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!

30 comments:

  1. A fair assessment.

    The 'funnies' at Omaha is slightly more complicated - according to Richard Anderson's book Cracking the Atlantic Wall, Bradley did ask for some of the mine clearing devices IIRC but certainly no AVREs

    Martell's autobiography also recounts carefully briefing his armoured team on the line to take at a presentation, but of course Hobart went off-message.

    PS A few typos have crept into this article.

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    1. Dear Aber,

      thank you, hadn't seen that Bradley requested mine clearers. Good to hear.

      Martell's insistence on his generals following the line in the tank parliaments is his main weakness, and I do not blame Hobart for thinking this was stupid. Particularly as HObart had refused the job because he believed it would undermine his ability to say what was needed.

      And yes, I am notorious for typo's. I don't bother editing these posts adequately. Apologies.

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  2. Hobo was certainly one of the more fascinating characters of the war and whilst many of WSC's impulses were justifiably opposed, Hobo's recall was one that was truly inspired. It is also to Brooke's credit that he was man enough to put past differences behind him and support Hobo where necessary.

    Noticed one factual error. Hobo's nemesis in Egypt was not Maitland Wilson but rather his predecessor as GOC British Troops in Egypt; Robert "Copper" Gordon-Finlayson who's adverse reports (as his superior officer) influenced Wavell into relieving Hobo from command of 7th Armoured Division

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    1. Yes I agree, but almost no one has heard of Gordon-Finlayson, so I have noted that Wilson and Wavell (who most will have heard of) were more than willing to agree to get rid of Hobbo without reflecting on the cost of his loss to the service...

      Agree on Brooke too. One of the few who could see past personal dislikes and accept people on their merits. (Or indeed see past personal likes, and dismiss people for their failures.) Pity more senior Allied officers weren't as objective.

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  3. "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." Maybe little is made of that "fact" because the consensus is that Juno had proportionally less than half the casualties of Omaha. Juno had almost as many combat troops, and landed almost as many personnel, as Omaha, but had less than half the number of casualties. While the first wave of Juno had a casualty rate very comparable to that of Omaha, the German resistance after the arrival of the second wave collapsed much more quickly.
    The estimated "beach" casualties and their rates can vary by more than a factor two depending on what units, locations, and time periods are used in the accounting and the amount of effort made to compensate for the limitations of the original reports. Some analyses consider only the reports from the divisions assigned responsible for the assault, and do not consider their attached obstacle clearance teams, or special assault rangers/commandos or the unattached landing craft personnel. Some only consider casualties on the beach, or exclude associated actions such as Pointe du Hoc. The commands had more important things to do than ensure the accuracy of the results of one day's actions. In particular the confusion of battle often results in MIA that later reappear and are not in any final analyses considered casualties. That was a particular problems with the mislandings on Omaha. But later analyses might also double count DOW as both WIA and DIA. Then there is the choice for the basis for the relative casualties: the number intended to be landed on beach, the less well known number actually landed, the even less well number of combat troops among the number landed.
    To my taste the best documented estimates are those of Richard Anderson that have been used by himself,[1] William Buckingham,[2] and Stephen Zaloga[3] in their works on the Normandy invasion. He attempts to track casualties for the whole day, including attached and naval units, and sometimes includes side actions such as Pointe du Hoc. He has also attempted to reconcile inconsistencies in the British and US reporting (the Canadians did a thorough post war analysis for their histories). The other most quoted report appears to be the AORG report 292[4] that attempt to reconcile predicted and observed beach casualties to the combat troops, neglecting obstacle removal teams and off beach casualties, and with no time to reconcile inconsistencies.

    Richard's estimates are:
    SWORD ~1,304
    JUNO ~1,247
    GOLD ~ 1,023
    OMAHA ~ 3,686
    UTAH ~ 608

    For relative comparisons Richard prefers a proxy for the number of combat troops: the number of British Brigade/US Regiment combat teams (RCT) per beach.
    SWORD -1
    JUNO - 2
    GOLD - 2
    OMAHA - 2
    UTAH - 1

    which gives loses/RCT as
    SWORD - 1,304
    JUNO - 624
    GOLD - 512
    OMAHA - 1,843
    UTAH - 608
    i.e., Juno is ~1/3 the rate of Omaha, but SWORD is ~4/5 that of Omaha.

    Using the AORG numbers for the number of troops landing
    SWORD - 28,800
    JUNO - 24,000
    GOLD - 25,000
    OMAHA - 34,200
    UTAH - 21.300
    still leaves Juno with less than half the casualty rate of Omaha.

    [1] Anderson, Richard C., Jr. "Cracking Hitler's Atlantic Wall: The 1st Assault Brigade Royal Engineers on D-Day," Stackpole Books, 2009. See also his latest estimate: http://www.militaryhistoryonline.com/forums/ViewPost.aspx?ForumID=11&ID=29375.
    [2] Buckingham, William F., "D-Day: The First 72 Hours," The History Press, 2013.
    [3] Zaloga, Steven, "The Devil's Garden: Rommel's Desperate Defense of Omaha Beach on D-Day," Stackpole Books, 2013.
    [4] Evans, Ivor, "Comparison of British and American Areas in Normandy in Terms of Fire Support and its Effects," [British] Army Operations Research Group, report 292, Kew WO 291/270, 1945.

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    1. Interesting, though from memory the Canadian sources I read were talking about the whole first day, including fighting off the beach, and facing the counter-attack of 21 Panzer, to suggest that 'some' Canadian units had even higher casualty rates than some of the American ones at Omaha... Possibly an exaggeration.

      The point though is that the Canadians did fight their way off the beaches and advance far further, against heavier opposition (including Panzers), than was the result at Omaha. So we can possibly give them a little flex in their suggesting that their casualties were for greater effect?

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    3. I am surprised you mention June 6 combat with the 22nd Panzer Regiment as important for the Canadian forces. While I am not an expert on the Commonwealth beaches, I had thought that the British units from Sword beach bore by far the greater brunt of the Panzer attack, and kept most of it from getting to the coast. I was not aware of any contact of the Canadians with amour that day, though they did encounter infantry from the 21st Panzer northwest of Caen. If such combat had occurred I would expect it to be discussed in detail in Colonel Stacey's official history.[1] While he mentions the attack by the regiment it is part of the context of what was going on the other beaches, and it was the 3rd British Division, and not the 3rd Canadian, that encountered panzers. What is your reference for the claimed tank combat?
      [1] Colonel C. P. Stacey,"Official History of the Canadian Army in the Second World War, Volume III, The Victory Campaign, The Operations in North-West Europe 1944-1945," Chapter V, The Landings in Normandy, 6 June 1944, pp. 114-115, The Queen's Printer and Controller of Stationery, 1960.

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    4. Of course some of the Canadian units suffered casualties greater than some of the US units. The casualties on both beaches varied dramatically with landing location and time. In fact both beaches had some units in the first wave with casualties well above 50%, so the worst Canadian (and British) small unit casualty rates on Juno were very similar to those on Omaha. The difference was that Omaha had far more units with 10%+ casualties, particularly after the first wave.
      As to other people's claims that Juno had comparable casualties to Omaha, that may have been partly due to the fact that the casualty estimate in the US Army official history was Gordon Harrison's, "Cross Channel Attack" which gave 2,000 as the estimated Omaha Beach casualties, footnoted as "frankly it was a guess." However with digitized records and computerized searches it had been possible to do a better job of reconciling the wartime records. That has generally led to an increase in the estimated casualties at all beaches, partly because the best known estimates only addressed the infantry regiments, and some of the attached units, e.g., rangers, commandos and obstacle clearance teams, had particularly high casualties, and partly because people were conservative in interpreting MIA as mislandings that rejoined later. Someone looking at the newer numbers for say Juno beach, and the older numbers for Omaha, would get a very misleading impression. FWIW the best current history of the Omaha landings by Balkoski gave an estimate of 4,385 casualties, but Richard Anderson believes he double counted some casualties.

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  4. "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 point though is that the Canadians did fight their way off the beaches and advance far further, against heavier opposition (including Panzers), than was the result at Omaha."
    The "theoretically harder fight to breakthrough at Juno" and "fight their way off the beaches and ... against heavier opposition," suggests that you think that the German defenses at the Omaha landing was weaker than those at the Juno landing. I can't see how anyone knowledgeable on the topic would think so. All comparative analyses of the beach defenses I have seen start with the AORG report 292,[1] supplementing it with improved casualty estimates, newer documents on German troop movements, and off beach long range artillery positions and use. None of them fundamentally change its conclusions.
    Overall this report finds the defenses at Omaha to be stronger overall than those at any of the other beaches. For Juno in particular it finds the defenses to be better only in the number of land mines. However there was enough flat dry land leading off the beach that the flail tanks could rapidly provide beach exits. Not noted in the report was that the larger number of beach houses provided an additional source of fortifications that supplemented the weapon nests. But the smaller number of troops and weapons at Juno limited their usefulness.
    That being said the strength of the beach defenses and the resulting number of casualties has next to nothing to do with how we should value the troops that served on those beaches. All of them went into the battle knowing that that they were starting on a long campaign where injury was likely and death would be common. Overall the casualties on all the beaches were well above the nominal 1% per day per front line infantry on an active front, and at least the 3% per day for infantry in intense combat. For the troops in the assault waves the casualties were a factor of two or more higher than the overall rate. For all of the mistakes of the Allied leadership, and the best defensive efforts of the German troops, the Allied casualty rates on all beaches were well below those at Dieppe, and also below the pre D-Day predictions.We should look back and be proud that so many were willing to face the worst in a good cause, thankful that for most the worst was avoided, but acknowledge that in a hard fought battle too many will still meet the fate they feared.
    [1] Evans, Ivor, "Comparison of British and American Areas in Normandy in Terms of Fire Support and its Effects," [British] Army Operations Research Group, report 292, Kew WO 291/270, 1945.

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  5. Although I noted that above that Omaha Beach had stronger defense than any of the other beaches, another way of examining the data is the strength of the defenses relative to the strength of the attacking force. As Omaha, Gold, and Juno had very similar strengths in their assault waves, comparisons between them is not significantly affected by this form of analysis, but Sword and Utah had about half the attacking strength of the other three, and in that form of analysis Sword on some, but not all, measures had better defense per attacker than Omaha. It also faced more (and in the case of the 22nd Panzer regiment, better) defenders off the beach than any of the other attackers, though the defenders in that sector lacked the natural defenses of the bocage present behind most of Utah, Omaha, Gold, and Juno. It also faced the only significant counterattack from the 22nd Panzer.

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  6. An alert reader will note that Richard Anderson's Omaha casualty estimates are comparable to his combined estimates for Gold, Juno, and Sword. That is not a new result. End of the day reviews of the beaches provoked comments that the Omaha casualties appeared comparable to the combined British casualties. Even given the defenses and terrain at Omaha Beach, those casualties naturally prompted criticism of the American high command. Many of the criticisms are based on those of General Hobart, as reported by his brother-in-law Chester Wilmot in his one volume history of the war. [1] These comments are a mixture of the erroneous and the misleading.

    The gist is in two paragraphs:
    "There might have been some justification for the policy of direct assault if the Americans had accepted Montgomery's plan for landing armour en masse at the start of the attack, and for using the specialized equipment of Hobart's 79th Armoured Division to deal with the fortifications and the underwater obstacles. When Montgomery first saw this equipment he ordered Hobart to make one-third of it available to the Americans, and set himself to interest Eisenhower and Bradley in its revolutionary employment. Hobart's account of the reaction of the three generals is illuminating."
    ""Montgomery," he says, "was most inquisitive. After thorough tests and searching questions he said in effect: 'I'll have this and this and this; but I don't want that or that.' Eisenhower was equally enthusiastic but not so discriminating. His response was, 'We'll take everything you can give us.' Bradley appeared to be interested but, when asked what he wanted, replied, 'I'll have to consult my staff.'" Bradley and his staff eventually accepted the 'DDs' but did not take up the offer of 'Crabs', 'Crocodiles', 'AVREs' and the rest of Hobart's menagerie."

    This makes several claims:

    1. That the Americans did not plan to land armor en masse on Omaha Beach.
    False. The Omaha Beach plan was to land on each of two halves of the beach 32 DD (inflatable raft) tanks at H-5 min, followed by a direct H hour landing of 27 waterproofed tanks including 8 tank dozers. I consider 118 tanks “armour en masse.” Unfortunately by H+30 about 48 tanks were still operable.

    2. That the Funnies were only absent because the Americans, Bradley in particular, rejected them.
    False. In February 1944 the US requested several Sherman based Funnies including Crabs, and crocodiles. None of the requested items were delivered, possibly because production was behind schedule.

    3. That the Funnies would have made a significant difference on Omaha Beach.
    I am skeptical. The flail tanks would have been useful for the Utah Beach causeways. On Omaha the most critical mines were inaccessible to the flails in marshes at the bluff bases, and the paths up the bluffs. Use of the short-range petard mortars or bridging tank barriers with the AVRE attachments required exposure to the many anti-tank guns.

    4. That Americans had a mistaken policy to use direct assault, with the implication that the British did not have a policy of direct assault.
    This was in many ways a valid criticism, but was misleading in implying that the British did not have a policy of direct assault on their beaches. There were good reasons for wanting to get off the beach as soon as possible, the best exits were guarded by the best defensive positions, and ideally the quickest way to get past those defenses is through a direct assault. All of the attack plans therefore relied on direct attacks on many of the positions.

    5. The absence of other discussion of defenses, or of other aspects of the American plans, suggests that those were the only problems.
    Positioning the Western task force closer to the beaches, should have reduced mislandings, and troop seasickness.

    [1] Chester Wilmot, "The Struggle for Europe," Chapter XIII, Konecky & Knoecky, 1952.

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    1. Al that is interesting.

      Regardless, better use of armour would have helped the infantry, as it did in any other place in the war where this happened.

      Whether it was available or not, or wanted or not, or understood or not, doesn't alter the fact that bad generals didn't understand how to use combined arms properly, nor the importance of doing so.

      In fact too many bad generals (not just American, not just Omaha) used WWI ideas of wining with infantry regardless of cost.

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  7. "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."

    The 11th Armoured from August 29 through September 3 did have a remarkably fast advance from Vernon France to Antwerp, but not against more opposition than the US 1st and 3rd armies.[1] By that time none of the Allied armies in their advance through France faced significant opposition. The only constraint on their advance was logistics, primarily the availability of fuel. With the surrender of Paris on August 25, Montgomery rightly viewed Antwerp as the highest priority target. As a result the British XXX Corps got first priority on fuel, and with their shorter supply lines to Caen, did a marvelous job of taking advantage of that priority, using the 11th Armoured as their spearhead. Unfortunately no one told the XXX Corps that Antwerp was of minor use without the Scheldt estuary.

    Up until Operation Bluecoat the 11th Armoured had been badly used by the British high command, Lieutenant-General Bucknall, the original commander of the XXX Corps, in particular. Bucknall, in effect, took Hobart's belief that armor could operate independent of infantry seriously and did not use the 11th's armor in combination with its infantry. The implicit rejection of proper combined arms doctrine made the difficult situation around Caen worse and eventually led to Bucknall's dismissal. After his replacement the 11th Armoured was given much more flexibility and did as well as the American armored divisions at combined arms, though both the British and American infantry divisions would continue to have problems properly using their attached armor.

    After the closing of the Falaise gap on August 21 the British and American divisions advanced at very comparable rates for the next week, none facing counterattacks comparable to what the American’s faced in Operation Lüttich[2], or the resistance they shared at Falaise Gap.

    [1] Patrick Delaforce, "The Black Bull: From Normandy to the Baltic with the 11th Armoured Division," Stackpole Books, 1993, 2010.
    [2] Martin Blumenson, “Breakout and Pursuit,” Center of Military History, 1961.

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    1. Note my "Hobart's belief that armor could operate independent of infantry" is my indirect inference, from a limited knowledge of Horbart's work. In particular his strong advocacy of an armoured "Army", the relatively small infantry components of his armoured divisions compared to most such late-war divisions, his comments on the Omaha Beach "direct assault" and lack of armour en masse, his emphasis on anti-tank guns for tanks, his reported lack of cooperation with George Lindsay in the 1934 Salisbury Plain exercise, I get the impression of a tactician wit a very limited view of the role of infantry in combined arms.

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    2. Suggest you read Hobart's writings, or the very good biography 'armoured crusader' that was re-released recently. Despite what his many (many) detractors say, Hobart was absolutely committed to combined arms, and his 1920's list of what would be perfect for an armoured assault (heavy breakthrough tanks, medium pursuit tanks, light recce tanks, armoured infantry carriers, assault guns, mobile bridging equipment, anti-aircraft tanks, etc, etc: looks remarkably like the ideal armoured division of 1945).

      In fact Hobart's success was always through combined arms, and people like Bucknell failed through not following his rules. Montgomery admitted Hobart was far more advanced student of warfare than he, and Monty's greatest successes were from following Hobart's formula. (Though it was Rommel who first followed Hobart's suggestion of scouting the battlefields in a light plane.)

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  8. As to the idea that the several shattered German corps retreating in front of 2nd army completely abandoned the best German traditions of delay and ambush... read about operation Market Garden. Too many commentators are quite ready to sneer at attempting 'attack down one road' a few days after claiming that manny of the same German units had offered no resistance for weeks.

    I wonder what they think changed between the elite SS and panzer units retreating from Normandy and the same units when the weather intervened to slow things at 'a bridge too far'?

    Patton really faced almost no committed units prior to the Metz. (In fact his first attacks there failed against even weaker remnant elements than Marker Garden.) You can't say that about 2nd army.

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  9. I don't have the time, inclination, or expertise to go into detail this topic. The Germans didn’t want to make it easy for the Third Army, and the main spearhead was operating within 100 miles of the Normandy front. The Allied air forces made German maneuver difficult, while civilians provided intelligence on German positions so the strongest forces could be by-passed, and the resistance provided useful support. Except at Lorient they did an excellent job of taking advantage of the intelligence. As a result in August the Third Army took 70,000+ POWs and inflicted a comparable number of other casualties on the German forces. You don’t do that without encountering the enemy and dealing with large fraction of them. In August, Third Army’s troops met with division-sized forces at the ports in Brittany, at Chârtres, Elbeuf, and the eat side of Falais gap. Smaller scale conflicts, including regimental and battalion sized German units of course occurred more often.

    There is a reason the Armoured Divisions of the XXXth Corps termed their rapid advance the ‘Great Swan.” They considered the resistance during that advance to have been minor compared to Normandy. The same conditions that limited defenses against Patton in early August applied to all the allied armies after the closure of Falais gap. If you read Delaforce’ s “The Black Bull” Chapter 23 “The Great Swan” the main source of delay is traffic congestion from cheering crowd. There was a half-day lost while the high command considered using airbourne troops instead, and a half-day skirmish in Amiens where a regiment sized German force withdrew quickly when caught out of position. Unfortunately while the German defenders did the Allies the favor of not securing and destroying Antwerp’s docks, they still made the final capture of Antwerp difficult. Some relevant comments:

    "At the moment when Hitler issued this order, catastrophe was already overtaking the Germans at Antwerp. The British Second Army, meeting "negligible opposition",28 had driven headlong northward from the Somme. On 3 September (the fifth anniversary of Britain's declaration of war) the Guards Armoured Division, in the van of the 30th Corps, entered and captured Brussels. Both the Guards and the 11th Armoured Divisions advanced some 60 miles this day. On the afternoon of 4 September the 11th Armoured Division reached Antwerp, and the greatest port in North-West Europe was in Allied hands. The most extraordinary feature of the situation, and one which reflected the German disorganization at this stage, was the fact that the dock installations were captured almost intact.29"[1]

    “When we retired from the Somme about 1 September, I planned slowly to fight my way to Brussels and Antwerp and then take up a line in Holland. I had no fear that Antwerp would be taken since it was far behind the front line and there was a special staff organized to defend it. When I heard on 4 September that it had been captured it came as a stunning surprise. The reason for the fall of Antwerp was the failure of the High Command to appreciate how badly beaten 5th Panzer Army really was. Instead of an army on my left flank there was an empty gap. It was not yet realized how weak our forces had become. My own forces were neither strong enough nor fast enough to get back to Antwerp in time to defend it. We had no motorized equipment and we were constantly being attacked by armoured columns [i.e. 11th Armoured Division]”[2]

    {1] Col. C. P. Stacey, "Official History of the Canadian Army in the Second World War: Volume II, The Victory Campaign," p. 301 (Note ref 28 and 29 are 2nd army sitrep reports.)
    [2] General van Zangen in Patrick Delaforce, “The Black Bull,” p. 129.

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    1. I take it from that, that you might agree with Patton and Montgomery that a blitzkrieg would have finished the war in 1944, whereas the broad front option guaranteed it continuing to 1945?

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    3. NO! While there are a number of things that in combination could have shortened the war by weeks or a few months, and reduced casualties by thousnds, I am highly skeptical that by late August there was anything the western Allies could do to end the European war before the start of 45. After a major advance it takes a months to repair the infrastructure, and a few weeks to stock depots near the front line, before another major advance can occur. The biggest single infrastructure issue was Antwerp, and I don’t see the allies starting a major advance less than two weeks after it opens.

      Many of the things that made the German response consistently "a day late and a dollar short" in August and early September were receding in importance as the allies moved from allied friendly areas affected by the transportation plan to German friendly areas close to German sources of men and material.

      At the same time logistics was an increasingly negative factor for the allies.[1] The allies had a heavy reliance on motorization, armor, and heavy artillery barrages. They also tried to provide sufficient food, fuel, and medical care to the freed territories. The combination made their advance very resource intensive. To provide their resources the Allies in early September relied on American resources with a heavily delayed response due to red tape and transatlantic supply lines, With good ports trans-Atlantic supply had a two-month turnaround due to the need to coordinate convoys. They didn’t have “good” ports. They had a number of small ports. Those ports in mid-July were near the front and the front was not expected to change rapidly, so the truck fleet was minimal and scheduled to grow slowly, and the rail net was negligible. A month and a half later, distances had increased by almost an order of magnitude over a road and rail network that was in terrible shape due to the transport plan, German neglect, and not always good initial construction.

      In order to maintain their advance the allies had resorted to a number of measures with long-term negative consequences. In order to provide trucks and fuel to supply front line troops, they grounded newly arrived divisions, requisitioned trucks required for unloading ships, left heavy artillery behind the Seine, put selected armies and corps on reduced supplies, had drivers and loading crews put in twelve hour days seven days a week, and diverted engineers to road and rail repair and maintenance. One result was rapid degradation of the truck fleet due to engine wear and tear, worn out tires, and accidents from exhausted drivers. Another was the depletion of continental ammunition and fuel reserves.

      The allies were doing a number of things to address those issues, but they required time to take effect. A minimal rail network from Normandy to near the front lines was in place in early September, but they needed to convert single tracks to dual tracks, complete additional routes, install signaling and switching equipment, repair repair-yards, and move engines, rolling stock, fuel, and coal from Britain and the US to the continent. They were also opening ports Marseille in the south and the various channel ports in the north, but Antwerp, the biggest port and the one closest to the front, would take time. To free soldiers for other duties, they also needed to find and train civilians and POWs to operate the rail transport and port facilities.

      I also consider a "narrow thrust" to be a high-risk moderate gain strategy. While a breakthrough will start on one or two narrow fronts it is almost always best to widen the breakthrough quickly. A narrow thrust implies a limited road network with congestion and road damage. It also offers exposed flanks that a skilled defender can exploit.

      [1] See Geoffrey Sinclair’s six part usnet postings “US Army Supply European Theater of operations” in soc.history.war.world-war-ii summarizing the various US military official histories of logistics.

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    4. Hmm, you appear to think that the broad front strategy and the invasion of Southern France were a better investment of resources than using the same naval, and combined op resources to drive along the French coast and open Antwerp faster?

      Or perhaps you haven't considered that?

      Let me assure you that the incompetent wastage of the Red Ball Express, although heroic - is exactly my point. (By the way, some of the replacement railway stock needed was because much of theFrench railway stock that was recaptured was enthusiastically destroyed by the - American - troops that captured it.) But I am sure you can think of many other examples of waste apart from the wines you mention above.

      The 'narrow thrust' - read Blitzkreig - is the correct way to respond when an enemy collapses at the front.

      I will stick with Montgomery and Patton and their understanding of hitting an enemy when their down and you can break their morale before they have time to recover.

      I will also note that I believe Hitler was wrong to have a broad front strategy instead of taking out Moscow, for the same reasons that Ike was wrong here. (And again, Montgomery and Patton would both agree with me.)

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    6. Cite! I have never heard of any proposal to cancel Dragoon for the purpose of attacking the approaches of Antwerp. I suspect that anyone who proposed that would have been sent for a psych exam.

      There were proposals to cancel Dragoon and use the forces near Venice to reach the Austrian Alps, in the Balkans to deny Germans Rumanian oil, in Greece to help a former ally, and in Western France to try to support Normandy. The Isonzo battles of WWI make me skeptical of the Venice proposal. The air campaign against refineries and the rapid Soviet advance made the Balkans campaign unnecessary. Greece was to isolated to be more than a sideshow. All except the western French proposals would have pissed off the French. The ports in western France were all smaller than Marseilles, further from the front in fall, and further from France's colonies that would eventually provide the French with needed supplies.

      Dragoon in the end exceeded expectations. It freed Marseilles in essentially perfect working order, providing support for two armies on the Northern front, and needed supplies for the French population, at a time when its planting season in the North was disrupted by combat. It also resulted in the loss of more than 100,000 German troops.

      Using those forces on the Scheldt estuary was not close to practical for many reasons:

      It was not widely seen as necessary. If it had been given its due importance the XXX corps would not have stopped where it did.

      For years the Germans expected any port attack to be from sea, so the sea approaches to Antwerp were better defended than the land approaches.

      Both sides of the estuary needed to be taken, but the estuary was wide enough that forces landed on both sides could not provide mutual support. A landing would be subject to defeat in detail

      The Belgian coast was more open to severe weather than the Channel and the Med making landing and support operations with small landing craft more problematic. This was even more of a problem given the severe weather of that year. Landing craft were too useful to be risked in bad weather.

      It was at the extreme range of allied tactical air forces in Britain and Normandy in late August. Air support would have been problematic, until mid-September.

      It would drop the use of Free French Forces.

      It would loose Marseilles if the German’s have any sense. They would have plenty of time to concentrate their forces there and destroy its facilities while under siege.

      There was a non-existent window of opportunity. It takes time to properly plan amphibious operations. The rushed plans for Avalanche and the resulting near disaster meant that the planning would have to begin at least a month in advance. Until late in August (after Dragoon) the SHAEF staff expected the advance to stop at the Seine, and were surprised when Eisenhower decided to advance beyond the seine, and more surprised when he decided to advance beyond the Somme. Anyone proposing to drop Dragoon for the Scheldt, would have to do it at a time when the divisions landed there could expect to be stranded for months.

      It was also liable to be derailed by the optimism of the land advances, similar to what happened to many planned airbourne operations. By the time it would be ready the 21st Army would be in or near southern Belgium, and many would expect that the Scheldt as well as Antwerp would fall to the land advance.

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    7. IN other word "Hmm, you appear to think that the broad front strategy and the invasion of Southern France were a better investment of resources than using the same naval, and combined op resources to drive along the French coast and open Antwerp faster?" is a strawman.

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    8. Dear Bill,

      try the 'background' part in the Wikipedia article on 'Dragoon' - which argues ( a bit facetiously) that Churchill called it that because he felt 'Dragooned' into it.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Dragoon

      It was first supposed to run at the same time as D-Day, but that was impossible.

      It was second supposed to run as a 'back-up' to D-Day, too keep some German troops distracted. But, as the article points out, by the time it went in, most of the troops (particularly armour) had already been moved. So "it could be considered a failure before it started".

      Third reason for it was the same as FUSAG (Patton's fake US army group threatening Calais, or the other ops for the same purpose). If that was its whole value, then that was enough on its own.

      I am aware that there were attempts to divert some of the forces pulled away from the key front for it to another point (Adriatic), but, like you, not convinced that they were ever going to happen no matter what. (Though I do think they might have been of more value than Dragoon was to causing a faster collapse... Army Group G would certainly have had to run either way.)

      Doesn't alter my basic point. Dragoon was part of a 'broad front strategy'. Many people argued against it for a long time. Many people still think it was an irrelevant distraction.

      The resources used on it limited alternative options.

      My main amusement with it is that after years of arguing that diversions were a distraction from the 'shortest route' approach, Ike and Marshall suddenly wanted an indirect operation that would detract from the 'shortest route' forces.

      You can argue endlessly about what might have been, but I still think that fighting up Italy one mountain range at a time was stupid and a waste of resources, and Dragoon was stupid and a waste of resources.

      Given that they had fought all the way up Italy the Adriatic might have been a better option.

      Given that neither Adriatic or Dragoon were of much value (until the failures of the broad front strategy made Marseilles useful), I still think concentrating even part of those resources on the main attack would have made a difference.

      I might be wrong, but, given Churchill and everyone else who argued long and hard against Dragoon, it is hardly a straw man.

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    9. PS: your argument that the Soviets were already clearing the Balkans is an argument FOR Adriatic operations, not against.

      Churchill saved Greece from Soviet occupation against Marshall's best efforts, and thank God for it.

      Most of the 'capitals of Central Europe' could have been saved if Ike and Marshall had a clue about the strategic reasons for fighting a war as distinct from the tactical ones.

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  10. Probably a whole different discussion, but has anyone thought that just maybe the US was being capitalistic with the Sherman? I realize that we needed a tank to bring to battle, but from a capitalist stand point, what a great money maker! We could mass produce at a high rate a somewhat serviceable and upgradeable tank to sell to our allies. A good conspiracy theory would be to say that big business had a hand in keeping a tank quickly going obsolete in production. Think of the jobs here in the US that created by the Sherman and other war products. WW2 single handly was the best economic windfall for the US.

    Now for my pennies worth on "best" tank. I agree based on my own research that the Centurion was a good tank. I think the reality of this whole thing is that regardless of what tank the allies had, the allies would have prevailed. The two main reasons was the shear number of T34's and Shermans being ram rodded down the Germans throats. It was the mass that doomed Germany, not the class. Everyone knows full well that the German war industry was suffering serious productivity issues each year of the war. Coupled with more complex machinery, they not only couldn't produce enough, they were reaching a point of not being able to man them.

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