Military Communications 1895-1918

Wireless (1895-1914)

Development of wireless telegraphy or radio took military communications another huge step forward-a second revolution in communications barely a half-century after the first. Now signals could be sent rapidly beyond the reach of sight or travel distances, anywhere, in fact, and not just where wires reached. British army and Royal Navy officers such as Henry Jackson were among those who pioneered research on the military potential of wireless telegraphy, applying crude systems to experimental field conditions. The French installed wireless on a gunboat in 1899. German military units were assisted by the work of their countrymen Adolph Slaby and George von Arco in the 1890s. Generally merchant ships were quicker to adopt wireless than their military counterparts. Marconi’s work was closely monitored by the Royal Navy and the British army while de Forest sold radio equipment to the American military. Fessenden had a fractious relationship with the U. S. Navy, which often used his devices without any patent payments. Armstrong made one of his key innovations while serving with the Signal Corps in France and, in World War II, allowed the free use by the military of his frequency modulation (FM) invention. Radio opportunities for “remote control” of land forces were exceeded only by what wireless promised for naval fleets.

For the first time, wireless allowed naval commanders to keep in touch with vessels and whole fleets sailing far from land. It fell to Japan, in the Battle of Tsushima in 1905, to first demonstrate the vital importance of effective use of wireless to control a battle fleet. The opposing Russian force was nearly wiped out. The Royal Navy and, only slightly more slowly, the U. S. Navy, adapted the benefits of radio to fleet operations, expanding their installations as radio equipment improved. The U. S. Navy, designated by the Wireless Telegraph Board of 1904 to lead American efforts in the new medium, established an expanding number of naval radio stations to improve fleet communications. Indeed, the Navy played a dominant role in all technical and policy-related American radio developments prior to and during World War I. The Naval Radio Laboratory and the Naval Research Laboratory would become centers of communication technology development and application testing. Ships could now call for help in emergencies – most spectacularly in the case of the White Star ocean liner Titanic in 1912.

Invented in 1904, improved in 1906, and fully understood by about 1912, the vacuum tube (or “valve” in British usage) became central to wireless communication from about 1920 until superseded by the transistor in the 1960s. For a half-century fragile vacuum tubes formed the core of most military electronic equipment.

Britain enhanced its existing telegraph cables by developing (with Marconi) an imperial chain of All Red wireless transmitters early in the twentieth century. It also made limited use of wireless in South Africa during the Boer War.

World War I (1914-1918)

Both wired and wireless communication saw their first real military testing during the bloody World War I, especially on the long-stalemated Western Front. The early battles of the Marne in the west and Tannenberg in the east underscored the importance of good communications. But after the war of movement ended in September 1914, armies limited their use of tactical radio, the equipment for which was still cumbersome to use. Only late in the war did forward units obtain field radio equipment. Germany experimented with radios for its airship fleet, as did both sides, late in the war, with airplanes, first sending messages from ground to air, and then both ways.

Military radio in 1914 was crude on both sides of the conflict. Antennas were obvious targets, and equipment was fragile, cumbersome, and vulnerable to weather or enemy action. There were few trained operators and never enough radios available (a U. S. Army division of 20,000 men rarely had more than six radios even in 1918). But radio’s biggest drawback was the lack of senior commanders willing to use or trust it in battlefield conditions. Poorly organized at first, Army radio users also suffered from security breaches such as sending vital messages in the clear rather than in code. One concern was that all radio signals were subject to being heard by the enemy and thus required effective systems of message coding. To allow short-range telephony with little chance of being overheard, the British introduced the use of the Fullerphone in trench warfare.

While all sides sought to “listen in,” the British most effectively developed the direction-finding receivers and careful traffic analysis essential to successful code breaking. German undersea cables were cut by the British in the early days of the war, forcing the enemy to use radio trans- missions to which the British could tune-and eventually understand as their code-breaking expertise expanded. With the help of codebooks seized from captured German naval vessels, the Royal Navy Intelligence, or Room 40 cryptanalysis staff, was able to decrypt many German naval signals – including the infamous “Zimmermann telegram” urging Mexico to declare war on the United States, which finally brought the United States into the war in early 1917. Until the end of the war, however, cryptography remained poorly integrated with operational practice. American efforts, for example, some under the Army’s Herbert O. Yardley, were only partially successful.

World War I naval forces also made extensive use of radio to control widely dispersed fleets. In the 1916 battle of Jutland (and in many other battles), admirals often failed to make the best use of radio information, relying on flag signals that might be misread in battle conditions. As spark – gap equipment was replaced (1916-1917) by better arc and then (1918) vacuum tube-powered equipment, naval radio’s value increased further. Wartime needs and growing equipment procurement greatly accelerated the pace of radio’s technical development. Vacuum tube-based equipment, rare in 1914 (when obsolete spark-gap wireless telegraphy was still wide- spread), was becoming standard by 1918, vastly increasing radio’s capabilities by adding voice to code communication. Until 1916, German U-boats, too cramped to carry bulky long-wave radio equipment, were limited to shorter-range (200-300 miles) radio links. As vacuum tube technology made possible longer-distance sending and receiving, submarines shifted their attacks farther into the Atlantic. Not all ships’ captains appreciated their loss of independent action with the development of wireless.

More than radio, telegraph and telephone lines linked fighting units down to the battalion level. Some of the 38,000-mile telephone service by 1918 was designed and operated by AT&T on behalf of the military; Army Signal Corps personnel operated the remainder. Hello Girls acted as operators to allow more men to be assigned to military duties. Because lines could be so easily broken in the fighting, however, effective command and control often depended on the use of couriers (frequently mounted on horses, bicycles, motorcycles, or small motor vehicles) or message-carrying pigeons or dogs, as in the past. One carrier pigeon, for example, Cher Ami, helped to get messages through that led to the rescue of the famous “Lost Battalion.” Static trench warfare on the Western Front also required wide- spread use of pyrotechnic signals (such as signal rockets) and whistles to shift troops into or out of trenches or warn of gas attacks.

A new element in military communications and fighting first appeared in this war-propaganda and psychological warfare. “Propaganda” is a type of military communication designed to weaken an enemy before and during operations. It seeks military gains without, or more usually in sup- port of, military force. While used well before nineteenth-century warfare (there are many historical references to propaganda-like combat efforts, and both sides in the American Civil War made use of propaganda), propaganda and psychological warfare really came into their own during the two world wars. Drawing on growing understanding of persuasive techniques-and fear-propagandists for both the Central Powers and the Allies used a variety of communication media to soften up enemy forces and countries. In past times as well as more recent wars, propaganda has drawn on occult themes. These would be greatly expanded in World War II-as would jamming of enemy radio transmitters to try to obliterate their messages.

The Army Signal Corps expanded fifty-fold as it served growing American forces in Europe. This growth created a huge need for trained personnel as well as a formal research and development establishment, so the corps created what would become Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, which remained the country’s chief signal school until 1974. Extensive training programs were established in most countries that introduced principles of wireless (and wired systems) to thousands of men. These trained personnel would play an important role in helping to push radio developments in the years to come.


NATO’s Military Organization

A submarine travels during the anti-terrorist military demonstration staged by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), in the Gulf of Taranto.

From its inception NATO was involved in delicate juggling acts to balance a frequently bewildering variety of requirements. The overriding aim was to field forces which would deter an attack by the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact, since anything else the Alliance attempted was wasted if it could not achieve that. But this had to be balanced against what was both politically acceptable and economically affordable to the members – requirements which were not always mutually compatible. Then, too, the command structure needed to share out the posts to achieve a balance between the United States, which was not only the most powerful single member but also met a very large proportion of the bills, and the remaining nations, who wished to ensure that their national aspirations were seen to be met. Finally, the organization as a whole needed to present a good public image, and to produce solutions which would not offend public opinion in any member nation too greatly.

At the top of the military organization was the Military Committee, on which all nations were represented by their chiefs-of-staff and which normally met three times a year. Since the chiefs-of-staff were based in their national capitals, there was a need for some permanent representation at NATO Headquarters to conduct day-to-day business, and this was originally provided by the Standing Group, which consisted of just three members – France, the UK and the USA – with all other nations except Iceland appointing a ‘permanent national liaison officer’. The title of the group changed to the ‘Military Representatives Committee’ in 1950, and to the ‘Military Committee in Permanent Session’ in 1957. When France withdrew from the integrated military structure in 1966 this top-level body was reorganized again, being expanded to include a permanent ‘national military representative’ at three-star level (i.e. lieutenant-general or equivalent) from all nations except France and Iceland, although the title remained unchanged.

Originally, the chairmanship of the Military Committee in Chiefs-of-Staff Session rotated annually between members, but a separate chairman of the Military Committee in Permanent Session was appointed in 1958, and from 1963 onwards the same officer chaired both committees. Designated the Chairman of the NATO Military Committee, this officer was in effect the senior military officer in NATO, and since the post was created in 1958 he has always been a European, thus balancing the US influence in other senior posts in the Alliance.


On the establishment of NATO, a series of regional planning groups (RPGs) was set up, each comprising those nations with a strategic interest in the particular area:

  • Canada/US RPG – Canada, USA;
  • Western Europe RPG – Benelux, Canada, France, UK, USA;
  • North Atlantic Ocean RPG – Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Norway, Portugal, UK, USA;
  • Northern Europe RPG – Denmark, Norway, UK, USA;
  • Southern Europe/Western Mediterranean RPG – France, Italy, UK, USA.

These RPGs were not, however, the only forums where discussions were taking place, and there were a number of bilateral links, of which by far the most important was that between the United States and the United Kingdom. These two countries not only had strong traditional and cultural ties, but also had forged a close alliance during the war under the Allied Combined Chiefs-of-Staff (CCS) organization. This CCS mechanism continued to be used after the war, and during 1945–9 it produced a variety of combined war plans to counter possible Soviet aggression. The link continued with the setting-up of NATO, and was used by them, as the two predominant military powers in the new organization, for private discussions on the command arrangements for the Alliance.

The RPGs produced a variety of organizational proposals, but, despite external pressures such as the explosion of the first Soviet atomic bomb, the Communist takeover in China and the outbreak of the Korean War, the discussions dragged on through the whole of 1950 and 1951, and it was not until early 1952 that a full structure was in place.

Naturally, a hierarchy of command appointments were needed, and these were designated as follows:

  • major NATO commands (MNCs) – the most senior appointments, at four-star level, normally designated ‘Supreme Allied Commander …’ (SAC); e.g. SACEUR (Supreme Allied Commander Europe);
  • principal subordinate commands (PSCs) – the next level down, headed by a commander-in-chief (CINC) at either three- or four-star level; e.g. CINCENT (Commander-in-Chief Allied Forces Central Europe);
  • major subordinate commands (MSCs) – these were usually at four-star level, headed by a commander; e.g. COMCENTAG (Commander Central Army Group).

It was clear that one supreme allied commander would be required for Europe (SACEUR), that he would be an American, and that he should be the most prestigious military officer of the day. Thus, General Dwight D. Eisenhower took up this appointment on 2 April 1951, with Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, the British former military head of the Western Union Defence Organization (Brussels Treaty) forces, as his deputy. They established Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) at Fontainebleau in France, and quickly agreed on a command structure, which was in place in November 1951. This consisted of:

  • Allied Land Forces Central Europe (AFCENT) – a four-star land command covering Benelux, France and West Germany;
  • Allied Air Forces Central Europe (AIRCENT) – a four-star air command, covering the same geographical area as AFCENT;
  • Allied Forces Northern Europe (AFNORTH) – a four-star, joint (i.e. navy, army, air force) command, covering Denmark and Norway;
  • Allied Forces Southern Europe (AFSOUTH) – a four-star joint command, covering Italy and the western Mediterranean, and including the US Sixth Fleet;
  • Flag Officer Western Europe (FOWE) – who provided naval representation to SHAPE, but commanded only the French, UK and US Rhine flotillas.

It was, however, significant that the British refused to place the land or air defences of the United Kingdom under NATO. As a result, the land defence of the UK remained a national responsibility throughout the Cold War, although, as will be discussed later, the air defence eventually did become a NATO responsibility.

If SACEUR’s demesne was agreed without much disagreement, the same cannot be said of the Atlantic, where the two basic issues were the subdivisions of the command and the fact that both the Americans and the British wanted to provide the sea-going commander. The matter was not just a question of national prestige, however: it also included important factors of wartime strategy, with the United States being concerned about troops and supply convoys crossing the Atlantic in a west–east direction in war, while British concerns centred on south–north trade routes, including that for oil. Many meetings were held and a large number of alternative plans were discussed, with the naval discussions not being helped when the issue entered the British political arena in 1951, with Churchill, at that time the leader of the opposition, attacking the socialist government (led by Clement Attlee) for agreeing to a US officer as SACLANT. The problem was also complicated by disagreements over command in the Mediterranean and in the southern part of NATO’s Atlantic area, which had already been designated IBERLANT.

In the autumn of 1951 a British general election put the problem on hold, and when Churchill again became prime minister, on 26 October, the question of NATO naval commands featured high on his list of priorities. Churchill went to Washington in January 1952, and after a round of fierce arguments he eventually gave way, although a British admiral was to be appointed Deputy SACLANT. The principle agreed, the navy planners then set up a complicated organizational system which involved numerous situations where an officer held two appointments (known as ‘double-hatting’) or even three (‘triple-hatting’), although the problems inherent in such an arrangement were alleviated by having separate staffs for the various functions.

The problems did not go away, however, and among the knotty issues was the question of the US navy’s aircraft carriers. The control of atomic weapons aboard these carriers was governed by the US McMahon Act, which stipulated that control could not be passed to another power, and this raised a major hurdle when the US Navy’s Strike Fleet Atlantic (STRIKE-FLTLANT) was operating in the Eastern Atlantic area, where the NATO commander was Commander-in-Chief Eastern Atlantic (CINCEASTLANT), a British officer. There were also problems over IBERLANT, which were eventually solved by placing Commander IBERLANT, a British officer, under CINCEASTLANT.

After much argument, the naval organization in the Atlantic settled down in late 1952:

  • SACLANT (US) and his deputy (UK) were in the headquarters at Norfolk, Virginia;
  • STRIKEFLTLANT remained under the command of SACLANT, regardless of its position in the Atlantic;
  • CINCWESTLANT (US) exercised command over most of the northern Atlantic, with two sub-area commands: US Atlantic Sub-Area and Canadian Sub-Area;
  • CINCEASTLANT (UK) controlled four geographical sub-areas – Central (UK), Northern (UK), Biscay (French) and IBERLANT (UK) – with a fifth functional command (Commander Submarines Eastern Atlantic (COMSUBEASTLANT)), being a British officer.

One notable difference between the American and other command systems concerned the air. Under the US system the naval commander controlled all his air assets, since the US navy had assumed responsibility for long-range maritime patrol aircraft from the (then) US Army Air Force in 1943. Under the British and French systems, however, land-based air support was provided by the air force, as a result of which there were two commanders of equal rank – one navy, one air force – at EASTLANT and at the geographical sub-areas.

Similar difficulties faced the planners in the Mediterranean. The British had considerable interests here: they regarded the sea lines of communication (SLOC) as vital to their wartime requirements; they were strongly involved in Gibraltar, Malta, Cyprus and Egypt; and they had a predominant interest in the security of the Suez Canal. They had also, as they pointed out, been the predominant naval power in the region for some 150 years, and maintained a sizeable Mediterranean Fleet, based in Malta. The French also had strong interests here, since they had colonial ties with Morocco and Tunisia, while Algeria was legally a département of France, and they needed to secure the north–south SLOC to metropolitan France. The US Sixth Fleet was permanently based in the Mediterranean, but, since it carried atomic weapons, its command, was subject to the McMahon Act. Italy also had a major interest, as the largest power bordering the Mediterranean and with a rapidly growing navy. Allied to all this was a totally new factor – the imminent entry of Greece and Turkey into the Atlantic Alliance, with a concomitant need to accommodate the geographically adjacent but traditionally hostile countries into the command structure.

A further and novel factor was added to the situation when the British posted Admiral Earl Mountbatten as commander-in-chief of the British Mediterranean Fleet. This was seen as slightly underhand by some Americans, although it was part of such a senior officer’s normal career progression. Nevertheless, the British could not deny that such a thrusting, charismatic and successful officer – he had previously served as Supreme Allied Commander South-East Asia Command from 1943 to 1945, as viceroy of India in 1947 and as governor-general of India in 1947–8 – might not have some influence on the situation.

A series of plans was proposed by the tri-national Standing Group at NATO Headquarters, by SACEUR and by the various nations involved, but every one of them met with a fundamental objection from one or several of the parties concerned. Eventually, however, a compromise was reached in which:

  • Commander-in-Chief Allied Forces Mediterranean (CINCAFMED) (UK) reported direct to SACEUR;
  • geographical subordinates were Gibraltar (GIBMED) (UK), Occidentale (MEDOC) (French), Central (MEDCENT) (Italian), South-East (MEDSOUEAST) (UK), Eastern (MEDEAST) (Greek), and North-Eastern (MEDNOREAST) (Turkish);
  • there were also three functional commands: US Patrols Mediterranean (USPATMED) (US), Submarines Mediterranean (SUBMED) (UK) and Submarines North-East (SUBMEDNOREAST) (Turkey).

Admiral Mountbatten duly set up his NATO headquarters in Malta in December 1952, but without STRIKEFORSOUTH – the US Sixth Fleet – which remained under CINCAFSOUTH, an American four-star officer with his headquarters in Naples, Italy.

These examples from the very early days of NATO show one of the underlying strengths of the Alliance: not that bureaucratic conflicts – which might today be termed ‘star wars’ – were avoided, but that they were always resolved. It would have been too much to expect that the various national susceptibilities would not have resulted in some bruising discussions, but somehow the will was always there to find a solution.

The organization did not, of course, remain static: it changed to meet altered circumstances in national organizations and to match political and military developments within the Alliance. Thus the national ‘share’ of appointments had to be adjusted to include the Germans in 1955, again in 1966 to cover the departure of the French, and yet again in 1982 to accommodate Spain, although Spain did not enter the integrated command structure.

In the late 1960s two events increased yet further the importance of the UK to the Alliance. The first was the move of many USAF air bases from France to the UK as a result of General De Gaulle’s diktat; the second was the adoption in 1967 of the strategy of ‘flexible response’. As a result the British Isles became of major significance as a base for offensive and defensive operations, and their security became a matter of great concern to the Alliance. A new NATO command was therefore established on 10 April 1975, when Commander UK Air Forces (CINCUKAIR) took post at High Wycombe, England. CINCUKAIR was ‘double-hatted’ as Commander-in-Chief RAF Strike Command, and, although only a major subordinate commander (MSC), he reported directly to SACEUR. This brought British airspace firmly under NATO’s control in war, but failed to cause the sort of political and public reactions which had made the decisions on the naval commands in the Atlantic and Mediterranean so difficult in the 1950s.

When NATO was set up there were two principal subordinate commands (PSCs) on the Continent: Land Forces Central Europe and Air Forces Central Europe. The air-force headquarters was subsequently disbanded, but was resurrected in 1975 as Allied Air Forces Central Europe (AAFCE), although a directive by NATO’s Defence Planning Committee that it should be moved from Ramstein in southern Germany and collocated with AFCENT at Brunssum was successfully resisted by the air forces until well past the end of the Cold War.

Physical moves were also made. As has already been described, the French decision to leave the integrated military structure also involved a large-scale movement of NATO facilities from France to Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. For different reasons HQ IBERLANT was transferred from Gibraltar to Lisbon, Portugal, in 1966, and HQ Allied Naval Forces Southern Europe (NAVSOUTH) from Malta to Naples in 1971.

State Armed Forces – Later Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

In early 1645 Field Marshal Lennard Torstensson led a Swedish army of 9,000 cavalry, 6,000 infantry, and 60 cannon against a Habsburg-Imperial army of 10,000 cavalry, 5,000 infantry, and 26 cannon commanded by Melchior von Hatzfeld. Both armies were com posed of regiments commanded by international colonel-proprietors, who had used their funds or credit to raise and maintain military units. Many of the soldiers in both armies had been in service for ten years or more. The colonel-proprietors and generals in both armies regarded the recruitment of their experienced veterans as a long-term investment, and both were supported in their enterprises by an international network of private credit facilities, munitions manufacturers, food suppliers, and transport contractors. In both cases this elaborate structure was funded through control of the financial resources of entire territories, largely extracted and administered by the military high command. the armies clashed at Jankow in Bohemia, and the Imperial forces, though superior in cavalry, were held and eventually defeated by the Swedes, in part thanks to their artillery.

At the battle of Prague in May 1756, Frederick II of Prussia also faced an Austrian Habsburg army. In this case the Prussians fielded 65,000 troops and 214 cannon against Austrian forces of 62,000 and 177 cannon. While both armies contained mercenary units, the bulk of the forces were raised under the authority of the state. Prussia’s rulers had adopted conscription early in the eighteenth century, as had the Austrian Habsburgs following the military disasters of the 1730s and 1740s. The state had assumed direct responsibility for the training, upkeep, and support of the armies, and in both the officers now served less as entrepreneurs, more as employees of the state. As at Jankow the result was a defeat for the Austrians, but the battle was extraordinarily costly, a pyrrhic victory for the Prussians, who suffered even heavier casualties than their opponents.

These two battles might be used as case studies to demonstrate the evolution of armed forces in the long century separating the end of the Thirty Years War from the Revolutionary Wars of the 1790s; they frame a style of warfare and of military force which may readily be identified with the dynastic states of the Ancien Régime. Yet while it is true that changes in scale, organization, technology, and tactics certainly took place both within land forces and at sea over this long century, it is important to avoid both oversimplifying the causes and exaggerating the extent of change. Above all, this period was not simply a story of the rise of modern forces controlled by the state overcoming a backward and ineffectual semi private military system whose origins stretched back to the condottieri of renaissance Italy. The fierce and protracted fighting at Jankow provides a characteristic demonstration of the military qualities of privatized military forces, while the broader conduct of the 1645 campaign revealed operational skills of a high order. This effectiveness reflected the organizational and operational priorities of the military enterprisers themselves: small, high-quality, and extremely mobile campaigning armies-hence the very large proportions of cavalry- sustained on a broad base of territorial occupation and tax extraction, whose operations were carefully linked to an assessment of logistical and other support systems funded by these war taxes or `contributions’. The same was true of navies, shaped by a combination of private and public initiatives in which a number of the largest warships were built and maintained by the ruler at direct charge to the state, but many more ships were built by subjects at their own cost and risk, commanded by captains whose main contribution to the war effort would be privateering activity, loosely integrated into collective naval operations. Such systems delivered impressive military results; they were also well-adapted to the needs and character of the early modern state. Military organization reflected a relationship between relatively weak central state power and the willingness of elites within and outside of particular societies to mobilize resources to provide military force on behalf of those states. It offered substantial incentives-financial, political, and social-to those members of the elites prepared to involve themselves in military activity, and who could mobilize resources considerably more effectively than rulers and their limited state administrations.

That said, the coming of peace at Münster and Osnabrück in 1648, then finally a settlement between France and Spain in 1659, did mark a turning point, and the emergence of a set of organizational and political compromises that defined the distinctive character of Ancien Régime armed forces. It was not, in general, that military enterprise was considered to have been a failure, but rulers nonetheless turned self-consciously back towards an ideal of direct control and maintenance of their armed forces. Tis was partly a matter of ideology: the ruler’s self-projection as a roi de guerre, whose sovereignty was explicitly linked to personal control of his armed forces and the waging of war, made military enterprise appear an undermining of that sovereign authority. Moreover, while necessity in time of war could justify the collection of heavy taxes by the military itself, with the coming of peace it was less disruptive for the state and its agents to resume tax collection, especially as many rulers came out of the Thirty Years War with a clearer awareness of the taxable potential of their subjects. In France in the 1660s, despite the return of peace and a modest retrenchment of the main land tax, overall tax levels were kept at wartime levels.

Initially the objective of establishing military force under the direct control of the ruler, paid for from tax revenues collected and distributed by his administration, seemed attainable. The military reforms of Louis XIV’s France in the decade after 1660 provide the paradigm for this reassertion of state control. More effective management of state finances and tax collection-considerably easier in a period of external peace and internal order-provided the basis on which a permanent army of around 55,000 troops could be created and funded, and allowed for the development of a virtually new navy and its support facilities. The army, in particular, was characterized by a much more intrusive administration under the aegis of the war ministers Michel Le Tellier and his son, the Marquis de Louvois. Codified regulations that were actually enforced, reasonable standards of discipline, especially with regard to civilian populations, and an insistence on external oversight of recruitment quality, equipment, and drill, all transformed the army into what was widely seen as an adjunct of royal authority and sovereignty. Such military initiatives were not merely the prerogative of the major powers: a similar bid to maintain and increase tax levels to sustain the army of Brandenburg Prussia had created a peacetime army of 14,000 men under the direct control of the Elector by 1667.

This ideal of armies which were closely linked to the direct financial resources of the state, and of a manageable scale where central administration-a Bureau de la guerre or a Kriegskommissariat-could exercise a high degree of control and supervision over troop and officer recruitment, provisioning, discipline, and deployment, was a realistic target for the Ancien Régime state. Moreover, the forces that could be fielded through such direct systems of control and support were not necessarily limited to the comparatively small bodies assembled in the aftermath of the Thirty Years War; these were frequently envisaged as a nucleus of larger forces that would be raised in wartime, whether through recruitment at home or foreign mercenaries. The growth of state administration, both in numbers of personnel and the range of their activities and procedures, is an all-but universal phenomenon of the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. So, to some extent, is a steady increase in the burden of taxes that rulers could impose on their-usually unprivileged-subjects. Hemmed in by dependence on parliamentary grants for extraordinary tax revenues, even Charles II and James II of England were able to use their direct control over the growing and better-administered revenues from customs and excise to fund a standing army which grew from 15,000 in 1670 to something over 30,000 men in late 1688. So post-1650, rulers could in theory look to maintaining and controlling armies and navies that were compatible with their growing share of state resources and the developing range and sophistication of their administrations.

However, this was not how the armies of the Ancien Régime developed in practice. What occurred instead was a process in which the demands of armies and navies, and especially their costs, outstripped the capacity of the state to meet them. It was not, in most cases, a consciously-sought development, and its impact was largely counterproductive in terms of the effectiveness of armed forces. As so often in military history, the waging of war was driven forward by its own dynamic; once the self-regulatory and self-limiting style of entrepreneurial warfare had been abandoned, the road was opened to a type of armed force and style of combat which overwhelmed the resources of the state and led to military stagnation and a variety of political and social tensions through the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

One factor in this transformation was military technology. The gradual introduction from the 1680s of muskets equipped with a cheap but reliable flintlock mechanism replaced the older weapons in which the charge in the musket’s breech was ignited by applying a piece of lighted, slow-burning match. Virtually simultaneous with this was the development of the ring-bayonet, providing the musketeer with both an offensive and defensive weapon. The traditional infantry elite, the pikemen, whose solid presence had both served to protect reloading and vulnerable musketeers from the shock of cavalry or charging infantry, and had themselves proved a formidable offensive arm, were almost entirely phased out by the early eighteenth century. Although a standardized, flintlock- and bayonet-armed infantry may be thought to usher in an era of warfare dominated by the massed firepower of infantry, in fact musketry remained grossly ineffective: poor production qualities, limited range, and minimal accuracy were com pounded by a rate of fire that by the standards of industrialized warfare remained cripplingly slow even in the best-drilled units. In fact, firepower did transform the battlefield, but it was developments in artillery which were the key. Tough the basic technology of the muzzle-loaded field gun remained unchanged through this period, better casting, lighter barrels and carriages, more mobility, and standardization led to a huge increase in the numbers of artillery deployed on the battlefield: perhaps most significant, these improvements led to the proliferation of more mobile medium-weight guns, the nine- to twelve-pound field pieces which dominated the battlefields of Europe until the mid-nineteenth century. From the Thirty Years War with a couple of dozen guns on either side, though to an engagement like Malplaquet (1709) with 100 Allied guns against 60 French, to Torgau (1760) where 360 Austrian field guns were deployed against 320 Prussian, the role of the artillery was ever more central to the battlefield and the siege. Massive concentrations of artillery fire, equipped with a fearsome range of anti-personnel missiles, blasted infantry and cavalry formations alike.

These changes had some paradoxical consequences for tactics and deployment on the battlefield. The effectiveness of artillery led to a further increase in the numbers of gun crews and officers, but an obvious response to this greater lethality was an attempt to get larger forces, principally more infantry, onto the battlefield. Yet the infantry massed on the battlefield were not merely subject to slaughter by opposing artillery; the thinning out of the infantry line, which by the mid-eighteenth century was three rows deep and whose only defence after a handful of musket rounds was the bayonet, also made them much more vulnerable to cavalry. As many astute commanders recognized, the battle-winning arm, given that the artillery could not exploit the advantages that its firepower created, remained the cavalry. Yet cavalry as a proportion of armies declined steadily in the century from 1660 to 1760, from around one-third to around one-quarter of the total combatants. Military logic might have suggested a great increase in the proportions of cavalry, especially light forces of the sort that had been typical of eastern European warfare for centuries, but military budgets ensured that the cavalry remained underdeveloped.

The proliferation of artillery also had a drastic impact on siege warfare, seen since the late sixteenth century as the most typical form of combat, and another reason why the battlefield advantages brought by more cavalry could be downplayed. After decades in which artillery-resistant fortifications had proved an intractable challenge to besieging armies, the numbers of guns that could be assembled for a siege in the later wars of Louis XIV finally tipped the balance in favour of the offensive. Sieges of major fortified places in the sixteenth and earlier seventeenth century had been won through a haphazard, lengthy, and expensive process of blockade, the defeat of enemy relief forces and occasionally either mining or direct assault, rather than by artillery barrage and breach. This was superseded by methodical prescriptions for conducting a siege by parallel trenches dug progressively closer to the fortifications, and protected from the defenders’ fire by zig-zag communication lines. Using these trenches to move artillery further forward, the fortifications and their defenders would be progressively ground into surrender. The only response was that pioneered by the French fortification-genius Marshal Vauban, whose pré carré provided a massive proliferation of state-of-the-art fortifications in a deep defensive barrier stretching along the French frontiers. Individual fortresses could be taken, but as the commanders of the Allied armies, Marlborough and Eugene of Savoy, were to discover in their campaigns after 1708, the time and cost required to take out a sufficient block of such fortified places reduced their invasion of France to a slow, attritional frontier struggle. On the defensive (down)side, the costs of building and then of garrisoning and maintaining such fortification systems was immense. Moreover, experiences such as Maurice de Saxe’s campaign in the Austrian Netherlands in the 1740s cast doubt even on these massive fortress systems as a means to ensure defensive security. The strongest fortifications were unlikely to hold out if it was clear to the fortress commanders that there was no supporting army in the field capable of driving off the besieging forces.

Artillery had the capacity to transform battlefields and sieges into more lethal spaces than hitherto, but one part of this capacity would reflect the rigorous training of artillery crews in maneuvering guns, and above all in loading, firing, and reloading them as rap idly as possible. Tis drew upon a much broader seam of organizational and, to an extent, social change: such effective fire would be best achieved, it was considered, by the imposition of a mechanical sequence of procedures on the gunners, learnt by rote and taught by rigorous practice and discipline. And to an even larger extent this would be the requirement for the infantry. If the musket/bayonet combination was to approach its (limited) maximum potential as a battlefield technology, then rates of fire needed to be optimized, as did the way in which firepower was deployed through a unit of soldiers, and the way that the unit was to maneuver to defend itself or to exploit changing battle field circumstances. The means to achieve this was through drill. Formal drill became the raison d’etre of infantry training, imposed uniformly on cohesive groups of soldiers from the day of recruitment throughout their military careers. For drill to achieve mechanically disciplined, rapidly responsive, and cohesive infantry, more than a few weeks in a training camp were needed. The Marquis de Chamlay commented that whereas it was possible to have good cavalry troopers within a year of their enlistment, it took a minimum of five to six years to produce infantry who could deploy disciplined fire without losing cohesion.

Three consequences stemmed from the development of drill. First, the time and expense involved was too great to allow the soldiers to go back into civilian life after a few years of service. Volunteers, as in France, Britain, and some of the German states, were contracted and compelled to stay in service sometimes for decades. Where conscription was introduced, adult male populations might benefit from relatively enlightened systems such as the Prussian, or the Swedish Indelningsverk, whereby after initial training the men were kept militarily effective by regular drill camps but otherwise allowed to pursue their civilian lives. Elsewhere they could be subject to more brutal demands, as in Peter the Great’s Russia, where a proportion of the servants and tenants of the landowning class were simply conscripted for life. Conscription in its various forms became a characteristic of the Ancien Régime state; by the 1690s even France started to use the compulsory local service of provincial militias as a `feeder-system’ for the regular army. A second consequence was that the very long service required of conscripts and volunteers made soldiers more prone to desert. In consequence, military authorities sought to keep soldiers under close supervision. Typically, segregation from the civilian population was adopted as the most effective means to oversee enlisted soldiers, and when feasible this led to their confinement in purpose-built barracks. Both these factors contributed to a third: service as a common soldier lost any remaining social standing. While in the Thirty Years War veterans had seen themselves, and had been treated, as the equivalent of skilled workers, the Ancien Régime soldiers, often separated from the civil population and subordinated to a harsh military code, were relegated to the lowest status. A vicious circle developed in which low social esteem made recruitment more difficult, and encouraged the NCOs and officers to treat their men with even more brutal discipline and greater contempt.

Yet the transformation most evident in Ancien Régime armed forces was that of numbers and scale. Even the most exaggerated assertions about the size of armies raised in the century before 1650-most of which have no foundation in army rolls or muster details, and all of which ignore fluctuations between and within campaigns-are still dwarfed by the scale of the war effort sustained by armies and navies from the 1690s onwards.

To some extent the technological and consequent organizational change indicated above could account for an upward pressure on the scale of armed forces, and perhaps especially the size of forces concentrated on the battlefield. But it would not of itself have generated the growth in military establishments on the scale seen in the decades from the 1680s to the eighteenth century. The great increases in this period were not primarily driven by military factors and their implications, but were a consequence of the conduct of international politics. Louis XIV’s inept and threatening diplomacy throughout the 1680s drew France inexorably towards a war against a coalition of every other major west-central European power. Holding her own against this alliance after 1688 required an unparalleled military effort. France’s enemies responded with a scale of mobilization which would collectively match and surpass the 340,000 soldiers and 150,000 tonnes of naval force that France managed to throw into the struggle. Military expansion moved eastwards in the mid-eighteenth century, where the triangular contest between Prussia, Austria, and Russia in the decades after 1740 had the same effect on army growth. Frederick II inherited an army of 80,000 in 1740, but the wars over Silesia pushed this up to 200,000. Austrian military expansion following the disasters of the 1740s was no less impressive, while exploitation of lifetime conscription ensured that Russia overtook all other European states in military manpower. The final driver of military-this time naval-expansion was European colonial and trade rivalry and warfare, and above all the determination of the British to maintain oceanic naval supremacy over any other European power. The Royal Navy, which reached a peak of 196,000 tonnes in 1700, underwent progressive increases through the 1750s when the total rose through 276,000 tonnes up to 473,000 tonnes by 1790. This increase in the size of British naval force was not surpassed by any other European power, but the attempt to build forces that were at least comparable stimulated naval growth throughout the eighteenth century. Whether this reflected the ambition of combined French and Spanish Bourbon fleets to challenge the British in the Atlantic, or concerned the exercise of naval power by Russia and the Scandinavian powers in the Baltic, the net effect was a steady growth in the size of naval forces, and for most states this naval growth moved in step with demands for massive land forces.

Yet European powers in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries proved able to sustain these increases; states did not collapse under the burden of maintaining armed forces. It is not easy to explain this in terms of rising prosperity, demographic, or economic growth. For in west-central Europe the biggest military increases coincided with a long period of economic stagnation from 1650 to 1720/30. In this later seventeenth and early eighteenth century, Britain and the United Provinces were exceptional in achieving broad-based economic growth. France and the German or Italian states saw ever-more troops and revenues being extracted from peoples barely able to meet these demands. In contrast, it was certainly the case that from the 1730s European rulers began to benefit from economic and demographic growth. Economic progress fostered technological improvement and cheaper production of military goods such as reliable cast-iron cannon for both navies and land armies. A mid-century transformation of agriculture allowed more efficient land-use, which had effects on military operations through a steady growth in the populations which provided army and navy personnel. But the largest military expansion had occurred before these advantages came into play, in states whose economies remained depressed and limited.

Because the huge growth in military force achieved by rulers like Louis XIV, Charles XI of Sweden, Frederick-Wilhelm I of Prussia could not be attributed to expanding economic and demographic potential, a traditional and now easily-derided response was to shroud the process in a mysterious and frequently circular set of assertions about the personal power and capability of `absolutist’ monarchs. A slightly more plausible interpretation argued that this military growth was the result of growing bureaucratic and governmental effectiveness. Better-assessed taxes collected under the threat of military coercion allowed further tax increases, which in turn made possible further growth in the armed forces. Armed forces and central authority are assumed to grow in a single, internally-cohesive process. It is indisputable that the character of Ancien Régime armies would have been very different without the developing administrative competence and greater coercive power of the states concerned. The Austrian military reforms of the 1740s were the result of military experience working within an increasingly effective administration, while Frederick II’s comments on the differences between Prussia and (unreformed) Austria stress the importance of administrative capacity: `I have seen small states able to maintain themselves against the greatest monarchies, when these states possessed industry and great order in their affairs. I find that large empires, fertile in abuses, are full of confusion and only are sustained by their vast resources, and the intrinsic weight of the body.’

Nevertheless, improvements in administration, better accountability, and more efficient collection and use of tax revenues would not alone have allowed Louis XIV in the early 1690s to support an army of 340,000 men and a navy of at least 30,000 sailors, any more than in 1740 would it have allowed Frederick William I of Prussia to maintain a standing army of 80,000 troops. Substantial elements of the costs of war were still met by extorting war taxes from occupied lands and from foreign subsidies such as those provided by Britain to Frederick William I. Both helped to maintain larger forces than could have been supported from native resources, but for the most part they were factors that operated only in wartime. And as the Swedes discovered to their cost in the aftermath of 1648, supporting troops at the cost of neighbouring states or through subsidies from powerful, self-interested paymasters, could involve a heavy political and military price.

Evaluating Armoured Warfare on The Eastern Front I

Popular Mythology

The Russo-German War in general, and armoured combat on the Eastern Front in particular, have remained popular subjects in English-language historiography of the Second World War for the past six decades. However, much of what Anglo-American readers know or think they know about armoured warfare on the Eastern Front has been shaped by self-serving memoirs such as Guderian’s Panzer Leader or von Mellenthin’s Panzer Battles, or popular wargames such as SPI’s Panzerblitz (1970) and a new generation of computer wargames. A cult of German tank-worshippers has arisen and its members are now firmly entrenched in their belief that all German tanks (meaning their beloved Tiger and Panther series) were better than any Soviet tanks and that the Red Army’s tank forces only prevailed because of numerical superiority. There is a grain of truth in this argument, which was fostered by German veterans seeking to perpetuate the Third Reich’s propaganda-line that the victory of the Red Army’s `barbarian hordes’ was due to mass, not skill. However, the quantity over quality argument ignores a variety of critical factors encompassing the opposing war-fighting doctrines, strategic miscalculations and terrain/weather that significantly influenced the outcome of armoured operations in the East. Key facts, such as the German inability to develop a reliable diesel tank engine while the Soviets had one in production before Operation Barbarossa began, are often just ignored – even though it had a significant impact on the outcome of mechanized operations on the Eastern Front. Yet material factors were not the only influences upon armoured warfare on the Eastern Front. Napoleon’s dictum that, `in war, the moral is to the material as three is to one,’ proved quite apt on the Eastern Front of 1941-45, with a host of moral and non-material factors influencing the outcome of battles and campaigns.

Looking across a hexagonal grid super-imposed over a two-dimensional map sheet, cardboard counters or plastic miniatures representing German Panthers or Tigers look so much more impressive than the opposing Soviet T-34s. The German tanks’ strengths – long-range firepower and armoured protection – carry great weight in these kinds of simulations, while their main weaknesses – poor mobility and poor mechanical reliability – are only minor inconveniences, if depicted at all. For example, the oft-repeated canards about the Panther’s `teething problems’ at Kursk are fobbed off as a temporary issue, costing a wargamer a few movement points, without realizing that the Panther had persistent mobility issues throughout its career that prevented it from conducting the kind of wide-ranging mobile operations required by German maneuver warfare doctrine. The main strengths of the Soviet T-34 – reliable mobility over vast distances on its own tracks and suitability for mass production – are factors that lie outside most tactical-level simulations. Consequently, two generations of Anglo-American history buffs have been presented with numerous simulations that emphasize the superiority of German tanks and the cannon-fodder nature of Soviet tanks. The Cold War also played a role in shaping perceptions, with a large number of German veteran accounts that were often viewed uncritically, while there was a dearth of useful accounts from the Soviet side. When available, Soviet accounts were routinely discounted as lies or propaganda. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, fifty years after the onset of Operation Barbarossa, this ingrained Western perception began to change as previously unavailable historical material emerged from Soviet-era archives, but the balance of Eastern Front historiography in English is still heavily biased toward the German perspective.

Another problem in evaluating armoured warfare on the Eastern Front is that much of the analysis to date has been fairly tactical in nature, focusing on a single campaign such as Stalingrad or Kursk, which tends to gloss over the impact of long-term trends that shaped each sides’ combat performance. The Russo-German War lasted for forty-six and a half months. It was not decided by a single battle or campaign.

Strategic Setting

Adolf Hitler intended to crush the Soviet Union and its inimical Communist ideology in one, swift campaign, using his battle-tested panzer divisions and Luftwaffe air fleets as his weapons of choice. In Führer Directive 21, issued on 18 December 1940, Hitler stated that, `the bulk of the Russian Army in Western Russia will be destroyed by daring operations led by deeply penetrating armoured spearheads.’ He deliberately chose to unleash a war of annihilation aimed not only at the destruction of the Red Army and Soviet state, but also at the eventual obliteration of the indigenous Slavic populations as a necessary precursor to German colonization in the East. Whereas previous operations in Poland, France and the Balkans had followed the methods of traditional German campaigning, Hitler intended Operation Barbarossa to be a crusade. Yet oddly, Hitler’s grand strategic vision for the War in the East was not matched by sound strategic-level planning. Instead, the War in the East would be conducted primarily on the operational and even tactical levels, often on the basis of ad hoc or opportunistic decision-making, rather than sober assessment of ends and means.

The employment of Germany’s armoured forces in the Soviet Union was shaped by three strategic assumptions made by Hitler and the Oberkommando der Heer (OKH). The first assumption was that the war in the Soviet Union would be a short campaign, resolved in a matter of a few months. Germany made no preparations for a protracted War in the East, including increasing tank production or training replacements, or stockpiling fuel and ammunition. The second German strategic assumption was that terrain and weather would have no significant impact on the conduct of the campaign. Hitler and the OKH regarded the Soviet Union as virtually flat, table-top steppe land that was perfect for rapid panzer operations, but ignored its numerous rivers, dense forests, immense distances and poor road networks. Previous German panzer operations had achieved victories after moving only 300-400km in fair weather over good roads. Indeed, no offensive in German military history had ever covered more than 500km in a single push. Since the first assumption of a short war expected a Soviet collapse well before the onset of the Russian winter, Hitler and the OKH completely disregarded the weather as a factor. The third strategic assumption was that the Red Army could be quickly and efficiently destroyed. Based on a combination of factors – the poor showing by the Red Army in the Russo-Finnish War, Stalin’s purges of the officer corps and incomplete OKH intelligence assessments – Hitler and the OKH reckoned that they could destroy the best part of the Red Army in about six weeks of fast-moving campaigning. With the bulk of the Red Army smashed, including its tank forces, Hitler believed that the Soviet state would suffer a moral collapse akin to what happened in France in June 1940. These three strategic assumptions had a profound impact on German panzer operations in the Soviet Union and when each proved false in turn, they put the panzer divisions at a permanent disadvantage.

Stalin’s immediate objective in mid-1941 was to deter German aggression until the Red Army was sufficiently prepared for him to take a more assertive tack with Hitler. He had foolishly ordered the disbanding of the Red Army’s four existing tank corps in November 1939, only to order them re-formed as mechanized corps in July 1940 and their number doubled in response to the spectacular German victory over France. In order to give Soviet military power credibility in the eyes of Germany, Stalin also directed that the mechanized corps would be reequipped with the new T-34 and KV-1 tanks to replace the lighter T-26 and BT-series models. Soviet industry was ordered to produce over 5,000 of the new tanks and the mechanized corps were expected to be fully-equipped by mid-1942. However, Stalin became increasingly alarmed by reports that Germany was creating more panzer divisions, so in February 1941 he directed that twenty additional mechanized corps – requiring another 11,000 tanks – should be formed as quickly as possible. Even with the Stalingrad Tractor Plant (STZ) joining the Kharkov Plant (KhPZ) to produce T-34 tanks, it was unlikely that these twenty-eight mechanized corps could be fully-equipped before late 1943. Given these arbitrary changes in organization imposed by Stalin, the Red Army’s twenty-eight mechanized corps were only partly equipped and in a state of fatal disarray in June 1941.

The deployment and employment of the Red Army’s mechanized forces was based on three strategic assumptions made by Stalin and his General Staff. First, Stalin believed that there would be adequate early warning prior to any German aggression, giving Red Army units time to prepare and deploy for combat. Due to this assumption, Red Army leaders felt that they could defer measures to enhance combat readiness in favor of other organizational priorities. The second Soviet strategic assumption was that with adequate logistics, training and preparation, the Red Army could hold its own against the Wehrmacht. Tied to this assumption was an implicit belief that enemy incursions could be limited to the buffer zones in Poland and Lithuania acquired in 1939-40. The third Soviet strategic assumption was that industrial mobilization was the key to victory and that campaigns would be decided by the side that had the greater ability to sustain its forces in protracted operations, not by fancy maneuvers. Due to Stalin’s ineptitude, the first Soviet strategic assumption was invalidated and undermined the validity of the second assumption as well. The cost of Stalin’s strategic miscalculations was the loss of the bulk of the pre-war Soviet tank force in the first three months of the campaign. However, the third Soviet strategic assumption proved entirely correct and eventually provided the means for the second assumption to regain saliency by the second year of the war. In short, despite certain blindness to impending war, Stalin and the Soviet General Staff did a far better job laying the groundwork for protracted operations than the Germans, and this strategic calculus would provide the Red Army’s tank forces with a valuable counterweight to the tactical skill of German panzer units. The Soviet numerical superiority in tanks for much of the War in the East – much bemoaned by German veterans – was not some sleight of hand trick, but the result of careful pre-war planning.

Hitler deployed four panzer groups with a total of seventeen panzer divisions and 3,106 tanks for Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. In addition, two independent panzer battalions, Pz. Abt. 40 and Pz. Abt. 211, were deployed in Finland with 124 tanks (incl. twenty Pz. III). The 2 and 5. PanzerDivisionen were refitting in Germany after the Greek Campaign in April 1941 and were in OKH reserve. Otherwise, the only other extant panzer units were the 15. Panzer-Division with Generalleutnant Erwin Rommel in Libya and two panzer brigades in France. No other panzer units were in the process of forming in Germany. Consequently, the OKH was committing virtually all of the available German panzer forces to Barbarossa, with negligible reserves and limited monthly production output to replace losses. In mid-1941, German industry was producing an average of 250 tanks per month, half of which were the Pz. III medium tank. Combat experience in France and Belgium in 1940 indicated that the Germans could expect to lose about one-third of their medium tanks even in a short six-week campaign, which Hitler regarded as acceptable losses. Furthermore, German industry had no tanks beyond the Pz. III or Pz. IV in advance development. The Heereswaffenamt (Army Weapons Office) only authorized Henschel and Porsche to begin working on prototypes for a new heavy tank four weeks before Operation Barbarossa began, and this program had no special priority until after the first encounters with the Soviet T-34 and KV-1 tanks in combat.

The primary operational objectives of the four German panzer groups were Leningrad in the north, Moscow in the center and Kiev and the Donbas region in the south. The distance from their starting positions to their operational objectives was 800km for Panzergruppe 4, 1,000km for Panzergruppe 2 and 3, and over 1,200km for Panzergruppe 1. Hitler expected these objectives to be reached within about ten weeks of the start of Barbarossa, an unprecedented rate of advance in modern military history. However, it was questionable whether German tanks could even move this far in this amount of time, even if much of the Red Army was destroyed on the border. As a general rule of thumb, about 5 per cent of tanks in a given unit will break down for mechanical reasons after a 100km road march, although most can be repaired within a few hours. Just three years before Barbarossa, nearly 30 per cent of the 2. Panzer-Division’s tanks broke down on the unopposed 670km road march to Vienna, along good roads. If the panzer divisions suffered a similar scale of combat losses as in the 1940 Western Campaign, no more than 10-20 per cent of the original panzers would be likely to reach their objectives.

Operation Barbarossa’s bold scheme of maneuver was undermined by very poor intelligence preparation by German intelligence services. In actuality, the OKH intelligence staff had a faulty understanding of the strength and dispositions of the Red Army. German signals intelligence had not detected the reformation of Soviet mechanized corps in July 1940 and believed that the Red Army’s armour was still deployed as independent tank and mechanized brigades. In early June 1941, Oberst Eberhard Kinzel, head of the OKH’s Fremde Heere Ost (Foreign Armies East), assessed that the Red Army would deploy forty-one mechanized brigades with about 9,500 tanks against the Wehrmacht. Kinzel’s shop produced a handbook on Soviet tanks for the panzer groups, which described the various models of the T-26, T-28, T-35 and BT-5/7 in detail. The handbook also included information about a new Soviet heavy tank equipped with 60mm-thick armour and 76.2mm main armament that had been used against the Finns in December 1939; this was the SMK prototype, which the Germans erroneously labeled as the T-35C. Although Kinzel was clearly aware that the Soviets had fielded a prototype heavy tank eighteen months prior to Barbarossa, he assessed that existing German anti-tank weapons could defeat it.

Prior to the German invasion, Stalin wanted to keep his strategic options open, to gain territory when possible, but to avoid being dragged into a fight before he felt the Red Army was ready. He wanted a sizeable portion of the newly-forming mechanized corps positioned near the western borders to deter German attack, but the rest would be deployed further back in reserve. In the event of invasion, the Red Army’s existing war plan directed that all available mechanized corps should be immediately committed to counterattack any German penetrations across the border. Unwittingly, this plan played into German hands, by forcing Soviet tank commanders to send unprepared units into battle piece-meal, directly into the face of on-coming German panzer schwerpunkt (main efforts). Indeed, the German panzer forces would be at their strongest in the border regions, where distance and logistics had not yet attenuated their combat power. However, the German planners in the OKH had no appreciation for the Soviet military philosophy of echeloned attack and defense, which meant that defeating the Red Army in a single campaign would prove far more difficult than the French Army in 1940. The entire essence of the so-called Blitzkrieg doctrine was in using concentrated armoured formations in short, powerful jabs to dislocate an enemy’s defense by isolating his best forces. A reasonable enemy was then expected to sue for peace due to the sudden setback. However, neither Stalin nor the Red Army had any incentive to be reasonable once it became clear that Hitler’s strategic objective was to exterminate them. By opting for a war of annihilation, Hitler made it impossible for the Wehrmacht to defeat the Red Army in a single campaign.

Evaluating Armoured Warfare on The Eastern Front II

Terrain and Weather Factors

Between September 1939 and May 1941, German panzer divisions had encountered no serious difficulties in their campaigns due to either adverse terrain or weather conditions (other than the English Channel, which was conveniently ignored). In particular, Panzergruppe Kleist had been able to quickly pass through the `impenetrable’ Ardennes Forrest and then conduct successful opposed river crossings across the rivers Meuse and Somme in France. In April 1941, Kleist’s panzers were able to overrun Yugoslavia and Greece in less than three weeks, despite numerous rivers and mountainous terrain. The overriding impression Hitler and the OKH leadership gained from the Wehrmacht’s preceding campaigns was that terrain in itself was not a serious obstacle to the panzers. Nor did Hitler and the OKH have any useful experience with mechanized operations under winter conditions. In contrast, the Red Army had learned painful lessons about the limitations of mechanized units in forested terrain and winter conditions during the 1939-40 Russo-Finnish War and were in the process of incorporating some of the lessons learned.

Crossing rivers or large streams was an essential feature of military operations in the Soviet Union and the relative fording capabilities of tanks had a major impact on the tempo of armoured operations. Although both Germany and the Soviet Union had a small number of tanks with amphibious capabilities, such as the Pz. III and Pz. IV Tauchpanzer and the T-37, T-38 and T-40 light amphibious tanks, the majority of tanks on both sides could not ford water that was deeper than one meter (i. e. chest deep on a man). The bridging capabilities of the 1941-42 panzer divisions were rather rudimentary – a Bru” ckenkolonne B or K could construct a 50-meter long pontoon bridge in about twelve hours that could just support a Pz. III medium tank, but the Pz. IV and later Tiger and Panthers needed proper bridges to get across significant water obstacles. Indeed, the Wehrmacht lagged behind the Allies in assault bridging, having nothing like the British Bailey bridge. Soviet tank divisions of 1941 were supposed to have a pontoon bridge battalion, but most were never fully formed or quickly lost during the hectic retreats of 1941. While tanks could often cross smaller rivers at shallow fording sites, these critical locations were usually defended by anti-tank guns and mines. Larger rivers, such as the Dnieper or Volga, could not be crossed without substantial army-level engineer support. Pontoon rafts could be constructed to get small numbers of tanks across a large river, but this was usually only sufficient to defend a bridgehead against enemy counterattack. Thus, the capture of intact bridges – particularly railroad bridges, which could support the weight of tanks – was an important constant in Eastern Front armoured operations: both sides sought opportunities to seize poorly-defended bridges because they allowed tanks to do what they do best – move fast and use their shock effect to disrupt an enemy’s defenses. When bridges or fording sites were not available, armoured operations came to a full stop.

Generally, you can try to go just about anywhere with a tank – at least once – but you may regret that you tried. Armoured operations on the Eastern Front were often impeded or channelized – forced into narrow mobility corridors – due to `no-go’ terrain such as marshes or dense forests. The marshlands between Leningrad and Ostashkov in northern Russia and the Pripet marshes were particularly hazardous for armoured operations. Tanks could easily become irretrievably bogged down in marshy terrain, or forced to move along narrow tracks that made them very vulnerable to anti-tank ambushes. In the early border battles in 1941, the Red Army foolishly lost a number of precious T-34 and KV-1 tanks in water-logged areas in the Pripet Marshes. The best tank country on the Eastern Front was the steppe country of the Ukraine, although this region also had the worst mud during the rainy periods. There were areas of `slow-go’ terrain in the Soviet Union, including urban areas and the ravines along the River Don, which could cause tanks to throw track. The Germans were particularly shocked by the almost total lack of decent all-weather roads in the Soviet Union, which increased the wear and tear on all vehicles and greatly reduced their mobility.

The Germans had totally discounted the severity of the weather in the Soviet Union and were shocked in turn by the summer heat, the autumn mud and the harsh winter cold. Mud in particular is the bane of the existence of all tankers, but the idea that it only interfered with German mobile operations and that it was only a problem during the autumn and spring Rasputitsa season is an oversimplification that has been accepted for too long in Western historiography about the Eastern Front. First of all, the Eastern Front stretched over 1,700km from Leningrad to the Crimea and the weather could vary considerably across regions; a typical rain system would cover a 400-500km wide area, but other areas received no rain (or snow). Weather fronts moved from west to east across Russia, meaning that bad weather would generally hit the Germans first. Second, the summer months of June-July tended to have the most rain, but April and May were the driest months. In 1941, Heeresgruppe Süd had twice as much rain in July as it did in September-October, and mud caused significant mobility problems in the summer as well. When mud occurred, the wheeled vehicles in armoured units and towed artillery pieces were likely to be the most affected, but tracked vehicles could generally move until the mud became so deep that the tank either scraped bottom or the roadwheels became too fouled with mud. When the supply trucks couldn’t make it through the mud, armoured operations ground to a halt from lack of supplies and ammunition. Oftentimes, SPW half tracks had to be diverted from their primary combat tasks of transporting infantry to making supply runs through muddy areas or going to pull mired trucks out. Routine track maintenance became much more difficult when everything was caked in thick, gooey mud. Soviet tankers also complained about the mud and it significantly affected their operations as well. The main Soviet tanks in 1941 – the T-26 and BT-7 – had even narrower tracks and less engine power than the German Pz. III, meaning that most Red Army tank units in 1941 were more prone to being impeded by muddy roads. Since Soviet tank brigades in 1941-42 consisted of mixed vehicle types, the superior T-34s would still have to travel at the rate of the slower light tanks.

The first snow arrived over the Eastern Front in October 1941, but in most areas it consisted of only 5cm and turned to rain within twenty-four hours. There were only two or three days with snow in October, with more falling in the humid Ukraine than around Leningrad. Snowfall in November jumped to about 20cm in central Russia, but the heaviest snowfalls did not occur until December- February. German equipment was designed to operate in temperate areas and proved unsuited to cold-weather operations in Russia. Panzer crews were particularly shocked to find that their tracks could literally freeze to the ground in winter months or their batteries crack when the fluid inside froze. The Czech-built Pz. 35(t) used a hydraulic system that literally froze in October 1941, bringing that vehicle’s career to an abrupt end. When the German expectations of a short campaign were unfulfilled, the panzers were forced to conduct operations under all weather conditions, for which they were not psychologically or materially equipped.

Doctrinal and Technological Influences

During the interwar period, there were two contending schools of thought among major armies in regard to the proper employment of tanks. The dominant school was that tanks were best suited for the infantry support role and should be attached directly to infantry units. More revolutionary was the concept of armoured units that could operate independently, which was inspired in part by the theories of the British armour theorist, J. F. C. Fuller, and his Plan 1919. Fuller’s theories of mechanization, expounded in his interwar writings, attracted followers in both the Reichswehr and the Red Army. The proponents of creating independent armour units argued for looking beyond the breakthrough battle and for using tanks in a long-distance, exploitation role. However, this kind of radical thinking ran head-on into the powerful cavalry lobbies in both Germany and the Soviet Union, who regarded tanks as a threat to the mounted branch’s traditional use in the exploitation role. Both infantry and cavalry officers generally opposed the creation of independent tank units or tried to place limits on the kind of role they would serve. The infantry school argued for the development of infantry support tanks with a high level of armoured protection and had a howitzer-type weapon, but speed or range were not important requirements. Cavalry officers gradually accepted that tanks would be included in their country’s armed forces, but preferred light, fast tanks that could assist the cavalry in reconnaissance and pursuit roles. These intra-service debates about tank design crossed national lines and shaped tank development in Britain, the United States, France, Germany and the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s.

Armour theorists gradually recognized that in order to develop effective tanks, both the infantry support and cavalry exploitation missions needed to be reconciled in technical requirements. The utopian idea of a single `universal tank’ that could successfully accomplish all missions was quickly determined to be unfeasible and theorists recognized that more than one type of tank would be necessary in order to fulfill armour’s potential on the battlefield. The infantry support mission required a tank that was equipped with weapons capable of engaging enemy infantry entrenched in fieldworks, bunkers or buildings. Given the high threat level from enemy artillery and anti-tank weapons, it would also be prudent for infantry support tanks to possess a high level of armoured protection. However, the exploitation mission suggested a tank with the primary requirements of speed and mobility. Most armies struggled with developing the right types of tanks, with the best characteristics and in the best mix to meet these mission requirements. Both the Red Army and the Reichswehr made choices about what tanks they wanted, based upon doctrinal and technological influences in the 1930s, which would shape battlefield outcomes in 1941-45.

Since Germany was not allowed to build or possess tanks due to the restrictions of the Treaty of Versailles after the First World War, the postwar Reichswehr made covert agreements with the Red Army to establish a tank training school at Kazan in 1929. The Red Army, which only had a handful of obsolete tanks left over from the First World War, was desperate to acquire foreign tank technology and willingly cooperated with the Reichswehr. During the four years that the Kazan school was operational, the Germans tested two different tank prototypes there and determined the necessity of mounting radios in every tank in order to exercise effective command and control over an armoured unit (the importance of this was further reinforced when German observers noted the successful use of radios in British pre-war tank exercises). German officers such as Erich von Manstein, Walter Model and Walter Nehring spent time in the Soviet Union and observed Soviet tank exercises, although this apparently did little to enhance their regard for the professionalism of Soviet tankers. As part of the deal for hosting the Kazan school, the Red Army acquired several 3.7cm Pak guns and the design for a 7.5cm anti-aircraft gun from the German firm Rheinmetall, which were used to bolster Soviet research on tank armament. The Soviets also acquired fuel-injection technology from Germany, which was used to enhance Konstantin F. Chelpan’s development of an experimental diesel tank engine at the Kharkov Locomotive Works. However, the Soviet leadership believed that the Germans were not sharing their best technology and finally closed the school in September 1933.

Soviet military theorists such as Mikhail Tukhachevsky, Vladimir K. Triandafillov and Georgy Isserson had been assiduously working on a new military doctrine since the late 1920s. This doctrine, known as Deep Battle (glubokiy boy), was partly inspired by J. F. C. Fuller’s Plan 1919 and mixed it with Marxist-Leninist thinking about protracted warfare. Early on, the Red Army leadership recognized the imperative need to develop a tank force, but was reluctant to choose between the infantry support and cavalry schools. Instead, the Red Army codified its basic tank doctrine in Field Regulations PU-29, issued in October 1929. These regulations specified that PP tanks would provide infantry support, while DD tanks would push deeper into enemy rear areas to destroy their artillery. The Red Army cavalry lobby, in the form of Marshall Semyon Budyonny, also managed to retain enough influence that PU-29 was written to include joint tank-cavalry Deep Operations (glubokaya operatsiya). At the same time, the Red Army established the Office of Mechanization and Motorization (UMM) to develop the tanks necessary to fulfill the doctrine spelled out in PU-29, as well as train and organize all mechanized forces. The first head of the UMM, Innocent A. Khalepsky, decided that the Red Army also needed a heavy breakthrough tank to penetrate fortified areas, so he recommended a 60-ton tank with two 76.2mm howitzers and a 37mm cannon. From this point on, Red Army doctrine pushed Soviet industry to concurrently develop light, medium and heavy tanks.

At the start of the First Five Year Plan (1928-32), Soviet industry was unable to build indigenously-designed tank engines or tank guns and barely able to construct a few dozen light tankettes per year. Since Stalin and the Politburo were more concerned about falling behind Western tank developments than domestic economic consequences, they arbitrarily doubled the number of tanks required by the Red Army and rushed technical development in order to field the largest number of tanks possible. Three tank design bureaux were established under the plan: OKMO and SKB-2 in Leningrad and KhPZ at Kharkov. An artillery design bureau in Gorky was also tasked with developing new tank armament. At Stalin’s behest, the UMM authorized numerous tank projects, many of which proved failures, but this also jump-started the Soviet tank industry. Between the pressure of fulfilling quotas established by the Five Year Plans and the personal consequences of `obstructionism,’ the Soviet tank design bureaux were forced to develop tanks that could be built quickly and in numbers, which would prove to be advantageous in a long war. Through ruthless effort, Stalin’s regime was able to build up the Soviet Union’s defense industrial base at an astonishing rate and succeeded in producing over 5,000 light tanks under the First Five Year Plan. A generation of young Soviet engineers proved adept at using off-the-shelf components and designs acquired legally and illegally from Britain and the United States, while Soviet engineers took the idea of sloped armour from John Walter Christie’s innovative M1931 tank prototype and employed it on the BT-series light tanks. Soviet espionage was also successful in acquiring tank design information in Britain. Despite negligible experience in armoured vehicle design and fabrication, Soviet engineers were able to move from the prototype stage to series production of the T-26 and BT-series light tanks within less than two years. Although Soviet engineers were forced to use foreign-designed engine components and armament in their first generation of indigenous tanks, the design bureaux in Leningrad, Kharkov and Gorky were also given some of the best engineering talent in the Soviet Union, who were tasked with developing indigenous engines and cannon for the next generation of tanks. In particular, the talented Konstantin F. Chelpan made excellent progress – with the backing of Khalepsky, the head of UMM – in developing a practical diesel tank engine, which would have enormous implications for armoured warfare on the Eastern Front in the Second World War.

Due to the success of the First Five Year Plan, the Red Army had sufficient tanks by 1932 that it could afford to create both an independent tank force and separate tank brigades for direct infantry support. Two mechanized corps were formed – three years before the Germans fielded their first panzer divisions. The mechanized corps were intended for independent Deep Operations, up to 250km in three days. While the T-26 was intended to fulfill the NPP role, the BT-series fast tank (Bystrokhodny tank) was built for speed and mobility for the DD exploitation role. The Red Army formed separate heavy tank brigades with the new T-35 heavy tank and independent mechanized brigades to support the infantry and cavalry. During 1932-33, the Red Army began testing the Deep Battle concept in field maneuvers with the new tank units. When the Red Army had difficulty in actually conducting field exercises according to Deep Battle doctrine, the innovative Aleksandr I. Sediakin, deputy chief of the general staff, was put in charge of combat training and transforming the new doctrine into a practical reality. By 1934, Sediakin had developed a Deep Battle `playbook’ for Soviet commanders that instructed them how best to employ a combined arms attack using armour, mechanized infantry, artillery and airpower. Sediakin and his staff intensively studied and tested Deep Battle doctrine, using the mechanized corps as test beds, and one of his crucial findings was the logistical difficulties of getting fuel to tank units that achieved a deep penetration. The Military Academy of Mechanization and Motorization (VAMM) in Moscow also worked to train battalion and regimental-level armour leaders in the new doctrine. In 1936, Deep Battle became the official doctrine of the Red Army in Field Regulations PU-36. It is important to note, however, that Sediakin’s `playbook’ approach to Deep Battle was in line with the Marxist preference for prescriptive training, which encouraged junior leaders to follow a checklist by rote, rather than employ initiative on the battlefield.

Early Military Organisation of Norman England

In other words, although we seem after 1086 to find a classic system of landholding in which tenants hold land from barons and barons hold from the King, all owing military service rather than money and all bound together in a feudal ‘pyramid’ with the King at its top and a broad array of knights at its base, this classical formulation had very little to do with the way that armies were actually raised, even as early as the 1090s. Money rents were already a factor in landholding, and what appear to be military units of land are often best regarded as simple fiscal responsibilities. William the Conqueror paid mercenaries to accompany him to England in 1066, and a mercenary or paid element made up a large element of the professional side of the King’s army ever after. Knights’ fees go entirely unmentioned in the Domesday survey, and the very first reference to the emergence of fixed quotas of knights owed by each of the major tenants-in-chief, in a writ supposedly sent by William I to the abbot of Evesham, occurs in what is almost certainly a later forgery concocted long after the events which it purports to describe.

In reality, we have no very clear evidence for the emergence of this quota system until the reign of Henry II, after 1154. We may assume its existence at an earlier date, not least because by 1135 it appears that the majority of the greater barons expected to answer for round numbers of knights, generally measured in units of ten, answering for twenty, fifty or sixty knights. That such quotas ever served in the field, however, or that they were used as the basis for levying taxation on barons who did not themselves serve, remains unproved until the 1150s. One scenario, rather likelier than the traditional presentation of such things, is that barons and the greater churchmen answered for fixed numbers of knights to the King, and were responsible for ensuring that a certain number of men turned up in their retinues whenever summoned, if necessary by paying mercenaries to make up their ‘quotas’. This would explain why lists of such ‘quotas’ begin to appear in monastic records, for example at Canterbury by the 1090s and why the King had cause to complain, again at Canterbury in the 1090s, not of the quantity but of the poor quality of the knight service that was being supplied. Only at a later date, and only really with nationwide effect from the 1150s, did kings begin to charge a tax (known as ‘scutage’ or ‘shield money’) on barons who failed to supply the requisite quota of knights, arranging for this money to be paid to fully professional mercenary soldiers rather than have the baron make up his service by paying any old rag-tag or bobtail retainer.

The classic formulation of the ‘feudal’ pyramid ignores other inconvenient or untidy aspects of reality. With the barons holding from the king, and knights holding from barons, it was clearly necessary for the barons themselves to recruit large numbers of knights. To begin with, in the immediate aftermath of the conquest, such knights were often drawn from the tenantry who in Normandy already served a particular baron. Thus knights with close links to the Montgomery family in Normandy naturally gravitated to the estates of the Montgomeries in Shropshire (amongst them, the father of the chronicler Orderic Vitalis, which explains Orderic’s later move from Shropshire back to St-Evroult and the Montgomery heartlands in southern Normandy). Those Bretons who distinguished themselves in England after 1066, such as the ancestors of the Vere family in Essex, future earls of Oxford, or the future earls of Richmond in Yorkshire and East Anglia, tended to recruit other lesser Bretons into their service. The honour of Boulogne carved out in England, especially in Essex after 1066, recruited large numbers of knights originally associated with the northernmost parts of France or southern Flanders. It has been argued that the consequence here was the emergence of a series of power blocks based upon pre-existing French loyalties. The Bretons stuck together. Normans from the valley of the river Seine tended to stand apart from those from lower Normandy and the Cotentin peninsula. Such may have been the case for a generation or so after 1066. Surveying the rebels of 1075 who had joined the Breton Ralph, Earl of East Anglia in rising against the king, Archbishop Lanfranc was able to describe them collectively as ‘Breton turds’. What is more significant, however, is that such regional identities very swiftly began to break down in the melting pot of post-Conquest England. Normans consorted with Bretons, Bretons married English or Norman wives. By the reign of Henry I, after 1100, it is clear that, within England, those of diverse Norman and Breton background fought together or, on occasion, on opposing sides, without any clear pattern imposed by pre-existing regional loyalties in northern France. Why was this so?

The most obvious answer lies in a shortage of appropriate manpower after 1066. The King had to ensure that those to whom he gave great estates were both loyal and competent. Hence, for example, the extraordinary way in which Roger of Montgomery was promoted not only to command two of the rapes of Sussex, Arundel and Chichester, in the front-line of defence against attack by sea, but also to a vast estate in Shropshire, on the Welsh Marches, clearly in reward for past service but carrying with it future responsibility for the defence of yet another strategically vital frontier. Roger, accustomed to the frontier fighting of southern Normandy, was chosen to fill the shoes of three men presumably because he was one of the few men whom the King could trust. If loyal commanders were few and far between at the upper end of society, then lower down, too, it was hard to find the competent knights that any great lord would be anxious to attract to his service. In the rebel-infested regions of the fens, within the estates of the monks of Ely and Peterborough, where the English had several times mounted armed resistance after 1066, a deliberate attempt seems to have been made to swamp the countryside with Norman knights. Enormous numbers of small estates were carved out, burdened with knight service and handed over to practically all comers from northern France. A similar and deliberate mass importation of outsiders might explain why the West Country, yet another forum of rebellion, was colonized by knights, many of them from the frontier regions of south-west Normandy, granted in England the so-called ‘fees of Mortain’, held from their overlord, William the Conqueror’s half-brother, Count Robert of Mortain, and possessing the value of only two-thirds of an ordinary knight’s fee elsewhere in the country.

These lesser knights of eastern and south-western England, probably from the very start, lacked the landed resources ever to serve effectively on campaign. It was their sheer quantity rather than their particular competence which won them their English land. As this suggests, there was never a shortage of land-hungry knights, younger sons, ambitious outsiders or thrusting members of the lower ranks. As a simple commodity, knights were, if not quite ten a penny, then certainly bred up in enormous numbers within eleventh-century society. A treaty between England and the Count of Flanders, first negotiated in 1101 and thereafter renewed on a regular basis throughout the next seventy years, provided for the King of England to pay an annual subsidy to Flanders in return for a promise of the service of no less than 1,000 Flemish knights, should he require it. Figures for the total number of knights settled in England by the thirteenth century vary between a parsimonious 1,200 and a profligate 3,000. Of such men, however, relatively few would have been any use in a fight.

As today, the obligation to pay taxes, which in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries were used chiefly to support the King’s military endeavours, does not imply any ability on behalf of the taxpayer to discharge the functions for which such taxes pay. We may grumble about our taxes paying for tanks and guns, but we ourselves would not know one end of a bazooka from the other. Even the equipment necessary for fighting – a mail coat, a sword and shield, a helmet and, in particular, the expensive war horse that the Bayeux Tapestry depicts carrying the Normans into battle, a sleek and priapi-cally masculine creature – all of this lay beyond the means of a large number of those who in technical terms appear in England after 1100 described as knights. In a society organized for war, founded upon war, and with war as its chief sport and future ambition, the professional players could be attracted only at a very considerable premium.

Landholding and Loyalty

Hence the fact that, by the 1080s, we find so many of these ‘real’ knights holding land from large numbers of Norman lords, all of whom were keen to attract the very best of subtenants. If we take just a couple of examples from the Domesday survey, we might begin with a man named William Belet, literally ‘William the weasel’. By 1086, William, whose nickname is clearly French and probably Norman, held the manor of Woodcott in Hampshire, a substantial estate at Windsor in Berkshire and several Dorset manors, all of them directly as a tenant-in-chief of the crown. In addition to these tenancies-in-chief, however, William had also acquired at least one subtenancy in Dorset from the major baron, William of Eu, principal lord of the Pays de Caux, north of Rouen, in which the Belet family lands in Normandy almost certainly lay. In turn, since William Belet’s heirs are later to be found as tenants of several other manors held from the descendants of William of Eu, William Belet can almost certainly be identified with an otherwise mysterious William, without surname, who at the time of Domesday held most of William of Eu’s Dorset estate as an undertenant. Furthermore, by the 1190s, the Belet family is recorded in possession of the manor of Knighton House in Dorset, held at the time of Domesday from another baron, King William’s half-brother the Count of Mortain by another mysterious William, again almost certainly to be identified as our William Belet.

In this way, with a little detective work, we can very rapidly put together a picture of a Domesday Norman knight who held from at least three lords, including the King, and whose heirs were to remain a considerable force both in local and national politics for two hundred years thereafter. Rising at the court of the Conqueror’s son, King Henry I, William Belet’s son or grandson, Robert Belet, acquired the manor of Sheen in Surrey for service as the King’s butler. As a result, the Belets became hereditary royal butlers, responsible for the procurement and service of the king’s wine, the Paul Burrells of their day. Michael Belet, a leading figure at the court of Henry II, is shown on his seal enthroned on a wine barrel with a knife or bill hook in both hands, testimony both to his proud office and to his close access to the royal court. His seal, indeed, can be read as a deliberate mockery of the King’s own seal on which the royal majesty was displayed enthroned, carrying the orb and sceptre in either hand. Michael Belet and his sons were a major presence at the courts both of King Henry II and King John, founders of Wroxton Priory in Oxfordshire, later the residence of that least successful of British prime ministers, Lord North, of American Independence fame. Yet even by the 1180s, the Belet family was quite incapable of personal military service to the King. Michael Belet, the butler, was a courtier, a King’s justice and lawyer, not a warrior. The family estates in Dorset had by this time been so divided and dispersed amongst several generations of brothers, sisters and cousins, that the Dorset Belets were merging into the ranks of the free peasantry.

To see how common a pattern this is, let us take another example, again more or less at random. In Domesday, we find a knight named Walter Hose, literally Walter ‘Stockings’ or Walter ‘the Socks’, tenant of the bishop of Bath for the manors of Wilmington and Batheaston in Somerset, and holding land in Whatley of the abbots of Glastonbury. In 1086, Walter was also serving as farmer of the royal borough of Malmesbury, paying an annual render of £8 to the King, probably already as the King’s sheriff for Wiltshire, an office which he held until at least 1110. A close kinsman, William Hose, held other lands in Domesday of at least two barons, the bishop of Bath and Humphrey, the King’s chamberlain. The Hose family remained a major force in Wiltshire politics thereafter. Henry Hose or Hussey is to be found fighting in the civil war of the 1140s, in the process acquiring a castle at Stapleford in Wiltshire and establishing a cadet branch of his family at Harting in Sussex. One of these Sussex Hoses returned to Wiltshire after 1200, joined the household of William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, and fought in Marshal’s wars, acquiring a major Irish estate in the process. As a result, the chief Hose or Hussey fortunes were transferred to Ireland. The family in England remained, like the Dorset Belets, as a reminder of vanished glories, not without resources and not without land, but no longer at the cutting edge of the military machine.

What do such stories teach? To begin with, they should remind us that competence has always been a rare quality, and that the able and the talented, in this case knights, can command a high price for their services. From the very start, however, there would be a problem with any model of ‘feudal’ society that attempted to assign either the Belets or the Hoses to a particular rank or position within society. Both families began with knights, but knights who held both from the King and from other lords. We can assume that William Belet was a wealthy man, with estates scattered across at least three English counties, one of the premier league players in the game of Norman conquest. Walter Hose was the King’s sheriff for Wiltshire, one of the leading figures in local administration. Yet neither of these men, if rather more than mere knights, were barons. Moreover, even by the 1080s, their loyalty to the lords who had rewarded them was very far from clear. If the Count of Mortain should rebel against the King, in the case of William Belet, or if the bishop of Bath should seek to seize land from the abbot of Glastonbury, in the case of Walter Hose, which lord would William or Walter support?

At least William and Walter were fighting men whose support was worth purchasing, but what of their sons and grandsons? The hereditary principle ensures that, once a landed family becomes established, it is relatively hard to divide it from its land or wealth. But this is no guarantee that the children of such a family will continue to dream of battle and the clash of arms rather than the pleasures of the wine cellar, the counting and spending of their money, or, dread thought, such ignoble pursuits as farming, reading and even writing. Military ability or general intelligence, unlike wealth, cannot be guaranteed by inheritance. Loyalty is most certainly not a genetically transmitted trait. Just because a family ancestor was loyal to the Count of Mortain or the Bishop of Bath, this is no guarantee that the children or grandchildren of such a man would remain loyal to future counts of Mortain or bishops of Bath in the years, indeed centuries, yet to come. The great, the kings and counts, earls and bishops of this world, have always had to repurchase the loyalty of their servants and cannot rely upon tradition alone to buy them either brain or muscle.

French Infantry 17th Century

A company of French infantry arrayed for parade, as depicted in Allain M. Mallett’s Les travaux de Mars (1672)

The essential point about the French infantry company was that it was too small to operate as an autonomous military unit. The simplest tactical formations of the period required substantially more than 30-50 men; the firepower of 20-30 musketeers would be of limited effect, and it was certainly questionable whether 10-20 pikemen could offer the cohesion and strength capable of protecting a body of musketeers, let alone launching an attack in their own right. Even at the level of raiding parties or a localized guerre de partisans, a company was too small to defend itself effectively, as numbers of reports of companies being wiped out by local populations attest.

It might be assumed therefore that the regiment would provide a means to bring together the constituent companies into a militarily effective unity. But the fundamental problem with this solution was that `regiments’ in no sense represented uniform tactical building-blocks. At their most extreme, the numerical differences between regiments could vary between 3,000 men for the gardes françaises at full strength, down to the point at which ordinary regiments were already marked for disbandment but still in service; evidence suggests that totals of 180, even of 150, infantry per regiment were possible by the last months of a campaign. On a more regular basis, generals would command an army-corps in which regiments could vary in size between 1,200 and 300 men. While a vieux regiment which had lost half its strength could bring together 600-700 infantry and was still capable of acting as an effective military unit, an ordinary regiment reduced to fewer than 300 effectives had probably reached the point where neither its firepower nor its cohesion in defence or attack would be sufficient in an engagement, even if the infantry in the unit had some military experience.

These variations between the numerical strength of regiments created considerable practical problems for French commanders attempting to deploy their forces in battle or at a siege. The solution was clearly established, but proved difficult to achieve in practice. The remedy for discrepancies between the size of regiments was to deploy troops in an alternative formation for combat, the bataillon. This was a unit with neither the administrative existence of the company, nor the clear identity of the named regiment; it was simply a uniform grouping of infantry into a formation of between 500 and 600 men, made up of pikemen and musketeers in what became the increasingly universal proportions of approximately 1:2. Jean de Billon refers to the bataillon as a unit of 500-600 infantry, assuming that the formation is no more than ten men deep, though he adds that `si on veut plus grand, l’on peut faire les files de vingt hommes au plus’. At a practical level, maréchal Bassompierre described in his mémoires how the French infantry being deployed for the assault on the pass at Susa in March 1629 were organized into bataillons of 50 enfants perdus, a supporting advance guard of 100, and a main block of 500 soldiers.

Opinion remained consistent about the optimum size for a bataillon, and it is significant that this size corresponds to the Dutch battalion of 550 men, the smallest type of Spanish escuadrón of 600, the Swedish squadron of 504 infantry plus officers and NCOs, or the Imperial and Bavarian formations of 600. But the reason that this basic unit size was so universal appears to have nothing to do with any tactical theory of the superiority of small units. As both Billon and later writers imply, the real issue is simply the geometrical relationship between the depth of a formation and the width of its front. Formations of infantry drawn up on the battlefields of seventeenth-century Europe and facing an enemy advancing from a single direction were, in most circumstances, no more than ten files deep, and this depth was progressively declining towards a typical six files by the 1660s. Given this relative shallowness of formations, drawing up a large number of troops into a single block, pikemen flanked by musketeers, would run the risk of creating an over-extended and unwieldy front. A formation of 600 soldiers ten files deep would be numerous enough to be self-supporting on the battlefield, but would involve a front of sixty men. Drawn up in `close’ order – which for the safety of musketeers equipped with matchlock muskets still implied three paces between soldiers – this formation would be only some 180 feet across, a manageable, sufficiently compact size for the transmission of orders by officers and NCOs. This was widely considered to be an optimum balance between firepower, independent cohesion and manageability.