Saturday, June 21, 2014

The 'Invasion of France in 1943' lunacy

I have been reading the recent biography of the British CIGS Alanbrooke, and been struck by the clear and concise explanation of the differences between the British and Americans over the ‘second front’ in Europe, and when it could be.

Even pre the American entry to the war, the ‘Germany first’ principle  had been agreed between Churchill and Roosevelt. After American entry, and despite the immediacy of the Japanese threat, the same principle was reinforced. And it was a principla that Marchall and his handpicked planner Eisenhower, thought very sensible.

One of the first agreements between the Allies was for ‘Bolero’, which was an American buildup in Britian in preparation for a future invasion. It was very clear in the dark days of early 1942 that this would be a long term proposition, but it was always hoped that circumstances might change enough to make it possible in the shorter term, and the intention was to have as much ready to go as possible, and as soon as possible.

A plan put together for the incredibly unlikely event of sudden German collapse, was Sledgehammer. This was the understtanding of Sledgehammer adopted by most Americans. A very limited offensive by very inadequate forces, which could only succeed had Germany already gone close to collapse. Given the circumstances this was somewhat delusional, but it never hurts to plan for eventualities, and the British were happy to go along with this sort of plan.

[Even in the dark days of March to April 1942 when the Phillipines and Malaysia and the Netherlands East Indies had fallen; Burma and New Guinea were under threat; Rommel wa advancing in North Africa; the German armies in Russia were closing in on the Middle East oilfields (which meant the British were actually withdrawing units previously assigned Egyptian and Burmese defences to concentrate them in Iran/Iraq to face the Germans); and the Atlantic war was in it’s second ‘happy time’ for U-boats.]

The more likely possibility of needing to take desperate action in 1942, and the one that the British were more concerned about as possible trigger Sledgehammer, was the possible need to distract the Germans to fend off iminent Russian collapse. Such a desperate and sacrificial move to keep a major ally in the war was depressingly familiar to the British higher command. They had been forced to do the same thing a coupe of times during the Great War to keep the French army from collapsing. (Some of these desperately needed sacrifices are now decried by ‘right thinking’ historians as classic examples of mindless stupidity, but nontheless the Somme  and similar actions did do what they were supposed to do at the time, and kept the French going.)

Any attempt at Sledgehammer would of course have failed. The German army had not yet been bled dry on the Eastern front, and the Luftwaffe was still a terrifying force which could be (and regularly was) easily moved from Russian mud to Mediterranean sunshine and back again in mere weeks.
Even ignoring the opposition, the British were gloomily aware that the Americans had not a clue of the complexities of such a huge amphibious operation. At the time of discussion – May 1942 – the British were using their first ever Landing Ship Tanks and troopships equipped with landing craft to launch a Brigade size pre-emptive operation against the Vichy French on Madagascar. (Another move many historians think was useless. But coming only months after the Vichy had invited the Japanese into Indo-China – fatally undermining the defenses of Malaya – and the Germans into Syria, it was probably a very sensible precaution. Certainly Japanese submarines based in Madagascar would could have finally caused the allies to lose the war at sea!)

The British deployed two modern aircraft carriers, and a fleet of battleships, cruisers, destroyers and escorts and a large number of support ships, on this relatively small operation. It was the first proper combined arms amphibious operation of the war, and was very helpful to the British to reveal the scale of amphibious transport needed for future operations. By contrast the US Marines hit Guadalcanal 6 months later from similar of light landing craft, and with virtually the same Great War vintage helmets and guns, that the ANZACS had used at Gallipoli. Anyone who reads the details of the months of hanging on by the fingernails at Guadalcanal against very under-resourced Japanese troops, will be very grateful that the same troops did not have to face veteran German Panzer divisions for several years.

So I do not know of any serious historian who imagines that an invasion of France in 1942 could have led to anything escept disaster. There are no serious generals who thought it either. (Only Marshall and his ‘yes-man’ Eisenhower consistently argued that it might be possible. And Eisenhower later came to realise – when he was incharge of his third or fourth such difficult operation himself – that his boss was completely delusional in his underestimation of the difficulties involved. See ‘Dear General’ for Eisenhowers belated attempts to quash Marshalls tactical ignorance about parachute drops and dispersed landings for D-Day.)

In practice no matter how much Marshall pushed for it, only British troops were availabe for such a sacrificial gesture, and the British were not unnaturally reluctant to throw away a dozen carefully nurtured and irreplaceable divisions on a ‘forlorn hope’, when they would prefer to save them for a real and practical invasion… When circumstances changed enough to make it possible.

Unfortunately Roosevelt told the Soviet foreign minister Molotov that ‘we expect the formation of a second front this year’, without asking even Marshall, let alone wihtout consulting his British allies who would have to do it with virtually no American involvement. The British Chiefs of Staff only had to show Churchill the limited numbers of landing craft that could be available, and the limited number of troops and tanks they could carry, to make it clear that this was ridiculous. Clearly this stupidity was just another example of Roosevelt saying stupid things without asking anyone (like ‘unconditional surrender’) that did so much to embitter staff relations during the war, and internationaly relations post war. But it seems likely that the British refusal to even consider such nonsense was taken by Marshall and Stimson as a sample of the British being duplicitous about ‘examining planning options’.

The British fixed on a ‘compromise’ to pretend that a ‘second front’ cold be possible. North Africa, could be conquored without prohibitive losses. It was not ideal, and in practical terms not even very useful. But it might satisfy the Americans and the Russians. Nothing else could.

Marshall in particular spent the rest of the war believing that when the British assessment clearly demonstrated that action in Europe was impractical and impossible, they had just been prevaricating to get what they always intended… Operations in the Med. In some ways he was correct. The British had done the studies on France despite thinking that it was unlikely they would be practical, and were proved right. Marshall and Eisenhower had just deluded themselves into thinking an invasion might be practical, and could not accept that there was not a shred of evidence in favour of their delusion.

Which brings us to the debate about the possibility of an invasion in 1943 – Roundup. Something that a surprising number of historians, and even a few not entirely incompetent generals, have suggested might have been possible, and should have been tried.

There are some points in their favour. The invasions of North Africa definitely took resources that could have been built up in Britain, and therefore slowed things down. (And the withdrawal of the new escort carriers, escort groups, and shipping from the Battle of the Atlantic for the North African adventure, definitely did huge damage in the loss of shipping and supplies, slowing things down further.) As a result the huge buildup in North Africa wa much easier to use against Italy before moving on to France. Certainly another distraction or delay… but only if you don’t think that knocking Italy out of the war would make Germany weaker!

But once Sledgehammer was abandoned, this operation was the only possible way to get US troops into combat in Europe, short of shipping some to Russia. It was also the only possible way of coming close to keeping Roosevelt’s ridiculous promise to the Russians.

Despite the belief by many that it was a British goal, Torch was really just Churchill’s method of getting Roosevelt out of domestic and international hole, and giving Marshall an advantage over King in the ‘Germany first’ debate. It can’t be said that the British Chiefs of Staff wanted it much. They would have preferred the resources to go to other fronts. It can’t be said that the American Chiefs of Staff wanted it. It was just the compromise they had to accept. It can’t even be said Churchill wanted it greatly, except as a sop to Stalin and a leg up to Roosevelt, he would have preferred other fronts too. Certainly it wasn’t the Russians who wanted it. The only one who saw it as absolutely necessary was Roosevelt, and he dragged  his Chiefs of Staff along for domestic and international political reasons, not for reasons of strategy.

Unfortunately, the US Chiefs of Staff apparently decided this was more British prevarication, designed to get America into protecting purely British imperial interests like the route to India, rather than a genuine addition to winning the war.

Again, there is some truth in this. The British, who were primarily responsible for moving supplies worldwide to – keep Allied populations fed and working; hold everywhere the Axis were attacking; keep Russia in the war; and move Americans to where they would be needed for an eventual operation in Europe – were absolutely fixated on the shipping needs. Brooke was always absolutely convinced that opening the Med to allied shipping – which would save the ten thousand mile diversion around Africa for everythig going to and from the Middle East (oil, military forces, supplies to Russia, etc), Russia, India and Australia – would save at least a million tons a year in shipping, and allow that resource to be used for building up for, and then having, an invasion. To this extent, the British fascinatin with ‘communications with India’ is exactly what was worrying the British Chiefs of Staff.

Knocking Italy, it’s army, air force, and particularly navy, out of the war, would also do more to release Allied forces to face the Japanese and Germans, than any other single act the Allies could realistically undertake on the short term. (This by the way, was what Churchill meant when he referred to Italy as the ‘soft underbelly’. They were an easy and soft target that would, and did, collapse quickly when pushed. The idea that he was referring to the Italian peninsulae as an ideal way to fight your way to Germany is mischevious toublemaking or outright delusion by far too many commentators.)

Brooke later wrote that he could ‘never get Marshall to appreciate that North African and Italian operations were all part of the strategy preparing for the ultimate blow’.

Nonetheless it is wrong to think that the British never had any intention of Roundup. Despite what Roosevelt and many other Americans convinced themselves, the British were, at the start of 1942, far more optomistic about the possibility of invading Europe through France in 1943 than they had been about Sledgehammer. Their studies seemed to show that Germany would only have to be weaker, not suddenly collapse, to make invasion in 1943 a realistic possibility. Realistic that is as long as the rest of the plans for training and shipping troops, building and concentrating invasion craft, and moving enough supplies to make it substainable, all came together.

They didn’t.

For the British, the middle of 1942 revealed how little would be available in time for the middle of 1943. Even on the best assumptions of American training and preparation, there was no chance that the majority of forces for Roundup would not be British… assuming they could supply them either. In practice mid1942 saw the Axis continue to advance on every front. Burma collapsed; the Allied position in New Guinea was under threat; the Japanese were still expanding to places like Guadalcanl; Rommel was advancing in Egypt; the Germans were advancing on the Causcusian oli fields and towards the Middle East; and more and more was needed just to keep Russia in the war. As a result British troops, shipping and supplies were continuing to flow away from Britain, not towards it.

Much of the Royal Navy was trying to save the dangerous losses caused by King’s refusal to have convoys in American waters (too ‘defensive minded’ he thought.) These alone, the worst 8 months of the war, were threatening to scupper Roundup. The rest was so busily deployed in the Indian and Pacific Oceans against the Japanese, or North Atlantic trying to fight supplies through to Russia (a high proportion of tanks and planes defending Moscow were British supplied), that there was virtually nothing left in the Med to slow Rommels advance. The merchant ships surviving the fight across the oceans were actually more vitally needed to take men and equipment from the UK to other places than to bring in a buildup for the UK.

Nor was the American buildup going to plan. Less well trained troops were becoming available too slowly, could not be shipped in adequate numbers anyway, and were in no condition to face German veterans. (The very best US units to go into action in 1942 – the marines in Guadalcanal – and 1943 – the 1st infantry and 1st armour which were actually professional troops not conscripts in North Africa – had very steep learning curves. Particularly at Kesserine. They were clearly not fit to face German veterans yet.

And American resource buildup was also not up to promises. King and MacArthur were milking supplies far beyond what had originally been agreed under ‘Germany first’. In practical terms they were doing so for the same reasons the British were: an immediate desperate situation had to be saved before a future ideal one could be pursued.

Nonetheless I have read all sorts of apparently serious suggestions that after North Africa was cleared, or at the very least after Sicily was cleared, an invasion of France should have happened.


Before Italy had surrendered? While the Italian fleet was still threatenting allied shipping. While the Iltalian air force was still theatening allied shipping. While 80 Italian divisions were available to garrison not only italy itself, but the Balkans, and a large part of the Eastern Front!

Before the German army had suffered its great losses of the 1943-44 Russian Winter, which, backed on to the need to replace 80 Italian divisions and garrison the Balkans and fight in Italy itself, halved the re-deployable strength of the German army?

Before Kursk? So the Allied invasion would have arrived neatly in time to face all the powerful new German panzer divisions that had not yet been sent to the eastern front!

Before the Luftwaffe was gutted by being forced up to fight the American daylight bombing campaign over Germany? (Or German industry seriously damaged by both that, and the British night bombing campaign.)

Before the U-boat campaign had been defeated?

While the carrier battles in the Pacific were still in the balance, at a time when the Americans were twice reduced to a single carrier, and had to borrow a British one to make the Pacific fleet viable?

Before the American ‘buildup’ had achieved a fraction of the stregth it needed?

Before enough invasion craft were even available? (In 1944 the May atttack was abandoned and the entire British shipbuildingindustry pulled off finishing new carriers and repairing mercahnt ships to make up the shortfall in landing craft. Marshall finally noted in 1944 that apparently the problem was a shortage of some thing he had never heard of called a Landing Ship Tank!)

While the Indian andn Australian fronts were on the edge and still drawing reinforcements, not able to release them to other theatres?

That is when some lunatics think a second front should have been launched in France.

Brooke’s comment is still the best.

They are right in thinking it will end the war quickly, just not to our advantage.

Monday, June 2, 2014

The many modern problems of ‘an excess of democracy’.

The world is currently beset by the effects of an excess of democracy, but this means different things in different countries.

In fact an excess of democracy in some countries is often defined as a deficit by outsiders.
Whichever it really amounts to, excess or deficit, the issues of democracy being suffered by many countries at the moment are both dangerous and laughable.

In the newspapers at the moment are a veriety of countries suffering from: 1) unrestricted democracy driving them to stupid actions; 2) restricted democracy for fear of stupid actions; and 3) manipulation of limited democracy by regimes which are willing to commit stupid actions as long as it disatracts the unleashed tiger of democratic pressure.

What fun.

On the unrestricted democracy driving people to stupid actions front, we see the following…

The Ukraine being torn apart by every town council with – 1) a grievance; or 2) temporarily controlled by a thug who has been able to oust the more traditional leaders; or 3) willing to be bought off with a combination of threats and bribes – holding referendums on succession from the Ukraine and accession to the Russian Federation. (Read Putin’s Third Reich… oh sorry, I’m sure that word was supposed to be Third Empire…)

Amusingly the majority of the badly educated but extremely pompous and self righteous Western Media considers these votes to be anti-democratic, presumably because they are protest votes within the established nation state. (Modern journalists have never been able to cope with the concept of evil dictators not being allowed to mass murder their own people.. as long as it is within the borders of an extablidhed nation state, anything goes… doesn’t it Geoffrey Robertson?)

By contrast Scotland is being asked to carry out a similar referendum on succession, which many of the same journalists consider to be highly democratic, apparently because the British nation state, which has been around many centuries longer than the Ukraine nation state, is more evil or anti-democratic or something?

I personally have nothing against devolution. Smaller is better being a default position in government Although this should always be tempered by the ‘too small to defnd yourself means you better have good neighbours to help’. I presume Scotalnd would like the sort of free ride on defence that places like New Zealand and Canada and Ireland have always enjoyed at someone elses expense! But I wonder if Scotland, which is gloating over the prospect of getting sole control of  the North Sea Hebridean oil fields, has identified that the Hebrideans have never considered themselves Scots? What if they hold a referendum on independence from Scotland? Then what if the Isle of X wants to succeed from the Hebrides? Or the village of X from the Island? Where do our self righteous journalists consider we would be crossing a line?

Meanwhile the European Union, which is rightly terrified of a wave of similar independence movemnts amongst the Basque in Spain, and the northern states of Italy, and half of Belgium, and just about everywhere in the Balkans: would depserately prefer not to have to deal with a decision on whether Scotland would be able to stay a member of the EU. Their problem being amplified by the fact that the EU elections have just thrown up a significant percentage of anti-EU parties in their disfunctional parliament. (I have been trying to remember another disfunctional European parliament where a party with 25-30% of the vote wanted to tear it down… oh yes, that would be the Weimar Republic wouldn’t it? )

The comparison with fascists is not really fair here I suppose. Most of the anti-Eu parties are no where near fascists. Most of them have policies that are over the top socialism, or extremely left wing anti-immigrant worker lines similar to those pushed by Socialist and Communist parties throughout Europe for decades… But then the National Socialist Workers party was just that wasn’t it, even if some people imagine that it can be distinguished as extreme right from the extreme left for some reason or other… (I wonder what the distinction they identify really is? Command economy dictatorial nutters are command economy dictatorial nutters whether you call them Communists or Fascists. The only distinction I have ever been able to see between them is the quality of their tailors!)

Meanwhile the ‘restricting democracy to avoid stupid actions’ group has been joined by Thailand, where the military has very reluctantly come to the conclusion that – no matter how much they don’t want to repeat their previous efforts at running the place (all of which they acknowledge were dreadful failures) – leaving the current deadlock and steadily expanding violence to fester into a full blown civil war is probably worse.

Naturally most Western journalists consider the miltary intervention a bad thing, and refer to it as a coup or regime or junta. Not sure what they think the military should do instead? Presumably a violent and bloody civil war is OK as long as some democratically elected figure causes it? Wonder if they expect the military to then support the ignorant peasants who have voted en masse for the loonatic fringe party over the educated middle class who actually run the country and attempt to make it work (and who have been slowly dragging it out of the 14th century).

I suspect the media think the miltary should bow to the party with 50.001 of the vote and do whatever socialist inspired lunacy they want… Wonder if those media types have noticed that A) the history of this sort of pandering to Communist and Socialist lunatic fringe parties in China nd Vietnam and Cambodia and indeed anywhere in Asia, is some of the most appalling bloodbaths in all of history (to say nothing of putting back economic advancement by decades or even centuries); and B) the military officers are all from the middle class that the loonatic socialist fringe parties immediately try to destroy (and often murder en masse). Good luck with that.

Makes me reconsider the poor Fijian military, which has had to intervene repeatedly when yet another attempt at democracy has led to chaos, rioting, repression, shop buring, and bloodshed. They too are learning they can’t actually run things better, and probably don’t want to be responsible for the mess. But they too face the problem of seeing exactly where it is going. (In Fiji’s case too much democracy will see all Indians treated rather like Jews have been on occasion in other parts of the world. What a good cause for the Western media to get behind!)

And the third group, the ‘manipulation of limited democracy by regimes which are willing to commit stupid actions as long as it disatracts the unleashed tiger of democratic pressure’ group is looking seriously scary.

Putin leads this movement (or thinks he does), and is bolstering his regime with the sort of pseudo nationalism and enrage the population against outside persecution crap that has been so attactive to so many appalling regimes that need to distract their people from their incompetence. Genreal Galtieri’s regime thinking a ‘nice victoriuos war’ to reclaim Las Malvinos would divert attention from their incompetence and give tham instant popularity is a good example. Or Saddam Hussein’s attempta ta a ‘short victorious war’ against Iran, or, when that didn’t work, against an easier target… Kuwait!

I don’t know how many terrible governments over the centuries have attempted to distrat their citizens from their own incompetence by convincing them that some innocuous outsider is simultaneously A) scheming to undermine them, B) a deadly and encroaching threat that must be stoped, and C) an easy victory waiting to fall into their hands. Certainly there are a few Anceint Greek plays that seem to mention the idea, and Rome’s conflict with its great North African trading partner fits. I would also posit that the Great War was as much caused by the German ruling classes attempts to redirect the stirring democratic pressures of the newly politically active middle classes – with their Naval Leagues and Colonial Leagues and Place in the Sun movements – as it was old fashioned territorial aggression by the old Junker class.

So the current Chinese attempts to calim every piece of land and sea ever occupied by, or sailed over by, Chinese forces over the last 2 millenium, is frankly terrifying.

For a change, stupid Western journalists seem to notice that this might be a problem. But their historical ignorance has not yet brought them to realise that every 'territory’ over 2 millenium includes all of Vietnam and Cambodia and several of the Central Asian states, and quite a few other places that China was loosely associated with for no more than a few years or decades over those 2 millennia.

There is no way that the Chinese attempt to play the ‘territorial self righteousness’ card…. “We have a moral right to conquor people who are vigorously opposed to being conquored because of some fanciful historical ideal”… is going to be any more successful than when it has been applied in the past. Previous illogical but bloody failures by the Irish Republicans; the Palestinians; the Pakistani’s (East Pakistan or Bangladesh); the French in Vietnam; or indeed any other colonial power trying to hang on to places that reach the point of not wanting to be hung on to: have deservedly failed.

The problem of course is that the more the Chinese try to distract their nascent middle classes dissatisfaction with the state of things by redirecting their attention to the dangers of ‘a conspiracy of encirclement’, the more they are going to scare their neighbours into banding together for self defense. Which in practical terms means their neighbours being forced into exactly the sort of co-ordinated and encircling response which the Chinese need to make their fantasies play well to their citizens. (Hey, it worked for the Soviet’s, and for the Cuban’s, and for the North Korean’s, didn’t it?… For a while anyway… Perhaps they should consult the Kaiser, General Galtieri, and the Soviet Socialsti Politburough on how it works out long term?)

In practical terms all these issues around the world come down to a misunderstanding of the role of democratic pressures within a developing state. Quite frankly, you cannot have a modern, educated, industrial economy, without unleashing the educated middle classes who NEED some sort of democratic input in the process. (As Imperial Germany and Soviet Russia found out, and is China is finding out now.)

On the other hand, imagining that instantly expanding the franchise to every ignorant illiterate peasant in the entire country will not lead to inevitable conflict between the middle class who is driving the process forward, and the ignorant peasants and manipulative old extablishments that want to hold it back, is pure fantasy. As literally hundreds of failed republics over the last 200 years can show, that way madness lies. (And dictatorship, and bloodshed, and civil war, and genocide… hurray for democracy and democratic pressures!)

In truth it is not possilbe to build a sensible and stable government on the basis of unfettered democracy, and it is not safe to let too much populist democratic pressure build within a state that does not have enough room for democratic expression to let off steam. Either approach will lead to disaster.

If you consider human government to be a cobbled together, delicate and unstable machine – which all human government certainly is – then you need to accept that a democratic component will be necessary as the system developes. But the corst visual is probalby of a crotchety old steam engine labouring noisily to keep the wheels turning. The democratic part is that absolutely vital installation, a safety valve. If you don’t have it, or don’t let it do its job adequately, there is going to be a very big explosion, no matter how much you try to temporarily ‘distract’ the pressure by redirecting it elswehere. On the other hand, if you let it expel as much steam as it could want, you finish with a lot of impressive sounding noise, but nothing left to actually make the wheels turn.

The Ukraine, Scotland and the European Union are pretty much the second problem. China and Russia are pretty much the first. Thailand and Fiji represent the points at which someone with some sense of responsibility has identified that they are headed towards an explosion the other way… from too much democracy leading to persecution of subgroups. (The kind of thing the Weimar Republic and the Irish Republic backed to disaster).

All three appraoches are inherently dangerous, but all three are virtually inevitable unless your government system starts with enough basic literacy, education, rule of law, and history of secure property rights, to allow something sensible to dvelope over time. Historically, only this combination has been able to succeed for more than a few decades. (Which is why the Anglosphere and a few other  Protestant states usually have the only stable and secure governments that have advanced beyond traditional monarchies.)

Which brings us to a pillar of light in the darkness. India. A place where educated middle class struggles to move forward, while the ignorant pesants and entrenched elites struggle to hold it back. For almost 65 yers since independence India has failed to find its feet, as too much dmeocracy held it back, and corruption and the decadent ruling castes undermined repeated attempts to continue the economic miracle that was wartime and post war India.

This latest election could break the nexus and let the economic expansion of India off the leash. If so, the backward looking socilism that has destroyed places like Greece might be abandoned before it collapses into fascism. (Stupid voters who don't relies that socialism is the problem, often turn to fascism as a more organised and motivated sounding version of socialism when the world starts delivering the inevitable effects of their previous stupid voting patterns. See the rise of Fascism in recent European elections in the many states that pursued socialism to economic ruin and are now facing severe cutbacks.)

On the other hand, the new Indian government has a fair number of the hallmarks of popular nationalism that have been a dead end trap for so many nations in the past. If the economy's revival doesn’t take hold, what might they resort to to ‘distract’ the voters? (I wrote a paper for the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at ANU when I was a vacation scholar there 20 years ago pointing out that India would probably only be dangerous to Australia if they ever had a ‘Galtieri moment’…)

Maybe India has dragged itself out of the ditch, and can become a proper part of the Angloshpere miracle? Or maybe some minor thing might still cause it to fall apart?

History shows that far more fail than succeed.

But I still say (as I have for decades now) that given the populist delusion that command economy China will be the next dominant power, and that chaotic mostly capitalist India won’t compete, is tripe. (I like to point to how that worked out last time we saw a similar set of circumstances… Command economy Soviet Union being suggested as the inevitable victor ove chaotic capitalist United States by so many academics, intellectuals and media through the 70’s and 80’s. Not that most modern 'intellectuals' or media are bright enough to notice parallels that might challenge their preferred world views.)

Russia and China are on the Galtieri path. Unfortunately China at least might also be on the Kaiser’s path. But they are not going to succeed with their vain attempts to distract the democratic pressures they have to have to be competitive as modern economies.

Good riddance to bad rubbish.

India is at a crossroads, and might… might manage the corner without tipping over . And Thailand is even more interesting. The military has attemoted to harness the tiger, but we all know how that can end. You either tame it, or are devoured by it.

I wish them both luck. They are going to need it.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Issues of Democracy - why Journalists should stop helping elected thugs

It is interesting to look around the world at the moment and identify the failures of democracy, and to be amused by the Western media's complete incomprehension of what is going on and why.

Time and time again you get headlines about how people should stand back and accept the 'democratically elected government', despite the fact that the democratic result was a fairly evil dictator keen on persecution, mass murder, civil war and ethnic cleansing.

This is because most ignorant Western journalists believe as an absolute truth that 'democracy' is a good thing, despite all the evidence that democracy is as bad, or even worse, than any other form of government. (Interestingly many non-western journalists treat democracy with considerable scepticism, which baffles Western journalists even more.)

Just to be clear Robespiere, Napoleon III, Mussolini and Adolf Hitler were in some form 'democratically elected' leaders, and every Communist dictator, ever, has regularly received about 97% of the popular vote in their countries.

There are a many issues with saying that winning the popular vote provides legitimacy.

Communist governments obviously don't get 'real' votes. One party states are not democracies, and saying that people get a vote on the single party does not make them so.

Popular votes are pointless if there is no choice.

Which brings us to unofficial one party states, like South Africa, where there is a popular vote which means virtually nothing. People get a say, but there is no chance of removing the party which - very largely through its dreadful economic and social policies - has kept the vast majority of the voters ignorant and poor (while flooding them with propaganda suggesting that result is an outside conspiracy, and only the people's party can save them...) Actually some of you might recognise this more directly as being Mugabe's very blunt approach, but the principal is the same when adopted by more weasely worded one party statists (for whom too many Western journalists have a romanticised and highly inaccurate perspective).

Most African (and many Asian and Middle Eastern... and Eastern European) 'nations' that pretend to democracy, are effectively one party states where the 'opposition' is never really going to be allowed to get anywhere.

Popular votes are pointless if people don't know or don't understand the choice.

When Australia 'granted independence' to its League of Nations mandated territory of Papua New Guinea (read abandoned an under-developed country to sink or swim if you prefer to look at the results), it disastrously insisted on imposing an elected republic. For the best of all possible idealisms of course. The stupidity of this was not only that we were dealing with an illiterate body of tribes in a country with no social cohesion and no established rule of law, but that we didn't even know who or how many voters there might be. Our 'protective officers' had to spend months canoeing up rivers and climbing jungle trails trying to find the isolated tribes that had often never seen an outsider before (and had no idea they were even part of a country, let alone what its laws were), only to ask them to 'vote' for a parliament. The inevitable result was village leaders choosing whichever local strongman offered the best deals (or threats) and telling everyone to vote for them. The result is a cesspool of corruption and intrigue masquerading as a parliamentary democracy,and condemning the majority of the population to decades (or centuries) of poverty, illiteracy and inter tribal violence. Hurray for our moral superiority!

Popular votes are pointless without education, or understanding of rule of law.

The US, in its 'wisdom' has imposed republican democracy on 'nations' in the Middle East which are not really nations at all. The fancy lines drawn on maps by European treaty powers in the post Great War settlements paid virtually no attention to geographic features, tribal groups, trade routes, cultural backgrounds, or anything else that might cause some sense of cohesion in the resulting societies. Inviting them to vote inevitably leads to attempts by subgroups to control and dominate their neighbours/rivals.

Having 50.001% the population supporting you should not give you the right to start persecution and ethnic cleansing. (Nor should having 90% - see Nazi Germany and Jews - but in fact persecution is far more likely when the persecuted are a big enough block to need putting down to prevent them challenging the status quo, than when they are insignificant...)

This is made worse by the fact that three or more divisions in a country often means that who comes out on to may not even have half the support of the population. If the majority of the population are in two or three factions that constantly squabble, you often finish up with co-ordinated minorities managing to seize and hold control. Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein, and Anwar Saddat spring to mind as samples. These people immediately change the voting rules to make it impossible to get rid of them...

Popular votes are pointless if they only enhance tribal division and lead to ongoing violence.

Speaking of rigging the rules, let's look at 'rotten boroughs'.

I do not actually mean the old rotten boroughs in England that were removed a century and a half ago, where substantial medieval towns had decayed to a few farms but still elected 2 MP's. I mean the modern rotten boroughs where, because voting is not compulsory, the British Labour Party MP can expect to win a seat with about 20,000 votes, whereas the Conservatives need roughly 40,000 and a Liberal Democrat needs at least 80,000. Admittedly there are about the same numbers living in each seat, so the MP represents the same raw numbers. But in practice some apparently have only a fraction of the support (or legitimacy).

Is this just? If voting is not compulsory, and people have to be motivated to vote, why should such a disproportionate say in politics be given to people who aren't interested in voting? And is it really 'given', or just taken by those pretending to represent those who don't want to vote? (For the best of motives of course!)

The only real excuse I have heard for 'implying' the desires of those who don't vote, is that it allows representation of the poor and ignorant and badly educated who lack the understanding or motivation to become involved themselves. This appears to be code by the people who 'know what is best for you' to get themselves a disproportionate say in making everyone do what they want them to do. It ignores the possibility that those who do not vote do not want to be represented by the do gooders anyway. (Something beyond the comprehension of the sorts of 'do gooders' who are regularly outraged at the voters for getting it 'wrong', presumably because they are 'misled' or 'dog whistled', into supporting people who don' t really 'have their best interests at heart'.)

If you are going to pretend a vote is valuable, then it has to be actively given to you to actually count.

Popular votes are worse than pointless if you are going to automatically assign the 'preferences' of much of the population without actually getting their consent.

(Remember that bit about dictators changing the rules to stay in power... Put it in the UK context... Hmmm.)

So let us consider the results of real, genuine, popularly elected leaders, who are a disaster.

I am not just talking about people like Hitler who managed to manipulate 25-30% of the vote to dominate a chaotic parliament long enough to change all the rules and entrench their power. (Though that appears to be the default result for 90-95% of all Republics throughout all history, so perhaps it is worthy of some reflection.) No, I am more interested in places where a genuine majority of the population vote repeatedly for a leader who every educated and thinking (not the same thing unfortunately) person knows will lead them to disaster.

Effectively what we are talking about here is popularistic appeals to the ignorant peasantry who make up the majority of the population.

Egypt recently elected the Muslim Brotherhood. This was done by the majority votes of the ignorant peasants in the rural areas, and against the wishes of practically anyone who could be classed as educated, literate, liberal, or with an understanding of rule of law, or role of commerce and legal rights in a modern society. Ie: the traditional appeal to the ignorant to grab control of the 'means of production' and 'distribute it more fairly' - which always leads to the same results of poverty and persecution whether you call it a Fascist state (Nazi Germany) Communist state (People's Republic), Theocratic state (Muslim republic, Hindu republic, North Korea), or just a kleptocracy.

Naturally the Western journalists believe the Muslim Brotherhood should be left to develope its 'democratic' course.

The inevitable result of letting the Muslim Brotherhood rewrite the constitution and entrench their powers while introducing a Muslim republic with proper Sharia laws, would be a particularly nasty form of dictatorship. Like Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia, future votes would have been 'controlled' and eventually pointless. So the intervention of the military to throw them out and try and redo the democratic project was necessary, and possibly the only (very slim) hope of making it work. However, like Fiji, it may be only the start of many interventions to stop backsliding, until the military and people give up in disgust and settle down to exactly the sort of dictatorship which, more or less, kept things together and slowly moving forward under their previous dictators.

The simple fact is that until the mass of ignorant peasants can be adequately educated and slowly introduced to the rule of law and the consequences of voting, it is not safe to let them vote.

Thailand is going through something similar. Too many ignorant peasants voting for idealistic promises from a party that anyone with any education or experience of reality knows will inevitably lead to some sort of compromise between Stalinism and kleptocracy. As a result the educated people and those with economic hopes for the future of a more prosperous Thailand have effectively given up on democracy, and are calling for an appointed council of managers.

Thailand has some advantages here. It is a prototype Constitutional Monarchy, and - in theory - the King can use his vast personal prestige to help sort out some constitutional compromises that could keep the country edging towards the time when a genuine democracy might be safe. Unfortunately the King, who might have been that active 20 or 30 yeas ago, is in his 90's. So Thailand might need its own military intervention as well.

Besides which, the educated classes who are coming to against democracy may have a point. The last century or two has shown overwhelmingly that democracy usually does more harm than good. They might be sensible to prefer alternative forms of government... at least for a century or two... until their society has developed a bit further.

The Western journalists however, have swallowed the 'democracy is good' line hook line and sinker. Largely because they have a very inadequate understanding of the history of the perhaps half a dozen countries that have more or less managed to make it work.

Britain, the 'mother parliaments' took centuries to slowly expand the voting class. The Medieval land-holding and managing executive came first, and had to be beaten into a co-operative venture (largely through opposition to overbearing monarchs). Fortunately the monarchs balanced this by providing some rules and laws to protect the common people from overweening lords, so a workable if delicate balance started to evolve. It was improved by gradually introducing the other economic components that made things work in the state. The major trading towns got a pari of representatives to start with, and later the franchise was gradually increased amongst the 'contributing' economic classes over centuries, with the property or income level required to vote steadily declining. Still, the vast majority of the population had been literate, and well versed in legal rights, property rights, free press, and political promises and copouts, for centuries, before universal voting was allowed. (Which possibly only went too far in granting voting rights to all, even un-contributing, whereas the 'right to vote' going to anyone who contributes one dollar more than they take from the state would be much safer).

In Britain there was no stupid concept of introducing universal voting rights in 1066, or 1214, or 1642 or 1688 or 1793, because it was perfectly clear that such a step would be disastrous at those times. (The English Civill War made it pretty clear that some things needed to change... and the results of the Puritan 'republic' made it clear that knee jerk reactions were dumb, and the change should be a steady but slow process... Still think the current vote is spread too widely to be workable long term...)

So why should throwing universal voting rights into semi-feudal Afghanistan, or tribal New Guinea, be a good thing?

The Americans are worse here, in that they pretend that their democracy sprang fully formed, and that they didn't develope in exactly the same very slow way. The property franchise in the early colonies was reinforced by the 'all are equal save yellow's, red's and black's' bit of the early Republic'. Only after a century or two of literacy and getting used to economic development and free press and rule of law etc was the franchise very gradually expanded. (Blacks finally getting votes in the 1960's etc). Again, despite the recent pretences, no one really thinks that giving even all whites - let alone  yellow's, red's and black's - votes in 1600 or 1776 or 1861 or even 1901, would have made for a workable system. (It appears not to have occurred to most Americans that a civil war with 600,000 dead should perhaps have given them pause to consider whether they had the best of all possible political systems?)

France, which did ban slavery immediately on becoming a Republic, nonetheless had a property franchise. Only about 20% of most rural villagers had full citizenship and voting rights at the start. Again, no one thought universal voting would be sensible, or indeed anything less than disastrous. (And in fact even those numbers led to disaster... Napoleonic wars anyone? The fact that France is on its 5th republic - plus three monarchies and two empires - in about 200 years, should perhaps indicate that they have not got the perfect solution yet either?)

Should Cromwell have been considered a 'democratically elected' leader. Should Robespierre? Should Napoleon III? Should Stalin or Adolf Hitler or Mao or Kim il whichever? Should Mugabe or Morsi, Putin or... well, its pretty endless isn't it?

But would our modern journalists still have been demanding they be 'respected' as elected leaders, they way they have some of the thugs they are currently supporting? Unfortunately the answer is probably yes.

Why do journalists think that getting a number of votes, whatever the reason for them, makes for 'legitimacy'; and being an evil murdering bastard intent on repression and possible ethnic cleansing doesn't make for illegitimacy?

How can people think that numbers equal morality?

Most of the most terrible things in human history were extremely popular with many people who would now be considered as deserving of being 'voters' in their societies. By contrast many of the great breakthroughs of liberalism and rights were imposed on people who were suspicious, and initially would have almost certainly have voted against them.

Popular democracy is not automatically a good thing, and popular votes do not automatically grant the moral right to appalling behaviour and persecution. (In fact, historically, the opposite is usually true, with extreme popularism almost automatically equalling bad morality and appalling persecution of someone!)

Misleading and manipulating ignorant masses is never going to grant anyone moral righteousness. (No matter what some journalists think.)

Ignorance of history is no excuse for stupid journalism.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Chateau Generals of the World Wars: British in WWI and American in WWII

(The following reflection on the value of experience will no doubt annoy some people for its many oversimplifications. But I think the point is worth making. )

Contention: American senior generals in World War II were as bad, and for the same reason, as British senior generals in World War I.

Before leaping in I will comment that I have  a fair amount of sympathy for some recent re-assessments of the Great War myths of ‘lions led by donkeys’, which imply that the appalling losses on the Western Front in World War One were simply because the generals were so hopeless theat they could not imagine any other tactic than attrition.

Fundamentally the fault with this view is that it excuses the politicians from forcing the generals into impossible situations, and then making them do something they don’t want to do.

Democratic societies are invariably going to be unprepared for war, and inevitably the poor bloody soldiers are going to pay the price for the unpreparedness. It is just annoying that the sort of politicians, social commentators, and ‘historians’, who have spent the whole interwar periods arguing for cuts in military spending; then spend the whole war period screaming about the results; and the postwar period blaming the officers who were opposed to such cuts all along.

Otherwise competent generals then spend years fighting impossible odds and losing more often that they can win, in circumstances that are usually beyond their control. (Usually to have similar, or even less competent, generals repalce them whe the politicians lose patience, and go on to receive the undeserved glory of the victories that come once the nations war machine is finally properly geared for action.)

The worst losses of the British army on the Western Front, in the dreadful Loos battles of 1915 and Somme battles of 1916 for instance, were not because the generals running the show wanted such a campaign right then, but because the polticians said they had to do it.

The unavoidable fact was that the French Army was close to collapse, so the British army had to provide counter pressure to keep the Germns occupied while the French recovered a bit (morale as much as materiel). There was also the fear that Russia might pull out of the war if the Allies did not do something more.

So French, and later Haig were forced to commit unprepared and inadequately trained troops to an offensive that most of the British generals expected to fail, or at best to achieve only marginal results. Tens of thousands of men were sacrificed because the poiticians said it was necessary to keep France going.

And why were the troops inadequately trained? Largely because the politicians (and I will include Kitchener here, as he was by this time a politician with a military background rather than a real general), had based their recruiting campaign on a trendy ‘new model’ citizens army, rather than use the well developed existing territorial reserve system that would have done a far better job. They new enthusiastic troops were considered incapable of the traditional fire and movement approach of professional troops (the type that the Germans reintroduced in 1918 with their ‘commando units’, and the British army was able to copy soon after with properly trained and combat experienced personnel). Instead the enthusiastic amateurs were considered too badly trained to do more than advance in long straight lines… straight into the meat grinder.

Having said that the generals blame for the results should be at the very least shared with their political masters, I am still willing to express dissatisfaction with the approach of Haig and many of his senior commanders. They were Chateau Generals in approach and in attitude. They drew lines on maps without adequately considering the terrain, issued impossible instructions without looking at the state of the ground, and ran completely inadequate communications that were far from capable of keeping track of, or controlling, a modern battlefield.

So I am confident to say that many of the casualties were their fault too. Inadequate training was at least partly their fault for not correcting. The inadequate tactical deployments of the battles they were forced to fight were at least equally their fault. The failures of communication which vastly increased casualties were mostly their fault. The failure to look at alternative operations that might achieve similar or better results were almost entirely their fault.

It was noticeable later in the war that the more successful armies were commanded by competent and imaginative officers who insisted on detailed planning; intensive and specific tactical planning and operationsl training (down to practicing assualts on purpose built life size models); and very close control of operations to ensure success. They had usually learned the hard way, and had matured as experienced and pro-active leaders.

Of course some of this improvement was simply advances in technology. Tanks to breakthrough; better artillery fire plans to support and reduce casualties; air observation to enhance control and assess responses; better communications (including radio’s) to facilitate flexibility on the ground; and a generally better trained and more experienced soldier; with much more skilled officers. It all helped. But a lot came down to the attitude of the generals who believed that you got up front, found out the truth, stayed in close contact, and reacted to changed circumstances as immediately as possible.

So while it is unfair for Haig to get the whole blame for the Somme in 1916, it is also unfair for him to get too much of the credit for the work of the junior generals who ran the front lines units so effeeciently later in the war while he was still isolated in his Chateau.

As a result the best senior generals of World War II had gone through this learning process in WWI, and had learned the necessary skills. They trained intensively, planned meticulously, practiced assualt techniques assidously, stayed near the front to respond quickly, and considered communication and control as important as fire power and overwhelming force.

This concept of the Great War as a nursery training ground for the Great Commanders of World War II applies to German, British and Commonwealth, French and even Italian officers impartially. Long combat experience leads to working out practical solutions to real problems, as distinct from theory at military academies. (Though all armies had as many failures as successes from this process… sSome people just can't learn.)

On the German side men like Rommel are a good example. He commanded his Division and later his Corps from a tank turret, and his still later Army and Army Group from a light Recce plane. He had a main headquarters under his COS futher back to co-ordinate things, but real decisions were made right at the front line.

Montgomery is a similar example for the Allies. He too had a main HQ run by a COS, and commanded from as close to the front as possible. Beyond that, all his experiences through a long and hard Great War shaped his approach to the later war. In the Second, he repeatedly refused to launch any attack with inadequately trained troops. (Note that for him this applied all through the war, but he was lucky enough to only hold senior command at vital points after the tide was turning to allow the allies such luxury.) He not only planned operations to the last detail, but whenever possible went and visited every unit in his command to ensure that every soldier understood their part in the operation. (To the extent that later in the war many people justly complained of his overcaution… But he knew that his reputation with his soldiers was based on this very pedantic-ness, and knew not to risk that.) He insisted his HQ be joint with his Air support HQ whenever possible. He stayed as close to the front as possible, and had roving recce officers whose sole job was to keep him informed of the minutaie affecting every unit in his command. 

Montgomery, like Rommel, was in every way the opposite of a Chateau general.

In fact the vast majority of British and German generals who had adeqaute experience from the Great War behaved this way.

Which brings us to the Americans, and their lack of Great War experience.

The Americans arrived on the Western Front when the war was already won. Only a few thousand were there for the last big German push, and by the time the Allies were moving to their final offensives with real American numbers involved, the German army was a broken reed. Which means that most American officers had only a few weeks of combat experience, and almost all of it against a failing army which had little resilience left to offer the type of resistance that might have caused the inexperienced American officers to have to reconsider their theories from their quicky officer training courses. Even the professional military officers received, at best, only a couple of hints that their ideas might not be inevitably effective against a stronger opponent. Certainly not enough time to learn how to analyse and adapt to circumstances in serious combat.

Which is why the majority of highly recognised American higher commanders in World War II appear to be chateau generals.

Consider the differences. The Americans who get the most acclaim for WWII are men like Marshall, Eisenhower, Bradley, MacArthur and Nimitz. Chateau generals operating hundreds if not thousands of miles from the front. By contrast their exact British equivalents who ran the COS or theatre commands – Brooke (British COS to Marshall as American one), Wilson (who was Supreme Allied Commander in the Med after Eisenhower), Mountbatten (South East Asia theatre commander to MacArthur's South West Pacific) and Horton (an Atlantic theatre commander to Nimitz's Pacific) – are usually only known to specialists.

By contrast the most famous British (and German) generals were the ‘lead from the front’ types. Alexander, Montgomery, Slim and O’Connor (or Rommel and Guderian). While the American equivalents – Eichelberger, Truscott, Simpson and Ridgeway – are again almost unkonown except by specialists.

The interesting thing here is that we do not know the names of the American desk soldiers because they were better than the British ones. Quite the contrary. 

Brooke was a unique and brilliant COS whose well reasoned strategy became the core of the Allied victory. Marshall was merely an exceptional administrative beaurocrat whose strategic and tactical sense often left even his greatest accolyte – Eisenhower – despairing of his understanding of modern warfare. (See Ike’s response – in 'Dear General' to Marshall’s suggeestions about how to use paratroops at D-Day as an example of his growing frustration with his bosses ignorance.)

Actually this is missing some of the point about the best British soldiers being experienced front line operatives. Brooke was a front line soldier all through the Great War, and one of the foremost technical thinkers of the interwar period. He had been chosen to command both Infantry Brigades and the experimental Armoured ‘Mobile’ Brigade despite being ‘only a gunner’. He had starred as a Corps commander in the retreat to Dunkirk, and had personally reorganised and reinvigroated the home oarmies during the invasion scares. A soldier further from a ‘chateau’ approach is hard to imagine. Whereas Eisenhower never directly commmanded any troops in combat, and only ever directed army and army groups commanders from a considerable distance. (Marshall had actually led a platoon during the Philippines first war of independence against the Americans, and was a training officer and then staff planner in France in WWI, so he had less excuse then Ike for some of his foolishness.)

Eisenhower’s mistakes in theatre commands in Italy and France were possibly no worse in results than Wilson’s ongoing problems with Greece (he led the ‘forlorn hopes’ of both 1941 and 1944 there), but Eisenhower failed far more spectacularly with the Italian surrender, the Broad Front strategy, and the Bulge, than Wilson ever did with far inferior resources. MacArthur’s failures are more readily compared with Percival than the successes of a man like Leese, and Nimitz is often referred to as one of the great captains of history, for defeating a navy that repeatedly sabotaged its own efforts in the Pacific theatre. (Often by people who haven’t seemed to have ever heard of Max Horton’s much harder victory against the ruthlessly efficient U-boat campaign in the Atlantic theatre).

Similarly it is fair to say that the American front line commanders most people have never heard of were hardly inferior to their famous British contemporaries. Eichelberger was as good a commander, and as good a co-operator in Allied operations, as Alexander ever was. Truscott was probably at least the equal of Montgomery, given the opportunity. (I suspect possibly even better actually, but who can say?) Simpson, in his brief few months at the front, impressed many British officers who had served for years under men as good as Slim. And Ridgeway showed in his few months of active operations a level of skill and competence (not necessarily the same thing) that far more experienced men like O’Connor did not surpass.

Why do we hear about the American chateau generals in preference to their front line leaders? And why do we hear about the British front line leaders in preference to their back office superiors. I would say it is because the British had been through a learning process in WWI that the Americans had not.

The prime examples of American chateau leadership are obvious. MacArthur got away with it the first time (Phillipines 1), because his generalship was so bad that his originally very isolated bunker was soon under direct fire. (Not that he ever stuck his head out. ‘Dugout Dug’ was not a term of endearment by his men.) By contrast Fredendell’s exotic bunker hundreds of miles behind the front was quickly exposed at Kasserine Pass. (Fredendell was a Marshall favourite. I”I like that man, he’s a fighter”…. Blind leading the blind?)

But the top American generals remained chateau types throughout the war. MacArthur ran his front line in 1942-4 from Melbourne… sometimes Brisbane (about the distance fron the front as London is from Egypt, or later Rome.) Eisenhowers HQ in France was literally in a Chateau, and one so remote and so isolated from modern communications that Haig would have been embarrassed. (This aside from the fact that this HQ was a cesspool of conniving backstabbing that – according to a number of senior Americans in quoted in Eisenhower's Leiutenant's – quickly seemed less concerned with actually finishing the war with the Germans, or the possiblity of their counter attacking – than with preparing Ike’s run for President.)

Bradley was so cut off from his command for the bulk of the French campaign that during the Bulge the 1st and 9th armies (most of his units) had to be handed over to Montgomery (much to Bradley’s fury). Frankly, his communications were little better than Haig’s had been, and his knowledge and understanding of the front apparently only marginally better.

Clarke actually spent time right at the front, but not really by plan. His invading army was no more supposed to have seen his HQ in the front line at Salerno, than had MacArthurs bunker been supposed to be there. But the failures of his command, particularly his corps leader  – see Dawley and remember Fredendell – left his first army command resembling Bradley directing traffic. He was very lucky that his second corps – British 10th – was commanded by a much more experienced soldier - McCreery – who could be safely trusted to run his own battles. Carlo D'Este blames most of the poor planning and higher leadership on Clarke, though everyone acknowledged that he worked hard once on the ground. But his latter effort when he let an entire German Army escape – against Alexander's direct orders – so he could have the glory of leading a parade into Rome, should probably have seen him shot (or at least very least awarded an Iron Cross).

Bradley’s subordinate at 1st Army, Hodges, also ran a magnificent HQ complex, but apparently not quite such a long way from the front to seem safe. When Montgomery’s assistants went to consult with him directly because his communications seemed to have failed during the German attack at the Bulge, they found a magnificently appointed set of buildings for an Army commander (compared to their own Army Group Commanders field HQ in a dozen trucks.) Unfortunately they were not able to find anyone to talk to because the army HQ had retreated in apparent panic, being out of communication with their units and allies for many hours. Fortunately (!) they had left all the maps on the walls so anyone passing through could tell what 1st Army thought it was doing. (Montgomery’s officers were happy to take the maps away, both to inform their boss, and also because they though it might be wise… just in case of the, admittedly highly unlikely, chance that any Germans might actually turn up! As was fairly predictable, they never got close.)

By contrast one of Alexander’s biographies begins with an anecdote about a junior officer near the front in Italy. Alex drove up in a jeep and stopped to chat. The Germans, realising their was a senior officer present, started an artillery barrage. Eventually the junior officer suggested Alex should go somewhere safer. He unconcernedly agreed, got back in his jeep, and drove further towards the front. This again was an Army Group Commander, which can be compared with the most famous example of a supposedly ‘lead from the front’ American – Patton. Many of his 3rd Army soldiers comment that he was seen less and less at the front as the war went on, and that he was quick to make himself scarce if artillery fire was active anywhere in the vicinity.

The fact that British Army Group commanders were regularly at the front, whereas American Army Group, or Army, or even Corps (sometimes even Division) commanders were very rarely (if at all) seen anywhere near the front: can probably be considered a direct result of British officers having experience from World War I that American officers did not have.

So let me return to my comment about British WWI chateau generals: “They were Chateau Generals in approach and in attitude. They drew lines on maps without adequately considering the terrain, issued impossible instructions without looking at the state of the ground, and ran completely inadequate communications that were far from capable of keeping track of, or controlling, a modern battlefield.” Would you say that this described Marshall, Eisenhower, MacArthur, Bradley and Hodges? Could honestly you deny such a charge?

One specific example of inexperience that has always amused me is Patton’s famous line about getting enough petrol which would allow him to go through the Germans like ‘shit through a goose’. It is much quoted by admiring people who never check what happened next. He made the comment only hours before his army approached a little dot on the map called ‘Metz Forts’. The US Army had made a huge thing about map reading between the wars, and Eisenhower and Bradley spent much of the interwar period competing at ‘map reading’, but apparently no one in Patton (or Bradley or Eisenhowers HQ’s) thought to consider what the word ‘forts’ might mean. This is particularly surprising as the Americna Army in WWI had been near the famous forts that had broken the German army over two dreadful years, and many Americans had toured the resulting battlefields.

So within hours of the ‘shit through a goose’ speech, 3rd Army arrived at the Metz Forts... where they stayed for several months. In fact so many attacks on the forts failed, that Patton left the front in an apparent snitt, and spent a few weeks consolling himself in Paris. (As an aside it is amusing to note that the first American assualt on the forts failed with considerable casualties despite the fact that the forts were actually empty… the Germans had lost the keys.)

The Metz Forts debacle (like the later Hurtzgen Forest debacle) is as clear an example of WWI style chateau generalship as can be found. And Patton’s response – at this, the only occasion in his career when he faced a position determinedly held by even the sad remnants of a defeated army, and the only time when he had to attempt the sort of carefully planned battle that he sneered at Montgomery for over planning  – was in no way superior to the worst of the ‘donkeys’ of the Great War.

[Note that the equivalent British debacle during that campaign was when the Canadian Army took Antwerp undamaged, but then stopped for a rest before cutting off the retreating Germans. The Germans quickly fortified the riverbanks leading to the port, keeping it out of use for months. This was a clear example of the Canadian generals inexperience, and Montgomery is at fault here for being too involved in the last attempt to break the Germans before Christmas – Market Garden – and not paying close enough attention to one of his Army commanders, who was not supervising his Corps commander, who was not chasing his divisional commander adequately. (No one is imune from such glitches in a fast moving campaign. Inexperience any where down the chain can cause big problems. But it is noticeable that Crerar’s failure did not get him the public acclaim Patton has enjoyed?) Crerar was a 'political appointment' by the Canadians (an 'able administrator', but militarily 'mediocre' according to most) who Montgomery considered to be as inferior in experience and attitude as many of the American ‘chateau leaders’ he would have put in the same basket. By contrast Monty was delighted when the more competent front line leaders – the Canadian Simonds and the American Simpson – were assigned to him instead. As in the cases of the Australian General Morshead or the Polish General Anders, Montgomery only cared about ability, not nationality. But as was the case with the Americans, all too many generals in most armies, including the British and Gemran armies, lacked experience or ability.]

Please note that some genuinely talented officers always arise who can overcome the limitations of their lack of experience and inadequate education and training. (Eichelberger, Truscott and Ridgeway can take big bows here.) Equally, some limited individuals failed to take advantage of their own experience and the many intense training programs that they attended without appearing to take in. (Gort, Percival and Ironside spring to mind.)

But a number of otherwise inexperienced and unprepared generals made successes of themselves through careful mentoring by skilled superiors, so it is also important to note when mentoring failed. 

Gort failed in France not because he did not have the history or the ability to adapt (though he was a slow learner), but because he was thrown in too deep too fast. Similarly Ritchie failed as an Army Commander through inadequate mentoring, but later succeeded as a Corps commander through careful rebuilding by his superiors. Bradley seemed to have the makings of a good corps commander during the single month he operated on the front line in Sicily, but apeeared out of his depth as an army commander at D-Day (doing his best work as a pseudo corps commander directing traffic during the break out), and was completely out of his depth as an Army Group commander thereafter. He was at his best working under Patton and in reasonable comunication with Montgomery, but clearly needed more direction from Monty during D-Day (not that he was happy to have it by then). 

Unfortunately there was no knowledgeable American who could mentor him, except possibly men like Eichelberger and Truscott, whose superior competence and experience inadequate chateau men like Macarthur and Clarke were happy to hide from inadequate chateau men like Marshall and Eisenhower.

In fact it is noticeable that the best Americans generals were a select group of those who had not only seen real – if limited – combat in the Great War, but led advances in training interwar (in opposition to the types who had come home and “reverted to practicing to fight the Indians”), and then done a long slow apprenticeship in combat from 1942 until 1945. Again, Eichelberger and Tuscott can take a bow, while it is noticeable that there were men who had similar backgrounds but failed to learn from them and never improved, like Fredendell and MacArthur.

Yet despite all these qualifications, the principle is clear. The British and Commonwealth armies, with a huge amount of World War One experience, had at least some success in learning from that, and the majority of Britain’s succesful and recognized leaders of the Second war were ‘lead from the front’ men. The US army didn’t have that experience, and its soldiers suffered from the sort of Chateau generalship that had blighted the British in the Great War.


In fact, just to stir the pot a bit more, I will go a step further in direct comparisons. Marshall was the Kitchener of World War Two (for being more of an interfering politician than a serious military leader – his 'replacement' policy being the mirror image disaster to Kitchener's 'new army'); Eisenhower the Haig (for failing to see any alternative to broad front attrition), MacArthur the person Churchill was accused of being at Gallipoli (an overambitious poseur whose plans led to pointless disasters): and Clarke the Nixon (for sacrificing genuine military success for pointless political prestige).