By trying to link developments in British military technology to economics and strategy between World War I and the height of the cold war, G. C. Peden has attempted a hugely ambitious task. Peden is quite correct in pointing out that Britain remained one of the world's great powers and leading innovators until the rising costs of new weapons systems and the relative decline in the country's economy caused its eclipse in the late 1960s. Though not without its shortcomings, Peden's is a laudable effort. Its great strength is that it puts strategic- and weapons-system acquisition into proper economic context. His account of the relationship of finance to World War II industrial production is the most succinct available, and he deftly deals with the ongoing controversy over Correlli Barnett's harsh critique of Britain's industrial performance. Britain's intent to equip only a fifty-five-division army, explains Peden, meant that it did not need to produce as many tanks as Germany required for its much larger army. Similarly first-rate is Peden's description of Britain's ultimately doomed struggle to keep pace with sophisticated and costly weapons-system development during the cold war. It was the ever-increasing expense of new weapons, as much as Britain's relative decline, that forced the nation to cede its position as a great power.
Perhaps nothing is more difficult in writing the history of military technology than tracing the course of a weapon's development from the decision to pursue research to the eventual deployment in combat. Weapons-system acquisition involves complex and ever-changing factors, including military tactical doctrine, strategic threat analysis, interservice rivalries, politics, finance, industrial capacity and capability, and technological and scientific research and development. To attempt an all-encompassing study [End Page 738] such as this is very brave indeed, and an author must be careful not to oversimplify the technological complexities of weapons systems. Unfortunately, Peden's book has a large number of errors, for instance in the account of First and Second World War antisubmarine warfare technology. While correctly pointing out that convoys were the single most important factor in defeating U-boats in 1917–18, Peden gives far too much credit to the development of hydrophones and makes no mention of the invention of active sonar by French scientists. Hydrophones on the whole did not work. Despite the deployment of some 10,000 of these devices, ship-borne hydrophone detection played a role in the sinking of only three or four German submarines. Peden does not cite Willem Hackmann's history of the development of sonar, implying that radio intelligence during World War II consisted primarily of enigma intercepts. But David Syrett has conclusively argued that strategic and tactical high-frequency direction-finding were far more important than decryption in redirecting convoys around submarine patrol lines.
Surprisingly, several major themes of Britain's wartime industrial mobilization are not fully explored. Quite correctly, Peden explains that the dominions provided little assistance in the rearmament program of the 1930s. In addressing World War II, however, he makes little mention of the industrial and financial contributions made by Canada, Australia, and other components of the empire, and he does not mention the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, perhaps one of the best examples of successful imperial planning for a long war. Shortcomings in design and industrial-production techniques caused numerous problems in weapons development and manufacturing in the United Kingdom, and in transferring these for overseas production. Peden argues that such issues were no worse than in Germany, but it would be hard to find a German equivalent to the scandalously inferior British tank designs.
While this book is not perfect, it is still a very useful study on a very important topic. There is little doubt that Britain's decline as a great power is one of the most important developments of the twentieth century. Peden greatly contributes to our understanding of why this occurred.
Dr. Zimmerman teaches history of...