Thursday, February 5, 2009

The Question of Battle Doctrine and National Mythology in the Second World War

This is a mirror of an article original appearing at this link:
The first commercially successful tactical wargames rules were actually based on miniatures, and indeed, the first true tactical wargames were heavily influenced by, and even marketed to, miniatures players. Certainly comparisons to miniatures were rife in articles on PanzerBlitz, and not long after its publication, Strategy & Tactics published its own miniatures rules called T-34, now long forgotten. When Squad Leader hit the scene in 1977, advertising appealed directly to miniatures players by name.

There has been a resurgence in recent years in the popularity of miniatures systems, though one can safely say that the miniatures players never really went away. Popular systems have always been part of the wargaming scene, from the earliest efforts of men like Donald Grant who published “do it yourself” type books, to the publication of Tractics, to more sophisticated rules sets too numerous to mention in the 1970s and 80s, yet never have they occupied the mainstream popularity or commercial success of role playing fantasy titles such as Dungeons & Dragons or board games such as Advanced Squad Leader.

The miniaturists are making efforts at catching up commercially, with slick new products today like Flames of War or Axis and Allies; there is the use of “big industry names” in other cases, and in all, an attempt to win wide market appeal. I recently picked up a recent publication with the name Frank Chadwick attached to it, and was struck by the production values. (Chadwick’s name is well known in the annals of board wargaming.) The book – Honour of the Regiment - was an overview of a rules set for British Commonwealth forces in the Second World War, with detailed unit values and the usual bits of history and regimental trivia thrown into the mix, as part of the reboot of Command Decision/Test of Battle. What struck me, however, was Chadwick’s attempt to riff on an old myth:

A few years ago I was part of a symposium on offensive tactical doctrine of World War II. Each panel member had a single country for which they made a presentation - mine happened to be Germany. Once the four or five of us had all made our presentations, someone in the audience pointed out that there had been no panelist presentation for British offensive tactical doctrine. (This was, as you might imagine, in the United States.) The moderator was apologetic, but explained that he had been unable to find a panelist to give a position briefing on the British, but wondered if any of the panelists would now like to give an improvised talk. After we looked at each other for a few seconds, and it became clear that no one else was about to do so, I stood up and gave a short presentation on British Army Offensive Doctrine in World War II.

"We didn't have any," I said, and sat down. After the inevitable laughter, I stood up again and elaborated. (1)

It struck me as not particularly funny, not because I had heard it or jokes like it many times before (there was an old saw pasted up in my Reserve Army regiment’s orderly room for many years by an unattributed and probably apocryphal Red Army officer of the Cold War era who was reputed to have said “the problem with training to fight against Canadian Army doctrine is that the Canadian Army has no doctrine”) but because it was so patently untrue.

Commonwealth Doctrine – 1944

The term doctrine is simply defined as an established set of procedures to solving complex problems; in the military sense, it refers to a standard set of maneuvers, kinds of troops and weapons and the way in which they are employed as a default approach to a kind of operation.

In February 1944, Lieutenant-General Guy G. Simonds, the commander of 2nd Canadian Corps, gave a detailed series of tactical notes to commanders preparing for the invasion of Europe, based on his battle experience in Italy as commander of the 1st Canadian Infantry Division. The notes are remarkable for their clarity and in describing so well the course of tactical battles to come in Normandy, the breakout across northern France and Belgium, the fighting in the Netherlands, the Rhineland, the Rhine crossings, and the final battles in Germany. (2)

  • For attacks on prepared positions, adequate reconnaissance was emphasized, with assaults to take place on a limited front with "all available" artillery so that "really heavy support may be given." A Commonwealth division of nine infantry battalions had three field regiments of 25-pounder guns (24 guns in each), while each infantry battalion had six 3-inch mortars of its own. The divisional support battalion had a company of 4.2-inch mortars. The corps artillery had additional fire support available in 4.5”, 5.5” and 7.2” gun regiments, and for large scale operations, tactical air support was available ranging from fighter-bombers to medium and even four-engine heavy bomber support. Naval gunfire was also used while in Normandy.
  • Initial objectives had to penetrate to beyond the normal range of German mortars, or else those mortars had to be dislodged by counter-battery fire (difficult to do owing to the ease with which they could be deployed in cover and concealment).
  • Consideration was to be given in large-scale operations as to when to move friendly artillery forward, and when to schedule friendly air power, possibly as a substitute.
  • Simonds also impressed on his commanders the value of friendly tanks and anti-tank guns being forward with the infantry, as well as the use of artillery against enemy tanks, directed by Forward Observation Officers of field artillery batteries travelling with the leading infantry.
  • Anti-tank obstacles and thick minefields were common and initial attacks were to be made by the infantry to secure gaps or breach obstacles

These tactical points were raised in reaction to German defensive battle doctrine, which stressed the following:

  • Forward positions were defended lightly, thinly held with small groups of men strong in automatic weapons.
  • Stronger infantry forces were held in reserve, ready to counter-attack where necessary.
  • Forward positions were strongly supported by mortars, usually located 3,000 to 4,000 yards to the rear, capable of firing ahead of or anywhere within the defended zone. The Germans pre-registered their own positions and immediately and heavily shelled and mortared them once they were known to be lost.
  • Tanks and self-propelled guns were held in reserve and when enemy infantry had broken into friendly positions, would move in and deliver direct fire at very close range.

While a Canadian assault, properly planned and supported, might easily break the crust of such a defensive set-up, the German policy of counter-attacking with fresh reserves and armour meant that the real battle was one of defeating the follow on forces, which would also include any mortars not over-run in the initial assault. For this reason, Simonds insisted that planning had to consider the German counter-attacks as a routine part of the initial battle.

Did It Work?

The drawback in practice was that the “set-piece” approach was often applied, in fact, piecemeal. Operations that should have been assigned to divisions were sometimes assigned to brigades. Such was the case in Operation WINDSOR in early July 1944, when four battalions of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division were ordered to assault Carpiquet and the adjacent airport. While the village fell – it was defended by just 50 fanatic SS men – the assault over open ground against the south hangars and control towers was stopped cold by automatic weapons fire and tanks. During Operation CHARNWOOD a few days later, the three divisions of British and Canadians again met stiff resistance, but managed to batter their way into Caen. The Highland Light Infantry of Canada did everything right at Buron during CHARNWOOD; they fought a textbook operation according to doctrine: (3)

  • They cleared the enemy mines before zero hour
  • They laid on an extensive opening barrage
  • They attacked with a squadron of tanks, as well as mine-clearing tanks and troops of M-10 tank-destroyers
  • Their reconnaissance included a prisoner taken only days before who provided intelligence of the identity of the defenders and the location of weapons, in addition to aerial reconnaissance and other patrol data; the battalion even built a scale model of the terrain to rehearse the operation on
  • The unit had occupied the ground opposite Buron for four weeks and was intimately familiar with the ground
     Canadian Army Intelligence Information Sheet dated 2 July 1944
    showing the HLI's deployment for the Buron Assault on 8 July.
Unfortunately, the Germans also fought according to their own doctrine, and the 3rd Battalion, SS Panzergrenadier Regiment 25 held on to the village grimly. They held the forward edge of the town lightly, with automatic weapons sited in an anti-tank ditch. When they were finally cleared from the ditch and the leading edge of the village, their guns and mortars shelled Buron violently and kept it under constant attack so that the only vehicles able to enter and leave were jeeps and carriers to evacuate the wounded. Of the 15 Canadian tanks supporting the attack, 10 were knocked out. The only departure from doctrine was that no infantry counter-attack was delivered, but a company of Panther tanks did counter-attack after the village fell late in the afternoon, but was beaten back. Even then, some SS troops held out inside the village until the next day. The total cost to the HLI was 262 dead and wounded, of a full strength of about 800 (just under 500 of those being in the rifle companies).

 The village itself was heavily defended with tanks, artillery, mines, automatic weapons, and three rifle companies
supported by a heavy weapons company with machine guns and mortars.

Buron is an extreme case; the SS troops of the Hitler Youth Division had fought unusually fanatically – many refused to surrender, having been told they would be murdered if they did so (their division had been responsible for the murder of over 130 Canadian POWs immediately following D-Day, on the other hand, and so the advice was not entirely unwarranted), and many were teenagers with a high degree of motivation and political indoctrination. Reports of soldiers holding out even in the face of point-blank 75-mm tank fire were made after the battle. It was one of the costliest days for any Canadian battalion in Normandy, and the worst day of the HLI for the entire war. But the doctrine had worked; Buron had fallen, against the toughest of opponents.

 A tank of the Sherbrooke Fusilier Regiment sits abandoned in Buron on 8 July. Buron
had previously been the scene of furious fighting a month earlier, on 7 June, as well, when the
3rd Canadian Division and 12th SS Panzer Division clashed on the day after D-Day.

In other cases, German technical superiority, especially in the case of armour, was overwhelming. In the words of historian Terry Copp:

In theory there was nothing wrong with Simonds' version of Allied battle experience but in practice the thinly armoured, undergunned Sherman tanks were seldom able to accompany the infantry onto the objective, and almost never able to stay to help meet the counterattacks. The self-propelled anti-tank guns stayed well to the rear and it usually took some time to get the towed six-pounder and seventeen-pounder anti-tank guns into position. All too often the infantry had only the artillery to (rely) upon, not only to "shoot" them onto the objective but also to break up the counterattacks with well-directed concentrations. More than one infantry company commander has described his role in North-West Europe as "escorting the artillery Forward Observation Officer (FOO) across France." (4)

My Final Word

It is interesting that historians and especially casual observers have failed so utterly to understand what the doctrines of the various armies really were. The Blitzkrieg Myth has been persistent since the first Allied newspapermen wrote their first hysterical accounts in 1939 and the myth was perpetuated by post-war apologists seeking to explain away why a truly unprepared and in many ways mediocre German Army had gotten the best of larger Allied forces in Norway, then France, then North Africa. The operationally competent Red Army of 1944-45 is very often dismissed in popular culture as having had no abilities whatsoever beyond the artillery barrage and the human wave, and the British Commonwealth armies are generally maligned – as Chadwick did, if only in jest – for bumbling about and only fighting when it suited them, in “set-piece” battles, as if fighting a battle you were prepared to fight was somehow something to be ashamed of.

My Question To You

Is it not eminently sensible to fight only when you are prepared? Perhaps the only army more sensible than the British in that regard were the Italians who, when it was clear they were on the wrong end of the conflict, had the good sense to capitulate. Sadly, their divisions in Yugoslavia suffered terribly in the process, and many in mainland Italy fared no better. Why, though, do the Germans continue to get the lion’s share of “glory” – if that is what it is – for continuing to surrender the lives not only of millions of their soldiers and citizens, but to continue the suffering of their captives, their slave labourers, and their enemies, all to no apparent purpose – and be praised for their skill at arms while losing battle after battle, usually by mounting costly local counter-attacks both large and small?
  1. Chadwick, Frank The Honour of the Regiment: The British and Commonwealth Armies in the West in World War II, 1939-45 (Test of Battle Games, 2008)
  2. Lieutenant General Guy Simonds Directive, February 1944, attached to War Diary, 2nd Canadian Corps
  3. Snowie, Allan J. Bloody Buron (The Boston Mills Press, Erin, ON, 1984)
  4. Copp, Terry. The Brigade (Fortress Publications Inc., Stoney Creek, ON, 1992)