Sunday, August 2, 2009

More oversimplification: the numbers fallacy of production and propaganda in World War II.

One of my weaknesses in overseas travel, is a number of times that I frequent secondhand bookshops. As usual I came back from my last trip to the UK, with two thirds of my luggage full with textbooks, reference books, and biographies.

As I work through some of these reference books, I am again stunned at how badly people tend to interpret the facts. I have commented on this previously in my discussion of oversimplification of forces, and in my discussion of oversimplification of historians viewpoints. So here I will give a few more examples from the statistical perspective, both from the production numbers issue, and from the value of propaganda fantasy.

WARNING: much of what follows is statistical pedantry (making too much of my areas of expertise)… skip to the CONCLUSION if necessary…

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.

The best tank in the world in 1939 was the French Somua 35 (closely followed by the French CharB). 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 long 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.

In the Tunisia campaigns, 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 being reinforced by the magnificent new 17 pounder anti-tank weapons which could deal with these monsters.) Nonetheless American authorities 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 immediate, 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 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 head in more than half their tanks and self-propelled anti-tank guns. 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. 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).

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 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.)

Having compared these facts to the perceptions of the situation offered by a dozen major textbooks, and half a dozen serious documentaries, I came out baffled by the predominance of propaganda perception over reality. But the research exercise revealed an even more peculiar fact to me. Statistics of production.

It has long been clear, that many of the fanciful production statistics provided by some nations are not particularly useful resources. I remember when I was working as a research assistant for the, now professor Joan Beaumont, being impressed by her discussion of lend lease statistics in her PhD thesis. She demonstrated fairly accurately, that much of the inflated American production statistics to meet President Roosevelt’s fanciful promises, was achieved by the simple expedient of producing thousands of obsolete aircraft to be crated and put into storage. Thousands, possibly 10s of thousands, of Buffalo or Tomahawk or Airacobra fighters, and equally as many obsolete bombers, were kept in productions for no particular purpose other than propaganda. These aircraft had proved unacceptable in front-line service, and not even the Russians could be convinced to take them for lend lease. It gives one call to look with great suspicion on Russian production statistics (which is not my area expertise). Nor are Axis statistics to be taken much more seriously. The Germans apparently produced more than 40,000 fighters in 1944, but there is no sign that the allies shot down, or found on the ground, anywhere near those numbers. Airframes and engines maybe, complete aircraft… no.

Possibly the most interesting statistics I identified relating to tanks, is the description that the British produced six Centurion tanks before the end of the war, compared to the American description of producing 2202 Pershings in 1945. In reality the British had six tanks near the front line before the end of the war in Europe, compared to the American 20 Pershings near the front line (three of them destroyed in combat). Nowhere are the British figures on how many they produced before the end of the war in Asia, let alone by the end of 1945. But American statistics run to warehoused tanks built months after the war ended. It shows a marked difference in perspective on how you run statistics.

So I did quick comparison with another manageably small control group, aircraft carriers. A typical seventies textbook (an H. P. Willmott someone referenced in most more recent books) states that at the end of the war “the Americans had 20 fleet carriers, eight light carriers, and 71 Escort carriers… and another 21 building, all but two of which were fleet carriers… by comparison of the Royal Navy possessed seven fleet carriers, five light carriers, 38 escort carriers.” Whereas the American total from this appears to be 99 in service, and 21 building; the British total appears to be 50. In fact the British had 75 in service at the end of the European war, and at least as many building as the Americans. Figures seem to be a little bit peculiar. For instance the American Commencement Bay class of escort carriers does not fit either statement, as, by the end of the war, they had 10 in commission (though mostly not in action), nine others launched, and one still to be launched. It appears that the nine launched but not commissioned must be included in the totals, but this does not compare with British numbers which seemed to based on commission, with no account of launched, or indeed in reserve.

In fact if you delete all the obsolescent escort carriers, and the older pre-war ships, and concentrate on modern heavy or light fleet carriers, it is hard to see how the comparative numbers face reality. At the end of the Pacific War, the Essex class for instance had 16 in commission, compared to the 20 launched or 24 laid down. Whereas to the end of the Pacific War the British light carriers actually had six in commission, compared to 14 launched and 15 laid down. The American figure of 20 under construction must include not just the remainder of the Essex class that was actually finished, but the other eight that were ordered and not finished; as well as the three Midway class finished well after the war. So comparative statistics for the British should at least include the extra 10 light carriers (Colossus and Majestic classes) already launched (after all the Americans include that category in their active total), as well as the half dozen Centaur class light carriers, or Audacious class fleet carriers completed later; and presumably even the other two Eagle and four Malta class fleet carriers ordered but never finished.


The truth is of course, that this playing with statistics means nothing very useful. But the warning to serious historians, or even amateur readers (in which class I included many graduates of military academies), is that making generalized statements based on statistics which are not comparable is an exercise in futility. If British statistics only include those units that reached the front line; while American statistics include units still under construction or stacked in warehouses; and German and Russian statistics seem to include fantasy numbers - often based on air frames or engines rather than completed aircraf – if on anything at all: then one must be extremely careful at how those statistics are used to the comparisons.

This becomes even more important when the statistics are ignored, to give a fantasy view of the propaganda value of equipment. German tanks for instance were extremely good at blitzkrieg in 1940 after brushing aside a weak defences, but completely incapable of facing Allied tanks or anti-tank guns in any concentration (or indeed one-on-one). The Sherman tank was an extremely valuable piece of equipment for six months in the Western desert, and a death trap anywhere else in North Africa or Europe (or indeed one-on-one).

Statistics are almost always questionable. Bad use of statistics is always a trap. Bad propaganda conclusions, from ignorant use of bad statistics: is unforgivable. But how many textbooks fall into the trap?


  1. I'm sorry but your contention that the Sherman was 'pathetic' is highly unreasonable. There are multiple important points about doctrine and usage that you have ignored, all of which are covered in this excellent presentation better than I could (I just tried to write all of this out): .

    Your points about statistics are very good and it's a shame to see them marred by untrue statements as "The [76mm gun] was significantly better, giving the Americans and the equivalent anti-tank firepower to the British six pounder...". The 76mm, regardless of your opinion on whether or not it was better than the 17 pounder, was undoubtedly in the same class as it and not really comparable to the 6 pounder. If it were comparable, why did the US not equip all of their tanks with the 57mm copy they manufactured?

    Bad propaganda conclusions, from ignorant use of bad statistics: are unforgivable.

  2. Good point. I should have said 'the equivalent upgrade in firepower', because what I meant was that the arrival of the 76mm in late '44 was as important an improvement over the 75mm to the US tankers, as the arrival of the 6pdr had been to British tankers over the 2 pdr.
    I stick by the point though, that the US had the ability to have a better tank than the Sherman in operation earlier, and should have, despite statements that it would' see out the war'. Just as the British should not have halted the development of the Centurion for 8 months because 'nothing that can't be ready by the end of 1944 should be finished'.