The Most Perilous Moment of the War: ‘I am convinced that man is mad’ July–November 1942 Part I

It is well that we should avoid unwarranted complacency and remind ourselves that if we did win the last war it was not without moments of extreme peril.

Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke [below] at a Unionist luncheon in Belfast, 1949

No sooner had one great argument between the British and Americans ended than the next ones began, primarily over the issues of where, when and how to carry out Operation Torch. Marshall wanted to land on the Atlantic coast near Casablanca, and gradually move eastwards along the coast towards Algiers, whereas Brooke wanted to land at Casablanca and Algiers but also further east too, indeed as far to the east as possible, in order swiftly to gain control of the vital channel between Tunisia and Sicily, over which the Afrika Korps was resupplied. The final compromise, which was to attack at eight points along the North and North-west African coast, three near Casablanca, two near Oran and three near Algiers–but nothing further eastwards–came about only once Roosevelt and Churchill intervened.

‘No staff officer as far as I know, certainly none in the Operations Division, recommended the North African operation,’ recalled General Hull, ‘but they supported it completely once the decision had been made.’ When it came to departmental unanimity, or group-think, the OPD was even more monolithic than the British Planners. Even thirty years later, speaking to the SOOHP, Generals Hull and Handy had views so similar on almost every aspect of personality and strategy that they might have been Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

On the debate with the British Chiefs of Staff, Hull said the Joint Chiefs of Staff ‘insisted on going to the west coast of Africa because we wanted a foot toward the home base so that at least we could get out of there and we couldn’t see [ourselves] throwing everything into the Mediterranean. The Germans could have gone right down to Gibraltar most any time they wanted to…We were scared to death they would come down there even after we went into North Africa.’ It was the reason that the US 3rd Division was held back from the Tunisian campaign until almost the last moment. The Straits of Gibraltar, only 8 miles wide, Handy said, provided ‘a focal point for the German subs, too’.

There was also the question of who was going to command Operation Torch. In CCS 94 the British had accepted that this would be an American. After a long talk with Marshall on 30 July, Dill telegraphed Churchill and Brooke urging that Marshall himself was ‘clearly the man for the job, and I believe he would accept. Equally clearly, he cannot be spared from here at present, but Eisenhower could well act with his authority.’ Because Roosevelt had not yet approached Marshall–which Dill thought ‘may be due to the President’s fear of losing him’–and the self-effacing general did not wish to canvass for the job, Marshall wanted Churchill and Brooke to initiate discussions. Dill warned that the ‘risk of whittling’ forces away to the Pacific ‘may still exist’, but the President was ‘entirely sound on this point’.

Roosevelt might well have been sound, but there was a very definite whittling away of resources towards the Pacific going on. Although the Commander-in-Chief made grand strategy, he could not effectively prevent the US Navy pursuing a de facto Japan First-Equal policy, and for the rest of 1942 ‘resources flowed as fast to the Pacific–where the struggle for the Solomon Islands had begun in August–as they did to the Mediterranean, while those to the UK died to a trickle.’ Guadalcanal was invaded on 7 August and fierce fighting ensued there until February.

Dill also thought it wise, since Sledgehammer was now moribund, for the Americans ‘to delegate the planning and preparations for Sledgehammer to someone else, obviously a Britisher’, so that Eisenhower could concentrate entirely on Torch. (The term ‘Britisher’ is not one Britons use, making this cable from Dill sound all the more like one initiated by Marshall, unless it was meant facetiously or jokingly, or Dill really had gone as native as some in the War Office thought.) Churchill ordered the lines to Washington to be cleared for a ‘most secret, most immediate cipher telegram’ to Dill, which stated: ‘I am sure that the President’s wish is full steam ahead Torch at earliest possible moment. We regard this as decided absolutely with overriding priority. No one here is thinking of anything else. You should ask to see the President urgently.’ Dill replied that the President had ‘issued orders for full steam ahead’ on Torch, adding that the Americans believed that Torch made Roundup impossible before 1944. This might have been chagrin on Marshall’s part, or perhaps Themistoclean foresight in already spotting the way that 1943 would be spent following up Torch in places far from the beaches of north-western France.

Churchill cabled Roosevelt the next day, sending a copy to Brooke, to say that he would be grateful for an early decision about the commanders of Bolero, Sledgehammer, Roundup and Torch. ‘It would be agreeable to us if General Marshall were designated for the Supreme Command of Roundup and that in the meantime General Eisenhower should act as his deputy here.’ Meanwhile he would appoint General Alexander as the British Task Force commander to work under Eisenhower. ‘Both these men would work at Torch and General Eisenhower would also for the time being supervise the Bolero–Sledgehammer business,’ wrote Churchill. ‘It seems important to act quickly, as committees are too numerous and too slow.’ Yet Roosevelt was curiously tardy in making a decision about Marshall and Torch–it was to happen again, in even slower motion, with Overlord–and Churchill got no direct reply to this request even though Roosevelt wanted action in North Africa before the mid-term elections less than four months hence.

Instead, that same day at 12.10 p.m., Roosevelt–who was weekending at Hyde Park–asked Hopkins to put a series of questions to Marshall, who drew up ‘a hasty reply’ that nevertheless neatly encapsulates the general’s strategic thinking at that time.8 When FDR asked whether there were any moves the United States could make that might favourably affect the situation in the Middle East, Marshall replied, ‘No, none that can affect the immediate situation.’ He argued that the maximum number of planes was already en route to Cairo and that any more could not be properly serviced by the American personnel there. ‘What is your personal opinion about the coming course of events?’ Marshall answered that G-2 (US Military Intelligence) estimated that Rommel would be in Cairo in one week, whereas US Army Operations thought two, with one week to refit before he undertook ‘the destruction of the remaining British forces’.

With prognostications as doleful as that, it was understandable that Marshall did not want to throw USAAF squadrons into the fray. His view was that he would be able to judge General Auchinleck’s position in the Western Desert better forty-eight hours hence, and that if the Auk could check Rommel the long German supply lines from Tunis might place the Afrika Korps in a difficult position. After discussing British plans to block the Suez Canal in the event of defeat–which Dill estimated would take six months to reopen–Marshall suggested that the defeated British would retreat to the upper Nile, Mosul, Basra, Palestine, Aden and Colombo, while the defence of the Iraqi oil fields from Rommel ‘would depend upon success of Russian defense in the North’.

To Roosevelt’s question about whether America could hold Syria against Rommel, Marshall was frank. With the Mediterranean open to Germany but not the United States, the American Army would have to send nine divisions and about ten air groups, ‘an expansion far beyond our capacity’. As for defending Basra and the Black Sea, the Germans would be in a far better position than the Americans, who would have ‘long and vulnerable’ lines of communication through the Mediterranean. Consequently, ‘A major effort in this region would bleed us white.’ The conclusion was obvious: the United States could do nothing to prevent Rommel’s victory in the Western Desert from denying Middle Eastern oil to the Allies. For America, which took most of her oil from the western hemisphere, this would not be so dire; for Britain it was much more serious.

Marshall’s sober assessment of what would happen if Cairo fell was far too pessimistic about Auchinleck’s chances of preventing it happening. It nonetheless ought to have enthused Roosevelt all the more for the surprise attack on Rommel’s rear in the west and on his hundreds of miles of vulnerable supply lines in the east. Almost every can of petrol poured into panzers close to the Egyptian border had to be taken there by lorry down a very long coastal road through Libya. In the War Office, the Director of Military Operations, John Kennedy, noted that ‘Auchinleck is now on the last line of defence for Egypt. And in a war in which the defence has been so unsuccessful this is not a happy situation.’ The Second World War had indeed been, at least until the battle that was about to begin at Stalingrad, a conflict where all the laurels had so far gone to those who took the offensive.

It can hardly have come as much of a surprise to Roosevelt when Churchill told him that he was going to Cairo the next day, taking along Brooke, Smuts and Wavell. He wished to investigate personally why Auchinleck was being so cautious. That same day, Churchill received a message from Stalin inviting him to Moscow ‘to consider jointly the urgent questions of war against Hitler’, and adding, ‘The presence of the Chief of the Imperial General Staff would be extremely desirable.’ Churchill and Brooke had never met Stalin, and although they knew that they could expect a freezing reception as a result of cancelling Sledgehammer and postponing Roundup, they accepted immediately. Churchill then asked Eden’s advice about whether Beaverbrook should be invited along on the trip to Egypt and Moscow, saying: ‘I like to have a pal with me.’ Eden advised that since ‘Max was an object not only of suspicion but hatred to many, it would not be politic’.  Brooke would go, of course, but he could never have been counted as a ‘pal’ of the Prime Minister.

Jan Christian Smuts, by contrast, was held in very high esteem by Churchill, Brooke and the British public as a whole, and not just because he had managed to bring South Africa into the war against Germany in 1939. The British have long demonstrated a soft spot for brave, defeated former foes, and in 1901 Smuts had been in command of the Boer forces fighting against them in Cape Colony. Smuts was lionized in Britain, in that strange way that also happened to other antagonists such as Napoleon after his surrender, King Cetewayo of the Zulus, Mahatma Gandhi during the 1920s, and even Erwin Rommel during the Desert War. Over lunch at Buck’s Club in November 1942–stout and oysters, steak and kidney pie, two bottles of claret–Churchill told Eden and Lord Cranborne that Smuts was how he imagined Socrates might have been like.

At the War Cabinet of 1 August, Churchill said Auchinleck’s report indicating that he would not resume offensive operations before mid-September was ‘very depressing’ and he was flying out in order to arrange ‘a more vigorous handling of matters’. This was a euphemism for Auchinleck returning to his job as commander-in-chief Middle East and someone else taking over the day-to-day command of the Eighth Army. On the morning of 3 August, Churchill and Brooke flew into Cairo West, an airfield on the Alexandria road 25 miles north-west of the Egyptian capital, and stayed at the British Embassy. ‘Instead of sitting at home waiting for news from the front,’ Churchill later wrote, ‘I could send it myself. This was exhilarating.’ Jan Smuts arrived in time for lunch, over which he teased the Prime Minister for not giving the British people ‘truly spiritual inspiration’, such as Gandhi gave the Indians. Churchill replied that he had appointed no fewer than six bishops that year, and ‘If that’s not spiritual inspiration, what is?’ ‘But has that done any good?’ asked Smuts, whereupon Churchill went on the offensive, saying to the South African Prime Minister: ‘You are responsible for all our troubles in India–you had Gandhi for years and did not do away with him.’ To which Smuts replied: ‘When I put him in prison–three times–all Gandhi did was to make me a pair of bedroom slippers.’

After the war, Marshal of the Air Force Sir Arthur Tedder, who had commanded the RAF in the Middle East, recalled that Churchill, ‘fretting that there was to be no offensive action until September’, urged Brooke that Auchinleck should turn the Eighth Army over to Lieutenant-General William ‘Strafer’ Gott, commander of XIII Corps and an outstanding desert fighter. Brooke, who unlike Churchill knew Gott, had the highest opinion of his abilities but judged him ‘very tired’. (He based this on a letter Gott had written to his wife, that Brooke had somehow got to hear about.) In the early hours, Churchill offered Brooke himself the Eighth Army command. ‘I shall have a job to convince him that I am unsuited for the job,’ Brooke recorded at the time, ‘having never been trained in the desert.’

In contrast to this laconic, stiff-upper-lipped contemporaneous dismissal of the idea, Brooke admitted years after the war that Churchill’s suggestion ‘gave rise to the most desperate longings in my heart! I had tasted the thrill of commanding a formation in war…For sheer thrill and excitement it stood in a category by itself, and not to be compared to a Staff appointment. Even that of CIGS, when working for a man like Winston, must mean constant frustration, friction, and untold difficulties in achieving the results one was after.’ With many of the preparations already in place for what was soon to be the battle of El Alamein, Brooke might well have been in the position of the national–indeed international–hero that fell instead to his protégé Bernard Montgomery.

On the afternoon of 5 August, Brooke visited Eighth Army HQ for tea with Auchinleck. ‘I was much impressed by the beauty of the turquoise blue of the Mediterranean along this coast,’ he noted. ‘The colour is caused by specially white sand along this coast line.’ He was less impressed with Gott, whose HQ he had just left and who he thought would not be as energetic as Montgomery in command of the Eighth Army, and equally unimpressed with Auchinleck.

Brooke recorded Thursday 6 August as ‘One of the most difficult days of my life, with momentous decisions to take as far as my own future and that of the war was concerned’. While he was getting dressed that morning, ‘and practically naked’, Churchill suddenly ‘burst’ into his room ‘Very elated’ and told him that ‘his thoughts were taking shape and that he would soon commit himself to paper!’ Brooke ‘rather shuddered and wondered what he was up to!’14 Ten minutes later the Prime Minister ‘burst’ into Brooke’s room again and invited him to breakfast. For an upper-class Ulsterman of conventional mien, one can understand that Brooke found working with Churchill discombobulating at times, but, as Colonel Aubertin Mallaby pointed out, there were no ‘off’ times for the Prime Minister; he was thinking about the war every waking hour.

Over breakfast, Churchill outlined his plan to split the Middle East Command into two, between a Near East stretching along the coast of North Africa to the Suez Canal and a Middle East comprising Syria, Palestine, Persia and Iraq. He wanted to move Auchinleck to the latter as he had ‘lost confidence in him’. He then offered Brooke the Near East Command, with Montgomery as his Eighth Army commander. ‘This made my heart race very fast!!’ wrote Brooke, who was offered a short time to think it over. He nonetheless declined ‘without waiting’, giving as his overt reasons his ignorance of desert warfare and the fact that he would ‘never have time to grip hold of the show to my satisfaction before the necessity to attack became imperative’. Neither argument was convincing: Montgomery was not a desert general either, but he managed to ‘grip hold of the show’ quickly enough before El Alamein.

Privately, as he told his diary, Brooke also felt that after working with Churchill for almost nine months he finally believed that he could ‘exercise a limited amount of control on some of his activities and that at last he is beginning to take my advice’. By implication, he thought that the Vice-CIGS Archie Nye or someone else might not have been able to restrain the Prime Minister, and he was probably right. Churchill was not pleased with Brooke’s refusal, ‘but accepted it well’. Only afterwards did Smuts–clearly encouraged by the Prime Minister–take Brooke aside to try to persuade him to take up the offer, telling him ‘what a wonderful future’ he would have if he defeated Rommel. This was no more than the truth: the achievements of ‘Alex’ and ‘Monty’ are known by millions around the world today, that of Brooke only by the cognoscenti of grand strategy.

Brooke was not persuaded by Smuts, not least because, as a gentleman, he couldn’t bear the idea that Auchinleck ‘might think that I had come out here on purpose to work myself into his shoes!’ He thought over the offer throughout the day, but remained convinced that his decision was the correct one, and that he could ‘do more by remaining as CIGS’. By putting his commitment to the wider war effort above any personal ambition for fame, or desire for the ‘thrill’ of independent command, Brooke did his country a very great service. We assume that politicians are driven by personal ambition, but soldiers are too, and although in career terms to swap the job of CIGS for Near East commander-in-chief might have looked like a demotion, in fact it would have afforded, as Smuts intimated, a ‘wonderful future’.

At a lunch party of the Army Council at the Dorchester Hotel in November 1943, Smuts claimed it had been his idea to appoint Brooke commander-in-chief Near East, and that Brooke had replied: ‘This is a very tempting thing–but my place is by the Prime Minister,’ a view Brooke reiterated after sleeping on it. ‘That was a great thing to do,’ concluded Smuts.16 One of those present later wondered whether Brooke ever regretted his decision, and concluded that ‘Knowing now the victorious campaign that was to follow he would hardly be human if he did not.’ The fact that he decided to stay beside a near-unmanageable prime minister, because he felt that no one else could do the job, thereby missing his chance of victorious generalship after a lifetime’s training for it, might well explain his exasperation with Churchill on so many occasions thereafter.

Churchill explained Brooke’s decision in his memoirs as having been taken because ‘he had only been CIGS for eight months, he believed he had my full confidence, and the Staff machine was working very smoothly. Another change at this moment might cause a temporary dislocation at this critical time.’ Was Churchill being disingenuous with Brooke, and vice versa? Might Churchill have offered the post because he wanted a more malleable CIGS? The secret reason why Brooke declined was that he feared that might be the case. When the American serialization of The Hinge of Fate was published in 1950, Brooke wrote to Henry Pownall, who was researching the next volume for the former Prime Minister, to say that Churchill had entirely ignored two of the three reasons he had refused the Near East command, so Churchill inserted them in the British edition. As Professor David Reynolds comments, ‘It must have been galling to Brooke that Churchill had clearly forgotten “one of the most difficult days of my life”.’

On the evening of 6 August, Churchill sent the War Cabinet a telegram whose terms had been agreed by Brooke and Smuts. This proposed an immediate splitting off of Persia and Iraq from the Middle East Command, making them an independent Army command, just as he had proposed to Brooke that morning. This command would be offered to Auchinleck, whom Churchill didn’t want to lose altogether. He believed–or professed to–that if Auchinleck had earlier been freed from responsibilities covering the Levant and Caspian Sea he might have been able ‘to concentrate his forces in the Western Desert, turned the scale and given us a victory instead of a defeat’. Meanwhile, as Jacob recorded, Brooke agreed with the plan, ‘though for a rather different reason. He felt that it was wrong for an area of such vital importance as Persia and Iraq to remain any longer as the Cinderella of either the Middle East or of India.’ As so often, when Brooke and Churchill agreed on something, it happened–even if they came to the decision for different reasons.

Brooke and Churchill also agreed that Alexander should succeed Auchinleck in Cairo, Lieutenant-General Thomas Corbett and Brigadier Eric Dorman-Smith were to leave their commands altogether, and Lieutenant-General William ‘Strafer’ Gott was to lead the Eighth Army, although Brooke had misgivings about this. Yet on his way to take up his new command the very next day, 7 August, flying the Burg el Arab to Heliopolis route, which was considered safe, Gott’s slow transport plane was shot down ‘in flames’ by a lone German fighter. Churchill and Brooke then quickly settled on the man whom Brooke had wanted originally, Lieutenant-General Bernard Law Montgomery.

The War Cabinet meeting in London on 7 August was a good illustration of the way that Churchill and Brooke dominated military policy even in their absence. It had met at 11.15 p.m. to consider the plan to divide the Middle East Command, but before the meeting ended at 2 a.m. on the 8th a telegram arrived saying that Gott had been killed. Archie Nye said that the situation was: ‘In [the] hands of [the] PM and CIGS. They have in mind a General Montgomery. Not enough [is] known of the form of commanders to know that any particular man will fit the bill.’ The use of the indefinite article before Montgomery’s name led Burgis to assume, as he told Churchill’s son Randolph years later, that none ‘of those present knew him from a crow then’.

At the meeting, Bevin pointed out that it was a ‘Strong team. PM, Smuts, CIGS’ and for the War Cabinet it was ‘Difficult to arrive at a concrete judgment at this distance’. To this Attlee added that he would like to see Alexander running the Eighth Army with Wavell in overall command of the Middle East; however, ‘We must either put up counterproposals or acquiesce.’ They acquiesced, telegraphing the Prime Minister to say: ‘As you, Smuts and CIGS who are on the spot are all in agreement, we are prepared to authorise action proposed.’ Frankly, anything else was unthinkable, and there is no example during the war of a united Churchill and Brooke being overridden on a military issue by the War Cabinet. So Montgomery flew out from Britain, taking up his command on 12 August.

In Washington, meanwhile, Henry Stimson was still deeply pessimistic about any operations in North Africa, and on 10 August he made Marshall promise that he would take a final stand against Operation Torch if ‘it seemed clearly headed for disaster’. Marshall had no difficulty in making that promise, which was after all no more than his duty, but it is indicative of the lack of confidence felt by many senior strategists at the time. Stimson’s doubts remained, and as late as 17 September he was writing that the undertaking was risky but, ‘the Commander-in-Chief having made the decision’, it had to be seen through.

Stimson also drew up a sharp note to the President that he did not eventually send, but of which he gave a copy to Marshall. ‘The objections to the hazards of Torch had been stated to you in previous conferences with your advisers,’ it read, ‘and the objection that it was a purely defensive operation instead of an offensive was inserted in the London memorandum on the Chief of Staff’s sole insistence and against British opposition.’ Marshall and the Staff now ‘believe the operation should not be undertaken’. Stimson foresaw a risk of defeat in Africa that would emasculate Roundup until 1944, and thought that Torch wouldn’t help Russia either.

In its somewhat formal summation of recent history, and reiteration of what Roosevelt already well knew, the draft read more like the preamble to a resignation, but it merely ended with an ‘earnest recommendation’ that ‘before an irrevocable decision is made upon the Torch operation you should make yourself familiar with the present views of these your military advisers.’ Stimson might have been using this unsent letter much as Brooke used his journal–partly to let off steam–and a surprising number of people do write letters they never truly intend to send, for precisely that purpose. Yet Stimson would hardly have written in such terms if Marshall had supported Torch wholeheartedly.

From 12 to 15 August, Churchill and Averell Harriman, Roosevelt’s personal envoy to Stalin, conferred with the Russians in Moscow. Because of the danger of a fire in their B-24 Liberator bomber, Brooke, Cadogan, Wavell, Jacob and Tedder had been forced to turn back to Teheran, and only arrived on the 13th. They therefore missed a four-hour meeting with Stalin from 7 to 11 p.m. on Wednesday 12 August, of which, Churchill reported to Roosevelt, the first two hours were ‘bleak and sombre’. The Prime Minister explained at length with maps why Sledgehammer–which he and Roosevelt had promised Molotov in writing back in June–had been indefinitely postponed. Stalin argued hard the other way, and as Churchill reported to Washington, ‘Everybody was pretty glum. Finally he said that he did not accept our view but we had the right to decide.’

Everyone cheered up once Churchill passed on to what he called ‘the ruthless bombing of Germany’. He then brought up Operation Torch, at which Stalin ‘became intensely interested’. The conversation ranged over the whole of the rest of the war in the west, with Churchill concluding that once ‘Brooke and the others arrive…the military authorities on both sides are to sit together and check up both on strategy and technical detail.’ The British military authorities arrived safely in a Russian plane at a small aerodrome on the outskirts of Moscow at 7.45 p.m. the next day and were taken straight to State Villa No. 7, where Churchill was staying, for a debriefing. After dinner, the British party and Harriman set off for the Kremlin at 11 p.m. ‘It was a dark night,’ wrote Jacob, ‘and Moscow is completely blacked out. No headlights are allowed on cars, so that we crawled along at a very slow pace. As a result we were half an hour late.’

They were conducted to the 600-square-foot office inhabited by Stalin, whose desk was tucked away on the right-hand side at the far end. Two pictures of Lenin and one of Marx provided the only decoration. Stalin was lounging in a chair sideways on to the table at the head, puffing at a large, curled pipe. After everyone had taken their places, with Brooke next to Churchill and only the interpreter on his other side, the meeting started, badly, with another ‘desultory argument about the possibility of a second front and similar matters’.

Jacob wrote that Stalin spoke ‘in a very low, gentle voice, with an occasional gesture of the right hand, and never looked the Prime Minister in the face’. The reason he averted his eyes was that ‘Stalin was coming out with all kinds of insulting remarks, but one could not really tell whether they were being faithfully put across by Pavlov, because his vocabulary was limited.’ Stalin’s translator, Vladimir Pavlov, was in fact excellent. At this first meeting with Churchill his English was hesitant, but he would take great care not to distort Stalin’s words. Stalin was simply intending to be as rude as possible and ‘was suggesting that we were not prepared to operate on the Continent because we were frightened of the Germans’.

According to Jacob’s minutes, the entire conversation was carried on by Stalin and Churchill, with only four short interventions by Harriman and one by Tedder. At the post-mortem back at Churchill’s villa, Harriman suggested that the explanation ‘was probably that Stalin had to adopt an uncompromising attitude at one stage of the negotiations, in order to satisfy his own people’. That too was absurd, but indicative of the way that many Westerners still failed to recognize that Stalin was an all-powerful dictator–indeed, as the title of a recent biography puts it, ‘the Red Tsar’.

Four months later, Brooke threw a dinner party in Chelsea where he gave his views of Stalin, saying that the Marshal ‘gave him the creeps. He looked pale and even grey with the flesh hanging from the bones of his face. Stalin did not “register” when Winston came into the room–it might have been a footman.’ Brooke added that the Russian dictator showed ‘no sign of humanity except once when he said to Churchill, before the interpreter could translate an impassioned speech, “I like your sentence although I do not know what it means.”’

On 14 August the traffic situation in Moscow could not have been more different. This time in daylight they ‘drove through the streets entirely regardless of red and green lights, or of policemen or pedestrian crossings. If there are pedestrians in the way, so much the worse for them.’ Brooke’s was ‘a peculiarly carefree driver. He never actually had a crash, but he ran down one man, who was then extricated from the wheels, and moved away to one side, so that the car could go on. The drivers treat the citizens like so many cattle.’ With the experience of the loss of his first wife, Brooke could not have found this pleasant.

The meeting on 15 August went badly. At noon Brooke went to the Soviet Government Hospitality House, 17 Spiridonovka Street, to deliver a statement and discuss the Second Front with Marshal Voroshilov and Marshal Shaposhnikov, the Russian Chief of Staff, who both displayed what Brooke considered an astonishing lack of understanding of how to attack over large stretches of salt water. ‘Finally,’ recorded Jacob, ‘the CIGS told them that the Americans and ourselves had come to very definite conclusions on this subject and were not prepared to alter them.’ Voroshilov then refused to discuss the fighting in the Caucasus with Brooke, who in turn replied that he had not been authorized to discuss Torch with him.

It was on this visit that Churchill made the error, while attempting to explain to Stalin the attractions of attacking the Axis from the south before attempting an invasion of France, of drawing a sketch of a crocodile with, he said, a ‘soft underbelly’. Once the image was lodged in the Prime Minister’s mind, he used the concept of ‘attacking the under-belly of the Axis’ in a letter to Roosevelt the following month, and subsequently to other audiences on other occasions until it became a well-known phrase associated with him. Given that the future struggles in the south–especially in the Italian peninsula–were to be anything but soft, it was to be a gaffe that would long be held against him. The one disadvantage of having such a vivid, fizzing imagination and verbal dexterity as Churchill was that the law of averages meant that very occasionally it must misfire, and when it did a memorable but ultimately unfortunate phrase was born.

When they were in Teheran on their way back home from Moscow–which also involved travelling to Cairo, El Alamein and Gibraltar–Churchill and Brooke heard of yet another disaster for British Commonwealth forces, to add to Dunkirk, Narvik, Greece, Crete, Singapore and Tobruk. An operation to attack the French Channel port of Dieppe that they had authorized, but then left entirely up to Lord Louis Mountbatten, as director of combined operations, had resulted in catastrophe. At dawn on 19 August, 252 ships, thirty tanks and 6,100 men–two Canadian infantry brigades totalling over five thousand men and over one thousand Commandos–had taken part in Operation Jubilee. It was intended as a ‘reconnaissance in force’, but had no clear follow-up plan. Even at this distance of time, it is hard to know what the Dieppe Raid was meant to achieve.

A small German convoy in the Channel alerted the shore defences before the assault could take place, so the element of surprise was lost, yet Mountbatten ordered it to go ahead anyhow. The tanks landed on the shingle beach but could not negotiate the sea wall successfully. German machine-guns accounted for most of the 4,100 Allied casualties, more than two-thirds of the attack force. The Canadians lost 907 killed and 1,874 captured; the Royal Navy suffered 550 casualties; the RAF and RCAF lost ninety-nine planes, the worst single-day total of the war, including during the battle of Britain. The Germans by contrast lost only 314 killed and 37 captured.

Although no German troops were moved from east to west as a result of the débâcle, coastal defences were massively strengthened. ‘If I had the same decision to make again,’ Mountbatten nonetheless averred, ‘I would do as I did before. It gave the Allies the priceless secret of victory.’ This is tripe, unless the lesson of not attacking a well-defended town without proper intelligence and a preliminary aerial and naval bombardment is a ‘priceless secret’, rather than the kind of assumption a lance-corporal might have made. Yet even as late as 2003 historians would still take Mountbatten at his word, with one writing: ‘The catastrophe provided priceless lessons for a full-scale amphibious invasion.’

(It is surprising how little influence the Canadians enjoyed in the higher direction of the Second World War. They had the world’s third largest navy at one point, pushed furthest inland of any of the armies on D-Day, were fabulously generous to British coffers throughout the war, contributing much more than the Americans per capita, and provided the only two armed and trained divisions standing between the south coast and London after Dunkirk. Yet they had virtually no say on the various bodies that ultimately decided how, when and where Canadians would fight.)

The writer Leonard Mosley claimed in 1971 that ‘The only people in any way satisfied by the Raid were those advisers of Winston Churchill, like Cherwell and Sir Alan Brooke, who thought it would prove to the Americans once and for all that a Second Front across the Channel was unthinkable for at least another year.’ Brooke had served with the Canadians at Vimy Ridge and admired them. The idea that he could have taken any satisfaction in so many of them being killed, wounded and captured is monstrous. ‘The casualties were undoubtedly far too heavy,’ Brooke commented in his diary; ‘to lose 2,700 men out of 5,000 on such an enterprise is too heavy a cost.’ Furthermore he did not in fact use the Dieppe Raid as an argument against Roundup, because both he and Marshall knew that in both size and objective a reconnaissance in force was very different from a full-scale invasion, and by the time Dieppe was undertaken Sledgehammer was already off the table for 1942.

On Friday 21 August, Sir John Dill threw a dinner party at his London flat for Eisenhower, Mark Clark and Thomas Handy, the War Office strategists Nye and Kennedy, and the new commander of the First Army in North Africa, Lieutenant-General Kenneth Anderson. Dill told them that Marshall worked from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. then ‘went out on the river with his wife and took a picnic supper or something of that sort’, before going back to work. He also said ‘what a fine and powerful agent’ Marshall was with Roosevelt, and spoke of Brooke’s relations with Churchill.29 Infuriatingly, the next paragraph in Kennedy’s diary was later very heavily scored through in ink on the Whitehall foolscap writing paper.

After dinner, the group settled down to discuss Operation Torch. Kennedy said the present plan–to attack Casablanca and Algiers but not Oran–‘would lead to a fiasco’ because the numbers involved needed to be trebled. Dill was non-committal, as was Nye, since, Kennedy wrote, ‘both have more formal positions to preserve vis-à-vis the Americans than I have.’ Anderson sided with Kennedy. Ike was also non-committal, beyond saying that so far no one had said ‘anything cheerful’ about the plan. The Americans left around 10.30 p.m., after which Kennedy said, ‘It was almost incredible that after the Americans had been in the war for a year, their share of this plan should be so small. It is perfectly obvious that their hearts are not in it (anyhow King’s) and that the Pacific War is eating up resources that should be here.’ He further accused them of not carrying out the agreed ‘Germany first then Japan’ strategy. Copying the complaint Marshall often made about overall British strategy, Kennedy said that the Torch plan suffered from lack of ‘concentration of effort’.

Dill then asked why the War Office had had ‘no outline plan’ for Torch ready when Marshall had visited in July, a direct criticism of Kennedy as director of military operations. Kennedy responded that the project had only come up during the visit. ‘Before he came we intended only to press for the continuation of the American movement to this country and then to decide how to use the forces.’ The Torch plan ‘had therefore started from the top without a detailed examination’. Now that his War Office Planners had looked at it carefully, Kennedy said, ‘we find that the difficulties especially of maintenance and shipping are greater than had been anticipated and that the forces are not nearly big enough.’ This brought the conversation round to Churchill, and Dill said that the Prime Minister had ruined Auchinleck by having ‘pressed and harnessed’ him. ‘In fact he has dwarfed him just as he dwarfs and reduces others around him.’

Kennedy’s defence of himself to Dill reinforces the suspicion that Torch–then still called Gymnast–was decided upon by Churchill and Roosevelt at Hyde Park, and that they subsequently prevailed upon the Chiefs of Staffs, Brooke because it was the only offensive alternative to Jupiter, Sledgehammer and Roundup, and Marshall because Brooke had blocked Sledgehammer and Roundup. When Kennedy said Torch had ‘come from the top’ he was more right than maybe even he knew. The reason he did not have a presentable version of it ready for Marshall’s visit was perhaps because Brooke was known not fully to approve of it.

On Sunday 23 August 1942 the German Sixth Army launched Operation Blue, the all-out offensive to capture the city of Stalingrad, the industrial (especially armaments) centre on the River Volga, home to six hundred thousand Russians. At 4 p.m. the 16th Panzer Division moved into the outskirts of the city and thereafter a quarter of a million German troops laid day-and-night siege while one thousand German planes bombed the city, which had virtually no anti-aircraft defences, into mountains of rubble and corpses.

Hitherto the Germans, fighting in open country, had managed to force the Soviet Army back further and further, but at Stalingrad house-to-house combat blunted their advantage and played to the strengths of the far more numerous Russians. Instead of tanks and mobile artillery, the weapons that mattered most were grenades, bayonets, sniper rifles, small arms and sometimes even spades as the Russian Sixty-second Army was mobilized to defend the metropolis that bore their leader’s name. By 12 September, German troops had got inside the city, and the next day took some key positions, such as the ferry terminal, which changed hands thrice in two hours. (The train station is said to have changed hands no fewer than sixteen times in the course of the battle.)

By 27 September two-thirds of Stalingrad was in the Germans’ hands as a result of vicious, merciless fighting they termed Rattenkriege (rat warfare). The Russians used the sewers to stage counter-attacks, but by 11 November they controlled only about one-tenth of the west bank of the city. Such waste of strength over a place that was no longer strategically valuable could have only one explanation: prestige. Hitler had publicly promised that Stalingrad would be taken; his eponymous city was equally totemic for Stalin. In mid-November, Russian forces numbering over one million men under Georgi Zhukov smashed through the Roumanian army north and south of Stalingrad and on the 23rd Red Army units met each other at Kalach, thereby trapping the Sixth Army within the city.

The outcome was by no means certain even then, however. The superiority of German combat efficiency over that of the Russians in the early part of the war meant that, on average, ‘one German division was a match for three Russian divisions of comparable size and firepower, and that under favourable circumstances of defence, one German division theoretically could–and often actually did–hold off as many as seven comparable Russian divisions’. Nonetheless, attempts to relieve Stalingrad failed, and Hitler refused to countenance a break-out. The stalemate continued through the rest of 1942.

The Most Perilous Moment of the War: ‘I am convinced that man is mad’ July–November 1942 Part II

It was Stalingrad that finally, in Stimson’s words, ‘banished the spectre of a German victory in Russia, which had haunted the Council table of the Allies for a year and a half’. It also greatly reduced the likelihood of a German attack through Spain, cutting off the American forces from their supply lines. Just as Wellington’s campaign in the Iberian peninsula had been a small but significant ‘ulcer’ for Napoleon, but certainly not the Russian ‘coronary’ that destroyed him, so too the North African and Italian campaigns would be ulcerous for Hitler, but it was the Eastern Front that annihilated the Nazi dream of Lebensraum (‘living space’) for the ‘master race’. Four in every five German soldiers killed in the Second World War died on the Eastern Front, an inconvenient fact for any historian who wishes to make too much of the Western Allies’ contribution to the victory.

Between 24 August, when Churchill received what he called the ‘bombshell’ news that Brooke and Marshall were deadlocked over Torch–with Marshall wanting to attack only Casablanca and possibly Oran, but Brooke wanting Algiers too–and 2 September, when Roosevelt changed his mind and supported the inclusion of Algiers, there was renewed transatlantic struggle between the Staffs. Marshall feared that the American forces would get cut off if they landed too far east; Brooke wanted to try to stop Rommel escaping from Tripoli, and so wanted to land as far eastwards as possible. Moran thought that Churchill ‘was never so unhappy as when he was at odds with his military advisers or his American allies’, but when he had to make a choice between them, he came down firmly on Brooke’s side, not least because he had emphasized to Stalin the comprehensive nature of Torch.

At 11 a.m. on 24 August, Kennedy and Major-General Francis Davidson, the Director of Military Intelligence, were summoned to Churchill’s private rooms in the No. 10 Annexe. ‘Winston lay in bed in his black dressing gown with dragons, a half-sucked cigar in his mouth which he lit and re-lit during the next hour and a half, without making any appreciable progress with it, a glass of water on the table beside him.’ He had just returned from Gibraltar, and told the two men how in Egypt ‘with the change of commanders a new wind was blowing, how the Army was all in bits and pieces and that would be put right now’ and of ‘the terrible wastage the “poor” Army had suffered’.

Reporting on Russia, the Prime Minister said that Stalin had not made out that his situation was bad, ‘as he might have been expected to in pressing for a Second Front’. Indeed he had been optimistic enough to remark: ‘Dieppe will be explained by Torch.’ Churchill added that he had bet Brooke half a crown at odds of evens that the Russians would hold the Caucasus, and boasted: ‘I drank as much or more than Stalin and Molotov together–they only sip their liquor you know–and I was in quite good order.’

Kennedy then gave Churchill a blunt assessment on the planning for Torch, specifically the inadequacy of the American contribution, the need for overwhelming force, and a warning about ‘the first manifestation of divergent strategies’. The bonhomie of the early part of the meeting disappeared immediately as ‘Winston’s hackles rose at once and his eyes, which were rather watery, began to flash.’ Anyone, he said, could make a plan involving overwhelming force, but there could be no delay, especially for further American forces coming from the Pacific. He wanted to bring forward the date rather than delay it, saying that fighting Vichy France ‘was a soft job–not like fighting Germans’, and that he would even ‘be prepared to go ahead without the Americans themselves so long as they had plenty of American flags to wave. What we wanted was a big show in the shop window.’

Kennedy replied that, although three divisions would be ready in three weeks, it would take three or four months to get thirteen together, yet the limiting factor was not troops so much as shipping, naval escorts, aircraft carriers and, as ever, landing craft for the invasion force. He argued that ‘the Americans should be in the thing wholeheartedly not only at the beginning but subsequently’, pointing out that the growing American commitments in the Solomon Islands and elsewhere in the Pacific showed that they were diverting shipping and naval craft away from Germany First. ‘Winston was distinctly ruffled’ before the meeting ended at 12.45 p.m.

On 25 August, Churchill reported to the War Cabinet about Stalin, whom he described as a ‘large man’ of ‘great sagacity’. His visit had ‘Explained some past mysteries’ about Stalin’s behaviour before the war, and the rebuffing of the British military mission to Moscow in August 1939. Led by Admiral Sir Ranfurly Drax, this had been Britain’s last-minute attempt to prevent the Nazi–Soviet Pact taking place. Churchill reported that Stalin had been ‘certain Britain didn’t intend war…This was confirmed by our offers–France of 80 divisions, Britain of 3 divisions. Stalin had been sure Hitler wasn’t bluffing. At Munich an effort might have been made, after that nil was our offered strength.’ To Churchill, who had denounced Munich at the time and called for a united front with the Soviets against the Nazis thereafter, Stalin’s assurances that the weakness of the Chamberlain Government in 1938–9 had left the Russians with no option but to sign the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact was confirmation of his stance during his Wilderness Years. To those Chamberlainites and Munichois still left around the Cabinet table, Stalin’s assertions must have been galling. As for Torch, ‘Stalin did not exaggerate his plight in order to exploit or extort help from us,’ said an impressed Churchill.

That day Churchill and Brooke received a document from the Joint Chiefs of Staff stating that the attack on Algiers would be too risky. ‘We are all profoundly disconcerted by the memorandum,’ Churchill replied on the 27th. ‘It seems to me that the whole pith of the operation will be lost if we do not take Algiers as well as Oran on the first day. In Algiers we have the best chance of getting a friendly reception and even if we got nothing except Algeria a most important strategic success would have been gained.’ Not to go east of Oran, he went on, ‘is making the enemy a present not only of Tunis but of Algiers’.

‘Torch is a great confusion,’ wrote Eden’s private secretary Oliver Harvey in his diary. ‘It is very difficult to make plans on both sides of the Atlantic and expect them to coincide. We are in favour of two prongs–US think they will only have enough for one. We don’t like the East prong without the West. Behind and above all this are Winston and Roosevelt goading each other on to fix dates, etc, while all is vague.’ Kennedy meanwhile rightly spotted that ‘It is a political operation and stands or falls by the correctness of the political appreciations–reactions of the French, Spaniards, etc, etc.’

Some American Planners thought that because the Vichy French were supposed to prefer the United States to Britain, the Stars and Stripes might be welcomed in North Africa whereas the Union Jack would be fired upon. This led to the Americans attempting to persuade the British to play a junior role in the landings, which was resented in some areas of the War Office and Cabinet. Quite why this should be, beyond feelings of national pride, is hard to say. The Americans had diplomatic relations with the Vichy Government, whereas Britain did not, so it made sense for the operation to be presented as an American liberation, and if that required the United States to spearhead it, the Churchill Government should not have baulked at an opportunity to save British lives. If national pride was the reason, as the war progressed there were to be many more such turf wars over symbolism and prestige, which rarely redounded to the credit of those involved.

‘We are undertaking something of a quite desperate nature and which depends only in minor degree upon the professional preparations we can make or upon the wisdom of our military decisions,’ wrote Eisenhower in his diary that week. ‘In a way it is like the return of Napoleon from Elba–if the guess as to psychological reaction is correct, we may gain a great advantage in this war; if the guess is wrong, it would be almost as certain that we would gain nothing and lose a lot.’ He feared that there might be ‘a very bloody repulse’ and that Vichy France and even Spain might enter the war against the Allies. Axis propaganda indeed began to give out that there was a concentration of German forces near the Pyrenees, which there was not; and Marshall’s and Eisenhower’s worry that the Germans might be invited by Franco to march through Spain and outflank the Allies by closing the Straits of Gibraltar, trapping American forces in the Mediterranean, failed to take into account Hitler’s and Franco’s considerable mutual mistrust. (After their only meeting, at Hendaye in October 1940, Hitler said that he would rather have three or four teeth pulled out than sit through another conversation with Franco.)

Staying at Chequers on the night of Saturday 29 August, Eisenhower and Mark Clark received a courier from Marshall saying that the President had definitely decided to attack Oran and Casablanca with eighty thousand US troops, but that the British should not arrive until a week afterwards, and the attack on Algiers would be omitted altogether. As Roosevelt was not planning to inform Churchill of this until the following Monday, for Clark ‘this admonition to silence came at a difficult moment’. Brooke, Eden, Mountbatten and Ismay were also present, trying to finalize plans for Torch, so while ‘Churchill was enthusiastic’ and ‘Eden expressed optimism,’ Clark ‘fidgeted and boiled inside, and I imagine Ike did too.’ Clark recalled how embarrassing it would have been ‘to air the latest word from Washington’ and he and Eisenhower left on Sunday the 30th having ‘answered no more questions than was necessary’.

It might have been this occasion that Eisenhower recalled in his book At Ease, when he wrote of a meeting at Chequers where British and American views were not meshing too well. Brooke said to him: ‘Naturally, you cannot be expected to oppose violently something that Washington apparently wants.’ Ike recorded: ‘Although I am sure he did not mean to imply that I was swayed by fear of a reprimand, I explosively put him right. I told him flatly that only the merits of a proposal, not its place of origin or its sponsorship, mattered to me when the fortunes of nations were at stake.’ For all his charm, Eisenhower could be waspish at times, even with Brooke. After the Chequers meeting, Eden wrote in his diary: ‘Greatly impressed by Eisenhower and Clark, as I have been before. We are lucky to have them as colleagues.’ Clark meanwhile went back to London where he addressed thirty-seven British and American generals, saying: ‘Some of you men are less confused than others about Torch. Let’s all get equally confused.’

If Brooke assumed that Eisenhower could be swayed by Marshall, Marshall feared that the Torch commander might be swayed by Churchill, warning Admiral Leahy that at Chequers he was ‘very much under the guns’. Marshall asked Leahy to use his influence ‘to see that the President’s message gets off by Monday as the delays are fatal to the completion of the plans and therefore directly affect the date for the operation’. Although many important cables from Roosevelt to Churchill were drafted first by Marshall, they would often be radically redrafted by the President–sometimes in Hopkins’ handwriting–before being sent off. Some important messages, such as the one trying to persuade Churchill that British troops should take a junior role in Operation Torch, went through several redrafts over a number of days and emerged greatly different from Marshall’s original. This was even truer when Admiral King was let loose upon early drafts, since FDR had a sense of how to turn away wrath in a manner alien to the acerbic, straight-talking head of the US Navy.

When Roosevelt’s cable duly arrived on Monday 31 August it caused consternation. ‘I feel very strongly that the initial attacks must be made by an exclusively American ground force supported by your naval and transport and air units,’ it read. This was because Roosevelt believed that the French would offer less resistance ‘to us than they will to the British’. He suggested to Churchill and Brooke that a week after the operation, once French non-resistance was secured, ‘your force can come in to the eastward.’ The attack should preferably take place before 14 October, thought Roosevelt, but certainly no later than the end of that month. He did not have to remind anyone that the Congressional mid-term elections fell on Tuesday 3 November 1942.

At a War Cabinet meeting that day, Eden said that there was a general impression in the press that the Second Front in Europe had been cancelled for the rest of 1942. Although this was true, Churchill emphasized that it was nonetheless ‘Important to play [up] to the Germans, and not let them draw off troops from France.’ The last thing Churchill wanted was German troop movements from France either to Russia or to North Africa. If that meant encouraging the British press to believe that a cross-Channel operation was still possible in 1942, it was easily a price worth paying.

Churchill answered Roosevelt’s telegram on 1 September, arguing that not to attack Algiers simultaneously with Casablanca and Oran might lead ‘to the Germans forestalling us not only in Tunis but in Algeria’, and he urged that all three ports be targeted. Roosevelt replied the following day agreeing to this, but demanding that each of the attacking forces be led by American troops, with the United States controlling all relations with the Vichy authorities once they had landed. This was undoubtedly sensible at Oran, where the Royal Navy had sunk much of the Vichy fleet in July 1940.

There was a good deal of doubt over Torch in the British High Command even comparatively late in the planning stage of the operation: on 3 September Dill told Kennedy that he didn’t believe in it, and feared it would ‘destroy his credibility in the States when it failed’, in which event he would have to leave. After a Chiefs of Staff meeting that day, Kennedy told Brooke that the operation ‘would have no chance today’, but might work in November if Libya was softened up and Stalingrad held out. Kennedy also suspected that Brooke ‘is not wholeheartedly behind the plan now that the implications are coming to light more clearly’, especially those regarding the Navy and shipping. In reality, Brooke had not been wholeheartedly behind it from the start.

Churchill’s and Roosevelt’s first serious argument over strategy ended in a compromise whereby they agreed to split the difference, in terms of troops, between Algiers and Casablanca. ‘We are getting very close together,’ the President wrote on 4 September, offering to reduce the Casablanca force by five thousand men which, as five thousand had already been taken off the Oran operation, released an extra ten thousand for Algiers. ‘We should settle this whole thing with finality at once,’ he wrote. Churchill agreed the next day, even offering that British troops might wear American uniforms, and alleging that ‘They will be proud to do so.’ The President signalled the end of the haggling with a telegram simply stating, ‘Hurrah! Roosevelt,’ to which Churchill replied: ‘Okay full blast.’

The next meeting at Chequers with Eisenhower and Brooke was therefore far easier than the last. With Pound and the Minister of War Transport Frederick Leathers present, they decided that Torch must take place on 4 November at the earliest, 15 November at the latest, with Ike’s ‘best guess’ being 8 November.45 On 12 September Churchill had cause to thank Roosevelt, telling him that the 317 Sherman tanks and 94 self-propelled 105mm guns ‘which you kindly gave me on that dark Tobruk day in Washington’ had arrived safely in Egypt and ‘been received with the greatest enthusiasm…As these tanks were taken from the hands of the American Army, perhaps you would show this message to General Marshall.’

Because the system of Allied convoys that were taking large amounts of war matériel to northern Russian ports to help the Soviet war effort was about to be suspended in order to provide shipping for Torch, Churchill argued that further consideration should now be given to his favourite project in the north, Operation Jupiter. In Moscow, Stalin had said that he would contribute three Soviet divisions to seizing northern Norway if Churchill put in two. In a memorandum to the Chiefs of Staff, Churchill reiterated the case for invasion, in order to keep Russia supplied and therefore to prevent ‘the whole mass of the German armies’ being let ‘loose upon us’. He underlined the American aspect first, saying that Roosevelt regarded the maintenance of the convoys as ‘an operation of equal magnitude as Torch, although he is ready to skip one or perhaps two for the sake of Torch’. Then he presented his plan to ‘clear the Germans out of the north of Norway’, which he believed would incur fewer losses than making the Merchant Navy take such lethal risks at least thrice every two months.

Churchill objected to the Canadian First Army commander General Andrew McNaughton’s very negative report on the feasibility of Jupiter, complaining that ‘the exaggeration of difficulties’ seemed to be ‘customary’ in military reports, and stressing that ‘It follows that if Jupiter as well as Torch should get going, there could be no Roundup till 1944. This is already the United States view. But Torch by itself is no substitute for Roundup.’ This seems like a more or less blatant attempt to get Brooke to support the Norwegian operation in order to stymie the cross-Channel one for 1943. Churchill brought his plan up at the War Cabinet of 21 September, grumbling that, with Torch under way, the Chiefs of Staff ‘took a rather unfavourable view’ of providing the necessary shipping for Jupiter too. The phrase belies the genuine strength of feeling the Chiefs of Staff had against attacking Norway, which Brooke hardly ever mentioned in his diary without invective and hyperbole.

As before when repulsed by his own Chiefs of Staff, Churchill turned to Roosevelt. On 21 September he wrote a draft telegram about Jupiter, pointing out that with Stalin, ‘simply to tell him now no more

[convoys]

till 1943 is a great danger.’ This was especially serious because Stalin had ‘gained the impression’ at the Moscow Conference that Roundup was not only ‘delayed or impinged upon by Torch but was to be regarded as definitely off for 1943. This will be another tremendous blow for Stalin.’ As a result, ‘We ought now to make a new programme.’

Churchill predicted that Torch would be successful and ‘we might control the whole North African shore by the end of the year, thus saving some of the masses of shipping now rounding the Cape. This is our first great prize.’ In that case, he thought,

We might decide to do Jupiter instead of attacking the under-belly of the Axis by Sardinia, Sicily and even possibly Italy…To sum up, my persisting anxiety is Russia, and I do not see how we can reconcile it with our consciences or with our interests to have no more [convoys] till 1943, no offer to make joint plans for Jupiter, and no signs of a Spring, Summer or even Autumn offensive in Europe. I should be most grateful for your counsel on all this.

The telegram sent the next day reflected all these arguments and more, but neither Marshall nor King would countenance Jupiter as a result. Churchill had nevertheless allowed the Americans to glimpse the future Mediterranean strategy he intended to adopt if prevented from attempting to liberate northern Norway.

Although Marshall, King and Eisenhower appreciated that undertaking Torch probably meant writing Roundup off for 1943, Roosevelt would not admit as much, at least on paper. Churchill was keen that, despite Torch, large numbers of American troops should continue to come over to Britain under Bolero, not least because ‘if things go badly for us’ Britain would once again ‘have to face the possibility of invasion’. Keeping Roundup an open possibility meant that the United States would continue to reinforce metropolitan Britain, and Churchill asked Roosevelt to send him ‘revised programmes of what we may expect in the next twelve months between now and next September under the Bolero–Roundup scheme’. His fear–which was well founded–was that Admiral King was siphoning (or ‘whittling’) off resources to the Pacific that should have been coming to Britain instead. Meticulous research by Professor Mark Stoler on troop, ship and landing-craft movements during this period suggests that this was indeed the case.

Churchill wrote, in what reads like a begging letter to Roosevelt, that over the next six months ‘it will be necessary for you…to send at least eight US divisions to the United Kingdom in addition to your air force programme’. These were large numbers, and could be justified only if Roundup was still a possibility, for as Churchill put it: ‘Every argument used for Sledgehammer and/or Roundup counts even more in 1943 and 1944 than it did in 1942 and 1943.’ Here, for the first time, Churchill used the word Roundup and the date 1944 together.

The rest of the letter was yet another plea for Jupiter, which only Churchill failed to recognize was a non-starter. He nonetheless continued to promote it right up to the 1943 Quebec Conference, at one point ordering Ismay to ‘suspend’ the entire War Office Planning Staff for opposing it. ‘Winston has been particularly active in suggesting all sorts of schemes,’ noted Kennedy on 24 September. ‘He always wants to do more than we have resources for and nothing seems to convince him that some things are impossible or that dispersion is a dangerous business and that concentration is a principle of war. Brooke says repeatedly, after seeing him, “I am convinced that man is mad.”’

An undated (and eventually unsent) telegram from Roosevelt to Churchill was drafted by Marshall on 25 September, which allowed the US Chief of Staff to explain why Churchill’s Jupiter project ran flat against Allied strategy. It was an answer to Churchill’s request for ‘a new programme’, and a devastating one. In the course of a very long exposition of policy, which Marshall must have known would not be sent as drafted, he drew attention to the complete contradiction between Churchill’s regular statements about the need for concentration of forces and his tendency to ‘advance urgent proposals requiring further dispersion of means’.

Marshall wanted Churchill to be told that Torch must go ahead on time, that the harsh fate of Convoy PQ-18–thirteen merchantmen sunk out of forty between leaving Iceland on 2 September and reaching Murmansk on the 18th–meant that the northern convoys had to be discontinued, with supplies going through the Persian Gulf and the Alaska–Siberia routes instead, and that the US refused to take part in Jupiter because ‘the disadvantages in the plan far outweigh the advantages’. Furthermore, ‘The more forces we employ on the perimeter of Continental Europe, obviously the fewer forces will be able to penetrate vital enemy areas.’ Marshall even hoped that Roosevelt might say to Churchill: ‘I do not believe that Stalin attaches to the Jupiter operation the great importance implied in your message.’

As well as accusing Churchill of misrepresenting the Soviet position, Marshall hoped that Roosevelt would tell the Prime Minister bluntly that, as Torch had effectively wrecked any hopes of a 1943 Roundup, ‘The United States does not plan to send to the United Kingdom during the next ten months landing craft in excess of the number for which there will be operating personnel, and adequate to carry troops for any probable 1943 offensive which might be based on the UK.’ Since two paragraphs earlier he had stated that Torch ‘definitely precludes’ Roundup in 1943, this would have been devastating to Churchill. For all the debates about Roundup versus Torch, by October 1942 only one and a half American divisions had actually reached Britain. This was partly because of the massive amount of food, vehicles and services that went with them. It took 144,000 tons of shipping space to move a US infantry division, and a quarter of a million tons if it was armoured. Though never sent, the draft telegram did set out Marshall’s overall strategic thinking unambiguously for Roosevelt:

In the implementation of plans such as Jupiter, Allied military resources would be employed on the perimeter of the enemy citadel

[and]

…the Allied forces would not have sufficient and appropriate means remaining for the initiating of a strong, decisive blow in any selected area. On the other hand, a concentration of our means is most desirable in an area where it will be possible to deal the enemy a decisive blow and come to grips with him.

The tension between Churchill’s and Marshall’s strategies could hardly be clearer.

Instead of Marshall’s draft, Roosevelt sent Churchill a very short telegram merely stating that the next convoy should not sail to Russia. He could see no advantages in a major row with his principal ally only a few weeks before Torch. The suspicion must remain that Marshall wrote the draft more for the President’s benefit than for the Prime Minister’s.

In 1953, Moran asked Churchill which were ‘the two most anxious months of the war’. Without hesitation the Prime Minister answered September and October 1942. On the first day of October, Eden visited Downing Street after dinner, and found Clement Attlee there. ‘If Torch fails,’ Churchill told the two men, ‘then I am done for and must go and hand over to one of you.’ With many more Conservative than Labour MPs in parliament as a result of Stanley Baldwin’s 1935 election victory, all three knew it would have been Eden rather than the deputy premier.

Later that week Kennedy recorded that Churchill ‘was like a cat on hot bricks about the future development of the war’. Lunching with the Prime Minister at Downing Street, he mentioned that he had a tin of snuff to give him, a present from Admiral Richard Stapleton-Cotton. ‘I thought of giving up cigars till we were back in Benghazi,’ Churchill said on accepting it. ‘Then I thought I’d give up snuff. Then I decided to do neither. I didn’t see why I should give up anything for any German.’ Kennedy later wrote that although Churchill was funny at Cabinet Defence Committee meetings, ‘It is rather like the headmaster making jokes to the boys–the laughs come very easily!’ This was unfair; Churchill genuinely was funny, and humour was needed to leaven the stress. When he had a sore throat he complained to Brooke that his doctors ‘have knocked me off cigars. That is the worst of having a high-class job–you have to go in for high-class cures. I should have said a wet stocking round my neck would cure me in a night.’

After dinner on 6 October, Eden and Oliver Lyttelton had a drink with Churchill in the No. 10 Annexe, where they were joined by Randolph Churchill, who at one point said, ‘Father, the trouble is your soldiers won’t fight.’ Eden was indignant, recording: ‘It was a revelation to me that Randolph is so stupid.’ Yet it is hard to escape the conclusion that although the British High Command thought their soldiers would fight, there was indeed an underlying fear that the Germans were man for man better soldiers, and this was one of the reasons that the invasion of France was postponed to 1944, until victories had been won over the Wehrmacht in the lesser theatres of North Africa, Sicily and Italy.

On 9 October Kennedy went to see Eisenhower, who had retained his post as commander of the European theatre as well as becoming supreme commander for Torch. ‘I found him in a very wrought up state…he said he was being continually bombarded with political, operational and administrative problems…I was sorry to see that he was feeling the stress so much.’ Eisenhower was unhappy with the British Government’s instructions to their commanders, which he felt gave them carte blanche to appeal over his head directly to Churchill. Kennedy pointed out that every British commander had always received pretty nearly identical instructions, but it hadn’t prevented Lords Haig and Gort from working with foreigners. Eisenhower then told Kennedy that he had ‘always considered this operation to be unsound strategically but he had been chosen for a variety of reasons to head it and he would drive it through in a spirit of loyalty and close cooperation’. When this amazing statement was reported to Brooke, the CIGS retorted: ‘What a bloody fool the man is!’59

Meanwhile, in Washington, Hopkins warned Marshall on 10 October that Roosevelt had received a ‘very urgent wire’ from Stalin asking that for the next few months deliveries of aircraft to Russia be more than doubled to five hundred per month. The President, through the Soviet Ambassador Maxim Litvinov, sent word that he would look into it at once. That morning Stalin followed it up with ‘a very urgent request’ for an immediate answer. Although Roosevelt knew that such a figure was completely impossible, he asked if Marshall could send Stalin three hundred extra aircraft over and above what had been agreed in the protocol, beginning immediately and starting with coastal defence fighters. ‘The President is anxious to get off a message to Stalin tonight,’ he was told.

Marshall replied that same night: ‘Any immediate increase beyond the 212 airplanes per month now scheduled for Russia could only be managed by a reduction of planes urgently needed for our units in combat theatres,’ primarily Guadalcanal and Torch. US coastal defence units were ‘actually operational training units’, which had only half their proper complement of planes, and which in any case ‘weren’t suitable for an active theater’. Moreover, they were an important defence ‘against a possible trick carrier raid’. In short, Marshall’s answer to Stalin was no. By that stage in the war, he felt secure enough in Roosevelt’s regard to be able to take such a firm line, and know that it would be accepted.

Marshall was also subjected to regular demands from Douglas MacArthur in the Pacific, such as one of 17 October about ‘the critical situation’ in the Solomon Islands and New Guinea, which concluded, ‘I urge that the entire resources of the United States be diverted temporarily to meet the critical situation; that shipping be made available from any source; that one Corps be dispatched immediately; that all available heavy bombers be ferried here at once,’ and so on. Marshall not surprisingly disliked the high-handed tone of the messages he received from MacArthur, who, rather than being sent ‘the entire resources of the United States’, had to be content with a heavy bomber group that was flown from Hawaii to Australia.

On 14 October Brooke received Montgomery’s detailed plan for a great attack to be unleashed on Rommel at El Alamein in nine days’ time. He decided that he would not pass it on to Churchill, even though the Prime Minister ‘was continually fretting to advance the date’ and asking him ‘why we were not being informed of the proposed date of attack’. Brooke wanted to protect Alexander and Montgomery from being bothered by Churchill, and subjected to demands that the plans be altered. It was nonetheless a serious and insubordinate decision to have taken. Like Marshall, however, Brooke knew what he could get away with by then.

The searing summer heat meant that there had been little fighting in North Africa since July, and both sides had been able to reinforce themselves, with the Allies being strengthened disproportionately more than the Axis. With two hundred thousand troops and over one thousand tanks, Montgomery had almost double Rommel’s forces. The battle front was only 40 miles wide, as the geological phenomenon known as the Qattara Depression closed off Rommel’s opportunities for a southern flanking move by fast armour. Montgomery’s attack began at 9.40 on the night of 23 October with more than one thousand guns firing the first of more than one million rounds at the German positions, and over the next twelve days a savage battle was fought, costing thirteen thousand casualties on the Commonwealth side and thirty-five thousand on the Axis. After three days, Brooke felt able to give the War Cabinet tentative details of how it was going; five hundred German and one thousand Italian prisoners had been taken, but there had been ‘No major clash of armour yet’. Then he filled in the Cabinet on the situation in Russia, New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Burma.

There followed discussion of the accusation appearing in British left-wing newspapers that Rudolf Hess, the Deputy Führer, had had ‘friends’ in the British War Cabinet when he flew to Britain in May 1941, which had inflamed Soviet suspicions. Smuts said ‘We should…find out more about H[ess] to find out who were his friends in Cabinet…Misunderstand[ings are] bad for atmosphere of two allies. They are building up a case and we must meet it before it has gone too far.’ Cripps–who had until recently been the ambassador in Moscow–called for a ‘simple statement by someone about Hess, clearing up the matter’. Churchill then explained:

Hess arrived, hot from Hitler’s entourage, and came to do great service for Germany at great risk. He wanted to be…conducted to the King to say that we [that is, the Churchill ministry] had no backing here and to get a Government of the pro-Munich complexion installed. Hess was suffering from melancholia. We tried to make him talk…He gave us last chance for peace and the chance of joining the crusade against Russia. But he never said a word about his Cabinet friends who he had come to see. He had once met the Duke of Hamilton.

A minister then suggested that the Government should make the records of Hess’ interrogation available to the press, to which Churchill’s answer was no. Smuts warned that the ‘impression’ of the incident might ‘seriously’ affect Anglo-Russian relations and Cripps added that full disclosure would ‘Get rid of an air of mystery’. Churchill, however, believed that the Russians were worried about much more important matters, such as ‘their losses’, adding that he might consider allowing Cripps to make a digest of the Hess documents for press and parliament, and the Cabinet could then decide whether to hand it to Maisky, the Soviet Ambassador. In the event neither thing happened, and the conspiracy theories about the Hess flight therefore swirled around, inflaming Russian suspicions to the detriment of the British Establishment, until the interrogation reports were finally released somewhat piecemeal half a century later in the 1990s, entirely confirming what Churchill had said.

On Tuesday 3 November, the US Congressional mid-term elections produced the best result for the Republicans since 1928, increasing their representation by ten senators and forty-seven Congressmen. Nonetheless the Democrats still retained a 58–38 majority in the Senate and a 222–212 majority in the House of Representatives. Roosevelt had been in power for nearly a decade, and there was much criticism of the way the war was being fought, but his party still controlled all three branches of the American government. The elections would undoubtedly have gone far better for him had Operation Torch taken place beforehand, but Marshall told four Pentagon historians in 1949, ‘off the record’, that the President ‘had made no word of complaint when he was told the invasion date although some of his men yelled pretty loud because we could not go in five days earlier’.

Montgomery’s victory at El Alamein was clear to all by 4 November, when Rommel started his full withdrawal, though hampered by Hitler’s policy of refusing to contemplate retreats. Egypt was clear of the Afrika Korps by 10 November. ‘Rommel was a fool not to have gone back a month ago,’ wrote Kennedy on 2 November, with near-perfect hindsight. ‘We should then have been faced with the problem of moving forward and building up again for an attack with a long line of communications exposed to Rommel’s raids, etc. Rommel cannot be such a good general as we thought. On the other hand, Montgomery has had colossal luck in arriving at the moment when he did and not sooner.’64 (Or indeed any later, when his victory would have been ascribed to Auchinleck’s dispositions.)

Fourteen years later, Marshall identified this period as the tipping point for the balance of power between the United States and Great Britain:

For a long time they had supremacy and we had a minimum of divisions either organized or overseas. The apex of British supremacy was the victory of the Eighth Army in Africa. Later, their strength dwindled until in the Italian campaign some units wouldn’t fight. We had to turn three of our divisions over to the commander there. They had simply lost all their fight. We didn’t blame them a bit, because they were completely exhausted and under strength.

On Sunday 8 November, four days after Rommel began his full-scale retreat from El Alamein, he found simultaneous amphibious assaults taking place at eight places several hundred miles behind him, around Casablanca, Oran and Algiers. They were all successful. Eisenhower and his deputy Mark Clark were in overall command, and the American Western Task Force was under the command of Major-General George S. Patton. The Vichy French opposed the landings in all three places in their territory, but with differing intensity. Whereas Algiers had fallen by the first evening, and the fighting in Oran was over by noon on 10 November, the landing at Casablanca was bitterly contested until 11 November. Nonetheless, Torch was a success, and, unlike the Dieppe Raid, lessons genuinely were learnt for combined amphibious assaults in the future.

The counter-attack via Spain did not transpire; the weather was unusually fine; the feared losses to submarines and German bombers did not happen. Stimson ‘always believed Torch to be the luckiest operation of the war, although he was prepared to admit that those who had advocated the operation could not be expected to see it in that light’. The President had won his bet.

On the evening of 8 November, as the momentous news about Torch was coming in, Churchill was with Eden, Winant and Bedell Smith. ‘The PM was evidently much elevated by the success in Egypt and satisfactory initial stage of Torch and he talked even more frankly than customarily, the conversation lasting the greater part of the night,’ Bedell Smith telegraphed Marshall, who immediately passed the message on to Hopkins to show the President. ‘He is extremely anxious to have you and probably Admiral King come here at a very early stage for conference to reorient strategy in the light of new Mediterranean situation.’ Churchill had given up the Norway idea, thought Bedell Smith (wrongly), but he believed that a properly armed Turkey ‘will erupt’ into the Balkans against the Germans. (In fact, Turkey only declared war against Germany in late February 1945.) Bedell Smith concluded that Churchill ‘seems to be growing colder to the idea of Roundup except as a final stroke against a tottering opponent. As you know, the Pacific to him seems very far away and his constantly reiterated idea is that Russia, Britain and the United States must dispose of Germany and then concentrate on Japan. He hopes to clinch this strategy by your conference here.’

As for France, Winant reported to Roosevelt, and Bedell Smith simultaneously to Marshall, that Churchill ‘feels bound in honour to support de Gaulle, with all his faults, as the one man who stuck to the apparently sinking ship and whose name has a following in civilian France’. Churchill feared that the pro-Allied General Henri Giraud, whom the Americans had slipped into North-west Africa during Torch in the hope of establishing him in power there, would turn into a source of difficulty, and he insisted that ‘Britain and the United States cannot each have a pet Frenchman.’

In one evening of exuberantly loose talk with two key Americans, therefore, Churchill had effectively warned Roosevelt and Marshall that he wanted to ‘reorient’ strategy away from Roundup and towards the Mediterranean, do nothing more than contain Japan, and run de Gaulle against their favoured candidate, Giraud. He thereby neatly encapsulated the three next great areas of discord between the Allied grand strategists and told the Americans what he had in mind, much sooner than he needed to have done. Torch had arisen from a negotiated deal whereby he and Roosevelt had effectively split the difference over the numbers of troops needed for each part of the operation, and compromised over the geographical areas to attack.

Yet Churchill deserved his moment of exultation. At the War Cabinet the next day he hailed it as the ‘Biggest combined effort since Hitler’s attack on the Low Countries, and the largest amphibian operation ever undertaken…I beg my colleagues and military authorities to look on this as a springboard. We must look at once at military operations undertaken from there. This is the moment for the offensive.’ He added that it would be a ‘Tragic mistake to think we can take our time with this war. Hitler is playing now for a stalemate. This is our real danger. Never has there been more need for urgency in the war.’ Smuts suggested that the ‘real victory front’ was to be found ‘from the South not from the West’, and Churchill agreed, adding: ‘President Roosevelt calls this the Second Front. We won’t contradict this.’ He proclaimed himself ‘very anxious’ to ring Britain’s church bells in celebration the following Sunday; they had not sounded since 1940 because they were to act as tocsins warning of a German invasion.

Churchill also wanted to ‘Bomb Italy, bring it forward as fast as possible,’ ordering Brooke to ‘Have it studied, worked out and report next week.’ He declared proudly that the ‘British Empire played the leading part of this terrific event,’ predicting that it ‘meant the obliteration of the German & Italian forces in Libya & Egypt’ and announcing that he would ‘Mark the victory in respect of Alexander and Montgomery with high reward and promotion’, since it was ‘One of the greatest victories won by the British Empire in the field. It’s a fine story.’ He then formally congratulated Brooke and Grigg, the War Secretary, for a ‘brilliant showing’, remarking that the ‘movement of the invasion convoy without loss was a marvellous story with 105 warships, 142 troop and supply ships’. Brooke then filled in the details of the successful operations at Oran, Casablanca and Algiers.

The Cabinet was a long one, a full three hours. ‘Winston revelled over our success!’ noted Brooke at the time. ‘But did not give the Army quite the credit it deserved.’ This was unfair: in fact the Prime Minister suggested that the Cabinet should congratulate the CIGS and Grigg ‘for the fine performance put up by the Army’. Brooke observed after the war: ‘I think this is the only occasion on which he expressed publicly any appreciation or thanks for work I had done during the whole of the period I worked for him.’

As well as being the first significant British Commonwealth land victory of the Second World War, El Alamein was also the last. Henceforth every major engagement was to be fought as part of an alliance. The peal of Britain’s church bells ringing to celebrate this great feat of Imperial and Commonwealth arms was also tolling the end of major unilateral military action, at least until the recapture of the Falkland Islands forty years later. Kennedy commented on how ‘remarkably thin’ the bells in London sounded that Sunday, and it reminded him how many churches had been destroyed.

FLEET TACTICS WITH CHINESE CHARACTERISTICS I

Type 001A aircraft carrier

Having reviewed more intangible aspects of Chinese maritime strategy such as geopolitics, historical precedent, and strategic thought, we now turn to more prosaic matters. How will China put its strategy into practice using the implements it has assembled through fleet building? China’s navy is maturing and developing the arsenal to carry out a forceful maritime strategy. In the interim, however, “sea denial” is still the best concept for managing the nation’s nautical surroundings. Such an approach will suffice until Beijing has rounded out a fleet on par with the finest rival fleets likely to appear in Asian seaways.

Sea denial aligns with long-standing Chinese traditions. A successful sea-denial navy is at once humble and enterprising: it frankly admits its inferiority to prospective antagonists while refusing to admit defeat. It neither flees vital waterways nor resigns itself to passive defense. That the weaker contender can win—or accomplish its goals by keeping its foe from winning—sometimes escapes China watchers. In the late 1990s, for instance, two prominent Sinologists declared that China’s innate feebleness at sea forced it to shelter passively within the first island chain, where it would wage a strategy of “protracted defensive resistance.” U.S. naval supremacy, they maintained, was too stifling to permit anything more ambitious.

We dissent. A sea-denial force works around its weaknesses while exploiting the advantages it does enjoy. It need not vanquish hostile forces outright. Its function is to clear foes from designated waters for a finite interval or, better yet, to deter them from entering in the first place. A sea-denial strategy succeeds if it wards off stronger foes long enough for the nation to fulfill its larger strategic objectives. Sea denial thus constitutes a strategically defensive strategy that inferior powers prosecute through offensive tactical and operational methods. Even if the PLA Navy remains weaker than its likely opponents, it will stay on the operational and tactical offensive. The U.S. Navy and its allies must anticipate that.

The hybrid offensive/defensive style of combat conforms philosophically to Alfred Thayer Mahan’s dictum that even lesser navies can impose local command on important waters—as indeed Mahan beseeched the U.S. Navy to do in the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico, even though it remained weaker on the whole than Great Britain’s Royal Navy. At the same time it conforms to Mao Zedong’s concept of “active defense,” which yokes offensive tactical means to defensive strategic ends. Today as in the age of Mao, the PLA portrays active defense as the core of Chinese military strategy. China’s first formal military strategy white paper, released in 2015, declares:

The strategic concept of active defense is the essence of the [CCP’s] military strategic thought. From the long-term practice of revolutionary wars, the people’s armed forces have developed a complete set of strategic concepts of active defense, which boils down to: adherence to the unity of strategic defense and operational and tactical offense.… Shortly after the founding of the PRC in 1949, the Central Military Commission established the military strategic guideline of active defense, and later, in line with the developments and changes in the national security situation, had made a number of major revisions of it.

Intriguingly, China’s Maoist approach likewise conforms to precepts set forth in Sir Julian Corbett’s writings about maritime strategy—writings Chinese strategists have investigated in recent years. “True defense,” proclaims Corbett—a contemporary of both Mao and Alfred Thayer Mahan—means balking a stronger opponent’s strategy while awaiting the chance to administer a counterpunch. The British theorist even hit on the same term—“active defense”—to show how a weaker navy can dispute a stronger navy’s maritime command until it makes itself stronger and wrests away command for itself. Active defense, clearly, is a concept with heft and longevity in China’s way of sea warfare.

And China has structured forces around that method of defense. The Chinese military possesses, is procuring, or plans to acquire systems designed to make the seas and skies adjoining the Asian mainland no-go territory for any opponent. Beijing has purchased arms from Russia lavishly since the early 1990s. At the same time it has bolstered its domestic defense industry, allowing the PLA to field a variety of indigenous weaponry. Infusing new platforms and systems into the force alongside a more professional, more battleworthy corps of mariners has produced a leap in offensive PLA combat power.

Over the past two decades, modern diesel submarines—difficult to detect, track, and target in shallow offshore waters—have slid down the ways at Chinese shipyards or been purchased in significant numbers from Russian suppliers. One aircraft carrier is in service, another is nearing operational status, and future carriers are reportedly under design or construction. Destroyers equipped with sophisticated radar suites (touted as equivalent to the U.S. Navy’s state-of-the-art Aegis combat system), antiship missiles, and air-defense missiles increasingly form the backbone of the Chinese surface fleet. PLA Navy surface groups’ chances of withstanding long-range missile or air bombardment are brightening commensurately. This is doubly true so long as the fleet operates within range of shore-based fire support that augments the fleet’s firepower with missiles and aircraft dispatched from Fortress China itself. Shore fire support constitutes the PLAN’s great equalizer.

Accordingly, surface forces typically cruise underneath that protective umbrella. And the range and accuracy of shore-based assets are growing. This allows the PLAN to extend its combat radius while still tapping that great equalizer. Indeed, China may stand at the brink of rendering a strategic concept condemned by Mahan—the “fortress-fleet” tethered to shore fire support—viable for the first time. Mahan was writing in the context of the Russian Navy’s dismal performance during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5. He upbraided the Russian naval command for resorting to this “radically erroneous” way of combat, which fettered Russian commanders’ freedom of maneuver—ships had to remain within reach of the fort’s guns—while sapping their fighting spirit.

Mahan’s was a telling critique for an age of rudimentary naval technology, when the effective firing range for artillery was a few miles. It has lost cogency now that precision fire can reach scores if not hundreds of miles offshore. One imagines the Russian Navy would have fared far better against the IJN had shore gunfire boasted modern China’s range and precision to pummel Japanese fleets throughout the Yellow Sea and Tsushima Strait—the battlegrounds for climactic sea engagements in 1904–5. Russian gunnery could have cut the Japanese down to size from afar while affording Russian warships maneuver space aplenty.

In short, the day of the fortress fleet may have come. If so, footloose PLAN units will be able to roam waters Beijing deems important without leaving the protective cover of shore defenses. Defense will increasingly blur into offense under this aegis, even eastward of the first island chain. Advanced ground-based air-defense systems, capable naval fighter/attack aircraft, long-range cruise missiles, and even ASBMs reputedly able to find and attack vessels on the high seas are pivotal to China’s military modernization effort. If the Chinese package these assets wisely while developing the tactical proficiency to use them, they will gain confidence in their ability to deter, delay, or defeat any foreign force bold enough to attempt hostile entry into nearby seas or airspace.

China’s continent-spanning geography is invaluable to the PLAN’s sea-denial strategy because it furnishes plentiful sites for coastal bases and mobile missile batteries. Indeed, emerging military capabilities are explicitly designed to assail targets in offshore expanses from bases on the mainland. Furthermore, as weapons range improves, shore defenses can be positioned farther inland. Technology will make China’s deep continental interior a safe haven from which to punish intruding forces along the coastline.

This sanctuary will serve the purely military purpose of buffering PLA assets against attack. A PLA that turns strategic depth to advantage can compel enemy forces to enter the combat range of its weaponry, accepting battle on China’s political, geographic, and military terms. Such a strategy would have found favor with Mao Zedong, who famously urged his followers to lure enemies deep into Chinese territory. The Red Army would enfeeble its antagonists in the process, setting conditions for a devastating counterblow, and the weaker Chinese Communist legions would score a conventional battlefield victory in the end.

Just as important, defending from deep inland dares an opponent to escalate the fighting. Suppose U.S. forces struck at Chinese antiship missile sites located well inland. They would risk inflicting collateral damage under such circumstances, especially if targets adjoined populated areas. Duly broadcast by Chinese media outlets, images of civilian death or suffering could swing political sentiment behind Beijing—not just in China but among influential audiences elsewhere in Asia and in the international community. A backlash against a hardhearted or feckless America could result, no matter how just the cause that prompted the United States to take up arms.

Moreover, the United States would risk escalating a limited naval conflict to full-blown war against China, its leading trading partner and a fellow permanent member of the UN Security Council. China is a nuclear-armed power that brandishes mobile, increasingly effective, land-based and undersea strategic deterrent forces. The survivable retaliatory arsenal operated by the PLA Rocket Force would remain in reserve should conventional deterrence fail. No U.S. president would lightly make the decision to employ force under the nuclear shadow.

The historical record supports that contention. Americans showed restraint vis-à-vis the Chinese in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, declining to escalate “vertically” up the scale of violence. History also suggests that policy makers exercise caution before undertaking military actions likely to prompt “horizontal” escalation to new places on the map. In particular, the prospect of expanding the geographic scope of military operations deep into China’s interior would be daunting if not unthinkable to an American president. The repercussions from such a fight could well outweigh the presumably modest strategic goals at stake for Washington.

The odds of U.S. leaders climbing down from a dispute would improve under those circumstances, boosting the likelihood that China would prevail without an actual exchange of fire. Small wonder that Chinese fleet tactics fuse offense with defense; they come naturally to PLA Navy commanders while promising handsome dividends.

Massed, Dispersed, or Sequential Tactics?

The PLA’s increasing ability to integrate surface, subsurface, and aerial warfare into a defensive thicket against seaborne threats to China is remaking the strategic environment in maritime Asia, and the U.S. armed forces must keep pace. They must adapt their own methods and weaponry if they hope to preserve the maritime supremacy that has served U.S. interests—not to mention the interests of the region as a whole—so well since 1945.

Captain Wayne Hughes has supplied U.S. Navy mariners with a primer for sea combat in Asia. Hughes’ classic Fleet Tactics (1986) and its successors, Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat (2000) and Fleet Tactics and Naval Operations (2018), constitute a baseline for analyzing the challenges Chinese antiship tactics pose. However useful his treatises, though, they cannot stand alone. We mean no slight. Fleet Tactics aspires to school tacticians in a variety of settings and against a variety of potential antagonists. Indeed, Hughes describes his purpose as “to illustrate the processes—the dynamics—of naval combat” rather than to prophesy how particular contingencies might turn out. Thus, Fleet Tactics is largely silent on operational and strategic matters, and it is entirely devoid of political, cultural, and strategic context. As is the case with any good theory, its users can tailor it to varying circumstances.

This flexibility is a strength, but it could become a weakness if readers misuse Fleet Tactics. There is a decidedly technical feel to such accounts on naval tactics, which are de rigueur in U.S. Navy training institutions where warfighters learn their craft. The downside of the abstract approach to naval warfare is that, taken in isolation, Hughes’ works strongly imply that technology decides the outcomes of martial encounters. On the high seas, enemy fleets slug it out with volleys of precision-guided arms. When fighting close to enemy shores, defenders may fire antiship missiles at U.S. task forces, land-based aircraft may disgorge missiles from aloft, or diesel submarines may lurk below preparing to launch torpedoes or missiles. In both modes of fighting, the combatants hammer away with everything in their magazines, and the side that lands the first blow is the likely victor.

For Hughes, the arbiters of high-tech naval combat are (a) “scouting effectiveness,” meaning the proficient use of shipboard and offboard sensors, combat systems, and computer data links to find enemy units; (b) “weapon range,” the ability to inflict damage at a distance; and (c) tactics, which are determined by scouting effectiveness and the range of a fleet’s weaponry. Hughes’ text conveys the dynamics of sea combat, but its scope is limited. Seeker effectiveness or detect-to-engage algorithms will do much to shape the results of any U.S.-China clash at sea, as will missile ranges. But people, not machines, compete for naval mastery. Not for nothing did U.S. Air Force colonel John Boyd, one of the leading strategic minds of the Cold War, proclaim that people, ideas, and hardware—“in that order”—represent the prime determinants of competitive endeavors, warfare in particular. More to the point, Mao lambasted “the so-called theory that ‘weapons decide everything,’ which constitutes a mechanical approach to the question of war.… [I]t is people, not things, that are decisive.”

Outdistancing an opponent’s sensors and weaponry is far from the only challenge any U.S. naval offensive will face. Fleet Tactics shares this deficit of vision with standard net assessments that tally up numbers of platforms and their technical characteristics, often scanting the human element of war and politics. A larger view is in order. Consider one data point from Asian maritime history: Imperial Japan, which has emerged as a model for PLAN development. Ni Lexiong, a leading Chinese proponent of sea power, faults China’s Qing Dynasty for being insufficiently Mahanian in its 1894–95 tilt against Japan. China, Ni says, should bear in mind that Mahan “believed that whoever could control the sea would win the war and change history; that command of the sea is achieved through decisive naval battles on the seas; that the outcome of decisive naval battles is determined by the strength of fire power on each side of the engagement.”

That distinguished analysts such as Ni now pay tribute to Japanese sea power despite the bitter history of Sino-Japanese relations during the twentieth century marks a striking turnabout in Chinese strategic thought. Beijing’s willingness to consider the Japanese paradigm bespeaks increasing openness to non-Chinese, noncommunist sources of wisdom on military and naval affairs. Yet looking beyond Chinese traditions is eminently Chinese. Sun Tzu’s Art of War, probably written in the fourth century B.C., remains a fixture in Chinese strategic discourses. The Chinese sage counsels generals, “Know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred battles you will never be in peril. When you are ignorant of the enemy but know yourself, your chances of winning or losing are equal. If ignorant both of your enemy and of yourself, you are certain in every battle to be in peril.” This may be a truism, but it is one worth repeating, and it is important because it urges strategists to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of each belligerent and reject analyses blinkered by culture or ideology.

American commanders should heed Sun Tzu’s wisdom as well. They need to understand U.S. forces’ material and human strengths; acknowledge their own shortcomings; and come to terms with the ends, ways, and means likely to guide China’s efforts in crisis or war. Only thus can they fashion strategy for overcoming Chinese forces. The Mahanian geopolitical logic that helps govern Chinese maritime strategy could also help goad Beijing into a trial of arms involving the United States. Our purpose here is to explain what such a prospect means in operational and tactical terms. A few propositions:

•  If Mahan supplies the grand logic of maritime war, Mao Zedong’s operational-level writings on land warfare will inform Chinese tactics and operational practices in any clash off Taiwan, in the South China Sea, in the East China Sea, or at hotspots elsewhere along the Asian periphery. This is China’s martial grammar.

•  The South China Sea represents the most likely maritime theater for Beijing to conduct combined-arms attacks designed to saturate and overpower U.S. task groups’ defenses in support of China’s geopolitical and strategic aims.

•  PLA forces will integrate weapons systems, new and old, into joint “orthodox” and “unorthodox” attacks, executing offensive actions to attain strategically defensive goals. They will not depend on any single method or system, or solely on aerial, surface, or subsurface warfare. Multiple axes of attack, multiple weapon types, and preparedness to shift nimbly between the main and secondary efforts will represent hallmarks of China’s way of naval war.

Among the three tactical scenarios Wayne Hughes posits (described below), PLA Navy planners and commanders will probably incline toward dispersed attack, sequential attack, and massed attack, in that order. Unless Beijing grows so confident in its quantitative and qualitative superiority that it can simply hammer away, saturating American defenses at a single blow, it will stay with tried-and-true Chinese methods.

As Sun Tzu’s theories suggest, more acute understanding of oneself and the adversary could provide the margin of victory in an armed conflict against China. Now fast-forward from China’s Warring States period, when Sun Tzu purportedly lived, to nineteenth-century Europe. Recall that Carl von Clausewitz depicts war as “only a branch of political activity … that is in no sense autonomous” (emphasis in original). “Is war not just another expression of [peoples’ and governments’] thoughts, another form of speech or writing?” he queries before answering his own question. “Its grammar, indeed, may be its own, but not its logic.”

By this he means three things. First, war is the act of pursuing policy aims with the admixture of military means. The addition of violent means fires passions among the combatants—usually negative ones such as fear, rage, and spite—while bringing chance and uncertainty to the fore. Second, nonmilitary instruments such as diplomacy and economic coercion still have a part to play after the shooting starts. And third, warlike preparations and war itself are expressions of political and strategic thought. A violent clash of human wills is not easily reducible to rules, formulas, or statistics. Those schooled on Clausewitz cannot fully appreciate Chinese hardware and tactics without grasping the larger strategic, political, and cultural considerations that impart the logic—the purpose—to war.

Despite our dour tone, we are not prophesying naval war in Asia. There is ample room for debate about China’s intentions and its vision of its maritime destiny. Chinese naval power might evolve in a benign direction, although that prospect appears dimmer than it did when the first edition of this book appeared. We believe U.S. political leaders and commanders should do their best to shape conditions in favor of a maritime entente with China, but hoping for an agreeable outcome is not a strategy.

Washington, that is, can no longer afford a strategy of neglect simply because it reckons that the probability of a clash with China is low and wants to keep it that way. Nor, can the United States assume that its traditional strengths in naval warfare, including air power and undersea forces, will be sufficient to fend off China’s striking power at sea. By investigating the logic and grammar impelling Chinese sea power, U.S. strategists can estimate how the PLA Navy would mount an integrated, offense-minded defense against U.S. Navy carrier, amphibious, and surface action groups in Asian waters. Foresight will help them prepare for this eventuality.

FLEET TACTICS WITH CHINESE CHARACTERISTICS II

Chinese Type 039A (Yuan-class) SS

Tactical Scenarios: Near Shore and on the High Seas

Hughes considers two very broad categories of wartime contingencies: (1) U.S. forces might close in on the coast of an adversary that boasts considerable land-based defenses but lacks a fleet able to stand against the U.S. Navy in open waters; (2) a prospective opponent might possess a fleet able to meet the U.S. Navy in highseas combat, operating more or less independently of land support. The permutations between the two paradigms are endless, as Barry Posen suggests in his definition of “contested zones.”

As Posen observes, a skillful though weaker adversary enjoys certain advantages when operating on its home ground, including nearby shore-based assets and manpower, short lines of communication, and intimate acquaintance with the tactical environment. A savvy power can parley these advantages into distinct strategic and operational advantages over the United States, imposing costs Washington might find politically unacceptable. If the costs of fighting China prove steeper than the stakes merit, rational U.S. leaders may refuse to pay them. Even a lesser foe, then, could induce U.S. decision makers to hesitate or perhaps even to withdraw U.S. forces following a traumatic event—say, the crippling or sinking of a major surface combatant or aircraft carrier. This dynamic—and it is worth spotlighting its pronounced psychological, nontechnical component—will characterize any military encounter off Chinese coasts for the foreseeable future.

The prospects for variety in the operating environment—especially in littoral combat—should give wise fleet tacticians pause. Strategist Bernard Brodie points to a perverse facet of naval warfare: “There are too few naval wars and far too few major naval battles to enable us ever to prove the correctness of a tactical theory” (his emphasis). Even an epic battle—a Trafalgar or Tsushima—represents just a single data point for evaluating a theory. The U.S. Navy fought its last major engagement at Leyte Gulf in 1944; China’s PLA Navy has never fought one. Fleet actions take place too seldom to allow for rigorous trend analysis or confident findings. It is a fallacy to extrapolate from one bit of information that may not even be accurate.

As Brodie notes, even a marginally different configuration of forces or tactics on the part of one combatant or the other could have produced a different outcome to a particular engagement. Analysts would then render a different—and possibly faulty, yet equally confident—verdict on the efficacy of the tactics deployed. Brodie might add that the times and technology change between the major battles that constitute the data points for analysis. It is hard to draw trend lines between disparate combatants, historical epochs, and geographic settings, and those who do should take care to leave generous margins for error.

With all of that in mind, Wayne Hughes posits three representative scenarios for naval engagements on the high seas: attack by massed forces on massed forces, dispersed attacks that arrive on top of targeted forces nearly simultaneously, and sequential attack. The latter refers essentially to attacks dispersed in time rather than space.

Two caveats are in order. First, we are not predicting specific Chinese tactics; we use these three possibilities only as crude indicators of how Chinese forces might respond to a U.S. naval offensive.

The attacking force—“Force B” in Hughes’ nomenclature—could represent a mix of Chinese shore- and sea-based missile shooters supplemented by platforms such as minelayers or torpedo-firing submarines. The important question is whether Chinese strategic and operational preferences incline Chinese commanders toward massed, dispersed, or sequential attack. A related question: would Chinese commanders prefer to keep the PLA Navy closer to home, in keeping with the fortress-fleet approach, or would they feel comfortable dispatching the fleet for independent operations beyond shore-based cover?

Tactics for Striking at an Approaching Naval Force

Second, in the formulae Hughes develops to gauge the probabilities of U.S. defenses’ being overwhelmed or penetrated by “leakers” (platforms or munitions that get past the battle group’s layered defense), he avoids using the characteristics—ranges, warhead sizes, and so forth—of specific weapons systems. We follow suit for the most part. Capabilities change, while tactical principles apply across many contingencies. It falls to those closer to tactical and technical questions than we are to put the analysis and findings presented here into actual practice.

In short, China’s contested zone in littoral sea areas will comprise some composite of land and sea defenses. As the Chinese military extends its reach seaward—especially if a post-Taiwan era ever comes to pass—the high-seas component will naturally come to predominate. In Clausewitzian terms, as the PLA extends the range of land-based weaponry and continues building its oceangoing fleet, China will thrust the “culminating point of the attack” for its foes outward from its coasts. Clausewitz observes that when one state invades another, the combat power of the invading army starts to dwindle while the defending army grows stronger and stronger as the lines of communication with its bases shorten and it takes advantage of familiar surroundings.

The culminating point represents the crossover point at which the defender’s strength starts to surpass that of the attacker. A fleet that stands into an enemy’s maritime contested zone faces the same dynamic. U.S. Pacific Fleet relief forces will exhaust themselves if they push too far in the face of Chinese resistance. This phenomenon will bolster China’s prospects for denying the U.S. military access to important waters and for exercising sea control in those waters. Extending the reach of the PLA’s anti-access armory farther out to sea means the PLA can strike at the Pacific Fleet farther away and hasten the onset of the American culminating point. In all likelihood the PLA will strike in dispersed fashion, concentrating combat power from many axes atop its U.S. Navy targets at the same time.

Applying Maoist Active-Defense Grammar to Offshore Operations

Wars are not—and should not be—fought for their own sake. Politics and grand strategy impart the logic or purpose to warfare, assigning statesmen, soldiers, and mariners the ends toward which they strive. War’s grammar, on the other hand, is the ways and means whereby warring combatants try to reach those ends. Alfred Thayer Mahan proffered both a Clausewitzian logic of sea power premised on commercial, political, and military access to important regions and a grammar of naval strategy, operations, and tactics.

Mahan’s sea-power logic remains persuasive in China, it seems. Beijing has resolved to gain or preserve commercial, political, and military access to theaters it deems important to China’s national interests. Mahan’s writings on operational and tactical matters, on the other hand, have a musty if not archaic feel about them. He affirmed that the “offensive element in warfare” was “the superstructure, the end and the aim for which the defensive exists, and apart from which it is to all purposes of war worse than useless. When war has been accepted as necessary, success means nothing short of victory; and victory must be sought by offensive measures, and by them only can be insured.”

This vision of offensive battle comports with Chinese strategic proclivities, as does Mahan’s advocacy of forward bases and a robust merchant marine. But Mahan’s doctrine of battle between big-gun battleships is obsolete in an age of high-tech combat. Nor do Chinese analysts draw detailed lessons from his works beyond his injunctions to mass combat power at the critical place to prosecute a fleet engagement and to size fleets accordingly.

That Mahan has fallen into disrepute in operational and tactical matters is not surprising. As he admitted to Theodore Roosevelt, he was an indifferent fleet officer—“I am the man of thought, not the man of action,” he confided—and more than once he came up on the short end of a technical debate. He feuded with W. S. Sims, for example, on the question of whether new U.S. battleships should be fitted with all-big-gun main batteries or with a composite battery of big guns and lesser-caliber naval rifles. Richard Hough notes that Sims administered an “annihilating” rejoinder to Mahan’s advocacy of mixed armament, upbraiding Mahan for ignoring the combat punch of Japanese 12-inch gunfire at Tsushima.

Mahan’s poor performance in tactical debates in his own day makes it scarcely surprising that American and foreign tacticians nowadays look elsewhere for insight. Chinese officials, mariners, and scholars consult other martial traditions as they draft a grammar of marine combat—including their own. Chinese traditions offer a rich stock of land-warfare concepts, including the writings of Sun Tzu and, in particular, Mao Zedong, who etched his strategic outlook on contemporary China through personal example and voluminous writings on political and military affairs.

Admiral Xiao Jinguang, for instance, drew inspiration from Mao’s writings to develop his naval doctrine of “sabotage warfare at sea,”. One component of China’s current maritime strategy, “offshore waters defense,” takes its guiding precepts from the Maoist doctrine of active defense, an approach to warfighting distilled from Mao’s experiences in land campaigns against Imperial Japanese occupiers and the Chinese Nationalist Army. Indeed, Deng Xiaoping explicitly paid homage to Mao’s formula when he articulated his vision for China’s maritime strategy in the reform and opening era.

Mao scorned passive defense. His military writings are wholly offensive in character, even the material written during the wilderness years when his Red Army was vastly inferior to its enemies and had little choice other than to remain on the strategic defensive. Passive defense represented “a spurious kind of defense” for him, while active defense meant “defense for the purpose of counter-attacking and taking the offensive.” Even strategically defensive aims, then, were best attained through offensive ways and means. Passive measures were necessitated by an unfavorable balance of forces. They were transient. They were not the core of China’s national strategy, let alone its strategic preference. This outlook lends China’s quest for sea power much of its grammar.

To Chinese eyes, U.S. mastery of East Asian seas resembles the Nationalist Army’s strategy of “encirclement and suppression” transposed to the East, Yellow, and South China Seas. The Red Army did not reply to Nationalist Army ground offensives through passive means. It unleashed tactical offensives opportunistically to elongate the war, tire out enemy forces, and shift the balance of forces in the Communists’ favor. Patient action represented a precursor to a counteroffensive and ultimately to decisive victory.

Prompted by Mao and Mahan, Chinese naval strategists today talk routinely of prying control of the waters westward of the first island chain from the U.S. Navy’s grasp. They intend to surround and control these waters by offensive means, even if the United States still commands Asian waters at large.

True, Mao did warn against risking engagements in which victory was not assured, but it represents a grave mistake to equate such prudence with acquiescence in military inferiority. The strategic defensive was an expedient for Chairman Mao, not a desirable or permanent state of affairs. If the PLA heeds his advice, its grammar of naval war should give the U.S. Navy pause. America’s control of Asian waters does not render all naval battles unwinnable for Beijing. Washington must take seriously the reality that Beijing has adopted an intensely offensive naval strategy in its littoral waters. The PLA Navy is making itself a force to be reckoned with.

In this context, dispersed attacks on exterior lines are becoming increasingly thinkable for the PLA, as they were for the Red Army in its struggles against the Imperial Japanese Army and the Nationalist Army. (Operating along exterior lines is like operating around the circumference of a circle while the competitor on interior lines is located at the circle’s center and operates along its radii, with the advantages a central location confers.) The dispersed approach confers a variety of benefits. First, Maoist preferences predispose Chinese defenders to let U.S. forces close on Chinese shores, casting Americans in the part of Mao’s “foolish” boxer who “rushes in furiously and uses up all his resources at the very start.” Plunging deep into China’s offshore defensive zone attenuates the strength of the U.S. forces, weakening them before PLA defenders mount attacks from shore- and sea-based weaponry scattered around the battle zone.

Nor will the PLA confine its fleet tactics to any particular warfare domain. It will unleash missile barrages complemented by submarine attack, minefields, and the panoply of other tactics and systems on which China has lavished attention. As American forces come under the shadow of Chinese coastlines, the PLA will assume the exterior lines, rendering dispersed attacks possible along multiple threat axes. By deploying land-based implements of sea power, Beijing can bring the full force of its contested zone to bear, creating a 360-degree threat to U.S. expeditionary groups. In the ideal case, if those land-based forces are successful, the PLA may not even need to hazard the PLA Navy battle fleet in action.

Second, PLA commanders will concentrate their efforts on individual vessels or small detachments. Despite the tenor of Chinese commentary, U.S. commanders should not automatically assume that aircraft carriers will be the prime target for PLA action. Amphibious ships, for example, would make tempting targets in a Taiwan contingency, assuming U.S. Marines attempted to land to succor Taiwanese defense forces. Disabling or sinking one of the U.S. Navy’s Aegis warships would certainly give the United States pause, stirring memories of the October 2000 attack on the destroyer USS Cole and thus magnifying the political impact of such a feat of arms on the American electorate.

The PLAN might even set its sights on U.S. combat-logistics vessels transiting to or from the conflict zone. Despite the lower political profile of tankers and stores ships, depriving carrier or amphibious task groups of “bullets, beans, and black oil” would bring the U.S. effort grinding to a halt. Even a nuclear-powered carrier demands refueling every few days. Otherwise its complement of aircraft cannot fly, and it may as well have been disarmed.

Third, and closely related, the PLA will incorporate orthodox and unorthodox methods and weaponry into its defensive scheme in keeping with Mao’s and Sun Tzu’s warfare precepts. Western naval analysts commonly invoke the concept of saturation attack, implying that cruise missiles will be China’s sole implements in such a confrontation, or at any rate its implements of choice. This may be true. More likely, though, PLA saturation attacks will involve the concerted use of cruise, ballistic, and hypersonic missiles; aerial attack from manned or unmanned warplanes; mines; torpedo attack; electronic warfare; and cyber warfare. All of those weapons are ideal for a contested zone and complement more conventional means.

Antiship missiles might thus represent not the primary, orthodox element of an active-defense campaign but the secondary, unorthodox element. For example, missile attack would compel U.S. tacticians to look skyward while Kilo-class diesel boats loosed salvoes of wake-homing torpedoes (torpedoes that find their surface target by following the water turbulence churned up by the target ship’s propellers) against U.S. surface combatants from beneath. It also bears repeating that Maoist tactics emphasize fluidity. Astute commanders shift between axes as circumstances permit, making the unorthodox attack into the orthodox attack if it appears more promising, and switching back again if need be. Distinguishing orthodox from unorthodox tactics may prove next to impossible in the heat of battle—which is the point of this supple approach.

And fourth, Beijing will merge nonmilitary instruments into its defensive efforts by using diplomacy to augment Maoist active defense. China constantly wages what strategists dub “three warfares,” deploying psychological, media, and legal measures to shape opinion in China’s favor. It carries on this shaping effort in wartime and peacetime alike, in the spirit of former premier Zhou Enlai’s dictum that “all diplomacy is a continuation of war by other means.”

For instance, Beijing could impress upon Washington the lasting diplomatic and economic repercussions of taking on China over Taiwan. It takes time to debate whether a military undertaking is worth its price and hazards. The United States could pause to reflect, and its hesitation could grant the PLA enough time to attain its goals before U.S. forces intervened. Additionally, Chinese diplomats could act as coalition breakers trying to weaken or pick off U.S. allies. Discouraging Japan from granting the use of bases on its soil or impressing on Australia that it will pay a price for supporting U.S. military action would impair America’s strategic position in Asia. Indeed, without access to allied bases America has no strategic position in Asia. Denying access to them incapacitates them, which is almost as good as destroying them from China’s standpoint.

Beijing would turn operational achievements of Chinese arms to propaganda advantage using its three-warfares strategy. Even small tactical triumphs would weary the American populace while giving America’s allies second thoughts about supporting the United States against Asia’s central political and economic power. Asians understand that win or lose in a sea war, they will have to live with a vindictive China that has a long memory. Asymmetries in commitment to the allied cause could open fissures that China could pry open further—degrading or dismantling the alliance system that lets U.S. forces operate on exterior lines far from North American shores.

FLEET TACTICS WITH CHINESE CHARACTERISTICS III

The South China Sea on the “Day after Taiwan”

The South China Sea offers an ideal case study for future conflict off Chinese shores. Chinese and Western strategists once forecast that the Pacific Ocean constituted the most likely theater of twenty-first-century maritime competition between the United States and China. Admiral Liu Huaqing, the modern PLA Navy’s founding father, espoused an eastward-facing strategy, perhaps stemming from China’s preoccupation with a possible Taiwan contingency. Even Liu, however, included the South China Sea among the “near seas” where the Chinese navy must gird itself to prosecute active-defense operations. And indeed, the South China Sea is a more probable locus for contingencies pitting the PLA against the U.S. Navy. Beijing’s claim to “indisputable” or “irrefutable” sovereignty over most of that expanse, its construction and arming of artificial islands, and its heavy-handed conduct toward Southeast Asian neighbors have shifted the center of gravity for high-seas competition southward.

The South China Sea is China’s crucial gateway to the Indian Ocean. At least four strategic challenges beckon the attention of Chinese strategists southward. First and foremost, Taiwan, at the northern edge of the sea, continues to obsess China’s leadership. A formal declaration of independence or a Taiwanese breach of a Chinese redline such as constitutional reform remains the most likely casus belli for Beijing. But the cross-strait dispute is no longer the all-consuming issue it once was. If it has not already, China will soon gain the confidence to start looking past Taiwan to other pursuits in Southeast and South Asia.

Satisfactory settlement of affairs in the Taiwan Strait will free up Chinese resources and energies, advance the cause of national unification, and break through Dean Acheson’s island-chain perimeter. To borrow from General Douglas MacArthur, regaining the island would also give the PLA its own offshore—and unsinkable (if also immobile)—aircraft carrier and submarine tender. Moreover, if China occupies Taiwan, which Admiral Ernest King called “the cork in the bottle of the South China Sea,” Chinese shipping bound to or from the Middle East, the Horn of Africa, or the Mediterranean Sea can reach Chinese seaports unmolested.

The second strategic challenge perplexing Chinese scholars and top officials is the “Malacca dilemma” or “Malacca predicament.” Former president Hu Jintao first articulated this strategic problem, which entails an attempt on the part of the United States and its allies to close the Malacca, Lombok, or Sunda Strait to Chinese shipping as an indirect riposte during a Taiwan conflict or some other Pacific imbroglio.

Assuring free passage through the sea lines of communication linking the Persian Gulf region and Africa with Chinese seaports—in particular through the Strait of Malacca—has thus taken on surpassing importance to China’s communist regime. The uninterrupted flow of oil, natural gas, and other raw materials across the bodies of water south and southwest of the mainland—the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean—will occupy an increasingly prominent place in China’s maritime calculus. This emerging energy security imperative suggests that tracking longer-term Chinese intentions and grand strategy in southern waters constitutes an urgent task for the United States.

Third, China has staked claim to the waters, air, and islands of most of the South China Sea at its neighbors’ expense. Indeed, the National People’s Congress in effect wrote China’s claims into domestic law in 1992. In 2009 the government submitted a map to the United Nations delineating its claims. A “nine-dashed line” enclosing an estimated 80–90 percent of the South China Sea bounds the area where China claims indisputable sovereignty. At its most basic, sovereignty means physical control of space within an area on a map. What the sovereign says there is the law, and others obey. Unsurprisingly, China’s claims to sovereignty in the region and attempts to enforce those claims have generated considerable tension.

Both national sentiment and the region’s value as a maritime thoroughfare animate Beijing’s policy, as do the undersea resources said to be found around the many islands to which China, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam have lodged claims. The seas are also a growing source of nutrition as a Chinese citizenry that enjoys rising disposable incomes turns its appetite to seafood. Even cartographers have joined the fray. One laments that the landmass of China resembles a rooster, an image unworthy of China’s majesty; but including the sea areas China has claimed gives the nation an appealing shape on the map—a torch. “Chinese map,” proclaims the mapmaker, “you are the collected emotion and wisdom of the Chinese people, their coagulated blood and raging fire, symbolic of their power and personality, the embodiment of their worth and spirit.”

This conveys not only the region’s importance for Chinese national dignity but also the interdependence between the sea and Chinese economic development. Beijing has sought to give effect to domestic law as it amasses dominant sea power, relying on a maritime militia and a modern coast guard backed up by the PLA Navy. Southeast Asia’s coastal states have not yet determined how to uphold their rights and privileges under the law of the sea in the face of an increasingly bellicose China.

Fourth, it has become apparent that undersea warfare imparts momentum to China’s southward maritime turn. In April 2008 Jane’s Intelligence Review disclosed that the PLA had constructed an impressive naval base complete with underground pens for fleet SSBNs, at Sanya on Hainan Island, in the northern reaches of the South China Sea. The news prompted a flurry of speculation among strategic thinkers in the West and Asia. “Must India be anxious?” asked one Indian commentator.

Many countries should be. To borrow a metaphor Chinese officials use, the Sanya base gives Beijing the first of China’s “two eyes” at sea—Taiwan being the other. Metaphors aside, basing SSBNs in the South China Sea would let the PLA Navy outflank U.S. and Japanese ASW efforts in northeast Asia while enabling the Chinese submarine force to operate on exterior lines. Sanya gives the navy a forward base not only for SSBNs but for attack submarines, aircraft, and surface units as well, projecting China’s combat reach outward in much the same way Taiwan would do in the Pacific Ocean. The artificial island redoubts to Hainan’s south have helped Beijing consolidate its control over this offshore preserve.

The South China Sea, in short, offers an ideal theater for the PLA to fight on tactically exterior lines while the United States operates along strategically exterior lines. The Luzon Strait, which separates Taiwan from the Philippines, has taken on new prominence now that operational Chinese units are stationed at Sanya. Regaining Taiwan would expedite Chinese military access to the strait—its outlet to the Pacific Ocean. In a day-after-Taiwan scenario, having emplaced PLA air and sea forces on the island, China would extend its reach seaward while occupying a commanding position opposite Luzon.

This positioning would render China’s logic of dispersed attack even more compelling. PLA forces could vector in attacks on U.S. Navy task forces not only from PLAN units at sea but also from sites on the mainland and, just as important, from Hainan and Taiwan—its twin offshore aircraft carriers and submarine tenders, to borrow MacArthur’s metaphor. Once armed with antiship missiles, the artificial islands could lend additional firepower to the mix, further complicating the tactical picture for U.S. commanders. By forcing the United States into perimeter defense, the PLA could open up promising tactical vistas for itself. It could feint in the South China Sea, for instance, stretching American defenses and situational awareness to the south while staging a breakout to the north, through the narrow passages piercing the Ryukyu Islands or the Japanese archipelago itself.

Taken together, this strategy adds up to an effort similar to the one the United States mounted in Mahan’s day, when the U.S. Navy set out to establish local ascendancy over superior European navies in the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. These were expanses of overriding economic and military importance to a rising United States that had fixed its gaze on Asia and Pacific markets and bases. Consequently, for U.S. naval commanders, revisiting U.S. maritime history while monitoring how China manages its “Caribbean” could supply a harbinger of future Chinese actions in the South China Sea.

Strategic Preference #1: Dispersed Sea Denial

To return to Wayne Hughes’ analytical template, what are China’s strategic preferences for naval warfare? How will China apply its panoply of new hardware to achieve the goal of sea denial? Following Hughes’ three determinants of tactical effectiveness, Chinese defenders will attempt to disrupt U.S. scouting, outrange U.S. weaponry, and exploit defects in U.S. fleet tactics, keeping American commanders off balance. Consonant with Mao’s injunction to cut off one of an enemy’s fingers rather than mash them all, PLA defenders will concentrate on individual U.S. units or small formations that find themselves remote from mutual support. They will operate along tactically exterior lines, concentrating firepower in space and time at the last minute to overpower American defenses. In short, they will fight according to the Maoist way of war, defeating a stronger antagonist piecemeal.

By playing up tactical victories in the world press, Beijing can hope to discourage the American people, peel off ambivalent U.S. allies such as Japan or Australia, and collapse the overall U.S. effort. Western analysts must monitor the PLA for inventive uses of China’s tactical and geostrategic advantages. Some representative weapon systems useful for dispersed but integrated attacks would include the following.

Antiship Cruise Missiles

The PLA has plowed major effort and resources into cruise missile procurement and development. Antiship missiles can be fired from ships, aircraft, and surface batteries, forcing U.S. Navy antiair defenders to cope with multiple threat axes. For instance, the fast, agile SS-N-22 Moskit (known in U.S. naval circles as the Sunburn) carried on board PLA Navy Sovremennyy-class DDGs has excellent prospects even against the U.S. Navy’s Aegis combat system, the latest in American technical wizardry and the system it was designed to penetrate. A decade ago a RAND report situated SS-N-22 and SS-N-27 antiship missiles at the heart of China’s strategy for a Taiwan contingency, strongly suggesting that the United States would find itself on the losing end of a cross-strait encounter in 2020. The YJ-18 missile now entering service boasts a range of 290 nautical miles—about four times that of the Harpoon, the standard antiship weapon in the U.S. Navy surface fleet for now. Ships carrying the YJ-18 could get in their licks long before U.S. warships could respond. Such weaponry, in short, makes an ideal candidate for orthodox or unorthodox antiship attack.

Antiship Ballistic Missiles

In 2010 Admiral Robert Willard, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, announced that the PLA’s DF-21D antiship ballistic missile (ASBM) had attained “initial operational capability,” meaning the ASBM had made its operational debut while still undergoing testing and refinement. The DF-21D boasts a range of 1,500–2,000 kilometers and can reportedly strike at moving ships on the high seas. In a 2015 military parade in Beijing the PLA displayed the DF-26, a ballistic missile with the range to strike Guam. The DF-26 reportedly has an ASBM variant, projecting the reach of Chinese anti-access defenses 3,000 to 4,000 kilometers offshore. If they live up to their hype, the DF-21D and DF-26 will expand the operating grounds for China’s fortress fleet immensely.

A China able to strike effectively beyond the second island chain with sufficient numbers of ASBMs could hope to replicate Imperial Japan’s strategy, which aimed at reducing the U.S. Pacific Fleet battle line far out in the Pacific as a precursor to a decisive engagement in Asian waters. Unlike Japanese forces, however, the PLA could mount such a strategy without bothering to seize and fortify Pacific islands. A working ASBM capability would signal that the PLA can act along exterior lines against U.S. naval forces across far greater distances than once thought possible. It could execute a Maoist strategy on a region-wide scale.

Stealth Aircraft

Stealth fighter/attack aircraft such as the PLA Air Force J-20 would make an ideal implement for unorthodox attack against U.S. airborne-early-warning and tanker aircraft. The J-20 sports a two-thousand-kilometer combat radius. Flights of elusive J-20s could strike at the U.S. Navy and Air Force surveillance and logistics capability, blinding American aviators while denying warplanes the fuel they need to sustain flight operations over the western Pacific. In short, PLA stealth aviators could encumber U.S. air power without fighting a major air battle against cutting-edge U.S. F-22 or F-35 stealth fighters. That is the very definition of an unorthodox attack.

And it would be well aimed. Showcased in Afghanistan, in two wars against Iraq, and in other conflicts of the past two decades, the modern American way of war is premised on winning the contest for information supremacy at the outbreak of war. U.S. forces have prevailed in large part because superior technology has given them a “common operating picture” of conditions in the battle space that no opponent can match. Airborne sensors detect and target enemy aircraft, ships, or ground vehicles from afar. Jammers and antiradiation missiles incapacitate enemy sensors attempting to gather data on and target U.S. assets. These tactics effectively paralyze U.S. adversaries during the opening phases of a military campaign, paving the way for an even more important battlefield condition: air supremacy.

J-20 or J-31 stealth jets could seriously degrade U.S. scouting effectiveness, one of Hughes’ chief determinants of tactical success. Weapons range means little without the ability to find and target enemy forces at long distances. Since the dawn of carrier warfare, U.S. maritime strategy has seen command of the air as a prerequisite for surface fleet operations. An operation near Chinese shores would be no different. If Chinese pilots struck down Airborne Warning and Control System or E-2D early-warning planes, they would wholly or partially nullify the U.S. edge in information warfare, slowing down and complicating U.S. aviators’ efforts to command the skies. In doing so they would blunt U.S. offensive action while exposing U.S. warships, including aircraft carriers, to air and missile counterstrikes.

A robust Chinese stealth air fleet would oblige U.S. commanders to devote energy and air assets to securing the skies. For instance, commanders might find themselves forced to assign scarce fighters to escort early-warning or tanker planes, taking the escorts out of the major fight and thus diluting U.S. combat power. Even if PLA stealth aviation remains inferior to its American counterpart it could open the way for PLA offensive-defensive operations in Mao Zedong’s sense. Debilitating the foe would boost the PLA’s chances of denying maritime command.

Undersea Warfare

The PLAN submarine fleet has aroused growing concern in U.S. defense circles, judging from scholarly commentary and the Pentagon’s annual reports to Congress on Chinese military power. Lethal, stealthy diesel-electric submarines such as Russian-built Kilos and indigenous Yuans or Songs can prowl China’s offshore contested zone while nuclear boats range farther afield, cueing PLA commanders as U.S. forces approach or launching nuisance attacks on the high seas. Armed with wake-homing torpedoes, even diesel boats can compel American ships to take radical evasive maneuvers. The torpedoes can distract and hamper a ship’s combat team while the PLA bombards the fleet with antiship ballistic or cruise missiles. Subsurface combat, in short, compounds an already wicked tactical problem.64 It could help dishearten U.S. forces or impose such costs that U.S. officials abjure the effort to pierce China’s contested zone, brightening China’s prospects for successful sea denial.

To sum up, if the PLA manages to force U.S. forces to fixate on any single domain—surface, subsurface, or aerial—it can then pose new challenges from the other domains. Nuclear and diesel attack submarines, missile-armed fast patrol craft such as the PLAN’s Type 022 Houbei, or “assassin’s mace” systems like minefields make good adjuncts to more traditional systems like ASBMs and shore-based aircraft. PLA commanders could combine and recombine these systems to dizzy American defenders. In a sense, then, we are witnessing a merger of time-honored strategic concepts: jeune école–style combatants wage war aggressively against high-end intruders, shore artillery lends fire support on a grand scale, and an ultramodern fortress fleet prowls the sea within reach of these supporting arms. Strategies of the weak are coming into their own.

A well-designed Chinese force package would impose a three-dimensional threat on U.S. forces, launching unorthodox and orthodox attacks along multiple vectors. The more stresses the Chinese can impose, the less likely U.S. forces will be to venture landward of the island chains or into the South China Sea. If China can even partially cancel out U.S. technologies that manage the fog of war, it can severely curtail U.S. forces’ freedom of maneuver along Asian coastlines—access the U.S. Navy has long taken for granted. In short, the combined effect of multiaxis assaults could induce U.S. forces to operate farther from Chinese shores, helping China achieve its goal of sea denial in the China seas.

One caveat is worth appending. Despite the bleak tenor of our commentary, we are not maintaining that these capabilities, alone or combined, will give China a decisive edge in littoral warfare, let alone outright military superiority over the United States. The PLA Navy is not some superhuman force. It remains a relative newcomer to naval warfare. While Beijing divulges few details about budgets or weapons acquisitions, the PLAN is not exempt from the cost constraints familiar to military services worldwide. It must surmount technological hurdles after starting from behind. Officers and sailors must take their ships to sea for sustained intervals to refine their seamanship and tactical acumen. When the PLA Navy will equal the U.S. Navy in material and human terms—if ever—remains an open question.

Moreover, the PLAN would have to coordinate closely with the PLA Air Force and Rocket Force to prosecute the joint campaign we are describing, so as to amplify the tactical effects of multidimensional attacks against opponent forces. Interoperability and interservice cooperation—skills that take years of practice to hone—would be at a premium. Whether PLA combat arms are up to these and kindred challenges remains an open question.

Certainly the PLA will press the operational and tactical advantages it possesses while striving to overcome its lingering shortcomings. Beijing can hope to drive up the costs of entry into waters and skies it cares about, deterring or hindering U.S. involvement in Asian conflicts. If successful, it will have fulfilled its defensive strategic aims. If the PLA can deny U.S. forces the ability to dictate events, it will have attained the most important goal of sea denial: seizing local control of sea and sky long enough to realize operational and strategic goals. The approach we have posited here comports with the experiences of the past forty-plus years of naval war. From Egypt’s sinking of the Israeli destroyer Eilat with Styx missiles in 1967, to Argentina’s sinking of HMS Sheffield in 1982, to Iraq’s Exocet attack on USS Stark in 1987, to Hezbollah’s crippling of the Israeli corvette Spear with a C-802 surface-to-surface missile in 2006, experience demonstrates that an inferior yet determined navy can hurt a superior one.

The Chinese have afforded these historical case studies close scrutiny. They have learned that the weak can force the strong to change their behavior even without winning outright. In each incident, a single missile hit brought about major tactical effects. In the cases of Eilat and Sheffield, a missile sank a ship altogether. Or missile strikes can score a “mission kill,” putting a ship’s combat-systems suite out of action while preventing its crew from accomplishing its mission. They can disable the stricken vessel. Sometimes, though, a missile is not required. USS Samuel B. Roberts, USS Princeton, and USS Tripoli suffered far-reaching damage from crude, cheap Iraqi sea mines during the late 1980s and early 1990s, furnishing an even more striking example of how sea denial works. Thus, tactics involving dispersed, multifaceted attacks promise the PLA a handsome return on a modest investment. Such tactics make sense according to sound principles of naval warfare as elaborated by Wayne Hughes. And they fit with Chinese strategic and operational traditions. If what comes natural works, it only makes sense for China to do it.

Strategic Preference #2: Cut Off the U.S. Navy’s “Fingers” One by One

PLA naval planners cannot count on defeating the United States by crippling or sinking a small, though politically significant, portion of the U.S. fleet. The strategy might work. It might elevate the costs of fighting China above the value Washington assigns the object at stake. Or it might not. America could prove less morally flabby than expected. Chinese strategists may draw a lesson from the Pacific war, the Korean War, the first Gulf War, and the 9/11 terror attacks: do not discount America’s will to fight. Hideki Tojo’s Japan, Kim il-Sung’s North Korea, Mao Zedong’s China, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda all calculated that the surprise, speed, and shock of initial successful campaigns would stun America into submission. All were wrong.

Prudence thus demands that Beijing consider the what-ifs. What should the PLA do if its sea-denial strategy fails to drive U.S. naval forces from important sea areas? Its most obvious fallback would be to keep doing what works. Picking off U.S. warships and formations piecemeal might eventually create a favorable environment for sea denial—so long as U.S. commanders kept playing into Chinese hands and presenting a “cooperative adversary.”

Successive minor victories at sea would resemble the battles Mao’s Red Army fought on strategically interior but tactically exterior lines against the Imperial Japanese Army and the Nationalist Army. Sequential-attack tactics would let the PLA whittle the U.S. Navy down to size over time, perhaps fulfilling its tactical and operational aims on the logic sketched previously. At a minimum, the tactics would gradually tilt the military balance toward China, enhancing the PLA’s prospects for a decisive counteroffensive—as Mao foretold. To be sure, this presupposes that Beijing has great confidence in its ability to manage escalation in nautical warfare. It behooves U.S. naval planners to keep tabs on Chinese strategic discourses, gauging whether PLA strategists entertain such confidence.

In short, Wayne Hughes’ second tactical scenario—sequential attack—would likely rank second in China’s hierarchy of naval tactics. The PLA may disperse offensive tactical strikes in time as well as space.

FLEET TACTICS WITH CHINESE CHARACTERISTICS IV

Strategic Preference #3: Mao Zedong, Meet Alfred Thayer Mahan

The strategic preferences we are discussing are not fixed; they are leanings. As the PLA Navy approaches parity with the U.S. Navy, Mao’s grammar of active defense will come to resemble the Mahanian scheme for concentrated fleet-on-fleet engagements. Recall that the third and final phase of Mao’s strategy of the weak is the conventional counteroffensive that brings about final victory. What comes before—the strategic defensive, the strategic equilibrium—are transitory expedients, not desirable states. If Beijing believes the PLA is now the stronger contender, it can skip the phases that presuppose China is outmatched and proceed straight to a conventional offensive.

Mao’s endgame was a conventional battlefield victory. Mahan hoped to open with a fleet-on-fleet engagement that likewise yielded victory. Both strategists agreed on the imperative to vanquish the foe’s main force in decisive combat at some stage. The only difference was how to sequence operations and engagements to bring about a fleet action.

Hughes’ third scenario, massed attack, thus may now be part of the PLA commanders’ portfolio of options. As noted before, some Chinese strategists look directly to Mahan for strategic insight. The well-known pundit Zhang Wenmu cites Mahan’s maxim that economic prosperity hinges on deploying stronger naval forces at strategic locations. From this Zhang concludes that China must “build up our navy as quickly as possible” in preparation for the “sea battle” that constitutes the “ultimate way for major powers” to resolve economic disputes. Zhang, it seems, foresees decisive fleet actions.

How might such an engagement come about? One plausible scenario: a sequential PLA strategy could unfold by increments, climaxing in a Mahanian test of arms. Small-scale engagements would progress stepwise toward the ultimate reckoning. Or, if the PLA felt the balance of forces favored it from the outset, Beijing might seek a decisive battle with the U.S. military right away rather than progress through Mao Zedong’s phases of war. The strong have little need for the strategies of the weak.

Venturing everything to gain everything is not so dramatic a break with Mao as it seems. Mao enjoined weaker powers, not stronger ones, to give ground and concentrate against isolated enemy units. Once Chinese forces build up to parity or relative superiority over their foes, they will enjoy far more operational and tactical options, including the option of inaugurating the conventional counteroffensive Mao believed they must eventually prosecute to achieve victory. If the strategic setting favors offensive action, then, there is no reason for the PLA not to get right to it.

Indeed, Mao departed from his own pattern when circumstances warranted. Despite grave reservations among his comrades, Mao prevailed on them to intervene decisively in the Korean War, convinced that a massive initial blow would push UN forces off the peninsula. His gamble failed miserably. Still, such logic—perhaps compounded by wishful thinking—could again grip Chinese commanders. Below we discuss some factors that might impel them to risk a fleet action early.

Maoist Operational Grammar Isn’t So Different from Mahan’s After All

As we noted above, offensive Mahanian battle is compatible with Maoist traditions when conditions suit. Having ensnared U.S. forces deep inside China’s contested zone, the PLA can assume the exterior lines, applying Mao’s operational logic far more broadly than he anticipated. Mao himself contemplated globe-spanning exterior lines, albeit in a diplomatic rather than an operational sense. His contemporary followers might apply his theory in ambitious ways, pursuing a counteroffensive promising outright naval victory. Maoist theory would converge with Mahanian theory, urging them on.

Death Ground

The CCP regime could find its survival at stake in some Taiwan or South China Sea contingency. Self-preservation is the top priority for the CCP, as it is for the rulers of any state. A cross-strait war, to name the most obvious contingency, would call Chinese national unity into question—and the legitimacy of the regime along with it. U.S. intervention thus might summon forth an all-out PLA assault. If the communist regime’s longevity hinged on victory, self-restraint would recede in importance. Or a similar calculus could take hold should the United States mount a blockade of Chinese resource shipments, endangering China’s economic vibrancy and thus standards of living for the populace. All bets are off should some U.S. action place China’s leadership on what Sun Tzu dubs “death ground”—where it is imperative to fight to the utmost or perish.

Now or Never

China often deprecates America’s political staying power, but it may fear a repetition of December 1941, when an Asian sea power last underrated America’s will and capacity to fight across the Pacific and paid the price for it. Chinese commanders resigned to armed strife against U.S. forces might aim a knockout blow at U.S. naval task forces that venture into the China seas. If Chinese forces did not achieve a solid victory, however, Beijing might provoke the kind of massive U.S. counterstroke that followed Imperial Japan’s attack at Pearl Harbor. But there is a major difference: today’s counterpart to “Pearl Harbor” sits within reach of strike forces based on the Chinese mainland. The PLA need not replicate the long, tortuous voyage the IJN undertook to assail Oahu in 1941. It can rain missiles on U.S. Seventh Fleet bases such as Yokosuka and Sasebo from nearby. And unlike IJN carrier aviators operating at the end of their logistical tether, PLA rocketeers can sustain their bombardment until the job is done thoroughly. A killing stroke would foreclose the prospect of massive American retaliation, and such a stroke is increasingly thinkable for Beijing.

Dare All to Gain All

Should the PLA offer decisive battle and win, its triumph would hasten China’s rise to regional and world eminence, reordering the Asian and perhaps global systems. America would not quickly rebuild its navy—or regain its superpower status, which turns on supremacy in the maritime commons—following a catastrophic defeat. We doubt that Beijing would initiate war solely to knock out the U.S. Navy. Chinese thinkers grasp the political, economic, and military costs of great-power war and evince little appetite for it. Still, the allure of a final reckoning might prod Chinese commanders to risk the fleet if they were already leaning that way for the reasons discussed above.

That Chinese decision makers could hazard a climactic fleet action does not mean they are fated to do so. Much will depend on how they estimate the military balance in Asia. Thus, monitoring how Beijing appraises its comprehensive national power relative to that of the United States and other rival powers will supply important clues to Chinese maritime strategy and tactics.

Can the United States Preserve Its Naval Mastery?

U.S. officials, commanders, and shipwrights must exercise foresight, refine training and doctrine for Asian sea combat, and pay constant attention to upgrading the material dimension of strategy. Military professionals like to point out that they traffic in capabilities rather than intentions. How should U.S. naval commanders prepare for Chinese integrated attacks at sea?

By embracing Wayne Hughes’ advice, for one thing. Hughes urges ship designers to extend the range of U.S. missiles while bolstering U.S. Navy expeditionary forces’ detection and targeting ability. Constant work on ships, planes, and armaments is crucial. So is constant work on the human factor. Hughes enjoins commanders to refine their tactics so as to preserve or restore their advantage over prospective adversaries such as China. In particular, American seafarers need to regain the Navy’s proficiency at electromagnetic emissions control (EMCON), which manages electromagnetic emissions such as radar and radio to keep enemy forces from detecting U.S. task forces. It means muffling the force’s electronic signature or silencing it altogether. Properly done, EMCON hobbles enemy scouting and targeting. Aggressive electronic warfare is likewise central to U.S. information superiority.

Who holds the edge in weapons range and scouting effectiveness at present? To date, China has won the contest for greater range. Every one of its antiship missiles outranges the U.S. Navy’s Harpoon, granting PLA Navy captains multiple engagement opportunities before American ships can close the range enough to fire back. The PLA’s YJ-18 boasts four times the Harpoon’s range. The U.S. Navy and defense firms are now competing in the range war, however. The Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office has repurposed the SM-6 interceptor for surface-warfare engagements, a new long-range antiship missile is under development, and engineers have fitted the Tomahawk land-attack cruise missile with sensors and software to conduct surface engagements. If pursued, the latter in particular will boost vessels’ striking reach into the hundreds of miles. Naval commanders will sleep more soundly once such weaponry reaches the fleet. Faster is better when fielding these armaments.

Nevertheless, when and if the PLA perfects its ASBMs, U.S. forces will be forced to operate within the DF-26 or DF-21D threat envelopes, especially if developments bear out the upper estimates of those missiles’ reach. These figures exceed the maximum range advertised for any U.S. land-attack cruise missile or for any ship-launched aircraft armed with antiship or land-attack missiles. Depending on the variant, the U.S. Navy’s Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles boast ranges officially reported at 1,600–2,500 kilometers. The F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet, the mainstay of today’s carrier air wings, has a combat radius of 723 kilometers with a standard bomb load and external fuel tanks. Add another 321-plus kilometers for the Super Hornet’s joint air-to-surface standoff missiles (JASSMs) and 804-plus kilometers for the extended-range variant (JASSM-ER).

At extreme range, then, the F/A-18 can hit targets roughly 1,500 kilometers away. That is almost precisely the low-end estimate for DF-21D range and deep within DF-26 range. The F-35C Lightning II stealth fighter will improve on the Super Hornet’s range, clocking in with a combat radius estimated at 1,111 kilometers. For the F-35, that makes the extreme striking range 1,915 kilometers—beyond the minimum estimate for the DF-21D’s range but well within the maximum. If the DF-26 proves out, carriers would have to venture deep within the ASBM envelope to do their work. Beijing’s buildup of its fleet, and of its shore-based sea-power arsenal, is pushing the culminating point of the attack farther offshore for U.S. task forces, raising the costs of entry for the U.S. military into Asian waters.

With regard to manned aircraft, the PLA Navy’s J-11 fighter/attack aircraft, a derivative of the Russian Su-27 and Su-30, boasts a tactical radius of 2,000 kilometers if refueled in flight. In theory, it could hold U.S. vessels at risk up to 2,400 kilometers distant from its base if armed with YJ-12 ASCMs which boast a range estimated at 250 to 400 kilometers. This pushes the engagement zone well beyond the inner island chain, supporting China’s goal of sea denial in and around Taiwan and the approaches to the South China Sea. And this discussion leaves aside the contributions China’s J-15 might make. The J-15, under development for use on board PLAN carriers, has a combat radius of around 1,500 kilometers, and a family of stealth aircraft is under development that appears able to operate out to the second island chain.

The favorable balance of aircraft and missile ranges now allows Chinese strategists to look beyond the Taiwan impasse. They appear comfortable that they can deny the United States access to the waters shoreward of the first island chain. Now look at the American side. For close-in encounters like one off Taiwan, which could involve landing U.S. Marines or interdicting Chinese landing forces, U.S. forces must venture within the cruise missile envelope and well within range of missile-armed aircraft flying from airfields on the mainland. Layered defenses for carrier and amphibious groups will be thinner and more permeable in these cramped quarters. Response times for U.S. defenders will plummet as a result. This is what it means to operate within range of Fortress China and its fortress fleet.

Shipboard defenses will take on new importance under these circumstances. The U.S. Navy’s premier self-defense system, the RIM-162 Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM), is a semiactive radarguided missile fired from vertical launch systems or deck-mounted launchers. Its range is reported to be only forty-five kilometers, however, compressing reaction times for U.S. task forces against Chinese antiship weaponry like the Sunburn, with its sea-skimming cruise altitude, maximum velocity of Mach 3, and capacity for radical evasive maneuvers in the terminal phase. The YJ-18 cruises at subsonic speeds but accelerates to Mach 3 when approaching its target.

One study estimates the probability of a hit for a Mach 2.5 missile at 40 percent against a carrier group screened by Aegis combatants. The window for multiple ESSM engagements, then, will shut quickly under battle conditions. The Close-In Weapon System (CIWS), U.S. Navy warships’ point defense against aerial attack, is a radar-guided Gatling gun able to fire up to 4,500 penetrating rounds per minute. The range of CIWS mounts is so short, though, that their rate of fire provides cold comfort for shipboard defenders against airborne threats. The Navy is upgrading point defenses with “SeaRAM,” a defense system that marries CIWS radar and fire control with rolling airframe missiles to engage incoming missiles farther off board. The system’s range is classified but appears to be around eight kilometers. This represents an improvement over gunfire, but again, it amounts to short range when coping with supersonic missiles trying to evade shipboard defenses.

A significant disclaimer is in order. The technical specifications of China’s armaments appear imposing, but missile ranges are contingent on the PLA’s ability to detect, identify, and track U.S. warships at extreme distances. The Pacific Ocean is big, and the biggest fleet is vanishingly small by comparison. This factor imposes a deterrent to long-range surface engagements. U.S. Navy doctrine frowns on very long-range antiship strikes for fear of hitting noncombatants. There is little reason to think the PLA Navy, which has never been tested in high-seas combat, has leapfrogged this intricate technical and doctrinal challenge. Nor is there reason to think PLA commanders would cut loose indiscriminately, heedless of the danger to civilian shipping or the waste of expending scarce munitions against non-combatants—except as a desperation measure should the CCP regime find itself treading on death ground.

For now, our diagnosis is this: China holds the advantage in long-range antiship weaponry, but the United States is beginning to field systems that will cut into that advantage. U.S. naval commanders should no longer expect to strike with impunity at Chinese military assets, ashore or at sea, while keeping their own high-value platforms—carriers, amphibious landing ships, and Aegis cruisers and destroyers—out of harm’s way. Commanders should also realize that the fleet relies to an unhealthy degree on the carrier air wing for its offensive punch against sea and shore targets. These facts add up to a compelling brief not just for new shipboard armaments but also for initiatives such as “distributed lethality,” which will disperse firepower throughout the surface force. Once every ship is a fighting ship, the fleet’s dependency on a few squadrons of fighter/attack aircraft should ease.

How far offshore the PLA Navy will operate is a function of how confident Chinese commanders are in their anti-access defenses, how much risk Chinese commanders and party leaders are willing to assume, how much seamanship and tactical prowess Chinese mariners and airmen exhibit, and the technical feasibility of such systems as the ASBM. Together these factors will govern the point at which U.S. task forces will come under threat when approaching the Asian seas.

If our diagnosis is correct, the United States and its allies are in a danger zone. If American engineering stands at the verge of evening the range imbalance, and if Chinese commanders know that, the Chinese may be tempted to act before their advantage disappears. This may be why Beijing has shown signs of urgency in the South China Sea by dredging up seafloor to create military installations. Beijing has taken the risk of uniting a hostile coalition—but perhaps the CCP leadership rates that risk as less than the risk of taking a leisurely approach that soothes animosities but lets the United States recover its maritime supremacy in Asia. The region could be in for a bumpy ride in the coming decade or so.

Looking ahead, it is safe to say that the PLA’s tactical reach already extends beyond the first island chain. It is also safe to say that Beijing will soon be able to dispute U.S. command of the waters and skies between the two island chains, if indeed it cannot already. How far offshore China’s navy conducts exercises and what Chinese officers and pundits say about their doctrine will provide the best indicators available.

For planning purposes, the soundest assumption is that U.S. forces will face surface, subsurface, and aerial threats along more than one threat axis, especially as they close on Chinese shores. Within China’s contested zone, the PLA will fight on tactically exterior lines, mounting dispersed attacks to overpower U.S. antiair, antiship, and antisubmarine defenses. Accordingly, U.S. commanders must think about how American units can lend one another mutual support and make the expeditionary force a single, cohesive force. This will help balk Maoist strategies predicated on defeating an oncoming force bit by bit, picking off isolated units and annihilating them. Hughes terms this mutual-support strategy “massing for defense.”

The martial balance may continue shifting toward the PLA in the coming years as Chinese forces expand, improve their arsenal, and refine their tactics to make the best use of the contested zone. It will certainly continue shifting if the United States declines to make the conscious political choice to remain the world’s predominant sea power and guarantor of freedom of the sea. Primacy requires resources. Admiral J. C. Wylie points out that Congress makes strategic decisions all the time through the budgetary process. Indeed. No amount of seamanship or tactical wizardry will carry the U.S. Navy to victory in the Far East if U.S. mariners have too few implements for the fight.

BEF 1914: What If?

The futile encounter-battle on the Mons–Condé canal, the ensuing battle at Le Cateau and the subsequent retreat – these need not have happened if the BEF had concentrated at Amiens rather than Maubeuge, as both Sir John French and Kitchener had wanted at the 5 August war council (at which Churchill had suggested they should concentrate well to the rear of the French army to form a strategic reserve) – and as Lanrezac himself had suggested to Joffre as late as 15 August. On 21 September, Haig – whose handling of I Corps in the fighting at Ypres was to earn him considerable acclaim – wrote in unequivocal terms to the King’s assistant private secretary, Major Clive Wigram, whom he had known in India: ‘I am glad you already realize how wrong it was to have rushed the Army north to Mons by forced marches before our reservists had got their legs. GHQ had the wildest ideas at this time of the nature of the war and the rôle of the British Force.’

Had this alternative plan been adopted, though, would it have meant that the Germans would have been able to turn the flank of Lanrezac’s 5th Army?

No. From 20 August, when Moltke told Kluck that ‘a landing of British troops is reported at Boulogne: their advance from about Lille must be reckoned with’, both the OHL and Bülow, commanding (ineffectively) the 1st and 2nd Armies as an army group, were acutely conscious of the danger to the 1st Army’s (Kluck’s) flank. Two days later, the 1st Army halted for two critical hours to realign west in order to meet what Kluck believed was the BEF detraining at Tournai but turned out to be French Territorials. By 24 August – the date Sir John French had originally given to President Poincaré and Joffre before agreeing to bring it forward to the twenty-first – the BEF would have been ready at Amiens to take the offensive. Its divisions could then have been transported via the excellent French railway system the 50 miles to St Quentin, whence it would have posed too great a threat to the 1st Army’s right for Kluck to have risked trying to envelop Lanrezac’s 5th Army south of Maubeuge.fn9 In the meantime, Lanrezac would have had to shift for his own left flank; but this was, in essence, what he was doing anyway in the withdrawal on 22 August. Without the BEF on the Mons–Condé canal, Kluck would of course have had a free run south through Mons, but he could not have presented a flank to the fortress of Maubeuge without impunity, nor could he have made any real turning movement north of Le Cateau because of the Forêt de Mormal – and, anyway, Lanrezac was already taking precautions by withdrawing to the Sambre. Lanrezac’s position would have been little different from the actual situation on 26 August since the BEF had by then been driven away to the south and west, and the gap was opening up – except, of course, that Kluck’s 1st Army would have been in greater strength and better shape without the encounters with British rifle fire. From 27 August the course of events would, at worst, have been no different from actual events, the BEF retreating from St Quentin on the same line – but without the losses incurred at Mons and Le Cateau, with greater cohesion between its two corps, and perhaps with much better cooperation and contact with the French. Its subsequent performance in the Marne counter-offensive might then have been more spirited, with a chance of ‘bouncing’ the Aisne heights and preventing the Germans from consolidating.

But Churchill had put his finger on the bigger issue in his memorandum to the Committee of Imperial Defence for the meeting on 23 August 1911: what was the strategic role of the BEF? In the discussion at that meeting on the BEF’s status of command, Reginald McKenna, the then first lord of the Admiralty, had suggested that ‘if a British force were to be sent at all, it should be placed under French command’. Perhaps McKenna knew that this would not be palatable to the general staff (which indeed it wasn’t, as Henry Wilson at once protested), thereby advancing the cause of the naval option; but in any case, ‘Mr Churchill dissented emphatically’, say the minutes: ‘The whole moral significance of our intervention would be lost if our Army was merely merged in that of France.’

This was a moot point – perhaps Churchill was thinking of his illustrious ancestor’s difficulties with the Dutch field deputies in the war with France – but it needed mooting nevertheless: how was Britain to exert the greatest moral effect – and, implicitly, at the lowest cost? But there was more at stake than this. The question was really what was to happen after the Germans had invaded; for, having the initiative and therefore being able to concentrate, they would certainly force the frontiers at one point or another. Churchill had grasped the difference between merely winning battles and winning the war: ‘France will not be able to end the war successfully by any action on the frontiers. She will not be strong enough to invade Germany. Her only chance is to conquer Germany in France’ (italics added).

This, he said, would mean the French accepting invasion, including even the investment of Paris, but such a policy might depend on knowing that the British would be coming to France’s aid on land – which, by return, would depend on our knowing what were the French intentions. This was, of course, a view entirely at odds with that of the French general staff, who did indeed envisage the invasion of Germany, or at least, certainly to begin with, that former French territory occupied by Germany (Alsace-Lorraine) – which for a few days in August 1914 was largely what happened. However, Churchill’s bold assertion was based on the calculation that by the fortieth day of mobilization Germany should be extended at full strain both internally and on her war fronts, and this strain will become daily more severe and ultimately overwhelming, unless it is relieved by decisive victories in France. If the French army has not been squandered by precipitate or desperate action, the balance of forces should be favourable after the fortieth day [and improving] … Opportunities for the decisive trial of strength might then occur.

It could easily be supposed that this memorandum had been written in late 1914 rather than the summer of 1911: the fortieth day of German mobilization was 9 September, the day the BEF crossed the Marne on its way to the Aisne. Historians have sometimes commented on Churchill’s prescience, but none has ever fully examined his conclusion that the French must accept penetration of the borders and organize to defeat the Germans thereafter, the part the BEF might play in such an operational plan, and the possible outcome.

So how did Churchill see the BEF’s contributing to these ‘opportunities for the decisive trial of strength’?

In short, by generating a BEF that could act decisively ‘instead of being frittered into action piecemeal’ – the argument, indeed, that Haig was making at the time of the 5 August war council, and in his preceding letter to Haldane: ‘so that when we do take the field we can act decisively’. Churchill envisaged the immediate despatch of a BEF of four divisions plus the Cavalry Division, for its ‘moral effect’, to be joined by the two remaining divisions ‘as soon as the naval blockade is effectively established’ (and the threat of invasion thereby ended). These would assemble not at Maubeuge for incorporation in the French line of battle, but well to the rear, at Tours, more or less equidistant between St Nazaire and Paris. As soon as the colonial forces in South Africa could be mobilized, the 7th Division would be recalled from there and its stations in the Mediterranean. To these would be added 15,000 Yeomanry and TF cyclist volunteers. And – perhaps the greatest gamble (though in fact it would eventually happen) – six out of the nine divisions of the Indian Army could be brought to the BEF, ‘as long as two native regiments were moved out of India for every British regiment’ (Churchill was as aware as any – and more than most – of the peculiar mathematics and chemistry of the Indian Army): a further 100,000 troops, ‘brought into France via Marseilles by the fortieth day’.

In total, by 14 September this would have furnished a BEF of some 290,000 (Haig had written to Haldane of 300,000), which the actual arrival of the 7th and 8th Divisions and the Indian Corps before Ypres shows was perfectly possible. And, although Churchill does not mention it, there would also have been time to assemble additional heavy artillery.

But what, meanwhile, of the gap which a BEF at Tours would have left in the French line of battle? In his letter to Haldane, Haig had made the filling of this gap, so to speak, a fundamental assumption: ‘I presume of course that the French can hold on (even though her forces have to pull back from the frontier) for the necessary time for us to create an army …’

The answer lay with the nine French divisions – two corps – earmarked for the army of observation on the Italian border. These could have been put at notice to move as soon as the Italians declared their neutrality on 3 August (a decision confirmed to the second war council by Grey on 6 August), and the move begun as soon as French intelligence could confirm that the Italian army, although recalling some reservists to the colours, was not moving to a war footing (Austria was, after all, the more recent enemy, and France the ally: there was every reason for Rome to fear an Austrian grab in Venezia). If such a redeployment sounds injudicious – perilous even – in the event this is what did indeed happen: the French Army of the Alps was stood down on 17 August (at which time much of the BEF was still encamped near their ports of landing). Though it would have been a last-minute affair, its six in-place divisions (five of them regular), which were surplus to Plan XVII, would have been available to re deploy to the left of Lanrezac’s 5th Army, where, indeed, the erstwhile commander of the Army of the Alps, d’Amade, had already been sent to take command of the Territorial divisions. The great advantage that the French enjoyed – though they failed to make full use of it – was that the Schlieffen Plan unfolded at walking pace, and on exterior lines, observable by air, while the strategic movement of French troops, on interior lines, could be conducted at the speed of the railway engine. Never, before or since, has a commander-in-chief had so much time in which to make his key decisions. That is the real import of A. J. P. Taylor’s quip about ‘war by railway timetable’ – not that Europe’s leaders were forced into war by movement schedules. The Elder Moltke had said it to Bismarck: ‘Build railways, not forts.’

If these dispositions had been made, there is no reason to suppose that the situation at the end of September would have been any different from that which actually transpired – with French forces mounting a successful counter-attack on the Marne, and then the stalling on the Aisne. There was an undoubted moral effect in having the BEF in the line, and it certainly ‘punched above its weight’, but it is unreasonable to suggest that the French would not have been able to manage things on their own if they had been able to replace the BEF with the same number of their own regulars. Joffre, seeing the enemy, as it were, off guard, had brilliantly improvised and delivered a blow on the Marne that had sent the flower of Brandenburg reeling; but it was not enough. In the terminology of modern doctrine, he had executed the first two of the four requirements of victory – ‘find’ and ‘fix’: he had found the weak point, Kluck’s and Bülow’s flank, and he had fixed them – temporarily (which is all that can be expected) – on the Aisne. What he then had to do was ‘strike’ and then ‘exploit’ (as suggested by Churchill’s ‘Her only chance is to conquer Germany in France’).

However, at the time of launching the counter-offensive on the Marne Joffre had not been able to create a striking force to exploit success. What he needed was what the BEF could have offered had it been allowed to build its strength at Tours – a fresh, strong, virtually all-regular army numbering nearly 300,000. It should have been the winning move.

Not, however, simply to attack on the Aisne, to apply more brute force where brute force had already exhausted itself. What was needed was overwhelming force applied as a lever rather than as a sledgehammer. The German flank was not just open in a localized way after the retreat to the Aisne; the entire Schwenkungsflügel – the ‘pivot’ or ‘swing’ wing – was extended in an east–west line through mid-Champagne and southern Picardy, and it was beginning to bow back on the right. Indeed, with each successive encounter on the extremity of the flank, even as the Germans brought up new troops, the line backed further north rather than projecting further west. In the third week of September, with Antwerp still holding out, the BEF, some 300,000 strong, fully equipped, its reservists fighting fit, and with the RFC to direct its advance, could have launched a massive counter-stroke from Abbeville, a major rail junction, east between Arras and Albert (or even more boldly, further north between Arras and Lille), on a front of at least 30 miles – with strong reserves and artillery, screened by the Cavalry Corps, with the Indian Cavalry Corps ranging further north towards the high ground at Vimy.

With a simultaneous offensive by the French along the Aisne – indeed, across the whole front, to fix the Germans in place so that they could not further reinforce the right – all that Falkenhayn’s 1st, 2nd and 4th Armies would have been able to do to avoid being enveloped would have been to turn through 90 degrees to face west. But their pivot point would have had to be somewhere that did not form too sharp an angle and therefore a dangerous salient, and with Belgian forces perhaps making another sortie from Antwerp, it is probable that this pivot point would have to have been Rheims, or even Verdun. In any case, with the BEF pressing hard, and taking account of its own extended lines of communication, in particular the railheads, there would not have been the manoeuvre space for Kluck’s 1st Army to change direction through 90 degrees west of a line running north–south through Mons and Maubeuge. Had Falkenhayn got intelligence of the move of the BEF to Abbeville he might have made an orderly withdrawal from the Aisne to the Mons–Maubeuge line, dug in and brought up heavy artillery to halt the BEF’s advance; but this in turn would have given the BEF the option of avoiding making a direct attack and again threatening to turn the German right flank – further north, between Mons and Brussels. In the best case for the allies, with the Germans unable to find a natural line on which to try to halt the BEF, and a renewed offensive by Franchet d’Espèrey’s and Foch’s armies to threaten the 1st, 2nd and 4th Armies’ lines of communication, Falkenhayn would have had to pull back to the Meuse below Namur. He would then have had to garrison the river with all the troops he could find as allied strength built up on the Lower Meuse as far as Liège and within closing distance of the Dutch border in the Maastricht corridor.

Supposing, then, that at that point the Germans had been able to check further allied progress east – even perhaps, by a desperate reverse-Schlieffen transfer of troops from East Prussia – the situation in the west would have seen a strategic sea change. Joffre, to exploit, could now have used the growing Russian strength on the Eastern Front to his advantage: Falkenhayn would have been truly caught between two giant hammers. And with the Germans now on the defensive, Joffre would have had the choice of where to concentrate. With so catastrophic an end to the whole Schlieffen ‘plan’, it is not impossible to imagine the Kaiser’s suing for terms.

However, on 4 September the Triple Entente powers had signed a pact: ‘The British, French, and Russian Governments mutually engage not to conclude peace separately during the present war. The three Governments agree that when terms of peace come to be discussed, no one of the Allies will demand conditions of peace without the previous agreement of each of the other Allies.’ All could not go quiet on the Western Front unless the Germans ceased fire on the Eastern.

It was ironic that, by this pact, the British were now in effect pledged to the defeat of the Germans not just in France but in Russia too – an object that would have been scarcely conceivable to the cabinet a week before the war began. Of course, in December 1917 a new (Bolshevik) Russian government would conclude a very separate peace, but that was not an option for a nation with ‘honour’, the noun that had propelled Britain to war. It is possible, therefore, to imagine the war entering 1915 with a return to the Elder Moltke’s view of the two-front problem: stay on the defensive against France, check the Russians by a paralysing stroke (another Tannenberg, perhaps), and then turn westward to counter-attack when the inevitable allied offensive came – the aim being, since outright victory was no longer possible, to cripple both opponents and thereby bring about a favourable peace.

But the allies would have been in a vastly superior strategic position to that in which they actually found themselves in 1915. The possession of most of Belgium would have been significant in terms of the extra men and materiel available. And the failure of Germany to achieve victory would not have been lost on the neutrals. It was almost certainly impossible that Britain could have avoided war with Turkey, but if it were possible in May 1915 to persuade Italy, who in August 1914 had been in alliance with Germany and Austria, to enter the war on the allies’ side – as she did, against Austria-Hungary on 23 May, and Germany on 28 August – it should also have been possible to persuade the Dutch and the Danes to consider their position too. The Dutch obligation to defend Belgian neutrality under the Treaty of London was sufficiently vague to permit the application of diplomatic pressure, especially once the Germans had been removed from the southern Dutch border. It seems likely at least that some way would have been found to open the Scheldt to allied shipping, and to close the ‘breathing line’ to Germany. The Danes were in just as ambiguous a position, if for different reasons. They had no connection with any treaty, only a pragmatic decision to make: which side would win? Or rather, how might the peace terms work to their advantage? Their neutrality was weighted towards Germany, but a Germany fighting defensively on the Meuse would not have been the same as a Germany in possession of almost all of Belgium and a large slice of northern France. There was Danish territory to recover in Jutland, and although in the event the Treaty of Versailles would restore a large part of Schleswig to Denmark (and, indeed, would have given her all of it, and Holstein, had the Danes not feared German irredentism), Copenhagen could not have counted on it. There was, again, room for the diplomats to work.

At the very least the BEF counter-stroke, forcing the Germans back into Belgium, perhaps as far as the Meuse, would have given the allies far better ground on which to fight – and with a strong Belgian army, and a much shorter front (and therefore more reserves). At the very best, an offensive by British, French and Belgian armies on the Meuse in the spring of 1915, perhaps being allowed to use the Maastricht corridor, with Dutch–Danish action directed against the Kiel Canal and Heligoland, could have ended the war that summer.

That said, the German army’s (the German nation’s) visceral ability to fight on, despite all logic, was formidable, as the rest of the war demonstrated. However, the ground on which the allies fought need not have been the same; and the war was not immutably programmed to run until November 1918. At best the Dardanelles campaign to circumvent the deadlock on the Western Front need not have been attempted. The 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland might not have taken place, or at least might not have taken the same embittering course, for Britain would not have appeared to be on the ropes (there was more than a little opportunism in the IRA’s decision to ‘declare war’); and with some sensible concession to home rule the Union might still today have been of Great Britain and Ireland (always assuming, of course, that Ulster could have been placated – a big ‘if’). Perhaps the greatest bounties, however, would have been the failure of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia before it even started, and a Germany in which fascism did not take hold.

Is this all too fanciful?

Three decades on, in the summer of 1943, after he had been exerting his indomitable will on the nation and its armed forces for three years of war, Churchill startled a group of his close associates by remarking that ‘whoever had been in power – Chamberlain, Churchill, Eden, anyone you liked to mention – the military position would now be exactly the same. Wars had their own rules, politicians didn’t alter them, the armies would be in the same position to a mile.’ This ‘Tolstoyan summary’, as one of Churchill’s biographers, Ronald Lewin, puts it, was surely ‘Winnie’ at his most perverse, fuelled perhaps by a little brandy and post-Alamein relief, and masked by cigar smoke – Winnie the soldier still, defiantly growling from some long-remembered battlefield. He was forgetting, perhaps even conveniently, his own politician’s part in the bloody fiasco of the Dardanelles and Gallipoli. For just as wars have consequences, so do battles – which is why they are fought – and likewise the operational plans which determine in large measure where and how those battles are fought. And the principal assumptions on which plans are made are primarily political, not military; hence Asquith’s assertion at the CID meeting in August 1911 that ‘the expediency of sending a military force abroad or of relying on naval means alone is a matter of policy which can only be determined when the occasion arises by the Government of the day.’ The fact was, however, that the politicians had lost control of military strategy (and in this, of course, British politicians were not alone), their failure to show effective interest allowing a momentum to develop in the staff conversations whose outcome then became the strategy because once revealed, during the crisis, there seemed to be no alternative.

By refusing to recognize what this implied – a decision deferred indefinitely – and instead basing all its plans on the assumption of simultaneous mobilization with the French and the incorporation of the BEF into the deployment plans of the French general staff, the War Office failed both the army and the country. Since the War Office was both a department of state and a military headquarters, this was both a political and a military failure – and, since the secretary of state for war was a member of the cabinet, ultimately a failure of cabinet government.

However the war began – by German design, by the negligence of statesmen, by the purblindness of generals – there was nothing inevitable about its course. Churchill said memorably, before the great clash of dreadnoughts at Jutland in 1916, that the Royal Navy – in particular the admiral commanding the Grand Fleet, Sir John Jellicoe – could lose the war in an afternoon. In August 1914, however, the decisive ground was not the North Sea but the Franco-Belgian border. And though government and the War Office may have failed them, the men of the BEF, the ‘Old Contemptibles’, paid the price of honour on that decisive ground, and paid it scarcely flinching – in honour, as they had been variously exhorted, of the King, the nation, the British army, or the regiment. They fought what they knew was the good fight because, as Sir John French had told them, ‘Our cause is just.’ And despite the shortcomings in planning and preparation over the years, the pride and prejudice in the senior echelons as the nation went to war, and the mistakes by commanders and staff in the first encounter battles, they fought a good fight – because, when all else is going wrong, that is what professionals did (and do).

18 June 1815 – What If Part II

The Battle of Waterloo by William Sadler

‘On a perdu la France’ was Napoleon’s comment to d’Erlon, referring to Ney’s mistakes at Quatre Bras when he joined him there at midday on 17 June. The comment might equally well have applied to Grouchy. When on that same day Napoleon detached Grouchy and his 33,000 men to follow up and harass the Prussians, Grouchy himself and Soult tried to dissuade him, but the Emperor insisted. Not only was he giving himself too many objectives, he was dissipating his forces. A single aim – the defeat of Wellington – and a concentration of force to do so would have served him better. Moreover, his instructions to Grouchy were far from clear. Grouchy was required to pursue the Prussians and reconnoitre their movements so that Napoleon could determine their intentions. He needed to know what Wellington and Blücher meant to do. During the early hours of 18 June, Napoleon received a despatch from Grouchy announcing his intention to follow the Prussians towards Wavre and prevent their moving towards Brussels and Wellington’s position. The Emperor’s reply confounded confusion and contained these words: ‘His Majesty desires you will head for Wavre in order to draw near to us [my italics] . . .’ This in itself was contradictory for whereas Wavre was to the north of Grouchy, Napoleon was to the west. Had Napoleon’s former Chief of Staff, Berthier, been there instead of Soult, he would never have permitted such sloppy phrasing. But Soult did at least press for the instant recall of Grouchy, only to have his intervention dismissed by the Emperor. The full impact of Grouchy’s detachment was still to be felt.

In his most agreeable account of Marcellin Marbot’s adventures as a cavalry général de brigade, based on Marbot’s own memoirs, Vyvyan Ferrers suggests that these memoirs gave Conan Doyle the inspiration for writing his stories about Brigadier Gérard. Ferrers also notes that the choice of the name Gérard was surprising, for as already recorded, one of the corps commanders at Waterloo was General Etienne Gérard, and on the fateful afternoon of 18 June he was with the newly appointed Marshal Grouchy, who was vainly attempting to follow up Blücher’s army to Wavre and engage it. It was while Grouchy was pondering what to do that the thunder of guns at Waterloo was heard. If ever the initiative inherent to any great military commander needed to be employed, it was now. To march to the sound of the guns – at a time when your own force was contributing nothing to the battle’s resolution – was so fundamental that Grouchy should have given instant orders to do so. Yet at this very moment General Gérard intervened and publicly told Grouchy that it was his duty to march upon the guns. Despite his own indecision, the one thing Grouchy was not prepared to tolerate was a lesson in command from one of his own subordinates, and after an ill-tempered dispute, the Marshal made it plain that his duty was to carry out the Emperor’s orders and proceed to Wavre. And so he turned his back on the struggle which was to determine Europe’s future. Had he marched to the guns with his 33,000 or so men, he would have intercepted the Prussian movement towards Waterloo and reinforced Napoleon at a moment when such reinforcement would have been decisive. Napoleon would not then have had to respond to Ney’s plea for more troops with a petulant: ‘Troops? Where do you expect me to find them? Do you expect me to make them?’ They would have been to hand at the very moment when Ney was poised to execute the coup de grâce.

It is clear, therefore, that the various Ifs that we have looked at so far spring from mistakes made by Ney, Soult, Grouchy and Napoleon himself. Vincent Cronin names three blunders committed by the Emperor before the main battle had even begun: first, not crushing Wellington on the morning of 17 June, when the Prussians were retreating and the French could have brought overwhelming numbers against Wellington; second, his misjudgement both of the quality of British soldiers and the tactical skill of their commander; third, his gross overconfidence – had he taken the whole affair much more seriously, he would not have delegated Grouchy on his fruitless errand and ignored his subordinates’ plea to get Grouchy back in time for the main attack.

A. G. Macdonnell finds fault not so much with Napoleon as with Marshals Ney, Soult and Grouchy. We have examined Grouchy’s fatal indecision; Soult fell down by not stemming the tide of mistakes; Ney lost the battle by his ill-tempered countermanding of the Emperor’s order on 16 June to send up d’Erlon’s corps so that Napoleon could have destroyed Blücher’s army rather than simply mauling it and pushing it back. Had this been done, Grouchy would have remained with the main body and Napoleon would have had an extra 33,000 men to dispose of Wellington, who in turn would have received no last-minute support from the Prussians. The mere fact that Wellington called it a close-run thing indicates how easily the scales might have been turned. Yet when all is said, we may be sure that Napoleon would have taken the credit for victory, and so must bear responsibility for defeat.

But what if he had won? In his essay ‘Ruler of the World’ Alistair Horne argues that victory at Waterloo would not have brought about Napoleon’s ultimate success.

There were vast fresh forces of Russians, Austrians and Germans already moving towards France. A second battle, or perhaps several battles, would probably have followed Waterloo. But even if the ultimate engagement had ended in the likely defeat of Napoleon, with Britain out of the war, it would have been a continental and not a British victory. What followed would have, therefore, been a peace dominated by Metternich’s Central European powers – by Russian, Austria and Prussia instead of Great Britain.

On hearing of Napoleon’s escape from Elba and with the Allied resolution to outlaw him, Czar Alexander of Russia had told Wellington at the Congress of Vienna that it was for him to save the world again. With Wellington and Blücher beaten, would the resolve of the other powers have held firm? We have to imagine a triumphant Emperor entering Brussels at the head of his troops, frantic enthusiasm from the Belgians, who instantly declare for him, the Netherlands also changing sides, then Napoleon’s return to Paris, acclaimed by all, even Talleyrand and Fouché – whose heads Napoleon might or might not have demanded – overtures for peace pouring out from the Tuileries, promises of democratic reform, the formerly circumspect Marshals rallying to their Commander-in-Chief, France jubilant, Napoleon overhauling the Grande Armée and preparing for the defence of the country’s frontiers. In spite of the gathering Allied armies, their leaders might have recalled Napoleon’s former ability to defeat them one by one or two at a time. They might have recalled the Emperor’s pulling on his long boots in 1813 and 1814, winning battle after battle at Lützen, Bautzen, Champaubert, Château-Thierry, Vauchamp, Montereau – and these victories won with a small army of some 50,000 men. What he might now do with an army of four or five times that number, commanded by the most valiant and able set of lieutenants under his own unique direction, would surely have given the Allied sovereigns pause for reflection and compromise.

Besides, it is so agreeable to picture yet one more Congress of Vienna, convened by Metternich, who by then would have appreciated that Napoleon was not un homme perdu after all, a Congress at which not only did dancing gild the scene and amorous intrigue rule the plot, but at which Napoleon and Wellington finally met, with Talleyrand – whose cynical observation that treason was simply a matter of dates would have come full circle – hovering in the background, and Alexander once more falling under the spell of his brother Emperor. Would Marie Walewska have been there to consort with Napoleon, or would the wicked, dashing Hussar General, Count Neipperg, have been constrained to escort the Empress of France, Marie-Louise, to Vienna, bringing with them the King of Rome, Napoleon’s son, destined six years later – if we assume that the Emperor still met his death in 1821 – to succeed his father as Napoleon II? If we are going to rewrite history, we might as well do it with a flourish.

There is perhaps one further diversion here. However insubstantial the Ifs of history may be, we must all applaud Stendhal’s captivating suggestion that had Napoleon won at Waterloo, not only would there have been no liberals to be afraid of in the 1820s, but all the ancient sovereigns of Europe would only have kept their thrones by marrying the daughters of Napoleon’s Marshals. Judging by the mettle of these Marshals, the sovereigns in question could have done a great deal worse. There would have been one further benefit from Napoleon’s winning – George IV would not then have boasted that he had been present on the battlefield.

And what if Napoleon had been killed at Waterloo – the ‘good death’ that he pondered on St Helena? Why, the whole of France would have honoured him. Marshal Ney’s comment as he gazed at Bessières’ corpse on the field of Lützen, ‘C’est notre sort. C’est une belle mort,’ would have echoed round the world in honour of the General, whom Wellington called ‘un grand homme de guerre’, the greatest ever to appear at the head of a French army, and the magnificent ceremony, which took place in 1840, with Louis-Philippe on the throne of France, when Napoleon’s coffin, returned from St Helena, was received by Marshal Moncey, Governor of Les Invalides, would have been enacted twenty-five years earlier.

There is one last If we may perhaps contemplate when we recall A. P. Herbert’s delightful book, Why Waterloo?, in which he argues that Napoleon did not break out of Elba but was driven out. Had the French government honoured the treaty of Fontainebleau with regard to money, had Marie-Louise joined her husband on Elba, had Talleyrand been less malignant, or Colonel Campbell more vigilant, had Royal Navy frigates blockaded the island properly, there would perhaps have been no escape, no Hundred Days, no Waterloo. A. P. Herbert concludes that no single person could be arraigned for the tragedy that ensued. Yet he adds this: ‘The Emperor of Austria, if he had had more humanity; Louis XVIII, if he had had more sense and honesty; Marie-Louise, if she had had more faith and fortitude, could have altered history and let one of the world’s great men die peaceful and happy.’

It was while Napoleon was still on Elba that his brother, Lucien, wrote to Masséna: ‘Voilà donc enfin le drame terminé. Tant de gloire perdue par la plus lâche fin. Bon Dieu! Que de souvenirs. Que de regrets.’ It was when on that other island that Napoleon himself could not resist a resort to the ‘what ifs’ of history. Had he appointed some other general instead of Grouchy. Blücher would not have arrived in time to save Wellington from defeat. Yet we must recall that Napoleon, who was so often to reiterate, ‘Be clear and all the rest will follow,’ broke his own rule in his confusing instruction to Grouchy. On St Helena the Emperor, like Lucien, has his regrets. He should have had Talleyrand and Fouché hanged. What a difference that might have made to the Hundred Days. Then again: ‘To die at Borodino would have been to die like Alexander: to be killed at Waterloo would have been a good death; perhaps Dresden would have been better; but no, better at Waterloo. The love of the people, their regret.’

He regrets, too, ever having left Egypt. He would have preferred to be Emperor of the East than of the West. The desert had always fascinated him and his own name meant lion of the desert. Besides, to have been master of Egypt would have been to be master of India. What rascals the English were! ‘If I had been able to get to India from Egypt with the nucleus of an army, I should have driven them from India.’ Now the English would have to see what would come to them from Russia. ‘The Russians, already in Persia, have not far to go to reach India.’ It was this last point of Napoleon’s which some twenty years later was the cause of concern in the minds of the Englishmen who ruled India, and the cause also of their beginning to play the Great Game.