British Logistics – “mechanism of war” I




In many respects the British army was equipped with weapons that were inferior to those of their enemies and until late 1942 they often lacked sufficient quantities of essential items. However, the British enjoyed one compensating advantage, their superior ability to provide their troops in the field with supplies and ordnance stores. This fact was fundamental to understanding how the British army was able to generate superior fire-power between 1942 and 1945. Its success in doing so has too often been taken for granted and passed over in silence as if it were inevitable. It was not; it was the result of a deliberate commitment of resources and ingenuity, combined with a willingness to improvise on the basis of existing doctrine.

Once supplies and munitions had been produced, they had to be transported to the troops that needed them. The army’s logistical demands were prodigious. By 1944, an armoured division in North West Europe required 1,000 gallons of petrol to move just one mile. An infantry division consumed 1,300 tons of food each month.180 Throughout the war, the army relied upon railways for logistical maintenance between its bases and a point near to the front line. Railways remained an essential element in British logistics throughout the war. Beginning in December 1940, for example, the British took great pains to extend the Egyptian coast railway from Mersa Matruth, itself 200 miles from the army’s main base at Alexandria. By March 1942, it had reached Capuzzo. In the winter of 1944–5, before the Rhine crossing, great effort was put into repairing the French and Belgian railway systems that had been so carefully bombed by the allied air forces. Railways had a far superior load carrying capacity to that of lorries. A single 10-ton railway wagon could carry 1,960 gallons of petrol in 4-gallon tins, compared to only 640 gallons carried by a 3-ton lorry. In their reliance upon railways as the foundation of their logistical system, the British were no different from the Germans.

However, the British did rely to a far greater extent than the Germans upon motor transport for their logistics support forward from their railheads. This was the result of a deliberate choice made after 1919. The British army was not simply forced into mechanization because of a growing shortage of horses in the civilian economy between the wars. The army interpreted mobility as meaning motorization, and motor transport offered the prospect of increasing the tempo of operations and thereby avoiding a repetition of trench warfare. Senior officers may have been fond of horses, but they recognized that their days were numbered and that mechanical traction could restore mobility to the army in a way that horses never could. Major-General Sir Louis Jackson, the Director of Trench Warfare and Supplies in 1915–18, has been cited as an outstanding example of a dyed-in-the-wool reactionary because in 1919 he dismissed the tank as ‘a freak’. However, the remainder of his lecture was a powerful plea that the army should study ways of organizing its transport on a caterpillar-tracked basis, so that whole divisions could operate independent of all roads. Jackson was not a lone voice. In 1921 the DCIGS, Sir Philip Chetwode, himself a cavalryman, made the development of cross-country mechanical transport for the artillery, divisional ammunition column, and eventually for the infantry, a priority.

Progress towards this goal was retarded by several factors, of which shortage of finance at home was only one, albeit an important one. Under the Cardwell system, units in Britain had to be interchangeable with those in India. In 1921 the General Staff in India was as eager as their British counterparts to replace the horse with mechanical vehicles. As Montgomery-Massingberd, then DCGS in Delhi wrote, ‘Horses are bound soon to be a thing of the past, firstly because the supply will not be sufficient, and secondly because in modern warfare they cannot hope to exist for long, nor can we afford the enormous road space they require.’ But the Indian government’s reluctance to find the necessary funds was a major stumbling block until 1935 when the Army Council finally decided that ‘we ought not to allow the Indian tail to wag the British dog.’

The pace of mechanization was also determined by the available technology. Ideally, mechanized transport had to be mechanically reliable and simple to maintain, to possess at least the same crosscountry capability as horsed traction, and the vehicles adopted had to be suitable for rapid mass production in wartime. Cost alone made it impossible for the army to maintain the massive stockpiles of vehicles it would need following mobilization. This meant that suitable vehicles had to be based upon designs that were in civilian production. It was not until 1934 that some of these obstacles had been overcome. In 1918 wheeled vehicles were largely road-bound because they were fitted with small-section, high-pressure tyres. Between 1923 and 1935 the army experimented with a variety of tracked and half-tracked vehicles in an effort to find something with a suitable cross-country performance. But such vehicles had an inherent drawback. As there was little civilian demand for them, production of large numbers quickly in wartime would be expensive, as it would be difficult to convert existing civilian factories to make them.

These experiments with tracked and half-tracked vehicles ended when it became apparent that wheeled vehicles had been developed that were cheap to mass-produce, easy to maintain, and had adequate crosscountry performance. Working in conjunction with civilian manufacturers, in the late 1920s the RASC developed wheeled vehicles fitted with large-cross-section, low-pressure pneumatic tyres whose crosscountry performance was almost as good as half-tracked vehicles. In 1934 Montgomery-Massingberd ordered the wholesale mechanization of the artillery and first-line transport of the infantry on this basis. Beginning in 1936 each infantry platoon was issued with a 15-cwt. four-wheeled truck fitted with low-pressure pneumatic tyres and able to carry all of its weapons, equipment, packs, and greatcoats. As it was based on an existing commercial design, it could be easily and cheaply mass-produced. Sufficient reserve companies of motor transport were also to be provided to lift one infantry brigade in every division. By late 1938 the British army had only 5,200 horses in service, compared to the 28,700 it had possessed on the eve of the First World War.

The decision to rely upon modified civilian designs did have some drawbacks. Most of the vehicles were mechanically reliable, but many of them had only two-wheeled drive and their speed and load-carrying capacity compared unfavourably with many of the American-manufactured vehicles the army received under Lend-Lease.193 This was the consequence of a tax regime that encouraged civilian manufacturers in Britain to produce light trucks with small engines. The Americans did not suffer from similar constraints and they were able to produce an excellent all-round vehicle, the two-and-a-half ton lorry, that British commanders thought superior to anything they possessed. American maintenance problems were also eased because, unlike the British, they used the same vehicle as a load carrier and a prime mover for their artillery. Industrial constraints also handicapped the army in other ways. Armoured units in the desert suffered because the Ministry of Supply, in an effort to maximize the output of vehicles, failed to produce enough spare parts. In January 1942, for example, the Support Group of 1st Armoured division had to abandon many of its trucks near Benghazi because they had not been issued with sufficient spares to repair them. The delivery of supplies of petrol and water was immensely hampered because they were carried in flimsy kerosene tins with the result that a great deal of their contents was lost through leakage. The far sturdier German ‘jerricans’ were much coveted by British troops.

During the Second World War, the British army relied entirely upon motor transport both within divisions and to bridge the gap between divisional depots and railheads. Between 1940 and 1944 the army received over 1 million wheeled vehicles of all types. By October 1943, each infantry division in Italy possessed 3,745 motor vehicles of all kinds, including 951 motor cycles. This conferred both benefits and drawbacks. It provided the British with an extra margin of tactical and strategic mobility that the German army did not enjoy. However, it also meant that the British had to devote a high proportion of their best men to maintaining their arsenal of vehicles and equipment. In 1935 the DSD calculated that every motor vehicle added to the army’s inventory required one and a half drivers and one mechanic to be added to the maintenance echelon. Consequently, whereas 74 per cent of soldiers in 1914 had been in fighting echelons, the number had now dropped to 58 per cent. The relationship between men in fighting units and those in supply units—the ‘teeth to tail’ ratio’—was a constant irritant to Churchill. In March 1940 he ‘poked fun at the vast requirements in the back areas of the B.E.F. He said that our Expeditionary Force, instead of being a steel-capped spear was becoming a pin on the end of an enormous scaffold pole—and other observations in the same vein.’ By January 1941 the General Staff calculated that each division of approximately 18,000 in the Middle East needed a ‘divisional slice’ of 41,000 men, when account was taken of the supply and maintenance units required to keep it in the field. The best figures they had for the German army suggested that they required only 30,000 men to keep one of their divisions in the field. The General Staff’s justification for this was twofold. Not only did the British have to sustain their forces in often under-developed countries at the end of lengthy sea-lanes, but that it was the inevitable product of mechanization.

It was, therefore essential to make the most economical use of maintenance personnel. This became even more urgent in late 1941, as complaints mounted about large-scale waste of skilled mechanics at home and as troops in the field were comparing their own repair and recovery organization unfavourably with the Germans’. The problem was compounded because responsibility for repairs was divided. As the largest user of motor transport, the RASC was responsible for repairing its own breakdowns, while the RAOC repaired vehicles belonging to all other arms of the service. By late 1941 workshops in Britain and North Africa were seriously overloaded with a backlog of repairs, even though only a fraction of the army was in action. In February 1942, the War Office therefore agreed to optimize the available skilled labour by merging the RASC’s and RAOC’s repair organizations together with some RE personnel into a new corps, the REME. It was officially established in October 1942.207 First-line maintenance personnel, however, remained part of their own unit and were not transferred to the REME.208 But even this did little to check the growth of the tail compared to the teeth. In Normandy service and administrative duties absorbed 44 per cent of the army.

This was entirely consonant with the priority the army gave to logistics. Montgomery was not peculiar amongst British generals in allowing his operational plans to be subordinated to logistical practicalities. Even before 1914 British staff officers had been taught to afford primacy to questions of supply and transport. The experience of the war on the Western Front only reinforced the lesson that a properly organized administrative infrastructure was the first essential for success in battle. Sir Archibald Wavell gave a flavour of the importance that senior British officers afforded logistics in a lecture he delivered in 1939. A successful general, he insisted, must have

what the French call les sens du praticable, and we call common sense, knowledge of what is and what is not possible. It must be based on a really sound knowledge of the “mechanism of war”, i.e. topography, movement, and supply. These are the real foundations of military knowledge, not strategy and tactics as most people think.

Before 1939 British logistical doctrine was based on pack trains. Once supplies and ordnance stores had been landed by sea at an overseas base, they were moved forward by rail to a railhead where they were loaded onto motor supply columns. These carried them forward to delivery points, from where they were distributed to units. The system was intended to operate as a conveyor belt to obviate the need to build up large supply dumps dangerously close to the front line where they might easily be captured. The main drawback of this system was that it tied troops closely to their railhead. Each motor supply column was designed to work over a distance of no more than forty miles between the railhead and the delivery point, although for brief periods it might be possible to double that distance.

Early in the war British operations were characterized by large-scale logistical failures. Operations in Norway were seriously hampered because the landings were mounted before a proper administrative reconnaissance had been conducted of the base areas that commanders had chosen. Units were loaded into different ships with the result that when operational plans were changed at the last minute, men were landed at one place and their transport and stores at another. In France the BEF had ample time to create a logistical infrastructure in accordance with accepted pre-war doctrine. Many of its base facilities were established south of the Somme and in the west of France between Nantes-Rennes and Brest, to minimize the possibility of destruction by German air attacks. By 10 May 1940, the BEF had amassed reserves of supplies and petrol for sixty days and ammunition for forty-five days. However, apart from stocks held by units and seven days’ worth of supplies held in field supply depots north of the Somme, most of these supplies were held in the base depots south of the river. This was not a problem during the advance to the Dyle. The Luftwaffe concentrated its air attacks on the major road and rail junctions behind the BEF, but the QMG moved supplies forward using minor stations as railheads. However, by 21 May communications across the Somme had been severed, thus cutting the BEF off from its main supply bases. By 1 June most units were living off their own stocks and what they could scrounge from abandoned trucks or trains or loot from civilians. Some formations did this on a grand scale. Montgomery’s 3rd division rounded up several herds of cattle to supplement their rations while some units of 42nd division were issued with tinned lobster requisitioned from a shop in Lille. In part, the BEF was defeated because its logistical system, like its C3I system, was insufficiently flexible to respond to the pace of the German offensive.


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