Monty’s Army: Alam Halfa to the Rhine III

At the operational level, several factors degraded the effectiveness and reduced the tempo of British combined arms operations. Because attacks were usually mounted on narrow fronts, troops had little room for manoeuvre. They had to assault frontally, and consequently the Germans had only to move reinforcements to seal off a relatively narrow penetration. In one extreme case at the start of Operation BLUECOAT in Normandy on 30 July 1944, XXX Corps’s axis of advance was a single track that was unsuitable for its tanks, and a single road that it shared with VIII Corps. It was, therefore, hardly surprising that the two German divisions holding the threatened sector quickly stalled the British advance. Secondly, unless there were overwhelming operational needs, commanders never mounted a major operation without first ensuring that their maintenance was adequate to sustain the operation. Montgomery believed that the limits of what was operationally possible were set by the limits of what was logistically possible. The German experience suggests that he was right. They concentrated on the tactical aspects of operations to the neglect of logistics, and in North Africa and Normandy they eventually paid a heavy price for doing so. In both theatres the final collapse of the German position owed a great deal to the prior collapse of their logistical support. Thirdly, Montgomery was reluctant to let fluid operations develop. They did not permit the careful planning and control that characterized his approach to battle management. After Alamein, he therefore ‘gave precise instructions to Lumsden about the development of operations for the pursuit to Agheila, and kept a firm hand on the battle to ensure the master plan was not “mucked about” by subordinate commanders having ideas inconsistent with it’. One of his divisional commanders believed that the cause of his lackadaisical pursuit of Rommel after Alamein was his unwillingness to risk a failure. But before Montgomery is dismissed as being hopelessly cautious, it is as well to examine his conduct of the pursuit from the Seine to Brussels. In twelve days, his armoured regiments travelled an average of 26 miles each day.146 In 1940, by contrast, the German Panzers only managed an average of 21 miles per day between crossing the Meuse and reaching the Channel coast. Moreover, Montgomery’s caution ensured that the Germans were never able to mount the kind of riposte against his troops that Rommel had inflicted so successfully on the British in North Africa in 1941–2.

Despite the undoubted improvements made in British C3I since Dunkirk, in February 1944 Alexander still believed that British (and American) battle procedures were too slow compared to those of the German army. There were several reasons for this. The command and control procedures of formations that had spent most of the war in the UK often lagged behind those that had honed them on the battlefield. As late as February 1944, the staff of VIII Corps still issued lengthy written orders for an attack when what was really necessary was for the CCRA to issue map tracings to his gunners and the Corps commander to visit his divisional commanders to explain his orders in person. Even in Normandy, the wireless link between the Corps’s HQ and its divisions operated too slowly because it was usually manned only by a signaller, rather than by a staff officer. Despite improvements in signal security, intercepted wireless messages remained one of the German army’s most valuable sources of intelligence. Major-General von Broich, GOC 10th Panzer Division in Tunisia, for example, received ample warning about British air attacks by listening in to conversations between ground controllers and aircraft.

The army also suffered because its pre-war training system had not prepared enough middle-ranking officers to jump several ranks in rapid succession to become formation commanders. Pre-war staff trained officers were spread very thinly in the army by 1944. In 7th Armoured division in September 1944, for example, there were only nine pre-war pscs in the entire division—the divisional commander, his infantry brigade and armoured brigade commanders, his signals officer, four regimental or battalion commanders, and a squadron commander. Some commanders had not really understood that their job was to issue clearly defined orders. Major-General R. K. Ross, GOC of 53rd (Welsh) division, ran orders groups in 1944 that resembled ‘councils of war, rather than occasions when clear and definite orders reflected the grip of the commander on the situation’. As Harding admitted in September 1944, ‘Many Division and Corps Commanders have failed, and involved casualties because

[they were]

not trained for such commands.’

Senior officers themselves also continued to pay the penalty for leading from the front. In January 1943 Harding, then commanding 7th Armoured division, was so seriously wounded that he had to be evacuated, although he recovered sufficiently to resume his active career. Others were not so fortunate. In May 1943 Major-General E. G. Miles, GOC 56th division, was so seriously wounded while reconnoitring that he had to be replaced. Three days after landing in southern Italy, G. F. Hopkinson, GOC 1st Airborne division, was killed by a German machine-gunner. In 1944 two divisional commanders in Italy, W. R. Penny (GOC of 1st Division) and G. W. R. Templer (GOC 6th Armoured division) were both wounded by mines. In North West Europe, divisional commanders continued to be at risk. In June 1944 Major-General T. G. Rennie (GOC 3rd division) was wounded in Normandy. He returned to command of 51st Highland division, only to be killed crossing the Rhine in March 1945.

But it was at the tactical level that British combined arms operations were found most wanting, and where the army’s shortcomings did most to reduce the tempo of its operations. Alamein had shown that infantry unsupported by tanks could take their objectives, provided they attacked at night and had plenty of artillery support. Thereafter, units typically only ever attacked behind heavy artillery support. By 1943, infantry were taught to advance close behind the barrage so they arrived on top of the German positions within two minutes of the barrage lifting, and before the neutralizing impact of the artillery had dissipated and the Germans were ready to fight back.

There were plenty of occasions when successful co-operation was achieved between all three arms. In ideal circumstances, infantry operated with tanks and artillery with which they had trained. The attack was methodically planned, all arms had a chance to rehearse their part in it, and then had time to ‘marry up’ with their supporting arms. Units that worked together on a regular basis could develop a close camaraderie. The 1st Gordon Highlanders of 51st Highland division, and a squadron of the Northants Yeomanry of 33rd Armoured Brigade, co-operated so frequently between Normandy and the Rhine crossing that the latter ‘look on themselves as being almost Gordon Highlanders’. On 16 June 1944, 49th division carried out an almost textbook combined arms attack. Operating in conjunction with a squadron of Shermans and with the support of seven field and four medium regiments, one of its battalions captured the village of Crisot, held by 12 SS Panzer Division at a cost of only three killed and twenty-four wounded. In the bocage, where visibility was often limited by high banks and hedges to only 150 yards, by August 1944 tanks and infantry developed a drill to reduce their losses that impressed even the Germans. One or two squadrons of tanks supported the leading battalion. It advanced with two companies forward, using a road as its centre line. Each company had a single platoon as its spearhead, and it was supported by a troop of four tanks. The two leading tanks covered the infantry as they advanced to the next hedge, and were themselves covered by the rest of the troop. The infantry reconnoitred one field ahead of the tanks and one field outward to their flank. In this fashion infantry and tanks moved slowly forward by bounds from one hedgerow to the next.

But the army’s reliance upon heavy fire-support undoubtedly decreased the tempo of its operations. Faced by an enemy in a prepared position, battalion commanders were told that ‘time is then required to “soften” the defences, to make preparations for the attack, and to apply a heavy methodical programme of bombardment to blast a path that their troops can take with the least loss to themselves’. Fire-support could so crater the terrain that ground forces often found their way forward blocked. The availability of heavy artillery support encouraged junior leaders to rely increasingly on the gunners to blast a way through for them. By the Sicilian campaign, infantry units had slipped into the habit, when they encountered resistance, of halting and calling down artillery support, rather than trying to outflank the enemy or fight their way forward with their own weapons. Infantry battalions in North West Europe, faced by stiff German opposition, advanced on average between 380–525 yards per hour in daylight and 305–420 yards at night. The mountainous terrain meant that distances covered were even less in Italy. Such a slow rate of advance allowed the Germans to move up reserves to block the advance or to slip away unmolested. The British also sometimes failed to reap the full benefits of carpet bombing by heavy bombers because fear of ‘shorts’ caused them to pull back their foremost troops before the bombing occurred. The result was that the infantry were slow to follow up the bombers and the Germans were given sufficient time to recover their composure and man their defences.

The willingness of the infantry to move forward rapidly was essential, for the gunners could not win battles on their own. Against troops who were well dug-in, even massive concentrations of artillery killed or wounded remarkably few enemy soldiers. Men under cover were almost immune from anything other than a direct hit and calculations in Italy showed that only 3 per cent of field artillery shells actually fell into a trench. In September 1944, a field and a medium regiment fired nearly 500 shells over a thirty-minute period at a small German strong point near San Martino in Gattara. The strong point consisted of four weapons pits containing machine-guns and three other slit trenches, all sited within a 50-yard radius of each other. When the infantry advanced, they approached within 40 yards of their objective before the Germans opened fire and stopped them. The (literally) fatal mistake the infantry had committed was to wait fifteen minutes between the end of the bombardment and arriving on their objective.

The main effect of artillery was not to kill the enemy, but to degrade their morale. German soldiers defending the beaches in Normandy on 6 June 1944 reported that the ‘drum fire inspired in the defenders a feeling of utter helplessness, which in the case of inexperienced recruits caused fainting or indeed complete paralysis. Their instinct of self-preservation drove their duty as soldiers, to fight and destroy the enemy, completely out of their minds.’ Later in the month Gefreiter J. Seibt wrote in his diary

I am writing my war adventures in a dug-out approximately 50 metres away from Tommy. It is a dark, foggy and cold day, and the clothes from yesterday are not dry yet. The frame of mind of all of us is miserable and the only thought is always: “How will this all end?” Everyone is absolutely fed up. Yes, that is due to the enemy artillery, which fired yesterday without a break. Today one hears the fire in intervals of minutes, but it was not so calm, particularly the drum fire. I don’t know how long this will last. I also don’t know whether today is the 24th, 25th or 26th or 27th of June. My watch was already knocked out of action during the first hour of the operation. Time, however, is not money here. One dare not stick one’s head out of the dug-out, as otherwise one stops a bullet immediately. The only salvation is death.

Experiments conducted in Britain, information gathered from battles from Alamein onwards and POW interrogation reports suggested that soldiers under continuous shellfire reached the limits of their psychological endurance after between two and four hours of shelling. The crucial factor in undermining the enemy’s morale was not the weight of individual shells but their number, and for that task field guns were better suited than medium or heavy artillery. Some formations, notably 43rd division, recognized the implications of this, and from Normandy onwards began to employ ‘pepper-pot’ tactics. At the start of an attack every weapon under the division’s command, including not only its field guns and mortars, but also its light anti-aircraft guns, anti-tank guns, and medium machine-guns bombarded the enemy’s positions in an effort to demoralize the defenders. By early 1945 such tactics were being employed on a grand scale. During the opening stages of Operation VERITABLE, the fire-power of XXX Corps 1050 artillery pieces was supplemented by 114 Bofors light anti-aircraft guns, 80 medium mortars, 60 Sherman tanks, 24 17-pdr. anti-tank guns, and 188 medium machine-guns.

British commanders were slow to adjust their fire-plans to take account of the ways in which the Germans deployed their defending forces. The most common reason why attacks stalled was because they encountered unlocated German defences echeloned in depth beyond the range of their own artillery support. In Normandy the bocage made it extremely difficult for the gunners to locate their targets. 21 Army Group’s fire-plans tended to devastate the foremost German-defended positions, but to leave the main line of resistance relatively unscathed. GOODWOOD failed because, although the initial British bombardment devastated the first German gun line and enabled VIII Corps’s tanks to advance 4,000 yards, a second line some 3,000 yards behind it remained intact. The first formation to recognize and try to overcome this problem was II Canadian Corps, in operation TOTALIZE in August 1944. The Canadians devised a fire-plan to co-ordinate the work of artillery, heavy-bombers, and fighter-bombers to neutralize both the German defence lines blocking their advance.

It was not until the middle of the Normandy campaign that the army finally abandoned the last remnants of its pre-war conviction that tanks and infantry within armoured divisions could and should operate separately. By Alamein the British accepted that each armoured division needed a whole lorried infantry brigade, but until Normandy they remained committed to the idea that armoured and infantry brigades should fight separate, albeit co-ordinated actions. The tanks’ role was to forge ahead when the terrain was suitable, destroying the enemy’s armoured and unarmoured forces and dislocating his lines of communication by deep penetrations or flank attacks. The infantry’s function was to cover the advance of the tanks in close country, to mop up and hold ground taken by the tanks, and to form a secure pivot around which they could manoeuvre. In the close country of Tunisia and Italy, the two brigades usually tried to work closely together, one advancing close behind the other. But combined attacks by both the armoured and lorried infantry brigades were deprecated because they required exceptional co-ordination and left the divisional commander without any reserves. The role of the divisional artillery was to neutralize or destroy hostile anti-tank guns to enable the tanks to advance unhindered. To help them do so, by late 1942 most armoured divisions had a regiment of self-propelled guns attached to its armoured brigade. Von Thoma attributed Rommel’s defeat at Alamein to the fact that the British gunners destroyed half of his anti-tank guns. It was an indication of how dependent armour had become on artillery that during the North West European campaign 11th Armoured Division expended only 50,764 rounds of tank gun ammunition but 508,720 rounds of 25-pdr. ammunition.

It took the defeat of 22nd Armoured Brigade at Villers Bocage and the abortive advance of the armoured divisions of VIII Corps during GOODWOOD before armoured commanders recognized that tanks and infantry had to operate on a far more intimate basis if they were to overcome the dense anti-tank defences that the Germans prepared in North West Europe. After GOODWOOD, on O’Connor’s initiative, 11th and Guards Armoured divisions did reorganize themselves more flexibly. In close country, they operated in four regimental groups. One armoured regiment married up with a lorried infantry battalion, while the division’s armoured reconnaissance regiment operated with the armoured brigade’s motor battalion. Henceforth, infantry actually rode on the backs of the tanks so that they could give instant support to the armour.

But there were also many occasions when co-operation broke down, sometimes with costly results. There were several common causes of failure. Sometimes the attacking troops failed to carry out a proper reconnaissance of enemy defences. On 23 April 1943, 2nd Infantry Brigade (1st division), supported by two squadrons of Churchills from 142nd RAC, failed to hold the gains it had made on Gueriat ridge in Tunisia because a line of unlocated anti-tank guns knocked out several of its supporting tanks and the Germans were able to mount a rapid counter-attack. Sometimes fire-plans were inadequate. At Salerno a battalion attack failed because the artillery fire-plan had failed to provide for a reserve of guns to deal quickly with flanking machine-gun fire. Sometimes units were thrown into an attack without sufficient time to ‘marry up’. In July 1944 in Normandy, two companies of 4th Welch (53rd Welch Division) suffered sixty-seven casualties when they raided the village of Esquay in part because their supporting Churchill tanks arrived late at their rendezvous. The infantry commander had blithely assumed that they would be able ‘to appear from out of the blue after the inf[antry] had advanced 900 yds and join smoothly in the attack’.

Perhaps the most common cause of failures in combined arms operations was communications breakdown. The Royal Corps of Signals was responsible for providing communications down to unit level. But communications within each unit were provided by the unit itself. This was one reason why the weakest link in the army’s communication system remained the infantry battalion. At the end of the Tunisian campaign, Anderson decided that ‘The question of forward infantry communications required special study. Practically no progress has been made since the last war.’ Even during training, commanders of artillery and armoured regiments realized that their success depended on the efficiency of their signallers. But infantry commanders could carry on without any form of electrical communications by relying on welltrained runners.

The result, according to one staff officer, was that ‘The biggest clot in a battalion was made the Signal Officer’. The infantry were also handicapped because they had to wait longer than other arms of service for sufficient radio equipment, and the sets they did receive were too heavy and operated on frequencies that were particularly susceptible to interference. Their problems were made even worse by difficulties in providing sufficient batteries and replacement signallers. The result, according to the commander of an infantry training centre in the Middle East in 1943, was that ‘The standard of r/t procedure is appallingly low’. Communications between infantry and their supporting tanks remained an unresolved problem from Alamein to the end of the war. When infantry and armoured units had the opportunity to train together before a battle, their communications were usually satisfactory. When they did not, they invariably broke down. This placed serious constraints on the infantry’s tactical flexibility. They went into battle expecting that their communications would collapse and ‘The result is that the plan had to be too rigid, and once troops are committed it is impossible for them to adjust themselves to the enemy’s reactions’.

Infantry that were closely supported by tanks and artillery usually found it comparatively easy to arrive on their objective, albeit often very slowly. But they also had to be able to hold it. Units that had studied German tactics knew they had to prepare to meet a swift counter-attack. Shortly after landing in Normandy, for example, a company of 10th Parachute battalion repulsed a German counter-attack by directing the fire of two field regiments onto the German troops as they formed up. They then allowed the survivors to approach their positions before opening rapid fire at short range with their own small arms and mortars. On 8 July 1944, Lieutenant Ranzinger of 21st Panzer division, recorded that the previous day a counter-attack east of Caen by infantry and tanks of his division was quickly stopped by a combination of ‘Murderous art[iller]y and mortar fire’ and infantry small arms fire. But British units that had not prepared to meet a swift German counterattack and had not practised a drill to consolidate their gains rapidly and bring forward anti-tank guns and other heavy support weapons, were frequently driven off their gains. On 18 June 1944, despite the support of several medium and seven field regiments, an attack mounted by 231st Infantry brigade was driven out of the village of Hottot in Normandy when German infantry infiltrated between its two leading battalions and German tanks attacked them from the front.

Failures such as these suggest that even commanders as determined and energetic as Montgomery and Horrocks could not overcome that combination of weariness and sheer human inertia that overtook many units and formations coming out of battle and force them to begin training for the next one. After the occupation of Sicily, 50th division congratulated itself that, despite its inability to get behind and cut off the German rearguards that had opposed it, the division did not require any special training in operating in close country. Time devoted to training was not always spent appropriately. In anticipation of a swift advance inland from the beaches, before D-Day 7th Armoured division trained almost exclusively for rapid, mobile exploitation operations, whereas they would have done better to work on effecting better infantry-tank co-operation. A few weeks after the landing a tank troop commander in 24th Lancers noted in his diary ‘In the afternoon all Officers are summoned to a lecture in a nearby field, given by Major Bourne, 21C of the 3rd R.T.R., who has apparently had quite a lot of experience of fighting in this class of country. It is a warm day, and a lot of drowsy Officers pay scant attention to this important advice . . .’.

In December 1943 the DMT at 15 Army Group in Italy circulated, with Alexander’s endorsement, a report on recent operations that concluded

Our tactical methods are thorough and methodical but slow and cumbersome. In consequence our troops fight well in defence and our set-piece attacks are usually successful, but it is not unfair to say that through lack of enterprise in exploitation we seldom reap the full benefit of them. We are too flank-conscious, we over-insure administratively, we are by nature too apprehensive of failure and our training makes us more so.

It was, in fact, a remarkably candid and generally accurate assessment of the operational and tactical capability of the army. It omitted only one salient fact. This system served the British army’s needs remarkably well. It delivered victory at an acceptable cost in human terms and without breaking the morale of front line units. The British army did not win its battles from Alam Halfa to the Rhine by the simple application of ‘brute force’ and a reversion to the methods of 1918. From the autumn of 1942 onwards, division for division, the British did enjoy a quantitative superiority in weapons and munitions. This was the product of three factors: their own factories were finally coming on full-stream; supplies were being delivered in growing quantities from the USA; and the bulk of the German army was being bled white in Russia. However, commanders in North Africa before Alamein had also enjoyed this superiority and had shown that they did not know how to exploit it. Furthermore, their quantitative superiority was to some extent offset by the qualitative inferiority of many of their weapons. Within a doctrine that continued to constrain the initiative of subordinate commanders, they developed more efficient C31 systems and new operational and tactical methods. The key to the British army’s success from Alam Halfa onwards was that they had discovered how to employ the weapons they possessed in such a way as to exploit their opponent’s weaknesses.

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