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?

Here's another selection from Henry Wigley Wilson's "standard history of the great war." Again, the illustrator is taking liberties with war eigentlich gewesen: 

The caption, which is a little hard to read at this magnification, tells the story of a "masked battery" of French guns, supported by some French infantry, British cavalry, and attached machine guns. A "desultory" fire by the French infantry draws the Germans forward, until finally an entire infantry brigade is deployed, its leading elements within 250 yards of the French guns, which then open up. Remember that while it is easy to think of the canon de modele 1897 as a very small weapon (75mm calibre, 1544kg in action*), its 7.25kg shrapnel shell contained 290 .50 calibre lead balls, and the point of the precision engineering of this technological marvel was to produce 20+ aimed rounds a minute. That's 20 rounds/minute x 290 balls/shell x 4 guns/battery. 

Firing at infantry columns at a distance of 250 yards.

That's, uhm, that's. . . . Let me put it this way: I manage a grocery store some nights. (Yes, yes, it's a great honour, I assure you. I get an extra $2.50/hour premium pay, and people rarely yell at me.) I would do handsprings if you offered me a single additional set of hands to help out most nights. I cannot even imagine what I would do with my store if I had 3. Five? 10? To think in those terms is to live in another world. Specifically, it would seem, the world of 1914. The army ministries of the German Reich are very lucky that they didn't throw forty times that number of men onto the Heavenly green fields beyond for lack of the ability to get up there and have a peak behind a simple hedgeline. It's not like some vegetation would have been very much protection  if the Germans had decided to take it on with practically anything other than (horses and) bayonets.

So the propagandist's pen may be making too much of this, is what I'm saying. On the other hand, German losses were high enough (265,000 dead, wounded and missing to 6 September 1914, per my handy Strachan) to make room for these little tragedies. 

A trench, a hedgeline: in my last post, I stressed barriers as the salient points of this enormous change over 28 years. The Australian attack of the night of the 31st overcame plenty of barriers, literal and not. I would highlight the communications gap and night as important figurative barriers and point out the importance of good radios and everyday aids such as "electric torches," although the most important reason for the frequency and effectiveness of night attacks in the Western Desert was the permissive geography. And then there are the real, physical barriers that sustain my  argument about how the Allied armies entered World War II with the civil engineering of 1939 and exited it with the civil engineering of 1945, and this is another aspect of my explanation for the wage gap that emerged during the war. (It's not a sufficient explanation, but employers were getting more skill from their hands in 1945, and the added value had to go somewhere.) Here, I'm gold. Not only did the Australians employ an assault pioneer battalion in the attack, for lack of infantry, but the plan called for some civil engineering high modernism, 1942 style. A bulldozer was used to breach the railway embankment during the assault. 

The problem is that barriers are not effective in themselves. They have to be controlled. My two illustrations show (under)control by fire in the form of a thin line of infantry; and grotesque over-control, in the form of soixante-quinzes lined up wheel to wheel. That's Napoleonic excess, and it's worth recalling that the Trommelfeuer that opened Alamein featured 980 guns. The Australians had only 360 because the position was so wide that the Commonwealth's standard field gun, the 25 pounder (also), lacked the range to cover the entire line. So, of course, did everyone else's. In fact, the 25 pounder was pretty long ranged as far as field guns of 1942 were concerned, and this is precisely why range is so important. El Alamein is, in fact, the first battle of North Africa in which the Commonwealth artillery had a long range arm to match Artillerie Kommando 104.**

Tacticians did not think (much) about controlling spatial barriers in 1914. That was more-or-less a military engineer's job, and military engineers were thinking in terms of protecting positions with fire, which they could do in peacetime by pouring concrete, and not of creating barriers, which they expected to do by levelling the suburbs of strategic cities, which they definitely could not do in peacetime. 

Or maybe there's some more sinuous explanation worth exploring that delves into mentalité or prewar military theory or whatever. I'm not sure how far I want to pursue it because it doesn't matter that much in the end. You can only go so far in theorising about technology that doesn't yet exist, and as Apple keeps showing us, technology that doesn't exist yet often looks a lot like something that does exist. The designer has to give some thought to what is actually needed, and offer it. The typical response from the technorati is that the result isn't what people want, and they keep saying that for at least six months after everyone's bought one because actual people can recognise utility when they see it.

The case in point here is the light machine gun. If barriers are the essence of defence, when they are controlled, the light machine gun, unlike any of the weapons that came before, is the weapon that activates the defence. It combines volume of fire with ubiquitousness. As they struggled to understand what future war would look like, and after they finally accepted that the LMG was a real thing, and not the crazy French notion of the day, the theorists of the interwar came back again and again to the interaction of the barrier with the "unlocated light machine gun." 

Unlike the 75 or a rifle platoon or even a heavy machine gun, the LMG was invisible and easily moved. Anything could be a barrier: something obvious like a wire entanglement or an unburied minefield, or something inconspicuous, either because a part of the everyday landscape (railway embankment, ditch, hedgerow, canal), or because invisible, like a buried minefield.  However, the barrier could always be breached, and quite quickly, unless it was activated by a light machine gun. And since LMGs are everywhere and invisible, the whole landscape is a barrier. This is the essence of immobility. Fire traps like the one in the illustration are everywhere, because every little infantry section has the capability to create one. 

On this basis, war ought to have bogged down into complete immobility. Nothing should be easier than to contain mobile operations and bring them to a halt. And yet it is not. The thirteen years after the Army Law of 1926 is a story of a research effort to find an answer to the unlocated LMG and make offensive operations possible again. The fighting around the Blockhouse/Barrel Hill position on the 31st/1st suggests that the Australians, plus 40th RTR had an answer, and that the Germans and the Italians didn't. 

For the next three years, Montgomery is going to deliver one "colossal crack" after another to the Axis armies, and he is not, by a long distance, the only Commonwealth general to do it. Not bad for an army that entered World War II without even a modern medium gun. I'm not going to throw up any kind of impenetrable mystery here: the explanation comes down to tanks and planes and smoke munitions, plus the already-mentioned radios, but that doesn't mean that there's not a great deal more to explore here.

*Note that the Canon de modele 1897 is more than 100kg lighter than the 25 pounder, and less than twice the weight of the British 2 pounder antitank gun.

**Which is, in itself, a telling illustration of the way that minutiae of tables and organisation known only to wargamers and the German (quasi-)official history can transform our understanding of even a well-known battle. Sure, El Alamein was the first Anglo-German battle in North Africa in which the Commonwealth artillery was concentrated as called for by doctrine, and apparently that was a terrible failure of command. But how do you concentrate the guns when they can be shelled by counterbattery fire that is immune to reply? (Props to Niall Barr for pointing out the issue, although the claim would be stronger if we had an accounting of the 4.5" medium guns known to have been in Africa at various points.) 


  1. 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.

    If they could not what?


  2. Well, it looks like I'm not alone in my confusion.

    The following, cut-and pasted from Allan Converse,Armies of Empire (CUP, linked above), seems to follow the official Australian history?

    "The struggle in the north grew fiercer by the day as the armour of X Corps struggled to break out from the positions seized by XXX Corps. As the armour ground to a halt along Miteiriya Ridge, Montgomery altered his master plan. He resolved on a series of ‘crumbling’ attacks to wear down the Axis infantry, preparatory to another major armoured assault on the Axis centre. To do the crumbling, Montgomery turned to the Australians. Beginning on 28 October, Morshead's already tired and depleted division attacked northwards towards the sea, cutting in behind the powerful Axis position of Thompson's Post. Rommel could not allow Thompson's Post to fall, and the Australian attack also threatened his line of supply and retreat along the coast road. The fighting in the 9th Division sector soon reached a high pitch of fury. . .

    Rommel reacted to the Australian thrust exactly as Montgomery hoped, committing much of his precious reserve to costly and largely futile counterattacks against the 9th Division. As Rommel denuded the rest of his line to contain Morshead, so the opportunity arose for a fresh blow against the Axis centre. By 1 November, Montgomery was ready to strike again between Miteiriya Ridge and the Australian left . . . .

    On 1 November the Germans launched a massive counterattack against the 24th Australian Brigade, which had just relieved the shattered 26th in position on Barrel Hill...."

    The Australians attacked towards the coast, seeking to cut the exposed Axis defenders off in a salient pinched between the lines and the sea. They failed to cut the defenders off, but occupied the line of the paved road and rail, provoking a furious counterattack.

  3. Ah. If they could not cut off 125th Pz Gr, they were to take up defences facing west and south and accept PzArmee Afrika's counter-attack. I just didn't understand the sentence.