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...

Is that a nonsequitur? No.** I do have a serious point here. Or, rather, two points. The first is an observation born of a considerable amount of playing with Thomas the Tank Engine sets, thanks to which I am very comfortable in pointing out that for such a magical, pastoral setting, the Magic Isle of Sodor has an awful lot of industrial-scale transportation infrastructure, much of which would be awfully brutal-looking if it weren't rendered as micro-size, whimsical wood carvings. 

The second is the name itself. Have you ever wondered what "Thomas the Tank Engine" means? I honestly began by wondering if the locomotive in question had a repurposed tank engine. But Thomas is not pulling Annie and Clarabelle about with a Rolls-Royce Meteor. He's a steam engine! A "tank engine" is a locomotive that carries its water supply on the engine in a tank instead of in a separate tender, giving it a faster turnaround for shunting and short-haul main line duties. That is, they operate in the gaps between proper, long haul routes. Thus my alternate theory, that "tank" comes from "tank engine," and not the alternate proposed derivations of which readers may be aware. The nickname is first recorded in the factories, and, after all, the first tanks were, precisely, tank engines, differing from the normal run of tank engines built at the Tritton works in having "self-laying rails" and an internal combustion engine rather than external. (Childs, somewhere.)

Take these two insights together: the green fields of Sodor mark a critical gap in the landscape of the Railway Age. Where the rails are intact, the Edwardians lived in a mechanised age. Where the rails broke at the forward edge of the battle area, the age of coal broke, too, and men and horses were thrown back onto the land, to make free as best they could in the age of grass. And tank engines are very specifically for bridging the gap between main line routes. Tanks (military) are like tanks (locomotives!)

This is why the focus at El Alamein belongs, to my mind, on the technologies of the gap. We're not here to  talk about the cruiser tanks that oppose each other across the lines, but about the fortifications and the mines. The barriers, if you will. (I could also talk about the antitank guns and the LMGs that police the gaps, if I didn't have to finish this post by 1PM Pacific, and if I didn't still have eleven days of El Alamein to go.)

So I'm going to talk about the barrier that is cut in the shining net of rails that bind the world, where one army stops and another begins. 

These are notes taken of a lecture [on the duties of a modern field engineer company] given at the S[chool of] M[ilitary] E[ngineering] (420). . . . In 1914 the divisional engineers numbered 430; today it is 1000. Mobility is provided by attached tool and equipment motor transport, plus a pool held by the C[ommander] R[oyal] E[ngineers], Division. Sappers march. (421) Winches give the sappers that much mechanisation, a compressor at Co. HQ adds more. Division holds 230 feet of light bridge (or 250 men lift in rafts), plus 2x64ft SBG bridges for medium loads (432) Corps holds an additional divisional set and 1200ft of Kapok and 800/500 ft of medium/heavy bridge. (423–4) No mobile reserve of wire exists; it must come from the roadhead (not surpising when wiring a battalion position takes 4 3 ton lorries). (425) Besides AT mines, cratering makes excellent obstacles. But we only hold 1.25ts of explosive ahead of the railhead (2000lb with the Field Co., 5500lb in the Ammo co. and 250lb in the maintenance co.) It is likely that we will require 500lb to drop a reinforced concrete bridge compared to 100lb for the old steel girder bridge and 80–100lb for a tank-stopping crater (425–6). We need to more than double the current forward holding (the current intended augmentation). For strategic obstruction by breaking up roads and RRs in depth the French quote 1t of explosive/100-140 man days, or 3–4ts explosive/division/day for Commonwealth Field Companies so employed.(2) 

The anonymous author describes a modern field engineer company, presumably engaged in the couverture against an advancing [German] army, creating the gap that breaks the rail net. The picture here, I think, would be familiar from the normal experience of a road repair contractor. There is labour; there are stores (explosives and barbed wire); there is bridging; there is a motor pool to be allocated between these resources; there are new tools with dramatic potential to leverage the labour of individual workers, mainly, the portable air compressor and the engine-powered winch.

This is an example drawn from  cutting the rail net on the move. It focusses our attention on a set of technologies that are profoundly, invisibly, everyday, but without which we would not have modern road nets. (Less because of their importance in building them then because of their importance in keeping them in repair). 

The Axis lines at El Alamein were not built in haste. They were extended construction tasks, and focus our attention on other skillsets. But the labour involved in the breaching battle is going to be very much of the "light building trades" kind. It's mainly about shifting dirt from a hole to a pile, and back again, and the sophistication in the work involves mainly doing it with fewer man hours. The Eighth Army is about to extend a road and rail net through a fire gap. It will use the skills of the "light building trades," and the technology that has come into use for that purpose. 

In peacetime, it seems reasonably clear that the lure of learning these skills acted as a pulling force drawing recruits in to the volunteer British army, at least. (3)  Was El Alamein dramatically different, given that it was fought by conscript armies using technologies largely developed in wartime? I don't think that it was, and I've been dilating on light machine guns at endless length because I think that they're key to showing that the opposing armies of 1942 were "the army we have." (For such a bad Defence Secretary, you've got to give Donald Rumsfeld credit for coining a phrase.)  The tactical task of breaching the El Alamein position was defined by the LMG, the antitank gun, and modern artillery, not by tanks. And the groundwork was laid by the  French Twelve Month Army Law of 1928. 

No, seriously: I'm seeing, in my fever dreams, the LMG fire team as the original, defining paradigm of our modern machine-centred work life.

*Ported from Open Office to Word to Google because the default coding for OpenOffice tables translates across platforms as spaghetti. I know, you get what you paid for, and when I had to use it, OpenOffice was still a better option than my copy of WordPerfect. Still: Sun Microsystems: burn to the ground, or stake out on an ant hill? The debate continues.

**A nonsequitur would be if I pointed out that the first bishop of Sodor (ie. the Diocese of Sodor and Man) was Mac-Caile, who baptised St. Brigid on the Hill of Croghan and was exiled in a coracle without oars by St. Patrick for unspecified offences, fetching up by a miracle of the sea in the tradition of such navigating monks as St. Brendan.on the shore of the Isle of Man. Now that's a nonsequitur.

1. 22 of Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke's students at Camberly became divisional commanders in WWII, while his direct subordinates during his year as Director Military Training produced “an additional 2 divisional commanders, one army, and 4 corps commanders before the end of hostilities in Europe.” (Nick Smart, British Strategy and Politics During the Phony War: Before the Balloon Went Up [Westport, Conn., and London: Praeger, 2003]:177.) It would be very interesting to know if the two staff officers that Montgomery inherited from Auchinleck who went on to command 8th Army, Harding and McCreery, were out of Brooke's clientala. In any case, I comment with Victor Orange's revelation of Tedder's privileged relationship with Archibald Sinclair, Secretary of State for Air and leader of the Liberal Party in mind. Whenever we hear of Tedder being on Monty's case, I wonder if we are also hearing about Sinclair being on Churchill's, and it is this nexus in part that makes me think of Sinclair as the most plausible successor to Churchill.

2. Progress in Field Engineering,” Canadian Defence Quarterly 12 (1934–35): 420–9.

3. It is noted that in 1935, in spite of the recession, recruiting fell short of targets. 80,203 men reported at recruiting centres. 54,639 were rejected, 68% for medical reasons. 25,664 were accepted. Given that this is more than 10% of the total annual cohort, I wouldn't be inclined to call that a recruiting failure, but that's not  how Zone Recruiting Officer N. de P. MacRoberts sees it. ("The Problem of Recruiting," Army Quarterly 32, 1 [April 1936]: 116--19). MacRoberts, like all unsuccessful corporate recruiters ever, blames  high unemployed relief rates. "Sivad" tartly replies ("Training for Civil Employment a key to Army Recruiting Problem," Ibid. 33, 2 [January 1937]: 337--444) tartly replies that an army that charges  10 pounds for classes at the Vocational Training Centre has no-one to blame but itself that potential recruits aren't taking its commitment to finding them-post separation employment seriously.) Yet when the students of the Aldershot VTC were allowed to compete in the London Building Trades Olympics in 1932, they took more prizes than any other participating school. ("Editorial," Ibid 25, 2 [January 1933]: 205--6. The VTCs focus on the light building trades for a reason; the army is already training its more specialised tradesmen in Army Schools, notwithstanding the expense, because it can't recruit them from the civil economy in good times. (Major C. R. Stevenson, RE, "Careers for Boys: Training Tradesmen for the Army," Ibid 29, 2 [January 1938]: 344--9. The (rumoured) refusal of Engine Ratings to participate in the Invergordon Mutiny underlined the interservice reality that recruits who had an expectation of trades training were a better class of recruit. ("In Defence of Mechanical Training," Naval Review 20 [1932]: 693--7; 695.) 

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