Sunday, July 8, 2012

From Now On, No Defeats, III: Do You Hear the Drums?

Call me sentimental, but I play this song for my youngest niece a lot. Or I would have posted this, and made you all suffer like a retail employee. Unless you like Abba, and I'm sure not in a position to judge.

While I'm at apologies, I'm a little more than 24 hours ahead of the actual anniversary. As productive as this Sunday has been for me, I'm actually hoping this will post ahead of the date. We'll see.

At 3:30AM, 10 July 1942, B and C Company, 2/48th Infantry Battalion of the  9th Australian Division launched a night assault on a position held by Italian defenders of the Sabratha Division. They were leading a two battalion attack that would rout the Italians and initiate a battle better known for the larger scale fighting of the next day, when the mobile forces of Armoured Army Africa counterattacked.

What matters here is that it was launched under a barrage by 3 Australian and 2 South African field artillery regiments, backed up by 7th Medium Regiment's 4.5" and newly-arrived 5.5" guns and gun-howitzers. "It's the Trommelfeuer," German veterans of WWI whispered to each other. And they were right. After two years in Africa, the Royal Regiment of Artillery was finally going to be allowed to fight the way that it preferred to fight. (Details courtesy of Niall Barr, Pendulum of War, 107--08.

Why now, on 10 July? Why not two months ago? We could talk, a lot, about what went wrong at Gazala, but it's time to do something  more productive, and take a look back stage. Because, funny thing about this battle. It was fought in Egypt.

No, seriously. What's up with that? The vicissitudes of strategy had made the Commonwealth’s commitment to defend the Middle East defined Egypt the second centre of gravity for its entire war effort. It was a centre of gravity destitute of industrial base [you can tell from the language that I'm following Playfair here, even if I decided not to credit him in the extract for some reason], and even short of some of the raw materials of modern war, such as lumber and coal. Moreover, inasmuch as the base area lacked port facilities, it experienced additional administrative difficulties in simply growing, augmented by both direct Axis effort, such as bombing and mining of the Suez canal, and indirect, such as the fact of the presence of elements of the Italian navy in Eritrea.
Thus, the core story of the development of offensive military capacity in the Middle East was the development of the administrative basis of war in Egypt and Palestine in spite of enemy action. Operations in the field, short of some spectacular total victory that would have obviated the need for this buildup altogether, were of strictly secondary importance.

But first, numbers that are bigger than other numbers to give a sense of scale. Field-Marshal Lord Carver frames Alamein in terms of a major military buildup. For Crusader, the Commonwealth fielded 119,000 troops compared to 65,000 German, 54,000 Italian, scarcely a formula for overwhelming victory, and casualty returns are Commonwealth: 2900 KIA, 7300 WIA, 7500 POW; German/Italian, 2300/6100/29,000. Armour wise, the army went to war with 71 A13, 71 A15, Crusade, 25 A10 in 1st Armoured Division, 158 Crusaders with 7th Armoured Brigade, and 165 Stuarts in 4th Armoured Brigade, while 1st Army Tank Brigade had 132 Is, 1/3 Valentines, 2/3s Matildas.
Contemporaries blamed inferior British tanks for giving the armoured side the sense that they were fighting an uphill battle, or poor British tank handling skills; or poor infantry AT defence that led to the enemy having the better of the tactical battle. Carver blames "misplaced lack of faith" in the army's 2 pounders antitank gun that led to dispersal of the field artillery. Given the odds, I'm not sure that there has to be a reason that Crusader wasn't an even bigger victory, but Carver's analysis has interesting echoes for Gazala, by which time the 2 pounder really was getting long in the tooth. 

At Alamein, by way of contrast, the official historian gives

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.” At Alamein under 30 Commonwealth Corps were 5 divisions including 2 armoured brigades and 19 infantry; under 13 Corps 1 armoured and 2 infantry divisions with 12 armoured brigades and 7 infantry; under 10 Corps, 3 armoured divisions with 3 armoured brigades, 2 infantry. This included 8th Armoured, with no brigades committed to it. Tank allocations included up to 192 in 9th Armoured Brigade of 30 Corps and 194 I tanks in 23 Armoured Brigade, and 33 tanks in divisional cavalry units; 32 squadrons and 6 fl ights (6 American) took part under Desert Air Force, with 10 squadrons in indirect support including 6 Wellington, 2 Albacore, 2 Beaufighter. There were 2 regiments of Matilda Scorpions, 25 pioneer and labour companies with 8th Army and 24 in reserve.)

Lest El Alamein be dismissed as a sideshow, be it noted that at Kursk, 27 German divisions numbering 567,000 men “engaged” out of 780,900 under command of fighting HQs, with 1800 tanks on strength and 2696 “committed” fought Red Army forces consisting of 852,000 out of 1.9 million under command, with 4778 tanks and 257 SPG, and some 17,000 artillery, mortars, etc.( Glantz and Jonathan M. House, TheBattle of Kursk.) One wouldn't want to be caught comparing Alamein to Kursk too directly, but this was a big battle. 

And these things don't just happen. Now I turn, not to the RAOC history to talk about guns, as I would if I had the data to make this argument as tight as I would like, but to the official history of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers.  (Kennett and Tatman). Oh, well. Shells have to be dumped, too, so you can't have artillery barrages without trucks.

There is no prewar establishment for the REME, as the corps inconveniently did not yet exist. A good estimate, however, would be 4000, incl. 400 officers, 1.5% of Vote A, with a Reserve strength approximately the same. By 1943, the REME peaked at 60,000 members and an additional 47,000 civilian employees, out of the peak Middle Eastern Command manpower of 800,000. To give some sense of the way in which the REME was divided, it operated 3 Base Ordnance Workshops. The largest, 2 Base Ordnance Workshop then employed 3,000 military, 8,000 civilians, and 1,500 POWs, the military component including Palestinians, Indians, Senegalese, Maltese, Basutos, and a Polish Boys Company (87), and included an REME School of Instruction, exporting the traditional apprentice school to Egypt, where, I imagine, it was no novelty.

Again, in perspective: out of a total of 800,000 men on the ration strength of the army in Middle East Command, fully 60,000 are craftsmen of the REME, and an additional 47,000 civilians recruited from around the Indian Ocean are employed in its Ordnance Workshop, mainly overhauling automotive and tank engines. To put numbers to this, during the Italian campaign, the official historian, by now completely liberated from the burden of balancing narrative flow with historical useful information, notes that the REME establishment in Italy and the Egyptian base achieved a throughput of 120,000 automotive and 6300 tank engines per month. That is 107,000 hands doing skilled technical work with internal combustion engines, just one of the many technical tasks thrust upon the British army, and every willing, labouring hand that it could get its hands on, in order to win this war. 

I'm going to suggest, at this point, that Egyptian society is being quietly transformed by this intervention, although probably not as much as what is soon to be Israeli. It would be nice to have more global numbers about the scale of the Commonwealth rear area effort in the Middle East so as to get a comprehensive picture, but that question, apparently, is going to have to be answered out of the archives.


  1. I presume the Middle East Supply Centre is going to make an appearance as an example of a successful planned economy right about now?

  2. Only if someone does the research. That being said, if I wait for Alam Halfa to post, I could do the research....

  3. Somebody did the research: