Friday 1 March 2019

Brexit & the Arnhem Fallacy

How can it happen?  When one of the best-known maxims on strategy is, errr, so well known?   No plan survives first contact with the enemy.  Or in Mike Tyson's vernacular: every sucker has a plan - 'til he gets punched in the mouth.  Yes, it's very well know indeed.

Makes no difference, of course, when the strategists are tired or stupid or distracted or whatever it is that undermines good judgement.  I give you the Battle of Arnhem (1944).  Operation Market Garden was conceived in a fearful rush - fighting in Normandy was still being conducted in the last week of August, and yet the Netherlands, two whole countries further on, was being invaded from the air by 17th September.  Actually, the plans were based broadly on several previous airborne ventures that were never launched, so they didn't start entirely from scratch.  However, any plan needs to be crafted specifically for the precise circumstances at hand.

And by Heaven they screwed up.  Many will be familiar with the episode in detail, and here's not the place to retell the whole story.  However, one massively salient (no pun intended) feature was that no account was taken of how the Germans might respond.  The enemy was deemed to be a passive entity to be taken by surprise, brushed aside and more or less left in the role of a lamely protesting spectator.

But the German army was never quite like that: its powers of recovery, reorganisation and tactical response were astonishing, legendary.  They'd been doing it to the Allies all up Italy and across the Eastern front for a year or more.  And of course at Arnhem too: they responded, adroitly, resolutely and successfully.

I bring all this up because it's been highly relevant all through the Brexit fiasco, and continues to be so even at the death.  Every player - May, ERG, Official Labour, Starmer's private operation, any number of backbench cunning-planners - they all announce something that cannot be delivered unilaterally; that necessarily involves the enemy.  And Selmayr is quite capable of reacting, in his own interests, to whatever comes his way.  Parliament can pass all the motions it likes about renegotiating the deal, removing the backstop, delaying the Big Day, etc etc.  But it makes no odds if the other side has different ideas.  Even (as I understand it) 'unilaterally' revoking Art 50 is a qualified matter:  it may not restore the status quo ante, and might come with bells and whistles (e.g. - can't invoke it again any time soon; must be 'genuine' etc).   And even that's only an Opinion:  yet again, the enemy may have a surprise for us if we try it.

Hence I reply to 'Andrew' who noted BTL the other day a snippet from Alphaville: 
"...a theoretical non-payment of pre-committed EU funds by the UK would lead to an immediate funding gap for Commission programmes. Borrowing is not an option for the EU due to the terms of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. An emergency budget renegotiation meanwhile is possible but extremely politically complex, and unlikely to offer an immediate solution" 
"So much for weak negotiating position", said Andrew: but I fear that's to fall into the trap again.  Suppose May assumes that's a knock-dead gambit on our part and pulls the plug on the first payment of the £39bn (due quite soon).  We know exactly what would happen.  We'd wake up next morning to find a headline stating that actions had been taken overnight under some emergency power that Selmayr had invented for himself, and that the Commission was content to pursue the UK through the international courts at its leisure.

A comment I made ages ago on George 'Boy' Osborne (equally aposite to Frederick 'Boy' Browning) is that being by nature a strategist is all very well; but what is needed is good strategists.  Do we have any?  I've seen absolutely no sign of one.



Swiss Bob said...

I'm struck by how much of the UK negotiation seems to be intra-UK, with politicians trying to strike bargains with each other rather than Brussels. For example they spent a lot of time on the "Malthouse Compromise" only to discover it'd never fly in Brussels, something they ought to have known in the first place if they'd spoken to diplomats. The same with Corbyn and the referendum saga which appears to be a party management issue and so Brussels look on aghast as the UK navel gazes. In short there's little engagement and testing of ideas in Brussels which results in hopeful plans collapsing again and again.

Anonymous said...

If the EU can make the rules on a whim to suit their own interests, then what would a good strategy look like?

Gary said...

So the EU pursues us through the courts...and that's bad for us how? Presumably we haven't paid (or they wouldn't need to take action), so while the courts deliberate Brussels is on fire as it reaches insolvency in maybe 3 months.

What's not to like?

Nick Drew said...

Anon - big question, several beers: how long have you got?

Gary - well, errr, that's my point. Brussels would not be on fire! That's the old "well, the enemy won't do anything ..." fallacy. They'd spring into action and put the bloody fire out!

jim said...

If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

This never was a battlefield or anything like it. This was leaving a club and having a discussion with the club secretary as to what colour bin liner we could use when we took our stuff and cleared off. Perhaps HMG misunderstood the process or maybe they dared not tell the electorate that their real position was as supplicants. Now the cat is out of the bag.

The UK has a different style of debate to most of the EU members. We have implacable opposition with all manner of screaming and shouting. They have something a bit closer to rational debate. Debate looks like winning and the bin liner is a plain black sack.

Anonymous said...

A strategy that very much included reference to the enemy would have been something not so much neglected by May and what one must call her "team" as one beyond both her imagination and her capacity - in fact something the Wehrmacht was rather good at, attack as the best form of defence. I read an interesting piece in, was it The Spectator - maybe the Telegraph - speculating about Trump as chief Brexit negotiator in 2016. Say what you like about him, he does actually know about negotiation, as evidenced the other day in Vietnam with Kim when, as he said, sometimes you have to walk away. May was never going to do this. The idea would probably have struck her as bad manners, or something. Instead, she bunged them £39 billion with no conditions... After that of course, everything went downhill - as it would. One didn't need to be Trump to see this was going to happen: we covered our faces with our hands, moaned a little, and braced ourselves for the dispiriting sequence of humiliation & failure which would inevitably follow. As it has for more than 2½ years, and very few of us could have forseen quite such a protracted death-wish by May, a sort of Dracula's Daughter sucking the lifeblood from the corpse of the body politic.
Re Arnhem, I thought the key failure was intelligence, grossly understimating the Wehrmacht units on the ground nearby?

Anonymous said...

" We have implacable opposition with all manner of screaming and shouting. They have something a bit closer to rational debate."


The obvious take away from the Brexit vote was that the EU was never going to make it easy - the last thing they want is a prosperous UK as a permanent temptation for other EU members to follow. Politics outweighs economics here - remember they were quite prepared to impoverish the Greek people for the sins of their leaders.

Incidentally, Greeks must really love their country. Very few here considering, far more Spaniards/Portuguese/Albanians/Turks - and the latter two aren't even in the EU!,

Anonymous said...

Individual initiative

"Although (General Kurt) Chill only officially commanded the 85th Infantry Division, which had suffered heavy casualties during the retreat from Normandy, he had assumed command of the remnants of the 84th and 89th Infantry Divisions en route. Initially ordered to take his command to the Rhineland for rest and reinforcements, Chill disregarded the order and moved his forces to the Albert Canal, linking up with the 719th; he also had "reception centers" set up at the bridges crossing the Albert Canal, where small groups of retreating troops were picked up and turned into ad hoc units."

The misfortune of 2 Panzer divisions resting and refitting nearby, and the shooting of the messenger, Brian Urquhart, who pointed this out. The plan's all ready to go, and here's some moaning minnie finding objections! Ignore him and mark his card!

"He became convinced that the plan was critically flawed, and attempted to persuade his superiors to modify or abort their plans in light of crucial information obtained from aerial reconnaissance and the Dutch resistance."

One of my reactionary heroes, the novelist James Barlow, made the battle a major part of his novel The Patriots, about a Para veteran who turns armed train robber (it was written before the Great Train Robbery).

Nick Drew said...

Malcolm, @ the key failure was intelligence, grossly understimating the Wehrmacht units on the ground nearby?

not so much failing to recognise the numbers, as to grasping how well the Germans would quickly re-organize those badly-mauled, understrength units into new ad hoc fighting formations. And there were several intelligence people who could point to the sound contrary advice they gave. (The RAF were major villains in this piece ... but I said, this isn't the place!)

Anon @ 3:49 has the essence of it. Confident, contructive initiative at high amd medium levels of command, and troops trained so as to slot effectively into whatever situation and 'unit' they found themselves. The German system for encouraging this, known as Auftragstaktik was adopted across NATO in the late 80's, as part of the big upgrading of forces at that time. It's applicable in civilian ventures, too - whenever hands-on, top-down / centralised micro-management is either impossible or undesirable

(We Brits have not traditionally conducted war that way. Nelson left some big decisions to a handful of trusted deputies, but basically expected close attention to his orders. Wellington even more so. Both he and Napoleon were geniuses of micro-management: Wellington called it "taking pains". Their ability to spring big surprises on the enemy depended on them having all the reins in their hands.

Funny, isn't it? The Brits - anarchic, unprofessional, and happy-go-lucky, expect to run on top-down, detailed orders. The Germans - precise, efficient and anal, expect significant initiatives from commanders several rungs down from the very top ...)

Bill Quango MP said...

ND: Arnhem is always a useful lesson for us.

Overconfidence. A belief in the very elite. Poor planning. Much too small HQ staffs of much too limited academic ability officers.
In the Arnhem case, it was just a bad plan. The other things that occurred only made the awful plan worse. It was a bad idea from conception.

Very much like May's backstop Bino. Its just a terrible plan, made worse by the reactions of others.

Don't forget this one, Nick. May in action at oosterbeek

Nick Drew said...

Bloody brilliant! - as ever, BQ

Bill Quango MP said...

Just on Arnhem, I've board wargamed it many times. Once on a huge, 5 map, 2000 counter game with five or six players each side.
It is quite easy to win as the allies. But ONLY if the rules allow for alternative set up.
Then the US 82nd Airbourne is given the far bridge at Arnhem. They have much better and more numerous artillery. And many, many more gliders. 1st airborne gets the middle drop, where 30 corps artillery can reach them quite quickly.
And much more weight is given to the middle portion of the battlefield. Holding the heights and moving out quickly. Nijmegen isn't very well defended at the start. Can usually be taken on day one or two. It's the reinforcements that continuously trickle in from the remnants of 7 army group, that retreated from Calais, that make it a tough nut.
Plus the Arnhem drop is moved closer to the bridge and risk the flak.

All of that supposes supreme hindsight unavailable to the actual allies. If played as must drop with the plan, it is very, very hard to win. As the odd company of pzGrn pops up on the flank and scoops a bridge here and there. And the timetable is soon out the window

david morris said...

Remain (geddit) baffled as to why Leaving is apparently such a Herculean proposition.

Unless our beloved political class lied to us about the nature & purpose of the EU ??

Anonymous said...

you have it.
They have been caught in a lie and are desperately trying to wriggle out and keep the LibLabCon in play. Whatever the Brexit outcome- and May's 'deal' is BRINO, I think it's all over.
I wonder what they will come up with next.
Tiggers = Blair party something like en marche? No chance methinks.
Will have to be rigged PR system and lots more censorship of web and crack down on current and new thought-crime.

p.s. On German Kampfgruppen in WW2 can recommend
Battle Group by James Lucas

pp.s. There is also a good book on Arnhem 'through German eyes' but can't remember title.

Charlie said...

Anon: "Incidentally, Greeks must really love their country. Very few here considering, far more Spaniards/Portuguese/Albanians/Turks"

Come and visit my bit of north London. The UK's 300k ethnic Greeks all live in N21.

Anonymous said...

Good opinion piece by Amir Taheri:

E-K said...

Sorry I... how can I put this ?

This isn't a fight - it is a rout already. May went into it without a gun and saying "Please don't hit me".

I wouldn't mind betting she apologised on our behalf.

Y Ddraig Goch said...


"Just on Arnhem, I've board wargamed it many times. Once on a huge, 5 map, 2000 counter game with five or six players each side."

A bit off topic but, what rules did you use? The one time I played a computer game of Arnhem it was nowhere near as flexible as that.

Sackerson said...

@ND: If this civvy may offer an opinion, I'd say the EU may be clever tactically but so much so they risk disaster strategically. Irrespective of our side's cowardice and incompetence, "events" (banking collapse and EU demands for megamoney to shore it up? growing historical-cyclic global economic depression? war in the Ukraine that sees the first use of tactical nuclear weapons?) will produce a crisis and if we don't part now on reasonable terms there may be a bloody great ripping noise later.

If we go now they'll be too busy keeping what they've still got, to pursue their mad ideas of lebensraum in the East or coopting Africa into the Union (who was that Europrat who mooted the latter very recently? Can't find it just now.)

Sackerson said...

... ah yes it was "Guy the Guerilla" Verhofstadt twit-tweeting on a "single Euro-African economic area" (EEC 2):

Nick Drew said...

Sackers @ EU may be clever tactically but so much so they risk disaster strategically

absolutely agree: may do a post on this

there really is sometimes a deal that's just "too good" for one side - & it never sticks

(BTW, though, one of the probs with May, her 'deal' and her craven proclivities, is that if Eu (moins UK) does rush off to war in Ukraine (e.g.) they'll find a way of announcing we are obliged to help them ...)

Sackerson said...

@ND: "They'll find a way of announcing we are obliged to help them" - which is a not inconsiderable reason why we should get out now, oh yes.

Anonymous said...

I must say a German-dominated EU sending tanks into Ukraine (even if only as minor US partners) will be great optics.

I pray we keep out of it, but I bet we don't. We've gone along with every stupid, murderous policy in ME/North Africa. Syria is a rogue state and we must raise proxy guerillas to fight them, but Egypt gets a ton of aid while they're killing off opponents eight left and centre.

"a single Euro-African economic area"

With each African country having a vote, better still votes proportional to population! And free movement of course.

I suppose they'd just bribe the African leaders and promise them a safe home in Switzerland if it went tits up in their particular kleptocracy.

andrew said...

I started off mentioning that it would be funny.

(and it would be and as with all humour, at some point one stops laughing)

The second thing is it is one strong card. It is a nuclear option but it is there. The norks seem to have done quite well out of their one card for the last few years - without playing it.
Just shows you how useless TM is.

It also exposes the limits of 'politics as war' parallels.
In arnheim, it was get all the bridges.
In WW2 it was beat the germans
The success path was complex and strewn with failures.

In brexit we are not enforcing regime change. the same people will be on the phone and at meetings on 28 March and 01 April.

Moreover, never mind strategy (a plan of action designed to achieve a long-term or overall aim.)

What does success (or failure) look like?
What is the aim?

'leave' is a blank canvas on which everyone has painted their desires (including remainers).

E-K said...

"Leave the EU" is pretty unequivocal.

Trying to stay in the EU IS the problem now.

Bill Quango MP said...

YDG - For a computer game, John Tiller's PC game is one. They are being converted to ipad.

Main issue with it is the windows 3.1 interface.
Its a long slog to play.

Boardgames, Highway to the Reich, of you can find it and afford it.
Or Hells highway, Victory Games.

Y Ddraig Goch said...

BQ @ 11:17

Thank you.

(I just checked Ebay and I see what you mean about Highway to the Reich.)