Monday, November 26, 2012

Plantation of the Atlantic, XVIII: Gunfleet

Water, silt, mud, spawning grounds, channels, life, death. Admiralty Chart, but scraped here.
The Thames rises on the spring line of the Cotswolds, near Circencester in Gloucestershire, and runs 215km to the sea. The Admiralty (MoD now) chart above of the banks and channels at its mouth is ephemeral, like all of the underwater geography laid down by the river in its latest interglacial incarnation. With a 16,000 square kilometer catch-basin, it's not surprising that the Thames has a relatively small discharge of 65.8 cubic meters, compared with, say, the Escaut/Scheldt (120), Meuse/MaaΒ (350), much less the Rhine (2000) --not even that much more than the little Aa (10) or Medway (11)!

It carries enough before it, however, to water London, giving ships and their crews reason to thread their way through the sandbanks and silted shallows at the mouth of the river to the metropolis. The Gunfleet Sands probably do  not their name from the weapons the weapons that ships had carried since perhaps the 1300s. They had already carried that name down from time immemorial by the days when the English fleets of the Anglo-Dutch Wars anchored there. Someone would have said something at a time when they were the focus of the Atlantic.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

From Now On, No More Defeats: The Siege

The epeiric sea gives

Claesz, Still Life with Silver Brandy Bowl, Wine Glass, Herring & Bread 1642. From  Bob Swain's Picasa  album, here.

and takes.
Watersnoodramp, 1953
The geologists get all the good words. An "epeiric" is a shelf, or shallow sea, and the North Sea is one. It's cold, thus oxygenated, flooded by the effluent of a wet continent, thus rich. More, the legacy of the 150 million years across which epeiric seas have persisted in this region gives its bottom an ancient history of geologic shaping. It's a maze of channels and banks, up and down, through which the fisherfolk have sought their prey, probably since Viking times. (Indeed, you may recall that that's my explanation for Viking times.) It's said that the Dutch herring fishery employed a hundred thousand men at the dawn of the Early Modern. (I think that it's in Boxer, Dutch Seaborne Empire, somewhere, but I'm too lazy to check carefully.)

I use the deadly "it's said" because it's a made-up number, inspired by envy at the thought of the excise a state could levy on so much fish. N. A. M. Rodger attacks these kinds of numbers lustily, as an exercise in demonstrating what isn't important to Early Modern naval history. The men weren't there in the numbers claimed, and couldn't be used if they were. You're not going to get very far at writing about war at sea, Rodger thinks, without first appreciating that trained naval manpower was scarce. Great power naval war in the North Sea casts its nets into a deep well of local knowledge and a wider floating proletariat for whom war is both curse and opportunity. If there is something universal in its conduct as well (I think that there is), then the North Sea is a world sea. 

When I took the hundred thousand men seriously, I tried to calculate how much wheat land the North Sea was equivalent to, and it was on that basis that I challenged my buddy, Gerry Lorentz, to take the east coast of Britain, rather than Bristol in the west, as the nursery of the British marine. It was a fatuous thing to think and say. The maritime acres of the North Sea were like the wheat lands of old Latium, the endless source of such men as were available to build great empires. But it's not quite wrong, either.

But I'm not talking about old times today, but the last great war. By that time, the bread and butter of the North Sea trade was, well, coal and iron and --Oh, Hell, who needs to quote Masefield when you can just link to him? (Arrival of the Queen of Sheba.) Grand Admiral Raeder thought that he could conquer Britain by siege; but it's a funny kind of siege that strikes hardest by cutting a place off Tyne from London, itself from itself.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Old Europe: Bad Generals

Everybody! The General needs your help! The rights owners have done a heroic job of making sure that you'll never see White Christmas (1954) on the Youtube, but here's the opening. And here's today's proximate inspiration: "What's to be Done for a General who Retires?"

I know that it's only the foreshortening effect of history that lets me associate a movie released in October 1954 with the relief of Douglas MacArthur in the spring of 1951, but it's all still just slightly creepy.

You know what else is creepy? The foremost military intellectual of the United States Army getting into bed with a sycophant because she liked to go on 5 mile runs with him and talk about, I don't know, "state-building." I didn't compose this post with General Petraeus in mind, but this won't be the first time that I've mused aloud that the Pentagon could do with more engineering and less "counter-insurgency." That's not a knock on five mile runs, and I'm not saying that technocracy can solve the problems of Afghanistan better than grass-roots political organisation at the muzzle end of a Barrett Cal. 50. As I understand it,  building roads in Afghanistan is supposed to complement state-building, so if they've failed, they've failed together. There. But I'm not talking about there.

I'm talking about here. Generals are in society. Armies come out of societies, and go back into it. NATO has been fighting a double war in Afghanistan, but it's also been sending soldiers home at the end. What happens to them is important, too. Who these veterans from the wars returning are happens to differ from one kind of war to the next. On the one hand, there's a Special Ops war, all climbing mountains and, I assume, given all the Seal Teams, swimming places. On the other there's a drone war, which is all about autonomous devices synching  remotely so that fewer wedding parties get Hellfired.

 Again, I'm trying to pass judgments about morality and efficacy, just highlight two choices for our modernity here in North America and coming down in favour of the technocratic one. You can't demob and invest your pension in a neighbourhood running-up-mountains-and-stabbing-people-to-produce-favourable-political-outcomes shop, whereas people are always blowing up their crappy Vaio laptops and looking for a convenient repair guy. (And by "people," I mean, "Stupid Sony. Never again.") And who knows? If you get your policy right for North America, maybe it'll have an impact on the ground in Afghanistan, too. Weirder things have been known to happen than emulation when you model something that actually, you know, works.*

So the choice, at least here, is between an economy that works, and one that has to find a place for political-operatives-with-bayonets (and sometimes horses). It's not much of a contest, is all I'm saying, and I'm not sorry that General Petraeus is in trouble, but he's not the inspiration for this posting. That would be the fact that the "Boulogne" in "Boulogne-sur-Mer," (terminus of the Coal Wood Road) isn't accidentally similar to the fat city of "Bologna," home of the sausage. They're both vulgarisations of "Bonnona," from "Bonna." I take that fact, and the involvement of Gaius Marius, five times consul, Mark Antony, and, perhaps, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, the faithful sword at Octavian's side, and ancestor of Roman emperors in the same parts of the world, as evidence that something is going on. That would be the little historical mystery that tweaked my interest in the first place, and the problem to be explained (bad generals) in this post.  It's an attempt to understand them in terms of an economy that works.

The point is that there is a top down interpretations that says that the foundation of the Roman Empire is sufficiently explained by some political stuff that happened.** The causes of an empire that spanned the entire Mediterranean, one further capable of conquering all of the Maghreb, Spain, France, and England in a little over a century are to be found in faction fighting in Rome. On the other hand, there are oak forests sheltering browsing pigs, oblivious to the Mediterranean sun and to the loads of salt coming down to them on the trails in swaying donkey loads.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

From Now On, No Defeats: Alamein, III: "Look for me at dawn on the third day."



El Alamein?

From History in Images
El Alamein.

Lifted from the Birmingham War Studies Blog

At 1:05 on 2 November, the last attack goes in. Operation Supercharge is under Lieutenant General Bernard Freyberg's 2nd New Zealand Division. Two full infantry brigades, plus an armoured brigade and an exploiting armoured division are attached to the New Zealanders.* Freyberg's outsized personality obscures the correctness of the choice; the New Zealanders have the same institutionalised pattern of success in offensive operations in the open desert as the Australian 9th Division has in positional warfare. The attachment of two British infantry brigades gives the force the depth needed, and might be taken as a comment on the insufficiency of New Zealand's manpower, but the dismal reality of World War II is that every country, big or small, runs out of infantry.

The attack is in three waves. The infantry go in by night to break a hole through the Axis fighting positions that control the  minefields, reaching towards the main lateral behind the Axis position, the Rahman Track. This is the break-through by which 1st Armoured Division will break out, at last, to the green hills beyond, but it is not intended to be a rupture. That will be left to the 9th Armoured Brigade (3rd Hussars, Wiltshire and Warwickshire Yeomanry), who will attack into the  "funnel" formed by the Rahman Track, a funnel lined with 24 88mm/56 calibre Flak 36 gun, the 7.4 ton monster that has already featured on this blog as an anti-aircraft weapon.

Just as a reminder of where I've already been, let's hold a singular thought in our heads: the 88/56 Flak 36 weighs almost two tons more than the 150mm heavy field howitzer. Model 1918, a gun designed to deliver a 100lb round a somewhat-disappointing 14,000-odd yards. As an AA gun, that's not unreasonable, and not a valid comparison, but that's not how the Flak 36s deployed along the Rahman Track are to be used. (Mostly.) It's there to shoot at tanks. They are going to shoot a great many tanks today.

Nor are the Flak 36s alone. Forward of this arc of deployment are numerous additional, lighter antitank guns, specified by the official historian as including the "37-mm Pak 35/36 . . . 50-mm Pak 38, of 60 calibres . . . . [and] 50-mm Kwk, of 42 calibres. General Playfair omits the serviceable Italian 47mm weapon, but faithfully reproduces the Desert anti-armour trials conducted on these guns in an appendix to the second volume of the official history. (1)

9th Armoured Brigade's charge towards the Rahman Track might call to mind the charge of the Light Brigade, but the analogy is deeply wrong. The brigade's job here is to take ground. This ought to be an infantry job, the GOC concedes, but his command is running out of infantry, and there's perfectly good armour to throw into the battle. 

Well, not quite, but letting that go, 9th Armoured's job is to charge out of the rising sun and smash antitank guns, allowing the follow-on 2nd Armoured Brigade of 10th Armoured Division break through the Axis position. 

It doesn't work out like that. 9th Armoured is shattered on the field in the fight, and 2nd Armoured Brigade, perceiving "nothing that could be imagined to look less like a breakthrough," goes into hull-down positions that are sufficiently threatening to call the Deutsches Afrika Korps, plus Littorio Division of XX Corps. Now it is the turn of the Axis armour to attack into the barrels of the guns, tank guns and the new 6 pounder antitank gun, an 1140kg, 57mm  weapon. At the end of the fighting, the DAK was so completely written off that Rommel decided to retreat from the El Alamein position. There would be vicissitudes yet. Hitler was no happier than Rommel to lose this advanced position and the prospect of a further offensive towards Egypt once the Russian winter freed air forces for a resumed attack on Malta. At 1:30 the next afternoon, he would call Rommel and give a stop order. In one interpretation, this led Rommel to either dither or dissemble with Machiavellian brioche, and in either case sacrifice Italian units to cover the retreat of German. In the more sanguine Italian reading, it was pretty much irrelevant, since those German units with organic motor transport (most of them) were disintegrating and fleeing westward with no regard for orders from on high.**  

It was left for Allied forces to police the battlefield, attempt pursuit with the not-uncommon result after great battlefield victories of much straining with little concrete result, and deal with an almost immediate attempt to downplay the victory; it was no great deal, inasmuch as the Axis position was logistically unsustainable; it was pointless, as Operation TORCH was coming; Rommel just decided to retreat, as opposed to being defeated, or, conversely, was only really defeated because of the Hitler stop order. 

Above all, Montgomery was a terrible general, since he didn't pursue hard enough. This extreme example of the "what have you done for us lately" argument relies entirely on ignorance of the actual chronology of the pursuit, and comes to us above all from Air Marshal Tedder, and seems explicable (to me) as political spin emanating from Cabinet opposition to Churchill, but that's just me. That is, I'm going to stress the importance of El Alamein as a political battle, although not at the expense of the considerable achievement of writing off an entire Axis army not entirely dissimilar in size to the force about to be entrapped at Volgograd. (Okay, 100,000 versus 300,000, but a larger proportion of armoured forces.) And I should also note that the battle kicked the Axis off Egypt's back porch. We now know that 1942 was the 'end of the beginning,' that there would be no resumption of the attack eastwards. We should also, however, bear in mind that it was the end of the beginning because the Allies beat the Axis at battles like El Alamein. 

On 3 November, the Axis army that occupied the El Alamein position was large and powerful. It was about to receive 2500 tons of POL, and its nominal unit strength was as great as that of the Allied force that opposed it. Given an infusion of manpower and the steady improvement of its rearward logistics through the upgrade of Tobruk port, it could still advance  into Egypt. By the evening of 4 November, muster rolls taken at rally points in the rear show that it had disintegrated. On 11 December, it was in the position in the bend of the Bay of Sirte where it had stopped Allied advances twice before. 

This time, a single outflanking move tumbled it eastward all the way to Tunisia, and it was lucky to get away at all. Alamein wasn't just a defeat. It wrote off the German-Italian Armoured Army Africa for months. 

Monty, Alanbrooke, and Churchill are vindicated. Poltics and strategy are hard to separate, sometimes.  

Only what the hell happened? How did it come to this? At least when Gandalf and Eomer attack out of the rising sun, the blinding light of day dazes the Uruk-Hai and breaks the pike line. It could happen. 9th Armoured Brigade, we are told, was just silhouetted for the antitank fire. If an example of a failed armoured charge into the guns is needed, the DAK and Littorio's action of the next day will serve just fine.