Monday, October 23, 2006

The end of the beginning

Not only is today the day fifty years ago that the Hungarian uprising started (about which my colleague will be writing shortly), 23 October is also the day on which the second battle of El Alamein started, the battle which in 1942 led to the defeat of Rommel and the turning of the tide in the North African desert. It was the battle which Churchill marked as the "end of the beginning".

Having long ago read virtually everything there is to read on the battle, I had until recently taken the view that there was nothing much more worth saying about it. However, one of our readers drew my attention to the book by Stephen Bungay which had some interesting observations on the conduct of the British Army, versus the German.

Not all of them were by any means new, but some of the material was presented in a particularly refreshing and incisive way. I was particularly taken with this passage on pages 32-32, on the organisation and leadership of the Army:

British doctrine tried to avoid battlefield chaos by controlling it centrally through a "masterplan". Junior officers were only allowed to change their actions if circumstances changed, and needed authorisation to do so, which led to delay. Initiative was effectively banned. Training emphasized obedience, which was inculcated by drill. The modern battlefield was held to be so stressful that only autocratic control by senior officers and instinctive obedience to orders on the part of other ranks would avoid collapse. …

In line with what was taken to be a British instinct for improvisation, the rigidity of the doctrine was loosened for senior officers. Orders became treated as suggestions or debating subjects for senior and middle-ranking officers who discussed the meaning of orders, and tried to improve on them before carrying them out. This liberal view was regarded as morally superior to rigid Prussian obedience.

As tactical doctrine was not practised in exercises, there was no common understanding of it. The result was disastrous. The deadly combination of strict central control and the free expression of opinion in the middle ranks led to sluggish, unco-ordinated and unimaginative performance on the battlefield whilst the "rigid Prussians" were fast, imaginative improvisers.

Despite the crushing evidence of battlefield experience, British officers still believed that had a talent for improvisation and that German officers were methodical and unimaginative. This seems to have been rooted in some metaphysical beliefs about national characteristics which many even claimed were innate. In fact, both armies did what they were trained to do in the way they had been trained to do it, which is hardly a great surprise.

Whilst the British deluded themselves with fantasies about Germans rigidly obeying orders and planning everything down to the last detail (because of Teutonic thoroughness). The Germans knew their enemy…
So it continues. Earlier in the book, there is a devastating indictment of the British failure to appreciate the role of the German 88 flak gun, used as an anti-tank gun. Bungay writes:

The 88 wrought havoc on the battlefield throughout the desert war (and elsewhere, ed) because the British were slow to learn. The pre-war British Army did not appreciate the extent to which a future war would be a battle between machines, and that technology was an essential element in tactics. In 1941, Auchinleck expanded the technical intelligence section of Middle East Command to two officers and a truck.

The true performance of the key German weapons remained a mystery for a long time. When the 88 was tested, it was erroneously concluded that it could not penetrate the armour of a Matilda beyond 440 yards, so Matildas continued to be deployed against it, with disastrous results.

When the penny dropped, some attempts were made to employ the excellent 3.7-inch anti-aircraft gun as an anti-tank weapon like the 88, The 3.7 proved to be too sophisticated. It was designed to work with range data from radar, whereas the 88 had an optical sight which could be used on the ground, and the 3.7 weighed nine tons as against the 2.5 tons of the 88, making it far too heavy to be moved about rapidly on the battlefield. The 88 remained the queen of the desert.
I wish I could say that this was just an interesting exercise in reading about the sins of our fathers – my father's generation. But can anyone say that military intelligence is any better now? Considering how vital tactical helicopters have become on the modern battlefield, can we read this, this and this and have any confidence that things are any better now?

Indeed, can we look at this or this and do anything but wonder whether we have learned anything at all?

El Alamein may indeed have been the "end of the beginning" for the desert campaign and the Allies prosecution of the war but, when it comes to military stupidity, even now there is no end anywhere in sight.

Photos courtesy of here, with thanks. A unique archive which is well worth a visit.


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