Thursday, November 10, 2011

Rating General Wavell

Archibald Wavell is probably the most difficult general of the Second World War to give a fair rating. His achievements against the odds are almost as astonishing as his failures to deliver anything final. He was undoubtedly a great man, and some of his actions argue that he was a great general. But those flaws...

His achievements are well known. He used O'Connor's tiny Western Desert force to blitzkreig an Italian army ten times its own size, and send them scurrying back in ignominy. He then conquored an equally large force in Italian East Africa with a classic double pincer, while cleaning up various other minor problems in Palestine, Iraq, Vichy Syria, etc. He ran 9 major campaigns in a little over two years, most of them successful, despite an appalling inferiority in men and materiel.
However his failings are equally well known. He let the Italians in Libya off the hook when they were defeated, allowing them to recover while he concentrated on Italian East Africa. The Italo/German counter-attack took him completely by surprise. he was talked into vainglory in Greece despite his doubts, and put the British war effort back two years by losing many crack troops and much vital equipment in a 'forlorn hope'. It was to take years of hard slogging to retrieve the position lost by these decisions.

Almost as bad, when Churchill despatched him to 'sit under a pagoda tree' in India, he found himself caught up in the maelstrom of the Japanese blitzkreig through the American, British and Dutch possessions in Asia. Here he once again badly underestimated his enemy, and his direct interference amongst the commanders in the field of battle (whether undermining Percival without sacking him, or supporting Bennett without recognising him as a hopeless windbag, or imposing Hutton into a field command - Burma - he was not suitable for), had consequences that only avoiding being disastrous themselves because the situation was already so bad that they became mere icing on the cake.

On the success side, it is no small consideration to wonder which other general could have done what he did with so few resources. His victories in North Africa and East Africa and the Middle East were run on a shoestring that would have given Montgomery hives, and Eisenhower fits. (MacArthur would have thrown a tantrum and refused to even have tried without better resources.) None of the successful Allied generals of later in the war came anywhere near achieving what he did with so few resources, and arguably none of them could have. (Though I note that O'Connor was the one who actually did the heavy lifting, and may well have been able to repeat the exercise later...)

On the other hand his mistakes are dire. The decision to take advantage of some passing transport to remove the crack 4th Indian division from O'Connor's successful advance and send them to East Africa was a classic example of undermining a winning hand. Even after the Australian 6th division almost made up the weight, by continuing the pursuit well into Libya, he felt the need to undermine the effort again by looking at Greece. When Rommel arrived in Libya he had only a recconnassaince battalion to try and stop the British advance. Had Wavell let them finish the job, Libya would have fallen in 1941! (And possibly Rommel spent the rest of the war in a POW camp). Had the 4th Indian been still present, or the Australian 7th been heading there instead of to Greece, it would have been a certainty.

Greece was an even worse mistake. Certainly Churchill had been enthusiastic, and certainly there was a moral advantage to helping anyone willing to stand up to Hitler. But Wavell had a duty to, as Brooke put it, finish one job before starting another. Particularly jobs won with so much blood. His succumbing to Eden and Dill's overenthusiasm (despite Churchill's last minute words of caution), was hardly the stuff of inspiring legends.

A standout intellectual general, Wavell had delivered a series of lectures entitled 'Generals and Generalship' during the 1930's which had been avidly consumed by international officer training schools. (It is notable that while Wavell had a book if poems beside his bed during the North African campaigns, Rommel kept a translated copy of Wavell's book beside his.)

Wavell was one of three possible choices for Chief of Imperial General Staff (CIGS) in 1938, and, to the minds of men who later held the post like Dill and Brooke, he was undoubtedly the stand out. Unfortunately a smart-arse politicians did what they do best, and appointed an attractive looking junior as a PR exercise (excusing Lord Gort's obvious limits with the idea that his deputy Adam would be able to do the thinking for him). The decision to send Wavell to the Middle East instead was thereafter considered either a godsend (at least until 1941), or a mistake (thereafter).

Would Wavell have made a better CIGS? than Gort? Definitely. Certainly he was unlikely to run off to the excitement of being commander of the BEF and taking most of the the War Office with him. He would almost certainly have appointed either Dill or more likely the bilingual and French raised Brooke to run the BEF, and the army and nation would have been much better off.

On the other hand his greatest failing was his inability to communicate with the politicians. He had written extensively on the importance of good communications between pollies and generals, and it had been a key part of his famous lectures, but he was not able to live up to it in the field. Brooke repeatedly appealed to him to talk to Churchill, or write chatty letters, but Wavell did not fit that mold. (It might just have been Churchill I suppose, a notoriously difficult character. But the point of Wavell's writings was the need to get on with any political leader.)

In retrospect if Wavell had been CIGS in 1938 - 1941, and had stood down for Brooke thereafter, the result might have been better for all. Particularly if Wavell had then been assigned a post that ideally suited his skills, such as co-ordination with the Soviets. (One of the several languages he spoke was Russian, and he had done extensive travel and research in Russia. He was one of the few men in the war who stood up to Stalin and made passionate speeches at Russian dinners that even Stalin applauded.)

But speculation aside, Wavell must be judged on what he actually achieved, and here he is certainly the most difficult assessment of the Second World War.

He did what few others could have done in the vital points in the lean years. Tick. But undid much of it through bad communication with the politicians. Cross. ( I am including Greece in this category). He was a disaster in ABDA, but was possibly too exhausted and sick to be blamed for that. (A sign of superiors making the wrong assignments at the wrong time.) Then he blotted his copybook further by letting the retreating Burma Army be treated with contempt by Eastern command... or perhaps by not paying adequate attention to be aware of what was going on. And by disastrous attempts at offensives by the Eastern Command later. (So even the common soldier, who had worshipped him in the early years, suffered in the latter.)

Perhaps this was not his fault. Brooke felt before Wavell's sacking that he was exhausted and needed several months rest at home. Certainly he had held a crucial position through more stress just in Middle East command longer than any other Allied general held for the whole war. Unfortunately Churchill did not want him in London, available to stir up unrest in parliament, and sent him to what he hoped would be a quiet zone just in time to face, and fail, new threats. Even then, his failure there was probably more from being assigned to a post in charge of an area of which he new nothing, more than it was to inadequate resources. (After all, he had achieved miracles with inadequate resources when given time to prepare and in an area he knew reasonably well.)

So was Wavell a goood general, or a bad one?

He was certainly better than many who got more credit for doing far easier jobs later. He had better understanding of strategy than Dill or Marshall (but not better than Brooke or MacArthur); better grasp of theater command than Eisenhower or Alexander (but not Nimitz or Brooke), and better leadership of troops than Bradley or Anderson (but not Montgomery or Truscott). So in practical terms he was one of the best all round generals of the war, which means he may well have shone in the roles that Dill or Marshall or Eisenhower or Alexander or Bradley or Anderson received undeserved credit for.

His faults largely came down to being too deferential to his political superiors, and to being misused by them. Which in the end means that his superiors were at fault for asking the impossible too many times, and never giving him a break with adequate guidance or support.

Wavell had the potential to be, and in many ways was, one of the best generals on any side during the war. But he was asked to do what very few others could have attempted, and thus weaknesses of character that most of his contemporaries in simpler roles could hide eventually came out. Brooke, who did seem to understand his strengths and weaknesses, did his best to help him once he became CIGS, but too late.

In the final analysis, Wavell deserves to be ranked as a very good general. Like all of them he had failings, but these only became a problem when he was used and abused by his superiors. In fact I would write off all his problems in the Far East, where he was ignorant and exhausted (and later injured), and concentrate on the two mistakes that do reflect badly on him. Not finishing a defeated enemy in Libya, and letting his desire to please the politicians divert his attentions to Greece despite the obvious risks.

The second was the fault of his superiors (particularly Eden and Dill, but Churchill included), and he should get some consideration for letting his repeated demands that generals bow to the politicians undermine his judgement. Unforgiveable, but perhaps understandable.

But the lack of resolve that did not finish the defeated enemy in the Libyan campaign before starting two other campaigns can't be written off as the result of outside pressure. This was his mistake, and largely his alone. It is impossible to imagine Brooke or Montgomery or Patton or Truscott making such a mistake. This, and this alone drops him from the ranks of top generals.

Considering what he did achieve, this is a harsh judgement. Particularly considering that so many other generals later in the war had much easier paths to being considered 'great'. (Montgomery and Patton included.) But nonetheless the key to moving from what Montgomery called 'a good plain cook', to genuine greatness: must include the killer instinct, and a ruthless will to pursue it. Wavell, the brilliant academic and passionate poet, was just too much of a gentleman (in both senses) to cross the line.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Uselessly comparing Patton and Montgomery

One of the things I most dislike about bad comparisons from World War Two, is romantic comparisons that take the public imagination, but serve no useful relation to reality. The Western Allies tendency to idealise Rommel as the best German general for the simple reason that he was the sexiest or most dramatic general THEY fought is such a useless statement. In practice they were beaten by von Runstedt and Guderian and many others in 1940, and had a hard time matching the far less resourced von Kluge and Model in 1944. Still it hangs around more for its popular romance than any useful purpose.

Such is the idea that Patton and Montgomery were the great rivals of the war. Please!

The great rivalries amongst the Allies that made a real imact were Marshall and Brooke over war policy, Nimitz and MacArthur over resources, Eisenhower and Montgomery over strategy; and then between Percival and MacArthur for incompetence, Patton and O'Connor for aggressiveness, MacArthur and Clarke for vainglory, (and possibly Clarke and Wavell for the stupidity of letting defeated enemies escape), were the issues that defined the war for the Western allies. The idea that a competition between Patton and Montgomery was more important is cute, but niave.

I am not even sure where the idea comes from. Much is made of the bet between Patton and Montgomery over reaching Palermo in Sicily first, but in practical terms that was the only time in the war that Patton ever appeared on Montgomery's radar. For the rest of the war Monty was so much higher up the food chain than Patton that he was unaware, or disinterested in Patton's opinions.

Montgomery was, by 1944, an experienced general who very successfully fought extensively in both combat and staff roles for 4 years throughout World War One. (Patton got a combat command for a few weeks when the Germans were already collapsing.) Montgomery led a division very successfully through the Battle of France, and a corps through the crucial Battle of Britain training and rebuilding years. He led an army in combat for two years, through many successful battles both on defense and in attack. By 1944 Patton had led a corps for a few months, and an army for a few weeks. For the very brief period of the Sicily compaign they were theoretically equals in command, but probably only in Patton's mind. (Montgomery saw Patton as an enthusiastic if amateurish old man.)

Montgomery saw his HQ 'betting book' as a bit of fun (and was delighted when bet a B17 by someone who should have known better). When he and Patton met and co-ordinated the Sicilian campaign Alexander seemed not interested in co-ordinating, Monty saw Palermo as a similar bit of fun to pursue, no bigger or smaller than the hundreds of other bets in the book. Patton saw it, as he saw anything relating to his persona, as the most vitally important challenge of his whole life... up until the next one. Montgomery lost a bet and moved on to the next challenge. Patton won but didn't. (Or at least that is what bad writers have tried to suggest. I think he moved straight on to the next challenge anyway.)

That was the last time Monty and Patton were in direct competition, no matter what revisionists or romantics would say. The next time Patton was allowed in the field he was one of half a dozen army commanders in Monty's Normandy army group, and, familiarly, he did not arrive until the Germans in Normandy were already collapsing. Very soon afterwards Eisenhower split off Bradley's army group, and Monty had no control, nor much interest, in what Patton was up to thereafter.

The romantics like to suggest that therafter Monty railed against Patton's supplies, and that Patton railed against Montgomery's caution. The truth is less foolish for both of them.

In fact Montgomery railed against Eisenhower's broad front strategy regardless of which of the other sub-commanders was benifitting (to the point of Montgomery making an offer to serve under Bradley as long as someone got single control to pursue a single strategy). He railed against the diversion of resources anywhere not at the main point where a thrust might have achieved early victory. Leaving aside whether that victory could have happened, Montgomery's beef was with Eisenhower first, his appalling chief of supply Lee second, fellow Army Group Commanders who couldn't control the excesses of their subordinates like Bradley (and to a lesser extent) Devers third, and only then with the several army commanders who each tried to do their own thing.

In practical terms Montgomery seemed more appalled by the negative effects of the incompetence of Hodges (1st US Army,) and the obnoxiousness of De Gaulle's orders to 'his' army (French First Army), and perhaps even the ineffectiveness of his own subordinate Crerar (Canadian 1st army) , than he did by Patton's enthusiasms. There is hardly a mention of Patton in his diaries through this period, compared to several comments on Bradley and De Gualle, and endless ones on Eisenhower.

Patton too is being maligned by the pretense that his war was taken up with a vain competition with Montgomery. Patton, like Montgomery, was totally concerned with the main issue of defeating Germany. But unlike Montgomery, he did not have Brooke - the Chief of Imperial General Staff - to rely on for support against Eisenhower's broad front strategy. Patton too was convinced that this was the wrong way to go, but to get his version of a thrust (with him at the front) happening, he had to be a bit more manipulative than Montgomery.

Every word Patton used to wheedle and manipulate support, or at least a blind eye to what he was doing, was designed to get more resources from his superiors. Indeed, if he couldn't get them from Eisenhower, he was willing to steal them wherever he could, and then get Bradley to pretend to not know what he was doing. In this he was quite willing to encourage Bradley's inferiority complex in relation to Montgomery, and to happily manipulate Bradley into tantrums to get what they both wanted, but it seems likely that Patton was more interested in getting his way by making his superiors compete with Montgomery, than in competing with Montgomery himself.

Patton is actually a more complex and clever character than the romantics give him credit for. His 'kill them even if they try to surrender' speeches in Sicily were part of his stage management of troops, not part of his innate personality. HIs 'us against the world' propaganda was more manipulative, not so much like Bradley's inferiority complex. He wanted to win, and he would use anything to get what he needed to win, even ramping up his superiors to distrust their allies. But his genuine competitiveness with Montgomery at this stage was less about him and Montgomery, and more about him and how he could maneouvre others to support him. He would have shown the same level of competitiveness, and the same willingness to undermine, any competitor at this point. British, French, Russian or even American.

Montgomery on the other hand only saw Patton as one more junior general syphoning supplies from an inadequate source. Montgomery was in competition with Eisenhower for control, and possibly with Bradley for resources. Minor army commanders in other people's army groups only registered on his horizon if he could get their armies assigned to his army group.

Just for amusement, it might be fun to consider how Montgomery and Patton might have worked together?

Montgomery was notoriously superb to serve under, no matter what your nationality. British, Australian, New Zealander, South African, Indian, Canadian, French, Polish, and American troops who served under him were all very happy to do so. So were their generals. Bradley certainly learned more about being a field commander from a few months of Montgomery's distant mentoring than from anything Eisenhower ever did for him in their much closer relationship. There is no doubt that Montgomery preferred effective subordinates to ineffective ones, and it seems possible that Patton would have made a preferable subordinate to Crerar or Bradley in his mind.

As for Patton, he would have served anyone who got him what he wanted. Had Montgomery offered him the chance to spearhead the attack into Germany, there is virtually no doubt that Patton would have jumped at the chance. Patton was not the racist that Bradley or Eisenhower were, and was happy to have black troops. He was not the American supremacist that Roosevelt or MacArthur were, and worked well with others (as long as they let him have enough lime light). Had Montgomery been left as land forces commander, there is little doubt that he would have used Patton's aggression in a way that would have made Patton much happier than Eisenhower's broad front strategy ever allowed.

It is fun to imagine Montgomery as land forces commander using Patton's 3rd Army in conjunction with British 2nd to leapfrog ahead at top speed into Germany. The best British tactics were never the broad front strategy that the worst American's like Marshall and Eisenhower fancied. They were always the 'hold the enemy, crumble the enemy, breakthrough the enemy, and pursue with as much force as fast and far as possible' skills that had worked since the development of mechanised warfare in 1918. (As demonstrated by the Germans in Poland and France and Russia, the British and Germans in North Africa, the Japanese and British in Asia, and the Russians in Eastern Europe.) Montgomery would have used his traditional two corps up, one back, one resting deployment, adapted to armies, to keep up the momentum. Patton's preferred tactics were almost exactly the same, and he and his 3rd Army would have fit it like a glove into Montgomery's thrust strategy.

Personally I think that the limited reality behind their competitiveness paid trumps in Sicily, and I wish that it had been repeated in France. Patton could not have been a worse Army group commander than Bradley was, and would almost certainly have been better. It is amusing to think of him and Montgomery effectively conspiring to destroy the broad front strategy while they got on with winning the war in the best spirit of competition. Although I have a sneaking suspicion that one of Patton's biographers was right to suggest that by 1945 he had suffered a few too many hits on the head, there is little doubt that he would have been almost as valuable to the Allied cause in Bradley's place against Eisenhower's policies directly, as he would have under Montgomery's army group. That might have been a useful version of rivalry.

But I still wish people would get over the big Montgomery versus Patton beat up. By 1944 Patton would have competed against anything or anyone to get his way, and co-operated with anyone who would support him. Anyone. Aw for Montgomery, he simply did not see Patton as competition.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Rioting, the welfare state, and zoo's.

Feeling like a bit of a rant (you have been warned...)

At a discussion group in the other night, I received an incredulous response to my semi-flippant comment that the rioters on British streets were the Blair generation at play, fulfilling the inevitable outcomes of New Labour policies.

Now I said is it in a sense of fun, and to provoke some sort of response, but I was a bit shocked to hear some people suggest that New Labour bore no responsibility for the decay into a situation where we had an entire generation who were schooled to believe they were all rights with no responsibilities. What I found particularly stunning about this, was that some of the youths who were interviewed used Labour Party election slogans such as “give respect, get respect” to justify their desire to smash anything representing authority figures, or indeed anyone in their own community who could anyway be considered slightly better off than they were.

The problem with the ideologues who constantly propound further and further expansion of the welfare state mentality, is that their very ideology blinds them to the incredibly overwhelming evidence of the failure of their programs. There are people on the radio every day trying to suggest that families in a downward spiral because they have been welfare dependent for multiple generations will magically have their problem solved if the government provides yet more welfare. Considering that many African l leaders are screaming for a dimunition of the aid/welfare cancer that is destroying whole societies, it is hard to fathom how such fantasist’s can keep banging their head against such an obvious wall. The more hard-nosed ideologues have quietly abandoned such pathetic excuses for political programs as Marxism and Communism (and in that category I include Nazism – as I have never understood how a Nationalist Socialist People’s Party can be any different from any other form of socialist ideologue party regardless of whether they are supposedly left or right wing), and snuck into the new traps for gullible voters such as the equally nihilistic Greens movement. But the truly stupidly idealogical stick with the unrestricted Welfare State and governemnt control of everything.

The problem is that any absolute solution will absolutely fail. Absolute monarchy, absolute democracy, absolute socialism, absolute welfarism, and even absolute anarchy, are all theoretically advantagous in some circumstances… at least in principle. But all are ideological positions that will be hoisted by their own petard. Black and white simplistic solutions lead to misery and chaos and horror. End of story.

In reality all human interaction is in shades of grey, and any structure that will allow humans to participate, express themselves, and evolve, will be a compromise of different elements.

Now I have nothing against the ideals of limited socialism. I certainly believe that there should be a safety net for basic items such as education and health. But it should be a safety net, set at the minimal necessary standards, and with as many inducements to escape out of it as it is possible to devise.

By contrast of the morons who believe that the safety net should be the one and only standard that must apply in every case, are actively attempting to destroy their own society. I constantly read idiots claiming that the state education system should be as good as any private school, or at least that all private schools should be forced to be as bad as your average state school, as if this will improve the human condition. Apart from destroying diversity, and dragging everything down to the lowest possible common denominator that can be easily controlled by central bureaucratic structure, this is simply a recipe for dis-engaging as many people as possible. It is appalling for instance, that the teachers unions who push this cretinous concept have slowly dismantled all the technical schools, and trade schools, and agricultural institutes, and elite academic selection schools, that actually catered to diversity and allowed young people to follow a path that fit their capacaties and which (horror) they might even enjoy: and replaced them with a lowest common denominator one size fits nobody solution. And some of them actually do believe that this will help people!

In Australia the most surreal version of this is what our ideologues have done to Aboriginal communities. First, in the name of better conditions for workers, they destroyed the preferred casual employment of Aboriginal workers, throwing entire generations out of work in their own communities. Their solution to this created problem was then to give these same people “sit down money” to ensure that they did not try and find any alternatives. Simultaneously, in the name of ethnic diversity, they gutted the school system, forcing much teaching into obsolete languages and skills, to ensure that the sad remnants of ancient cultures could have no place in the modern workforce. Then, in the name of fighting racism, they set up socialist ‘communities’, supposedly run by tribal elders, which reflect both the worst elements of Communistic Collectivism, and the worst elements of barbaric political thuggery. Naturally many of the political aparatchik's who run the system, mostly to their own benefit, shout loudly and often for more and more money: but the real independent leaders and forward thinkers in the community’s are desperate to escape this socialist ideal world.

I was teaching ancient culture at a school recently, and used to the examples of Australian Aboriginal tribes to compare warmer climate and cold climate survival techniques. I was amazed and fascinated to have a couple of students comment that many Australian politicians seem intent on trying to force modern Aborigines into a sort of historical zoo where the supposed elegance of the noble savage lifestyle can be theoretically protected. The scathing disdain expressed by 13-year-olds for what was being done to Aborigines in the name of socialist ideology gave me a momentary hope for future generations.

I am now is somewhat more convinced on them when I originally made a flippant comment, that the riots in Britain are representative of what the British Labour Party has been trying to achieve for so long. Despite the apologists who parade around pretending that these people have no stake in the society and therefore no hope, this is not a case of a political movement by Blacks, or Asians, or Muslims. This is in fact a social movement by everybody who has been told for so long that their lives are all about rights, and that they have no responsibilities, because they are outsiders: that even university educated teachers and social workers are participating.

It is simply not correct to suggest that these people are in any way united by race, or religion, or class, or income. But I think would be fairly safe to suggest that the vast majority of them, from the 11-year-old girls, to the 30-year-old civil servants, are safe Labour voters from safe Labour seats. And certainly the overwhelming majority of them are in the age group that did its schooling at the time when New Labour was force feeding them the anti-social self-righteous claptrap that has been such a hallmark of the destruction of a functional school system.

They are indeed the Blair generation.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The problem of (American?) politically correct history.

I was listening on the radio to some of the drivel coming out of the politically correct school of US history in relation to the 150th anniversary of their Civil War. It boils down to saying that we can now pretend that the entire reason for the Civil War was nothing to do with states rights or freedom of self determination or anything like that, just with slavery. Only slavery. Nothing but slavery.

This fits nicely with the pretence that the American Revolution was nothing but ‘no taxation without representation’. Only that. Nothing but that.

Both lines are crap of course.

The first rebellion, or revolution, or civil war, or whatever, was inititally about Northern states fighting against any limits on their expansion into the Indian territories that the British had signed treaties to limit (see Royal Proclamation of 1763 amongst oathers). The Southern states joined only because British law was in the process of making slavery illegal (see Somerset's Case), and they could see this inevitably spreading to all British colonies. The small number of radical bourgeois pamphleteers in the bigger cities could pretend all they wanted that the free voters in the various state parliaments and dominions were repressed victims of autocracy, but the fact of the matter is that no matter how hard you spin it, there has never, and will never be a popular uprising of fighting in the streets about a voluntary tax on a luxury item that most people had stopped drinking (and which tax was removed before the revolution began anyway).

The second rebellion, or revolution, or civil war, or whatever, was also about the Northerners wanting to expand into Indian/Mexican territory (creating ‘free’ states which would unsettle the unstable compromise of the federation), and the Southern states wanting out of the system because the example of British law had inevitably spread (see Pennsylvanian law) despite the United States no longer officially being dominions.

The two conflicts were fought for almost exactly the same reasons, the only difference being that in the first conflict the Northern and Southern groups could both claim to be victimised in some fashion, whereas in the second conflict only the Southerners could claim to be victimised.

This makes a mockery of the idea that the Southerners had the moral high ground in the Revolutionary War, but the moral low ground in their Confederacy war of Independence. But even more laughable is the idea that the Northerners could claim the moral high ground for wanting to repress the natives in the first conflict. (It is remarkable that the ‘protector of black rights’ apologists for the North in the second conflict carefully avoid noticing the persecution of the Indians at the same time… many of whom fought for the South, just as they had previously fought for the British… Apparently the Northerners highly noble motivation about black people's rights were not so deep as to notice red people's rights.)

The argument actually appears to be, that those supporting the rule of law and the rights of people should be considered to have the moral high ground. Which of course implies that the North (protectors of blacks only, lets forget Indians) sort of had the moral high ground in the second conflict, but that the British (protectors of both Indians and blacks) certainly had the moral high ground in the first conflict. But that of course would never be acceptable to the politically correct lunatics who attempt to twist and turn every story to be the good guys at all points.

The truth is of course, that there were good and bad motivations on all sides in both conflicts. And that any attempt to simplify things down to the ridiculous extent of saying it was just about slaves, is just teaching young people to accept propaganda instead of analysis.

As a byproduct of this, it is amazing to note that many of these same American commentators like to pretend that they have had a single ongoing constitution since 1776 (or least since their constitutional conventions soon afterwards). This of course is also crap.

On this basis, you could happily argue that England has enjoyed steadily improving democracy since Simon de Montfort’s first Parliament’s in the 13th century. A romantic fantasist might even be able to draw a straight line of steadily increasing franchise from the time those first burghers elected to represent market towns. However in doing so, that they would be playing pretty fast and loose with certain items in history. Notably a couple of fairly dictatorial monarchs, the suspension of democracy and imposition of oligarchy by the Long Parliament, the Communist style People’s Republic of the Rump Parliament, and the outright dictatorship of the Protectorate under Oliver Cromwell.

Not even the the restoration monarchy could be considered a foundation of the modern democratic constitutional monarchy. That arrives in its first stages with the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and remains in somewhat limited property franchise until the reforms of the 1830s and 1840s, or votes for women almost a centruy later.

Similarly one would have to be a complete fantasist to believe that the American Constitution has been consistent for over 200 years. The most obvious whole in this argument is the civil war itself, where almost half the States in the union voluntarily seceded. (And some that might have joined them were prevented from doing so by local military action to stop their parliaments having a vote on the topic.)

The anit-constitutional efforts being made by the Rump of the American Congress to enforce their will by reconquering that recalcitrant defectors, was only emphasised by the Protector (Abraham Lincoln’s) suspension of large tracts of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, to ignore habeas corpus, and to create a variety of concentration camps – despite the protests of the supposed constitutional protectors in the Supreme Court. Even less recognized is that the re-conquered states were stripped of democratic representation (such as it was) as part of their war guilt. For many years the Southern States franchises were limited to the point where some areas had only black representatives. (Who of course could not be tolerated in the dining rooms of the supposedly idealistically liberating Congress, and who had to eat in the kitchens).

It has sometimes been an amusing introductory question to some of my talks on the problems with Republican systems, to ask audiences when the United States became a representative liberal democracy? Almost nobody is silly enough to suggest it was 1776, though some are foolish enough to nominate the end of the civil war. More cautious thinkers suggest that a better guess would be at the end of Martin Luther King’s protest movements, but even they are completely incorrect.

According to the US court system, the United States is still not a representative democracy. One Appelate Court judge recently pointed out that many so-called citizens, particularly of those in places like Peurto Rico and on some of the Pacific island territories, have no voting rights in the federal system. (In fact the limitation of their democratic rights to make decisions about such things as taxes by the imperial protecting power – the US, is almost exactly the same as could have been said of those free citizens living in the Dominion of Virginia in 1775 of their imperial protecting power – Britain!)

Gross oversimplification of history for the purposes of political correctness is offensive. Gross oversimplification of history to prove that my side is always better than your side is pathetic. Twisting the two together while pretending not to notice that they contradict themselves is contemptible. The fact that most of the media commentators seem incapable of recognizing these contradictions is worrying.

So-called historians who smugly run con games from the pretentious moral high ground of their unrealistic ivory towers are not just dangerous, they are the sorts of people who have caused appallingly offensive self-righteous acts by delusional nations throughout history. Almost every pogrom or persecution or genocide has been justified by this sort of sloppy pseudo intellectual claptrap.

As an Australian who faces equal problems with politically correct claptrap about Australian history, I am deeply scared about the implications of teaching generations of stdents that all debates can be reduced to the most simplistic possible black-and-white, good versus bad, with no recognition that there may be some grey in there somewhere. I realise the approach has always been popular – particularly amongst the Fascists and Communists and Islamicists etc – but I don’t really see that as a desireable reason for re-introducing it into cultures that should have grown out of it.

Here’s to ‘warts and all’ history.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Atheism, a dead end philosophy?


Sir, congratulations for Quadrant’s ongoing high quality debate on atheism.

As a humanist, I have found the weakest arguments aired against religion to be those that scorn the faithful for their undeniably flawed histories. It is apparently a revelation to some atheists that humans have a tendency to be human, and regularly corrupt noble ideas. Writing off all religions on the basis of such distortions would perhaps be a slippery slope. This approach suggests that human attempts at government, at law, at science, and indeed at morality, should all be given up because humans have a record of doing them badly more often than not.

Many atheists apparently fall for the spurious philosophical argument that we should only believe what we can touch, a mindboggling assumption for anyone who thinks science might involve a willingness to explore the unknown. They suggest that the currently fashionable theory of a Big Bang should be adequate, without any explanation as to why a Big Bang might have happened (or why, if it wasn’t a unique event that had a cause, we don’t see many examples of ‘Little Bangs’).

To continue Mike Alder’s point (The Religious Impulse of Richard Dawkins - Quadrant Jan-Feb 2011), Sir Terry Pratchett explores how humanity needs to believe the little untruths at a childlike level – like the Hogfather (Santa Claus), or indeed a paternalistic diety – in order to believe the big lies – like truth, justice, equality, fairness and all those other fantasies that cannot be seen or touched - which are a vital part of making humanity a worthwhile, if ongoing, project. Even leading atheist Christopher Hitchins reluctantly admits humanity could probably not have developed morality without religion.

I can see nothing wrong with saying that we don’t really understand, and indeed find that more comfortable than those who insist they have a direct line to God. But to claim that because we don’t understand then there cannot be, is the exact opposite to science. More importantly to claim that just because we strive imperfectly to know the ‘divine’ in the universe, means we should give up on striving, is an abandonment even of hope. Humanity has a long way to evolve. Those comfortable to declare that repeated failure requires surrender, have made their own Darwinian choice.

Nigel Davies - Melbourne

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The deployment of Allied land forces in 1942

I have had a few negative, in fact disbelieving, comments about the deployments of Allied divisions in 1942. In particular, when I commented that there were more British divisions on the Persian frontier in 1942 than in either the Western Desert or Burmese frontier armies, I was practically accused of fantasising.

This brings up a very interesting issue about how military histories and even statistic books fail to give adequate information. Even otherwise good books like John Ellis’ World War Two Data Book, give misleading information when it comes to the use of Allied divisions. American divisions are simply listed as ‘overseas’ without an expalanation of whether they were in combat or sitting in a garrison, whereas British divisions are ony listed when actually in combat, not when in an overseas garrison.

Now this could be a matter of some confusion. Technically the United States garrison in Peurto Rico was ‘overseas’, even though it was never in danger of fighting, whereas the garrison in the Aleutian islands was ‘at home’, even though it was effectively on the front line (not that it ever did any serious fighting). For contrast the British divisions in the UK were in serious danger of a major battle in 1940 and 1941 even though they were home, whereas the garrisons in West Africa and the Carribean were never in danger of serious fighting. You would have to say however that the garrisons of Malta and Gibralter were pretty important, even though the Axis never actually mounted any of the many attacks they planned. (In fact I think that speaks for itself about the value of garrison troops to the war effort doesn’t it?)

A better example though is the issue of the British 8th, 9th, 10th, and 14th armies. The 8th fought in the Western desert, so all its units are listed ‘in combat’ for their deployments. Fair enough. The 9th defended Cyprus and Syria against further German attack of the type that had captured Crete, and prepared to reinforce Turkey should that country be attacked like Greece, or voluntarily join the war. It’s units are only listed ‘in combat’ for the brief period they fought the Vichy French. The 10th Army in Persia (Iraq and Iran mainly), is not listed in combat except for the very brief operation when Iraq attempted to join the German side. Yet this army was the biggest army in the field in 1942, and was desperately preparing to defend the middle eastern oil reserves should the Germans succeed at Stalingrad and continue their planned offensive past the Baku oil fields in southern Russia. (The 11th and 12th armies were India command units, and were never in danger of real combat, but they had to prepare for a possible invasion from the North or the East for exactly the same reason that Australia had to prepare for a possible invasion… Just because it is almost impossible, doesn’t mean someone might not try it!... And if you don’t prepare at all, it might even succeed… The same concepts that applied to American garrisons in Iceland and British in Northern Ireland and West Africa.) 14th Army of course fought on the Burmese frontier (though it was not called 14th Army until 1943).

With retrospect it is possible to write off the efforts of 9th and 10th armies as irrelevant to winning the war, but clearly that is not how it was seen at the time. Crete had been lost to paratroop attack, so Cyprus had to be garrisoned and prepared. Vichy Syria had let German aircraft transit to the Iraqi revolt, so both had to be occupied. If no troops had been deployed, then the likelihood of Germany occupying all three without opposition was very high (particularly if the Vichy and Iraqi’s invited them to.) Given the speed and skill with which the Germans occupied Tunisia without an invitation and in the face of serious Allied efforts, pretending that forces deployed in these areas were irrelevant to the war effort is spurious.

The threat of Russia collapsing was also a serious concept in both 1941 and 1942, and there is no point pretending that Allied efforts to cope with such a collapse were irrelevant to the war effort. Many bad historians have suggested that the vast quantities of supplies the Allies shipped to Russia were not vital, but this is also dubious. The Americans were effectively feeding much of Russia for much of the war, and the Russians were as grateful for British fighters and tanks as they were for British made army clothing and millions of pairs of boots. The advances by Russian forces later in the war were made possible by American trucks convoyed to Russia by British warships in Allied cargo ships.

The early success of the German 1942 campaign in southern Russia was terrifying to the Allies. Possibly only the stupidity of Hitler in insisting on wasting one of his best offensive armies in street fighting at Stalingrad saved the Russians. Even then German units came within site of the Baku oilfields before being recalled to the mess behind them. The Western Allies took the threat so seriously that more resources were pumped into the 10th Army in Persia in 1942 than into 8th and (what would be) 14th armies combined. At the height of the Japanese advance into Burma, India was sending twice as many divisions north as it was east. (The Indian Armies 6th, 8th and 10th Infantry divisions, its 31st Indian Armoured Division, and the 10th Indian Motorised Brigade were all in or on their way to Iraq and Iran even as the 2 division Burma army was retreating towards the Indian border!) And the best units too. The main flaw with the Indian 17th division rushed to Burma in 1942 was that it was given inexperienced Indian brigades when much tougher Ghurkha units were available. But India command felt the Ghurkha’s were more vital on the possible German front than in Burma).

Here, for interest, are the figures of suggested deployments for June and December 1942, as listed by the new Combined Chiefs of Staff in March and April 1942. (I got these from the microfilm files at Australian Defence Forces Academy when I was studying at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at ANU some 20 years ago, but have not been able to find them as an on-line release. If anyone knows of such a release I would be delighted to hear of it.)

Ground Units…

Middle East and Malta:
5 Commonwealth armoured divisions in June, rising to 7 in December. (2 Commonwealth Independent Armd Bdes counting as a division equivalent.)
13 Commonwealth infantry divisions in June, rising to 19 in December (includes Free Poles, Greeks, etc). (Plus 26 Miscellaneous battalions for both.)
Total of 18 divisions in June and 26 in December.

India, Burma and Ceylon:
2.5 British Armoured divisions in June, rising to 4 in December.
12 British Infantry Divisions in June, rising to 17 in December. (Plus 152 miscellaneous battalions rising to 172. Mostly internal security or training.)
Total of 14.5 active divisions in June, rising to 21 in December.

2 US infantry divisions June and December.
1.5 Commonwealth armoured divisions in June, rising to 2.5 in December. (Includes British armoured division if necessary.)
11 Commonwealth infantry divisions.
Total of 14.5 divisions in June, rising to 15.5 in December. (Japan could never have raised more than 3 or 4 for an invasion, and lacked the shipping to move even that many.)

United Kingdom:
1 US armoured division in June, rising to 3 in December.
1 US infantry division in June rising to 4 in December.
11.5 Commonwealth Armoured divisions in June, and 11 in December.
33 Commonwealth infantry divisions in June, and 31 in December. (Plus 132 miscellaneous battalions and 1.5 million Home Guard rising to 1.8 million.)
Total of 46.5 divisions in June, and 49 in December. (Plus Home Guard and static or training battalions.)

Africa and Gibraltar:
8 Commonwealth infantry divisions in June rising to 9 in December. (Plus 11 miscellaneous battalions.)

(Note that this does not include troops in New Zealand or South Africa or other places considered unlikely to be threatened, and more than it included troops in Hawaii or the Falklands.)

Air Forces (allowing for expected wastage)…

Middle East and Malta:
Commonwealth - 700+ bombers and 700+ fighters in June, rising to 750+ and 930+ in December.

India – Burma – Ceylon:
US – 30 bombers and 160 fighters June and December.
Commonwealth – 320+ bombers and 200+ fighters in June, rising to 780+ and 300+ in December.
Total 350+ bombers and 360+ fighters in June, rising to 800+ and 480+ in December.

US – 200+ bombers and 320+ fighters (including aircraft for one Australian group) in June and December.
Commonwealth – 300+ bombers and 126 fighters in June, rising to 350+ and 126 in December.
500+ bombers and 445+ fighters in June, rising to 550+ and 445+ in December.

United Kingdom:
US – 220+ bombers and 400+ fighters in June, rising to 1300+ and 1000+ in December.
Commonwealth – 1600+ bombers and 2100+ fighters in June, rising to 2550+ bombers and 2400 fighters in December.
Total of 1820+ bombers and 2500+ fighters in June, rising to 3850+ bombers and 3400 fighters in December.

Now we can comment a few things here.

First, these figures are not fantasy, or guesses, they are the official CCOS documents released 50 years after the war. (And thus much more detailed than the information usually available earlier, where historians – and even many senior field commanders writing memoirs – often had to sift through telegrams and reports to assemble often inaccurate or incomplete lists.)

Second, of the 18 divisions in the Middle East in June, and 26 planned for December, only 7 (in June) and 10 (in December) were for 8th Army (and even that would push supply limits across the Western desert, as Rommel expereienced all too often). The rest were to face the Germans from the north… and it was worring whether they would be enough. (Though the German supply difficulties for an advance across the Turkish mountains or vast open spaces of Southern Russia made it unlikely that forces substantially larger than Rommels Panzer Army could be sent so far even if Russia collapsed).

But if you read any of the major histories, you will get the impression that the 8th army was the only active British force in the Middle East.

Third, that almost none of the December estimates were fullfilled. But this is not (as some of my interogators have implied/stated), because this was impossible. It was because changed circumstances led to changed deployments. The extra divisions for Persia were reduced after Stalingrad made them unnecessary. The American divisions destined to defend Britain if Russia collapsed went to invade North Africa instead. (Don’t believe the invasion of Europe in 1942 concept, that was really fantasy unless Germany unexpectedly collapsed.) The British Armoured division destined to defend Australia joined 8th armies pursuit of Rommel after Coral Sea and Midway made Australia secure. Some of the Commonwealths UK based divisions destined for India went to North Africa instead after the Japanese advance faltered and other troops could be released from Persia.

Similarly aircraft were redeployed. Half the American units for Britain went to North Africa. Most of the Commonwealth units for Persia went to the Middle East or India. Planes destined for the last ditch defence of Australia if necessary were sent to the Russians for their 1943 campaigns once Australia was safe.

All these were sensible redeployments to fit changing circumstances. In fact continuing to send troops or aircraft to Australia or Persia in late 1942 would have been about as useless as sending the planned 1943 reinforcements to North Africa after Italy surrendered!

My point here is that it is absolutely pointless looking at individual campaigns without considering the overall flow of the World War. Did Britain have enough tanks and aircraft to save Singapore in 1941? Yes. Was it possible to move them to Singapore if other commitments had been given lower priority? Probably. Was it more important to save Russia? Yes. Did Britain have more divisions waiting in the 10th Army ‘in case’ the Russians collapsed than in both 8th and 14th Armies? Yes. Was this a waste of resources? Only in hindsight. Did the troops in 9th Army sit on their arses for two years? Yes. Did it stop the Germans from invading Cyprus, Syria and Iraq? Almost certainly. Did the troops garrisoning Malta and Gibraltar do as much to help win the war as those fighting in Guadalcanal? Probably more. (Guadalcanal, like Singapore, could be lost without the Allies losing the war, whereas the loss of Gibraltar might have been fatal. The resulting collapse of the Allied position in the Mediterranean might have meant the loss of Middle Eastern oil. The combining of the German and Italian fleets might have forced the Royal Navy to abandon the Indian Ocean to the Japanese. The new U-boat bases might have won the Battle of the Atlantic. A link up of German and Japanese forces in the Middle East might have been possible…) Gibraltar was far far more vital than the Phillipines or Singapore or Guadalcanal to the Allied war effort.

I get a little tired of people suggesting that because planned reinforcements never arrrived, they were mythological. No, they were usually re-deployed. Britain and America could both easily have sent extra aircraft to the defence of Australia in 1943, but Australia was not remotely threatened in 1943. Those aircraft fought in the Pacific, in Burma, in the Mediterranean, and even in Russia, instead. They were not fantasy, they were diverted from redundant defence to renewal of offense. That is a sign that things are going well!

A re-emphasis here. The Western Allies, as is seen from the figures above, had dozens of spare divisions available. (In fact the figures above don’t even mention troops stuck in the continental US!) What they lacked was transport to move them and their supplies around. Given the circumstances, they made the best deployments they could. Losing the Phillipines and Guam (and Wake and parts of the Aleutians), and Singapore and Burma (and the Solomons and parts of Borneo and New Guinea), was a minor and necessary cost in winning the World War. Anyone in possession of the overview would be hard put not to agree, however reluctantly, with Churchill’s post-war assessment that all the disasters experienced along the way were minor inconveniences compared to the correct decisions on priorities made in 1941 and 1942.

And a point on ‘quality’ for those who continue to think that much of the problem was low quality or badly equipped troops. Japanese troops in 1944 and German troops in 1945 were desperately short of supplies, but that did not make them bad troops. American troops at the Battle of the Bulge had an embarrassing luxury of supplies (don’t you love the film making such a fuss over fresh cream in cakes flown in from America!), but that did not make them good troops. The American 1st Armoured division at Kasserine did not collapse because they were bad troops. In fact they were good professional troops with excellent supplies and equipment. They were just inexperienced men facing combat vets (and badly led). The same thing goes for the British 18th and Australian 8th divisions at Singapore. The American 32nd Infantry division in New Guinea, and the 36th at Cassino were bad troops that failed terribly at first, but (unlike the Indian 9th and 11th divisions in Malaya) were lucky enough not to face a serious attack themselves until they built up skill and became better troops. (That is a bit unfair, several Indian battalions in Malaya held, retreated, and even counter-attacked successfully as told, and never broke.) The quality of the troops has more to do with the skill of their leaders and their gradual development of experience in combat than with fanciful armchair strategists dismissal of ‘bad troops’ here versus ‘good troops’ there.

For myself I believe that if Dill had pushed a little harder on Far Eastern reinforcements in 1941, and appointed some better leaders, then Malaya and Singapore might not have fallen (or not so fast). But this is idle conjecture from someone not tied down with the stresses of fighting for survival over half the globe. It is possibly unreasonable to expect so much from mere human beings. The more fascinating question remains why the US, with the luxury of being at peace and not already fighting on three continents and four oceans like the British Commonwealth, was unable to make any better effort in the Phillipines?

Please, please, before making more comments about non- existent forces, bad troops, fantasy reinforcements, or any other misconceptions from reading pre 30/50 year rule ‘official histories’, or single focus campaign histories, try and get some real sense of what was really available, and how and why it was deployed or re-deployed depending on circumstances.

The results are not only suprising, but give a much better insight into why Churchill (and Roosevelt) made the decisions they did.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Do stable states need imperial roots?

Although humans make a lot about the intricacies of government, and are very proud of their different styles of government, in actual fact there have only been a very limited selection of basic styles of government for humans to choose from. Really there are only those recognized by Machiavelli as monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, (or their evil twins dictatorship, oligarchy and ‘licentiousness’), but there are many forms that these types can take.

Monarchy for instance is a possible long term solution for a citystate, an independent country, a confederation of states, or a great empire. Aristocracy will work almost as well for most of these, at least for the medium term. Democracy, has proved a bit more limited, and has historically been for much shorter terms.

Citystate’s have always been with us. Many of the ancient empires of the Middle East were in fact single city states with large hinterlands, or a loose confederation’s of city states. The most famous example being ancient Greece. Medieval city states included not just those on the Italian peninsula like Venice and Florence, but scattered bodies through the Holy Roman Empire and along the North Atlantic and Baltic coasts. Early modern citystate’s then spread to the Americas, with most modern American East Coast states growing out of the system. In more recent times Hong Kong and Singapore have been ideal city states, and several developing Middle Eastern Emirates are headed in the same direction.You will notice that some of these, now as then, are monarchies, some aristocracy’s or oligarchy’s, and some democracies (at least in theory).

The more standard states, which are usually a collection of coherent provinces and with a number cities and rural areas connected within a single boundary, are the default system in human history. Again, such states ranged from ancient Egypt, through medieval France, to modern Botswana.

Having said that such states are the default system, it is noticeable that their incorporation within empires has been amazingly common. Egypt within the various ‘Egyptian’ (actually a series of different tribal powers), Alexandrian, Roman, Arab, Turkish and British Empires; France within the Carolingian, Plantagenet, Bourbon, Napoleonic and French empires; and Botswana within various African confederations before the British Empire. Indeed it could be suggested that such states do not actually become nations until they have been, or have been affected by, an imperial system. Medieval France is the classic example here, because its disparate territories could only be considered a nation once combined under the Imperial pretensions of various monarchs or autocrats. Men like Charlemagne, Richelieu, Loius the 14th, and the Napoleons (I & III) were amongst those who had the most profound effect on the development of the idea of France as an actual nation rather than as a collection of feuding principalities.

The United States for instance is entirely a product of empire. The various colonies were established by various empires, and their eventual consolidation under the British crown was as a result of imperial wars. (Indeed the 7 Years War was pretty much forced on Britain and France and Spain by the American colonists in pursuit of exactly this result.) The later revolting Northern states were both demanding their traditional rights as Englishmen to a say in their own affairs, and rebelling against the central powers treaties with the Indian nations that would have limited their expansionism. (The Southern states joined what could be considered a second round of the English civil war more because British law was clearly heading down an anti-slavery path than for any other reason. Which was amusingly the same reason for the third round of the English Civil War/ second round of Wars of Independence, sometimes called the Confederacy War of Independance – note that the categories of Cavaliers, romantic but wrong, and Roundheads, repulsive but right, still applied to the two sides.)

Actually the trigger for the American Civil War was the imperial expansion into Indian or French or Spanish territory that led to the creation of so many new states which threatened the balance of power in the federal senate. After this minor bump in the road, imperial expansion raced even faster, with wars against Mexico and conquest of overseas possesssions in the Carribbean, Pacific and Asia all part of the plan. It is interesting to wonder if the United States as they currently interract with the world would remotely resemble the Federation of Independant American States that would have developed had these imperial pretensions not fundamentally changed the shape of their culture.

The same can be said for several other supposedly ‘post colonial’ states of the modern world. Red China is an imperial power. This is a simple statement, even just looking at their attitude and behaviour to various subject groups within the confines of the traditional Chinese Empire, let alone their occupation of Tibet. Their attitudes to spreading their influence in Africa and sabre rattling in the Pacific are also earily similar to American efforts a century or so earlier. (Taiwan for instance might well expect to have a major Chinese warship unexpectedly sink nearby as an excuse for war, in a way that would be familiar to residents of Havana at the time the US battleship Maine went down in 1898.)

India is another imperial power. This started with the extraordinary decision by a supposedly pro self-determination new state to greedily accept a, literally violently anti-integration, Kashmir. It is followed by the ‘nationalisation’ of the many principalities guaranteed a place within the original constituition within a few years. For the last twenty years it has been developing its naval power with the stated intention of making the Indian Ocean literally that. Various ministers and admirals have quietly commented that they are now willing to play a part in the internal affairs of their ‘near neighbours’… such as Malaysia, Kenya and South Africa…

In fact it could be argued that an imperial phase in the development of any state is the norm… if that state is actually likely to maintain its independence for more than a few decades.

In practical terms there are few examples in history of city states or small states being left alone long enough to gain secure independence unless they develop the ruthless use of power necessary to guarantee their own security. Look at the Italian city states of the Rennaissance for the best examples, but remember that every great empire in history started as a tribe or sitystate somewhere (The exceptions to this are tiny statelets like Andora and Monarco, that live on sufferance, and because they are no threat to anyone.)

Many new independent states have been set up in the modern age of idealism about self determination, but few have so far lasted as much as 50 years. Most small states set up by fiat of the great powers at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, or World War One, or World War Two, were usually incorporated under other imperial powers within decades. (Despite the so called security supposedly guaranteed by the fanciful League of Nations which failed so dismally… what we now call the UN.) Many post Second World War states have become parts of bigger states – the Baltic, Malayan and Indian states being good examples – and it is exceedingly likely that many of the post Soviet states are either going to be re-incorporated in the Russian Empire, or be subsumed into regional affiliations for mutual security/control. The artificial colonial divisions in Africa are also starting to come apart, and it is virtually inevitable that the splits between Muslim north and Christian/Animist south that are already developing in some countries (see the recent independence vote for South Sudan) will end in new federations bearing little similarity to the colonial drafts.

There is not a state in the world today that is not a product of the interraction of empire. Most are actually the product of imperial borders, and their stability depends on whether the habits of those borders are ingrained or not. (See South America for ‘ mostly stable’, and Africa for ‘mostly unstable’.) Nor are there many states, other than some complete backwaters of no interest to others, that could be considered stable contenders for long term survivial, that have not undergone some version of their own phase of power politics along the lines that would usually be considered ‘imperialism’. (The most obviously violent examples being China, India, Russia and anything approaching a power in the Middle East or North Africa.) There are many states that do not fit these categories, but that is almost a synonym for saying that there are many states whose long term future looks doubtful. The most stable small independent states for instance – the apparently secure ex-British Imperial colonies of Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei etc – are nervously facing negotiating with their neighbours for mutual defence pacts against the stirrings of imperial China.

Imperialism is the default condition of human history. Interaction of imperialism is the default foundation of states. States that want to survive play the imperial game, and those that want to thrive play it well. States that don’t play either rely on the sufferance of the real powers, or become short lived footnotes in history. Frankly, despite our fantasies about Leagues of Nations/United Nations providing security, the vast majority of the states granted independence since 1945 are either lining up for playing the imperial game, or for extinction.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Statistical confusion – whose troops actually did the fighting in World War Two

I was recently researching how many divisions were in action for which nations, at what time and for how long, during the Second World War: and came up with some astonishing misconceptions. (Coincidentally backed up by a recent readers question about who ‘Frenched’… not a term I am familiar with, but I can hazard a guess at its meaning.)

China for instance had theoretically more than 300 divisions, though in fact most were lucky to have the combat power of a Western battalion, perhaps Regiment if they were one of the best equipped. Some of their best ‘Armies’ might have matched a poor Japanese division… maybe. When Stillwell was assigned to rebuild a more useful force on American lines he felt he might assemble about 30 lightweight divisions out of the resources actually available, with no pretence that any of the end products would actually match a Japanese division in the field (even if the Chinese would have let them fight).

The Eastern Front is also a bit fanciful in this regard. Although some German units started each campaign season at or near full strength, for most of the war the vast majority of divisions on both German and Russian sides were perhaps the equivalent of a Western Brigade or Regiment. Many were far weaker (particularly those of Germany’s ‘allies’). As a rule a Soviet Corps might match a weak German division, but you would probably need a small Soviet Army to match a fully mechanised Western division in combat power.

So talk of the Germans having 200+ divisions on the Eastern Front compared to only 80 facing the West tends to hide the fact that a large majority of the Eastern Front units were undermanned infantry, and a far more significant percentage of the units facing West were mechanised, and often at or near full strength. In sheer combat power, the removal of ten percent of divisions (say 20 divisions) from the Eastern Front to face the Western Allies (happened 3 times – Tunisia/Mediterranean 1942, Sicily/Italy 1943, and France 1944) looks a lot more significant if it involves moving 50% of the available Panzers and 70 or 80% of the high quality, full strength, specially equipped, Paratroop or Mountain or Waffen SS divisions. (Though far more Germans – and their Axis Hungarian, Rumanian, Finnish, etc allies – died on the Eastern front than in the west. See my post here for a discussion of the numbers fallacy on the Eastern Front.)

But the really interesting thing was working out the numbers of Western Allied divisions deployed at any point in the war. I, like most others I suppose, knew that American units were not relevant until late1942, but I assumed they formed a large percentage of units in action fairly quickly after that. Certainly I had subconsciously fallen for the idea that by the time of the D-Day invasion the Americans were providing the bulk of the combat troops for the Western Allies. But apparently that is just another example of letting your pre-conceptions run away with you.

Throughout 1942 British Comonwealth troops were fighting, or seriously expecting to be attacked, in French North Africa, Libya, Egypt, Cyprus, Syria (torn between expecting airborne assault, and preparing to reinforce Turkey if that country was attacked), Iraq and Iran (German invasion from the north was attracting more British troop deployment until after Stalingrad than those facing Japan and Rommel combined), Madagascar (fighting the Vichy French to prevent them from inviting the Japanese in as they had done in Indochina), Ceylon (at the time of the Japanese naval raid that looked like it might prefigure and invasion), India, Burma, outposts of the East Indies, New Guinea, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, and other Pacific Islands. A total of 30+ divisions in combat, and another 30+ expecting imminent attack. (This does not include yet another 30 odd British and Canadian divisions in the UK.) Apart from the Philippino forces surrendered early in the year, the Americans had a couple of divisions in action at Gaudalcanal after August, one in New Guinea by November, and late in November a few arrived in French North Africa.

In 1943 the Americans managed to get their numbers up to half a dozen divisions at the front in Europe and the same in the Pacific, but still not matching the British or Indian armies respectively, and barely matching the combined efforts of minor allies like the Free Poles, French, Greeks and Italians etc.

The breakthrough in American numbers was not until after the middle of 1944, when American units started arriving direct to France (which admittedly, was what Marshall had been trying to do all along).

But although American troops may have outnumbered British and Commonwealth troops in France by late 1944, the total of Allied troops, including the Free French, Poles, Czech, Dutch, Belgians, ensured that it was never quite as clear cut a domination as it appears. Devers ‘American’ 6th Army Group that come up from the South Coast was half French after all. In fact in 1945 it became a race to see if the Americans could import new divisions faster than the French could commission theirs (France had 1.3 million men in the field by VE Day). But the Americans fielding 60 divisions in France compared to only 20 British Commonwealth/ minor allies is the figure waved around as significant. (Ignoring that 15 of the American divisions did not get there until 1945, and by the end the liberated French had mobilised a couple of dozen divisions too, making the non-American total more like 40).

So the Americans did predominate in France, but the war was spread a bit further than France. If you take Europe as a whole, then the situation gets more interesting. The Americans in combat in Europe possibly didn’t start to outnumber the total other Western Allies until about the time of the collapse of Germany’s frontiers, and only weeks before the final surrender.

In Italy American troops never played more than a subsidiary part to the operation, and throughout the war even the ‘American’ 5th Army usually had as many (if not more) British, Canadian, New Zealander, Polish, Italian or French troops in it than Americans. Again, it was not until almost 1945 that even the 5th Army was majority American. They rarely made up more than a third of Allied ground forces in Italy.

If we include the Mediterranean/North African/Middle Eastern forces fighting the ‘anti-German’ half of the World War in a combined ‘European Theatre’ (which was one American generals fanciful suggestion when they wanted Marshall in charge of all ‘European’ operations), then American troops do not dominate ever. There are just too many British and French and Polish and Canadian and New Zealand and South African and Indian and Italian and Greek and Brazilian and other troops garrisoning recently liberated places from Morrocco to Iran and Ethiopia to Belgium; and still fighting to secure Greece, Austria, Denmark and Norway. (Note: The Soviets were starting to pile on pressure in Iran and throughout the Middle East already, and Greece was in serious danger of falling behind the Iron Curtain until British troops did some hard fighting.)

The war against Japan is even more deceptive, particularly if you fall for the fantasy that it was a ‘Pacific’ war. Leaving aside the supposed millions of Chinese, the British Empire and Commonwealth already had more than a million men at the front in India, Burma, Malaysia, New Guinea, Indonesia, and in the Pacific Islands, before the Americans had introduced more than a few divisions. Again, it is almost 1945, less than 10 months before the Japanese surrender, before the Phillipines campaign actually saw an entire American army (the 6th) deployed at a single time, instead of just a division fighting on this island for a month, and two or three on that for a few months. Until well into 1943 the Australian Army alone deployed more ground fighting troops against the Japanese than the Americans. The Americans never put more troops into combat against the Japanese at any point than just the Indian Army (which had a total of 32 divisions at its height, several in Europe or the Middle East, but many of which eventually faced Japan).

On a worldwide scale, the point at which the Americans fielded more troops than just the other Western allies (leaving aside the Russians and Chinese, the Hungarians, Rumanians, Yugoslavs, and all the others who fought the Axis), was… well never. The British Commonwealth alone fielded over 100 divisions in 1942 (though admittedly many were weaker garrison forces than proper mechanised field divisions), compared to the American total of 88 by the end of the war. The French had fielded 100 in 1940, and were to field 20+ again just in France by the end of the war. In fact the largely forgotten minor allies, the Free Poles, the Free Italian combat Groups, the Brigades of Free Greeks, Belgians, Dutch, etc, and the South African divisions, the New Zealand divisions, and the Brazilian division, had between them outnumbered the total American commitment to combat in Europe before the last four months of 1944. Add in the British, Canadians and Free French, and the American commitment before mid 1944 looks rather less impressive than is justified by the hype.

I will even go as far as quoting the figures, taken mostly from John Ellis’ World War two - A Statistical Survey, with a little reference to the microfilm archives of the CCOS deployment figures. (Though I foresee problems with comparing apples and oranges, so please do not consider these numbers as more than a very rough calculation. Particularly as some units have to be estimates. The British Commonwealth uniquely deployed ‘independent armoured brigades’ with roughly the same tank strength as most American armoured division, or some German Panzer Corps, or Russian Tank Armies, which I have accepted in John Ellis’ category and loosely called ½ a division. The same goes for the Italian ‘combat groups’ which I have also ranked as half a division. Many Pacific islands were invaded by a couple of American Regiments, which again could be loosely considered ½ of a division. When I say ‘rough’ estimates, I really mean it.)

The United States divisions were ‘deployed overseas’ for a total of about 1,150 months. Of that: Infantry in Europe about 500, infantry in the Pacific 312, armour 158, marines 128, airborne 37 and cavalry 19… roughly. But ‘deployed overseas’ is a bit different from everyone elses ‘in combat’ definition. For instance US 82nd Airborne is listed in Europe for 19 months from July 1943 to May 1945, but it was out of combat more often than in during that time. By comparison the British 6th Airborne, which was also ‘in Europe’ for all those months, gets listed as actually being in combat for three operations – June - September 1944 for D-Day, December - January 1944 for The Bulge, and March 1945 for The Rhine - and only gets credited with 6 months in combat.

This sample is much worse in the Pacific, where more than 20 American divisions are listed as ‘in Pacific’ for several years, regardless that usually only one or two were actually fighting anywhere at any given time. 1st US Marine Division for instance, probably the hardest fighting US dicvision in the Pacific, is listed ‘in theatre’ for 37 months, August 1942 – August 1945: but apparently fought on Guadalcanal for about five months, then on Cape Gloucestor in New Britain between 26 December 1943 and 16 January 1944 (call it two months?); then on Pelelui for a month, and on Okinawa for three months. Total 11 months, or a bit less than 30% of time 'in theatre' actually in combat.

So compared to a grand total of 1,150 months ‘overseas’ for all American divisions of all types, make what you will of these numbers, all months actually ‘in combat’:

Infantry divisions - British 284 months in combat, Indian 282, Australian 183, Canadian 44, African empire troops 68, South Africa 33, New Zealand 35 (Commonwealth total 935 months in combat). Also Free French 75, Free Poles 34, Free Italians 28, Brazilians 10 and Free Czechs 6, + Greeks, Jews (Palestinian Jews), etc. (Total of minors 153+). Total of just the infantry divisions of the non American Western Allies comes to almost 1,100 months in actual combat. (Although the Americans come up with almost 500 months ‘in Europe’, and 312 ‘in Pacific’, it would be extraordinarly generous to suggest that the total number ‘in combat’ came to more than 60% of that. In real terms it is unlikely that the American total in combat came to half of everyone elses 1,100 months.)

How about armour? British armoured divisions/brigades 245 months ‘in combat’, Indian 18, Australian 25, Canadian 31, New Zealander 9, Free French 27, Free Poles 18, Free Czechs 6. (Total 379 months in combat.) American armoured divisions 158 months ‘in Europe’. Again, even being hugely generous, the American total ‘in combat’ is unlikely to be much more than a third of everyone elses.

(By the way I think the Australian and New Zealand numbers in the Pacific theatre are as woolly and questionable as the American ones, but their African/European numbers are definitely correct, and I think the point is adequately made.)
Total non-American Western Allies army troops in combat about 1,500 months. Somewhere between two and three times total American Army and Marines combined.

Now I am not suggesting that the Americans didn’t contribute. They contributed an awful lot. By the end of the war they contributed more fighting divisions than any one of these named nations (finally equalling the combined total of the reduced numbers of full strength units deployed by the British Comonwealth). But over the total course of the war the United Kingdoms of the British Isles alone had more divisions actually at the front for more combat months than the Americans, as indeed did the French Army before their collapse in 1940… In fact India and Australia combined probably put in more divisional combat months than the US, and throwing in either the South Africans, or the Canadians, or even the New Zealanders, let alone all of them, would make it a certainty. (The Americans should be grateful that the Poles collapsed within a few weeks in 1939, because otherwise they too would have contributed more to the total divisional combat effort in the war than the Americans in Europe too. 47 divisions/brigade groups for – lets give American style generosity and call it 2 months each in the 1939 campaign – plus 127 months later by British or Russian aligned forces thereafter, for a total of 221 months.)

[I would be really interested to see if anyone can provide good evidence against any of these numbers. There must be some other good sources out there?]

Nor am I suggesting that the war could have been won without the Americans… though the total troop numbers do make it seem a far closer concept than most pretend. (And I should note that the American ‘in theatre’ concept would make the comparisons ridiculous if it was equally applied to everyone else. More British and Indian divisions were deployed in Iraq and Iran and ready to go to Turkey in 1942 – just in case of the very real threat that the Germans would break through the Soviets at Stalingrad – than the Americans had ‘overseas’ that year, or indeed the next. If you added all the troops waiting for an invasion of Britian in 1940-41, or Ireland, or Iceland; or Cyprus in 1942, or Syria, or Persia, or India, or Madagascar, or Ceylon, or Australia or New Zealand: the British Commonwealth numbers ‘in theatre’ jump to over three times the total American time ‘overseas’.)

I am suggesting that total American contribution to ground combat is vastly exaggerated by most of the literature. Through the war as a whole it amounted to about a quarter of the Western Allied total all up. Until mid to late 1944, the American contribution was minimal, and could have been replaced with other troops. In Europe their contribution really became important starting in June 1944, and in Asia starting November 1944. (But by 1944 there were more French and Italian and Indian and Polish volunteers than could be trained and equipped, so an idle side thought is that perhaps a lot of this American manpower might have been more valuably deployed as an arsenal of democracy workforce from 1942 - 1945, rather than spending years in training as infantry divisions that only got into action in 1945?) It was not until the end of 1944 when the large majority of American divisions started to make their presence felt worldwide (well, Northern Europe and the Pacific at least, if still not the Mediterannean, Middle Eastern or mainland Asian theatre’s)… at about the time when the European battles were mostly won, when Germany was already falling apart, and when Japan was trying to get the Soviet Union to be a go between in surrender discussions.

As usual, the problem is beware of statistics. Impressive sounding numbers of divisions do not necessarily relate to an actual combat value, particularly if they are not often in action. In terms of contributing to winning the war Chinese ‘divisions’ were a joke, Russian ‘divisions’ were an exaggeration, and the vast majority of American divisions were too late to see fighting in the critical years – early 1942 to late 1944 – when the tide was turned.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Rating Generals Cunningham, Ritchie and Percival

This companion article to my piece on rating Generals Fredendall, Dawley and Lucas, is a little bit more interesting, because the three most famous British generals to be sacked in World War Two are not universally written off as complete failures in the way that the American generals were.

In fact although General Percival went into captivity with his men and cannot be considered anything but a failure in battle, General Cunningham had been extremely successful before his sacking, and General Ritchie became even more successful after his sacking.

At the start of the First World War Arthur Percival, who worked in the city of London, volunteered for the army and was made an officer. He was athletic and hard-working, and very popular with his men. He served on the Western front as a lieutenant in the infantry, and worked his way through a number of field and staff positions, finishing in command of a battalion, and then from brief period a brigade. A highly decorated officer, he was efficient and beloved by his men, and was recommended to the Staff College. He volunteered to service in Russia, and went on to see action in Ireland, and staff jobs in Nigeria, and was a student and teacher at various military colleges.

He was noted during this time as an officer of great ability, and put on the fast track for promotion. Unfortunately his commander at Staff College during his stint as an instructor was General John Dill, a staff officer who, when he later became Chief of Imperial General Staff, was referred to by Churchill as “Dilly-Dally”. Dill was extremely impressed by Percival’s ability, military knowledge, good judgement and hard work, and Dill was to be the one who promoted him into the Army command of the exposed an endangered outpost of the Malayan peninsula just in time to face the Japanese onslaught. Dill might have benefited from taking the moderating opinion of the General Sir Ian Jacob who considered Percival to be a very pleasant man, highly intelligent and brave, but not “the man for a whirlwind”. General Alan Brooke, on hearing the news of Percival’s appointment, raged in his diary against the idea that any competent staff officer probably had what it took to be a good battle leader.

The kindest thing that can be said about Percival’s response when the whirlwind did descend on his command, was that he tried his best. In fact he was completely out of his depth, and one officer commented that he always looked as though he was waiting to the umpires to blow their whistles (when he hoped to get at least points for trying). He was too indecisive to take the opportunity to pre-empt the Japanese landings in Thailand (the way a Montgomery or a Patton certainly would have); he was unable to adapt to Japanese tactics; he was unable to inspire his troops; and he lacked the ability to control his fractious commanders (or the self-confidence to sack the sub standard Lewis Heath, or the impossible Australian Gordon Bennett, even after the Australian chief of staff suggested it to him). He was, frankly, a prime example of a general who had been promoted out of his depth.

But whether he was an inevitable failure is more questionable. He had served well and efficiently in combat commence in the First World War, and in staff duties between the wars. He had done very well as chief of staff to the British first Corps in France in 1940, to the point of being made the deputy CIGS for a while, and was showing potential as the commander of a division in a Britain facing German invasion. Perhaps if he had been given a chance to lead that division into combat under the command of a good Corps or Army Commander, he might have developed the ability to have led higher formations later in the war. It is quite possible to envision him as a contemporary of Generals Leese or Dempsey, or Hodges or Bradley. Unfortunately he was thrown unprepared into a situation beyond his experience, or his ability to adapt.

The blame for this lies squarely with Gen Dill, who had as pernicious an affect on British generalship as Gen Marshall was to have on American. There is a theme here of clever but ignorant staff officers (Marshall and Dill got on so well because they were both stuffy staff officer types) promoting people who have caught their attention to positions far beyond their actual abilities (or at least to beyond what their current experience levels justified). Just as Marshall, Dill repeatedly promoted staff officer types over actual combat leaders. Just as Marshall, Dill repeatedly let his fanciful ideas draw the army into impossible positions. (Dill was responsible for the ill-fated expedition to Greece, and Marshall repeatedly tried to start an invasion of France with inadequate numbers of ill trained, novice troops.)

Had General Alan Brooke arrived as CIGS a few months earlier, the Malayan campaign would have been in the hands of a tried battle commander like Montgomery or Alexander. The end result may have been the same, but there can be no doubt that the process would have been very different. (In fact Japanese accounts of the campaign make it clear that the operation was on a logistical knife edge which might well have been pushed the other way by a remotely competent opposition.)

By contrast, in General Cunningham, who broke down in the face of an aggressive counter-attack by Rommel’s Africa Corps, had previously been a very successful army commander.

Cunningham was the same age as Percival, but had been a professional soldier from the start. His Great War career was solid, though not nearly as impressive as Percival’s, and his interwar progress was less spectacular. However his appointment as General Officer Commanding East Africa in 1940 gave him the opportunity to lead a successful campaign of conquest into Italian East Africa. His widely dispersed columns started from different ends of the Abyssinia, and successfully overwhelmed a much larger Italian forces (in a very similar fashion to what the Japanese would achieve in Malaya). He appeared to be the ideal commander to take over the army in North Africa after Rommel made his appearance and captured the previous commanding general. But in fact his carefully prepared counter-attack was not well handled, and he literally broke down in the face of Rommel’s aggressive and successful tactics.

There are two complimentary possibilities to explain why Cunningham failed so badly after having succeeded so well. The first is simply that a successful frontier general, quite competent to campaign in the slow paced old colonial manner against the unimpressive Italians, was not prepared to face a blitzkrieg by German combat veterans commanded by a freak of nature such as Rommel. And despite having previously commanded an Army successfully, he did not have the experience with modern mechanised warfare to deal with the new circumstances.

The second, and more important reason, may simply be that the poor man was exhausted. There are many records of fine generals becoming tired, dispirited, lethargic, and unresponsive, if they had been in constant command of forces in combat for too long. The simple truth of the matter is that even the best generals gain great benefit from a few months of rest and relaxation every now and then. General Wavell was a far better man and leader than was evident during the Battle of Malaya, but he had been in constant stress for over two years. He was the wrong man to supervise the desperate circumstances of Malaya at that time. Cunningham had the same problem in Noth Africa.

Alan Brooke had been unhappy with the idea of Cunningham going straight from one command to another without a rest (he would have preferred Wilson, who had recent experience facing a German blitzkreig in Greece), but had reluctantly accepterd the preferences of the theatre commander on the spot General Auchinleck. As a result, when Cunningham broke down and had to be replaced, Brooke was happy to bring him back for rest and recuperation, and then to give him a training command in England. (Note that the distinction here. Marshall put people into training commands who all other American front-line generals considered absolute failures. Brooke accepted that an exhausted man who had previously been a success, was probably capable of learning from his failures, and might make an even better training command as a result. This perspective may be reinforced by noting that Brooke was to sack many training generals in the next few years, but he kept active, and promoted, Cunningham.)

General Neil Ritchie is an even more fascinating example. Ritchie was a decade younger than the other two, and frankly did not belong in command of the army in 1941. But he was thrown temporarily into that position by Gen Auchinleck, and then made permanent despite the misgivings of all concerned, including himself.

Ritchie who had been a professional soldier, and had served well during the First World War, earning decorations, but being too young to achieve high rank. He had followed a fairly normal division between field and staff posts between the war, and had impressed Alan Brooke with his ability. Brooke was to become his patron, in the same way that Dill had been Percival’s. But there was a real difference in approach.

Alan Brook had been very impressed with Richie’s performance as his chief of staff at first Corps in France in 1940, but recognized his inexperience. Ritchie was briefly given command of the division in England in 1940, but then returned to is most valuable role, as chief of staff to Aukinlek in the Middle East. Brooke’s normal practice would have been to give him a year or so in this appointment, then put him back in charge of the division in the field under an experienced Corps Commander. When Brook discovered that Aukinlek had instead thrown Ritchie in to be the commander of the army, he was horrified. He felt that Ritchie was not ready to such a position, and that he would be ruined if too much was asked of him too quickly. In fact when he failed and had to be replaced, Brook immediately brought him home and spent two years rebuilding him as a commander of a Division and then of a Corps, before sending him back into action in France and Germany. Ritchie’s success as the Corps Commander at this time makes an interesting statement about the importance of experience, training, and careful nurturing of senior officers.

Auchinleck’s decision to make Ritchie an army commander was ridiculous. As a relatively junior Major General with no command experience in modern combat, he was thrown into over the heads of several very senior and very experienced lieutenant generals who were to be his corps commanders. Although he was later to turn out to be a good leader, he lacked the prestige to convince his division and corps commanders that he knew what he was doing, and they all treated him as just a cipher for all Auchinleck. Realistically though, this is exactly what he was, and he knew it as well as they did. Auchinleck was simply trying to double up his duties as theatre commander with those of being the supervisor/hand holder to a deputy army commander. He tried to do both, failed at both, and had to sack Ritchie to cover the inevitable results. Within a few months he too would be sacked.

These then are the great failures of British generalship during the Second World War. One was promoted from his comfort zone as a staff officer to a position beyond him, through the ignorance and stupidity of his superiors. He was to finish the war as a prisoner of war. Another was what Montgomery would call “a good plain cook”, but was thrown already exhausted into a situation for which he needed a little more experience. He finished a succesful trainer. The third was almost ruined by the capricious winds of a superior, but was carefully salvaged and rebuilt into an effective officer through a sensible approach by a competent superior. He finished as an excellent combat leader.

The common theme here is less the men themselves, and more the roles of their superiors. Percival failed even more spectacularly than Fredendall, but the difference was that Percival was an excellent staff officer, whereas Fredendall was an incompetent buffoon. Both failed because the men who assigned them to their roles did not have the ability to recognize the limitations of their characters.

Cunningham failed despite his previous experience, because he was too exhausted to cope with the situation he was thrown into. It will always be questionable whether, had he been fit and fresh, he would have been able to cope, or whether his inexperience at armoured warfare would have required more preparation. It was a failure of imagination by those who appointed him, that they could not recognize the need for rest and recuperation to keep leaders fit for command.

And Ritchie just had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and under the wrong man.

The key point to be made from these examples is that even the best men need to be carefully shaped into their rolls as competent battlefield leaders. The vast majority of Western Allied generals during the Second World War had little chance to develop their skills before being thrown into a situation for which they were often not ready. The fault was usually that of their superiors, particularly those who lacked the ability to assess the real capabilities of the men they were promoting in an objective fashion. (However it must be pointed out that sometimes the higher ups had little choice. Democracies almost always go to war ill-prepared, and those in charge often have to assign the best fits they can. Throughout the war Brooke lamented that he did not have enough good leaders, but that he could not find better alternatives.)

Good generals do not spring magically out of the ground. They have to be nurtured. This requires not only an opportunity for slow and well supported development, but also the fortune of having a superior officer who knows which people are best suited to what sort of development. Ideally there will also be an opportunity to give them the time they will need to be ready.

Of the six genreals in these two posts, Fredendall and Percival were poor choices, Dawley and Lucas were inadequately prepared, Cunningham got belated support, but only Ritchie – a decade younger than the others - got the development he really needed.

So much for the myth of a general being born and not made,