Friday, 22 October 2010

Where there's muck there's military brass

A historical post .

skip it if you hate the whole 'lessons from history' thing..

Within about 5 days of the German's May offensive in 1940 the battle for France was effectively over. No one knew that at the time. The French army was the largest in the world. The French and British armour was numerically superior, and the best French tanks qualitatively superior to the panzers. 14,000 artillery pieces, parity in the air on numbers if not capability, the forces of Belgium, UK, Holland and France combined to about 3.5 million men under arms.

Churchill became leader on the day the German's invaded. Ever the battler, he promised much support to the French. Lord Gort was in command of the British forces. Once the German's had punched a hole through the French at Sedan he was tasked with assisting the French in making a joint counter attack to snap off the German advance and win the war.

But Lord Gort was worried. He had had little contact with the French high command, the Dutch had surrendered and the Belgium's, securing his flank, were shaky. Churchill had already promised reinforcements for the French and promised to mount the counterattack. He went into a customary, rage barely suppressing his belief that field Marshall Gort might be a coward. { Bit unlikely as 'Tiger' Gort was a holder of the MC, DSO and of the VC }. Gort was insistent and began making his plans to pull the army out of the line, retreat towards Dunkirk, and establish a collapsing perimeter to defend against the panzers while the army awaited rescue..

Considering the first world war, where Gort was decorated, had lasted 4 years without a really significant breakthrough how could anyone to even begin to think that the battle was lost after a fortnight? but it was. And Gort was right.
Churchill sent General Pownall {that's Pownall looking at the map} to stop Gort being so 'windy' and put some 'backbone' into him. Instead of planning his atack, Gort showed his plans for a retreat to the channel ports. When Pownall reported back that the situation was seriously grave and fully supported Gort, Winston backed down. Lord Gort, who had not been a good commander of the BEF so far, saved them at the end. Without his decision to tell Churchill to stuff it, and to effectively commit treason by refusing to carry out orders, the British army saved by the Royal Navy from Dunkirk, would have been lost to the prison camps.

At the same time Churchill was promising fighter planes to France. German local air superiority was allowing them to win the battle. Air Marshall Dowding, head of all the fighter planes refused.
He wrote a very famous letter to Churchill spelling it out, and demanding that not one more fighter plane be committed to France. Churchill went ballistic again. he had flown to France himself and had promised his wavering allies more squadrons.
If France fell then the French Navy could fall into German hands and that would be a disaster. The french aerodromes would be home to German bombers, suddenly well within range of England and bypassing the UK's North sea facing defences. Fascist Spain might pitch in on the axis side. Italy almost certainly would, adding the modern Italian navy to the Axis and shutting the Mediterranean, adding thousand's of miles to the trade routes to India and Australia and the oil from Borneo. All the resources of France would fall to Germany and its considerable colonies around the world too..And the Americans, taking a bath on all the arms it had sent to France, might not be so keen to send anymore weapons to Europe unless it was cash up front.

Churchill was right to lay out the strategic and political consequences to both his commanders. And they were both right to tell him he was wrong. And they both stood by their comments and basically stated if he wanted another opinion he would need to get another Field or Air Marshall. Both knew Churchill could just remove them. Both had ambitious rivals just waiting to take over their commands.
However Churchill backed down to each. The army was rescued and there were just enough planes and pilots to defeat the air armada of the Luftwaffe in 1940. After the crisis both Dowding and Gort were removed to backwaters and never held field command again. This was not wholly spite. They were old men in a young mans war. But it showed how risky it was to cross a PM.

So, when a PM asked the army to undertake an invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, did any senior officer object? When the same PM asked them to undertake another, larger war, in Iraq, while the first war was still going on did any senior commander stand up and offer a warning?
Surely the nation shouldn't just start a new battle, especially another one in which the army again was to bear the brunt?
When aircraft carriers were dangled in front of the Admirals, 'free' of the budget, to be funded by overspend for mostly political reasons, did any of them ask what might happen when 'the giver 'government was gone, and 'the taker' government came along. Did they think that chopping the fleet would be necessary? Where are the stories of a Dowding or a Gort?

General sir Richard Dannatt did not say much on question time, hence the post. I had hoped he would have said a little more on the defence review. A bit of insight into what went on during the last ten years. How come we ended up canceling the Nimrods. And the Ark Royal. And why we didn't have enough helicopters and do we have enough now? Unlikely as half seem to have been axed.

I wonder if he or his most senior colleagues had been a little more forceful during the decade of war, whether the conflict would have been resolved sooner? Or did the memory of what happened to the most senior commanders in 1940 give them pause.
Gort was made Head of the Home Guard and Dowding envoy for aircraft production in the USA .


James Higham said...

So, when a Pm asked the army to undertake an invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, did any senior officer object?

Well, they were hardly likely to at that point. The sun shone out of young Tony's proverbial.

Demetrius said...

Great minds think alike, it is said. If you look at economicroadmap dot com today headed "When Giants Fall" you will see a parallel analogy to your own. Not the same but based on the same events.

Jer said...

"German's had punched a whole"

Rather undermines an otherwise thoughtful article.

Anonymous said...

U.K. - Common sense - Fail. Balls of Steel - Fail. Understand economics - Fail. Know arse from elbow - Fail. Believe in magic - Pass.

Bill Quango MP said...

JH: Someone must have raised some objections. Only a few junior members of the armed forces have said anything.
In reverse, during the Falklands crisis, the general staff originally told Mrs T. it was no go, and the task force couldn't sail. Another commander who had a plan piped up and said 'actually, it could work if X and y'
Hellish gamble that it was, it worked.

Jer. Thanks, corrected.

Demetrius. Thankyou. Will have a look after hours.

Anon: Sorry, too cryptic for me.

Andrew B said...

Everything is economics.

Back then, Lord Gort was not completely reliant on his job as a senior officer to provide a house / food etc for the family. After the first world war he was not dependant on the opinion of churchill/the govt for his place in society
In other words he had nothing much to lose by speaking out.

Now, with no really good wars since '82, little prospect of a big war to provide rapid promotions and the rise of meritocracy, the chances are that senior soldiers do rely on their income to provide housing / food, and do depend on the current government for future promotions and do not have an extensive war record.
In other words modern soldiers can have everything to lose by speaking out.

I am disappointed in BQ's unstated assumption that soldiers are somehow morally better than us. They are just people and if you effectively reward them for staying quiet, and punish them for speaking out, the obvious will happen.

I need to remind everyone that as a group, benefit claimants were more honest than the last group of MPs.
Not necessarily because one group is more honest than the other, but because the benefit claimants were/are being checked up on and penalised if caught and until recently, MPs were not checked up on and and not penalised.

Laban said...

Similarly Churchill pressed Alan Brooke to use his forces to support the French and fill gaps in the front in western France after the German breakthrough - when he discovered that Brooke was working on evacuation plans for the Brit troops (this was within 3 days of the French surrender) and directing his troops to the ports. He rang up Brooke, who'd never spoken with him, and argued with him for half an hour, trying to persuade him to continue the fight. Brooke refused to alter his dispositions and eventually convinced Churchill, who at the beginning of the conversation had been implying that Brooke was afraid to fight.

Events vindicated Brooke, and on his return to the UK Churchill put him in charge of Home Defence, promoting him to C.I.G.S a year later. So not everyone who crossed Churchill suffered.

(Hitler sacked generals who disagreed with him - fortunately for us)

Bill Quango MP said...

Andrew B: Very good analysis. I can only agree that you are entirely correct on the points of old world generals, their families and backgrounds and the contrast with the modern army.
But would you not think a commander who has covered another 2 miles in a fuel convoy and watched another twenty bombs being removed from the road and considering his next 50 miles to travel might not have thought to speak out. Or wanted to?
And the men at the top might have wanted to speak out more. British army has been a long time in Afghanistan now. Surely this wasn't intended from day one.

Laban: Another excellent example. Gort's single decision to leave the French to themselves saved the army {and gave The French a perfect excuse for their defeat that they have used ever since.} Gort's orders were key but Brooke's handling of them was brilliant.

I seem to recall Brooke was not Churchill's first choice. He was very cool with him when they first met. I'm fairly sure it was Dill who insisted that he was the man for the job.
Brooke was another of those incredibly personally brave soldiers. It was Churchill's good sense to understand that appointing the best man for the job, despite personal opinions, was the right course to take.
I would guess that Churchill was so convinced of the power of his own personal charm and intellect and humour, that he could talk anyone round.
He was never close to Brooke, but valued him highly. He also later lamented his decision to boot out Dowding without acknowledging his contribution.

Anonymous said...

I fear you are getting caught up in the last war, whilst missing the important stuff about the next one.
Ultimately security comes from wealth and from rewarding the best. Cameron is increasing the states wealth and power, thus making the people poorer and less free. This will make us weaker. The only enemy I ever hear anybody talking about is Islam, so it seems like the people understand, but the politicians would rather avoid it.
We don't have some automatic right to live in a peaceful and wealthy society, such things have to be fought for, hence I believe people are relying on magic to get us out of our current mess.

Nick Drew said...

Super post BQ, I love a good history lesson

like Andrew B's comments as well

(@Laban - and Stalin ..?!)

one more comment re 2003: need to recall that Kuwait 1991 was a great little war, enjoyed by all (except a large number of hapless Iraqi conscripts): the genuine coalition assembled by Bush Snr (now there's an under-rated President if ever there was one), fighting under NATO doctrines - yes, even a small French brigade on the left flank - fought a stunning set-piece assault with some genuine tactical innovations, and the first actual deployment of a number of NATO procedures, which worked brilliantly

(incidentally, leaving the Russians absolutely gobsmacked and very fearful, as they'd been assuming the said NATO doctrine was inoperable)

and of course medals all round

given this recent history, you can see why the military signed up for Bush Jnr's crazy scheme quite so readily

there were of course one or two important differences ...

Anonymous said...

One of my favourite books is Alistair Horne's "To Lose a Battle" about the fall of France. I would not be surprised if some of the contributors have read it.

As for Blair's Wars, it was a constant source of intrigue to me as to why it seemed the military did not speak out against New Labour's lunacy.

Marchamont said...

My Grandad was a military communications expert in WWII.

Once a month he had to drive his van to the New Inn up on't moor tops, and release the Home Guard carrier pigeons.

How could Jerry have coped with that.

Right into the 60's he still had a Winchester rifle he'd been issued with (and a hand grenade in his dresser drawer) but nobody knows what happened to them.

Still, the old lad had survived the Somme, and we still have his trench club.

Bill Quango MP said...

Anon: Don't know quite what that magic might be. Lottery tickets?

ND: quite right I'm sure. Sierra Leone, Kosovo. All wars achieved on a budget.

Marchmont: Your granddad had broken so many anti-terror and weapons laws
If the police had turned up he'dhaver put away for a million years. I bet he had a whittling knife too.

divisas said...

I completely agree with Bill. It is all about the money and the resources.