Friday, August 22, 2014

The best tank of World War Two… a debate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 1, 2014

Rating General Percy Hobart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Both viewpoints are just.

So how do we rate Hobart as a general?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was he a great general? Yes… and no!

The Evils of Unreflecting Socialism

The concept of Socialism is a pretty good idea. It believes that there should be a safety net to support the needy.

No problem there. Anybody with a Judaeo-Christian or Buddhist based code of morality is more or less behind the ideas of simple charity and 'do unto others' bit that underpins social fairness.

(Theoretically Animism can also approach this concept, but like most other 'tribal' religions - from Marxist to Muslim to Labour to Greenie - the specificity of the 'them versus us component' makes this a bit problematical in application... And please note that there are many supposed Jews or Christians who have fallen into the trap of tribalism, and many Muslims or Marxists who honestly believe they can avoid tribalism without abandoning the tenets of their religion... None of them seem to have a clue about what their professed beliefs actually require of them.)

But I digress.

Socialism as an ideal of providing a safety net and an opportunity is a wonderful thing, and I, and many others, would fight to maintain that safety net.

Socialism as a political movement pursuing 'equality' however, is one of the great evils of human invention.

Humans cannot be made equal, no matter how ruthlessly this is attempted. Humans can be given equality of opportunity, but thy cannot be 'made' to be equal. (The best image of this recently was in the Joss Whedonfilm 'Firefly' where the government wants to create 'a world without sin',and where they will keep idealistically trying to make people 'better', no matter how appalling the results of their experiments.)

People who profess to be socialists in the last century include Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, and just about every nasty dictatorship currently operating in Africa or South America. (Some of the nasty dictatorships in the Middle East and Africa and Asia - from Iran to Somalia to South Korea - are blatant religious dictatorships... but again with a tribal perspective, not any Judaeo-Christian concepts.)

Now, obviously, the answer there is that just because people say they are socialists, does not mean they really are. Politicians lying about their real motives to fool the gullible is about as traditional as it gets.

But there are many politicians who say they are socialist who really mean it. Unfortunately their definition of socialism is so distorted, that I find them far more dangerous the obvious liars.

Socialism as proposed by most of the political parties with the word 'socialist' in their title usually just means dictatorship under a cloak of respectability that they hope the ignorant peasants and stupid media will fall for. Anything called a Soviet Socialist Republic or just a Socialist Republic will inevitably fit this box eventually.

There is an excellent and amusing section in one of Robert Heinlein's worse books – Time Enough for Love – that defines politicians. 

Heinlein says there are basically two types of politicians, Business, and Conviction. Business politicians rely on keeping their word, as their only saleable asset. They live or die politically by delivering or not delivering.

Conviction politicians by contrast, 'believe' in a 'cause'. They believe so passionately, that they can be easily convinced to change their promises by any new 'idea' or 'evidence' that comes along (at least if it fits their prejudices). The truly dangerous thing about such people is not that they reverse themselves 3 times before breakfast, but that each time they convince themselves (or at least can pretend to), that they are doing it for the 'good' of the people and cause they 'believe' in.

As a result they are more than willing to look their constituents (who are not necessarily the voters) in the eye, and claim their reversals were a genuine attempt to reach the goal that everyone is striving for... for the greater good of course.

The simple fact is that business and conviction politicians usually cannot understand each other's rationales or motives, as they are almost completely incomprehensible to them. Instead they both tend to assume that anyone with the opposite perspective is either mad, or just completely dishonest and working for completely different motives than their stated ones.

(Unfortunately, people being people, they will be right in enough cases to allow them the luxury of painting everyone they do not understand with the same broad stroke of tar. This sort of lazy self righteousness is what forms the basis of 'them and us' thinking, and is the bane of all political compromise through human history.)

It would be nice to think that willingness to change a viewpoint is part of education or just growing up. The amusing aphorism "If you're not a socialist at 20 you don't have a heart, if you're still a socialist at 40 you don't have a brain", would be less scary if it actually reflected a consistent pattern... but it doesn't.

The vast majority of humanity takes the childhood illusion they grew up with as unreflected gospel for their entire life, and is appalled that anyone could dare to disagree. (I use the word 'gospel' here with malice aforethought. The unreflecting religious being almost as dangerous as the unreflecting atheist in taking the most simplistic and childish understanding of their preferred viewpoint and trying to bludgeon everyone else with it. Religious wars are bad enough, the crusades by Fascists and Marxists in the last century have added new meaning to repression and genocide.)

Reflection from adult understanding (particularly after the brain reaches the age of considering consequences at about 24 or 25... not at the extreme of idealistic illusion at University age of about 18 to 21) is absolutely vital to making a childhood preference into a reasoned position. Pity so few people take the time to do it...

One of the dangers of our democratic political system is that we let people start playing 'seriously' with politics at exactly the worst age. Political parties collecting university students is like shooting fish in a barrel, but the modern practice of recruiting them to the party structure in a straight line   student politician, political staffer, party professional, safe seat (with no real life experience to intervene), means that many modern politicians do not get the mental space to reflect on what they think they believe in until several years in office trying and failing to deliver their childish ideal finally convinces them that they were either very wrong, or at least very naive.

Unfortunately this can then have it's own problems. You sometimes get the overly simplistic from both sides responding to the discovery of the unreality of what they were attempting by veering widely (and almost equally unreflectingly) to the opposite perspective... Such people often adopt equally (or even more scarily) unrealistic simplifications of a world view. (In Australia the most famously pathetic example is the ex-Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, but 'reborn' ex socialists or communists are often even more worrying in their fanaticism!)

Or, perhaps worse, they simply decide that they will keep mouthing the words they don't believe in any more, in a ruthless attempt to get power... Not that they really want to achieve anything particular any more... just get power.

So how to choose the lesser of two evils?

1. Given a choice of politicians who 'believe' unreflectingly in childish idealism, always go for the conservative, not the radical. It will slow progress to a pathetic crawl, but there will be a lot less bloodshed. (Shedding blood is necessary sometimes, but conservative reasons like 'defence of traditional liberties' aka English or American Revolutions is always better than blood shed to 'save the world and remake it in perfection' aka French or Communist revolutions, or almost any religious war...)

2. Given the choice of politicians who genuinely believe, after genuine adult reflection, they are working for the common good, again you should always go for the business one not the conviction one... you may not like the result, but it will at least it may resemble what they were originally talking about.

3. Give the choice between politicians who only pretend to believe in what they are promoting, go for the business politician anyway. They may only be in it to line their pockets and enjoy the fruits of power, but, because they live or die by keeping heir word, they will only stay in it by making the trains run on time. Corrupt but competent is always going to do less damage to the society than well meaning but incompetent.

A 'true believer' is always going to throw public money at anything that sounds good anyway, and is always surprised the result is often the opposite of what was intended. (Education 'improvements' that lead to mass illiteracy; workplace 'improvements' that lead to mass unemployment'; health 'improvements' that lead to failing hospitals; etc.) But a cynic pretending to be a true believer stays in power despite incompetence by throwing money at things they know won't work just to claim they are doing something. (And to buy voted of course... but they all do that...)

4. But given the choice between two socialists: one of whom says they accept the world is imperfect, but believe in the justice of a safety net; and one of whom really truly believes that equality in all things is both desirable and achievable... go for the sane one. The raving lunatic can only finish one of two ways. Disillusioned and corrupt, or so convinced in their cause that they eventually have to make themselves all powerful to make it happen because they can find no other way. (Stalin and HItler are great example of the first, and Cromwell and Mao are fun examples of the second. And note, I have chosen supposedly right and supposedly left versions in both samples to make the appropriate mockery of right versus left.)

It is probable that through history the majority of so called Socialists who have achieved and grimly maintained power until their society collapses under the dead weight of extreme socialism (as Churchill said, 'the problem is they eventually run out of other people's money') have been the first... just corrupt shadows of their original so called beliefs. This would include almost any socialist government elected over too long periods in Southern and Eastern Europe (and Ireland, which counts as 'southern') or in Central or South America. They just slowly drag their countries down to a level of poverty and violence that it was their stated intention to replace with their idealised utopia. (Prime examples of mouthing without meaning would include Stalin, the Castro's, Chavez, and the current dynasty in North Korea.)

The real problem though, is the ones who continue to believe in their dream, and are willing to do whatever it takes, including seizing all power for themselves, to see it happen. Cromwell, Robespierre, Lenin, Mao, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Mugabe, and Adolf Hitler are all 'conviction' socialists (almost all of them with some sort of claim to be elected leaders of republican forms of government) who took their societies to the extremes they felt were necessary to achieve the purity they genuinely believed in...

Historically, socialism for the goal of a safety net will inevitably reduce the overall living standards, education, employment, and opportunities, of a society... but not necessarily destroy it completely. (Or at least not yet, in the cases of places like Scandinavia which are back-pedalling fast on the excesses that reduced the PIIGS Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain - to basket cases with up to 50% youth unemployment). It can even be argued that some of this equalisation might be a good thing, but the long term reduction of living standards over the admittedly less pleasant chaos of more free flowing capitalism is the inevitable price.

But historically Socialism for the goal of a fantasy ideal of universal equality and wealth will lead to the nastiest and most bloody dictatorships in human history. (On a scale that would make even a tribal barbarian lunatic like Genghis Khan green with envy.)

If you love the idea of 'safety net socialism', as I do, and are willing to accept a limited diminution in overall living standards to achieve it: be very, very afraid of the 'ideal' of 'perfect Socialism'. The more people unreflectingly pursue an impossible dream, the less chance the reflecting have of achieving some sort of reality.