Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Fall of France, 9: Manpower, Part 7: French Drains

(Edit: A little bit of tweaking.)

So if I were going to write a history of modern Europe with the insouciantly glib broad brush that I'm not afraid to apply to the Iron Age, how would it look?
Well, I'd start with the effects of the forward movement into the Atlantic, tie it to the Price Revolution, note that we now think was a sixfold rise in prices between 1460 and 1610, and suggest that if the story of the Price Revolution is a story of increasing agricultural surplus (spoiler: it is) that it starts with lutefisk and ends with the potato. That'll be your syndoche here, so that I don't wander off and waste time in the cassava fields of the Gold Coast, the peanut fields of Siam, the prickly pear plantations of the Maghreb and the sunflower plantings of Old Russia.

And, oh look, I have, anyway. So what's a guy to do when potatoes make feeding peasants cheaper? Offer them work. Because now that they don't have to buy wheat on the open market to make up for time lost not raising wheat, they can work for lower wages than ever. I know, it sounds exploitative. It is exploitative. But it ends up with better-fed peasants with more money in their pockets.

What will that work look like? The Price Revolution is an increase in government revenues. And what does an early modern government do with more money? It fights desperate wars over existential issues like whether people will be allowed to wear a scarf while showing people a plate of crackers. (No, really, it's important.) And those wars turn on sieges. Which are attacks on vital communications nodes that happen to be able to afford strong fortifications. Which, ta-da, describes cities on Europe's plentiful flooding lowlands, and not, say, castles on hills.

So you're getting down in the ditches, and learning to work in this wet, muddy environment. There's nothing new in this learning, but it's new to you, by whom I mean a young striver of "upper middle class" social origin. Which means, just to extend the thought experiment illegitimately extended without establishing evidence, that your family owns a manor in a hamlet on the Northampton Sand.

So you come back from the wars in the Netherlands, brimming with new experiential knowledge of drains and dykes. Your family land doesn't happen to  hold a prosperous manufacturing town on a cross-roads by a river crossing, or you would be much richer than you are. But it is on flooding ground, which means that you are less rich than you could be, because your neighbours, with land of much the same quality, but a little higher up, are using theirs for up-and-down husbandry .

What's the problem? Water doesn't drain off your land. Well, now you know how to fix it. You put in french drains.* No-one's done it before because the work wasn't economical. Oh, and because your land is actually lower than the drainage canal. Well, no problem, because they actually have a solution for that over in Flanders, too. Just put a windmill on the top of the rise and run a pump with it. Sound expensive? No problem. Put a watermill on the canal at the mouth of the spume, and set it to running, say, a trip hammer. If you're really ingenious, you can run a shaft back up the rise and put a reservoir on the crest so that you can run the pump from the water mill. Hey, it's no Machine of Marley, but wind power is free. The ROI depends mainly on getting labour costs down, and there's the potato, and also you: Lord of the Manor, and master millwright.

Is that a crazy combination, I hear you say? Have you been told, in strident terms, about how aristocrats aren't inclined to such things, that only virtuous members of the middle class do that? Hmm. Who told you that? John Wesley, you say? Yeah. About that. If you don't have time for the links, I'm allusively suggesting that you've bought one of two competing ideological visions of how science happened, as laid down in the pre-Reform Britain of the 1820s and 1830s. The Anglicans fought the Nonconformists for credit for "science," and lost.

That's one insufferably broad brush history, taking us from cod drying on a Norwegian shore to a windmill/watermill regenerative power cycle floating on a broad-bottomed dyke above a Lincolnshire bottom. Another, the one that I just sketched the other day, features a story about the emergence of the post-WWII automobile engine, with its high-octane performance, reliable electrics and automatic transmission out of the Fokker Panic of 1915. The notion is that governments, galvanised by the existential question of whether or not the assassination of an eminently disposable Archduke by some rather obnoxious young students should be met by Very Stern Measures, spent vast amounts of money on internal combustion engine performance in the course of three years, far too short a time frame to actually see results, and that that money, to all appearances, went down the drain, only to reappear in 1939.

The idea is that today I follow it down the drain.

In a 1946 paper, Sir Stanley Goodall, the wartime Director of Naval Construction, saw fit to begin a somewhat scattershot summary of the state of the fleet in 1939 with a discussion of the refit of the Queen Elizabeth-class battleships.   Goodall notes that these ships completed in 1915 with 80,000hp installed. There were 24 boilers, with direct drive to the shafts. Oil fuel was 3400 tons, giving a 4400 mile endurance at 10 knots. The plant weighed 3,080 tons, took up 13,150 square feet, and consumed 12.8lb steam/hp hour at full speed. The new plant had 8 boilers and a geared turbine. Power was kept at 80,000shp, but this now gave an endurance of 13,500 miles at 10 knots on 3,570 tonnes of fuel. The increased fuel capacity was allowed by a reduction in machinery weight to 1570 tonnes, taking up 8,610 square feet. Steam use was 9.4lb/hp hour at full speed.(1)

It's often suggested, and not just by Correlli Barnett, that the British mechanical engineering community does not come off well from World War II. A focus on what Britain didn't have will turn up talk about the fast diesels that didn't go into nonexistent British E-boats, the high-temperature steam plants that British ships didn't have, the lack of a good tank engine before the Meteor, underpowered British lorries. And then you have facts like the ones that Goodall puts on the table. What's going on  here?

The answer is that Britain, and the whole world, was rushing into internal combustion engine technology on a million different vectors at once in 1939. If Britain was leading the way, and I think that the case can be made, and that the explanation is state defence spending, it it were, it is only by a small margin. It's just difficult to detect. Consider the E-boat example. In fact, there was a British E-boat, complete with a high speed diesel engine by Paxman.

Founded at Colchester in Essex in 1865 as Davey, Paxman & Davey, General Engineers and Contractors, it entered the "heavy oil engine" business in the halcyon days when you didn't have to explain that they were really just Diesel engines, and that you didn't call them that because you were a Germanophobe, even if you totally were.

Some time after taking his hioty-toity Cambridge degree in 1924, "Ted" Paxman, unaware that as the grandson of one of the founders, he was supposed to become a Tory country gentleman, joined the family business (See also this, and this for the guy I'm arguing against with snide links.).  Fellows with Cambridge degrees are supposed to swan about meeting Very Important People in exclusive clubs, but I don't think that the stereotype extends to Major General A. E. Davidson, through various organisational changes basically the guy in charge of engines at the Woolwich Arsenal labs, who allowed over a nice brandy that he would like a compact, high speed diesel for possible use in  tanks. The upshot, the company history that I'm linking to suggests, is that in 1935 they premiered a high-speed  V-configuration marine diesel engine, the 12-Vee-RA, This was clearly a step down the road to meeting Davidson's suggestion, but, not to look the gift horse of an awesome web site in the mouth, it might have been the slight upgrade, the RE, that was intended. It was the RE that went into a 5 boat experimental Motor Gun Boat class that quickly proved to the Admiralty that perhaps the time was not yet ripe for a lightweight diesel V-12 running at almost 2000rpm at full power.

Maybe it was the crankshafts arcing through the air. Anyway, having proved to be somewhat disappointing for their original purpose, they were redesigned as blockade runners for the Swedish ball bearing run. They made  8 successful runs during the 1943 boating season, bringing out 347 tons of ball bearings, which, I gather, is a lot. Also, they used up a fair number of crankshafts, including one episode leading to a boat being captured by the Germans on the return trip, which was maybe a bit impractical. Given that the RAF brought out 80 tons in transport aircraft in the same period, one might perhaps concede that the idea was more along the lines of finding a problem for the fast diesels to be a solution to than a really practical employment.

So did all that effort go to waste? It did not. Paxman developed the RE into the TPM, of which 3,500 were built in the course of the war, not for MTBs, but for Landing Craft, Tanks, with the war effort required rather more. It seems that in all the high declinist concern trolling, someone forgot that these actually got built. Landing Craft Tanks are much less sexy than Motor Gun Boats/high speed blockade runners (literally in this case: we're talking about the "Gay Viking-class** here)  but they're a touch more important, and the TPM series was a little more reliable.

This is a weird story, if you ask me. The whole backstory of a fairly important wartime production programme begins in a conversation between a Cambridge boy and a Major-General/technocrat, leads through an experimental Coastal Forces contract, and ends with a weapon platform (as the cool kids are saying these days) the need for which was hardly appreciated in 1939. It points to a deep manufacturing sector with man hours to burn, but not nearly as much as the absolutely bug nuts Steam Gunboat project. Basically, in 1940, someone at the Admiralty noticed that there was a lack of high speed diesel engines suitable for chasing E-Boats (which, we have just ourselves noticed, is not an accurate 'noticing') and told some ambitious lads down at the Royal Navy's engineering branch that they might as well go ahead and design and order an entire class of 175t, 150ft, 8000hp, 1x76.2mm,2x57mm, 2x2 20mm-armed steam gun boats.

Which is to say a class of steam-turbine powered vessels numbering two-thirds the size of the "Hunt" order (19,000hp on 1000t, just to remind ourselves). So these would be boats, basically designed to hang around with motor torpedo boats powered by jumped up Liberty engines, otherwise best know for underpowering unfortunate tanks. Due to scaling issues, they wouldn't absorb that much less in the way of resources than a destroyer, and the result was a hull packed full of steam fittings. Sure, it was a light and fast power plant for its size, and it worked well as long as no-one was shooting machine guns at it, at least before some overstressed part broke from being run too fast for too long. Have I fully described the point of Coastal Forces yet?...

If you're asking how this got approved, the details don't make it sound any saner.
 The concept was a fast 112ft steam gun boat with 8000shp giving 38–40 knots, to run down the E-boats. An industry rep (M. C. Dunstan, 129) says that the gunboats were designed to run 200 miles at top speed. That would certainly be enough to run down an E-boat. All you'd have to do is follow the trail of burning oil.... Speaking of which, since there was  requirement for “excessive” durability (except for the 200 mile run part), there was no call for duplication of auxiliaries, and the designers were free to use any innovative features that struck their fancy, even if the Engineering Branch had previously vetoed on such killjoy pretexts as "doesn't actually work." So there was a water-cooled furnace to cut down on fire brick. Nonstandard flash boilers were given very high power per unit volume outputs by various means, mainly including the egregious high temperature abuse of scarce forged manganese steel parts. There would be hydraulic drives for the gun mountings, just because, and, as another commentator (Captain (E) W. K. Weston) notes, the designers felt free to use new types of pipes and bolts, getting away from boring old Admiralty standards, because, you know, higher tension allowances are cool, at least until a sheared bolt flies through a hull at pistol bullet speeds.

Apparently, aside from being completely impractical combatants, with with their relatively large and completely unarmoured sides and lack of auxiliaries leading to total mechanical failure on a single feedpump breakdown. The corrosion problem, they note, was eventually fixed, after their seniors sent Baker and Lay to sea and took over the programme. They also cut the original programme from 50 units to be available by the time of the invasion season of 1941 to 9 completing in 1942, and soon repurposed them as high speed minesweepers, which seems somewhat crazy, but at  least took advantage of their quiet plant. (Assuming that they were actually used as minehunter platforms, at least after magnetic sweeps were done.) The only one that saw much useful action was Grey Goose, which was converted into a marine gas turbine proving unit.(2) By which I mean that, in the tradition of the class, it was crammed with as many gizmos as anyone thought might make a gas turbine even more effective than it already was, and was sent off to sea to steam round at 50 knots (per the British Pathe newsreal linked to above) until someone noticed that, while cool, it wasn't exactly useful.

The takeaway here is that ingenious young engineers like to play with neat toys, and no-one had the time and inclination to say "no," in June 1940. Again; this is not an industrial sector that is rationing anything except global manpower. Ingenuity, design work, even prototypes come easy. 

This is the story of the jet gas turbine, too. When Brown-Boveri representatives were giving papers about their revolutionary new gas turbine plants for locomotives, ships, and gas refineries in 1939 and, perhaps, wondering why Squadron Leader Frank Whittle was always in the audience and asking questions, they thought they had the problem pretty much licked. Pass through a few years of development to J. Reeman's "War Emergency" paper, and you have lapidary references to the guiding principle of making sure that the angular rotation of the gas mass in British turbines being held constant through its passage, implying the calculation of turbulence at every point. I won't dilate too long about this. I'll point to the article, and, hopefully more importantly, eventually, to Jakob Whitfield and his unfortunately dormant blog. The point is that we tend to write about jet engines, like most technologies, in terms of isolated geniuses off working in a lab somewhere and fighting the obdurate conservatism of the service ministries, the academies, and the local pastor. *** Instead, we need to be writing about a whole industry of calculation, design and development. There's a reason that the jet engine didn't just appear one day, and it's not because Hitler was dumb.(3)

So the short summary here is that so far I've disappointed. I promised to follow the water down the drain, and instead I've taken us to see some puddles where it bubbles back up. The drain, I think, leads to exactly the same place it always did, to that regenerating mill on the dyke. It just doesn't run on water any more. It may run on coal, or diesel, or even coal gas, but it's sitting there, quietly producing the electrical power that flows through the National Grid. Free of the severe strictures placed on aero-, and automobile engines, designers are free to "pressure charge" the cylinders with compressors, to install exhaust gas turbines to extract  a little more power. Steam plants can scavenge a little more power from the exhaust steam, or reheat it and send it back into the boilers. I write this on the basis of a quick review of Mechanical Engineering's June 1939 review of recent developments in British and German "heavy-oil and gas engines," but, really, I could pick up any number of sources to the same effect. This is a big industry, with ample opportunities to experiment in a useful way.

The line now is that "the future is already here, it's just not evenly distributed." The same might be said of the internal combustion engine industry in 1939. All of the technologies that will come together in the postwar automotive boom (some not until years after the war ends) already exist and are being used somewhere, in one power plant or factory or another. It's not the inventions that are lacking, or even the design talent. it's the substructure of maintenance skills and machine shops that will make it possible to keep these machines running. 

I started out this posting with an analogy. That analogy was with a young, middling aristocrat (if you didn't follow my links, they're to the Wiki about  Isaac Newton's family estate, Woolsthorpe Manor) who learns to be a civil engineer in the wars of religion and returns to Lincolnshire to take his family estate to the next level. I could draw a historical line of connections in my analogy, imagine the water mill of 1600 becoming the trip hammer of 1700, the foundry of 1800, and the "heavy oil engine" manufacturing plant of 1930. But I don't have to, because the burden of my argument is that the regimental officer learning to dig french drains as a "volunteer engineer" in 1600 is going through exactly the same process as the regimental officer detached to the REME to repair Meteors in 1942. The effect of war is to distribute spoils, and those spoils most definitely include job training. Wars can distribute the future. 

So why I am I calling this a 'manpower' issue? Good question, and one that benefits from the cogitations of twelve hours of sleep. Consider a country that could turn a relatively small army into twelve divisions in four corps within 8 months of the outbreak of war, but which couldn't get its own aeroengines into service in the course of over four full years of war. That is Britain in WWI. Now consider a country that couldn't, but which introduced the turbojet revolution in less than five years, and along the way produced these fun little projects, basically as jeux d'esprit. This is a different country, with a very different labour skills base. This is the change that we're marking through 20 years of peace, the change that, in France, was not managed well enough (for whatever reason) to save that country defeat and occupation by the Nazis. That's the manpower issue.

*Worst Patent Troll in History This Week. Seriously, Henry Flagg French of Massachusetts (1813--1885) is the guy who first popularised the "French drain," and that's why it's named after him? Seriously? Holy Fuck, guys. Google. It exists, and it takes all of sixty seconds to find an 1814 book describing "french drains." Hey, maybe our Yankee inventor improved his first field before he could talk. There's precedent.

**Google does the most interesting things with this search phrase.

***Because I couldn't find the part where the townsfolk try to burn down the observatory "so that this can never happen again."

(1) Stanley V. Goodall, "The Royal Navy at the Outbreak of War," Trans. Roy. Inst. Nav. Arch. 88 (1946): 1--15. This is all boiler plate material that you can find in more accessible formats. I guess my contribution in digging out the actual article is negative: there is no commentary, often the most interesting part of an article like this.
(2)Lay and Baker, “Steam Gunboat Machinery –A Light-Weight Steam Plant,” TRINA 91 (1949): 108–36.
(3) J. Reeman, "The Turbine for the Simple Jet Propulsion Engine," Proc. Inst. Mech. Eng. 153 (War Emergency No. 12): 495--504.


  1. Just to chuck something into the stew, they're still at it. I recently found out that the not-very-lamented Geoff "Buff" Hoon wished a real steam-gunboat engineering experiment on the Type 45 destroyers - the Rolls-Royce WR21 gas turbine.

    The concept - a marine GT that regenerates power from its waste heat like a GTCC power station, mostly made out of bits of R-R aeroengines to save money.

    The reality - an RB211 fan fucking a Trent compressor, surrounded by hideously complex and unique intercooling pipework, produced by R-R but in a "consortium with prime contractor Northrop-Grumman", whose contribution is impossible to see but no doubt cost a fortune. It took far longer than anyone expected to get it working, and when they did it was the wrong size.

    So the T-45 ships have one shaft longer than the other because the WR21s have to be placed in echelon!

    anyway, they said the costs would be amortised over the huge production run that would arrive when everyone saw the benefits. unfortunately, the T-45s cost so much that the order was cut from 12 to 8 and then 6. Hence a production run of 12 units, one of which is the test bed reworked.

    meanwhile, R-R kept refining its MT30 design. that one sells well, and is in the carriers and probably the T-26 frigates. nobody is likely ever to order another WR21...

  2. Erik, you can find a classy audio of me talking about one impact of wartime technology - in this case, interwar police radio - here:
    So, yeah. Have you read Scott's book on Coastal Forces? As you can imagine, I turned to the SGB bits first and they are all a bit 'umm' between the lines.

  3. Oh, Heck, Alex. It's just money, and marine engineers need Ferraris, too, you know. You can't have technological progress without dropping vast sums on misbegotten, utopian technologies.

    1. To be honest, there are a lot of people I begrudge Ferraris to more than I do R-R turbine engineers.

      As the glider guy said, opfer mussen gebracht werden.

  4. Chris, I haven't read Scott on the Coastal Forces. There doesn't appear to be a copy in Vancouver, though I notice that Amazon will sell me one for a mere $381 Canadian, new.

    Er, maybe next month.

    1. I can photograph the relevant pages from my father-out-law's copy for you if you want? Some time between now and Christmas, it'll be. Relatedly, he spent some WW1 running a generator on HMS Renown...

  5. Thanks, Chris. I really miss University of Toronto's collection sometimes.

    Except for the pathetic remnants of its well-looted aerospace periodicals. Engineers. Can't live without 'em, can't let 'em into the library.

  6. Ah, yes, I owe you a detailed reply (or even a blog post to dehibernate the blog!) but it may well have to wait until the end of the month or slightly beyond as that's when the ever-loving thesis is due...

    (Spoilers: I think Louis Le Bailly's sociological explanation for the RN’s early-war propulsion problems holds water, and that the RN's enthusiasm for the gas turbine is due in part to Baker's generation's love of whizzy new tech...)

  7. Apropos of the first paragraph of your post, and by way of encouraging you to post more about it: prickly pears may be worth looking at, but I'd bet that potatoes turn out to play a more important role in the rise of Algiers. Prickly pears barely count as food, but it's hard to imagine Maghrebi cuisine without potatoes; and the Mitidja is by no means the kind of marginal arid land where prickly pear might be the best a farmer can do.

  8. See, that's what comes from the once-over-easy on geography. All I knew about Maghrebi cuisine (till now) boils down to couscous and stews with fruit in them.

    The thing with the prickly pears is about forage, though.

  9. And I'll add to Lameen's quote that this is why it's so vitally important to get the Maghreb into Atlantic history. "There are the unknowns that we don't know that we don't know," or something like that.

    (The link is to some wacky Maghrebi Atlantic history that I found link-hopping through Wikipedia. Crazy stuff. Check it out.)

  10. Something I just learned: the German armour in 1940 supposedly had multiple crews per tank, which helped a lot keeping up the pace.

    It's one thing to do with all those people you're not using to look after 3.7" AA guns.

    And, come to think of it, the cold war-era TA RAC was configured to provide several armoured recce regiments to Germany on mobilisation (i.e to very substantially beef up the couverture) and then to provide lots of additional tank crew, which you can look at as battle casualty replacements, but also as augmentees if you were thinking of keeping the tracks rolling continuously, and IIRC NATO was.

    1. Most people think NATO was planning for a short war, hence the stories about the Soviets being terrified of how restricted the NATO army groups' war stocks were and what that meant in terms of how soon the nukes would be out. But does having whole armoured regiments on the reserve (and recce regiments on the reserve with Land Rovers only, which sounds more like a manpower pool than anything else) to provide replacements make any sense in that context? Wouldn't the stocks of 120mm and Milan be gone and the airfields and ports be nuked by the time you'd be mobilised and required?

      so perhaps the idea was to double-crew the armour?

  11. Cast your mind back to your first acquaintance with an internal combustion vehicle, Alex. I doubt that you could count on keeping heavy machinery running longer at a time than its crew in 1940.

    Manpower replacement pools are another matter. Territorial Army units were supposed to be regiments de marche, and functioned that way in WWI. There's still the question of balancing expected casualties against recruitment, though. I could say a great deal about this, but suffice it to say that infantry took much heavier casualties in Normandy than the artillery and armour --much heavier than was expected.

    I would imagine that these expectations guided NATO manpower policy in the postwar era.

    1. Hmmm. I think a MTBF of less than 12 hours is too pessimistic if you're thinking in terms of a failure as something that needs a REME call out (it implies that literally 100 per cent of the armour would be hors de combat in 24 hours, and y'know, France fell, right?). Somewhere around, I've seen the figure of 300 miles as the maximum you could expect a tank to move before it had a major casualty.

      For context, Pip Roberts and the 11th Armoured's march from Normandy to Antwerp was about that in three weeks, considered to be an amazingly swift exploitation in depth. To get no benefit at all from having multiple crews, you'd need to have at least one major breakdown per 12 hours or so. Now, the two statements fit if you're doing 300 miles in 12 hours, but you're not in a car on a good road in peacetime, and it took Roberts three weeks.

      I wouldn't be particularly surprised if a 1940-model tank threw a track or fouled a spark plug once every 12 hours, but I would be surprised if its crew needed an engineer callout to deal with that. There's no reason to think they get a break. Rather, low-level breakdowns are going to add to their workload, not subtract from it, especially if some of them have to stand guard for the others while they're tinkering with the damn' thing.

    2. Yeah, but I'm not thinking of the quantifiable scheduled maintenance load. I'm thinking of the road run's end routine of checking for fasteners working loose, and all of the fiddling tasks that flow from the ones that you missed during the run.

      I can tell you that my 1975 Suzuki GT500's owner's manual didn't say anything about the single retaining screw on the muffler baffle eating its way right through the soft metal of the lip and expelling itself on the Colville National Forest Road, but it still happened....

      The REME guys are going to expect you to go over your machine at the end of the day and catch these things, and you will probably regret it if you don't.

    3. I'm not thinking of scheduled maintenance, either. It's not the schedule that's going to stop you heading westwards out of the Sedan bridgehead, it's whether the tank will move or not.