The Inter-World Wars Military Thinkers

General Erich Ludendorff

Throughout history, all too often the conclusion of one armed conflict has served as a prelude to the next. Never was this more true than at the end of World War I, which, although it was sometimes described as “the war to end all wars,” provided only a temporary respite. Scarcely had the guns fallen silent than people started looking into the future on the assumption that the Great Powers of this world had not yet finished fighting one another. Which gave rise to the question: How was this to be done?

To virtually all of those who tried, the point of departure was the need to avoid attrition, reopen the way toward decisive operations, and reduce the number of military casualties on the battlefield. The casualties themselves had been the direct result of the superiority of the defense as brought about by modern firepower, hence the most pressing problem was to find ways to bypass or overcome it. One of the first serious theoretical treatises to look at the problem was written by an Italian general, Giulio Douhet. An engineer by profession, during the early years of the century Douhet had become fascinated with the military applications of the internal combustion engine. A little later he was also found dabbling in futurist ideas concerning the spiritual qualities allegedly springing from those two speedy new vehicles, the motorcar and the aircraft, claiming that they possessed the ability to rejuvenate the world and Italy in particular.

As a staff officer in 1915–18, he was in a position to observe, and reflect on, the twelve abortive offensives the Italian army had launched across the River Isonzo. Surely there had to be a better way of doing things—one that, in fact, he had already promoted during the war itself, arguing in favor of the creation of a massive bomber force and its use against the enemy. His masterpiece, Il Commando del Aereo (the command of the air), was published in 1921 and, as the title suggests, tried to do for the air what Mahan had done for the sea. In his own words, “the form of any war … depends upon the technical means of war available.” In the past, firearms had revolutionized war; then it was the turn of small-caliber rapid-fire guns, barbed wire, and, at sea, the submarine. The most recent additions were the air arm and poison gas, both of which were still in their infancy but possessed the potential to completely upset all forms of war so far known.

Douhet surmised correctly that as long as war was fought only on the surface of the earth, it was necessary for one side to break through the other’s defenses in order to win. However, those defenses had become stronger and stronger until the ability to maneuver past them and take strategically important targets such as cities and industrial areas became impossible. Sheltered by this reality, the civilian population carried on almost undisturbed. As we saw, it was by mobilizing that population that the belligerents were able to produce what it took to wage total war and sustain the fight for years on end.

The advent of aircraft changed this situation. Capable of flying over battle lines and natural obstacles, and possessing a comparatively long range, aircraft were free to attack centers of population and industry. Because no effective defense against such attacks was possible—given that the air could be traversed in all directions with equal ease and there was no predicting which target would be hit next—any war would have to start with a massive attack on the enemy’s air bases so as to establish “command of the air.”

That having been achieved, and extrapolating from the events of 1916–18, Douhet suggested that forty aircraft dropping eighty tons of bombs might have “completely destroyed” a city the size of Treviso. A mere three aircraft, he calculated, could deliver as much firepower as a modern battleship in a single broadside, whereas a thousand aircraft could deliver ten times as much firepower as could the entire British navy—counting thirty Dreadnoughts—in ten broadsides. The kicker was that the price tag of a single battleship would buy about a thousand aircraft. As Douhet pointed out, moreover, even these calculations failed to take account of the fact that the science of military aviation had just begun and that aircraft capable of lifting as much as ten tons of bombs would soon be built. Carrying Douhet’s views further, investments in armies and navies would by necessity come to a halt, and given that the new weapon was inherently offensive in nature, most of the aircraft ought to be not fighters but bombers. And instead of being grafted on to the army and navy, such air fleets would be formed into an independent air force. At the outbreak of the next war, that air force would be launched like a shell from a cannon. Having obtained command of the air in this sense by destroying the enemy’s airfields, the attackers would switch from military to civilian objectives. Using gas as the principal weapon, the aim should be not merely to kill but to demoralize. Leaping over the enemy’s ground defenses, a war waged by such means might be over almost before it had begun. By minimizing the casualties of both the attacker and the defender (whose population, feeling the effects of war directly, would force the government to surrender) represented a humane alternative to an endless battle of attrition. To carry out the air offensive, Douhet proposed a comparatively small force made up of elite warriors, a vision that meshed well with the anti-democratic, fascist ideas he also entertained.

The dream of avoiding warfare by attrition was also alive in the great prophet of mechanized land warfare, John Frederick Fuller. Even as a young officer, Fuller had given evidence of a formidable intellect expressed by an interest in everything from Greek philosophy to Jewish mysticism. In the years before World War I, he made great effort to discover the principles of war, of which he settled on nine: direction, concentration, distribution, determination, surprise, endurance, mobility, offensive action, and security.’

In numerous publications—Fuller was a prolific writer who, however, often tended to overstate his case—he argued that war, like every other field of human life, was decisively affected by the progress of science. Like Douhet, he considered the most important fruits of science to be the internal combustion engine (on which depended the airplane and the tank) and poison gas. For him, future warfare on land would center on the tank and the mechanization of artillery, reconnaissance, engineering, signals, supply, and maintenance units. Fully mechanized, an army would enjoy almost as much freedom of movement as did ships at sea. Now armies could once again maneuver against each other, concentrating against select sections of the enemy front, breaking through, and bringing about victory at comparatively low cost.

In the debates about tanks and mechanization, his views, coming as they did from an ex–chief of staff of the most advanced mechanized force in history, commanded particular respect. Yet even barring his most extreme ideas—say, that armies should consist of tanks alone and every infantryman provided with his individual tankette—many of his suggestions have come to pass. Considering himself not merely a military reformer but a philosopher as well, Fuller went on to spin an immensely complicated network of intellectual propositions on the nature of war, life, history, and whatever. Combining all these different strands, many of his historical writings were decidedly brilliant. However, much of his theorizing was decidedly half-baked, tied as it was to his interest in mysticism and the occult.

In the history of twentieth-century military thought, Fuller’s name is almost always associated with that of his younger contemporary and friend Basil Liddell Hart.’ Unlike Fuller, Liddell Hart was not a professional soldier, but rather studied history at Cambridge before enlisting, received a commission, and fought in France. Gassed at the Somme, Captain (throughout his life he enjoyed emphasizing the military rank he had attained) Liddell Hart spent the rest of the war in England training infantry recruits. It was in this capacity that he first started thinking seriously about the best way to prepare for, and wage, armed conflict.

Concerning his intellectual development, two points are worth noting. First, like so many of his generation who were educated in public schools, Liddell Hart was brought up on the notion that war was akin to sport and games. In his memoirs, he explains that he was good at football—not because his coordination and technique were in any way outstanding, but because he could envisage all various combinations of play and foresee where the ball was likely to end up. Second, and again like so many of his contemporaries, Liddell Hart ended the war as a fervent admirer of the British military establishment, which after all had just fought and won the largest armed conflict in history to date.

However, within a few years he reversed himself, joining the then fashionable trend of disillusionment with the war in general and with its conduct at the hand of the British high command in particular. In criticizing that conduct, his stature as the popular journalist he became after the war and interest in sports were to come in handy. Like Fuller, Liddell Hart concluded that sending men into the maws of machine guns had been the height of folly, the origin of which was to be found not in simple bloody-mindedness but in the writings of the greatest of all military philosophers, Carl von Clausewitz. To Liddell Hart, this was the prophet whose clarion call had misled generations of officers into the belief that the best, indeed almost the only, way to wage war was to concentrate the greatest possible number of men and weapons and launch them straight ahead against the enemy. In 1914–18 the “Prussian Marseillaise” had borne its horrible fruit.

To restore the power of the offensive and save casualties, in his early writings Liddell Hart recommended “the indirect approach.” Rather than attacking the enemy head-on, he should be thrown off balance, achieved by combining rapidity of movement with secrecy and surprise, with attacks carried out by dispersed forces (so as to conceal the true center of gravity for as long as possible), coming from unexpected directions, and following the least expected route, even if this meant overcoming topographic obstacles. Above all, every plan had to possess “two branches”—drawn up in such a way as to keep the opponent guessing concerning one’s true objectives. Any plan should also be sufficiently flexible to enable an objective to be changed if it turned out to be too strongly defended.

All such maneuvers were to be carried out in two-dimensional space, along lines of communications, overcoming all natural and artificial obstacles, while trailing “an umbilical cord of supply,” and against an enemy who presumably was both intelligent enough to understand what was going on and capable of engaging in countermaneuvers. War, consisting essentially of movement, was presented almost as if it were some kind of sophisticated game played between opposing teams. This was particularly true of Liddell Hart’s mature work. The older he became, the more pronounced his tendency to give tactics a short shrift. Other subjects such as mobilization, logistics, intelligence, command, communication and control, and questions of killing and dying were also lightly skipped over. Reading his most famous and oft-reprinted book, Strategy: The Indirect Approach, one might be excused for thinking war was about operational movement and very little else.

During the early 1920s, Liddell Hart also became interested in mechanization, and in this so much of his thinking was “borrowed” from his mentor, Fuller, that their friendship suffered for it. Thus it was little surprise that Liddell Hart’s vision of mechanized armed forces, as set forth in his Paris, or the Future of War (1925) as well as The Remaking of Modern Armies (1927), employed a combination of aircraft, tanks, and poison gas as weapons with which defenses could be skipped over or overcome, resulting in the war brought to a swift and cheap, if violent, end.

What prevented Liddell Hart from making a detailed forecast of the Blitzkrieg, with its characteristic combination of armored divisions and tanks, was his abiding revulsion for the horrors of World War I and his determination, which he shared with so many of his generation, that they not be repeated. From about 1931 on, this caused him to switch from attempts to devise more effective ways to win toward thinking about less costly ways to avoid defeat. Following Julian Corbett without bothering to acknowledge the master, he now claimed that the “British Way in Warfare” had always been to stay out of massive Continental commitments. Instead the kingdom had relied on its navy to keep the enemy at bay (and harass and weaken him by means of well-directed strokes at selected points) and on Continental allies to deliver the coup de main. By 1939, Liddell Hart had convinced himself that “the dominant lesson from the experience of land warfare, for more than a generation past, has been the superiority of the defense over attack”; even in the air, as experiences in Spain had shown, “the prospects of the defense are improving.” Therefore, instead of Britain repeating its World War I error—which had led to so many casualties— it could safely trust the “dauntless” French to stop the Germans. Britain itself, its armed forces thoroughly modernized and mechanized, should revert to its traditional strategy, relying primarily on blockade on the one hand and airpower on the other. This had the additional advantage that it would make universal conscription and mass armies unnecessary—a preference for small professional forces that Liddell Hart, a liberal, shared with some thinkers like Douhet.

Compared with Douhet, Fuller, and Liddell Hart, Erich Ludendorff was a towering figure. Much more than the first two, he understood what modern war was like from the top, and unlike the last-named he did not regard it as some kind of field game; “the war has spared me nothing,” he would write, having lost two sons. On the other hand, and again unlike Liddell Hart in particular, neither did he shrink from its horrors.

At first, Ludendorff was perhaps no more bigoted than was required of a German officer of his generation. Indeed, during the war he once opened a proclamation to the Jewish population of occupied Poland with the words, “Meine liebe Jidden.” In the 1920s, however, influenced by his second wife, he started dabbling with anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, and anti-freemasonry (he could never make up his mind which of the three international forces posed the greatest danger to Germany). He also took a part in the 1923 Nazi Putsch; for all this he has been rightly condemned. However, this should not obscure the fact that his vision of future war was more nearly correct than any of the rest.

Having spent more than two years in charge of Germany’s war effort, Ludendorff did not believe that a first-class modern state could be brought to its knees rapidly and cheaply by aircraft dropping bombs, or by fleets of tanks engaging in mobile operations, however brilliantly. In part, his Der Totale Krieg merely continued the work of some pre-1914 militarist writers, such as Colmar von der Goltz and Theodor von Bernhardi, who had advocated total mobilization and mass armies. And up to a point, his book recounted his own experience, which by attacking many of his less cooperative colleagues sought to explain why Germany had lost the war. Yet whatever the book’s precise origins and purpose, Ludendorff’s main thesis was that the developing technologies of production, transportation, and communication made modern war into much more than merely a question of armed forces maneuvering against one another for mastery of some battlefield. Instead, war would now demand a nation’s total effort, and therefore a total devotion of all resources to its execution.

To be sure, the next war would make use of all available weapons, including poison gas. Both civilians in their cities and soldiers in their trenches would be targeted, and the resulting casualties, destruction, and suffering would be immense. Therefore, by necessity, as important as the total mobilization of material resources would be the spiritual mobilization of the people—a point on which, as Ludendorff and many of his countrymen saw it, imperial Germany with its old-fashioned, authoritarian system of government and its neglect of the working classes had been sadly deficient.

The implication of such mobilization was an end to democracy and the liberties it entailed, including not only freedom of the press but workers’ rights and capitalist enterprise as well. For either industrialists or union leaders (during the war, Ludendorff had had his troubles with both) to insist on their own privilege was intolerable. Along with the entire financial apparatus available to the state, they, too, were to be subjected to a military dictatorship. And having experienced the process firsthand, Ludendorff was under no illusion that the nation’s spiritual and material mobilization could be improvised. Hence the dictatorship he demanded, and for which he no doubt regarded himself as the most suitable candidate, was to be set up in peacetime and made permanent.

The next war would be a life-and-death struggle to be won by the belligerent with the greatest resources and the strongest will to mobilize and deploy them—which incidentally disposed of any childish illusions concerning small, professional, and highly mobile, let alone chivalrous, armed forces. Anything that did not serve the war effort would have to be ruthlessly suppressed. Politics would, in effect, be swallowed by the war. Ludendorff was never one to mince his words. “All of Clausewitz’s theories should be thrown overboard…. Both war and policy serve the existence of the nation. However, war is the highest expression of the people’s will to live. Therefore politics must be made subordinate to war.” Or else, to the extent that this did not happen, treated as superfluous and, indeed, treasonable.

In the decades after 1945, Ludendorff’s military ideas were often attacked by featherweight commentators who mistook their world—in which nuclear weapons had made total warfare as he understood it impossible—for his. During these years, it was Liddell Hart and Fuller who, whether rightly or not, were celebrated as the fathers of the Blitzkrieg. Nevertheless, the fact remains that it was not their vision of World War II but Ludendorff’s that turned out to be only too horribly true.

To be sure, fleets of aircraft, though they did not drop gas, did fly over fronts and bombed cities on a scale that, had he been able to envisage it, might have made even Ludendorff blanch. The combination of airpower, armor, mobility, and wireless restored operational mobility, laying the groundwork for some spectacular campaigns in which countries the size of Poland and France were knocked down at a single blow. The Second World War also demonstrated the reestablishment of the balance between defense and offense, although events were to show that both tanks and aircraft were equally as capable of preventing a breakthrough as they were of helping one take place.

Where Ludendorff proved most correct, however, was in his insistence that the Second World War—a term, of course, that he did not use—would be broadly like the first, and like its predecessor would develop into a gigantic and prolonged struggle. As was the First World War, it would be waged on many fronts, at sea and in the air as well as on land. Like its predecessor, it would both demand and make possible the mobilization of all resources. He was also proved right in that even democratic Britain found it necessary to curtail the role of politics by setting up a national coalition government—which meant that, as long as the conflict lasted, there was no parliamentary opposition, and elections were postponed. Ludendorff’s posthumous triumph may, indeed, be seen in the fact that, by the time the war was over, a continent had been devastated and an estimated forty million people lay dead.


Der Halte Befehl – France, 21 May 1940 Part I

‘We have lost the battle for France.’

French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud

to Winston Churchill, 15 May 1940

In the evening hours of 10 January 1940, a German Junkers-52 transport plane made an emergency landing in a field near Mechelen-sur-Meuse. On board was a staff officer of the 7th German Infantry Division, who carried on him detailed plans of the invasion of France. He was captured before being able to burn his maps. These showed the German plan for a spring attack through the Ardennes with a crossing of the Meuse (Maas) south of the Belgian border. The captured plans were rushed to General Maurice Gamelin, Commander-in-Chief of Allied armies.

He didn’t believe it, as much as he didn’t believe his chief of espionage, Colonel Payol of the Deuxième Bureau, who had confirmation from their source deep in Berlin, ‘Bertrand’, an official in the German Ministry of War.

No, decided General Gamelin, no army could ever cross the Ardennes, although, only two years before, during French Army manoeuvres conducted by himself, General Prétalat had used exactly the same breakthrough route as was shown on the captured German plans. Finally, the French military attaché in Bern informed Gamelin to expect a German push on Sedan by 8 May. He was only two days out.

On the morning of 10 May 1940, a special unit of German paratroopers, which had practised their assault on a mock-up model of their target, dropped on Fort Eben Emael, which controlled three vital bridges along the border between France and Belgium. Within twenty minutes, this strategic junction was in the hands of the Germans, and the road into France laid open.

On 1 September 1939, the world was given its first taste of Germany’s Blitzkrieg strategy. It was based on lightning thrusts by panzer forces in combination with tactical air strikes, a technique developed during the inter-war years by the German panzer genius, Heinz Guderian. While Germany had developed an élite tank force, the British Army had Mark I tanks equipped with a machine gun, and even their heavier Matildas were no match for the fast German armour. The French were even worse, their tanks lumbered along at 4 m.p.h. to allow their fantassins (foot soldiers) to follow the attack. The German panzers moved at 60 km p.h.

Despite the Polish demonstration, the men who dominated Allied military planning were ossified and locked into a static defence. Major General Sir Louis Jackson’s view was typical of their thinking when he referred to the decisive battle of the First World War, the breakthrough by British armour at Amiens: ‘The tank was a freak. The circumstances which called it into existence were exceptional and are not likely to recur. If they do, they can be dealt with by other means.’

The short-sighted view of the Imperial General Staff was matched by the French. ‘We are not Poles,’ stated General Gamelin, ‘it couldn’t happen here.’ The French General Staff counted on the invulnerability of the Maginot Line. The main flaw of this highly sophisticated defence system was that it did not reach all the way to the sea but stopped at the Belgian border! The French assumed, wrongly as it turned out, that it would invite German forces to push through Holland, where the might of French, Belgian and British armies could crush their advance along the fortified Dyle River line. It was precisely this concentration of Allied forces in Flanders which led to the French debacle.

The plan for their lightning march to victory was presented to Hitler by the chief of staff of General von Rundstedt’s Heeresgruppe A (Army Group A), General Erich von Manstein. He suggested a surprise thrust with the bulk of German panzers, seven divisions, through the weakest point in the French defences, the heavily wooded Ardennes mountain range, leaving it to General Bock’s Heeresgruppe B (Army Group B) to fake the expected advance into Holland along the established invasion routes of the First World War. The French fell into the trap, even the ageing Marshal Henri Pétain, the hero of Verdun, who stated: ‘The Ardennes are impenetrable, this sector is not dangerous.’

One hundred and fifty kilometres of dense woodland separated the Maginot Line from the fortified Dyle River line in Belgium. For this – the key to the German attack plan, General Gamelin allotted only fourteen reserve divisions. Against these stormed forty-five crack German divisions, including all their heavy panzer units.

Myths surround the swift and conclusive German conquest. One is that victory was achieved by German tank superiority. This assertion is false. The Germans had 2,574 tanks to the Allies’ 3,254. Also, the Allies’ armour-plating and guns were superior to those of the German Mark II and Mark III models. The French were simply out-generalled. They had developed a Maginot mentality, basing their entire plan on an inflexible concept, outdated battle strategy and, most of all, an exaggerated confidence in static defence. (The Maginot Line was handed intact to the Germans the day following the French surrender!)

Yet, history tends to overlook a relatively minor action fought by seventy-four British tanks near Arras which was to prove of major significance to the continuation of the war.

After only two days of fighting, the leading German panzers had reached Sedan and the Meuse. On 12 May, an erroneous report that German panzer units had already crossed the Meuse reached General Corap, commander of the French Ninth Army. Corap panicked and ordered a precipitated withdrawal. He was replaced by General Giraud who was captured the following day.

On the 13th, General Erwin Rommel’s 7th Panzers did cross the river on a hastily assembled pontoon bridge. They were unopposed and quickly overran a new French defence line before it could even be manned. This rout opened a gaping hole in the French line. The panzer advance was so lightning fast that the Germans did not bother to stop and take prisoners. Long lines of surrendering French soldiers marched alongside the speeding panzers, many still carrying their weapons. Sometimes a German tank would stop, collect their rifles and crush them under the cleats of the panzer.

The French still had at their disposal three armoured divisions capable of stopping the German steamroller. Though their military Intelligence had by now established that the German panzers were definitely not headed towards Belgium, Gamelin, a man never prepared to change his preconception and beset by an inability to adapt to a rapidly changing situation, was at the root of the military debacle. When General Weygand replaced Gamelin, and a decision was taken – already too late – to move the three tank units into position, the 1st French Armoured Division of General Bruneau was simply wiped out by Guderian’s 19th Panzer Corps, assisted by the Luftwaffe’s Sturzkampfbombers (aka Stuka) near Beaumont, the 2nd Tank Division (General Bronché) unloaded at the wrong place, owing to a faulty train schedule, and the 3rd Tank Division ran out of fuel on their way to the front.

The forward movement by French and British reinforcements faced another serious problem, one not ‘Made in Germany’. Thousands of refugees streamed out of Eastern France and Belgium, and choked the main roads with their human flood. They came with every sort of transport imaginable – baby prams, wheelbarrows, pushcarts – piled with everything they owned or thought indispensable, useless items grabbed in panic – guitars, pictures and umbrellas. Automobiles soon ran out of gas, or their owners were pulled from them by others trying to reach safety, and now these vehicles lay in the middle of the road, adding to the traffic jam. Hungry people picked unripe corn and green fruit from trees, and then suffered the consequences. A child, clinging to her mother’s skirt, stumbled along on legs stiff from tiredness; the mother dumped what she was carrying to caress her child. A momentary scene of caring amidst a crowd in panic. Many sat down next to the road and waited for the inevitable to happen. They were a mass of ragged, tired people stumbling past the rotting corpses killed by strafing aircraft. The continued harassment by the German Stukas hung as a dark cloud over the scenes of tragedy along the road.

These refugees accomplished what ten additional German divisions couldn’t hope to achieve – they effectively blocked the badly needed Allied reserves from reaching their prepared defensive positions. By the evening of 15 May, the three German Panzer Corps of Hoth, Reinhardt and Guderian were pushing unopposed into France and a gallant attempt by a quickly assembled 4th French Armoured Division under a young colonel, Charles de Gaulle, had no effect on Guderian’s progress. The Battle for France had begun only five days before and France was already stumbling towards a humiliating surrender.

OKW (German Supreme Command), 15 May, afternoon. The two-week Polish campaign had been achieved through the talent of Hitler’s tank commanders, but the political leader of Germany sadly lacked the military experience to grasp the complexity of modern tank warfare. With the Führer’s conviction of his special mission in history, surpassed only by his belief in his unique military genius, he had surrounded himself with generals who were as incompetent as their French counterparts, yes-men like Keitel and Jodl. The Germans’ real strength lay in their front-line commanders, men such as Guderian and a young divisional general, Erwin Rommel. He was to become the best of German generals, since he alone managed to overcome the rigid German military spirit. He was never a party man, and, like his superior, Guderian, considered the generals at OKW incompetent and useless worriers. His intense dislike of men like Himmler, Jodl and Keitel was well known and he never became hypnotised by the political structure on which his personal security depended. The admiration he initially carried for Hitler was quickly transformed into deception and disgust. And for a valid reason. When the three tank corps had broken out of the Meuse bridgehead, and pushed ever deeper into France, driving the defeated armies before them, Hitler’s nerves gave and his anxiety grew in direct relation to the speed of the panzers’ advance. On that spring afternoon, a barrage of messages from their advance units flooded into OKW. The generals in the map room could hardly keep up with the movements of the arrows and flags. Hitler studied the general map and became highly fidgety. Keitel saw his Führer’s worries and agreed with him. ‘I agree with your appreciation of the present situation, mein Führer. We are over-extending our panzer forces. We must expect a counter-offensive.’

16/5 OKW: Der Franzose führt anscheinend aus seinem Reservoir Dijon-Belfort Kräfte nach der linken Seite des Durchburchkeils heran. (The French are bringing up from their Dijon-Belfort reserves new forces against the left flank of our breakthrough.)

The generals Keitel and Jodl accepted their leader’s assessment of the situation. Only Halder, the brilliant strategist, argued that the advance was much too rapid for the British to adjust to and that French morale had collapsed outright. He was right. But Hitler would only listen to his yes-men. On 17 May the initial order went out to stop the 19th Panzers.

HQ, 19th Panzer Corps. ‘But, general, it’s an order from OKW, a personal order from the Führer himself.’

‘I don’t care if it comes from the Pope. Get General List at 12th Army on the line, tell him I’m resigning my commission’, fumed Guderian. More than just another general, List proved an astute diplomat, and a compromise was reached. He allowed Guderian to carry out a ‘reconnaissance in force’. It was a farce. To conceal his moves from his Füher, Guderian had a telephone wire strung from his advancing command car to the place where OKW had stopped him. And thus it happened that the German panzers raced for the Channel coast before Hitler knew what was going on.

General Gamelin’s Directive No. 12 was issued at 09.45 hours on the 19th. It ordered all Northern Armies to head southwards at all costs and not find themselves encircled and pushed towards the Channel ports. While General Georges and his forces were to attack from the north in a southerly direction, the French 2nd and 6th Armies would attack northwards from Mezières. An event precipitated this order. At 19.00 hours that day, General Gamelin, greatly suffering from depression brought about by an advanced stage of syphilis, was replaced by Maxime Weygand. Weygand’s new plan, worked out with General Georges, his North-East Army Group commander, was for a pincer movement against the exposed German advance units. Georges, a mentally and physically unfit leader who, after the debacle on the Meuse had burst into tears, visited General Gort at his headquarters. He asked Gort, Commander-in-Chief BEF, (British Expeditionary Forces), to throw in his remaining tank reserves and cut off the two lead panzer divisions which had outrun their support infantry. BEF was to establish a new defence line Arras–Cambrai–Bapaume. In exchange, Georges promised a powerful French tank attack from the south.

BEF Commander Gort did not bother to inform General Georges that he was already considering a withdrawal towards Dunkirk. However, he did advise his Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, who ordered plans for ‘Operation Dynamo’ to be drawn up, a move which was to save the British Army from annihilation.

While the French and English wasted precious time negotiating who should attack and where, Rommel’s 7th Panzers were racing hell-bent for the heart of France. His panzers moved along a front only 3 km wide and 50 km from his nearest resupply unit. He took a considerable risk, since both his flanks were held by sizeable Allied forces. On the 18th, he pushed them on again. ‘Weiterer Marschweg: Le Cateau-Arras. Auftanken! Antreten!’ (Next direction: Le Cateau–Arras. Fill up! Stand at ready!’)

Soon he had no more petrol for his panzers. (It has been said that some filled up at local gas stations.) This made him furious until he discovered the reason, one of his own making. His advance had been so fast that his support division was still in Belgium! When Hitler heard about this, it gave him stomach cramps and his OKW generals, a sleepless night. Rommel’s daring was amply rewarded. For only 35 killed and 50 wounded, his division had taken 10,000 prisoners and captured or destroyed over 100 enemy tanks.

On 20 May, the day that the first units of Guderian’s panzers pushed into Abbeville, BEF Commander Gort put General Sir Harold Franklyn in charge of the Arras sector. In the corps command centre, a farmhouse near St Eloi, General Franklyn gathered his chief staff officers. Opinions were hopelessly different and no clear picture emerged. According to the latest reports from their retreating units, German panzers had already crossed the Scheldt at Cambrai and were approaching the final defensible water barrier, the Canal du Nord. The Germans were obviously trying to envelop Franklyn’s corps, and with it the whole Allied North-East Command of the French First and Seventh Armies, the Belgian Army, and the British Expeditionary Force.

Gort told Franklyn that he could not count on aerial support. He had to rely on his own ground forces – two divisions, the 5th and the 50th, plus the 1st British Tank Brigade, made up of units of the 4th and the 7th Royal Tank Regiments. The plan was for a concentrated thrust by infantry and tanks along the Arras–Bapaume highway to sever the head of the viper, Rommel’s 7th Panzers before the German support infantry could link up. Franklyn’s tank units were strong enough to carry out this objective as long as they didn’t meet up with Rommel’s main force. What finally put the scheme into operation before a unified plan could be worked out was an urgent cable by Churchill to Prime Minister Reynaud: ‘… The tank columns in the open must be hunted down by numbers of small mobile columns with a few cannons …’

General Gort set D-hour for 21 May at 14.00 hours. General Martel was put in command. The first wave was composed of the 13th and 151st Infantry Brigades plus sixty-five Mark I and eighteen Mark II tanks. Martel was promised flank support of seventy light tanks of the French 3rd Mechanised Division – but no air cover. There was one problem, and not a small one at that. Though Intelligence had correctly identified the 7th Panzers of General Rommel, they missed out on the 8th Panzers, the 5th Panzers, as well as a mechanised SS Panzergrenadier Division which was following Rommel’s Blitz – 400 tanks and 20,000 men.

A few days earlier. The moustachioed commander of the 1st British Tank Brigade was sitting in his command truck. A message arrived. Unit under heavy attack from the south–west. How could that be? South-east, yes, but south-west? His men were still holding the river line. Had the Germans managed to cross over the Dyle in the south, perhaps at their junction point with the First French Army?

The radio ended his doubts: … Lead units of German 39th Panzer Corps have crossed Dyle … we suffer heavy casualties …’ Followed by: ‘Attention all units. Hoth’s 5th and 7th Panzers seen general heading Maubeuge–Le Cateau …’

That was yesterday. Today he saw them. The panzers were fanning out, heading for his position. This time he couldn’t expect anyone else to solve the problem for him. He couldn’t retreat; for that it was too late. Bullets whipped past, slapped into trees and earth. All along the line his men were firing their rifles at armoured vehicles. Not much of a contest.

‘Need artillery support. Over.’ A distant bang. Another bridge went up before the enemy’s panzers got to it. ‘What’s happening?’ he enquired.

A tired voice came over the speaker. ‘We’re being clobbered, govn’or, dat’s wot.’

‘Blue 14, this is Foxtrot 7, do you read?’

‘Go on, Foxtrot 7.’

‘Blue 14, request permission to pull back.’

‘Foxtrot 7, permission denied. You hold with whatever you’ve got. Out.’

He knew that he had just sealed the fate of a battalion, but he had no choice. If they’d pulled back, it would leave the division’s, and, with it, the BEF’s entire flank wide open for the panzers. An officer stumbled in, his face grey and sweaty. ‘Sir, we cannot raise division headquarters, they’re either down or dead. We need tanks. Those Matildas of the 4th Royal would do us nicely.’

‘All right.’ He turned to his radio operator.’ Forget division, patch me through to GOC.’

‘I’ll give it a try, sir.’

‘You do better than that, son, or you’ll walk from here to there by foot.’

He had to launch a counter-attack, and very soon. For that he needed those heavy Royal tanks before the whole division was mashed under the cleats of German armour. The main railway bridge was already blown, but Jerry pioneers had thrown an assault bridge across the water. And now their panzers were streaming across, supported by heavy artillery. He turned to his radioman, headphones clamped to his head, listening to messages relaying firing orders and enemy positions.

‘Sir, confirmation, the Germans are across the river at Wavre.’

‘What about our sector?’

‘Sir, GOC orders a holding action, no further orders.’

The noise of distant shelling increased, explosions were creeping towards his positions. From across the river, an 88 scored a direct hit on a position of Alpha Company. Five men were killed. ‘Sir, GOC on the line.’

‘Hand me the mike. This is Blue 14 …’

The room was lit by a ball of yellow, followed by a mind-blowing crash. The radio operator tumbled forward, a big hole in his tunic. ‘This is Blue 14 …’ yelled the brigadier into the mike. It was no use. The splinter that had killed his radioman had also smashed the radio tubes. The brigadier jumped from the command truck. Had to get to another radio. Alpha Company had one. It wouldn’t carry far, but his message could be relayed down the line. When he reached the men of Alpha, he was told that their commander had been killed.

‘You there, sergeant …’

‘Yes, sir.’ The man saluted smartly.

‘Take over Alpha Company.’

‘Very good, sir.’

Finally he established contact with GOC only to hear that the Germans were already deep behind everybody, behind the French to the south, the Belgians to the north and now moving behind the British. Divisional commanders ordered places to be held that had already fallen. It was those cursed panzers. There was only one solution. Throw at them all the tank reserves in one single blow, and try to cut the Germans’ thrust in two. For this, his unit was ideally placed: the main panzer force had passed directly to his south and now their flank was open to his brigade. He passed the proposal through to GOC. The reply he got was not what he had expected. It wasn’t for attack, but another ‘disengage from the enemy’. ‘All units withdraw to Delta Blue line. Immediate.’ He checked his Michelin road map. Just like the Germans, his side also depended on these fabulous French road maps one could purchase at any petrol station. It showed that the Germans were racing for the Dendre, another river, already west of the Dyle. They had to move back. But not in panic. If he could achieve an orderly withdrawal his men would be available to fight another battle another day. He had to work out a scheme to extract his forward companies from their exposed position. They had to sneak back quiet like, leaving behind only a thin covering screen.

‘Major, we’re moving out. The guns are mechanised, the men are not. A problem?’ The major turned to the Regimental Sergeant Major who came to attention, stiff as a ramrod. Nothing would perturb this man, not even German panzers. ‘Try and organise us something with wheels for the boys.’

‘Yessah. There’s the equipment and food trucks.’

‘Dump it, we need men, not tents’, said the brigadier. ‘Here’s the plan. The guns move at 03.00 hours, the men at 03.20 hours. No lights. We head for the Dendre River. As soon as the last man is across, blow that bridge.’ He would be helped by artillery support. Shells from a German field battery screamed overhead. The last British unit along the Dyle line managed the move out without losses. They drove and walked and stumbled until they reached a forest. The troops were exhausted and wanted to sleep. Instead, they were ordered to dig in.

‘Sir,’ argued a company commander, ‘the men are a bit tired.’

‘Bloody hell, who isn’t?’ replied the brigadier.

Messages crackled over the ether: 30 German tanks, 60 half tracks, 20 guns, five miles east of Grosart, heading north-west at 0715 hours.

Dendre River line under heavy attack. Request permission …

By the time they had fixed one defence line the Germans were already past them. The brigade faced the threat of being completely cut off.

18 May, 22.00 hours. Heavy panzer units advancing rapidly along Le Cateau–Cambrai and Valenciennes–Douai axis.

Which meant that the Germans had already broken through to his south and were coming straight at his unit. The Germans expected to roll up the entire British Expeditionary Force from the rear. A barrage from some 25 pounders whistled overhead, ranging in on the advancing panzer column. A new order from GOC superseded the last: BEF to establish by 1200 hours May 19 along Escaut line, Oudenarde-Maulde.

Pull back again! The men were worn out. And another message.

1916: Change of OHL’s Leader[s]

German casualty figures for World War I remain notoriously difficult to reconstruct. The sheer scale of losses challenged record-keeping at every level. The problem was further exacerbated by, let us say, flexible standards for defining a wound. Those points made, it can reasonably be stated that almost a million German soldiers were killed in action or died of wounds in 1916, at Verdun, on the Somme, and everywhere else from East Africa to Lake Naroch that the tides of war carried them.

Casualties do not of themselves determine who is winning or losing a war. Nor do they determine the competence of commanders or the effectiveness of governments. But neither can they be dismissed as collateral damage, the cost of doing business. As early as midsummer 1916, Falkenhayn was showing signs of stress. The vultures in Berlin and at OHL headquarters were beginning to circle. And the Russian high command tried once more for a conclusion in the field. Russia had made an unexpected recovery from the debacles of 1915. Domestic production of weapons and ammunition reduced dependence on Allied imports. Grain reserves had more than doubled. Over six million men were under arms. And as the French calls to relieve the pressure at Verdun grew more strident, a new general offered a new plan. Alexei Brusilov, commanding the Southwestern Front, proposed to attack along the entire 350 miles of his four-army sector, each army in a particular zone. This would give the enemy no idea of which was the main effort or where the next blow would be struck. An overextended and demoralized Austro-Hungarian defense collapsed almost immediately. Falkenhayn scraped up ten divisions and enough artillery to stabilize the front, taking de facto charge not merely of the immediate fighting but virtually the entire Habsburg war effort.

The military and economic responsibilities accompanying that shift had little time to manifest before they were compounded by Romania’s August entry into the war on the Allied side. That kingdom hoped to gnaw the Dual Monarchy’s carcass in the wake of Brusilov’s successes. Its army proved spectacularly ill-prepared for the kind of war the Central Powers had learned how to wage, but it was Germany that was constrained to provide the bulk of the forces and planning for the Central Powers’ offensive against Romania. It furnished the commander as well.

The initial success of Brusilov’s offensive had led to increasing pressure from Bethmann-Hollweg and the Foreign Office, and within the High Command, which had relocated to Pless in Silesia, to turn over full command in the East to Hindenburg/Ludendorff. Falkenhayn resisted successfully-as long as he had the support of the Kaiser and those of his immediate advisors who as late as mid-July saw Falkenhayn as “a card . with which one either wins or loses,” whose sacrifice meant the end of William’s remaining credibility. Romania’s decision for war tipped the balance. At 11 pm on August 28 Falkenhayn received Imperial notice of his relief. The next morning Hindenburg appeared at High Command headquarters. At precisely 1:26 pm Erich von Falkenhayn boarded a train out of Pless.

He did not exactly vanish into obscurity. As a consolation prize and an opportunity for rehabilitation, Falkenhayn was given command of the Ninth Army, the assignment of driving the Romanians back across the border, and the constraint of completing the campaign before winter. Falkenhayn responded by emphasizing “speed and relentless attack.” Movement and assault would keep the Romanians so off balance that they could neither plan nor react before the next sequence shifted the paradigm again. This proto-blitzkrieg, implemented in one case by an improvised mechanized force, ranks with the Serbian campaign of 1915 as a tactical and operational cameo: the German Army at its best. On the other hand, like its predecessor, its scale was small. Its enemy was even more obliging in terms of decisions taken and blunders made. Nor did Falkenhayn’s cauterizing of a single running sore proffer guidelines to the comprehensive military and political challenges confronting Germany’s new command team.

The Hindenburg-Ludendorff appointment reflected and projected Germany’s situation. They were worked in as a command and planning team. Hindenburg described their relationship as like a successful marriage: neither party consistently dominant, each bringing something vital to the mix. Ludendorff was a manager and an organizer, talents reflected in his official title of First Quartermaster-General. Intelligent and industrious, a master of detail yet able to maintain a sense of general situations, he was at his best as a problem-solver with no time left over to indulge the irritability and anxiety that were the negative sides of his character. To an army badly shaken by Verdun, the Somme, and their aftermaths, Erich Ludendorff provided a sense of grip as welcome as it was badly needed.

If Ludendorff was a serious version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “model major general,” Hindenburg modeled a traditional Prussian general, arguably to the point of caricature. Solid of body, with a near-literally square head and appropriate facial hair and facial expression, he looked the part-a point to be neither overlooked nor mocked in an era of photography and newsreels. He projected an air of imperturbability: nothing seemed able to bring him out of countenance. And Hindenburg was popular, both as a public figure and in the corridors of power.

But were they hommes connetables, capable of fulfilling the military responsibilities they were assigned and the economic and political ones they would assume? The overwhelming consensus is that their inheritance was poisonous, nurturing an already potential combination of militarism and expansionism at the expense of wisdom and caution. Too often overlooked is a counterpoint: Germany in 1916 had no one else. When the army is specifically considered, there is an obvious void in the second generation, the mid-levels of staff and command. A first-rate crop of third-generation figures were emerging: Seeckt, Lossow, Rohr, Leith-Thomsen, and those yet unidentified, like the recycled reservist who would revolutionize artillery tactics in the next year, and the infantry captain whose feint-and-strike tactics in the mountains of northern Italy prefigured the methods of a later, greater war. But these were junior ranks: majors and lieutenant colonels. Their counterparts among the movers and shakers in the High Command, officers like Max Bauer and Gerhard Tappen, suffered from over-tempering: an involvement in situations beyond their maturity and judgment that began in the war’s early weeks. With the exception of Max von Gallwitz, it is difficult to identify, much less recall, any field commanders who began the war as colonels or Generalmajoren and had risen, or would rise, much above the level of what the British called “good plain cooks” and “safe pairs of hands.” Germany’s war was unlikely to end well in safe pairs of hands.

Though it took time and lives, Britain and France eventually produced significantly deeper pools of senior military leadership that were unspectacular but able to shape the situation they confronted. Some, like Pétain, Foch, and Douglas Haig, grew incrementally into their responsibilities. Others-Fayolle and Mangin, Currie, and Monash-emerged from the ruck of war. Even Italy came out of the Caporetto disaster militarily revitalized, with Armando Diaz succeeding Luigi Cadorna. The parliamentary states, Britain and France, developed as well a body of effective second-generation political leaders. Lloyd George and Clemenceau had no counterparts in the Second Reich. Italy’s Vittorio Orlando is less familiar, but he rallied Italy and oversaw the destruction of an enemy army-something neither of the transalpine premiers achieved.

None of these men were especially pleasant-intriguers, manipulators, and schemers all, often with private lives to match. They were, however, competent relative to circumstances. In contrast, compared to Britain’s George V, William II cut an abysmal figure as a figurehead. Bethmann-Hollweg’s successors as chancellor remain obscure even to doctoral students. And so it goes. Wherever one looks in Germany after 1916, the images are of cut-and-paste, of second- and third-rate people with first-line responsibilities. The structural reasons for that phenomenon are outside the scope of this book, except to note the development of similar phenomena in the other war-making empires, and suggest it was hardly coincidental. For present purposes, a case can be made that the Hindenburg-Ludendorff team filled vacuums as well as arrogated power in what was in good part a response to a comprehensive emergency that bade fair to escalate into a general crisis.

The new command team turned first to the Western Front. Hindenburg and Ludendorff had been too focused on events in the east-and on intrigues within the High Command- to be au courant with recent details and developments in what, mirabile dictu, was proving after all to be the war’s vital theater. It was his duty, Ludendorff stated, to adapt himself to the new conditions. He and Hindenburg began with a tour of inspection, visiting as many front-line units as possible, contacting others by phone, and demanding accurate information rather than eyewash and whitewash. Ludendorff came away convinced that the first months of the coming year would bring a battle deciding “the existence or nonexistence of the German people.” To meet that challenge, Ludendorff asserted, it was necessary to begin with the basics. German tactics must be revised on two levels: a general shift in emphasis to the defensive, and a specific set of coping mechanisms to check the increasingly effective Allied infantry and artillery team. In early September the High Command began systematically collating and evaluating recent frontline reports. On December 1, it issued Principles of Command in the Defensive Battle in Position Warfare. Ludendorff credited two relatively obscure and even more junior staff officers with constructing the manual that shaped German doctrines of defense in every theater for the rest of the war. But the fundamental ideas were Lossberg’s. Max Bauer and Hermann Geyer had previously served under him and absorbed his ideas. This was General Staff procedure at its best. Ludendorff’s ego was as large as anyone’s who held his kind of post is likely to be, but he applied it to generating and sustaining a corporate effort that had been less evident under Falkenhayn, who preferred keeping his own counsel. Bauer, a difficult man and a difficult subordinate, noted that Ludendorff’s style “lifted a great weight” from his working group. That opinion was as general in the High Command as any was likely to be among strong-willed men. It owed something to the Hawthorne effect generated by “an iron will and a firm determination.” It owed more to abandoning definitively the increasingly costly, increasingly futile, policy of holding and regaining the forward line at all costs.

The objective of defense was described in the new Principles as making the attacker exhaust himself by establishing positions in depth, defended in echelons. As the Allied infantry advanced it would become disorganized. Its communications would be disrupted. It would eventually outrun the range of even its heavy artillery, to find itself caught in a combination maze and net. A complementary accompanying manual on Principles of Field Construction gave details: a three-tiered system with a lightly held outpost zone as a tripwire; a battle zone that could be as much as three thousand meters deep with a forward trench position, a network of strong points; and a second trench line protecting the artillery and the reserves in the rear zone which would mount the final counterattacks to destroy or throw back the enemy before he could consolidate his temporary gains and restore the original position, or as much of it as made no difference.

Firepower was the revamped system’s framework: machine guns in the battle zone, artillery underwriting the counterattacks that were “the soul of the German defense.” Flexibility was the principle: “resist, bend, and snap back.” “Elastic defense” is a good capsule definition. So is “offensive defense.” But the system’s key and its core was human: “stout hearted men with iron nerves”-and individual initiative. Since 1914 falling back from a position had been defined as defeat, and carried an aura of disgrace. But by August 1916 it had become standard German operating procedure on the Somme to establish machine-gun positions outside the trench lines, in shell holes, to provide some protection from Allied barrages. Withdrawal was becoming instrumental, pragmatic: a means to the immediate ends of evading shell fire and wearing down attacking infantry, and to the ultimate one of setting the stage for the counterattacks that would reverse enemy gains.

Promulgating the doctrine did not mean its automatic implementation. Senior officers and their chiefs of staff were expected and accustomed to think for themselves, and the circumstances of the Western Front in 1916 fostered coping more than conformity. Lossberg himself believed the new regulations gave front-line troops and junior officers too much leeway in deciding when and how far to fall back. Ludendorff responded positively to that kind of criticism, asserting that the new system was a work in progress, to be modified when the Allies attacked again. Arguably more important to the reform’s credibility was the extent that it codified and systematized much of what was already being done, and proving effective, on the Somme. The point was reinforced in mid-December, when the final French offensive at Verdun owed part of its success to the failure of German sector reserves to respond effectively because they were held too far behind the front.

An Alternative Strategy I

WWII: The Struggle for Europe

The Axis triggered the Turks to declare war, quickly reinforced them and created a Southern Caucasus front against the Soviets in Spring 1942. . . going to be a challenging game for the Russians. . .

‘What if, in the summer of 1941, Hitler had chosen to make his major attack not into Soviet Russia but across the Eastern Mediterranean, into Syria and the Lebanon?’ John Keegan

When Göring was asked by Ivone Kirkpatrick1 in June 1945 what Germany’s greatest mistake was, he replied: ‘Not invading Spain and North Africa in 1940.’

There are two great rules of strategy which have endured throughout history. Each is dependent on the other. The first is to select your primary object correctly. This is the master rule. The second rule is so to concentrate and deploy your forces that you achieve the object. From 1941 onwards these rules were honoured by Hitler more in the breach than in the observance. That Hitler was faced with a strategic dilemma after his direct attack on England had failed is not to be denied. It was in failing also to comprehend where the war’s centre of gravity had shifted to, where the true line of operations lay, that Hitler contravened the two great strategic principles. Had he considered the whole situation, not only from his own point of view, but from the British position too, he might have come to a different conclusion.

Even before the Battle of Britain, whereas Churchill with, of course, a much simpler strategic aim – that of survival – was clear as to what had to be done, Hitler was confusing the issue with reasoning, which might be politically comprehensible but was militarily flawed. Thus we find Churchill making one of his most memorable speeches in the House of Commons, a speech which was later broadcast to the nation. It was 18 June 1940:

Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free, and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands . . . Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth lasts for a thousand years men still will say. ‘This was their finest hour.’

Look here upon this picture and on this. Hitler was certainly conscious of the need to subdue Britain. Yet in his arguments to his Commanders-in-Chief a month after Churchill’s peroration, in July 1940, the Führer turned the priorities upside down:

In the event that invasion does not take place, our efforts must be directed to the elimination of all factors that let England hope for a change in the situation . . . Britain’s hope lies in Russia and the United States. If Russia drops out of the picture, America, too, is lost for Britain, because the elimination of Russia would greatly increase Japan’s power in the Far East . . . Decision: Russia’s destruction must therefore be made a part of this struggle . . . The sooner Russia is crushed the better . . . if we start in May ’41, we will have five months in which to finish the job.

Of course there are those who have argued that Hitler’s primary object was always clear – to defeat Russia – and that he concentrated his forces to do so, thereby conforming to the two great strategic rules. The argument falls down when set against the strategic circumstances of the time. In late 1940 and early 1941 he was not at war with Russia, and either would not or could not see that England’s subjection was not subsidiary to an attack on Russia. It was an indispensable condition of victory.

Whether Hitler could see it or not, there were others who did. One of them was his Naval Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Raeder. He had produced and went on producing reasons why Germany should concentrate on war against England, particularly in the Mediterranean, which, he maintained, was the pivot of their world empire. Since Italy was weak, Britain would be bound to try to strangle her first, and to make her attacks on Italy easier would aim to get control of North-west Africa. Therefore Germany must take steps to forestall any such move. In cooperation with Spain and Vichy France, Gibraltar must be seized and French North Africa secured. Then, together with the Italians, German forces should capture the Suez Canal and advance through Palestine and Syria to Turkey. ‘If we reach that point,’ Raeder concluded, ‘Turkey will be in our power. The Russian problem will then appear in a different light. Fundamentally Russia is afraid of Germany. It is doubtful whether an advance against Russia in the north will then be necessary.’

In short, conquer Egypt, get control of the whole North African coast and Middle Eastern oil, strike a blow at British sea power, which enabled Britain to preserve a degree of initiative, and how would she be able to conduct offensive operations, other than by air? It is just as well that Hitler did not take this view for his failure to do so allowed British forces to build up a new centre of gravity of their own. From this would develop a Mediterranean strategy, essentially subsidiary, it is true, to the defeat in Europe of the German armies – which alone could bring the war to an end – but providing none the less a stepping-stone to this eventual undertaking.

Michael Howard summed the whole matter up when he wrote that

if there were no prospect of a successful decision against Germany herself there was a subsidiary theatre where British forces could be employed to harass the enemy and perhaps inflict serious damage. Italy’s entry into the war had turned the Middle East into an active theatre of operations. As a centre of gravity of British forces it was second only to the United Kingdom itself.

Although Hitler was contemplating his attack on the Soviet Union as early as July 1940, it was clear from his War Directive No. 18, dated 12 November 1940, that he had not altogether overlooked other theatres of strategic importance, for this directive included references to French North Africa, Gibraltar, Libya and Greece. The French must secure their African possessions against Britain and de Gaulle’s forces, while the actual participation of France in the war with Britain might develop. Measures to bring Spain into the war would be pursued with a view to capturing Gibraltar and driving the English from the Western Mediterranean. Even more significant, German forces would be prepared to assist the Italian offensive against Egypt. A Panzer Division would stand by ready for service in North Africa and the necessary shipping would be positioned in Italian ports. The Luftwaffe would make plans for attacks on Egypt and the Suez Canal. This directive, however, was soon overtaken by two more. War Directive No. 21, issued in mid-December, might be said to have determined the outcome of the whole war. Its opening sentence must have sent a shiver down the spines of those who read it at Hitler’s HQ and the three Service HQs, in fact of all those who remembered a former war on two fronts: ‘The German Armed Forces must be prepared, even before the conclusion of the war against England, to crush Soviet Russia in a rapid campaign.’ Operation Barbarossa, as it was called, would start on 15 May 1941.

But there was another factor to be considered which to some extent thwarted the Führer’s planned timetable, yet paradoxically presented him with an opportunity which, despite the other strategic distractions, might, if seized, have spelled out a war-winning formula. The armed forces of his ally, Mussolini, were not doing well either in Tripolitania or on the Albanian-Greek front. Accordingly German support for battles in the Mediterranean area would be forthcoming. Rommel’s Afrika Korps went to Libya, X Fliegerkorps remained in Sicily, and an entire Army Corps would assist the Italians to break through the Greek defences. This move in turn caused Churchill to support Greece, and in doing so gravely weakened Wavell’s winning hand in his campaign in the Western Desert, which up until then had been triumphantly successful. Not strong enough either in Greece or Tripolitania, British forces were obliged to evacuate the former and withdraw from the latter. Yet amidst all these defeats, one glimmer of comfort could be discerned. Hitler had declared in November 1940 that the Mediterranean question must be liquidated during that winter, so that he would get his German troops back in the spring, not later than 1 May. In fact, he did not get them back then and Barbarossa did not begin until 22 June 1941, more than a month later than Hitler had intended. Although the effect of this delay was not felt immediately, it was a different story in November 1941, with the drive on Moscow bogged down and the icy winter threatening to turn this particular version of Blitzkrieg into another retreat from Moscow. It was the turn then of the Wehrmacht to experience something like despair and paralysis.

It was also in May 1941, well before the attack on Russia, that Raeder renewed his proposal for a ‘decisive Egypt-Suez offensive for the autumn of 1941 which would be more deadly to the British Empire than the capture of London’. Raeder and his staff accepted Hitler’s priorities but insisted that while the attack on Russia ‘naturally stands in the foreground of the OKW [Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (High Command of the Armed Forces)] leadership, it must under no circumstances lead to the abandonment of, or to delay in, the conduct of the war in the Mediterranean’. Rommel and his panzers had brought a new set of rules to desert fighting and in March and April 1941 had bundled the British right out of Cyrenaica back into Egypt, leaving only Tobruk in their hands, and Rommel too was clear as to what Germany should have done – keep her hands off Greece and concentrate on North Africa to drive the British right out of the Mediterranean area. Malta should have been taken, thus robbing the British of the base from which they harassed Rommel’s supply lines. Capture of the whole British-held coastline would have isolated south-east Europe. It could all have been done for no more than the cost of the Balkan campaign. The prize would have been not just the Balkans but oil and bases for attacking Russia. When we think what Rommel was able to do with a mere handful of German divisions, the prospect of his having, say, an extra Panzerkorps from the huge force which attacked Russia, must give us pause.

Churchill himself was in no doubt about the grave consequences of losing Egypt and the Middle East. In a telegram to Roosevelt earlier that same month he did not endorse the President’s view that such a loss would be ‘a mere preliminary to the successful maintenance of a prolonged oceanic war’. Even if the United States entered the war, exclusion of the Allies from Europe and much of Africa and Asia would mean that a war against this mighty agglomeration would be a hard, long, and bleak proposition. Therefore the British would fight ‘to the last inch and ounce for Egypt’. The desert flank was in Churchill’s view ‘the peg on which all else hung’ and he was soon to urge Wavell to return to the attack there once more. But Wavell and his fellow Commanders-in-Chief were harder pressed and more stretched in their resources at this time than perhaps at any other. The East African campaign was not quite finished; Greece and Crete had taken their toll of men and material; Malta must be maintained, Tobruk turned into a fortress and supplied; Rashid Ali’s pro-German revolt in Iraq had to be suppressed; Syria, where the Vichy French were being difficult, had to be invaded and occupied, and Rommel attacked. What might not have been achieved by the Wehrmacht if they had been allowed to concentrate their might against the British at this moment?

Churchill had surely been right in his prognostication to Roosevelt. If British forces had been turned out of the Middle East, by what means – no matter how defiant our spirit and staunch our leadership – would we have prosecuted the war against Germany? We were still virtually alone. Any attempt to engage German armed forces on land in Europe was out of the question. No doubt the growing strength of the Royal Air Force would have permitted the bombing of German targets. No doubt the Royal Navy would still have preserved integrity of the British Isles. But what would our strategy have been if we had been turned out of the Mediterranean and the Middle East? As the war progressed, with Germany so involved in Russia that the stuffing of the Wehrmacht was gradually knocked out of it, our entire strategic posture was based not merely on strengthening our Middle East position but reinforcing it – first, by taking on Rommel’s Panzerarmee and eventually inflicting severe losses on it; second, in conjunction with the United States and the Free French, by occupying North-west Africa and so becoming masters of the North African shores and of the Mediterranean; third, by using Africa as a stepping-stone to Sicily and Italy, thus knocking Italy out of the war, and by sheer attrition, as opposed to free manoeuvre, tying down sufficient German forces to enable Anglo-American armies to invade north-west Europe. All this was feasible only because the bulk of the Wehrmacht was engaged in a titanic struggle with the Red Army. None of it would have been possible if Hitler had paid more attention to Raeder.

Yet Hitler had not put the idea out of his mind. War Directive No. 30 read:

Whether, and if so how, it may be possible, in conjunction with an offensive against the Suez Canal, finally to break the British position between the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf is a question which will be decided only after Barbarossa.

Raeder’s whole point was that had it been done first, Barbarossa in the form it took would not have been necessary. Even as late as eleven days before Barbarossa was launched on 22 June 1941, Hitler issued one more Directive relating to this matter, No. 32, remarkable not for its execution but for its conception. It laid down how the war was to be conducted after Russia had been conquered. Hitler was actually planning to fulfil his former promise to Raeder to finish Britain off. The British position in the Middle East would be strangled by converging attacks from Libya through Egypt, from Bulgaria through Turkey, and from Transcaucasia through Iran. In addition, the Western Mediterranean would be closed by seizing Gibraltar. Planning was to begin ‘so that I may issue final directives before the campaign in the east is over’. It may sound like an exercise in ‘making pictures’ – as Marmont commented on Napoleon’s unrealistic imaginings – yet there was to be one more opportunity, one more chance, for Hitler to have struck a deadly blow to the British position in the Middle East, and this was to come when the campaign in Russia was already a year old.

An Alternative Strategy II

By this time the whole course of the war had been altered by the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor and Malaya. Britain and the United States at once became Allies against Japan, and within a few days – because of Hitler’s almost incredible blunder of declaring war on America – Allies against Germany and Italy. Some weeks later the Allies agreed a broad strategic policy to concentrate first on Germany’s defeat, tightening the ring round her by sustaining Russia, strengthening the Middle East and getting hold of the whole North African coast. Curiously enough, at the Führer Naval Conference four days after Pearl Harbor Hitler asked Raeder whether it was likely that the United States and Britain would abandon East Asia for a time in order to crush Germany and Italy first. At times Hitler’s strategic vision was acute. Raeder, while assuring him that the British could not put India at risk and the Americans would not abandon the Pacific to the Japanese Navy, took the opportunity to press his former strategy. While the Allies were preoccupied elsewhere, he argued, now was the time to seize Malta and the Suez Canal and prepare for a great linking-up with the Japanese in the Indian Ocean: ‘The favourable situation in the Mediterranean, so pronounced at the present time, will probably never occur again.’ In fact it did occur again as a result of Rommel’s great offensive which began in January 1942, and as a result of poor generalship and a greatly weakened 8th Army, which had been robbed of promised reinforcements by the demands of the Far East, culminated in the fall of Tobruk on 21 June. Rommel’s Order of the Day was a stirring and triumphant document:

The great battle in the Marmarica has been crowned by your quick conquest of Tobruk. We have taken in all over 45,000 prisoners and destroyed or captured more than 1,000 armoured fighting vehicles and nearly 400 guns . . . you have through incomparable courage and tenacity dealt the enemy blow upon blow. Your spirit of attack has cost him the core of his field army . . . Now for the complete destruction of the enemy. We will not rest until we have shattered the last remnants of the British Eighth Army. During the days to come, I shall call upon you for one more great effort to bring us to this final goal.

The loss of Tobruk was a great blow to Churchill, although it enabled him to extract from Roosevelt 300 Sherman tanks and 100 105-mm self-propelled guns, weapons which were greatly to influence future battles in the desert. Churchill must have longed for a general of Rommel’s character and ability, who brought Blitzkrieg to the desert and had the uncanny tactical awareness, the Fingerspitzengefühl, which enabled him time after time to wrest the initiative from his slower-thinking and slower-moving adversaries. He insisted on the mixed Panzergruppen of tanks, armoured infantry, anti-tank guns and artillery, supported by Stukas, whose lightning manoeuvres so bewitched, bothered and bewildered the 8th Army. Besides, he led from the front, something which seemed to have little appeal to British generals.

Yet it was the very magnitude of his achievement in June 1942 which blinded Rommel to the true priorities. Having Tobruk in his hands, with all the fuel, trucks and stores his Panzerarmee so badly needed, he closed his ears and mind to the absolute necessity of having Malta too, if his supply and reinforcement prospects were to have even a chance of matching those of the British, so much closer to their well-nigh invulnerable lines of communication. Thus the tiny fortress of Malta, the key to mastery in the desert, was chucked aside at the very moment when its possession might indeed have opened the gates of Egypt, the Suez Canal, and the Persian Gulf with all its oil, so priceless to the Axis. When we consider that a few months later Hitler poured his troops and aircraft into Tunisia in order to counter the Anglo-American invasion of French North Africa, it is clear enough that the resources to exploit Rommel’s capture of Tobruk and defeat of the 8th Army existed, if only the strategic opportunity to reinforce success had been seized. As it was, Auchinleck took a grip on the 8th Army which was being steadily reinforced, and Rommel’s attempt to win the first battle of Alamein with inadequate resources failed. The last chance of bringing off Raeder’s great plan had gone, and shortly Churchill would appoint a battle-winning team, composed of Alexander and Montgomery, who with an even more powerful 8th Army and Desert Air Force would see to it that Rommel, the Desert Fox, would no longer be in search of quarry. He himself would be the quarry.

In his essay ‘How Hitler Could Have Won the War’, John Keegan asks this question: ‘What if, in the summer of 1941, Hitler had chosen to make his major attack not into Soviet Russia but across the Eastern Mediterranean, into Syria and the Lebanon?’ He goes on to refer to War Directive No. 30 and No. 32, which, as already shown above, referred to operations that would be considered after Barbarossa had been launched, and would deal with potential offensives to break the British position in the Middle East. He then poses the further question as to what might have happened if a thrust from Bulgaria and Greece had been chosen as the principal one instead of Barbarossa. Keegan then puts forward two variants. The first envisages making use of the Dodecanese islands, other Greek islands and Cyprus as stepping-stones to land in Syria and Lebanon. The 7th Airborne Division would be employed in, say, capturing Cyprus instead of being wasted, as it was, in an assault on Crete. Once established in the Levant, panzer columns would set about conquering Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia, thus solving Hitler’s oil problem. Furthermore, success in this way would enable Germany to threaten Russia’s Caspian Sea oil resources. One advantage of this plan was that it respected Turkish neutrality, but on the other hand was so dependent on adequate shipping and protection from British naval and air attack that it might well have foundered. It certainly takes little account of the British potential to interfere.

Keegan’s second option involves the violation of Turkish territory, in short, an invasion first of European Turkey from Bulgaria and Greece, to be followed by seizing Istanbul, crossing the Bosphorus and gaining control of Anatolia: all this would not have involved the same demand for shipping and command of the sea, and could have led to a powerful strategic advantage whereby German forces could both secure Turkey’s frontier with Russia at the Caucasus and advance into Iran and Iraq to menace Arabia. Keegan concludes that had Hitler exploited his Balkan victories by plumping for this second option and so threatening Russia’s southern flank, as well as her western one, a pincer-type Barbarossa might have succeeded, thus robbing Britain, and later the United States, of the one ally who seemed to have inexhaustible supplies of time, space and manpower. Moreover, Britain’s hold on the Middle East could have been fatally damaged.

Yet there is both a third and a fourth option, as already implied above. In the first place, had Hitler listened to Raeder in 1941, seized Malta with his airborne forces and deployed even a part of the huge panzer and Luftwaffe forces that he was assembling for his attack on Russia; in short, if the Afrika Korps in February 1941 with Rommel still in charge had been a much more powerful one, supported by all the air and naval strength that Germany and Italy between them could have mustered, it is difficult to see how Wavell and his fellow Commanders-in-Chief, with their resources already overstretched, could have resisted a full-scale assault on Egypt, the Canal and beyond. But this is to suppose, as John Keegan did, that Hitler could have been persuaded to abandon or postpone his great strategic and ideological aim – to crush the Soviet Union with a direct attack from the west.

We shall therefore let this hypothesis slip, and turn instead to the actual circumstances of June 1942, with 8th Army at bay and Rommel and the Afrika Korps riding in triumph, not through Persepolis, but through the surrendered Tobruk garrison, when a major switch of the Wehrmacht’s power could have turned the scales in the battle for North Africa, and so allowed Rommel’s veterans to have enjoyed both the spoils of opportunity and Egyptian daughters of the game: what then? The answer is provided for us by our own Official History of the Middle Eastern campaign:

Had the Eastern Mediterranean arena not been successfully held during the lean years (in which case, for want of bases, no British fleet or air forces could have even disputed the control of the Mediterranean sea communications) the task of the Allies in gaining a foothold in Europe would have been rendered immensely more difficult; indeed it might well have proved to be beyond their powers.

Thus we may perhaps endorse Churchill’s emphasis on the importance of the desert flank as ‘the peg on which all else hung’. This last opportunity of seizing the Middle East may justly be thought of as the tide in Hitler’s affairs which should have been taken at the flood if his dream of Weltmacht, world power, were to be realized. If Rommel had taken Egypt and surged on from there, there would have been no Anglo-American invasion of French North-west Africa. Indeed, it is not easy to imagine what the Western Allies’ strategy for challenging the Axis would have been. But Rommel and his men were not to savour the delights of Cairo and Beirut. At the Cairo conference of August 1942 Churchill had made known his passionate concern with winning the desert war: ‘Rommel! Rommel! Rommel! Rommel! What else matters but beating him?’ It is to the beating of Rommel that we must now turn our attention, and by doing so introduce another ‘if by chance’.


This article considers how the Royal Navy (RN) of the United Kingdom (UK) has evolved since the Cold War ended, and how it is likely to change in the future. In 1991, the RN was the world’s third most powerful navy, after the US Navy and the newly-formed Russian Navy. The service was also still benefiting from the prestige of its success in the 1982 Falklands War. Whilst it was expected that the ‘peace dividend’ being demanded by the public and politicians would mean a reduction in the RN’s size, no one anticipated that cuts would occur on a near-annual basis for the next twenty-five years. UK defence expenditure decreased from 4.1 per cent of GDP in 1990/91 to c. 2.0 per cent in 2015/16. The RN suffered disproportionately; excluding nuclear deterrent submarines it lost around two-thirds of its front-line strength during the period. The navies of China, France and India have all arguably now overtaken the RN in size and capabilities.

The current RN is undoubtedly at a low point in numbers, relative strength, and – perhaps – even in its institutional morale and prestige. The US Navy has become openly concerned about the declining capabilities of a navy that has been long been its key partner in arms.


The ‘downsizing’ of the RN between 1990 to 2015 is landmarked by the publication of a series of government ‘White Papers’, Ministry of Defence (MOD) policy documents, and various strategies; all intended to guide the changing mission, goals and objectives of the RN. Theoretically the required maritime capabilities and force levels could then be identified and provided. However, this never occurred as the necessary funding was not available. Many described in detail all of the maritime security challenges facing the UK, but then announced cuts to the RN. The most influential of these documents, in chronological order, were:

1990: Options for Change: During most of the Cold War the strategic context was clear – there was only one significant potential threat, the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies. As a result, the UK’s defence priorities were almost self-selecting in the 1970s and 1980s. For the RN, its focus was on providing Britain’s nuclear deterrent, contributing to NATO’s maritime forces in the Eastern Atlantic and the Channel and protecting home waters and ports. Anything that did not support these missions was always questioned, a notable example being the planned decommissioning of the ice patrol ship Endurance in 1982, which encouraged Argentina to invade the Falkland Islands. The only major out-of-area presence was the Armilla Patrol in the Arabian Gulf; this consisted of several frigates and destroyers to help protect UK and Allied merchant ships during the 1980’s Iraq-Iran War.

In 1989 the Berlin Wall came down and the Cold War was ending. The need to respond to the changing strategic environment and exploit cost-saving opportunities prompted the Options for Change review, published in July 1990. An unambitious document, its stated aim was for ‘smaller but better’ Armed Forces. For the RN this meant:

A reduction in personnel (trained and untrained) from 63,000 to 60,000.

Cutting the number of frigates and destroyers in service from ‘about fifty’ (actually forty-eight) to forty.

Reducing the number of nuclear attack submarines (SSN) to twelve, with five old boats decommissioning early.

Limiting the number of conventional submarines (SSK) to the four Upholder class already being built; the remaining Oberon class boats would decommission without replacement.

The aircraft carrier (three Invincible class light carriers with Sea Harrier fighter/attack aircraft) and amphibious forces (primarily two Fearless class assault ships) were untouched.

The RN performed well in the First Gulf War of 1990–1 but had a noticeable lack of influence in the command and conduct of operations, perhaps a sign of things to come. In 1991 a further reduction of 5,000 naval personnel was announced. Two years later, further cuts saw:

The number of frigates and destroyers reduced to thirty-five.

The disposal of twelve ‘River’ class minesweepers operated by the Royal Naval Reserve.

The withdrawal from service of the four new Upholder class SSKs, ultimately sold to Canada. This meant that the RN would now only operate nuclear submarines.

1994: Frontline First: The Defence Costs Study: The Defence Costs Study was a further assessment of spending, and was intended to maintain the fighting strength of the armed forces whilst achieving significant savings in support costs. In practice the cost savings achieved in the ‘tail’ were less than hoped, whilst the reduction in logistical support seriously impacted the effectiveness of the RN. The decline in personnel numbers continued, with the expectation that the naval services would be down to 44,000 by 1999.

Neither Options for Change or Frontline First redefined the role of the RN; they were essentially focused on reducing the defence budget. The main strategic theme of UK defence policy was still Eurocentric, and the MOD attempted to maintain balanced forces by just cutting everything a bit.

Lacking direction from government, senior officers in the RN had, by default, substantial freedom to develop new strategic concepts. Documents such as the Fundamentals of British Maritime Doctrine (published in 1995) and the Maritime Contribution to Joint Operations (1998) made a considerable impact beyond the service. The concept of expeditionary warfare outside the NATO area began to gain traction. Essential enablers for this would be new amphibious ships (already accepted by the government) and new aircraft carriers (not yet accepted, and potentially controversial given their cost). The RN seized every opportunity to demonstrate the operational flexibility and effectiveness of even small aircraft carriers. In the years 1993–5 the RN maintained a carrier in the Adriatic, helping to enforce the no-fly zone over Bosnia. The RN also regularly deployed a carrier task group to the Arabian Gulf, in support of sanctions against Iraq.

1998: The Strategic Defence Review (SDR): A new Labour government committed to a review of defence policy was elected in May 1997. This was to be a foreign-policy rather than cost-cutting exercise, with the declared goal that British forces would act as a ‘force for good’ in the world.

When the SDR was published in July 1998, it was clear that the RN’s new ideas had often prevailed. The review accepted that in a world of uncertain multi-centric threats, there was a need to create deployable expeditionary forces capable of operations at considerable distances from the UK. One of the SDR’s main decisions was to acquire two new large aircraft carriers to function as mobile airbases operating strike aircraft; another was greatly to enhance strategic sea and airlift capabilities. It also established a Joint Rapid Reaction Force (JRRF) which would provide a pool of readily available, rapidly deployable, high capability forces from all three Services. In other initiatives, the SDR created a Joint Helicopter Command, which incorporated British Army, Royal Air Force (RAF) and RN helicopter squadrons; and a combined RAF/RN Harrier and Sea Harrier force (Joint Force 2000, later renamed Joint Force Harrier).

In line with the emphasis on rapid deployment, the SDR required the RN to change its focus from open-ocean warfare in the North Atlantic to force projection and near-coast (littoral) operations worldwide. Shallow water operations in UK waters were also given less importance. There was, however, little immediate change to the composition of the RN, which retained responsibility for maintaining the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent. Small cuts in force levels included:

A reduction in destroyers and frigates from thirty-five to thirty-two.

A decline in SSN numbers from twelve to ten (but all equipped with Tomahawk cruise missiles).

A modest fall in naval personnel.

As well as the new aircraft carriers, SDR committed the government to building new submarines, destroyers, frigates, amphibious and auxiliary ships, as well as buying a ‘Future Carrier Borne Aircraft’ (later renamed the Joint Combat Aircraft, or JCA).

The validity of SDR’s thinking was vindicated when, in 2000, the UK decisively intervened in the civil war in Sierra Leone to support its government. The RN impressed by quickly assembling a substantial task group off-shore. This included the light carrier Illustrious and the ships of the Amphibious Ready Group, centred on the helicopter carrier Ocean.

2002: New Chapter to the Strategic Defence Review: On 11 September 2001, the al-Qaeda terrorist group launched a devastating series of terrorist attacks on the United States of America. Although not immediately clear, this would also have a devastating effect on the RN.

In late 2001, the UK conducted a major exercise in Oman, ‘Saif Sareea II’, to demonstrate the JRRF concept. The RN committed no less than twenty-one naval vessels, again including Illustrious and Ocean. Whilst a success, the exercise was overshadowed by the start of American and, soon, British military operations against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

In February 2002, the MOD unexpectedly announced that its Sea Harriers would be retired from service by April 2006. Joint Force Harrier (JFH) would operate only RAF-owned Harrier aircraft thereafter. The reason given was that the Sea Harrier required expensive upgrades to remain effective that could not be justified given the aircraft would be replaced from 2012 by the JCA (a date that has since slipped to the end of 2018). It was also decided to evaluate whether the SDR was still adequate ‘to cope with the threats faced’.

The resulting Strategic Defence Review: A New Chapter, published in July 2002, concluded that the SDR’s decisions had been broadly correct, but that changes were needed in the allocation of investment, ‘for example to intelligence gathering, network-centric capability … improved mobility and fire power for more rapidly deployable lighter forces, temporary deployed accommodation for troops, and night operations’. Worryingly for the RN, it was not mentioned once in the document. At the end of 2002, the frigate Sheffield was paid off without replacement.

2003: Delivering Security in a Changing World: In May 2003, the Royal Navy and Royal Marines contributed significantly to the second Gulf War, the invasion of Iraq. A large force of ships was led by the light carrier Ark Royal (operating as a helicopter carrier) and Ocean. A particular success was the seizure of the Al Faw Peninsula by 3 Commando Brigade.

At the end of the year, the MOD published a White Paper which again revisited aspects of the SDR. It stated, ‘The UK will remain actively engaged in potential areas of instability in and around Europe, the Near East, North Africa and the Gulf. But we must extend our ability to project force further afield than the SDR envisaged. In particular, the potential for instability and crises occurring across sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, and the wider threat from international terrorism, will require us both to engage proactively in conflict prevention and be ready to contribute to short-notice peace support and counter-terrorist operations.’

Unfortunately this policy could not be aligned with the immediate reality of costly military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the need for new equipment to support these. As no additional funding was available, cuts had to be made elsewhere. Accordingly, the paper also said: ‘Some of our older [naval] vessels contribute less well to the pattern of operations that we envisage, and reductions in their numbers will be necessary.’ In practice, this meant:

The withdrawal of three Type 42 destroyers and three nearly-new Type 23 frigates; the latter sold to Chile.

The decommissioning of six mine-countermeasures vessels.

The loss of further SSNs, ultimately taking the force down to seven boats.

Reductions in planned naval construction, particularly the cancellation of four of twelve planned Type 45 destroyers (another two were cancelled in 2008).

A 1,500 reduction in the number of trained personnel to 36,000.

The only compensation was that the paper confirmed, ‘The introduction of the two new aircraft carriers [the Queen Elizabeth class, or QEC] … early in the next decade’. The White Paper also set out the future roles of each of the services; in the maritime sphere it placed an emphasis on land-attack missiles and amphibious ships to project power ashore.

By mid-2005, the RN was down to twenty-five frigates and destroyers, against a backdrop of increased rather than decreased operational demands. The carrier Invincible was withdrawn from operational service in May 2005, five years earlier than previously planned.

2006: The Future Navy Vision: By 2006, the RN faced the reality that its expeditionary strategy was in tatters, its internal plans unrealisable, and that it was in danger of it becoming seen as militarily irrelevant. One of the two remaining carriers was still kept operational in the strike role, but its flight deck was usually empty of fixed-wing aircraft as JFH was stretched maintaining a squadron in Afghanistan. The newly-built amphibious ships were being used for other tasks as the Royal Marines had been committed to Afghanistan. Whilst up to 5,000 naval personnel were sometimes in Afghanistan and Iraq with 3 Commando Brigade, JFH, Joint Helicopter Command and other formations, this was not publicly recognised.

In 2006 the RN tried to make a stand by publishing its own vision for the future. It was drafted under the direction of Admiral Sir Jonathon Band, the First Sea Lord, who wrote, ‘Britain is preeminently a maritime nation whose people will continue to rely on the unhindered use of the sea for their security, prosperity and well-being. The world faces an uncertain, rapidly changing and competitive global environment in the early decades of the 21st century. My vision envisages a Royal Navy that … will contribute vitally and decisively to the security of the UK, to the preservation of international order at sea and to the promotion of our national values and interests in the wider world.’ The vision required a navy capable of Maritime Force Projection (the employment of military power at sea and against the land) and Maritime Security (the defence of the UK home-land and sovereign territories), enabled by Maritime Manoeuvre (seaborne access).

The document further stated, ‘A broadly balanced Fleet represents the most effective means of delivering this capability, both at home and abroad, as well as providing a reasonable assurance against the unexpected. This means that we will project and sustain Amphibious and Carrier Strike Task Groups simultaneously … [Also] our Fleet should have sufficient flexibility and size to deploy single ships and submarines on sustained, independent tasks on a routine basis, with the potential and capacity to switch quickly to combat and group operations.’

The Future Navy Vision document has stood the passage of time well but, unfortunately, has also been largely ignored given subsequent developments.

2010: Strategic Defence and Security Review – SDSR 2010: SDSR 2010, released on 19 October 2015, was a rushed review by a new Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government, conducted in the context of economic depression and a projected £38bn ‘black hole’ in the equipment budget. In contrast to the new National Security Strategy (NSS) published a day previously, SDSR 2010’s focus was on immediate financial savings; a parliamentary committee could later find no evidence of strategic thinking in the document.

For the RN, the outcome was little short of a disaster. Decisions affecting it included:

Bringing only one of the two new Queen Elizabeth class carriers into service; the other would be placed in reserve or sold (the review seriously considered cancelling the ships; however, this would have cost more than completing them).

Joint Force Harrier would disband and the RN’s flagship and only operational fixed-wing carrier, Ark Royal, decommissioned.

Four Type 22 frigates would decommission, leaving an escort force of just six destroyers and thirteen frigates.

Three RFA ships would be withdrawn from service.

The RAF’s Nimrod MR4A replacement maritime patrol aircraft (MPA) project was axed.

Trained naval personnel would reduce from 35,000 to 30,000 by 2015.

SDSR stated that by 2020, the Royal Navy would be structured to provide:

Maritime defence of the UK and Overseas Territories, including the South Atlantic.

Nuclear Continuous at Sea Deterrence.

A credible and capable presence within priority regions of the world.

A very high readiness response force and a contribution to enduring land operations [by the Royal Marines].

The review was implemented as hastily as it had been conducted. Ark Royal arrived in Portsmouth on 3 December flying a decommissioning pennant, before being sold for scrap. Joint Force Harrier ceased to be operational on 15 December 2010; its Harriers were sold to the US Marine Corps for spare parts. Redundancy notices were soon being issued to naval personnel.

Critics of the review could take little satisfaction from the government’s discomfort when, in March 2011, it intervened in Libya’s civil war as part of an international coalition, and found that many of the required military assets had already been lost, or were about to be lost. For example, French and Italian aircraft carriers conducted intensive air attacks from positions just off the Libyan coast. Lacking an aircraft carrier, the main British air contribution was a small number of sorties by RAF strike aircraft, flying at considerable cost from bases in the UK and Italy. The decommissioning of the Type 22 frigate Cumberland had to be delayed by two months, as the ship was busy rescuing British and other foreign nationals from Libyan ports.

2014: National Strategy for Maritime Security: Presented by the Secretary of State for Defence in May 2014, this document defined ‘maritime security’ to be ‘the advancement and protection of the UK’s national interests, at home and abroad, through the active management of risks and opportunities in and from the maritime domain, in order to strengthen and extend the UK’s prosperity, security and resilience and to help shape a stable world.’ Building on the NSS, it established five maritime security objectives:

Promoting a secure international maritime domain and upholding international maritime norms.

Developing the maritime governance capacity and capabilities of states in areas of strategic maritime importance.

Protecting the UK, our citizens and our economy by supporting the safety and security of ports and offshore installations and Red Ensign Group-flagged passenger and cargo ships.

Assuring the security of vital maritime trade and energy transportation routes within the UK Marine Area, regionally and internationally.

Protecting the resources and population of the UK and the Overseas Territories from illegal and dangerous activity, including serious organised crime and terrorism.

The strategy only discussed at a very general level how the Royal Navy and other agencies might meet these objectives, and did not consider required funding and force levels. However, it did commit the RN to deploying ships in order to maintain vital trade routes and ensure freedom of navigation, and also to contributing to three military alliances which help deliver maritime security, namely NATO, the EU and Combined Maritime Forces (CMF).

Strategic consequences of the Ceylon attack and British reinforcement Part I

THE ROYAL NAVY DURING THE SECOND WORLD WAR (A 11792) HMS RESOLUTION and HMS FORMIDABLE of the eastern fleet sailing in the Indian Ocean.

The strategic consequences of the IJN attack on Ceylon, and the resulting exposure of the Eastern Fleet, were addressed in two joint planning staff papers dated 18 and 21 April. These drew on an updated Joint Intelligence Committee assessment, which anticipated further IJN raids and the continuing risk of a full-scale invasion of Ceylon as well as simultaneous pressure on northeast India. The key lesson the planning staff drew was that Royal Navy ship-borne air strength was greatly inferior to that of the IJN. The IJN could, therefore, exercise air superiority to command sea communications where it wished, and the Eastern Fleet was powerless to intervene. The planners judged that the first Japanese priority was to consolidate their hold on Southeast Asia and Burma, but a rapid move to drive Britain out of the war by disrupting supplies to the Middle East and India, and of Persian oil, must be tempting. SIGINT seemed to support this judgement. On 13 April, the Japanese foreign minister told the German ambassador in Tokyo that Japan was thrusting towards Ceylon and the area north of it. This thrust would extend ‘step by step’ into the western Indian Ocean. To achieve this goal, the planning staff argued, the Japanese must take Ceylon and destroy the Eastern Fleet. Safeguarding the fleet was paramount, and took precedence over holding Ceylon. The Eastern Fleet must, therefore, retreat to East Africa until it could be reinforced sufficiently to contest the central Indian Ocean on acceptable terms. The ideal target strength was five modern capital ships and seven fleet carriers, of which five and four were planned by August. In the meantime, defence of Ceylon must rely on air power.

Churchill, meanwhile, highlighted the grave risks in the Indian Ocean in letters to President Roosevelt dated 7 and 15 April. His second letter emphasised that Britain for some months could not match the naval forces the Japanese had demonstrated they were willing to deploy in the Indian Ocean. The loss of Ceylon and invasion of northeast India were real possibilities, but this would only be the beginning. There was little to stop the Japanese dominating the western Indian Ocean and undermining Britain’s whole position in the Middle East. He stressed here the consequences of losing Persian oil and the supply line to Russia. Overall, the situation was ‘more than we can bear’. He sought United States support through diversionary action in the Pacific, further reinforcement in the Atlantic to release Royal Navy units, or direct naval support in the Indian Ocean itself. This letter reflected discussion at the Defence Committee the previous day, at which General Marshall and Harry Hopkins were present.

The outcome of this Defence Committee meeting has proved controversial. The British endorsed Marshall’s proposals for an early invasion of western Europe. However, the prime minister and Brooke insisted that it was still essential to hold the Middle East, India and Australasia. A second front in Europe must not compromise these interests. The justification for their caveat has since been questioned. Brooke is accused of exaggerating the consequences that would follow Japanese control of the Indian Ocean, and demanding an open-ended commitment from the United States to prevent collapse in the Indian Ocean and Middle East. The implication is that the British leadership was engaged in deliberate deception. They had no real intention of committing to a second front at this time, but sought to keep the United States focused on ‘Germany first’, while they pursued their own interests.

It is important to look dispassionately at the threat to the Indian Ocean as it appeared at the time. Charging Brooke with exaggeration reflects hindsight, rather than a fair appraisal of the risks as Brooke must have seen them. In the wake of Nagumo’s raid, a return operation by Japan to seize Ceylon looked entirely credible. So did a concerted IJN effort across the rest of 1942, by raiders, submarines and select use of carrier task forces, to cut effective communication in the western Indian Ocean. If the Japanese pursued this option all-out, there was little the US Navy could do in the Pacific during 1942 to prevent them. From the British perspective, an IJN offensive might, at a minimum, eliminate the prospect of a British Empire material advantage in the North African campaign by the autumn. It could also drastically reduce oil supplies across the eastern theatre, with major consequences for the empire war effort, and for any United States operations mounted from India and Australia. Finally, it would severely disrupt aid on what was becoming the primary military lend-lease route to Russia, with unknowable consequences for Russia’s survival. Japan might achieve even more. Countering these risks had to be a top priority.

Nor was Britain seeking an ‘open-ended commitment’. Britain wanted American support for a limited period of two and a half months, while sufficient reinforcements were gathered to make the Eastern Fleet reasonably competitive with the maximum force the Japanese were likely to deploy. In effect, Britain’s war planners must bridge a period while key Royal Navy units were under repair, or working up, and before new construction became available. Valiant was under repair in Durban following her damage at Alexandria in December and expected to complete in June. Nelson and Rodney were working up after repair and refit. The carriers Eagle and Furious were in refit. The new battleships Anson and Howe were expected to be operational in August and October respectively. By the time the Defence Committee met again just a week later on 22 April, a target date of 30 June had been set for assembling the enhanced Eastern Fleet and the relevant forces earmarked. This fleet would have been significantly stronger than the forces available to the US Navy to hold Hawaii.

The British leadership may well have been privately doubtful that Marshall’s vision for an early second front reflected realistic understanding of the logistics and the quality of enemy opposition. Hindsight suggests they were right. They inevitably prioritised the protection of the wider empire, because it defined Britain’s status as a world power but, more important, because it provided essential war resources. Many in the United States leadership also supported Churchill’s emphasis on the Middle East, India and Australasia, for their own reasons.

In response to British pleas, the United States judged it could not help in the Indian Ocean, but it did offer limited support in the Atlantic and, most important, diversionary action was underway in the Pacific. This was the bombing raid on Tokyo led by Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle. This raid by a small force of B-25 bombers launched from the US Navy carriers Enterprise and Hornet took place on 18 April. The military impact was negligible, but the psychological effect on the Japanese military leadership was profound. It did not initiate the Midway operation, which had already been approved two weeks previously. However, it underlined Yamamoto’s conviction that the US Navy carrier force must be eliminated before other options, including further offensive action in the Indian Ocean, were contemplated. Crucially, it also caused the Japanese to add a second Midway objective – the occupation of the island. The resulting conflict of priorities would have fatal consequences. Pound, meanwhile, underlined British anxieties during a visit to Washington in late April, and received sufficient assurances from Admiral King, the new Chief of Naval Operations, to confirm the feasibility of giving significant reinforcements to Somerville.

The chiefs of staff copied the latest joint planning staff assessment to Somerville on 23 April. Its conclusion encapsulated how London saw the position in the East at this time:

If the Japanese press boldly westwards, without pause for consolidation and are not deterred by offensive activities or threats by the Eastern Fleet or American Fleet, nor by the rapid reinforcement of our air forces in North-East India, then the Indian Empire is in grave danger. The security of the Middle East and its essential supply lines will be threatened. The Middle East and India are inter-dependent.

Somerville, shocked by the ferocity of the IJN strike on the Dorsetshire force, and now aware how close he had come to disaster, agreed with the London view. He reinforced the disparity in air power in a sharp exchange with the Admiralty at the beginning of May. For daytime air strike, the Royal Navy was ‘completely outclassed’ by the Japanese, though Somerville judged that in low cloud or at night it had an advantage. He hoped by now it was appreciated that the Fleet Air Arm, ‘suffering from arrested development for many years’, could not compete successfully with an IJN carrier arm, ‘which had devoted itself to producing aircraft fit for sailors to fly in’. Pending the arrival of better aircraft, he proposed a substantial increase in fighter complement, employing deck parking and outriggers where necessary. The prime minister took a personal interest in Somerville’s proposals, which were broadly agreed, though it was recognised that achieving an adequate supply of Martlets would require high-level political lobbying in the United States.

Fleet Air Arm aircraft deficiencies were not easily solved. Despite constant British lobbying at the highest level, the flow of Martlet fighters from the United States remained barely adequate through most of 1942. It was well into 1943 before the first new strike aircraft arrived. In the meantime, Somerville’s belief that the IJN had deployed fighter-bombers led the Admiralty briefly to contemplate employing unsuitable Hurricane IIs in a similar role. Some in the Royal Navy leadership, including Pound, still struggled to understand the revolutionary nature of carrier warfare as practised by the IJN, and shortly by the US Navy. This was partly poor intelligence assessment, which continued to underestimate the number and quality of IJN aircraft deployed in their carriers and, therefore, their lead over an equivalent Royal Navy force. It also reflected their persistent belief that the IJN would deploy capital ship raiders against trade on the German Atlantic model. This led to over-emphasis on comparative capital ship strength when measuring the effectiveness of the Eastern Fleet. Churchill also still defaulted to the battleship as the ultimate arbiter of strength.

Nevertheless, it is wrong to imply that the Royal Navy downplayed the role of the carrier in its future force planning, and its importance in bringing the eastern war to a successful conclusion. Its commitment to the carrier as a fleet unit is evident in the extraordinary total of sixteen new light carriers of the Colossus and Majestic classes ordered in the single year 1942, when British war resources, not least shipbuilding capacity, were stretched to the limit. These highly successful ships provided two-thirds of the aircraft capacity at two-thirds of the cost of the latest Illustrious units. More important, by adopting commercial standards of construction and using commercial shipyards, they were completed much more quickly, with the first units commissioned in an average of twenty-seven months. Before the end of the year, the newly appointed Deputy First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir Charles Kennedy-Purvis, was powerfully arguing that carriers represented ‘the core of the future fleet’, although Pound, still attached to the battleship, preferred the formula, ‘the carrier is indispensable’.

The few accounts of the Indian Ocean theatre in 1942 describe the Eastern Fleet, which collected at Kilindini in Kenya during April after the Ceylon raid, as an ineffective force incapable of contesting further serious IJN incursions. Its survival depended on keeping its distance until the US Navy victories at the Coral Sea and Midway rendered its existence largely irrelevant. Its status is seen, therefore, as confirmation of chronic British over-stretch, and Royal Navy inability to meet the demands of modern air warfare at sea. This picture is misleading. Kilindini did, indeed, become the primary base for the Eastern Fleet for the rest of 1942. However, Somerville continued to deploy a fast carrier force, broadly equivalent to the Force A of early April, to the central Indian Ocean on a regular basis over the next six months. He operated from, or around, Ceylon for almost 50 per cent of this period.

Furthermore, during April and May, in line with the joint planning staff recommendations on 18 April and the subsequent Defence Committee discussions, and the promises of indirect support from Washington, the Admiralty redoubled its efforts to send significant reinforcements to the Indian Ocean. By September at the latest, it intended to return an enhanced Eastern Fleet to Ceylon, with six modern or modernised capital ships and four fleet carriers. This was broadly the force planned in Moore’s December 1941 paper, but with additions. Three-quarters of the Royal Navy’s major units would be in the Indian Ocean. The Home Fleet would be reduced to a minimum, while defence of the Mediterranean would rest on air power and light forces.218 The Ceylon bases were to be upgraded in the interim, with a Ceylon air group of nine Royal Air Force squadrons, including a Beaufort torpedo force.

These were, by any standard, serious forces, which demonstrated the continuing naval priority accorded to the eastern theatre. Both the initial fast carrier force and the Ceylon air group available in May took time to achieve what Somerville felt was an acceptable operational standard, but the enhanced fleet planned for the autumn could have contested the central Indian Ocean with every prospect of success. The Admiralty also recognised that this enhanced Eastern Fleet would be a sustained commitment with first call on aircraft carriers for the foreseeable future. At the end of 1943, it planned four fleet carriers and six escort carriers deployed in the Indian Ocean, with one fleet carrier and sixteen escort carriers allocated to the Home Fleet, and no carriers at all in the Mediterranean.

The Fleet Air Arm aircraft limitations highlighted by Somerville would have persisted in the enhanced Eastern Fleet carrier force. However, the Royal Navy technological lead in radar and VHF radio, and their exploitation, substantially compensated for the continuing disparity in aircraft numbers and quality. The training and experience shortfall so evident to Somerville in April would also have been addressed. If Indomitable, Formidable and Illustrious had all remained in the Indian Ocean through 1942, these three carriers alone would have deployed some eighty fighters and sixty strike aircraft between them in September. The fighters would have included fifty Martlets. This Royal Navy fighter strength would be comparable to that deployed by the three US Navy carriers at Midway in June, but the Royal Navy had better radar detection and direction. It would have posed a formidable defence to any likely IJN air strike. Sixty ASV-equipped Albacores and Swordfish would have been an equally formidable night strike force. Furthermore, the disparity between IJN and Royal Navy numbers was reducing through 1942, owing to the increasing difficulty the IJN had in maintaining its frontline strength. The IJN Midway strike force only had 151 aircraft.

Proof that the Royal Navy could conduct advanced multi-carrier operations against the most sophisticated air opposition by the second half of 1942 is demonstrated by its performance in Operation Pedestal, the convoy run to relieve Malta in August. Pedestal involved four carriers, including Somerville’s Indomitable, transferred from the Indian Ocean. The three carriers charged with air defence deployed seventy-two fighters against an estimated Axis force of 650 aircraft employed against the convoy during a three-day running battle between 11 and 14 August. Although convoy losses, both merchant vessels and naval escort, were high, the majority were caused by submarine and E-boat action, not air attack, where the defence proved effective. The two most intense days of air attack on 11 and 12 August only damaged one of the merchant vessels, their primary target, although they achieved minor damage to Victorious and more serious damage to Indomitable. This reflected excellent fighter defence from the carriers, with sophisticated use of radar and aircraft direction, and intense anti-aircraft fire from a well-constructed screen. Indeed, on the morning of 12 August, 117 Italian aircraft and fifty-eight German achieved just the one ineffective hit on the carrier Victorious. Never before had the Axis air forces used so many aircraft for so little result.226 Despite the losses, the convoy was a strategic success. Enough supplies got through to enable Malta to survive, with important implications for the eastern theatre. As noted previously, it is doubtful whether either the IJN or US Navy could have carried out a comparable operation, and in such a complex multi-threat environment, against an equivalent level of air attack at this time.

While established history has underestimated the true potential of the Royal Navy in the Indian Ocean during 1942, it has overestimated that of the IJN. Joint planning staff assessments of mid-April, arguing that the IJN could achieve air superiority where it wished, at least in the eastern half of the Indian Ocean but potentially further west too, were only true within narrow limits. It was one thing to conduct raids like Operation C. It was another to mount the sustained aerial effort necessary to capture Ceylon, or to provide the logistic back-up required for deep operations to challenge the Eastern Fleet and disrupt communications along the African coast and into the Persian Gulf. The First Air Fleet was not capable of any immediate follow up to Operation C. After six months of intense operations, it required maintenance and replenishment. More seriously, the IJN was struggling to maintain its frontline air strength. Six months into the war, and immediately before the Midway campaign, IJN aircraft complements, especially in the carrier force, were not just ‘fraying around the edges’, but were ‘downright awful’.

On 7 December 1941 aircraft strength within the overall carrier force was 473, with just twenty-two reserves. By the end of May, naval fighter production had kept pace with losses, with a net gain over this period of 121. However, production of the two main carrier attack aircraft, the Nakajima B5N2 Type 97 torpedo bomber and Aichi D3A1 Type 99 dive-bomber, was woeful, with just 143 aircraft built against losses of 273, a net deficit of 130. Incredibly, no Type 99s were produced during the four months December 1941 to March 1942. The available frontline carrier attack force by the time of Midway had therefore declined a staggering 40 per cent. Neither Nakajima nor Aichi had adequately prepared for wartime output, and both companies were focusing their attention on successor aircraft at the expense of existing types. IJN land bomber strength was better. Production almost kept pace with losses over the first six months of the war, with a net deficit of just seventeen, easily covered by reserves. However, total IJN land bomber strength at the start of the war was just 339 aircraft with 106 reserves. This was a small force to cover the numerous commitments the IJN faced in mid-1942.

To mount a successful invasion of Ceylon, the Japanese had to eliminate any British air threat, and generate sufficient air support for their landing forces to overcome a defence force of two Australian brigades. The necessary air effort could only come from a carrier force. Although, in theory, the Japanese could also have deployed land-based bombers from the Andaman Islands, these were 650 miles away. The navigation challenges were formidable, and the aircraft vulnerable to Royal Air Force radar-directed fighters. The Japanese could have attacked Ceylon in place of Midway at the beginning of June and with a similar force. This is the scale of attack the joint planning staff anticipated when preparing the ‘Revised Defence Plan for Ceylon’ at the end of April. They assumed attack by 250 aircraft, bombardment by a capital ship force, and a large invasion force. The Royal Air Force reinforcements in place by June would have made the outcome much more finely balanced than in April. The Japanese would have risked unacceptable levels of attrition, leaving them wide open to harassment by the more effective Eastern Fleet, and through American intervention elsewhere.

By June, an IJN carrier force would have faced three Hurricane squadrons, comprising sixty-four aircraft and a further 50 per cent reserves, and three strike squadrons, also with 50 per cent reserves, one of which had Beaufort torpedo bombers. Radar coverage and anti-aircraft defences had significantly improved. Unless the Japanese could use Ceylon as a base, sustained operations in the western Indian Ocean were problematic. Even a limited raid would be difficult. Japan’s shortage of aircraft also demonstrates that British fears regarding their use of Madagascar were exaggerated. It might have been possible to base a small submarine force there, but there was little prospect of sparing aircraft to deploy there during 1942. Such aircraft could only have been flown in from carriers with the necessary support personnel coming by ship, all deployed under cover of a substantial task force.

Neither the British nor the Americans had intelligence at this stage to enlighten them on the specific problems faced by the First Air Fleet. However, Churchill’s view of prospects in the Indian Ocean underwent a remarkable turnaround within weeks of his gloomy letter of 15 April to the president. As early as 24 April, he advised the president of Eastern Fleet reinforcement plans, which he hoped would complete by the end of June. The Royal Navy would then be capable of dealing with a ‘very heavy IJN detachment’. By mid-May he was confident that the capture of Madagascar was beyond Japan’s power and that the reinforced Eastern Fleet, comprising four modernised battleships (Warspite, Valiant, Nelson, Rodney), the four ‘R’ class and three carriers (Indomitable, Formidable, Illustrious), would be re-established in Ceylon by July. He confirmed these reinforcements to Field Marshal Smuts, who had stressed the critical importance of holding the Indian Ocean, at the end of May. During May he also increasingly badgered the chiefs of staff, joint planning staff, and indirectly Somerville, to consider offensive operations in the eastern Indian Ocean in the autumn.

Strategic consequences of the Ceylon attack and British reinforcement Part II

“HMS Warspite of the Eastern Fleet and Flagship of Admiral Sir James Sommerville, underway in the Indian Ocean.”

The prime minister’s confidence that the Eastern Fleet with its planned reinforcements, together with the Royal Air Force additions in Ceylon and India, could meet further Japanese attacks went beyond that of the naval staff and, indeed, Somerville. Where did this confidence come from? It was partly no doubt over-simplistic ‘bean counting’ – his belief that a Royal Navy force of four modernised capital ships and three modern fleet carriers should be able to deal with an equivalent IJN force. The passage of time helped – he intuitively realised the Japanese had a limited window for operations in the west before increasing United States strength made these too risky. This time factor applied to the Germans also. At the end of May the prime minister acknowledged the risk of a German drive southward into the Middle East from the Caucasus, also highlighted by Smuts, but noted: ‘The year is advancing and the Germans have a long way to go …’. Above all, he retained faith in the ability of the US Navy to pose a threat in the Pacific, which the Doolittle raid and Coral Sea action at the beginning of May amply confirmed.

The evolving intelligence picture also probably encouraged the prime minister.240 NID reported (correctly) on 19 April that the bulk of the IJN forces deployed in the Indian Ocean were returning to Japan, although the carriers Zuikaku and Shokaku might be redeployed for operations in the southwest Pacific. Successive NID assessments over the next month confirmed the IJN was conducting a major redeployment back to Japan, probably aimed at future operations in the central Pacific. Naval forces in the southern area would be sharply reduced. The Joint Intelligence Committee assessed in mid-May that the bulk of the Japanese fleet was deployed between the Mandates and New Guinea, with no indication that significant forces were being earmarked for the Indian Ocean.

At the end of May 1942, the joint planning staff considered how the war against Japan should be prosecuted. They correctly identified two significant Japanese vulnerabilities, which were relevant to its ability to conduct sustained operations in the Indian Ocean. They judged that Japan’s frontline air strength was small in relation to the commitments it had now acquired, and that aircraft production was too low to sustain even this frontline if it undertook major operations. They also emphasised Japan’s dependence on Netherlands East Indies oil. In exploiting this, it faced long sea routes, an acute shortage of tankers, and quite inadequate anti-submarine forces. In mid-June the Joint Intelligence Committee produced a more detailed assessment of Japan’s air capability after six months of war. Although it admitted its figures for aircraft losses were of variable quality, and it had no precise intelligence on production rates, its estimates for frontline strength were accurate. It correctly forecast that production was struggling to keep up with losses, as the planning staff had already suggested.

In their look ahead, the joint planning staff also reviewed the concept of a joint British-American fleet taking the offensive in the Pacific. Redeploying the bulk of Royal Navy major units to the Pacific meant carrying risk in the Indian Ocean. This transfer could only be considered when retained defences were adequate, when reinforcements had made Australasia secure, and when the arrival of US Navy new build ensured adequate superiority over the IJN. This thinking reflected that conveyed to eastern theatre commanders and Joint Staff Mission Washington some six weeks earlier on 15 April. They had then argued that it was currently impossible to cover Allied interests across two oceans from a single base. It was essential, on the one hand, to cover India, the Middle East and Persian oil, and, on the other, the United States west coast, Hawaii, and communications across the Pacific to Australasia. The Indian Ocean was critical to the British Empire, but it covered no comparable interests for Japan. It consequently offered no offensive potential. To defeat Japan, a strategic offensive in the Pacific would be necessary, but this was only possible once vital interests elsewhere were secure.

In parallel with the latest joint planning staff deliberations, Pound received requests from Admiral King for more immediate help to the US Navy, which had seen its effective carrier strength cut by half following the Coral Sea action. King would accept a diversion operation by the Eastern Fleet, but would prefer the transfer of one or more Royal Navy carriers to the southwest Pacific. Theoretically, Britain had an opportunity here to take an early stake in the Pacific campaign and buy significant influence for minimal investment. She also risked lasting resentment from King and the US Navy if she refused to help and Midway turned out badly. Pound was reluctant to weaken the Eastern Fleet while a major IJN attack in the Indian Ocean remained possible, and King failed to make a persuasive case that Royal Navy intervention in the Pacific would make sufficient difference to compensate. Time and distance, and the difficulty arranging logistic support, also argued against the transfer, which was not therefore pursued.

The first significant reinforcements reached Somerville at the beginning of May, part of the forces allocated to seize Madagascar (Operation Ironclad). These were a third fleet carrier, Illustrious, and the heavy cruiser Devonshire. Three other modern cruisers reached him from new build or refit during the next two months. The Eastern Fleet was still planned to reach a strength by the autumn of four modernised battleships, three fleet carriers, one 8in cruiser, five to six modern 6in cruisers, two older 6in cruisers, sixteen modern destroyers, and nine to twelve submarines. In addition, the four ‘R’ class, with six to seven older cruisers and nine old destroyers, would be retained for trade protection duties. This fleet was comparable in size to the ‘maximum Eastern Fleet’ of August 1939.

In the event, the strength of the Eastern Fleet peaked in early July. By then it had two modernised battleships, Warspite and Valiant (the latter about to work up, following damage repair at Durban), two fleet carriers Formidable and Illustrious (Indomitable had departed a week earlier for Pedestal), two ‘R’-class battleships, Royal Sovereign and Resolution (Ramillies had been damaged by IJN submarine attack), one heavy cruiser, three modern 6in cruisers, six older cruisers and nine destroyers. The fleet now had a more modern core than in April, and was better trained and more cohesive as a fighting force. It remained weak in destroyers, which would constrain Somerville’s mobility in the coming months.

The further reinforcements proposed during April and May never arrived. From early July, Eastern Fleet strength rapidly declined. By the autumn, Somerville was down to one modernised battleship and one carrier. He did not recover the mid-1942 strength until early 1944. There were two related reasons for this reduction: the crippling of the IJN carrier arm at Midway on 4 June, and the demands of the Mediterranean. Once the scale of the US Navy achievement at Midway was evident, it appeared to the British that IJN ability to intervene in the western Indian Ocean with anything more than occasional surface raiders or submarines had been eliminated. By early September, the Joint Intelligence Committee judged that Japan now lacked the resources to pursue major new commitments and would adopt a defensive perimeter strategy. The threat to Persian oil would remain a British anxiety into the autumn, but post-Midway, the primary risk was from German attack in the west or north. Ironically, at the moment Midway took place, the Japanese Army general staff revived the idea of major operations in the Indian Ocean, including the seizure of Ceylon, to which they had been distinctly lukewarm in February. Planning continued during June and an Army Directive (No 1196) was produced on 29 June. The reason for this new enthusiasm was the perceived success of the German drive towards Egypt, which resurrected the prospect of an Axis ‘junction’ in the Middle East, and for knocking Britain out of the war. The IJN endorsed the concept, but had to defer to resource realities, especially as the Guadalcanal campaign got underway.

The British war leadership were clear during the first five months of 1942 that the Indian Ocean took priority over the Mediterranean. Actual and planned naval reinforcements, largely at Mediterranean expense, reflected that. This raised the difficult question of sustaining Malta. Experience demonstrated that supply convoys were only possible with substantial naval cover. If Somerville was to receive his planned reinforcements, such cover was not possible. A proposal was therefore developed during April for a major part of the Eastern Fleet to deploy through the Suez Canal for the two weeks necessary to run a convoy to Malta from Alexandria. This risky plan was put on hold when it was assessed Malta could hold out until August. However, an August convoy was essential if Malta was to survive. It meant either resurrecting the Eastern Fleet option, or running a convoy from the west, which required Somerville to release one of his three carriers to reinforce Force H. The western option was militarily more attractive, and Midway made the release of Indomitable in mid-July possible.

By the time this western convoy operation (Pedestal) took place, the wider strategic context had further evolved and the major Anglo-American landing in northwest Africa, codenamed Torch, was planned for November. The political and strategic debates that led to Torch, and the campaign itself, are outside the scope of this book. However, it is important to underline how Torch linked with, and influenced, the naval defence of the eastern empire. The most obvious impact lay in the substantial resources required to execute Torch, for which the Royal Navy provided about two-thirds of the naval forces. They included two battleships, Rodney and Duke of York, the battlecruiser Renown, three fleet carriers (Victorious, Formidable and Furious), the light carrier Argus, three escort carriers, nine cruisers and forty-three destroyers. To help generate these forces it was necessary not only to abandon the planned buildup of the Eastern Fleet, but to make substantial further withdrawals from Somerville, including one of his remaining two carriers, Formidable. She was required because Indomitable had been badly damaged in the Pedestal convoy and was therefore not available for Torch. As the prime minister emphasised to his deputy Clement Attlee, this was neither a permanent withdrawal from the East, nor a sign that the East was unimportant. It was a deliberate strategic choice to apply Britain’s scarce naval resources where they had most effect. If the Japanese threat in the Indian Ocean had sharply reduced after Midway, Britain again had options.

Churchill apparently hoped that the reduction of the Eastern Fleet would be for a few months. In the event, in the absence of any new Japanese threat in the Indian Ocean, successive Mediterranean demands following Torch left the Eastern Fleet in a Cinderella state throughout 1943. However, the 1943 Mediterranean campaign was a staged affair, and the successive Royal Navy commitments here were not inevitable. If the Japanese threat had resumed, the Royal Navy could have redeployed to the Indian Ocean earlier than it did. The Royal Navy Torch force, including its three capital ships, three fleet carriers, and three escort carriers, was the force that would have gone to Somerville in place of Torch if the Japanese had pursued a major offensive into the western half of the Indian Ocean in the second half of 1942.

The success of Torch influenced Britain’s eastern defence problem in crucial ways. It removed any possibility of the Germans securing new Atlantic bases at a critical stage in the U-boat war. It also secured the eastern empire irrevocably from any Axis threat on its western boundary. These two threats had continued to exercise British planners through the summer, as they contemplated the possibility of Russian defeat. In July the joint planners anticipated that if Russia collapsed, Germany would embark on a strategy to seize Atlantic bases and Middle East oil, which almost exactly mirrored the OKW strategic survey of August. As late as October, the planners judged – ‘we are not yet out of the dangerous period of the war: a major false step may still jeopardise our prospects of victory’.

It took longer to clear the Axis from North Africa than the Allies hoped, but after Torch the result was not in doubt. Allied mastery of North Africa then opened up the Mediterranean to Allied shipping, and from there via the Suez Canal to the Indian Ocean, with the first through cargo convoy from Gibraltar to Suez running in May 1943.266 Reopening Mediterranean transit made it much easier to move reinforcements to secure the Indian front against Japan, and to boost supplies to Russia through the Persian Gulf. In the long run it saved substantial shipping resources. Supplies on the Persian route to Russia in the second half of 1943 were approximately double those in the first half, and more than double those delivered by the Arctic convoys. The Persian route was by far the most important route for supplies delivered to Russia under the Third Protocol from October 1943 to end June 1944, and always had spare capacity if other routes had failed.

Finally, the Torch campaign was catastrophic for the German air force. The Luftwaffe lost 2422 aircraft in the Mediterranean over the seven months from November 1942 to end May 1943. This represented 40 per cent of its overall frontline strength in all theatres at the beginning of November. The Mediterranean losses broadly equalled those on the Russian front in the same period, although in some categories, notably fighters, they were much higher. The German response to Torch also absorbed large numbers of transport aircraft to build up their forces in Tunisia; Ju52s were deployed in November and December, of which half had been lost by end January. The despatch of these precious heavy transport aircraft to the Mediterranean significantly reduced German airlift capacity at Stalingrad. By reducing German air power, Torch therefore made a direct and important contribution to the Stalingrad battle, and then severely hampered German prospects for any lasting recovery in the East. This contribution to Stalingrad and its aftermath must be weighed alongside the simultaneous lend-lease aid delivered through Persia, the impact of which was highlighted earlier. Even if the Germans had achieved a more successful outcome to their 1942 southern offensive in Russia, the air losses suffered in the Torch campaign would have left them insufficient air support to contemplate the early invasion of the Middle East from the north, which the British so feared.

President Roosevelt anticipated these Torch achievements in the instructions he gave to Marshall and King prior to their visit to London in July 1942. He stressed the need to maintain a ‘Germany first’ strategy, and not to be diverted by Japan. He emphasised his continuing commitment to a cross-channel invasion (Roundup) in 1943, while noting that its feasibility would depend on events in Russia. Less recognised is the importance he placed on holding the Middle East. Losing the Middle East meant losing Egypt and the Suez Canal, and thereafter potentially Syria, Iraq oil and access to Persian oil. This would permit a junction between Germany and Japan, and result in the probable loss of the Indian Ocean. There was also a continuing risk of a German move into northwest Africa, with severe consequences for Atlantic communications. Holding the Middle East required continuing American support on existing fronts, but he commended the advantages of a landing on the Atlantic coast against Germany’s back door. Roosevelt’s arguments here, notably his stress on the Atlantic trade war, the importance of Persian oil and the Persian supply route, precisely echoed those deployed by Churchill a year earlier in May 1941.

In the autumn of 1942 the naval defence of the eastern empire had come full circle. The Indian Ocean, so critical not just to Britain’s position in the East, but to the whole Allied war effort in the first half of that year, had reverted to a calm backwater. Meanwhile, the need and opportunity to remove the western Axis threat to the Middle East had moved centre stage. Priorities had changed, and Royal Navy resources, in the view of the British war leadership, were now better deployed elsewhere than with Somerville. That meant the Mediterranean during 1943, but it also included deploying the fleet carrier Victorious to help the US Navy Pacific Fleet for much of that year, as well.

Royal Navy commitment to the eastern theatre: critical to Allied success

The Royal Navy was over-stretched in 1942, but it faced an inescapable commitment in the eastern theatre for the first half of that year. If the Axis had secured control of the Indian Ocean, denying Britain the resources of India and Australasia, and cutting the supply lines to the Middle East and Russia, while giving Germany potential control of Persian oil, the Allied task would have been immeasurably harder. Indeed, clear victory might have been impossible. The Royal Navy had to counter this risk. It had just enough latent strength in modern ships, modern technology, fighting effectiveness, and global support and experience, to do this, provided it had enough time to redeploy the necessary forces.

The weakness of Royal Navy forces off Ceylon in April 1942 reflected temporary limitations and was not representative of what the Royal Navy could do if required. Its ability, successively through 1942 to deploy a significant Eastern Fleet; plan major reinforcements for that fleet; project a substantial expeditionary force 7000 miles from the United Kingdom to seize Madagascar in May; mount the complex Pedestal operation at the other end of Africa, using some of the same forces, just two months later; and finally to mobilise 160 warships, including seven carriers, for Torch, demonstrates that the picture of Royal Navy power being in decline is overdone. The Royal Navy remained a strong and resilient force with global reach. Somerville undoubtedly hazarded his fleet at Ceylon, but came close to inflicting serious damage on the IJN.

The standard portrayal of a Royal Navy reduced to tokenism in the East, the inevitable consequence of a flawed interwar Singapore strategy, is misplaced. In the ultimate crisis, the British war leadership was prepared to withdraw all major units from the Mediterranean and run significant risks with the Home Fleet in order to secure the East. Despite some limitations, the fleet available to Somerville at the beginning of July 1942, before redeployment to the Mediterranean began, was stronger than any fleet the Royal Navy had deployed in the war to date, and comparable with the US Navy Pacific Fleet at that time. The second quarter of 1942 in the Indian Ocean is best viewed as a window of vulnerability. If the Japanese had made the Indian Ocean their main focus, they had the chance, for a short period, to bring more force to bear than Britain could, and perhaps radically to shift the global strategic balance, with incalculable consequences for the future direction of the war. Given time, Britain still had just enough capacity to close the window off.