Monday, July 26, 2010

Fall of France, 2: On Armoured Warfare, I

It is not hard to learn about the British army's views on armoured warfare in 1940. It is an important issue, of course, because one thing we can all agree on is that if there were, say, 50 British (Commonwealth) armoured divisions in France in 05/40, the Germans would have been defeated, and the Holocaust would never have happened. Or if there were 20. 10? Perhaps even 5?

And 5 is not actually that unreasonable a number. A division is a formation of manoeuvre, and it is hard to imagine one being made up of more than 12 battalions of infantry or regiments of cavalry, and there were far more than 50 battalions and regiments in the British, Indian, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand and South African orders of battle. (As it happens, there were only 8 battalions/regiments in the 1945 issue armoured division.) Twelve regiments of armour with 60 tanks each is a great many tanks, indeed; but Germany deployed 3000 tanks in the Battle of France, as did France. (Perhaps.) Britain --never mind the whole Commonwealth-- had more money than France. It had more money than Germany, especially Germany without its territorial expansions of the two years previous to the Battle. (It took 3 years for a tank contract to go from a call for proposals to the first service deliveries during WWII.) What went wrong?

We know; in great detail. How could we not? Basil H. Liddell-Hart, arguably the most influential historian writing in the English language in the Twentieth Century, devoted his life to the development of armoured warfare. He wrote an influential history of the war. Not only did he write a history of the Royal Tank Regiment, he did it at the behest and with the advice of a family he was closely associated with thanks to his friendship with Major-General Percy Hobart, a former Commandant-in-Chief of the Regiment. Hobart's sister, Lucy, married one of his brother officers, John Carver, and had a son, Michael Carver, who went on to become a Field-Marshal and chief of the defence staff before taking up military history in his retirement. After Carver's death, she remarried another army officer, the odd but able Bernard Montgomery. You may have heard of him. He had a good war.

Not surprisingly, then, Hart's personal collection of papers and correspondence was of some value. He donated it to King's College of the University of London, where it became the core of the Liddell Hart Archive, the home of military studies in the city of London, conveniently accessible to researchers working with the miles of official documents held in the Public Record Office at Kew. Hart was always keen to help researchers and students, and thanks to his connections and his good fortune as a writer, his resources were not small. No wonder that his web of friendships extended to famous WWII historians of the next generation such as Brian Bond, Michael Howard and Jay Luvaas.

At this point I can't help but reflect my generation and its formative influences: "not that there's anything wrong with that." Liddell Hart was a great military historian and a good friend to many good people. But there is some kind of dichotomy between "great" and "good" here, because look at page 18 of his History of the Second World War, where he says that Britain had promised to send four Regular divisions to France at the outbreak of the war. That is not true. It had promised to send its British Expeditionary Force of five divisions: four regular infantry, and one "Mobile" division. The "Mobile" Division became 1st Armoured, and it reached the front, as I have said, 9 months late. The reason for that, it seems, is not far to seek. Even when it finallly got to France, the 1st Armoured was inadequate to its task. The indictment, which you will see notices Liddell Hart's comments in The Tanks, includes the irrelevant (the tanks lacked some periscopes, and had to fit their machine guns on the docks instead of being shipped with them), the salient but hard-to-remedy (the tanks were inadequate), and the horribly telling: there was no infantry support group with the 5 regiments of tanks.

Consider: your squadron of tanks is driving down a road in the forest. It comes on a break where the road turns to go around an open field. Your tanks turn to follow the road. And an antitank gun begins firing from across the field! Obviously, this is not exactly a new situation. Replace the tanks with horse cavalry, and the fire element with some riflemen, and you have exactly the same problem. You need to shoot the shooters, or, if they are smart enough to hide behind a log or whatever, get close and stick them with your pointy things before you can move on.

We have all seen firefights on TV and at the movies, so we know what comes next. Grown men and women get down on their stomachs and begin crawling forward, while their fellow soldiers give "covering fire," which is meant to keep the enemy shooters' heads down. The horse cavalry can do that easily enough. Some troopers get off their horses. In general, you have to be careful about overloading horses, so you can't go crazy issuing the troopers with rifles, bayonets, ammunition and so on, but you can give them enough to get this job done.

By the same token, modern armoured formations make sure that they have some Armoured Personnel Carriers or Infantry Fighting Vehicles attached to the unit that carry infantry for just exactly this sort of work. But, apparently, 1st Armoured did not. It's a pretty indefensible thing to do, considering that French and German armoured divisions typically had between 1 battalion of infantry for every regiment of tanks to a 1 to 2 ratio. They even had armoured personnel carriers for some of them, even though you'd think that an armoured troop-carrying-box-on-tracks-with-a-motor would be a bit of a fuss for armies that couldn't yet afford all the tanks and guns and such that they needed. 1st Armoured did not. And no wonder, because the only people to think about the practice of armoured warfare in Britain between the wars are on record as thinking that tanks didn't need infantry support. To quote one excellent author reviewing the literature on the subject, J. F. C. Fuller, who retired as a Lieutenant-General after losing his appointment to command the first British experimental mechanised force in 1927, felt that infantry were obsolete. Liddell Hart at least thought that they would need some "tank marines" along.

Hey. Wait now. Liddell Hart? You mean, he was writing about armoured warfare before the war? And his predictions were wrong? Good thing he wasn't influential, or anything. Except, wait again. He was best friends with this Percy Hobart guy. So he was influential. Now I'm suspicious of this guy. Too bad that he's our only source, because nothing, nothing at all, was written about tanks except by him and his buddy, General Fuller.
It probably says a great deal about my research method, or lack of it, that I sometimes address questions like these by going to the library and looking in the relevant sections. Shiny new bindings tell us where the state of the art is, while fusty old bindings must be Fuller and Hart's books (or maybe some foreign stuff that British people didn't read, because, well, it was foreign).
Or, wait a minute:
There seems to be a few more titles on the shelves! What's more, it turns out that the British government didn't just hand out a gob of money to the army every year. They had to present a budget to Parliament with a massive report on how that money was spent and some kind of rationale for asking for more. If you look at this "Army Estimate," you don't have to just make up facts. You can look them up --lots and lots of facts.

Let's take a minute and look what might be in them.

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