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.

Hapsburg Military 17th-18th Century

The Habsburgs tried to fight the Thirty Years War using these structures by claiming that the Bohemian Revolt was a breach of the public peace, while presenting Swedish intervention as a foreign invasion. Throughout, they legitimated their operations by issuing mandates summoning their opponents to lay down their arms and negotiate. Those who failed to respond were branded outlaws to be targeted with punitive action. Habsburg supporters like Bavaria conformed to this approach, since it legitimated their own seizure of lands and titles from the emperor’s enemies. Initially, all belligerents tried to fund war from regular taxes, supplemented by foreign subsidies, forced loans and coinage debasement, the latter causing rampant inflation between 1621 and 1623. Most of the emperor’s early opponents were relatively minor princes who lacked either large territories or reliable foreign backers, and were forced to subsist by extorting money and supplies from the areas where their armies were operating. General Albrecht von Wallenstein’s `contribution system’, adopted by the emperor’s forces after 1625, attempted to regularize this and extended it on an unprecedented scale. Wallenstein hoped to win the war by awe rather than shock, assembling such overwhelming numbers that further fighting would become unnecessary. Drawing on imperial legislation since 1570, Wallenstein issued ordinances regulating what his troops could demand from local communities, thus entirely bypassing regular tax systems. Subsidies and taxes from the Habsburg lands were now reserved to buy military hardware and other items that could not be sourced locally, as well as servicing the loans on which the entire system increasingly depended.

Wallenstein’s system suffered from several major flaws, not least the excessively high pay rates he allowed his senior officers and the rudimentary checks on graft and corruption. The numerous abuses feature prominently in contemporary criticism and subsequent historical discussion, but it was their political implications that made his methods so controversial. Wallenstein’s army tapped the Empire’s resources directly without reference to the Reichstag or the Kreis Assemblies. He gave the emperor an army funded by the Empire, but under Habsburg control and used to wage what was really a highly contentious civil war. Whilst contributions sustained the ordinary soldiers, their officers

The overwhelming desire for peace after 1648 led to the disbandment of virtually all forces in the Empire. Only the Habsburgs retained a small permanent army, which they redeployed in Hungary. However, the wider international situation compelled further discussion of defence. The emperor’s preferred solution was to return to the late sixteenth-century practice of extended Reichstag grants subsidizing the cost of the Habsburgs’ own army. This was politically unacceptable after the experience with Wallenstein. The electorates and several medium-sized principalities established their own permanent forces during the later 1650s and 1660s. The earlier militias were sometimes revived and adapted as a limited form of conscription providing cheap recruits to augment the professionals. The outbreak of almost permanent warfare on the Empire’s western frontier after 1672 saw these forces expand considerably, creating the first true `standing armies’ alongside that of the emperor.

This forged a new divide in the Empire between the `armed Estates’ (Armierten Stände) and their unarmed neighbours. Leopold I relied heavily on the armed Estates who could supply troops fairly quickly during both the Turkish War of 1662-4 and especially in the Dutch War of 1672-9 to defend the Rhine against French attacks. Collective defence became a modified version of Wallenstein’s system as Leopold assigned unarmed territories and cities to provide funds and supplies to support the troops of the armed Estates. Unarmed territories now risked slipping into mediate status under powerful territories like Brandenburg, Saxony, Hanover and the heavily armed bishopric of Münster, all of which tried to formalize their predominance by establishing protectorates. By 1679 it was obvious that the armed Estates intended to deprive unarmed ones of the right to participate in the Reichstag and Kreis Assemblies on the grounds they were no longer meeting their obligations to the Empire directly. This threatened to federalize the Empire through the medialization of smaller territories, shortening the status hierarchy to a collection of large and medium-sized militarized principalities.

Leopold realized this would undermine his ability to manage the Empire and he sided with the lesser imperial Estates at the Reichstag to force through a compromise defence reform in 1681-2, establishing a system of collective security lasting until 1806. The matricular quotas were revised more clearly on a regional basis, retaining the 1521 register for cash contributions, but assigning new manpower contingents to give a basic rate (Simplum) totalling 12,000 cavalry and 28,000 infantry. As before, these could be mobilized as a fraction or multiple of the basic quota. The reform succeeded, because it stabilized the status hierarchy without preventing any further change. The right as well as the duty of all Estates to contribute was confirmed. The role of the Kreise expanded to organize contingents from the smaller territories who could combine their soldiers into regiments of broadly uniform size. The smaller territories could still opt to pay cash in lieu, but the money was now to go through the Reichspfennigmeister (later the Imperial Operations Fund) to prevent them being bullied into unequal local arrangements by more powerful neighbours. All imperial Estates were free to maintain additional troops above what they should provide for the Empire, especially as such obligations were on a sliding scale with no theoretical upper limit. However, this did not amount to the `law of the gun’ (Canonen-Recht) as some critics maintained, because in 1671 Leopold prevented the armed princes from securing the Reichstag’s sanction for unlimited war taxes. Consequently, the legal position remained the one agreed in 1654 that subjects were only obliged to pay for `necessary fortresses and garrisons’, thus still allowing some scope for territorial Estates to decide what these amounted to, as well as for the emperor to intervene when they could not agree. The armed Estates were also still free to provide additional auxiliaries through private arrangements with the emperor that might advance their dynastic goals. Finally, collective defence remained tied to the established constitutional framework governing decisions for war and peace, thus anchored on the ideal of a defensive war, since only this was likely to secure the necessary approval through the Reichstag.

The collective structure was capable of substantial, sustained effort. Although the actual Kreis contingents (Kreistruppen) were always lower than the totals agreed by the Reichstag, it should be remembered that the Habsburgs always subsumed their own contribution within their own army, thus accounting for another 30 per cent above the numbers supplied by the smaller territories. Many of the auxiliaries also included men serving in lieu of Kreis contingents, because many princes wanted to keep all their soldiers together in a single force to increase their weight within the grand coalitions against France. For example, such forces accounted for 28 per cent of the auxiliaries provided during the War of the Spanish Succession.

The continuous warfare saw the total number of soldiers maintained by the emperor and imperial Estates rise from 192,000 in 1683 to peak at 343,300 in 1710. The most significant and surprising aspect of this rapid militarization was the disproportionate growth amongst the smaller territories, whose total strength grew by 95 per cent to reach 170,000 men, compared to a 75 per cent increase in the Prussian army to 43,500, and a 62 per cent rise in Habsburg strength to 129,000. Thus, imperial defence imposed a heavy burden on the Empire’s weakest elements, but this simultaneously ensured their political survival. The Westphalian and Upper Saxon minor territories used the Kreis structure to organize their own contingents, enabling them after 1702 to break free from onerous arrangements imposed by Prussia, Saxony and the Palatinate, which had previously provided troops to the imperial army on their behalf. In contrast to the almost universal disbandment in 1648, the Westphalian, Upper Rhenish, Electoral Rhenish, Swabian, Franconian and Bavarian Kreise agreed in 1714 to remain armed in peacetime by maintaining contingents at one and a half times the basic quota. Perhaps more surprising still is that militarization remained contained by a highly legalistic political culture (unlike, say, China in the 1920s where warlords created their own provincial armies with little regard to the republic’s formal order). Despite their lands being the most heavily armed part of Europe, the German princes continued to submit their disputes to judicial arbitration through the imperial courts, rather than make war on their neighbours.

The collective system mobilized 34,200 Kreis troops for the 1735 campaign during the War of the Polish Succession (1733-5) against France, while at least 112,000 recruits and auxiliaries were supplied to the Habsburg army across 1733-9.86 The disappointing outcome of this campaign and the parallel Turkish War (1736-9) combined with political disillusionment with the Habsburgs and the disaster of Wittelsbach imperial rule between 1742 and 1745 to weaken collective defence. Most territories reduced their peacetime forces and several withdrew from military cooperation at Kreis level. This trend was compounded by the underlying shift in the Empire’s internal military balance as the combined strength of the Austrian and Prussian armies expanded from 185,000 men in 1740 to 692,700 fifty years later, compared to the combined total of all other forces that dropped by around 9,000 men to 106,000 by 1790.

1 Group RAF Bomber Command Conversion to “Heavies”

A rare picture of a Halifax II of 460 Squadron’s Conversion Flight at Breighton in late 1942.

Earlier in the year a decision had been taken at Bomber Command HQ at High Wycombe to convert the all-Wellington 1 Group to heavy aircraft. By this stage of the war the first two of the RAF’s triumvirate of four-engined ‘heavies’, the Stirling and the Halifax, were already in squadron service and the third, the Lancaster, was about to make its debut. The Lancaster was a design which had emerged from Roy Chadwick’s drawing board following the enormous problems encountered by 5 Group with the twin-engined Manchester. It proved to be the greatest masterstroke of the bomber war, the Lancaster going on to become the outstanding aircraft of its generation and, eventually, the mainstay of Bomber Command. But much of this was unknown early in 1942 and there were very few Lancasters available anyway. The enormous Stirling had also proved a disappointment with poor performance and a worrying vulnerability. The Halifax, in the meantime, was judged to be better although some of the earlier variants were unforgiving to fly and could be catastrophic in the wrong hands. While the Lancaster was born great, the Halifax was only to achieve its successes later in the war when much-improved variants became available. The Halifax IIs and Vs destined for 1 Group, mainly in a training capacity, did not fall into that category.

103 Squadron at Elsham was first out of the blocks with the Halifax with the formation of the 103 Halifax Conversion Unit on June 7 1942. In charge was S/Ldr David Holford, still only 21 years old but with an impeccable record as a pilot behind him. He had already completed two tours of operations, had a DSO and DFC and Bar to his credit and, it seemed, a glittering career in the RAF ahead of him. He was to go on to become the youngest wing commander in Bomber Command history only to meet his death in tragic circumstances 18 months later.

At Elsham his two instructors were P/O Potts and W/O Reg Fulbrook and they began work as soon as the first Halifax IIs arrived and by late July 103 was declared operational as a Halifax squadron. Their first operation was scheduled for the night of August 1-2 but the day was marked by an awful incident which underlined the problems with the Halifax II. That morning 19-year-old pilot Sgt William Bagley took off on a short training flight in one of the Conversion Flight’s aircraft. He had climbed out of Elsham and was returning when both port engines began misfiring and, as the Halifax approached the airfield, it suddenly stalled and spun into the ground. On board with Sgt Bagley were 11 other aircrew from 103 and all were killed instantly when the Halifax crashed just a matter of yards from the airfield boundary. Two days earlier one of the Halifaxes on the squadron’s books had stalled and crashed between Grimsby and Louth, killing Sgt Stewart Stockford and his crew. Sudden stalls were one of the unnerving traits of the Halifax II and, no matter how experienced the pilot, they could prove lethal. That is exactly what happened to Reg Fulbrook on September 22, the senior instructor on the Conversion Flight. W/O Fulbrook, at 31 with a DFC to his name and a tour with 103 behind him, was practising three-engined landings when his aircraft suddenly stalled, turned on its back and dived into the ground killing everyone on board.

By comparison, 103’s operational debut passed almost without incident. Seven aircraft, led by S/Ldr Holford, went to Düsseldorf and all returned safely, although Holford’s aircraft sported 36 holes caused by flak. He had suffered engine problems on the way out and was unable to maintain height. He bombed from 8,000ft and then, on the way home, flew at low level over a Luftwaffe airfield while his gunners shot up a line of parked aircraft. The first operational loss came six days later when Sgt Joe Gilby’s Halifax crashed into the Humber on its return from a raid on Duisburg. There were no survivors. 103 was to lose nine more Halifaxes and the lives of 46 men on operations before the order came towards the end of October to switch to Lancasters. Amongst the casualties was S/Ldr Sid Fox, who had won a DFM with 83 Squadron, and was into his second tour.

103 Squadron was to be the only unit in 1 Group to fly the Halifax operationally and it was also among the first to receive Lancasters. No sooner had the squadron been informed of the change than the first batch of factory-fresh Lancasters arrived, four of them being lost on operations within a matter of weeks.

The Australians of 460 got a new CO early in September when W/Cmdr Keith Kaufmann, one of six brothers serving in the Australian armed forces, arrived to oversee Halifax conversion training at Breighton. The Australians lost one aircraft in a training accident at a cost of eight lives, before being told on October 20 that it was to receive Lancasters. (Kaufmann was a hugely popular figure at Breighton, legend having it that he announced his arrival by walking into the mess and announcing: ‘I hear you blokes are pretty good drinkers. Let’s get stuck in and see how good you are!’) The squadron’s conversion flight later moved to nearby Holme-on-Spalding Moor where its Halfaxes were replaced by four Lancasters and four Manchesters before returning to Breighton. There it was joined by 103’s Conversion Flight and the two units merged to become 1656 Heavy Conversion Unit and moved to Lindholme. The role of the HCU was to do exactly what the term implied, training new crews on four-engined flying. This they would do on an initial mixture of Halifaxes, Manchesters (twin-engined but with some of the characteristics of the Lancaster) and the few Lancasters available. Later, as squadrons demanded every Lancaster coming off the production line, another link in the training chain was forged with the creation of Lancaster Finishing Schools. 1 LFS was formed at Hemswell early in 1944 and was in business for most of the year, providing the final training for crews before they were sent to 1 Group Lancaster squadrons.

From Beggars and landsknechts to professional standing army

William of Orange, Adriaen Thomasz Key, c. 1570–84.

Upon his appointment as stadholder of Holland in 1572, one of the first tasks of William of Orange was to incorporate the unruly `Beggar’ forces into the regular army. Officers of the Beggars who refused to comply were removed. Orange even discharged Lumey because of ill discipline, despite the fact that this officer had captured Brill, the event that led to the revolt of the Holland towns in 1572. At sea the Beggar forces remained of vital importance for rather longer, but following their contribution to the relief of Alkmaar and Leiden in 1574 Orange had them merged with the newly established navy of Holland.

Reducing the burden of the soldiery upon the population was essential for Orange’s strategy. Glaring examples of misconduct by Beggar troops alienated popular support; numerous Holland regents even pondered a negotiated return to the authority of Philip II. Towns were reluctant to admit soldiers within their walls when misdeeds by members of the garrison were left unpunished. In Leiden, for example, six soldiers raped a girl; in addition the garrison menaced town council meetings. Citizens were threatening to flee or take up arms against the troops. Grievances regarding marauding, above all during the extremely unruly time period of August 1573, added to the discontent and the unwillingness to vote for new taxes. The population in fact strongly disliked all soldiers, Spanish and Dutch alike. In the Provincial States of Holland the towns controlled no fewer than 18 of the 19 votes. In order to obtain the support of the voting towns, not least with regard to new taxes that might pay for the army, Orange had no choice but to take such complaints seriously.

The task was a knotty one as exposure to danger gave soldiers a distinctive moral pretext, different from society’s norms: in war killing was not murder and the taking of booty not theft. Blurred boundaries of right and wrong rendered extortion, torture or rape justified when instrumental to achieve soldiers’ ends – above all when lack of pay had broken their contract requiring obedience. It is not true that criminals and other marginalized individuals dominated the military. These men joined the army too, but most soldiers came from the ranks of apprentices, journeymen, farmers’ sons and farm labourers. Yet they changed, as Francisco de Valdés, a Spanish general commanding several garrisons in Brabant, remarked in 1589: `The day a man picks up his pike to become a soldier, he stops being a Christian.’ The new social identification and the behaviour that went with it were emphasized by nicknames such as Bloedhont (bloodhound), Lucifer, Jonckbedorven (`early rotten’), Magere Hein (grim reaper) or simply Neus (Nose); such names signalled the belonging to very particular norms.

To reduce the Beggars’ influence Orange raised new troops, mostly from Dutch and German territories. One drawback of these men was their `landsknecht’ tradition. The individual skills of landsknechts might be outstanding but their disciplinary reputation was poor. The French soldier and chronicler Brantome characterized them in the following way in the late sixteenth century:

I have heard great captains say that such manner of landsknechts are worthless in a besieged place, because they have a strong tendency to mutiny if they do not have everything they need. They are spendthrift, ungovernable, destructive, and dissipated.

Contemporaries said that Spanish soldiers mutinied after the battle, the German landsknechts before the battle.

Discipline could only be improved with difficulty. Landsknechts might be hired by any government or warlord, but the army command had little to say about the appointment of junior officers. Each month the soldiers elected their own sergeants and officers for quartering and provisioning (two Webels, a furier or Foerier, and a Führer or Voerder). In case of grievances the landsknechts chose representatives (Ambossaten or Amissaten) to discuss their objections with the commanders. The soldiers were usually organized in rotten (squads) of ten with a rotmeester (squad-master), also popularly elected. The inner cohesion of the squad was strong; its members supported each other finding food or when wounded. They regarded their pay appropriate for `ordinary’ service only; for battles and assaults extra money was demanded, frequently in advance.

Needless to say such practices rendered the imposition of a formal hierarchy and central command structure difficult. In 1573 Orange began by having corporals appointed from above, by the captains, who were to replace the landsknecht squad masters. Similar regulations followed for sergeants and quartermasters. The position of Voerder (guide to troops’ quarters) was abolished altogether. While the number of landsknecht officers had varied and been subject to negotiation, the size of the standard infantry staff was fixed by Orange at 13. These measures established a more hierarchical structure of command and made Dutch forces both better disciplined and more effective.

His next step was to reduce the size of the large landsknecht company. Between 1574 and 1577 companies with 150 men instead of 300 or more became standard. Orange’s reforms were in all probability inspired by French, or rather Huguenot, army patterns. Huguenots – linked to Orange in various ways – probably taught him recent innovations in the tactical use of firearms during the French Wars of Religion. Their military units were rather small with a comparatively high ratio of officers to soldiers, and no landsknecht-like corporations existed. Orange’s new companies were likewise reduced and a larger number of men armed with firearms, permitting more flexible operations which suited the warfare in the Netherlands extremely well. Elsewhere at that time – such as in the Army of Flanders – units of landsknechts were significantly larger and consisted predominantly of pikemen.

Relief of Leiden after the siege, 1574.

The comparatively high proportion of officers to soldiers improved control over the conduct of the rank and file. Orange’s basic company structure remained virtually unaltered in the decades to come. Infantry companies of the Dutch army – regardless of the actual number of men (companies of 100 became standard shortly afterwards) – contained three higher officers (captain, lieutenant and ensign), two sergeants, four corporals, two drummers, a company clerk and a barber-surgeon. The standard cavalry company consisted of eight officers: captain, lieutenant, cornet, quartermaster, two trumpeters, company clerk and farrier. Sergeants and quartermasters had specific tasks regarding the maintenance of discipline, supported by corporals who were answerable for their section (one-third or one-quarter) of the soldiers. The latter also trained new recruits. The writer or clerk had to be an honest man with some means of his own, taking care of the registration of soldiers’ pay and keeping account of their actual number. The drummers not only had to be able to drum but were also expected to speak a couple of foreign languages, as they could be sent out to ransom soldiers taken hostage by the enemy. All these lower officers were appointed by the captains. The higher officers (captains, lieutenants, cornets and ensigns) received their commissions from the higher army command or the paymasters.

Under Orange’s direction the Articles of War were also changed, with the creation of additional disciplinary regulations. Most important was the fact that the Articles were no longer a kind of contract between soldiers and their paymasters but a set of duties for soldiers imposed from above. The Articles no longer addressed the soldiers as `you’ (`U’ or `Ghy’); instead the requirements were stated in the abstract third person. All references to landsknecht traditions disappeared (the ring, the Ambossaten), along with mention of the Schlachtmonat (battle month), which stated that a new pay month was to begin after each battle. Earlier in the century a soldier usually took service for three months, but the Articles now made no reference to the duration of the contract, which was assumed to be indefinite. Soldiers now signed on for life; even elderly soldiers remained in the army, performing guard duties or looking after the training of new recruits. This permanency constituted a significant marker of professionalization, alongside the obligatory requirements of obedience and discipline imposed from above.

In the established historiography, Maurice is usually credited with the famous Articles of War of 1590, although some authors point to Leicester as the auctor intellectualis. Yet when the wording is examined, it becomes obvious that this evolved from Orange’s original set of 1574 (for Holland’s army, with 34 clauses) and his improved version of 1578 (for the States’ army, increased to 48). Leicester copied them and added some new items, totalling 55, in 1585. In 1590, under Maurice, there were no fewer than 82 Articles. The last set remained in use until 1799 with only a minor revision in 1705.

The permanent contract, introduced by Orange’s Articles, became a real permanency after 1588 when Dutch troops were no longer disbanded after the campaigns but remained in service year after year, permitting the emergence of a true standing army with increasingly professional characteristics. The troops might be labelled mercenaries, but the institutional setting was thoroughly state-controlled. In times of emergency additional mercenaries in the pay of the United Provinces were contracted. The number of truly independent military entrepreneurs – commanders with their own armies, typical of the Thirty Years War – was always limited. Under pressure from the Spanish counter-offensive of the early 1620s the Dutch contracted the celebrated military entrepreneurs, Count Ernst of Mansfeld and the Duke Christian of Brunswick, for a period of two years. Civilians feared their reputation: the troops under Christian (nickname `the Mad Duke’) had allegedly killed 5,000 peasants on their way to Brabant. Indeed, they proved extremely difficult to control and as soon as possible their high mightinesses tried to get rid of these mercenaries again.

Apart from these mercenaries the regular Dutch forces always contained a significant proportion of soldiers from other countries, both Protestant and Catholic. English companies were valued highly, by Orange as well as his sons, for their long military experience. Numerous French and German soldiers took up service too. The mix of nationalities occasionally hampered the command structure since soldiers hesitated to obey a colonel who belonged to a country other than their captain’s. Rivalries between the different nationalities also caused disturbances in army camps, usually related to drinking and gambling. In 1600 a gambling dispute involved as many as five or six hundred French, German and Frisian soldiers, of whom at least six were killed. Guards were placed between the different camps and after 1603 such fights seemed to have disappeared altogether.

Officers and men

Civilian control over the army was strong, as earlier demonstrated in relation to military jurisdiction, regulation of pay and mustering of troops. With regard to the appointment of officers, the role of civilians was likewise prominent. After Leicester had left in 1587 the provinces established themselves firmly in the forefront as paymasters of the troops and thus also responsible for the appointment of senior officers, from the rank of ensign up to colonel. The power of the Council of State was reduced; troops were only to be raised after explicit approval by the provinces in the States-General. Henceforth the Council exercised only an administrative oversight where Dutch forces were concerned, under guidelines laid down by the States-General, and the higher officers were appointed in a process dominated by the stadholder and the provincial governments. The lower officers (sergeants and corporals) received their commissions from the captains, as during Orange’s time.

One disadvantage of such regulations was that officers who enjoyed good relations with the provincial government but who were not necessarily experienced in military matters were often selected. In 1618 Maurice, William Louis and Frederick Henry drew up a decree that enhanced furthered professionalization. For the ranks of captain and above all candidates should have served a minimum for at least four years in the States’ army; for lieutenants, ensigns and cornets three years’ service was required. Captains were chosen from a list of five candidates, compiled in consultation with the provincial government but obligatorily including the current lieutenant and the current ensign/cornet of the company. For the positions of lieutenants and ensigns/cornets, the captain was to make a list of suitable candidates, from which the provincial paymasters were to select three; in the case of a lieutenant’s position the current ensign/cornet was always added as the fourth candidate. The stadholder picked the officers from these lists, giving prominence to the individuals’ past military records. In the case of equally suitable candidates from both native and foreign backgrounds, the Dutch were to be given the advantage. In addition, all captains, lieutenants and corporals of the cavalry too old or injured to serve were to be discharged with a pension, permitting more able officers to take their place. In the infantry such rules were unnecessary as elderly or disabled officers could still perform duties in garrisons; the cavalry involved much more active service, however, with many hours on horseback during convoys or raids in the countryside. And although forbidden since the very beginning of Orange’s command, the `Ordre’ of 1618 stipulated once again that the position of captain or other officer rank must never be bought or sold.

Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen

This was another step towards a more professional army, and it was exemplified by the career of Johan Maurice, Count of Nassau-Siegen. Having started in 1618 as a pikeman in the guard of William Louis, Maurice followed Frederick Henry to the Palatinate as a cavalryman in 1620 and became ensign shortly thereafter. In 1624 he was commissioned as captain of a company, becoming lieutenant-colonel in 1626, colonel in 1629, and ending up as field marshal of the Dutch army. Johan Maurice was a descendant of one of Orange’s brothers, Jan IV of Nassau. In 1625 no fewer than 25 other descendants of Jan IV served in the Dutch army, almost all as officers.

The hierarchical chain of command, the functional assignments to more experienced officers subject to formal regulations and the increased powers of the military authorities exercised in tandem with the Provincial States of Holland together made the States’ troops a model army of the time. Since the 1590s war had increasingly become `not an act of uncontrolled violence, but rather the orderly application of force, directed by a competent and legitimate authority, in the interest of the state’, exactly as the famous scholar Lipsius had recommended. Yet at the same time there remained a number of significant shortcomings. The absence of commanding officers, sometimes even during field operations, was endemic. It was all but impossible to dismiss officers guilty of fraud, insubordination or military incompetence, as any dismissal of a commanding officer would almost certainly lead to the disintegration of the company concerned.

Furthermore, though posts were not sold openly, captains were able to require `gifts’ from their successors. Regulations regarding the prohibition of the sale of military offices had to be amplified in 1628 and again in 1637.

Another problem was the high attrition rate in the number of troops. Maurice estimated that after a campaign of three or four months one-quarter to one-third of the men were lost due to desertion, disease or death. Such high `wastage’ rates were normal in early modern Europe. In the cavalry, the desertion of soldiers was much less of a problem, but the need to find good, strong horses to replace the animals crippled or killed restricted the availability of the horsemen. In the second half of the seventeenth century a cavalry horse cost 120 to 130 guilders, twice the annual pay for an infantryman.

An additional drawback affecting operational efficiency was that not all soldiers were acquainted with their senior commanders; neither did they always know their comrades in arms. Under Maurice, troops were divided in wintertime between the garrisons; he decided the composition of the regiments for the subsequent campaign and often redistributed soldiers to new units. The pressure of the Spanish counter-offensive of the early 1620s produced a change in this practice. The first permanent infantry regiment dated from 1623, when the troops were dissolved in wintertime but returned to the same units the following spring. Throughout the later decades of the Eighty Years War the continuing war threat kept regimental organization intact and encouraged regular exercise and drill, further enhancing professionalization. However, that was to change once peace was signed in 1648.