Sunday, June 29, 2014

D-Day +23: First Stakes

So, seventy years ago today, Operation EPSOM is closing down. Three days ago, General Sir Richard O'Connor, star a few World War II counterfactuals,* launched 15th Scottish Division across the River Odon as the first echelon of newly-arrived XXX Corps' first attack in the Battle of Caen, with 11th Armoured Division, 43rd (Wessex) Infantry Division, with 31st Army Tank Brigade attached to the !5th Scottish, and 4th Armoured Brigade attached to 11th Armoured for the operation. 


It has not gone well. Some workmen are blaming their tools.

Because the 15th Division was the "Scottish Lions." Right?

Since nothing helps understand Decisive Battles of World History like a map of an operation of the Battle for Caen that leaves off Caen, here's what you can do with Google Maps, instead. 

I've had to scale up to an uncomfortable degree and it is still hard to pick out the thinning of the road net as the laterals approach the Odon, but the point is clear enough. A 47 kilometer left-bank tributary of the Orne, it runs through 11% reclaimed land, 83% agricultural, and 6% forested. The narrowly divided up-and-down land facing the river is, of course, characterised as "bocage" in campaign histories. The point of the operation is to take Hill 112, between the Odon and the little creek of La Guigne, giving access to the Odon upstream of Caen. Not surprisingly, this triggered an energetic German reaction that ultimately drew in, per Wikipedia, 3 SS armoured divisions, 5 battle groups from other divisions, and the 101st SS Heavy Tank Battalion. By the morning of the 29th, this reaction had been successful in shutting down the Commonwealth offensive with minor gains. (That being said, given the logistical situation in the beachhead, any territorial gains were a boon to the Allies.)

I confess that I was not really expecting to blog about Epsom. Traditionally, it has been interpreted as another disappointment on the bloody road to Caen, or as the first in a bizarre series of operation names. (Horse races? Seriously?). In other words, a pretty uninteresting episode as far as fighting goes, only really engaging attention in novelty sidebars. 

This is not the way that a historian could take it. There is a great deal to interest the historiographer in the controversy over the Battle of Caen. We will recall that it is very frequently argued that "Montgomery's" slow pace in taking Caen was a very big deal in the history of World War II. I personally find this a little silly. Destroying the German army in the west in two months is not "slow." For the record, my interpretation is that this is about Eisenhower's run for the Presidency in 1952. Ike's candidacy was seen to required the burnishing his reputation at the expense of Montgomery. It is striking the extent that some of the American military correspondent/historians were so unapologetically in the tank for Ike, though it certainly doesn't hurt that Monty had by 1952 completed his lifelong evolution into a complete wanker. the historiographic reflection here is on the way that politics refracts contemporary history, which is all the more important in that politics gets old, while we return to the well in history. Who now is confident of their ability to disentangle the politics of 1757 from (supposed) first person narratives of the Battle of Leuthen? and who wants to start a history of the Battle of Leuthen with a long chapter discussing the evolution of Frederick the Great's public image through three centuries of historical writing? So arguably you want to jump into something like Operation EPSOM as soon after the fact as possible and lay waste to the reputations of everyone involved in as thorough a fashion as possible, lest some contemporary spin job contaminate the historical record for centuries thereafter.

Er, wait. Was I talking about how to make military history less partisan?

All this preliminary reflection aside, there does not however, appear to be much to be said about it from my personal perspective. But the moving finger writes on, and the Wikipedia article has reached a remarkable standard of insight, and so when I followed up other people writing about Operation Epsom, I discovered that this was the specific battle in which II SS Panzer Corps was committed to the fight. As opposed to an offensive towards Bayeux aiming at cutting the link between the American and British beaches, preparatory to rolling them up one-by-one. (Mood music.)**

If you followed my link to the Battle of Leuthen, you will be introduced to the most remarkable example of what Jomini called Frederick's "strategy of interior lines." Having been defeated by Daun at the Battle of Prague, Frederick was forced to withdraw before Prince Charles' army into Silesia. Then, detaching a corps from the screening army, Frederick marched across central Germany, defeated the French-and-Reichsarmee at Rossbach, and then back to Silesia to defeat Charles near Wroclaw at the field then called Leuthen. Although some of Frederick's switches of front during the Seven Years War were probably even better timed, this illustration of the importance of Prussian control of the crucial road-and-water axis of Berlin-Magdeburg is unrivalled in its geographical scope. Not that anyone tells the tale of the Seven Years War in terms of the Oder-Spree canal. 

If Leuthen is a distant memory of two centuries past in general, and for English-language readers in particular, it was not going to be far from the memories of German generals in 1944. It is hard to think of II SS Armoured Corps in any other context. Raised in France as Panzergrenadier divisions, 9th and 10th SS were moved to Ukraine as "fire brigade" divisions, transformed into armoured formations by the addition of a three-battalion armoured regiment. This incidentally, made them pretty big formationsn for "divisions" --13 manoeuvre battalions, counting the assault gun battalion as a manoeuvre formation rather than artillery-- compared with seven for a typical Allied armoured divison. 

The decision to move them to Ukraine, and then to move them back to Normandy was meant to be comparable to Frederick's marches across Germany in the fall of 1757, and to have much the same effect. This is how we need to understand the "rail manoeuvre" of the second week of June, and the contribution of the POINTBLANK attack on German rail communications. Had II SS been back in Normandy and ready to attack on 18 June, as originally planned, it would probably have had the effect intended. 

Although I do  not want to fanwank the might of the SS any more than I have to, because 11th Armoured Division had a second armoured brigade attached to it, and was just as far overstrength as the German formations it opposed. EPSOM was a big battle, fought with an intensity unmatched on either front at the time. The reason that a German attack towards Bayeux on the 18th might well have succeeded is that the Allied buildup was falling well behind schedule. 

But loading and unloading is a subject for development on another day. Today I have decided to drill down into the railways-and-tanks nexus.

I think that the Angus Shops of the Canadian Pacific Railway are more interested in giving Fortune an eye-catching factoid here than with accurate labour accounting. The Hudson-type 4-6-4 steam locomotive ran to 150 tons of mostly cast steel and gave 45,000 pounds of tractive force at the hitch. It seems counter-intuitive that the 17 ton, 131--210hp  Vickers Valentine tank took more labour to build than the locomotive chosen to pull the Royal Train across Canada in the 1939 Visit.

 It gets even more difficult to understand when I note that the Angus Works and other Canadian firms erected some 5000 Valentines in 1942/43, while the CPR opreated a total of only 3257 steam locomotives in the course of almost a century of external combustion railroading. from beginning to end. The longer the production run, the lower the initial tooling and design charge on individual units, as the article (to be fair to Fortune) goes on to acknowledge. With all of its corners and edges, the Valentine clearly demanded more work from the mold makers than the smooth lines of the 2801.

At the same time, the 2801's power plant would have been made in house, while the Angus works just ordered a job lot of Detroit Diesel 6004 two-stroke four-cylinder inline 160hp engines

So beautiful..... Where did I leave my anorak, again?
At this point, we're deep in the woods of production practice. There is a reason that the steam locomotives were invented in the first decade of the 1800s, and automotive diesels were a work in progress in the 1940s. Steam engines were designed at a time when the heat stress of burning coal and a few atmospheres of pressure were the biggest things an engineer had to worry about. Post-"Pacific" low-hammering locomotives are much more technically challenging than Stevenson's Rocket, but it still comes down to not having to spin masses of overheated metal around at very high speeds. 

Incidentally, here's another wartime application of the GM 6004.


It looks a little quaint and blocky, but that is a seven-ton, 6" medium howitzer it is towing, designed to throw 100lb shells 17 kilometers. As I have stressed before, monster guns like the ML-20 152mm howitzer actually deliver less weight at the bar than the German 88mm FlaK, but that just underlines how heavy the 88 is, and just how far we have evolved in a towing-heavy-stuff direction under the stress of the fighting in Normandy. III Anti-Aircraft Corps is going to throw 70 88s into the fighting in Operation EPSOM. Seventy 88s implies rather more than 70 tractors, and if the Germans seriously intend to fight a "mobile" battle in Normandy, they had better be a great deal less poky than the Ya-11! 

Of course, they don't, and they aren't. The Germans are having a bit of a "prime mover" crisis right now, having slighted production of tractors in favour of tanks. As a consequence, they are having some trouble running away from the Russians in the East, and their situation in the West will collapse if they have to retreat at any speed  --but I probably shouldn't overstress that, given that I've mislaid the citation.

What I want to talk about instead is British tanks. The outline history is clear enough. In 1939, Britain was not making many tanks. In 1939--42, tank production spiked to rapidly exceed German. In the first six months of 1940, 5,773 light, Cruiser and Infantry tanks were ordered from  16 manufacturers, including a number of railway shops. Because I could not find it conveniently elsewhere, here is a screencap of Postan's summary of deliveries of warlike stores to the Ministry of Supply:

What a wonderful resource Hyperwar is! Or, to put it another way, lifting from Overy:






The artillery columns here are weird enough to make me suspect that the data is not strictly comparable, but tanks presumably have a clear enough meaning to capture the incredible ramp-up of British production in the mid-war years and the dramatic collapse in 1944. 

The reason for this, we are given to understand, is that the rushed generation of tanks that appeared on the Western Desert front were not greatly loved. First, they were not well-armed. Although the ordnance side had done its part, developing the 2 pounder, 6 pounder and 17-pounder well in advance of requirements, British tank designs were slow to mount the successors to the 2 pounder. Meanwhile, the African fighting showed up the mechanical reliability of these designs and raised a completely different question about tank armament. Perhaps high velocity anti-tank guns should be de-emphasised in favour of the medium-velocity 75mm gun preferred by the Americans? And, that being the case, should the British not embrace the M4 Sherman tank, the American design projected to be available in such numbers in 1944, which was built around the 75?

The outline story goes on to say that the answer to this question is "yes," and that is why the tanks launched into Operation EPSOM comprised a relatively small number of British-built Cromwells and Churchills predominantly armed with the MV 75, and a large number of Lend-Lease Sherman tanks. The cut in British tank production, so notable in the table I lifted from Overy, reflects this reliance on American production. Although the fall in American tank production in 1944 is a bit worrisome...

Anyway, a little further drilling down turns up the key moment. In May, 1943, the man whom Benjamin Coombs choose to call "Lend-Lease liaison officer Averill Harriman" writes to Prime Minister Winston Churchill to recommend that the British wind down tank production  and shift industrial resources to other areas so as to take an additional requisition of 3000 Shermans under Lend-Lease. 

Which is a somewhat odd way to phrase things, since the sniff test would suggest that the causality at least plausibly goes the other way. And this indeed turns out to be the case. The Russians have refused a further allocation of Sherman tanks under Lend-Lease, and the Administration faces the embarrassment of surplus tanks if it does not get rid of them somehow. (The Angus shop will also abandon tanks in the face of  American tank dumping.)

Now, to get back to the other odd phrase here, for which I am quite unfairly picking on Dr. Coombs, because Averill Harriman is not a mere liaison officer. Wikipedia's biography choose to describe Harriman as a "Democratic Party politician and son of railway baron E. H. Harriman." The biography gives Harriman's "business activities" about as much space as his thoroughbred racing. The impression one gets is that the Harriman clan made enough money in the rough-and-tumble South Pacific age to establish scion Averill as a comfortable Hudson River squire who could afford to dedicate his life to public service, more-or-less. 

Except, well, i), ii). I think that you have to follow up in print to find out that it E. J. Harriman stands behind the Southern Pacific Railway's ownership of the Eagle Mountain iron mine that used to supply Henry Kaiser's steel mill at Fontana, California. (Spoiler alert: I've been talking about Kaiser and Fontana in my Postblogging series.) But the link in ii), although not the best I've found, elucidates Averill Harriman's pre-political career as a promoter of diesel locomotives. Harriman was rich, Harriman was connected, and Harriman cared about the future of internal combustion railroading in the United States.

I will not press this point further here --which unfortunately leaves this post more rambly, but already longer than I would like-- so I will leave this as another tantalising vector pointing in the direction of the rail-tank connection. It is not, I think, entirely an accident that stands behind the particular tanks that clash on Hill 112,  nor entirely a British doctrinal failing. It is not realistic to imagine that there might have been Comets and Centurions in the British order of battle for Operation EPSOM, but Black Princes, Tortoises and Challengers are not stretching counterfactual history too far. If only the voice of American heavy traction had not reached out to the Prime Minister in the spring of 1943.

Of course, I have not gotten any further in explaining what, apart from "doctrine," might have inspired the Prime Minister to agree. 

*Though not any I could find on Axis History Forums, and apparently "Awesome Counterfactual Histories of British Awesomeness" are not much of a thing on the Internet.) 

**Yes, it's Tomorrow Belongs to Me again. I can't help it, it's just so creepy. Plus, I watched Children of Men last night, and there are images of that very British Holocaust that are going to stay with me for a while.


  1. I had a comment here that vanished, but IIRC Shermans start flowing into the RAC as an emergency panic measure right after the Gazala-Tobruk disaster. (FDR offers Churchill either an armoured div or 300x Shermans and 100x M3 Priest SPGs, and the shipping to move either. WSC chose the kit.) Ironically, Gazala was the first time the Allied tank mix (of Grants, Valentines, and Honeys) seems to have been better on average than the German one of PzIIIs plus a mix of "short" PzIVs and the newer long barrel ones, eliding for a moment the 50mm gun Sdkfz and the Daimler. However the battle didn't go that way to put it mildly.

    As a result the felt-experience for the British is that Alamein is fought out with a mix of Shermans and Honeys in the armoured divs and Valentines in the tank brigade, and so there were neither victories nor tanks before then. Confidence in UK designs is basically destroyed, although more in the medium tank/armoured regiment role than in the parallel infantry-tank role.

    For example, Valentines weren't flushed out of the tank brigades by US iron and were replaced by Churchills, while Crusaders were flushed by Shermans. Interestingly, the Cromwell survives this process, but they get assigned to recce regiments rather than armoured regiments, with the exception of the 7th division. This represents a huge muscle up of the recce regiments, which are now medium tank regiments in all but name, while the armoured cars get reassigned to corps-level recce (operational rather than tactical).

    One of the things I'm seeing here is the end of the cruiser-tank concept; it's the cruiser types that get flushed, while the Cromwell is saved by reflagging it as a recce vehicle. This is important because, IIRC, the Cromwell is the beginning of the development path that goes Comet-Centurion-Chieftain-Challenger 2.

    So the British accept so many Shermans - because they've lost confidence in the cruiser tank, which the Sherman totally is, and don't want to bother building more of them when they could be working on a main battle tank. (Historian of technology, do you have anything to say about this?) Also, given that the Daimlers don't disappear, just get reassigned to the corps level, adding a tactical recce regiment mounted on Cromwells represents a further expansion of the RAC. Of course, in EPSOM the 11th's recce regiment gets used to CHAARGE!! at the bridges and up hill 112.

    OTOH, across 7th, 11th, and Guards that adds up to an additional independent armoured brigade's worth. (I don't know whether the independent armoured brigades had their own recce regiments*.) ISTR from your Fall of France series that the 1940 BEF managed to generate a provisional armoured brigade out of the Div Cav, so there's a precedent for this.

    *What was the point of those?

  2. In armoured fighting vehicle design, every machine should be upgunned, because it's outgunned by somebody.

    Also, it should be down-gunned, because it's too heavy.

    Clearly, the solution is a compromise. it should be upgunned and downgunned at the same time.

    I know that this sounds facetious, but it actually captures an amazing amount of technological development in armoured warfare, and will do as a summary of Stone's book. Magic solutions to the gunnery problem play a huge role in infrastructure/support arms investment avoidance behaviour.

    It is pretty clear that the "universal tank," or "man battle tank" concept was not ripe in 1945. Arguably, the Centurion was never an MBT --it was deemed necessary to support it with the Conqueror --which, note, was a development of the 1944 Churchill replacement. Conqueror and Centurion were replaced by a single tank --but the Chieftain was not a universal tank that anyone writing in 1955 would have recognised. (That is, it could not cross a Class 70 road bridge on a transporter.)

    With the Sherman buy, we have a number of considerations, which I do need to talk about in a post, so I will leave off with a question. Why did the Russians refuse their 1943 Sherman allocation? There's actually a pretty simple answer to this question, but it does not get a great deal of play because it has nothing to do with cool stuff like guns and armour. (Spoiler: the transmission didn't permit zero radius turns, which made it impossible to get Shermans off rail cars away from unloading platforms.)