By spring of 1941, their seas decimated by the onslaught of Nazi U-boats, the British War Cabinet changed tacks by hiring former navy officer Patrick Blackett as director of the World War II antisubmarine effort. Blackett, who would go on to win a Nobel Prize, gathered up a team of scientists and this group, using science and mathematics and collaborating with the allies including the United States, would go on to play an instrumental part in winning World War II.
Author Stephen Budiansky, a military historian and journalist a well as a member of the editorial board of Cryptologia, the scholarly journal of cryptology and intelligence history, tells this much forgotten story in his recently released book “Blackett’s War: The Men Who Defeated the Nazi U-Boats and Brought Science to the Art of Warfare” (Knopf: 2013 $27.95).
Using brain not brawn, Brackett’s heroes were in deviating from the typical course of military intelligence back then. With a focus on science and mathematics, Brackett and his group applied pragmatism and scientific expertise in helping develop what was then a new and sometimes scoffed at field called operational research.
Its focus was on data such as that gathered from radar, improvisation and a steadfast commitment to the use of science over gut feelings, tradition and prejudice. At times, it was as simple as noting that British planes were frequently shot during the day while on U-boat patrol. Why? Because their undersides were painted back so as not to be seen at night but were deadly observable for the same reason during the day. At other times, it was much more scientific such as applying probability theory to determine the location of submarines.