Monday, July 14, 2014

A Second Prolegomenon To Any Possible Discussion of Operation Goodwood

(Bonnie Dobson for the lyrics.)

Why Goodwood? I could begin on the start line, with the first light of dawn on August 8, 1944, with Hamilton, Ontario's "Rileys" and the Essex Scottish, the Lake Superior Regiment and the South Saskatchewans, the Fusiliers Mont-Royals and the Camerons of Canada, the South Albertas and the British Columbia Regiment and the Algonquins, lining up for TOTALISE. With I Canadian Corps, having learned the lessons of GOODWOOD, about to do it right. But that would be a bit bombastic. A small country shows the big powers how it is done, just like another August 8th, another black day for the German army. (The link you were expecting the first time.)

And, true, it would be bombastic. It would also have an essential truth to it. The crux of the matter, the point (I repeat), is that the battlefield dialectic of resources and means is pushing the world forward into technological modernity. A small country, at the frontier of a built and of a curated landscape is not unreasonably the place where these things might be focussed. If the men of the BCR come out of woods where things are done one way

And re-enter them as a place where things are done in another, well..

This is the context of that change.

But, first, let's talk about something different.

This is the famous image of a Moroccan goumier that ran in Yank in October 1944. As icons of the essential warrior, you have to give the photographer points for trying before sadly noticing that the goumier's knife is a standard-issue bayonet. If a natural warriors from a primitive society does not bring his own, unique, colourful bladed weapon, you begin to suspect that he just might be an everyday shepherd recruited for mercenary service, and that would be very unromantic. You might follow up to Gilles Durupt's website and discover his father's photos of  goumiers who look much like every other soldier of the World War. Boys, in other words.

 Boys? Could boys make a route march across the spine of the Auruncii Mountains and drive the Germans out of their lines at the point of the knife?

Of course they can. The official historian of the British army in the Italian campaign sourly points out that the long, slogging advance up the spine of Italy, through one mountain range after another, would not have been any such thing had their been an adequate supply of mountain infantry. How, he asks, could it have come to pass that the Indian Army, shaped, even distorted, by two generations of mountain warfare, had lost this ability?

Here is the answer, the secret. Being a warrior is not an essential property of certain societies. Oh, there are societies that produce better soldiers than others. That much is true. All you need to do is haunt a gym for a while and count the number of bodybuilders who use the bench press, versus the number who use the leg press. It is human nature to avoid pain, and the legs have bigger muscles than the arms, so working them out hurts more. Build a town on a hill, and/or work the boys on the slopes and you will have a recruiting catchment that will, on average, have a step or two on lowland boys. IN the aggregate, that will be enough to matter.

And we are talking about the aggregate here. This is a workforce story. He who has the largest workforce, wins. It happens, as in any workforce, that the employer has an ongoing training issue. New recruits do not know what they are doing, while health issues and life changes are constantly removing the experienced workers who both do a disproportionate amount of the work and of the training.  Any workforce can get wedged into a position where it can't afford to train the recruits as they come in, for lack of trainers, or lack of training time.

Armies, of course, are subject to an accelerated attrition rate. There are times when I would like to fire a 5.5" shell at the PriceSmart down the road. Overtime for everybody! Unfortunately, this is apparently illegal now. Except for armies. Armies are allowed to do that. Armies did that in World War II.

On 18 March, 1944, it became official. Ernie Bevin, the Minister of Labour, warned that the British faced a manpower crisis. This was not surprising. Britain already faced a "manpower crisi:" the army was restricted to 2.4 million men. It could not take on greater campaigning commitments than that, because the air force, navy, and industry also needed men. Germany faced a manpower crisis; America faced one; Soviet Russia faced one. By 1944, the infantry of the Red Army was about as effective as wet newspaper. Canada faced a manpower crisis. In spite of a relatively under-recruited, all-volunteer army, it could not keep its units up to strength. It happened that politically marginalised groups (Quebecois, unionists) did not particularly want to volunteer, and Canadian political elites could not talk about conscription without letting an ugly desire to punish out-groups show. Australia not only  had that a crisis, but a replacement one after the outbreak of the Pacific war reconciled the population to conscription and substituted a new one  in which the army was over-recruited. New Zealand had the over-recruiting crisis, and South Africa combined over-recruiting with a disaffected population group. America showed yet another aspect of the conscription-with-minoirty-population problem by trying to duck the requirement to conscript Blacks at all.

All nations are going to have a manpower crisis. You cannot just conjure men out of nothing. (And if you could, it would probably not end well.)  Overlapping the pure, technocratic problem will be social ones which make conscription divisive in as many ways as there are countries to impose it. If you are imagining right now that an "advanced," "homogenous" country like Britain would be immune to this kind of thing at least, you would be wrong, and in an interesting way. The tussle between industry and the technical branches of the Army is also an argument about class and politics.

Wait. Did I just say, "technical branches?" I did, indeed. This is not just my obsession with mechanics, electricians and we-can't-call-them-IT-because-the-computer-paradigm-has-not-emerged-Thomas-Kuhn-call-your-office-guys.

On the contrary, it is what I am on about. In the spring of 1944, the War Office bulletined 8th Army in Italy with news of a worldwide 42,000 rifle infantry shortfall; (Mediterranean and Middle East, 6:1, 449.) .

 "Rifle infantry?" Here's a nice little table, lifted from Russell Hart's fine research:





















(Russell Hart, Clash of Arms: How the Allies Won in Normandy (Boulder, Col.; London: Lynne Rienner, 2001: "Composition of the British Second Army, 30 June 1944 (310, source PRO CAB 106/121, 25)")

The infantry, who comprise 9 battalions in each infantry division and 3 in each armoured division, comprise only 16% of the army. The armour is even smaller! This might seem a little surprising. A quick trip to the library will turn up a lot of regimental histories. Very few of them, in my experience, are about the "210 Light Aid Detachment." (These are the guys who make your trucks go, as opposed to the Heavy Aid Detachment, which rebores the engine cylinder when you forget about the whole "motor oil" thing.) Yet the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers had 4.67% of the manpower slice! Notice, by the way, that this is almost twice the size of the American allocation. 

Yet there were far more "service" personnel with the army in Normandy than infantry. Here is another way of looking at things: in 1939, a British infantry division was equipped with 50 light machine guns, 22 anti-tank rifles, 2 3" mortars and 12 2" per battalion. The divisional artillery held 72 25 pdrs (or of course 18/25 pdrs), and 48 AT guns, and a divisional machine gun battalion held 45 Vickers medium machine guns. A divisional cavalry regiment, in the units that had them, held 28 light tanks and 44 carriers.Corps assets were 48 field guns, 36 medium guns (6" howitzers or 60 pdrs), 36 Bofors, and 26 Vickers “heavy”(?) machine guns. Army assets? Army Tank Brigade?

 By 1945, the light machine guns in a divsions had doubled to 1,262, the antitank rifle had been replaced by the Piat (436 in the division, a bit more than a replacement!), the antitank artillery had risen to 78 six pounders and 32 17s. There were 6,525 machine carbines in the division, 359 mortars of all calibres (compared to 126 in 1939), and 54 light flak guns. The cavalry regiment has been replaced by a reconnaissance regiment.

David French, Raising Churchill’s Army, gives a British rifle company circa 1942 as holding 3 2" mortars, 9 Bren guns, 9 SMGs, and 54 rifles. That's fifty-four rifles in four rifle companies/battalion in 9 battalions per division, 159 battalions in divisional organisations: less than 8000 riflemen.

 In a 2.7 million man army. 

 David French argues that, out of an overwhelming need to minimise the manpower in the army, the British emphasised firepower over infantry shock and mobility. Of course, he also argues that the Gemans had even more firepower in the units. Stephen Hart takes it a step forward: proposing a British "way of war" built around "Colossal Cracks," or attacks on narrow fronts with limited objectives intended to maximise the effect of fire and "write down" the enemy. Which, sure.

Now it is time for me to plunder Hart for interesting facts:

Predicted Infantry Casualties
Actual Infantry Casualties
Predicted Total Casualties
Actual Total Casualties
Month Wastage
Cumulative Wast.
Mon. Wast.
Cum. Wast.
Month. Wast.
Cum. Wast.
Cum. Wast.


This is the comparison between expected and actual casualties. It is a great deal more complicated than the simple boiling-down done of the American case, as reported by Ruppenthal, who really took the "logistics" thing for a ride, and wrote a convenient chapter on the "replacements" issue: 15% of the American army was rifle infantry, and was expected to take 70% of the casualties in Normandy. Instead, it took 85% of the casualties, leading to a rifleman shortage. 

When he brought this point to military history's belated attention in 1980, Carlos D'Este attributed the problem to an attempt to extrapolate from the North African campaign, where infantry and artillery casualties were higher than they proved to be in the different tactical conditions which applied in Normandy. This is a fair cop as far as it goes, but, unfortunately, obscures the basic problem. Recall that even in World War One there had been a problem with "refilling" divisions with new infantry drafts. The artillery and other support branches would be in good shape, but the rifle infantry needed more men. German 272 Infantry Division, which fought so well in GOODWOOD, was reduced to a cadre in the East Front fighting in 1943. Sent to Nornandy to "recuperate," the human analogy fails. Apart from probably being on the edge from stress, the signals, artillery, etc, were fine. The division did need a new infantry arm, though

Fifteen percent of the army: 85%  of the casualties. I do not think that I am the only person to have ever noticed that there is a certain --inequity-- to this. Terry Copp, the Wilfrid Laurier history professor who has given his career and his care to the Canadian Army in Northwest Europe, notices that the infantry of the 3rd Division of the Canadian army was very young: between 18 and 25. That while most officers had high-school diplomas, one-third of other ranks had not completed primary school, and another third had not finished Grade Seven. The average height was 5 7", average weight 160lbs: it is hard from the raw numbers in the archives in Ottawa to deduce in what part this weedy picture derives from age, poverty, or even lack of exercise, but certainly at the end of the training process they cut more impressive figures. Eighty-nine percent left jobs to enlist, but bearing in mind the state of the labour shortage in Canada at the time, and that every effort had been made to weed out the "psychoneurotics," and this is actually a pretty low number. 

Now, bear in mind that even without crossing into other branches, the infantry is subject to internal recruitment to motor battalions, machine gun (support) battalions, to the support company, and as drivers. For example, an infantry battalion requires 40 mechanics, but only 7 come from the REME, the remaining 33 being taken up from the ranks. The REME was often restricted in its ability to take up civilians. It even ran into a shortage of womanpower, raising only 2800 ATS for 14,000 open positions! and so had to find the manpower to expand within the army and from other branches, this pool of battalion mechanics would also seem to also be a captive recruiting pool. Ditto, of course, the Signalsand you will begin to get the sense of the rifle infantry as having been well-picked-over. 

Fortunately, it appears that this was  scarcely a unique situation in  the Canadian army. On the other hand, you begin to get a sense of why the goumiers were so frightening. An average cross-section of a given population, and never mind airy speculations about the size of the calves in North Vancouver,  would be more than  a match for these guys. 

Mind you, I am not saying that we have a corps of losers here. That would be putting more faith in society's assortive powers than I  have. There is another way of looking at it: front line combat service was, in some ways, society's last redeeming chance. Having done everything we can to deprive these young men of a chance in life, total war has forced us to reconsider. They are unfinished, and no attempt has been made to see that the test is fair, or that its rewards go to the strong and not the lucky. (A long way to the contrary, in fact.) We are taking men who haven't much, or much of a chance to make something of themselves, and promising them a little, if they survive a game that is rigged against them. In short. 

If I have managed to present a picture of brutal unfairness, I hope that I am capturing the thought process that led Brigadier Charles Richardson, on 7 July 1944, to take the numbers already presented and suggest that the next major Commonwealth offensive around Caen use no infantry at all. (Well, apart from the motor battalions and attached brigades of the three armoured divisions which would, eleven days later, smash together into the German lines south of the Orne bridgehead. 

Got too many tanks? Too many tank drivers? Too many guys who repair tanks, for that matter? Use them. Let the guys who managed to wangle army jobs where they learned something useful take the risks. For a change. Be sure to watch long enough to see the Sherman tank collapse the shoulder of the road.

*George Forty, British Army Handbook, 1939–1945 [Thrupp, Stroud, Glos., U.K.: Sutton, 1998], 41); [Mark Nicholls and Linda Washington, eds.], “Against All Odds:” The British Army of 1939–40 A National Army Museum Publication ([Maidenhead, U.K.: [Maidenhead Graphic], [1990]) gives the same
** Raising Churchill’s Army,207.

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