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...

Monday, October 15, 2012

Old Europe: To The White Tower

wollt dem Kaiser wied'rum kriegen
Stadt und Festung Belgerad!
Er ließ schlagen eine Brukken,
daß man kunt hinüberrucken
mit der Armee vor die Stadt."

"Kaiserliche Feldstandarten/ Wird ein Reiterlied erfreun!"

Borrowed, but not hotlinked, from Wikipedia

That's the Danube on the left, the Sava on the right. Since that might be confusing, here is Google Earth, picking out the route from Venice to the White City:

And now that we're oriented, here's the town and its rivers, with the road from Venice coming in from the left:

At this scale, you can see the Sava entering the Danube from bottom left, and the course of the relief canal that cuts out the meander on which Belgrade sits. I would imagine that if you descended the Danube in flood three hundred years ago, it would be a matter of choice whether you found the city on the blue Danube at all. 

The Sava is another matter.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Cape Esperance: America Fought World War II With Crap Weapons, And That's All Right

It is night on the glassy seas where Álvaro de Mendaña de Neira, half-maddened by the horrors of a sixteenth century Pacific crossing, thought he found King Solomon's Mines, the long-sought link between Inka west and Holy Land that American blades have been seeking ever since, often in more probable locations. Peace will last an hour or yet, because no-one's trolled the fanboys yet. I'll get on with that in a minute.

Rear-Admiral Norman Scott of Indiana, Academy Class of 1911, is a man with  a future, graduate of staff and War College, and recently attached to Nimitz's staff. He is here on the lee shore of Guadalcanal, and, as yet, smells only tropical flowers and tension. The Emperor's men are coming. "If I go away to sea, I shall return a brine-soaked corpse; if I go to the mountains, a jungle sward will be my tomb." Heavy cruisers San Francisco (flag) and Salt Lake City, along with light cruisers Boise and Helena and destroyers Farenholt, Duncan, McCalla and Laffey are closing heavy cruisers Aoba, Furutake and Kinugasa, accompanied by destroyers Fubuki and Hatsuyake. Scott knows that they're out there. Admiral Goto (cue hilarious progamming joke) is walking into a trap.

What can I say? Samuel Eliot Morison got to set the tone for writing about the long series of naval battles on the approaches to Guadalcanal that gave the name of "Ironbottom Sound" to the waters between that island and the volcanic cone of Savo. Morison wrote colourfully at the best of times, and, for him, this long struggle was the Anglo-Dutch Wars of the American Republic: the nation's true baptism in the fire of naval superpowerdom. It's a good comparison. If Arleigh Burke is the closest that the USN could come to finding a fighting admiral-hero, that probably has some connection with Scott's death only a month later in the first night of the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. 

For all that, Two-Ocean Navy is pretty short with the Battle of Cape Esperance. Scott had two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers and five destroyers with which to engage 3 heavy cruisers and 3 destroyers, a heavy preponderance of fighting power, even taking torpedoes into account. He had the advantage of surprise, better radar, and a chance to exercise his task force before the battle. These were advantages that Dan Callaghan and Willis Lee lacked, or, in Callaghan's case, threw away, before the battle. He should have won, and were I being tendentious, I could make the case that he ought to have won more. 

But I'm not being tendentious. I'm writing in the spirit of purply, 1920s-style pulp-prose, trolling and leaning heavily on Japanese stereotypes, things never before done on the Internet.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Fall of France, X: A Machine For Controlling Space, VII: The Payoff

Since time began, men have longed to destroy the Sun. 

Wait, no, that's just an ancient Simpsons reference to an even more ancient TV show, taking us down into a search for lost time. What I meant to say is that since time began, men have longed to build a repeating missile weapon.  Exactly why isn't too clear given that we're talking about a weapon that by definition either puts large numbers of missiles in the same place or disperses them across a set field. Neither project sounds like a winner compared to shooting bigger missiles. Especially once cannon came along to allow the firing of grape and case shot.

What if you have a cannon that has been improved to fire conoidal rounds down a rifled barrel? Now case and grape shot don't work so well, and artillery brigades can no longer be all Napoleonic and "charge" the enemy (and the longer-ranged Krupp steel guns), since they can't defend themselves against infantry counter-assault. So maybe you want to take one of those "machine gun" concepts that has been gathering dust and turn it into a battery close-in defence weapon. Which is where you're at if you're a French ordnance officer in 1866. Warning: not only will an American patent troll steal the popular credit, but gales of uncomprehending, derisive laughter and ethnic stereotyping will be elicited by the failure of a few hundred support weapons to win the war single handed.

This taught ordnance officials two very important lessons: i) until such time as the US courts start treating foreign patents as something more than treasure-laden galleons a-ripe for the plunderin', it might be for the best to have an American figurehead for your invention; and, ii) it might also be good be if the next generation of machine guns didn't have the same column space requirements as a field piece. 

Fortunately, American trolls can't practically steal inventions if they can't actually be made in the United States, yet, and no-one cares about chemistry. Chemistry is for girls. So when someone invents a smokeless powder that can drive a recoil mechanism, you can put your American on top of a gun that fires the standard  rifle round, which generates more than enough momentum for a tiny, delicate mechanism to chamber another round. Use a chain belt feed and find a way to carry heat off the barrel faster than the gas adds it, and you can have a marvelously compact weapon capable of keeping up a continuous stream of fire, potentially for hours on end.

Now, to be sure, I'm cheating here in my search for irony quotes around "compact." The Russian version of the Maxim machine gun went with a gunshield, which made it too heavy to be manhandled, which led to the wheeled undercarriage and tow bar. It's perfectly possible to push the weight of the first generation machine guns under 50lbs. Throw in a tripod, ammunition and its bearers, and a few sandbags, and you get a weapon that can be carried in a single wagon, set up in a small nest, and served by four or  five men. With 800+ men to an infantry battalion, you can easily squeeze two-to-four of these weapons into the organisation without squeezing the all-important riflemen out of the table of organisation. A French infantry division of 1914, for example, can manage 24 machine guns and 36 75s and still have 9,600 Lebels with which to thrust bayonets into the squirming, sauerkraut-loving Boche. 

But that's not enough: is it, Mr. Prime Minister? "Take Kitchener's maximum; square it, multiply that result by two - and when you are in sight of that, double it again for good measure." This is one of those quasi-apocryphal Lloyd George quotes, in that he said it, but probably not in 1914. As John Terraine points by 1918, the machine gun battalions of the British army actually did have 64 machine guns by 1918, but the number is ludicrous for an infantry battalion. It is, of course, open to be argued that it's a waste to put infantry behind bayonets instead of Vickers, all other things being equal, but a moment's attention to the crew and logistic requirements of a 64 gun unit will show that you can't have both. As Lieutenant Colonel Laure, source for my last count (via Army Quarterly 16 (1927), 2: 411-12), points out, by 1917 a French infantry division mustered 2800 rifles, 48 guns, and still only 72 machine guns.

That's not all, however. Laure adds in 324 "light machine guns" (and 27 "trench mortars.") What, you might ask, is a "light machine gun?" One answer is that it is what you get when you ask an American inventor to "add more lightness" to one of the big old Hotchkiss/Maxim/Vickers monsters. Certainly it was the lightness that everyone who used the Lewis Gun liked about it, because it wasn't anything else about the design! Lightness, however, was not an inconsequential virtue, and the French went their own way, introducing the Fusil-mitrailleur Mle 1915 CSRG "Chauchat" in a not-entirely successful attempt to improve on the Lewis, although the French-made Chauchat was never as bad in French service as the American-made version, and if you think I'm harping on this whole "the American arms industry wasn't up to snuff in the world wars" point, wait 'till next week.  

So it is the Chauchat that Lt. Col. Laure is talking about when he refers to "light machine guns," even though the translation is more accurately "automatic rifle?" So what's the difference, you ask? We go now to Youtube to completely miss the point!

At one level, the point is that the whole reason that the BAR remained in American service through 1960 is because of the supposed value of being able to fire it at the walk. This is most definitely not what the z.B. 26 was designed, for, nor any of its descendants, whether the Chatellerault or the Bren gun. 

The other point is that 1914-18 has changed the nature of the Nation in Arms.