the Second World War the results of British R&D were being mass-produced by American factories. Churchill’s American Arsenal – subtitled ‘The Partnership Behind the Innovations that Won World War Two’ – chronicles this vital but often fraught relationship between British inventiveness and American technical might.
The top brass on both sides of the Atlantic started out doubting whether such a relationship was even feasible. Before the US entered the war, cooperation was tentative to say the least, with the British government reluctantly requesting limited support from its US counterparts: a few dozen engineers to help with wind tunnel testing and flight development, a handful of electronics engineers to be posted into the Admiralty, generalist engineers and physicists roped into the Ministry of Supply. Decent enough support in a way, but never enough to deter the Luftwaffe or change the course of history.
Under Churchill’s leadership, after a shaky start technologists emerged from their silos to co-create the weapons that supported Britain’s military strategy formulated in the earliest days of the conflict. What the British statesman would later describe as the ‘special relationship’ between the two nations had in no small measure been built on shared knowledge and combined expertise. The idea that the American Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) London Mission could have 600 American personnel working alongside their British opposite numbers to create the most advanced military technology the world had ever seen reinforced Churchill’s vision of the ‘united effort of the British and American peoples.’ Brilliant engineering-focused military analysis.
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