Last time I looked at the British army at rest. Deeply, deeply at rest, except for Iraq, with the pension line for WWI veterans still a huge proportion of total spending (fortunately for operations, this money was lent to the Army Estimates).
Now it is time to look at an army hurtling towards war, as reflected in the 1939/40 Army Estimates. These were the Estimates prepared from briefings provided to the Cabinet before the Christmas break, debated in the winter of 1939, and formally adopted on 1 April, 1939. (That this is the beginning of the British public fiscal year is, in turn, the reason why the RAF, like every other British government organisation, has its birthday on April Fool's, not to let facts get in the way of hilarious jokes by anti-air power zealots, or anything.)
So what do they have to say for themselves?
First of all, this really is a gallop to war. In 1934, the Estimates had just climbed out of the Depression-era hole (in 1932, they fell to £35.978 million) at £39.6 million, compared with £40.07 million in 1930. In 1935 they were £44.5; 1936, 54.2; 1937, 72.675; 1938, 106.5; 1939, 148.155. Notice that if you wish to represent these numbers as smaller than in fact they were, you can drop the amount provided by the Defence Loan, as one run of figures in the official Estimates does. Then you get, for the last three estimates, 62.7; 85.36; and 81.9. If you find anyone using these numbers, be polite in pointing out their error.
So the Army Estimates were growing quite quickly in the years leading up to the war. It is only by comparison with the RAF, RN and, oh, yes, those German chappies, that the numbers look unimpressive. And the growth is tellingly concentrated under certain headings. Vote 1, the pay of the army, is up from 9.591m in 1930 to 11.943. Vote 4, for educational establishments, is up from 0.883 to 1.438. Vote 5, Quartering and Movement, and Vote 6, Supplies, Road Transport, and Remounts, as a little more than doubled, to about £15 millions. It's the procurement budget that has really taken off, with Vote 9, Warlike Stores, in particular, rising from (let's look at the last 10 estimates) £1.862m in 1930; 2.234; 2.102; 2.301; 2.82; 5.2; 10.7; 21.3; 41.2; 56.7. Interestingly, I see no other vote that rises during the Great Depression. The Government, for all its parsimony, finds some limit to its taste for cuts when it comes to buying guns and ammunition. The total being spent is so low that it is hard to imagine it going lower, but still....
The unimpressive growth in Vote 1 reflects the reality that the armed forces just cannot get that much bigger. Army Vote A strength bottomed out at 148,700 in 1932, and stands on 1 April 1939 at 185,000. That's not the most useful of numbers, however. Here is the breakdown of authorised strengths: British Troops (Regimental, exclusive of India and Burma: 162,707; Colonial and Indian Troops on British pay, 9,522; Army Reserve, 144,000; Supplementary Reserve, 67,945; Territorial Army, 249,480; miscellaneous, 2,167; India 45,383. Regimental strength in India and Burma is authorised at 46,821. This document is, however, aimed in part at Germany in desperate hope of discouraging it from war. And so, conscious that authorised strength does not mean actual strength, the Estimates now include a summary of effective strength. Following the same breakdown: 145,486; 5,717; 139,633; 32,259; 206,302; 1956. Leaving the "Indian and Burman" figure aside as basically an accounting trick, the numbers look good. The regulars are at 90% strength, the Army Reserve is evne higher,and the Territorials are at 80%. Clearly something is wrong with the Supplementary Reserve, however. If the army were called out today, its authorised mobilised strength would be 681,000, actual strength 577,000.
You can see why I've been a little cavalier in dismissing the notion that the BEF lacked manpower on 5/05/40. This was not a "small" army. It was smaller than the German or French armies, but it was enormous by many standards. A quick peak at the summary boxes for the Battle of Poland shows that Poland mobilised 950,000 men to oppose 2 million Germans. Recalling that the RAF and RN (with reserves) added another 250,000 men or so to the British mobilisation totals, I also need to remember that the British army was not organised to field anywhere near the same number of infantry divisions/man as Poland or Germany. The so-called "divisional slice" in Normandy was about 41,000 men supporting the infantry division's rifle-carriers with guns and trucks and typewriters, but that's 1944. The Estimates may help us see how this trend of a lower proportion of infantry to other services developed and what its implications might be.
So (again, officers/total): Cavalry, 90/1844; Armour, 622/12,541; Artillery, 1,363/30,711; Engineers, 470/6457; Signals, 292/6722; Infantry, 2723/81,372; Military Police, -/581; Logistical service, 705/9090; Medical, 590/5356; Ordnance, 676/5843; assorted misc, 580/2000. The Indian figures don't seem to yield any interesting comparisons and I won't pursue them.
I am, however, going to look at the branch-by-branch comparison and see what the respective growth rates tell me. In 1925, the cavalry and tanks (exclusive of India) together numbered 13,229; in 1939, 14,385; in artillery, there is a 16% increase in strength; in the engineers, an 8.4% decrease; in signals, a 35% increase; in infantry, a 4.4% increase; in the Royal Army Service Corps, 50% increase; Ordnance, 66% increase. So we can see that the army is getting more services-heavy. It is a more technologically-oriented arm than it was in 1925. The one exception to this is the Royal Engineers. The Estimates provide an explanation for this: the RE has been training many electricians and searchlight battery crews that have been transferred to the Air Defence Troops in the latest Estimate, along with six regiments of Yeomanry. (And, bang, like that, we find out why the Territorial Army divisions in France did not have their divisional cavalry regiments. Sure, 20 Vickers Mark VIs and 44 Scout Carriers isn't a terrific addition to the fighting power of a whole infantry division, but their duties on defence would have been flank security, not fighting in tank cauldrons, and it does seem to me that the BEF needed more flank security. It's not like the War Office lacked the men, the training budget, or even the light tanks.)
Except, here's the thing. The Engineer corps strength in 1938 was over 10,000. The transfer brings it down to just under 7000. But that's actually less than in 1925, when the Air Defence Troops hardly existed. Men are disappearing out of the RE. It's not entirely obvious where, but the Territorials have expanded enormously, and require a large permanent staff. They would also need ordnance technicians, drivers, signals and artillerists, but these men could have remained under their old corps.
A first pass explanation for the difficulty in fielding IV Corps and the armoured divisions: a shortage, not of infantry and cavalry, but of technicians, who have gone to the AA. One wonders why it has taken so long to state this so baldly. Is someone embarrassed about something? The Fall of France, perhaps?
Basil? Basil? Are you in there?
- Postblogging Technology, October, I: Forest for the Trees
- The Bishop's Sea, III: The Real Presence
- Gathering the Bones, 18: Hew Down the Bridge!
- Postblogging Technology, April 1944, I: Ancestral Voices
- Postblogging Technology, November, 1943: Caesar's New Clothes
- Postblogging Technology, March 1944, I: Pulling In the Horns
- Old Europe: Always Falling
- Gather the Bones, 17: To Our Mother of the Lakes
- From Now On, No Defeats: Alamein, III: "Look for me at dawn on the third day."
- Postblogging Technology, September, 1945 II: Praying for a Good Victory