Monday, April 22, 2019

Which Powers could afford to ’do it all’ in World War Two


There’s an old saying that David and Leigh Eddings paraphrased in one of their fantasy books: “any fool can raise an army,  but you start running into trouble around suppertime.” 

(Which is just a simplified way of saying that amateurs discuss tactics, but professionals think logistics.)

So let’s consider World War Two from the ‘who can afford what’ perspective.

Any fool politician can promise Lebensraum, or a Mare Nostrum, or a Greater Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere: the problem comes when your nation lacks the resources to buy the equipment you need to make your plan stick.

It would be correct to suggest that the most rag-tag of ‘governments’ can raise and equip an infantry force, and possible give it some artillery support. Mao and Tito spring to mind, but the Hungarians, Bulgarians and Iranians wouldn’t be far off. (One particularly entertaining description of the vast Operation Barbarossa - the Axis invasion of Russia – describes hundreds of gaily painted peasant carts masquerading as the Rumanian logistics column.) 

Perhaps your government is a bit more advanced in both your tax collection and your industrial base, and you can manage a few armoured cars or tanks, and maybe even a nominal number of fighters and bombers. Think Nationalist China, Finland, Belgium, Greece and Turkey. That still doesn’t mean that you can also manage more than a token number of destroyers or coastal defence ships to manage defensive support. Frankly Canada, Australia, India and possibly even South Africa were greater 'powers' than any of those.

The actual capacity to project power to other parts of the world in your own right – rather than under the auspices of your allies - requires not only a developed army and air force, but a naval element of – at a minimum – a good balanced cruiser force with adequate resources to back it up. Think Spain and Brazil... and, again, Australia.

Actually protecting far flung imperial possessions requires even a bit more than that. (Spain had discovered this while losing a brief war with the United States - which had run out of land to imperially conquer from the French, native Americans or Mexicans, and – after a couple of abortive attempts to invade Canada - therefore turned a quick takeover of overseas bits. Mainly Spanish possessions like the Philippines, but also including otherwise independent states like Hawaii.) 

In fact the best defence of a far flung empire if you couldn’t match other people’s battle fleets was a good submarine force. Think the Netherlands, and particularly it’s half dozen cruisers and two dozen submarines protecting the Netherlands East Indies.

But it is a big jump from a token overseas empire, to being able to play with the big boys. The financial and industrial resources necessary to developing military forces capable of fighting other major powers is simply beyond the resources of more than half a dozen nations at any time. Which is why the term ‘Great Powers’ has always come down to those capable of standing their ground against other great powers.

Personally I have always found the idea of a ‘Superpower’ to be complete bunk. Even Alexander, Octavius, Genghis  and Napoleon had their limits. Admittedly there was a time post the Napoleonic war when the British could use the brief economic and industrial break they had managed to open on everyone else to pretty much do what they want. But that was only if what they wanted didn’t conflict with the goals of any two or three of the other Great Powers of the day. (The Crimean War being an excellent example of the limitations of power projection regardless of your economic and naval superiority…) Britain was ‘Primus inter pares’ (first among equals) rather than a super-power. 

Similarly the idea that either the United States or the Soviet Union were able to dictate to each other during the Cold War (when the stupid term was invented) is obviously laughable. More recently I remember one US Admiral - visiting the University where I was doing a ‘Strategic and Defence Studies Scholarship’ - stating that the days when the USN could influence India on it's own by parking a carrier battle group off the coast were long gone…. that was in 1991!

At this point the US would be hard put to face challenges simultaneously from China, Syria, and Iran. Throw in issue with Russia, Libya and North Korea, and the US position would start to look like Britain alone facing the three Axis powers in 1941. But in fact the Vietnam war (US), and 1980’s Afghan war (USSR) proved what Britain had known since the previous centuries Afghan war… that the idea of a superpower has always been a bit of a fantasy. (Or as France had known since Napoleon; or the Ottomans had known since Vienna; or the Romans had known since Emperor Valerian was captured by the Persians at Edessa and spent the rest of his life as a footstool to his captor… I could go on…). 

Frankly, if you can’t beat a third world peasant force, you should stop pretending to be anything other than merely ‘Great’.

Being ‘Great’ in the ‘Great War’ just meant being powerful enough that it would take two or three other great powers to push you around… and by that I mean militarily defat and force to surrender. By that definition the Turks were clearly no longer a great power (joining the Spanish in the ‘ex’ league). Meanwhile the Russians, Italians and Austro-Hungarians were hard put to make a convincing case, all of them needing significant propping by their allies to even hold their ground against a single other great power. France too struggled to hold the line, but arguably managed to contribute on land, sea and in the air in a way that the first three could not.

Which leaves Britain, Germany, and the United States as the undisputed great powers, with France a shade behind, and – interestingly – Japan overtaking the collapsed Austria-Hungary and Russia, to have a chance of overtaking Italy…possibly even France… in the Great Power stakes. (I hope everyone has seen the prophetic cartoon from the Versailles conference where the ‘Class of 1939’ baby is heard crying in the corner…)

So let’s have  a look at what it took to be an truly ‘great’ power in the Second World War.

The great powers have always had an interesting balance of land power versus sea power. But if you take ‘great’ to imply ability to project power and influence from a distance , it is clear that there need to be elements of both. Britain was a great power in Europe for centuries because her navy allowed her to interpose her small (pre- Great War) army, or to supply allies armies: not because she always had large land forces. Russia was always a great power because she had large land forces, regardless of usually having weak naval forces. But only a few powers could attempt it all.

So let’s assess.

Russia (the Soviet Union if it makes you feel better), deployed large and technically advanced land forces during the World War II, and backed them up with a tactical air force second to none. But it’s naval forces were almost insignificant, and it didn’t even attempt a strategic air arm. As usual, it’s claim to be a great power was based on almost limitless supply of poor bloody infantry to throw into the meat grinder. As such it could threaten other continental powers, but had no ability at all to threaten sea powers like Britain and the United States, except in as much as they wanted to fight in mainland Europe. Realistically, it survived more due to vast allied support. (Not just the planes and tanks to survive in 1941, but the trucks and fuel to take the offensive in 1944. Up to half the food being eaten in Russia in the second half of the war was provided by the Allies.) 

In practical terms Russia was the World War Two equivalent of Italy in World War One. An also ran that could not have survived without significant support.

In WWII by contrast, Italy tried to have an army with tanks (fail), a balanced air-force (not too bad),and a powerful navy. But again Italy lacked the scientific resources to keep up in the air; the economic resources to make her army competitive; and the overall industrial resources to build aircraft carriers or strategic bombing forces on top of what was already straining her abilities beyond breaking point. Italy could not compete with real great powers – even when supported by Germany - and had to give it up. 

Italy, was the Turkey of World War Two.

Japan made a better fist of it. With surprisingly limited resources, Japan militarised it’s economy to the point where they had a first rate army, navy and air force, and could genuinely compete with everyone else. Japan even got aircraft carriers off the ground as well as battleships, a more impressive achievement than France or Germany could manage – in that one limited field where their interests were more actively involved. But the army could not get tanks off the ground, let alone mechanisation; and the air forces only attempt at strategic bombing was hot air balloons armed with incendiaries released in the general direction of US forests. 

Japan’s air-force and aircraft-carriers make it look more impressive than it really was. The Japanese economy and industrial base was not really up to the kind of war it attempted, and it was clear to many apart from Yamamoto that if the dice throw didn’t go perfectly, there was no chance of long term success.

France is more interesting. France had one of the best armies on earth, with probably the best armoured equipment on earth (though bad tactical development of it’s use, that was not corrected in time.) Shame about the collapse of morale amongst the conscripts that didn’t allow such development to take place. 

France also had a fast developing air force with good technical abilities, and certainly the fourth strongest navy. France even had an aircraft-carrier in service, with another couple on order. Only strategic bombing was not on France’s agenda… (hardly surprising since tactical bombing would work just as well against her two most immediate threats, her next door neighbours…)

Had France withstood the initial assault, she remained capable of giving at least as good account of herself as Japan. Indeed France was probably still a better representation of a ‘great power’ than Italy – which collapsed as soon as two allies could concentrate their efforts for a moment, or Japan… ditto (though Japan had used it’s huge initial conquests to delay this collapse longer than could have been expected.). 

So France could be considered unlucky. Which is not to say that France in the Second World War was any better off than Russia or Italy in the first, or than Russia or Japan were in the Second. But France did have the potential to stay in the great power club, had that potential been properly applied.

Which brings us to Germany. Germany is an interesting contrast. Certainly had the energy to be a great power, even if the economy was not a shadow of the potential that their Great War economy had brought to the table. The Third Reich simply could not afford the same army, high seas fleet, and air-force, that had been within it’s grasp in the Great War. As one You-Tube reviewer comments on the Z plan for a naval build-up, the kind of High Seas Fleet that Germany possessed in World War One was beyond Germany’s power in World War Two, no matter how often Hitler got away with Anschlussing other people’s economies.

It was not just the fact that the Germans could not get aircraft carriers to happen, let alone get a strategic bombing force off the ground (pardon the pun). They couldn’t even get a balanced cruiser and battleship force to happen while simultaneously producing an adequate submarine fleet…it was an ‘either-or’ situation. Worse, despite some of the best armoured and mechanised units of the war, the Germans never got the vast majority of their army beyond foot slogging, with horse drawn artillery! Their successes came from the 20% of their high tech or elite (read Panzer, or  Para, or Mountain, or SS) troops. Their 80% standard infantry troops finished up bearing the brunt of the failures, particularly on the Eastern front. (Interestingly the Japanese had the same breakup of numbers, and the same results- just replace the word ‘Eastern front’ with ‘Chinese front’…)

Germany lacked the resources, even with most of Europe to loot, to get it’s army adequately mechanised, or it’s air-force adequately modernised, or it’s navy competitive: let alone to master all the scientific experiments in jets and rockets and atomic bombs it was pursuing. 

Which brings us to the real big boys. Britain and the US.

These two countries were the only states that could, and did, do it all. 

First rate fully mechanised armies, where every single front line division (with a little bit of combat experience) could face the absolute elite any enemy might muster with a reasonable chance of success.

First rate air forces with every category, including strategic bombing and strategic air-lift, being developed to it’s full potential.

First rate navies, with every category: including aircraft-carriers and submarines, fully resourced. Navies with logistical support to potentially enable long term operations across the entire surface of the world (though it took a long time to turn the tide and get everything moving properly). Navies capable of power-projecting major invasion forces to any point on the planet. (It is notable that they also managed the only proper development of landing craft, with Germany and Japan unable to manage more than a few inadequate specialist craft that were really only acceptable against unopposed landings. Neither Germany or Japan could have mounted a D-Day style operation, or even a smaller opposed landing against anything resembling a proper defensive force... and Britain in 1940 was only marginal on that level of defensive force!)

Britain and the US also both had a range of Research projects not only outpacing every opponent except Germany in jets and rockets, but opening entirely new areas like cavity radars, proximity fuses and atomic weapons. With the resources to bring every project into action, rather than the one or two Germany could manage if she shut down her major fleets and cutback her bomber production…

To be honest, no nation could really do it all. Britain was happy to send her radar and atomic weapons equipment to participate in the US program, just as the US was happy to receive both to get her own programs bootstrapped. Either alone would have taken much longer. Likewise there was a lot of sense in some specialising. Britain dropped most of her transport aircraft production for most of the war on the assurance of adequate US supplies. (Only getting back into it with the Avro York and similar after the concentration on fighters and bombers had achieved complete air superiority.) While the US let it’s jetfighter program lapse until post war in the comfortable knowledge that Britain was covering that element. 

Meanwhile Britain slowed it’s escort carrier program to concentrate on surface escorts once the US committed to mass producing jeep carriers, and later slowed her fleet carrier production to produce more landing craft in the comfortable knowledge that the US was producing carriers to spare. Another sensible decision was to let the new US yards mass produce the basic ‘Liberty’ design the British had prepared, leaving some of the more skilled of the British workforce to produce more specialist ships.

Just because they could pretty much do it all themselves, certainly didn’t mean that it wasn’t more sensible to share resources more effectively. In fact they compromises they did make were far more about efficiency than incompetence. Though arguably Britain’s relying for too long on the barely adequate Sherman tank instead of pushing the development of the Centurion a bit faster could have ended badly. Or the United States relying on the barely adequate British Meteor as adequate effort in the jet space, while dropping the jet fighter ball until post war. 

(Actually the American P-80 was in service during the war, it just never saw combat. To me this makes it a wartime design, but I get constant claims that the contemporary Centurion was NOT a wartime design, because -- although they were in Belgium when the German surrender was signed - they didn’t see combat,. So I presume the same people would argue that the P-80  - which was in Italy at the same time - wasn’t a wartime design either? Mind you if neither they – or the Type XXI and XXIII U-boats were ‘wartime designs’, I still wonder what time designs they were supposed to be?)

Which brings up what Britain and the US couldn’t do… Manpower.

Every single nation ran into a manpower crisis after 3 or 4 years of conflict, and every one of them had to make hard decisions as a result.

Germany and Japan were operating on slave labour for much of their workforce by 3 or 4 years into the war, and from then on the decline in quality of front line troops was noticeable. Towards the end of the war the Russian combat units included substantial numbers of women, and conscripts from newly conquered parts of eastern Europe, and their industry could not have coped without basic supplies and finished equipment like trucks and aircraft from the western allies. 

The British and Americans were better off, but both had infantry crises during the advance on Germany, with the British stripping anti-aircraft units to make up numbers , and the Americans having to resort to using black troops stripped from logistic units! (The ever practical Patton was in favour of using black troops of course, but the unreconstructed racists like Eisenhower and Bradley were appalled at the idea of black troops in the front line.)

This manpower shortage is something that many people consider a sign of weakness. (In fact the encroaching US manpower crisis is only marginally recognised by many historians, as the US was only just pushing 3 or 4 years in the war, so what it was facing was no-where near as obvious as to those nations who had fought harder – Russia - or longer – Germany and Britain). 

Nonetheless many so called historians make much -  inaccurate – commentary on the fact that the British lack of infantry in Normandy was a sign that they lacked the resources to be a great power any more? 

In reality of course Britain still had 115,000 fully trained replacement infantry in camps in Britain in late 1944 that could have been used to keep numbers at the front line up. But Britain was reluctant to use them up when it still looked like a long war ahead. No one knew at that point that Japan was only months from collapse. (And the smarter Allied leaders  – Churchill, Brooke and Patton amongst them - were already nervous about what Russia might do after the German defeat, and already considering how to husband resources to be on the safe side.) 

Britain had been fighting for years longer than the US, Russia, or Japan - or even France (which had taken a 4 year break, and was back in the game with more than 20 divisions deployed before Germany surrendered.) Conserving and making the most of available manpower was just as vital to Britain as to Germany or Russia. So Britain’s real priority was enough skilled factory workers to arm and equip the millions of Russians and now French troops that could take some of the load. 

In fact – of course - the idea of using skilled workers as cannon fodder is the height of stupidity. Those countries that were forced to do so - particularly Russia, Germany and Japan – automatically conceding that they could not ‘do it all’.

Actually for both for both Britain and the United States, prioritising factory production over PBI (poor bloody infantry), is a sign of strength, and a sign of sensible choices. 

Britain’s contribution to the ‘Balance of Power’ in Europe for centuries had been concentrating on arming and equipping her allies (with a limited number of elite troops under Marlborough or Wellington or Montgomery to work with those allies). Only during World War I had Britain made the mistake of providing a mass of cannon fodder to hold, and then win, a major land campaign or three. The appalling cost to skilled labour and leadership of that over the top effort had demonstrated why it was a stupid idea to provide mass PBI when you are better providing mass equipment to arm other people’s PBI. 

Which was why Russian infantry entered Germany wearing British boots, and riding in US trucks, which were supplied by American built Liberty ships escorted by British built escorts. And why Chinese troops used British Middle Eastern fuel resources and American ammunition to play games with the Japanese using their American supplied planes and vehicles which had come via the same ships and escorts.

That’s the sensible way for countries with highly skilled workforces to assist countries with large numbers of poorly skilled and under-equipped peasants.

(To be fair Germany had done her best to equip the peasant levies of Italy and Hungary and Rumania, just as the British and Americans did with the Russians, Chinese, Indians and Free French troops from North Africa… It’s just how technically advanced countries maximise the effect of working with less advanced ones…)

But still some historians don’t really understand this process… Partly because some of the countries concerned don’t seem to have understood (or perhaps aren’t willing to admit) that this is what they were actually doing? British historians still understate the idea that it has always been a better idea to provide equipment for other people to die using, and US historians still pretending that the US had no limits on how many soldiers they were willing to sacrifice.

In fact the pretence  that the US could do all the industrial tasks and also provide the sort of mass conscript force the British Empire had used in World War One is still inherent in much of the literature. (Despite Marshall’s appalling ‘replacement’ system of ‘slot in’ soldiers, which was perhaps the most manpower wasteful system ever devised by a Western Democracy.) 

Still, by late 1944 it was apparent to anyone with sense that the United States could not throw unlimited cannon fodder around either. 

Marshall’s original design for an expeditionary army had been about 300 divisions! This was a fantasy based on his vague understanding of PBI, and not understanding the resources required for a modern industrialised and mechanised force. His more realistic follow up plan was for about 150 divisions. The final plan fizzled out at less than 100, and in fact only 88 made it overseas (and half of those only in the last few months of campaigning on their respective fronts in Europe and the Pacific).

Again, this is pure sense. Better to have 80 odd top end highly mobile units to take on the enemy’s elite forces while letting other people’s PBI distract the mass of the enemy’s PBI, than to pretend that you can do both at once.

In fact, by 1944 the British Commonwealth had already joyfully reduced the 100+ divisions – many of them garrison troops of course – from their defensive low point in 1942, and were only fielding about 50 elite divisions for offensive purposes. (Almost all of them fully mechanised, and some  - 78ththArmoured Division with over 2,000 specialist armoured vehicles for instance - equipped to standards unimaginable by any nation that could not ‘do it all’.)

So the correct definition of those who could ‘do it all’, really comes down to those who had the potential to do almost everything, the resources to be able to pick and choose, and the smarts to concentrate their efforts to best effect.

The Anglosphere powers – Britain, her Commonwealth of Nations, and the United States - not only had the ability to do it all, they also had the interoperability and trust to choose the best places to specialise to maximum effect. Britain sending her radar research and atomic bomb project to work with the US team was sensible when the US was relying on British PBI to hold the line and British escort production to stop the slaughter in the Atlantic. The US concentrating on aircraft carriers and Liberty ships while Britain slowed it’s carrier production to concentrate on escorts and then landing ships also worked for both. Likewise the US providing airlift while the British worked on sea lift. Etc.

So really the Great Powers break into 3 ranks. The two that could do it all – Britain and the US; the 4 that could struggle, and almost succeed, against the odds – Germany, Russia, France and Japan – but could in no way ‘do it all’; and the inevitable also ran – Italy.


Sunday, April 1, 2018

The problems with 'wargaming' history. (Particularly WWII.)

I had a good comment on my 'Ten Myths about the Phoney War' post from a Swedish respondent called DIREWOFLx75.

He makes some fair points, adn of course some that I disagree with. I think he is oversimplifying some things, but that's fair, he thinks the same of many of my points.

His arguable points include, for instance, the idea that a British 'intervention' might forcing Sweden and Norway into Germany's arms. (Not convincing I'm afraid... I note that the German invasion didn't automatically sweep Sweden into Britain's arms? Or into Germany's arms?)

But most of what he said was just interesting commentary that is worth reading.

However he did say that one of my points (about Russia staying on Germany's side for the rest of the war) could only be held by "an arch idiot who left his brain behind".

He justified that statement with the line: "Analyse it, war-game it, the conclusion is..."

Now I love a good war-game, and have played many versions of World War Two boardgames: from the stupendous Europa (so large scale, with so many pieces, that you need hundreds of hours to play a single front), to the more manageable World in Flames (where a game can take merely scores of hours, not hundreds...) Though I admit I haven't had time to play for years, so some of the following is possibly dated... but I digress.

All of them had the same problem. The rules pre-suppose certain outcomes, and force certain responses to make sure you can't avoid those outcomes.

In World War Two games the most obvious problem is that they force the sides to fit the way they actually worked out, regardless of the fact that far more realistic alternatives were in fact more likely.

For example:

1. Who would believe that Yugoslavia would voluntarily join the (currently losing) British team in 1941? Yet it happened.
2. That Hitler would attack his best ally and supply source - Russia -while still fighting on 2 other fronts in 1941? Yet it happened.
3. That Japan would suddenly attack the US in 1941? Yet it happened.
4. That Hitler would voluntarily declare war on the US two days later? Yet it happened.
5. That Italy would side with it's WW1 opponent Germany, to attack it's long term ally and protector Britain in 1940? Yet it happened. (With the same results for Italy as when Turkey had made the same poor choice a war earlier...)
6. That Brazil would decide to enter the war at all? Yet it happened.
7. That fascist Spain - in huge debt to Italy and Germany - would sit out the war? Yet it happened.

I could go on and on, but please note that all these unlikely things are built into the structure of every major World War Two game. The rules are written to force such things to happen 'correctly'.

Even the Days of Decision pre-game for World in Flames only allows minor things like Spain changing sides (if you can get the Republicans to win instead of the fascists). It never considers the infinitely more likely case of Italy NOT changing sides and remaining in the British camp. It never even considers the option of Japan joining Germany in conquering Russia (the plan when the Japanese army was dominant) INSTEAD of the much stupider Japanese attack on the United States (when the IJN was dominant).

I sometimes managed to talk some other players of these games into trialling more realistic scenarios. (I am being quite serious, the things that actually happened - Yugoslavia for instance - were hardly logical, let alone inevitable.)

Italy joining the allies against Germany was actually not only reasonable, but even very likely during the Finnish crises. (Mussolini had threatened war with Germany in 1934, and all Italy was incensed at Germany having a treaty with the hated Soviets in 1940. Italy was working hard to get military supplies to Finland, and Britain and France were seriously trying to engage het Italians. Talk of a deal between France and Italy to reclaim the old Baku oilfields that had been nationalised by the Soviets saw stocks in the old company's rising on the Paris Bourse. The American ambassador to Russia cabled that the Russians were desperate to get the Finns to negotiate to get troops down to the border with French Syria where a large French army was gathering. The German's were helping the Russians put mines in to defend Black Sea ports. The British and French despatched a large force of bombers to Syria to prepare to destroy the Baby oilfields... The Japanese army was showing interest in getting revenge for the only recently failed compaign in Mongolia against Russia... None of this is fantasy...I can go on extensively!).

The German/Soviet alliance of nasty dictators versus everyone else in Europe (possibly including Italy and Japan on the allied side) is actually very realistic.

Japan co-operating with Germany to squash Russia is far more realistic than wandering off to attack the US! (In fact Japan NOT co-operating with Germany to pressure the allied position in the Middle East in 1942 was not even unlikely, just plain dumb!)

These are just some of the things that you can easily war-game to see how it might have worked. And despite DIREWOLF's assumptions, Germany and Russia in 1940 were not a lay down Mozaire over Britain and France supported by... Finland, Sweden, Norway, Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Yugoslavia, Greece, Rumania, Turkey and Japan (with the US still in the background).

That combination was in fact quite possible, and indeed, much more likely, than the eventual campaign that saw even Finland (Finland!) forced into the Axis camp against Russian aggression! (Finland was the allied hero of 1940, and the League of Nations expelled Russia and urged all nations to support Finland. Italy was one of the strongest supporters! Yet in 1945 one of the first actions of the UN was to accuse Finland of being the aggressor against Russia! Let's discuss inevitability?)

Unfortunately many gamers believe that the rules that force certain sides to develop in certain ways reflect political inevitability. Crap.

I have even had gamers insist that I follow the exact letter of the way the rules are set up, and only do what the rules let me do, with no discretion at all.

I found a fun way to screw such over-simplistic stupidities over. (Or I could 20 years ago... hopefully some changes have taken place since.)

If you ever want to test the stupidity of following the rules of a game that pretends everything can be fixed, then give World in Flames (say version 4 or 5) a go from the British players role.

Turn 1, rebase most British forces to Canada.

Turn 2 & 3, invade and conquer US.

Turn 4 & 5 rebase all British forces to bolster France before European spring.

Rest of war Britain only has to protect the 4 sea links to the US (and link up Australasia with India)  to beat the U-boats and have effectively unlimited US resources to share with it's allies. (Which can include Russia if you keep following the stupid rules? The allied supply route to Russia also becomes much easier to defend under this scenario.)

Even if France can't be saved (unlikely the way the rules are set up, unless a lucky coup in Yugoslavia and a couple of sacrificial air drops or invasions to undercut German factories are successful), Britain can still build a factory somewhere in the Commonwealth every turn for the rest of the game, and have the resources to use them. By the time Japan is supposed to enter the war in late 1941, you can have some real fun with the fact that there are not enough pieces in the British forces mix, and you have to co-op pieces from their new colony... the US... to continue playing. (In fact the best chance for the 'Axis' under this scenario is to have Japan attack Britain in 1940, which of course the rules are working to prevent...)

This utterly stupid and wildly unrealistic scenario nonetheless fits within the letter of the rules of the game.

I have played it that way a couple of times mostly to demonstrate the stupidity of playing purely by using rules written specifically to get a fairly unlikely historical outcome.

But it's bloody good fun if you like playing with history!

So when I "analyse it, war-game it, the conclusion is..." I find that the conclusion is far more affected by assumptions about how things must have worked - because people are assuming that such a route was inevitable... than is is by historical realities.

Dear DIREWOLF. Game it by all means... just check you're pre-assumptions at the door, and REALLY look at all the possibilities.

The deeper you go into what might have happened, the less what actually did happen will seem 'inevitable'.

And it can be really fun.

New Quadrant article: Republics - The least stable form of Government

It's a bit embarrassing to note that the last post I did was announcing an article in Australia's Quadrant magazine over a year ago.

Unfortunately my wife had a serious injury last year, and many items have consumed by time since, meaning that I have not even had a chance to reply to the many excellent comments I have had during the year.

Can't promise much, but will try to be better.

Meanwhile my latest article, also in Quadrant (March 2018, Volume LXII, Number 3, No 544) is another little discussion about the flaws of Republics as a system of government.

http://quadrant.org.au/magazine/2018/03/republic-least-stable-form-government/

Unfortunately it's behind a paywall, so you have to buy the magazine to get the whole article, but Quadrant is worth the subscription if you like magazines that value freedom of speech and expression. Another of my Quadrant articles was re-printed in Canada's Dorchester Review, which has a similar ethos.

(Amusingly when Quadrant was set up way back in the 1950's - in Australia that is called the Menzies era - it's commitment to freedom of speech and freedom of opinion was considered pretty left wing. Now of course, the same position is regarded by politically correct crowd as being extremely right wing. That is a comment on the way the society has changed, not the magazine...)


The articles main points are:
1. 95% of all 'republics' collapse into dictatorship, repression, or civil war, within about 20 years. Very few make it to 50 years. (France has only just got to 50 years under it's fifth republic - plus 3 monarchies and 2 empires - in the last 2 centuries or so, and Germany effectively has a new constitution dating from re-unification 2 decades ago - after 3 republics and a dictatorship causing two invasions in the last century, and is showing signs of being quite Italian in it's 'success' as a system of government since then...)
2. The wold's 44 Monarchies or Constitutional Monarchies - some of them quite new startups - have about a 17 times greater life expectancy than the world's 140 odd - some very odd - republics and peoples republics and soviet socialist republics etc. (Note that the longest lasting republics are mostly 'Soviet Socialist' style dictatorships, with a few limited exceptions).
3. Republics can last for 50 years or more, but apparently only if they are mono-cultures (like Finland and Botswana) or under constant threat of invasion and destruction (Israel, Germany, Italy and South Korea) to focus the mind.
4. The only 'long term' success anyone can identify (ignoring its foundation as a slavery state, it's failure to give much of it's population a vote until 50 odd years ago, and a minor civil war with 600,000 dead) is the one that 90% of the of the PRO-republicans in places like Australia think has completely unacceptable politics, system, or leaders! (Repeat after me, 'Clinton, Bush, Obama and Trump... my evidence for wanting a republican system???')
5. More importantly, just note that 70% of the world's richest and healthiest places to live are Constitutional Monarchies, and 99% of the world's most horrible places to live are Republics. (The one monarchy that - barely - makes it into the bottom 100 being Morocco at about 97 from the bottom... Morocco!)
It was a fun article, and has received a lot of good comments.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Ten Myths about the Phoney War - new Quadrant Article

A new one of my articles has just been published in the Australian Quadrant magazine (Vol. 61 No.1-2,  January-February 2017 edition), that attempts to kick the crap out of the historians who write off the 'Phoney War' as a period where nothing happened.

It is based on the proposed Allied March 1940 plan to move troops through Norway and Sweden to assist Finland against the Soviet invaders they had been remarkably successful in resisting for several months.

The 10 issues I cover are:

1, The Myth that the Soviet Union was strong in 1940.
2. The Myth that Germany was strong in 1940.
3. The Myth that the British were flailing for a strategy in 1940.
4. The Myth that Poland's collapse made everyone believe in 'Blitzkreig'.
5. The Myth that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact could not last.
6. The Myth that the sides were already fixed.
7. The Myth that intervention would not improve the Allied situation.
8. The Myth that intervention would be militarily foolish for the Allies.
9. The Myth that the Allies could have chosen not to help Finland.
10. The Myth that Norway and Sweden would oppose an intervention.

The fun part is the reason behind the story.

Orders were actually given by the British and French Chiefs of Staff at 6.30pm on March 12, 1940, for the landings in Norway to go ahead the next day. Only last minute duplicity by the Socialist Foreign Minister of Finland Vaino Tanner to hide this information from the cabinet while he forced through a surrender before midnight, prevented the war from developing into a Molotov-Ribbentropp Pact war against Britain, France, and probably their new allies - including possibly Italy, Japan, Turkey, Scandinavia and the Balkans countries...

If you want the full reasoning, you'll have to get the article.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

The best Carrier based Torpedo Bomber of World War Two?


Having recently re-read the many comments on an old article in which I discussed the relative strengths and weaknesses of carrier aircraft in WWII, 


(and having reviewed some of the discussion groups that insist on misquoting me), I though it might be useful to make a couple of reflections that show just how silly these debates can get.

First lets make the key point – in the battle between offense and defence, the pendulum keeps swinging.

When I do a discussion with a school group about medieval weapons and armour, I point out that the fanciest sword is no good, if it can’t defeat a new style of armour; and the fanciest armour is no good, if offensive weapons can defeat it. It is always about ‘does this weapon defeat the defence, or does the defence defeat the weapon’.

In WWII this means two things.

First: that even spectacularly effective offensive aircraft from 1939 or 1942 are usually hopeless in the same circumstances against improved defences two years later.

Second: that technological change will require adapting new methods.

Third: that the 'best' aircraft at a given time, is not necessarily going to do the job best at that time, if other elements of the offence vs defence balance need to be considered!

There were many torpedo bombers of course – from bad carrier versions, like the Devestator and the Barracuda, to good land versions, like the Beaufort and the Condor, but for the sake of the argument, I will stick to the two contrasting torpedo bombers that make the most interesting point about what worked best when, and why…

To put that in perspective, lets start with the significant point that the most successful (in terms of tonnage sunk), torpedo bomber of the war – the Fairey Swordfish – was a technological relict even before the war began; while the most successful (in terms of being technologically advanced and impressive to crews) torpedo bomber of the war – the TBM Avenger – was a complete failure in its first actions!

The Fairey Swordfish is possibly the most amazing/amusing aircraft of the war. An old style biplane, with a ridiculously slow attack speed (only 138mph for early versions): it was nonetheless the only allied combat aircraft to remain in production, and in front line combat squadrons, throughout the entire war.

Known as the ‘Stringbag’ not because of its old fashioned wire and fabric construction, but because – like an old ladies string shopping bag – it could be adapted to an incredible range of loads and tasks: the Swordfish was as success mainly because it could keep changing its functions.

Operating as a conventional torpedo bomber for the first half of the war, the Swordfish – despite its antiquated appearance – had innumerable successes. From sinking the first U-boat sunk, to manning the first escort carriers, to rocket strikes on miniature submarines in river mouths in the last days of the war. From disabling the Bismarck and the Italian cruiser Zara in day actions to allow British battleships to catch them; to the first radar guided night attacks on ships and submarines of the war. From the spectacular success in daylight against the anchored French Fleet at Mers El Kebir, to that at night against the anchored Italian fleet at Taranto. (Where a mere 21 obsolescent Stringbags sunk or disabled 3 battleships, 2 cruisers, 2 destroyers, several other ships, a dozen seaplanes AND did the sort of damage to oil an port facilities against a well defended and prepared base during wartime that the Imperial Japanese Navy conspicuously failed to achieve with multiple strikes by ten times the number of much more advanced aircraft at an unprepared and practically defenceless Pearl Harbour during peacetime).

Of course the Swordfish had many failures too… failures that point to the fact that it HAD to change its role to survive.

The incredible manoeuvrability of the Swordfish meant that it was probably the only combat aircraft that could have slipped between the barrage balloons defending the Italian fleet at Taranto, but the appallingly slow speed meant it often couldn’t catch fast moving ships (like the French Dunkerque escaping at Mers El Kebir). It’s success against the Bismarck was partly due to the fact that it flew so incredibly slowly that the Bismarck’s anti aircraft predictors could not slow down enough, and constantly fired shells far in advance of the aircraft. Which was fine if there was no fighter cover! But a few months later the 6 Swordfish that tried to strike the German battle-cruisers and cruiser running up the Channel in daylight were sitting ducks to German fighters in daylight (despite some inadequate attempts at fighter escort). Both the British and German admirals commented very admiringly of their amazing courage and determination, but very much along the lines of the French general who witnessed the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava…”it’s magnificent, but it’s not war!”

By 1942 the Swordfish, or its successor the Albacore (which it outlasted in service in the end), simply could not operate in daylight if the enemy had any sort of air cover. But the fact that they had Air–Surface search radar from mid 1941 meant that they remained effective strike aircraft at night, when the enemy COULDN’T intercept them.

This is where the TBM Avenger must be considered. Certainly technically the best torpedo bomber of the war, and one that served well into the 1950’s, it was nonetheless a failure at its first actions. At Midway for instance, 5 of the 6 available were smashed out of the sky (a much higher loss percentage than that of the slow and obsolete Devestator torpedo bombers they were replacing).  This is for the simple reason that even the best and fastest and most advanced torpedo bombers could not survive against fighter cover in daylight at this stage of the war. (Only much later in the war when the allies achieved overwhelming superiority could the Avenger’s operate safely…. But that same circumstance would have mead the Swordfish or Albacore or Devestator completely successful day torpedo bombers again, so that is not saying much).

So the Swordfish and Albacore could be considered more dangerous and unstoppable torpedo aircraft than the much more advanced Avenger for the two years it took until the Avenger could also operate as a night bomber. (Or for the 3 years until the Avenger had overwhelming fighter cover to get it through in daylight.)

Meanwhile of course, the Royal Navy had also adopted the Avenger, and also fitted it for night strikes. But still found jobs a plenty that the Swordfish could do, and the Avenger couldn’t.

First and foremost, was escort carriers. They were so small and slow, that a loaded Avenger usually needed them to be sailing full speed into the wind for a successful take-off, whereas a loaded Swordfish could often take off from one at anchor in harbour if there was even a moderate breeze over the deck. More importantly, if the convoys in the north Atlantic faced rough weather that tossed the ships up and down dramatically, the Swordfish was slow and manouvrable enough to continue the flying operations and landings that were inconceivable to faster more modern aircraft.

Next is flexibility. Swordfish operated successfully as seaplanes, floatplanes, ski-planes, land planes, and carrier planes. They operated from land bases too short for other aircraft; from fields too rough for other aircraft; and from frozen fjords too exposed to the elements for other aircraft. They flew from catapults on battleships and cruisers, from Merchant Catapult Ships, from Escort carriers and Fleet carriers. They operated as torpedo bombers, dive bombers, level bombers, rocket bombers, depth charge bombers; and in conditions ranging from arctic to desert airstrips, and from tropical cyclones to Atlantic sleet storms. They operated successfully both day and night (at a time when few other aircraft could), and continued to be successfully deployed to new tasks when many younger designs (including some specifically designed to replace them) failed to adapt to new needs.

After that comes survivability. Everyone was astonished how much damage a Swordfish could absorb and still come home. Rents, tears, holes in every surface, the Swordfish would just soldier on. (And could often be repaired with a few canvas patches hastily glued in place, and sent straight back into action.) The Swordfish was to aircraft what the USS Yorktown was to ships!

Finally, the Swordfish was simply the most successful torpedo bomber of the war. It damaged and sank more warships (German, Italian, Japanese and French!), more submarines, more merchant ships, more torpedo boats, more midget subs, more just about anything, than any other single type of plane in the inventory of either Axis or Allies. On one occasion in Libya, just three torpedoes from three land based Swordfish sank four ships (2 U-boats, a destroyer and a supply ship). In fact a single Swordfish group varying between 12 - 27 aircraft operating from Malta sank about half a million tons of Axis shipping in nine months – pretty much equivalent to the wartime totals of the Condor, or Judy, or Kate, or Beaufort, or B25, or Dauntless or Helldiver; and not much short of the total for the Avenger.


So, although there is no doubt that the Avenger was a much better aircraft; or that the Kate had a much more dramatic impact in its few short months of effectiveness; or the Beaufighter was incredibly more accurate: the simple fact is that – in so many ways – the best carrier torpedo bomber of WWII was a slow, lightly armed, almost completely obsolescent biplane, that just kept on finding new ways to do things no other aircraft could…

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Medal tallies, Great Power Politics, and Angry White Men!

One of the most amusing things about the 2016 Olympic Games was that the medal tally bore an astonishing resemblance to a table of post World War Two 'great power' nations.

Consider this 2016 medal tally list in terms of World War Two and the 1945 peace settlements, and where the various economic and colonial powers stood at the time.

1. US
2. Britain
3. China
4. Russia
5. Germany
6. Japan
7. France

Notice anything familiar about the pattern so far?

Below that, the tally becomes a little more interesting, with a surprise entrance by South Korea at number 8, but only in the last few days of the competition. Up until then the last spots switched a bit between 3 or 4 countries who eventually finished:

9. Italy
10. Australia
11. Netherlands

As Australians, we can be amused that we sneak in over the once great colonial power The Netherlands. Sometimes during the competition, we led France and Italy as well! We can also boast that we come in above Canada, which had, and still has, considerably greater population and GDP. (I suppose Canada has never taken sport as seriously as Australia... Do they even have a cricket team?)

Still, thinking about Canada brings up another interesting comparison.

Consider the Anglosphere.

The United States with way more than twice the population and close to three times the combined GDP, of the rest of the 'old' Anglosphere nations*  - Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland - still gets less medals (121) than the others (144).

Would it be fair to say that the US clearly isn't trying as hard as the rest of us?

Should we also note that the Anglosphere alone, despite consisting of only 6% of the worlds population, accounts for more than 26% of the world's medal tally?

Does this tell us anything useful about 'great powers' in general? Does it help explain why the Anglosphere has pretty much ordered the world for the last three centuries? Does it contribute to the global dominance of the English language? Or does it suggest that sports dominance equals 'soft' cultural power?

No idea, really. But someone should be able to get a research grant, even if only on the injustice of the Olympics being clearly a repressive representation of WASP culture. (After all, Catholic Ireland only counts for 8 of the Anglosphere's 265 medals... sort of proves the point really!).


What it does suggest, is that all those who claim the West in general, and the Anglosphere in particular, are in relative decline, had better check their numbers. On these figures, the Anglosphere will remain at the top of the podium for another century at least.


* (321 million US population vs a combined 130 million for the rest; and 17, 348,000 million US$ vs a combined $6,626,152 million according to Wikipedia''s Anglosphere article sourced 22.8.2016)