Tuesday, March 5, 2013

"The Blitz dog ate my homework" and other tired penicillin-related excuses from UK historians

David Edgerton excepted of course -- he hasn't really written on Britain's deliberately pathetic production of penicillin during the war years but he is unlikely to blame it on the Warfare State's "abject poverty" and "The Blitz".

Let's look at "The Blitz" first.

The German bombing of Britain went on for six years, went on all over Britain,  killed 60,000, wounded hundreds of thousands, damaged or destroyed hundreds of thousands of buildings but in all this, actually varied greatly in its specific intensity in time, geography and effort.

The actual Blitz, from September 1940 to May 1941, was in all three senses, intense : it went on steadily for nine months and involved the bulk of the German Air Force, and ranged widely over all of Great Britain.

But until the V-1 and V-2 attacks over south east England from June 1944 till the end of the war in May 1945, subsequent raids (ie from May 1941 till  June 1944, also the critical period for developing wartime penicillin) were very much smaller in intensity by number of bombers and tons of bombs.

Most consisted of  'tip and run' raids made by single fighter bombers coming in under the radar and bombing ports on the south coast of England.

A commenter on a blog said it perhaps best when he frankly admitted,that while yes he was a kid in Glasgow during the war,  he actually didn't really remember the Glasgow Blitz , because it only happened once and it happened many miles away in a working class/industrial part of that large city.

A child in Belfast might have had the same reaction - it had one big heavy raid on one part of the city, albeit with an extraordinary number of casualties because no one really expected the Germans to bother Northern Ireland.

And Oxford was never bombed.

Though it was basically an outer suburb of metropolitan London (and so very close to German airbases in France), with a large car industry and so surely should have been a suitable target on two counts.

Bombing Britain into defeat was really going to be virtually impossible - like Germany and America it simply had too many alternative metropolitan industrial centres, many with large port facilities, and all well connected to each other by an extensive road and rail network.

Thus the very determined effort to squash the huge port of  Liverpool into dust was a wasted German effort : Greenock, Cardiff and Belfast , to name but a few west coast ports in Britain , would have quickly taken up the slack in the receiving of vital convoys from North America.

A pre-war decision to build a number of duplicate shadow assembly plants a maximum distance of about a half hour rail, canal or truck trip from the original centre of a critical war industry helped a lot to reduce the impact of even a direct hit on that vital British 'choke point'.

The Germans knew precisely where all the pre-1939 vital factories were and often hit and badly damaged them - but the shadow plants near by were unknown to them and took up the slack.

In addition , ensuring that sub contractors were neither right next to the original plant nor 500 kilometres away but within that convenient half hour circle of travel led to a virtually bomb-proof but economical dispersal of vital war industries.

The chances of anything, anything but a twenty megaton thermo-nuclear bomb, destroying such a sprawling industrial metropolitan area a hundred kilometres by a hundred kilometres square rendered such British efforts Blitz-proof.

The Germans duplicated these dispersement efforts equally successfully, if much too late in the game --- by pointed contrast the Russians and Americans kept with single huge production 'n' assembly plants : but at inland sites they felt safe from WWII's longest ranging bombers.

ICBMs and nuclear bombs rendered all that moot : goodbye Kansas City as a safe place to build bombers in WWIII.

True, the massive size and complexity of shipyards capable of building battleships and aircraft carriers are not so easily moved about and in addition were so expensive that they could only be a few in number --- even for super-rich nations like America.

But when the non-shipbuilding nation of Canada decided to quickly build a whole lot of ships and yet be safe from any bombing raid, it did so by going down-market in technological complexity.

It beat the Germans (and any possible bombing raids) by focusing instead on building very large numbers of a few very simple merchant ship and escort vessel types.

Thus they could be built at any of about five dozen new shipyards all over Canada --- even in Thunder Bay, a few thousand kilometres from the open sea: redundancy safety plus !

The Russians would understand that sort of thinking --- lots of simple weapons win wars just as well as a few ,very sophisticated, weapons do.

My point is that the Blitz, even if it had gotten much worse, could only be an moderate not fundamental restraint on British war efforts.

Britain during WII was a heavily industrialized nation with the vastest empire even seen to supply the raw resources and manpower to back up that industrial power.

If civilian paper was in short supply during the war (and it definitely was), it wasn't because Britain was poor -- it was because all of its pre-war paper supply was still coming in, but was now diverted to supplying all the bumpf an officious war nation's government could churn out !

Britain was a rich enough nation during WWII to divert the cost of building and maintaining of just one extra squadron of Lancaster bombers to the building instead of several more bottle penicillin plants in early 1943 --- but deliberately chose not to.

If one of the Four Freedoms that Churchill's Conservative party was forced to pretend to publicly accept included the freedom from want of life-saving drugs , a point hit home in the Fall of 1942 by the Beveridge Report, his party chose to deny it in practise.

With existing sulfa drugs failing by the minute (due to bacterial resistance) and with a scientific consensus building by the Fall of 1942 that new anti-bacteria sulfas were unlikely to come along, penicillin was becoming the only , the only , hope for civilians or servicemen dying of blood poisoning.

Surely the most vital of all possible freedoms is the freedom from premature death, but the Churchill government cocked its nose at Beveridge and said 'only enough resources will be diverted from bombers to save just our servicemen with bottle penicillin'.

A-Ha, says the UK historian, says he : a-ha !

Bottle penicillin - we had that and the Yanks had deep tank penicillin - that is why we couldn't match the rich, Blitz-less Americans in penicillin production.

Awkward facts intrude - the British did build a pilot deep tank design very early on  - with the Americans also willing to license their deep tank technology at firesale prices - but it was Churchill's Conservative minister in charge of the all-powerful MoS, the Ministry of Supply (to the army), that said no.

And deep tank efforts hardly explain the very much better penicillin records of both Canada and Australia - because these two nations, definitely not scientific or industrial powers in the early 1940s, also used only bottle plants and yet did far better in penicillin production than Britain, per capita.

(In population Britain was about 1/3 the GDP and population of America and about about 7x the GDP and population of Australia and 5x the population and GDP of Canada.)

True, that on one hand these Dominions weren't Blitzed like the British.

But on the other hand they had hardly gained their current wealth from homegrown science or industry, unlike Britain.

I count their wartime technical and financial difficulties in producing bottle penicillin as about equal to that of the UK.

What was really lacking in the whole penicillin shortfall crisis, was the moral will to correct it among the one nation in the four led by a Conservative party during WWII.

So, in mid 1945, the UK was producing 30 billion units of penicillin a month, Australia 10 billion, Canada 20 billion and America 600 billion.

To match the Australians per capita, the UK should of been producing 70 billion units a month, to match Canada a 100 billion units and America 200 billion units.

In addition, Britain had not permitted its many colonies to start their own penicillin plants, so the actual shortfall in its ability to save the lives of its civilians and soldiers from the UK and all its colonies was much much bigger than even this stark contrast in effort among the Allies.

By 1946, the penicillin shortfall crisis in Britain was over and it was producing more than enough penicillin for everyone at home and in the colonies and was eager to start exporting to foreign lands.

But that was way too late for Churchill's Conservative party who had been fragged-in-the-back by voter concern over unequal access to necessary medical care and voted for Labour in the July 1945 General Election.

Hitler couldn't defeat Churchill but penicillin (the unequal lack of access to it)  had ...

No comments:

Post a Comment