Origins of the Wolf Pack

Hitler seized upon the Anglo-French guarantees to Poland as a pretext for abrogating the Anglo-German Naval Treaty. He did so publicly, in a sarcastic speech to the Reichstag on April 28 1939. Soon thereafter the Kriegsmarine laid the keels for the two super-battleships, Bismarck and Tirpitz. Despite these provocations and the public indignation and the stepped-up military preparations in Great Britain, Hitler continued to assert to his Nazi cohorts that neither Great Britain nor France would fight for Poland. Believing Hitler would pull another political rabbit out of his hat, Raeder naively—and irresponsibly—assured the Kriegsmarine that there would be no war with Great Britain.

Karl Dönitz was more convinced than ever that the opposite was the case. He believed that the “high state of tension” which Hitler had created between Great Britain and Germany could explode “into actual hostilities at any moment.” He therefore pleaded with Raeder and the OKM to approve a rapid increase in U-boat orders, with a major emphasis on Type VIIs, and to authorize theretofore prohibited U-boat exercises in the Atlantic Ocean. He got nowhere with his pleas for an increase in U-boat orders—the available shipyards were already jammed—but Raeder did permit the Atlantic exercises.

These exercises culminated in May 1939 with group or “wolf pack” attacks against a simulated convoy, composed of some Kriegsmarine vessels assigned to the annual fleet cruise to Lisbon and the western Mediterranean. A total of fifteen VIIs and IXs from the Salzwedel, Wegener, and Hundius flotillas participated. The “convoy” consisted of four German surface ships: a tanker, a freighter, Dönitz’s “command ship,” Erwin Wassner, and the Flotilla Salzwedel tender, Saar—the latter two vessels alternating as targets and defending escorts.

The fifteen U-boats deployed in five packs of three boats along a patrol line several hundred miles long. One pack quickly “found” the “convoy” and radioed a contact report to the other boats. In spite of clever evasive and defensive measures by the convoy—and extremely foul weather—the other boats converged on the target and attacked it relentlessly for over forty-eight hours, May 12 to 14. At the end of the exercise, thirteen of the fifteen boats converged for the final “kill.”

The exercise was wholly artificial and weighted to favor the U-boats. There were serious lapses in communications and tracking and gross errors in position reporting. Nonetheless, Dönitz could not have been more pleased. In a lengthy after-action critique, he concluded that the “principle of fighting a convoy of several steamers with several U-boats” was “correct” and that “the convoy would have been destroyed.” His group or “wolf pack” concept was therefore a sound one for defeating Great Britain; he renewed his pleas to Raeder for a step-up in the construction of Type VIIs.

Absorbed in the grandiose Z Plan, the OKM emphatically disagreed with Dönitz. The senior submarine planner at the OKM, Werner Fürbringer, a rear admiral and an assistant to Raeder’s chief of staff, Otto Schniewind, framed the response. “At the present moment,” Fürbringer wrote, “U-boat blockade of England has very little prospect of success for Germany. Any contradictory opinion, which takes comfort in the large number of our U-boats or in the idea that the English U-boat defense will not be effective far out in the Atlantic, can be dismissed as misleading” and, furthermore, it would be “irresponsible to commit the valuable U-boat crews” to such a war. “It can be taken as proven,” Fürbringer went on, “that every English convoy, no matter whether it operates along the coast or on the high seas, will be secured by defensive forces, fully capable of destroying with certainty any attacking U-boat, even under the surface.” In support of has argument, Fürbringer stressed the effectiveness of British sonar and predicted that the British would again resort to defensive minefields, which had been so deadly effective against U-boats in World War I. Until U-boats could be made “sonar-immune,” it was pointless to even consider starting a U-boat campaign against British commerce.

The Fürbringer paper dismayed and enraged Dönitz. In response he drafted a reply for Fürbringer’s superior, Otto Schniewind, vigorously rebutting Fürbringer’s arguments point by point. Going a step beyond—a large and career-risking step—he communicated his arguments directly and emphatically to Raeder, and asked that Raeder in turn place his views “before Hitler.” Hitler’s response, relayed to Dönitz through Raeder, was, as Dönitz remembered it, that “he would ensure that in no circumstances would war with Great Britain come about. For that would mean finis Germaniae. The officers of the U-boat arm had no cause to worry.”


By the time Dönitz was ready to launch the second wave of U-boats to the Atlantic in early October, the Allies had organized most merchant shipping into convoys. Composed of thirty to forty ships, the majority of the convoys arrived and departed the British Isles through the Western Approaches. The heaviest convoy traffic ran across the North Atlantic between the British Isles and the strategically situated British colony of Newfoundland and its neighbor, the Canadian maritime province of Nova Scotia.

By October 1939, the North Atlantic convoy system was fully in place. On the western end, the port of Halifax, Nova Scotia, was the gathering place. All ships bound for the British Isles that cruised between 9 and 15 knots had to join convoys. There were two types of convoys: Halifax Fast (designated HX-F), composed of ships that cruised at 12 to 15 knots; and Halifax Slow (HX), composed of ships that cruised at 9 to 12 knots. Ships that cruised at speeds over 15 knots (considered too fast to be vulnerable to U-boats) were allowed to proceed alone, as were ships that cruised at less than 9 knots (considered too slow and not valuable enough to warrant the holdup of faster ships).

On the eastern end, the British Isles, departing convoys were categorized as Outbound. Those convoys bound for Halifax or elsewhere in the western hemisphere (the reverse of the Halifax convoys), composed mostly of ships in ballast, were designated Outbound B or OB. Some ships in OB convoys peeled away after some days of travel and went due south down the mid-Atlantic to ports in West Africa. Ships outbound from the British Isles that cruised faster than 15 knots or slower than 9 knots were also exempt from convoys.* Most North Atlantic convoys were escorted only during part of the voyage. The inexperienced and small Royal Canadian Navy (six destroyers) and the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) provided escort on the western end, going east several hundred miles with eastbound convoys and returning with westbound convoys. British and French surface ships and aircraft provided escort on the eastern end for Outbound convoys in a similar manner for a like distance. The important Halifax Fast convoys were escorted all the way across to the British Isles by Royal Navy capital ships (battleships, carriers) and their destroyer screens, or by cruisers. But only reluctantly. The long transatlantic voyage was very hard on these warships. The old destroyers assigned to this task (V and W class) could not cross the Atlantic without refueling, and the Royal Navy had not fully mastered ocean refueling. The modern destroyers could just barely make it across in heavy weather, which was the usual condition. Convoy escort was “defensive,” tedious, and boring for sailors trained to attack big German ships in complex fleet actions.

The Germans possessed a fairly accurate picture of Allied maritime traffic. During the 1935 crisis in the Mediterranean, when Italy invaded Abyssinia (Ethiopia), the Kriegsmarine codebreaking unit B-dienst (later directed by Heinz Bonatz) had broken the Royal Navy’s old-fashioned (nonmachine) operational codes and, later, the nonsecure British merchant marine code. From the outset of the war, B-dienst codebreakers had supplied the OKM with current information on the movements of most British capital ships and other naval formations as well as convoy routing and rendezvous points for the convoy escorts.

In the initial U-boat offensive the OKM had deployed the Atlantic boats to individual patrol zones before the convoys had formed. Almost all of the merchant ships they sank had been sailing alone. Now that convoying was in full swing, Dönitz believed the time was ripe to initiate his group (or “wolf pack”) tactics. The packs were to capitalize on convoy information provided by the codebreakers in B-dienst.

Dönitz planned to deploy two packs in October, composed of the ten boats he had recalled earlier: five Type VIIBs of the Wegener Flotilla and five Type IXs of the Hundius Flotilla. But that plan went awry. Five of the ten boats were unavailable: U-47 (assigned to the Scapa Flow mission) and U-52 (undergoing major repairs), U-38 (assigned to a special mission to Murmansk), U-39 (lost), and U-41 (undergoing major repairs).

The upshot was that Dönitz could mount only one pack, composed of six boats of an unwieldy mixture of types, from two different flotillas, which had not before exercised as a group: three VIIBs, U-45, U-47, U-48, and three IXs, U-37, U-40, and the U-42, the latter brand-new and rushed into service before completing a full workup. The senior officer, Hundius Flotilla commander Werner Hartmann, age thirty-seven, who had taken command of U-37, was to tactically direct the pack at sea.

Five of the six boats sailed independently into stormy, cold North Sea weather in the first week of October, going northabout the British Isles. Wrongly believing the Allies had not yet mined the English Channel, Dönitz ordered the last boat, U-40, a Type IX making its second patrol, with a new skipper, Wolfgang Barten, age thirty, to go by way of the channel to save time and catch up with the others.

While these boats were en route to the Atlantic, Hitler, poised to attack France (or so he thought), removed another important restriction on the U-boats. Commencing October 4, U-boats were permitted to sink on sight and without warning any blacked-out ship (including a neutral ship) sailing close to the British Isles in the Atlantic or North Sea and the French Atlantic coast. Dönitz and his skippers cheered this news, but to minimize charges of barbarism and inhumanity, Hitler had added a caveat: U-boats were still required to “save the crew” of any ship they sank if that could be done “without endangering” the U-boat.

Rushing to catch up with the other boats, U-40 ran at full speed through the English Channel on the surface. In the early hours of October 13, she hit a mine in the Dover-Cape Gris-Nez field. The boat blew up and sank immediately in 115 feet of water. Presumably, all hands on the bridge and in the forward compartments were killed instantly. But the watertight door in the stern room had been closed and as a result, nine enlisted men in that compartment survived the explosion and sinking. When they recovered from shock and ascertained what had occurred, the senior man, Otto Winkler, age twenty-one, organized an escape through the after deck hatch, which had a skirt for that purpose. After eating some biscuits, the men strapped on oxygen apparatus and flooded the compartment. When the water pressure in the compartment equalized with outside sea pressure, the hatch opened freely and the nine men—the first to escape a sunken U-boat—ascended.

Winkler was the last to leave the compartment. When he reached the surface he saw the eight other men swimming around in a cluster. It was dark—a new moon—and the channel water was frigid. Winkler thought he saw a lighthouse and began swimming toward it. Along the way he became nauseous and then he passed out. The next morning, two British destroyers (Brazen and Boreas) fished Winkler and two other survivors and five bodies from the water. All were wearing escape apparatus, labeled “U-40.” No trace was ever found of the remaining forty-six crew. Rushed to a hospital, Winkler and the other two lived to become prisoners. The next day, October 14, Boreas found an emergency telephone-equipped buoy, which had torn loose from U-40 in the explosion. Inscribed on a brass plate were these instructions: “U-boat 40 is sunk here. Do not raise buoy. Telegraph the situation to the nearest German naval command.”

Unaware of this loss, the other five boats of the “pack” headed for the Western Approaches one by one. First to arrive was the new, undertrained Type IX, U-42, commanded by Rolf Dau, age thirty-three. On the same day U-40 was lost, Dau found a 5,000-ton British freighter, Stonepool, which had separated from a convoy. Husbanding his torpedoes for pack operations, Dau attacked Stonepool with his 4.1” deck gun, but the freighter was armed, shot back, and radioed the SSS alarm. Two British destroyers, Imogen and Ilex, responding to the alarm, rushed up and attacked U-42 with guns, driving the boat under.

Attempting to evade, Dau took U-42 to 361 feet. But the destroyers fixed the boat on sonar and delivered an accurate and brutal depth-charge attack. One charge that exploded close over U-42’s stern ruptured the after-ballast tanks and lifted the bow to a 45-degree angle. In a desperate attempt to avoid sliding to crush depth stern first, Dau blew all ballast tanks. The U-42 shot to the surface like a giant cork, into the waiting arms of the destroyers, which instantly opened fire, scoring hits in the bow room. Holed fore and aft, U-42 began to sink. Ilex ran in at full speed to ram, but seeing that U-42 was doomed and sinking, she backed full astern to avoid damage to herself, and merely grazed the boat abaft the conning tower. Dau and sixteen men got out of the sinking boat through the conning tower hatch; the other thirty-two men were lost. Imogen fished the dazed German survivors from the sea.

By that time Dönitz had good information from the codebreakers of B-dienst on a special French-British convoy, KJF 3, inbound directly from Kingston, Jamaica, escorted by the monster French submarine Surcouf (two 8” deck guns). Assuming all six boats had reached positions in the Western Approaches, Dönitz ordered Hartmann to lead the pack in the attack. But two of the six boats had been lost and Hartmann, having sunk two neutral ships (a Swede and a Greek) en route, was behind schedule and too far away to take tactical command of the other boats.

Two VIIBs of the pack, operating independently, found the convoy and attacked. Herbert Schultze in U-48 sank two French ships from the convoy: the 14,000-ton tanker Emile-Miguet and the 7,000-ton freighter Louisiane, plus two British freighters, apparently stragglers from other convoys. Alexander Gelhaar in U-45 also sank two ships from the convoy: the 9,200-ton British freighter Lochavon and a prohibited vessel, the 10,000-ton French passenger liner Bretagne, which was running blacked out and therefore inviting trouble. While she slowly sank, British ships rescued 300 passengers.

Gelhaar in U-45 did not have to answer for this mistake. While he was pursuing another ship of the now-dispersing convoy, four British destroyers, Icarus, Inglefield, Intrepid, and Ivanhoe, which had responded to the SSS alarms, found U-45 and attacked. Nothing more was ever heard from U-45. She was the first VIIB and the first Atlantic boat to disappear without survivors.

The other two boats of the pack, U-37 and U-46, arrived too late to engage in a coordinated attack. However, on the morning of October 15, Hartmann in U-37 lucked into a straggler of the convoy, the 5,200-ton French freighter Vermont, and sank her with demolitions. But Herbert Sohler in U-46 never found the convoy at all. His sole contribution to the action was the interception of U-45’s last radio transmission (not received in Germany), which helped sort out Gelhaar’s first—and last—sinkings.

After the convoy dispersed, Dönitz, who was following the action by radio and by reports of distress calls and British movements provided by B-dienst, ordered the six boats (or so he thought) to move south to attack another convoy, HG 3, inbound from Gibraltar to the British Isles and to report results to date. Schultze in U-48 radioed four ships sunk for 29,000 tons; Hartmann in U-37, three ships sunk for 11,000 tons; Sohler in U-46, none. Wrongly believing Schultze and Hartmann had sunk a total of seven ships from the Caribbean convoy, Dönitz added all those to Gelhaar’s two and concluded that the first pack to attack an Allied convoy had sunk nine ships, an outstanding “success” that absolutely validated his pack doctrine. In reality, the first pack was so far a disaster: three of its six U-boats sunk; only four ships of the Caribbean convoy positively sunk, one of them a prohibited passenger liner!

While the boats were southbound on October 17, Hitler, still poised to attack France (as he thought), authorized a further relaxation in the rules. Henceforth U-boats could attack any “enemy” merchant ship (i.e., British or French) except big passenger liners, anywhere, without observance of the Submarine Protocol. In other words, U-boats were excused or exempted from the requirement to insure the safety of merchant-ship crews. This important relaxation allowed U-boats to wage unrestricted submarine warfare on all British and French shipping, except big passenger liners.

The luckless Sohler in U-46 was first to find convoy Homebound Gibraltar 3, which was heavily escorted by British destroyers transferring from the Mediterranean to home waters. He tracked the ships through the night, radioed a contact report, then submerged for a daylight attack. One of his first electric torpedoes pre-matured. In all, Sohler experienced seven torpedo malfunctions, but even so, he sank the 7,200-ton British freighter City of Mandalay. Brought into contact by Sohler’s report, Hartmann in U-37 sank the 10,000-ton British freighter Yorkshire and Schultze in U-48 got his fifth ship in as many days, the 7,250-ton British freighter Clan Chisholm.

Following this attack, Sohler broke radio silence to report the premature torpedo detonation and other torpedo problems. Shocked—and angry—Dönitz declared that the magnetic pistol was “not safe” under any circumstances and without consulting the OKM or the Torpedo Directorate, he ordered all boats to use only contact (or impact) pistols. Hence the more powerful effect of the magnetic pistol—exploding the torpedo beneath the ship—was lost. “We’re back to where we were in 1914-1918,” Dönitz noted bitterly in his war diary.

Upon learning that Dönitz had prohibited any and all use of the magnetic pistol, two days later, October 20, the Torpedo Directorate confessed to another defect. The torpedoes were indeed running deeper than set—6½ feet deeper. The Directorate technicians had known this all along, but did not report it to Dönitz because they did not believe it made that much difference when using magnetic pistols. But it did make a difference when using contact pistols. Dönitz hastened to relay this new discovery to his skippers, advising them to deduct 6½ feet from the usual depth settings for impact firing. The order introduced yet another complication. Since a depth setting of less than 13 feet was impractical when shooting in heavy seas, skippers were not to fire at any targets drawing less than 13 feet, such as destroyers.

Operations of the first wolf pack were terminated after the attack on the Gibraltar convoy. The two surviving VIIBs, U-46 and U-48, low on fuel and low on, or out of, torpedoes, returned to Germany, Herbert Schultze to rave reviews. In two patrols Schultze had sunk eight ships for 52,000 tons, elevating him to first place in total tonnage sunk. Extending his patrol to the approaches of Gibraltar, Hartmann in U-37 sank three more ships by gun and torpedo, establishing a new sinking record for a single patrol: eight ships sunk for 35,300 tons.

A careful after-action analysis of the first wolf pack deflated the earlier euphoria. In reality the attack on the Caribbean convoy was an uncoordinated free-for-all. Thanks to Sohler’s contact report, the attack on the Gibraltar convoy was slightly better coordinated. However, the boats had sunk only four ships from the Caribbean convoy and three from the Gibraltar convoy. Half the pack (three of six boats) had been lost to the enemy, two boats to convoy escorts. In a significant and far-reaching report, Hartmann, who had sunk only one ship from each convoy and who had found it impossible to “tactically coordinate” the other boats of the pack, recommended that the concept of flotillas and “local pack control” (at sea) be abandoned, and that all boats should be controlled individually from Dönitz’s headquarters.

Dönitz had three reasons for the failure to destroy the Caribbean convoy. First, the attack had been mounted too late—after the convoy was well into the Western Approaches and had been reinforced by local ASW vessels and had only a relatively short run to reach the safety of land. Second, in the confusion of combat, the boats making contact, U-45 and U-48, had not been able to transmit accurate data on the position, course, and speed of the convoy; hence help from U-46 had been lost. Third, there were too few boats in the initial attack—only two, actually—hence the escorts were able to concentrate on those two, sinking one, U-45.

The analysis led to three conclusions. First, convoys inbound to the British Isles from any direction had to be attacked as far out as possible in order to give the boats sufficient sea room for repeated attacks over several days and before the enemy added local ASW measures. Second, the boat first making contact with a convoy should not immediately attack, but instead should “shadow” it, transmitting “beacon” signals to “home” in other boats of the pack. Third, after the other boats arrived, all were to attack simultaneously in a single massive blow, which would scatter the convoy and overwhelm the escorts, maximizing opportunities for repeated attacks and minimizing counterattacks.

These tactics could be tested in Baltic training exercises, but not in Atlantic combat. There were not to be enough oceangoing boats to mount another full-scale wolf pack for months to come.

The Build-Up of the Luftwaffe I

More than the rearmament of the army and the navy, the spectacular development of the Luftwaffe in the six years from 1933 until the outbreak of the war aroused the boundless admiration as well as the dark forebodings of contemporaries. Even today the inventions and brilliant technical achievements of those years in the area of aircraft and rocket construction are still surrounded by myths which lend the brief history of the Luftwaffe a special glory, in spite of its ultimate failure. The change from the biplane to the first jet fighter in the world, from the three ‘aerial advertising squadrons’ of 1933 to the 4,093 front-line aircraft at the beginning of the war was indeed without parallel in the short history of military aviation. It inevitably reminds one of the German fleet programme under William II and Admiral von Tirpitz between 1897 and 1914, but not of the work of Tirpitz’s epigone Raeder. Above all, the immediate secondary effects of the fleet and the Luftwaffe, both of them eminently the products of modern industrial technology, were very similar. In both cases fascination with new possibilities opened up by a new weapon combined with a nationalistic claim to great-power status to produce an awareness of power that led to quite similar consequences in foreign policy. The diplomatic, political, and military reaction of Britain to the perceived threat of the German naval and later the Luftwaffe build-up demonstrates this fact with startling clarity. But this similarity probably did not extend to the political and military motives behind the Luftwaffe build-up. Moreover, it must be asked whether this build-up did not differ fundamentally from the imperial fleet construction programme of the turn of the century, because of its greater dependence on technology and the resulting planning and economic problems. Nevertheless, the similarity, which was also noticed by contemporaries, may provide better insights into the political and military problems involved in the Luftwaffe build-up.

The ‘Risk Luftwaffe’ 1933-1936

The ideas developed within the framework of general Reichswehr planning concerning the future creation of an air arm have already been mentioned. Essentially they envisaged the use of air power to support the army and navy. Specific organizational and technical as well as personnel and material measures, some of which were very significant, had already been taken in accordance with this objective. The appointment of Göring as Reich commissioner for aviation on 30 January 1933 and of Erhard Milch as state secretary in Göring’s Reichskommissariat seemed to mark a basic change in this area. Immediately after his appointment Milch indicated that the Reichskommissariat should be considered only an interim stage on the way to a Reich aviation ministry, which would be responsible for all areas of civil and military aviation. When this ministry was created by a decision of the president and a decree of Defence Minister von Blomberg on 10 May 1933, it represented more than a centralization of all branches of aviation. Göring’s influence within the Party and his many positions and tasks in the government meant that the status of the Luftwaffe as an independent service within the Wehrmacht was secured once and for all without the loss of time and energy connected with similar developments in other countries. The army and especially the navy did not accept this drastic limitation of their authority over air units without resistance. They attempted to regain the lost ground, but all their efforts failed because the most important man in the Nazi movement after Hitler had set himself the task of creating an independent Luftwaffe as an appropriate expression of Germany’s claim to be a great power. Of course the status of an independent service also offered new possibilities in setting and planning armament targets.

Milch, who was the driving force behind the planning and realization of the Luftwaffe armament programme until the end of 1936, concerned himself after April 1933 at the latest with drafting a new arms plan for the service. In May he received a memorandum from the Lufthansa director Dr Robert Knauss on ‘The German Air Fleet’, containing ideas with which he declared his ‘complete’ agreement. As this memorandum received Milch’s approval, it can be considered the earliest authoritative statement reflecting the views of the air ministry chiefs on the basic principles of air warfare.

Knauss’s basic assumption was that the goal of the ‘national government’ was to ‘re-establish Germany’s position as a great power in Europe’, and that this goal could only be reached by a rearmament that would at least permit Germany to fight a ‘two-front war against France and Poland with prospects of success’. In Knauss’s opinion, there was no more effective means than the creation of a strong air force to shorten the ‘critical period’ required for the realization of this aim. For him ‘the most important feature of the Luftwaffe as an independent service was the ‘long- range, operationally mobile striking power of its bombers’. This ‘would greatly increase the risk for any conceivable enemy in a war’ and would reduce the danger of a preventive attack against a Germany that was regaining its strength. The striking feature of this plan for a ‘risk Luftwaffe’ was not only its revival of Tirpitz’s military theory, but primarily that it closely followed Hitler’s views in his talk to the Reichswehr leaders on 3 February 1933.

The most important factor in determining the effect of the memorandum was probably that Knauss was not content to present his suggestion for a ‘risk Luftwaffe’ and embellish it with ideas of the Italian aerial warfare theoretician Douhet. He described in detail the operational possibilities as well as the tactical and organizational principles and requirements for the aeroplanes to be produced, and argued that they were quite achievable. This gave his programme clarity, coherence, and persuasiveness.

Specifically, Knauss proposed the rapid, secret creation of a force of about 390 four-engine bombers supported by ten air reconnaissance squadrons. He believed it would be possible ‘to prepare the necessary personnel and material measures by using the army aviation units and the Lufthansa organization in such a way that they could be combined to form an air force in a surprisingly short time’. He was convinced that such a highly mobile, operational military instrument would give Germany decisive advantages in a possible conflict with France and Poland, but more important in his view was the expected deterrent effect of the ‘risk Luftwaffe’. To achieve his military objectives, Knauss argued forcefully for an armament policy with clear priorities. ‘Equal rearmament in all areas’ would lead to a ‘waste of energy’ and increase the danger of a preventive attack. In the risk phase of German rearmament, the rapid creation of five army divisions or the construction of two pocket battleships would only slightly change the balance of military power in Europe. This argument was directed primarily against the known construction plans of the navy. Knauss explicitly rejected the Tirpitz policy and, in the interest of national defence, assigned the navy only a defensive function in the North Sea and the Baltic. He explained that the funds required for the construction of two pocket battleships would be sufficient to build an air fleet of 400 large bombers, which would ‘secure Germany’s air superiority in central Europe within a few years’. But within the air programme too Knauss demanded clear priorities. Especially striking was his rejection of any operational function for fighter aircraft and his description of them as only support weapons for the army and the navy. For him the only important goal was the creation of a bomber fleet and the attached reconnaissance squadrons. He concluded his arguments for a ‘risk Luftwaffe’ and its great importance for the success of general rearmament by pointing out that in Italy and France the idea of independent, operational air warfare had many supporters, and that especially the new French minister of aviation, Pierre Cot, had already taken the first steps in this direction. Any delay would therefore reduce the ‘lead Germany can gain today, perhaps for a decade, by creating an air fleet’, and ‘precisely that decade would be decisive’. Knauss professed himself optimistic, for the ‘enormous dynamism of the national government’ and the ‘leadership qualities of the first German minister of aviation’ were the best guarantee that the ‘life-or- death decision’ regarding the Luftwaffe build-up would be made quickly and that all resistance to carrying it out would be overcome.

In spite of Milch’s agreement, the effect of Knauss’s memorandum on the armament planning of the Luftwaffe cannot be precisely determined. On Milch’s orders the responsible departments of the newly founded ministry of aviation had been studying the possibilities of a first, large-scale aircraft procurement programme since the beginning of May. His suggested objective of 1,000 aeroplanes for the first build-up phase in 1933-4 proved to be somewhat unrealistic at first because of the small capacity of the German aircraft industry. As early as June 1933 preparations had reached a point at which Milch and the head of the Ministeramt in the defence ministry, Colonel von Reichenau, were able to agree on a provisional armament programme, which was approved by Göring and Blomberg around the end of the month. This envisaged the creation of an air fleet of about 600 aeroplanes in fifty-one squadrons by the autumn of 1935. lB1 In contrast to all previous air armament programmes, this one was characterized by a strong emphasis on bomber squadrons. The backbone of the air fleet was to be twenty- seven bomber squadrons in nine groups. This programme, which was changed slightly in August and September, was only partially compatible with Knauss’s ideas, for neither did the air fleet consist of the uniform type of heavily armed bomber he wanted, nor was it to be as large as he had recommended. Nevertheless, about 250 bombers were to be available for combat by the autumn of 1935. Without setting a date for achieving his target, Knauss had demanded a fleet of about 400. On the other hand, the basic features of the programme clearly reflected the idea of the ‘risk Luftwaffe’. The bomber groups were to form the core of the future Luftwaffe and assume the political and military deterrence functions Knauss had assigned to them.

And although the Luftwaffe created on the basis of this programme was indeed inadequate, it fulfilled its political tasks from the very beginning far better than Knauss had demanded. His air fleet had been conceived primarily as a weapon against Germany’s continental neighbours, especially France and Poland. Paradoxically, however, it produced the strongest political reaction in Britain, a country Knauss had not mentioned at all in his memorandum and which could not be seriously threatened by the aircraft of the first German armament programme. The first signs of public concern in Britain about the Luftwaffe build-up could be observed as early as the summer of 1933. This concern was intensified by developments in Germany and by the German withdrawal from the League of Nations and the disarmament conference. The threat from the air and the graphic description of all its possible aspects soon became a constant subject in the British media. Baldwin’s statement in the House of Commons on 30 July 1934 that, in view of the developments in military aviation, Britain’s line of defence was no longer the cliffs of Dover but the Rhine marked the first high point of this general anxiety. Compared with other European air forces, the German Luftwaffe was still weak at the end of 1934; its number of usable, front-line aeroplanes is estimated at about 600. This modest force had, however, created a situation which permitted Hitler to negotiate with Britain about an air pact. In the first phase of its build-up, which at least bore some similarity to Knauss’s principles, the Luftwaffe had fulfilled its intended purpose. There is no evidence of how the air force leaders reacted to this overestimation of their capabilities or what conclusions they drew. But it is improbable that they were completely unaffected by the public debate. It is rather more likely that, in contrast to the starting situation Knauss had described, Britain began to assume an increasingly important role in the thinking of the Luftwaffe leaders. At first it was not, of course, included in their operational planning, but it was regarded more and more as a competitor and a standard by which the Germans measured their own accomplishments. Thus, the political effects of the ‘risk Luftwaffe’ were much more far-reaching than originally intended and opened up possibilities beyond the first, limited objectives.

Knauss had written his memorandum at a time when the first organizational decisions for the build-up of an independent service had been taken, but the personnel and material decisions were still open. The ministry of aviation created by Blomberg’s decree of 10 May 1933 was composed of Göring’s Reichskommissariat and the recently organized Luftschutzamt (air-defence office) of the defence ministry, with responsibility for ‘aviation and air defence of the· army and navy’. The scale of German efforts in this initial phase can be judged by the fact that at the beginning of June 1933 the staff of the ministry consisted of only seventy- six active and retired officers. Moreover, as a result of the long years of intensive preparation by the army and navy, the state secretary in the air ministry was also in charge of the first flying units camouflaged as ‘aerial advertising squadrons’: i.e. the flying school command organized in February 1933, which was responsible for the military departments of the civilian schools in Brunswick, Jüterborg, Schleißheim, Warnemiinde, and Würzburg, as well as the German military aviation centre at Lipetsk in the Soviet Union. These institutions formed the essential organizational foundation for the Luftwaffe build-up. On the whole, probably only a relatively small number of people were involved in German military aviation in the summer of 1933. Under the provisions of the treaty of Versailles, which were still in force, an expansion of the Luftwaffe seemed possible only if all executive organs of the state, especially the Reichswehr and the transportation ministry, actively supported the new service.

At the commanders’ conference following the inauguration of the ministry of aviation, Blomberg took the opportunity to emphasize that the ‘flying officer corps’ should be an ‘elite corps’ imbued with ‘an intensely aggressive spirit’; its ‘preferential treatment in all areas’ was necessary and should be accepted by the other services. After they had been prepared for the new situation in this way and concrete planning had begun in the ministry of aviation, Blomberg informed his commanders at the beginning of October 1933 how far the army and navy were expected to contribute to the personnel build-up of the Luftwaffe. According to his figures 228 officers up to the rank of colonel had already been transferred to the Luftwaffe; an additional seventy were to follow by January 1934. About 1,600 non-commissioned officers and men had also been transferred. For reasons of secrecy the Luftwaffe continued to be dependent on the support of the army and navy in the following years. After 1934 it took over its own recruiting, but its personnel were still trained in units and schools of the other two services until 1935. According to Blomberg an additional 450 officers were to be transferred to the Luftwaffe by 1 April 1934; in the following years the Luftwaffe would itself have to recruit 700 officer cadets each year. Blomberg stressed that nothing would be more short-sighted than the transfer of poorly qualified personnel to the Luftwaffe; it needed rather ‘the best of the best’. At subsequent commanders’ conferences Blomberg continued to support energetically the wishes of the Luftwaffe in personnel questions and did not exclude compulsory transfers. The transfers to the Luftwaffe from the army and navy continued in the following years; in a survey of personnel requirements in December 1938, a result of Hitler’s armament demands, the transfer of army officers was taken for granted. A large number of young civilian pilots also joined the Luftwaffe officer corps at the beginning of 1934; so, after 1 April 1935, did officers of the flak artillery, the air signals corps, and the local defence units, the later supplementary reserve officers.

This incomplete survey clearly shows the difficult problems facing the Luftwaffe personnel office created on 1 October 1933, which had the task of forming a uniform officer corps under difficult conditions on the model of the other two services in the first phase of the secret build-up. From 1 June 1933 onwards the personnel system of the Luftwaffe was under the direction of Colonel Stumpff of the old army (Reichsheer), who became chief of the Luftwaffe general staff in June 1937. The difficult problems he faced can be better understood if one remembers the emphatic, gloomy warnings of the chief of the army personnel office in the summer and winter of 1935 against a new, accelerated expansion of the army. In addition to the necessity if forming the very difficult groups from varied professional backgrounds and experience in the other services and branches of the Luftwaffe into a uniform officer corps, Stumpff was confronted with the problem of familiarizing the new officers with the complex technology of their weapons, as competent leadership at all levels was impossible without such knowledge. Both these tasks, the formation of the officer corps and familiarization with the new technology, could be fulfilled, if at all, only in a lengthy process. The rapid, even over-hasty build-up between 1933 and 1939 created the worst possible conditions for such a development. The figures on the growth of the officer corps and personnel strength provide an impressive picture of the difficulties to be overcome. When camouflage measures were abandoned in the spring of 1935, the officer corps consisted of 900 flying and 200 flak officers commanding about 17,000 non-commissioned officers and men. Two and a half years later, at the end of 1937, the size of the officer corps had increased fivefold: in the three branches of the Luftwaffe there were slightly more than 6,000 officers. By August 1939 the corps had grown to more than 15,000 officers; the number of NCOs and men had risen to 370,000. Thus, after March 1935 the officer corps grew thirteen-fold in barely four and a half years. In view of the fact that, unlike the army, the Luftwaffe officer corps did not have a relatively broad, homogeneous base, it was probably lacking in the coherence necessary for the performance of its military functions. A particularly serious shortcoming was the fact that the entire senior officer corps of the Luftwaffe consisted of former army officers, who at first viewed the far-reaching possibilities of independent air warfare with skepticism and, above all, possessed no experience in commanding large air units. This problem was caused by the nature of the Luftwaffe build-up and could not be overcome before the outbreak of war. It is interesting that Dr Knauss, a director of Lufthansa, did not mention the personnel problems connected with the ‘risk Luftwaffe’ at all in his memorandum.

In addition to these weaknesses in personnel, which were in the final analysis unavoidable, the material build-up also led to enormous problems. As a result of discussions in the ministry of aviation and with the other two Wehrmacht services, Milch’s initial ideas of May 1933 assumed a form sufficiently concrete to make it possible to lay down the programme for the first organization period, 1934, in a directive of 12 July 1933. According to this programme a total of twenty-six squadrons were to be created as unit formations after 1 July 1934, but they were to be aligned with institutions of civil aviation ‘to preserve secrecy as far as possible’. The ten planned bomber squadrons, which were to be supported by seven reconnaissance and seven fighter squadrons, were the centre of the programme. Six weeks later, on 28 August, Milch signed the programme for the second build-up period, 1935. This programme envisaged the creation by 1 October 1935 of an additional twenty-nine squadrons as combat formations, of which seventeen were described as bomber squadrons, with only eight reconnaissance and four fighter squadrons. The number of aircraft delivered by the end of 1934 shows that the industry fulfilled its obligations according to the programme. At the end of 1934 the air units disposed of 270 bombers, ninety-nine single-seat fighters, and 303 reconnaissance aircraft; a much larger number, about 1,300 aircraft, were used for training and other purposes.

Schnelltruppen and Tank Co-operation I

‘The tanks advance by bounds from cover to cover, reconnoitering the terrain ahead and providing protective fire for the dismounted Panzergrenadiers’

– Handbook on German Military Forces

A highly distinctive, even unique, passage in the evolution of tactics during the Second World War was the development of special techniques for armoured and motorised infantry. Arguably Britain was world leader in this process, for as early as the 1920s it was decided that total army mechanisation should be a long-term goal. Actually to achieve something so ambitious would require overcoming not only the lobby in favour of the retention of the horse, but the financial constraints of a world in which military cutbacks were followed by depression. Nevertheless, and despite complaints of conservatism and short-sightedness, voices in favour of mechanisation gradually gained ground in the aftermath of the First World War.

Two key figures amongst these advocates were Major General ‘Boney’ Fuller, guru of the tank – described by one of his peers as not merely ‘unconventional’, but ‘prolific in ideas, fluent in expression’, and totally at odds with tradition and received opinion – and later Basil Liddell Hart. Fuller was lyrical, if not mystical, in his praise of tanks, at one time seeing them as replacing virtually everything else, becoming quite literally the ‘fleets’ of the land, made up of ‘landships’. Yet, by no means all of what Fuller preached was new: there were other tank advocates, the first British tanks had been dubbed ‘landships’, and as long ago as 1903 HG Wells had written a story containing ‘land ironclads’. In 1918, relatively swift ‘Whippets’ operated alongside larger numbers of slower infantry supporting tanks. The USA had embraced the tank idea first by using French machines, then taking part with Britain in the planning of the ‘Liberty’ tanks designed to have war-winning impact in 1919 – had the war in fact continued so long. Hart later said his conversion to the cause came in 1921, but his vision was more measured in that it included ‘land marines’ – or mechanised infantry – from an early stage. It also went with the flow to some degree, working as he did at various times in concert with Major Giffard Martel, Charles Broad, Colonel George Lindsay, and others. There were also some curious false starts, as for example when Martel proposed that entire units could drive into action in one-man tracked vehicles, somehow steering, shooting, communicating, and navigating entirely solo.

Though few of the pundits or visionaries would have liked the idea, eventual official acceptance of a good part of the mechanisation agenda probably did not stem from the supposed battle-winning potential of ‘tankettes’ or land armadas. Rather it was from a cooler realisation that the British Empire was enormous and that the nation would always be denied a large and expensive regular army, or rail transport that could be made to access every country village in India or Africa and at the same time remain invulnerable to sabotage. Another advantage appealing to those of a historical bent was that mechanising infantry and logistics might just allow campaigns to remain fluid long enough to avoid the perceived evil of trench warfare. So it was that the Mechanical Warfare Establishment was established in 1926, being re-christened as the Mechanisation Experimental Establishment (or ‘MEE’) in 1934. An ‘Experimental Mechanised’ force was started in 1927 at the instigation of the Chief Imperial General Staff, George Milne, machine-gun vehicles were tested with 2nd Battalion the King’s Royal Rifle Corps in 1928, and a tank brigade set up in 1931, becoming a permanent feature a couple of years later. The tanks and infantry were not usually operated as one formation, but as two elements – and in retrospect it may be perceived that this separation did not bode well for the future. Whilst progress was slow, and mass road transport capable of bussing entire armies would not materialise for a long time, significant steps were made. The MEE tested all sorts of military vehicles and devised specifications. Governments dreamed up measures for the encouragement of the motor industry and methods to commandeer their wares in time of war. Perhaps most importantly, gun tractors and crew carriers for the artillery, and motorised platoon trucks and little carriers became standard issues for the infantry battalions. With relatively few and trivial exceptions the British Expeditionary Force of 1939 would be free of reliance on the horse, and perhaps even more significantly could usefully employ the oil found in her colonies rather than have to reap and carry mountains of horse fodder. Fuel for motor vehicles could be moved long distance by rail and ship, in concentrated form.

Having been on the receiving end of the tank from 1916 – and massed armoured attacks from 1917 onward – Germany was by no means ignorant of the advantages of engines. She was, however, at first constrained by the Treaty of Versailles that demanded the handover of 5,000 motor lorries, and later completely banned German use of tanks as well as imposing severe financial penalties. This, together with problems internally and on the Polish border and Baltic, put severe obstacles in the path of development. Even so, there were manoeuvres in the Harz mountains using requisitioned civilian lorries in 1921, and soon Germany joined together with fellow pariah state Bolshevik Russia to examine and test tanks away from German soil. Dummy tanks later stood in on home exercises. One of those really convinced that mechanisation was the thing of the future was Heinz Guderian, who was at the ‘Inspectorate of Motorised Troops’ from 1931. The Kommando der Panzertruppen was established under General Lutz in 1934, and following exercises at Munsterlager the following year the first three Panzer Divisions were formed. As distinct to the arguably more ambitious British plan to motorise the entire army and give it teeth of special brigades and divisions composed mainly of tanks – still not achieved in the run up to war, the German scheme left large portions of the infantry with nothing but the ‘horse murderers’, animal-drawn heavy equipment wagons. A minority of the divisions would, however, be Panzer divisions, capable of autonomous action because they contained enough supporting arms, artillery, and motorised infantry to undertake pretty well any task.

Guderian’s book Achtung Panzer!, of 1937, showed that he had studied both French and British developments: it also gave a key vision of what motorised infantry were supposed to do,

The truck-borne infantry are protected against the elements, and in addition to the men and their equipment the vehicles carry extra loads such as ammunition, entrenching tools and requisites, together with rations for several days . . . the main tasks of motorised supporting infantry are to follow up at speed behind tank attacks, and complete and exploit their successes without delay. They need to put down a heavy volume of fire, and require a correspondingly large complement of machine guns and ammunition. It is debatable whether the striking power of the infantry really resides in the bayonet, and more questionable still in the case of motorised troops, since the shock power of tank formations is invested in tanks and their fire power. The French have drawn the appropriate conclusion and have equipped all their infantry companies with 16 light machine guns each, as opposed to nine of their German counterparts. Combat is not a question of storming ahead with the bayonet, but of engaging the enemy with our fire power and concentrating it on the decisive point . . . What we desire is a modern and fast moving force of infantry, possessing strong fire power, and specially equipped, organised and trained in co-operation with tanks.

Guderian’s work bore both tactical and personal fruit. About the time that he was writing his famous book it was decided that German motorised infantry should be given Gepanzerter Mannschafts Transportwagen – or armoured personnel carriers. Fully wheeled designs were rejected on grounds of insufficient cross-country performance; fully tracked designs were turned aside due to expense, complexity, and lack of production capacity. Development, therefore, focused on half-tracked vehicles, and in particular on the artillery tractors made by Hanomag, as these were the right size to carry a squad. In 1938 motorised infantry and cavalry were all designated Schnelletruppen, or ‘fast troops’, and put under Guderian’s command. Four separate motorised divisions were added to the German mobile infantry arm the following year, though only a few armoured carriers were available for the Polish campaign. Success of the tanks and the conversion of existing divisions made available ten Panzer Divisions for the French campaign of 1940. Paradoxically, British tactical analysts managed to get hold of good intelligence on the new formations some time after the fall of Poland and just before the battle for France. Its translation, digestion, and printing for general circulation occurred sometime after 1 May 1940, this being the period of the latest information contained in volume 18 of Periodical Notes on the German Army. So it was that just as the Schnelletruppen were driving over France and Belgium, British officers got a belated opportunity to know what had hit them.

The key German tactical document Provisional Instructions for the Employment and Tactics of the Motorised Infantry Regiment and Battalion of March 1941 was translated the following year in the USA as The German Motorised Infantry Regiment. This document recognised that not all ‘motorised’ infantry could operate the latest fully ‘armoured’ tactics as there were not enough armoured carriers for all units. Usually, half-tracks were limited to the first battalion of each regiment, the remainder having to make do with ordinary trucks. Whilst carrier production, mainly of the Sdkfz 251 types, continued apace, this deficiency was never fully rectified. Even as late as 1944 only a minority of Panzergrenadier units, such as the Grossdeutschland corps, were fully equipped with armoured transport. Though troops in ‘soft-skinned’ wheeled transport might move quicker on roads, they were very much limited as to how far into the action they could remain in their vehicles, and for the most part dismounted before encountering any hostile fire.

Interestingly, German instructions of the early war period recommended a maximum speed of about 15mph for the leading carrier of a formation, with no more than 20mph for wheeled transport. Faster movement in motorised infantry action was sometimes demanded, but instructions warned unit leaders that this opened up possibility of vehicle ‘strain’ and increased incidence of breakdown. Much the same considerations applied to the British in general, whose explicit policy regarding motorised troops was that they should leave their vehicles before making an attack, transport being parked out of sight until needed later. Indeed, under British organisation there were not only permanent motorised battalions, but armies and corps troop-carrying companies of the Royal Army Service Corps, the job of which was to ferry any chosen infantry brigade from one point to another, but had no combat function. As of 1939 maximum British convoy speed was set at 20mph, though such a velocity demanded regular stops every 3 hours. Suitable lorries and trucks were often dubbed ‘TCVs’, ‘Troop Carrying Vehicles’. Only in the last two years of the war were US armoured M3 half-tracks supplied to Britain.

The German 1941 instructions outlined an aggressive role for troops with armoured transport, ‘The possession of armoured personnel carriers enables motorised infantry units to overcome comparatively weak opposition without dismounting. They can follow up tank attacks on the field of battle without dismounting . . . Motorised infantry is characterised by ability to alternate rapidly between fighting from carriers and fighting on foot, and also to combine these two methods of combat.

It was assumed that on firm and level ground armoured carriers would be able to move at much the same speed as on roads and tracks, with the armour giving protection against ‘small arms fire, light infantry weapons and shell splinters’. Vehicles could, therefore, be ‘brought up to the battle area and moved about under fire from enemy infantry’. The main purpose of the armoured infantry was close co-operation with tanks, for which they cleared a path through any difficult country, as for example in securing river crossings, villages, and woods. They also undertook the detailed work of assault on fixed positions, as well as racing ahead of the tanks to seize strategic positions, pursuing, or carrying out ‘wide and sweeping envelopments’.

As of the 1941 provisional organisation the German armoured infantry regiment comprised just over 2,500 all ranks arranged in two battalions, and a gun company, plus attached engineers and signals. Altogether it deployed 153 machine guns, 36 mortars, and 16 assorted artillery pieces and anti-tank guns. The battalions contained three rifle companies, a machine-gun company and a heavy weapons company. When a whole battalion had sufficient space to deploy the normal formation was a massive arrowhead about 300m wide and 1300m deep with the three rifle companies, also in arrowheads, arranged one forward and two back. The MG company and heavy weapons took up the rear, whilst the whole was preceded by patrols to reconnoitre and seek out the route. Within each armoured carrier was a self-contained squad, essentially similar to those of the ordinary infantry, but with the important difference that each had at least two machine guns. On the march these were mounted on swinging pintles fore and aft, both capable of air and ground fire, though later models of carrier had various arrangements. The initial seating arrangement was two seats with folding backs for the driver and co-driver, and bench seats down either side at the back, lifting to reveal ammunition stowage beneath.

The 1941 instructions were fully aware that terrain and weather had crucial impacts upon tactics, and motorised infantry commanders were to take these into account in the planning of movement and operations. Snow, mud, marsh, thick woods, and steep slopes were all serious impediments: gently rolling country was best as this afforded cover on reverse slopes, and opportunities for observation. In attacks against a demoralised enemy, river crossings, withdrawals, and advances through wooded or mountainous country small ‘task-force’ actions were possible, though such Kampfgruppe, or battle-group formations, were to be a minimum of company strength and reinforced with heavier arms, engineers, and probably tanks to suit the job to hand. Reconnaissance was to be made at the first opportunity with leaders ‘determined to push forward at all costs’. Action was to be ‘bold and resolute’, any undue risks being mitigated by the use of adequate patrols. At the same time, commanders issuing orders were to be realistic about the time these would need to reach widely spaced sub-units.

In making their approach carriers could take advantage of their armour and cross-country mobility to attack from effective angles and concentrate fire. Moreover, the degree of splinter protection was sufficient for armoured carrier units to follow closer to barrages than dismounted infantry. Commanders were encouraged to think with ‘speed and agility’, view ground personally, being daring and not obsessed with their own flanks, taking their own position in the ‘centre of battle’. Rapidity, concentration of force, and concealment of movement were key tactical themes likely to lend an element of surprise. Where limited numbers of carriers were available these were to be used en masse and fully utilised as fighting vehicles. Whilst using roads and tracks as far forward as possible allowed maximum speed and decreased wear and tear on both men and transport, timely deployment into broader cross-country formations was best for maximum advantage of terrain and use of weapons. Yet there was no hard and fast rule, the moment for deployment had to be left to the commander on the ground, who might choose to use speed and surprise to make an attack direct ‘from the column of march’.

This was the ‘attack without deployment’ – made in vehicles, with dismounting only occurring when no further forward progress was possible in the carriers. Where such an attack passed over difficult ground it might be useful to halt briefly in the closest possible cover to allow ‘battle formation’ and concentration of the carriers to be regained before the final assault. In other circumstances a ‘prepared attack’ might be the preferred option. In this instance carriers halted at a distance in a safe ‘assembly position’ or were given a line at which they were to halt and troops dismounted to deliver the attack on foot. Even so, it was wise to keep back a mobile reserve that could be directed to wherever needed, or used for rapid exploitation. If possible, assembly positions were gained in the dark or at dusk, leaving maximum doubt in the enemy’s mind about intentions. In clearing the way for the tanks it was also usual for some or all of the motorised troops to dismount and take the ‘tank-proof’ obstacle or objective on foot, their advance being covered by the fire of the armour and heavy weapons. When upon the enemy destruction or capture of anti-tank weapons became top priority to assist the advance of the armour. Sometimes the order of attack was reversed:

If the ground favours an attack by tanks and if no tank obstacles have been detected inside the main line of resistance, the task of the motorised infantry units will usually be to follow the tank attack. They will remain on vehicles behind the tanks so that they can quickly exploit the success of the tanks. Narrow and deep formations will be the rule, in order to avoid as far as possible the effects of enemy artillery fire and retain a mobile reserve in the rear . . . Pockets of resistance and defence areas which the tanks have not reduced will be dealt with as encountered. For this dismounting may be necessary. The remaining infantry will continue to follow up the tank attack in their vehicles. Contact with the tanks must never be lost.

In other circumstances the mechanised infantry was used with considerable versatility. In pursuit speed made it possible to catch up with the enemy or prevent him from taking up or improving new positions. In doing so commanders were encouraged to move forward as far as possible by road, and at night assume an all-round defensive posture. In defence mobile troops could screen broad frontages, take suitable vantage points, and redeploy quickly. Such aptitudes allowed the frontage of a motorised battalion to extend to ‘twice that of an infantry battalion’, typically from ‘1,600 to 4,000 metres and even more depending on situation and terrain’. Mobility also aided the often tricky tactic of breaking contact, where motorised troops might not only use their speed to escape, but to gain prepared defence lines further back. In disengaging it was recommended that small ‘fighting patrols’ and smoke be used even after the heavier weapons had departed, thus making the job of an enemy attempting to follow up all the more difficult. Engineer platoons also contributed by bridge breaking and mine laying.

Further detail on small-unit tactics was added by the manual for the Schnelletruppen of May 1942, reprinted with corrections in January 1943 – the year in which mechanised infantry were renamed Panzergrenadiere. Particularly crucial was the role of the driver who was taught to drive tactically, taking advantage of terrain to keep the carrier out of enemy fire. Rapid reversing and driving with the gas mask on and hatches shut were parts of the repertoire. Ideally, three men of each squad received full driver training, the driver, co-driver, and a reserve. Within the vehicle the team travelled in a state of ‘combat readiness’, weapons loaded, safety catches applied, and particular vigilance used against any enemy close by attempting to lob in grenades or Molotovs. Lookouts were detailed for all-round observation and in the event of a contact or change of orders the squad leader used a clock-face system to communicate direction – 12 Uhr being dead ahead and 6 Uhr to the rear.

The full-strength carrier squad was twelve, being the Gruppenführer, or squad leader, his deputy, or Truppführer, four machine gunners, four riflemen, the driver and his Beifahrer, or co-driver. The squad leader retained overall responsibility leading ‘by personal example’, maintaining contact with the platoon commander, and checking combat readiness of weapons. He might also man one of the machine guns during fighting from the vehicle. His deputy stepped in when the squad leader was absent, and also took charge of part of the squad when it was sub-divided. The driver and his assistant would usually remain with the vehicle, the driver having first responsibility for readiness, care, and camouflage of the transport, whilst the assistant manned the radio. The machine gunners usually operated as two teams of two, the first man being the firer, the second carrying ammunition and spare barrel. The four riflemen were regarded as the force of close combat and the manpower for reconnaissance and observation duties. The standard complement of light machine guns was three, two of which were intended for dismounting and one usually remaining on the vehicle. Interestingly, the MGs were each identified individually so that a member of the team had primary responsibility for its care. During motorised movement basic deployment of the MGs was one each mounted fore and aft, with the spare in the main compartment for use at will. There were two machine pistols, one to carry with the team, the other intended to stay with the vehicle. Additionally, there were five rifles and four pistols.

On the command ‘Aufstizen!’ the carrier was mounted in an orderly manner via the rear door, with the squad leader assuming his normal position directly behind the driver, and his second getting in last and taking post at the rear shutting the door. If carrying gas masks, the team unfastened them from their normal low position and reattached them to the front upper body, so as to make sitting more comfortable and the mask accessible. The order for a quick tactical exit from the carrier was ‘Abspringen!’. On hearing this everybody jumped out by the nearest means, over the sides as well as through the door. The squad then took immediate cover near to the leader. The rapid remount was the ‘Aufspringen!’ with everybody jumping in over sides as well as through the door. These manoeuvres were practised both at the halt, and with the carrier moving at up to 10kmph.

Combat was both from the vehicle, and dismounted. Dismounted the squad acted very much as normal infantry, but with the significant difference that the additional machine guns made fighting as two elements easier and gave greater flexibility. With the driver and his assistant still on the vehicle this also opened up possibilities of a third base of fire. On the vehicle a basic level of all-round watchfulness – particularly against air attack – was maintained at all times, but if combat was perceived to be imminent the squad leader gave the order for ‘Gefechtsbereitschaft’, or ‘combat readiness’. On this direction the team checked their weapons and radio readiness, and riflemen also ensured there were grenades to hand. The squad leader secured smoke grenades ready to produce screening. With hatches secured the vehicle could be driven at normal speeds through infantry fire, taking evasive action in the event of incoming artillery or mortar fire.

The squad fought from the carrier as long as enemy fire, mission, and terrain allowed:

The main weapon of the squad fighting from the vehicle is the onboard MG. The MG in the anti aircraft mount besides being used for AA defence can be used against hostile ground targets for example adversaries in the rear and flank of the squad. As a rule it will have to fire while the carrier is moving. The riflemen participate in the fire fight at the first breakthrough of the enemy. Hand grenades with simultaneous machine gun and machine pistol fire, as well as running over enemy soldiers are the most effective means to destroy the enemy in close combat from the vehicle.

Short bursts of fire from the moving carrier were intended to force the enemy into cover and prevent return fire, but in case of sudden encounters might actually destroy targets such as moving convoys or retreating adversaries. Even so, halted fire was more effective, and when stopping the carrier positions that left the vehicle ‘mostly hidden from view’ were best. When halting to fire a steady machine-gun burst the vehicle was not to remain stationary for more than 15 to 25 seconds, and the squad leader observed fire, his task being made easier by tracer rounds at intervals in the ammunition belts.

Usually, the Panzergrenadiere fought as platoons of four vehicles, three platoons carrying rifle squads, the fourth the headquarters. In the HQ carrier with the commander travelled an NCO, two messengers, a medic, the driver, and two soldiers manning an anti-tank weapon. Other arms carried in the vehicle of the Zugtruppführer were six rifles and a sub-machine gun. A motorcycle messenger might also be attached to the platoon, or several pooled together within the company. What main armament the HQ vehicle had, if any, changed over time. In early type SdKfz 251/10 platoon commanders’ vehicles a 37mm gun was mounted, but establishments of late 1943 show a 20mm flak gun with the commander, plus a Panzerschrek in each of the squad vehicles. The vehicles of the platoon might travel in closer order columns or lines but typical combat formations included the Zugkeil with the squad vehicles in a triangle and the platoon leader’s carrier out to the front, and the loose line or Zugbreite. A minimum dispersion of about 50m between carriers was aimed at in action. Armoured carriers and tanks could operate fire and movement in co-operation with each other, as for example with tanks halted and firing whilst carriers advanced, or with a portion of a carrier unit halted to offer support to other carriers.

An increasingly popular form of armour and infantry co-operation in German forces was the deployment of self-propelled guns and tank destroyers with infantry. Indeed, it could be said that these required each others assistance even more than did tanks. The Sturmgeschütz, literally ‘assault gun’, was perhaps a cheaper form of tank in that it required no turret or full traverse mechanism for its gun. Nevertheless, the ‘Stug’ also scored in other ways because larger weapons could be mounted on a given platform, and it was possible to recycle otherwise obsolete tank chassis in very productive ways, or to continue to make a tried and trusted basic design rather than convert entire production facilities. Building guns into, rather than simply on top of, tank bodies also increased the degree of protection whilst reducing overall silhouette. Standard Sturmgeschütz tactics saw them deployed in the maximum strength available, with, or immediately behind, attacking infantry. They were not to give away their presence prematurely, but used ‘to neutralise enemy support weapons at close ranges over open sights’. Close proximity to friendly infantry minimised their exposure to anti-tank weapons, and helped to make up for lack of a traversing turret. Similar considerations applied where small numbers of turretless ‘tank-hunting’ or ‘tank-destroying’ weapons were deployed. The fact that German forces were frequently on the defensive later in the war made them all the more profitable since they did not have to drive out exposing themselves to effective fire, but could remain and often manoeuvre within the zones occupied by defensive infantry.

Schnelltruppen and Tank Co-operation II

By the end of 1944 the basis of tank and infantry co-operation tactics showed distinct similarities whether German, US, or British. Whether well or indifferently performed in practice, the result of six years of war was convergence of theory. According to Handbook on German Military Forces,

When the enemy has well prepared positions with natural or constructed tank obstacles, the German infantry attacks before tanks and clears the way. The objective of the infantry is to penetrate into the enemy position and destroy enemy anti tank weapons to the limit of its strength and the firepower of its own support weapons, augmented by additional support and covering fire from the tanks and self propelled guns sited in the rear . . . When the tank obstacles in front of the enemy position already are destroyed, and no additional tank obstacles are expected in the depth of the enemy’s main defensive position, the infantry breaks through simultaneously with the tank unit…. In most cases, the infantry follows the tanks closely, taking advantage of the firepower and paralysing effect of the tanks upon the enemy’s defense. The Germans normally transport the infantry to the line of departure on tanks or troop carrying vehicles in order to protect the infantry.

Interestingly, US experiments with motorised infantry were underway as early as 1929 when a company of 34th Infantry was mounted in six-wheeler trucks as part of a ‘Mechanised Force’. This did not last long, however, and rival claims were staked by the infantry and cavalry – with the former wanting ‘infantry tanks’ attached, the latter seeking to become the umbrella to all mobile troops. Only in 1940 was an integrated force formed with the foundation of 1st and 2nd Armoured Divisions, and in 1941 five truck-transported infantry motorised divisions were planned. In the event only one motorised division was completed, and this was never used in its intended role. Efforts, therefore, focused on the creation of more all-arms armoured divisions. Initially, armoured divisions were mainly tanks with few infantry, but observation of European experience, combined with massive infantry manpower increases, made progressive revisions possible. By March 1942 the armoured divisional establishment wedded together two armoured regiments with a three-battalion armoured infantry regiment. In 1943 ‘light’ armoured divisions were also introduced with a better balance of three battalions of tanks with three of infantry.

The US armoured infantry platoon now numbered five squads, three rifle, one mortar and one light machine gun, each squad travelling in an M3 half-track. Capable of seating up to 13, the M3 was bigger than the M2 (that carried only 10), and was arranged with 3 seats across the front and 5 down each side. In the ordinary squad vehicle the leader usually sat front right, ready to handle the vehicle mounted .30 cal machine gun. As in the German arrangement, his assistant squad leader rode at the back next to the rear door, and more than one man was trained to drive, one of these being designated the assistant driver. The M3 armour was just adequate for protection against small arms and fragments, but would not stop much else, and there was no overhead protection on the driving compartment. Some dubbed the M3 the ‘Purple Heart Box’ on account of those injured in it.

Initial US theory paid relatively little heed to the notion of close integration of tanks and infantry, and early armoured establishments ensured that the latter were insufficient where they were needed. Gradually, and arguably from mid-1942, this began to change. Manuals made it very clear that the raison d’être of tanks, and by extension all their appendages within the armoured division, was the offensive. Within the tactical detail it was tanks that formed the cutting edge ‘striking force’, infantry that followed up. Yet there were exceptions. As the 1942 instructions FM 17-10 Armored Force Field Manual: Tactics and Technique, explained,

In attack the combat command groups are generally disposed into four parts: a reconnaissance force (consisting of organic reconnaissance units and attacking units), a striking force (the striking echelon consisting of tanks with engineers attached), a supporting force (consisting of the support echelon, i.e. the infantry, artillery and tank destroyer units), and a reserve. Whether the striking force makes the initial attack or main attack will depend on the terrain and the extent and dispositions of the hostile anti tank defences. . . . When the striking force makes the initial attack, the support echelon follows to seize and hold objectives taken by the striking echelon. When terrain is unsuitable for tank operation or anti tank defences are strong, the support echelon, supported by medium tank units, may lead the attack to secure ground from which the striking echelon may attack. The support echelon usually leads the attack in a penetration. The support echelon may be used to make an attack initially to serve as a base of fire for the striking force in an envelopment. The attack serves to fix the enemy and attract his reserves. In this manner it assists the advance of the enveloping or striking force.

Additionally, armoured infantry had roles in both pursuit and ‘encircling forces’. During an encirclement, for example, they might follow the tanks and take over and hold ‘critical terrain’ gained by the armour. North Africa and Italy would make it very clear that tanks without any attached infantry were at a serious disadvantage; whilst tanks, even in small numbers, lent vital fire support and morale advantages to their infantry compatriots.

Armored Force Drill, of January 1943, gave a range of formations for use by armoured infantry on the move. Whilst they could take up ‘wedges’ – inverted or otherwise, move in columns or stepped ‘echelons’, or any other form of deployment also used by tanks, the ‘diamond’ was described as ‘the basic formation for the infantry platoon’. In the diamond,

the platoon leader’s rifle squad and the two other rifle squads form a wedge, with the platoon leader at the apex. The 60mm mortar squad and the light machine gun squad are on a line in rear of the wedge formed by the rifle squads. The company may be formed in line, column, echelon, wedge, or inverted wedge, in each formation with the platoons in diamond formation.

As may be imagined, the larger company formations described needed much open space for full deployment, so in practice, and particularly in the closed country of Normandy or Italian mountains and hills, short lines, platoon wedges, or columns of various depths and dispersions were much more commonly seen. Experience also taught that fuller integration of tanks and half-tracks was often the best option. So it was that armoured infantry platoons were paired with tank platoons, the latter giving good long-range firepower and a measure of anti-armour protection, the latter ability to counter enemy anti-tank units and infantry, or hold a terrain feature.

Though fire from the vehicle was used in emergency, and a parked half-track formed a useful base of fire – particularly if concealed and mounted with the powerful .50 calibre machine gun, US tactical theory did not regard the M3 as a ‘fighting’ or assault vehicle, but more as a sophisticated, and partly protected, form of cross-country transport. In any case, as the Crew Drill manual explained, small-arms fire was much more accurate if the vehicle stopped. Standard procedure, therefore, was that in combat the main portion of the squads alighted before meeting effective fire, leaving one, or preferably two, men with the vehicle. Those left behind could move the half-track and fire its machine gun, perhaps in support, as an anti-aircraft defence, or to protect a given locality. If not needed immediately, the M3 retired to a given rendezvous or acted as battlefield taxi for supplies and wounded. As the squad dismounted its leader gave consideration to mission and tactical requirements, for if all weapons including the main machine gun were taken off the squad had fearsome firepower but limited mobility. Conversely, if the bazooka and machine gun were left behind the team could move with great agility but little power to confront vehicles or large numbers of the enemy. As a shorthand order the word ‘rockets’ was recommended: on hearing this the squad debused with the bazooka using two of the riflemen as anti-tank team, but left the machine gun behind. ‘No rockets’ meant that riflemen went lightly equipped.

In a well co-ordinated armoured infantry attack a combined formation went to ground near the target, and whilst infantry dismounted, tanks took up covered positions from which to put the enemy under fire. Depending on the results of reconnaissance or intelligence, the action might also be supported by artillery, mortars, machine guns, and the three useful M8 self-propelled howitzers that also formed part of the armoured infantry battalion. Taking advantage of covering fire, the armoured infantry advanced in dispersed formation, using their own fire and movement as required. If all went well, the infantry took up the ground, making sure that no anti-armour weapons were still lurking before the tanks came close in: if the infantry were held up tanks might be required to neutralise machine-gun nests or other centres of resistance. Whilst tank destroyers had the main task of dealing with enemy armour, tanks would also make engaging enemy vehicles a priority. Progressively, US armoured units adopted what became known as the ‘combat command’ approach, bringing together units or sub-units as required for task. Though arguably less dynamic than the German Kampfgruppe idea, and generally enacted later, the basic notion was very similar. As the manual 17-33 Tank Battalion, of December 1944, explained:

success in battle can be assured only by complete co-operation of all arms. No one arm wins battles. Success is attained when each arm, weapon and individual is employed to afford the maximum mutual support . . . tanks usually operate in close co-ordination with other arms, particularly infantry and artillery. The tank battalion may be part of a combat command; it may reinforce an infantry combat team. When operated alone, it is normally reinforced by infantry, engineers and other units.

So it was now, even when US armour was ‘alone’ infantry was still not far away. For defensive operations it was recommended that infantry, reinforced by other arms, should hold the ‘main line of resistance’, tank battalions being held as a ‘local reserve’ for the front-line infantry. The standard arrangement for an armoured infantry company in a defensive posture was with two platoons forward, and one back, giving support and depth to the position. Tanks could attack through infantry, though this required careful co-ordination, or support the infantry forward, and this applied to ordinary infantry as well as the armoured variety. As the new 1944 general-infantry manual FM 7-20 Infantry Battalion, explained,

In infantry-tank action, there are three initial attack dispositions: infantry leading, tanks leading, and infantry-tanks together. Infantry leads initially when reconnaissance has revealed hostile anti-tank strength or when the terrain in the direction of desired use is unsuitable for tanks; in this case the tanks support the attack by fire, generally from hull defilade positions. Tanks lead initially, when suitable terrain is available, in launching an attack against a hostile position having little anti-tank strength in terms of anti-tank guns, tank destroyers, antitank mines and other obstacles, or when these have been neutralised; in this case, elements of the infantry battalion follow within supporting distance and aid the tanks by fire and manoeuvre.

Where neither situation applied, or was unclear, attacks were launched with both armour and infantry in the leading wave so as to promote flexibility. Such was the ideal, but as can be imagined, commanding a ‘composite wave’ in action was no easy task, and not always successfully accomplished.

The organisation of the US armoured infantry battalion, c.1944. The three rifle companies are each divided into three platoons. Each platoon in its turn comprised three rifle squads, plus a mortar and a light machine gun squad. Platoons were thus 5 half-tracks and 49 all ranks at full strength. The battalion also included reconnaissance, assault gun, and mortars and machine guns arranged as HQ assets, as well as the ‘service’ company for maintenance and admin.

Twelve key tasks for armoured infantry were foreseen under 1944 instructions:

  1. Follow a tank attack to wipe out enemy resistance.
  2. Seize and hold terrain gained by the tanks.
  3. Attack to seize terrain favourable for a tank attack.
  4. Form, in conjunction with artillery and tank destroyers, a base of fire for a tank attack.
  5. Attack in conjunction with tanks.
  6. Clear lanes through minefields in conjunction with engineers.
  7. Protect tanks in bivouac, on the march, in assembly areas, and at rallying points.
  8. Force a river crossing.
  9. Seize a bridgehead.
  10. Establish and reduce obstacles.
  11. Occupy a defensive position.
  12. Perform reconnaissance and counter reconnaissance.

The armoured infantry arm was described as being characteristically ‘powerful, mobile and lightly armored’, and in battle armoured infantry were expected to advance in vehicles until forced ‘by enemy fire, or unfavourable terrain to dismount’. Generally, the ‘one to one’ balanced relationship of tank battalions to armoured infantry battalions held good for the remainder of the war. Post-war analysis suggested that possibly even a three armoured infantry to two tank units ratio was even better. Practical experience also suggested that the closer that infantry, any infantry, and tanks started out the more effective their collaboration was likely to be. ‘Tank riding’ – frowned upon early in the war – but widely seen on the Eastern Front, was formally adopted US policy by the campaigns of 1944. Where it was necessary for infantry to travel on tanks it was suggested that a tank company could carry from 75 to 100 infantry with 6 on the rear deck of a medium tank, 4 on the back of a light tank. ‘In rear areas more men can ride, when rope handles are provided. The infantry dismount prior to the launching of the tank attack.’

It has been said that compared to German armoured infantry tactics those of the Americans were poorly developed and unadventurous. This is not the full story. For crucially it has to be remembered that the tactical situation pertaining in 1940 was by no means the same as that in 1944. Early in the war German methods were novel, taking opponents largely by surprise: moreover, with the exception of relatively small numbers of anti-tank artillery pieces, and somewhat ineffective anti-tank rifles, Allied infantry had little with which to counter armoured carriers effectively. German mechanised troop theory called for close integration with tanks, and also accepted casualties as a given in terms of achieving a success as part of a bigger picture. The net result was that, in both Poland and the West, German ‘fast’ troops scored remarkable victories in concert with armour.

Until 1940 there were no US armoured divisions, and until North Africa no practical experience of armoured combat. Thereafter, major elements of German tactics were progressively taken up, and earlier British experience studied. Later in the war, however, when the USA managed to field armoured infantry in numbers, much had changed. The basic tactics were no longer new, the enemy was already thoroughly familiar with them, and worse was already deploying hand-held anti-tank weapons down to platoon and even squad level. Usually, German forces were on the defensive, and encounters between mobile forces rarer. The result was that when an M3 confronted even a small group of German infantry there was every possibility that one of them would be equipped with a weapon capable of completely destroying the carrier with a single round. In the face of this reality fighting from the vehicle was not merely dangerous, as it had always been, but obviously suicidal. So it was, that by comparison, it was almost inevitable US techniques should appear hesitant. Conversely, it was also the case that the Germans, particularly in the West after July 1944, became progressively weaker in tanks. With fewer Allied tanks required for large armour to armour engagements this meant that tanks could be used more widely in close infantry support operations.

As we have seen, the British approach was to mechanise infantry transport as widely as possible, but following early experimental work on attacks by fully tracked, but very small, carriers, the notion of full-blown ‘armoured infantry’ assault in vehicles was generally abandoned. So it was that in 1939 platoon trucks were motorised, and lorry companies also existed for the transport of nominated battalions from place to place on an ad hoc basis. Within the armoured division there was provision for two motorised battalions in establishments of 1939 to 1941, and this was later raised to three in May 1942, and, by April 1943, to four battalions per armoured division. One of these was the ‘motor battalion’ that formed an integral part of the division’s armoured brigade. The US summary TM 30-410 Handbook on the British Army, published in 1943 – but already slightly out of date, distinguished three types of British mobile battalion:

The machine gun battalion, which is at present assigned to corps troops, is based on the caliber .303 Vickers machine gun. It consists of a headquarters, a headquarters company, and four machine gun companies of 12 guns each. Each company is composed of a headquarters and three platoons. The battalion is completely motorised and all personnel are carried in motor transport. It has a strength of 29 officers and 711 enlisted men . . . The motor battalion assigned to each armoured brigade, consists of a headquarters company and four motor companies. Each company consists of three motor platoons and one scout platoon (11 Bren carriers). Each motor platoon consists of three sections, each self contained, operationally and administratively, in one vehicle. This battalion, with a strength of 26 officers and 774 enlisted men, has much greater fire power than any other in the British army…. the motorised battalion, formerly assigned to the support group of the armoured division, now forms the infantry component of the infantry brigade in the armoured division. Its organisation is exactly the same as that of the rifle battalion, but it is carried in motor transport.

Additionally, divisional reconnaissance regiments were also composed of infantry riding in various forms of transport, but later these were converted into the Reconnaissance Corps. As the 1941 Infantry Division manual made clear, standard drill for any motorised infantry was for the transport to bring them as far forward as possible without danger, then ‘debus’ them to operate much as any others. Whilst not attacking in ‘soft-skinned’ vehicles made perfect sense, lack of suitable armoured carriers made close co-operation between infantry and all but the slowest moving tanks problematic – and was arguably a significant tactical failing – particularly in circumstances that called for swift offensive action. Moreover, early in the war there were few signs of close co-operation between ordinary infantry, operating on foot, and the tank arm. Official doctrine of 1941, as spelt out in The Employment of Army Tanks in Co-Operation with Infantry, was that in the attack tanks would precede the infantry, with which there would be little direct interaction. During 1942, however, individual units began to practice closer co-operation in training. This was encouraged both by the increased numbers of infantry in armoured divisions, and by the fact that a number of new tank units were created from infantry battalions – and to these working with other infantry may well have appeared far more natural.

As of October 1943 British infantry divisions in Italy disposed of no less than 3,745 motor vehicles each, including over 900 motorcycles. This gave them a degree of tactical and strategic mobility not enjoyed by the enemy, but also meant that considerable effort, logistic and otherwise, had to be expended in maintaining these fleets. By the spring of 1944 Britain had obtained enough M3 half-tracks from the USA to mount the integral battalion of armoured brigades with tracked carriers. These were again operated much on existing principles, being used essentially as a ‘hardened’ transport to take forward infantry and their equipment, which then alighted to fight on foot. As in the US instance it would have been highly unrealistic to expect full ‘armoured infantry’ tactics at this date, given that enemy infantry could now destroy carriers with considerable ease.

Issued in May 1944, the key document governing British tank and infantry collaborations was The Co-Operation of Tanks with Infantry Divisions. As in US doctrine, it was envisaged that attacks be made in waves of varying compositions, and in British theory the waves were built of three main parts: the ‘assault’, ‘support’, and ‘reserve’ echelons. Each echelon was itself likely to comprise two or more individual sub-ports. An echelon could contain tanks, or infantry, or a mixture of both, but commonly there was some infantry with every one, and tanks normally formed at least a part of the ‘support’ echelon. It was the job of the assault echelon to attack ‘as closely as possible behind the artillery support’ and disrupt and dominate the objective. The support echelon provided immediate covering fire then itself moved forward to take up ground to ‘completely subdue the objective’ and oppose any counter attack. The reserve was kept in hand by the commander, and deployed as necessary according to events. In these essentials British and US techniques were fairly similar, albeit the nomenclature was different. What was rather different was that under British organisation dedicated ‘infantry tanks’ – slow, tough, and heavy beasts like the Churchill – were allotted to infantry divisions for ‘close co-operation, especially in beaching the enemy defences’. This broad concept went back all the way to the First World War, and had been reconfirmed when, at the beginning of the Second World War, a need was foreseen for well-protected armour to operate in the ‘shelled area’ helping the ‘break in’ of infantry into main defensive positions. Whilst many things had changed, and effective infantry tanks took years in development, it could be argued that in some senses things had come full circle, and the Atlantic Wall, Siegfried Line, other Axis defensive lines, and built-up areas did indeed require the attentions of heavily armoured tanks. Churchills, for example, did especially valuable service when converted for specialist roles in support of other arms; as a variety of ‘funnies’ on D-Day, or as ‘engineer’ tanks with heavy charge throwers blowing in enemy bunkers and strongpoints to allow the infantry to go forward. Conversely, the heavy infantry tanks were not of much use for rapid actions or sweeping manoeuvres.

The faster tanks, still known by the archaic descriptions ‘Cruiser’ and ‘Light’, were assumed to have specific purposes in terms of armoured exploitation by armoured divisions and in reconnaissance. Nevertheless, by this date it was acknowledged that distinctions were breaking down, for though tanks were designed for specific roles, ‘there can be no hard and fast rule regarding their employment, beyond the obvious one that they must be used in the manner which most effectively carries out the intention of the higher commander. Cruiser tanks have, in recent operations, supported infantry divisions with marked success, and infantry tanks have, on at least one important occasion, carried out valuable work in a role usually allotted to cruisers.’ Whilst tanks were best used offensively in numbers on narrow frontages, they could also be used successfully in smaller groups ‘always accompanied by infantry’. This would be of ‘moral’ as well as ‘material’ value. They were not to be used on their own, ‘for patrols or for leading the way into very close country or villages’.

How close infantry should actually get to tanks was still seen as problematic, since tank and infantry co-operation had to be close to prevent enemy infantry using hand-held anti-tank weapons, and advancing behind a tank also lent considerable protection from small-arms fire. On the other hand, armour attracted fire of all sorts and infantry very close to tanks could easily find themselves ‘exposed to heavy artillery concentrations’. Several possible solutions were offered. In the best eventuality the tanks went first, ‘neutralising the objective’ and the infantry caught up as quickly as possible before the tanks took serious loss. However,

A decision must be reached by the commander of the operation – usually the infantry brigadier – as to how close the infantry can move behind the assaulting tanks. Tanks normally move faster than infantry and draw enemy fire. It may, therefore, often be desirable for both to start together, with the result that the tanks draw ahead, but that the infantry will arrive on the objective while the enemy is still suffering the shock of the tank attack. In this way the infantry will obtain maximum advantage of the [artillery] fire plan which is designed for the support of the leading troops.

For a ‘main attack’ Co-Operation of Tanks with Infantry Divisions envisaged a set piece, preparation of which might take a long time, or as little as ‘one to two days’ or in an emergency ‘hours’. Execution at night would be preferable from the point of view of the infantry, but tanks rendered their most effective assistance in daylight. In planning infantry and tank units were to co-operate closely, with as many as possible seeing the ground over which the operation was to take place in advance. For main attacks artillery was vital, and a fire plan had to be laid that ‘caters for success’. The attack would ideally unfold as preparation of gaps, followed by the assault and consolidation. Assaulting infantry were not to stop to mop up any posts that remained short of the objective but to push on to it and hold it. As a British 2nd Armoured Division history explained, German troops had become very adept in their use of both the new anti-tank weapons, and snipers, sometimes holding their fire,

until the leading troops were a mile or more beyond them. To overcome this it was necessary for the attacking troops to advance in great depth, so that when the infantry had reached their objective their rear had only recently crossed the start line. In this way the infantry and tanks were spread out all over the ground just won and in a position to help each other deal with the snipers. All round observation in each tank was vital, because the enemy were just as likely to fire from either flank, or from behind, as they were from the front.

‘Main attacks’ were, however, only likely to be part of the picture as many operations were ‘fluid warfare’. In conducting advances in fluid warfare there was no hard and fast rule as to whether infantry or tanks should lead the way: indeed, open situations might demand tanks in smaller or greater numbers to the fore, whilst close country required infantry to lead clearing the path for armour. In the latter instance tanks would still be hard on the heels of the infantry aiming to neutralise machine-gun and mortar positions with their supporting fire. ‘Tank riding’ by infantry was encouraged, but only ‘outside small arms and anti-tank gun range’, as direct fire on tanks carrying infantry would probably result in heavy casualties, loss of morale, and difficulties for the tanks in firing back.

When infantry are to be carried on tanks, definite organisation and practice are required. The number of sub units within the unit of both infantry and tanks is dissimilar. One tank can carry a full section of infantry with its weapons. The infantry must have a drill for mounting the tank, for dismounting, and for quick assembly. Riding on the outside of a tank, especially across rough country, requires a certain amount of practice, and, as far as possible, troops whom it is intended to carry in this manner should not have their first ride when moving up to their assembly area for action.

An example of a ‘Priest’ Kangaroo armoured personnel carrier.

Whilst it may reasonably be argued that British infantry and tank co-operation, and particularly ‘armoured infantry’ methods, lagged sadly behind the German, and that even later in the war much depended on the availability of US-produced materiel, there were two remarkable bright spots in British performance. The first was the general level of mechanisation achieved at an early stage, the second was a belated revival of the fully tracked carrier concept that pointed the way to something of a revolution in battlefield troop mobility, still being played out decades after 1945. What had been wrong with the old Bren and Universal carriers was that essentially they were too small, and too lightly protected, to do the job of transporting a section on the battlefield. Though fine for a machine gun or a mortar, this essentially limited them to carrying support weapons and stores – useful, but no substitute for section half-tracks. A key spur came from the Canadians who pressed into action the hulls of US 105mm self-propelled ‘Priests’ in the breakout south of Caen in early August 1944. Soon more were being converted in Italy, as were turretless Shermans. At the end of 1944 the ‘Ram Kangeroo’ appeared based on a Canadian Ram tank chassis. Some British armoured cavalry units were now converted experimentally so that whilst two squadrons retained their gun tanks, the third drove infantry carriers. The whole regiment operated together so that when progress was halted by resistance the tanks took up positions to bring the enemy under fire. The carriers headed for any convenient cover and unloaded the infantry, who could now advance and attack under supporting fire disabling or capturing any antitank weapons. Once this was underway the troops of tanks came up, using their own fire and movement to support each other onto and through the position.

An example of a ‘Ram’ Kangaroo armoured personnel carrier, based on the conversion of a Tank, Cruiser, Ram, Mark II, with the auxiliary turret.

Provisional standard carrier drill was reported in Current Reports from Overseas of April 1945. This stressed that whilst the tanks, carriers, and their infantry passengers were to operate as a unit, the idea was not to drive the carriers into the teeth of the enemy. Individual Kangeroos drove into suitable positions and halted with one man on the Browning machine gun. The infantry spilled out as rapidly as possible from all sides of the vehicle, which remained stationary until they were clear. The stated logic to this was that if the Kangeroo moved prematurely it might detonate mines, injuring the now vulnerable troops. The troops manoeuvred or attacked on foot, carriers remaining out of the way of anti-tank weapons, but close enough to support or pick up their sections when recalled. Interestingly, these basic notes on the actions of fully tracked carriers would still form the basis of battlefield tactics more than half a century later.

Relearning Old Lessons: RAF in France 1940 Part II

12 Squadron aircraft going in against the bridges over the Albert Canal.

The instruction to fly fighter sweeps in the Arras area does not appear to have been acted on. No. 151 Squadron had already been ordered to fly a morning patrol along the Arras front, but the nine fighters were flying at 20,000 feet and spotted nothing. More fighters flying at a lower altitude were needed to tackle the German observation planes that seemed to be permanently hovering above the battlefield. This, however, proved to be the last fighter patrol for some time at any altitude. Reports were coming in that the aerodromes at Calais and Boulogne were being bombed, so Park ordered his squadrons to try and include these areas in their patrols. Given that they were nearer to Fighter Command airfields, it is not surprising that it was here that British fighters were involved in combats. Pilots were not going to take their fighters to the edge of their endurance by flying another 60 miles inland when there were enemy planes to deal with nearer the coast. At 10.00 a.m., a frustrated Gort demanded an intensification of fighter activity in the Arras area, but no British fighters were in the region when the attack was launched at 2.30 p.m.

Initially, Martel’s force made good progress. The standard German anti-tank gun failed to make any impression on the heavily armoured Matildas, and the Germans were soon in retreat. Ominously, however, the advance was taking place under the watchful eye of Henschel HS 126 observation planes. After advancing for about 5 miles, the advance was brought to a halt by a combination of air attack and 88-mm anti-aircraft guns firing over open sites. The German Army had used the same emergency measure in the First World War to stop tanks. In 1918, the Tank Corps had been allocated army-cooperation planes specifically to spot the guns and fighter-bomber Camels to destroy them. In 1940, the tanks had neither. This did not bring any protest or complaint from Gort or Pownall; even Martel seemed to have forgotten such air support once existed. The textbook Army solution was to wait for the artillery to move up to support the next stage of the advance.

If the Air Component had still been in France, it might have been different. The ground controllers would have been able to direct fighters to the area to provide some protection from German bombing and keep the prying Henschel spotter planes away. It is even possible they would have ordered fighters to attack the German positions holding up the advance. Even without any air support, the counterattack startled the Germans. Rommel reported hundreds of tanks were striking his flank, and the German High Command temporarily halted the advance westwards. Just the day before, there had been enough air strength in France to ensure the attack would have made an even greater impression on the enemy.

Renewed requests for air cover brought no response until 6 p.m., when patrols from Nos 253, 229, 146, and 601 Squadrons were dispatched to the Arras area. It is not clear whether they actually reached their destination. A couple of He 111s were claimed over Calais, an Hs 126 was shot down near Abbeville, and another was claimed near Amiens. All these were 40–50 miles from the scene of the Arras counterattack. Meanwhile, Franklyn did not feel he could hold the gains made. As he pulled back, the Stukas provided a reminder of how lacking fighter cover had been and how valuable close air support could be. Given that so much was at stake, the 142 sorties flown by Fighter Command on all fronts that day was scarcely an adequate response.

As Martel pulled his forces back, 20 miles north of Arras, at the now abandoned Merville Airfield, the commander of the air forces that should have been supporting the counterattack was searching for a means of escape. Blount worked his way through the disabled aircraft scattered around until he found a Tiger Moth that had been missed. In the early hours of 22 May, the Air Chief Marshal set course for England. The commander of the Air Component could claim, like any good captain, that he had been the last to abandon ship. The next day, the RAF sheepishly returned to Merville. Ten aircraft fitters flew in to see if they could salvage any of the abandoned aircraft. It was not until a week later, with the Dunkirk evacuation in full swing, that the airfield fell into German hands.

On 22 May, it was be the turn of the French to attack southwards. As preparation, the French continued to use their worn-out Amiot 143s in the Arras–Cambrai area. Bomber Command, however, was back to attacking targets in Germany. If Portal could not attack oil targets, he would at least make sure that his bombs were falling on German soil. Bomber Command sent 124 Wellingtons, Hampdens, and Whitleys to the Aachen-Mönchengladbach region, more than 150 miles to the east of the French attack. Barratt switched his AASF squadrons from nocturnal attacks on the Meuse crossings to daylight armed reconnaissance missions in the Arras-Abbeville-Amiens region. This might help slow the German advance northwards, but it was too far west to help the French.

In the early hours of the 22nd, the Air Ministry warned Portal that escorted Blenheim missions would be required the following day to support the Allied armies. Dowding was told the protection of Calais and Boulogne was his priority. Where possible, however, fighter patrols should extend inland to support troops in the Arras-Cambrai area. A short while later, a revised, more strident message was passed on. Dowding was told that the future of the British armies in France depended on the success of the counterattack being prepared. German spotter planes were observing the Army all along the front, and troops were being exposed to fierce dive-bomber attacks. Dowding was informed that the Army was anxious to know what the Air Force could do about it. Newall was not demanding action, merely passing on the message.

Dowding ordered No. 11 Group to switch two fighter squadrons from the Calais-Boulogne area to Arras. It was hardly an all-out effort. It seems that most fighter sorties were still flown around the coast. In the afternoon and evening, flights from five squadrons were supposed to operate in the Arras-Cambrai region. The enemy planes the fighters claimed included seven of the troublesome Hs 126 observation planes, but it would seem none were lost around Cambrai. The Army continued to complain that the German observation planes were operating unhindered.

It was not easy for Fighter Command to do much about it. It was a very small sector of the front, a very long way from airfields in southern England, and patrols were likely to encounter enemy planes before they got anywhere near. Ironically, they had to fly over Merville and other abandoned airfields to reach their patrol lines. A much more focused effort would have been possible from airfields in France. With less than 200 sorties flown in the day, Fighter Command was still not committing sufficient resources either to protect the ports or defend the front line. For Dowding, this was not an oversight or misjudgement—it was policy.

The Blenheims were used throughout the day solely to slow down the German advance northwards along the Channel coast. Lysanders operating from Britain also attacked columns advancing towards Boulogne. This was perhaps the ultimate irony. The one plane the Air Ministry had designed to operate with the Army, under the control of the Army, was being used by the Air Ministry to supplement the efforts of Bomber Command. Twenty-four hours earlier, those Lysanders could have been supporting the Arras counterattack.

On the night before and day of the French counterattack, British bombers attacked nothing within 20 miles of Cambrai. There was little to support Peirse’s assurances to the British War cabinet that everything possible was being done by night and day to support the British and French counterattacks. Indeed, as Peirse spoke, Bomber Command was planning to reopen its offensive on oil targets by dispatching thirty-six Hampdens over 250 miles inside German territory to bomb the oil refinery at Merseburg, near Leipzig.

At 9 a.m. on 22 May, French tanks supported by motorised infantry began advancing towards Cambrai. The Germans were taken by surprise again, and their light defences were brushed aside. Anti-aircraft guns and repeated low-level strikes by Bf 109 fighters and 200-mph Henschel Hs 123 ground-attack biplanes eventually brought the advance to a halt just short of Cambrai. Despite Air Staff claims to the contrary, it seemed air support could help in defensive situations. Ironically, the Hs 123 was the sort of plane the War Office had been demanding during the winter of 1939–40.

By the 23rd, the British forces in the Arras region had been forced to withdraw northwards by Panzers swinging around to the north-west of the city. At this point, Blenheims were used against German columns in the Arras region. Not for the last time in the Second World War, RAF bombers were being called in to slow down an enemy advance when, just hours before, in support of a British advance, those same bombers might have been paving the way for a victory.

Weygand was still hoping to launch a major push southward from the Douai region. However, on the 25th, the British contribution to the attack had to be used to counter a German breakthrough further north on the Belgian front. On the 26th, Weygand’s plan was abandoned. Gort was already pulling back to the Channel by this time.

This did not necessarily mean evacuation. The pocket contained very substantial Belgian, French, and British forces; the initial plan was to fall back and hold a bridgehead from Calais to Ostend. This would tie down considerable German forces and give the French further south more time to establish a new defensive line along the Somme and Aisne. However, both wings were already in trouble. In the west, Boulogne had fallen on the 25th and Calais was already surrounded; in the east, the Belgians were struggling to hold the line. Gort was in no doubt that evacuation was the only option.

Preparations had been underway since Gort had first suggested the possibility of evacuation on 19 May. On the 23rd, Dowding was instructed to prepare a ‘strong covering operation’ for a possible evacuation of the BEF. Non-essential personnel were already leaving France. On the 26th, it became a full-scale evacuation. What exactly the Belgian and French armies were supposed to do was not clear, but from the British perspective they would serve the useful role of covering the British withdrawal. Dunkirk was the only major port in the British zone; if it fell, evacuation would not be an option. The Aa canal running to Gravelines, just 12 miles from Dunkirk, represented the best and last hope for establishing a defensive line to the west of Dunkirk.

It was a desperate race to man the line before the Panzers breached it. The Army needed the Air Force to buy them some more time. From the 24th, Fleet Air Arm Swordfish and army-cooperation Lysanders and Hectors joined No. 2 Group Blenheims in attacks on German columns advancing along the coast. It seemed that even the ‘heavies’ would finally be used by day. For the 25th, four Hampden squadrons were told to prepare for a low-level daylight strike on armoured forces west of Gravelines. A Hurricane escort would be provided.

Given Portal’s attitude, it is surprising that the plan got as far as this. The attack did not take place. Instead, the Hampdens bombed communication targets in western Germany under cover of darkness. Only Portal knew how this was going to help save the BEF. It seems extraordinary that the crisis should see Naval biplanes used by day while so many of the RAF’s specialist day bombers were only used by night. The Swordfish, Lysanders, and Hectors did their best; the Swordfish attack on the 25th ran into sixteen Bf 109s and Bf 110s, but the escort fought them off and no planes were lost. With fighter escort, daylight bombing was perfectly possible.

It will never be known whether these efforts would have been enough to halt the Panzers. The German advance was halted not by air attack or the defences on the ground, but by the German High Command, who feared the tanks might get bogged down in the marshy terrain; the Panzer divisions would soon be needed to strike at the main body of the French Army, along the Somme and Aisne. After two weeks of continuous advance, units were at 50 per cent strength and in need of rest. The Panzers were ordered to halt on the Aa Canal. Hermann Göring assured Hitler his bombers could finish the job. It would be two days before the order was rescinded and the Panzers tried to resume their advance; by that time, the defences were ready. Göring would have to deliver on his promise.

As the battle shifted to the Channel coast, encounters between the Luftwaffe and Spitfires (still under orders not to cross the coast) became more frequent. The British pilots seemed to have learned something from their earlier unsuccessful encounters off the Dutch coast. JG 27 lost five Bf 109s over Calais on the 23rd in clashes with Spitfires, and the next day another four were lost and two more damaged. The Spitfire was by no means superior to the Bf 109E—most were still handicapped by their fixed-pitch wooden propellers—but it was superior to anything most German pilots had encountered before. As soon as they could break free from their restrictively tight ‘vic’ formation, the Spitfires were formidable opponents.

German bomber losses were on the rise again, with at least four Ju 87s shot down over Calais by Hurricanes on the 25th. The RAF’s own attacks on Wehrmacht columns were now only suffering light losses. For the first time, RAF bomber efforts could be sustained day after day. On the 24th, General von Kleist, the overall commander of the Panzer forces closing in on Dunkirk, reported—perhaps rather melodramatically—that for the first time in the campaign, the enemy had air superiority. On the same day, Guderian reported that enemy fighter activity had become so strong that reconnaissance was practically impossible once again. Two days later, he was complaining that RAF fighter activity was intense and friendly fighter cover was completely lacking. The German commanders were perhaps exaggerating the extent of the problem, as commanders of all armies are inclined to do, but the RAF was making its presence felt. It was unfortunate that the Spitfires had not been able to do this sooner.

The BEF had secured Dunkirk, but the situation was still desperate. It was challenging enough to evacuate an entire army from a single port without any interference from the enemy; under air attack, it might be impossible. With the future of the entire British Army at stake, it seemed there could now be no excuse for Fighter Command holding back. Newall understood this. He gave Dowding very clear instructions that his command must provide continuous and powerful protection throughout the long, late-May hours of daylight. This would have been difficult enough if Calais was being used. Dunkirk was well within range of Fighter Command, but the distance fighters would have to fly to reach Dunkirk reduced the amount time that they could patrol for. Maintaining continuous, powerful protection would require a lot of fighters. It was more frustration for Dowding; his fighters were being misused yet again.

The Germans also had problems. The fighting had been tough, operations continuous, and losses heavy. Fighter units were, on average, down to 50 per cent serviceability rates, and the pilots were weary. German fighter units would be operating from captured and sometimes basic French and Belgian airstrips. These were not necessarily any closer to Dunkirk than RAF airfields. Accepting second-rate airfields, with pilots living rough, ground crews working in the open air, and supplies being brought in by transport plane, was all part of being a mobile tactical air force. It was what the German Air Force was used to. Even so, with their permanent bases and more secure lines of communication, RAF fighters seemed to have an advantage.

However, over-reliance on well-equipped permanent bases is also a disadvantage. There was no shortage of airfields in Kent that Dowding could use, if Fighter Command had been willing to match the flexibility of the German fighter force. Most of them were not part of the Fighter Command system, but being wired into the radar air defence system was not needed for operations over Dunkirk. If Fighter Command was going to put enough fighters over Dunkirk, it would need to improvise.

The Admiralty was showing the way; it was willing to risk its priceless destroyers to rescue the Army. More stirringly, Admiral Ramsay, in charge of the evacuation, assembled an improvised fleet of fishing boats, pleasure cruisers, and other privately owned craft to help lift the troops from the beaches to the larger ships offshore. Many of these would be piloted by their civilian owners. It perhaps behoved Fighter Command to match this courageous enterprise by throwing all it had into defending this band of civilian volunteers, not to mention the precious Royal Navy warships and soldiers trapped on the beaches.

It was not just Dowding who was reluctant to do this. Even at this moment of extreme peril, with Britain in danger of losing its entire Army, the bomber threat still dominated. Churchill had already asked his Chiefs of Staff to consider the worst-case scenario of a French collapse. Even with good fortune, it was estimated that Britain would do well to evacuate 45,000 troops of the 300,000 British troops in France. The generals saw no way for what was left of the British Army to be able to drive out an invading German Army. The Navy did not believe it could prevent it from getting ashore unless the RAF had control of the skies. Fighters would also be needed to protect ports and secure the supply of food and raw materials. The civilian population would only be willing to carry on the struggle if enemy bombing could be reduced to an acceptable level. The aircraft factories that supplied Fighter Command also had to be protected. All these responsibilities rested on the shoulders of Dowding’s fighters. Britain could only survive if Fighter Command remained intact.

Churchill agreed; he saw air attack as at least a great a danger as losing the British Army. It was a line of thinking that came very close to arguing Britain could afford to lose her Army, but it could not afford to lose Fighter Command. There was a genuine fear that if left unguarded, even for the briefest period, Britain (and particularly its aircraft industry) might suffer an instant and fatal blow. Given recent events in Rotterdam, this did not seem like an extravagant claim. It was, after all, what everyone believed British bombers were already doing to German industry. If Dowding did not overexpose his Command defending the troops at Dunkirk, there would not be too many objections from the politicians.

Bomber Command

Similarly, Bomber Command did not want to be distracted by the plight of the British Army. Portal believed that his bombers were already winning the war, even though there was no concrete evidence of this. Photo-reconnaissance Spitfires had been dispatched to photograph the extent of the damage inflicted; unlike the low-level reconnaissance after the Sylt raid, the Spitfires were flying at 25,000 feet, and nobody was sure what could be seen from this altitude. When no damage was discernible, it was assumed that it must be technically impossible to see any damage at that altitude. It was better to believe the bomber crews.38 ‘We have already made progress in the systematic elimination of the key objectives’, the Air Staff claimed. ‘Shortage of lubricating oils and petrol may have a very important effect on the intensity of the air offensive against this country in the ensuing months’. On 26 May, the day the full evacuation started, Portal was trying to get the Blenheim effort reduced. He could not afford to lose the bomber crews that would one day fly the next generation of heavy bomber. If the trapped Army needed bomber support, they would have to rely on Fleet Air Arm Skuas, Albacores, and Swordfish, or Air Component Hectors and Lysanders—not his bombers.

Despite Portal’s protests, Blenheims continued to fly around fifty sorties each day. He was also forced to use his precious ‘heavies’ to ease the pressure on the Dunkirk defences, although he still insisted that this could be best done by bombing communication targets in Germany. On the night of 25–26 May, a Whitley impressed the residents of Cologne by defying the cloud to bomb a bridge and ignite a gasworks below. The bridge was closed for one and a half hours. Troops falling back on Dunkirk might be forgiven for wondering how closing a bridge in Cologne was going to help them.

The heavies did also provide some closer support. On the same night as the Cologne attack, Wellingtons bombed German positions in the battlezone. Once the Dunkirk perimeter defences were established and the fighting more static, it became easier to define targets. Results were inevitably mixed, but any bombs dropped in the battle area at least had a chance of making a contribution and it was certainly encouraging for the trapped troops. The total effort against battlefield targets and communications in Germany was still only around fifty sorties per night. Raids on oil targets continued. On the night of 27–28 May, twenty-four Hampdens tried to hit oil refineries in Hamburg. The bombers managed to get seven bombs and a few incendiaries to fall within the city limits, starting one small fire.

As the bombers were returning from their attack, news was breaking that Belgium had surrendered. Sir Roger Keys and Lt-Col. Davy, who had both been liaising with the Belgian forces, made it clear to the cabinet that the principal reason for the collapse of the Belgian Army had been Luftwaffe dominance in the air, not weakness on the ground. The message was the same from every sector of the front—there were not enough fighters. Keys presented a heroic picture of Hurricanes trying and failing to break through the German escorts, but there had been no major RAF fighter support for the Belgian Army since the Air Component pulled out of France. In other circumstances, it might have seemed strange that Britain did not just give the Belgian Air Force replacements for the Hurricanes and Gladiators that had been destroyed on the ground, instead of leaving the pilots without aircraft. It would not have turned the tide, but it would have shown a willingness to help and given the Belgians some hope. Given the attitude of Dowding and the Air Staff, it is not at all surprising that such a move was not even considered.

War and Culture

The most important problems that Arab militaries have experienced in battle since 1945 derive from behavioral patterns associated with Arab culture. It starts from the fact that the other explanations just don’t cover the full extent of the problem. The Russians probably helped the Arab armed forces more than they hurt, and while politicization and underdevelopment played important roles, they cannot explain the most damaging and consistent shortcomings of Arab militaries in the modern era. But it’s not enough just to demonstrate that the other explanations don’t fully explain the problem.

There is a compelling case to be made that the primary weaknesses experienced by the Arab armed forces since 1945 derive from culturally motivated patterns of behavior inculcated by Arab educational processes.

That said, dealing with culture is like working with nitroglycerin: it may be necessary to do so, even useful, but you have to handle it with great care. This is one of those instances. Culturally driven patterns of behavior are a critical element of the story of Arab military ineffectiveness, but culture lends itself too easily to all kinds of abuse. Like nitroglycerin, you have to treat culture with a lot of respect if you want to use it without doing a lot of damage.

The Development of War-Making

Human beings have been waging war for longer than we can remember. Warfare literally predates civilization and written history. Yet the methods of war-making have changed radically over time as technology and human organization have evolved. Unorganized bands of spear-throwing men gave way to organized formations of spear- and shield- (and sword-) bearing men, which gave way to bands of armored men mounted on horses, and so on up to the age of drones, cyberwar, and stand-off precision munitions.

Over the millennia, it has been this interaction between technology and human organization that has defined war-making in each era. Of course, the technology has been more unpredictable and harder to control than the organization. The technology typically comes into being for reasons having little to do with war-making, and rarely at the opportune moment for war leaders. Yes, Oppenheimer and company harnessed the atom in time to help the United States win World War II, but they were able to do so only because Rutherford, Bohr, Einstein, and others had discovered the basic scientific principles by then, and those discoveries had nothing to do with warfare. Generals have probably always wanted to be able to wage war from the air, but that was effectively impossible before the Wright brothers figured out how to fly.

Humans have often adapted scientific principles to develop new weapons for a war when those principles were known, but that’s about as far as it goes. German scientists devised the Snorkel to make their U-boats more survivable in response to Admiral Dönitz’s pleas during the Second World War, but Nelson, Andrea Doria, and even Themistocles would have loved to have had submarines too; their wants had little impact on the progress of technological development. When the scientific principles are unknown, they are unknown, and a general cannot demand that they advance the way that he can his armies. As a result, technology has really only ever been marginally responsive to the desires of the warrior, even though it is one of the most important factors driving the evolution of warfare.

Instead, the part of warfare that humans have been best able to control has been our own organization, and there the demands of war have weighed heavily. Throughout history, war leaders have sought and experimented with new and better methods of organizing (and employing those organizations) to defeat their foes. Although there are often difficult political and bureaucratic fights to be won to institute a new organization, it has typically proven far easier to increase military power by changing organizations (and the tasks that those organizations perform) than to try to do so by demanding new weapons. Indeed, as many starting with Charles Tilly have noted, organizing for war has been an important element in the development of states themselves.

Thus, technology can be said to be an “objective” condition of war-making, proceeding largely at its own pace and only modestly susceptible to human manipulation at any given time. In contrast, organization and the employment of military organizations—what we call tactics and strategy—can be seen as a “subjective” condition that humans can change far more easily to try to gain advantages with the technology at hand. Another way of putting it is that at any given moment in time, the technology available to mankind makes it possible to fight in many different ways, and different societies and militaries will try to organize themselves and use those organizations to act in different ways to gain advantages in battle.

The Dominant Mode of Warfare

Warfare is a competitive activity. For that reason, if only in theory, there will always be a “best” way to organize and act in battle given the available technology. I refer to that best way as the “dominant mode of warfare” of the time. Few societies ever perfect the dominant mode of warfare, but those that do typically enjoy great success on the battlefield. Even those that come closer to the dominant mode than their foes secure an advantage, possibly a decisive one. Indeed, it is ultimately what we mean when we talk about one country having greater military effectiveness than another. The Chadian armies of the 1980s were hardly the epitome of twentieth-century warfare, yet they were much better at practicing the dominant mode of warfare of that era than their Libyan foes, and that enabled them to defeat Libya despite all of the Libyan advantages in firepower, air power, fortifications, and logistics. The Chadians demonstrated greater military effectiveness, and that is why they won.

The concept of military effectiveness itself ultimately derives from an unstated conception that there is just such a “best” way of doing things at any point in time given the technology available. It is what US military personnel implicitly mean when they refer to “best military practices.” That is why it is useful to have a concept such as the dominant mode of warfare, because it establishes a constantly evolving but absolute ideal that the relative concept of military effectiveness can be measured against. The great military historian John Lynn has made a similar point, suggesting the idea of “paradigm” armies that define the height of military effectiveness at any given time, the best practices to which other militaries aspire.3 These armies define the paradigm because they have proven best at practicing the dominant mode of warfare of their era.

Of course, those nations with the highest military effectiveness—those best able to perform the dominant mode of warfare—are not inevitably bound to win at war because other factors such as numerical balances, generalship, etc., can trump military effectiveness. But like the Chadians, they have an important advantage that can prove decisive. For that reason, most militaries endlessly (and rightly) pursue the dominant mode of warfare of their time, and the best try to refine or even reinvent it, trying new technologies or new organizations and methods to take advantage of existing technology.

The Role of Culture

The notion that there is always a dominant mode of warfare to which most militaries will aspire is a way of placing military effectiveness in the context of time and circumstance. This is important because it points out that what constitutes military effectiveness at any given time and what it takes to be a dominant military change over time as the dominant mode changes. Because technology changes and because humans are constantly innovating new ways to organize and employ that technology, the best practices that constitute the epitome of military effectiveness are constantly changing too, mostly evolving slowly but sometimes very quickly in what have been called revolutions in military affairs.

The reason that this is important is that what is required from groups of humans to achieve the dominant mode of warfare at any given time is also constantly changing. Human beings are not all alike, nor are groups of human beings. Just as individuals have different abilities and ways of doing things, so too do groups and societies, inculcated by the culture of the society. Those traits are enormously important to war-making, and always have been throughout human history.

Spears, swords, and shields were some of the earliest weapons known to mankind but there are lots of different ways to use them in battle. The Greek phalanx was a far more effective way to use those weapons than the way most ancient civilizations had previously. But not every society could field a competent phalanx. Really only a very few could, and some—notably Sparta—were much better than others. That is because what it took to field an effective phalanx was men steeped in certain patterns of behavior that caused them to act in a certain way and that in turn allowed them to perform the way that the organization and tactics of the phalanx required. Really only Greek city states (and their colonies) could produce enough such men to field a phalanx.

Sparta famously engineered its entire culture to produce the maximum number of men who would act in exactly the best manner possible to make the phalanx effective. So for a period of time, the Greeks figured out the best way to employ the war-making technology of the time (spears, shields, and swords). But only the culture of the Greek city state produced large numbers of men able to function effectively in a phalanx. No other ancient society of the time could do so. And Spartan culture took that to its absolute extreme, making the Spartan phalanx the most effective of all.

In other words, what made Sparta the greatest military of its era was its culture. Spartan culture was consciously engineered to produce large numbers of men who would axiomatically perform in the manner that was most conducive to success in the phalanx, and as long as Spartan culture continued to produce large numbers of such men, and as long as the phalanx was the dominant mode of war-making, Sparta was the greatest military power.

The same phenomenon was at work in later eras with English longbowmen, Parthian cataphracts, Mongol horse archers, Swiss pikemen, British men-of-war, German panzer divisions, and any number of other dominant military forces that won not because of better technology, but because their societies produced relatively large numbers of men with a skill set that enabled them to use the existing technology in the best way possible. And because they produced considerably more such men than their rivals, in some cases having men uniquely able to employ the military technology of the era, they had an enormous advantage over their foes.

What this demonstrates is that culturally derived traits and behavior can be absolutely critical in determining military effectiveness, but what matters is the extent to which those traits mesh with the technology and organization (including the tactics) being employed by the armies of that era. When the culturally driven traits of a society mesh well with the demands of the dominant mode of warfare of the era, the armies of that society will tend to be more effective, and in some cases may prove all-conquering. When they do not mesh, the armies of that society will tend to do worse and—unless saved by other factors such as numbers, wealth, favorable geography, powerful allies, etc.—the society may be wiped out altogether.

Inevitably, the traits and behavior that allow a military to succeed will change over time as the dominant mode of warfare changes. Some societies may deliberately adapt, and adopt cultural practices that serve the dominant mode of warfare, as the Spartans (and arguably the Prussians and Israelis) did. Most won’t do so consciously, but they will nevertheless be helped or hindered anyway based on the extent to which the dominant mode of war suits the behavioral patterns fostered by their society—their culture—which typically will have evolved for reasons unrelated to war-making.

The Mongols did not become great horse archers purposely so that they could conquer Eurasia. The Mongols became great horse archers because those were the skills they needed to survive on the twelfth-century Eurasian steppe. However, once their society developed this skill and Mongol culture began to produce large numbers of skilled horse archers, it gave Mongol warlords such as Genghis Khan a military tool that enabled him to conquer Eurasia. The Mongol army defined the dominant mode of warfare of the time. Although the technology they employed—the horse and composite bow—were readily available to other societies, no one was able to use it to make war as well as the Mongols. This gave them an overwhelming tactical advantage over so many other societies whose cultures did not produce large numbers of skilled horse archers, not by any mistake on their part, but simply because their physical and historical circumstances did not create a need for large numbers of skilled horse archers.

The Mongols are an extreme example, useful to illustrate the point. Let me turn to another example that shows the more normal course of how culture and warfare interact over time. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, European wars were fought largely with muzzle-loading, smoothbore muskets; flat trajectory cannon; and horsemen armed with swords, lances, and pistols. This technology defined the dominant mode of warfare for that era, and over time, the best armies learned how to organize themselves, train, and devise tactics to get the greatest performance when using that technology. Specifically, they learned to organize large groups of infantry in tight formations to maximize firepower. Because muskets were horribly inaccurate, it was possible to have such formations walk slowly, in formation, to a point on the battlefield, then shift from a marching formation (column) to a firing formation (line) and begin firing at the enemy, reloading, and firing again. The cavalry of the time was typically held back, waiting for an opportunity to charge forward and terrorize, disorder, and break enemy infantry formations, as well as overrun enemy artillery. The artillery sought to slaughter and disorganize enemy infantry (and cavalry) to render them more vulnerable to friendly infantry and cavalry.

All of this called for a very particular set of skills and behavior to produce military effectiveness, let alone victory. If we just stick with the infantry of that time, we see that they had to be able to move in formation and not become disorganized. They had to be able to fire and (of even greater importance) reload their muskets while being fired at by their enemy counterparts often no more than 50 yards away. And they had to be willing and able to eventually fix bayonets, charge the enemy, and kill him in hand-to-hand combat. For the soldiers, that meant that they needed to be brave (or inebriated); highly disciplined; well-practiced at marching in formation, firing, and reloading; and competent in hand-to-hand combat. For junior officers, it meant that they needed to be able to organize the formations of their men, shift from one formation to another at a moment’s notice, and move them quickly and efficiently around the battlefield. In particular, they had to maintain iron discipline among their troops in the maelstrom of an eighteenth-century battle, which required that their men fear them more than the enemy. And they had to be brave enough to stand or charge, as directed when directed, setting an example for their men to follow. It is important to note that field officers in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century European armies were not expected to show lots of creativity and initiative. Indeed, they were generally trained and encouraged to be unquestioning martinets because that was what was needed from lower-ranking officers for an army to be successful in this mode of warfare.

The deprecation of independent action by junior officers was in large part a result of the fact that the general commanding an eighteenth-century European army could (theoretically) see the entire battlefield, and it was his responsibility to formulate strategy, look for opportunities, and maneuver his forces in response to the actions of his adversary. The last thing that an eighteenth-century general wanted was a subordinate acting on his own—or refusing an order from the general orchestrating the battle. (General Seydlitz’s famous act of insubordination to Frederick the Great at the battle of Zorndorf was a salient exception proving the rule.) An eighteenth-century army would have been pulverized if all of its captains and majors made decisions for themselves and acted independently, even if in pursuit of their commander’s overall objective. The strength of such an army was in the coordination of its forces and the ability of a general to see (or create) an opportunity—a mistake by his adversary—and then quickly concentrate superior force against it. Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz, achieved by separating the Austrians and Russians and then crushing each in turn, is a perfect example. On the other hand, if some English major at Waterloo had seen a hole in Napoleon’s line and charged in with his battalion, it would have created a battalion-sized hole in the English lines, through which Napoleon would have quickly pushed a division or a corps. As Wellington would have been the first to warn, nothing could have been more disastrous, and why the Iron Duke would never have countenanced it.

Indeed, one of the most famous instances of such independent and creative officering from that time—Sir John Colborne’s defense against the French Guard at the end of the Battle of Waterloo—is a perfect exception proving the rule. Colonel Colborne commanded the 52nd Regiment of Foot at Waterloo and during the final attack by Napoleon’s Middle Guard, he led his men out of the line of British infantry regiments and turned them at a right angle to fire into the flank of the French, helping to rout one of the French battalions. It is worth noting that this only came at the very end of the battle, when the French had completely shot their bolt and were making one last, desperate attempt to break the British lines. Had Napoleon anything left to counter Colborne’s move, it could have been disastrous. But he didn’t and so it worked. Moreover, Colborne’s feat is legendary because he was the only battalion commander who did so. There were several dozen others manning the ridgeline all afternoon, facing repeated attacks, and none of them (including Colborne earlier) had tried this stunt. Moreover, even when Colborne did it, he was the only one. None of his peers thought to do the same. Colborne was a celebrated exception, but he was very much an exception to the rule of the time, and he was only celebrated because he tried it in exceptional circumstances that allowed it to succeed.

Fast forward to the twentieth century and everything has changed. New technology has emerged: automatic weapons, indirect fire artillery, trucks, tanks, airplanes. They have transformed the battlefield and defined a new dominant mode of warfare. Firepower has become so lethal that armies must disperse and rely on camouflage at all times. Demographic and political changes have also placed far larger armies at the disposal of the generals. Ground forces must deploy in open order, concealed as best they can, and moving very quickly whenever forced to do so. Given the C3I (command, control, communications and intelligence) available at the time, no supreme commander could possibly control such forces in real time let alone orchestrate a battle the way that an eighteenth-century general would. As a result, the skills required of soldiers and (especially) field officers to succeed have changed dramatically. Now, junior officers (including even NCOs) are expected to understand the strategic plan of their commander but act independently to try to accomplish the commander’s objectives, the famous German principle of auftragstaktik. In this mode of war, tactical commanders have to show initiative and creativity to win tactical victories. The job of the general is now to recognize the pattern of tactical victories, reinforce success by committing reserves, and so turn the tactical victories won by his subordinates into strategic victories (largely by breaking through the enemy’s front lines, routing his reserves and rear area services, and either surrounding or causing the logistical and psychological collapse of the enemy army). For those familiar with it, Stephen Biddle’s concept of the “modern system” of warfare captures this approach, representing the dominant mode of warfare of the twentieth century.

The point of this comparison is to illustrate that what it means for a military to be effective changes over time as the dominant mode of warfare changes. The skills that allowed the British Army to thrive on both eighteenth-century European and nineteenth-century colonial battlefields were the same skills that caused it to consistently underperform in the wars of the twentieth century. It was largely the same British Army—with new kit—fighting largely the same way. But the skills, methods, and approaches to warfighting that produced success at Blenheim, Waterloo, and Omdurman produced disaster at the Somme, Gazala, and Goodwood. The dominant mode of warfare had changed, but the British Army had not, and its military effectiveness suffered as a result.

It should not be surprising that some societies (and some military organizations) will be better able to produce the skills required by the dominant mode of warfare than others. Those that do demonstrate greater military effectiveness than those that don’t. Those that produce these skills in the greatest abundance tend to be Lynn’s paradigm armies. As the great French philosopher Raymond Aron once observed, “An army always resembles the country from which it is raised and of which it is the expression.”

To some extent, this explains the rise and fall of some countries and their militaries. Of course, economics explains a lot of that, but there are always countries that punch far above their weight militarily in any given historical period: the Swiss during the sixteenth century, the Swedes during the seventeenth century, the Prussians during the eighteenth century, the English and American Confederacy during the nineteenth century, and the Germans and Israelis during the twentieth century. It would be argued that in every case it was because their society just happened to produce large numbers of men with the traits required for success by the dominant mode of warfare of the era. Of course, over time, technology shifted, the dominant mode of warfare changed, and what was required to succeed in war changed, disadvantaging those who had once been dominant and bringing to power new countries whose societies produced large numbers of men with the requisite skill sets (or behavioral patterns) needed to succeed in the new dominant mode of war. Thus the Swedes were the terrors of the seventeenth-century battlefield and that made them a major player in European international relations at that time. But by the eighteenth century they were no more potent than any other European country, and so they declined to a second-rank power as befitting their economic, demographic, and other endowments.

People’s behavioral traits can be shaped by many different factors. Every kind of human grouping has a culture, but different kinds of groupings have greater abilities to inculcate that culture than others. The community or society we are born into (the country, nation, state, empire, etc.) typically has the greatest ability because it dictates childrearing practices and the educational methods employed with children and adolescents. Nothing is a more potent means of socializing people into a set of cultural norms.

But institutions and organizations within a society develop their own cultures too. Often these cultures are themselves influenced by the wider society’s culture. In other circumstances, they may employ a variation on that wider culture, or develop something quite different—even directly contrary to the wider culture. Militaries can be very powerful agents of socialization because they take relatively young men (overwhelmingly men in the past, still mostly at present) and put them through ferocious forms of education—what we call training—to try to get them to think and act differently than they did as civilians. Indeed, military training is a deliberate form of cultural socialization. It is how armies get people to think and act in the ways considered most conducive to warfighting by that society at that time.

So it is important to recognize that while the traits and behaviors that provide an advantage or disadvantage to militaries at any time given the dominant mode of warfare of that era are inevitably derived from culture, that culture may be national/societal, it may be the organizational culture of the military (which may replicate that of the wider society or diverge from it in important ways), or it may be the culture of some important subgroup—a particular tribe or ethnicity, an elite military formation, etc. Indeed, it is a fascinating question how much the culture of the British Army—which produced such incredible success from 1689 to 1898 and then so many stunning failures from 1914 to 1945—was a product of the wider British culture and how much the product of the unique features of the British Army (like the regimental system) as it evolved over time.

No Judgments

Because it is culture—dominant or national, local or subcultural, institutional or organizational—that determines which societies, or which groups within societies, generate the largest numbers of men (and increasingly, women) with the skills needed for success in the dominant mode of warfare of the time, culture can obviously play a critical role in determining military fortunes. However, none of this should be seen as applauding one culture or denigrating another. Cultures, especially the cultures of nations and other societies that lie beyond mere military organizations, emphasize some traits and behavioral patterns over others based on the circumstances of the society, both physical and historical. The traits and patterns of behavior the culture favors make sense for its society in that place at that time.

In other words, culture can grant some advantages to a society in certain activities where two societies are competing, but that does not mean that one is superior to the other except in that narrow area of competition. Remembering both the Mongols and the Romans is helpful here. The Roman empire that stretched from the second century b.c. to the fifth century a.d. and the Mongol empire of the thirteenth century a.d. were both phenomenal conquerors. Both invaded numerous neighboring states and crushed their armies, fought vast wars, and were consistently victorious. In both cases, there were cultural aspects of their societies that were critical to their military successes. Both societies contained cultural tendencies that allowed them to generate much greater military power than their neighbors—whether it was the tactical excellence of the Roman legion or the Mongol archer, or the strategic ability of each society to keep generating large numbers of both. Both were often superior to the societies they conquered in this narrow aspect of human activity: warfare. That narrow superiority turned out to be extremely important, especially to peoples conquered by these empires, such as the Carthaginians and Chinese.

However, it does not follow that Roman or Mongol society was superior in general, or in every way, or in any other way other than war-making to other societies, even to those societies they conquered. Culture encompasses a vast range of traits related to an equally vast number of human activities. Just because the Mongols were better than the thirteenth-century Chinese at war-making does not mean that they were superior in any other way. The Chinese generally believed they were far more sophisticated, creative, and knowledgeable than the Mongols. They may well have been, suggesting their own culture was superior to that of the Mongols in producing many other desirable skills. That sophistication did not save them from conquest because the Mongols were superior in the one area that mattered when they clashed: war-making. (Had the Mongols and Chinese competed in poetry or pottery rather than killing, the outcome probably would have been very different.) But their competition was military, and the Mongols proved far superior in that one area. Similar arguments could be made about the relative advantages of Roman and Greek cultures—arguments in which many Romans would have agreed on the superiority of Greek philosophy, sculpture, rhetoric, etc., just not war-making.

There is also an important difference between the Romans and Mongols. Whereas Roman culture seems to have given the Romans an excellent ability to hold, retain, and integrate its conquests such that their empire lasted for centuries, Mongol culture, so equally superb at conquest, did not grant the same advantages to their empire. Mongol society did not do as well at holding and building on what they had conquered, and so the Mongol empire did not endure the way that the Roman empire did. Just because two great nations were equally adept at conquest did not mean that they were equally adept at other aspects of human endeavor. The advantages that culture may grant to warfare does not mean that that culture or its society are somehow superior in any way except in war-making at a particular moment in time.

Nevertheless, what should be clear from this discussion is that culture—national, subnational, and organizational—is an important element in military effectiveness. Moreover, just as we recognize that some cultures have proven instrumental to battlefield success by enhancing military effectiveness at certain periods of time, we should also recognize that other cultures can be just as critical to martial weakness by undermining military effectiveness. For every Sparta, Rome, Mongol horde, Wehrmacht, and Israel Defense Force there is likely to be another society badly hamstrung because its culture is not producing sufficient numbers of people with the traits best suited to the dominant mode of warfare of the time. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, that was exactly what happened to the Arabs.

Culture Wars

The World War II Battlefield

Bare with him. There is a point at the end.

In May 1939 Adolf Hitler attended a demonstration of Waffen SS battle tactics. The Führer was keen to see how the Waffen SS was using assault groups of infantry together with field artillery and how effective this was in a battlefield scenario.

For the demonstration the Waffen SS Regiment Deutschland was to attack an enemy outpost and drive the defenders back to their main defensive positions. Once this happened the supporting field artillery was to open up on the enemy positions, at which point the assault troops would break through the barbed wire defences with bangalore torpedoes to capture their objective.

Twenty minutes after the exercise was due to start Hitler asked when it was going to begin. He was told that it had in fact been under way for the previous twenty minutes. Hitler then became aware that he could see brief glimpses of Waffen SS soldiers moving quickly from cover to cover. Needless to say the exercise with the field guns went exactly according to plan and was a complete success. As a result Hitler ordered artillery to be added to the Waffen SS formations.

Eight months later, in January 1940, Winston Churchill visited the 2nd Battalion, The Royal Norfolk Regiment, in its positions on the Belgian frontier. Although not yet Prime Minister he was at that point First Lord of the Admiralty and already heavily involved in developing wartime strategy. The Royal Norfolks had been spending much of their time digging trenches, an activity which would have been familiar to any old soldier from World War I, as part of a defensive line called the Gort Line, after General Lord Gort who commanded the British Expeditionary Force.

When Churchill arrived he was accompanied by three senior generals and a clutch of staff officers. He was shown round A Company’s positions by Captain Peter Barclay, the company commander. Barclay had acquired a small dog which had come across from the other side of the Belgian border and which he used to hunt rats and rabbits. As they were walking along inspecting the positions the party came to a pile of wooden bundles. The dog immediately started barking, having sensed a rabbit, and Churchill was interested. He asked Barclay if they might have a little sport. Barclay replied that that he would need three officers on top of the pile of wooden bundles to jump up and down to get the rabbit out. Churchill promptly ordered the three generals on to the pile where he directed their jumps to make sure they were all jumping at the same time to get the rabbit to bolt. There was some embarrassment as the generals bounced up and down while their aides-de-camp looked on. But they were all delighted when the rabbit shot out and was chased by the dog, which duly caught it.

The difference in approach between the German and British Armies had started at the end of World War I. And what was interesting was the way in which the German Army used its defeat to its advantage whereas the British Army learned very little from its victory.

The victory of the Allied armies over the old German Army in 1918 was more than just a simple defeat for Germany because the German people had believed sincerely that victory would be theirs. Because of their implicit faith in their army it was all the more traumatic for them that it was their army which had failed them. The Armistice had dealt another blow as the Treaty of Versailles restricted the post-war German Army to 100,000 men, including no more than 4,000 officers.

For General Hans von Seeckt, appointed Chief of the German Army Command in 1921, the situation must have appeared a gloomy one. But, crucially for the German Army, he was not infected with the trench warfare mentality which afflicted the British Army for so long. Seeckt had served on the Eastern Front in World War I and refused to believe that Der Stellungskrieg, trench warfare, was the future. His experiences had taught him that the use of fire and movement under the control of good leadership, was the way forward. For Seeckt mobility meant machines, armour, artillery, infantry, all mechanised and mobile and working together. In 1921, while the British Army was fighting an uprising in Ireland, the German Army was conducting its first exercises with motorised units.

Between the wars the German Army devoted much time to exercises in the field. All units took part and used blank ammunition to fire their weapons at the enemy. This is an important point because already the German soldier was being conditioned for service on the battlefield in World War II where, as we shall see, the type of training was to have a profound effect on the course of battle.

With constant training and refinement the German Army was ready in principle, if not in men and machines, for the Blitzkrieg by the time Hitler came to power in 1933. And it was Hitler’s enthusiasm for the Panzer and for the concept of Bewegungskrieg or mobile war which led to the creation of the first Panzer divisions in 1935.5

Of course the British Army had not been idle during the interwar period. But the British themselves were sick of war and by the 1930s the general feeling was that another war was best avoided at all costs. And there were other priorities. There were the colonies to police. There were social obligations too – while the Germans were practising endlessly on exercise with armour and infantry, British cavalry officers were busy on the polo field. The notion that they should give this up in favour of more soldiering in tanks and other armoured vehicles was, of course, quite out of the question.

Despite these limitations the British Army did make progress. In 1926 and 1927, Lord Milne, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, allowed the Army to experiment with armour. And some regiments did make the changeover in the inter-war period. One example of this was the Rifle Brigade. This was a regiment which had started out as sharpshooters in the early 1800s but whose riflemen had served in the trenches as ordinary infantry in World War I and which moved to being a motorised regiment in the late 1930s. It was to use Bren carriers with anti-tank guns in the desert to great effect.

All of this gives us clues as to why the Germans were better prepared for World War II than the British. And it is the Allied generals who take the blame for the early success of the German Army. Most historians will point to bad leadership by the British and French generals and their staffs as the reason why 1940 was such a disaster for the Allies. After all General Erich von Manstein’s master strategy for the Blitzkrieg went exactly according to plan and the French, British, Belgian and Dutch Armies were crushed by a numerically inferior German force.

But there was something else which contributed to the downfall of the British Expeditionary Force. And that something else has been overlooked by modern historians just as it was by the British Army itself before the war. Yet it was a key factor in the way the whole of World War II was fought and it tells us why some British units were far more effective than others.

The simple fact was that British soldiers were not very good at killing.

In 1947 a United States Army general called S. L. A. ‘Slam’ Marshall surprised the military world by writing his classic book Men Against Fire. The book detailed Marshall’s observations on the battles of World War II which he had studied in his role as a US Army military historian – a task which he had undertaken by travelling all over the battlefields of Europe and the Far East where he talked to soldiers in the immediate aftermath of battle.

Marshall’s central theory was simple, ‘We found that on an average not more than 15 per cent of the men had actually fired at the enemy positions or personnel with rifles, carbines, grenades, bazookas, BARs, or machine guns during the course of an entire engagement. Even allowing for the dead and wounded and assuming that in their numbers there would be the same proportion of active firers as among the living the figure did not rise above 20 to 25 per cent of the total for any action.’

The idea that in battle only a quarter of soldiers were actually prepared to kill was a surprising one. However, Marshall was not alone. During the Sicily campaign in 1943 Lieutenant-Colonel Lionel Wigram of the British School of Infantry had observed that only a quarter of the men in a typical British platoon could be relied upon in battle.

Therefore Marshall’s conclusions would seem to be solidly based. But the new edition of Marshall’s book contains an introduction by Russell Glenn in which he outlines problems with Marshall’s methodology. In the late 1980s Dr Roger Spiller of the US Army Command and the General Staff Command started to investigate Marshall’s work. He reviewed Marshall’s notes and his letters and he talked to one of Marshall’s fellow combat historians, John Westover, who could not remember Marshall asking soldiers if they had fired or not. Spiller therefore came to the conclusion that Marshall’s theory about the numbers of soldiers firing at the enemy was not based upon solid evidence.

Marshall’s legacy received another blow from Marshall’s grandson who quoted one of Marshall’s friends as saying that Marshall had invented the 15–25 per cent proportion on the basis that these were what he believed, rather than knew, were the accurate figures.

After this the academics weighed in with their own debunking of the ‘Marshall myth’. In 1999 the Professor of History at Birkbeck College, University of London, Joanna Bourke, wrote An Intimate History of Killing in which she dismisses Marshall as someone who ‘did not interview as many men as he said he did and not one of the men he interviewed remembered being asked whether or not he fired his weapon.’ She goes on to suggest that documentary evidence from soldiers themselves, mainly in the form of letters home from the front in World War I which describe in gory detail the pleasures of killing, meant that soldiers loved killing, ‘Warfare was as much about the business of sacrificing others as it was about being sacrificed. For many men and women this was what made it a “lovely war”.’

At the same time Niall Ferguson, Fellow and Tutor in Modern History at Jesus College, Oxford, was writing The Pity of War18 in which he takes a fresh look at World War I. He too makes the case that soldiers enjoyed killing and quotes personal accounts from World War I to support this theory. He concludes by saying that, ‘men fought because they did not mind fighting.’

However, at the same time as these two historians were researching their books a former US paratrooper, Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman, was writing a book called On Killing. Grossman is not only a former soldier, he is also a psychologist and Professor of Military Science at Arkansas State University and in this book he comes down firmly on the side of Marshall.

Both Grossman and Spiller point to the fact that it is only Marshall’s methods which have been discredited and that there is still merit in considering whether his conclusions were right. Spiller notes also that Marshall did indeed visit the battlefields immediately after the battles of World War II and that he was a good observer of the human being under fire, despite his lack of accuracy as a historian.

Grossman points to a large body of historical literature and study which supports Marshall’s findings that, in any battle, most soldiers will not be firing at the enemy, instead they will be running errands, loading weapons and generally supporting the minority who are fighting. He goes on to state,

There is ample indication of the existence of the resistance to killing and that it appears to have existed at least since the black gunpowder era. This lack of enthusiasm for killing the enemy causes many soldiers to posture, submit or flee, rather than fight; it represents a powerful psychological force on the battlefield; and it is a force that is discernible throughout the history of man.

The question – are human beings natural killers? – is one which has also preoccupied professions other than military historians. According to evolutionary psychologists such as David Buss, Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas, the answer to this question is a simple yes. In his book The Murderer Next Door he states,

According to the theory I’ve developed, nearly all the many kinds of murder – from crimes of passion to the methodically planned contract kill – can be explained by the twists and turns of a harsh evolutionary logic. Killing is surely ruthless but it is also most often not the result of either psychosis or cultural conditioning. Murder is the product of the evolutionary pressures our species confronted and adapted to.

This idea that evolution has forced humans into becoming killers because of the benefits of killing other people in the great competition of life is taken to its logical conclusion by Buss who suggests, after reviewing hundreds of case files of murderers in the USA that, ‘Murderers are waiting, they are watching, they are all around us.’

However Buss’s theories are flatly rejected by anthropologists who are moving our understanding on by taking a fresh look at the fossil record and the behaviour of other primates. Robert Sussman, Professor of Physical Anthropology at Washington University (St Louis), states,

If murder statistics vary from place to place, one simple evolutionary, biological, universal explanation cannot be correct, when so many cultural ones are so much better. There is no evidence whatsoever from the fossil record or from primate behaviour to support this type of adaptationists’ scenario.

Sussman’s book Man The Hunted, written with fellow anthropologist Donna Hart from the University of Missouri – St Louis, shows where the evolutionary psychologists are mistaken,

We humans are not slaughter-prone assassins by nature. We often act badly, maliciously, cruelly but that is by choice and not by our status as bipedal primates. We can state this because our closest relatives use cooperation and friendship as the most expedient method for gaining what they need and want. Yes, just like humans, chimpanzees occasionally act brutally wacky – usually because of stress, resource shortages or unknown factors that evict them from their comfort zone. Sound familiar? Isn’t that exactly why we humans get crazed?

Whatever the arguments about Marshall’s methods, on looking at Marshall’s work in some detail it quickly becomes apparent from his combat notes30 that he was indeed interviewing combat soldiers in the aftermath of battle, sometimes as part of a group and sometimes alone. Although his notes do not record the issue of non-firers it does seem likely that Marshall could easily have asked the question without recording it formally, although whether the questioning was in any way scientific is another matter entirely.

This view is consistent with the recollections of First Lieutenant Frank J. Brennan Jr who accompanied Marshall on similar post-combat interviews during the Korean War. After this war Marshall stated that the ratio of fire had improved so that more than half the infantrymen were now active firers. In a recent interview with historian John Whiteclay Chambers, Brennan recalled that Marshall asked a lot of open questions and that he did ask about firing but without pushing the issue. Crucially, however, Brennan recalled Marshall making only occasional notes during these interviews.

Having interviewed Brennan, Chambers concludes that Marshall’s ratio of fire figure for World War II, ‘appears to have been based at best on chance rather than scientific sampling, and at worst on sheer speculation’. Chambers also concludes that Marshall was writing as a journalist rather than as a historian when he came up with his 25 per cent because, ‘He believed that he needed a dramatic statistic to give added weight to his argument. The controversial figure was probably a guess.’ Chambers’s final thought is that, even if more of Marshall’s field notebooks are found and they contain more interviews like those with Brennan, They probably will not contain the kind of data necessary to substantiate the controversial assertions of Men Against Fire.’

Since Marshall is no longer alive the best people to ask about his theory that only a minority of soldiers were firing at the enemy are those who fought in World War II. The results are surprising. Many think that there might have been something in what he said. Those who do not agree with Marshall at all are the ones who would be best classified as being in Marshall’s 15–25 per cent of active firing soldiers. A typical response comes from Henry Taylor, ex-7th Battalion, The Rifle Brigade,

If you ask me if any of our blokes had a problem with shooting Ted [Tedeschi, Italian for German, used in soldiers’ slang], then I can only say that everyone I knew would shoot to hit him. If you did not and that Ted went on to kill a mate, you would have that on your mind.

Some of these ‘active firers’ asked how it was that so many were killed if not many were firing but Marshall’s supporters point to the fact that artillery accounted for large numbers of casualties in World War II and that artillery battles are conducted at enough of a distance for the firers not to be so obviously troubled by their consciences. This argument is helped by the fact that the artillery is held to have been the most effective arm of the British Army in World War II.

Some veterans also mentioned the power of emotion. A soldier who might not be taking an active part in the battle might lose control if his best mate were killed next to him and the enemy soldiers who shot him then tried to surrender. The most dangerous time for any surrendering soldiers was the period immediately after they showed themselves as surrendering. And of course when soldiers knew about enemy atrocities, as was the case in the war in the Far East in particular, there was an additional incentive to kill the enemy.

What about the opposite viewpoint? – the idea championed by Joanna Bourke in particular, that men enjoyed killing. The suggestion that most men enjoyed battle met with universal rejection, even from those best classed as the active firers. Certainly in talking to the veterans and reading their accounts of World War II, it is very difficult to find stories about the joy of killing. Of course many of them look back on the war as a time when they enjoyed the comradeship and the shared danger, but killing, no.

Of course there were individual participants in World War II for whom the term blood lust would not be inappropriate. Men such as Anders Lassen VC of the Special Boat Service of whom it was said, ‘If he had the opportunity he’d kill someone with a knife rather than shoot.’ So such men do exist; it is simply that they appear to be either less common in World War II than in World War I or that fewer of them wrote about it in World War II. So why is there this body of literature, particularly from World War I and the Vietnam War, in which soldiers talk of the joy of slaughter?

For Britain World War I was a different kind of war to World War II. The country entered World War I in a burst of enthusiasm; men joined up fired by a desire to see the Germans put firmly in their place. Perhaps some of them, responding to the public mood, wrote of their experiences in terms which they felt would be welcomed at home rather than to reflect the reality of what they actually saw. Historians always need to be wary of personal accounts which talk up the achievements of the author. The more medals a veteran has, the less likely he is to blow his own trumpet. And if you read Lyn MacDonald’s books on World War I or Max Arthur’s Forgotten Voices of the Great War there is little there to support the idea that men took pleasure in slaughter.

Peter Hart, the oral historian at the Imperial War Museum for over twenty years, recalled that he had come across only one man he could remember who took any real pleasure in remembering the men he had killed in all his long experience of interviewing veterans. He went on to say that,

Most men regarded it as an unpleasant part of the job to be carried out as dispassionately as possible. Many seem to have consciously or unconsciously suppressed the details of the fighting. It was only in letters home, diaries or in slightly vainglorious memoirs that men were occasionally to be found boasting of their killing exploits. Here it appeared there was often the intent of impressing the intended audience and indeed an element of fantasy could creep in – a very real element of ‘giving them what they want’ – that would provide fodder for the shallow thesis of the future. Such macho posturing was not found in dispassionate oral history interviews where the soldiers’ real feelings usually emerged.

Vietnam was a different war again. By using the methods outlined later in this chapter the US Army had managed to make its soldiers far more effective at killing than their fathers had been during World War II and their grandfathers during World War I.

Logically too some of Marshall’s arguments make sense. After all peacetime society, both before World War II and since, demands that its citizens live peaceful lives. Killing someone in any civilised society usually attracts severe punishment. It is perhaps therefore little wonder that men found it hard to kill.

Given that there is probably some truth in Marshall’s assertion that not all World War II soldiers were firing at the enemy the only question which arises is the extent of this phenomenon. Was Marshall right in suggesting that only 15–25 per cent were firing their weapons at the enemy? Was it as simple as Marshall made out? Did soldiers either shoot to kill or not shoot at all?

There is some evidence to suggest that there was another group of soldiers between the firers and the non-firers, a group not recognised by either Marshall or Bourke and a group whose size cannot be quantified. This group of soldiers did fire their weapons but only in the general direction of the enemy – in other words they fired but did not fire to kill, or they did not know that they had killed. This theory is certainly consistent with British and American fire policies whereby they fought with lots of fire to cover an advance.

Consider this example:

Rifleman Joseph Belzar, 7th Rifle Brigade, Monte Malbe, Italy, 1944

I saw the long grass of the field below parting and I followed the movement of the German observer as he moved towards our position to lie motionless at the edge of the field. He was obviously observing our positions less than 100 yards away; I don’t believe he realised how close we were. I drew my rifle forward prior to taking aim but was too late as he scuttled back to his mortar position. In retrospect I am glad I was too late in firing. At that distance I would not have missed and now, looking back over fifty years later, I should hate to have had the recollection of looking down on a person for whose death I had been solely responsible. Generally in any battle situation there is collective action and one could never be sure whose bullet had found the target.

Given that the situation on the battlefield may not have been quite as straightforward as Marshall made out it is also worth remembering that, apart from the ordinary infantry there were also many Special Forces units formed during World War II. Chief among these were the Commandos whose special training regime produced soldiers second to none and who were close to the 100 per cent of active firers.

But there was something else. Some of these Commandos also said that Marshall might have had a point when it came to the ordinary infantry units they belonged to prior to joining the Commandos but their training as Commandos had been so effective that they became ‘proper’ soldiers. According to David Cowie, who served with the Fife and Forfar Yeomanry in France in 1940 and who subsequently joined No. 4 Commando,

It [1940] was an absolute mess from start to finish, not because of the men but bloody bad officers and a complete lack of knowledge about the German Army … There was a complete lack of any training and I believe Marshall was right … The Commandos trained me to be a real soldier.

So what was so special about the Commandos? The answer is that they worked out what made soldiers kill long before today’s armies and before even Marshall came up with his theory about ratios of fire. And to understand the Commandos we need to understand what changed after World War II and how it is that soldiers of both the US and British Armies are now approaching a 100 per cent firing rate.

Colonel Grossman’s research is particularly valuable because he has identified exactly what it is in modern training which produces soldiers who can kill.

When we look back at the training of most World War II soldiers it is clear that it fell into three categories. Firstly there was drill, drill and more drill. The idea was that soldiers would respond immediately to orders and that drill conditioned them to instant obedience. Secondly there was weapons training which consisted of firing rifles on the ranges against bullseye circular targets. Thirdly there was fieldcraft, the necessary skills needed to move around the battlefield.

Compare this to the training given to the modern soldier as identified by Grossman. Modern soldiers do learn drill, fieldcraft and they obviously have weapons training. But now there are three additional factors: desensitisation, conditioning and denial.

Desensitisation is all about getting soldiers used to the idea of violence and killing through attitudes and language. Some old soldiers from World War II have been upset they are when they see modern British Army or Commando training on the television. Whereas these old soldiers were used to a degree of respect and tolerance from their NCOs, today’s recruits face a constant barrage of the language of violence including bawling out and bullying.

Conditioning is arguably the most important single factor in producing a soldier capable of killing. Instead of aiming at inanimate targets on a range, today’s soldier fires at lifelike pop-up targets which fall over when hit. They do this day in and day out until the whole process is automatic. According to Grossman this is based, either by accident or by design, on what is known as operant conditioning as identified by the famous psychologist B. F. Skinner. The stimulus is the human-shaped target popping up, the response is to fire the weapon, the reward is seeing the target go down. Do it often enough in training and in battle it becomes automatic.

Not sure? Consider the following:

Private Dick Fiddament, 2nd Royal Norfolks, 1939

It’s one thing to fire at a target made of paper and wood and it’s another thing to deliberately fire at something you know is like you – flesh and blood and bone, who has a family, probably married with young children, a mother and a father.

Private Michael Asher, 2nd Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, 1972

It was our first day on the ranges and we were letting rip at ‘figure elevens’: pictures of little yellow men who charged at you with gigantic bayonets and menacing snarls. Whang! Whang! Whang! The targets went down … we doubled forward to check the targets. Six bullets smack through the target’s midriff. ‘You zapped him, soldier,’ the corporal said… We handled the weapons for hours every day, repeating the rituals over and over again until they became instinctive… Familiarity was what our training was about. Handling your weapon had to become so instinctive that you could kill automatically.

One of the benefits of this type of conditioning for modern armies is that, because not every response produces a result or reward, it is hard to undo the conditioning. In other words, when a modern soldier misses a target or the enemy soldier, instead of giving up he carries on until he hits the next one and gains the reward. A similar idea is used by breakfast cereal companies in getting us to eat more of their products – have you ever had a bowl of muesli with a few elusive bits of strawberry in it? You keep eating to find the next piece of strawberry.

Another part of conditioning is the battle drill. Although criticised by some historians49 the World War II Commandos introduced their own and found that it was a useful way for soldiers to react instinctively when a set event occurred, for example the moment when a unit comes under fire. Modern armies make extensive use of battle drills.

The third element identified by Grossman is denial. The idea is that by continually rehearsing the act of killing the modern soldier is able to believe that, when it comes to the real thing, he is not killing a human being but simply another target. Modern armies do not talk about killing enemy soldiers, they talk about engaging enemy targets.

Although the modern British and US Armies make much use of these methods neither was the first to discover them. The Commandos and other Special Forces already used some, if not all of these methods to produce supremely effective killers in World War II.

Elsewhere other perceptive individuals also realised their value. In 1944 Denis Edwards had already seen action at Pegasus Bridge and was a very good sniper even though his training was entirely conventional.

Private Denis Edwards, Airborne Sniper, 2nd Battalion, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry

15th July 1944 – my 20th birthday

At midday I went out on a lone sniping trip and the moment I got into one of our ‘hides’ I realised why things had been so quiet yesterday. The Jerries had been doing a change around and this was obviously a new lot who were wandering around in the open and without a care in the world. It was a reasonably clear day and they presented excellent targets. I contemplated making a fast trip back to our lines and getting out a couple of other snipers but just as the thought passed through my mind a big fat German stopped right in the middle of a wide gap in the opposite hedgerow. The target was just too good to miss and I let fly and the fat man leapt into the air and fell forwards, flat upon his face and still out in the open.

19th July 1944

We [Edwards and a fellow (unnamed) sniper] went out to the sniper hides before dawn. We both spotted a German standing in a gap and yawning his head off. We let fly together and put him back to sleep. Then we peppered away along the enemy hedgerow in the hope of making them think that we were mounting a dawn attack. We may not have hit any more but I guess that we must have caused a fair bit of panic.

We stayed for some while and had just decided to return to our lines to get some breakfast when I spotted a German who must have had the same idea in mind. He flitted past two gaps in his hedgerow and I selected the widest gap in front of him and the moment he appeared I let fly. I think I hit him, but how badly I could not be sure as he hit the ground almost immediately and was lost from sight.

22nd July 1944

Went out sniping first thing and soon realised that a new lot had moved in across the way. Having been ‘hit’ by us several times in the past and well aware of the dangers, yesterday there was not a German to be seen. Today they were strolling casually around in the open without a worry in the world. It seemed odd to me that the outgoing lot did not advise their incoming comrades of the danger from British snipers but it would seem they never did.

A big fat German ambled leisurely into one of the biggest gaps in the hedgerow and casually raised a pair of binoculars to his face and slowly scanned our hedgerow. Equally leisurely I raised my rifle, took careful aim, gently squeezed the trigger and fired. Fat man crashed backwards and made no further movement.

25th July 1944

Was issued with a brand new sniper rifle straight from ordnance, wrapped in greaseproof paper and covered in a thick layer of grease. I spent a lot of the day taking the rifle apart and cleaning it.

27th July 1944

Mid-morning I scrounged a couple of old biscuit tins, went into a nearby field, propped the cans against a shell-scarred post, lay down about 150 yards away, fixed the telescopic sights to my new rifle and began firing away. Unfortunately the tins kept jumping around so it was impossible to correct the sights. What I really needed was a few obliging Jerries. My chance came when at lunchtime I was allowed to go out to one of the sniper hedgerows and a German kindly presented enough of himself in a small gap, just long enough for me to take aim and fire. Judging by the way that he disappeared backwards I was satisfied that the new rifle was correctly zeroed. Like a kid with a new toy I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening wandering around in no man’s land looking for likely targets but none appeared so I guess the first hit must have been good and that the rest of them were keeping down.

Several friends and acquaintances – particularly amongst the generation born after the war ended, who have read this manuscript, have asked me the question, ‘What did it feel like when, as a sniper, you looked through your telescopic sights, had a German in view and squeezed the trigger of your rifle knowing that you were taking another human life?’ I have thought about this since and the answer is that as a trained soldier fighting in a war where you killed, or could just as easily be killed yourself, you did not regard the enemy as human beings – they were simply targets to be hit and I had no different feelings about hitting these targets as I did of hitting the targets on the rifle range. The only difference was that the targets on the rifle range could not fire back but the ones we met in action could. Thus there was more satisfaction in hitting live targets since it meant one less enemy to fight in the future. One less to kill or wound my comrades.

Denis Edwards also points out that the Commandos and other Special Forces were full of volunteers whereas the rest of the Army was full of conscripts, many of whom had little appetite for war. This is a very important point, one overlooked by some historians. Joanna Bourke dismisses the Commandos as units whose status she says was, ‘based largely on very effective self-promotion’. She also refers to a 1941 report which found that, ‘A large proportion of men arriving at training centres had not been aware they were volunteering for the Special Service and promptly asked to be returned to their unit.’ The fact is that the Commandos gained their deserved reputation from their operations, and their ability to reject volunteers at any stage during training was key to their success as highly effective soldiers.

Denis Edwards’s point about conscripts is also valid today. The modern British and US Armies rely on volunteers, recruited at an age when they are susceptible to the type of training outlined above. Any who are unsuitable do not make it as soldiers and this helps ensure that all soldiers are firers. A conscript army may not be entirely useless but many of its soldiers are.

So what happens if you put an army trained in modern techniques against one trained the World War II way? The answer is that a small modern army can wreak havoc on a much larger force. Colonel Grossman points to Richard Holmes’s research into the Falklands War as a prime example of this as explaining how the British Army won a famous victory over the Argentines who were trained in the traditional ways.

So far we have talked about the British soldier of World War II. But what of the German soldier? As has already been mentioned German soldiers spent more time on exercise and used blank ammunition on exercise. This meant they were probably more conditioned and better prepared for battle than the British. But the problem of inactive firers also troubled the German Army. Günther K. Koschorrek fought on the Eastern Front and noted the following of one of his comrades,

Grommel can’t aim and pull the trigger. Even when he is forced to shoot, he closes his eyes as he pulls the trigger, so he can’t see where he is shooting. Yet he was one of the best shots in the training camp.

But the Germans did have their conditioned killers, many of them to be found in the Waffen SS, crucially an all-volunteer force. Waffen SS training contained all the elements necessary to produce soldiers who were not only ready but also willing to kill. For example members of the Waffen SS Division Totenkopf spent 1330–1730 hours each day on battle training and weapons practice and 1900–2000 hours each evening listening to lectures which included Nazi politicising. Crucially the weapons training included shooting at various targets which were either partial or full body shapes.

And, just to make sure they were thoroughly brainwashed, as well as all of this the soldiers of the Totenkopf Division spent some time on guard duty at the headquarters of the Totenkopf branch of the Algemeine SS at Dachau concentration camp.

This is a book about the reality of fighting at close quarters in World War II. However, we have already seen how it is possible for academics to fall into the trap of painting a picture of the battlefield which is somewhat at odds with the experience of those who were actually there.

Therefore this book will visit the battlefields of World War II and tell the story of some of the actions which were fought in order to see how they support the ideas outlined in this chapter. And in doing so the book will also describe some of the weapons and tactics which were used and which played a part in defeat or victory. Clearly the whole war would be outside the scope of a single book. So for each theatre one or two individual actions have been chosen to illustrate what it was like to fight there.

Bomber Command – Origins and Doctrine

Only 15 Fairey Hendons were built, serving with 38 and 115 Squadrons between November 1936 and January 1939. Before the famous early wartime trio of medium and heavy bombers (classified as such by the standards of the time) were to appear – the Whitley, Wellington and Hampden – an assortment of monoplanes appeared, most of which were destined to enter limited production and service. If they served no better purpose, they certainly subsidized the growth and training of both the RAF and the aircraft industry. To these should be added the Fairey Hendon monoplane, whose origins lay in a 1927 Specification but which was eventually rewarded by a token consolation order in the mid-1930s.

During the Second World War Bomber Command flew around 390,000 sorties for the loss of 8,953 aircraft on operational missions; that number does not include another almost 1,400 that crashed in the UK whilst airborne on an operational mission. The cost in aircrew lives was over 47,000, to which must be added those killed in accidents or training – a further 8,000 plus; it is generally accepted that the total of lives lost is around 55,000. What did the six years of the bombing offensive achieve? Supporters and critics were active at the time and in the 60 years since the end of the war the argument has raged even more fiercely. As with all history the benefits of hindsight and access to previously classified documentary sources has to be balanced by the researcher’s removal in time and context from the period under study. To understand truly decisions, policies, actions and attitudes is all but impossible.

It seems appropriate to open this overview with a few words from the most famous of Bomber Command’s leaders, Sir Arthur Harris: ‘There are no words with which I can do justice to the aircrew under my command. There is no parallel in warfare to such courage and determination in the face of danger over so prolonged a period.’ These words from Bomber Command’s wartime leader, Air Marshal Arthur T. Harris are a fitting tribute to the sacrifice made by the Command in six years of war. Only one force on the Allied side was continuously involved with active operations against the German homeland – RAF Bomber Command. The day the war started a Blenheim of 139 Squadron flew a reconnaissance sortie to locate German shipping and for the next six years the Command took the war to the enemy, at first with limited effect but from 1942 with increasing resources and greater accuracy, and with an ever greater impact.

Strategic bombing theory was developed in the latter years of the First World War and was a combination of the German raids on England and the Allied, especially Royal Flying Corps/Royal Air Force, bombing campaign, although this was only just starting to get into its stride when the Armistice was signed in November 1918. Despite the fact that strategic bombing had not really been evaluated in the First World War it became a central tenet of air power theory in the post-war period. In part this was because it was the one independent decisive (potentially) role that the air forces could perform. For the RAF this was enshrined as the Trenchard Doctrine: ‘the nation that would stand being bombed longest would win in the end … to win it will be necessary to pursue a relentless offensive by bombing the enemy’s country, destroying his sources of supply of aircraft and engines, and breaking the morale of his people.’ This doctrine of a war winning bomber force remained the focus of doctrine with the major air forces throughout the 1920s. In May 1928 Trenchard, whose views still carried great weight, circulated a forceful memo to counter: ‘an unwillingness on the part of the other Services to accept the contention of the Air Staff that in future wars air attacks would most certainly be carried out against the vital centres of commerce and of the manufacture of munitions of war of every sort no matter where these centres were located.’ He stated that the RAF doctrine was to ‘break down the enemy means of resistance by attacks on objectives selected as most likely to achieve this end’ it being better to attack munitions at source (the factory) than on the battlefield – this would become a well-rehearsed argument by Bomber Command throughout the Second World War. It would, he believed, have greater effect for less effort, and would include dissuading workers from working in the factories. ‘The Hague Convention allows for military targets, including production centres. What is illegitimate, as being contrary to the dictates of humanity, is the indiscriminate bombing of a city for the sole purpose of terrorising the civilian population.’ Bomber Command would later take great care to stress the military significance of its city targets, whilst the German propaganda machine would refer to the Terrorflieger. The other Chiefs of Staff in their respective memos were not convinced, and also expressed concern over being bombed in return; it must be remembered that this was a period when the independence of the RAF, in part budget-driven, was under threat and the arguments, as such tri-Service ‘debates’ usually are, was writ large with vested interest.

The debates were largely hypothetical at the time as the RAF’s bomber strength in the early 1930s was pitiful with five night- and six day-bomber squadrons, all with slow biplanes with very limited bomb loads, hardly the material with which to deliver an aerial bombardment of any significance.

Although the stagnation of the 1920s, which in military terms had been a dismal decade for all of Britain’s armed forces, had started to change in the early 1930s both doctrine and equipment were outdated and with little immediate prospect of improvement. In terms of aircraft there was a glimmer of hope with the issue of Specification B.9/32 for a ‘twin-engined medium bomber of good performance and long range’, although the requirement for a 720 mile range and 1,000 lb bomb load was not particularly inspiring! Two of Bomber Command’s early stalwarts – the Wellington and the Hampden – were a result of this Specification. The following year saw Britain wake up to the realities of a changing Europe. A Foreign Office appraisal of 1933 stated that Germany ‘… controlled by a frenzied nationalism and resolved to assert her rights to full equality, will proceed to the building of formidable armaments on land and especially in the air.’ The Government suggested that the Services draw up expansion plans; the Defence Requirements Committee sat from November 1933 to February 1934 and in its report gave priority to the establishment by the RAF of a Home Defence force (including bombers) strong enough to counter any attack. Expansion Scheme A was announced in July 1934 to provide the basis for a deterrent force and a training establishment on which future expansion could be based; under this scheme the RAF would be ready for war in eight years (1942). The old One-Power standard, which had seen planning based on France as the ‘enemy’ had to shift to reflect the reality of the growth of German power and belligerence. It was all very well to talk of an offensive bomber force capable of attacking targets in the Ruhr and Rhineland districts of Germany, the two main industrial areas, but quite another to make it a reality (even on paper). The initial solution was one of numbers over capability; create the squadrons even though the equipment might not be right as better aircraft could follow in due course. This was a mixture of financial constraint and lack of suitable aircraft; the latter would continue to plague the Command into the middle years of the war. As an indication, it cost £245,000 to acquire twelve Hawker Hart light bombers and £83,000 to operate them; in comparison it cost £375,000 to acquire ten Vickers Virginia heavy bombers and £139,000 a year to operate them. The financial aspect became a secondary consideration with Expansion Scheme C (May 1935) stating that: ‘Financial considerations were to be secondary to the attainment of the earliest possible security.’ In July the Air Staff confirmed the strategic doctrine: ‘Provided a sufficient weight of air attack could be brought to bear on the Rhineland-Ruhr-Saar area, Germany’s armament industry would be paralysed, which would in turn preclude her from maintaining an army in the field.’

The bomber force was organised into regional commands, such as the Wessex Bombing Area, and all were part of the Home Defence organisation, fitting neatly with the bombing offensive being seen as ‘attack as the best means of defence.’

By the time that Bomber Command formed on 14 July 1936, Expansion Scheme F (dated February 1936) was on the table. This called for a bomber force of 68 squadrons, with 990 aircraft, and was scheduled for completion by March 1939. Like the previous Schemes, and those that followed over the next two years, it was overly optimistic. Paper squadrons don’t fight wars and when Expansion Scheme H called for 1,659 bombers in ninety squadrons it was obvious even to the optimists that it was unrealistic, even though it was not scheduled for completion until 1943. For the first Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command, Sir John Steel, aircraft were only one of the problems to be faced; of equal importance was personnel – aircrew and ground crew – as well as equipment, including bombs, and airfields. Lack of suitable weapons was to prove a major embarrassment to Bomber Command in the early part of the war and the problem could be traced back to a 1932 Air Staff decision that there would be no requirement for a bomb heavier than 500 lb and that the 250 lb bomb would be the standard weapon. The need for airfields further north to cater for Germany as the main target led to Expansion Period airfields from Norfolk to Yorkshire, with the latter county, along with Lincolnshire, becoming the heartland of Bomber Command. This expansion did not really start until 1935, with old First World War sites being looked at as part of a major search for airfield sites. The basic requirement was for a large patch of level ground for a grass airfield, the current bombers requiring little in the way of prepared surfaces, along with support facilities such as hangars, technical, administration and domestic buildings.

The impressive C-Type hangar became typical of bomber airfields of this period, although the exact facilities varied between locations. The provision of aircrew, and training in general is covered in a separate chapter. By the mid 1930s aircraft manufacturers who had been finding it hard to survive official disinterest in the 1920s were being called on to produce large numbers of new aircraft and it is remarkable that they were able to respond as well as they did. A great deal of criticism has been levelled by some commentators on the poor quality of equipment with which the RAF entered the war, an argument that could equally be aimed at the likes of tanks and other military equipment, but it takes time to design, develop and produce advanced items such as aircraft. It was only in 1935 that a medium/heavy bomber philosophy was adopted, based on the bomb lift of the proposed new types, and there was much debate on the subject at Air Staff and Government level. However, on the outbreak of war the Command was still substantially composed of light bombers and it would be 1943 before it lost the last of these. Indeed it was only in 1936 that two of the Command’s most advanced types – both light bombers, the Fairey Battle and the Bristol Blenheim, entered service. Perhaps the most significant decision was the issue of Specification B. 12/36 for a four-engined bomber of 250 mph cruise, 1,500 mile range and 4,000 lb bomb load. It was also to have the latest navigation equipment, plus power-operated gun turrets, including a four-gun rear turret. This was starting to sound like a real strategic bomber – but the war would be well underway before the products of this Specification were ready for service. In the meantime, the expansion plans had to go ahead with whatever was to hand. Continued examination of overall air doctrine and assessment of the enemy air strength and employment, including tactical and strategic air operations in the 1936 Spanish Civil War, led to a revision in the expansion plan. In October 1938, Expansion Plan M was approved, which envisaged a strength of eighty-two bomber squadrons (1,360 aircraft) by April 1941, and with renewed focus on defensive requirements by increasing the number of fighter squadrons. Meanwhile, doctrine was being turned into reality and the Joint Planning Committee (JPC), with its eyes firmly fixed on offensive bombing, envisaged a three-phase campaign:

Countering the all-out German air offensive by attacking Luftwaffe installations.

2. Countering the German land offensive by attacking ground forces.

3. A war-winning air offensive against German industry and transport.

The JPC also stated that: ‘the offensive employment of our own and Allied bombers is the only measure which could affect the issue during the first weeks of the war. The three classes of objective are:

1. Demoralise the German people, by methods similar to those we foresee the Germans themselves using against us, [so that] their Government might be forced to desist from this type of attack.

2. Discover and attack some target, the security of which was regarded by Germany as vital to her survival during the limited period within which she hoped to gain a decision over us, [so that] she would be forced to divert her air attacks to our own aerodromes and maintenance organisation.

3. Inflict direct casualties upon the German bombing aircraft, either in the air or on the ground, or upon their maintenance organisation; the intensity of German attacks would be directly and quickly affected.

The overall philosophy was translated into ‘Planning for a War with Germany’ and in late 1936 the Air Targets Intelligence sub-committee developed the Western Air (WA) plans and these became the focus for Bomber Command’s strategic planning. On 13 December 1937 the Command was instructed to commence detailed planning for WA1 (German Air Force), WA4 (German Army concentration areas and lines of communication) and WA5 (manufacturing centres), with planning to be complete by 1 April 1938. It was a massive task and was carried out with incomplete information on the targets and an over-optimistic appreciation of bombing capability. A Bomber Command appraisal of the list suggested that only the third was realistic as the others comprised targets of an inappropriate nature for offensive strategic bombers, a stance that would be taken by bomber leaders, especially Arthur Harris, at various times throughout the war.

The WA Plans underwent a number of modifications over the next few months but by mid 1938 had settled down as:

WA1        German Air Force organisation and associated industries.

WA2        Reconnaissance of Home Waters and East Atlantic, in co-operation with the Royal Navy.

WA3        Convoy protection in Home Waters and East Atlantic.

WA4        German Army concentration areas and lines of communication.

WA5        Manufacturing Resources; WA5(a) Ruhr, WA5(b) Inland waterways, Ruhr, Baltic, North Sea ports, WA5(c) Outside of Ruhr.

WA6        Stores, especially oil.

WA7        Counter-offensive in co-operation with Royal Navy in defence of sea-borne trade.

WA8        Night attacks.

WA9        Kiel Canal and associated waterways.

WA10      Shipping and facilities, especially the Baltic.

WA11      Forests and crops.

WA12      German fleet in harbour or at sea.

WA13      Administrative centres, especially Berlin.

An indication of the optimism of the bomber theorists was a suggestion that an offensive against the Ruhr, especially the coking plants and power stations, would, ‘Prevent Germany waging war on a large scale in less than three months.’ This outcome could be achieved with 3,000 sorties, at a cost of 176 bombers, by knocking out twenty-six coking plants and nineteen power stations. With hindsight of the first years of the war this level of optimism seems incredulous!

Whilst plans were being prepared, the Command was undergoing a major reorganisation as aircraft types and roles were concentrated into individual Groups and units moved to more appropriate airfields within the new structure. The progress made in the two years since the Command was formed was incredible and those who criticise Bomber Command’s performance in the first years of the war fail to recognise just how much had been achieved in such a short period. Despite the optimism expressed above, Ludlow-Hewitt (C-in-C since September 1937) clearly stated that his Command was: ‘Entirely unprepared for war, unable to operate except in fair weather and extremely vulnerable in the air and on the ground.’ These words proved to be far more prophetic. However, the military always has to play with the cards it has and Bomber Command was to enter the war with a far from ideal hand. The arrival of the Wellington, the first squadron equipping in late 1938, was one positive indication but by the outbreak of war there were only six operational squadrons with this type. It could have been worse; Bomber Command may have gone to war in September 1938 when the Munich Crisis took Europe to the brink of war. Most parties knew that the Allied ‘sell-out’ provided only a respite and that war with Germany was inevitable; for the RAF the extra year was crucial.