Monday, January 19, 2015

The Siege: Cold Ashes

From childhood, I remember some ancient bit of literary British domestic detail from that decade when the whole country, as I understood it, looked like an episode of On the Buses. That thing, a coin-operated space heater in a lodger's room seemed bad enough. The Secret Diaries of Adrian Mole exposed it as ann arcane joke about small horizons and diminished expectations behind it, akin to the notion of seaside holidays in Britain. The island of Britain is the largest fragment of the Old Red Sandstone Continent of the Devonian forests, and yet we are to imagine it as permanently damp and cold. No fires warmed its people, though it is green verdure stretched over a submerged mountain of coal. As I say, a vague age.  I had no idea what was going on. I though, instinctively, of the 1950s. That is a drear and dingy age, at least in Britain, right? But On the Buses and Doctors in the House, the shows that formed that impression, actually ran from 1969. There's still a story of a distressed island behind it, I suspect. The CBC picked the shows up and ran them in after-school slots because they were cheap. (And not-American.) Whatever. At least it saved us from the Mother Corp's smothering desire to make us better people, or, worse an even heavier rotation of King of Kensington. 

Second-rate, diminished, small, dark, close. Cold. That's what I want to dwell on at the head. It's an age with origins in war, the last small victory of the Wehrmacht. Welcome to the winter of 1945.

First of all, a crisis, one amongst many during the "Pursuit" phase, when the advancing Allies were drawn up short by a logistical crisis at just the moment when they could have won the European war in the fall of 1944 and saved so many lives. This particular crisis is the "jerricann crisis." Picture is a decanting area somewhere behind the Battle of the Bulge front, where tanker cars are emptied into 5 gallon, pressed steel gas cans.

You may remember the jerrican from such jerremiads as Audit of War in which it prominently features as an example of German superiority. (Actually, it turns out to be an Italian invention. Embarrassing.) British POL is distributed in "flimsies," that is, light cans of the kind that you will buy such POL supplies as are purchased retail today. German POL was distributed in these weld-closed cans with reinforcing details, pouring aids, and integral handles --hence "jerrican." In a  lukewarm defence of British prewar practice, I will point out that a 5.3 gallon, pressed-steel, fuel can weighes well over 40lbs loaded. A more full-throated defence of the War Office is possible. The "jerrican crisis" might be thought to be one of a production shortfall, and an expensive, because more difficult to manufacture would contribute to that. But I don't think that that is what is actually going on. 

First, the numbers: twelve million jerricans were allocated to the invasion: between an expected attrition of 5%/month and to keep up with the troop buildup, an additional supply of 800,00/month was deemed necessary, andn arranged through a British production contract for a total of 4.5 million new cans (almost 25,000 tons of steel!) through the end of 1944, with the residual coming from reallocation of Air Force stocks, which, in order to keep low and high-ctane gasoline supplies segregated, were to be used to carry avgas only once, then turned over to the Army. 

By the summer of 1944, both supplies were drying up. Jerricans were going forward, and not coming back. The War Office wanted to back out of the arrangement, as Commonwealth forces on the continent were reporting a shortage at the front. The Air Forces bid to keep their supply of jerricans as convenient static storage. A requisition of 7.5 million cans against American supplies could not be fully met, as two production plants had been shut down to reallocate labour. Meanwhile, the final target requirement was set at 19 million. 

As requirements ratcheted up, and production failed to meet the requirements, an interesting problem was emerging at the Front. (And by Front, I mean "everywhere.") The shortage was, essentially, caused by the fact that actually existing jerricans were not flowing back up the supply chain for reuse. The official historian blames the confusion of the pursuit, but, as we have seen, the problem emerged during the static phase of the war.

We also know how to fix these things. Offer a bounty for their return, and they will come back. But when authorities began offering "rewards and prizes" to junior recyclers, the youth of France and Belgium collected a  million abandoned jerricans, leaving 2.5 million AWOL at the Armistice. 

The rest? Here is the depot near Spa, Belgium.

The depot, by the way.

So if you've ever wondered about the utopian German plan to seize Allied fuel depots to continue their Ardennes Offensive, wonder even more about the yet-more unrealistic notion of clearing these depots ahead of the German advance. Although the depot shown here actually was evacuated, another at Stavelot could not be. There was just not the resources. Given that the fuel is being stored in individual cans, I'm not sure how easy it would have been even to set them on fire. And, had they been destroyed, a counterattack would have been impossible. 

If they could even be found. How many of the jerricans were truly abandoned, and how many still had fuel in them? It is not like we'll ever know. That is kind of the point of being "AWOL."

The jerrican crisis introduces the real crisis that I want to talk about here, the coal problem. Oh, and by the way, in case you think I'm trying to smuggle some kind of contemporary comment in here by sly inference, I have only one thing to say to you.


Thank you. I will now give my Cap Lock a rest.

Anyway, coal. (I'm going to work in the problem of American troops retained in Britain in the winter of 1944--45. Even if I can't make a larger connection stick, at the very least they're absorbing utilities.)

So why didn't anyone tell me about this series?

The outline of the coal crisis is pretty simple. In Britain, the coal mining industry, which employed some 700,000, overwhelmingly male workers, coal production fell from 226 million tons in 1938 to 194 million in 1944. The press amused itself by blaming the workforce, particularly in light of the high wage bill, even as conscription was extended to allow the country to take up young men as coal miners. Although only 48,000 boys were ultimately called up for mine work, it is worth remembering that 1940s Britain had a grimmer and more fatalistic view of career trajectories than our modern age of career reinvention and educational opportunity. Once a miner, always a miner: have a nice life, lads! In spite of these draconian efforts, the winters of 1944 and 1945 (never mind 1946 and 1947) will be cold, because there is simply not enough coal to go around. Worse, for the grand strategist -the cozy, pampered grand strategist who can afford to think of cold as "bracing"-- a lack of coal is cutting steel production. Thanks to history's general reliance on a White Paper compiled in the fall of 1944 for war production statistics, we don't often get an accurate picture of this, and a Google search suggests that you won't here, today. Steel production was down. I don't think that this is the reason that the Maltas, Spearfish and such weren't built, but we can choose to blame  it. 

Having chosen to land in Normandy (no coal mines) instead of the Pas de Calais (lots of coal mines), the Allies faced the problem of exporting coal to the country they intended to conquer. Heating and lighting troops and civilians, were important isuses, but moving coal where it was needed was a bigger one. The bulk of the forecast need was met by assuming that the Germans would fight in place on the Seine line until exhausted. A scheme that relied on moving 80lb sacks across the beaches in its early stages is probably going to show more challenging shortcomings at a later date, but none so great as being in the embarrassing situation of hoping that the Germans won't retreat from Paris, lest you have to feed and heat its citizens.

The reality was no coasters, and no coal. The City of Lights enjoyed a rationed "few hours" of heat and light each day through the winter of 1944/445, and it could have been worse had the Germans had time to sabotage the stockpiles in the north. Allies and Liberation government alike struggled to find supplies of coal and even firewood. POWs were sent down into the mines, and into the woods to cut cords of fuel, because, as in Britain, coal miners proved obstreperous, inclined to strike for frivolties like food, warm clothes, and food. Even the troops rarely received more than 50% of their allocation. Fortunately, Parisians like being cold. Keeps 'em thin. Plus, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is fun. 

Yes, that's facetious. The obvious alternative explanation is that the "jerrican crisis." Anyway, let's get back to the 14% shortfall in British coal production that in 1944 meant a cold winter in Britain, exacerbated by the diversion of coal to the Continent and the shortage of coasters. 

Also, the utilities thing, shoehorned in here not least because it's a forgotten "crisis" factor that doesn't really warrant its own blog post, and because I made a graph. (Yay, me!)

MAY 1944--APRIL 1945a (Ruppenthal, 2: 287).
tions zone

31 May 44 Theatere 1,526,965640,635426,819366,31093,201(f)20
30 June 44 Theaterg 1,625,000670,709430,660378,29654,017101,52822
31 Jul 44 Theater1,770,845725,259447,818413,05666,426118,28622
        U.K.910,196161,621339,567244,603144,405(e)i 4
31 Aug 44 Theater1,905,261755,603449,688479,35985,275135,33626
30 Sep 44 Theater2,041,023854,148442,711500,80492,040151,32031
31 Oct 44 Theater2,196,7851,006,190435,384538,63690,604125,96740
30 Nov 44 Theater2,588,9831,259,295450,370623,048141,269115,00147
31 Dec 44 Theater2,699,4671,315,201443,634657,129172,078111,37552
31 Jan 45 Theater2,829,0391,402,060440,517654,525195,337136,60055
28 Feb 45 Theater2,935,0001,506,000440,000666,000164,000159,00059
31 Mar 45 Theater3,051,0001,633,000458,000633,000158,000169,00061
30 Apr 45 Theater3,059,9421,613,004482,785652,779128,305183,09661
The point of shipping all these men from America to Britain was to get them into battle so that they could win World War II. As we can see above, on 30 April 1945, 3,059,942 Americans were in the ETO, including a field force of 1,613,004 embodied as 61 divisions, with an air force of 482,785 in support. The kicker is the "field force in United Kingdom" numbers:

31-Jul-44 910,196 161,621
31-Aug-44 829,580 144,823
30-Sep-44 687,944 33,741
31-Oct-44 630,561 97,688
30-Nov-44 682,542 144,840
31-Dec-44 676,718 118,202
31-Jan-45 650,013 68,928
28-Feb-45 606,000 58,000
31-Mar-45 498,000 16,000
30-Apr-45 431,860 270

(Not a bad return for spending 30 seconds watching a tutorial, right? I bet that if I'd watched the next minute I would know how to name the chart lines!)

The late Fall backlog reflects in part the logistical crisis of the Fall, but, even then, shows how much the localised problems of the Pursuit phase reflected underlying problems with shipping allocations and force structures. Many of the men idled in the United Kingdom lacked either equipment, because there was not tonnage to send it over from America, or a sufficient number of service troops to maintain them in battle, as they were cut from the force structure to begin with to save on shipping. Without Services of Support manpower at the front, supplies, even if they could be shipped, could not be properly handled. Depots would choke up with undeliverables and with unreturned dunnage, while the men at the front suffered from a generalised ammunition and rations shortfall. That same lack of logistical manpower would hold up the combat manpower in the United Kingdom, consuming heat, power, light and food.

As I say, more coal is needed because the Americans can't be moved. But also note this problem of insufficient manpower in the Services of Supply, as it has its echoes in the business of coal.

First, the "14% less than in 1938" figure here is a little disingenuous. The 1938 numbers reflect a huge export drive to feed the brief-lived economic revival --and, of course, to make money for coal-owners and workers! War crimped coal exports, and the fall of France was a fatal blow for the business. There was no need for Britain to produce at that level, and the ridiculous spectre of unemployment in the coalfields complemented all-out national mobilisation. It is a curious fact about miners that they are notoriously reluctant to take up employment at new colleries, but apparently all too eager to join the army or move to the city. (I think it has something to do with the whole "walk four miles to work and back every day" thing.)

Unemployed miners were allowed to leave the mines for more vital war industries, or to enlist. The way that it was done was predictably short-sighted. In the autumn of 1940, the age exemption for miner enlistment was lifted from 18 (because there were plenty of miners younger than 18) to 30. That kept the older and more productive (because more experienced) miners on the job, but the upshot was predictable. The official historian attributes a net reduction in coal mine employment from "773,000 in the middle of 1939 to 707,000 at the beginning of 1942" largely to this cause. Thereafter, there was an "accelerated natural wastage" of 28,000 men/year, as middle-aged men being excused from the mines on medical certificates. All that is left is for serial productivity disappointments and rising absenteeism rates as aging bodies fail under the strain. And guess what? That is exactly what happened! (I LIED WHEN I SAID I WAS GOING TO STOP USING MY CAP LOCKS BUTTON. THIS IS HAPPENING IN CANADIAN RETAIL RIGHT NOW IT IS WHY YOU CANNOT GET THE THING YOU WANT BECAUSE IT IS OUT OF STOCK I AM WRITING A RUN-ON SENTENCE IN THE HOPE THAT SOMEHOW THE POLICY MAKERS WHO DON'T READ THIS BLOG WILL PICK UP THE POINT BY USING THEIR PSYCHIC POWERS.) 

Instead, and perhaps predictably, the people with a vested interest in not paying the workforce enough to attract young people into the business decided that the problem of a steady decline in productivity needed to be resolved by achieving "full technical efficiency." I put sneer quotes around this Economist of London catchphrase of the era because the hopes of a marvelous technological revolution in coal production through the miracles of SCIENCE! were so obviously in vain. The Ministry study recommended industrial consolidation because the technical means of achieving full efficency could hardly be applied in small collieries, and were in any case actually experimental, at best, and did not account for existing variations in productivity.  The official historian confines himself to pointing out that in an era when the Allied machine tool industry could not keep up with the pace of demand in the machine tool industry, it was fatuous to think that equipment would be on offer to the coal mines.

That said, one can go deeper. I, of course, like the age-attrition-and-superannuation explanation because at work I have to deal with 55 year-olds being asked to do heavy labour all day and every day while eager young workers are strung out with 16 hour weeks, but the decline in productivity had a number of other causes. The most interesting is the limit on labour effiency imposed by the nature of the work. If one lift operator supports five men at the cutting face, the onlly way to reduce head count is to reduce actual work at the cutting face because you cannot operate a lift with less than one people.   This is the same "tail" versus "teeth" problem challenging the United States Army. (And it also bears on attempts to push sales-hour ratios up in a grocery store. You cannot staff a deli with half a person!)

Is there a moral? Yeah: if you don't offer people another out, however much  you may hope that they will virtuously decide to freeze to death to serve your Higher Purposes, chances are that they're going to start stealing your jerricans. The Germans were too far gone to make their Ardennes counteroffensive stick, but what if?  Where would we be?


  1. On the Buses and Doctors in the House, the shows that formed that impression, actually ran from 1969

    This is culturally interesting. When the 50s were going on, people thought they were pretty good, what with the full employment and cars an stuff - as MacMillan said, most of our people have never had it so good, and they re-elected him with a large majority.

    However, the received/media vision of the era was always pinched and bleak, and those TV shows kept running as repeats way into the 90s. I suspect their makers were really thinking of their youth in the 40s and of course a lot of the viewers would have been remembering the Great Depression.

    A major source of justification for Thatcher and Blair was the idea that the 1970s were basically a bit like the winter of 1947, rather than the era of TV consumerism that shows up in the data series, so obviously the declinist narrative is doing some important work throughout the postwar, with the interesting kink that decline sort of flattens out ten minutes before the guy in the horn-rimmed specs calls RUN VT.

  2. Off topic, but certainly on topic for the blog, Indians build a temporary city and it all comes down to what looks like a 1940s bridging train:

    but I ask someone who knows from military bridging and he thinks the pontoons are more likely big mooring buoys or dracones...this says they are manufactured locally but doesn't say much about the design:

    any ideas?

  3. It immediately reminds me of a floating bridge, which can be ephemeral without being military and road transportable. To a country bumpkin like me, it recalls the old Kelowna floating bridge, and W.A.C. Bennet shooting a fiery arrow into a floating barge filled with the province's retired bonds. (Debt free in '59!)

    However, you have your Howrah Bridge and --well, a quick search for floating bridges mostly turned up the big structures around Seattle. There's a bit of tension between "temporary" and "famous named thing with a Wikipedia article," it turns out. The Indus used to be seasonally bridged with river boats, but nowadays a search directs me to the Lansdowne Bridge, which is definitely not temporary, although it was a huge deal.

    In general, if you want a temporary bridge on a river, you use available water craft, not road-transportable pontoons. Following up on Mabey Bridging, which has the Free World monopoly on these systems, I arrive at the Flexifloat System, available for your flotation/cargo-handling/bridging needs.

    I have a hunch that there's not much call for specialised equipment, because then you'd have to use specialists. Whereas the articles you link to say that the men who built these floating cities are "unskilled." (Yeah: you try that, Mr. Journalist. Just don't come whining to us when your job gets deskilled.)

    1. The pontoons look a lot like some photos in your D-Series from OMAHA. They're certainly not "available water craft" because someone manufactured them for the job and was interviewed.

      I don't believe for a moment they're built by the unskilled. the unskilled might do the four man lift for each of those steel plates or swing shovels on the blocks in between, but the bridging came first. sloppy drafting by a bunch of architects there.

      note the four man lift.

  4. It's a funny kind of construction, transient by its nature. The old Indus river bridges occurred to me because they're seasonally recurrent built structures, but another parallel is the old floating Rhine bridges, which had to be disassembled or swung out of the way of river traffic on a daily basis. The pontoon wharf/roadways used in the D-Day operations and the Pacific have similar antecedents in tidal ports, rivers with high seasonal variations, and freezing rivers. (The Mackenzie and Yukon are particularly good places to look for parallels because they lack a substantial barge traffic that could be improvised. Not that I've found anything worth pointing to in either case.)

    Uhm, summary? Primacy of human technical praxis over the actually existing tools that (apparently) reify those skills, importance of understanding what we mean by "skill," over-sensitive reaction to Wall Streeters looking to cut my pay on grounds of alleged deskilling.

    Mumble mumble. I have a hunch that what we really need is a philosphy of technology that isn't Heidegger. Martin, to really understand, you have to get your hands dirty. Literally.