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Book Review: Randall Wakelam’s The Science of Bombing September 10, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in EWP Book Club.
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The following book review appears in Isis 101 (September 2010): 671-672.

© 2010 by The History of Science Society, and reprinted here according to the guidelines of the University of Chicago Press.

Randall T. Wakelam.
The Science of Bombing: Operational Research in RAF Bomber Command. ix + 347 pp., illus., apps., index. Toronto/London: University of Toronto Press, 2009. $55 (paper).
William Thomas

During World War II, scientists worked for the British, Canadian, and American military services to study plans, tactics, training, and procedures to see whether military practices made sense in light of up‐to‐date information from the field. The manner of this work varied from conducting special investigations, to parsing statistics, to building sophisticated mathematical models of such military operations as hunting for U‐boats. This work was known in Britain as “operational research” (OR) and was later established as its own profession.

Immediately following the war, the embryologist C. H. Waddington helped record the activities of the Royal Air Force (RAF) Coastal Command’s OR Section (ORS), which he had led for a time. He published this history decades later as OR in World War II (Elek, 1973). As Waddington put it when that book was published, the “essential nature” of wartime OR “cannot be conveyed except through discussion of many particulars” (p. xiv). Whatever the merits of any individual study, OR’s main impact was in the knowledge acquired through the accumulated study of military operations over time. Thus, to convey the character and value of wartime OR, Waddington felt it necessary to reconstruct the history of the section’s work.

In The Science of Bombing, the military historian Randall Wakelam has done Waddington one better, recounting in detail the work of RAF Bomber Command’s ORS and intertwining it with a study of the planning done by the command’s senior officers. The result is a highly detailed account of the evolution of the intellectual anatomy of bombing. Whereas typical military histories focus on the bird’s‐eye view of grand strategy or the ground‐level view of the soldier, or present a roster of technologies used, Wakelam uses the section’s view to reconstruct the long string of procedural deliberations at headquarters that determined how well bombs were aimed and how many crews returned from missions alive.

This study is important, primarily because it is able to demonstrate the ways in which policy‐oriented research could impact executive decisions. Such impacts are difficult to trace in terms of a clear acceptance or rejection of researchers’ recommendations. Instead, one must track executive deliberations over time in order to determine the often more oblique ways in which research helps executives articulate and weigh their options. Doing so, Wakelam concludes that the ORS played a key role in Bomber Command planning—a point that he admits he was predisposed not to accept, given his own more recent experiences with OR in the Canadian military.

Wakelam uses this conclusion to revise the historical picture of decision making in Bomber Command, particularly that of its commander‐in‐chief, Arthur Harris. Harris has often been portrayed as having a rigid and brutal mentality in order to explain his commitment to Britain’s policy of targeting the German civilian population, which was strategically ineffectual into 1944 and cost many RAF crews their lives. Importantly, this perspective has been reinforced by prominent scientists associated with wartime OR, including Patrick Blackett, Solly Zuckerman, and Freeman Dyson (who joined the Bomber Command ORS in 1943, at nineteen years of age). All these scientists have likewise implicated the ORS and its allegedly servile leader, civil service researcher Basil Dickins, in Harris’s intellectual shortcomings.

Wakelam takes pains to distinguish the policy of strategic bombing from operational planning, correctly pointing out (as has the historian Maurice Kirby) that the ORS was not generally tasked with justifying or questioning Britain’s strategic policy and that its activities deserve historical scrutiny beyond that issue. (Wakelam does note that the ORS was drawn into debates between Harris and those who wanted to divert effort to tactical bombing in support of the D‐Day invasion—including Zuckerman, who did not forget it.) He argues that neither Harris nor Dickins deserves his intellectual reputation.

Few historians of science will have much use for the detailed narrative of The Science of Bombing, but some may find its depiction of the relationship between policy research and executive decision illuminating. Some detail might have been sacrificed to expand on how groups such as intelligence analysts and the command’s Bombing Development Unit similarly contributed to headquarters deliberations. ORS methodology is not extensively surveyed. Nevertheless, the book lends a new and sophisticated perspective to our knowledge of scientific work in the war.

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