Saturday, September 19, 2015

The ‘Arab Spring’, 1848, and the 30 Years War/s...

When journalists were going nuts a few years ago about the wonders of the wave of ‘revolutions’ that they decided to refer to as an ‘Arab Spring’, I was reminded how few modern academics, let alone journalists, have any understanding of history. None of the political analysts or professional pundits seemed to have much more of a clue about how things would INEVITABLY turn out, than babes in a wood.

Which is ridiculous, because you would imagine that anyone with a pretense of being worth consulting might have at least a clue that there might be historical parallels worth considering.
Frankly it is terrifying that our modern ‘chattering classes’ honestly seem to imagine that they are above being able to learn anything from history.

1848 of course saw a wave of ‘revolutions’ all across Europe, which many people at the time hailed as the inevitable downfall of the ancient regimes, and the prelude of the rise of true modern democracy. How sweet.

In fact, of course, the revolutions led to a re-imposition of the ancient regimes, or much worse dictatorships: often with harder edges to prevent such things happening again. In fact it can be credibly argued that the results of this wave of revolutions was to slow down the democratization of Europe by at least 50 years.

I suspect the same thing will result from the Arab Spring.

‘Revolutions’ tend to kick off way before the society as a whole is really ready for them. Usually as pre-emptive takeover attempts by the newly educated middle class ‘intelligentsia’, (or chattering class as we would call them, or ‘twitteratti’ as I have recently heard the political ‘pundits’ ruthlessly described).

Unsurprisingly these newly graduated minor functionaries, petty civil servants, and junior lawyers, want more say in the power structure of the state than the traditional ruling class has previously allowed them. Unsurprisingly – I suppose – they want it immediately… Or as Billy Connelly said in a skit, “We want it now, we want it yesterday, we want to control half of that, most of that, f….ing ALL of that, and stay awake, because tomorrow the demands will change!”

The problem with the proto middle classes jumping the gun and trying to impose their idealized version of democracy before the working class (read average voter) is even half way down the trail to a similar level of literacy and political interest and philosophical conceptualization: is that the resulting mad theories are far too complex for the voters, and NO imagined safe-guard can stand up to the combined ignorance and misunderstanding of the newly enfranchised. The result is, absolutely inevitably, a dictatorship.

Either one of the theoretical loony models is seized by a corrupt power seeker ‘for the good of the people’, and away we go to a Mussolini, or a Stalin, or a Franko, or a Goddafi, or a Castro, or a… well the list would go to a couple of hundred in the last century. Or worse, it is seized by the much more restricted number of ‘genuine believer’ nutters: like the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, who (like Hitler, Petain and Mao) honestly believed that the only way to give the people the government they deserved was “to rule myself!”

Please note that it IS possible to have a Res Publica – by the people – government, but only as long as it is by the ‘deserving’ few. The worst excesses of these proto-democracies can be undercut by an extreme limiting of the franchise – preferably to an effective oligarchy of voters narrow enough to be more self-interested in keeping control against the uneducated and undisciplines rule of the genuine majority, but this is hard to achieve. The Serene Republic of Venice achieved it for almost a thousand years by limiting the franchise to the great and the good families, and the early United States managed to hold it together for about 90 years by limiting it by racial profiling as well as property franchise… but note that both were, like all the Greek and Roman republics, slave based societies: so their claims to be genuine democracies are hopelessly confused to anyone with a consistent or comprehensible ideological viewpoint. In their case ‘the people’ simply meant, the deserving few that we will allow to vote.

This limiting of the franchise to the deserving actually continues in very successful – one could even say the ONLY successful – republics o the modern world. The ancient Greek and Roman franchises were honestly based on ‘those who contribute get a say’. Contribution a that time being buying the expensive armour yourself, putting in the training time, and taking the risk in the front lines of battle: to prove you put the good of the state and your fellow citizens above your own interests. (Though it is notable that their Republics almost instantly graduated to imperialistic and aggressive expansion, which pretty quickly made republican government unworkable, and inevitably led to such champions of democracy as Alexander the Great and Julius Ceasar.)

The only long term successful modern Republic – Switzerland – still has compulsory military service; as does Israel, the only successful democracy ever established in the Middle East.

The other ways to limit the franchise – Like the first (1770’s), second (1860’s) and third (1880’s) American attempts of a franchise limited by race/property; or the first (1790’s), second (1820’s) or third (1860’s) French attempts at a property based franchise (which often saw as few as 20% of people with a vote): were actually much less successful than the equivalent slow Westminster style expansions of the franchise under a developing constitutional monarchy. (No Western Westminster system state has ever had a coup, let alone a civil war.) France has had 5 republics, 3 monarchies and 2 emperors in less than 200 years; and the United States has similarly run through several major reformations of their race/property franchise system since their – 600,000 dead – little debate about their system.

(The American comparison with France is amusing. The first American republic was smashed by the Confederate Defection; the second was an anti-democratic imposition on the South – with no voting rights for Confederate ‘activists’ – after the Confederacy War of Independence was crushed; the third ‘republic’ was when the white southerners were re-enfranchised and promptly disenfranchised the blacks who had been the only voters in the south for the previous 20 years – and whose elected black representatives had not been allowed in the front door or the dining rooms of Congress; the fourth republic… well you get the idea. The US system, with all its defectioins, jumps and retreats, simply can’t be called a continuously expanding development the way Westminster systems are.)

Which is all a round about way of pointing out that the ‘republics’ in the Middle East, and particularly in the Arab and Muslim world, simply cannot work.

The absolutely vital elements of a successful democratic component of government (note – component of a system, not the entire system): is that there be a literate population; a free and enquiring press; a well developed and just rule of law; and a tradition of give and take being acceptable to the society.

Tribal societies have none of these things. That is why democracies have consistently failed in African countries where tribalism is still the most important element. (In fact politics in some of these places is still largely a competition between which tribal groups served in the imperial militaries, versus which served in the imperial civil services. With very bloody competition between the two.) The fact that illiteracy is rampant; free presses almost non-existent; and the rule of law where judges are not beholden to tribal interests, or simply threats, doesn’t exist: makes democracy impossible to sustain.

Muslim culture has none of these things. A system where a woman’s evidence in court is one third of a man’s – and dhimmitude is recognized even if slavery officially isn’t – is unlikely to have these things. And for literacy, free press, or rule of law, see Africa, but doubled.

It is also possible to suggest that without a clear understanding of the logic of natural laws, you can’t have a democracy. The fact that Muslim scholarship specifically rejects natural law on the basis that Allah can cause anything, so there are no ‘natural laws’, means you cannot have these things. The reason the Muslim world lost its scientific supremacy of the 11th and 12th centuries relates specifically to their decision to turn their back on empirical evidence. Without that basic understanding, I do not believe democracy is possible. (In fact that basic approach helps explain why democracy is actually anathema to good Muslims, and why Boko Haram literally means ‘Western education is evil’!)

So the concept that an ‘Arab Spring’ could work in the Middle East is a sad indictment on the Western media and ‘intelligentsia’s’ failed understanding about how democracy works.

In fact the entire deluded Western project of attempting to impose ‘republics’ on tribal societies as part of post-colonialism ,is an indictment on the western fantasy that republics are workable, let alone good things.

Let’s face it, no western republic, even in the most educated, literate, and rule of law abiding parts of the Anglosphere, has survived a first century without a collapse and or bloody civil war. The most ‘successful’ Western republics have included the American (see above), French (see above), Weimar (heard of the popularly elected Adolf Hitler?), Italian (50 governments in 50 years), Greek (how’s that brilliant financial planning going?) and Polish (are they on their 3rd, 4th, or 5th?). Those are the good ones. 90% of all republics ever founded in Europe, South America, Asia, Africa, or the Middle East, have collapsed into dictatorship, civil war, mass murder, or ethnic cleansing, within 20 years of being set up.

And that’s what we thought would work in the Middle East?

To be fair, the British set up monarchies, in the hope that they would become constitutional monarchies (which were their experience of something that might actually get somewhere). Jordan seems to be succeeding; the Gulf states are so successful few want to change; and Egypt was derailed by the Soviets and Americans playing Cold War games. The French tried to set up republics (god knows why, their's and never worked) in Syria, Lebanon, Tunisia, and other places. In the words of Dr Phil, ‘How’s that working out for you?’. The Americans successfully undermined the Egyptian and Iranian attempts to get constitutional monarchies off the ground, and celebrated the resulting republics... very briefly. The second in particular no longer looks a very clever move.

The latest American attempts to force republics on Afghanistan and Iraq have been absolute disasters.
Afghanistan might, might… have worked if the Americans had understood that such a tribalised society required a House of Lords of all the powerful tribal leaders and major clerics, to balance and elected representatives. (But of course it would still need some sort of monarch to make it work, because, as Machiavelli pointed out, you need 3 powers in balance, so any two can stop the third from dominating!).) Or they could just have a system where the two major components completely ignore each other while they compete for control , and leave an easy opening for the return of the Taliban.

Iraq might, might… have worked with a federal system of at least a dozen ethnically based states that each had two representatives to a senate that had the right to block the excesses of an elected house where a 50% majority could get revenge on everyone else for every slight since the death of the prophet. Or they could go for a more simplistic version of a republic, and get what they inevitably got.

Why couldn’t the Americans have kept their big fat ideologies out of it, as they largely did after the first Gulf War. Kuwait is no great shining beacon, but it doesn’t suffer from the American idealism that lead to Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt and Iran!

Which brings us to the fundamental problem. The Western media and intelligentsia don’t seem to have a clue that the issues in the Middle East are not related to competing political ideologies, but to competing religious tribalism.

The ongoing conflicts throughout the region, and in other parts of the world, are not about democracy versus monarchy; or fascism versus communism; or imperialism versus freedom. Or indeed any of the other childish ideologies Western journalists fell in love with during their undergraduate post modernist deconstructionalist courses by failed ex-Trotsky’s, who simply can’t accept that the last century has proven how appalling and basically evil their over-simplistic ideologies are. (Yes Comrade Corbyn, that’s you and your gushing twitteratti I am slamming!)

In fact the problem in the Muslim world is that they are entering the third decade of the Muslim Civil War.

The Sunni’s and Shia’s are at about the point that the Roman Catholic’s and the Protestants were at in Europe in the 1620’s to 30’s, and it is only going to get worse. That war was ideaological, and paid very little attention to national boundaries. This one is the same. The Christian 30 Years War is about to be repeated in a Muslim civil war, and 30 years might be an optimistic number.

Interestingly the Christian’s split over 3 or four centuries, into Orthodox and Roman, then split again into Albigensian and Protestant etc. Eventually it got to the point, after 14 or 15 centuries of slow development, that major conflict broke out. Is it co-incidence that the Muslims have followed a similar path? Is it inevitable that after 14 or 15 centuries of existence, they too are having a major internal conflict? Or is it just that a century of renewed prosperity and development (largely brought on by Western intrusion into their secular affairs) has given them the semi-educated proto middle class who traditionally stir up revolutionary stuff they don’t understand?

Whatever the reasons, stupid Westerner’s are eventually going to have to admit to a few of realities.

1.     No matter how much you fantisise about the functionality of republics and democracy, you can’t impose systems that don’t work in places that don’t have the necessary pre-requisites.

2.     No matter how much literacy or free press you do manage to push in, you can’t impose rule of law and understanding of natural law on societies that have very specifically rejected such concepts for 8 or 9 centuries.

3.     No matter how much your secularist ideologies (developed from safely behind 2 millennium of Christian teaching that accepts rule of law and natural law) is offended, you cannot expect a similar acceptance from people whose cultural development of such beliefs is several centuries behind the West.

4.     No matter what you want to believe, the Muslim civil war is happening.

Let’s hope we really are at least half way through the 30 years…

Saturday, December 27, 2014

D Day... if the right generals were in charge?

Who should have commanded Allied forces from D Day on, and would the war have been shortened thereby?

(Another 'what if' to stir debate. Stirring the pot as usual... hope you enjoy it.)

Whenever I do a post on 'rating' this general, or that general: the comments usually come down to 'but at this battle they failed, whereas at this battle such and such succeeded'. These comments almost always try to compare apples with oranges, suggesting that someone good at open field pursuit with little opposition, would have done better at an invasion than someone brilliant at tight defensive battles who never commanded a successful advance. In fact the opposite would be more likely, with someone who has good knowledge of how to fight tight engagements probably much better at an invasion than someone who had only ever pursued broken enemies with loose formations in open spaces. Their specific knowledge bases are probably more important than the fact that one had possibly seen only victory, and the other only defeat.

The truth is that any successful high command should maximise the chances of success of any campaign by choosing the 'best fit' for the job.

But that is not how generals were chosen for D Day.

(I would love to start with divisional commanders, but there are way to many, so for space I will start with Corps and Army commanders, and work up to the top).

The outstanding Canadian of the campaign for instance was Guy Simonds. Described by many as the best Allied Corps commander in France, and credited with re-invigorating the Canadian Army HQ when he filled in while his less successful superior Harry Crerar was sick, Simonds was undoubtedly the standout Canadian officer in both Italy and France.

He was however, the youngest Canadian division, corps or army commander, and the speed of his promotions pushed him past many superiors. He was also described as 'cold and uninspiring' even by those who called him 'innovative and hard driving'. It can be taken as a two edged sword that Montgomery thought he was excellent (presumably implying Montgomery like qualities?) But his promotions seemed more related to ability than cronyism, and his achievements were undoubted.

Should he have been the Canadian Army commander instead of Crerar? Yes. Arguments against were mainly his lack of seniority, and lack of experience. but no Canadian had more experience, and lack of seniority was no bar in most of the other Allied armies.

It comes down to the simple fact that the Allied cause would have been better served by having Simonds in charge of Canadian forces than Crerar.

The most interesting British Corps commander was Neil Ritchie. Interesting because he had previously been given unexpected command of Eighth Army at a crucial point of the desert war, and been sacked for failing in this role. In fact his appointment from HQ officer over the heads of many senior battlefield commanders in 1942 had been supposed to be a temporary one, and Brooke had been appalled at such a junior officer being thrown in way over his head and 'damaged'. Once sacked, he was returned to England, where Brooke carefully built him back up through divisional and then corps command, to make him ready for re-entering the war at an appropriate level.

Few would say that Ritchie was the most brilliant corps commander on the allied side, but he did a much better job than many of his contemporaries. His 'reconditioning' proved to be a worthwhile development (underlining how his earlier failure reflects more on his superiors than on him).

Was he the right man for the job? Yes, both due to his undoubted (if painful) past experience, and to his natural ability which had overcome such a past.

As an interesting comparison Gerard Bucknall was sacked as commander of the British XXX Corps during the campaign by the man who had appointed him, Montgomery again. Bucknall had served competently in North Africa, and impressed Montgomery as a divisional commander in Sicily and Italy, but Alan Brooke as CIGS felt that he was unsuitable as a Corps commander, and experience was to suggest that (as usual) Brooke was correct.

Montgomery sacked Bucknall for repeated failures during the breakout operations, and, fortunately, Brian Horrocks had recuperated enough from his North African injuries to take over and re-invigorate XXX Corps for the rest of the war. Brooke didn't hold this sacking against Bucknall, and appointed him commander of Northern Ireland for the rest of the war. Another example of accepting men at their ability levels, and not blaming them for being pushed beyond them.

Horrocks was definitely the right man for a corps command, as he had proved in North Africa, and was to prove again. If he had not been wounded (by a strafing fighter) at Tunisia, he might have been the right man to be army commander too. He certainly was by far the most experienced corps commander, having fought from Alemein to Tunisia, and then from Normandy to the Rhur. It is possible to suggest that he would have been a better commander of the British 2nd Army than Dempsey... if not for his being out injured for a critical year.

Another possibility for British 2nd Army commander was O'Connor, who instead served as commander of VIII Corps. O'Connor was THE outstanding corps commander of the first half of the war, with achievements in North Africa that only Patton came close to matching later. Of course both O'Connor and Patton achieved their most dramatic successes against the Italians, not against the Germans, but both are masters of high speed manoeuvre.

Having said that, O'Connor also succeeded in breaking fortified lines several times in North Africa – a role that Patton notably failed in at the Metz (though we might note that O'Connor faced Italians, and Patton Germans). So O'Connor had been a brilliant Corps commander before most other Allied generals had led a division, and might have been considered a better choice for Army command too.

Unfortunately O'Connor had spent two years in captivity during the middle of the war, and there is some doubt that he was up to even corps command in France. He certainly performed competently – who with his experience would not have – but he lacked the fire of his previous command.

It is also possible that freewheeling corps commander was actually his metier, and army command might have been beyond him? perhaps if he had not had those two years in captivity he may have developed into a good army commander. But he did, and thus he didn't.

Was he the right man in the right place? He was certainly a safe pair of hands, and it was sensible to give him a key role at the start. He proved uninspiring after that, and it was perhaps also sensible to replace him with better goers later. An interesting debate could trend either way, but all in all it was probably sensible to rely on his experience until others proved themselves.

'Lightning Joe' Collins was one of the best of the American corps commanders for the campaign in France, not only through natural ability, but through sheer experience. He commanded the 25th Division on Gudalcanal and then on New Georgia before transferring to Europe to provide a bit of genuine combat experience, and he commanded VII Corps throughout the campaign extremely competently. He was a prime example of using safe and experienced hands to lead new or inexperienced troops into combat. His leadership of Operation Cobra finally allowed inexperienced US units to break experienced (if depleted) German troops, and converted the Normandy siege into the great trans-France pursuit.

Definitely one of the best men for the job in France.

By contrast Leonard Gerow proved to be very competent despite his lack of combat experience. A contemporary of Bradley (who was second to him in the Advanced Course at Infantry School) and Eisenhower (who was his study partner at Command and General Staff school), there was no reason he  could not have finished senior to both, rather than staying a corps commander for his few months of operations. Such is fate.

But he turned out to be a good choice for his role, and proved a safe pair of hands despite his inexperience. A man who might have been a good army commander with more experience.

Interestingly Charles Corlett did not bring XIX corps into action until after the invasion was successful. This is fascinating because he had commanded two successful invasions in the Pacific – Kisku, which proved to be a non event because the Japanese had left, and the much tougher Kwajalein operation, often called 'the most nearly perfect' of all US invasions in the pacific war. Why such a proven invasion commander (he was later to be tasked with planning to invade Japan) was not used for the actual invasion is an interesting question. Clearly he might have been better at that than less experienced contemporaries?

Which raises the fundamental question, why was the single most experienced and successful American invader (North Africa, Sicily, Italy.. twice) Lucian Truscott, not brought up for the most important invasion of the war? He was a proven corps performer, with vastly greater experience than even the Pacific veterans, and deservedly got an army of his own in 1944. Not only was he the outstanding choice for a corps commander for an invasion, he would have been a vastly superior choice as Army commander to the less experienced (and less competent) Bradley or Hodges.

Admittedly he was pretty hotly engaged in Italy at the time. (And admittedly, his presence had repeatedly saved the situation when other less competent generals had screwed things up), but he was the standout invasion specialist in the US army. If Marshall genuinely believed that Italy was a wasted sideshow, and everything should be focused on France, his being left in the secondary theatre was a pretty strange choice.

Should he have been there? Definitely. Was it possibly helpful that one competent leader was left in 5th army? Probably. Perhaps we need to accept that the best available was simply not available?

There are other corps commanders, but lets move on to the army leaders.

Harry Crerar has been mentioned . Pedestrian might be an acceptable phrase. He was not completely incompetent, but he inspired no one, and his achievements were made to look poor in the few months that Simonds got to stir his command up. Was he the wrong man in the wrong place? Yes.

Miles Dempsey is interesting. Proved quite competent in the end, but hardly inspiring. The need to leave Leese with 8th army and Slim with 14th was probably necessary, and he certainly had a background with combined ops and invasions, but possibly more inspiring leaders were available (Horrocks and O'Connor have already been mentioned), but taking all things into consideration, Dempsey was possibly a safe choice form the dozen or so experienced corps commanders quite ready to run an army. His well organised and fast (200 miles in a single day) pursuit of the defeated Germans across France was actually faster than Patton achieved against considerably less opposition.

Was he the right man for the job? Well he was certainly a competent choice.

Which is quite a contrast to Courtney Hodges, who appears a fairly incompetent choice. He had flunked out of West Point as a young man before re-enlisting as a private and working his way up. As such his final role commanding US 1st Army is quite an achievement. However he led it into battle despite having no combat experience since leading a platoon for a couple of weeks of combat in WW1. He was astonishingly highly thought of by Eisenhower considering his lack of achievement, and Montgomery was at one point amazed to realise that US 1st army had 20+ divisions assigned (bigger than most army group HQ's could handle successfully) whereas US 9th army next door had less divisions assigned than most corps.

Hodges advance across France was nothing special, except for a fairly major disaster called 'the battle of the bulge', where his army survived more due to the individual toughness of a few units, than to any leadership from above. (Monty's contact officers arrived at his HQ to find it completely abandoned, but with all the maps still on the walls... When they finally chased him down, he had taken to his bed in what might have been considered a nervous collapse.)

Hodges next great effort was the disastrous battle of the Heurtgen Forest, one of the last great German defensive victories of the war, and an absolute bloodbath for American forces. (It was later excused on the 'vital need' to capture two damns... but that 'need' was not apparently discovered until the battle was almost over, and the recriminations already mounting.)

Did Hodges have the experience, or skill to run an army? There is little evidence that he did. Did he cause it enormously greater casualties than a more experienced general might have? Almost certainly inarguable. Was he the wrong man in the wrong place? Yes.

By contrast William Simpson might have been a good choice for 1st army, as he proved for 9th army when it came on line. A soldier with actual combat experience in the Philippines, and WW1, he proved a competent and safe pair of hands, particularly in reacting swiftly and smoothly to the Battle of the Bulge. He also worked very smoothly with the difficult Montgomery after that, and was highly rated by Monty as the most competent US general he dealt with during the war.

Should he have been given more experience before getting such a key position? Yes. Did he cope well considering his lack of experience? Very. Was he the right man for such a role? Probably not, but he performed well enough to deserve praise.

Alexander Patch was one of the few American army leaders who were promoted from experienced corps leaders who had seen a lot of combat. His efforts with a division and later corps on Guadalcanal meant he had experience to go with his role. He was hardly outstanding, but certainly a safe pair of hands for such a role. It is interesting that he got an army when Collins and Corlett did not, even though they probably had superior claims to him.

George Patton was of course the other army leader who had seen some actual combat, but that is the only thing you can say about him that won't cause debate. Personally I think he would have been a better choice for Army group commander than his ex-subordinate/now superior Bradley, but that is no great compliment to either.

Patton had a genuine 'nose' for assessing what was going on in combat. On the other hand I think he is hugely over-rated as an army commander, in that he was only ever successful in pursuit of defeated foes.

Despite the propaganda in the film about him, he had nothing to do with the Germans pulling back after Kasserine. He did get to swan around in Sicily collecting Italians who were lining up to surrender as fast as possible, and he also got to go on a scenic cruise through France when there was no opposition to his advance. He proved very competent at pushing such advances, and was happy to make or mend (or steal) anything to keep momentum going. With experience, he might have made a good all round general.

But his only real testing against an enemy prepared and willing to fight was at the Metz, where he failed dismally. Given that this came within days of his 'shit through a goose speech', the fact that he was stopped cold for months and could think of nothing to do about it (to the extent of eventually going to sulk in Paris for weeks), argues against him being a great general.

He was in the right place to lead the troops after the breakout, but he was probably too inexperienced in combat to be given a role that should have gone to Truscott or Collins or Corlett instead.

Wrong man for the job.

Jean De Lattre de Tassigny was definitely the right man. A very experienced combat professional, and one who had the honour of being described by his German opponent in 1940 as having led men who performed like those at Verdun in the previous war. He fought in North Africa, Sardinia, Italy, and France (and later was one of the few success stories in Vietnam), and was always efficient and effective. Right man for the job, and possibly a better candidate to command the US/French Army group than Devers.

Jacob Devers was the Army Group commander no one has heard of. Despite having run all US Army Armoured units for most of the war, he had no real combat experience before being thrown in to command an army group in the invasion of Southern France and the fight up to Germany. Despite being one of the best organisers and administrators and trainers available to the US Army, he had little background to deal with a combined US/French army group, and struggled to stay in charge of the French component (though many others might have too in the last months of the war).

Was he the right man for the job? Probably not. Certainly it is a shame to think how much better he would have been running Eisenhower's logistics than the appalling Lee turned out to be. His skills could have been better employed. But on the other hand, by the time he got into action there was little that he could have done to undermine things anyway.

Certainly a better man than his lack of recognition deserves, despite his lack of experience for such a role.

Omar Bradley is easier. Out of his depth.

He had been quite good running a corps in Sicily, against no opposition from Italians who wanted to surrender. But it can hardly be said that a month of such operations made him an experienced combat leader.

Perhaps if he had been left as an army commander he might have proved competent (with careful mentoring). But he had to be gently pushed to concentrate adequately to achieve things for the breakout, and then he operated like a junior corps commander directing traffic.

Was he experienced enough to run an army group? No. Was he good at it? No. Hodges was poor, Patton did as he liked, and Bradley's organisation and control failed to control them, let alone lead them. He wandered between sitting at Eisenhower's side whinging about not being able to communicate with most of his armies after being caught out at 'the battle of the bulge', to telling Patton he would 'stay away from the telephone' so Eisenhower couldn't order him to stop Patton's insubordination.

Bradley would have been an excellent divisional commander. With more practice, he looked like making a very good corps commander. He was an inexperienced and inadequate army commander. As Army group commander he was terribly out of his depth.

Montgomery... Oh God, Montgomery!

Montgomery was the most experienced, skilled and competent Army or Army Group commander in Europe (or indeed the world). He was absolutely the right person to be commanding an army, and seemed to be quite good at commanding an army group.

But he was not a good choice for 'Land Forces Commander'. He was simply the wrong personality to work with the group such a role needed to co-ordinate.

Nor did he have the strategic vision to relate a tactical campaign to the overall situation.

Having said that, having him as army group commander of the initial invasion, was probably sensible. It needed one strong experienced and unpanicked hand, and even Eisenhower and Bradley (hardly admirers) later admitted that invasion might not have worked at all without him.

And having him as land forces commander afterwards, despite his weaknesses and the trouble it would cause, would still have been better than not having one at all.

But not much.

(In fact his personality was so difficult he may well have caused almost as much damage as Eisenhower's HQ was managing anyway... If not adequately controlled... which meant NOT by eisenhower.)

Was Monty the right man in the right place? Yes. Did he NEED a strong commander? Yes. Did he get one? No. Was that his fault? .... Well again, don't blame a subordinate if his superiors stuff things up...

Monty was correct of course that someone had to do the job of land forces commander, and that it would be better to give it even to someone relatively incompetent like Bradley, than simply pretend it was not necessary.

In fact he would have been happy to have Ike's preferred choice, Alexander, who had never inspired Monty with confidence, but who at least knew what the job entailed, and had an unrivalled ability to get people to work together. (Yes, better than Ike's ability... much better.)

What was absolutely vital was someone who could concentrate on the land battle while the Supreme Commander played politics.

Who was qualified to be land forces commander? Bloody good question.

Alexander is the default choice. He had done it before, and made it work. Was he the best choice? No. too soft and conciliatory, and earlier in the war his juniors (Monty, Patton, Clarke) played him the way Patton later played Bradley. But there are signs that after a few years of experience he was maturing, and might have been up to the job. (Or at least more up to it than anyone else available.)

Who might have done it better? Alan Brooke of course. Possibly his successor at home army Bernard Paget, who, despite limited modern combat experience in Norway, had enormous experience training and organising the invasion armies. Or even Henry 'Jumbo' Wilson who, despite being thrown out of Greece, and running an uninspiring Syrian campaign before taking over 10th army, had at least seen modern combat on large fronts. Otherwise William Slim, the Australian John Lavarack, or perhaps even an experienced American army commander like Robert Eichelberger. Even the inexperienced Devers at lest had the managerial ability to get something done.

As Monty said, anyone would have been better than no one.

Which leaves Supreme Allied Commander.

Much is said about Eisenhowers great strengths. He certainly had buckets of charm, a great work ethic, and an unrivalled ability to co-ordinate disparate characters.

Less is said about his weaknesses. His charm hid ignorance of military affairs; his overwork reduced him to a nervous chain smoking wreck; and his attempts to jolly people along meant he failed to control (or sack) Lee, Patton, Montgomery, or anyone of the many others who eventually gave up on waiting for sensible leadership and just started doing their own thing. (That's unfair, he did threaten to sack Monty... once. Probably the only time of many he needed to make a stand that he actually did... and it would have achieved nothing if he had done it.)

It is inconceivable that anyone as inexperienced and unskilled at military operations as Eisenhower should have been left to play the role of land forces commander... or to pretend he was doing so given that no one actually did the job properly anyway. He did not have the knowledge, experience, or temperament, to command armies in the field.

So his first failure to be an adequate Supreme Commander is that he didn't understand he needed competent subordinates, run by a competent subordinate, and working to a competent plan.

Tens of thousands of casualties can be scored up to this fundamental failing.

So lets imagine for a minute that he had the sense to insist on having Alexander run things, and had concentrated on his actual job. Could he have been a success at being Supreme commander if he wasn't failing at ground forces commander?

Again, probably not. His failure to control or inspire his subordinates is evident from the above. But his failures in the geo-political sphere are even more depressing.

This was the man who had insisted an invasion of France was possible in 1942 when he was at war plans division, only to want to stop an invasion of Sicily in 1943 if 2 more German divisions showed up. This was the man who failed to convince the French leadership (in Gibraltar pre North Africa, in North Africa post that invasion, or in France post that invasion), or the Italian leadership (during surrender negotiations) to play ball in a sensible way. Combine that with his disastrous approach to abandoning Central Europe to the Russians when he could have saved much of it, and you get the impression that he should not have been playing politics at all.

(Which is amusing, because he turned out to be a much better President than he was a general.)

Again, who were better choices?

Again, Alan Brooke, obviously. A much, much more experienced combat leader, and corps, army, army group, and home army commander, with incredible geo-political skill and negotiating experience. (Also a French born, French speaking officer who had fought over very inch of Northern France in two wars.) More importantly, a man who Montgomery, and everyone else, absolutely obeyed, and whose tongue lashings they both feared and respected.

There is no chance that a campaign run by him would have had half the problems Eisenhower's HQ managed to create.

Anyone else? Well again, on the basis that if the person had concentrated on their real job, anyone was better than no one, the list of more experienced and competent generals/admirals (not saying much really), is pretty endless.... Alexander, Auchinlek, Blamey, Brooke, Cunningham, Devers, Mountbatten, Nimitz, Ramsay, Spatz, Wavell, Wilson, etc, etc.

So what would be the ideal listing?

Supreme Commander - Brooke

Deputy Commander - Eisenhower
Air Forces - Spatz
Naval Forces - Ramsay

Land Forces - Alexander

British/Canadian Army Group - Montgomery

American Army Group - Eichelberger

US/French Army Group - de Lattre de Tassigny

Canadian Army - Simonds

British Army - Dempsey

French Army - Koenig

9th US Army - Simpson

1st US Army - Corlett

3rd US Army - Collins

7th US Army - Patch

The weakest part of that list is Alexander who, as noted, may have been coming along anyway. (His final campaign in Italy was a masterpiece, so it appears he had learn't something). 

But the key element is that with Brooke providing the brains and giving clear directions, Alexander would be free to co-ordinate operations. And no one, least of all Montgomery, was going to question Brooke's orders.

Would the war have finished quicker with that list? Yes.

Would there have been less casualties? Probably.

Would Central Europe have been saved from the Russians? Almost certainly.

Would more of Germany finished up in Western hands? Unlikely given pre-arrangements, but possibly.

Would the post war settlement have been better? Very likely.

Would German soldiers have had more chance to surrender to the West rather than fight to the end against the Russians? Definitely.

Was an earlier surrender, or even another coup attempt, more likely? Here's hoping.

But let's repeat the main one... Earlier finish with less casualties? Yes.

PS: Amusingly Patton too (had he got a guernsey as a corps or army commander) would have been delighted to have Brooke in charge. No chance of a broad front strategy, plenty of opportunity for 'blitzkrieg' tactics instead, and no chance of not pursuing the Germans into central Europe. Patton, who had the best geo-political sense of any American general except MacArthur, would have loved it!

Friday, August 22, 2014

The best tank of World War Two… a debate

(Some of this is taken from a previous post on Statistical Issues.)

Left us start with the issue of tanks from the perspective of propaganda. More rubbish has been written about who had the best tanks during the Second World War than about any other topic to do with that war. Again and again you get supposedly serious historians talking about how the Germans started the Second World War with overwhelming tank superiority; that the Allies were only brought back into the race by the arrival of the Sherman tank; and how German technology leapt ahead again at the end of the Second World War to give them unrivalled vehicles. All these statements are of course completely incorrect.

One of the problems of course, is 'best tank when, and for what?'

Comparing what was available in 1939/40 to what was being produced in 1945 (say a Panzer III or Matilda II with a Centurion or Stalin), is worse than useless. There is no comparison. Only the Panzer IV was actually produced throughout the war: and the heavily armoured final version of the tank – with a long barrelled 75mm gun capable of taking on almost every tank yet operational in mid 1945 – bore only a passing resemblance to the lightly armoured tank with a short barrelled infantry support gun – of with minimal ability to do more than scratch the paint of a CharB in 1939/40.

The best tank in the world in 1939 was the French Somua 35 (closely followed by the FrenchCharB). These tanks were, for the period, the best armed, armoured, and most mechanically reliable vehicles available. They repeatedly demonstrated their complete invulnerability to the standard German tank and anti-tank guns, and were often able to destroy large numbers of German tanks, before eventually being themselves destroyed by hastily deployed German heavy artillery or anti-aircraft guns. There are records of single French tanks taking over 130 hits from German anti-tank guns, while blithely cruising around destroying German tanks, vehicles, and guns.

The main fault to be had with the French tanks however, was their one-man turret. It may have had a 47 mm gun capable of knocking out any German tank of the period, but it meant that the tank commander had responsibility for loading, aiming, and firing, as well as directing his own tank, and those of the other units in his squadron. Given that far too few tanks had radio, the magnificent equipment was always left down by command and control techniques.

Fortunately for the allies, the best tank of 1940 was the British Matilda II. Not only did it have armour invulnerable to any German gun except their heavy anti-aircraft artillery - the famous 88 mm - it also had a 40 mm gun capable of defeating any German tank of the period, and the magnificent advantage of a three-man turret with proper radio facilities. Unfortunately for the allies, there were only a few dozen of these available in northern France. Not nearly enough to turn the tide. They did however have the crucial effect of scaring the German divisional commander (one Erwin Rommel) into pulling back and re-fortifying his position rather than advancing after the Arras counter-attack; and an equally stellar affect on the German high command who froze Panzer operations for a few crucial days to let infantry catch up, and then refused permission for the Panzers to be wasted in the tax on the evacuating British and French forces at Dunkirk.

A minor sidelight here. I have always had trouble with history books, or indeed with graduates of various army training schools, who hold that Hitler should have allowed his tanks to roll over the Allies at Dunkirk. They manage to ignore several important details. The German blitzkrieg worked against second-rate troops, and only became a rout when they found their way into rear at areas with inadequate lines of defence. The German tanks facing the more professional Allied forces in Belgium were beaten off time and again with significant casualties. The idea that the Germans would have been effective in attacking the cream of the Allied forces, well-equipped with artillery, anti-tank guns, and tanks, in what would effectively become street fighting (the worst possible offensive terrain for tanks), is highly dubious. The fact that most of the German tanks had just completed several hundred kilometers of fast movement and now needed major maintenance was also an issue. As was Hitler’s quite sensible belief that it was more important to redeploy them to finish off France, than to waste them against desperate men in a fortified port.

The Matilda and its successor the Valentine would probably still the best Allied tanks in the world in early 1941, when they swept Italian forces before them, and several times fought the German African corps to a standstill. The German response to their shocking failures in 1940, had been to upgrade the Panzer III and IV with slightly improved armour, and the short barreled 50 mm gun. But they were still on a losing wicket engaging the British infantry tanks in any sort of close terrain, such as in the siege of Tobruk. Fortunately for Rommel, out in the open terrain of the desert he could deploy his tanks behind screens of high-powered anti- tank guns, which the British tanks lacked the long-range high explosive shells to engage effectively.

This is where the myth of the value of the Sherman tank comes from. The Sherman arrived at a time when it’s armour and weapon were on a par with the Panzer III and IV tanks that it was facing. Despite the fact that its 75 mm gun was greatly inferior as an anti-tank weapon to the new British six pounder guns that were starting to equip British tanks, the high explosive shell that the Sherman could fire was incredibly useful for engaging Rommel’s 88 mm guns at long-distance in the flat desert terrain.

For several months, it seemed as though the mechanically reliable Sherman would be a war winner, despite its notable tendency to explode in flames whenever it was hit. (Allied troops refer to it as a Ronson - “lights first time every time”. German troops just referred to it as a “Tommy Cooker”.) But this concept was fantasy, which could be easily demonstrated within a few months, though it took the US government another two years to admit it.

Within months of the Sherman arriving on the battlefield. the Panzer IV had been upgraded to a long barrelled 75, and the result, as many commentators have noted, "was more than a match for any contemporary Allied tank".

Worse was to be revealed in the Tunisia campaigns, where the Sherman’s came up against the Tiger tank (a response to the brilliant Russian T34), which was almost completely invulnerable to their 75 mm guns. (The British were very grateful that their more efficient six pounder anti-tank weapons were already being reinforced by the magnificent new 17 pounder anti-tank weapons which could deal with these monsters.) Nonetheless American authorities apparently learnt nothing from this campaign. (To be fair the British were also working on the assumption that a six pounder anti-tank gun would be adequate tank armament to see out the war at this point.) However the Italian campaign revealed conclusively that shorter range engagements against more heavily armed and armoured vehicles made the Sherman completely obsolete. Even the much more heavily armoured British Churchill, with it’s astonishing cross country ability and acceptable 6 pounder was not adequate.

The British response was surprisingly fast (considering how slowly things had changed in the past), not only designing and manufacturing 17 pounder version of the Cromwell from scratch in time to have some available for the D-Day landings; but also developing a version of the Sherman that carried the 17 pounder gun. This latter – the Sherman Firefly – was offered to the Americans, along with all the other ‘funnies’ that Percy Hobart had designed for the campaign, but again American military authorities - particularly General Omar Bradley - felt that none of this was necessary. (See casualties at Omaha compared to British/Canadian landings. For the rest of the war the Americans had to borrow British ‘funnies’ for assault operations.)

The campaigning Normandy showed even more thoroughly how ineffective the standard Sherman was as an assault tank, but still American authorities insisted that swapping from a 75 mm to a 76 mm gun would be enough to see out the war. The new gun was significantly better, giving the Americans and the equivalent anti-tank firepower to the British six pounder (which had been recognized as being insufficient for two years in British service) or the Russian 85mm. However the weapon was nowhere near as efficient as the 17 pounder which the British now had in more than half their tanks and self-propelled anti-tank guns. 

In all of this so far, I have barely mentioned the Russians at all. Their T34 tank was possibly the single most effective of the war, and was the breakthrough that forced everyone else to rethink their designs.  So we can say without a shadow of a doubt that the T34 was the best tank of the war for almost two years – from the time of Barbarossa (June 22, 1941) until the appearance of the Panther at Kursk (July 5, 1943). It certainly held this title unchallenged by the Sherman and Churchill tanks that appeared during its reign, and probably by the Tiger as well.

The Tiger is a problem for this sort of discussion, because it re-introduces the concept of 'what for' into the debate. The Tiger was a far superior heavy infantry support or assault tank to the T34, but a far inferior battlefield manoeuvre or pursuit tank. In fact the Tiger was so slow and limited in cross country ability, that it was actually more effective as a defensive weapon once the Germans were thrown back on that approach, than it had been for re-igniting their Blitzkreig glory days.

Which brings up another debate worth considering. Heavy versus medium tanks, and their roles.

The vast majority of western books are fixated on the 'best' tank, perhaps on the assumption that a single tank that will do all jobs is the best solution. Certainly there are loud complaints in many textbooks about the British division of their armour into Infantry versus Cruiser tank formations. For some reason it is believed that this was a waste of resources, that could have been better spent on a 'compromise' tank that could do everything required.

It doesn't seem to occur to such critics that the technology levels of most nations for most of the war were to up to a genuine 'all purpose' tank.  In the last days of the war, both the Americans and British rushed the new models to the front line. The American Pershing heavy tank had a very good 90 mm gun, and much better armour. It also unfortunately, had the same engine as the Sherman for much greater weight, so was as slow and difficult to manoeuvre as many of the underpowered German heavy tanks. It is not really an 'all purpose' design. By contrast to the British were moving the first of their Centurion tanks to the front line even as the war finished. The Centurion had an unrivalled balance of armour, gun, and manoeuvrability. Whereas the Pershing had a service life of only a few years, the Centurion is still in front-line service with several nations in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, including Israel which has used them in many wars. (The South Africans have just announced yet another upgrade to keep the Centurion at battle standards). 

It should be noted though, that many people suggest that, technically, the first genuine all purpose tank – the Centurion – was actually a post war design, because the 6 operational tanks in Belguim when Germany surrendered had not actually engaged German tanks. (As opposed to the Pershing, the 20 operational examples having engaged German tanks at least twice…) This appears to be splitting hairs more than a bit considering the war continued for several more months in Asia against an opponent not worthy of redeploying Pershing's or Centurian's against – in fact incapable of facing even obsolescent Matilda's (Australians in New Guinea), Stuart's and Grant's (Burma). But it does reinforce the point that such designs were technically not possibly for most nations for most of the war.

The truth is that every nation that took tanks seriously in WWII had different categories of armoured vehicles. Every single one of them – French, German, Russian, Italian, British, American and even Japanese – had armoured cars for scouting; light tanks for more combat intensive reconnaissance and pursuit; medium tanks for open warfare and pursuit; and most had heavy tanks for infantry support and breakthroughs . (To be fair the Italians and Japanese never had heavy tanks…. and their mediums looked a bit 'light' by anyone else's standards.)

The writers who decry the British Infantry and Cruiser tank division seem unaware that almost everyone else had the same division. The Germans had Panzer III cruisers, and the early Panzer IV's with low velocity short barrelled guns as infantry support vehicles. Later this division was the Panther – whose 75mm high velocity high explosive shell lacked punch for anti-infantry or anti-artillery work – and the Tiger - the 88mm high explosive shell having much greater punch: but the principle was the same. The French had the Somua 35 for cruiser work, and the CharB for assault work. The Russians had a variety of heavy and medium tanks throughout the war on the same principles.

Only the Americans had a different division, with their preference being general purpose cruisers with low velocity 75's, and 'tank destroyers' with high velocity 76.2's, but based on pretty similar hulls. In some ways their division was prescient, in that the German 'Jagd' tank destroyers were just a more streamlined version of the same principle - heavier gun on specialist version of similar hull. But it left the Americans with a hole in the assault tank/infantry support category that was never adequately filled. (Whenever they needed heavy tanks to assault one of the fortified ports in France, it was the specialised Churchill's of General Hobart's 79th division that they had to call on.)

Having noted the necessary division between medium cruisers and heavy assault/infantry support tanks however, we can still make a fair summary.

So, in contrast to what many history books and documentaries will tell you, the French had the best tanks in 1939, and the British had the best tanks of 1940 and 1945. Also in contrast to what many history books will tell you, the Shermans effective front-line role can best be defined as the few months between the battle of Alamein, and the arrival of Tiger tanks in Tunisia. All attempts to use it after that in Italy or northern France just demonstrated how pathetic it was in modern engagements. Even the British Firefly version with the 17 pounder, was extremely vulnerable to any German tank. In fact it is amusing to note, that they came into their own for the blitzkrieg across open country in pursuit of the defeated German armies across France; which has a direct parallel to the inferior German tanks pursuing the defeated French in 1940. (The equally inadequate British Cromwell tanks, being significantly faster, were actually still better at this pursuit than the Shermans.) The best tank of the Sherman's period of functional use, of course being the T34.

So our list of 'best tanks' could go something like this.
1939 - Best cruiser - Somua 35, Best support - CharB.
1940 - Best support becomes Matilda II.
1941 - Best cruiser initially Panzer III/IV with short 50mm guns, becomes T34 when Russia enters the war.
1942 - Best support is Tiger.
1943 - Best cruiser is Panther.
1944 - Best support is Tiger II.
1945 - Best 'all purpose' is Centurion.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Rating General Percy Hobart

Major General Sir Percy Hobart is a much under-considered, and under-appreciated general in the history of World War Two. Partly because he was a bit of a nutter, and partly because the limited action he did see is hard to assess.

Nonetheless Hobart was one of the most important technical and tactical developers of Allied armour techniques, and was responsible for training the famed 7th Armoured Division (the Desert Rats) for its early Blitzkreigs in North Africa (though he didn’t get to lead it into battel); for training the outstanding 11th Armoured Division – probably the best British armoured division of the D-Day to Germany campaign (though he didn’t get to lead it into battle); and developing and leading the extraordinary 79th armoured division (Hobart’s Funnies) through that vital campaign. Liddell Hart said this 'hat trick' of the 3 best British armoured divisions of the war alone made him incomparable, let alone his influence on armour overall.

In between Hobart’s influence on the development of tank design, tank tactics, tank training schools, and the principles of all arms combined operations, meant that his impact on Allied tank forces during the war was probably greater than just about anyone else's. (Guderian too kept track of his writings throughout the interwar period, hiring someone personally to do the translations.)

Hobart’s background was as an army engineer, who learned his craft in India in the first years of the 20C. But his first significant role was as a combat engineer on the front line in France in 1915, where he expereinced the waste of bad plannig and leadership. This was reinforced immensely when he was transferred to the war against the Turks in what is now Iraq. Here he saw the nadir of bad planning and leadership in action, and here he developed his wilingness to speak boldly about things above his theoreticla pay grade.

His key lesson learned from the trench and desert fighting of WWI was that good planning and surprise were far more importnt than weight of numbers , attrition, or ‘porridge making’ artillery barrages. He also learned to value skill and potential over presumed experience and caution, and became keen on pushing the best candidates to higher ranks faster (rather than waste too much young talent in more exposed leadership roles before it could advance to a role to make a real difference).

Hobart’s war experience became more happy when the War Office finally got sick of the inadequate older generals India command was sending to Iraq, and forcibly imposed the young and energetic Major General Stanley Maude. Maude was one of those rare new officers, who was actually a Staff College graduate (at a time when few were). He was an enthusiastic and well read professional, very hard working, and dedicated to centralised control and training. As Hobart’s biographer Kenneth Macksey put it in Armoured Crusader ‘here was a man Hobart could emulate’.

Students of the later stage of the war against the Turks under Maude, and then under Allenby, will note that incompetence and inertia was replaced with professionalism and mobility. Hobart was at the forefront of this improvement, and his work with improving the effectiveness of cavalry and logistical movement brought him into early contact with the new motorised tracked gun tractors that would inspire him to throw his energy into tanks from that time on.

But his experience with swift advance also led him to emphasise the importance of close contact with the front, and to realise the flaws of that close contact seperating the middle commmanders too far from the rear commanders. On one notable occasion in Palestine, there is supposed to be a time when Hobart blocked a belated change of orders being passed ot the front line when he feared they would do more harm than good. After the attack had gone through successfully in its original plan, he is supposed to have indicated that the risk of distant and untimely intervention would have been very negative. There appears to be no recorded record of this event in British army files, but it was nonetheless a commonly held belief amongst many officers that it really happened. Whether it did or not, it was exactly the sort of thing that everyone believed that Hobart would do if he felt it necessary. After all, it is exactly the sort of behaviour that was to cause him repeated problems with his superiors through the interwar period.

After volunteering to join the Tank Corps in 1923, Hobart spent much of the interwar period vying with Lidell Hart as the prophet of the new armoured forces, but with two differences. First, whereas Liddell-Hart was dedicated to armoured striking power as a deciding factor on its own, Hobart was dedicated to effective combined arms operations as the best deployment of armoured power. Second, whereas Captain Lidell-Hart retired from the army and preached from outside, Lt-Colonel Hobart’s campaigning continued within the army.

After completeing Staff College with the likes of (later Field Marshall’s) Wilson, Wavell and Brooke: he was on the staff at Quetta. Here instructor Hobart put together the true list of elements needed for armour to succeed: light tanks for reconnaissance, medium tanks for general purpose, heavy tanks for breakthroughs, artillery carriers and infantry transporters (both prefferably tracked and armoured if possible), tanks to act as communication centres and command posts, mine layers, minesweepers, gas and smoke producers… these were the things he wanted. Plus integrated air support and logisitics and repair facilities that could keep up. (Those knowledgeable about ‘Hobart’s Funnies’ will note that by 1944 he was actually producing AVRE’s and engineer tanks, as well as bridgelayers and flail and fascine carriers, and flame throwing tanks, and amphibious tanks and anti-aircraft tanks, and everything his heart would have desired for 1939. But it would take four or five years of war to loosen the government’s purse strings and the weaken the inertia of senior officer opposition… in peacetime it was pipedream stuff.)

One interesting point to note is that Hobart’s sister married another Lt-Colonel in the late 1920’s and brought Hobart a brother-in-law called Bernard Montgomery. Monty was enough junior to Hobart, and an infantry specialist to boot, that he later admitted that he was well behind Hobart’s understanding of combined arms… “militarily I had not yet grown up”. But this was to bring into limited conjunction the two outstanding trainers and developers of tactics of the British army for World War Two at a time when Hobart’s ideas were fully developed, but still seemed dangerously radical to the more conservative Montgomery.

One success of the army in the late 1920’s over the politicians who were trying to disarm, and scrap ‘offensive weapons’ like bombers and tanks via fanciful ‘treaties’, was the Experimental Armoured Force. Hobart served as a staff officer in this, and he and Lt-Colonel Pile (later to command AA command in WWII), pushed the formation to impressive results considering its somewhat ramshackle structure. Hobart was offered a permanent position on the staff as a result, but he turned it down believeing he could pressure for even more outside the restrictions of the unit.

Unfortunately Hobart’s crusading spirit (he made Montgomery and even Wingate look very moderate indeed); and tendency to treat professional disagreement as personal emnity (bringing him into sometimes unnecessary dispute with Wilson, Wavell and Brooke amongst many others): led to entirely too many opportuntities for more conservative elements to sideline him, and feel justified when he railed against his enemies undermining his vision. In propaganda terms he was his own worst enemy.

His consistent refusal to allow armour to be downplayed simply meant that he was eventually bypassed in rank, not only by his contemporaries, but also by many juniors (like Montgomery). In some ways he was lucky to be selected and assigned to create and perfect the 7th Armoured division in Egypt in time for it to win the most outstanding – and one of the few –  of Britains early wartime victories. But his disfavour amongst his contemporaries saw Wilson request his replacment, and Wavell (whose wife notoriously disliked the scandal Hobart had created a decade earlier by running off with another Indian army officers wife and marrying her) forcibly retire him before it went into action.

In fact Churchill was later to warn Brooke – specifically in regard to the employment of Hobart – that the army could not afford to dismiss every forward thinkier just because he had detractors in the old boys network. Churchill had been looking for an armoured warfare expert, and was shocked to discover that Britain’s leading exponent had been sacked and left to recreate himself as a Corporal in the Home Guard (and later a deputy area organiser).

Churchill insisted Hobart be brought back, at which point Hobart promptly refused Churchills’ suggested role of inspector of armoured formations because he wanted a more significant role of cammander of all armour created. In the end Hobart had to settle for 11th Armoured Division command under Montgomery’s Corps level command. 

The inspector of armour role was therefore given to the self confessed ‘inadequate leadership’ of Giffard Le Quesne Martel instead. Martel had been a visionary along with Fuller and Liddell-Hart in the 1920's, and had often worked with Hobart in the 1930's, but he lacked Hobart's drive. His most interesting impact on WWII was to organise the British armoured counterattack at Arras which drove Rommel's Panzer division back 8 miles before running out of steam. he could have been a very good armoured commander, but his overly cautious impact on churchill's 'tank-parliaments' may have contributed to delaying the ‘catch up’ of British armoured units (11th Armoured excepted of course) for a couple of crucial years.

Nonetheless Hobart’s work behind the scenes continued to have impact. 11th Armoured became the benchmark of operational skill, and after the breakout from the Normandy beachhead, 11th armoured ran – according to some – the fastest advances in the history of warfare. Faster than Patton’s army to their south in France (who had a theoretically easier run with less opposition), and faster than Hobart’s original formation – 7th armoured – against the Italians in North Africa.

By the end of the war the standard British armoured division looked suprisingly like the design of integrated arms that Hobart had been promoting in the 1920’s.

Meanwhile Hobart, having been deprived of command of 11th armour before it was sent into action, was only sweet-talked into raising and training 79th Armoured division, and then converting it to specialist use, on condition that he would actually get to lead it into action.

In practice the division never served as a division, but its elements were so widely employed in France that it became by far the biggest armoured division of the war, with over 7000 vehicles, including more than 2200 armoured vehicles. It played a distinguished, and possibly vital, role in Allied victory. The ‘funnies’ that Hobart developed and trained for action became central to the success of various operations that could easily have failed. D-Day for instance.

Much is made of ‘Bloody’ Omaha in many histories, even though surprisingly little is made of the fact that the Canadians took proportionally almost as many casualties in their theoretically harder fight to breakthrough at Juno. The main difference of course being that Bradley had rejected all the specialist armour that Hobart’s funnies offered to the Americans (except for a few amphibious tanks), whereas the Canadians made copious use of them. The Canadians were also to run straight into the only German Armoured divisioin to counter-attack on D-Day (the 21st  Panzer, which managed to block the British capture of Caen), and handily defeated its attempt to break back through to the beaches. If the 21st Panzer had attacked the Americans instead, their chances of a successful breakthrough to the beaches would have been greatly improved by the inadequacy of the available armoured support in the area.

For the rest of the war in Europe Hobart’s Funnies were constantly called upon by both British and American commanders to solve otherwise impossible problems. The Churchill flail tanks, flamethrower tanks, and AVRE’s were particularly useful against German fortified ports, regularly demonstrating their ability to cross terrain that was impassable to other Allied tanks, and take punishment that other Allied tanks coud not face. Hobart’s units became the go to ‘fire brigade’ for almost everyone.

Biographers of Hobart, while giving thanks for his influence on armoured affairs, are torn on how he would have performed in combat. There can be little doubt that his armoured division would have run rings around any other of the British or Italian or Japanese army, and probably also of the American or Russian army. Whether it would have matched, or surpassed, German armoured divisions is the debate?  some have suggested Hobart was Britain's Rommel. Many others have suggested Hobart was actually Britain’s Guderian, and would have made easy conquests of the far less experienced Rommel in North Africa. An intriguing but completely hypothetical concept.

By contrast, many others have commented, with equal justification, that Hobart was a somewhat unstable and emotional visionary, who may have gone off the handle at the wrong time and damaged his own career and campaigns. (Patton being inspirational and still managing to shoot his own career in the foot, being their comparison.)

Both viewpoints are just.

So how do we rate Hobart as a general?

First, he was the paramount Allied proponent and trainer of armoured forces. Of that there is little doubt. He was an excellent divisional commander, and had few equals in the war on this front. So we can certainly say he was an above average 2 star general despite his rancourous relationship with some of his seniors.

Second, his influence on the eventual composition and role of armoured units is hard to ignore, but the idea that he would have been an effective commander of 'all armour' is a bit scary. As an ‘inspector’ he would undoubtedly have been far better than Martel, but he refused such a role in the purity of his idealised search for a freestanding Armoured Army. Such a plan was anathema to Brooke when he was CIC of the home garrison, and even more so when he was CIGS. As some sort of armoured supremo, Hobart would have possibly been a dangerously destabilising influence on the overall army. (Should we mention a godlike self righteousness delusion… MacArthur comparison?) So we can suggest he would have been very problematical as a 4 star general, certainly in 1941, despite his undoubted skills.

The question whether he would have developed into a good corps commander (3 star in 1941-2) and possibly a good army commader (4 star in 1943-4) thereafter, had he taken the slow learning through combat route that Montgomery or Slim went through (from divisional command in 1940) is the real question. Perhaps he would have been better (as a commander), and also worse (as a subordinate), than Montgomery? Or perhaps he would not have made it that far, by destroying his career even more finally than Patton managed?

What can be said with reasonable confidence, is that he would not have made a good Supreme Commander or CIGS. His temperamanet was even less suited to this role than Montgomery or Patton’s.

Frankly, without seeing him in combat, we cannot really rate him as a combat leader.

Still, we can be very grateful that he did the hard thinking in the 1920’s (when few were visionary); the proof of concept in the 1930’s (when few others – even in the German army – were following his lead); developed the first practical expression in the stunningly successful 7th armoured (a unit certainly on a par with the Panzers in France); influenced the ongoing development of all British armour from there (dragging them up to a level suitable to compete with the battle hardened Panzers in time for the invasion of France); and made the breakthroughs in specialist armour that vastly reduced Allied casualties in the final campaigns.

Was he a great general? Yes… and no!