Friday, May 20, 2011

Fall of France, 4: The Armoured Division, II

Now where was I?

Trashing Basil Liddell Hart? Well, he was a pundit, after all. His job was to give professional cover to the Prime Minister's decision to neglect the army during the rearmament boom. That was a mistake on Neville Chamberlain's part, but hardly an ill-considered one. Naval and air rearmament was complicated. It crowded out exports and threatened the balance of payments, but the reason that it did so was that these services bought items produced by the "high tech" export industries of the future. Service contracts could capitalise factories, and just meeting those contracts would build up labour force experience. Although the technical services would need more skilled labour to get bigger,  both  air force and navy had provided for force expansion by creating trade schools and squaring the unions away.

The army had not. Or rather, it did not have enough schools, of the right kind.  Mechanisation had transformed its manpower requirements and created a sudden demand for heavy duty mechanics, fitters, and riggers. The only way to rapidly increase the armoured force would be to go into the market and compete for skilled labour, driving wages up. From the management side of the table, it seemed that the threat was sector-wide upwards pressure on wages, and inflation that would rebound on rearmament efforts. Over time, as the army completed its transition to a mechanised force (and that meant converting India as well!) this would change.

So when Hart turned into a historian, he might have done us the favour of a clear account of this era. That he chose instead to obfuscate does not reflect well on him. But that's not what's important here. We are talking, instead, about the tricky nexus of social and institutional history that is the transition of the cavalry branch into the Royal Armoured Corps: and what might have gone wrong.

The problem here, as I see it, is here.

Nice tune; but, seriously, "let every cavalier who loves order and me...?" I was "taught" politics in a different school. Life has left me with the suspicion that my  Silent Generation teachers were a little naive, that their working lives, at least, went a little too smoothly, leaving them a little too casual and trusting about what libertarian politics are likely to mean in practice. But that's a long way from tugging the forelock to the squire ("squatter?" Australians are crazy) as he rides by. And if awesome books and articles (Joanna Waley-CohenRoger B. Manning) are pointing in any direction, it's towards a deep cultural history of cavalry, horses, riding, surveying, and hunting that enacts as inescapable a social hierarchy as one can imagine, embedded in credit and science.

Since I'm exploring those ideas mainly through the lowest form of Internet activity known to humans (not porn, so get your minds out of the gutter!) I won't say any more about that here and now, just try to peel it back through the military history.

So, okay, cavalry divisions and armoured divisions.

 Here's the official historian doing what official historians do, which is providing useful details instead of breezy campaigning anecdotes. Specifically, here's the order of battle of the Cavalry Division that Allenby took to war in the summer of 1914, in the middle of an imaged page, because if published texts weren't presented this way, someone would cut-and-paste from them, and then it would be possible to plagiarise on the Internet.
I really should can the sarcasm. I'm basically grateful to Openlibrary and good old Robarts Library of the UofT.

I know. The thought makes me all over faint, too.

So that's a total of 24 guns and 24 machine guns for 9,300 sabres and 10,000 horses under Allenby, compared with an infantry division that gets by on 5,600 horses for 18,000 men, and which has half again as many (bigger) tubes per man, albeit half the number of machine guns. More importantly for the period of the couverture,  the cavalry division takes up 2/3rds of the road space. A cavalry brigade takes up almost as much space as an infantry brigade with twice the firepower! That's a tradeoff I would make in a second in a War of the Spanish Succession context, but the value of lance and sabre backed by a cuirass has been dropping of late.

Compare the way that the French and the Germans do it. The French have 61 infantry and 10 cavalry divisions, the Germans 93 or so (I didn't count up the Landswehr brigades) and 11 cavalry. The French have made some sacrifices to achieve this strength. Their 3 brigade cavalry division is the weakest on the Western Front at 4500 sabres, including the 326 man bicycle group. The 3 brigade Germany cavalry division is stronger, at 5400 heads, including 3 Jäger battalions. Arguably, you'd want to thicken up the British cavalry division with bicyclists (as in the divisional cavalry squadron) or light infantry, or cars, or something. But they wouldn't be able to keep up with the horses in rough country, and the British cavalry division is already huge. Surely someone noticed that, right?

Of course they did. The cavalry division went to war with an additional brigade attached because a five-brigade division would have been crazy, and, speaking of crazy, the Yeomanry Mounted Division of "mounted rifles" was sent to the East Coast to patrol against invaders. Well, good thing, if there were invaders, but I can't help but suspect that the General Staff was thinking more in terms of the road space-versus-firepower issue. The British army had lots of horses, and as many cavalry as it needed for the India rotation, and a little bit more besides, because of South Africa. That's how many cavalry regiments it had, and so that's how many went to war with the BEF in 1914. The cavalry division became two (3 brigade) cavalry divisions as soon as a sixth brigade showed up from South Africa.

A similar problem vexed the British army in the 1930s. It began auspiciously enough, with the Royal Tank Regiment forming a Tank Brigade for the 1931 manoeuvres. By the standards of the time, 100 Vickers 11t Medium Tanks and 130 light tanks (actually 50 Mark II light tanks and 80 machine gun carriers in the role of light tanks). This is a pretty amazing amount of firepower by the standards of the divisions that marched to war only 17 years before, and Liddell Hart and Fuller had already rather incautiously proposed that tanks could replace infantry entirely, or almost entirely. So why not replace the BEF with a Tank Division of Tank Brigades? The resulting dogpile in the Army Quarterly, as various writers tried to demonstrate the need for infantry and (armoured) engineer support for the tanks to Hart showed another of his less edifying personal characteristics; an inability to admit that he was wrong.

That being said, when the Cavalry Division was converted into the Mobile Division in 1938, the result was exactly that: 12 regiments (battalions) running around in 600 tanks. On the bright side, it would have been more, but for the fact that the battalions of the old Royal Tank Regiment were hived off to form independent brigades that mirrored the various ideas of "tank circusses" and the French DCR. Now, by the time that the 1st Armoured Division came to deploy units in France, an  armoured regiment was sent along with 30th Infantry Brigade, recently constituted by adding a motorcycle battalion to the 1st Armoured's "Support Group" of two mechanised infantry battalions. This appears to have been the vanguard of the divisional deployment as opposed to the last-ditch garrison of Calais that it soon became, so I'm assuming that common sense eventually won out, and the British armoured division as finally deployed looked like one of the larger  larger German divisions, with an additional armoured brigade but otherwise the same organisation as a French DLM.  (Which assumption may not be justified, as it rests on assuming an update in the British armoured division official orders of battle that was dropped due to the press of events. That is, we're missing something in H. F. Joslen. Orders of Battle, Second World War. 2 vols. History of the Second World War, United Kingdom Military Series. London: HMSO, 1960. (3ff))

Whether it had 9 or 12 or arguably even only 6 regiments of tanks, the Armoured Division had too many tanks, not enough infantry. That this flows from the nature of the British Army at home and the need to maximise fighting power at the front was a permissible excuse for the Cavalry Division of 1914; but certainly not for 1940. Never mind anything else, it was a waste of fitters! The obvious solution was to convert some of the cavalry regiments to motorised, or mechanised infantry. And the fact that the cavalry arm rejected this suggestion is the cause of much criticism that I can't get at, because I'm going on memory of Hart's The Tanks, for whatever reason still not available online (but 337ff, if you have access to a copy).

Except that's just dumb. The mechanisation of the army's manpower makes the most sense if the army recruits boys, trains them into fitters/riggers/heavy duty mechanics/tradesmen/what have you and sends them into industry and the Reserves at the end of their enlistment. Having men prancing around on horseback doesn't contribute to that, obviously. That's just teaching obsolete skills, given the collapse of animal traction in the British economy and declining agricultural employment. The problem is, neither does having men slogging around with rifles. The British army already has too much infantry, as we've seen (India, again.) Mechanising existing infantry would be the perfect way out of the box!

There's no doubt that it's a good idea:

A protective mobile force covers the approach. A mobile force of all arms, it deals particularly with obstacles and enemy MG and AT fire. It feels its way forward by fire and movement to avoid firepower effects. It should include mech. transported infantry specially trained for all arms co-operation (a “Light Infantry Brigade” in this sense equipped with additional AT), AFVs, and mechanised artilllery, plus cavalry and armoured cars. Medium tanks are held in reserve to support the Light Brigade. Mobility is important before contact, in recce, in seizing ground, in manoeuvre leading to attack and in pursuit.”
(E. G. Home, “The Rôle of Modern Mobile Protective Forces,” AQ 22,1 (April 1931): 141ff.)

And that's what was happening in 1939. The lead battalion of the King's Royal Rifle Corps (I forget which one, and we are being protected from this valuable information, so everyone run out and buy their own copy of this 1972 imprint, as I'm sure it's available at your local bookstore!) has been attached to Southern Command, under the care and control of old cavalry and horse artillerymen Wavell and Alan Brooke and turned into a "motor battalion."

[t]hough the Motor Battalion organisation was adapted and varied to meet the changing needs of War, it was basically made up of a Headquarters, Headquarters Company, including its Administrative and Signal Platoons, three or four Motor Companies, each with three Motor platoons and one Scout platoon, and a Support Company containing the Mortar, medium Machine-gun and Anti-Tank platoons . . . . . Not only were the officers, N.C.O.s and Rifleman of a Motor Battalion to move quickly, but to be able to communicate quickly with one another, with their headquarters and with the armour. For proficiency in operating wireless and handling signals and messages was as essential to success in the conditions of mobile warfare as their traditional skill in weaponry . . . .[U]nder the guiding hand of. . . Alan Brooke at Divisional Headquarters, Burnett-Stuart and Wavell at Southern Command . . . the officers and men . . . pioneers once more . . . [learned] . . . to drive, maintain and repair trucks, carriers and motor-bicycles . . . [and] to operate and service the complex technical mechanism of rapid, accurate wireless communication . . .. Though every man still carried his rifle or automatic weapon. . . .the foot-slogging Greenjacket was transformed into a highly trained and expert mechanical fighting technician.... It was remarkable how quickly the Riflemen –most of them men with little more than elementary education– learnt their new craft: “the new-fangled soldiering”; as some of the old hands called it. In the course of `1938 the eighty vehicles of the Battalion covered roughly 2000 miles per vehicle or about 160,000 miles in all, without a serious accident, much of it at night and without lights. And though most of the equipment needed for their future tasks in the field was still lacking –there was only Lewis guns as yet to use on the range in place of the prescribed Bren-guns, and the first Anti-Tank Rifles were only just starting to come in –the Battalion made up in enthusiasm and application what it lacked in experience.” Duties included protection of armoured encampments, clearing obstacles, escorting tanks in close country, contesting river crossings (337). By May 1940 1st Battalion, and a KRRC battalion had been trained as motorised troops for the 1st Armoured Division, and in the spring of 1940 they were grouped in 30th Brigade for proposed use in Norway before a Territorial motor-cycle battalion, 4th Queen Victoria’s Rifles was added to the brigade prior to their being sent to Calais (343).
 (Arthur Bryant, Jackets of Green: A Study of the History, Psychology, and Character of the Rifle Brigade (London: Collins, 1964): 240–1)

The Rifle Brigade used to be known as London's "county regiment," and tended to the tony, and the description here certainly sounds like a boy's life. So it is interesting to compare this bit of comment on armoured warfare in the last year of peace with a favourite that I've plastered all over the Internet, but not, I think, here, as of yet, the thinking of a rising star of the service corps, who wishes to draw a distinction between two possible policies going forward. Britain can mechanise, which is like industrialisation, which replaces skilled labour with semiskilled and is good. Or it can motorise, which is a temporising policy, and bad. The difference is that a fully mechanised, mobile force will be self-sufficiently gallivanting about the countryside, repairing its own vehicles. A "motorised" force consists of huge tanks that have to be carried about by trucks and trains. It will need depots, which will be full of men who joined the Army as Boy Apprentices, and who can't wait to leave the army and join a firms-and-a-union and start voting Labour. A“Young England” army of gentlemen in Bren Gun Carriers and Vickers Light Tanks looks like a new  new housing estate (ie, everybody has to drive themselves a long way to get to "work"), serviced by “wayside garages" in which semi-skilled mechanics support semi-skilled owner-operators to do the necessary “replacement-repairs.” (Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel G. C. Shaw, Supply in Modern War. (J. F. C. Fuller (London: Faber and Faber, [1938]: 150, 338–41).

So there's a social vision here. Cavalry is aristocratic. The "depots" are working class. Perhaps the motorised infantry ("mechanised infantry?" We're so confused) can be, like the Rifles already are, "middle class."I shouldn't have dragged Bryant into this, since I don't read him as implying anything as invidious as Shaw is here. That being said, the very thing that is making this discussion so confusing is, in my opinion, some people (I'm looking all weary-eyed at ol'Basil here) trying to perform a political operation on British society within the straightfoward military-historical-industrial account. 

So I'll leave it there today. I thought I was going to be able to get to Lord Nuffield, the Christie suspension, and the "agricultural engineering" sector today.

I thought wrong. For now let it be said that the main problem was that there weren't enough infantry battalions in England in 1938 and 1939 to train enough motor infantry for the Armoured Division, anyway. And the cause of the problem was, [sigh], Palestine and the Middle East.

No comments:

Post a Comment