Thursday, December 27, 2012

From Now On, No More Defeats: The Siege, 2: Towards the Atlantic Climax


Die Matrosenlied: "Wir fahren gegen Engeland!" So kiss a girl one last time, because the grey seas and iron guns of England wait for Frisian and Saxon sailor boys, too young to know that the task to which the Grand Admiral calls them is beyond their strength.

And deeply evil, of course. God, there are a lot of Nazis on Youtube. But those Wagner-worshipping assholes certainly brought their special touch to the "siege of England." They didn't win the war, because Gotterdammerung is not about winning, but they did manage to blight the United Kingdom's recovery from the stresses of war and muddy the Keynesian waters. 

At least, that's the preliminary takeaway. In both New World and Old, war brought massive spending and a huge uncompensated skills transfer, with consequences that were very different from one hemisphere to the next, and in fact between the United States and Canada. The surge in the birth rate that would come to be called the Baby Boom is detectable in the United States in 1944, suggesting (to me, but what do I know?) that it was triggered by the earliest phases of rearmament. In Canada it becomes detectable in 1945, when the men of the corvette navy returned. In the United Kingdom, the moment was right for austerity and a return to rationing. 
Alan Allport, concluding his somber look at demobilisation in the UK, calls out the lack of a British GI Bill. I'm a little torn about this conclusion, which seems to me to take a far too utilitarian view of postsecondary education. Of skills transfer the United Kingdom was not short in 1946. For a bit of university finish to add to that, the finish has to be something more than additional skills transfer.  We have an account of what that might be (Pierre Bourdieu shout-out!), but to follow down that road, we need to have a clearer understanding about how the North American university system reproduces social class. Does it work, or does it just seem to work when the population is growing enough to make more room at the top?

Put it another way: was the siege enough to stop a British baby boom? That's the framing question, to me, because I think that it's the boom that's going to turn out to be important. Now it's time to put the historian of technology hat on, and recycle some material that I never got around to pushing into the submission process. I've cleaned up the thing a little bit, and, as usual, lost most of the time I meant to save by using it, and that's why the footnotes are out of order and in some cases messed up. Which is too bad, because the whole thing is mainly worth saving for the footnotes. Skip the words and scroll down to the bottom if you're interested in that sort of stuff, by all means.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Gather the Bones, XIII: On The Chuck

When you come into camp off the chuck, the water taxi will drop you off on the booms. Don't forget your corks, or you'll drown, and even if you make it, you probably won't impress your girl.

And so there you have it:"chuck," along with more workaday slang. "Chuck" is the one word out of Chinook that we still used on the B. C. coast in my boyhood. It means  "the sea," and I really have no idea why that one word out of the whole of the old Jargon, should survive.*  I have no idea why we needed a word out of the old lalange for "the sea," of all things. I think that it probably violates some a priori dictum out of some historical linguist or another, but I've been schooled on the subject of using questionable historical linguists to impugn an entire discipline.

The story is that  James Cook reached the Pacific Northwest on his third voyage of 1776--1779, looking for the "Northwest Passage," a water route directly across the northern hemisphere to China that would mean vast profits for the tea trade. He died, or was apotheosisised** on the  Hawaiian islands, but his ships returned to Guangzhou with a load of sea otter furs that spurred a buying frenzy that Pamela Kyle Crossley explains as a necessarily short-lived mania for luxury goods signifying the north and offering Qing Manchu aristocracy with the cachet of Siberian authenticity.(1)

The story is unnecessarily simple. The improbable story of the "Northwest Passage" had been revived in the last quarter of the decade. We're not sure why, but it is sufficiently fascinating for maritime historians that possible explanations have been mooted at length. I  happened to use Barry Gough's Fortune's A River to prepare this post, but that's just because I have a cheap copy kicking around. Reading in the comfort of your own home you will probably want the appropriate volume of Bancroft's History, because it's been digitised. Unfortunately, the digitisation was a indical disaster. In the mean time, here's Wikipedia. The upshot is that the Spanish were first (what a surprise!) and that there was a well-founded presumption based on lost either lost sources of information or common-sense extrapolation that there was a major river draining into the Pacific somewhere on the coast that might well be reached from the head of canoe navigation on the Missouri or Saskatchewan by an economical portage.

Leaving that aside, the prices offered for Northwestern fur in Guanghzhou inspired follow up voyages, beginning with James Hanna in 1785, but as we close in on 1790, a vague cloud of Boston men are invoked by the learned authorities, but the men we know include three Britons and only one American: George Dixon, John Meares, William Barkley and Robert Gray. That's not to say that the traditional histories are wrong about this. On the contrary, it's an artefact of the intersection of domestic British politics with international relations in the course of the Nootka Crisis that basically forced the British and Spanish to take harder lines with each other than they might well have done. In larger terms, this is perfectly irrelevant given that the two crowns managed to come to a settlement, except that it threw Meares' claims to have bought land and built a settlement at Yuquot (Nootka) Sound, along with all other such things as might bear on a Spanish or British claim to the territory  into that traditional state of epistemic derangement in which diplomats like to leave those things that they have determined shall be ignored. Indeed, I only mention it to bring up by this conversational back door the fact that Meares' men were Tang men from Guangzhou, and stick that in your pipe and smoke it, Canadian nativists.***

So there we have the Oregon Country of the early settlement era: a region free of the law of nations thanks to the competing claims of two powers thrown from their respective American colonies, rendered undecidable by the actions of men sailing ships under the flags of two other powers to meet the commercial appetites of a third.

Or, well, that's one way of looking at it. As I've already tried to signal with that "unnecessarily simple throwaway, I think that the real story is in many respects one of deliberate obscurity. The first part of that deliberate obscurity goes back to Spain and Britain sliding out of war with each other. The sliding required that all earlier settled contact with the coast had to be placed under erasure, something that diplomats have been doing since long before post-modernism was invented. That was no big one, however. If we're led to slightly underestimate the extent of First Nations-Euro-East-Asian-Hawaiian contact, we're basically leaving perhaps a few Spanish voyages and a little intimate contact over five years out of the story.

The big story is the self-creation of a creole aristocracy. Hey, no surprise there: Alex and Lameen have already called it, and the clue is linguistic. The roots here are clear enough. There is a region,  not unknown to the world, to be sure, but as remote as anywhere possibly could be from northwestern Europe. It has a fur trade with China. It won't support many entrepeneurs, but it will be profitable to the limit of the fur. It requires trade goods from Europe, or Boston, and since ships carrying those goods directly to the trading grounds are going to be involved the traditional, potentially disastrous admiralty race (ie, to be first on the trading grounds in the summer), there is a good argument for a wintering-over plantation. The Russian state, which had already spread itself across Siberia by an adroit mix of ethnogenesis and brutality, had already monopolised the most productive zone of maritime fur production, the Alaskan fur country, but there remained mountain beaver, which might be collected at a more southerly depot. The mouth of the Oregon would be best for that, if it existed, if it could be found.

Meanwhile, there was the story of the push that wasn't. It is more than a little amazing in pure geographic terms that the Spanish could reach Acapulco in 1525 (or 1526) and sail the first annual Manila Galleon in 1565, yet not reach California, never mind the Pacific Northwest, until the 1770s, but sometimes geography and geology explain the unlikely. The west coasts of North and South America lie to leeward, and are advancing (geologically) to windward. The advancing plates are subducting the oceanic basins as they advance, crushing oceanic plate deep beneath their continental shelves as they advance. The result is a steadily advancing orogeny that continuously lifts water gaps into the air. In Mexico, which is particularly dry, the western mountains have few easy passes north of Acapulco, and since the wind was onshore, it was difficult and dangerous to explore northwards. At the limits of human endurance due to scurvy, they either ascended the Gulf of California and grounded out in the confusing maze of the  mouth of the Colorado, bringing back stories of passages through seas of reeds that might have had some bearing on early stories about the Northwest Passage, or made the harder voyage up the outer coast past San Diego as far as Monterey, to which they paid much attention after long leagues of hard tacking as being wind-protected anchorages on a coast that otherwise consisted of mountains and breakers.Approximately at  the forty-ninth parallel, the subduction zone moves away from the coast, here, it throws off a steady series of insular land forms which are then incorporated in the advancing face of the North American continent. Or, anyway, that's the current explanation for why there are ports and inland waterways galore north of the Canadian border.

Which is to say, the Spanish did not go as far north as British Columbia --in all likelihood, crazy stories about  Francis Drake aside, no-one did-- they missed the mouth of San Francisco Bay until it was found from inland, which is, in the end, as good an explanation as any as to why there was no Spanish settlement in California until the settlers came overland from the northwest of Mexico, itself a long hard slog to reach and explore for the same geological reasons. The timing of the Spanish arrival on the coast was not accidental. Multiple lines of advance were converging here in 1790.

Just in time, as we know, for the French Revolution. So the story was left to hang fire twenty years until the intervention in 1810 of American fur magnate John Jacob Astor and his official historian, Washington Irving. I mean, it didn't really hang fire. Russian posts ran down to Spanish in northern California, but they're not really part of the story of the settlement of the West, are they? Anyway, in March of 1811, Astor's ship Tonquin reached the mouth of the River Oregon, by now renamed the Columbia in a fit of patriotism that was allowed to hold after it was realised that the Oregon was not one river, but two. Here, the Astor men discovered the limits of geology: far from being a road into the interior, the mouth of the mighty Columbia was not even navigable!

Like the Sacramento to its south, the Columbia does not find its way to the sea through a channel carved by hydrological action, because the steady orogeny of the coast mountains continuously lifts the bed of the river into the air. Instead, the river finds a geological fault (syncline, I guess?) and enters the river through it, laying down its burden of sediment in the narrow gap instead of in a wide delta. The resulting Columbia Bar system is the likely real reason that the Spanish knew of a "river Oregon," from travellers' tales from the landward side, but had not discovered the river mouth in two centuries of admittedly desultory exploration. There was no mouth. Fortunately, the long voyage winnowed out poor boat men. The Hawaiians recruited by Astor's expedition gave a particularly good account of themselves in various escapades around the Bar, and the local communities knew their waters, and so, with difficulty, ships would continue to make their way to trading entrepots, at first Fort Astoria, later Fort Vancouver (not to be confused with the Canadian city to the north),**** sometimes with their landlord, Chief Comcomly of the Chinooks, as their pilot.

The Astor Company's experiment in long-distance maritime trading empires was brief, as the Hudson Bay Company ended up on top, putting John Baptiste McLoughlin (1, 2) in charge of the post (and the entire Oregon Country)

Spooky, hunh? From Wikipedia. He's a (real) doctor. Get it?

and giving him, besides Peter Ogden (12) as his lieutenant, James Douglas (1, 2) as an accountant, Dr. William Fraser Tolmie as a surgeon turned bailiff, and John Work.   The (1,2) schtick is my sly way of comparing the capsule biographies on Wikipedia with those of the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, where these differ to any significant degree with respect to the subject's country marriages and mixed race children.

The lower Columbia would remain McLoughlin's base for the rest of his active career. This had nothing to do with the original reason. Hopes that the river would cut an easy route to the continental divide were as vain as hopes for an easy passage to the sea. The Fraser might have had an easily accessed port, exploited in the early founding of Fort Langley as a company farm, but both the Fraser nor the and the Columbia have to cut their way through an inner orogeny, and the result are deep, rapids-strewn gorges. The Fraser Canyon is the more spectacularly impassible of the two, but the Dalles of the Columbia lie under Mount Hood itself, and a river of 7,500 cubic meters discharge dropping 40 feet over two miles in a channel 140 feet wide is nothing to sneeze at. Instead, horse trails were the Columbia District's means of communication with both Canada and the United States, the main route coming down from all the way from the Peace Country, from where the North Saskatchewan is easily reached  and navigable via the Fraser, Columbia and Okanagan Valleys.

So why did the company, and McLoughlin, stick with the lower Columbia? It seems because both McLoughlin and his boss took up land just south of Fort Vancouver, in the "prairies," or natural (or possiblyl human curated, but who cares about Indian hunters?) water meadows of the Willamette River. Without the Pacific Northwest's usual burden of heavy timber, the Willamette offered the potential of rapid agricultural development, and McLoughlin's eye saw the water power potential of the falls of the Willamette, while he was careful to keep his boss, Hudson Bay Company governor George Simpson invested.

Comcomly and his people were probably a factor as well, however. At least two of his daughters married into the leadership at Fort Vancouver at an early date, and the importance of the Chinook people are attested in another way, by the emergence (now, where did I bury that lede, again?) of a Northwest coast trade pidgin, the Chinook Jargon.

Now, pidgins are phenomena of weakly dominated cultural interaction spheres. To put it another way, there is no critical mass of speakers of any one language such as to force development in the direction of using that particular language. Instead, a hybridised contact language emerges. The word "pidgin" is often used, after the Southwest Pacific trade "Pidgin" spoken on New Guinea and eastward into the Solomons, although the phenomena would have been well known to European seamen from the Lingua Franca of the Mediterranean, which sailors famously spoke without knowing that they spoke it. but Chinook Jargon is very different from pidgin: its vocabulary is dominated by words out of Northwest coast languages, and its pronunciation rules show Northwest "areal" features, notably substituting other sounds for "r" in a way that seems consistent to linguists.****** The speculation is that this means that Chinook predates the coming of the fur traders, since obviously English would dominate the word mix otherwise, as it does in true pidgin. Right?

I'm going to call "wrong" on that. The question of whose language will dominate the mix probably doesn't speak to cultural dominance. I'm not quite prepared to declare Comcomly the secret King of the Northwest here. I see the tantalising possibility that once the haze of ethnocentricity is off the sources, we might conceivably get there some day. Number of speakers is clearly an issue. We know from our sources that the Europeans involved in the fur trade were both French and English speakers, so there is no question of one European language of high technology prevailing. Just to make things complicated, we  have the Hawaiian factor, an interesting example of an entirely assimilated North American racial minority. We have no clear idea of how many "Kanaks" migrated to the Coast, and I know of no sources, nor indeed interest, in pursuing Kanak family histories, except in some First Nations communities. The Hawaiian builders of five states and a province have disappeared from history.

 Although "some linguists think" that "Canuck" is derived from "Kanak." Hunh. The stuff you learn. And the Hawaiians are practically a case of light and clarity compared with the ultimate fate of any the Chinese migrants to the coast before, very roughly, "they came to build the railway," as the Canadian folk memory has it. In fact, the history of San Francisco tells us that the Chinese were coming over earlier and in greater numbers, and even if all of Meares' carpenters packed up and went home in 1790, the inference is that more probably came over later. I am not, however, aware of any accounting for early Chinese migrants within the modern Chinese-American or Chinese-Canadian communities. Did they all marry "Indian women?" As the Kanak men are said to have done? That's one hell of a lid to lift, in my opinion, even if I haven't been able to resist the temptation to do it over in Silbey's comment threads at Edge of the American West.

Anyway, speculating about the extent of multicultural identity within that portion of the early Pacific Northwest human community that came from away should not obscure the more obvious point that the Indianness of the Chinook Jargon is a pretty strong indicator that "White" settler society on the Pacific slope rests on Indian foundations. Not that we need indirect clues, given the biographies that we have. My (1,2) thing is meant to suggest that there used to be a little reticence about discussing the mixed race issue of prominent early Hudson's Bay Company men like McLoughlin, Ogden and Governor Douglas, and that's a dig at Wikipedia.

Which is not always justified. Here's Wikipedia on the eight daughters and three sons of Hudson's Bay Company Chief Factor John Work by the woman he married in 1826, Josette Legace,  a "mixed-race" (already at this date!) Spokane Indian woman:

  • Jane, born at Fort Colvile in 1827, married W. Tolmie in 1850
  • Sarah, born at Fort Colvile in 1829, married R. Finlayson in 1849
  • Leticia, born in Idaho in 1831, married E. Huggins in 1857
  • Margaret, born at Fort Vancouver in 1836, married E. Jackson in 1861
  • Mary, born at Fort Simpson in 1837, married J. Grahame in 1860
  • John, born at Fort Simpson in 1839
  • Catherine, born at Fort Simpson between 1840 and 1842, married C. Wallace in 1861
  • Josette, born at Fort Victoria in 1843, married E. Prior in 1878
  • Henry, born at Fort Simpson in 1844 or 1845 (died in an accident at a young age)
  • David, born at Fort Simpson in 1846
  • Cecilia, born at Fort Simpson in 1849, married C. Jones in 1870

 With remarkable naivete, the biography of Work's grandson, Simon Fraser Tolmie, tells us that his "impeccable pioneer heritage" was a considerable help in his rise to the office of Premier of the Province of British Columbia between 1930 and 1933. A little fishing around the Internet proves, once again, that it is a very strange place. The Tolmie surname does not produce the usual avalanche of Rootweb results, but turned up a contemporary account of the Memorial Day festivities at Old Fort Nisqually in 1934, attended by:

the reader  can be forgiven for not knowing much about British Columbia's energetic mining sector, but I can assure you that being Deputy Minister of Mines for 40 years is not  necessarily to live in underpaid bureaucratic obscurity.

So what I'm saying is that it's not a secret that the Pacific Northwest had a creole aristocracy in the 1840s, and that it had not entirely vanished in British Columbia by the turn of the last century. But what about Washington and Oregon, the destinations of the Oregon Trail? Were they not blasted into whiteness by an endless stream of  migrants passing heading west in their covered wagons? It makes for a good story, and also  vintage resource-management games.

But "story" is the operative word. There was no trail. Well, okay, obviously there was a trail. Marcus Whitman rode it at mid-winter in 1843, back when lobbyists had to work for a living! (It's quite a story, although it would take forever to go into the Free Soil/Slavery/Gospel Society angles). The thing is that then he decided to lead the "Great Emigration" back west to the prairies of the Willamette. For the Wikipedia article on Whitman, the "Great Emigration" was the vanguard of "hundreds of thousands of migrants who would use the trail in the next decade."

Reality check here: perhaps 120 migrants had travelled the "Oregon Trail" in forty wagons before 1843. A list of fewer than 100 Anglo-American names has been published purporting to show the population of pre-1843 migrants waiting to receive the Great Emigration. A list of perhaps 400 (I'm not hand counting them in this very useful source) male 1843 migrants is listed in an 1876 history, but many of them turned south to California.  At the time when McLoughlin and Simpson were reconciling themselves to being overwhelmed by a tide of incoming American settlers, there were perhaps 2000 "White" settlers in the Oregon Country. And they were very mad at Marcus Whitman, because it turned out that there was no wagon trail to Oregon, although it was possible, at great risk and great cost, to ferry some of the wagons over the Dalles at summer low water.

More precisely, there was no wagon trail past Mount Hood. The  migrants straggled into Oregon City, were resupplied by John McLoughlin's general store, and set up by that worthy as farmers. Not until 1846 was the Barlow Trail completed over Mount Hood, finally giving those willing to use it a means of rolling into the Willamette Valley. In the 1846 season, "152 wagons, 1300 sheep, 1559 mules, horses, and cattle" paid the tolls to take the Barlow Road. Barlow let the tolls lapse after two years, and no further improvements were made on a road that at one point had a sixty degree gradiant!

It is likely that Barlow abandoned his road because no-one was using it. Per my ancient Britannica, the population of Oregon was 13,294 in 1850; 52,465 in 1860;  90,923 in 1870; 174,768 in 1880; 317,704 in 1890; 413,536 in 1900. This is a healthy migration, obviously, but even if everyone on the list is an immigrant (more on that below), 3000/year is not a mighty Volkerwanderung. 

But we do not have to make inferences about the demography of Oregon with an old copy of the Eleventh Edition around the house! In 1900, 84.1% of Oregon's population was native-born, only half in Oregon. So the "native" population was 174,000 after 55 years --well, really, twelve thousand-- of natural increase. 

Speaking of race, the thick-skinned, if not blitheringly oblivious authors of 1908 have me covered.  95.4% were "of the white race." The migrants included 13,300 Germans, 9,365 Chinese, 9000 Scandinavians, 7500 Canadians 5660 English and 4210 Irish. "The coloured population consisted of 10,397 Chinese, 4951 Indians, 2501 Japanese and 1105 negroes." Roman Catholicism was the largest communion in the state, with slightly over one third of communicants reported by the Census. (35, 300 out of 120,200, in case anyone besides Mike Huckabee needed to be told that modern America's unusually extravagant religiosity is a recent development.) 

So, yeah. In 1900, there were fewer Indians in Oregon than there were Chinese. It says here. In fact, there were fully half as many Japanese as Indians, and rather more Canadians. After giving up (for today) on further scrounging through my online backups, I'm not going to source this claim, but you can, if you choose, take it on faith that I have a real live academic to cite when I observe that the "Canadian" category in American census returns of this period basically means "Metis who don't act like Indians." But even if all of the "Canadians" in the census return are Indians in disguise, there's a demographic mystery to be explained here.

Well, not mystery, so  much, when Ambassador Chris Stevens' descent from Comcomly can be celebrated in the press, but "mystery" in the sense that the facts still aren't being deployed to tell America and Canada's history to themselves

And that's cultus history.  

*You might know "skookum," but that's Roaring Twenties slang from the first time that Seattle was cool.

**I'm sure that his family would have been comforted by the distinction, had Marshal Sahlins been alive to explain. Modern biographers take the line that the third voyage stretched Cook's nerves beyond their limit, and that he suicidal ideation has to play a part in his death. It's a sad way to treat a hero, and the sponsors who pushed him into his third voyage ought to have been ashamed of themselves.
***Since we're onto the subject of nationalist lunacy, I'm almost tempted to use "Chinese" here and let the scare quotes do the work.
******What would I know? Me and the Reverend Spooner can't even consistently pronounce long and short vowels distinctly.
(Image is Bill Reid's Spirit of Haida Gwaii, or Jade Canoe. From The Lens Flare.)

1. 194--5 and following. I'd put more effort into the citation, but I would just be using the index.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Nowhere Near Willow Run: A Not Terribly Technical Appendix

Let's get a sense of the stakes here. It's the dawn of 1943, and the Secretary of State for Air has another item on the steadily lengthening list of things that the leader of the Liberal Party has to argue with the Prime Minister about.

Specifically, he needs to continue persuading Winston Churchill to let the Eighth Air Force continue daylight bombing operations over Europe. This is not the balance of power, within this alliance or within the still-building Pentagon. Why is the USAAF's bargaining power so weak? Because General Eaker has to be persuaded to put his ass on the line and commit to 3 100 plane raids in the next month. Eighth Air Force is weak. At the end of next month, it will normally have a little more than 300 planes on hand, of which fewer than half will be available to sortie on a given day. This is the month when employment in the American primary aviation industry will reach 1.6 million, with an additional 1 million in primary subcontractors and 560,000 in secondary.(1) It's still the third largest industrial sector after can-making, but the past is a different country and all that, and it's enough for an annual production of 30,000 bombers out of a total of 80,000 aircraft.(2) Richard Davis estimates that the United States could have had another 29 armoured divisions for the cost of building up its strategic air force. And right now, that investment is delivering all of nothing to the war effort.

What's going on?

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Running Away to the Air, 7: Nowhere Near Willow Run

It was supposed to be a car for the ladies, with its push-button transmission and warning lights. Specifically, it was for suburban ladies, with space for kids, and a big engine that let it pull out of one traffic light after another on the way out of town, and swallow up the interstate miles. If failed, perhaps, because Robert McNamara's number-crunching analysis said that it was the wrong kind of car for Ford, and because a flood of Beetles was closer to what the market wanted. 


It's B-24 "Witchcraft," as featured at Warbird Alley, available for your air show through the Collings Foundation, and featured at Jay Leno's Garage, here. The first B-24s erected at Ford's purpose-built Willow Run plant were delivered to the USAAF seventy years ago last week. I've talked about this before in the context of what I called VLR ("very long range") magic, and I later threw off links to some compelling monographs that study the actual history of the American aviation industry,(1) but, as the sneer word suggests, the myth-history goes on. I was reminded of the date by Brad Delong's "Liveblogging World War II" feature, and, as usual, some commenters popped up, still deeply immersed in myth.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Plantation of the Atlantic, XVIII: Gunfleet

Water, silt, mud, spawning grounds, channels, life, death. Admiralty Chart, but scraped here.
The Thames rises on the spring line of the Cotswolds, near Circencester in Gloucestershire, and runs 215km to the sea. The Admiralty (MoD now) chart above of the banks and channels at its mouth is ephemeral, like all of the underwater geography laid down by the river in its latest interglacial incarnation. With a 16,000 square kilometer catch-basin, it's not surprising that the Thames has a relatively small discharge of 65.8 cubic meters, compared with, say, the Escaut/Scheldt (120), Meuse/MaaΒ (350), much less the Rhine (2000) --not even that much more than the little Aa (10) or Medway (11)!

It carries enough before it, however, to water London, giving ships and their crews reason to thread their way through the sandbanks and silted shallows at the mouth of the river to the metropolis. The Gunfleet Sands probably do  not their name from the weapons the weapons that ships had carried since perhaps the 1300s. They had already carried that name down from time immemorial by the days when the English fleets of the Anglo-Dutch Wars anchored there. Someone would have said something at a time when they were the focus of the Atlantic.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

From Now On, No More Defeats: The Siege

The epeiric sea gives

Claesz, Still Life with Silver Brandy Bowl, Wine Glass, Herring & Bread 1642. From  Bob Swain's Picasa  album, here.

and takes.
Watersnoodramp, 1953
The geologists get all the good words. An "epeiric" is a shelf, or shallow sea, and the North Sea is one. It's cold, thus oxygenated, flooded by the effluent of a wet continent, thus rich. More, the legacy of the 150 million years across which epeiric seas have persisted in this region gives its bottom an ancient history of geologic shaping. It's a maze of channels and banks, up and down, through which the fisherfolk have sought their prey, probably since Viking times. (Indeed, you may recall that that's my explanation for Viking times.) It's said that the Dutch herring fishery employed a hundred thousand men at the dawn of the Early Modern. (I think that it's in Boxer, Dutch Seaborne Empire, somewhere, but I'm too lazy to check carefully.)

I use the deadly "it's said" because it's a made-up number, inspired by envy at the thought of the excise a state could levy on so much fish. N. A. M. Rodger attacks these kinds of numbers lustily, as an exercise in demonstrating what isn't important to Early Modern naval history. The men weren't there in the numbers claimed, and couldn't be used if they were. You're not going to get very far at writing about war at sea, Rodger thinks, without first appreciating that trained naval manpower was scarce. Great power naval war in the North Sea casts its nets into a deep well of local knowledge and a wider floating proletariat for whom war is both curse and opportunity. If there is something universal in its conduct as well (I think that there is), then the North Sea is a world sea. 

When I took the hundred thousand men seriously, I tried to calculate how much wheat land the North Sea was equivalent to, and it was on that basis that I challenged my buddy, Gerry Lorentz, to take the east coast of Britain, rather than Bristol in the west, as the nursery of the British marine. It was a fatuous thing to think and say. The maritime acres of the North Sea were like the wheat lands of old Latium, the endless source of such men as were available to build great empires. But it's not quite wrong, either.

But I'm not talking about old times today, but the last great war. By that time, the bread and butter of the North Sea trade was, well, coal and iron and --Oh, Hell, who needs to quote Masefield when you can just link to him? (Arrival of the Queen of Sheba.) Grand Admiral Raeder thought that he could conquer Britain by siege; but it's a funny kind of siege that strikes hardest by cutting a place off Tyne from London, itself from itself.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Old Europe: Bad Generals

Everybody! The General needs your help! The rights owners have done a heroic job of making sure that you'll never see White Christmas (1954) on the Youtube, but here's the opening. And here's today's proximate inspiration: "What's to be Done for a General who Retires?"

I know that it's only the foreshortening effect of history that lets me associate a movie released in October 1954 with the relief of Douglas MacArthur in the spring of 1951, but it's all still just slightly creepy.

You know what else is creepy? The foremost military intellectual of the United States Army getting into bed with a sycophant because she liked to go on 5 mile runs with him and talk about, I don't know, "state-building." I didn't compose this post with General Petraeus in mind, but this won't be the first time that I've mused aloud that the Pentagon could do with more engineering and less "counter-insurgency." That's not a knock on five mile runs, and I'm not saying that technocracy can solve the problems of Afghanistan better than grass-roots political organisation at the muzzle end of a Barrett Cal. 50. As I understand it,  building roads in Afghanistan is supposed to complement state-building, so if they've failed, they've failed together. There. But I'm not talking about there.

I'm talking about here. Generals are in society. Armies come out of societies, and go back into it. NATO has been fighting a double war in Afghanistan, but it's also been sending soldiers home at the end. What happens to them is important, too. Who these veterans from the wars returning are happens to differ from one kind of war to the next. On the one hand, there's a Special Ops war, all climbing mountains and, I assume, given all the Seal Teams, swimming places. On the other there's a drone war, which is all about autonomous devices synching  remotely so that fewer wedding parties get Hellfired.

 Again, I'm trying to pass judgments about morality and efficacy, just highlight two choices for our modernity here in North America and coming down in favour of the technocratic one. You can't demob and invest your pension in a neighbourhood running-up-mountains-and-stabbing-people-to-produce-favourable-political-outcomes shop, whereas people are always blowing up their crappy Vaio laptops and looking for a convenient repair guy. (And by "people," I mean, "Stupid Sony. Never again.") And who knows? If you get your policy right for North America, maybe it'll have an impact on the ground in Afghanistan, too. Weirder things have been known to happen than emulation when you model something that actually, you know, works.*

So the choice, at least here, is between an economy that works, and one that has to find a place for political-operatives-with-bayonets (and sometimes horses). It's not much of a contest, is all I'm saying, and I'm not sorry that General Petraeus is in trouble, but he's not the inspiration for this posting. That would be the fact that the "Boulogne" in "Boulogne-sur-Mer," (terminus of the Coal Wood Road) isn't accidentally similar to the fat city of "Bologna," home of the sausage. They're both vulgarisations of "Bonnona," from "Bonna." I take that fact, and the involvement of Gaius Marius, five times consul, Mark Antony, and, perhaps, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, the faithful sword at Octavian's side, and ancestor of Roman emperors in the same parts of the world, as evidence that something is going on. That would be the little historical mystery that tweaked my interest in the first place, and the problem to be explained (bad generals) in this post.  It's an attempt to understand them in terms of an economy that works.

The point is that there is a top down interpretations that says that the foundation of the Roman Empire is sufficiently explained by some political stuff that happened.** The causes of an empire that spanned the entire Mediterranean, one further capable of conquering all of the Maghreb, Spain, France, and England in a little over a century are to be found in faction fighting in Rome. On the other hand, there are oak forests sheltering browsing pigs, oblivious to the Mediterranean sun and to the loads of salt coming down to them on the trails in swaying donkey loads.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

From Now On, No Defeats: Alamein, III: "Look for me at dawn on the third day."



El Alamein?

From History in Images
El Alamein.

Lifted from the Birmingham War Studies Blog

At 1:05 on 2 November, the last attack goes in. Operation Supercharge is under Lieutenant General Bernard Freyberg's 2nd New Zealand Division. Two full infantry brigades, plus an armoured brigade and an exploiting armoured division are attached to the New Zealanders.* Freyberg's outsized personality obscures the correctness of the choice; the New Zealanders have the same institutionalised pattern of success in offensive operations in the open desert as the Australian 9th Division has in positional warfare. The attachment of two British infantry brigades gives the force the depth needed, and might be taken as a comment on the insufficiency of New Zealand's manpower, but the dismal reality of World War II is that every country, big or small, runs out of infantry.

The attack is in three waves. The infantry go in by night to break a hole through the Axis fighting positions that control the  minefields, reaching towards the main lateral behind the Axis position, the Rahman Track. This is the break-through by which 1st Armoured Division will break out, at last, to the green hills beyond, but it is not intended to be a rupture. That will be left to the 9th Armoured Brigade (3rd Hussars, Wiltshire and Warwickshire Yeomanry), who will attack into the  "funnel" formed by the Rahman Track, a funnel lined with 24 88mm/56 calibre Flak 36 gun, the 7.4 ton monster that has already featured on this blog as an anti-aircraft weapon.

Just as a reminder of where I've already been, let's hold a singular thought in our heads: the 88/56 Flak 36 weighs almost two tons more than the 150mm heavy field howitzer. Model 1918, a gun designed to deliver a 100lb round a somewhat-disappointing 14,000-odd yards. As an AA gun, that's not unreasonable, and not a valid comparison, but that's not how the Flak 36s deployed along the Rahman Track are to be used. (Mostly.) It's there to shoot at tanks. They are going to shoot a great many tanks today.

Nor are the Flak 36s alone. Forward of this arc of deployment are numerous additional, lighter antitank guns, specified by the official historian as including the "37-mm Pak 35/36 . . . 50-mm Pak 38, of 60 calibres . . . . [and] 50-mm Kwk, of 42 calibres. General Playfair omits the serviceable Italian 47mm weapon, but faithfully reproduces the Desert anti-armour trials conducted on these guns in an appendix to the second volume of the official history. (1)

9th Armoured Brigade's charge towards the Rahman Track might call to mind the charge of the Light Brigade, but the analogy is deeply wrong. The brigade's job here is to take ground. This ought to be an infantry job, the GOC concedes, but his command is running out of infantry, and there's perfectly good armour to throw into the battle. 

Well, not quite, but letting that go, 9th Armoured's job is to charge out of the rising sun and smash antitank guns, allowing the follow-on 2nd Armoured Brigade of 10th Armoured Division break through the Axis position. 

It doesn't work out like that. 9th Armoured is shattered on the field in the fight, and 2nd Armoured Brigade, perceiving "nothing that could be imagined to look less like a breakthrough," goes into hull-down positions that are sufficiently threatening to call the Deutsches Afrika Korps, plus Littorio Division of XX Corps. Now it is the turn of the Axis armour to attack into the barrels of the guns, tank guns and the new 6 pounder antitank gun, an 1140kg, 57mm  weapon. At the end of the fighting, the DAK was so completely written off that Rommel decided to retreat from the El Alamein position. There would be vicissitudes yet. Hitler was no happier than Rommel to lose this advanced position and the prospect of a further offensive towards Egypt once the Russian winter freed air forces for a resumed attack on Malta. At 1:30 the next afternoon, he would call Rommel and give a stop order. In one interpretation, this led Rommel to either dither or dissemble with Machiavellian brioche, and in either case sacrifice Italian units to cover the retreat of German. In the more sanguine Italian reading, it was pretty much irrelevant, since those German units with organic motor transport (most of them) were disintegrating and fleeing westward with no regard for orders from on high.**  

It was left for Allied forces to police the battlefield, attempt pursuit with the not-uncommon result after great battlefield victories of much straining with little concrete result, and deal with an almost immediate attempt to downplay the victory; it was no great deal, inasmuch as the Axis position was logistically unsustainable; it was pointless, as Operation TORCH was coming; Rommel just decided to retreat, as opposed to being defeated, or, conversely, was only really defeated because of the Hitler stop order. 

Above all, Montgomery was a terrible general, since he didn't pursue hard enough. This extreme example of the "what have you done for us lately" argument relies entirely on ignorance of the actual chronology of the pursuit, and comes to us above all from Air Marshal Tedder, and seems explicable (to me) as political spin emanating from Cabinet opposition to Churchill, but that's just me. That is, I'm going to stress the importance of El Alamein as a political battle, although not at the expense of the considerable achievement of writing off an entire Axis army not entirely dissimilar in size to the force about to be entrapped at Volgograd. (Okay, 100,000 versus 300,000, but a larger proportion of armoured forces.) And I should also note that the battle kicked the Axis off Egypt's back porch. We now know that 1942 was the 'end of the beginning,' that there would be no resumption of the attack eastwards. We should also, however, bear in mind that it was the end of the beginning because the Allies beat the Axis at battles like El Alamein. 

On 3 November, the Axis army that occupied the El Alamein position was large and powerful. It was about to receive 2500 tons of POL, and its nominal unit strength was as great as that of the Allied force that opposed it. Given an infusion of manpower and the steady improvement of its rearward logistics through the upgrade of Tobruk port, it could still advance  into Egypt. By the evening of 4 November, muster rolls taken at rally points in the rear show that it had disintegrated. On 11 December, it was in the position in the bend of the Bay of Sirte where it had stopped Allied advances twice before. 

This time, a single outflanking move tumbled it eastward all the way to Tunisia, and it was lucky to get away at all. Alamein wasn't just a defeat. It wrote off the German-Italian Armoured Army Africa for months. 

Monty, Alanbrooke, and Churchill are vindicated. Poltics and strategy are hard to separate, sometimes.  

Only what the hell happened? How did it come to this? At least when Gandalf and Eomer attack out of the rising sun, the blinding light of day dazes the Uruk-Hai and breaks the pike line. It could happen. 9th Armoured Brigade, we are told, was just silhouetted for the antitank fire. If an example of a failed armoured charge into the guns is needed, the DAK and Littorio's action of the next day will serve just fine. 

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

From Now On, No Defeats: Alamein, II: To the Green Fields Beyond

How it didn't happen:

That's the staff illustrator for Herbert Wrigley Wilson's History of the Great War, again. It's the lost weeks between the Marne and Ypres again, and he's trying to show us what battle looks like, 28 years, almost day by day, before the Battle of El Alamein. The French defenders form a thin rouge-et-bleu line, while the Germans come on in columns of companies. It would be a familiar sight on an eighteenth century battlefield, and there is a reason that the illustrator would expect a fight in late 1914 to look the same way. It comes down to the weapons. Machine guns and artillery have deep but narrow dispersal patterns. Attacking in wide but shallow formations minimises their fire effect. The tactical answer to this is platoon fire, which spreads fire in conforming shallow-but-wide dispersal. To cram enough defending infantry in to give that fire, you need a continuous line. At which point the fire of both sides is so ill-developed that the battle comes to be decided at the point of the bayonet.

Did it happen like that in the fall of 1914? No, it didn't. As even Nineteenth Century tactical manuals accepted, modern rifles were deadly enough that the attack wouldn't go in. instead, the attackers would balk and go to ground, engaging the defenders in a fire duel. As their fire built up, the defenders would follow suit. A hasty attack might carry the attackers through, or end with them routing. If neither happened, the men would dig trenches right out from underneath of them, and the mobile battle would be over.  The illustrator, I think, foreshadows the trench line rather than depicts it. It's more likely that the French position has formed along an irrigation ditch than that the big, round-shouldered excavation in the drawing is recent. Which, as we know, is what actually happened in 1914. Four years of bloody stalemate, a trench line that stretches across Europe, Verdun, the Somme, bloody shambles, the vain dream of the green fields beyond, all of that.

On October 30th, 1942, as the desert wind blew sand through the battlefield of El Alamein, and the fighters rested in their trenches, listening to Radio Belgrade and letting air mail flimsies comfort them with the thought that someone loved them (third verse: "Afric's burning strand"), the planners of the staff were meditating on the same theme. Yesterday, General Alexander and Colonel McCreery had escorted the Minister of State for the Middle East to Montgomery's battle headquarters, and the minister hinted that it might be time for the general to share his plan for managing the shutting of the battle down with him. The GOC and his chief of staff indignantly denied that a stalemate was in the offing.

Which is why, at 2200 hours on October 31st, when the dead walk the streets of Vancouver to the sound of the fireworks, the Australians of 2/24, 2/32, and 2/48th infantry battalions, supported by 2/3rd Pioneer Battalion, plus 40th Royal Tank Regiment, mounted in Valentines, and 360 guns, went forward at the northern extreme of the battlefield, just south of the sea. They were to clear the coast road and cut off 125th Panzergrenadier Regiment, then turn and take up defences facing west and south on the far side of the railway embankment and accept Armoured Army Africa's counterattack if they could not.   

They did. They held it. The battle wasn't over yet, but it might as well have been. 

The odd part here is that the whole story of 1914--18 suggests that the attack was the hard part. There were theorists who grandly announced that offensive action was stronger than defence in the years before 1914. We mock their folly today --and then fall into exactly the same thinking when it is time to celebrate this great Australian tactical victory of 1942.

What the hell happened?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

From Now On, No More Defeats: Alamain, I: The Roads Must Roll

McCaw's of Alberta wants you to know that they're very good at what they do, which is take dirt from  one place and put it in another.

In Ironbottom Sound, Naval Battle of American sailors are turning the cliche that dismisses their achievements on its head, and winning surface battles by overcoming terrible matériel deficiencies with desperate courage, while the carrier boys watch their margin dribble away. Not only that, they are transforming those deficient systems into war-winning weapons, at the front. (Or nearly so. New Caledonia counts, right?) If David Noble's picture of the way that Numerically-Controlled manufacturing saw the triumph of butt-crack showing blue collar technicians over would-be managerial, white-shirt wearing engineers in the postwar era is at all accurate, it has its precursor in the men reaming out the innards of Indiana and making the gun mountings and directors work, one added-resistor-to-a -Selsyn circuit at a time.

Meanwhile, in the ruins of Stalingrad, the Red Army holds the sky suspended.

And on the desert sands of North Africa, Bernard Montgomery, queruluous, patronising, all-too-aggressive when he least needed to be, will save the ministry. It's the least heroic challenge of the turning point, and perhaps the most important. I honestly can't say that Churchill's replacement would have led Britain out of the war, but it's the way to bet. It won't have to happen, though, because "Brooke's man"(1) is going to win.

No surprise, right? One way of counting troops shows that Eighth Army had 220,000 to 58,000 Germans;  1029 tanks to 249; 892 guns to 552; 1451 antitank guns to 1063.  (Barr, 276). This isn't a battle. It's taking the fat kid's lunch money  and then laughing while he scrambles for his inhaler.

Of course, you can do the count in other ways, and I've already maligned Niall Barr by leaving the Italians out of the Axis head count, as he does not dismiss the Italian contribution, as some do. 

So here's the official historian's version of the count:*

Combined Axis
Combat manpower*
Infantry Battalions
85 incl. 8 MG, 2 Recce
Armoured Cars
Tanks “other than light”
Field and Med Artillery
460–500 +18 Germ. Hvy
Anti-tank guns
1451 (849 6pdrs)
850 incl. 86 88s
*Playfair, 4:30, notes that “The figures available do not permit of an accurate comparison of fighting strength, but if the fighting strength of the Eighth Army is taken at 195,000. . . . German about 50,000". . . .and.. . . . “Italian, 54,000.”

Eighty-five battalions against 71! (Is it news to anyone that Axis combat battalions were seriously understrength?) Also, you can parse the tank count this way: 170 Grants, 252 Shermans, 216 Crusader IIs, 78 Crusaders, 119 Stuarts, 194 Valentines, so that the Commonwealth advantage in "cruiser" tanks is 715 to 496. Which isn't fair, either, since the Italian "tanks other than light" are the size of Stuarts, not Crusaders. 

But there you go. I've successfully trimmed Now we're talking a glorious victory of the English spirit. You know, gardens and green and tiny trains in twee county towns...