Thursday, November 25, 2010

So I Caught An Anglo-Saxon, and He Was This Long. Me on Fleming, Britain After Rome

So I've been reading Robin Fleming's Britain After Rome: The Fall and Rise, 400 to 1070 (London: Allen Lane, 2010).

This isn't a review. If I finish a book these days, it's either because I think it's awesome on its merits, or because  I'm reviewing it, so if I think that a book is awesome, I'm not reviewing it. Unless "awesome" counts as a review. So I'm two for two on the Penguin History of Britain series. Fleming is great, and David Mattingly's An Imperial Possession: Britain in the Roman Empire is great. I am very much reminded how the Oxford History of the United States is now going one for three for me right now. (Yes to this, BTW.) Pick up your socks, Oxford! As the reading suggests, the end of the Roman Empire and the emergence of Anglo-Saxon Britain bulk (disproportionately) large in my world history project.

Why? Because of that old story about how invading Anglo-Saxons turned Britain into England. I don't believe it, and don't think that you should, either. Much more importantly, I don't think that you should believe the story that is being told with it.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Fall of France, 7, Hardware: Queen of the Desert

So, the British army had played around with tanks large and small during the 1920s. Activity hit a low ebb during the Depression, and began to recover slightly after 1933. This was all immediately politicised by the journalism of one B. H. Liddell Hart, so I am going to skip over that for now. After all, this is a hardware story!

So let's go see what a hardware shop looks like.

This is the Vulcan Foundry, founded in 1832 and builder of many, many locomotives by 1937. In a rearmament boom-led recovery, you would think that that would be a good place to be. After all, the army needs self-propelled heavy metal, right? And locomotives were an old, old business for British industry. In the clover, right?

Wrong. The locomotive business had a severe overcapacity problem, and, in general, the companies that could be expected to give way were the international exporters. Locomotives are big, and big things can't really be made by "mass production." They're basically built up of parts made in essentially the same way that replacements are made and damaged parts repaired. This has the implicit consequence that they can be profitably built in any major railway work shop. Well, steam engines can. Modern electrics and diesel-electrics are a more complicated matter, because the manufacturer comes to be more about the engine than the heavy metal.

I throw this out because the interwar was a sad era for British locomotive builders. In some visions of how an industrial strategy might work, the British government had no business propping up these kinds of firms with sweet inside deals. Admittedly, Vulcan Foundry actually survived the interwar and the end of steam, but it is hard to say whether that might not be because they won a contract to build a tank for the army in 1937. On the other hand, Vulcan won large private sector contracts right up until the beginning of the global slump, and delivered more than 100 locomotives in 1933.

Now, about this contract, Postan, Hay and Scott suggest that this reflects inadequate British industrial capacity or something, and Correlli Barnett, as expected, takes the ball and runs with it. There are no tank builders in Britain, so the government has to give the contract to inexperienced locomotive builders who stumble about trying to make ultra-modern war machines in their Dickensian plants!

Put it another way: Vickers-associated historians complain about arms contracts not going to Vickers. So what's going on at the Vickers plant? After Vickers had the specification of the A10 changed right out from  under them into a "cruiser tank," they had nothing much to offer. Accordingly, the Vickers Drawing Office rushed into action, designing an "infantry tank" that only weighed 16 tons, so that it could run on the same automotive plant as the A10. It's hard to know what to make of this. The Valentine has a reputation for being a cramped and compact vehicle. And there is a reason for this. The problem with building a tank is that the  more armour you put on a box, the heavier it is, so that the smaller the box, the lighter will be the tank, and conversely, the larger the box, the much-more-heavy-than-otherwise will be the resulting tank. And the smaller the box. So if if the Valentine was going to be heavily armoured, yet light, it was not going to have much room inside the box for much of anything, whether that be guns, crew, or engine. What's more, the smaller the box, the harder it is to give it low ground pressure and good fording depth, leading to a distinct lack of operational manoevrability.

And yet the Russians,who knew their tanks, loved the Valentine. Thinking about this, the most obvious reason I can think of for this is that with that kind of weight, and the modest speed, it must have been a pretty sweet drive. That's a virtue that doesn't get a great deal of play, but it is real enough, and the fact that Vickers was an experienced tank builder suggests that it was intentional. Leading to the suspicion that the Valentine was to be pitched on the strength of that virtue, perhaps for "colonial" operations on bad Northwest Frontier roads?

But, rush as they might, Vickers only got the proposal to the War Office on 10 February 1938,and it was not approved for another year. In that time, Vickers completed deliveries of its two-person, heavily armoured "Matilda I," which was basically intended to be a mobile, offensive pill box, and became obsolete the moment that enemy armoured counterattack became possible. Meanwhile, the Mechanisation Board, after worrying the matter over for some time, approved a design for a "heavy infantry tank," and, yes, put it out to contract with Vulcan Foundry. The first two resulting "Matilda IIs" appeared in service in September, 1939. (Wikipedia says that the first Matilda II was built in 1937, but unless this was a mockup made in sheet steel, this is a little hard to see.) Later contracts were placed at 5 other locomotive builders, and just under 3000 Matilda IIs were built through 1943, at which point it was replaced in service by the Churchill tank, and in production by 450 "Austerity" locomotives needed to keep British industry working and for Europe after the invasion.

The extent of the production contracts suggest the raw productive capacity of the Vulcan Foundry. And there was certainly nothing else to distract them. The economic slump of 1938 refuted the idea that the armaments boom of 1936--7 was going to drive up inflation and cut exports by taking up engineering industry capacity. On the contrary, 1938 was a year of  rising unemployment, stagnant wages, falling steel consumption and outright misery in the north.  That said, armament procurement was not trivial. Engineering industry armaments production had risen from 43.8 million in 1936—7 to 76.7m in 1937—8 and 109.5 in 1938—9, compared with a total sector-wided value output of 473.6 million output in 1935. Armaments took up much of what would have otherwise been a severe drop in engineering sector productive capacity, and the editorial board of Engineering turned to worry about post-rearmament excess capacity. Which is all very well, but with war coming, perhaps not the most urgent of issues.

So, returning to the question of picking the wrong companies. Would everything have been fine if the British government had just given the Matilda II contract to Vickers, instead of sending a bag of money off to Third World Liverpool in hopes of staving off cannibalism? Well, no. The Valentine was approved for production in April 1939, and, as was often done in the last years before the war, was sent directly to production. An advanced batch was available for testing in May 1949, and the first regular production models appeared in the summer. That's pretty impressive compared with, say, the T-34, which was field-tested in a preliminary test vehicle in 1939, had a prototype in January 1940, and only appeared in a production type in September 1940, or, for that matter, the history of the Matilda II, which had its design finalised perhaps at the  "end of 1937" and was still only available in limited numbers in May 1940.

The thing is, though, that British industry delivered 67 infantry tanks prewar, 63 in the first quarter of the war, 46 in the second, and 121 in the third. So given that only 140 Matilda Is were ordered, divided into 60 vehicles in the first (enough for one regiment. Hmm....) and, presumably, another 80 in the next, simple math tells us that virtually the first Vulcan order for only 65 Matilda IIs,and some of the subsequent increase to 140 vehicles had been completed by June of 1940. Production and delivery to the front are distinct events, so the 21 that fought in France might have been the only ones that were really ready, but the country was able to spare two regiments worth by August, sending them off to the Middle East to become the  "Queen of the Desert."

True, people carp. And well they should. The nickname is awfully self-congratulatory, and the Matilda had its problems even before 1943, when it was functionally obsolete. There were odd design choices. It had two engines, for example, developed from an AEC bus power plant. Why? Could "Britain" not build sufficiently powerful diesels? On the contrary, British maritime diesel engine makers would have been perfectly happy to build one, as evidenced by Thorneycroft and Paxman sniffing around the business. The thing was that the Matilda was a 27 ton, heavily armoured monster. That the monsters would get even bigger was not obvious. The divided power plant was considered necessary to make it work at all, by giving separate power to each track. Given that, 190hp made it go quite adequately fast, and the Paxman 600hp diesel called, on first inspection, for some monstrous land-hulk. That Dr. Merritt had adequately solved the transmission problem was not obviously apparent to Walter Wilson's backers even in 1946, with the successful experience of the Cromwell and Churchill behind them, so it is no wonder that they were not thinking about a 30 ton tank tearing about the countryside at high speed. (To their credit, the Russians were.)

So I'm not seeing an issue around the engine. People also complain that the castings on the Matilda were too big and difficult to mass produce. Again, given that entire turrets were cast, I'm not sure I see the argument. If there is one thing that you go to locomotive builders for, it is experience in making big pieces of steel capable of taking heavy stresses! Anyway, "difficult" is not the same as "impossible," as a production total of 3000 machines tends to suggest.

What I am seeing an issue around is this: an order for 65 tanks? In 1938? And why weren't they all in France on 10/05/40? Frankly, talking about how Vulcan Foundry might not have been the right contractor seems to me to duck these more important issues.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Electric Santayana III: Let's Not Think About Rob Schneider Any More, If That's Not too Meta

I hadn't intended to blog about this again any time soon. But then there's this.

"Britain was slow to move from the old industries of the first Industrial Revolution into modern sectors like electrical engineering, which impeded the adoption of mass-production methods. It also failed to adopt precision machinery that depended on electricity, which prevented it from producing machined components for use in assembling typewriters, cash registers, and motor vehicles. The same story can be told about other new industries like synthetic chemicals, dyestuffs, and telephony, in all of which Britain failed to establish a foothold." 

(Barry Eichengreen of the University of California, Berkeley, from here. Thanks to Brad Delong for bringing this to my attention. Hey! That's me boiling dry down in the comments!) It's hard to know what to make of this. The criticisms themselves float in a timeless space that may refer to the 1880s or the 1930s. It's only when Eichengreen goes on to discuss their causes that we nail down the chronology:

"A final explanation for Britain’s failure to keep up makes economic policy the culprit. Britain failed to put in place an effective competition policy. In response to the collapse of demand in 1929, it erected high tariff walls. Sheltered from foreign competition, industry grew fat and lazy . . . . Herein lies the most convincing explanation for British decline."
Professor Eichengreen isn't setting himself up as a historian of British industry here. He has a Very Important Message for modern Americans, and a cautionary tale from somewhere far away and long ago serves his rhetoric well. Who really cares whether the story is true or not? Well, if Professor Eichengreen substituted "Atlantis" for Britain in the example above, he wouldn't get much traction! It's the appearance of historical fact here that gives his warning its persuasive power.  And he's made judicious use of weasel words here so that historical criticism is hard. Britain was "slow" to move into modern industries like electrical engineering. So Britain could have had an electrical engineering industry. It's just later than soon. When I start talking about the 1930s, the good Professor can wave at the map of the past that exists only in his mind, he can say, "that's not what I meant!"

He does, however, say that British industry got fat and lazy in the 1930s, after the global tariff wars of 1929. He doesn't say that electrical engineering and "telephony," did not exist by this time, but I assume that I'm safe in thinking that they must have been particularly lazy. Leaving aside the question of why tariffs and export subsidies made American and German industry fit and active, I can put British industry on the treadmill, haul out some calipers, and maybe learn a thing or two after the jump.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Fall of France, 6: Hardware

When we talk about things like tanks in World War II, there is a very strong temptation to talk about hardware. Because hardware is cool. You can spend a lifetime obsessing on the details of World War II hardware, turn it into a career, and become an important authority with valuable things to say about it. Or you can become a professional obscurantist and lead generations of naive readers drastically astray. (Speaking of people who take Corelli Barnett far too seriously.)

It's telling the difference between the two that's the problem. Many military historians actually eschew too-close engagement with military technology, after one too many encounters with "rivet counters." I don't think that's a very helpful attitude, myself. If you're going to make an analytic point stand on the differing ways that the Germans and British used their heavy AA guns, then you need to know that the difference between the 3.7" (94mm) and 88mm AA guns. At the same time, when you read someone arguing that you need to understand a particular partial differential equation in order to "get" British tank transmissions in World War II, then you have an excuse. I can only think of one historian off the top of my head who has attempted to understand (a set of)   PDEs in a historical way. It's a fascinating exercise, but it's far from clear who the audience for such an undertaking is supposed to be.

So when we talk about the history of the British tank, we're put in a schizophrenic place. How can you not talk about hardware? When the British official history tackled this problem, the editors made the very creditable decision to put the same medieval economic historian who wrote the history of British war production in charge of Design and Development of Weapons. Throw in two industrial historians (D. Hay and J. D. Scott), and you've got a team that can do justice to the questions that historians bring to the project as well as engineers.

One hopes. In reality, you've got bias built in. Just picking a medieval economic historian in 1950s Britain pretty much guaranteed that you'd get a quasi-Marxist ready and able to beat back the then-active school of technical journalists arguing that "British free enterprise won World War II, so what the heck's all this nationalisation about?") As for Hay and Scott, we've oh-so-cleverly picked the official historians of the Vickers group of companies. (IIRC, Google failing me right now). Again, there is wisdom to this, in that the Vickers group have designed and built a disproportionate number of British weapons over the years. The problem is that along the way, Vickers has fought off any number of outsiders intent on invading their turf.

I'm not going to argue against the company's expertise and insight into tank-building problems, Between 1927 and 36, between 22,500 and 93,750 pounds were spent annually on new tank development, and Vickers was the only firm involved. In the process, the government-funded research complex that we customarily denote as Woolwich Arsenal developed a process for welding hardened steel plate and a nickel-chromium-molybdenum steel suitable for welding. This was to armour Vickers tanks, to be sure, but the spin-off implications are not small, and the crumbs were well-positioned to fall Vickers' way. At the same time, while Dr. Merritt might be working on a tank transmission, he was not a Crown employee, but rather David Brown's top boffin. The article linked to above notwithstanding, I do not believe that we have a full understanding of what was going on here. As far as I can see, the Merritt-Brown transmission could not work without carbonitrided gears, and the potential of this technology ran far beyond tanks to everything from mine elevators to ship engines to the heavy-duty machine tools used for making armour. (I like these recursive formulations a lot, you can tell.)

So did Vickers get an inside look at these technologies and an opportunity to exploit them? I think so, although I've no intention of trying to prove it now. Then, in October 1936, the War Office published three specifications, for a light tank, cruiser, medium, and infantry tank, stipulating 14mm armour on light tanks, 30mm on cruisers and 60mm for infantry. The light tank was also required to have a gun and regenerative steering, and this put Vickers' existing 5.25t, 32mph Mk VI out of the running, even though, since the replacement was not needed urgently, due to a conceptual shift to a "scout car," it in practice became the last major British light tank of the war.
The Cruiser tank requirement came at the same time as the Wavell Mission to see the Red Army manoeuvres and was probably inspired by it. In spite of that, Vickers' A9 prototype satisfied the requirement. So, unbelievably, did its A10, supposedly an infantry tank, but ruled out for that role by the new armour requirements. In short, every tank that Vickers was then producing somehow met the army's needs. But what of the new tanks? Well, the Nuffield Motor Group was commissioned to build the new cruiser, in spite of having to buy existing outside engine and tank designs --both American in origin. The London Midland and Southern Railway shop got involved with a proposal for a tank with a British-designed diesel engine, later dropped in favour of a development of the  flat Meadows engine that had gone into all the old Vickers tanks on the grounds that tanks should be low to the ground. Which was an official and well-found War Office position that you'd think would rule out orders for the American Liberty V-12 that went into the Nuffield tank!

 Meanwhile Vickers designed the Matilda I as a fast entry into the infantry tank sweepstakes, of which crazy little design perhaps more anon. But the big contract went to a locomotive shop just outside Liverpool called the  Vulcan Foundry, which ended up producing one of the real bruisers of 1940, Matilda II. In theory, though, there should have been one "tank circus" per corps in France in 1940, which would have amounted to more than 400 of these monsters. Instead, there were fewer than 30. So the question is, why? 

Well, it's not much of a question, because Correlli Barnett already has an answer: British industry was in decline! Vulcan would be swept off into the ashcan of history in the later '50s, almost the last of the prime mover builders of the industrial North, thereby freeing up Liverpool lads to go into, I don't know, rock and roll or something. Computers? Computers would be good.

Only, I think that's the wrong answer. Next up: I interrupt this interminable lecture series with an even more boring film!

Friday, November 5, 2010

On Decline

So the United States is the greatest empire that the world has ever seen. But are its best days behind it? Spain and Britain are empires that have risen and declined, and in some ways America is like a combo Spain-and-Britain deal. And so, asks oh-so-smart Yale Professor Paul Kennedy, isn't America soon going to decline and be overtaken by Japan?

Japan? Oh, sorry. Got 1987 confused with 2010 again. Seems Paul Kennedy got himself a job at Yale on the strength of  a pretty solid early writing career, notably dilating on the "rise and fall of British naval mastery" (thesis: "you kids stop mucking around and get out of that there Mediterranean afore you get an infection!") . Then he hit the sweetspot with a book about the imminence of American decline. That's what we expect of a man using up one of the precious few chairs at Yale. Unfortunately, he then returned to the library and produced the monstrous Preparing for the Twenty-First Century. My copy of same was free, because someone moving  out of a basement apartment up the street left his copy lying on the grass behind him. Which seems like a pretty generous review to me --my own first diagnosis was incipient cerebral shutdown, but Professor Kennedy has gone on to write seriously and appropriately in the last decade, and Preparing is no doubt just the product of a book tour, which would drive anyone batty.

The interesting point here is that Kennedy is a Briton, born in Northumberland, saddest and most autumnal of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms (where now the glory of Bamburgh, the holiness of Lindisfarne? In whom survives the blood of Ida?) and the progression from writing about the Royal Navy to the decline of empires is naturally British. There being more money in Yale than at the University of East Anglia in the 1980s, it is perhaps not surprising that he exported his act across the Atlantic, at just the right time for Americans to receive it with open arms. With American declinism in the news right now, all I'm really saying is that these things are cyclic. Like empires, y'know? First you have your principal declinists, then a golden age of philosophical declinism followed by an influx of severe military officers, then a crisis in the literature, followed by the emergence of the dominant names.

And somewhere in there, at least one declinist names his horse a consul. In his 1986 book, Collapse of British Power: The Audit of War: The Illusion and Reality of Britain as a Great Power, a sometime journalist turned amateur historian named Correlli Barnett made an impressively detailed argument that pretty much everything that happened in 1939--1945 proved that Britain was in "decline." As far back as the immediate wake of the industrial revolution, Britain had turned its back on engineering, business, science, realistic foreign policy, military staff planning, and practically everything that is rational. Then it blithely skipped through the 20th Century until it ran into the ruthless, warlike rationalism of Prussian militarism filtered through the state-planned dynamism of National Socialism and....

Oops. Won the war. But the point is, it shouldn't have. Or it should have won the war even more. Or it was all down to American assistance. Or, mostly, all of the above. It is clause 2 that fascinated me as a boy, and in some ways fascinates me still because it is so apparently, obviously true. Imagine replacing the arsenal of British power as it existed in 1939 with the one that existed in 1959. Don't even throw nuclear bombs in there. With Victors and Centurions and Hunters, the British armed forces would have kicked Nazi butt! And wasn't Britain 20 years ahead of the rest of the world industrially in 1820?* So, really, the dispiriting events of 1939--45, where Britain had to play second fiddle to those darn Americans was down to someone, or many someones, who screwed up in 1820--1939.

Audit of War is only loosely about that, however. It faces the rather difficult problem that what with Spitfires and radar and all, World War II certainly looks like a war fought by an industrially superior power, and the book is Barnett's extended demonstration that it really isn't so. So that is why Barnett talks about monocoque fuselages, Ebbw Vale, four wheel drive, and vacuum tubes at great length. It leaves the historian a little ill at ease. Barnett seems to know a lot about these subjects, and it is hard to know just where to start with unpicking the tapestry he weaves. In my graduate student days, discussions of Audit (which I really, really wanted to discuss) tended to be turned away with waves in the direction of Martin Wiener, whose attempt to discover the identity of Barnett's villains seemed at least open to critique.

Now, Wiener's attempt at cultural history is just plain weak. (One word, Dr. Wiener: prosopography.) And Audit of War is a pretty hard book to attack. I've spent much of the last two decades preparing to write a substantive reply, and I still get pretty important technico-industrial details wrong in public. I mean, there's aluminum and electrical cable and steelmaking and organic chemistry and aerodynamics and mine engineering I really have no idea how Barnett achieved the level of mastery required to make such confident claims ...No. Wait. I do. And you don't need Audit to see it, too. Before Audit, Barnett rehearsed his argument with a brief section of his book The Swordbearers that "proved" that the British Grand Fleet at Jutland was technically inferior to the German High Seas Fleet, and this happens to be a subject on which you can find an easily predigested summary of the technical issues. Battleships soaked up a lot of government money in the years before 1914, and there was a lot of journalism on this subject. Shipyards that got contracts (and the officers who directed the contracts to them) leaked one line to journalists ("our battleships are awesome"), and shipyards that didn't get the contracts (and opposition politicians) fed another line to different journalists ("our battleships suck.")

In the final analysis, it is pretty hard to sort out these claims to the last detail, but you can go to a high level review of the arguments (I think you'll find a good one, Brassey's Naval Annuals, in with all the other detail here.)  A point by point review of the things that Barnett apparently thinks are true about the Grand Fleet in 1916 demonstrates that he just swallows every criticism, no matter how inaccurate, and rejects every defence, even when such things are easily tested in the more recent technical literature that Audit of War implies that he has mastered. This is not research. It is indictment.

Which we already get from Wiener's critique, anyway. And, actually, even further back, from Lord Snow's "two cultures" argument. "The politicians just don't respect us engineers and scientists. They're all flouncing about quoting Latin, and they just pat us and say, 'there's a good boy,' when we say we should build something totally awesome!") Wiener and Barnett are pretty clear on what's to blame for all of this: labour unions, public schools, Nonconformism, Gladstone.... I'm surprised that they don't mention Home Rule. Or maybe they do. The important point is that Britain had a chance to embrace Prussian-style technocracy, and went all wet.

And this brings me back to my last few posts, where I've talked about Brabazon and Lord Weir and the National Grid scheme and even Messrs. Balfour and Atlee. Because it looks to me like Britain between the wars was bloody well as technocratic as all get out. This leads me to the unsurprising conclusion that we worry most about what we care most about. In short, it is likely to be a technocracy that worries that science is not getting enough respect from policy makers, and a world-bestriding empire that worries that it is about to go the way of Nineveh and Tyre.

Now if you'll excuse me, I think I'll go check out one of my own links and read some more about fire control at Jutland. Cool stuff!

*Well, no. But that's another story.