Monday, January 6, 2014

The Fall of France, XI (And Books That I Have Read): The Foresight War

Look! It's a postcard image. Probably of a different Agneaux than the one in the "Norman Switzerland," but think of it as signifying the relationship of 'foresight' with the two battles of France, anyway.  Uploaded to Google Maps by user ch'caf, if I am understanding the Panoramio credit properly.

In 2004, Anthony G. Williams, "military technology historian," could stand the psychic pressure of words and ideas no longer. So he wrote a book. 

It is a self-published book, and has some weaknesses, but considering this "if-you-liked-The-Foresight War-you-might-like-this" book was brought out by Random House,  I am going to cut Anthony G. Williams. His focus on military technology is no secret (his website), and the conventions of the genre dictate that you can only write a book about how a modern day person mysteriously transported back in time Changes Everything if you put in a novel format, with the classic of the genre, Lest Darkness Fall suggesting that you can go light on what in other subgenres can detract from the meat of the story. (You know, kissing and fashion and girl-cootie stuff.) 

So it's not like I am going to pick on Williams because his characterisation is weak. Nor am I going to pick nits about the story. (A junior academic wakes up in a semi-furnished flat one morning with his clothes and laptop. He gets up, sees the Crystal Palace, and realises that he has mysteriously travelled in time to 1934. Naturally, he heads off to see Henry Tizard and convinces the Government's official scientific advisor of his bona fides with his digital watch --as opposed to everything he's wearing-- and toute de suite we're on to re-fighting WWII. 

I am going to pick on him for something else. The Battle of France is kind of highlighted here, but the Blog Author is reaching for one of those Hey-Look-At-The-Important Issues-This-Book-Inadvertently-Raises posts. Which will hopefully be done in time for him to spend some time in the library. I hope I get there, and that the psychic pressure of ideas does not lead me too far astray.

To start with, I could be annoyed that somehow that the French and Poles are kept out of the loop, or that Germany has a time traveller who is somehow played as a good guy. But it's  a means to an end. We want WWII to be properly fair and sporting. The point is not to talk about the Holocaust, or the war of extermination that was fought on the Eastern Front. This  imaginarium, as the cool kids are calling them now, exists for one, and one only reason. Williams is a historian of small arms, bursting with ideas that only an extended counterfactual will let him express. And I hear you, man. I hear you.. 

It's just that a reader could get upset. At one point, Williams launches into an abbreviated but remarkably exhaustive technical brief on replacing the 2 Pounder antitank gun that shows a real grasp of the subject. He knows his stuff, this guy, and he can be very interesting. This one, for example, which I may well have cited before, is fascinating. Look at all the WW1 and interwar armies stumbling all around the concept of the assault rifle without quite getting there

Now let me look at the afterword for a convenient summary of the changes Williams' duelling historians accomplish

i) There perceived need for a British/German standardised armoured fighting vehicle, the former with the afore-mentioned discarding sabot round, the latter with ALL 88s ALL THE TIME.
ii)-iv)  What if the RAF was "deflected from its obsession with strategic bombing, bbuilt more medium bombers and "fighter bombers" "armoured twin-engine attack planes, " high-speed unarmed bombers and long-range fighters? What if the Luftwaffe built a long-range strategic bomber, and better air-to-air armaments?
v)-vi)  "What if radar had been generally developed at an accelerated rate and used more widely, for example in airborne early-warning systems?" And spotting snorkels with centimetric radar
vi) What if guided bombs and missiles had been developed earlier?
vii--viii) What if the Fleet Air Arm and Coastal Command "were provided with adequate numbers of modern aircraft, better aircraft carriers, and Merchant Aircraft Carriers were put in service in 1940?
x) What if the Royal Navy had Squid earlier?  "And their associated specialist ASDIC." What if the German navy focussed on Type XXIs instead of surface ships?
xi) What if "the RN" "had taken AA seriously" and made more 40mm and 20mm AA and substituted various arcane 4"/4.4"/4.7" mountings for the historic 5.25" DP of the Didos?
xii) What if "the RN" had ordered the King George V-class as reduced-scale Vanguards, inasmuch as reusing 15" turrets from the R-class battleships would have maybe saved some money. 

Some of this is just weird. If I were advising the British army in 1934, I'd tell them that the Centurion was inevitable, and they'd have to start working on their infrastructure accordingly. Sorry. I am sure that that is what Williams would do, too. But then he wouldn't get to talk about APDS. The whole bit about planes could do with a little more splatbooking ("a high speed unarmed bomber"), but, so often, you don't know what you don't know, and that's that. 

It's the electrics that gets to me. There's an early Dilbert cartoon in which the Pointy Haired Boss explains one of the foundational axioms of his management philosophy: "Everybody else's job but mine is easy," and this is a criticism. Williams seems to understand that ordnance engineering is endlessly complicated. He certainly finds it fascinating, The focus on ordnance in the above summary is clear, and I did not even manipulate the list to end on the absurdity of the proposed alternative design for the King George V class battleships. That is Williams' choice as the capstone of the long list of things that the British could have done differently.

But electrical engineering?  The only thing holding it back is a want of focus on the . . . stuff that they do. Whatever it is. It has maths, right? He apparently understands that Squid would not be much use without "specialist ASDIC," and it is hard to argue that with enough resources and focus, there could have been better radars available in 1940. I am not sure that he has given much thought to the issues associated with an effective air warning and control system, but...

Oh, fuck it. Anyone with a heartbeat should understand that air warning is just about useless without computers. I do not understand how Williams got out of the discussion about naval antiaircraft that was raging in the 90s without getting that it was predictors, not guns, that were the crux of the issue, or making the easy segue to computers to...

But if you're not going there, if you're focussing on how you are going to fix the British army at minimum cost in the mid-1930s, you want to focus on the weapon system that kills the most Nazis. Which would that be? The Commonwealth's standard field artillery weapon, of course, the 25 pounder gun-howitzer. If you have never looked at George Blackburn's account of a gunner's war in Europe, go look at it.  The flexibility of fire concentration achieved by the Royal Artillery  made the 25 pounder the most effective weapon in land warfare in 1939--45, causing something like 70% of all German casualties according to some factoid that I cannot now source. (Library time's a-wasting.) 

So that's the single place where your hypothetical historian needs to focus his attentions, and, in fact, there is a simple intervention that will make a huge difference. In early discussions of the 25 pounder design, there was a misguided decision to reduce the calibre from 94mm to 88.5mm, cutting its maximum range by 10%. I would not say that changing this would overturn the results of the most counterfactually important battle of World War II, because that would be the Battle of France, and the whole point of the change was to reduce the cost of the 25 pounder. Incidentally, it made 18/25s available for the BEF. Changing things around so that the BEF goes to France with "real" 25 pounders implies a reallocation of resourrces with likely more profound implications for the battle, just as substituting Centurions for Cruisers Mark III implies changing the British Army's whole relationship with the landscape and so with road trucking and agriculture.

So leave that aside, and focus on the other aspect of Blackburn's story. Telecommunications. Radio. 

And once we are launched on the project of Changing the History of the 30s Through Technology, it is not  rocket science to say that it is radio where we should focus. Even if it does lead to (guided) rocket science. More, better radios earlier. 

In fact, don't bother with the military. Have Professor Tizard put you in touch with Metropolitan Vickers. Get rich renting your laptop out for solving circuit diagrams. You will win World War II for the British Empire (bit of a mixed blessing that, admittedly, but better than the alternative), get rich, and, hopefully, get the Internet back before you're too old to enjoy it. 

Now that's what "foresight" looks like. 

If from all of this you have deduced that I have received and read my copy of Simon Godfrey, you would be right.

So you see that I have begun with a bad book, and ended with an excellent one, and that the bad book got all the attention, because it irritated me. Sometimes, things just aren't fair. I do have more to say about Godfrey, but it will not be today.

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