Saturday, 30 June 2012

the bombing war.

Rowan Moore of the Observer wrote a piece last Sunday about the bomber command memorial .
The result is a work of wishing away, of ignoring time, place and moral difficulty. The possibility of achieving something even slightly like the Vietnam memorial in Washington, which also had to recognise heroism applied to a questionable purpose, was ruled out from the start. There, many veterans expressed a wish for something classical, but once Maya Lin's reflective wall of names was installed, few wished it to be otherwise. I don't want to deny old men, who endured more than we can imagine, the ability to remember. But there could have been better ways than this.

So, he didn't much like it. He managed to squeeze a few mentions of an opportunity lost to portray regret. Complex moral issues or better yet a have created a very modern structure. He seems a little upset that the 80 year old airmen wanted this design. He even managed to fit in a former Tory party treasurer Lord Ashcroft mention. 15 commenter's on CIF mostly disagreed with him.

Johnathon Jones wrote a similar article on Friday. Slightly more critical of both monument and bombing. So far 993 comments and counting. I've read about a hundred. I'd estimate he has less than 5% support for his views on either the monument or his examination of the bombing war . And in the main they aren't rants. They are measured and knowledgeable pieces. Some are factually incorrect, but not wildly so. There is a comment that the Germans only bombed civilians by accident when a lost plane jettisoned its bombs over a city. That was actually the start of the Blitz, as the Luftwaffe had orders not to bomb London. City bombing had been going on since at least 1937 by the Japanese in Shanghai and at Guernica by the Germans. And the British had been bombing rebellious Iraqi tribes people since the 1920's.

 On the history, where much of the criticism comes from from the readers, neither article is factually wrong. They both acknowledge the huge losses of bomber command. 55,000 killed. {the US 8th airforce lost about half that number.} They both explain that the crews were very brave to fly... But then comes the inevitable ethical debate about bombing civilians.

Had Gadaffi survived he may well have faced war crimes for bombing rebel cities. Assad is going to be in the dock for shooting unarmed rebels and using artillery. But this is now. Not 1941. revisionist history makes me boil. Context is everything in history. What's the point of asking if a modern family would go to a medieval hanging as a fun day out?

In truth the RAF had a poor war. Fighter command and the tactical air force in France in 1940  were almost completely destroyed. The RAF had insisted on a heavy bombing force pre war, when resources were really scarce and funding below requirements. Yet when war broke out the bomber force was completely inadequate. It didn't have a heavy bombing force at all. Just some rather poor medium bombers. The RAF found it could not find its targets. If it did find them it suffered very heavy casualties, and even if it hit them its numbers were too small to achieve much and its bombs often failed to go off at all. In 1941 more RAF aircrew were killed on operations than German civilians by those same operations. 
Navigational aids were non existent. Maps useless. Training unrealistic. Results negligible.
That's how 'bomber ' Harris got the job in the first place. He was to sort out RAF Bomber command's failures and make them the war winning weapon that had been promised. And although he never achieved that he certainly transformed the air war.

Harris was as single minded as Field Marshall Haig had been in the last war and with much the same results. The necessary equipment, tactics and technology just weren't available at the time to break the deadlock. So the air war became an attrition war. That's a very important point in any discussion about the effectiveness or necessity of bombing.

The bombers {Commonwealth and USA} had to attack targets where they could do damage. As in the UK, German barracks were in cities and towns. As were the man train terminus and the docks and the depots and the warehouse and factories. And once the attrition war was decided on, the bombers needed to attack targets the enemy must defend. 

 Amongst the CIF writers are references to the  flak guns ,the German 88 mm, 15,000 deployed within the Reich as AA guns, but could have been used as Anti tank guns that were lethal to tanks if diverted to front line use. In 1940 the Germans had about 2,000 searchlights. By wars end this was almost 14,000. And each searchlight and flak post needed manpower day and night. The Luftwaffe estimated it took 3,300 88mm shells to bring down an aircraft. The expenditure in AA ammunition was so great that there were shortages in the German army from the start of 1943 that were never replaced.
This is all true but it  would be a pretty poor result if 55,000 men died to keep just 15,000 AT guns and 300,000 boy soldiers and injured soldiers from the front lines.

That German armaments increased during the critical 1942-1945 years are used as an explanation that the bombers failed. That isn't true. The increases came from structural, resources priority and procurement changes set about in 1940/41 when Germany belatedly realised it was going to need a whole lot more equipment than it was making. And if the bombing was ineffective why did Germany attempt to move its factories underground. Just imagine what that actually means. Moving complex machinery and all its civilian workers , and outright slaves too, into underground caves where light, cooling, sanitation, air and power all have to be supplied. Where space is a premium. No one voluntary builds a factory underground.

It is true that the area bombing campaign was wasteful. German industry actually fell apart once the rail and waterways were knocked out and the fuel plants damaged. The Germans were short 36.5 million tons of coal in winter 1944.The coal was in the Ruhr and the Ruhr was almost sealed off because of destroyed infrastructure. If Harris had been less of a fanatic he might have been able to achieve a more rapid collapse of the Axis without the continuation of Area bombing into 1945 when the heaviest and most destructive, and probably unnecessary, raids took place.

But that must not be seen in isolation. That's my issue with the Guardian writers. War is war.
All of WW2 was about attrition. It was a more mobile  WW1, but still an attrition war. From the sea lanes vs submarines to the artillery duels and fuel supply issues of the desert war to the slog through Normandy and the Ukraine and up the Solomon Islands and the jungles of Burma. It was an attrition war. Whoever had the most usually won. 

This was especially true in the factory war. By the time the 40,000 airframes for German fighters were produced in 1944 {up from 3,000 in 1941}  there was no longer the fuel, spare parts, engines, pilots, trainers or logistics available to get them into the air.

The RAF forced the Germans to fight a battle they were not prepared for and did not want to have to fight at all. By attacking the Germans had to defend. With the American air force in the war and long range fighters and better night time aids by the end of 1943 the Luftwaffe was running out of planes and pilots. And each time a target was hit they lost a little more replacement production too. Whether from the factory making piston engines or the killed skilled worker or the rubbled railway that the train bringing raw materials could not now pass through. By 1944 the German airforce was on the defensive, largely unable to mount any kind of attack. The thousands of pilots needed to attack the bombers over the Reich had had to have been withdrawn from Russia.

So by that criteria the men of Bomber command achieved just as much as any of the other services. The 'did bombing achieve' question is decisively answered. Yes it did. 

Air power never did what the bomber barons had promised. It did not end the war. It did not reduce the enemies means of production to the point that they could no longer continue. . The civilian deaths were terrible. But all WW2 was a war against civilians where the fighting took place. Military deaths, including all the executed and starved prisoners of war, 22-25 million.  Civilians killed totaled from 40 to 52 million, including 13 to 20 million from war-related disease and famine.

The USA's strategic bombing survey estimated a maximum of 600,000 German civilian deaths by bombing. Some 10 times the UK's number. Japan had around 500,000 civilian dead. Shocking as these figures are they still account for only 2% of WW II civilian deaths and leave 50 million other dead civilians killed in war by bombing and other means.
The number is too huge to contemplate.
But without the bombing it might well have been even higher.

 I don't know much about architecture . For a London memorial the bomber command one looks like it would certainly complement in size and scale, materials and design the other memorials and monuments in and around the Park Lane/Green Park area. But its not really my field so I'll leave that to the Guardian arts writers.

I suggest they also leave the moral history lesson to others.

War is cruelty. There's no use trying to reform it, the crueler it is the sooner it will be over.
-William Tecumseh Sherman

for the history buffs only

In BQ's opinion,  only the Royal Navy and merchant marine can claim to have had a really successful war. The Navy's successes far outweighed its failures. They triumphed in almost all of the battles they fought and defeated the submarine menace so that it was effectively over by 1943. Not a single German submarine got to any of the boats on D-Day. Or sunk any of the flotilla that invaded North Africa. Of the first wave of boats on D-Day, the minesweepers, they expected to take 50% losses. They didn't take one. The navy recused the army from Dunkirk. Again from Norway. Again from Greece and again from Crete. In Greece and from previous actions Royal Navy loses had been so heavy that the RN was in danger of having no capital ships left.
There was a gloomy conference about whether it should even try to evacuate troops from Crete.
"The Navy has never let the Army down" said Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, one of our greatest and least known Admirals.

And despite the heavy naval losses they prevented German sea troops from landing and evacuated a large part of the army successfully.
The navy existed to protect the sea lanes and to transport the army to and from its destination. In WW2 It achieved that spectacularly.

The army, like the air force had a much less successful war. Undeniably the best fighters on the allied side in France up to Dunkirk, the army was still defeated and almost destroyed, and lost all of its heavy equipment so painstakingly built up on meager budgets since 1931. The army enjoyed early success in Libya and Eritrea but was soon heavily defeated in the desert, Greece and Crete. The far east was a shambles with the Japanese achieving their D+28 week goals in 6 weeks and loss of the far east almost to India. The threat of a Japanese assault on Australia found the British Empire without any resources to send and one of the Empire's best allies, who's defence had always been implied,  had to rely on the USA for protection. 

It wasn't until late 1942 that the army came good and became a match for the Germans. By 1944 it was spent. Fighting troops had been in the line too long and were tired and replacements had been defending coastal forts in he UK for years and were not ready for battle. The British army was relatively poor after D-day and the battle honours, excluding the elite units, are few. Also bomber command was taking the brightest and best of available young men for the air war. The army had to make do with what was left after the navy had also taken its share.

Fighter command and the tactical air force in France were almost completely destroyed. Poor tactics and poor communications and a failure to realise that because our AA fire was ineffective the enemies wasn't. It was lethal. The battle of Britain was a great success but after the RAF used its its planes on sweeps over France. The idea was to scare up the Hun into a fight. The Germans simply attacked the sweeps when they were tactically advantaged  and ignored them when they weren't. Many RAF planes were lost and so many pilots too, in a fairly pointless 'dawn patrol' mentality.

Raf coastal command had been so neglected {for want of more bombers} between the wars that it was totally inadequate for its very important and soon to be realised essential role of protecting the seas from raiders and submarines. It took a long time to become properly equipped and until 1943 to be effective.

It really wasn't until 1944 that both RAF fighter and bomber arms became truly powerful in their roles. The Typhoon and Tempest rocket firing planes had a success rate against armoured vehicles attributed them that was so high, that even the US army requested RAF strikes from them. Quite unprecedented. 

Post war evaluation revealed that these strikes were never as effective as thought at the time. The large numbers of claimed tank kills was greatly exaggerated. A plane traveling at tree top level at 400 mph and trying to hit a vehicle the size of a panel van with what amounted to little more than a firework device was not going to be very accurate. But the Germans really feared them. One senior panzer commander was incensed and wrote of the stupidity of his crews in leaping from a 40 ton, steel protective container to rush around outside amongst the explosives and bullets. German troop movements slowed to a crawl and then became a night time only operation.

This is just an observation. There is no 'who's braver than whom.'  In battles fought and own losses vs enemies, and objectives achieved the royal Navy seems a clear winner. 
The army and air force might claim that is because the navy totally hogged the tiny defence budget from 1931 up until 1937. Admiral Cunningham said the Navy's success was down to tradition.
And having a former first lord of the Admiralty as PM probably didn't hurt either.

It was once noted to Admiral Cunningham that a defeated opposing Admiral had kept a copy of the 'Life of Nelson' by his bedside. 

 'Well, he evidently didn't read it.'



Raedwald said...

Excellent post! What a cracking good start to the day!

Electro-Kevin said...

Fantastic. I thoroughly enjoyed reading that and will recommend it.

A point:

It could be argued that conscripted servicemen were civilians too.

The distinction between innocents and those who might deserve to be killed is very blurred in the real world and I put it down to typical Lefty thickness that they try to make it.

Anonymous said...

"What's the point of asking if a modern family would go to a medieval hanging as a fun day out? "

You know they would.

Anonymous said...

Let's not overlook how the R&D on electronics for night-fighters, direction-finding and RADAR contribute.

And the work of the code-breakers to provide insights into enemy planning.

It was the US economy being turned to military production that won the war, but that also pulled the USA from Depression and let them take over from the British Empire as we'd been bled white by two wars.

And, of course, the French created the environment for the Nazis to seize power with their non-stop demand for WWI reparations from Germany.

Sebastian Weetabix said...

Interesting piece! I do get irritated with Lefties. On the one hand the bombing was futile, on the other it killed too many innocent civilians. Well, which is it?

Bomber Command did some good, from our point of view. Firstly it took the war to the Germans - from 1940 until 1945 it was the only way to hit them where it hurt, in their homeland. That helped our morale but mostly it made all those innocent civilian Germans (you know, the ones that elected Hitler in the first place, supported the war and turned a blind eye to genocide) understand that war comes at a price. Secondly it *did* hamper German industry and caused them to divert huge resources that otherwise would have been fully engaged at the front - the thought of those thousands of 88's pointing at Allied tanks rather than mostly firing into the air with little effect is an uncomfortable thought. But the biggest achievement of Bomber Command was to inflict such terror on the mass of the German population that it cured them of militarism.

They sowed the wind. They reaped a whirlwind.

Final thought: I'm not sure the Army was that bad in the war. They did get their arses kicked in 1940 but once the dead wood was cleared out of the officer corps and they got decent equipment they performed well. I remember reading an analysis (wish I could remember the exact reference, but I can't) that said the Wehrmacht was the most effective on a man-for-man basis and based on kill ratios, of their opponents the Russians were the least effective, the Americans were next, but the British Army was the best. Of course we must include under the umbrella term British the Canadians, the Kiwis, the Poles and so on.

As a former member of Crab Air I always thought there was a great deal of truth in the old adage that the Navy are officers pretending to be gentlemen, the Army are gentlemen pretending to be officers, and the RAF is neither pretending to be both.

Demetrius said...

We were surrounded by bomber fields and when they flew would watch all the squadrons going over. We hoped they would all get back but we also hoped that not a building in Germany would be left standing.

Bill Quango MP said...

Raedwald / EK. Thanks. Each day read both you works, even if don't always comment.

EK - and also on your point must be considered is a civilian factory worker making canteens that the military use, really a civilian?

The mother that looks after the children of the soldier, keeps the soldier in the front line..and so on.
War is war. The barbaric acts of WW2, for me, were the completely unnecessary, counter productive and murderous acts perpetrated.

The killing of prisoners, wholesale in Russia, only encouraged the Russians to never surrender. The killing of civilians in France by the axis troops achieved nothing but dead non combatants. And the death camps took potential workers to graves.

The bombing war was not the same. everyone knew women and children would die in terrible circumstances.
But that was not the primary aim. The Nazis could have stopped the deaths at any time by ending the war.

Jews and communists and undesirables, poles, Ukrainians, Slavs in camps could never avoid their fate except by the end of the Nazi regime.
Those living under occupation could not just ask the Germans to leave. They had to be driven out.
So the price the French civilians paid was high .{More French civilians were killed by allied bombs than UK citizens were killed by axis bombs.}

The mistake from the guardian is to not understand what a war crime is.
Throwing a hand grenade into a house whilst in battle is not a war crime.
its just war.

Shooting tied up prisoners, who have already surrendered, or civilians suspected of aiding partisans, IS a war crime.

Bill Quango MP said...

Anon- The modern family may like to go to a hanging. But would they take the kids and a picnic?
A witch burning?
Perhaps you're right.

But would a modern family happily purchase a slave? A real slave that was now their property in the same way as a new telly. they could feed the slave or not. Beat the slave or work them to death.

Its stupid to try and put modern sentiments on the actions of ancients. Why did Tony Blair apologise for the British Empire's involvement in the slave trade?
What purpose did it serve except to demonstrate that we wouldn't do it again.
We established that already in 1833 with the abolition of slavery.

Thud said...

An outstanding post and while one could argue with many of the finer points the post would remain mainly intact, yet again thanks for the great read.

Bill Quango MP said...

Anon. good examples of war winning equipment. The RAF should have been prepared for the bomber war in 1939, not 1944. They were totally unprepared and ill equipped and lost hundreds of their most experienced crews.
No side was really prepared. The Germans slightly better.The Americans more so.

What is odd is that the tactical and strategic arguments were accepted without much testing. "The bomber will always get through." The RAF must have known that its own fighters in 1938 were 100mph faster than its latest bomber.

SW: One of the most common misconceptions on the CIF comments is from people who {bizarrely for US hating lefties} point to the USA's more successful precision bombing.

In fact the US was area bombing. Not as willfully and uncaringly as the RAF, but still area bombing.
The famed Norden bomb sight was effective on the plains of Nevada. Less effective in the grey skies of Europe. Even less as it couldn't penetrate cloud and even less once the Germans started using huge smoke pot fires that buried the target under a dense black fog.

The US was more flexible in its targets, maybe.Still, Japanese cities were bombed to destruction. Firebombed away. Not much 'precision bombing' there.

As for the army, i sort of disagree. The performance of the British units on D-day was brilliant.
But afterwards the engagements are only being won with tremendous casualties. Monty even wrote that his favourite and best unit 7th armoured, desert rats, failed to perform.- too many casualties. too many senior officers killed, wounded, broken down.
The replacements were not as good.
Manpower was a terrific problem for the Commonwealth. That is often the reason given for Monty's over caution.
1} avoiding WW1 style slaughter.
2> the only way to replace losses was to lose battalions.

British and allied generals, at the time, complained about the chindits,commandos, paratroopers and other special service arms taking all the keenest, fittest, bravest and brightest men.
The British also suffered from 'not the last one to die' syndrome.

An infantrymen who had fought from say, Alamein to Rome, and saw the end of the axis in sight, was a lot less likely to risk his life.
Check out the allied advance and remove the elite units and see how average the army performed. Certainly not badly at all. Just not, as a whole, very dynamic.

And for your RAF gentlemen soldiers, as someone with an ex RAF brother and as a former CCF air force cadet, I can only agree.

Imagine that. Even a single bomber at an airshow creates a racket. I have thought before that the part of the airforce strategy 'to wake up the civilians and send them down the shelters so deprive them of sleep', must also have applied to our own people around the aerodromes.

Arnhem in most accounts is the memorable one. usually the RAF bomber stream would take off from multiple airfields and meet up over the north sea. As Arnhem was a narrow run and the transport planes based at fewer airfields , the stream went over coastal towns already formed up and the thunder of engines shook the buildings.

Nick Drew said...

Given its history, there was good reason to demand and expect the Navy to play well in WW2. (Perhaps the bigger surprise is that it had such an indifferent WW1.)

As to the other two services, I'd suggest that Arnhem indicates they still had a bit of verve about them well into 1944, despite the jaded summer spent breaking out from Caen. A bridge too far, of course: but within just 3 weeks of the last of the fighting in Normandy they were projecting power hundreds of miles forward.

I suppose you can say it was a special forces action: but it was a lot more than just a glorified commando raid.

Then again (arguing against myself), you could also say Horrocks' armoured thrust that was supposed to join the dots was prosecuted with far less vigour than was needed, which perhaps reinforces your view, BQ

Anonymous said...

Montgomery - "the trouble with our British lads is that they are not natural killers"

Anonymous said...

Most of the civilians in the cities of Germany were engaged in war production of one kind or another. That included most of the women, and even some of the children, who remained in their cities.

Unlike Britain, Germany did not evacuate its women and children to the countryside. As a result, their civilian casualties were much higher.

After the war, Albert Speer himself acknowledged that the single most significant factor in Germany's defeat was the RAF bombing campaign.

Modern-day leftists like to deplore the very means by which their "freedom to deplore" was

Sebastian Weetabix said...

Forgive me; as a military history bore I couldn't resist coming back for another bash.

Those British lads who were not natural killers destroyed 17 German divisions in the fighting around Caen, including elite Waffen SS Panzergrenadiers, while the Americans faced only 7 divisions. And afterwards the Yanks had the nerve to accuse the British of being slow; that is a canard. In the process our men at the sharp end suffered casualty rates in the fighting in the Bocage and around Caen from June to August '44 that were actually worse than the Somme in 1916. So yes, by late '44 Monty had to preserve his men; there weren't many left. Those that were still alive (like my late Uncle who fought with the Highland Division from Alamein through Tunisia and Sicily, through Normandy to the crossing of the Rhine until he was wounded) were very careful old soldiers indeed who were not about to lose their lives lightly when they enjoyed massive advantages in materiel. Who can blame them? Why charge a strong point when you are understrength due to losses and you have the luxury of overwhelming air support and artillery?

Regarding Horrocks going to Arnhem... pushing tanks up a single lane road on top of a dike with angry Germans enfilading the road? Hmm. I wouldn't be in a hurry either. Not Monty's finest hour, that plan. On the other hand... another example of American myth making regarding their own prowess is the Battle of the Bulge. According to them, Patton saved the day. Tosh. Yes, he relieved Bastogne, but the most important action was at the Meuse. The British Army's XXX Corps stopped the Germans at the Meuse bridges after the US Army broke and ran and then methodically set about destroying 2 Panzer and pushed them back. Sadly Monty crowed about it afterwards - the Americans never forgave him, with the honourable exception of General 'lightning Joe' Collins who remained an admirer of Monty to the end of his days.

Not such a bad Army after all. Perhaps we should be as proud of ours as the Yanks are (rightly) of theirs. After all, in the end we did win.

Anonymous said...

I've always thought it was a shame the Manhattan project didn't produce a weapon 12 months sooner which could have been dropped on Berlin to conclude the European war.

Bill Quango MP said...

ND - See Seb W for his comment.

Anon - Why didn't the Germans evacuate the cities? The numbers who fled after Hamburg and lived in the forests panicked the high command. Real - war ending panic.

Arnhem was a bad plan. But XXX corp was slow. The stories of armour and troops stopping for the night are real. Night actions would have been very costly and most unusual. But the paras were trapped and only the infantry/armour could rescue them. Urgency was not properly conveyed.

But the whole thing was wrong so it probably mattered little. the plan only worked if the Germans were still in full retreat. As we know, they weren't.

Not in any way trying to diminish our armies. Not only did the empire win, but it won having fought from day 1. And supplied assorted allies and the USSR with arms and equipment too.

The point I was making for us buffs was that the germans were better fighters than the British/commonwealth throughout most of the war. not by a large margin, but large enough. And in pure infantry terms our forces were comparable. Unit size. Small arms. Heavy weapons. Artillery. In armour we were outclassed for most of the war.

And your point about victory neatly sums up the post.
The Guardian fully expects to be read by post war generations and it always seems shocked that the MAJORITY, even of its own liberal/socialist readers are not anti-monarchist, peacenik, all war is wrong, student thinking types.

If you read some of the CIF comments {which i recommend,} they are thoughtful and educated. The commentators are not fooled by the trendy bombers were war criminals line. And you'd expect more to be . That debate was begun even during the war itself.[which underlines what the bombers were bombing for. to preserve democracy and a freedom of choice and speech and life. You'd think lefty columnists would know it was homosexuals, gypsies and communists going into the death camps.Their readers do}

On this occasion the guardian writers have been surprised at the unexpected pride of the post war + even post war film generation in the part the united kingdom and our allies played in the battle for the world that took place 70 years ago.

And in many ways it is odd. But just because the nation has a romanticised image of its history, doesn't mean that's wrong. Doesn't mean we don't know what really happened. We do.

But its up to the people to choose what and who they want to celebrate.
Look at the BBC's unexpectedly crass handling of the Queens's jubilee.
they clearly thought the nation didn't want a stuffy old Queen and some old tubs floating along a river- but a pop concert and celebs and sofa chat.

We know the Russians lost millions more and the yanks paid for the whole thing. So what?

As you so rightly pointed out, our nation won. Won despite the odds. Won despite the cost. And won a war against a truly evil empire.
So stuff your trendy wrong end of the telescope revisionism. our side bloody well won!

BTW - bonus question. Who knows why our armour was so poor during WW2? From day one to wars end it was passable at best,{funnies and firefly excepted}. We did invent the tank, so what happened to make us incapable of designing a war winning vehicle.

Our subs were as good as anyone elses. Our navy made better designed ships as the war went on. Our planes were generally as good , if not better, than most other forces. And that's in all categories. fighter, medium,Light,heavy bomber, recon, army co-op, seaplane, scout.
{possible exception of carrier bourne planes- but the swordfish did do the job.}
Our artillery was fine.

There is a very specific reason directly to do with the UK why tank design was not good.

Electro-Kevin said...

BQ - I think you'd enjoy The Devil's Guard about Waffen SS officers serving in the French Foreign Legion in Vietnam after WW2. It was that or face the wrath of the Ivans or the Yankees.

How lethal these troops were and how much more vicious (and effective) they were than our own or the Americans is evident throughout.

Nick Drew said...

SW - well I was a soldier; and my father too (WW2), so I'll second your motion: not such a bad Army after all

I also take pride in the fact that, after the Falklands, the Russians upped their assessment of the effectiveness of British army units to 90% of that of a their standard measure, a US unit (from its previous ranking of 70%) - and. by the way, the only reason the US unit scored higher was its superior equipment, which we can't deny

the upgrade was, essentially, due to fighting spirit: whatever Monty thought there are plenty of Brits (OK, predominantly paras and marines) who are up for a scrap

all this said, I think we must accept a degree of pretty thoroughgoing unprofessionalism in the British Army officer corps, and I know whereof I speak

Anonymous said...

Excellent lead articles and educated comments.
I have read a lot on the subject but had never seen the 17 division stat re Normandy before.At that point, the Germans were fighting desperatley and the Wafffen SS were particularly fanatical and experienced troops(i.e. brutal war in Russia). The Hitler Jugend div. (fanatical indoctrinated kids with experienced officers)were I think virtually annihalated around Caen but caused huge delay and casualties.
From what I have read it is also true that the former Desert Rats were cautious rather than dashing but can you blame them? 4 years of serious war already?
To obtain an understanding of how things were for those on the ground I recommend:

From Alemein to Zem Zem -Douglas

Patrol-Fred Majdalany

With the Jocks-Peter White

As for the air war, I went up in a Dakota a year or so ago. I know it wasn't a Halifax/Lanc but the thought of a bomber flight to Germany and back with all that goes with it in a similar airgraft - no thanks!
You are completely right about the fighter sweeps which cost the RAF unecessary casulaties and wasted resources.
Navy - I knew a bloke who had been a boy sailor from the 1938 class from HMS Ganges (I think producing 1000 trainees pa). He was on Repulse at Scapa Flow when Royal Oak was sunk.On the Bismarck chase after Hood was sunk they were sent straight to the USA for repairs. Then to Malaya with Prince of Wales, sunk by the Japs (they showed us who was boss!)5 hours in the water, rescued by an Aussie destroyer but they didn't have any rum! Leaving Sing. on a boat towing an officer's yacht sunk again and rescued by a Jap destroyer and handed over to the Jap army. 4 years in a pow camp and saved from death by the atom bomb and some Aussie medics parachuted into his camp, I think on Java.He stayed in the navy and ended up serving on a destroyer off Korea during that war. Came out of the Navy then went down the pit! Navy man until he died.
Stoisism, boredom,extreme trials,bravery and heroism and the will to simply carry on.
The Bomber Command Memorial looks to me to be inspiring albeit years too late thanks to the cowardice of our politicians.
Another reason to be proud to be British (as we knew it)and to retain the memory.
(sorry about spelling-it's late)

Timbo614 said...

A great post BQ and great comments by everyone too, but to my mind, we are examining with hindsight and with horror the barbarity of war via the technicalities and strategies of war.

The individual's war consisted of loyalty, nationalism, heroism and self sacrifice and a lot more, like the ingenuity of the of people at the time.

Here and now, 70 years later with a financial crisis and tsunami created by very few of our kind still in progress, with nationalism on the rise once again, with fascism and totalitarianism almost rampant at the EU centre, we are lucky. We are lucky that people today still remember the horror of it. We still know people who were part of it, the stories are still fresh in our memories. Will this situation persist? How long before the memories are like ours of 1812 or the like?

Will our future leaders forget? Will our current leaders & eurocrats not take history into account?

I see the financial furore, but I have to say, as much as I hate it, that any amount of conjoured money, any amount of make believe EU bonds, quadrillions of them if you wish, is preferable to another war such as the last two. Even Chancellor Merkel, especially Chancellor Merkel and her associates, who are not currently allowed to forget, has to, and is, climbing down from the hard stance, because the memories are still fresh.

WW1 was "A war to end all wars" how quickly we forgot.

Anonymous said...

Great post,
Do you have anything more to add regards the far-east?
I have read about that recently from several sources but really I still don't get how the Brits performed so poorly when we out numbered the Japs so heavily in most of the battles in Malaya.

What do you make of the actions of Gordon Bennet, his escape etc.

To answer about why we had no good tank?
erm, because we were too busy building planes? guess not but, that was the focus early on was it not?

You said the Navy defeated the U-Boat threat, but they used planes to do it, no?
And also the coastal commands DH Mosquito supposedly had a big impact on U-Boat hunting, from what I read elsewhere, not so?

Electro-Kevin said...

BQ - It's a privilege to have you visit my rather flawed little blog.

Many thanks.

Sebastian Weetabix said...

Re: tanks - I'll bite!

One problem was that the gun design people were in a completely different location to the chassis design people, so they never picked a gun and then built the tank around it; rather they were given a chassis and had to make a gun fit in it - totally the opposite of the German approach. Then there was the doctrinal idiocy of having infantry tanks - heavy armour, v. slow, totally unsuited to fast mobile warfare (eg the Matilda) and cavalry (cruiser) tanks - fast, hardly any armour, undergunned (eg the Crusader)... but most of all they had to fit our railway wagons. So necessarily the turret ring size was restricted, so the gun size was limited - they could never fit a gun as good as or as big as the German 88mm. Of course there was the Sherman Firefly which had an excellent 17pdr gun which could take out Tigers and Panthers - but to fit it in the turret they had to take out everything else, including the radio, which was mounted externally in a bin added to the back of the turret! So Firefly Shermans were always paired with 2 conventional Shermans that had machine guns and standard HE shells rather than AP.

Perhaps the final word goes to Percy Hobart (pioneer of armoured warfare, who loathed the army establishment) who said the cavalry would never willingly give up their horses until a tank was developed that could eat hay and shit all over the parade ground.

Y Ddraig Goch said...

Am I too late for the tank competition?

At first I thought this was a trick question - and that there is in fact no single cause. As SW says above, problems with British tank deployment included

- Poor and confused military doctrine demanding infantry and cruiser tanks, neither of which were much good. (Cruiser tanks too vulnerable, infantry tanks too slow and heavy, both under-gunned)

- Design to fit on UK railways with a smaller than European loading gauge, hence limited width for the tank and all the design limitations that flowed from that.

- Generally poor build quality leading to unreliability. This was not unique to tanks, or even that era (see British Leyland 30 years later) but was (and remains) a pervasive British problem.

- Failure to recognise the need for (never mind provide) better guns. The British 6lb anti-tank gun entered service in May of 1942, compared to April 1941 for the comparable German 50mmm gun.

But then I realised, there's a common theme.

Defective military doctrine and gun selection comes from poor generals making bad decisions ... Poor build quality comes from poor managers making bad decisions ...

So, if there's a single cause, it's consistently poor decision making by low quality senior leaders.

Bill Quango MP said...

Re the tank question the uniquely British problem was indeed the narrow gauge railways that plague us to this day. Curse our Victorian forefathers for inventing the railways instead of ripping off later, more improved patents.
The 1,435 mm standard gauge adopted in 1845 in England IS now the world standard.

But Germany had a larger broad gauge. The gauge sets the height of tunnels and width of cuttings etc. Russia had a broader gauge still, so their ww2 tanks are bigger and heavier.

The other reasons; factory space, production techniques, incorrect assessment of requirement applied to other nations too. American tank doctrine was all over the place and they consistently drew the wrong lessons from the European war.
Hence the US Sherman M4 - workhorse of the army, MEDIUM tank being almost as tall as German Heavy and Russian Super Heavy tank.

And you are quite right that the design limitations of width, dictate the turret ring size, hence size of gun that can be carried.

And as soon as the UK decided it could send tanks by road the centurion was developed. A tank as good as anyone eles's postwar AFV's. all knew that, anyway. What nerds we are!

So..a mystery that I have no answer for. Given the UK's chassis limitations {the long, thin tank design] why was no proper tank destroyer invented?

A tank destroyer along the German Marder lines was cheap and simple and mounted a 7.62mm gun at a time when the standard German panzer could only manage a 50mm.
The more specialised German TDs were still much cheaper and more compact than a medium tank. The weight far less, {no turret} and the silhouette low.
Even the much more specialised still US TDs with open turrets were cheaper and could accommodate a larger anti tank gun than a tank.

Yet the British Army waited until the end of 1944 to deploy its 'ARCHER' tank.
A 17pdr facing rearwards on the {very} old Valentine chassis.
The ACHILLES TD was an existing US M10 tank destroyer with the much better {but massive and heavy} 17pdr gun.

But before mid 1944 when the Germans had 50mm and 75 mm tank guns? Why didn't we mount the 6pdr?
The US did. They copied it and made their 57mm which fitted their M10 tank destroyers.

Good for defence..but we were going forwards so..erm..?
Still, it was well liked and quite effective.

The German,USSR and USA developed cheap, and effective

Y Ddraig Goch said...


"What nerds we are!"

Guilty. I thought I might be safe here.

" ...why was no proper tank destroyer invented?

A tank destroyer along the German Marder lines was cheap and simple and mounted a 7.62mm gun at a time when the standard German panzer could only manage a 50mm."

Interesting point. Trying that in Britain, what gun would you use? Prior to mid '42 there were no 6 lb guns and you'd have to wait another year for 17lb. Even longer to get them in quantity. Plus, of course, the 6 lb was 57mm calibre so in no way comparable to the Marder. The Valentine that you rightly describe as "old" was chosen because it was a rare example of a mechanically reliable British design.

An interesting alternative would have been a much earlier variant of the Mosquito "TseTse". That was a 6lb gun hung under a Mosquito but the same thing could have been done much earlier with a 2 lb gun under a Blenheim (and others). In North Africa they would have been devastating. They might even have been useful against U-boats.

Bill Quango MP said...

Thanks for all the book tips. I have only read one of them, so plenty to seek out.

Gordon Bennett is a tricky one. A junior officer leaving troops would almost certainly face desertion charges. However there are numerous accounts of it. Usually once a unit was cut off or surrounded. Normal practice seemed to be telling all soldiers to either make a break or surrender.

Bennett went on his own and has actions were not looked on favourably.

That maybe because of what followed. In the Japanese pow camps. But Bennett wasn't to know.

I have read a couple of accounts of
Perceval , who surrendered at Singapore with all allied forces., that try to say he did as well as he could.
Neither was particularly convincing.

The far east itself? We did ok, in the end. Better than ok, really, considering the Europe first approach.

The Royal Navy had begged the politicians, for years, to make sure that the allied fleets were never over stretched. Britain and France could handle Germany and Italy or Japan and Germany, just, but not all three.

Imagine the cries of "what did I say to you!" when it was Germany,Italy and suddenly Japan. A two ocean war for a one ocean navy.

Anonymous said...

re Malaya
As I understand it there were a number of basic problems:
1. GB was incredibly stretched defending home territory, Atlantic convoys and fighting in the middle east. Far east came 3rd/4th.
2. The kit in the far east was largely second rate e.g Brewster Buffalo fighters and Vickers Videbeest biplane torpedo bombers.(pilots/aircrew were heroic).
3. Poor command (perhaps biggest problem)
4.Outdated ideas on war and complete (initial) fear of the jungle.
5. inexperienced/raw troops.
5. Poor opinion of and failiure to recognise Jap abilities (now called racism).
6. Poor co-ordination between land and ground forces.
7. What radar was there was used poorly tanks!
9. Yanks had agreed to send navy to Singapore if it was attacked. Pearl Harbor put a stop to that. Repulse and Prince of Wales sunk very quickly without air cover.(poor co-ordination).
It all went tits up very quickly but in view of above(not comprehensive!) no surprise.

I posted above re the gentleman I knew on HMS Repulse. He said we went there to show them but they showed us who was boss! It came as a shock.

Yanks/Dutch did no better. Philipines/Wake Island disaster for Yanks.

Plenty of books on the subject but there is one called 'Bloody Shambles' about the RAF in Malaya at this time which probably sums it up.

At the risk of steryotyping however please note that it was the Vichy French who gave the Japs staging off posts in Thailand in order to attack Malaya.

Electro-Kevin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Electro-Kevin said...

UK railway guages were determined by the width of a horse's arse.


4'6" - the width of the axle on a Roman chariot

James Higham said...

If Harris had been less of a fanatic he might have been able to achieve a more rapid collapse of the Axis without the continuation of Area bombing into 1945

Yes but as you pointed out, it was not ineffective as an overall strategy, the bombing.

Anonymous said...

If the US had not entered the war in Europe then Bomber Command would have been the only way Britain could possibly have defeated the Nazis. The US, of course, bombed Germany with reckless abandon - and Switzerland too. They were always dropping bombs on Switzerland.

BQ writes this tosh as if somehow Britain was grossly inferior to the Nazis - forgetting that throughout the war the Nazis were unable to effectively attack any part of Britain north of Coventry, a fact that ultimately allowed Britain and the US to slowly aggragate forces on this island.

Meanwhile he ignores the advance of the 8th Army from North Africa through Italy and into Austria.

Anonymous said...

"Do you have anything more to add regards the far-east?
I have read about that recently from several sources but really I still don't get how the Brits performed so poorly when we out numbered the Japs "

At least in Burma the Japs were initially successful because:

1] They were able to co-opt independence fighters in Burma who knew the territory far better than the Brits. The Burmese later had reason to regret this.

2] The Japs never signed the Geneva convention and often tortured captives. They focused on Burmese civilians since they usually knew more about the British army then individual British soldiers!

3] The Japs were extreme fighters often fighting to the death rather than risk capture. The Japanese army was just as brutal to its own men as it was to the enemy.

Strangely the Japs were undone by the Brits (or at least British led forces) learning everything from the Japs. They learned jungle warfare and got better at it than the Japs. They tortured Japs and civilians and got better quality information from it. They learned to take very heavy losses to achieve certain small key objectives. I suspect that a similar approach in Afghanistan would have a far better impact than our current strategy, but we seem to be more intent on using Afghanistan as a live training ground for conventional warfare.

Electro-Kevin said...

The Jungle is Neutral by Lt Col Freddie Spencer Chapman

Sebastian Weetabix said...

Anonymous @ 1045 is not correct. The Germans were able to attack north of Coventry very effectively. Clydebank in particular was obliterated (I know because a number of my relatives were killed in the Clydebank blitz in March 1941) but it was hushed up at the time due to censorship. Everybody in the Glasgow area knew exactly what had happened and yet the papers weren't allowed to describe it! Clydeside in general continued to be heavily attacked until the Germans turned their attentions to Russia and the bombers flew east. They also heavily attacked Liverpool, Hull, Sheffield and so on and on. All Britain's major ports and industrial centres were bombed. The idea that Luftwaffe attacks were confined to the south is simply wrong.

Two things put paid to the German blitz. Firstly they turned their attentions on Russia so they simply didn't fly over as much as before, but we also developed effective Airborne Intercept radar allowing our night fighters to shoot down Germans in the dark. In 1940 we couldn't even find them. Hence the daft propaganda story in 1941 of "Cat's Eyes" Cunningham eating carrots so he could see in the dark.

Jer said...

If my old history teacher was reliable at no point from 1942 was less than 75% of the German army fighting on the Eastern front.

Not to denigrate anything done by the Brits or Americans, but the German army was destroyed, and it was destroyed by the Soviets.

At great cost.

Bill Quango MP said...

Anon - 10.45.
I don't think we disagree that much. This isn't a nazi fanboy piece. The truth is after 2 years of war the allies had failed everywhere except Italian East Africa,against the Italians.
Not until El Alamein , that's winter 1943, did allied forces deliver a really powerful defeat to German troops.

And the scale of battle, as Jer adds below, was tiny compared to the forces on the eastern front.

Could Britain and America alone have defeated Germany and Japan?
Very doubtful, until atomic bomb.

Could British empire alone? - Not a hope. This isn't new. Churchill said it himself, at the time. Once the Americans were in Britain and co could no longer lose.

So, As said earlier, I do think the bombing war was a viable strategy. Because once Germany had extended its coastline from the Franco/Spanish border to the arctic circle blockade was going to take huge resources, mostly wasted as Germany was being supplied by Russia anyway.
So bombing it was. What else was there?

Anon- Re far east -yes a very fair summary. However, what is unforgivable is we already learned all those lesson in Norway and France and Libya.
I believe the trouble was there was no overall information, tactics, training guides. We had been badly beaten and were struggling just to make good losses. There really wasn't new evolved strategy guide learn the lessons. just learn by experience.

Ek - so, a train track is a chariots
width? Well well.

JH: Quite. I don't hold with the idea that because the bombing could have been done better it was a failure, or it shouldn't have been done at all. Harris did not know that the transportation plan would work. All the previous other air ministry schemes hadn't been correct, why would that one be any different.
Even his own memoirs show his ruthless, focused, no argument stance.

The fault was Churchill's.
If he had wanted an air Marshall who would be more strategically flexible he had only to appoint one. Churchill was not shy about interfering with his top brass.

SW - the Germans never built a bomber force. They couldn't afford to. At the beginning of 1940 they decided that the JU88, twin engine, multi-role plane was the answer to everything and Goring ordered 4,000 of them {at the time double the amount of planes in the entire Luftwaffe}
The Luftwaffe never even got these. There were no resources for 4 engine bombers. The UK could barely sustain its own program, and never without US lend Lease and aid.

Nick Drew said...

a train track is a chariots

there are places in Italy you can see chariot-tracks of this width worn into paved Roman streets

dearieme said...

My father was grateful that he fought German armour in a Churchill tank rather than a Sherman. He viewed Shermans as death traps.

He also told me that the short-barrelled 6-pounder gun with sabot ammunition gave him an advantage over the German armour in the bocage country: he could turn a turret when the Germans couldn't. He was at a disadvantage once they'd got to clear ground - but there he could call up Typhoons.

Anonymous said...

"If my old history teacher was reliable at no point from 1942 was less than 75% of the German army fighting on the Eastern front."

Irrelevant. On the Western front the Germans needed their army because they were advancing into enemy territory. On the Eastern front they were already dug in. The 8th Army had to fight a German army that had dug in to positions all along the Apennine ridge.

phil5 said...

@EK re Freddie Spencer Chapman, I *think* he was the guy my father's Liberator dropped in the jungle in Burma - twice. He was a navigator in Coastal Command operating from Sri Lanka (Celyon back then).

And re another's comment about "going to war in the evening", I remember my mother reminiscing about living on the base in Devon and waving my father off to war in a Wellington (anti-submarine sweeps witha huge light slung underneath), and comforting one wife whose husband's plane did not return - hit the sea probably my Dad reckoned.