RAF Doctrine 1918

On 7 November, he told the cabinet that despite the turmoil inside Germany, there was no military reason for Germany to surrender. Their Army was retreating in reasonably good order, it was holding a continuous front, and with winter approaching, there was no reason why they should not be able to establish a solid defensive line. There was still time for the RAF to inflict the coup de grâce. The War Cabinet officially approved the Air Ministry plan to transfer as many bombers as possible from the Middle East to Bohemia to attack industrial and ‘moral targets’, but the Foreign Office stopped short of sanctioning a raid on the capital.

On 6 November, a delegation had been dispatched from Berlin with instructions to obtain a ceasefire at any price. On 8 November, they met Foch and were told the price was total surrender. The Germans requested an immediate temporary armistice while they considered the French demands; Foch refused and gave them three days to decide. A raid on Berlin by one plane might appear a mere gesture, but politically Balfour decided that it could send a very strong and direct message to Germany’s leaders. Clearance was given for the RAF to bomb Berlin. The Handley Page V/1500 was to set off on 9 November and the Vimy in France was to follow as soon as it was ready. Poor weather forced the first V/1500 raid to be postponed for forty-eight hours. At dawn on 11 November, the crews prepared for another attempt, but before they could get into the air, news arrived that an armistice would come into effect later that day. There would be no opportunity to bomb Berlin—not in this war at least.

For the Air Ministry, it was an anti-climax and unsatisfactory conclusion to their strategic bombing campaign—the end of the war had come before the value of the strategic bomber could be proven. Indeed, far from being proven, doubts were growing about it having any significant military value. The optimism of mid-summer had been replaced by a growing realisation that little physical damage was being inflicted on the German economy. The ability of the bomber to cripple German industry had been vastly exaggerated. The effect of the bombing on the German population had also been overestimated. Deaths as a result of any one raid rarely reached double figures and less than 1,000 German civilians died in bombing raids during the First World War. Tragic as each individual loss was, given the huge problems Germany faced and the horrendous scale of casualties at the front, the impact of bombing casualties on the population as a whole was slight. The deaths through air bombardment were dwarfed by the 400,000 German civilians who died in 1918 as a result of the flu pandemic.

The deprivations caused by the blockade, the onset of the flu pandemic, the surrender of Germany’s allies and the general hopelessness of the military situation were far more significant factors in the decline of German morale. The scattering of a few bombs over Berlin in the last hours of the war might have added to the sense of hopelessness. Alternatively, the indignation such attacks caused might equally have helped unite a broken nation and stiffen resolve. Most likely of all, it would scarcely have been noticed in a country already racked by despair, disorder and internal dispute.

The war had ended with no evidence that a country could be intimidated into accepting defeat by the air weapon. Haig had apparently been proven right. The bombing of London, or any other city, could not change the course of the war. It was perhaps easier for Haig in France to make this judgement than the politicians and military sitting in London as the bombs fell around them. Haig’s insistence that the Army should get priority over home air defence might seem cold and calculating, even callous, but he simply did not believe the compatriots of his stoic conscript Army would cave in so tamely under the threat of air attack. It is neither difficult nor surprising to find evidence that civilians find bombing extremely distressing, but it is hard to find evidence that it induces a desire to surrender. As well as causing grief, the killing and maiming of innocent civilians inspires resentment and anger. It does not take much, if any, manipulation by the government and media to exploit these emotions to stiffen the determination of a nation to fight on. As Mond had suggested in 1909, ‘No nation would make peace because the enemy was killing its civilians’.

As a last resort, advocates of long-range bombing claimed that even if the bombers did not achieve decisive results, the effort that the enemy had been compelled to put into air defence was a victory for the bomber. The problem was that long-range bombers required far more resources to build and operate than the short-range interceptors that shot them down: ten Snipes could be built for the price of one Handley Page V/1500. Fighters were also more versatile than huge long-range bombers. Interceptors were often the same machines as those operating over the front, but huge and cumbersome Handley Page V/1500 bombers would be as vulnerable as Zeppelins over the battlefield.

Perhaps the biggest error made by the pro-bombing lobby was that bombing was easy and preventing it difficult. By the end of the war it was becoming clear the opposite was far closer to the truth. The defences of both sides were improving quicker than the efficiency of the bomber forces. Even if the defences were overcome and targets found, planners were becoming aware of the countermeasures open to the country under attack. Cities could not be moved but industries could. As a last resort, dispersion and relocation of vulnerable industries was always possible. Tiverton’s greatest fear had always been that a premature and unsuccessful offensive against any particular target would give the enemy time to relocate to a more distant part of Germany.

The German daylight raids on London had provoked a radical shift in British air policy. At the time, it seemed like the dawn of a new era in warfare, but even before the war ended a little more than a year later, there was growing evidence that this had been a massive over-reaction and misjudgement. Long-range bombing was fraught with far more problems than anyone had appreciated and the battle for resources in the last year of war demonstrated that Britain did not have the means to build a long-range bomber fleet and maintain an effective Army and Navy. By November 1918, it was the advocates of strategic bombing who were very much on the back foot, desperate to find last-minute proof, or even just a little evidence, that they might still be right.

Only the politicians seemed to have been won over. Many seemed to have been taken in by some of the extraordinary claims made for the destructive capabilities of very small numbers of bombers. As always, it was the politicians who tended to be most impressed by the morale argument. This is scarcely surprising; it is, after all, the politicians’ responsibility to worry about civilian morale. Defending one’s own civilians from aerial bombardment is a perfectly reasonable priority for any government. The ability to retaliate effectively made politicians feel more confident about securing the support of their own people and less vulnerable to threats from enemies. The political advantages and the military benefits of having an intimidating long-range bomber force would become increasingly muddled in the years ahead.

While the strategic use of air power had failed to make the expected impact, the tactical applications of air power had gone from strength to strength. Aerial reconnaissance and artillery direction developed very rapidly, achieving a degree of operational sophistication and efficiency that, even after four years of war, the long-range bombing advocates could not come close to matching. The problem of the air and artillery combination was that it worked so well: it stifled movement on the battlefield and deepened the stalemate. However, as the war progressed and new tactics began to break the tactical gridlock, air power was able to demonstrate its versatility.

In any sort of conflict, reconnaissance is crucial. If reconnaissance had been the only task aircraft were capable of performing in 1918, it would still have justified the resources poured into the development of military aviation; however, aircraft were capable of much more. Attacking ground targets began to produce significant results once it was appreciated that the more relevant they were to the immediate battle, the more difference they could make. By the end of the war, fighter-bombers were being employed and directed in exactly the same way as artillery. Ground attack was merely an extension of the artillery support an Army corps could expect. By 1918, close air support was not an innovation, it was normal. The expectation was that eventually even a platoon commander held up by an enemy strongpoint should be able to call for air support. Techniques for supporting ground forces more normally associated with the Second World War had become established procedures in the First World War.

In defence, close air support had demonstrated its mobility and ability to deal with emergencies. In attack, it had in extreme circumstances demonstrated the ability to turn retreat into a rout. Most of the time, its impact was far less spectacular. It was just another useful tool available to Army commanders, but this capability alone was valuable enough to justify its existence and should have been enough to guarantee its future.

In 1918, the Army was developing along the right lines. The War Office was developing high-speed tanks that could do more than just crush barbed wire and support the infantry. Armoured close support planes and self-propelled artillery were being developed, which could support deep thrusts into the enemy rear. No longer would the infantry have to wait for the artillery to move into place before advancing. The fast moving tanks still had to be developed and the tactics they would use formulated, but the air element was already in place. Britain had its blitzkrieg air force.

As valuable as the fighter-bomber had proven, the Army appreciated the first duty of the fighter was to establish air superiority. The struggle for air superiority was a battle that proved as crucial as any fought on land or sea. To win it required the right training, tactics, organisation and equipment. In the autumn of 1918, the Germans might have been losing the war, but with their excellent Fokker D.VII and ‘Flying Circuses’, they were ahead of the RAF in most of these respects.

No country could have been quicker than Britain to see the need for an efficient fighter, but developing the correct solution proved to be a very slow process. False analogies with naval warfare had led to an obsession with aerial battleships that could dominate huge areas of airspace. The realities of war eventually forced an acceptance that speed and agility were the key qualities, more important even than firepower. No other item of First World War military equipment had such a rapid turnover as the fighter. A new design might only dominate the skies for months before becoming obsolete. No item of military equipment was considered more important. The Fokker D.VII was considered such a vital element of the German war machine, it was the only item of military equipment specifically mentioned by name in the list of war material the Germans had to hand over as the price for an armistice.

The flying qualities required of an air superiority fighter are simple to list: ease of control; ability to turn tightly and change direction quickly; high horizontal, climbing and diving speeds; high acceleration; and high service ceiling. The problem is that many of these qualities are contradictory and one can only be achieved at the expense of another. The first Martinsyde F.3/4 fighters to reach the RAF would have found themselves opposed by the Fokker D.VIII. No two fighters could be more different than the light Fokker and the powerful Martinsyde. Each had its advantages and it would have been an interesting contest between the two.

Developing the correct fighter tactics had been a particularly hard struggle for the RFC and RAF, but theories about providing indirect protection by dominating the enemy rear had eventually given way to more focused fighter operations in the battle zone. Fighters had to operate where they were likely to encounter the enemy, not where theories dictated the battle ought to take place. If patrols flying low over the battle area needed higher level patrols to protect them, then an independent battle for air superiority between the opposing fighter forces might well emerge, but fighter resources could not be wasted looking for a battle that served no purpose. The first priority was to establish superiority in the immediate vicinity of friendly forces, whether they are troops in the front line or reconnaissance and bombing machines penetrating enemy airspace. Once this has been established, then it might well be profitable for fighters to patrol further afield. Trenchard’s offensive patrols would have been an excellent way of extending and reinforcing air superiority already achieved over the battlefield, but they were not a way of achieving that air superiority.

Ironically, given that much air force strategy was based on naval practice, the Navy and RAF ended up making the same mistakes and having to learn the same lessons. The Navy began the war believing a broad offensive policy aimed at dominating the oceans would enable individual vessels to move freely. The policy had failed and been replaced by the more pragmatic approach of concentrating shipping in convoys that were protected by strong naval escorts. Exactly the same had happened in the air.

It was the expansion of the strategic bomber force, not the tactical air force, which was in most doubt when the war came to an end. If the war had continued into 1919, the RAF, with a large Army in the field to support, would undoubtedly have continued to develop as a powerful tactical force. The development of a powerful strategic bombing force would have been far more problematic. Britain did not have the resources to build a strategic and a tactical air force. If the war had continued, the huge expense of the strategic bomber, in terms of manpower and resources, and the needs of the Army and Navy, would probably have continued to restrict the development of the Air Ministry’s independent bombing ambitions.

Much had happened in four years. In 1914, the British had committed a small professional Army supported by four RFC squadrons to a European conflict that was expected to be of limited duration. Instead, the war had lasted for more than four years and a huge conscript Army had been raised. Plans for the spring of 1919 envisaged fifty divisions of the British Army supported by a tactical air force with 400 day and night bombers, 400 low-level fighter-bombers, 300 two-seater fighter-reconnaissance planes and 700 armoured corps planes, all protected by 1,200 single-seater fighters. In 1919, the British soldier would not have lacked air support. It was a level of support that British soldiers fighting future battles in future wars would be denied. Why they did not get it is another story.

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A Military Revolution or Evolution?

Spanish Tercios
The Spanish tercios (“third”), a military formation composed of pikemen, swordsmen, and harquebusiers (musketeers) of 3,000 troops, was a formidable force in early modern European warfare. This infantry formation developed in the Italian Wars (1494-1559) as a response to counter cavalry forces. Pikemen, a Swiss development in infantry, staved off cavalry forces with large spears, or pikes, protecting swordsmen and musketeers within the formation. The Spanish Habsburgs used tercios in their many wars of the sixteenth century, exhibiting the combination of the pikeman (defense against cavalry) and the musketeer (firepower) in battle, the old and the new, illustrative of the dynamic nature of the military revolution of early modern Europe. Moreover, fielding these large forces required the Habsburg state to create a viable system of taxation, supply, and military organization, also exhibiting the development of the absolutist state (at least with the composite state of Castile) vis-a-vis the military revolution. However, tactical improvements in the seventeenth century, by the military innovations of the Swede Gustavus Adolphus in the Thirty Years’ War and the Dutch Maurice of Nassau in the Habsburg-Dutch War, reduced the effectiveness of the tercios in battle, illustrating the evolution of long-term military transformations vis-a-vis tactics, technology, and the state.

The term in “Military Revolution” was coined by historian prominent Roberts Michael in a 1956 military essay. In it was Roberts Michael coined argued that the nature of warfare changed profoundly in the period between 1560 and 1660 and marked a turning point in virtually all aspects of war. Army organization, strategies, tactics, and weapons went through major transformations as a result of the innovations of various European military leaders, notably Maurice of Nassau in Holland and Gustavus Adolphus in Sweden. The concept of the Military Revolution was widely accepted for two decades until an academic debate around it emerged in the 1980s. British historian Geoffrey Parker expanded the concept to cover changes in fortress designs and naval innovations and stressed the worldwide implications linking the Military Revolution to the rise of Europe to global dominance. Scholars questioned whether a process lasting for over 100 years can be truly called a revolution. Instead, American historian Clifford J. Rogers suggested the idea of successive military revolutions at different periods, for example, the “infantry revolution” of the fourteenth century, the “artillery revolution” in the fifteenth century, the “fortifications revolution” in the sixteenth, etc. He compared this process to a biological concept of “punctuated equilibrium evolution” that implies short spurts of rapid military innovation followed by longer periods of relative stagnation. Other historians noted that the Military Revolution was not necessarily a purely European phenomenon and that military transformation occurred outside Europe as well, such as in the Ottoman empire, in India, and in Qing China. More importantly, scholars contend that Military Revolution is not just about transformation of tactics and strategies but is also about profound political, economic, and social changes that occurred between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries. Did the Military Revolution cause these changes in state formation, or did political and social changes contribute to the Military Revolution? The debate is ongoing, and no clear consensus has emerged so far among historians.

European Military Transformations

Developments in military technology and advances in battlefield tactics from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century in Europe led to what historians refer to as the “military revolution,” which changed not only the nature of warfare itself but also diplomacy and statecraft. In 1955 historian Michael Roberts proposed that four major changes in warfare, occurring from 1560 to 1660, constituted a military revolution: the use of firepower replaced shock, the size of armies was increased, field strategies replaced sieges in offensive operations, and warfare affected civilian societies directly on a vaster scale. Roberts further suggested that these developments allowed for the establishments of constitutional centralization of states (using Protestant Sweden under Gustavus Adolphus as an example) and in effect were a major contributing factor in the evolution of the modern state. However, the historiographical debate that Roberts sparked allowed for other historians to explore developments in military and state transformations in early modern Europe, which contributed to European hegemony in the world in later centuries.

Historian Geoffrey Parker, while in agreement with Roberts’s overall concept of a military revolution taking place, disagreed with his contention regarding the development of constitutional modern states. Parker also believed that Roberts overlooked developments in France and Spain. Roberts had argued that the state had been required to centralize its authority to administer and tax the populace in order to field and supply standing armies. Parker countered this contention by arguing for the Spanish Habsburg regime, which had not implemented political changes and was still able to maintain and field major forces throughout Europe, most notably the formidable tercios. Moreover, according to Parker, the Spanish had been the first in the fifteenth century to create a centralized bureaucratic structure to finance, train, and command its military forces without structural constitutional changes to the Habsburg composite state.

Parker also proposed that Roberts’s argument concerning the transition from siege warfare contributing to developments in tactics on the battlefield was not causally linked from the former to the latter. According to Roberts, modern warfare developed in response to the disuse of fortifications, which were less efficient due to vulnerability from artillery barrages. Parker was critical of this thesis and argued that improvements in fortifications actually contributed to the increase in field troops and the use of artillery. The development of the trace italienne in early modern military geography, where low walls, obstacles, and bastions allowed fortress artillery to defend itself from attacking forces, became an important innovation. These new fortifications forced military organizations to field larger armies to attack and maintain larger sieges. Garrisons and defensive forces were also forced to grow in size to match the increase in troops mustered by offensive military commands. Therefore, according to Parker, the revolution occurred nearly a century (1570) before Roberts had suggested (1660).

Historian Jeremy Black argued that the military revolution had actually occurred much later than proposed by both Roberts and Parker. For Black, the implementation of the ring bayonet, which meant the end of the use of pikemen, allowed for a vast increase in the number of infantry. Pikemen had been used in early modern Europe to protect the infantry from cavalry through the use of large pikes, in effect creating a wall around the columns of musketeers. The ring bayonet allowed armies to dispense with pikes and thus use their manpower for more musketeers in their infantries. Moreover, Black contended that standardization in weaponry and uniforms also contributed to the onset of the military revolution. He proposed, in contrast to Roberts’s thesis, that the modern state, in its administrative and bureaucratic capacities, allowed for strategic developments rather than vice versa.

Historian Clifford Rogers takes an entirely different framework to explain the military transformations in Europe by examining developments before those espoused by Roberts, Parker, and Black. Rogers discusses developments in preceding centuries and formulates these changes by discussing the “infantry revolution” and the “artillery revolution.” According to Rogers, the infantry revolution occurred in the thirteenth century during the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) between England and France, where the use of the longbow illustrated the value of the infantry as an integral component in battle against heavily armored knights. Moreover, pikes were also used to fend off cavalry attacks and thus conclusively began being used in larger numbers to counter traditional medieval knight cavalry charges. The need for larger infantries forced states to recruit and maintain troops of non-elites as these became integral components in national armies. Moreover, the artillery revolution, which also grew out of the Hundred Years’ War, was characterized by technological improvements in cannon barrels and more efficient use of gunpowder and contributed to changes in battlefield tactics, sieges, and the development of the state. They became pivotal to destroying strongholds and fortifications and could only be afforded by centralized states due to their expense. Therefore, according to Rogers, these developments, while antecedents to Roberts’s military revolution, illustrate the long-term process of the development of the modern state and changes in military technology and tactics in what he frames as a punctuated equilibrium evolution. In using this model, Rogers proposes that there was a series of military revolutions, all in reaction to previous disequilibrium introduced by prior revolutions and all part of a long-term process of transformation.

Bibliography Black, Jeremy. A Military Revolution? Military Change and European Society, 1551-1800. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1990. Bobbitt, Philip. The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History. New York: Anchor Books, 2002. Parker, Geoffrey. The Military Revolution: Military Innovation and the Rise of the West, 1500-1800. 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Rogers, Clifford J. The Military Revolution Debate: Readings on the Military Transformation of Early Modern Europe. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1995

A Change in Doctrine after Schweinfurt

P-51D 44-14733 “Daddy’s Girl” as flown by Maj. Ray S. Wetmore of the 370th FS, 359th FG, from East Wretham in late 1944/early 1945.

Ronnie Olsthoorn Aviation Art

It was apparent to the USAAF leadership that long range fighter escort was needed and this would be answered in the upcoming months. In the summer of 1943, America’s aircraft production was focused on bombers first, reconnaissance aircraft second, and “other air force activities” third. The second Schweinfurt raid, October 14th 1943, changed aircraft production priority to fighter production with a focus on the P-38 and the P-47 at the time. Arnold ordered all P-38 and P-47 fighter groups deploying overseas to be sent to Britain but it took time to receive aircraft, train aircrews and emplace the necessary technical support. In the meantime, Major General Ira Eaker sent Eighth Bomber Command out on relatively short missions, within fighter escort range, encountering bad winter weather much of the time instead of the Luftwaffe. But when the Luftwaffe was encountered, the P-38 Lightning had trouble handling the highly maneuverable German fighters due to the Lightning’s turbochargers performing badly at higher altitudes in the high humidity and colder temperatures. The P-38 performed well at lower altitudes in the Mediterranean and Pacific Theaters, but was not suited for colder temperatures found at higher altitudes in north and central Europe. The USAAF leadership pinned hope that the P-38 would be the solution to the long range escort problem but mechanical difficulties blocked that option.

A more successful solution to answer the call for increased fighter escort range came in the form of external auxiliary fuel tanks for fighters. As early as 1942, the Eighth AAF inquired whether jettisonable fuel tanks could be made available for the P-47 but the solution was foolishly delayed by the industrial bureaucracy and the lack of emphasis by the USAAF leadership. Meanwhile, local sources in England were tapped to produce a limited quantity of 75 gallon tanks for both the Spitfire and the P-47. Due to the shortage of wartime material in Britain, these 75 gallon tanks were often made of inferior material and had mechanical issues at higher altitudes. By August of 1943, Army Material Command (AMC) was still experimenting at a slow pace with external tanks but had yet to produce its own model. It took a desperate plea by the Eighth’s technical service section chief, Colonel Cass Hough, to get the external fuel tank program kick started. Due to further political pressure applied by the Combined Chiefs, a suitable 150 gallon drop wing tank was quickly developed. In September of 1943, the monthly production of 150 gallon wing tanks for the P-47 was only 300; by December it was 22,000. If the tasking was taken seriously a year earlier, this one innovation could have decreased bomber losses during the fall of 1943 but emphasis arrived too late. As Brigadier General Hume Peabody would put it, the auxiliary tank problem indicated “a lack of forward thinking.” By early 1944, the 150 gallon wing tanks had a significant impact on the fighter escort solution.

Also by late fall of 1943, the P-47 received technical upgrades, which included an improved paddle bladed prop and a water injection boost kit, which greatly improved horse power and overall performance. The P-47 could now out-climb its main adversary, the FW-190, and with a new gyro-stabilized gun sight would have a better chance of obtaining hits. The P-47, a seven ton plane equipped with eight fifty caliber machine guns, had its combat range greatly increased by the new 150 gallon droppable wing tanks and performed a majority of the escort missions in early 1944 that swept the Luftwaffe from the skies. Even though the USAAF leadership placed a lot of faith in the P-38 Lightning, it was an entirely new plane that would take center stage for fighter escort duty. The origins of the P-51 are curious enough; in April 1940, the British Air Commission approached North American Aviation for a contract to build Curtis fighters for the RAF. The company suggested an entirely new plane be built and presented the NA-73 Mustang powered by an Allison engine – a prototype completed in only 127 days. The British Air Commission was delighted with the quick turn around and awarded North American with a contract. Before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, 620 Mustangs were shipped to the RAF and made their debut during the Dieppe Raid in the summer of 1942. However, due to the underpowered Allison engine, their performance was not particularly impressive. For this reason, the P-51As were confined to low level tactical missions.

In May of 1942, trials were made with five P-51 aircraft outfitted with Rolls Royce Merlin 61 engines in an attempt to improve performance. The results with using these existing components were phenomenal, the P51B (production model) had improved performance at all altitudes especially above 33,000 feet obtaining speeds of 440 m. p. h.. Further adjustments in the controls resulted in improved maneuverability which led to an aircraft equal to or superior, in many aspects, to what the Luftwaffe could offer at the time. North American Aviation received a contract to build the more effective Merlin-61 engine and mate this to its successful airframe in North American’s aircraft manufacturing facilities.

By June 1943, 145 P51Bs were shipped to England but served in a reconnaissance role. Sixteen days after the October Schweinfurt raid, Arnold ordered all P-51Bs in England to be withheld from the reconnaissance role, transfer to the fighter escort role, and top priority was given to North American Aviation to produce more Mustangs. The British also agreed that all RAF squadrons, scheduled to convert to P-51 Mustangs, would support Eighth Bomber Command. It was not until the summer of 1944 that P-51s squadrons were ready for combat in numbers so the weight of the spring 1944 air battles fell upon the P-47.

When Lieutenant General Jimmy Doolittle took command of the Eighth AAF in December 1943, he made two important changes which at first were unpopular with the heavy bomber crews. First, he increased tours from 25 to 30 missions which upgraded aircrew experience and provided additional cadre for the build-up in new aircrews. Second, despite violent protests from Bomber Command, Doolittle released additional fighters from escort duty to seek out the Luftwaffe whether located in the air or on the ground. Under the old fighter escort system, the fighters would rendezvous with their respective bomber formation to give coverage but the fighters would have to constantly weave, to match the bomber’s speed, and this burned precious fuel. Doolittle’s new system called for relays of fighters to take turns covering the bombers while at the same time taking advantage of each type of fighter’s strength. The Spitfires would escort the bombers from the channel out to 100 miles then the P-47s would take over for the next 150 to 200 miles. Finally, the P-38s would escort the bombers for another 150 to 200 miles. Together, this phased escort system would provide coverage out to 450 miles. As a rule, only one-third of fighters needed to stay near the heavy bombers and escort fighters were rotated in by relays so precious fuel would not be burned by weaving to match the heavy bomber’s speed. The arrival of the P-51B Mustangs in numbers, along with 150 gallon wing tanks, would stretch fighter escort coverage out to 600 miles which was more than enough to reach Berlin. Doolittle’s new escort system was devised to give the bombers maximum coverage while at the same time striking the Luftwaffe where it hurt.

Once a fighter group finished its escort task, it could drop down to lower altitudes to strafe enemy airfields. This change in tactics, combined with the increase in Allied fighter escort range, would have a huge impact on the Luftwaffe and disrupt the German practice of rearming and refueling for additional sorties against heavy bombers and eventually account for an irreversible attrition on Luftwaffe pilots. For the first time, Eighth Fighter Command was released to perform their true offensive role.

Once the Eighth AAF restarted its daylight strategic bombing campaign in February 1944, Schweinfurt was revisited utilizing a combined bombing strategy. On the night of February 24th, 1944, RAF Bomber Command targeted Schweinfurt. The next morning Eighth Bomber Command, this time escorted by long range fighters, followed up with a daylight raid. Again that night, RAF Bomber Command committed a consecutive night raid that added to a total of 3,000 tons of high explosives onto the Schweinfurt ballbearing facilities. The Combined Bomber Oensive was now better coordinated and could have achieved devastating results. Unfortunately, Sir Arthur Harris, was correct in assuming the Germans dispersed their anti-friction industry by this time as the VFK Works transferred 549 vital machines (from all five factories) to new locations. Thus, the damage from these consecutive raids was not what the Allies hoped.

By April 1944, Eighth Fighter Command was ordering new low level fighter sweeps, some in conjunction with bomber missions, deep into Germany. By design, low level fighter sweeps were to catch German aircraft landing, taking off, or on the ground. When heavy or medium bombers were available, the bombers would release ordnance over the German airfields to help neutralize anti-aircraft fire before the fighters strafed. As the spring months wore on, the effects on the Luftwaffe became noticeable as the Luftwaffe was knocked off balance and air superiority turned over to the Allies. At the same time, the German general staff made a serious mistake which threw away any chance of the Luftwaffe regaining air superiority. In face of mounting pressure from the new fighter sweeps, the Germans withdrew their fighters back into Germany in an effort to find a haven and concentrate on Allied bomber formations. By doing so, the Luftwaffe lost its chance to strike Allied escort fighters near the channel and force them to drop their auxiliary tanks early. As it stood the P-47s, and later the P-51s, increased their combat radius further into Germany and soon there was nowhere for the Luftwaffe to hide.

The Germans recognized their fall 1943 victory over the Eighth AAF and many on the German general staff believed they stopped the Americans from attacking inside the borders of Germany. Although some Luftwaffe commanders, including General Hubert Weise (who commanded the air defenses of central Germany) were clearly worried, Goring and his staff believed it was impossible for Allied fighters to escort bombers east of Brunswick so they focused their operations on attacking unescorted heavy bombers. Because of this faulty escort range assumption, the Luftwaffe would later be unable to quickly change tactics or equipment (by this time German twin engine fighters were more vulnerable

Warfare After Waterloo-European Peace I


It ultimately took the other European powers no fewer than seven coalitions and almost 25 years of virtually uninterrupted warfare to contain and defeat the threat posed by, first, Revolutionary and, then, Napoleonic France. Conflict on this scale had immense ramifications, only a few illustrations of which must suffice here. In France alone, it claimed the lives of around 38 per cent of the male generation born between 1790 and 1795; this is some 14 per cent higher than the mortality rate among the generation of 1891-95, the foremost victims of the carnage of the First World War. There were few families that had not had at least one male member killed or wounded, many of the latter being horribly maimed, if not by the weapon that had struck them, then by the crude, radical surgery – notably amputation – that was habitually resorted to as the only way of saving the lives of the badly injured. In looking for partners, many women were obliged to redefine their notions of male beauty.

Britain’s maritime, commercial and industrial power had reached new heights, very largely because of the protection against invasion that her insular nature had afforded her. By contrast, many of Europe’s largest towns and cities, including Saragossa, Hamburg and Moscow, had been ravaged, while innumerable smaller settlements had been expunged completely. Indeed, enormous tracts of countryside, such as the Elbe valley, the focus of the final struggle for Germany, had been devastated, either by actual fighting or by the mere presence of armies of unprecedented size. Creating these had required commensurable efforts on the part of the belligerents and had led to appreciable political upheaval. This included the demise of several polities and dynasties and the fatal weakening of others. Feudal and other reforms had, however, benefited the aristocracy more often than not, while Europe’s growing bourgeoisie aspired to join the ruling classes rather than overthrow them. As always, war had brought out the best and worst in people. Scores of thousands of human beings had been transformed by their experiences on and around the battlefields, while millions more had been touched by the wider impact of a conflict that was more total than anything that had gone before: trade patterns, labour markets, investment, commerce, industry and agriculture had all been affected, though neither uniformly nor always adversely. Many people had lost everything – their homes, property, livelihoods, family. Yet, if law, order and normal life had collapsed in many areas, elsewhere it had survived almost unscathed; poverty and its symptoms, such as prostitution, were more evident in many places, whereas others enjoyed unparalleled prosperity; while the war-weariness, defeatism, bitterness, disillusionment and despair of some was juxtaposed with the triumphalism, optimism and addiction to `la gloire’ evinced by others.

The more decisive a conflict is, the longer the ensuing peace is likely to prove. However, much also depends upon the quality of that peace. Endorsed in 1814, the First Treaty of Paris granted France far more lenient terms than she had any right to expect, but the immense problems created or exacerbated by the war swiftly overwhelmed the restored Bourbons who had inherited them. Scarcely liked to begin with, Louis XVIII could neither satisfy his subjects’ aspirations at home nor reconcile their perception of France’s position in the new European order with the realities of her situation. For too many people, it was just too tempting to conclude that she had been humiliated and subjected to an unjust peace, which had included the imposition of a maladroit, anachronistic regime.

Napoleon attempted to exploit this discontent by making one last bid for power. Having escaped from exile on Elba, in March 1815 he marched on Paris at the head of his bodyguard. It proved an essentially bloodless revolution. Troops sent against `le petit caporal’ rallied to his cause, and the Bourbons fled. The Allied powers, however, convinced that they could never secure an enduring peace with the `Corsican Ogre’, promptly formed the Seventh Coalition and prepared to invade France. Napoleon, proclaimed emperor once more, responded with a pre-emptive blow against the Prussian and Anglo-Dutch armies in the Low Countries, but, after some initial success, was given a dose of his own strategic medicine and heavily defeated at Waterloo.

Abdicating a second time, he was exiled to the remote island of St Helena, where he was to die six years later. Although his last great adventure had lasted just 100 days, the Allies’ victory could do no more than limit the extent of the upheaval provoked by his coup d’état. At the very least, Napoleon’s gamble had compromised any hope of national reconciliation, and the French were soon in the grip of the `White Terror’. This included attempts to purge the army. Marshals Brune and Ney met their ends at the hands of a royalist mob and a firing squad, respectively, while Grouchy, Soult, Davout and Suchet were all banished or otherwise disgraced. Leading generals who had rallied to the Bonapartist cause also suffered, notably Vandamme, who was exiled, and Drouet d’Erlon, who, proscribed and condemned to death in his absence, fled abroad. Traces of Revolutionary and Imperial influence were eradicated or reduced by other means, too. A Royal decree of August 1815 formally disbanded the army to facilitate its reconstruction. Conscription was suspended and was to remain so until 1818, when Gouvion Saint-Cyr – a Napoleonic marshal who had turned a blind eye to his former master’s return in 1815 and was subsequently rewarded with the post of war minister by the Bourbons – introduced the `Appel’, which required men to register for military service; 40 000 were then selected by ballot, with the customary exemptions being granted to the eligible. Between 1815 and the inauguration of this system, many personnel were demobilized and the remainder reshuffled, while the Napoleonic architecture of corps and divisions was demolished. Even the established regiments did not survive: whereas the infanterie légere all but disappeared, the ligne was reorganized into `legions’, each of which comprised several battalions supported by cavalry and artillery detachments. Besides being relieved of the eagles and tricolours that had been restored to them during the `100 Days’, all units also lost their identifying numbers and were instead given departmental or regional titles. As a final political precaution, moreover, legions were raised in one district and garrisoned in another.

Needless to say, Napoleon’s 1815 coup did nothing to diminish the Allies’ fears and suspicions of France and, although the Second Treaty of Paris duplicated the first in so far that it paved the way for her to rejoin the concert of great powers as an equal partner, it was inevitably more punitive. If only in a bid to prevent any recidivism, the French were saddled with a war indemnity amounting to 700 million Francs as well as an army of occupation. Enormous though this force was, the need for the bulk of the Allies’ military machine seemed to have passed. Much of it was promptly dismantled. Nevertheless, most states preserved some mechanism by means of which they could quickly supplement their martial strength, should that prove necessary. For instance, anxious to preserve Britain’s maritime security and power, and mindful that most of the lengthy period required to build a sailing vessel was needed for the construction of the hull and superstructure, the Royal Navy had warships built without masts and rigging. Their upper decks covered with a protective roof, these vessels were then laid up in river estuaries or harbours. In the event of an emergency, the roof could be removed and the ship completed in a matter of days or weeks.

By contrast, the emphasis in most other European states was on land warfare. This was especially so of Prussia. Her geostrategic position was a vulnerable one and, in 1806, her partial, slow and ineffectual mobilization had contributed to a débacle that had brought her to the very brink of annihilation. In precipitating reform, however, military defeats often prove to be better catalysts than victories. After the Napoleonic Wars, Prussia maintained and refined the conscription laws she had first devised for the Befreiungskrieg. These required all able-bodied men of 20 to serve for three years with the colours and two years with the reserves. For a further 14 years thereafter, they were liable for duty with the Landwehr, a discrete, territorial service. Besides yielding a sizeable standing army, this approach gave Prussia a large pool of trained manpower that she could tap to flesh out embryonic Armeekorps. Raised on a provincial basis, their composition was fixed at one cavalry and two infantry divisions, together with artillery, cavalry and engineering units.

The coming of new forms of transport that promised to speed up the tempo of military operations both facilitated the timely activation and concentration of armed forces and accentuated the importance of such capabilities. Indeed, over the next few decades, the utilization of the steam engine in this regard was a major factor in the erosion of the technological consistency that had prevailed in military affairs since Marlborough’s time. Railways offered comparatively rapid, inexpensive transport and communication. One authority has estimated that they reduced haulage costs per kilometre by between 80 and 85 per cent. They helped create integrated internal markets, accelerated the growth of towns and, like other machines, changed the relationship between humankind and its tools. Even people’s concepts of time were transformed. Once related to the natural and essentially local world – the rising and setting of the sun, the turning of the seasons, the varying speed of travel achievable by horse or on foot – time now became an absolute. Trains could move with a regularity and predictability that the horsedrawn mail coaches could not match. The very notion of timetables demanded the synchronization of time.

No nineteenth-century French administration did more to stimulate industrialization than l’empire autoritaire. Combining Bonapartist militarism with economic dirigisme, it promoted railroad expansion with capital that was raised from small investors and channelled through the Crédit Mobilier bank. Before 1851, the French railway system essentially comprised several spokes which, radiating from Paris, rather neglected the manufacturing centres. Thereafter, its growth, by network and region alike, boosted employment, agriculture and the iron, steel and coal industries especially, while improving access to emerging markets in North Africa and the Middle East through the gateway of Marseille.

However, Germany and the USA were the principal beneficiaries of rail construction in the period 1850-70. More will be said about the latter country elsewhere, but, between 1855 and 1859, rail construction absorbed all of 19.7 per cent of the former’s total investment. 5 Although, again, laissez faire attitudes prevailed, there was appreciably more control of the development of the network in the German states, particularly in Hanover and Baden, than in France or Britain. From 1842 onwards, the Prussian authorities also sought to foster railroad construction by guaranteeing interest repayments for those entrepreneurs willing to invest in such ventures.

The relative utility of fortresses had been in decline for some time. Whereas, during the 1700s, they had frequently acted as the very foundations of the supply networks within which armies moved, making sieges a common occurrence, the manoeuvre warfare emphasized by Napoleon had relegated them to a secondary role. Apart from in the Iberian and Italian Peninsulas, where large areas of barren, difficult terrain constrained the movement and concentration of armies, not least by limiting their scope for living off the land, fortresses proved of limited value during the Napoleonic Wars except as hinges for mobile forces. In fact, leaving aside the campaigns in Spain, Portugal and Calabria, major sieges were almost unheard of. Danzig had the dubious distinction of enduring two, in 1807 and 1813, while Hamburg, Magdeburg, Torgau and several other strongholds in Germany were also besieged during the course of the Befreiungskrieg. Even many of these cases occurred as much by accident as design, however, and did not involve elaborate siege operations; as the French were rolled back towards the Rhine, the garrisons of these places found themselves cut off from Napoleon’s main army and, encircled by enemy troops, were mostly beaten into submission, not by sapping, bombardment and assault, but by demoralization, starvation and disease.

If the value of fortresses was not what it once had been, the utility of railways was rapidly becoming apparent. Barely had Britain’s Manchester to Liverpool line opened in 1830 than it was used to move a regiment of infantry; in two hours, they covered a distance that they could not have marched in under two days. The Austrians, too, were quick to exploit the strategic flexibility bestowed by trains. In 1851, at a time of tension with Prussia, they employed them to reinforce their Bohemian garrisons at speed; they moved all of 14 500 personnel, 8000 horses, 48 guns and 464 wagons some 300 kilometres in just two days. Similarly, during the Franco-Austrian War eight years later, the French were to transport a total of 604 000 personnel and 129 000 horses within a period of 86 days.

A German ammunition train – Franco-Prussian War.

Where available, trains greatly simplified the movement of armies. Providing they had sufficient coal and water, these machines, like ships, could keep going round the clock; they merely needed an occasional change of crew. Travelling by train at night or in poor weather posed far fewer problems than movement by road did at such times, and, spared gruelling, lengthy marches, units arrived at their destination, not only far faster, but fresher and with fewer losses, too. Railways were also capable of carrying a variety of loads, from troops to guns, foodstuffs and munitions. They enabled forces to be succoured from afar, though the difficulty of distributing supplies from the railhead to units in the field – units that might themselves be on the move – remained and was not always overcome with complete success, as French experience in their struggle with Austria in 1859 attests. Although, for the siege of Sevastopol during the Crimean War, the British and French reduced their need for pack animals and horse-drawn vehicles by constructing a railway between the port of Balaklava and their positions on the Saboun Hills, some ten kilometres away and 400 metres above sea-level, they could not eliminate it. Whilst this line enabled the allies to move matériel – notably ammunition for their heavy artillery, which, in all, devoured over 250 000 rounds – at a rate of up to 200 tonnes per day, then, as now, continuous supply required a continuous transport `loop’.

Warfare After Waterloo-European Peace II

At first glance, the introduction of railways meant that the size of armed forces was now constrained only by the dimensions of a state’s manpower pool, the political and economic ramifications that would arise were it to be tapped, and the government’s practical ability to do so in terms of financial, bureaucratic and material resources. Yet, experience in the Napoleonic Wars had already indicated that, as armies became larger, so too did the problems surrounding their command and control. At a time when so few people could read and write, simply finding sufficient soldiers who were capable of discharging even rudimentary administrative functions was hard enough; those with the skill and aptitude to fulfil the demanding duties inherent in the work of a general staff were in still shorter supply. Because of widespread illiteracy, training manuals, if they could be produced at all, were not always helpful. In any event, most of the theoretical works that were written during this period focused on tactical and strategic considerations; the majority of armies, with results that were frequently debilitating, neglected the essential but far less glamorous work performed by staffs. In the 1809 campaign, the lack of appropriately schooled personnel at his headquarters and dependable subordinate commanders prevented the Archduke Karl from securing much benefit from the structure, based on Armeekorps, that he himself had introduced into Austria’s forces. Indeed, in the midst of the fighting, he was compelled to all but abandon it. During the wars of 1807 and 1812-14, the Russians, too, struggled to furnish their massive armies with staff officers who had any inkling of doctrine and logistics, never mind standardized procedures and vocabulary. Thanks to the efforts of Scharnhorst and her other military reformists during the aftermath of Jena, Prussia, by contrast, fared appreciably better; she had an educational process that yielded tolerably good staff officers, notably Neithardt von Gneisenau, who translated Marshal Blücher’s strategic vision into detailed orders and disseminated them systematically and efficaciously.

Napoleon’s own headquarters was a model of efficiency by the standards of the day. Known as `the cabinet’ and located in either the largest and most conveniently placed room in the building where he was living, or in a tent adjacent to his own, this was, as Baron Odeleben, an eyewitness, recalls,

always arranged with the greatest particularity. In the middle . was placed a large table, on which was spread the best map that could be obtained of the seat of the war… This was placed conformably with the points of the compass . [and] pins with various coloured heads were thrust into it to point out the situation of the different corps d’armée of the French or those of the enemy. This was the business of the director of bureau topographique, … who possessed a perfect knowledge of the different positions … Napoleon . attached more importance to this [map] than any want of his life. During the night [it] … was surrounded by thirty candles … When the Emperor mounted his horse, … the grand equerry carried [a copy] … attached to his breast button . to have it in readiness whenever [Napoleon] … exclaimed `la carte!’

In the four corners of the [headquarters] …. were . small tables, at which the secretaries of Napoleon were employed. He most commonly dictated to them . pacing up and down his apartment. Accustomed to have everything which he conceived executed with the greatest promptitude, no one could write fast enough for him, and what he dictated was to be written in cipher. It is incredible how fast he dictated, and what a facility his secretaries had … in following him …

These secretaries were like so many strings attached to the administrative war departments, … as well as to the other authorities of France. … It is really astonishing how he made so small a number of persons suffice for such a load of business . … Neither keepers of records, nor registrars, nor scribes were seen in the cabinet; … there was one keeper of the portfolio … and all the … archives, in which was included the bureau topographique.

Whilst Napoleon’s seemingly boundless energy and the phenomenal capacity of his memory removed the need for masses of paperwork and assistants, all of this also testifies to the fact that this particular headquarters was custom designed for him alone. Although it met most of his needs and complemented his talents, lesser mortals would have found it wholly inadequate. Without him, it could not have functioned at all. Even with him it could not take full responsibility for everything that affected the army’s performance in the field. As Odeleben further observes, the cabinet itself dealt with `only those matters wherein Napoleon was particularly engaged’. This comprised, above all, the formulation and implementation of strategy. Yet, although the emperor knew `with great precision the position of the armies, the composition of the different masses, their combination and employment’, the issuing of detailed directives to his forces was the responsibility of Marshal Berthier, the Chief of Staff, and his many aides-de-camp.

It would be unkind but not inaccurate to describe Berthier as Napoleon’s head clerk. `I am nothing in the army’, he once conceded. `I receive, in the name of the Emperor, the reports of the marshals, and I sign his orders for him.’ Together with his assistants, he also compiled the résumés and carnets that his master regularly perused. However, he was neither a tactician nor a strategist. Indeed, on the one occasion when the emperor’s absence obliged this normally calm and courageous officer to take command, he was reduced to abject panic.

Napoleon’s immediate entourage also included several Imperial aides – high-ranking officers who, if necessary, could act as his executors in remote sectors of a battlefield while he tried to orchestrate proceedings from a central position. Talented though many of them were, these men could only represent him; they were not his equals in skill and, whilst mandated by him, might be reluctant to try to impose any authority they had on corps and wing commanders who were often distinguished marshals of France with correspondingly inflated egos. In fact, the very devolution of power that the demise of monolithic armies entailed could make it that much harder for a commander to maintain a firm grip on events. It was not just that, with the concomitant expansion of troop and unit numbers, military machines became more complex, increasing the scope for minor and major breakdowns alike: human beings are that much less predictable than machines, and it was quite an achievement for one man to know even his immediate subordinates sufficiently well to predict how they would react to a given set of circumstances. Those further down the pyramid were commensurably unfamiliar, yet might have pivotal positions thrust upon them in the course of an engagement or campaign; during the Battle of Wagram alone, the French Army saw 32 of its generals and 1121 other officers killed or wounded, while the Austrians’ casualties included 793 officers, among whom were 17 generals.

Just as Napoleon’s inability to be everywhere and do everything obliged him to rely on lieutenants of varying quality to implement his strategic plans, so too was he compelled to leave other concerns to subordinates, not all of whom were as reliable or professional as his cartographers and secretaries. This was especially true of the department that was supposed to satisfy the troops’ needs for foodstuffs and drinking water. Though competent, the military personnel attached to the Intendant-Général were far too few to regulate every arrangement for the supply of a force as enormous as the Grande Armée of 1812-13. The impact of Russian `scorched earth’ tactics during Napoleon’s march on Moscow was not insignificant, but it was not so much a lack of supplies as an inability to get them to where they were required that had really hampered the French offensive; too often, the sheer immensity of Russia combined with her execrable roads to break what should have been a continuous transport loop. Even during the subsequent campaign in Germany, where supplies should have been relatively abundant, the logistical support for Napoleon’s forces was again undermined. Odeleben blames the `misconduct and cupidity’ of private contractors for the resulting shortfalls. However, this can only be part of the explanation. Whilst it is astonishing that Napoleon’s staff managed to control as many things as well as they did, the very innovations that the emperor and his contemporaries had embraced with such enthusiasm – conscription and semi-autonomous corps – had generated forces and operations of almost unmanageable dimensions.

All of this underscored the need for dedicated professional staffs to support a commander. With the advent of the use of railways for military purposes, established specialists, such as cartographers, had to be joined by officers with a detailed knowledge of networks, rolling-stock, timetables and so on. Clearly, potential candidates had to be identified and given appropriate training in peacetime. This led to the introduction of new curricula within military and other educational institutions as part of a wider partnership between the armed forces and private railroad companies. As the train became central to the state’s security, these links ineluctably became more formal, culminating, in Germany’s case, in the establishment of the Imperial Railroad Office which, from 1873, purchased one railway after another in a gradual process of nationalization that was primarily motivated by military considerations.

One innovation that, figuratively and literally, appeared alongside the railways was the telegraph patented by Morse in 1837. Whereas the Chappe system had relied upon visible signals, this used `dot and dash’ patterns of electrical impulses as a code. As such it owed much to the pioneering exploration of electromagnetism that had been undertaken in the late 1700s and early 1800s by Luigi Galvani, Alessandro Volta, André-Marie Ampere, Georg Ohm and Michael Faraday. Morse collaborated with Alfred Vail to construct the first system, between Baltimore and Washington, in 1844. As they attenuated over distance, signals were relayed from one transmitting station to another. However, the addition of rubber insulation to the wires not only reduced this problem, but also permitted cables to be laid underwater, creating the prospect of transoceanic links.

The electric telegraph revolutionized strategic communication and, like the train, was quickly exploited for military purposes. If of limited use for the issuing of tactical directives on the battlefield, it offered a means of rapid communication between sedentary headquarters and other nodes within a state’s political and military hierarchy. Whilst this greatly facilitated processes like mobilization, it also made it possible for remote authorities to intervene more readily in military operations. So it was that, in 1855, General Pélissier – the latest in a succession of commanders nominally responsible for the French forces participating in the Crimean War – was reduced to impotent rage by Napoleon III, who, having been persuaded by both his own advisers and the British government not to lead his army in person, could not resist the temptation to meddle in Pélissier’s plans by means of a newly-laid telegram cable. `Your Majesty must free me from the narrow limits to which he has assigned me’, fumed the wretched general, `or else allow me to resign a command impossible to exercise in cooperation with our loyal allies at the somewhat paralysing end of an electric wire.’

Exasperating though this must have been for Pélissier, whereas he eventually emerged triumphant, others were less lucky. On 25 February, 1896, General Oreste Baratieri, commander of the Italian army in Ethiopia, was to receive a telegram from his prime minister, Francesco Crispi, in Rome. This castigated him for pursuing a strategy that was as fruitless as it was chary, before concluding with the fateful words: `We are ready for any sacrifice to save the honour of the army and the prestige of the monarchy.’ However justified his misgivings about confronting the Ethiopian army were, this missive spurred the hapless general into setting them aside. His troops promptly forsook the security of their entrenched position and were soon embroiled in the greatest colonial battle of the century, Adowa. Fighting against opponents who had been dismissed as racially and militarily inferior, in the space of a few hours Baratieri’s forces lost half their strength, the rest being driven from the field in headlong rout. Swiftly relayed to Italy by telegraph, news of the catastrophe aroused a sense of humiliation and indignation among the populace that manifested itself in widespread riots and demonstrations. Crispi’s administration fell and its successor was quick to acknowledge Ethiopia’s independence formally by concluding the Treaty of Addis Ababa.

Although it spawned an Italian desire for revenge that was destined to help Benito Mussolini in his quest for power and lead to his invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, the débacle of Adowa truncated Italy’s participation in the `scramble for Africa’ that, as the nineteenth century wore on, had increasingly preoccupied the European powers. Only established as a unified kingdom in 1861, she was a relative newcomer to the international stage and her role in Africa had always been a comparatively minor one. This was not so of France. At the very end of the 1700s, her `Army of the Orient’, under Bonaparte, had sought to use Egypt as a steppingstone to conquests further east, only to be thwarted by the staunch defence of Acre and Nelson’s triumph at the Battle of the Nile. British naval supremacy and General Abercromby’s victory at Aboukir in 1801 spelt the end for the French presence in Egypt, which was formally restored to the Porte in 1802. However, Mehemet Ali, the Khedive from 1805 to 1848, made extensive use of French advisers to develop his province’s army and economy, while one of his successors, Mehemet Said, also encouraged French influence, not least by permitting the construction of the Suez Canal. Although this was undertaken by an international company formed in 1858, it was one that was initially dominated by Frenchmen, notably the engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps, who was a cousin of the Empress Eugénie. Indeed, she was to open the canal formally when, after ten years’ work, it was completed in 1869.

‘Jock Columns’

With the fall of France and Italy’s entry into the war on 10 June 1940, British expectations that Italy would ally itself with Nazi Germany were realized. New theatres of operations became a definite concern for the British as territorial possessions, dominions and protectorates came under threat from a new enemy which saw British forces and territories overseas as its primary targets. The Italian Duce, Benito Mussolini, fearful that the war might end without his Fascist empire becoming a reality, hoped to occupy and annex French and British colonies and Egypt, which was a British protectorate. This would give him control of the Suez Canal and considerable influence on world trade, allowing Italy to dominate the central and eastern Mediterranean.

Their nation’s entry into the war was both surprising and unwelcome to many Italians. The most senior commanders knew just how ill-prepared the country was. The reaction of many was one of surprise and despondency – indeed, as Tenente Paolo Colacicchi of the Granatieri di Sardegna recalled:

In fact, of no enthusiasm at all. Marshal Balbo, who was the governor of Libya and one of the four Fascists – the Quadrumvirs of Italy – was apparently playing billiards when the news came through Italy had declared war and he was so angry that he picked up the billiard balls and smashed all the glasses in this billiard room. He was absolutely furious because he knew the position there and he had a lot of friends in Egypt among the British.

Italo Balbo was dead less than a month later, killed when his plane was shot down by Italian anti-aircraft fire whilst over Tobruk harbour, but Maresciallo d’Italia Pietro Badoglio, of the Italian Comando Supremo, continued to counsel against Mussolini’s annexationist ambitions. There was little military ardour amongst the Italian troops in Tripolitania and Cyrenaica either, as Paolo Colacicchi confirmed:

I was commanding a platoon then in a machine-gun battalion on the Tunisian front and I was told to call my men and tell them we were at war now with France (this was a few days before France gave up) and Britain. And the main reaction amongst my men was ‘What about our mail? Aren’t we going to hear from home anymore?’ Which is symptomatic, I think, of the type of man we had there. These were not all young; they were not even good troops. There were some recruits, but there were very few and they were tired and wanted to be home. They were thinking of home, they were thinking of leave and they were thinking of their fields left unattended. They certainly had no imperial or aggressive dream about them. This was one of the problems.

Despite this lack of will amongst many of his subjects, the Duce was not to be denied. In August 1940, Italian forces occupied the British protectorate known as British Somaliland, and Mussolini turned his attention to Egypt, defended by a small, but relatively modern (by comparison with its opponent), Western Desert Force. This consisted of 7th Armoured and 4th Indian Divisions with elements of 6th Division from Palestine. Commanded by Lieutenant-General Richard O’Connor, it comprised approximately 36,000 men. On 9 September 1940, Maresciallo d’Italia Rodolfo Graziani, who had replaced Balbo as commander of Italy’s North African forces, was finally persuaded to invade Egypt with the X Armata (Italian Tenth Army) of 80,000 men. After an advance of sixty miles, the Italian force (chiefly composed of unmotorized infantry formations) stopped at Sidi Barrani and set up fortified camps. This was disappointing for O’Connor who had plans to annihilate them if they moved on Mersa Matruh.3 The Commander-in-Chief Middle East, Lieutenant-General Sir Archibald Wavell, resisted pressure from Prime Minister Winston Churchill to launch an immediate counter-attack. Instead, he and O’Connor began planning an unconventional all-arms surprise attack on the Italian camps.

The plan depended on co-operation from the aircraft of Air Headquarters Western Desert and especially from Air Commodore Raymond Collishaw’s No. 202 Group. Despite his aircraft chiefly being obsolete Gloster Gladiators and increasingly obsolescent Bristol Blenheims operating with no radar and an unreliable signals network, Collishaw’s guiding principle was that obtaining and retaining air superiority were essential before any other task, even close support for troops in an advance or retreat, could be attempted with any reasonable hope of success. Nevertheless, he and O’Connor forged excellent relations. Chiefly, aircraft were to ensure that the initial advance of almost seventy miles by O’Connor’s force was not detected and reported by Italian reconnaissance planes.

Although O’Connor was not a tank officer and had never worked with large armoured forces, this was not a barrier to his successful use of the tanks Although O’Connor was not a tank officer and had never worked with large armoured forces, this was not a barrier to his successful use of the tanks available to him. There was considerable experience in his command of military exercises in desert conditions, which the British had acknowledged for many years as ideal for armoured warfare. In the inter-war years several formations trained there and, in 1938, Major-General Percy Hobart had trained the ‘Mobile Division’ (7th Armoured Division’s predecessor) in modern armoured warfare theory. Although Hobart was no longer in command by late 1940, 7th Armoured’s training put it in good stead for the role envisaged by O’Connor, as O’Connor himself explained:

The ‘Infantry’ tanks from their name were there to assist the infantry’s advance and help them in every possible way and they were obviously used for that. The 7th Armoured Division with its much larger radius of action could be used in a way – especially in this fine desert country – for getting behind and cutting off troops – in fact in the way strategic cavalry used to be used.

O’Connor’s unsophisticated approach to the operation was based rather more on common sense than military theory:

It’s quite true I had read most of [Basil] Liddell Hart’s ideas in his books but at that time the ordinary officer of my ‘height’ in the army didn’t really have any great reason for adopting his point of view. We had our own regulations, our own instructions and I don’t think that I considered very greatly Liddell Hart’s any more than I considered our own Field Service Regulations. In our very small operation, I can’t think I said to myself, ‘Now, what would Liddell Hart have done?’

On 9 December 1940, after a long and difficult approach march, shielded by the light reconnaissance units of 7th Armoured and Collishaw’s aircraft, O’Connor’s infantry with Matilda heavy tanks in close co-operation attacked and routed the Italians. Within two days, 38,000 prisoners, seventy-three tanks and 237 guns had been captured.6 Soon Bardia and Tobruk had fallen. The Italian forces fell back into Libya but were harried all the way and eventually outflanked and trapped. This culminated in a further heavy Italian defeat on 5 February 1941 at Beda Fomm and the surrender of X Armata with the loss of 130,000 prisoners, 400 tanks and 1,200 guns during the campaign. British losses were 1,744 killed, wounded or missing. O’Connor, having reached El Agheila, was for pushing on into Tripolitania in the hope of completely driving the Italians from Libya, despite being at the end of considerably extended and, therefore, attenuated supply lines. Wavell prevented him from doing so.

The campaign was a masterpiece of all-arms co-operation based on established principles and was possible because of the quality of the highly trained forces at O’Connor’s command. In this regard it harked back in many ways to the later battles on the Western Front in 1918. It was the high water mark of British military operations in the Western Desert for over eighteen months but, for many, it was the radix malorum of all subsequent failings in those operations. This was through the inappropriate application of its lessons, through the slavish adherence of first 7th Armoured and then other armoured formations to an erroneous tactical doctrine, and because it gave the misleading impression that all Italian formations could be easily overcome in battle.

This critique presupposes that circumstances would have allowed a different approach. They did not. Just as the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in the Great War had struggled to inculcate ‘the lessons of the fighting’ in its forces whilst engaged in almost continuous conflict on the Western Front, with few opportunities for meaningful tactical training schemes incorporating, for example, tanks and artillery, so circumstances dictated possibilities for the British Eighth Army (as Western Desert Force became known on expansion to a two-corps organization in September 1941). There was simply no time to review the lessons of the offensive at the level of detail required before events intervened. The strategic situation in the Mediterranean and Africa required Wavell to dispatch a large part of O’Connor’s command to Greece. The units that replaced them were newly formed and inexperienced (especially in desert warfare). There was little continuity of learning and few opportunities for training. There were also fundamental problems with the structure and organization of British formations which were not addressed and which were to present particular problems.

Lieutenant-Colonel J.C. ‘Jock’ Campbell VC

The British Army was heavily outnumbered by the Italians, so General Archibald Wavell formulated a plan with his senior commanders to retain the initiative by harassing the enemy using mobile all-arms flying columns. Campbell’s brilliant command of one of these columns led to them being given the generic name “Jock columns” (although it is unclear if the idea originated with Campbell or not).

British armoured divisions were too heavy on armour and too light on infantry and lacked sufficient artillery (with no self-propelled guns). In tactical terms, this encouraged them to focus on tank-versus-tank operations in which there was no co-operation with the other arms – something which O’Connor believed was a result of the influence of Liddell Hart’s theories on commanders of armoured units. As a consequence, ad hoc formations of all arms except tanks were formed. These ‘Jock Columns’ – named after their inventor Lieutenant-Colonel J.C. ‘Jock’ Campbell VC of 4th Royal Horse Artillery (RHA) – were typically made up of a battery of 25-pounder field guns, a motorized ‘motor’ infantry company, an armoured car troop, a troop of 2-pounder anti-tank guns and a section of 40mm Bofors anti-aircraft guns, plus ancillary arms such as medical personnel and signallers. Until July 1942, these seemingly aggressive formations were actually responsible for dissipating the artillery strength of the British in the desert and impeded effective co-operation between the infantry and armour. This tactical schism was exploited repeatedly by the new, and extremely skilful, tactician who arrived soon after the defeat at Beda Fomm to lead their opponent’s forces.

Aufklärungs Afrika I

As with the Balkans, the North Africa theater was not an area of interest to Hitler. It was only after the disastrous mishandling of the Italian forces there and the effective destruction of the Italian 10th Army by the British that Hitler agreed to help his friend Mussolini by dispatching German forces to the beleaguered theater of war. The Germans arrived in early 1941 under the command of the legendary Erwin Rommel. Operations against the British were initiated by the end of March that year, starting a series of offensives and counteroffensives that earned the Germans and Rommel the begrudging respect of the British and have captured the popular imagination ever since. What started out as a small “blocking force” (the essentially ad hoc 5. leichte Afrika-Division) turned into a corps—the famous Deutsches Afrika Korps—that summer.

Rommel turned out to be a much more effective tactical leader on the battlefield than an operational planner. He constantly took risks, despite an extremely precarious supply situation, that frequently caused him to pause or even call off operations due to a lack of fuel and other logistical support. The German lines of communications extended across the Mediterranean, thus making the DAK the only German force to fight overseas. Despite the relatively close distance to friendly Italian ports, the waters were controlled by the British and a large percentage of materiel—including precious combat vehicles—was sent to the bottom of the sea. By October 1942, the British had the upper hand in sheer numbers and were able to force the German forces back toward Tunisia after the Second Battle of El Alamein. A few weeks later, Allied forces landed in Algeria and Morocco, causing the collapse of the Vichy forces stationed there and directly threatening the Axis forces pulling back from Egypt and Libya.

Instead of realizing that the fate of his forces in Africa was sealed, Hitler ordered more troops into the theater, expanding what had essentially been a reinforced corps into a Panzerarmee. Stalemate ensued through the winter of 1942–43, followed by local victories on the part of the Axis—most famously at the Battle of the Kasserine Pass—but the end was inevitable, and the Axis capitulated on 13 May 1943.

DOCTRINE

Fighting in the desert is often compared to naval warfare, given its vast expanses of open terrain, dotted with the occasional “island” of civilization. A narrow strip along the North African coastline was sparsely inhabited and home to most of the infrastructure, including the only improved roads, while the hinter-lands were desolate and largely uninhabited. This naturally occasioned fighting to control the coastal avenues, leaving the open desert for enveloping movements for forces to leapfrog their way forward.

The open flanks of the desert were the “homeland” of the reconnaissance forces of both sides. Since it was physically impossible to continuously man a static defensive line extending into untrafficable portions of the desert, strongpoints were established or standing patrols dispatched to serve as the “eyes and ears” of the higher-level commands. For that reason, the German reconnaissance battalions associated with the desert fighting—primarily Aufklärungs-Abteilung 3 (mot), Panzer-Aufklärungs-Abteilung 33 (mot), and Aufklärungs-Abteilung 580 (mot)—are prominently featured in histories of the campaign. It is interesting to note that these three reconnaissance battalions were often temporarily combined for operations, especially deception and economy-of-force missions. Because of the seesaw nature of the fighting, reconnaissance battalions were also used extensively as rear guards for the force whenever the German–Italian forces were pushed back. Due to their speed on the battlefield, they were also occasionally positioned behind Italian lines in an effort to provide moral support to their often wavering allies.

Since it was difficult to replace vehicles and other equipment, great value was placed on captured enemy stores and materiel. As such, the reconnaissance eventually came to have a battery of captured British guns added to its organizations. This was done unofficially—that is, through “command channels”—initially, but eventually the batteries became a KStN in their own right. That said, the forces in the desert often retained a sort of ad hoc organizational status since many of the changes that were applied to the organizations of the Panzertruppe on Continental Europe were never applied in North Africa.

FIRSTHAND ACCOUNTS

Among the first elements to be deployed in North Africa by an impatient Generalleutnant Erwin Rommel was Aufklärungs-Abteilung 3 (mot) of the 5. leichte Division. Almost as soon as they arrived by ship at Syrte on 16 February, the armored cars of the battalion, were sent forward to determine the size, location, and disposition of the enemy:

The Conquest of Cyrenaica

The first German combat forces, Aufklärungs-Abteilung 3 (mot) and Panzerjäger-Abteilung 39, arrived in Syrte on 16 February [1941]. On the same day, Generalleutnant Rommel assumed command of all German and Italian forces at the front. Deviating from his initial plan to establish a defensive line at Buerat, he proposed to the Italian High Command to employ a battle group east of Syrte, which would set up for defensive operations at En Nofilia. That formation, consisting of Aufklärungs-Abteilung 3 (mot) and an Italian battle group, had the mission of fending off small-scale attacks and, in the event of heavier attacks or the danger of being bypassed, to fall back to the positions at Syrte. In order to feign larger forces, dummy tanks were constructed.

Aerial reconnaissance reported concentrations of British formations on 18 February between El Agheila and Agedabia. En Nofilia was clear of enemy forces. At that point, the battle group was pushed further to the east and was able to take the important but salt-laden well there. Two days later, there was the first contact with the enemy. Armored scout sections from Aufklärungs-Abteilung 3 (mot) encountered British armored reconnaissance elements. At that point, Rommel wanted to know what forces were facing him. [The reconnaissance battalion] received orders to bring in prisoners. On 25 February—some sources state 24 February—armored reconnaissance sections ran into two combat vehicle sections of the King’s Dragoon Guards and a section of Australian antitank forces. Wechmar’s troops opened fire, destroying an armored vehicle, two small armored cars and a truck. Lieutenant Rowley of the Australian 6th Division and two soldiers from the Dragoons were captured with no friendly casualties.

The Armed Forces Daily Report of 26 February 1941 stated:

“During the morning hours of 24 February, a German and an English motorized scout section encountered one another along the Libyan coast southeast of Agedabia. A number of English motorized vehicles, including several armored cars, were destroyed and a few prisoners taken. There were no losses on the German side.”

This was the first mention of German forces being deployed on the African continent. Considering the important role reconnaissance forces played there, it is fitting that they were also the first combat elements mentioned. A reconnaissance officer, Hellmuth Schroetter, who was with the battalion from the beginning until the Second Battle of El Alamein, captured his impressions of that first meeting engagement:

In the vicinity of the Arco, the first contact took place between German and English forces on 20 February 1941. [This date is probably a typographical error in the German edition.] A battle group formed from motorcycle infantry and several armored scout sections had advanced east of the Arco without making enemy contact.

One of the armored scout sections received the mission to reconnoiter as far as the bottleneck at El Mugtaa, almost 70 kilometers east of the Arco. It was around 1500 hours and the section leader was contemplating turning around, when he suddenly thought he saw movement on the horizon. He then decided to take a closer look at the presumed enemy.

The same decision was reached by an armored scout section of the King’s Dragoon Guards, which had been employed west of El Agheila, when it thought it saw several fighting vehicles. And so it came to pass—a strange and stubborn “movement towards one another” with an armored car from each side on the Via Balbia [the improved coastal road that was of vital importance to both sides during the campaign] and a wingman following to either the left or right of the road. The enemy armored cars, weapons blazing, rolled past one another.

There was a quick turning around and, once again, they rolled towards each other. Both parties were determined to reach “his side” by force of arms. Afterwards, they took off in a flash towards their respective lines.

From a respectful distance behind a sand dune—only the turret jutted out over the top of the dune towards the enemy—both of the section leaders reported the strange enemy contact to their battalions, once their nerves had calmed down.

The German section leader thought to himself: Why wasn’t there any effect on the enemy from the 20mm ammunition? The hits were clearly seen because of the tracer elements. It was later determined that high-explosive ammunition had been loaded, and it simply shattered upon impact. The 20mm antitank rounds—solid shot, which would have penetrated the armor—had not been issued, since they were not considered “suitable for the desert.”

For his part, according to English sources, the section leader from the King’s Dragoon Guards thought he had seen 8-wheeled armored vehicles and Balkenkreuze.

My God! The Englishman thought. Those aren’t Italians, those are Germans! His superiors did not believe his observations, however.

On the German side, there was a quick reaction. General Rommel appeared at the location of Aufklärungs-Abteilung 3 (mot) and issued orders:

• Increased reconnaissance in the direction of El Agheila.

• Advance of the main body of the [battalion] beyond the Arco and as far as the roadhouse (a building located on the Via Balbia).

• Reconnaissance from there to the east and to the south.

Over the next few days, reinforced armored scout sections advanced further to the east, destroyed enemy armored cars and took prisoners.

Schroetter was part of that first encounter only after he had first been sent out into the desert with his motorcycle infantry to acclimate themselves:

As the platoon leader of a motorcycle infantry platoon, I received the mission . . . to reconnoiter 50 kilometers into the desert to the south/southeast. Our hearts were beating in our throats. We were directed to go out into the desert by ourselves for the first time. It was all so very strange to us still, and it appeared to offer little in the way of orienting us . . .

. . . An unending expanse and a flat surface tempted us to go fast. But caution was required, since the small runnels formed during the rainy period dried out later on in the sun and became rock hard. They gave short jabs to the chassis and posed a danger to the shocks and springs. We made our first few unpleasant discoveries and drove more slowly: It was at the slower tempo that we reached our objective, a certain “nothing” in the desert, 50 kilometers south/southeast of the battalion. We did not encounter the enemy. There weren’t even any wheel tracks, which might have indicated the presence of English vehicles.

By March, Schroetter and his men also participated in the first few engagements with the British that are generally recorded in histories of the campaign, the fighting around El Agheila, Marsa el Brega, and Agedabia:

After the desert fort of El Agheila had fallen into German hands on 24 March 1941, the motorcycle infantry company of Aufklärungs-Abteilung 3 (mot) assumed the screening mission there. The armored scout sections were sent in the direction of Agedabia and into the desert to the south to reconnoiter.

During that time, Panzer-Regiment 5 moved past us: Armored scout sections had reported enemy forces at Marsa el Brega.

There was no longer any talk of a “Blocking Formation,” as the 5. leichte Division had been referred to when it was sent to North Africa. Our small formation, the 5. Leichte Division, now received its honorable nickname: “Die 5. Leichtsinnige Division” (The 5th Foolhardy Division).