Not long ago, at the first meeting of a prestigious book prize's judging panel, the chair proposed that every entry that concerned the Second World War should be put in a pile and ruled out of the running: "We've heard enough about that."
I sometimes wonder how many good books were overlooked that year. Over the past decade or so, several first-rate scholars have done much to enrich our understanding of this conflict, not least David Reynolds in his magisterial 2005 book In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War, which is required reading for anyone considering Winston Churchill's influential but self-justifying account of the conflict.
Now David Edgerton, a distinguished historian of technology at Imperial College London, wants to make us "rethink the history both of the war and of Britain's place in it". His approach is unusual, focusing not on the usual themes - the leaders, the battles, the chronology - but on how Britain used its weapons, resources and experts in prosecuting the war.
For admirers of Edgerton's work, this is an exciting project. He has a reputation for interpreting familiar subjects in unusual, provocative ways, and for taking on commentators who get the story wrong. He is an outspoken opponent of what he has dubbed "declinist" histories that blame past failures for the supposed present national decline in British military strength, industry, science and engineering. These changes are due predominantly to the growing success of other countries, he notes. In his new book, which is arguably the climax of his research, he takes a fresh look at the performance of the UK in a conflict that he believes has been widely misunderstood.
By the time the war broke out, Britain was well prepared to fight, Edgerton says. It was the richest state in Europe (measured in income per head) and was "organized around the successful prosecution of war" using machines rather than mass armies to vanquish its enemies, physically and economically. In 1935, when Churchill was lambasting the government over the state of the armed services, the UK was significantly increasing its expenditure on preparations for war. Although other great powers had larger armies, Britain's Royal Air Force was one of the most formidable in the world, and its navy the most powerful in Europe. Edgerton concludes that the UK went to war "confident of victory" and "under no immediate threat", believing in "its economic power and the power of its scientific weapons".
I was taken aback by this argument, as it seems to be at odds with the pessimistic comments written at the time by many of the UK's service chiefs and politicians. We know, too, that Churchill was not as optimistic as he appeared to be in his public utterances. For example, he commented off the record in May 1942 that although the British defences were then in good shape, that had not been the case after France fell. "If Hitler...had only said to his generals 'Get over there', we would have been in great danger." It will be rewarding to explore this and other testimonies with the picture Edgerton presents here.
Edgerton dismisses the common myth that the UK was fighting alone after the fall of France, noting how effectively it used its mighty empire and trading connections. Indeed, the UK began and ended the war as the world's biggest importer. He brilliantly demonstrates that, far from being dependent on American know-how in the early part of the war, Britain was then ahead of the US in many aspects of military technology, and was able to offer its New World ally free use of many valuable inventions, notably the cavity magnetron, which enabled a revolutionary increase in the power of 10cm microwave generation. He points out that several key British designs were produced by the US on a huge scale, including the Mark XIV bombsight, the Lee-Enfield Rifle No 4 and the tramp steamer (Edgerton, as ever, delights in pointing out the crucial importance of old technology). It was only after Pearl Harbor, and the humiliation of the British forces in the Far East soon afterwards, that the US surged ahead and eventually gave its smaller ally substantial support.
Churchill's enthusiasm for gadgetry and new weapons, together with his close friendship with the University of Oxford physicist Frederick Lindemann, Viscount Cherwell (aka "the Prof"), have all been widely discussed. But Edgerton brings a new depth to these themes, examining in detail the output of the special department MD1 (often called "Churchill's Toyshop") and other agencies that kept the prime minister supplied with new ways of making life difficult for the enemy. If he was impressed by a demonstration of a gizmo, he was known to order thousands on the spot. Edgerton is sceptical of the effectiveness of many of these innovations, but is less harsh than many academic scientists were at the time (notably A.V. Hill, the physiologist and Independent Conservative Member of Parliament) about an apparent waste of resources on the development of wacky ideas.
In Edgerton's opinion, Churchill ran "the most expert government Britain has ever had", including, in 1943, no fewer than five ministers with science degrees. Of Churchill's gaggle of science advisers, Cherwell was by far the most influential, although even he had to fight his corner and was often overruled. Edgerton considers in some detail Cherwell's controversial role in the war and his contribution to the development of new weapons. One of the Prof's pet ideas was the provision of an "aerial minefield" - mines that would be dropped in the paths of bombers. He was widely ridiculed by his many enemies, and most assume that the idea was never attempted, but Edgerton presents evidence that these mines were indeed used. We don't know for sure how well they worked, although it would seem unlikely that they were successful, as the idea would have survived.
Edgerton rightly has no time for C.P. Snow's simplistic but influential caricature of the relationship between Sir Henry Tizard and the Prof as a struggle between good and evil. It is clear from this account that Cherwell did good work in keeping the prime minister briefed with well-presented data on everything from the state of the country's nutrition to the flow of raw materials. For me, however, Edgerton's argument does not succeed in disproving the view, widely held among senior academic scientists at the time, that Cherwell exercised a predominantly baleful influence at the highest level of government.
It was, for example, a tragedy that Churchill chose to all but ignore the advice of Tizard, who was widely liked and admired among scientists, engineers and military personnel on both sides of the Atlantic. The normally understated physicist G.P. Thomson, who got on well with both Cherwell and Tizard, was adamant: Cherwell was talented and industrious but Tizard was far more able - "the greatest genius at applying science to tactics this country has ever known".
Whatever quibbles and reservations one may have about the judgements Edgerton makes, this book is undeniably a valuable contribution to our understanding of the modern history of the UK. Handsomely produced, well referenced and complemented by a superb bibliography, it is also accessibly written and deserves a wide audience. Above all, Edgerton demonstrates that the war is a subject we haven't yet heard nearly enough about. Britain's War Machine is a considerable achievement and could well win prizes - if it is given the chance.
David Edgerton was born in Montevideo, Uruguay, and lived there and briefly in Argentina until he was 11, when his family came to the UK.
"For years I missed the food and the weather, but both have improved in Britain," Edgerton says. Upon arriving in Britain by ship in 1970, he was surprised by "how green the grass was, and how disgusting the food. I remember the bread which tasted like cotton wool, meat which was tough and tasted of nothing, and revolting novelties like baked beans!"
In 1977, Edgerton entered St John's College, Oxford to study chemistry. He wrote his fourth-year dissertation on the history of industrial research and went on to pursue a PhD on the history of industrial policy at Imperial College London.
A 1991 paper written with Sally Horrocks, "British industrial research and development before 1945", won the Economic History Society's T.S. Ashton Prize in 1992. The following year he started at Imperial College, where he has remained for 18 years in the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine.
He has held a Major Research Fellowship from the Leverhulme Trust and has been a member of the Arts and Humanities Research Council's Peer Review College.
Britain's War Machine: Weapons, Resources and Experts in the Second World War
By David Edgerton
Allen Lane, 464pp, £25.00
Published 31 March 2011