Sunday, March 6, 2011

Fall of France, 10: Counterfactual, Or, Nimrods I have Read

Have I mentioned that I really didn't like Correlli Barnett's Audit of War? Not to wander off on a tangent or anything, but there is a province of fictional history, where novelists (and historians who like that sort of thing) borrow the conceits of economics and write "counterfactuals." Economic historians actually arguably produce solid results from this method, such as estimates of the contribution to Nineteenth century economic growth made by railways (though I'm still calling shenanigans on Robert Fogel.) Non-economists tend to write about how Napoleon, Robert E. Lee, or the Nazis could have won, an exercise that makes me nervous. Audit of War raises the same kind of concerns.

 Audit of War is, I would suggest, a counterfactual. It is admittedly an attempt to tell the industrial history of Britain's war (I approve!), but with the sustained counterfactual thesis that the Allies could have won the war more. I understand Barnett to be saying that in 1830, Britain was twenty years ahead of Europe. If it had maintained its lead, been  twenty years ahead still on 10 May 1940, it would have won the war single-handedly with one hand tied behind its back. Now, Hitler wouldn't have gone to war if the British had ray guns, or whatever, but I suppose that we can imagine (shades of perfidious Albion!) that the Brits hid all their good stuff until they'd suckered Hitler into attacking on 10/05/40.

Ooh! I want to play!

The thesis is trivially true

We can set the RAF aside. If Britain that was 20 years ahead of 1940, that implies replacing Blenheims with Canberras, Battles with Venoms,  Wellingtons, Hampdens, and Whitleys with V-bombers, Spitfires with Javelins, Hurricanes with Hunters. Even the least-capable V-bomber had a bomb load two-and-a-half times larger than the largest bomber of 1940, with a speed and altitude advantage that was even more significant, since they could make multiple daily sorties over a target as close as Germany, conducting (radar and inertial navigation-assisted) daylight bombing with impunity. Reversing the Luftwaffe's air superiority during the Battle of France might have been enough in its own right to change the outcome of the battle; but heavy carpet bombing of German staging areas would have brought the "sickel cut" to a halt in no time.

Conversely, upgrading the Royal Navy 20 years ahead would make no difference at all save to a few German submarines.

The interesting aspect of this exercise (if you're me) is the army. Say that the BEF exists just as it did in 1940, battalion by battalion. That way we get out of imagining that there's 1500 Centurions in France and Flanders, which again makes this whole exercise trivially true. That is, we have 78 infantry battalions, 5 divisional cavalry regiments, a two-regiment tank brigade,and the vanguard of an armoured division landing at Calais on 23 May and something like the rest of the supporting organisation in the rear; only they are equipped like their alternatives of  20 years ahead.

So what happens from 10 May 1940? I could start from the bottom up, if only to share the pure nerdish excitement of recently learning that the British army fielded its first bullpup assault rifle in 1951 along with a new LMG. I haven't found a TOE for a British infantry battalion of 1959, but as far as I can tell, they were otherwise still pretty much on a 1945 standard of equipment. That means more universal carriers, more 3" mortars, perhaps PIATs still in place of Boys Antitank rifles, and the 2520lb 6 pounder 57mm AT gun in lieu of the 1720lb 2 pounder 40mm and 1000lb 25mm Hotchkiss AT. Overall, it's a unit with far more firepower, more mobility, and rather fewer bayonets in the line than in 1940. I'll leave it to the grognards to decide just how decisive that might have been from case to case, although given that British infantry acquitted itself well against the Wehrmacht, it's arguably a big deal. The thing is, there's a deeper meaning to be teased out here.

With artillery I've picked a bad cut-off date. After soldiering on with war surplus through the 1950s, NATO was just about to jump ahead from its 25 pounder (88mm) and 105mm WWII equipment to a 155mm gun-howitzer standard. That would show those dirty Ratzis! Fortunately, the BEF of 1940 was still armed with WWI surplus and the interim measure 18/25pdr, so the 1959 standard of 25 pounder and 5.5" gun-howitzers was still a considerable improvement. As for the upgrade from the 2 pdr to the divisional-level 17 pounder, a 77mm anti-tank gun with an incredible 3 ton draw weight, we are clearly in an entirely new tactical world, one in which antitank guns are approaching the capability of the murderous QF guns of the last war. (Mitigated by the fact that these massively high velocity weapons threw much thicker-walled "cans" of explosives.) Finally, the proliferation of Bofors 40mm and Oerlikon and Polsten 20mm AA greatly increased the direct firepower of the divisional artillery. It is only the fact that the RA played so small a role in the battle proper, that prevents me from gain announcing victory for our counterfactual BEF. That said, I again see a need to move this discussion to a deeper level.

Finally, there's the tanks. In the course of the war, the British army lost faith in the light tanks with which the divisional cavalry was equipped in 1940, only to regain it in the early 1970s with the appearance of the Alvis Scorpion. This has some general reflections on the issue, newly relevant with the apparent ongoing disillusionment with the Stryker brigade concept. So I've really no idea how the divisional cavalry's rides would be. Comets? Charioteers? Cromwells? Tetrarchs? The amazing thing is that the tanks of 1940 were so small all round that any of these would be a significant improvement. But granted Centurions as the most likely option, we have 100 of them available (plus another two regiments with another 100 in the Army Tank Brigade) to intervene in the tank battle going on in front of them on 11--13 May. Given that the Germans had no answer whatsoever for the Centurion, this would have been quite enough to mop up two German armoured divisions and release Prioux's Divisions Légère Méchanique. Whether it would have happened that way, I have no idea. Rounding out the tank's fight, we have another battalion of Centurions, plus presumably some Charioteers in the attached AT unit at Calais, plus a mechanised infantry brigade of circa 1940. Am I being too simplistic in imagining these running amok?

Notice that I didn't end that last paragraph with a reference to the need to go deeper? That's because I'm finally going to pull my finger out and get onto it. Here's the thing. I've already tipped my hand in my reference to the draw weight of the ever-improving antitank guns that the British fielded in the course of WWII. This is the world we need to enter: the world of the Matador, Militant, "mighty" Antar, and work-horse Land Rover. The British army of 1940 was, to be sure, a fully mechanised one, but it is one mechanising from the ground up. War Office policy is explicitly that the army can't afford to buy all the trucks that it needed in peacetime and that policy should follow through from existing policy in relation to horses. Owners and manufacturers would be subsidised in return for standardising on a 4x2 20cwt truck easily upgraded to 6x4 by levering in an additional rear axle. The Matador and its heavier Scammell equivalent is a different matter, but that's because they're gun tractors (in spite of looking like trucks, because "tractor"=something that pulls things that trail in this context), and the gunners would hold their breath until they turned blue if the War Office pulled this stunt on the materiel they needed to pull their precious, precious tubes. The artillery's radios were carried in "salon cars," and the biggest army transport vehicles were 10 ton trucks. (I find that the enthusiasts have not yet populated Wikipedia with articles for every machine of World War II, B-echelon logistical vehicles being a prominent example of the as-yet neglected types. Let's boil it down to this: the 10 ton truck was the mammoth of logistical lift of 1940; not so much 1960.)

Even by 1950, the War Office could drop a dime on 15,000 Austin Champs (that's a quarter of th total number of vehicles in France in 1940 in this single utility class!). That reflects the panicked assumption that war was imminent, and was anyway reversed course in favour of the Land Rover when the Champ proved a little too heavy. The thing is, though, that these huge contracts represented the post war consensus that the army needed trucks on closer to a scale close to ten times greater than in 1940. At the other end of the scale there is the matter of what those trucks could achieve. The army's new very heavy tractor of this generation, replacing the Scammell Pioneer, is the already noted Antar. British automotive engines of the war having been criticised for being generally too small and too high speed, the War  Office ordered a cut down 8-cylinder version of the Rolls-Royce Meteor tank engine, itself the landised version of the Rolls-Royce Merlin. In 1939, the Royal Navy was forced to order Packard V-12s for the coastal forces, because no Merlins whatsoever could possibly be spared by the air force! Horsepower was increasing right alongside the gross size of the vehicle pools.

Now consider the upgrade in artillery firepower. Throw weight of shells is certainly a significant matter; but range mattered more. Prewar tactical thinkers were not averse to the idea that in the abstract, the best solution to the tank problem was a gun that could smother any tank in sight with shells. They had, in fact, already decided that that was what the ideal anti-infantry gun looked like. My usual touchstone for informed and intelligent prewar military thinking, Basil Dening, puts it this way. It's not that the 75mm isn't the perfect antitank gun. It's that there's only so many places that you can put guns so that they can see the entire battle. That's why you put 75mm guns up there; only you call them "field artillery," and give them only such antitank capability as does not get in the way of their anti-infantry and counterbattery ability, in practice meaning a relatively low muzzle velocity that cannot penetrate mid war tank armour. Antitank guns are to be designed to skulk around with the infantry, and that is why the 2 pounder, and all of its contemporaries, are such perfect little Matchbox toys of weapons.

What's changed explicitly by 1944, never mind 1959, is that the field artillery is no longer expected to be able to see its targets. In fact, the growing impression is that it is very, very bad if it can see its targets. What can see can be seen, and what can be seen, can be killed. Fortunately, it no longer needs to see its targets, because observers can do the seeing for it. Now, this is no novelty. That radio salon car of 1935 contains a hundred yards of telephone cable that can be played out, so that the observer can go up on the brow of the hill and spot targets for a hidden gun. Nor are we all the way to the modern cybernetic world of today, where you can probably call up a Predator strike on your neighbour if you have the right phone number and there's a drone actually handy. (Not that I'd want to, except for that time when they had that fight while I was trying to sleep last year...) But we are in a world where distant observers can radio in calls for fire that can bring the entire massed fire of a division of field artillery down on some poor, befuddled, late war Landsheer. 

Finally, there's the engineers. Again, the engineers are already beginning to change in 1940. They finally have a decent demolition explosive in RDX, are supported by compressors in vans so that they can use jackhammers instead of picks, and the Bailey Bridge is just around the corner. But in the first months of the war, the Royal Engineers are wrong-footed by their War Minister, when Leslie Hore-Belisha abruptly threw his "Force X" into France. The minister, with his background as transportation minister and connection to big civil-engineering firms with an established connection with Liberal Party insiders and probably the Air Ministry (and wouldn't that be an interesting, if sordid and nasty PhD thesis for someone), presents himself as more au courant with modern construction methods than the stolid old army engineers. I also find some reminiscences by General Freyberg, of all people, to the same effect. I don't know whether it is true or not, but Force X is the first general deployment of heavy duty machinery in military construction. Apparently. The age of the army bulldozer has come. (As someone who has read LeQuesne Martel instead of being fed legends about Percy Hobart, however, I can tell you that this is not the dawning of the age of the AEV.)

What's all this mean? We have trucks and radios everywhere, bulldozers on all sides, firepower so ubiquitous that the infantry  no longer need high powered rifles to control the battlespace. We have, in short, a major quickening in the mechanisation of our age. I've conflated 1945 and 1959 repeatedly in this discussion, but they are clearly not the same eras. In 1945, the army was profoundly mechanised because that had proven to be the way to fight modern wars. By 1959, it was profoundly mechanised because so was the society it was based.

My preliminary hypothesis: World War II led to a major social transformation, intensifying and socially distributing the skills that made "normal" postwar life possible. It is not that there were not automotive, heavy duty, and electronics repair, heavy duty mechanics and the like in the world in 1939. It is that there were many people who weren't such, who were instead trained in techniques and skills that were on the verge of becoming obsolete, or, due to unemployment and/or youth, not skilled at all. It was the war itself that made the heavy metal army of 1959 possible.

The deeper question that Audit of War poses, for me, is whether it was possible, or even simply conceivable for Britain to have been "twenty years ahead" of its neighbours, either in 1940 or in 1830. The idea is deeply reminiscent of setting up a star sector for an old-fashioned Traveller campaign. Pencil in the "Tech level" of each planet that your players will be able to visit, and you have a clear idea of what they're going to shoot at the party, muskets or hand-portable meson accelerators. And so we pencil in the "tech levels" of the United Kingdom and Germany in 1830 and, with a deep sigh for the militaristic vistas that could have been, 1940.

Perhaps instead we need to ask how it got that way. If, as I intuit, wars and arms races are key drivers of technological progress, Audit of War gets things just about as wrong as it possibly can. 


  1. You are exactly right about a major preoccupation of WI builders relating to World War Two: getting Germany to win, generally in some ludicrous way that is even more silly than what the Nazis actually did: V-2 earlier! Improved Me-262! Panther Tanks in 1941! Konigtigers for everyone!

    But one thing that I think that Barnett's take is common one, certainly the conventional wisdom in the 1970's and 1980's (about the time that Barnett was an influential figure in popular history-writing, oddly enough). It focuses instead on all the "mistakes" the Allies made. If only we had listened to either Monty or Patton (depending on the historian) we would have won the war in 1944. If only there had been the Narrow Front! Or if the Tommies of Market-Garden hadn't stopped to brew up their tea! Or if the Falaise-Argentan gap had been closed! Then the war could have been won without all that nasty fighting.

    This is a piece with H.P. Willmott's trenchant point that when reading English language histories of the NW Europe it often appears that the main antagonists were Britain and the US, and the main front was a desk in SHAEF Headquarters. The fact that the Allies conducted an opposed amphibious assault, then liberated ~1/2 of Europe in less than a year, is never seen as a massive accomplishment, it's why didn't they win better?

  2. Wasn't it Victor Hugo who denounced the "sunken road of Waterloo" breed of historian, for whom Napoleon had clearly won the battle, only for his victorious troops to fall prey to this horrible obstacle. From there it was a short step to say that Napoleon had "really" won the battle.

    And there they were, these sunken-road historians at breakfast, their bodies cracking eggs, their minds in the glory of a triumphant Empire, a better world by far.

    To give Barnett his due credit, his mind lived in a world where Britain was ruled by technocrats. Hard men, but fair, and it seems at first glance better than those who dream of Nazis and Confederates triumphant.

    Or, then, maybe not. Our fantasies don't necessarily map to the real world, and, if they do, may be refracted through a private language.

    You know what? I think I'll leave it there, before I start defending neo-Confederates and neo-Nazis as being mainly concerned with finding ways of expressing their repressed sexuality. No good can come of expressing such notions...

  3. Isn't Barnett the same guy who thinks that the elites 'allowing' the masses access to real health care and pensions- the NHS and the welfare state- was what crippled Britain economically after the war? I think I recall reading that from him somewhere or another.

    If true, one suspects that his fantasies are rather more like Margaret Thatcher holds power for a century, and never has to compromise with reality the way that the actual Milk Snatcher did...

  4. Well, he wasn't exactly a fan of free enterprise, either. John Byrne's Krypton is more his style. With the Science Council in charge, everything will finally be efficient!