British Logistics – “mechanism of war” II


British generals have sometimes been accused of affording too much attention to the constraints of logistics and thereby letting slip fleeting chances on the battlefield. However, the outstanding fact about British logistics between 1941 and the end of the war was the willingness of senior officers to abandon the pre-war manuals and improvise successfully. The system of supply outlined above was designed to be utilized in temperate climates and in countries with a developed railway and road infrastructure. But long experience of fighting outside Europe and across terrain that lacked both roads and railways had taught the British that improvisation had to be the order of the day and that was exactly what they did in North Africa, where they developed logistical flexibility and improvisation to a high art. The sheer distances involved, combined with wildly fluctuating demands for different kinds of stores and supplies, made reliance upon regular resupply by pack trains from railheads impossible. Before the war Hobart, when he commanded the 7th Armoured division, improvised a new logistical doctrine. It involved the establishment of a series of large dumps, eventually referred to as Field Maintenance Centres, in the forward areas. Each was designed to support a single Corps and was linked to the forward troops by a series of motor convoys. They were first employed successfully during Operation COMPASS. At the start of CRUSADER some FMCs were even secretly established in front of the start lines before the offensive began. The system was so flexible that it became the basis of the army’s maintenance doctrine for the remainder of the war. In Normandy, for example, each corps had its own FMC. A further element of flexibility was introduced in the summer of 1941 when the hitherto rigid distinction between RASC transport companies, each devoted to the carriage of either petrol, ammunition, or supplies, was abolished. Henceforth, most transport companies were organized on a general-purpose basis.

Throughout the war, logistics imposed constraints on the operational freedom of commanders. The ‘stop-go’ nature of much of the fighting in North Africa in 1941–3, where offensives were followed by lengthy pauses, was forced on commanders by the need to prepare the maintenance facilities that they required to sustain their troops in what was, quite literally, a desert. The disaster that overtook 2nd Armoured Division in Cyrenaica in April 1941 was in part caused by the fact that it had no railhead and could not be provided with sufficient motor transport to enable it to build up a sufficient reserve of supplies some 350 miles from the nearest base. After Alamein 1st Armoured Division at the head of the pursuit trying to outflank and cut off the remnants of Rommel’s forces, became immobilized in the desert for lack of petrol. Its supply vehicles were literally bogged down in a desert quagmire created by three days of heavy rain. A larger proportion of four-wheeled drive vehicles might have made a considerable difference. Rommel’s remaining troops were able to continue their own retreat by the simple expedient of keeping to the only metalled road. Even so, the distance that 8th Army advanced, 778 miles from Alamein to Agedabia, at an average of 39 miles per day, between 4 and 23 November, was a remarkable performance. It was made possible only because Montgomery was prepared to ground one of his corps and to use its motor transport to support his remaining troops. Even so, the rate of advance was retarded by poor traffic control that left vital maintenance convoys stuck in traffic jams. Similarly, in the early days of the Normandy campaign, follow-up formations arrived on average two days behind schedule. If the infantry brigade of 7th Armoured Division, 49th Infantry Division and 33rd Armoured Brigade had arrived on schedule in early June, XXX Corps might have been able to secure Villers Bocage by the middle of the month before the arrival of the German Panzers that eventually barred its way. The Germans sometimes suspected that Montgomery had unlimited quantities of artillery ammunition. That was not so. Offensive operations in Normandy were delayed because the planners had underestimated the requirements of field and medium artillery ammunition, whereas the amount of anti-aircraft ammunition landed was far beyond the army’s requirements. One reason why GOODWOOD was preceded by attacks by heavy bombers was that 2nd Army lacked sufficient field artillery ammunition to support its tanks.

The army’s commitment to motorization combined with the logistics staff’s willingness to improvise meant that they were, temporarily and on occasions, able to break free from the umbilical cord of the railway. Without this willingness to throw away the rule book and improvise on a grand scale, offensive operations in the desert, 21 Army Group’s pursuit from the Seine to southern Holland in August and September 1944, or 2nd Army’s 200-mile advance from the Rhine to the Elbe in April 1945 without the benefit of railway logistics, would have been impossible. However, there were limits to the army’s willingness to improvise and gamble with its logistics. The unexpected slowness with which the allies had expanded their bridgehead in Normandy in June and July 1944 gave them plenty of time to build up supply dumps. But, in late August this advantage was lost due to the unexpected speed of their advance. Twenty-one Army Group had not anticipated that the German army would collapse so quickly. They predicted that the Germans would fight a delaying action on the Seine and so give them time to bring forward their supply dumps for the subsequent pursuit. But the British crossed the Seine more quickly than anticipated, advancing some 300 miles between 26 August and 3 September. At this pace, it was impossible for them to repair the railways or to use motor transport to carry out large-scale dumping of supplies behind the continuously advancing front line. Second Army was only able to supply two of its three corps by grounding the third and using all of its transport to supply the remaining two, each of which advanced an average forty miles per day, or twice the expected rate. Montgomery halted Horrocks’s XXX Corps in Brussels because

My transport is based on operating 150 miles from my ports and at present I am over 300 miles from Bayeux. In order to save transport I have cut down my intake into France to 6000 tons a day which is half what I consume and I cannot go on like this.

Horrocks, however, later claimed he had sufficient petrol to continue his advance for another two days. Had he done so might have been able to seize a crossing over the Rhine. But whether he could have continued from there without a lengthy pause is doubtful.

In April 1941 the CIGS, Sir John Dill, wrote to one of his predecessors that

The efficiency of the Bosch (or is it Bosche?) takes some standing up to. I don’t think the Bosche soldier is anything but good & on the whole rather ordinary, but he has the most up-to-date equipment & masses of it. If only we had his tools we could do so much more.

After 1918 British doctrine sought to restore mobility to the battlefield by enhancing the army’s ability to generate overwhelming fire-power. However, many of the weapons it eventually adopted sacrificed firepower to mobility. British troops, therefore, possessed small arms that were in some respects inferior to those issued to the German army. As one British platoon commander remembered, ‘it was my experience that German infantry and armour had far superior firepower to ours. Their guns and mortars could produce a devastating display.’ The infantry, therefore, had to rely on the gunners because their own weapons were not good enough. The development of British tanks and anti-tank guns was the victim of political decisions taken about the strategic role of the army between the wars and the fact that proper development work had to be cut short after Dunkirk by the overwhelming need to get any weapons into the hands of the troops quickly. The same factors also contributed to the fact that it was not until late 1942 that adequate quantities of supplies and equipment finally reached formations in the field. Even after 1942 there were occasions when industry could not meet all of the army’s demands and, in at least two crucial respects, the supply of tanks and motor transport, it would not have been able to meet them at all had it not been for supplies from North America.

The significance of the British army’s willingness to commit so many men and resources to its logistical system can be highlighted if it is contrasted with German practice. The image of the German army of 1939 as a highly mobile motorized and mechanized force is misleading. Like the British, the Germans tried to rely upon rail communications to bring the bulk of their supplies forward. But, unlike the British, experience in Russia and North Africa was to demonstrate that at crucial moments they could not cut loose from the railways. In 1939 the German motor industry was incapable of meeting the army’s needs, with the result that only sixteen of its 103 divisions were fully motorized. Although the remaining divisions each had over 900 vehicles, their troops marched on foot and their supplies were carried in horse-drawn carts. Each infantry division required between 4, 000 and 6,000 horses to pull the carts that transported its supplies from the railhead to the troops.

Behind the propaganda myth, the Germans had produced a semi-modern army, well suited to fulfil the limited objectives of Bismarck and von Moltke, but lacking in the operational reach to fulfil Hitler’s totalitarian objectives. Since the eighteenth century the British army had become habituated to operating overseas far from its bases. Experience had taught it the penalties of neglecting its logistical preparations. In the Second World War, the Germans, by contrast, accorded far less effort to logistical preparations because they were habituated to fighting continental wars across short distances supported by good communications. British generals, and in particular Montgomery, have been frequently criticized because of their habit of waiting until their logistical arrangement were in perfect order before taking the offensive. German generals, and in particular Rommel, have conversely been accorded high praise for their willingness to take risks with their logistics. These criticisms fly in the face of all logic. The German system worked across the short distances involved in fighting in France and Poland and against enemies with an inferior operational doctrine, lacking sufficient air support and handicapped by serious strategic errors. But in Russia, North Africa, and finally in Normandy, the German effort foundered. This was in part because their reach exceeded their logistical grasp. Time and again in North Africa Rommel was able to achieve tactical successes, but lack of transport meant that he could not transform them into operational victories. British offensives may have proceeded at a more stately pace and on occasions the logistical system, even in 1944–5, could not meet all demands placed upon it. But after 1941 major British operations rarely failed because of breakdowns in logistics.

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