Book Review: “Churchill’s American Arsenal”
The special technological relationship that proved decisive in ensuring Allied victory in World War II.
Whether or not you agree with the claim that emerged from MIT’s radiation lab in the aftermath of World War II – that the atomic bomb ended the conflict, but radar won – the The critical aspect of the claim is that the war was fought as much in the R&D space as in the theaters of battle.
While war technology is not a neglected field, in “Churchill’s American Arsenal” (Oxford University Press, £22.99, ISBN 9780197554012) There’s a rarely studied history of innovation that may raise some surprised eyebrows.
Unlike many documentaries about the conflict, rather than examining leadership and strategy, the account by Pulitzer shortlisted writer Larrie D Ferreiro looks to engineering. In particular, it weaves the complex story of the Anglo-American technological alliance that saved the situation. Many jointly developed technologies have played their role: the P-51 Mustang Fighter, the Liberty ship, the proximity rocket. All were “the products of a close partnership between British and American scientists, engineers and workers”.
Prior to World War II, there had been many examples of technology transfer between nations. But such instances tended to take the form of either peacetime development work or the adoption of Allied arms as commercial purchases: the American Civil War was fought with British Lee-Enfield rifled muskets, while that British officers in the Crimean War received American rifles. Colt pistols. But by the time America entered World War II, 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 II” – chronicles this vital but often strained relationship between British inventiveness and American technical might.
Senior brass on both sides of the Atlantic began to doubt the feasibility of such a relationship. Before the United States entered the war, cooperation was hesitant to say the least, with the British government reluctantly requesting limited support from its American counterparts: a few dozen engineers to help with wind tunnel testing and flight development, a handful of electronics engineers to be assigned to the Admiralty, generalist engineers and physicists chained themselves to the Ministry of Supply. Pretty decent 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 British military strategy formulated in the early days of the conflict. What the British statesman would later describe as the “special relationship” between the two nations was largely built on shared knowledge and combined expertise. The idea that the London mission of the United States Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) could have 600 American personnel working alongside their British counterparts to create the most advanced military technology the world has ever seen view reinforced Churchill’s vision of “united British effort”. and the American peoples.’ Brilliant engineering-focused military analysis.
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