Friday, June 13, 2014

D-Day +7: The Roads Must Roll

I can imagine conversations between something (let's go full Novocento and call it the Zeitgeist) and the state order.

Some are simple:

Stalin: The Germans are invading! I'm going to lose my job! Do something!
Russian Zeitgeist: More tractors.
Stalin: I...I'm sorry, what?
Russian Zeitgeist: MOAR TRACTORS!
Stalin: Let's get this straight. You'll save my ass if I give you ...more tractors?
Russian Zeitgeist: Long Live Comrade Stalin!

You need to get the grain in before the first rains of autumn. Others are more complicated. What in Heaven's name was the nature of the implicit negotiation that led to Britain's major military effort being exporting ports, for example? 

That's your randomly discursive introduction to the seventieth anniversary of the Battle of Villers-Bocage and the first flight of V-1 Fieseler Fi-103 pulse jet flying bombs launched against England. (autoplay sound effects; Wickipedia technical writeup.)

(Source.) Appropriately enough to the theme of this post, although coincidentally, of five weapons launched, the one that did significant damage struck the Great Eastern viaduct over Grove Road. Six people were killed. It is going to get much worse. 

Services on the Great Eastern were also interrupted for a few hours. 

I am not ready to write about the Baby Blitz yet. I am, however, going to tie it together with what I am going to claim is a great reversal of course. There are signs that society was coming apart in the late 1930s, in much the same way that it is coming apart now. How did we move from social dehousing (the sketch is crofters being evicted during the Black '47) to massive housing via blowing up houses? It seems paradoxical, of a piece with the bizarre mutual escalation in mine warfare influence triggers that seems driven as much by what the mine warfare establishments on either side of the North Sea want to do as by the actual effects of the more sophisticated weapons (not that I want to underestimate that) suggests an element of tacit social manipulation. Instead of making war with the weapon you have, society is going to make the state raise the army that it wants.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, the world's national railway networks were, in general, in trouble. Stock markets saw them as overcapitalised, hence poor investments. Yet the companies themselves were increasingly unable to make up depreciation of a rapidly aging rail and rolling stock base, while fares were deemed to be too high, choking off traffic and driving it onto the roads. The sight of an essential service upon which modern society was built, collapsing  irremediably under its own weight was, however, not that exceptional in 1939, and little was made of it in comparison with more pressing concerns.

This changed in planning for OVERLORD. Interdiction of the battle area was universally deemed to be an important task of strategic air power in the decisive battle, when bombers would shift from other tasks, above all the destruction of the enemy's total war economy through what is often described as "strategic bombing--" using the scare quotes here to suggest that the argument is conducted in somewhat impoverished language.

And, indeed, this was not really at issue amongst the disputants (1,2,3,4, 5) who emerged to, well, dispute the way in which strategic air power should prepare the way for OVERLORD. Leafing through old plans for destroying the German war economy, the United States Army Air Forces had fixed upon attacks on oil production as the means of war. One could, if one were cynical, if not paranoid, suggest the obvious attraction of such a plant to the world's then main oil exporter. It hardly matters, given that, in the end, it worked. My one caveat is that it worked after range-limited radio navigation beacons could be operated from the Continent. The Combined Bombing Offensive is a book of several chapters, and the most important chapter was written after OBOE began its march into the interior.

 Air Chief Marshal Arthur Harris, taking note of another sectoral crisis in the German war economy, housing, proposed instead to blow up houses until the whole thing collapsed. While scaffolded by operational arguments about the difficulties of actually using a mass bomber force, Harris's argument converged on the tradition of "punitive" operations which had emerged on the Northwest Frontier, and, indeed, many other places. As a total attack on total factors of production, it is very difficult to ascertain whether area bombing actually had any effect on the outcome of World War II or not. (Spoiler: I think it did.)

 As Richard Davis has pointed out, Harris's argument needs to be taken as more nuanced than it has sometimes been presented as being. Above all, the Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command believed that the weight and effect of particular bomber raids on particular targets was limited by operational factors. Given his claims about how many bombers should be used against concentrated industrial targets under what conditions, it can be argued that Bomber Command did not neglect "oil" targets at all --even before the emergence of the Oil Plan. It just had lots of sorties left over after all the ones that could profitably be used on synthetic oil plants were assigned, which would be wasted if they were misdirected to oil targets, or, indeed, used for anything save night area attacks. Go ahead, discuss amongst yourselves. 

The argument was won, we know, by Air Marshal Tedder and Solomon Zuckerman, one of the prominent scientific civil servants advising the British government, was thus rather inevitably much bolder when he presented his alternative to "area bombing:" a utopian vision in which  interdiction turned into an attack on the whole continental transportation infrastructure that sustained the German war effort. Zuckerman's key insight (such as it was, since you could get the there by reading the German press) was that locomotives and rolling stock were the limiting factor, and locomotives were mobile. Destroying locomotives was one thing; damaging them was another. The number of damaged locomotives would increase as repair sheds were damaged, and repair sheds were located at railyards, which were also vital communication nexi, and locations where considerable amounts of goods could also be attacked. 

Indeed, the more that the Germans reinforced against the Allied invasion, the more of the limited supply of rolling stock and locomotives available to them would be drawn into Northwest Europe and rendered vulnerable to destruction, damage or even, ultimately, capture.

It was a grand vision. It was unfortunate that it was absurd on its face. That there was an endemic problem was not to be denied. Of 18,000 locomotives available in France at the outbreak of war, 4000 had been handed over to the Germans and withdrawn for service elsewhere; so, too, about a third of rolling stock (31,000 passenger cars and 480,000 freight cars). The withdrawal, and the flat lining of Eisenbahn's transport capacity in spite of this massive accretion of loot (Tooze, 314) demonstrates the pressure that rail transportation was under across the entirety of German-controlled Europe. Unfortunately, it also illustrates the scope of the problem. Available data reduced the entire effect of this POINTBLANK offensive against German-controlled rail communications into a mere "pinprick." The enemy had a minimum of three times the necessary capacity required for military traffic in France, and fully eight times the number of locomotives needed. 

"Seldom," Gordon Harrison says, "Have intelligence estimates been more wrong." 51,000lbs of bombs (against an original target of 40,000) were delivered against Transportation targets in the three months before D-Day. The result was a massive backlog of military deliveries to the front even before the invasion, and grinding delays on military movements afterwards. Seventh Army had a backlog of 200 trains of various supplies (mostly construction materials) at D-Day. Panzer Lehr, returning from Hungary to the West in the first week of May, was delivered by its trains (an armoured division requires about 80 trains) between six and nine hours late, a good example of the kind of routine impedances already acting a month before the invasion. This kind of thing might only have annoyed German tankers, but delays in delivering, for example, mines and concrete, had more significant impacts. Wagon loadings were down 60%, serviceable locomotives in the Northern Region were down from 1532 to 660, in spite of the return of 500 locomotives by the Eisenbahn. The bridges over the Seine, which in peacetime took 220 trains a day, were almost all cut, and those that were operating might not be able to take the peak axle loads imposed by heavy tanks and heavy guns. Indeed, virtually the entire excess of logistical capacity to which critics of the Transportation Plan at SHAEF pointed was unavailable to these heavy loads. Big tanks have consequences, and not just to the "loading gauge" that might constrain their dimensions.

To take a look at the buildup, which was delayed for both the Allies and the Germans (more on that, obviously, later), we can look at a particular reinforcement march, the redeployment westward of 2nd SS Armoured Corps' 9th and 10th SS Armoured Divisions. In reserve in Poland, they were ordered west on 11 June 1944. This is as compelling an example of the happy effect that the Second Front was supposed to achieve as could be imagined. With the Russians preparing a massive offensive, two "fire brigade" divisions were abruptly pulled out of reserve. Remember this when it is claimed that D-Day was irrelevant, because the Red Army could have won the war on its own! Two train convoys, VIKTORIA, of 76 trains, and TEKLA, of 65, were set in motion over the next two days. The first elements of the corps would fight in the attack on the Odon salient on 29 June. While the average delay was not great (4 to 8 hours), this was because they were unloaded in Lorraine and made road marches to the front **

It is probably not accidental that 2nd SS Armoured Corps was unloaded in the newly annexed westernmost province of the Fatherland. Certainly, it was mostly so that it could avoid the Seine bridges, but in order to keep the French rails moving at all, the Germans had been forced to draft in 20,000 managers and engineers from the German national railways. On the evidence, sabotage was only barely second to bombing as a cause of rail and road cuts and equipment failures. Sabotage took both  dramatic (guerilla roadblocks) and passive forms (abrasive paste substituted for lubricating grease), but, ultimately, it is a catchall evading an essential truth. The Germans could not make the French railways work. Could not make the French work. Having thrown over the levers that actually make people work (mainly money), they found that coercion and rhetoric about coercion was no substitute. (I wonder if they lectured the French on their "lack of work effort," the current Canadian favourite alternative to pay raises.) Strikes, go-slows, and passive disobedience were as effective as anything else in slowing rail-borne reinforcement down. 

In talking about this, admittedly indirectly (there is a Big Book on the German rail networks in the war that is conspicuously missing in this discussion because I do not have it to hand --never mind, time enough for that later), I have tried to cycle around machines and people, and keep the view top down, so that we can understand how detonating 850kg(!) of Amatol in the middle of a busy city street might have an impact at Villers-Bocage. Locomotives are manufactured things, but also, since they break down, sites for the performance of human skills. State orders constantly face the problem of eliciting the performance of those skills. Germany's failure to elicit the performance of human skills in the occupied countries of Europe stands out as perhaps the clearest illustration to hand of the limits of the ostensibly all-powerful state's ability to act as a pure agent of history. 

Blah blah. Here's another way of looking at it, from 1938 (and previously on this blog). Here I summarise a young friend of one J. F. C. Fuller, writing on the subject of tank procurement in the starkest possible terms. If Britain goes ahead with building Infantry Tanks, it is dooming itself to what we will soon be told is nothing less than state serfdom.

For while mechanisation, meaning armoured divisions with lots of light tanks is like industrialisation, in that it replaces skilled labour with semiskilled, as a mechanised, mobile force uses light tanks which are maintained by its (semi-skilled) crews. "Motorisation" means infantry supported by Infantry Tanks, which draw upon said depots. It thus leads to a craftsman’s army, dependent on infrastructure and workshops. This is a“Labour/"railroad" model army. Having drawn the metaphor out far enough so that the reader can see the horrible vision of a heavy tank leading to railways leading to Labour government, the theorist spells it out for us. The alternative, of light tanks, leads to a. “Young England” army. The kind of tanker who drives a light tank lives in a  housing estate, and has his commuting car serviced by “wayside garages” in which semi-skilled mechanics support semi-skilled owner-operators to do the necessary “replacement-repairs” on  “Fordist” cars, with standardised spare parts making shift for fabricated parts made to order in depots. It might seem perverse to substitute light tanks for heavy, but, as we all know, power=mass x velocity(?), so there can be “mobile-machine power.”
(Brevet Lieutenant-Colonel G. C. Shaw, Supply in Modern War, Preface by J. F. C. Fuller [London: Faber and Faber, {1938}: pretty much passim.] I mean, if you can get hold of this book, read it. It's crazy stuff.)

Why do I spend so much time on a long-dead reactionary writer, dragging him up to the light again and again?

Because he's right! Forget that he doesn't like your politics. Forget that his proposed light armoured divisions would be useless against first-class enemies. You can always use them against Panamanians or Afghans or whatever future enemy you have decided that you are going to fail against next

Shaw had it right in the first place. It's not the vehicle, although there is no percentage in "lightness" at the expense of adequate protection. It's about infrastructure it drags along with it.

Wikipedia: Number 4468 Mallard, holder since 3 July 1938 of the world speed record for steam locomotives at 125.88mph. The Mallard is 102 tons, and has a tractive force of 35,455lb ft. Not such a big deal for engines of the era. The big thing is the streamlining. That and the brakes.


A Tiger I, of course. 54 tonnes, maximum of 120mm armour, 88mm/L56 gun, 21.3 liter 650hp (at 3000rpm) Maybach HL 210 V-12. Not that scary, when you put it that way. Now imagine it running down the road at you. Do you care that its engine is "unreliable?" No, because obviously someone, wrench in hand, has fixed the problem. Not that they any credit for it, mind you.


 There's your Google Maps capture to set the context, which puts things in a slightly different perspective from the one given by the sketch map from the excellent Wikipedia article (because it leaves out Caen and suppresses Villers-Bocage's vital cross-roads):

That said, there is a geographical reason why that cross-roads is in Villers-Bocage. James Woolley has been kind enough to capture the view from the "commanding heights," where the British advance came to grief.
It is easy from the first map to see why 7th Armoured Division is making a play for Villers-Bocage, and why 2nd SS Armoured Division and the enormously oversized German armoured warfare demonstration unit, the Panzer-Lehr Division, is going to be encountered in opposition.

It is less obvious why this infamous "bocage" terrain is so notoriously difficult. 

Harrison, Cross-Channel Attack, 285.

Looking at it with an Eighteenth Century eye, it is less open than Ramillies or even Malplaquet, but not in a way that would obviously favour a defender. It is the light machine gun that unlocks the defensive potential of this landscape. It was the kind of war foretold and to some extent fought in 1918, and one in which armoured warfare would be all-important, but not the kind of armoured warfare so often imagined by its proponents, of massed formations of tanks thrusting deeply, boldly, energetically into undefended flanks and in general indirectly approaching. It is about a troop of cuirassiers stretched across a road from hedge to hedge, charging down on a foraging party under a haying sun. Or a Tiger running down a cart track running parallel to the main road to Villers-Bocage, 50 feet from a virtually bogged-down column of armour and bent on mischief.

Briefly, as it can afford to be brief, given the excellent Wikipedia article to which I have already linked (again here, however) , 7th Armoured Division attempted the hasty occupation of Villers-Bocage by a  thrust of 22nd Armoured Brigade, consisting of (Wiki cut and paste dump, with my interpolations.

 Clearly this is a lot of vintage iron to be given a take-and-hold ground mission. One authority has characterised Villers-Bocage as the last fight of the "scramble for ground" phase of the Normandy campaign. That seems accurate enough, and we expect, per Clausewitz and smartypants like him, that the last phase is going to be characterised by increasingly poor fit of units to objectives. In this case, a cavalry unit has been thrown onto the ground with orders to take it. At some grand level of abstraction, we expect a cavalry countercharge.

Which we get, and that is why the story of Villers-Bocage is told as the story of "the most acclaimed tank commander in history," the "audacious and brilliant German tank commander" in history, in the words of Carlo d'Este, writing as though he were in charge of sharpening Paul Bunyan's axe (180-3).

D'Este implies without saying that Wittman was single-handedly responsible for the loss of 20 Cromwells, 4 Fireflys, 3 Stuarts, 3 scout cars, a half-track and three observation post tanks. Implies here is a nasty word, for this is what Signal said happened, crossing over from the usual death-stink of Fuhrerprinzip to something close to the suicidal ideation of the last phase of Nazi rhetoric.  D'Este knows that this is not the case, even if he is mistakenly convinced that Wittmann returned to the fight in the afternoon. Most of the armoured losses he seems to be attributing to Wittmann are the result of either the surrender of the exposed detachment on Point 213 or of the fierce and fairly even-handed fighting in the town on the next day, in which Wittmann's Tigers played a distinctly less one-sided role, being effectively used up in close-order fighting at a time when they were virtually all of the Tigers in Normandy. Nor do we hear about the carriers, nor about the Sherman tank that bogged down in the road and blocked movement, because of its cheapass steering. 

That said, there is a place for Michael Wittmann in this battle. Pace sour, later critics, Wittmann did what a cavalryman is supposed to do. He sized up the decision, assessed the ground, charged, and led the best heavy cavalry in the world onto  21st Armoured Brigade, overset it, and threw it back from the ground that Army Group West could not possibly allow it to hold. That he used up the absurdly small number of Tigers that his battalion was able to make available (maintenance, infrastructure) hardly maters. That's what you do with heavy cavalry.

Put bluntly, the thought that is supposed to draw the two events of the beginning of the Baby Blitz and the Battle of Villers-Bocage is that locomotives and tanks are pretty much substitutable. You can build locomotives or you can build tanks; but you are not going to be able to use your tanks with effect without locomotives (or, after a certain point well and thoroughly reached by 1944, really big trucks, instead), and you will not be able to defend your infrastructure without tanks. There happened to be enough German tanks available to defend Villers-Bocage, not enough to defend Normandy. The "enough" implies a qualitative distinction, however. There could have been, had the British tanks been better, or the German tanks worse.

So still need to talk about why the British tanks engaged at Villers-Bocage were so ineffectual, but we need to do so within a context in which it is possible to understand why throwing flying bombs at London might effect the outcome of the fighting in a little town in Normandy, even if the only proximate result of that is a housing shortage. Tanks>locomotives>housing starts. (I would throw coal shortages>steel shortages in here, but that seems a bit ambitious for one post.) Benjamin Coombs' fine research in British Tank Production and the War Economy, 1939--1945 (2013) is unfortunately too truncated to deal with the first point at the necessary length. It will demand attention soon. The question of the effect of the Baby Blitz on the British war and postwar economy needs even more development.

*1, 2; note that I just pulled these up by doing a Google Search for "Railway Crisis 1939," because I am lazy. This is not exactly first-rate scholarship here. What there should be is citations to maudlin articles in Engineering and The Engineer, which I do no have, because I neglected to note them when I could. For the French case, which perhaps matters more, see again Harrison, Cross-Channel Attack, 224. 

**Details in Lacy-Johnston, Pointblank and Beyond, 201--03.


  1. "Seldom," Gordon Harrison says, "Have intelligence estimates been more wrong." 51,000lbs of bombs (against an original target of 40,000) were delivered against Transportation targets in the three months before D-Day.

    I'm not sure if you mean that the intelligence estimates were wrong in that the railways were more or less survivable, but these numbers are certainly wrong. 51,000 lbs is a bit less than four Lancasters' bombloads, or in context, two squadrons of Typhoons or one of Mosquitos. 2TAF could deliver ten times that in a morning without breaking sweat. Is there a wrong unit here?

    Strikes, go-slows, and passive disobedience were as effective as anything else in slowing rail-borne reinforcement down.

    The cheminots are the French labour-aristocracy and the biggest single Communist Party voting bloc. Arguably, what is happening is that the argument about the future of France has been won by the Resistance. But the Resistance that has won the argument is the very specific version defined by the C.N.R. and its programme statement of spring 1944, the founding text of postwar social democracy (but don't call it that) in France, equivalent to the Beveridge Report in the UK or the New Deal.

    Räder mussen rollen für den Sieg, but they will only do so with substantial delays and short-notice cancellations. Ask your Bahnhofskommandant for information and alternative routes, preferably before he locks himself in an old brakevan with a bottle of schnapps and a pistol.

    Interesting detail: you know the railways of Alsace and Lorraine are still electrified at a different voltage to the rest of France?

  2. Landscape notes; bocage can be much, much denser than that photo, and the thing about the hedgerows being more like earth banks with trees in lining sunken roads is totally true. That said, it's been opened up a lot even since my teens (and presumably vastly so since 1944, but the difference is perceptible in my lifetime).

    The RN175 route used to be dead straight but hugely up hill and down dale, with bits that plunge right into that country. Since the 1990s the French have cut an autoroute parallel to it and, on the one occasion I travelled it, it was amazing how much land clearing had happened at the same time.

  3. 51,000 tons, of course. Yes, the picture doesn't necessarily capture the difficulties of the landscape. I just want to get at the argument that instead of focusing on an ideotypical pure bocage, which is a little hard to find (here's the only tactically challenging bucolic scene from Google Maps around St. Lo --look, hills!) it is better to focus on the interaction of automatic weapons, anti-tank guns and armour thickness in order to understand how this landscape was enabled for the kind of tactics available in 1944.

    Especially when we  need to have a long talk about the social implications of the replacement crisis --but I need to leave July to July.

    1. The Wikipedia article on Villers-Bocage is truly superb.

  4. 3rd and 4th CLY's regimental history is pretty much precisely what Fuller was talking about:

    London suburban yeomanry? Many middle class. Mechanised early *precisely because only the posh regiments got the "privilege" of keeping their horses*? Such Fuller. Swung between being a recce and a medium tank outfit? So cavalry.