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. 

Technology is a very important aspect of military history. Professional military historians usually approach it a little diffidently, aware that the sub-field is full of fanatically enthusiastic amateurs. And not without reason, as it's pretty tricky to join an engineering analytic with a historiographic one.

In this series, I've been trying, endlessly belabouring the claim that there is something to be gained from considering the interaction of technology and tactics in terms of landscape. I see a payoff in terms of understanding the Battle of France in particular, but also in discovering some generalisations that can take military technology into a general economy or anthropology of technology. A fancy way of saying that we are going from military exigency to civilian economy? Or something grander? I think there's something grander to say, out there in a haze of coffee, just beyond my tongue.

Anyway, one wants to think about the machine gun as another tool for operating in a landscape, comparable to a chainsaw. 

There are other tools, of course: bulldozer, demolition charge, tank, antitank gun, Bailey Bridge. Today's tool is the 88/56 Flak 36. It's archetypal, and telling.

So, go back to World War I! Last time, I had 75mm guns out in front, bringing the offensive to a halt with vast slaughter. A few before that, and I had them deep in the rear, in the defensive plans that the BEF contrived to meet the German offensive of March, 1918. Guns are not to be risked in front. No more than a few weapons, each fully fortified, to fire over direct sights at tanks and attacking infantry.

So much has changed in four years. Tacticians have discovered a whole host of tools for unlocking defences. Above all, there is artillery, Used in previously unimaginable volumes, and in new ways, as an indirect fire weapon of bombardment. The purpose of the "creeping barrages" of 1918 is not to kill, but to suppress, and hundreds of tons of expensive shells are required per mile of front. Everything you have heard about the scale of the mobilisation of labour and production in world wars is true, and almost all of that labour goes into making shells. The froth on top suffices for battleships, tanks and planes. Attacks supported by artillery mean total war, and only the substitution of HE shells throwing fragments for shrapnel shells throwing bullets makes it economical at all. Which is a point to which I will return.

Next, there is the shroud of invisibility. Before the war, and in the Desert in 1941/2, this means night attacks, but the conscripts of WWI, and many of the armies of WWII as well, cannot make effective night attacks. The scientists and engineers have laboured hard at smoke ammunition as an alternative, but it is a matter of record that most of the really effective infantry attacks of 1917/18 were made in heavy fog.

Third, there is deep interdiction, control, and reconnaissance by air, and mastery of enemy fire through counterbattery artillery, an extension of the old battle for "fire superiority" into a battle on a strategic scale. For those who prefer to come in early and join arguments about "air strategy" from the 1920s, I direct you again to the straightforward discussions of the strategic use of heavy artillery in the battle plans printed in the British official histories. It's a bit of fighting another day's battle today, but I do want to put heavy underlining on the issue of big guns. Moving heavy loads at the tow bar is hard. That's why the big guns are strategic. They're hard to deploy. See where I'm going, here?

Fourth, there is the logistical massing of armies. Artillery, infantry, "circusses" of aircraft, and even ammunition dumps must be concentrated on one particular front. Their moves from the interior to the front are also the essence of manouevre, so this is the new level at which feint and misdirection occur. Hopefully, enemy aircraft and radio interception teams are still searching for your 9.2" around Ypres when they are already making their way up to Arras on cloth-padded wheels.

But defence has not stayed still, either. At the beginning of the war, firepower was rifles and field guns, with the "machine gun" as a supplementary weapon. That has changed, even though theory lags practice, and it will take until 1926 for the French Staff to articulate the idea of the ubiquitous light machine gun and rearrange their army to make it official. From now on, the landscape will be activated on defence by a weapon that allows two prone men to turn any barrier into a lethal zone, and any empty area into an ambush. The ubiquitous LMG is an important reason for the escalation in quantity of fire preparation for assault. If an LMG team can be anywhere, out in a crater or far behind the lines in a hedgerow or concealed in a haystack in the middle of a field, then the shells must sweep everything, and they must keep falling until the very moment that the attacking infantry reaches the LMG.

Which is hard. And there you have the tank. I don't want to be deterministic about these things and do away with invention entirely, but humans have been using powered vehicles for useful purposes for a century by 1918. The steam engine is not the ideal technology to develop into a fighting tank, but there hasn't been a great deal of pressure to develop internal combustion engines to drive tanks, either.

The point? Well, at least according to Giffard Martel, the tank is demand side, not supply side. It is a response to the LMG. Quite specifically, it is a weapon that can advance within the barrage. It is feasible to do this with light armour, since even quite a thin piece of plate will resist a .50 calibre ball striking at an oblique angle --a shrapnel round, in other words. An HE shell striking the Earth to activate its contact fuze and spray fragments is quite another matter. Shell fragment tends to be bigger and heavier than shrapnell bullets, and has a wider engagement envelope.

Though what you really want of a tank that advances into the creeping barrage is the ability to survive a direct hit by a field artillery HE shell. Two inches? Three inches? It's a lot of armour. Anyway, given an armoured pillbox of this weight, you have a weapon that can roll out into the barrage and suppress the light machine gun teams, greatly reducing the size of the artillery barrage.

So your tank needs a weapon. Its own machine gun will suffice against infantry, but then you get mission creep. Perhaps you want to lay smoke of your own, in which case you need a fairly big gun, since there's not much point in shooting a filled shell that is so small that it has no filling! (The smallest explosive shell allowed under the Law of War is a 40mm, or 2 pounder, precisely because anything smaller is deemed to be an explosive bullet, intended mainly to maim people with extra suffering.) You also have to figure that if your tanks are going to be out in the rain, so will the enemy's. So the tank should have a counterasset weapon.

In World War One, these considerations converged on a 6 pounder, but, as I have already rather allusively noted, by the late 1920s, the experts thought that a 3 pounder (45mm--50mm, approximately) would work better. The British eventually rethought this and went for a high velocity 2 pounder. Everyone else was playing with either a low velocity 2 pounder (37mm) or 4 pounder.

The argument for the 2 pounder is the argument for the LMG. Just as the LMG renders the landscape resistant by turning obstacles and too-open spaces into fire obstacles against infantry, so the 2 pounder performs the same role against tanks. It is not, of course, a high rate-of-fire weapon. A small gun crew can only carry so many projectiles! Rather, it is a sniping weapon. It needs to fire once, and hit. So it has to be a high velocity weapon.

And, equally important although often overlooked, it is by definition not a long range weapon, since you can't snipe beyond the grazing range of your weapon. Beyond that crucial range bracket, you need to correct your fire! But this is not a problem, because the defences of 1918 already presume invisibility, and by definition, an invisible defensive weapon can't see the enemy!

This is the concept of the "outpost line" and the "Main Line of Resistance." The MLR is the location of the main force of the defence. It sees the battlefield in front of it, and controls it with fire, but it only sees so far, because  it must be outside direct observation. What the artillery can see, it can kill. The "outpost line" serves to keep the MLR out of direct observation. The Outpost Line is formed from a series of positions set in enfilade to each other. Each enfiladed post in turn observes the immediate foreground of the next position over, ready to call in artillery, or engage enemy tanks and infantry with guns and LMGs.

Things get really hairy for the attackers once they have passed the Outpost Line, because it is designed to fire at them from behind. That is why the guns posted to the front in 1918 are fortified all around. It is why antitank guns are supposed to be small and easily traversable and easily concealed. It is why the antitank guns that greet 9th Armoured Brigade as it carries out Operation Supercharge are concealed in folds in the ground, and engage once enemy tanks have passed them by.

Unfortunately, once this desiderata of a shellproof tank is achieved, you also need guns in the MLR that are powerful enough to kill tanks with armour that can stop a field artillery shell. Where in the world does such a thing exist? Only in the AA arsenals.

Whether he means to or not, Rommel has made his 88/56s the crux of his defensive position: the Main Line of Resistance. Again, I say, he has made his 7.5 ton guns his Main Line of Resistance. Was Rommel reluctant to retreat on 3 November? Of course he was! He had created, not by choice but through the technological exigency of having no other gun that could engage modern tanks at MLR ranges but the 88/56 the most immobile army in history. It is the garrison of Fortress Europe, moved up with ease to the end of the rails and then dumped out on the open ground at the end, with nothing much to do but shoot at oncoming attackers.

Oh, it was an eminently tactically mobile army, of course. It could even  attack and carry out strategic withdrawals. It just couldn't do the latter in a rush. The harder the enemy presses, the harder a  retreat is to carry off. The harder a retreat is to accomplish in the first place, the less the enemy has to press. 88s are big. They're hard to move. One might want to think about leaving them behind.

So it wasn't an impossible feat for this big-gun army to retreat, but it was also deceptively easy for it to get completely deranged by a retreat that forced it to abandon its most essential weapon. Clearly, the Germans recognised this, too, and embraced it. By Normandy, the 88 was backed up by an immobile tank, an immobile gun.**** And they were upgrading their General Purpose Machine Guns.

Originally, this (that is, the MG34 and MG42), was a tactical and production economy. The Germans lacked both heavy and light machine guns, and needed to make a great deal of both in a hurry. Take away the heavy tripod that stabilises the barrel, and the belt-fed ammunition that allows a heavy machine gun to achieve such high sustained rates of fire, and there isn't that much difference between an LMG and an HMG. So why not use the same weapon? Attach a tripod and a belt feed, and it's a heavy machine gun. Use a bipod and magazines, and it is an LMG.

Now, you can't do this tactically. An HMG is not the same as an LMG. You have to have additional ammunition bearers, and someone to carry a tripod, and now your fire team is bigger, and harder to hide. But you can do it operationally. Say the Allies hold the Alamein line or invade Normandy. You counterattack and dig in and form a defensive line. Now that most of the LMGs are in stable positions, you can come along and give them tripods and belt feeds.

Tah dah. We now have the heaviest army in history to this point. It has 70 ton tanks for counterattacks. It has Nebelwerfers to generate vast amounts of suppressive fire on demand. It has more small arms fire capability than any other army in history. Given enough trucks, it might even be mobile, but Germany doesn't have enough trucks, so none of it can move, except by rail, or very gradually. This is not an army that can afford to lose battles.

This is why, in the end, Operation Supercharge was a success. It penetrated far enough into the Axis position that the Axis forces had to retreat. And once they started retreating, they lost their tactical formula for success, and could never stop retreating.  That's the argument that I want to make about the implications of depending on the 88/56, anyway. (It might have some extension to the small arm story, too. I'd need some actual evidence to back up my impressionistic story about the in situ upgrade of light machine guns into heavy to be sure.)

I'm not the first to call the Wehrmacht of WWII a transitional army between the age of grass and the age of oil. It's all the horse-drawn wagons they use that kind of gives it away.  What I want to do here is extend the argument, and see the way that the German army fought as a reflection of its particular technological interaction with its landscape. The tools shape the army, the army the tools. A certain approach to the landscape results. An approach that involves managing it with awesome tools.

*Wikipedia's article notes "133rd  Royal Sussex Lorried Infantry Brigade" with the first two, but the 133rd is the support infantry brigade of 10th Armoured Division, and does not, of course, have a county identity. That is for battalions, although things get a little confusing, since the other attached brigades do have strong, albeit informal, local identities. One is made up of the men of St. Cuthbert, out of the old palatine bishopric of Durham in far Northumberland, almost as ready to fight Germans and Italians as Yorkshiremen and Scots. The other is a Highland brigade of (British) Seaforths and Camerons. Take a look at the scenery in the video in that last link to see a landscape that makes the legs of good infantry. 

**In either case, the Germans were rallied by the staff, resupplied from the 2500 tons of POL that had just arrived at Benghazi, and put into shape for their holding action of 11 December at El Agheila, where they would hold a narrow position between salt marshes and the sea until outflanked by a bold desert manouevre by the New Zealand Division, although Rommel would lead his forces through a gap in the Allied brigades and escape. 

***So, yeah, I've discovered another bit of French high theory. Or rediscovered, it, since apparently Bruno Latour is counted as a practitioner.

****Just to be clear here, I am characterising the "Nebelwerfer" family of German mortar weapons as "immobile" because they are short-ranged, not because they are hard to move. It's concentration of fire that matters, not concentration of tubes. 

1. Playfair, War in the Mediterranean and Middle East, 2: 340--1

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