The Victory of Man and Machine

Al Murray

Podcaster, comedian and historian demonstrates how the allies learned to win the Second World War.
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The Victory of Man and Machine

“This is a war of engines. It is impossible to have too many of them, and the side having the largest number of engines is bound to win.”

So said Joe Stalin at the Celebration Meeting of the Moscow Soviet of Working People’s Deputies and Moscow Party and Public Organizations on 6 November 1941, even when the outcome of the war, from a Soviet perspective, might have appeared to be somewhat in the balance:

It’s fair to say he had a point. Allied war production totally outstripped the efforts of its enemies, because of the backbone of American mass production the Allies, the British Empire, the United States of America and the Soviet Union – the names of these conglomerations of economic power and resources rather giving the game away. Germany’s bid to get its hands on exactly these same kinds of advantages that the Allies possessed being one of the drivers of its war, and their lack a key reason it failed. Allied truck production, for instance, dwarfed the German effort ten to one. The British outproduced the Germans for aircraft, year in year out, and when American factories came online German production was left for dust.

And yet: material advantage in equipment – the word materiel gets used in history books for this, in order to catch the spellchecker out on your word processor and to let you know you are now dealing with military history, with its terminology, its assumptions and its own twisty historiography – is no guarantee of success. (Materiel, by the way, means stuff.) No guarantee of victory.  Notoriously, the Battle for France in 1940 saw the Germans, over matched by the French and British armies, defeat their more powerful opponents, in the old-fashioned way, with concentration of force, surprise, dash and a philosophical attitude to their own casualties (This where the no such thing as Blitzkrieg argument gets going. We aren’t here for that thank goodness). From late 1941 through to the summer of 1942 in its encounters with the Deutsche Afrika Korps, the Western Desert Force, aka Eighth Army, generally started it battles with the material advantage in its favour – more tanks, more guns, more men, and generally got its nose rubbed in it. The defeats in the Western desert were related to the quality of some of that materiel but far more of what went wrong was down to the people in charge, and their ability to get their armies to do what they needed them to do – in essence, Command.

Armies is what I will be talking about, and the business of how they were shaped and then operated: Allied air forces and Navies, which become dominant in the skies and seas by the half way point of the war, could not, for all their might and ability to bring decision to the battlefield on and behind enemy lines, did not put boots on the ground. Stalin knew he had to take Berlin, to deliver soldiers to the heart of the Reich to defeat it, so that is what he did. The Allies knew too that the Germans, Italians and Japanese would need to be evicted from their conquests and defeated at home. Soldiers, armies, would be how you do that.

The Allies – who had done what they could to avoid a war their opponents had been so eager to embrace – found themselves having to adapt to fighting an enemy that had – at least – given the business of fighting some thought, as well mobilising themselves ideologically to fight. Japan also had the best part of five years’ practice by the time it opted for fighting the Western Allies.

This led to a string of humiliations and defeats by the Allies that belong in a list if only to ram home the point, the point that the Allies had to learn how to win the Second World War, rather than simply wait for their factories to wake up. Time was on the Allies’ side, providing they didn’t lose in the meantime.

Oh yes, that list:

  • Norway, April 1940
  • France, May/June 1940
  • Greece in the spring of 1941
  • Crete, May 1941
  • The stalemate of Operation Crusader the autumn of that same year
  • The months of calamity in Burma that began in December 1941
  • The fall of Singapore in February 1942
  • The calamitous Battle of the Gazala Lines and the fall of Tobruk in May/June of 1942
  • The first battle of El Alamein when try as they might the British could not land a blow on Rommel
  • The First Arakan campaign in 1943, in which General Irwin did what he could to present the Japanese with victory
  • The first Chindit Expedition of 1943 which somehow – like the two French defeats on the Arc de Triomphe – ended up on the wrong side of the ledger

This run of bad luck, poor form, bodged battle, whatever you want to call it, had its causes and its solutions: some of them obvious, others more obscure. But most importantly you have to place the British and American armies in their proper context in 1939. And that context is that the British and American Armies were imperial armies.

This of course means we have to admit that American, for all its anti-imperial huffing and puffing, possessed an empire. After all, a fair chunk of the USA had been ‘acquired’ in combat: Mexico its ever-nervous neighbour, Canada of course having a powerful pal. To its west, the Philippines were the centre of gravity for the USA’s eastern empire, the ironies perhaps reflecting on each other neatly. The army, if it had stuff to do, had it to do in the Philippines, and isolationism was a stance that addressed European entanglement and what we would call today ‘peer’ opponents. The US Army was tiny, a think tank really, with a tight-knit cadre of officers who all knew each other, and because the Army wasn’t exactly a vehicle for prestige socially, had joined the Army because they wanted to be soldiers rather than have dazzling careers. This, when the time came, proved to be a huge advantage.

The British effort was by definition imperial, the British Army having duties all over the world as well as its imperial twin, the Indian Army – they both cost the same with the Indian government paying for its end of the bargain. While British officers and battalions served in India as part of the Indian Army, it was its own separate organisation, with its own training and traditions, its own Staff College at Quetta and a range of duties that were more than a century old and inherited from ‘John Company.’ The British Army might, by the end of the 1930s, have been mulling the future and the possibilities of a new European war, but the Indian Army had very different concerns: the appetite for independence and what the new Anglo-Indian political relationship was going to have to become.

Sherman Firefly

In simple terms, the British Army was an Imperial fire brigade, which had been distorted out of shape by the First World War and then had returned as best it could to its appointed form. ‘Proper soldiering’ had resumed, the innovations of the Great War put aside – tanks, mechanised warfare, modernised signalling, infantry tactics weren’t seen as the future, they were seen as part of the hideous, unrepeatable past. Politically there was certainly no appetite for another Great War, nor was the money available. The great reset in rearmament was instigated by none other than the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Winston Churchill, with his Ten Year Rule, a number picked from a hat, marking a fixed break with the huge costs of war that the First World War had brought.

And besides as an imperial fire brigade the British and Indian Armies had plenty to do all over the empire. Ireland and Palestine were two hot wars that occupied the British Army, with some of the stars of the Second World War cutting their teeth in both of these nasty conflicts. In Persia and Mesopotamia, British intervention that spilled on directly out of the Great War occupied many soldiers – even as the RAF vied to do the imperial legwork as the cheaper option – ran for the best part of the 1920s. And in India the ongoing rumble of local insurrection and border control kept the men of the Indian and British Armies busy.

Furthermore, the British had at its limited disposal, the forces of its Dominions. Curiously, given its location as far from Europe as it could be, New Zealand had been hottest on what its government regarded as the peace at any price attitude of appeasement. The Australians, for all their leadership’s bluster about being Anglo-friendly had a deep seam of ambivalence about supporting the far off mother country; Canada couldn’t mobilise its French speaking population for a British war; and South Africa – with the Boer War only a couple of generations ago, was at best lukewarm about fighting Britain’s wars.

These were the martial raw materials available to the Allies, the state of the systems they had when the War began. So, who do I talk about in my book and why, and what am I trying to convey with Command? Two things stick out: the Americans built their army pretty much from scratch, and did it with New Deal raw materials – it is hard to get to grips with the state of US forces in 1939, and how they bore little or no resemblance to the superpower of the present day. The British system, because the army’s imperial duties were so diverse, had a vague and decentralised approach to training. Who knew where you might end up fighting, so there was no central doctrine that could possibly work? That meant it tended to get off to a bad start until it had figured out what to do. Bullshit and drill were the core of what the army did, beyond that it was the colonels, brigadiers and generals who figured out how to fight. This offered disadvantages to begin with, but profound flexibility in the long run. As long as you could get the enemy, who wanted a short war, into a long one, this flexibility might come into play. Might.

I’ve taken ten people at different stages and phases of the war, from the very beginning to the very end, to try to tell the story of how the British and American Armies as well as the Indian Army, figured out what they needed to do and what it would take, beyond the realm of stuff – sorry – materiel. Some of them are famous: Bernard Montgomery, George Patton, Omar Bradley; some of them are not: Francis Tuker, Alastair Pearson, Peter White. But their experiences chart the progress of the Allied effort to get to grips with the business of winning the war.

Al Murray is a historian, writer and comedian and the author of Command: How the Allies Learned to Win the Second World War.