Customer Reviews: Blackett's War: The Men Who Defeated the Nazi U-Boats and Brought Science to the Art of Warfare
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on March 24, 2013
This book is a very well-written history of submarine warfare that reads like a page-turning novel. Although the book centers on Patrick Blackett, it is by no means a biography.

The author makes a compelling argument to the effect that during World War II, Allied civilian intellectuals -- scientists and other professionals such as physicists, chemists, biologists, actuaries, and mathematicians -- made remarkable contributions to winning the war in Europe. For example, they developed a new discipline, Operations Research (OR), as well as microwave (10-centmeter/3-gigahertz) radar and other breakthroughs that are still in use today.

These civilians applied scientific thinking to battlefield situations -- teaching Allied military leaders to use their resources in as optimum a fashion as possible. They asked penetrating questions that challenged accepted naval and air-force thinking. In so doing, they revolutionized anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and made a significant contribution to winning the Battle of the Atlantic -- the linchpin for the winning of the war.

Real heroes abound. To begin there is Winston Churchill, who in the mid-1930s was a powerless Parliament backbencher. Churchill, a first Lord of the Admiralty in World War I, was a skeptic of military ways and means as well as a firm believer in scientific methods. He made the acquaintance of the Oxford University physicist F.A. Lindemann. "Lindeman became my chief adviser on the scientific aspects of modern war," said Churchill. He lectured Churchill on ways science might help protect Britain against aerial bombardment. Churchill then pressed the government to bring in scientific advisers on military affairs as early as 1934. This led to the formation of the Air Ministry Committee for the Scientific Survey of Air Defence.

The formation of the committee opened the way for the civilians. Henry Tizard, a physical chemist at Oxford, chaired the committee that included H. E. Wimperis, the Air Ministry's director of scientific research, and his assistant A. P. Rowe, A. V. Hill, a biologist at University College, and Patrick Blackett, a future Nobel Prize-winning physicist, who was a Naval Officer during World War I and went on to prove himself to be one of the best scientific leaders of the day via his work at Cambridge under Ernest Rutherford . Much to the discomfort of many line officers, hundreds more civilian intellectuals followed in their footsteps.

The scientists were meant not so much to invent new devices as to improve the way war was waged with weapons and procedures already at hand . This was a tough assignment requiring relationship skills, because it involved telling generals and admirals how to better do their jobs. Churchill, who became prime minister in May 1940, provided strong support so that the civilians could embed themselves in military units to study real operational problems. The scientists were not very well received at the Admiralty. The civilians needed to keep a low profile. The job as Blackett would say after the war, "is to improve matters if he can, and if he cannot, to say nothing." But invent things they did.

In 1935, a group of these civilian experts began exploring the embryonic concept of "a new and potent means of detecting the approach of hostile aircraft, one which will be independent of mist, cloud, fog, or nightfall." The outcome of their efforts became known as radar--radio detecting and ranging. Churchill and the Air Ministry saw to it that England's south coast was lined with tracking stations by the time Great Britain and Germany went to war in September 1939. The Royal Navy's tradition and inbred conservatism made it uninterested in radar that was one of the keys to winning the Battle of Britain--an attitude that would deprive it of a potential early advantage against the German Navy.

Churchill's excitement over technical ideas would often get the better of him. Motivated by Lindemann, he insisted that the scientists pursue a rash of worthless, time-consuming ideas such as aerial mines that could intercept bombers and a device to create an updraft that would flip an attacking airplane upside-down.

The author rightfully claims that the scientists' greatest contribution to the war effort was forcing the military to make decisions based on data instead of tradition and intuition. Nowhere was this more important than in the Battle of the Atlantic, where German U-boats were waging a devastating war on merchant shipping - threatening the lifeline to England and the build-up for D-Day.

U-boats often operated on the surface, and were frequently spotted at close range by Royal Navy ships escorting convoys. The escorts were trained to drop depth charges 250 feet apart and set to explode 100 to 150 feet underwater and were having negligible success against the subs. Blackett, then working for the Navy's Coastal Command, asked a physicist named E.J. Williams to take on the issue. Williams showed mathematically why an escort ship following the Navy's instructions was unlikely ever to hit a U-boat. He recommended that the defenders ignore any U-boat that had been beneath the surface for more than 15 seconds. But U-boats that had just dived were to be attacked immediately with closely spaced depth charges set to explode at only 25 feet. The kill rate rose by a factor of 10.

The Coastal Command tracked the estimated location of every U-boat believed to be in the Atlantic and used a fleet of patrol planes to search for them. Knowing that U-boats usually traveled on the surface, Blackett calculated the number of sightings the planes should report. The actual number was far less, because U-boats were spotting the planes and diving before being seen. Blackett determined that the Coastal aircraft were black -- having been shifted from night bomber duty to ocean patrol. Painting the undersides of the wings reflective white made the planes harder to see, and the rate of U-boat sightings doubled.

Some of the contributions the author recounts are well known, notably the cracking of the German army Enigma codes and the more complex naval Enigma codes. It began with the help of discoveries made by three code breakers in the Polish army's cipher bureau who turned over the results of their work -- including a reverse-engineered army version of the Enigma coding machine -- to their British counterparts in Warsaw just prior to the Nazi invasion. Code breaking was an ongoing task that allowed the Coastal Command to site and map U-boat deployments, including wolf-pack formations, and so re-direct convoys out of harms' way. For good measure, the convoys were optimally designed via OR re: size and escort configuration.

The author helps the reader understand how and why OR developed as a scientific enterprise. Blackett and his fellow British scientists, and, from 1940, their American counterparts under the National Defense Research Committee headed by Vannevar Bush, showed how careful quantitative analysis could provide far better guidance for decision makers than tradition, prejudice, and gut feeling. Concepts such as probability and optimization, honed in studies analyzing the placement of antiaircraft batteries and the flight patterns of planes on patrol at sea, eventually made their way into business operations.

Finally, the civilian heroes of World War II are seen by the author as having "an abiding faith in rationality, a basic confidence in the enduring power of arithmetic and simple probability, and a determination to vanquish an evil that they took to heart as a personal duty."
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HALL OF FAMEon February 19, 2013
From 1941 - 43, a small group of British and American scientists, almost entirely without military experience or knowledge, changed how wars are fought and won. Six would win the Nobel Prize for their other work, most were far left in their politics (some even Marxists or pacifists). Patrick BLackett, British physicist and ex-naval officer, future Nobel winner, and ardent socialists led the British efforts in this dimension.

On average, there were 2,000 Britishs merchant ships at sea at any given time. German U-boats at the beginning of WWII were faster and more fuel efficient than their predecessers. Their torpedoes were also new - electric, that no longer gave off a tell-tale stream of air bubbles. Since England's vaunted new asdic (sonar) detection system was then effective for up to 5,000 yards, Admiral Donitz changed strategy to focus on night attacks while the submarines were on the surface, redering the Brits new detection tool useless. Concentrated targets (Allied convoys) were contered by concentrated U-boats, brought together from loose groups via radio signals.

Churchill's ascendancy brought a search for new ideas. One of his early ideas, creating 'hunting groups' that roamed the oceans searching for U-boats, was a failure. Eventually others convinced him that the place to look for U-boats was where their prey was - around convoys. A second Churchill ideas was even worse - assigning two obsolete carriers and their planes to the U-boat hunt - despite the fact that their torpedoes and bombs were useless once a submarine dived. One of those carriers was very quickly sunk by a U-boat.

A third idea from Churchill was much more useful - directing the installation of anti-survace vessel radars on escort vessels, as was his directing the RAF to determine if its planes could carry and drop depth charges.

British intelligence had been a good-old-boy network, dominated by non-scientists (eg. art historians, experts on ancient Greece and medieval Germany); the first mathematician/statistician was not brought into the group until 1938. During the first weeks of the war, only three of the academics were mathematicians, and the rest came from the humanities. Fortunately, early successes by Polish army mathematicians convinced the British that they needed more themselves.

Donitz was hampered by defective magnetic triggers in early U-boat torpedoes. Considerable time was lost while the problem was diagnosed and eliminated via new equipment. Meanwhile, the Luftwaffe came close to toppling Britain's RAF in the mid-August 1940 by concentrating on its airfields and radar stations. However, Goering failed to follow up at that point by diverting attention to daylight London raids in retaliation for Britain's having carried out two small night attacks on Berlin that same month. The time lost allowed Britain's RAF the chance to recoup.

Shortly before the night raids began, the British general in charge of anti-aircraft fire asked to have Blackett assigned as an advisor - his problem was particularly acute during evenings when the bombers couldn't be seen. Blackett found their new radars weren't connected to the guns, and though reasonably accurate when readings were averaged out, not that useful at any single moment in time. Blackett's group worked out a means of averaging the radar readings and inputting the resulting data to the guns. Since the thirty anti-aircraft groupings near London had to share 15 radars, Blackett also suggested consolidating the anti-aircraft guns into 15 groups since their night-time effectiveness without radar was essentially non-existent. Blackett also resisted the pull to move the guns to the shore - shore batteries claimed a shoot-down rate about 2X that for inland sites; thinking about the topic and talking to others, Blackett realized that the reason for the data difference was not that the coastal sites were more effective, but simply due to their claims being mostly unverifiable. Another problem - the British general was continually upset with the variation in shoot-down rates from one evening to another; one night it would be 5, another night only 2, etc. Blackett convinced him that this was simply random variation and not attributable to better efforts on one night vs. another. Results: The British went from needing to fire 20,000 shells to bring down a German bomber to only 4,000.

The group Blackett assembled eventually became known as 'Blackett's Circus.' One of his attributes that had endeared him to the general was his willingness to make do with what was available, rather than pursue theoretical perfection.

Improving 'kill rates' vs. German U-boats was probably the highest priority assigned Blackett's group. E.J. Williams was assigned the lead role in this effort, and quickly determined that airplanes were spending too much time on targets that had been submerged over 15 seconds. He also concluded that it was important to change their depth charge settings from 100 - 150 feet to 25 feet, as well as narrowing the spacing between depth charges from 250 feet to 40 - 60 feet. After technical adjustments, the percentage sank rose from 1 - 2% to 10%.

Another improvement came from Blackett's asking why U-boat sightings/plane were only about one-fourth what he estimated they should be. Either the U-boats were underwater much more than he believed (contrary to intelligence from captured crews), or the U-boats were seeing approaching planes and diving prior to being spotted. Blackett then realized the planes being used had been painted black underneath for night bombings - having them repainted white reduced by about 20% the distance at which they could be seen. Sightings of U-boats jumped from one/700 hours of flying to one/350 hours.

Pursuit of a German radio ship trawler, the capture of other documents from a U-boat, and the use of early tab machine computers allowed the Allies to break Germany's naval code, even though the keys were changed daily. U-boat effectiveness dropped from sinking an average of four ships/month to less than one.

America's military was late to recognize the value of operations research personnel, and further hampered their naval operations by decentralized control of anti-submarine efforts (slow, uncoordinated). Another problem - it took far longer than it should have to convince America's Navy to utilize convoys - convoys from Key West to the Hatteras cut sinkings from 25% of ships to 2%. Meanwhile, Blackett eventually convince the British to increase convoy size because the perimeter needing protection lengthened much more slowly than the size of the convoy. Thus, increasing convoy size by 50% also reduced sinkings by 50%.

Bottom-Line: Blackett's group, along with others elsewhere, made significant contributions to the Allied victory. Amazingly, some of their best contributions required very little mathematical skills. Unfortunately, efforts to achieve similar improvements in social policies by the same personnel were unsuccessful - politics was more important than objective performance measures (eg. U-boats sunk).
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Science has enabled us to do a lot of things better, and unfortunately, given the way people and nations conduct themselves, it has enabled wars to be fought with more effectiveness. When we think of scientific contributions to warfare, we think of gadgets, from better guns to better bombs. Hitler had his scientists, and we had ours, and we can all be thankful that ours were part of the effort that brought us victory. One of the scientists who deserves our thanks is Patrick Blackett. If your reaction is, "Who?" that was my reaction too, but he is the central subject of _Blackett's War: The Men Who Defeated the Nazi U-Boats and Brought Science to the Art of Warfare_ (Knopf) by Stephen Budiansky. The author writes, "It is no exaggeration to say that few men did more to win the war against Nazi Germany than Patrick Blackett," and he makes a persuasive case. Blackett would later go on to win a Nobel Prize in physics for work he started before the war, examining cosmic ray tracks within cloud chambers, but his work during the war did not have to do directly with gadgetry or physics. Rather, he championed taking data from battle procedures and formulating tactics based on the data, an idea that seems obvious in retrospect. Blackett is acknowledged as the founder of the discipline known as Operations Research, which has had far broader applications than just warfare.

Budiansky's book is a broad history of the foundation of ideas in OR rather than a biography of Blackett, but of course Blackett's life is recounted. Churchill was an enthusiast for scientific ideas, and was perhaps overeager to promote the next scientific gadget. Blackett's circle was not involved in gadgetry, but were posted, often against the wishes of generals and admirals, into the military units to see directly the operational problems of warfare. Taking data and analyzing it was their role, and it changed the way the war was fought. For example, Royal Navy ships were dropping depth charges at about 125 feet underwater for boats that had gone under for extended times. Mathematically, Blackett's team was able to show that U-boats that had dived for more than fifteen seconds should simply be ignored; those that had just gone down were to be attacked immediately with a close pattern of depth charges set to explode at only 25 feet. The kill rate increased by ten.

Operations research as advocated by Blackett and his team was not originally in accord with the way the military wanted to do things. Military men derided it originally as "strategy by slide rule," but it became clear that using numbers increased the effectiveness of military effort. While operations research is now commonplace in military education, and also in MBA programs, it was innovative at the time, as was the idea of having scientists advise on an overall war effort. These were not scientists bent on careers as military advisors, but men who wanted to help win the war against Hitler. And they played a huge role in the victory. Toward the end of this revelatory book, one that should bring renewed admiration for some forgotten scientific heroes, Budiansky writes, "They did it by an abiding faith in rationality, a basic confidence in the enduring power of arithmetic and simple probability, and a determination to vanquish an evil that they took to heart as a personal duty."
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on March 2, 2013
I wholeheartedly endorse this book. This is a well researched book that not only gives a much needed backdrop to the central issue, but brings the reader into a complete understanding of how the war in general and the U-Boat war in particular evolved. In addition, much new information is brought to light that I had never seen before. To relate only the U-Boat campaign and its effects would have been too narrowly focused since there were many factors that were brought to bear in the submarine war. I also wish to commend the author for bringing into the book many anecdotes and other characters that had such a bearing on the war effort in general. A less accomplished wordsmith would have made this a tiresome recitation of he did this and he did that. In fact too many war narratives read like a dry historians Ph.D dissertation. This author skillfully weaves the whole scenario into an interesting complete story. I finished this book in a very short period of time simply because for want of a better expression, it was a page turner for me. As an interesting aside, on the back leaf is a picture of the author. He bears a striking resemblance to the actor Richard Schiff who so ably played Toby in the TV series "West Wing."
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on March 11, 2013
I started reading for insight into history and was surprised by business insights. I do not think the author realizes he has written a business book. All senior managers and CEOs need to read this one.
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on March 20, 2013
This book presents, in a very interesting and easy-to-read way, one aspect of the Allied, and especially the British, approach to WW II that most people have never heard of even though it was quite literally one of the major reasons, if not the major reason, the Allies won the war. That approach, eventually called operational research by the British and operations research or management science by the Americans, involved having scientists, most of whom had backgrounds totally unrelated to warfare, apply scientific reasoning and mathematical methodology to problems encountered during the war. While such an approach may sound rather boring, and even somewhat daunting to the average reader, the author has focused less on the technical aspects of this story and more on the personalities involved, producing a very intriguing and even frightening view into how top generals and admirals, and, even Sir Winston himself, often wanted to pursue paths that could very easily have led to disaster, even when all the scientific evidence pointed in a different direction.

My Ph.D. degree is in management science, so I already had a vested interest in this story, having heard during my graduate work of "Blackett's Circus" and even the famous application of operational research to the problem of airplanes dropping depth charges (unsuccessfully) on U-boats. However, this book showed me that the story I'd learned was completely wrong and oversimplified. Instead, the true story, revealed in this book, is much more compelling and exciting than anything I could have imagined.

Anyone who has taken a science course or courses in business that discussed management science techniques will find this book intriguing. However, anyone with any interest in human personalities and how people can let their egos and preconceptions cloud their thinking will also find this book worthwhile, as will those with an interest in the history of WW II.

The only reason I gave this book four stars instead of five is that I personally would have liked more in-depth discussion of the scientific models and methodology involved, and discussion of more of the operational research applications. However, that probably would not have appealed to most readers, so I think the author has done a good job of presenting just enough of what technical readers like me would like without going overboard, spending most of his time on the human story that most readers will find much more interesting.
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on March 18, 2013
Unlike most other books on the War, this one delves into the politics of the protagonist(s) as well as their contributions to the war effort. The first half or more of the book describes the contributions of a host of scientists to the war effort, as well as the well documented difficulties they faced dealing with the anti-intellectual military that they advised. This, in and of itself, is an important commentary. When a military mind has a war to prosecute, this is his "moment in the sun" and he rarely wants to listen to someone who brings charts and statistics to the table.

But when faced with a disastrous outlook, even the most stolid military mind must adjust to the call of science. And it was a near thing! The tonnage lost, as well as the lives spent by the military mindset after America entered the war was shocking. As one US Admiral said to a British scientist that he met: "These are my ships and I can lose any number that I want because we can just produce more of them!".

The scientists finally got some control over anti-submarine strategy when the US Admirals finally realized that unless they took control of the Atlantic they could not build up sufficient forces in the UK to initiate the second front in France.

The scientific innovations that led to victory in the Battle of the Atlantic were of two kinds. There were physical improvements in the weaponry itself. The Leigh Light, Hedge Hog depth charges, bombers with longer indurance, asdic systems as well airborne radar are just a few of them. But perhaps the greater influence was felt by the "systems" improvements in cross Atlantic cartage. Optimum convoy sizes were developed. New tactics were developed to "attack" the U-boats as they crossed the Bay of Biscay on their way to the Atlantic killing grounds. Even the paint colour on bombers was changed to give the bombers an extra 15 seconds to attack the U-boat before it could submerge. By end of 1943 and early 1944 the U-baot menace was virtually eradicated. The German U-boat service lost almost 70% of its boats and manpower before the war ended!

But an equally interesting part of this book deals with the "utopian" dreams and applications of the scientific "boffins" after the end of the war. Most of them were Marxists before the war and saw their operational research tactics as applicable to government and the economy. Many took radical positions and entered into politics in support of the Labour Party. Here their Utopian dreams crashed and burned as they gradually learned that the private economy contains consumers who don't "play by the rules" set by social scientists.

Fortunately for the USA their war scientists eschewed politics (not all of them) and followed academic and business opportunities into the future.
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VINE VOICEon February 3, 2014
In the darkest days of the Second World War, Patrick Blackett, who would win the 1948 Nobel Prize in physics, led a team of scientists that helped to win one of the most important battles of the war. Combining simple mathematics with sound physical insight, Blackett’s small group, tiny in comparison to the code breakers at Bletchley and infinitesimal next to the Manhattan Project, found the means to defeat Germany’s submarines. In so doing, they provided a most convincing demonstration that scientists could not only develop the instruments of war but could also direct its daily operations, creating the field that soon came to be called “operational research.”

Mr. Budiansky tells the story in an engaging and even lively fashion, with a decent level of detail. This remarkable history is complemented with a summary of other aspects of Blackett’s extraordinary career and supporting descriptions of the ridiculous political prejudices and military machinations that, occasionally, threatened his effort, even in the face of its success. Indeed, one senior RAF officer actually dismissed some of the work as “strategy by slide rule.” (He eventually came to his senses.)

I can recommend this book without qualification to anyone interested in history, science or just a good read.
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on March 24, 2013
Stephen Budiansky's work is good in providing the reader information on how England finally (and just in the nick of time)countered the Uboat menace in the Battle of the Atlantic.

A large part of the problem involved the improvements in the German uboats, and especially their improved torpedo technology, and the other part was the lack of innovation by the British, who tended to rely on the good old boy network, which produced much sizzle but no steak.

By summer of 1940, after the collapse of France, Doenitz was able to establish Uboat bases along the coast of France, putting his wolfpacks much closer to shipping lanes with the result that one million tons of shipping was sunk from July through September of that year. While Goering was bombastic and ultimately made strategic moves that allowed the RAF to survive and beat back the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain, Karl Doenitz was a professional and not a politician who looked for efficiency in everything he did as well as his submarine offensives. The Battle of the Atlantic was a far different engagement, and one that almost took down the British Empire.

Patrick Blackett was a brilliant scientist. A former naval officer in the great war, his experimental work in physics while at Cambridge in the Cavendish Laboratory under the direction of Ernest Rutherford, resulted in the first photograph of a nuclear reaction as it actually took place in a cloud chamber. Blackett later won the Nobel prize. I do have to admit, that after reading pages 46-48 describing in detail this experiment, I still have no idea of what the author is talking about. I give myself one star for not being well versed in physics but I even went to Wikipedia in an effort to get another version of this and came away empty. All in all, i think these two pages of frustration were not necessary to enhance the story of how the Uboat was brought to bay.

There are many interesting characters in the book. Most of the scientists involved in these various committees were left leaning, tending toward Socialism, and pro Marxists. I am not saying that is bad, but it was the prevelant attitude of the scientists at that time.

Of special interest is F. A. Lindemann, whom CHurchill dubbed "The Prof" and was given far too much favor by the prime minister. His abrasiveness and arrogance did more to foil the British cause than to help it. While WSC was a great man and a leader, he could get "out there" as far as fantasic and outlandish schemes which were impractical if not silly and the problem was they took time and resources which should have been devoted to more worthwhile causes.

Many of the advances of the scientists involved technological breakthroughs and some involved simple statistics and the ability to provide accurate information. Something as simple as painting the underwings of planes on patrol against Uboats white resulted in critical seconds where the planes were not detected, resulting in more kills. Also, changing the depth on charges dropped from planes resulted in significant improvements in knocking out submarines.

While the book is good, there is a lot of information and it did get a little dry for me, but there again, I do not have the science background. One point of contention was the beginning of Chapter Six, when the author stated that in May, 1940 Hitler sent his panzers and 2 million men into the Low Countries and France; Chamberlain resigned and WSC became prime minister. True, Hitler launched his invasion but Chamberlains's resignation was the result of the bungling of the British regarding the operation in Norway which proved to be a model of English hesitation and incompetence. IT was this episode that was finally the last straw for Chamberlain. He was out, and shortly thereafter died of cancer. The author should know this and convey it as such. For another good source that involves this topic, I would recommend to the reader Engineers of Victory: The Problem Solvers Who Turned The Tide in the Second World War which covers the convoys and the battle against the Uboats, While not as technical, Engineers gives good information in a fast paced style.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon December 22, 2013
The title and even more so the subtitle of this book implies that it is about the exploits of Patrick Blackett during WWII, which is only partially the case. While the book does discuss the life of Patrick Blackett and his contribution to WWII, this takes up very much less than half the book. The focus of the book is on the application of Operations Research, OR, (the application of the analysis of data, generally statistical in nature, to make decisions) to problems encountered in WWII. Blackett was not the only scientist who applied OR and is highlighted for doing so. In addition, much of the book covers a lot of other topics such as: British pacifism between WWI and WWII, OR applied to the antiaircraft defenses against German bombers, submarine warfare and life on submarines, the British bombing campaign against Germany, Admiral King and the US Navy anti-submarine efforts, and brief references to the British codebreaking efforts.

I liked the book. It is well written and I learned a lot, but it was not quite as focused a Budiansky’s previous book on WWII, “Battle of Wits”. However, I enjoyed the breadth of material that was covered. The book serves as a nice adjunct to “Battle of Wits”, complementing it and giving a somewhat different slant on the material. I recommend the book to those interested in WWII history, the application of OR to WWII, and the life of Patrick Blackett.
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