Wednesday, June 20, 2012

From Now On, No Defeats: The Siege of Fortress Europe, I: An Hundred Circling Camps

Here's the thing about state-directed war. It matters how it comes out. If your company sprays the walls with "This is a Safety Culture" posters, it doesn't matter that it can't be bothered to supply safety equipment. I mean, there's posters! Who needs hard hats? We don't treat wars like that. 

Maybe it's because of freedom and liberty and whatever. Maybe it's because occupying foreign armies are really, really mean. Or maybe it's because important people's jobs are at stake.

Okay, back up. Seventy years ago today as I begin to write, Panzerarmee Afrika launched an attack into Tobruk that will, on 21st June, harvest a full South African division (half the Union's combat force) and other formations adding up to 30,000 men, 2000 vehicles, 2000 tonnes of fuel, and 5,000 tonnes of rations. Rommel received his baton had and enough fuel, he promised his Fuehrer, to take Suez.

Well, we know how that ended up: turn of the tide, Eighth Army, Monty, El Alamein, etc.

But before that, on the first and second of July, the ministry was called to defend themselves in the only non-confidence moved against the Churchill ministry: a motion by Sir John Wardlaw-Milne: "This House has no confidence in the higher direction of the war." The last time non-confidence was moved in wartime, Chamberlain's government fell. The two votes before that brought Lloyd George to power in a two-step process that established the context for the strange death of Liberal England. (Awesome title remains awesome.) As David Edgerton has recently pointed out, it was an odd, self-defeating vote. Most people didn't want Churchill out of the Ministry of Defence. They wanted a vote about the industrial direction of the war. Sure, it was potentially  toxic to pit Conservatives against Labour on industrial policy, but the general thought was that Singapore to Tobruk showed the need. Just as Lloyd George had been brought to power from the Ministry of Munitions, so Churchill's days were numbered, and the next prime minister would come out of the military-industrial nexus somewhere or another. As the rapidly increasing implausibility of each successive candidate for the prime minister's office in the preceding series of links suggests, a collapse in the national pro-war consensus was also a possibility --and certainly it was in Churchill's mind.  

Instead, we know, there was Monty, and the House got its total industrial war. On 6 June 1944, the end of the story that stretched from the fall of Singapore to that of Fortress Tobruk came with the greatest storming in human history. 

So I'm going to take a while getting to the storming. The higher direction of the state being at best an imperfect planner of such things, this unprecedented operation required much and uncertain preparation, and many unexpected bottlenecks emerged. Bottlenecks that were resolved by throwing labour at them. 

And that's what I do want to think about today: a magic time when it wasn't a question of whether someone would deign to employ a person, but rather finding a few more hands to do the work. It's about resolving bottlenecks. It's about one holy helluvalot of North Americans living in Britain for eighteen months (see below), and what that actually means.

Though I'm not entirely sure it happened that way. Arnold's children would have been in their 20s, for one thing, but whatever. (Some more Miller.)
Or maybe it's about reading Roland Ruppenthal, Logistical Support of the Armies, volumes 1 and 2. As two in the United States Army's "Green Book" series of the official American war history, Ruppenthal's work is available online, and I don't have to feel guilty about ripping this uncredited photograph out of it:

Welcome to the British Isles, Greatest Generation dudes! If you're enjoying your constitutional, just wait 'till chow parade.
 "Nissen" huts are temporary accommodation manufactured out of dished sheets of corrugated steel built on some kind of pad. It doesn't exactly sound homey, but in a bygone age, it was the cheapest prefabricated building material available. They're perhaps better known for the "Quonset hut" they inspired, of which some 160,000 were built in the United States during the war. It's a little bizarre to think of an era when buildings were made out of steel because lumber wasn't available, and it is perhaps not surprising that the Pacific saw the appearance of a spruce quonset hut, but herein lies the story....

The troops in this picture are the first wave of American personnel sent to the eastern hemisphere in the winter of 1942. The logic of stationing them in Northern Ireland and Iceland is clear, that of sending combat troops requiring shelter to a theatre afflicted by a severe labour and building materials shortage less so. American engineer units were perhaps more necessary. The problem was that there weren't that many of them: certainly not enough to be a significant augmentation of the British building trades workforce. 94 of every 100 British males between 14 and 64 had already been allocated to the services or industry, and now a huge new construction initiative was being added on top. 

To put this in perspective, the USAAF buildup in Britain that proceeded in parallel with that of the land forces was projected to require the transfer or construction of some 120 airfields to Eighth Air Force, while preliminary discussions were moving in the direction of what eventually emerged as a small (in comparison to the other numbers, which are large) industrial tail in which more than 4000 British hands assembled American air craft out of krates.

Taking these as indicators of the USAAF's demands on the British war economy that would peak at a commitment of a quarter million men, one can see why the initial BOLERO target of an additional 750,000 American service personnel in combat units and the Services of Supply in the UK by April 1943 raised some eyebrows. The plan clearly implied enormous shipping and port space allocations at the same time that it entailed cuts on British lumber imports. It necessitated cuts in British imports to the lowest possible levels, bearing in mind that food imports were falling low enough that the tradeoff between real estate for bases and farms had to be considered. (Small as the British Isles are, you try walking around a block of 50,000 square miles before just nodding your head at that and thinking, "Well, it is a small country, after all.") Fifteen million square feet of covered space would be required, including 1.3 million with services for workshops and tens of thousands of hospital beds. "Approximately half of this" already existed, according to a census taken at the time, and would be turned over to the European Theater of Operations of the United States Army at the rate of 1.75 million feet per month.

Except that no new built space would be available until January 1943. What was to be done? Here, business experience must have come to the rescue, because ETOUSA just ruled that "the space would be found." I snark, but I've just recently been sat down with my co-workers as part of a morale-building exercise in which it was explained that all the work will continue to be done after hours are cut, because hours have to be cut, and the work needs to be done. You hear that, reality?

Which, I guess, is where war differs from reality, in that with BOLERO just under way, the great minds of the higher strategic direction decided that it would be most excellent to invade Africa a few months later. And, as the directives went out from Washington and London, supply requests came in from the English field, reordering the exact same divisional sets sent out so recently. 

Washington: "Where's the ones we sent you?"
The Field: "We don't know."
Washington: "Why not?"
The Field: "Because they're lost. Durr."
Washington: "How could that happen?"
The Field: "Maybe if we'd had somewhere to put them. Or if Stateside had managed to include invoices. Or if you'd bothered to put them in, you know, crates, instead of shipping stuff loose....But, mainly, if only we'd had somewhere to put them."
Washington: "Oh. Okay, more stuff is on the way."

No, seriously, this was a real problem, Per Ruppenthal, 87, "Much of the Class II and IV supplies already shipped to the United Kingdom could not be found, and would need to be replaced." (That would be  "individual equipment, tentage, organizational tool sets and kits, hand tools, unclassified maps, administrative and housekeeping supplies and equipment," and construction material, if the modern classifications were used in WWII.)

Operation TORCH at least had the advantage of derailing BOLERO long enough for the project to be given a good rethink, although that hasn't prevented amateur strategists from asking why the British were dragging their heels about a 1943 Second Front, although, that said, it's not like the British weren't dragging their heels as well. 
When resumed in May 1943, the new plans called for there to be 1.3 million Americans in Britain by May 1944. (In practice, numbers first fell and then rose as bottlenecks emerged and then were solved. The actual number was 1.5 million.) The further escalation allowed for more time for the construction programme, but had to take into account exogenous events like the heavy shipping losses of spring, 1943. Shipping would be a good subject for another time, however, and, in any event, it was port capacity that constrained logistic lift, notwithstanding the somewhat utopian construction of a complete new port at Loch Faslane for just this sort of emergency. (Again, seriously: "You know what we need? A new port. Here's a nice bit of Scotland where you engineers can knock something up. Go ahead. Have fun." At least after this project, the MULBERRIES were easier to swallow. Again, more later.)

Another photo capture from Ruppenthal, 1: 129.

For which space was provided as follows:

That's a lot of "hutted camps!" Meanwhile, 6.5 million square feet of covered storage was built for supplies, 3.9 million by British labour, 2.6 million by American. (If anyone wants examples of the "Black guys work while White guys watch" photo genre, Ruppenthal is your man.)

All of this was predicated on the assumption that the Americans were leaving, which proved to be somewhat optimistic. The invasion was, as much a logistical exercise as anything else, and an agonistic one, at that. The Germans didn't want to let the American army on land, and the aggregate result of resistance and failures of planning left 910,000 Americans on British soil on 31 July 1944, 606,000 in February 1945, and 432,000 at the end of the war. This includes slightly less than 250,000 USAAF personnel and represents a formidable number of guests extending their stay. Perversely, by August, ETOUSA was afflicted with three interrelated manpower problems. It was overstrength by ration returns, too many of those personnel were still in Britain occupying accommodations and sucking up utilities that were supposed to have been turned to other uses by now, and thirdly, there was a manpower shortage: in the services in the rear, and, more pressingly, in the infantry arm at the front. 

The fighting problem, upon which the clearance of ports, and thus of the United Kingdom, depended, was resolved, to the extent that it was resolved, by retraining me from the other combat arms for infantry duties. Fewer anti-aircraft personnel were needed for obvious reasons, and the excessive size of the tank-destroyer arm is a minor American scandal, but you have to raise your eyebrow at shifts from the artillery and armour. It's not that they weren't necessary, it's just that issues of planning surely arise when you're moving men from the efficient techniques of killing Germans to the less so. And all the more so inasmuch as this had already happened, going the other way, in WWI! (Hold this thought: technological change is so fluid that the nature of the human resource disposed of by ETOUSA is changing as it tries to grasp it.)

The massive American buildup in the United Kingdom, and the Allied construction effort that made it possible is gone now. Temporary hutted camps are almost by definition sunk labour. True, there are still Nissen and Quonset huts around the world. The University of British Columbia Physical Plant was still using them when I arrived on campus in 1982, and my aunt's generation has fond memories of living in them on the land where a later, probably largely unintentional iteration of the same concept rots under the west coast rains at Fairview Crescent. (Photos, but no mold showing.) There's apparently even a heritage district of Nissen huts somewhere in Newcastle, New South Wales. Australians. Are they all like this? I'd call those exceptions to the rule, though. (Though there's this, which only deserves to be a Yahoo Serious movie.)

My aunt's tangential encounter with the aftermath of this buildup is probably as good as any a place to end this. The mid-1950s were a time when universities showed the legacy of an era of building expediently to accommodate large incoming classes, as opposed to the modern campus, building opportunistically to attract ever-scarcer students. The hutted camps on this remote west coast campus might have been torn down by the time she arrived were it not for the oncoming wave of new students foretold by the baby boom. 

It is pretty generally agreed that these hosts are related. The vast camps springing up across Britain in the spring of 1944 give way to the GI Bill hosts, and they to the crowded campuses of the 1960s and 1970s. That general agreement doesn't exhaust the possible ramifications of these successive phenomena. 

In particular, the classic argument against the claim that the prosperity of the 1950s was consequent to a good dose of War Keynesianism is that North American economies benefitted from the levelling of the rest of the world, and, also, what about Britain? So while I am interested in pursuing the everyday details of the Normandy campaign and its buildup in its own right, it is worthwhile keeping in mind the consequences to the British wartime economy of its position as the Allied base  of operations. I don't think that anyone has done a study of the larger consequences of diverting so much labour and construction material to these purposes in the winters of 1943 and 1944,   


  1. Off topic, but you may have just received knockout archaeological evidence for a whole complex of your ideas.

  2. That's awesome, Alex, thanks. Of course, now we have to watch the archaeologists have the "secure dating context" fight. The linked Wikipedia article on the Mantle Site is interesting, too, with an intriguing bibliography. I wonder why Jennifer Birch is rethinking Iroquian kinship in archaeological context?