A Glimpse into the Future

Salamander prototype at Brooklands

Having blunted Germany’s last drives for victory, Foch was anxious to get the Allied armies moving forwards. Haig was anxious to give his forces defending Amiens a little more room for manoeuvre and his plan to push German forces back became the first instalment of Foch’s grand counteroffensive. The attack was set for 8 August. Tanks were to play a key role in helping the infantry smash the German forward defences, but to get maximum benefit from them, a way had to be found of dealing with the improvised anti-tank artillery the Germans had used with increasing success during the Cambrai operation.

Anti-tank guns were difficult to spot, and to see if the air force could help in any way, No. 8 Army Corps Squadron, commanded by Major Trafford Leigh-Mallory, who commanded Allied air units in the 1944 Normandy landings, was attached to the Tank Corps. Aircrews demonstrated they could spot anti-tank guns, but passing the information on to the tanks by wireless proved impractical, while calling in artillery proved impossible as the guns only engaged the tanks at short range. Trials in March, however, demonstrated that there was no reason why Leigh-Mallory’s machines should not eliminate as well as locate the guns. During a small-scale action at Hamel, his squadron accompanied the tanks and successfully identified and eliminated at least one enemy battery and helped beat off several infantry counterattacks. Leigh-Mallory’s squadron became a permanent attachment to the Tank Corps.

The Amiens attack was spearheaded by over 500 tanks, supporting seven British, Australian and Canadian divisions of the 4th Army, with French forces covering their right flank and 800 RAF and 1,100 French planes providing air support. In the air, the German air force had less than 400 planes, but they included the new Fokker D.VII. Initially, the light bombers were to strike at enemy airfields and fighter-bombers would support the infantry and tanks. In line with Foch’s preference for fighters to be employed for ground attack wherever possible, all eight fighter squadrons attached to the 4th Army were to be used in this role while the five day fighter squadrons of the HQ 9th Brigade provided cover. Four fighter squadrons of the 3rd Brigade to the north were ready to assist if required. The assault would begin with the now standard short, sharp artillery barrage. It was anticipated that the movement of German reserves would be in full swing towards the end of the first day; to disrupt these efforts, bomber and fighter-bomber squadrons would switch their attention from the battlefield to the key railway stations at Péronne and Chaulnes.

The attack began at 4.20 a.m. on 8 August. The artillery barrage did not begin until the infantry and tanks had started moving forwards, and complete surprise was achieved. Early morning mists prevented any of the planned close air support taking place and severely disrupted attacks on German airfields, but for the infantry it was once again priceless protection. The defenders immediately started reeling back and when the mists lifted at 9.00 a.m., Allied troops had already advanced up to three miles and the German defences were in considerable disarray. Setting off in pairs at regular intervals, fighter-bomber pilots found a host of targets among the retreating German forces. Losses were heavy: No. 201 Squadron alone lost no less than seven Camels in the morning’s fighting, but the tactics appeared to have worked. As at Cambrai, the sudden appearance of so many tanks and the continuous low-level strafing and bombing proved too much for the front line German units. By early afternoon, marauding armoured cars were shooting up a German headquarters at Framerville, seven miles behind the front line. The German forces were in retreat, but this was no orderly withdrawal. German commanders were hearing stories of troops laying down their weapons and fleeing, openly expressing the pointlessness of continuing the war. By the end of the day, the advance stretched up to eight miles and an unprecedented 16,000 prisoners of war had been taken. The German Army appeared to be on the point of disintegrating—for Ludendorff, it was a ‘black day’ in the history of the German Army. The Allies seemed to be on the verge of achieving a breakthrough as dramatic as the Germans had achieved in their spring offensive. Instead, the attack stalled and the opportunity disappeared, which some would later argue was the result of a crucial change of plan on the opening day.

At midday on 8 August, with the Germans in full retreat, instead of targeting Péronne and Chaulnes stations to prevent the arrival of reinforcements, it was decided to destroy the bridges over the Somme, some fifteen to twenty miles behind the front. This would cut off the line of retreat, trapping German forces on the west bank of the river where they would be destroyed. It was a bold plan. From early afternoon, all fighter-bombers supporting the advance and the bomber squadrons that were going to attack the railway stations were thrown against the bridges.

For the next two days, the RFC flew repeated missions against the dozen or so bridges from Péronne to Ham. Attacking fixed and well-defined targets in the enemy rear would prove to be a very different proposition to harrying retreating and disorganised forces on the battlefield. Once the bridges became the target, German fighter squadrons knew exactly where to find the enemy. To have any chance of hitting such small targets, the bombers had to fly low; Fokker D.VIIs tore into the hapless D.H.4 and D.H.9 formations. Those that managed to get their bombs on target found that the bridges made particularly unrewarding targets. To cause any damage, direct hits were required, which even from low-altitude were rare, and the largest bomb available (the 112-lb bomb) was not powerful enough to have much of an impact. As bomber losses rose, fighter-bombers were switched from attacking the bridges to escort duties. Eventually, nearly 500 fighters, about 70 per cent of RAF fighter strength, were operating in the area, but the British fighters were completely outclassed by the Fokker D.VII and bomber losses continued to mount. No bridges were destroyed; instead, they were used by reinforcements arriving to stabilise the front rather than by a fleeing German Army. Meanwhile at the front, the advance was slowing. Less progress was made on 9 August and by 10 August the advance had ground to a halt. While the RAF was focusing on the bridges, the German air force was controlling the skies over the battlefield and Allied troops were now the victims of low-flying aircraft. On the ground, German reinforcements were arriving in strength, Allied casualties were rising, and Haig felt he had to suspend the advance until more artillery could be brought up.

In the years to come, critics would claim that if the railway stations had remained the target, these reinforcements would not have arrived and a glorious breakthrough would have been achieved. Cleary, the destruction of either the stations or the bridges would have been very useful, even decisive. Railway stations are easier targets to hit than bridges, but previous experience provided little evidence that attacks on these would be any more successful. The truth was that the RAF did not have the means to destroy bridges or stations. Arguably, it was not the switching of the bombers to the bridges that was most significant; it was the parallel decision to remove close support from the advancing tanks and infantry. The support the RAF was providing on the battlefield was one of the reasons for the initial collapse of German morale; it was withdrawn just as the tanks and infantry were beginning to move beyond effective artillery range and needed it even more. The advance was slowing even before the first German reinforcements arrived.

There were many reasons apart from the lack of air support for the slowing of the advance. Tank losses were very heavy. On the morning of 9 August, only 145 tanks remained serviceable. The German anti-tank guns were taking their toll and Leigh-Mallory’s No. 8 Squadron was clearly not sufficient to deal with the threat. Charlton, the commander of the RAF 5th Brigade, believed it was the inability to eliminate the German guns that prevented an ‘irresistible’ advance, which was perhaps rather overstating the case. In reality, the mechanical unreliability of the tanks was at least as significant a factor as their vulnerability to enemy fire. However, if the advancing troops and tanks had continued to get more substantial close support on the battlefield, the advance might have maintained enough momentum to ensure the arriving reinforcements did not have time to establish a defensive foothold.

In truth, the offensive was probably doomed to achieve little more than an initial success. The Army had no clear strategic objective beyond the limited tactical aim of pushing the enemy back. By attacking the bridges, the RAF was trying to do what the Army should have done—to sweep round the enemy rear and block the line of retreat. In its search for a grander and more significant role, the air force was making the mistake of drifting beyond the immediate battlefield and attempting tasks that were beyond its capabilities. In the end, all it proved was that air power tends to be less effective when trying to achieve results on its own. It was on the battlefield, in concert with other arms, that the Allied air forces had their best chance of making a difference. Airpower could have supported an Army drive to cut off the enemy retreat, but it could not substitute for one. It was the Army that needed to be more imaginative.

Following the Amiens assault, Haig seemed prepared to be more imaginative. He urged his commanders to be bolder in future offensives and strike deeper into the enemy rear—no longer was it necessary to advance on a continuous front. Commanders should reinforce success rather than units that were being held up, and advances should not be slowed for fear of counterattacks on exposed flanks. It was a bold vision, one in which air power was capable of providing the mobile firepower such adventure would require, but after four years of heavy losses, it was a brave general who would risk throwing caution to the wind. It had backfired far too often in the past and it is perhaps not surprising that Foch settled for a more cautious approach. Instead of bold strikes in the enemy rear, offensives with limited objectives would follow each other at different points on the front. Once one had stated to lose momentum, another would be launched. The aim was to continue pushing the enemy back rather than destroy him.

If close air support was to continue to play an important role in these offensives, a way had to be found of reducing losses to ground fire. Armour was one solution and in the wake of the Amiens offensive, the more heavily armoured Salamander, rather than the lightly armed Camel TF1, found itself back in favour. The prototype Salamander had flown in April and in May was sent to France for trials. Pilots were generally favourable, and considering its weight, they felt the plane handled fairly well. It was as manoeuvrable as the Bristol Fighter and below 10,000 feet ‘could almost be used for fighting an Albatros Scout’, which was perhaps a little optimistic. The first Salamander squadron was due to arrive in France by mid-September.

Armour, however, was not the only way of reducing losses. The commander of the 22nd Wing saw a tactical rather than a technical solution. He noted that in the early stages of an attack, when the enemy might be expected to be confused, losses tended to be light; in these circumstances, widespread and indiscriminate air support seemed justified. Losses only rose as the defences became more organised, and in these circumstances it was better to use air support in a more focused way, meeting specific requests to eliminate particular strongpoints holding up an advance, or help beat off counterattacks, rather than roaming the battlefield looking for targets. During the Amiens attack, there had been many examples of planes spotting targets for fighter-bombers, but no procedure equivalent to the artillery call system existed to direct aircraft to these targets. Information could only be passed on after the corps plane had finished its mission and landed, by which time it was usually too late. There was a clear case for bringing air support in line with artillery support, and to do this a Central Information Bureau (CIB) was set up to collate requests for support and pass on suitable targets to the artillery or fighter-bomber squadrons, whichever was more appropriate. New instructions stated that in future ‘…wireless calls will largely control the action of low-flying scouts subsequent to zero hour. This system marks a large stride in the direction of close co-operation in battle.’ Indeed it did. To produce an even faster response, it was suggested the reporting corps plane could fire a flare of predetermined colour in the direction of the target on the off chance there were fighter-bombers in the vicinity. It was in essence the cab-rank system developed in the Second World War, lacking only the lightweight wireless equipment that forward troops and fighters might be able to carry into action to provide a more efficient way of passing on target information.

It was the air/tank combination that was generating most excitement. The tank was the only means of carrying wireless equipment on to the battlefield, but communicating with aircraft overhead was proving difficult. However, once these problems were overcome, Leigh-Mallory envisaged huge possibilities for air supported armoured warfare. To increase the strike capability available to the tanks, the Camel fighter-bombers of No. 71 Squadron joined No. 8 Squadron on attachment to the Tank Corps.

There would be plenty of opportunities to develop these ideas in the coming months. With increasing numbers of American troops arriving, the Allies had the resources to maintain the offensive and stretch the German Army. The advance would be remorseless and steady rather than dramatic and decisive. It was still very much a war of attrition, but at least one where Allied soldiers were constantly moving forwards, and it was a war that the Franco-British-American alliance knew they would inevitably win.

The different approaches to providing close air support for the various British contributions to Foch’s offensive would demonstrate how thinking was still very much in a state of flux. Significantly, the level of support tended to be on a lower scale than had been possible during the Amiens attack, mainly because an increasingly higher proportion of the available fighter strength had to be used to counter the growing threat of the Fokker D.VII. For the 3rd Army’s assault on 21 August, each of the three attacking corps would be supported by just one fighter-bomber squadron with a fourth attached to the Tanks Corps; the rest of the fighter force would provide air cover. The support for the infantry was indirect with each squadron sending off pairs of fighters at half-hourly intervals throughout the day to patrol the roads that local reinforcements were likely to take. The Camels supporting the Tank Corps provided much closer battlefield support, engaging enemy anti-tank guns holding up the advance.

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Twenty-Fourth Tank Corps of 1st Guards Army in the Tatsinskaya Raid, December 1942

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Red Christmas
The Tatsinskaya Airfield Raid 1942

On 19 November 1942 Soviet forces launched their carefully prepared counter-offensive against the over-extended German, Rumanian, and Italian forces which had pushed to the frontiers of Asia. By 24 November the Red Army had encircled the German 6th Army, elements of the 4th Panzer Army in Stalingrad itself and to the west, destroyed the 4th Rumanian Army, pushed back the 3rd Rumanian Army to the River Chir and created a gap between the Germany Army Group B in the north and Army Group A in the Caucasus. On the same day Hitler declared that Stalingrad was to be a `fortress’, to maintain its position relying on air resupply which Goering had promised with colossal over-optimism.

This air resupply line presented a clear parallel with the railway lines of former wars. The German forces in the pocket required 600 tonnes of resupply for normal existence with 300 tonnes as the bare minimum. Bad weather, Soviet anti-aircraft guns, and fighters combined to prevent even this being attained, the average daily delivery being just over 100 tonnes. From the relative safety of the Germany Army Group, or so the Germans thought, `Don’ aircraft would leave Tatsinskaya airfield, with about 40 kilometres to the next field south of Morozovsk, then another 40 to one south of Chernishkovskiy, and then 150 kilometres over Soviet-held territory to the beleaguered pocket itself.

During the course of the November counter-offensive the Soviet Supreme High Command had initiated plans for a more wide-ranging operation by forces of the South-West Front and the left wing of the Voronezh Front to destroy the enemy on the middle Don and to pursue the offensive towards Kamensk and Rostov. This operation was to be called `Saturn’, and involved the destruction of the 8th Italian Army, the operational group `Hollidt’ and the remnants of the 3rd Rumanian Army. However, the offensive by the Germany Army Group `Don’ with the aim of relieving Stalingrad, which began on 12 December forced the Soviet High Command to revise its plan. Instead of a deep strike against Rostov, the Soviets now planned to send their main forces south east to destroy Army Group `Don’. This was called `Little Saturn’. First and Third Guards Armies of the South-West Front would form two encircling pincers, one striking from south of Verkhny Mamon and the other from Bokovskiy, and converging on Tatsinskaya and Morozovsk. Sixth Army of the Voronezh Front (transferred to the SouthWest Front on 19 December) would support the main attack from the west. Tatsinskaya was a target both because of its nature as an air and rail communications centre and because of its position in relation to the forces engaged.

The Middle Don operation began on 16 December. The objective was to destroy the encircled enemy groupings on the southern bank of the Don by day four. The tank and mechanized corps would take the lead in particular 1st Guards Army’s 24th Tank Corps which was given Tatsinskaya as its objective to be taken by 24 December and 25th Tank Corps, targeted on Morozovsk, the other key airfield on the Stalingrad route. These objectives were clearly defined before the offensive, as was that of 6th Army’s 17th Tank Corps, which was to cover the right flank and drive for Kantemirovka. Seventeenth Tank Corps would then continue to the airfield at Millerovo, which it would attack in concert with 18th Tank Corps by 24 December.

Meanwhile, from 12 December, prior to the operation, Soviet Front aviation (17th Air Army) launched attacks on Millerovo and Tatsinskaya airfields and the railroad junction at Likhaya. Immediately before the operation they attacked Tatsinskaya, Morozovsk and the railroad between the latter and Likhaya. Night bombers attacked enemy headquarters and reserves.

First Guards Army was deployed in two echelons for the attack, the three Tank corps (18th, 24th, 25th) forming the second `breakthrough exploitation echelon’. The Tank Corps themselves were also deployed in two echelons before their insertion. Eighteenth and 25th Corps were committed to battle on 17 December and 24th Corps on 18 December. The latter coincided with the collapse of 8th Italian Army two days after the beginning of the Soviet offensive. Twenty-fourth Tank Corps under Major-General Badanov tore into the gap created by the Italian collapse and on towards its distant objective. By 19 December, 17th, 18th, 24th and 25th Tank and 1st Mechanized Corps were cutting through German support elements and driving south-east in order to cut off the enemy’s withdrawal routes to the south-west.

German air made strenuous efforts to check the swift advance of 24th and 25th Tank Corps. On 24 December alone the Luftwaffe launched 500 sorties against 25th Tank Corps. By this time, the mobile groups were over 100 kilometres ahead of their supporting infantry, and had covered a total distance of up to 240 kilometres.

Supplies for the Stalingrad pocket were brought into Tatsinskaya by both air and rail. They were stockpiled on the airfield and at the train station. Defending this key point were some 120 men of 62nd infantry division. The Germans had, apparently, realized that Soviet mobile forces might interrupt operations, but requests to move the airlift further west were refused. There were 180 Ju-52 transport planes on the field which, together with the He-111 bombers at the Morozovsk airfield, comprised the entire airflift capability for the Stalingrad pocket. At 0530 on Christmas Eve the tank corps’ artillery opened up with a brief barrage, after which Soviet tanks rushed the airfield.

Twenty-fourth Tank Corps launched a concentric attack, – indeed, Marshal Rokossovskiy later commented on the corps’ widespread use of enveloping movements. Fourth Guards and 130 Tank brigades attacked Tatsinskaya from the line of march simultaneously from the north-west, east and south. A tank battalion from 130 brigade attacked the station and destroyed 50 German aircraft with all their fuel. Immediately afterwards, tanks overran the airfield proper from north and south, shooting up aircraft or driving over them. Fifty-fourth Brigade attacked the outskirts of Tatsinskaya town from the west and by the evening of 24 December the German forces surrounded in the area had been destroyed. However, some 124 aircraft managed to take off and a proportion of the Germans got away. Nevertheless, the effect on the already inadequate Stalingrad airlift was noticeable.

The Germans reacted swiftly. On 24 December, even before the airfield and surrounding area was completely in Soviet hands, an advance detachment of 6th Panzer division recaptured the area north of Tatsinskaya. Sixth Panzer closed in, with 11th Panzer and 306 Infantry Division moving in from the east. By 27 December 24th Tank Corps had been encircled, and frantic radio messages in clear calling for 1st Guards Army to come to the rescue of the corps were to no avail. The corps had been refuelled from motor fuel and lubricants captured at the airfield but was dreadfully short of ammunition. An urgent radio message from Badanov on 27 December, and by 2300 hours on the same day Soviet aircraft had dropped 450 artillery shells, 4,500 rounds of rifle and 6,000 of submachine gun ammunition. The official restricted Soviet General Staff deductions from the operation considered that it had only been possible to drop such limited quantities of ammunition because no provision had been made in advance for the resupply of a corps engaged in exploitation of a breakthrough, although `the possibility of fighting in an encirclement had to be expected’.The General Staff went so far as to assert that `had it been possible for the Corps to receive larger quantities of ammunition it would have been quite able to bring into action its 39 T-34 and 19 T-70 tanks and hold out until the arrival of 25th Tank and 1st Guards Mechanized Corps which, by 29 December, had moved into the areas of Kachalin and Lesnoy. 140 By the night of 28 December 24th Tank Corps had no working tanks left and was running out of ammunition. The final hours were savage, the wounded on both sides freezing to death where they fell. Some of the Soviet troops, including general Badanov himself, managed to escape and rejoin their own forces; the rest perished.

Vatutin, commanding the South-West Front, ordered 25th Tank and 1st Guards Mechanized Corps to relieve Badanov, but it was too late. However, 24th Tank Corps’ achievement was undeniable. According to Soviet sources, in the ten days (18-27 December) of the operation the Corps killed over 11,000 enemy troops, destroyed 84 tanks and 431 aircraft. It also took 4,800 prisoners although it is not known what the Russians did with them and how, or whether, they were evacuated from the battle zone. The corps was renamed 2nd Guards Tank Corps during the final desperate hours of the fight at Tatsinskaya and on 27 January 1943 received the honorific title `Tatsinskiy’. Its destruction was a tactical reverse for the Russians but the corps was not such a large element of its parent army that its loss was unbearable. `The vacuum created by the loss of Italian 8th Army still existed and the destruction of 24th Tank Corps only eliminated the vanguard of one of the South-Western Front’s advancing armies.’ The corps had been the spearhead of a thrust which, if successful, could have isolated Army Group A which was actually of greater military importance than the Stalingrad airlift. The Germans were also trying to relieve the Stalingrad pocket simultaneously and diverting 48th Panzer Corps against Tatsinskaya left only 57th Panzer to attempt to break the Stalingrad encirclement. The Russians were therefore able to use all their available reserves in the immediate Stalingrad area against the relief attempt. The synergic effect of a Mobile Group penetration and main forces operations is thus emphasized.

On the other hand, the way the Germans dealt with 24th Tank Corps’ penetration is exemplary with a view to countering such deep attack formations in future. First, the Tank Corps (Mobile Group) was isolated from its parent forces (1st Guards Army) and, indeed, from any other OMG-type formations operating in the enemy depth (25th Tank Corps, for example). Next, it was fixed in place while information was obtained about its composition and nature, and simultaneously encircled. Finally, it was eliminated by a series of `well planned, simultaneous and co-ordinated combined arms attacks’. This denied the Soviet commander the opportunity to shift forces to deal with a succession of attacks. These attacks, by their violence and speed, also capitalized on the psychological vulnerability of a force surrounded and cut off in the enemy rear. On the other hand, the fact that they were `deep in a hostile land’ and had `no alternative’, as Sun Tzu realized, almost certainly made the Russians fight harder – until they ran out of ammunition, at any rate.

Twenty-fourth Tank Corps was not strongly reinforced with other arms of service: only an extra Anti-aircraft Artillery Regiment and Rocket Launcher battalion were attached. Had it been more strongly reinforced with infantry, artillery, engineer, or other specialist units, its ability to fight in the enemy depth would have been enhanced significantly. Substantial, dedicated air support would also have increased its resilience. The need to reinforce deep-penetration formations and increase self reliance was reorganized and acknowledged in the official General Staff deductions from the experience, published in autumn 1943. As well as acknowledging the potential value of air resupply organized in advance, the General Staff noted that most of the corps experienced shortages of motor fuel because the distance between supply bases and advanced mobile formations reached unexpected lengths although the most advanced of all, 24th was able to top up its reserves from the airfield it captured. The General Staff also noted that the Corps’ organic equipment was insufficient for salvaging brokendown transport or fighting vehicles. The experience suggested `the necessity for reinforcing Corps operating far away from and without direct contact with the main forces with salvage companies equipped with powerful tractors’.

The General Staff also drew lessons for the handling in battle and overall composition of mobile groups. In most cases, they had been inserted while the enemy was still holding out and this led to unacceptable casualties: 25th Tank Corps, for example, lost 27 tanks on unreconnoitred minefields. The corps had not been supported by aircraft in the breakthrough phrase: in future, such co-operation should be planned on an army or front scale. When mobile forces were acting in the operational depth, fighter and ground-attack aircraft should be controlled by the Tank or Mechanized Corps commander. The experience also taught that the Tank or Mechanized Corps’ action was bound to achieve more success if their initial successes were exploited and consolidated by infantry. Motorized infantry or cavalry should therefore be organized for this purpose. In order to insure the continuous effectiveness of a thrust throughout the entire depth of the operation, Tank and Mechanized Corps should be merged into one mobile group comprising several corps (not less than two, at least one mechanized and the rest tank) and this group should be committed by echelons – two or even three. It would be more difficult to form and weld together an improvised Headquarters than in the case of infantry, and this suggested that Tank Corps Headquarters should be configured and receive their battle training as component parts of mobile groups. The train of thought leading to larger mobile groups and Tank Armies is clear:

The operation carried out by the South West Front in the Middle Don area serves as an example of such employment of Mobile Groups. The experience has shown that an operation o f this kind can be accomplished only by a group o f Corps placed under a unified command or merged into one Tank Army.

British Armour – Lessons to be Learned I

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Following victory in Tunisia there was a pause in British ground operations for two months until the invasion of Sicily on 10 July. This gave the opportunity for re-organization of formations and units, for training and for re-equipment where necessary. It also allowed for rest and recuperation as well as reflection on how the campaign in North Africa had been handled, and how its lessons might be applied to future campaigns in Europe. Of course there had been a steady flow of information back to the UK on the campaign as it progressed, on the quality – or otherwise – of equipment, on tactical thinking and co-operation between arms. All this was shaping the doctrine that would be applied by the Army, including its armoured divisions, in the remainder of the war.

Allied grand strategy was also being discussed, with the Americans eager to invade north-west Europe as soon as possible and the Soviets calling for the western Allies to open a second front. British thinking was that the forces in North Africa should be committed to further operations in the Mediterranean to knock Italy out of the war and ‘tighten the ring’ on Germany. It had already been agreed that British and American forces would invade Sicily, but the Americans had yet to agree that this should be followed up with landings on mainland Italy. As a result, preparations were under way for operations in both the Mediterranean and north-west Europe. Many formations that had taken part in operations in North Africa were designated for the invasion of France and would be shipped back to the UK as soon as possible, although some would fight in Sicily and the early phase of the Italian campaign. These included 7th Armoured Division and 4 and 8 Armoured Brigades.

This pause in armoured operations permits an opportunity to look at how British armour had developed, in terms of doctrine, operations and equipment, since 1939. The crucible of operational experience had led to the distilling to its essence of all the doctrinal theory that abounded in military circles, as may be seen in the July to December 1942 progress report of the RAC, which noted that:

The tactical distinction between the employment of Armoured Brigades and Tank Brigades is becoming increasingly nebulous … This trend is naturally reflected in the … American Sherman tank – accepted by the troops as the best tank they have yet been given … the concept of the heavy slow powerful ‘Infantry’ or ‘Assault’ tank has definitely receded.

The basic divisional order of battle had had a major change in May 1942 with the second armoured brigade replaced by an infantry brigade, as had happened in the Middle East at the end of February. Further modifications in August 1942, April 1943, March 1944 and May 1945 retained that combination of one armoured and one infantry brigade. The Middle East orbat of February 1942 made the brigade group the basic battle formation with the support groups being broken up and their artillery units added to the brigade groups. While the May 1942 orbat for a division in the UK reflected this basic outline artillery units remained under divisional command. With Montgomery’s arrival in Eighth Army the division again became the basic battle formation, with artillery returning to divisional command. In the April 1943 re-organization the divisional reconnaissance regiment, until then an armoured car regiment, became an armoured regiment; and there were various other modifications. Military Training Pamphlet No. 41 of July 1943 (MTP 41/1943) included the ‘Normal organization of an armoured division’ which it noted ‘may alter as a result of evolution’. On a working basis the document noted that the division included:

An armoured divisional headquarters.

An armoured brigade.

An infantry brigade.

Divisional troops:

One armoured reconnaissance regiment.

Two field artillery regiments, one of which will normally be self-propelled.

One anti-tank regiment RA, of which one battery will be self-propelled.

One light anti-aircraft regiment RA.

Two field squadrons and one field park squadron RE.

Armoured divisional signals.

Services.

The pamphlet noted that an armoured division was organized for employment as a single fighting entity, was well balanced for that purpose, and would normally fight as a whole under command of its own GOC. It went on to point out that:

It is a mounted, hard-hitting formation primarily constituted for use against hastily prepared enemy defences, for exploitation of initial success gained by other formations and for pursuit.

It is designed for use in rapid thrusts against the enemy’s vitals, rather than in hammer blows against his organized defences. It is the rapier in the hands of the higher commander, rather than the bludgeon.

Its full power will only be exerted by the employment of its armour concentrated, and supported by all the other components of the division.

And that its normal roles were:

Co-operation with the main army and the Air Forces in effecting the complete destruction of the enemy, usually by envelopment, or by deep penetration through his defences after a gap has been made in his main position by other formations.

Pursuit.

Co-operation with other arms in the defence, usually by counter-attack.

To threaten the enemy and so force him to alter or disclose his dispositions.

With the armoured division operating as intended:

the enemy will be forced to react, and his armour will normally be constantly encountered. Only when the bulk of the hostile tanks have been destroyed will armoured formations attain such a measure of freedom and mobility as will enable them to exploit to the full their ability to inflict a decisive blow against the enemy’s main forces.

The division’s armoured brigade was intended to strike the decisive blow, with the remainder of the division’s resources, ‘together with all available aircraft’, deploying to:

  • fight any preliminary action necessary to enable the armoured brigade to be launched against a vital objective over suitable country.
  • support the attack of the armoured brigade.
  • consolidate and mop up after such an attack.

MTP 41/1943 compared the operation of an armoured division to the work of a rugby scrum with the armoured brigade as the wing forward. ‘The vast majority of the players at first employ all their strength and energy to hold and push back their opponents’ but when this is done the wing forward may ‘break away … to penetrate the defence, and the remainder of the forwards will back up his attempt to score’. The success of the armoured brigade depended on the initial efforts of the remainder of the division, or other formations, and their continuing support when the breakaway had been made.

By the time MTP 41/1943 was issued the armoured brigade included a brigade HQ, three armoured regiments and a motor battalion. Each regiment deployed sixty-nine tanks (fifty-five gun tanks, six close support – CS – and eight anti-aircraft – AA – tanks) while the armoured reconnaissance regiment had fifty-one tanks (thirty-one gun tanks, twelve CS and eight AA tanks), the armoured brigade HQ had a further ten gun tanks and divisional HQ employed eight gun and two AA tanks, giving the division an overall total of 278 tanks. (The term ‘cruiser’ was still being used to describe the Grant and the Sherman although ‘gun tank’ or ‘battle tank’ are more appropriate.) In addition to this substantial armoured force, there were armoured cars, scout cars, carriers, two field artillery regiments – a total of forty-eight weapons – an anti-tank regiment with both 6- and 17-pounders, and a light AA regiment with Bofors 40mm guns, as well as the lorries to carry the armoured brigade’s motor battalion and the three infantry battalions of the lorried infantry brigade. In all the division had over 3,000 vehicles, including its tanks, and almost 15,000 personnel.

The infantry brigade in an armoured division included a brigade HQ, three battalions and a support group. Unlike other infantry, those attached to an armoured division were usually carried in lorries and were therefore mounted infantry, with tactics resembling ‘those of mounted infantry in the past’, trained especially for their role. ‘When mounted their speed on roads is greater than that of the armoured brigade. When dismounted it is essential that they should be trained to move for considerable periods at a really rapid pace.’

How did the lorried infantry differ from the motor battalion of the armoured brigade? The principal difference was that the motor battalion was tactically mounted, i.e. carried as far forward as possible (the provision of half-tracks was to assist in this). Other differences included the fact that the motor battalion had greater firepower, although weaker in manpower, and had many more vehicles, including carriers and scout cars, and also  possessed anti-tank guns. Each motor battalion company had integral reconnaissance and administrative elements, making it flexible enough to operate as a self-contained sub-unit. By contrast the infantry brigade units had greater manpower but less firepower. Their role was described thus:

If the ‘rugger’ analogy is maintained, infantry brigades may be considered as the ‘front row forwards’ since their first object is to get the better of their opponents in the ‘tight’ and to push them so as to produce an opportunity for penetration, and then to back up the battle.

Since tanks by themselves cannot win battles, it is the function of the infantry brigade, as of the remainder of the division, firstly to enable the armoured brigade to come into action on favourable ground, secondly to support its attack, and thirdly to mop up and consolidate the ground it has gained.

The artillery element of the armoured division was now stabilized at two regiments, one of towed 25-pounders and one of self-propelled 25-pounders, or M7 Priests with 105mm howitzers, with the SP regiment normally with the armoured brigade. However, both regiments came under command of the divisional Commander Royal Artillery (CRA), a centralized command which meant that the fire of both could be concentrated ‘for the achievement of the divisional commander’s object’. Although not intended to fire in the anti-tank role, the 25-pounders were to be sited ‘with adequate anti-tank fields of fire’. However, it was also emphasized that the SP guns were artillery ‘and that any attempt to employ them improperly as tanks will result in most serious casualties, without the attainment of any compensating advantage’.

Defence against enemy armour was the role of the divisional anti-tank regiment, now evolving into a four-battery unit, deploying forty-eight guns, of which two were towed batteries each with twelve 6-pounders and the other two were self-propelled with American M10 tank destroyers, armed with 3-inch guns (later replaced by 17-pounders in M10s and Achilles). This regiment was usually used ‘with a view to furthering the achievement of the general plan of the divisional commander’; it also provided protection during long halts while the division was on the move, replenishing, recovering or in harbour. It was emphasized that:

The skill, determination, and resource of every member of an anti-tank regiment must, therefore, be of the very highest order, especially in the armoured division where, because of the circumstances of its employment, the anti-tank personnel will be confronted with situations demanding the highest qualities of courage, self-reliance, and initiative.

As with the SP field guns, there was an injunction against becoming engaged in an armoured mêlée, although the SPGs’ light armour and good performance across country made them ‘suitable for employment in support of the attacking brigade, especially for consolidation, and as a mobile reserve’. It may be noted that US Army doctrine saw the tank as the main weapon of exploitation but envisaged SP anti-tank guns dealing with enemy tanks; those SP weapons were dubbed tank destroyers, a doctrine found to be flawed deeply.

Diminishing enemy air strength in the Mediterranean meant that the divisional light AA regiment may not have been as important as before but continued to be included in the orbat to protect the field artillery positions, defiles, and troops and transport while forming up. It also had a secondary role against enemy tanks although this was considered ‘exceptional’ by July 1943.

The overall number of armoured formations in the Army had reduced from its peak in 1942. Two of the three youngest armoured divisions – 42nd and 79th – were to be disbanded although the latter was reprieved by being chosen in early 1943 as the parent formation for all British specialized armour; 42nd ceased to exist in October 1943. A month after the invasion of Europe 9th Armoured Division was also disbanded in the UK; neither 9th nor 42nd Divisions ever saw action. As we have already noted 8th Armoured Division was broken up shortly after landing in Egypt and disbanded on 1 January 1943; although 23 Armoured Brigade survived as an independent brigade, 24 Armoured Brigade was also disbanded, its only action having been at El Alamein. Tenth Armoured Division saw no further action after El Alamein and deployed to Palestine and Syria, eventually being disbanded in Egypt in June 1944.

Concerns felt by crewmen about the reliability of the Crusader had also been reported back to Whitehall where the Director of Armoured Fighting Vehicles (DAFV) expressed serious concern at the poor state of reliability, as did the Deputy Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Lieutenant General Ronnie Weeks. In Weeks’ view ‘reliability must be considered more important than numbers’, a theme that now permeated official thinking in Whitehall where an emphasis was placed on producing better tanks. Six design requirements were set: reliability; gun; speed; endurance; armour; fighting compartment. The Sherman, then being delivered in increasing numbers, was reliable with a satisfactory gun, but was outgunned by the latest German tanks. In fact, it was felt by the General Staff that the American 75mm, as fitted in the Sherman, was ‘the best dual-purpose tank weapon yet produced’ and, at the earliest opportunity, should be adopted as the standard gun in British tanks. In a sense this was a return to the mistake made, for different reasons, with the 2-pounder. Fortunately, there was another view. ‘A first-class anti-tank weapon of the six-pounder or heavier type modernized to its highest performance’ had been called for. Work was in hand to lengthen the 6-pounder and provide it with armourpiercing Capped Ballistic Capped Ammunition (APCBC) with greater penetrative power. This was overtaken by a War Office request that a quarter of tanks in British service should be fitted with the 17-pounder to engage more heavily-armoured tanks. As a result it was decided to adapt Cromwell, then under development, to mount the 17-pounder. However, the changes to the basic design, involving a lengthened hull, stronger suspension and a very high turret, led to another tank, A30 or Challenger, which proved a disappointment and certainly did not live up to its name.

Nonetheless, the idea of mounting the 17-pounder in a quarter of British tanks did come to fruition with the adaptation of the Sherman to carry the new weapon. This British version, dubbed Firefly, was issued on a one-in-four basis to all British armoured units in the armoured divisions, including those later equipped with Cromwells; the Firefly in a Cromwell troop was even more obvious than its counterpart in a Sherman troop. (The arrival of Firefly brought about a troop- and squadron-level re-organization, with a Firefly added to the existing three tanks of a troop but the number of troops in a squadron reduced from five to four.)

Cromwell had begun life in 1941 as a requirement for a heavy cruiser, weighing about 25 tons, with a 6-pounder gun and 75mm frontal armour. The General Staff, realizing that the earlier concept of light cruisers ‘swirling around the battlefield like a naval fleet’ did not match the reality of warfare, wrote this requirement. The resultant tank, Cavalier, was not a success but Leyland Motors suggested modifying the design using a de-rated Rolls Royce Merlin aero-engine with mechanical reliability of a level not yet seen with British tanks. With insufficient Merlins available, Leyland had to make do with the Nuffield Liberty engine and the result was given the name Centaur. As an interim design it saw limited service. Leyland continued pursuing the Merlin alternative and when de-rated Merlins, re-named Meteors, became available the design was changed once more. The end result was Cromwell, a 25-ton tank capable of 40mph and carrying a 6-pounder in its turret with a 7.92mm Besa co-axial machine gun. Cromwell’s distinctive large, flat-sided turret was spacious enough for its armament to be improved to a 75mm while a support version mounted a 95mm howitzer. Cromwell also met the reliability criterion, although there were early worries on that point. Its performance and cross-country agility were welcomed by crews.

British Armour – Lessons to be Learned II

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The Cromwell tank, officially Tank, Cruiser, Mk VIII, Cromwell (A27M),

Tanks were growing bigger as demonstrated by the appearance of the Panzer Mk VI, or Tiger, in Russia and Tunisia. The United States had begun developing a 50-ton heavy tank, M6, armed with a 3-inch gun, but the US Army’s Armored Force decided that mobility came before either armour or gun power and cancelled the project. (In addition, as already noted, the Americans remained fixated on the tank-destroyer concept, a belief that self-propelled anti-tank guns on lightly-armoured hulls would fight other tanks, allowing US tanks to execute the exploitation role.) A British heavy tank, TOG, was also abandoned, but this had been a throwback to the Great War whereas the American M6, although beset by problems, had potential. Cancellation of M6 was followed by another programme, T20, which was also killed off by the Armored Force, which preferred to up-gun and up-armour Sherman; it had been expected that T20s would also enter British service. Eventually the US Army did get a heavier tank, the M26 Pershing with a 90mm gun, but only towards the end of the war. None were supplied to the British Army which was waiting for the A41 universal tank, which became Centurion, the finest tank of its generation. The mid-war period was one of flux in the development of armour with many new theories being promoted about weapon performance and armour protection. The American cancellation of M6 may be seen as short-sighted in light of the appearance of the Tiger but DAFV made a similar decision in Britain; the DRAC even described the 88mm-armed Tiger as ‘a clumsy fighting vehicle’. Macksey commented:

The evidence concerning anticipated enemy equipment and techniques was inevitably incomplete and therefore subject to a measure of guesswork. It was not entirely unreasonable that, at a moment when DAFV was rejecting heavy assault tanks, the defensive potential of the Tiger tank … was for some time underrated, although DAFV’s expectation that the Germans would mount heavy anti-tank guns on self-propelled mountings, in the same way as the British and Americans intended to do, was entirely justified.

The Defence Committee, prompted by the Ministry of Supply, made clear that it preferred not to rely on American production for Britain’s tank needs in the remainder of the war ‘on the grounds that it was undesirable to let it appear that the war had been won by American tanks. A preference to continue with Churchill and Cromwell was stated’.

As well as Tiger the Germans had developed another new tank, Panzer Mark V, or Panther. A medium tank weighing 45 tons – half as heavy again as demanded in the original specification – it carried a 75mm gun twice as long as that of the improved Panzer Mark IV. On Hitler’s orders the gun was made even longer. Having overcome teething problems, Panther proved an excellent tank; a powerful gun, thick armour and speed all contributed to it being the best German tank of the war. It was developed to combat the Russian T-34 and was superior to it in most respects, except that Germany could not match Soviet production levels: only 5,500 Panthers were built between 1942 and 1945 whereas 11,000 T-34s rolled off the production lines in 1944 alone. Although there are no doubts about the technical qualities of the Panther, it was over-engineered which meant longer time in production and more complicated maintenance in the field. Had the Germans been willing, a captured T-34, which provided the specification for Panther, could have been used to reverse engineer a German version, of which many more could have been built; but German engineering hubris ensured that this simpler Panzer Mark V did not develop beyond a thought.

It is worth considering the T-34 briefly. The best all-round tank of the war, it was also built in the greatest numbers, with over 57,000 produced by 1945 (the USA produced over 50,000 Shermans). Design work started in 1936, based on the BT-7. With a high-velocity 76.2mm gun, low turret, sloped armour, powerful engine and Christie suspension, T-34 was a shock to German panzer crews. It was later fitted with an enlarged turret and the 85mm anti-aircraft gun to become T-34/85. Wide tracks and excellent suspension allowed it to operate effectively, even on ground covered in snow or mud, giving it a tactical as well as numerical superiority over its adversaries. Not surprisingly, T-34 remained in service and production after the war and its production totals have been exceeded only by its successor, the T-54.

Also under discussion at this time were armoured warfare tactics since it was not clear whether those that had worked in the desert would translate to Europe. However, it was appreciated that the conditions experienced in Tunisia approximated more closely to those of Europe and that the armoured division as deployed in Tunisia, with its armoured brigade and lorried infantry brigade, was well balanced. Its only apparent defect lay in having only an armoured car regiment for reconnaissance and so it was decided to use an armoured regiment instead.

The revised organization was not viewed as definitive since emphasis was laid on the fact that the division had to be flexible with its organization adjustable to circumstances. In the next phase of the war, as British armoured divisions fought in Italy and north-west Europe, that flexibility was demonstrated by the adoption of the battlegroup within the divisions, and the addition of a second infantry brigade to cope with the problems created by Italy’s terrain.

By this stage of the war the British armoured division was a much more professional formation. Training of new soldiers, many posted as casualty replacements, had been improved so that new crews reporting to units for the first time were better prepared for combat. This contrasted sharply with the earlier days of the war when the arrival of inadequately trained replacements had added to the existing burden on fighting men. There had been a Royal Armoured Corps Depot in Egypt, at Abbassia, north-east of Cairo, since pre-war days that fed men into the armoured units in the Middle East. As the war progressed the lessons learned in action had been taught to new arrivals whilst specialist courses for all ranks in skills such as gunnery, signals and maintenance were also provided. By early 1943 the system of assimilating reinforcements and preparing them for their units had been refined to such an extent that an Armoured Replacement Group had been created, consisting of armoured delivery regiments and, closer to the fighting front, armoured delivery squadrons to feed both battle-ready men and machines to their new units. This scheme mirrored that established in the UK.

Among changes that began in the Middle East were some affecting gunnery. Initiated in the summer of 1942, these were soon being taught at the Gunnery School at Lulworth in England. Macksey notes that these changes inspired the commandant of the Gunnery School, Colonel R. A. H. Walker, to start ‘a crusade to develop long range fire (up to 2,000 yards) and indirect shooting’. At that time tank guns were generally free elevating and controlled by the gunner’s shoulder. Walker averred that the free elevating gun ‘had to be replaced by an elevating wheel; that elevating and traversing gears must be tightened up; and that telescopes with improved magnification must be introduced’. Walker’s comments were supported by Major General Raymond Briggs who became Director RAC in early August 1943. However, as Macksey states:

the indirect fire requirement was already shown to be less important than the enthusiasts believed. Rarely was it undertaken above troop level, but longer range shooting had already been demonstrated in action both in Tunisia and Sicily. Early in 1944 the new techniques were adopted and, as the seat of war moved to Europe, the centre of activity in the development of better gunnery shifted to the UK, at the AFV Schools and in the experimental establishments.

The AFV Schools were making a major contribution to the development of armour as the ‘whole of the British-orientated armoured forces, including elements from certain foreign nations, looked to Bovington and Lulworth’. Officers were being instructed at the Tactical School where lessons from the front were passed on but it also served as a ‘brains trust’ to discuss and argue over ideas. Elsewhere, the Military College of Science had a Fighting Vehicles Wing where suitably qualified officers could qualify as instructors in the more rarefied aspects of tank technology. This Wing developed, first, into the RAC School of Tank Technology and then the Armour School. By mid1943 new recruits for RAC units – and there were about 2,000 each month – were receiving training based on battlefield experience, as were new officers. Nor was there any shortage of AFVs for training. The days of scarcity had gone: at the end of 1943 the RAC had 15,732 AFVs across the world.

The experience of Operation JUBILEE, the Dieppe raid of 20 August 1942, knowledge of the German work on coast defences – the so-called Atlantic Wall – and the problems created by the enemy use of minefields in North Africa all led to the decision to employ specialized armour in the invasion of Europe. By July 1943 a range of specialized armour was being developed, including updated Sherman-based flail tanks to supersede the early rudimentary mine-clearing tanks. Assault engineer tanks, based on the Churchill, were also in development as was a range of other ‘Funnies’, as they were known. General Sir Alan Brooke, CIGS and a former GOC Mobile Division, believed that all such specialized armour should be grouped under a single commander. This decision led to the reprieve from disbandment for the most junior British armoured division, 79th, which was re-roled to assume the specialized armour task. Command was given to Major General Percy Hobart, who had already raised 11th Armoured Division.

As well as operating the specialized armour 79th Armoured Division was to train British, Canadian and American armoured units in the use of amphibious tanks, Shermans fitted with flotation screens and Duplex Drive (DD), allowing them to travel through water. The DD Shermans were intended to play a major role in the landings in Normandy, although sea conditions restricted their use. They were also used later in the campaign. The conversion and deployment of 79th Armoured Division illustrates the most enlightened and innovative use of armour by the British Army in the Second World War. It was unmatched by any other combatant, especially in the method of employment, with Hobart acting as specialized armour adviser to the commander 21 Army Group, General, later Field Marshal, Sir Bernard Montgomery, and with a similar command and oversight system at formation, unit and sub-unit levels so that the special skills and equipment of the division were not misused.

At much the same time each field army HQ received a new element of staff with the introduction of a Brigadier RAC (BRAC) and staff. Brigadier George Richards, who had commanded 4 and 23 Armoured Brigades, was appointed BRAC to HQ Eighth Army in time for the invasion of Italy while Brigadier Harry Watkins became BRAC at Allied Forces HQ with the special remit of protecting RAC interests there, as well as setting up the RAC structure in southern Europe. No BRAC was appointed to First Army which was allowed to fade away as preparations continued to invade Sicily.

There were other changes at higher levels that indicate maturing attitudes towards armour. In late 1941 three armoured groups had been created, commanded by Crocker, McCreery and Creagh, the most experienced armoured commanders. These had been intended as operational formations and to co-ordinate training at formation level but were short-lived; they were armoured corps in all but name. As well as the abolition of the armoured groups, the post of Commander RAC was replaced by a post of Major General RAC at Home Forces HQ while, in February 1943, DAFV had been retitled DRAC; the AFV branches in the War Office also became RAC branches.

Perhaps the most important change that had come about was not one that could be quantified. It was the recognition that armour was not something different but an integral and essential part of any field army. An armoured division was seen as a ‘formation consisting of all arms’ to work with all arms and the air forces to destroy the enemy’s forces. The ‘them and us’ attitude of the past was dying out and its disappearance ensured that much more effective use would be made of armoured divisions in the future and that those divisions would work more closely with other arms.

As training and preparations were being finalized for the invasion of Sicily, armoured divisions in the UK were training for another invasion that would take place in 1944 and put British troops back on French soil for the first time since 1940. However, only three of the five armoured divisions in Britain would fight in north-west Europe, where they would be joined by 7th Armoured, the Desert Rats. Those were Guards, 11th and 79th Armoured Divisions.

Tilly and the evolution of tactics

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Contemporary painting showing the Battle of White Mountain (1620), where Imperial-Spanish forces under Johann Tserclaes, Count of Tilly won a decisive victory.

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Count Tilly on a portrait by Anthony van Dyck.

Count Jean Tserclaes Tilly (1559–1632) was another outstanding product of Jesuit training. First seeing service in Spain, the Walloon learnt the art of war from the age of 15, serving under the Duke of Parma in his war against the Dutch. In 1610, he was appointed commander of the forces of the Catholic League, established in 1609 as a loose alliance of Catholic principalities and minor states. Like Wallenstein, Tilly brought in important reforms, especially from his experience of the formidable Spanish infantry. Nicknamed the ‘monk of war’, he soon proved to be a highly capable organiser of infantry tactics, which were quickly adopted by Ferdinand’s troops.

The infantry at this stage still consisted of pikemen and musketeers. The pikemen wore armour and carried a pike, which at that time was between 15 and 18 feet long, made of ash with a sharp metal point. Their officers carried shorter pikes with coloured ribbons. The musketeers were a kind of light infantry with a light metal helmet, later replaced by a felt hat. The heavy musket they carried needed to be rested on a wooden pole with an iron fork to be fired. The ‘ammunition’ was contained variously in a bandolier, a flask of gunpowder and a brass bottle of combustible material, the so-called Zundkraut as well as a leather bag containing small metal balls. A small bottle of oil was also carried to ensure that the ‘alchemy’ required to fire the weapon functioned smoothly. This was far from straightforward. A hint of the complexity of firing this primitive musket is given by the fact that ninety-nine separate commands were needed to fire and reload the weapon.

A further forty-one commands existed for dealing with the musket at other times. As this suggests, the need to increase the rate of fire and simplify the munitions were priorities for all commanders throughout the Thirty Years War. These problems would only be solved with the advent of the Swedes, who entered the fray against the Habsburg in 1630. They had a modern solution to many of these problems: the introduction of small cartridges wrapped in paper.

The only tactical unit at this time was the company, which was deployed in a large square made up usually of between 15 and 20 companies. This formation was 50 men deep with its flanks protected by 10 rows of musketeers. Despite much practice at marching to form such elaborate formations as the so-called ‘Cross of Burgundy’ or ‘Eight-pointed Star’, it takes little imagination to realise that manoeuvring in such formations was virtually impossible. The idea of marching to a single beat of the drum had still to be widely introduced and cohesive movement was only possible by extended rank.

Where Tilly proved so successful in organising infantry tactics, Wallenstein proved no less formidable in handling cavalry. Cavalry like infantry were divided into heavy and light. The heavy cavalry were cuirassiers and lancers, both armoured down to their boots. In addition to their main weapon, lancers were also armed with a sword and two pistols, symbols of their privileged status as bodyguards to the commanders in the field. The cuirassiers carried the heavy straight sabre or ‘pallasch’, which was designed to cut as well as thrust.

The horsed ‘carabiniers’ were organised as light cavalry as their only armour was a metal helmet and a light breastplate. Equipped with a shorter musket and 18 cartridges, these horsemen also carried pistols and a short sword. The dragoons were also equipped with a short musket and were indeed originally horsed musketeers. As the barrels of their muskets were often decorated with a dragon, they became known as dragoons. Deployed as advance guard cavalry they carried an axe with which, in theory, they could batter down doors and gates.

To these conventional groupings Wallenstein added new elements. An important part of the horsed advance guard was the ‘ungrischen Hussaren’, or Hungarian hussars. Together with the Croats they formed the irregular elements of the army who could be deployed to plunder and terrorise their opponents as well as perform scouting and reconnaissance.

The origin of the term ‘hussar’ to this day is a source of debate. The word most likely stems from the Slavic Gursar or Gusar. Other theories link the word to the German Herumstreifender or Corsaren; this last with its imagery of piracy perhaps being nearer to the truth than many a Hungarian would care to admit. Famous for giving their enemies no quarter, they became the nucleus of what would become the finest light cavalry in the world.

As with the infantry, the cavalry were grouped into companies. Often these were called Cornetten and hence the title of the junior officer of each such company was ‘Cornet’. As these were formed into a square, the custom arose to call four of these companies a ‘squadron’ from the Italian quadra, meaning square. In theory every cavalry regiment consisted of ten companies each of a hundred riders but in reality no cavalry regiment had more than 500 men.

Drill of these formations was aimed at disordering infantry by charging the last 60 paces at the enemy’s pikemen or cavalry. There was to be no firing from the saddle until the cavalry could ‘see the white in the eye of the foe’ (‘Weiss im Aug des Feindt sehen thut’). Led by such Imperial officers as Gottfried Pappenheim, famous for his many wounds and refusal to be impressed by titles, or the redoubtable Johann Sporck, a giant of a man with hair like bronze, perhaps the most feared cavalry general of his time, the Imperial cavalry was trained in shock tactics relying on aggression and surprise to demoralise their opponents.

The artillery remained a strict caste apart. Each unit of artillery was in theory organised to have 24 guns of different calibre. Mortars and other guns were added to each unit. Every gun had as its team a lieutenant and eleven gunners. These were supported by the so-called Schanzbauern or Pioneers, who were organised into units as large as 300 under an officer of the rank of Captain. The unit had its own flag made of silk which displayed as its badge a shovel and its men were also skilled carpenters able to strengthen bridges, not just demolish them.

Imperialist versus rebel

Such an army for all its appearance was not in any way comparable to the armies of later years. There was no obvious way of telling one army from another. As any army advanced across the ravaged plains of Germany during the horrors of the Thirty Years War, it was accompanied by bands of irregulars, bandits and marauders, including spies and other n’er-do-wells who plundered the local landscape like locusts.

Armies learnt to distinguish each other by what would in modern parlance be called ‘call signs’. At Breitenfeld in 1631, a battle which threw into sharp relief the energy and skill of the Swedes under their king, Gustavus Adolphus, the Imperialists under Tilly shouted ‘Jesus-Maria’ as they fought while the Swedes used the phrase: ‘God with us’. As battles were fought and won, it became the custom to reward the officers and men with financial gifts. Thus after Lutzen, General Breuner was given 10,000 gulden while the brave Colloredo regiment was awarded collectively 9,200 gulden.

The names of the Imperial officers came from two sources. The aristocrats who had preferred to convert to Catholicism took full advantage of the political support Ferdinand offered them. Many of the names we encounter here for the first time will pop up again and again in our story: Khevenhueller, Trauttmannsdorff, Liechtenstein, Forgách, Eggenberg and Althan (these last two left behind them world-class works of architecture to commemorate their position and wealth: Schloss Eggenberg, on the outskirts of Graz, and Vranov – Schloss Frein – in Moravia). Then came a group whose careers were made in the long Turkish wars. These included not only Ferdinand’s enemies Thurn, Hohenlohe, Schlick and Mansfeld, but a large number of his most important military commanders from Wallenstein downwards.

By 1620, Ferdinand was ready to move on to the attack. He now had no fewer than five separate armies with which to renew the offensive. Dampierre held Vienna with 5,000 men. Bucquoy was advancing along the Wachau with 21,000; from Upper Austria, the Duke of Bavaria, Maximilian, advanced alongside Tilly with 21,000, while a Spanish army invaded the Lower Palatinate. The previously Protestant lands of Lower Austria and Upper Austria were cleared of the rebels and more than sixty Protestant noblemen fled to Retz with their families. Half of these would be proclaimed outlaws. Both provinces had been recovered for Ferdinand and the Church with barely a shot being fired.

As the armies advanced into Lusatia and Moravia, the irregular forces of the Emperor began to introduce a far more brutal and indiscriminate warfare. Plundering, rape and other atrocities became widespread, especially among the Cossacks sent by the Polish Queen who was Ferdinand’s sister. On the rebels’ side Hungarian irregulars proved no less capable of atrocities and had in Ferdinand’s own words ‘subjected the prisoners to unheard of torture …’ killing pregnant women and throwing babies on to fires. Ferdinand would later note: ‘So badly have the enemy behaved that one cannot recall whether such terror was the prerogative of the Turk.’

These acts of cruelty set the tone for much of what occurred later. On 7 November 1620 Maximilian and Tilly finally reached the outskirts of Prague where they faced the new rebel commander, Prince Christian of Anhalt, who had taken up a potentially strong defensive position exploiting the advantage of the so-called White Mountain, in reality more of a hill, a few miles to the west of Prague.

Anhalt’s forces consisted of about 20,000 men of whom half were cavalry. Some 5,000 of these were Hungarian light cavalry. His artillery consisted of only a few guns. The entrenching tools to convert his position into something more formidable never arrived. Thus was the stage set for destruction of the Bohemian rebels. The Imperial forces were superior in artillery, but more importantly in morale. The commanders were divided on what they should do next and it was only when an image of the Madonna whose eyes had been burnt out by Calvinist iconoclasts was brandished in front of Wallenstein’s ally Bucquoy that he suddenly ordered the attack.

Anhalt deployed his cavalry but they made no impact on the Imperial horsemen and they fled after an initial skirmish. The Bohemian foot followed rapidly and even the feared Moravian infantry dissolved when Tilly appeared in front of them. The Battle of the White Mountain was over by early afternoon. The Imperial forces had suffered barely 600 casualties and the rebels more than 2,000 but what turned this skirmish into a decisive victory was Tilly’s determination to keep up the momentum against a demoralised enemy. Prague, despite its fortifications, surrendered as rebel morale everywhere collapsed. Frederick joined the fugitives streaming out of the city to the east, leaving his crown behind him along with the hopes of a Protestant Europe. As the Czech historian Josef Pekař rightly observed, the Battle of the White Mountain was the clash between the German and Roman worlds and the Roman world won. Had the German world won, Bohemia would have rapidly been absorbed by Protestant Germany and Czech culture would have ceased to exist.

For Protestantism, with the departure of the Winter King and his wife into exile in Holland, the tide of history which had seemed to run in the direction of the new faith in the sixteenth century now appeared to have turned irrevocably. Increasingly perceived as divisive, unhistorical and radical, Protestantism unsettled those who feared anarchy and extremism. The population of Prague sought refuge in the old certainties and comfortable verities of the Catholic Church and within a year the Jesuits had made the city into a bulwark of the Counter-Reformation.

As Professor R.J.W. Evans has pointed out, the demoralised forces of the new faith had little reply to the intellectual and practical solutions of the Society of Jesus. Those who sought refuge in the occult and Rosicrucian view of the world were ‘qualified at best only for passive resistance to the attacks of the Counter-Reformation’.

Moreover not only did Ferdinand’s personal piety inspire his subjects through the widespread dissemination of the Virtutes Ferdinandi II penned by his Jesuit confessor Lamormaini, but the international flavour of the new orders, like Ferdinand’s army, was a powerful intellectual weapon. At the opening of the Jesuit University of Graz the inaugural addresses had been given in eighteen languages. When Ignatius Loyola had founded the Society of Jesus in 1540 he had from the beginning conceived it as a ‘military’ formation led by a ‘general’ who expected unhesitating obedience and the highest intellectual and spiritual formation among his recruits. These principles guided Ferdinand’s vision of his army. The offensive of the intellect was supported by more practical steps. In 1621, all of the ringleaders of the Bohemian rebels were executed on Ferdinand’s orders in the Old Town Square in Prague.

It was typical of Ferdinand II that while these ‘Bohemian martyrs’ were brought to the gallows, the Habsburg went on a pilgrimage to the great Marian shrine of Mariazell in his native Styria specifically to pray for their souls. In the years that followed, prayer and sword moved in perfect counterpoint for the Habsburg cause. If Ferdinand was the spearhead of spiritual revival, on the battlefield the corresponding military reawakening was to be organised by Wallenstein.

Wallenstein stood out from the newly minted nobility around Ferdinand because of his logistical skills, which he deployed with unrivalled expertise despite his physical disabilities. Plagued by gout which often forced him to be carried by litter, Wallenstein ceaselessly instructed his subordinates to organise his affairs to the last detail. Agriculture was virtually collectivised under his control to ensure that every crop and animal was nurtured efficiently to supply his armies. A fortunate second marriage to the daughter of Count Harrach, one of Ferdinand’s principal advisers, brought him yet more support at court. In April 1625, Ferdinand agreed to Wallenstein raising 6,000 horsemen and nearly 20,000 foot soldiers. Wallenstein’s force gave the Emperor freedom of manoeuvre. He now had formidable forces to counterbalance the armies of the Catholic League led by Tilly, who always showed signs of answering in the first instance to his Bavarian masters rather than to the Emperor Ferdinand.

Prussian Reforms 1806-15

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GERHARD von SCHARNHORST (1755-1813) Chief of the Prussian General Staff.

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Napoleon’s defeats were important, especially for an understanding of the use of force, but his victories over fifteen years were of much greater significance and were astounding by any measure. Moreover, even when finally defeated, Napoleon’s military vision endured: his enemies ultimately all reformed their armies, and whether knowingly or unknowingly did so within the parameters he had established. And this was necessary, since the armies facing the French had problems with both their officers and the ranks. The Prussians are an excellent example of this, and an important one, since their reforms within the Napoleonic model both refined it and created another innovation: their general staff.

Like many of the armies that faced the French, the Prussian army was composed of men thrown into the service and held in check by the fear induced through the power of fierce discipline, symbolized by the frequent use of the lash. The French conscript army also used fierce discipline—but it was not based on coercion by terror. Most of the other recruits to the Prussian army were foreigners, as the home population was deemed more useful tilling the land, working and paying the taxes that would enable the princes to raise such armies. In 1742, Frederick the Great decided that as a general rule, two-thirds of infantry battalions should be composed of foreigners, the remaining third being Prussians. As a result, most battalions were filled with deserters from foreign armies, prisoners of war, criminals and vagabonds, recruited through cunning, violence and the lure of gold. Only savage discipline could hold this heterogeneous mass of soldiers together, without which they would promptly desert. Indeed, desertion was the main concern of military leaders: Frederick II began his General Principles on the Conduct of War, written between 1748 and 1756, with fourteen rules to avoid desertion; tactical and strategic considerations often had to be subordinated to the need to prevent it. As a result, troops were formed in tight lines, scouting patrols were rarely used, and chasing a defeated enemy army was extremely difficult. Marching, let alone attacking by night, or establishing camps close to forests had to be avoided. Soldiers were ordered to watch over their comrades for potential deserters, in times of peace as at war. Even civilians faced heavy penalties for failing to detain deserters and hand them in to the army.

Consider these troops in contrast to Napoleon’s conscripts: troops provided constantly by law, troops willing to fight, troops who could therefore be trusted in any kind of march or manoeuvre. The difference was immeasurable—it extended to the officer class too. As opposed to Napoleon’s new professionals, the Prussians were still largely led by men defined by class rather than capability. Some were foreigners but most were aristocrats drawn from the ranks of the Prussian Junkers. In his writings, Frederick II repeatedly stated that commoners should not receive a commission since their minds tend to be turned towards profit rather than honour. But even families of noble blood were often reluctant to send their sons to the army: although a military career could in time prove to be both glorious and profitable, the academic level of most military schools was hardly superior to primary education. As a result, the average Prussian officer was rarely well educated—a situation which impacted upon the level of Prussian command.

The inadequacies of the Prussian army had already been exposed in the period 1792–95 when, as part of the first coalition, it encountered the then pre-Napoleonic French revolutionary army of mostly untrained volunteers, and lost. These initial losses led to the creation of a war college, the Kriegsakademie, for the study of military theory and practice, headed by one of the most significant reformers of the Prussian army, General Gerd von Scharnhorst. As an experienced soldier, he was already fascinated by these mostly untrained, lowly conscript soldiers and unknown officers, often too of lowly origin, that fought so well and defeated the professional armies of Europe. He and other Prussian military reformers understood the operational flexibility resulting from the idea of the corps d’armée relatively quickly, but then came to realize this was not enough: there was a bigger issue at stake than military organization. It was Scharnhorst who sensed that in some unclear way it had to do with the new revolutionary state—that it was a political issue—which needed far more insight and comprehension than most officers possessed. To begin to broach this complicated matter Scharnhorst introduced liberal studies to the syllabus of the Kriegsakademie, which was an important step in itself, but one that did little to truly reform the army. This was not surprising, given the immensity of the task: the Prussian army was too big and too heavy, its columns like those of Austria and Russia marching only a few miles a day, their existence tied to thousands of cumbersome supply wagons. The army’s tactics too were outdated: recruits were drilled in rigid and slow automated rhythms, in anticipation of a battlefield in which soldiers would deploy in stiff, inflexible lines before firing volleys against volleys fired from an enemy’s equally stiff, inflexible lines. It was this army—facing Napoleon’s more flexible tactics, mass, rapid movement with willing soldiers of high morale, and a focused strategy of decisive victory—that was vanquished at the battle of Jena in 1806. An impressive display of Napoleonic strategy, the battle is not well known—as is Waterloo, for example—which is ironic since it was the defining experience for a generation of Prussian officers, and especially, as we will see, for one Carl von Clausewitz.

Alarmed by the devastating French victories over Austria and Russia in 1805, Prussia mobilized for war in 1806, somewhat overconfident in its capabilities: both the nation and the army were ill prepared psychologically. Napoleon responded quickly, and his Grande Armée—in this case some 200,000 strong, organized in a number of corps and deployed en carré on a converging axis—began moving in early October. His aim was a decisive victory over King Frederick William of Prussia. From the start the campaign did not go well for the Prussian forces. Marshal Murat and Marshal Bernadotte’s corps soon crossed the river Saale and forced General Tauenzien’s division to fall back on General Prince Hohenlohe’s army. Meanwhile, Marshal Lannes achieved a small but stunning victory at Saalfeld, defeating Prince Louis Ferdinand’s corps, killing its commander and taking 10,000 prisoners. With Prussian morale already plummeting, on 10 October the army under Napoleon’s command found Hohenlohe’s rear guard occupying the Landgrafenberg plateau above the town of Jena. Napoleon decided to deploy Marshal Lannes’ corps and the Imperial Guard on this plateau to hold down the enemy’s centre. Marshal Augereau was sent on the right and Marshal Ney on the left to outflank the Prussians on both sides. Meanwhile, Marshal Davout’s corps were sent marching north towards Apolda to complete the encirclement. Napoleon spent part of the night personally supervising the building of a mountain road, to bring troops and artillery pieces up to the plateau. At dawn, the French army was deployed to form a front a mile and a half long. As the dense fog cleared in mid-morning, Hohenlohe, who had believed he was fighting a flank guard, realized his mistake. From cover, the French soon started pounding his forces, which were concentrated on open ground, as he awaited reinforcements. In the early afternoon, Napoleon ordered the advance, committing his 40,000-strong reserve. Facing a gigantic advancing mass of 90,000 infantry and cavalry supported by artillery, Hohenlohe’s troops fled. Before 4 p.m., the battle was over. Half of the French soldiers had not even fired a shot.

Napoleon was convinced he had achieved the decisive victory over the Prussians. In fact, Frederick William had departed the day before with 70,000 troops, heading towards the Magdeburg fortress. The real clash came when this army encountered Marshal Davout’s isolated corps close to Auerstadt. Twenty-six thousand men strong, it only included some 1,500 cavalrymen and forty-four pieces of artillery. The first encounter with Prussian forces came when 600 of Blücher’s cavalry—the same Blücher of subsequent Waterloo fame—galloped out of the fog. The Prussians then launched four successive cavalry charges, each 2,500 men strong. The French troops, who had formed in battalion squares, withstood the assaults. Division after division of Prussian troops were thus checked, and Davout was forced to commit his only reserve: a single regiment. Napoleon had judged the strength and organization of Davout’s corps correctly. At noon, Frederick William decided to fall back in order to join up with Hohenlohe’s army and resume fighting the next day. To his dismay, instead of an army, he was faced with a mass of fugitives fleeing the battlefield of Jena, which he had no option but to join. He left behind 3,000 prisoners, including Clausewitz, and 10,000 dead. Davout had held at bay a force three times the size of his own—for which Napoleon congratulated him but, imperial legend oblige, he ordered that henceforth the two battles would be remembered only as the battle of Jena.

The Prussians were comprehensively defeated because in his campaign Napoleon had approached them in a way from which they could not deduce his intentions in time to react to them. When the armies were in contact he moved faster than they expected and from directions they did not expect, so that when they did react they did so on the basis of a false understanding of the battlefield. Furthermore, their ponderous centralized procedures for command and the insistence that orders were to be obeyed to the letter meant that those closest to the French, who could see what was actually happening, were neither empowered to act nor sufficiently informed to act appropriately.

The peace settlement came only in 1807 at Tilsit, signed on 25 June between Napoleon and the tsar, ally of the defeated Prussian king, on a specially constructed raft anchored in the exact midstream of the river Niemen in East Prussia. In the settlement Prussia lost half its population and territory and effectively became a French satellite. In addition, the Prussian forces were constrained to no more than 42,000 men, with limits on the numbers allowed in each arm or service. Such diminishment and strictures were a further blow for the army, which was still stunned from its humiliating defeats at Jena and Auerstadt. Nonetheless, it was through implementing these strictures that reform was achieved, to lasting effect: over years a different army came into being, with its new “thinking soldier,” the innovative idea of a general staff, and ultimately the theories of On War. These three linked together produced a doctrinal energy, and the nervous system to carry it, that would enable Prussia and then Germany to evolve through the following hundred years—and create a model of command that came to be emulated by many of the leading militaries in the world. This would establish an understanding of the organization and application of force that dominated the battlefield through two world wars—and possibly to this day. And it began with the painful reforms post-Jena.

General Scharnhorst headed the endeavour, backed up by an impressive coterie of generals who realized the need for total reform: of the army, of its officer class and of its operations. At a structural level, the Prussian reformers created six corps, following the French corps d’armée system. Each contained the three types of forces, artillery, infantry and cavalry, and each was organized in brigades some 6,000 to 7,000 strong. They then turned to the issues of men and arms. In order rapidly to increase the army’s numerical strength without openly flaunting the 1807 treaty, the permitted complement of recruits was drafted and rigorously trained for a few months, then sent back home, ready to be called up in time of need—and the next full complement was then called up and trained likewise. This was another emulation of the French system, in this case conscription of physically able men—though with a distinct difference: this was not universal conscription nor, as will be discussed below, was this the conscription of willing patriots of a citizen state, since such a state did not yet exist in Prussia; rather, it was selective conscription for short-term service. As such the Prussians effectively redefined the purpose of conscription: Napoleon was using his levées to sustain his armies in wartime—the citizen was called up to replace the losses of war. The Prussians used conscription to create an army which was small in peacetime but which was also a machine to train men who returned to civil life as soldiers waiting for war—and who could therefore expand the army in time of need. A final change to the army structure was the suspension of the principle of promotion through age in an attempt to instil meritocracy in the ranks. Ability and professionalism became the defining attributes.

Armaments had been heavily depleted at Jena. Repair workshops were therefore created, the main manufacturer in Berlin was enlarged so as to produce 1,000 muskets per month, a new factory was established in Neisse and weapons were purchased from Austria. In three years more than 150,000 firearms became available. Field artillery pieces also needed to be replaced. The eight Prussian fortresses remaining after Tilsit furnished the material to build new ones and factories were reorganized to produce them. In three years the army had field artillery to support forces of 120,000 men. By 1809 the Prussian army had been completely reorganized and its rules, regulations and structure altered. By 1812 these changes enabled Prussia to field an army officially only 42,000 strong but which expanded within the space of a few months to a fully armed force of nearly 150,000. This new conscript army fought successfully in the final Napoleonic campaigns of 1813–15, and as a consequence its structure remained the model for Prussian and then German armies in the decades that followed.

The new Prussian army was a much more flexible and responsive organization than its predecessor. None the less, it had to be reformed within the Prussian state as it existed: an old-style monarchy. The reformers were therefore faced with a dilemma: how to fight a mass army, the French, driven by a national revolutionary ideology, if not with another mass army driven by another national revolutionary ideology? In order to raise such an army it was necessary to inspire and draw the people under arms—or, as the reformers put it, to elicit the “endless forces not developed and not utilized [that] slumber in the bosom of a nation.” Yet such a step could well lead to the democratization of the state and the destruction of the monarchical system through revolution. The officers in charge of remodelling the army were reformers, not revolutionaries, and wished to avoid such an outcome at all costs. This issue was to dog the Prussian military enterprise until a law universal conscription was finally passed in the 1860s, as both a precursor to and part of the wars of German unification that ultimately produced a large state with a fully developed concept of nationality and nationalism, drawing men to patriotic service. In the interim, and especially in the post-Jena period of reforms, the reformers’ attempted solution was to try to ally the traditional dynastic legitimacy of the Prussian king, which had been the driving force of the previous army, to a new emphasis on “national legitimacy” or national pride. This had initially been created by a binding and collective dislike of France and Napoleon following the humiliating defeats—and was then strengthened by the Prussian victory at Leipzig in 1813. This national pride was an idea that the wider population could support and therefore willingly agree to give military service for. In this way it was possible to introduce conscription, even though it was not yet a citizen state. At the same time it was also possible to preserve the traditional social structure, in which princes and the dukes answerable to the king led the armies in the field (unlike the French, who supplanted those aristocrats they had not already guillotined with more professional soldiers) and the Junkers provided the officer class.

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Against this background, the Prussian reformers also dealt with the vital issues of command and leadership. The changes that had already begun with the establishment of the Kriegsakademie now took on greater urgency and depth. Officers were recruited on talent, trained on substance—academic and intellectual syllabi as well as military—and promoted on merit rather than by class, family background or royal clientism. It was the beginning of Prussian military professionalization. As a result, the new brigades and their sub-structures quickly came to be commanded by young and talented leaders. But these leaders and their men were also all of a new model: thinking soldiers who followed the spirit of a command rather than its letter; who were capable of understanding the unfolding battle and responding. Indeed, one way of viewing the disaster at Jena was precisely that of officers strictly following orders rather than taking necessary initiatives within their framework, and of ranks following rigid drills. The “thinking soldier” was not a concept unique to Prussia, and had been actively pursued by the British. Admiral John Byng of the Royal Navy had been tried and executed for failing this test in 1756; he had preferred to follow the letter of his orders rather than their spirit (as a result, the French fleet escaped his clutches). It was an important milestone. In line with Voltaire’s famous comment, “In this country, it is thought good to kill an admiral from time to time, to give courage to others,” Byng’s execution had a galvanizing effect on the British officer corps, since it made plain that rank mattered little if an officer failed to fight. A lot might go wrong during an attack on the enemy, but the only fatal error was not to attack at all. General Moore’s reforms and training of the Light Division in 1799–1801 were similarly intended to encourage the active involvement of the rifleman as a “thinking soldier” on the battlefield. As he put it, the aim was to “train the judgement of the officers, so that, when left to themselves, they may do the right thing. They should have no hesitation in assuming responsibility.” What in time made the Prussian pursuit of the concept of the initiative-taking soldier remarkable was its marriage with another of the post-Jena innovations: the general staff. This body sought to address what had been perceived as a disastrous drawback in the Prussian performance throughout the Napoleonic campaigns, namely the lack of a central structure that could coordinate not only among the various military formations but also between the political and military leaderships. In the above description of the battle of Jena, for example, note how the French forces were commanded by marshals whilst the Prussians were all led by princes and dukes—each with his own force, each answering only directly to the king. The need for coherence and professionalization was overwhelming if the Prussian army was to be victorious in the future.

A staff has always been an integral element of any military formation, since every commander has need of assistants; in the Prussian army, for example, each of the princes and dukes had a staff. Until the Napoleonic Wars staffs tended to be devoted to administration, combining the workings of a large household with formal military issues such as supplies, legal systems, organization of troop formations and the carrying of messages in battle. Staff officers were not specially trained, nor were they usually called upon to counsel the military commander. As in other areas, Napoleon wrought the initial change—largely due to his new corps d’armée. With such a dispersed system it became very necessary to have a central body that could act as a form of nervous system connecting all the corps. His solution was a new but not entirely efficient organization of a general staff. As with conscription, it originated in a haphazard arrangement initiated by the Revolution which he liked and then institutionalized. The new mass armies with their equally new commanders needed men to instil order in these well-meaning but wholly disorganized formations. Louis Berthier, a professional soldier who had served in the old imperial army, was the most significant of these. Assigned to the Army of Italy in 1795, he had remarkable skill for organization and centralization—a fact recognized by Napoleon when he took up command. Berthier became head of Napoleon’s military planning staff, responsible for troop supply, personnel and supplies, but his true brilliance lay in an ability to translate the many orders of the emperor into easily understood messages to subordinates. His staff became the central body that organized, aided and passed on directives to all parts of the Grande Armée. But military planning was only part of the duties of Napoleon’s staff, which also combined the functions of a personal household and an imperial administration. This was its main flaw. With the emperor as the sole source of direction, its efficiency diminished as the scale of warfare and his empire increased.

The Prussian model for a general staff was inherently different from the French, and was aimed at creating a wide yet detailed basis for professional planning and command. As such it was conceived by Scharnhorst as an institution of kindred ethos with the Kriegsakademie, and when it was established in 1808 he naturally assumed the role of its first chief. In this capacity he focused upon integrating the new, well-trained middle-ranking officers of common education that the war college was producing into a central body. The Defence Law of 1814, which created permanent staffs for the divisions and army corps, further enhanced the joint utility of the Kriegsakademie and the general staff: by linking up the central body of direction with the fighting formations, a nervous system manned and run by officers of common training started to evolve. This also helped resolve the problem of how to preserve the authority of the monarchy while conducting war with citizen soldiers: by matching a professional general staff, which reached from the strategic to the tactical level, with those appointed to command by the monarch, the royal authority was paralleled with professional competence. Over time this common ethos would be ever more emphasized, as a measure for creating commanders of identical training, thinking and capabilities, all versed in the details of every plan and contingency. However, the routine tasks of the staff and the basis of most professional careers were mapmaking, gathering intelligence, preparing mobilization plans and coordinating railway schedules. For the main purpose of the general staff was preparing for war, mostly at the tactical level. This purpose was clear to the reformers who founded the general staff, but not necessarily to the broader Prussian military, especially the old guard of senior commanders. Following the premature death of Scharnhorst in 1813, and the end of significant campaigns following the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, there was a waning of interest in military reform. As a result, the general staff lapsed in significance within the German military for some decades—and more profound reflection was still left to the Kriegsakademie, and most especially to the body of ideas formulated by one of its chief graduates and subsequent directors, Carl von Clausewitz.

Epaminondas (418?–362 BC) Beotarch of Thebes II

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The Battle of Leuctra

The second of Sparta’s two kings, Cleombrotus, already had an army in the field in Phocis, northwest of Boeotia, when relations were severed. Epaminondas rushed to Thebes to raise the army ahead of the Spartan arrival. He was named army commander alongside a council of six boeotarch advisors, while Pelopidas commanded the Sacred Band. Thus, Epaminondas went with a force of 6,000 infantry and 1,500 cavalry to face a Spartan army (with allies) of 10,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry. He decided to force a battle at the pass overlooking Coroneia and seized the spot, but Cleombrotus instead marched south to enter Boeotia through Thisbae to Creusis on the Gulf of Corinth, where his forces captured the fortifications and moved inland from the coast toward Thebes. Thus, the Theban army had to rush to get back home and defend its city, but Cleombrotus was in its way at the plain of Leuctra.

Seeing 11,000 enemy soldiers spread out before them was more than a little disheartening to the Thebans. Not only were they outnumbered almost two to one, but the omens had not been hopeful. According to Diodorous, as they had left Thebes an old blind man looking for lost slaves called out for their return and safety. Epaminondas responded with a line from Homer: “One only omen is best, to fight for the land that is ours.” That heartened the men, but soon thereafter a pennant from a spear flew away from its haft and landed on some Spartan graves, as if honoring or protecting them. Epaminondas told the crowd, “Do not be concerned, comrades! Destruction is foretold for the Spartans. Tombs are not decorated except for funerals.” Upon seeing the Spartan army, the boeotarchs with whom Epaminondas commanded demanded a vote on whether to fight or move and look for better ground; Epaminondas barely won the vote, four to three. Still, as his men faced overwhelming odds, Epaminondas thought it wise to introduce some positive omens. He secretly directed some of the newly arrived reinforcements to tell the army that weapons kept in the temple of Herakles had disappeared, meaning the ancient heroes had come to help. Another man told the troops that he had visited the cave sacred to Trophonius, son of Apollo, who had assured their victory if they would institute a festival in honor of Zeus. A turncoat, Leandrias, helped with the propaganda by relating a legend that Leuctra was an ill-chosen location for the Spartans, as it was the site of the deaths by suicide of two Theban maidens raped by Spartans, daughters of Leuctras (or Scedasus, according to Pausanias) for whom the town was named. Their curse was that Sparta would begin its decline on this plain. Epaminondas offered sacrifices and prayers for the girls and called for revenge. All of these tales, true or not, rallied the Theban morale. For those who may not have been convinced, Epaminondas announced that whoever did not want to fight could leave; the contingent from Thespiae did so.

The night before the battle, Pelopidas supposedly had a dream in which he saw the long-dead maidens alive with their father. They told him the Thebans must sacrifice a maiden with chestnut hair. The next morning, as the dream was being discussed, a chestnut-colored colt ran into camp. This was deemed to be the right sacrifice and the ceremony ensued. As a final encouragement to his men, Epaminondas appealed to their patriotism. According to the ancient historian Forintinus, “In order that his soldiers might not only exercise their strength, but also be stirred by their feelings, he announced in an assembly of his men that the Spartans had resolved, in case of victory, to massacre all males, to lead the wives and children of those executed into bondage, and to raze Thebes to the ground.”

Across the plain things were not pleasant, either. In spite of their numerical superiority, as well as the virtually inbred tradition of winning, the Spartans were not entirely confident. At the staff meeting on the morning of the battle, subordinate commanders pushed Cleombrotus for quick action. They reminded him of some of his past failures (in two previous invasions, in 378 and 376, he had failed to bring his armies to battle) and assured him the Spartan council would not look kindly on anything that hinted at incompetence. They also (possibly owing to a religious festival) had been drinking since the morning meal. Also in many minds must have been the memory of what the Sacred Band had accomplished at Tegyra, where the smaller Sacred Band had defeated the Spartan phalanx. That certainly had been a bitter blow. All of this combined to make Cleombrotus aggressive.

Epaminondas gave his men one more pep talk. He took up a live snake and then crushed its head; so too would be the fate of the enemy: kill the Spartan head and the allied body would die. Even so, as Epaminondas began to form his army, he had doubts about the morale of some of his units. Thus, he needed to maximize his advantages and minimize his disadvantages. He ordered his men forward in the standard phalanx formation, but as they deployed he held back the units on the right of the line, whom he thought insufficiently motivated, thus refusing the right flank (deploying in echelon to the right rear). As Diodorus observes, “The weakest he placed on the other wing and instructed them to avoid battle and withdraw gradually during the enemy’s attack.” Epaminondas placed his more trusted troops on the left into a formation fifty ranks deep and eighty files wide. He placed the 300 men of the Sacred Band in the front ranks, then waited to see what the Spartans would do. Cleombrotus deployed his army in the standard phalanx formation, his men in ranks twelve deep. The Spartans held the right end of their line, facing the Sacred Band and the deep phalanx; a force of mercenaries they placed in the center; the far left was held by Sparta’s Peloponnesian allies.

The two armies faced each other for a time. The initial action was on the part of the cavalry. Before the infantry had fully deployed, the Spartan cavalry (after harassing Theban camp followers) rode toward the strong Theban left flank. It was met and soon routed by the Theban cavalry, superior in both numbers and quality. Xenophon writes, “Now when Cleombrotus began to lead his army against the enemy, in the first place, before the troops under him so much as perceived that he was advancing, the horsemen had already joined battle and those of the Lacedaemonians had speedily been worsted; then in their flight they had fallen foul of their own hoplites, and, besides, the companies of the Thebans were now charging upon them.” This is where Epaminondas demonstrated his originality. He was gambling the entire battle on one throw. His most motivated men went into battle first; if they failed, the demoralized right flank would break at the first sign of wavering. He was throwing his best troops at the more numerous Spartans, the best troops in the known world. As soon as Pelopidas and Epaminondas saw the confusion in the Spartan ranks, they began their advance.

As with the debate over the use of the “mass shove,” there is also some argument over just how Epaminondas formed what has come to be called the “Theban wedge.” One scholar has suggested that the Theban left was actually deployed into a point, an inverted V, with the Sacred Band at the apex. The fact that the V was hollow would not be obvious to the enemy, thus giving the impression of greater than actual numbers. All of this depends on the translation of the Greek word embolon, or wedge, and its use by a variety of ancient writers. This theory has been answered by a different study of the word that indicates a comparison to a ram on a Greek trireme, hence the strong point of contact to break an enemy, not necessarily a literal wedge. Thus, if there was a “point” to the wedge it would be at the spot at which the right wing began its refusal.

As the cavalry began to clear away and Cleombrotus saw the unbalanced formation advancing toward him, he ordered troops to shift to his right to attempt a flanking movement. Seeing this, Pelopidas ordered his Sacred Band into a run and struck the Spartans as they began their redeployment. The rest of the Theban left wing, under Epaminondas, was soon engaged and the battle was on. Harking back to the earlier discussion on othismos and the nature of a massed charge, here is my proposal as to how the initial stage of the battle was conducted. Goldsworthy argues that the narrower the formation, the easier it was to maintain cohesion. Add to that the fact that the massive Theban left flank was led by the Sacred Band. These soldiers were the nearest Theban equivalent of Spartiates, a force of men who did not farm like the normal militia, but spent their time in military training. Their defeat of a much larger Spartan force at Tegyra a few years earlier had to have built up a strong measure of confidence within their ranks. While there is no reference to their marching in step like the Spartans, these professionals must have been able to keep a tighter formation than could a standard phalanx. In Goldsworthy’s opinion, “A deeper, and therefore narrower, phalanx encountered fewer obstacles and could as a result move faster and further, whilst retaining its order.” Add to that the timing of the charge, just as the Spartans were reorganizing from the disrupting cavalry retreat and trying to redeploy to take advantage of the narrower front approaching them. All of these factors should equate into a powerful initial contact that could easily have gained at least temporary momentum for the attackers. Then, the rest of the phalanx arrived for support, whether moral or physical or both. The Spartans must have been at a disadvantage from the outset In spite of all those advantages, it was not enough to immediately sweep the field. The hand-to-hand front-rank fighting was intense. Whether Cleombrotus stood in the front rank or not, he was mortally wounded in combat. Xenophon reports that the Spartans were doing well, or “they would not have been able to take him up and carry him off still living had not those who were fighting in the front of him been holding the advantage at the time. But when Deinon, the polemarch, Sphodrias, one of the king’s tent-companions, and Cleonymus, the son of Sphodiras, had been killed, then the royal bodyguard … [and] the others fell back before the Theban mass, while those who were on the left wing … gave way.”

The massive “ram” of the Theban left flank coupled with the speed of the attack caught the Spartans unprepared. Once their king and a number of his top men began to fall, the Spartan contingent of the battle line retreated to their camp. The mercenary and allied forces saw little or no combat because of the refused Theban flank angled backward from the front line, so they retreated just as quickly when they saw the Spartans withdraw, both from shock at the sight of such an event and fear of that “ram” striking their flank. Once in camp, established behind a ditch, the Spartans reassembled for a stand.

Epaminondas did not push his luck, for he knew he had no need to do so. Piled on the field of battle were 400 dead Spartiates out of a total of 1,000 casualties, the worst loss of Spartan life in their history, far greater than their losses at the stand against the Persians at Thermopylae in 480. Sparta also had not lost a king since that battle. Such a historic defeat was not unappreciated by Sparta’s allies in the ranks. Xenophon writes that the Spartans perceived “that the allies were one and all without heart for fighting, while some of them were not even displeased at what had taken place.”

Epaminondas’s movement to contact was an approach march, since he had a fair idea where the Spartans would be. He lost any element of strategic surprise when Cleombrotus took the long way around to approach Thebes from the west. This also cost Epaminondas the opportunity to choose the battleground. Initially, therefore, he was at a disadvantage both as to his position and his numbers. Certainly the battle itself was no surprise, since the two armies had been facing each other for a time. Epaminondas did achieve tactical surprise, however. He may or may not have known of dissension in the Spartan camp and the pressure being placed on Cleombrotus. Even if he did, he was smart enough not to underestimate his opposition.

Although facing the prime units opposite each other on the field had been done before, Cleombrotus was not ready for it. Epaminondas’s deliberate attack led to a battle that he controlled as much as any commander could in a phalanx battle. The massed Theban left wing was a surprise, but Cleombrotus tried to adapt to it by shifting men to his right flank. It is possible that the Spartan cavalry was deployed as a screen once Cleombrotus saw the Theban formation and was beginning the redeployment of his own phalanx to be in an outflanking position. So the nature of the Theban deployment was unexpected and the assault began, in Xenophon’s words, “before the troops under [Cleombrotus] so much as perceived that he was advancing.” Although the Spartans really could not have expected their cavalry to prevail, they certainly did not expect to see it retreating into their main force. That is where the Theban control of the tempo of the battle became all important. In the midst of the turmoil and troop movement, the Sacred Band’s assault came well before the Spartans were prepared. Epaminondas’s concentration of not just manpower but high-quality troops was key to his plan succeeding. The most audacious part of the plan was the refused flank, for he was chancing everything on one throw of the dice. Even though the echeloned units were the least dependable of his army, their mere presence was enough to freeze the Spartan allies.

Epaminondas neither tactically exploited his victory nor pursued his enemy; there was no need. He had inflicted sufficient casualties to not only damage the numbers of the Spartiates but more importantly to damage their reputation and morale.

Epaminondas followed up the Battle of Leuctra with an invasion of the Peloponnese, where he ran rampant over Spartan-controlled territory and liberated the helots who provided the Spartiates with their agricultural sustenance. Sparta’s slow decline now became precipitate. Not only beaten on the field but also humiliated before the rest of Greece, Sparta tried one last time to save its reputation and lands. The Spartans gathered one last force at Mantinea in 362, and this time it was Thebes that had the larger force. Epaminondas repeated his Leuctra maneuver at the battle with the same results. Unfortunately, he was killed in that battle. He was wounded by a spear; he asked about the progress of the battle as he was dying and learned the enemy was withdrawing. The battle was a tactical draw but a strategic victory for Thebes, since it reinforced the newly liberated peoples of Lacedaemonia and ended Spartan power once and for all.

The battle was a draw mainly because Epaminondas was killed. Until that point the Thebans were sweeping the field, according to Xenophon: “Thus, then, he made his attack, and he was not disappointed of his hope; for by gaining the mastery at the point where he struck, he caused the entire army of his adversaries to flee.” Victor Davis Hanson argues that had the Leuctra tactics been new and able to stand on their own, then Epaminondas’s death would not have mattered. Yet ancient history is full of instances where one side gave up the fight when their leader was killed; would Leuctra have turned out differently if Cleombrotus had not died? It’s impossible to say, but it is a tribute to any leader’s standing that his men lose heart upon hearing of his death. The fact that the Theban wedge “caused the entire army of his adversaries to flee” sounds like a successful tactic. The Thebans around the dying general did declare victory, and that was the news that released a mortally wounded Epaminondas from this life. “I have lived long enough, for I die unconquered,” he is supposed to have said. Other accounts say that before the spear (or javelin) was withdrawn, Epaminondas asked after two of his chief subordinates. When informed that they had been killed, his last command was to make peace. Perhaps had he said “keep fighting” the victory would have been complete.

Epaminondas’s Generalship

The two main principles of war Epaminondas mastered were the twin concepts of mass and economy of force. Epaminondas chose the correct center of gravity for his objective: the Spartan contingent and King Cleombrotus. Although a deeper-than-usual phalanx had been seen in other battles, what made its deployment at Leuctra significant is that it was on the Theban left, directly facing the strength of the Spartan army. Traditionally, the place of honor in the line of battle was the far right, which meant that the best troops of opposing armies did not face each other. Historian of ancient Greece George Cawkwell writes, “Epaminondas’ reversal [of tradition] at Leuctra is the mark of a revolutionary change in the conception of warfare.… [I]n 371 the conflict was centred on, and indeed confined to, the main antagonists.” As Hans Delbrück comments, “All of this is valuable only because it guarantees one’s own left wing the victory over the enemy right.” Taking out the enemy leader as well as the strongest force on the battlefield necessarily demoralized Sparta’s allied units.

Hanson in a 1998 article disputes the revolutionary nature of Epaminondas’s action, primarily by taking most of the accounts by ancient historians to task. While it is certainly true that every tactic Epaminondas employed at Leuctra had been used some time earlier, the question remains: how many other generals had learned any lessons from previous uses, and how many had welded them into a coherent whole? The combination of massed phalanx, strength versus opponent’s strength, and the refused flank together took down the king and caused the vast number of Spartiate casualties. It was the concentration of force at the center of gravity that is key. In his 1999 book The Soul of Battle, Hanson admits that the heavier left wing was “a novel tactical innovation” that “gained enormous penetrating power, as accumulated shields created greater thrust.”

The Theban wedge showed its other advantage in the realm of economy of force. In normal hoplite warfare the entire lines attacked as one, but Epaminondas attacked only with his left flank. There is some debate over whether the refusing of his right flank was intentional. Goldsworthy asserts, “It may be that later accounts of Epaminondas’ echeloned advance at Leuctra described not a deliberate ploy, but the inevitably faster advance of the deep Theban phalanx compared to the rest of the army.”

The echelon attack and the weighted wing were introduced by Epaminondas but copied by many. The almost immediate impact came with the rise of Macedon. In his work on ancient warfare, J. E. Lendon observes that “[Philip II] lived in the house of the Theban general Pammenes, who had a formidable reputation for military cunning. In Thebes, it was said, Philip learned many lessons.” Philip’s primary accomplishment as king of Macedon was to create a professional standing army that used the latest equipment and tactics, depending heavily on cavalry. Alexander would almost certainly not have accomplished his great deeds without the army he inherited from his father, Philip.

Epaminondas’s influence was not only beneficial to Macedon in the immediate future, but was reincarnated two millennia later, as noted by Basil Liddell Hart: “He not only broke away from tactical methods established by the experience of centuries, but in tactics, strategy, and grand strategy alike laid the foundations on which subsequent masters built. Even his structural designs have survived or been revived. For in tactics the ‘oblique order’ which Frederick [the Great] made famous was only a slight elaboration of the method of Epaminondas.”

Hanson also argues against the presence of a deliberately refused flank, taking Xenophon as the only reliable source. Not trusting Diodorus, the only ancient historian to describe the Theban formation so, he argues that if Plutarch and Diodorus mention an oblique attack by the left wing, then the right wing would trail behind, not being an intentional refusal of the flank. He asserts that “there was little tactical reason for these generally inferior troops to attempt such a complicated maneuver,” what he calls “a deliberate withdrawal.” Refusing a flank, however, does not necessitate a withdrawal, especially on offense. While the most famous flank refusal of modern times, Joshua Chamberlain at Little Round Top at the Battle of Gettysburg, did indeed involve a deliberate withdrawal, that was the nature of being on the defense and in immediate danger of being outflanked. All Epaminondas had to do was stagger his less dependable allied forces in echelon. Thus, such a move would answer Hanson’s citation of Pausanias that the Spartan allies did have the opportunity to fight but would not stand their ground. The first phalanx of the echelon could, indeed, have had contact with the enemy.

Some sources refer to these forces not in the main assault as reserves, but I agree with Hanson that they were not deliberately held back for commitment at an important moment, as is the role of reserves. Held back in echelon, yes, but not as a traditional reserve to be committed as circumstances dictate.