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Terrors and Marvels: How Science and Technology Changed the Character and Outcome of World War II


The dreadful global conflagration known as the Second World War was more than the clashing of great armies on bloody battlefields. A different kind of war was being waged in the secret laboratories on both sides of the conflict — a war that would alter the course and determine the outcome of the bitter hostilities, forever changing our world and future.

In a stunning amalgam of science and history, Tom Shachtman, the critically acclaimed author of Absolute Zero and the Conquest ...

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The dreadful global conflagration known as the Second World War was more than the clashing of great armies on bloody battlefields. A different kind of war was being waged in the secret laboratories on both sides of the conflict — a war that would alter the course and determine the outcome of the bitter hostilities, forever changing our world and future.

In a stunning amalgam of science and history, Tom Shachtman, the critically acclaimed author of Absolute Zero and the Conquest of Cold and The Phony War, 1939-1940, gives us a riveting chronicle of World War II's forgotten combatants: the engineers, physicists, chemists, and academics whose contributions to the war effort were as important as the noble sacrifices of the soldiers, sailors, and airmen who bravely risked their lives.

While it is a widely accepted fact that America's development and employment of the atomic bomb ended the Pacific struggle — and that the failure of Hitler's scientists to develop their own A-bomb helped to doom Germany — little note has been made of the other remarkable scientific accomplishments of this dark and terrible epoch. Beginning with a fascinating overview of the Depression-era struggle to establish scientific and military alliances that would ultimately enable the Allies to catch up to the Axis's early dominance, Terrors and Marvels offers an eye-opening history of the furious battles for technological superiority covertly waged by the world's most brilliant minds.

From the creation of faster, deadlier jets and rockets to the development of biological, chemical, and electronic warfare — from astonishing advances in medical science to breakthroughs in radar and decoding — the incredible successes and failures that occurred in top-secret facilities around the world in the early 1940s never made headlines but often determined triumph and defeat. Here, also, are the intensely human stories of the architects of the terrifying war machines — men and women of rare intelligence and integrity torn by the conflicting demands of conscience and country, haunted by their roles in the use and abuse of powerful science.

Edifying, enthralling, startling, and sobering, Terrors and Marvels is a masterful work that sheds light on the astonishing achievements of a remarkable few and the great and terrible technology that swung the pendulum of victory in the Allies' direction.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
There was more to WWII science than the atomic bomb, demonstrates Shachtman (Absolute Zero and the Conquest of Cold) in his fascinating history of the use of intelligent machines in the conflict. He traces the development of scientifically engineered weapons such as poison gases, encoding devices (like ENIGMA), rockets, radar and early heat-seeking defenses, showing how both sides relied to an unprecedented extent on the work of scientists. Germany's defeat on the scientific front, Shachtman argues, was due largely to Hitler's sluggishness in making full use of his researchers and to the Third Reich's predilection for flashy, impractical weapons over the more mundane, efficient ones that could counter Allied bombs. Moving back and forth between Allied and Axis advances, Shachtman dramatically captures the breakneck pace of research and the charged atmosphere of the WWII lab. He examines the effects of scientific developments on pivotal battles, and he also profiles individual engineers, chemists, physicists and biologists in Europe and Japan. In addition, Shachtman shows how developments during the period would later improve the lot of postwar consumers. The impeccably researched, taut volume maintains its focus on the role of science without drowning in voluminous WWII historical material. This effortlessly readable text will be of interest to fans of history and science, and to the casual reader as well. Photos not seen by PW. (June) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Shachtman (The Phony War, 1939-1940) here offers a straightforward, jargon-free account of the changing relationship between science and the military in World War II. In describing this complex relationship, Shachtman does not focus on the Manhattan Project or the ENIGMA Code; instead, he presents a broad account of science's role in the war. This is an engaging chronicle of how the war was waged by physicists, chemists, biologists, and engineers. While the atomic bomb was the most dramatic contribution of science to the war, the development of torpedoes, radar, bombsights, jets, rockets, and so forth made an incalculable difference in the waging and outcome of the war. As the author notes, science changed the war, and the war has changed how we do science. Shachtman is also an award-winning documentary filmmaker. Highly recommended for public and academic libraries. James Olson, Northeastern Illinois Univ., Chicago Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-Shachtman explains that prior to World War II, many European and U.S. scientists were hesitant to pursue advances in any field of science that pertained to the military because of World War I. Those who did, did so quietly, and often did not get far except in Germany, where Hitler was already gearing up for war. However, his support didn't last and by the time he allowed the development in military ideas to come into production again, Germany had lost the war. A somewhat similar situation occurred in Japan. Although the Allies came from behind scientifically and technologically, they had the resources and support to pursue and solve military problems through research in any area from biology to meteorology. Shachtman tells the story through the men and women, both Allied and Axis, who provided the scientific answers for the war. Major players emerge, such as Vannevar Bush and Wernher von Braun, and a host of other recognizable names. As technological advantages pushed the Allies toward winning, the race to find scientists once under the control of the Germans ensued. That led to the Cold War and the present patterns of scientific research supported by business or government grants. Filled with information and insight, this book offers a wealth of facts about events, people, and the technology of World War II that have determined the world we live in today.-Pam Johnson, Fairfax County Public Library, VA
Kirkus Reviews
A comprehensive analysis of how mobilization and management of scientists-and their research and resultant technologies-produced an array of weapons for the Allies that ranged from horrific to unbelievable. Few people realize how many details of the weaponry of WWII remained classified for as long as half a century. Shachtman acknowledges that edge over previous historians-even Churchill-and builds a fascinating case boosting science, including "soft" disciplines such as cryptography, psychology, and Operations Research, as a pivotal factor in the outcome. The race for the atomic bomb is, of course, prime and well documented, but the author points to radar as the key area where Allied scientists, military intelligence, and manufacturing resources overcame a German lead at war's outset. The breakthrough that produced a proximity fuse for artillery shells also looms large; other than minimizing Hitler's prime "vengeance" weapon, the jet-propelled V1 "buzz bomb," in skies over Britain, proximity fuses were used only at sea (antiaircraft) until the final year of the war for fear that an unexploded shell might be recovered and reproduced by the Germans. And when they were finally used, with appalling effect, some scientists openly expressed regret at ever having worked on the project. In that regard, Shachtman relates that it wasn't a nuclear mushroom cloud that appeared in the nightmares of US military sci-tech czar Vannevar Bush after the war; it was the jellied gasoline incendiaries he'd approved for use on Japanese cities. (How close all sides came to deploying poison gases is also a chilling theme.) Axis miscues played a major role, but in the author's view, Hitler's purging of Jews fromkey posts was less critical than his failure to trust and employ even "Aryan" scientists-still a formidable array-in the war effort at a point where it could have made a difference. Remarkable view of a war that not only advanced but politicized science, perhaps forever.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780380978762
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 5/14/2002
  • Edition description: 1ST
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.17 (d)

Meet the Author

Tom Shachtman is the author of thirty books, including Decade of Shocks, 1963-1974; Absolute Zero and the Conquest of Cold; and Rumspringa: To Be or Not to Be Amish. He lives in Connecticut.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Terror from the Sky

In the skies above London, electronically sophisticated, computer-controlled, robotic mechanical destroyers clash. Below, emergency crews race to put out firestorms and rescue the victims of the incoming robo-bombs, while the rest of the populace watches the battle in awe and awaits the outcome, which can decide their fate.

This scene could be a twenty-first century nightmare, a depiction of the electronic battlefield of the future. But it took place on June 13, 1944.

It was one week to the day after the Allies invaded Normandy in an attempt to end the domination of Europe by the Third Reich. Now Adolf Hitler was striking back, as Londoners recalled that he had threatened to do. For several years, Hitler had warned his enemies that if the Reich was attacked, he would retaliate with weapons that would wreak great damage, terrorize Germany's enemies and compel them to their knees'marvels never seen before, the products of German scientific expertise that he had been developing and accumulating toward such a moment.

Hitler's jet-powered flying bombs, called V-1s, aimed at the tallest buildings and most cherished landmarks, carried explosive payloads capable of flattening several office buildings at once. Hundreds of them each day hurtled across the English Channel from camouflaged ski-ramp launchers on the French and Belgian coasts. So fast did the unmanned bombs travel that they materialized in the air above their targets only moments before impact, screeching and flaming across the sky, then strikinga building and exploding with devastating and horrifying results. To Londoners in 1944, these terror weapons seemed straight out of the science-fiction novels of H. G. Wells, or reminiscent of the magical wizardry of Merlin in King Arthur's court.

The machines were all the more awful because they were unexpected; the government had not warned ordinary Britons that such bombs might be coming (even though the War Cabinet had known of the possible terror for a year). The first day, one bomb landed at Swanscombe, another at Bethnal, luckily killing only six people. The next day a hundred more rained down, many making direct hits on palaces, government buildings, and financial offices and coming so swiftly that Londoners had no time to reach air-raid shelters before the bombs exploded nearby. Dozens of people died, whole blocks of flats and offices collapsed.

A robot bomb that did not burst on landing was carted off by the military for analysis. Britons wondered: Where was the response from the Allied wizards? Didn't the Americans have some secret weapon with which to counter the robotic bombs? Was there nothing the Allies could do to defend against these products of the Nazi geniuses?

Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his cabinet were frightened that the next batch of robot bombs might spread poison gas, or biological agents such as plague, or even -- the worst nightmare -- contain an explosive device that made use of the power derived from the recently discovered splitting of the atomic nucleus of uranium. The Allied leaders knew, even if the public was unaware, that Germany had been trying to create various doomsday machines. Even when none of these nightmares was realized, the British government decided to evacuate a million Londoners.

“London is chaotic with panic and terror. The roads are choked with fleeing refugees,” Reich minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels gloated over German airwaves. The Nazis had learned from British radio broadcasts that the British government was acknowledging the damage caused by the V-1s'5,000 deaths, 15,000 injuries, hundreds of firestorms. The response of the German-speaking public to Goebbels' announcement was ecstatic: With this strange weapon, the V-1, they now had reason to hope Hitler might yet snatch victory for Germany from the jaws of defeat.

The Allied military command worried that shortly something worse would be coming from Germany: huge rockets known as V-2s, many stories high, with payloads twice as large and potent as those carried by the V-1s'weapons against which the Allies could not even imagine a defense. Beyond the V-2, the Allies feared, the Germans were readying the V-3, the Hochdruckpumpe, an enormous gun over 400 feet in length, a series of barrel chambers with sections protruding from their sides like ribs; by means of successive explosions in the side chambers, a 300-pound shell could be speeded up while passing through the main chamber until it emerged from the barrel at a tremendous velocity, easily able to reach London from France in a matter of minutes, too quickly for anything to prevent it from finding its target. Fifty V-3s were being assembled and aimed at industrial sites and at London.

To stave off the mounting terror that could potentially force Great Britain to sue for peace, the Allies now launched robots of their own, whose task it was to find the V-1s in the sky, track them through any twists and turns in flight, and destroy them before they could hit their targets. The Allied robots were even more complex than the V-1s, consisting of three mechanical marvels: two of them made up a robotic gun on the ground that sensed the approach of the V-1 when it could not even be seen by the human eye, and fired off the third, a projectile that when in the air acted as though it had a mind of its own by homing in relentlessly lessly and inescapably on the V-1 and exploding itself and the attacking robot to smithereens. That was the theory, but although the Allies had been developing the underlying sensing technology of microwave radar for three years, the proximity fuze and the radio-wave-based artillery-fire director that controlled their robot system's destructive force had been more hastily developed in laboratories spread out across Great Britain, the United States, and Canada -- and had not yet been tested together in battle...

Terrors and Marvels. Copyright © by Tom Shachtman. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Table of Contents

Terror from the Sky 1
Prologue: Legacies of the Great War 5
Section 1 The Interwar Years
Chapter 1 Journeys Toward Conflict 15
Chapter 2 Germany, 1933-34 38
Chapter 3 Until the Shooting Began 51
Section 2 European War
Chapter 4 War and Phony War 85
Chapter 5 Battles Above Britain 118
Chapter 6 Toward Pearl Harbor 143
Section 3 World in Flames
Chapter 7 1942, Year of Trials 165
Chapter 8 Seagoing Science 197
Chapter 9 The Great Shift 223
Chapter 10 Vengeance Weapons 248
Chapter 11 Ending the War 283
Epilogue: Science, Technology, and the Postwar World 311
Notes 331
Selected Bibliography 339
Selected Oral History Interviews 345
Acknowledgments 347
Photography Credits 349
Index 353
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