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The Secret History of RDX: The Super-Explosive that Helped Win World War II

by Colin F. Baxter

Availablecloth$45.00s 978-0-8131-7528-7
214 pages  Pubdate: 05/18/2018  5.5 x 8.5  25 b&w photos

During the early years of World War II, American ships crossing the Atlantic with oil and supplies were virtually defenseless against German U-boats. Bombs and torpedoes fitted with TNT barely made a dent in the tough steel plating that covered the hulls of Axis submarines and ships. Then, seemingly overnight, a top-secret, $100 million plant appeared near Kingsport, Tennessee, manufacturing a sugar-white substance called Research Department Explosive (code name RDX). Behind thirty-eight miles of fencing, thousands of men and women synthesized 23,000 tons of RDX each month. Twice as deadly as TNT and overshadowed only by the atomic bomb, this ordnance proved to be pivotal in the Battle of the Atlantic and directly contributed to the Allied victory in WWII.

In The Secret History of RDX, Colin F. Baxter documents the journey of the super-explosive from conceptualization at Woolwich Arsenal in England to mass production at Holston Ordnance Works in east Tennessee. He examines the debates between RDX advocates and their opponents and explores the use of the explosive in the bomber war over Germany, in the naval war in the Atlantic, and as a key element in the trigger device of the atomic bomb.

Drawing on archival records and interviews with individuals who worked at the Kingsport “powder plant” from 1942 to 1945, Baxter illuminates both the explosive’s military significance and its impact on the lives of ordinary Americans involved in the war industry. Much more than a technical account, this study assesses the social and economic impact of the military-industrial complex on small communities on the home front.

Colin F. Baxter is professor emeritus of history at East Tennessee State University and former chair of the Department of History. He is the author of The Normandy Campaign, 1944: A Selected Bibliography; The War in North Africa, 1940–1943: A Selected Bibliography; Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, 1887–1976: A Selected Bibliography; and coeditor of The American Military Tradition from Colonial Times to the Present.

This text offers scholars a compelling sociohistorical account of an often-overlooked yet critical element of modern military technology. -- Choice

As the first and, as far as I know, only study of the development of RDX, this book is very significant in the field of military history. Colin Baxter’s work fills a gap in the historical record and provides a sense of the key role that the explosive played in the Allied victory in World War II. -- Stephen G. Fritz, author of Ostkrieg: Hitler’s War of Extermination in the East

This thoroughly researched and well-written account sheds light on an important subject which has previously received scant attention from scholars. -- David Woodward, author of America and World War I: A Selected Annotated Bibliography of English-Language Sources and World War I Almanac

While the words "World War Two" and "bombs" are inextricably linked, few realise the impact and importance of a new explosive—RDX—to the Allied arsenal during that conflict.  Colin Baxter carefully traces the invention of this substance while also highlighting the importance of Allied co-operation to its development. The story of an explosive might be considered a purely technical subject but Baxter paints a vivid human story of the scientists and engineers who developed the war-winning explosive and the many workers at the Holston Ordinance Works in Tennessee who produced this lethal compound. One of the great secrets of the war is thus revealed in this fascinating and telling book. -- Niall Barr, author of Eisenhower's Armies: The American-British Alliance during World War II