Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Ten Myths about the Phoney War - new Quadrant Article

A new one of my articles has just been published in the Australian Quadrant magazine (Vol. 61 No.1-2,  January-February 2017 edition), that attempts to kick the crap out of the historians who write off the 'Phoney War' as a period where nothing happened.

It is based on the proposed Allied March 1940 plan to move troops through Norway and Sweden to assist Finland against the Soviet invaders they had been remarkably successful in resisting for several months.

The 10 issues I cover are:

1, The Myth that the Soviet Union was strong in 1940.
2. The Myth that Germany was strong in 1940.
3. The Myth that the British were flailing for a strategy in 1940.
4. The Myth that Poland's collapse made everyone believe in 'Blitzkreig'.
5. The Myth that the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact could not last.
6. The Myth that the sides were already fixed.
7. The Myth that intervention would not improve the Allied situation.
8. The Myth that intervention would be militarily foolish for the Allies.
9. The Myth that the Allies could have chosen not to help Finland.
10. The Myth that Norway and Sweden would oppose an intervention.

The fun part is the reason behind the story.

Orders were actually given by the British and French Chiefs of Staff at 6.30pm on March 12, 1940, for the landings in Norway to go ahead the next day. Only last minute duplicity by the Socialist Foreign Minister of Finland Vaino Tanner to hide this information from the cabinet while he forced through a surrender before midnight, prevented the war from developing into a Molotov-Ribbentropp Pact war against Britain, France, and probably their new allies - including possibly Italy, Japan, Turkey, Scandinavia and the Balkans countries...

If you want the full reasoning, you'll have to get the article.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

The best Carrier based Torpedo Bomber of World War Two?

Having recently re-read the many comments on an old article in which I discussed the relative strengths and weaknesses of carrier aircraft in WWII, 

(and having reviewed some of the discussion groups that insist on misquoting me), I though it might be useful to make a couple of reflections that show just how silly these debates can get.

First lets make the key point – in the battle between offense and defence, the pendulum keeps swinging.

When I do a discussion with a school group about medieval weapons and armour, I point out that the fanciest sword is no good, if it can’t defeat a new style of armour; and the fanciest armour is no good, if offensive weapons can defeat it. It is always about ‘does this weapon defeat the defence, or does the defence defeat the weapon’.

In WWII this means two things.

First: that even spectacularly effective offensive aircraft from 1939 or 1942 are usually hopeless in the same circumstances against improved defences two years later.

Second: that technological change will require adapting new methods.

Third: that the 'best' aircraft at a given time, is not necessarily going to do the job best at that time, if other elements of the offence vs defence balance need to be considered!

There were many torpedo bombers of course – from bad carrier versions, like the Devestator and the Barracuda, to good land versions, like the Beaufort and the Condor, but for the sake of the argument, I will stick to the two contrasting torpedo bombers that make the most interesting point about what worked best when, and why…

To put that in perspective, lets start with the significant point that the most successful (in terms of tonnage sunk), torpedo bomber of the war – the Fairey Swordfish – was a technological relict even before the war began; while the most successful (in terms of being technologically advanced and impressive to crews) torpedo bomber of the war – the TBM Avenger – was a complete failure in its first actions!

The Fairey Swordfish is possibly the most amazing/amusing aircraft of the war. An old style biplane, with a ridiculously slow attack speed (only 138mph for early versions): it was nonetheless the only allied combat aircraft to remain in production, and in front line combat squadrons, throughout the entire war.

Known as the ‘Stringbag’ not because of its old fashioned wire and fabric construction, but because – like an old ladies string shopping bag – it could be adapted to an incredible range of loads and tasks: the Swordfish was as success mainly because it could keep changing its functions.

Operating as a conventional torpedo bomber for the first half of the war, the Swordfish – despite its antiquated appearance – had innumerable successes. From sinking the first U-boat sunk, to manning the first escort carriers, to rocket strikes on miniature submarines in river mouths in the last days of the war. From disabling the Bismarck and the Italian cruiser Zara in day actions to allow British battleships to catch them; to the first radar guided night attacks on ships and submarines of the war. From the spectacular success in daylight against the anchored French Fleet at Mers El Kebir, to that at night against the anchored Italian fleet at Taranto. (Where a mere 21 obsolescent Stringbags sunk or disabled 3 battleships, 2 cruisers, 2 destroyers, several other ships, a dozen seaplanes AND did the sort of damage to oil an port facilities against a well defended and prepared base during wartime that the Imperial Japanese Navy conspicuously failed to achieve with multiple strikes by ten times the number of much more advanced aircraft at an unprepared and practically defenceless Pearl Harbour during peacetime).

Of course the Swordfish had many failures too… failures that point to the fact that it HAD to change its role to survive.

The incredible manoeuvrability of the Swordfish meant that it was probably the only combat aircraft that could have slipped between the barrage balloons defending the Italian fleet at Taranto, but the appallingly slow speed meant it often couldn’t catch fast moving ships (like the French Dunkerque escaping at Mers El Kebir). It’s success against the Bismarck was partly due to the fact that it flew so incredibly slowly that the Bismarck’s anti aircraft predictors could not slow down enough, and constantly fired shells far in advance of the aircraft. Which was fine if there was no fighter cover! But a few months later the 6 Swordfish that tried to strike the German battle-cruisers and cruiser running up the Channel in daylight were sitting ducks to German fighters in daylight (despite some inadequate attempts at fighter escort). Both the British and German admirals commented very admiringly of their amazing courage and determination, but very much along the lines of the French general who witnessed the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava…”it’s magnificent, but it’s not war!”

By 1942 the Swordfish, or its successor the Albacore (which it outlasted in service in the end), simply could not operate in daylight if the enemy had any sort of air cover. But the fact that they had Air–Surface search radar from mid 1941 meant that they remained effective strike aircraft at night, when the enemy COULDN’T intercept them.

This is where the TBM Avenger must be considered. Certainly technically the best torpedo bomber of the war, and one that served well into the 1950’s, it was nonetheless a failure at its first actions. At Midway for instance, 5 of the 6 available were smashed out of the sky (a much higher loss percentage than that of the slow and obsolete Devestator torpedo bombers they were replacing).  This is for the simple reason that even the best and fastest and most advanced torpedo bombers could not survive against fighter cover in daylight at this stage of the war. (Only much later in the war when the allies achieved overwhelming superiority could the Avenger’s operate safely…. But that same circumstance would have mead the Swordfish or Albacore or Devestator completely successful day torpedo bombers again, so that is not saying much).

So the Swordfish and Albacore could be considered more dangerous and unstoppable torpedo aircraft than the much more advanced Avenger for the two years it took until the Avenger could also operate as a night bomber. (Or for the 3 years until the Avenger had overwhelming fighter cover to get it through in daylight.)

Meanwhile of course, the Royal Navy had also adopted the Avenger, and also fitted it for night strikes. But still found jobs a plenty that the Swordfish could do, and the Avenger couldn’t.

First and foremost, was escort carriers. They were so small and slow, that a loaded Avenger usually needed them to be sailing full speed into the wind for a successful take-off, whereas a loaded Swordfish could often take off from one at anchor in harbour if there was even a moderate breeze over the deck. More importantly, if the convoys in the north Atlantic faced rough weather that tossed the ships up and down dramatically, the Swordfish was slow and manouvrable enough to continue the flying operations and landings that were inconceivable to faster more modern aircraft.

Next is flexibility. Swordfish operated successfully as seaplanes, floatplanes, ski-planes, land planes, and carrier planes. They operated from land bases too short for other aircraft; from fields too rough for other aircraft; and from frozen fjords too exposed to the elements for other aircraft. They flew from catapults on battleships and cruisers, from Merchant Catapult Ships, from Escort carriers and Fleet carriers. They operated as torpedo bombers, dive bombers, level bombers, rocket bombers, depth charge bombers; and in conditions ranging from arctic to desert airstrips, and from tropical cyclones to Atlantic sleet storms. They operated successfully both day and night (at a time when few other aircraft could), and continued to be successfully deployed to new tasks when many younger designs (including some specifically designed to replace them) failed to adapt to new needs.

After that comes survivability. Everyone was astonished how much damage a Swordfish could absorb and still come home. Rents, tears, holes in every surface, the Swordfish would just soldier on. (And could often be repaired with a few canvas patches hastily glued in place, and sent straight back into action.) The Swordfish was to aircraft what the USS Yorktown was to ships!

Finally, the Swordfish was simply the most successful torpedo bomber of the war. It damaged and sank more warships (German, Italian, Japanese and French!), more submarines, more merchant ships, more torpedo boats, more midget subs, more just about anything, than any other single type of plane in the inventory of either Axis or Allies. On one occasion in Libya, just three torpedoes from three land based Swordfish sank four ships (2 U-boats, a destroyer and a supply ship). In fact a single Swordfish group varying between 12 - 27 aircraft operating from Malta sank about half a million tons of Axis shipping in nine months – pretty much equivalent to the wartime totals of the Condor, or Judy, or Kate, or Beaufort, or B25, or Dauntless or Helldiver; and not much short of the total for the Avenger.

So, although there is no doubt that the Avenger was a much better aircraft; or that the Kate had a much more dramatic impact in its few short months of effectiveness; or the Beaufighter was incredibly more accurate: the simple fact is that – in so many ways – the best carrier torpedo bomber of WWII was a slow, lightly armed, almost completely obsolescent biplane, that just kept on finding new ways to do things no other aircraft could…

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Medal tallies, Great Power Politics, and Angry White Men!

One of the most amusing things about the 2016 Olympic Games was that the medal tally bore an astonishing resemblance to a table of post World War Two 'great power' nations.

Consider this 2016 medal tally list in terms of World War Two and the 1945 peace settlements, and where the various economic and colonial powers stood at the time.

1. US
2. Britain
3. China
4. Russia
5. Germany
6. Japan
7. France

Notice anything familiar about the pattern so far?

Below that, the tally becomes a little more interesting, with a surprise entrance by South Korea at number 8, but only in the last few days of the competition. Up until then the last spots switched a bit between 3 or 4 countries who eventually finished:

9. Italy
10. Australia
11. Netherlands

As Australians, we can be amused that we sneak in over the once great colonial power The Netherlands. Sometimes during the competition, we led France and Italy as well! We can also boast that we come in above Canada, which had, and still has, considerably greater population and GDP. (I suppose Canada has never taken sport as seriously as Australia... Do they even have a cricket team?)

Still, thinking about Canada brings up another interesting comparison.

Consider the Anglosphere.

The United States with way more than twice the population and close to three times the combined GDP, of the rest of the 'old' Anglosphere nations*  - Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland - still gets less medals (121) than the others (144).

Would it be fair to say that the US clearly isn't trying as hard as the rest of us?

Should we also note that the Anglosphere alone, despite consisting of only 6% of the worlds population, accounts for more than 26% of the world's medal tally?

Does this tell us anything useful about 'great powers' in general? Does it help explain why the Anglosphere has pretty much ordered the world for the last three centuries? Does it contribute to the global dominance of the English language? Or does it suggest that sports dominance equals 'soft' cultural power?

No idea, really. But someone should be able to get a research grant, even if only on the injustice of the Olympics being clearly a repressive representation of WASP culture. (After all, Catholic Ireland only counts for 8 of the Anglosphere's 265 medals... sort of proves the point really!).

What it does suggest, is that all those who claim the West in general, and the Anglosphere in particular, are in relative decline, had better check their numbers. On these figures, the Anglosphere will remain at the top of the podium for another century at least.

* (321 million US population vs a combined 130 million for the rest; and 17, 348,000 million US$ vs a combined $6,626,152 million according to Wikipedia''s Anglosphere article sourced 22.8.2016)

Friday, June 24, 2016

Brexit, and a ‘confusion’ of pollsters.

Well, I drafted this a couple of weeks ago, but got distracted and didn’t publish it until it’s too late (at least to be predictive). Shame really, I probably like being able to say ‘I told you so’, even more than the average egotist. Still, some of the points still have some relevance…

The reason pollsters get so much so wrong, is that they are just a subset of the chattering class.

They are university educated, inner urban, part of the ‘knowledge’ economy, and try to look like they are actually trendy. They hang out with the latte set, circulate mainly within the ‘goat-cheese circle’, and spend as much time as possible doing media commentary with like minded chattering class loonies.

The idea that their privileged, insular existence, leads them to fail to communicate with the great unwashed, pretty much fails to occur to them.

(Which could be why the Brussels bureaucrats, British chattering classes; conga line of international political twats from Obama to Turnball; and big business PR faces: all worked so hard to convince themselves that British voters would ignore Angela Merkels unilateral announcement of the collapse of the EU - when she announced an open door to Europe…  NOTE: I have long since been fond of saying that eventually the Germans would find their third attempt to take over Europe in a century might end no better than the other two… perhaps worse. Well now we’re going to find out.)

I occasionally succumb to curiosity about pollsters, and actually let a cold caller or an on-line survey through, just to see how unthinkingly biased the questions are. The sad fact is that I, like most people NOT of the chattering classes (despite the fact that I am a university educated inner urban professional with no kids) would usually hang up on such callers.

The other exceptions, who will actually answer questions, often being so bored and lonely, or starving for attention, that they will talk to anyone… often agreeing with whatever crap the interviewer clearly favours just to get approval.

When I do bother to answer, I am amazed at how clearly the preconceptions of the questioner come through.

Sometimes it is just the dreadful phrasing… Instead of saying ‘do you favour Brexit or Bremain?’, the question is actually more likely to be ‘are you willing to take the risk of flushing everything you have ever known down the toilet, or do you prefer stability?’. Amusingly, they usually don’t even realise this might be a problem.

I had enormous fun playing with these sorts of phrasings in first year Psychology class… it was great how you could – Yes Minister like – order 3 or 4 leading questions to get any answer you like…”

[Sir Humphrey demonstrates how public surveys can reach opposite conclusions]
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Mr. Woolley, are you worried about the rise in crime among teenagers?
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Do you think there is lack of discipline and vigorous training in our Comprehensive Schools?
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Do you think young people welcome some structure and leadership in their lives?
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Do they respond to a challenge?
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Might you be in favour of reintroducing National Service?
Bernard Woolley: Er, I might be.
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Of course, after all you've said you can't say no to that. On the other hand, the surveys can reach opposite conclusions.
[survey two]
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Mr. Woolley, are you worried about the danger of war?
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Are you unhappy about the growth of armaments?
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Do you think there's a danger in giving young people guns and teaching them how to kill?
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Do you think it's wrong to force people to take arms against their will?
Sir Humphrey Appleby: Would you oppose the reintroduction of conscription?
[does a double-take]
Sir Humphrey Appleby: There you are, Bernard. The perfectly balanced sample.

The problem is, of course, that most modern pollsters don’t even realize that they are biasing the responses. They are simply convinced that ‘ALL RIGHT THINKING PEOPLE BELIEVE X’, so their questions are rarely phrased in a way that doesn’t assume that anyone who believes anything else must be a moron or a criminal deviant.

Even when the questions are actually better phrased, you can usually tell by the tone of voice how you are expected to respond.

I once tried saying the absolute opposite of whatever the pollster clearly wanted to one of these phone callers. You could hear the strain in his voice as he tried to sound as though he was just calmly going through questions while really thinking ‘this guy is a f******* idiot’.

Try it sometime, it can be fun... If you're really, really bored.

So the pollsters managed to avoid the obvious response of the huge number of people who are sick of politicians talking down to them, and convince themselves that their preferred outcome was obvious.

They managed to ignore the fact that all the Bremains Chicken Little Act (yes I mean you David ‘the sky will fall’ Cameron), was so clearly manipulative crap, and assume that people would be scared for it on mass. The obvious response – that people would be so pissed off at the lies they might revolt – apparently didn't occur to them. 

(Amusingly, the only ones to take it seriously appear to be… the chattering classes! Despite the fact that this is a tactic they themselves invented to manipulate the unwashed?)

You might imagine that the fact that they got last years British election so wrong (or the Scottish referendum so wrong, etc) by only listening to the feedback their prejudices demanded, might have had an effect? Apparently not.

It’s not that they are too wedded to their failed models, its that they are too wedded to their pre-conceptions.

I am irresistibly reminded of Australia’s referendum on a republic a while back. 

Every single member of the chattering class - every newspaper, every commentator, every radio program – was absolutely convinced the referendum would walk it in, in a land slide. The confusion when not a single state supported it. (I don’t count Hot Air Central as a useful political division, seeing the entire town is designed and built for the chattering classes to gorge themselves at the taxpayers trough.)

The only sad part is that the markets are so prone to gullibly swallow what the chattering commentators say, that they had their normal panick about the sky falling.
How dare people do what their betters have told them is wrong!

(I am actually going to the UK in a couple of weeks, and my wife is there now. Wish I had the organizational ability to jump on the exchange rate when the markets did their initial panick. Could have saved a fortune on what things will be back to almost immediately.)

Still it gives one to think about a few other things the pollsters are likely to screw up.
Donald Trump definitely won’t get anywhere in primaries… Well he won’t win the candidacy…. Well he can’t win the presidency…

Keep talking guys. The more you put down your own voters, the better he will do.

(Not saying that’s a good thing… the man’s a protectionist moron. But Obama and George W and Clinton and… well you get the idea… are not exactly sensible coherent internationalists are they? As a side comment, the US now is going through the weariness and incompetent insularity that led British interwar voters to simultaneously vote for more action to enforce peace, and disarmament, and believe both were not mutually exclusive! Possibly with similar consequences long term?)

Pollsters, if they want to reclaim any relevance, need to stop acting like those sad universities who actually sack anyone who dares to question the accepted orthodoxy just because it is based on distorting the facts to fit.

They have to actually accept that people who aren’t the elite few might have opinions that have value.

But that would require them to accept that their limited insular clique is not the one true holder of the truth?

The nobility managed it, eventually (well, after the occasional revolution). The clergy managed it, a bit (after enough child abuse scandals). The Marxists have gone underground (or to the Greens, or to anti-bullying programs). Perhaps the chatterers might manage it too?

Or will that require its own bloodletting?

Let’s ask the bureaucrats in Brussels? 

Saturday, February 20, 2016

The General Needs a Break

There is an excellent, if somewhat accidental, section on Generalship in one of Tom Clancy’s earliest and best books Red Strom Rising (from the Cold War period he understood, not the post Cold War world he doesn’t have a clue about).

His Soviet ‘hero’, Pavel Leonidovich Alekseyev, the Deputy Commander of the Southwest Front is exhausting himself preparing troops for battle, when his boss points out that in actual combat, hard learned experience would ensure that senior officers get enough regular rest to allow them to make good and clear decisions. Pavel admits the point, and is fast asleep before his vehicle gets back to HQ. 

The implication being that this common sense approach by his superior is what leaves Pavel functional at the critical point a few weeks later when everyone else’s responses are lethargic and doctrinal.
It is an excellent point for short term command decisions, but equally important for the long term durability of generals.

Historically, generals can function in the heat of battle successfully for months at a time… as long as they get sufficient rest during proceedings, and then a significant break before taking on the next major battle. But any general, no matter how good, will reach a point of decline in health, morals, leadership and decisiveness, if he tries to stay at peak performance for too long.

In his 20’s Alexander the Great made himself function for months at a time over several years… but the decline towards the end was very obvious. His men wanted out and his officers were revolting (literally as well as figuratively).

Napoleon achieved similar results as a younger man, but the sick old man who returned to power – lasting barely 100 days before spiraling out of control – was in no shape to command at Waterloo.
Worse is the list of previously great generals who were far too old when thrust back into command. Petain, the great hero of France of the Great War, was representative of too many old generals as a washed out shell in World War Two. Kitchener and Cardigan are other samples, and I am sure you can think of many more.

The number of generals, particularly junior generals, who drove themselves to physical collapse, is also well recorded in history. In World War Two, any numbers of generals were incapacitated at crucial moments, from Germans on the Eastern front, to Australians in New Guinea. In North Africa alone, physical or mental collapses by: Cunningham (General not Admiral), Gott, Rommel, Stumme, Rommel again, Gort, and a number of lesser generals, were reflective of overwork and exhaustion. 

Admiral Pound and Genreal Dill both died in harness, and both were clearly performing far less than optimally towards the end of their service. And then there is Roosevelt...

Wavell too was exhausted when he left the Middle East, and his lack of rest before being thrown into the ABDA command was a large part of the cause of some of the disasters there.

In the very short term, days, or at most weeks: adrenaline can keep most people functioning way beyond normal timespans… but the term is functioning. Performing it is not. Reactions slow, thought processes slow, creativity craps out, reflexive action becomes default, deeper reflection stops. Any sensible soldier would prefer a well-rested and thoughtful general in charge, which is why even Communist armies eventually learned to give up on idealistic claptrap and assign batmen and cooks and other support staff to their officers if they wanted any success at all.

Montgomery’s practice of going to bed at a reasonable hour and telling his staff not to wake him unless it was an emergency… and probably not then if there was nothing useful he could do about it: is an excellent example of a general maintaining his usefulness to his men in combat . It is particularly relevant to a 3 or 4 star general that someone commanding a Corps or Army – or even Army Group – should have distance and perspective.

On the other hand Montgomery was clearly emotionally exhausted by the time of the Battle of the Bulge, and in need of rest at that point. His ever increasing isolation at his forward tactical headquarters was starting to have a detrimental effect on his control of this Army Group, and both the failure to concentrate on Antwerp and the inadequate co-ordination of the Market-Garden operation were not up to the standards he had set himself in North Africa, Sicily, or at D-Day.

This leads to the interesting point that although Eisenhower was right to leave Montgomery in charge for the completion of the D-Day/Normandy campaign, he may have been right to not leave him as ground forces commander after the exhausting battle of Normandy was over. (In a similar fashion, Lee had undoubtedly been right to believe that Slim needed a rest after the conquest of Burma before preparing the next major operation… a fact pretty much proved by Slim’s unusually emotional response to being ‘sacked’.)

Mind you Eisenhower was wrong to imagine he could be his own Ground Forces commander at the same time as running the theatre as a whole; dealing with international and inter-service rivalries; and negotiating with difficult allies and collapsing enemies.

He was wrong for two reasons.

First, that no one man could do Eisenhower’s real job and still be a useful ground forces commander (which is why every single other theatre – even quite small and relatively simple ones like Burma or New Guinea –separated the roles).

Second, Eisenhower was already a chain smoking and exhausted wreck, who himself had failed to cope with the stresses of the Normandy campaign, and desperately needed a rest.

When I raise with people the idea that too much was being attempted by too few for too long, the initial reaction is, far too often’ ‘there was no choice’!


Montgomery or Slim were no more ‘the vital and irreplaceable man’ than Eisenhower or MacArthur. There were certainly many choices.

Bradley spent the first part of the Normandy campaign as an Army Commander, and was then promoted to Army Group Commander. See, simple choice. He could just as easily, and probably more sensibly, have been left as an Army commander, under Devers or Patton as Army Group Commander. (He probably would have been better if not promoted too far too fast).

Or, the invasion army – 1st – could have been rested while 3rd and 9th armies did the pursuit, and brought up – reinforced and refreshed – when the advance ran out of steam a few months later. 

Patton's 'sulk' during the Metz stalemate, Hodges apparent physical collapse at the Bulge, and Bradley's increasingly irrational responses there and later: show how even a few months in unrelieved combat can have straining effects. Similarly Crerar's enforced 'rest' allowing Simpkin to excel.

Meanwhile after the breakout Alexander could have taken over as Ground Forces commander for the pursuit phase, leaving Montgomery a few months of recuperation to tackle the breakthrough fighting on the German frontier. Perhaps General Bernard Paget (the commander of the British Home Army who had trained the units for the invasion) could have taken over 21st Army Group for the pursuit. Or perhaps he could have been brought in for Ground Forces if Alexander was too vital in Italy? (Or Wilson, or Wavell, or Lavarack, or Devers, or Slim, or Eichelberger, or…. Plenty of choices.)

The simple fact is that Ike and Monty were tired, and both were working at less than peak performance. As Pavel Alekseyev’s superior would have noted, both needed a break.

It is an unfortunate truth that Western Democracies are terrible at giving generals a break to refresh. The Germans and Soviets and even Japanese rotated Army and Army Group commanders around all over the place, regularly pulling them back to ‘reserve’, and regularly re-assigning them to a new position a few months later. The British and Americans however, usually tried to persevere with the same leader until he failed… and I do mean ‘until’, because even the best ones – Wavell comes to mind – slowly lose ground over repeated years of stress, and eventually have to be sacked.

Alan Brooke, on the brink of being appointed British CIGS, was not opposed to the replacement of Wavell in 1941, but felt it ridiculous to ‘sack’ him. Brooke wanted him bought home for a few months rest and recuperation before re-assignment. But Churchill didn’t want him in London where he might cause trouble, and banished him to India… Unfortunately there he was thrown straight back into a role as CIC India, and was barely getting on top of that when he was dragged back into service against the Japanese WITHOUT the benefit of having had a few months rest.

There is no doubt that if Brooke had given him 6 months off, Wavell would have been in much better shape for another active role later in the war. Wavell as either Supreme or Land Forces commander of the invasion of North Africa (or Italy) is by no means unrealistic. Wavell as Churchill’s representative to Stalin (he spoke superb Russian) would have been fascinating. Wavell on the Combined Chiefs of Staff is harder to imagine, but not impossible. But Wavell – unscarred by ‘sacking’ – taking over as CIGS if Brooke had been released for field command in 1944 – in France or Italy or Asia – was also possible.

Which leads us to Brooke and Churchill.

Brooke had carried the can for Allied strategy from November 1941 to the invasion of Italy in 1943, and both needed and deserved a break. There is no doubt that he had achieved his greatest impact on the war by steering Allied strategy successfully to the point where the surrender of Italy and clearing of the Mediterranean had finally made an invasion of France possible. His strategic impact was already in decline by that point (partly because most of the strategy to see out the was already set, and partly because Marshall and and others just didn’t want to be steered by him anymore): but it is arguable that this decline in influence was at least as much because of increasing tiredness as anything else.

Brooke needed a break, and to be re-assigned to a fresh job where he could do most good. Preferably six months off before taking over as Supreme Allied Commander for the Invasion of France; but also possibly as SAC Med if Alexander continued to serve as Ike’s Land Forces Commander; or as SAC South East Asia to deal with Burma, Malaya and the East Indies.

Either way Brooke’s impact on the war might have been increased, and his replacement as CIGS might have brought in renewed perspectives and energy.

The same applies, I am afraid, to Churchill. He too needed a break for a few months between the surrender of Italy and the invasion of France. This would of course have been much harder for a politician than for a military man, but it ids nonetheless true. One of the reasons Churchill was so shattered by his loss of the 1945 general election was his exhaustion… and in fact one of the reasons for that loss was his exhaustion. Had he been able to take a few months off in late 1943 or early 1944, he would have faced the end of the war with renewed energy. (And faced the almost inevitable loss of the following election with far more realism and stoicism.)

It is hard to imagine how such a break could have been managed under a system where it was not understoof that generals needed breaks. But it is interesting to imagine how it might have worked had that principle been understood. If the CIC of the British military – King George VIII – had been in the habit of accepting rest periods for his generals, it is easier to imagine him suggesting (or even ordering) rest periods for his Prime Ministers! An amusing side thought, but certainly not beyond the realms of possibility in the Westminster system…

Eisenhower is another person who desperately needed a rest. He went from running the invasion of North Africa, and the resulting political settlements there (while others largely dealt with the military issues); to running the invasion of Sicily and then Italy, and the resulting political settlements there (while others largely dealt with the military issues); straight to running the invasion of France, and the resulting political settlements there (while imagining he could simultaneously deal with the military issues): without much of a break. This was extremely foolish, and arguably had a very negative effect on Allied operations in France, and on the political outcome in Europe (which saw much of central Europe unnecessarily fall to the Soviets).

In fact it is hard to imagine that anything except exhaustion affecting his judgement could have led him to imagine he could suddenly combine both the political and military roles effectively, when his previous history had seen such poor outcomes when he tried to concentrate on a single job. It is possible that he had such an outbreak of overwhelming hubris and arrogance that he might have tried to do the same thing even if rested… but lets be kind and suggest that his decision sounds more like exhaustion overcoming common sense.

Again, he needed a good few months break – preferably at home resting in the US – before being re-assigned to D-Day: rather than being thrown straight back in. He was clearly approaching an exhausted nervous wreck by the time the invasion began, and his testy and emotional responses to any delays, countered by his delirious over confidence when things seemed to be going well: give a poor impression of someone at their best performance.

Paget should have been left to plan the invasion while Ike rested. If Ike was to command, he should have taken over fresh a few weeks before operations began, to have a chance to make it to the end of the war. As it was, he may have been right to think Monty needed less responsibility after the Normandy breakout, but he was clearly wrong to imagine he could handle everything thereafter. The directionless wandering of his broad front ‘strategy’ was only exceeded by his failures to grasp that the end goal of the war was a stable political settlement in Europe.

In that of course he reflected his boss, Marshall, who was one of the old fashioned ‘just win and go home’ generals. He clearly had no comprehension that ‘just going home’ might mean you had to come back again later… He clearly never understood that his ‘political’ solutions would just mean that the US had to ‘come back’ in NATO, or to in Korea, or Vietnam, or… well you get the idea. (This lack of understanding was in fact a terrible misreading of his own nations history in such matters. A 19th century British diplomat had once questioned an American ambassador on the US’s habit of repeatedly invading Central American countries, demanding open elections, and going home. “What do you do when the election gets a result you don’t like?”. “Oh, we just invade again.”)

It is hard to say whether Marshall’s failings at the crucial ‘make a balanced peace’ part of the war were just his limited understanding of how international relations worked, or a sign of him being exhausted too. Charitably, it would be nice to suggest that it was at least partially caused by overtiredness and irritability. Certainly his far wiser approach to the Marshall Plan indicates that he could do better on international understanding… though perhaps that was a hard learned lesson. But the problem with ‘resting’ Marshall at any point was that his CIC – Roosevelt – was by that time so sick that he wouldn’t have felt secure to take the risk of a change even if he had had the insight to believe it might be useful.

The real pity of this is that the Allies did have quite excellent samples of how it could work. On a small scale, Wavell had lasted as long as he did in the Middle East by making a couple of trips to London, and leaving another general (Blamey) to run things while he was gone. It worked fine.
For the invasion of Sicily various generals – including Patton – were pulled out of front line roles to prepare for the next operation.

Montgomery himself twice – North Africa and France – pulled Horrocks out of the line for a rest in preparation for future operations... If only he'd accepted the same applied to himself!

In Macarthur’s command (partly accidentally given the Australian vs American confusion) this became a regular practice of a new general overseeing each operation, and the rested general having a break before preparing the next operation.

MacArthur sort of continued this pattern even with just American generals like Eichelberger and Krueger swapping with 6th and 8th armies respectively from Buna to the Philippines.

More significantly, 3rd  and 5th Fleets perfected the idea of one Admiral running an operation while the other takes a break and then prepares the next operation.

That’s the way to do it!

The general lack of imagination by the Allied command systems in deciding who needed a rest when, is responsible for two significant issues.

1)    Good generals being sacked and discarded for being overtired, when a little R&R would see them back fresh, experienced, and continuing to develop. And
2)    Tired generals making mistakes that increased casualties and lengthened the war.

It is simply not possible to estimate the damage done to the Allies and to the world, by the unwillingness to give good leaders desperately needed breaks.