Relearning the Lessons. John Terraine’s 1984 WFA Address

(This article, a transcript of John Terraine's 1984 Address first appeared in Stand To! 1985 No.13  pp4-7)

 

Mr. Chairman, fellow-members of the WFA: I hope you will forgive me if today - contrary to my usual practice - I strike a personal note in my address to you. Before we go any further, I think we should pause and notice the phrase "usual practice": I note with mild surprise and great pleasure that this is the fifth occasion on which I have had the privilege of addressing your Annual General Meeting in my capacity of Honorary President.

The infant is growing up!

1984 - thanks to the WFA - provided me with an occasion of great privilege and pleasure. In November, at the invitation of the Association, I took part in the Remembrance Pilgrimage to the Ypres Salient; it was a very special occasion from many points of view.

First, of course, it marked the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the war, and the creation of the battle-front that our Association exists to commemorate - that alone gave it a particular quality which one sensed was entirely appreciated by all the groups taking part in the ceremonies in Ypres.

Secondly (I think I am right in saying) it marked the last WFA tour to be conducted by our Founder, John Giles. Those who have not experienced it cannot imagine how much John puts into these affairs, and I fear that this time he had to acknowledge - when he got back - that he had thrown rather too much of himself into the attack. We are very grateful to him for doing it, and I was most pleased to have caught the last time, but I think we will all join Margery Giles at this stage in saying, not just "Thank you, John", but "For goodness sake, take it easy!"

Thirdly, to the amazement of us all, November 11 in Ypres in 1984 (and, indeed, the whole tour except the last day) was a day of wonderful warmth and sunshine, and that deeply impressive and evocative town looked absolutely superb. I recalled that in 1914 November 11 was the day the fine autumn weather broke - the day the British Army was introduced to the lasting physical misery of the Western Front. I reflected, too, that our good fortune underlined once more the sheer bad luck of that rotten autumn of 1917; if the rain then had waited until November 11, what a different result there might have been!

And finally there was the very real pleasure — this is no blarney, I promise you of getting to know some fellow members in a way that ten or fifteen years of annual general meetings would hardly be likely to match.

And there I think I should end this recollection of the 1984 Pilgrimage - the Chairman mentions it in his report and I am sure it will have a number of other notices; it certainly should have!

So now to what I suppose we may describe as the main body of my discourse - and I shall continue to strike the personal note, and hope not to displease you.

As some of you know, for the last threeand-a-half years or so I have been engaged in writing a history of the Royal Air Force in the European War, 1939-45.

The title of it is The Right of the Line - which makes some people blink a bit, but I think 1 make out a reasonable case for it -and the book is to be published on March 18.

It is the first full-length treatment that I have attempted of a World War II topic, and as you can see, by its very nature it is comprehensive - it takes in pretty well the whole of the war in Europe. Not the Far East, to my regret; but that was impossible - as it is my text runs to 687 pages.

I need hardly tell you that in the course of writing this book I found myself constantly thinking of the other war - our war - and comparing the two, and it is that comparison that I want to talk to you about today, because I often think that the most regrettable manifestations of misunderstanding of "our" war, the war of the Western Front, stem from incorrect comparisons with the second war.

One comparison, however, I would not dispute; I found it in the autobiography of a very distinguished airman - Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir John Slessor, who rose to the top of his Service, Chief of the Air Staff, 1950-52, and died in 1979. Slessor wrote:

"I have seen at close quarters in my lifetime two of the most unbelievable manifestations of human courage and endurance in the history of war - the infantry of 1914-1918 and the bomber crews of 1939-1945."1

The more I pondered on those words, the more I realized how right they are, and in fact they became a running refrain of the book. Nowhere, I concluded, do they fit the bill better than in that bleak period from 1940-43 when Bomber Command remained painfully weak for the task in hand, when its equipment - by comparison with the last phase of the war - was ridiculously inadequate, when the results that it was able to achieve were often pitiful, but when it had to keep on carrying on, going out night after night to what, over the span of a tour of operations; took on the look of a sentence of certain death because there was absolutely no other way that Britain could let Germany - and the world — know that we were actually in the war. I don't have to explain to you the similarity to that other awful period, 1915-17, when the BEF also had to keep on carrying on, with just as inadequate equipment, and just as little chance of achieving any large result.

Well, that was an area where the experience of one war threw considerable light on that of another - and I found that there were a great many such areas.

In fact I soon realized that it is only possible to understand the Second World War properly if one knows - and understands - a good deal about the first.

I also realized - perhaps it is only another way of saying the same thing - that a good deal of World War II was taken up with, quite simply, relearning lessons of World War I that should never have been forgotten.

This affected every Service, to a greater or lesser extent, so let me start with the Royal Navy, not just because it is the senior Service, but also because it supplies a perfect example of what I mean.

In both wars the Navy found its most difficult and frightening enemy to be the German U-boat fleet. In 1917 the U-boats sank 6,623,623 tons of British, Allied and neutral shipping, including a dreadful peak figure of 834,549 tons in April. The First Sea Lord, Admiral Jellicoe, told the American Admiral Sims that if this went on Germany would win the war;

"Is there no solution to the problem?" asked Sims. "Absolutely none that we can see now," Jellicoe replied.

Well, as we know, a solution was found - or rather, a set of solutions, which included convoys, but also included much else that you will find, if you are interested, on pages 255-63 of my book White Heat (London, Sidgwick & Jackson, 1982).

Now, a significant element in the convoy system (in Home waters) which is often ignored, was aircraft. By 1918 over 550 aeroplanes and seaplanes and over 100 airships were engaged on anti-U-boat duties, and a recognized drill had been worked out. The Narrative in the Air Historical Branch informs us:

"The conclusion of the Naval Staff in 1918 on the correct usage of air escort was that 'a single escorting machine should keep close to the convoy as, for fear of being betrayed by the track of their torpedoes, the U-boat commanders refrain fr o m atta ck on c o n v o y s w ith a eria l escort. The ideal was that a convoy should be escorted by at least two aircraft, one keeping close and one cruising wide to prevent a submarine on the surface from getting into a position to attack. The rear of the convoy should not be omitted, for a submarine may be following on the chance of getting in an attack after dark.'"2

That sounds pretty clear and straightforward, doesn't it? And not only had this sensible drill been worked out, but the Naval Staff had also realized after much heart-searching, that convoy escort was not, as it had hitherto believed, just a defensive measure; it was highly offensive because it offered the best way of finding U-boats and attacking them. And yet, by 1939, the Admiralty was unable to suggest any useful role for the RAF's Coastal Command, other than North Sea Reconnaissance.

The result, of course, was that the first part of the war was spent in painfully relearning the lessons which had already been painfully learnt in 1917 and 1918. I don't know how it will strike you, but it struck me as absolutely pathetic to come across this passage in an article in the official Coastal Command Review in September 1942. (1942 was the worst year of the second U-boat war, with nearly 8 million tons sunk):

"It seems inevitable that the experience of one generation should be largely lost or disregarded by those which follow [why? we may ask] with the result that much information already gathered together has to be laboriously acquired again. Yet another example of this has come to light recently. In April 1918 the Admiralty published a book entitled NOTES ON AIDS TO SUBMARINE HUNTING, which summarised the conclusions of nearly four years of anti-submarine warfare waged by the Airship Department... It is remarkable for its upto-dateness and application to current problems. If both the book and its author , had been used in the early days of the war, much experimentation would have been avoided, and the present stage of anti-submarine efficiency would have been reached much earlier and would have been by now surpassed".

The writer adds, rather wryly, that many of the techniques on which Coastal Command and the Navy prided themselves in 1942 "were commonplace at the end of the last war".

I make no comment. You may be thinking by now that I have led you a long way from the Western Front, which we come here to remember.

I don't think I have. I seemed to detect in this example and wherever I turned in the course of writing my book, the notion that World War I had nothing useful to teach anyone about making war except how not to do it. And whether it is a matter for the Army, or the Navy or the Air Force, I feel pretty confident that the reason for this extraordinary - and most unfortunate - frame of mind was nothing other than the Western Front.

Certainly it was the Western Front - or rather a universally accepted garbled notion of it - that lay at the root of the nationwide determination best expressed in the deadly phrase "Never Again!".

I call it a deadly phrase, because it is founded on the perilous belief that such a policy can be decided unilaterally.

And that, of course, is nonsense in regard to war; one can only prescribe a policy of "Never Again" in war if everyone else concerned - in particular, the enemy — is in agreement.

So the policy of "Never again a Western Front", which meant "Never again a continental commitment", "Never again a French alliance" and "Never again a mass army", collapsed in utter ruin when it became apparent that Germany - Hitler's Germany - shared no such belief or intention. But meanwhile the policy here had had disastrous effects, so that the coming of war in 1939 found this country in a state of weakness and confusion for which there was no parallel in 1914. From the very beginning of World War II one has a sense, by comparison, of being in the presence of the "B stream", or the lower divisions of the Football League.

I think it is fair to say that the Army was the chief sufferer from the "Never Again" superstition. It was what the Army had endured on the Western Front, and the losses it had sustained, that were the mainspring of the whole philosophy. All attention focussed on the misery and the loss - the achievement was quite forgotten, and largely remains so to this day!

The fact that all the combatants in the First World War, on all fronts, suffered similar misery and loss - the fact, indeed, that Britain had got off relatively lightly - was completely ignored. Politicians of all persuasions, pacifists and internationalists, military experts with axes to grind - and, of course, Treasury Officials - all agreed that there was no point in wasting money on a large Army, or even on means of expanding the Army if need be. And why should they, after all? Even the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Field-Marshall Sir George Milne, pronounced that the First World War was "abnormal"- and since he held the post of CIGS from 1926-1933, this opinion coming from the very top of the Army itself was not without influence.

Reality, of course, was rather unkind to these ideas; reality, as usual, was harsh. The reality was that whereas, between 1914-18, Great Britain mobilized 5,704,416 men, (mostly in the Army) between 1939-45 she mobilized 5,896,000 (and that, of course, is without the Irish Republic). For the British Empire as a whole the figures are:

1914-18: 8,654,467

1939-45: over 10 million.

But even when the war was imparting its real lessons, the reluctance to understand its nature, reluctance, in fact, to accept that it might, after all, be another very similar to the last one, remained strong. Churchill himself, in January 1941, shortly before the real masses began to play their part, told President Roosevelt's emissary Harry Hopkins, that he believed

"this war will never see great forces massed against one another".

1941 was the year the Soviet Union came into the war; her forces ultimately rose to a peak of about 22 V2 million. It was also the year the United States came into the war, and America's forces reached a peak of about 12 ½  million. That was harsh reality. Shortly after his interview with Harry Hopkins - on February 9 1941 - Churchill made one of his famous speeches, addressing it very directly at the United States, still neutral at that time, but neutral with a friendly disposition which included not only supplying Britain with large quantities of arms and supplies, but helping to ensure that these actually arrived across the Atlantic. Acknowledging this help, Churchill said:

"In the last war the United States sent two million men across the Atlantic. But this is not a war of vast armies, firing immense masses of shells to one another. We do not need the gallant armies which are forming throughout the American Union. We do not need them this year, nor next year, nor any year after that I can foresee. But we do need most urgently an immense and continuous supply of war materials and technical apparatus of all kinds..."

And Churchill wound up his speech with the famous - if misguided - words:

"Give us the tools and we will finish the job." Churchill possessed a remarkable intuitive understanding which often enabled him to perceive things that apparently better qualified people did not perceive. But at the same time, he could be terribly wrong - and he was totally wrong in this case.

Harsh reality dictated that in the 11 months between June 6 1944 and May 7 1945 over 5V2 million men would serve on the Western Front in north-west Europe under General Eisenhower- which is about the same as the total British contribution to the Western Front between August 1914 and November 1918. And when the war ended in 1945, 3 million of the Allied soldiers in Europe would be American - that is a million more than the American Expeditionary Force in 1918.

It was a war of masses, and masses of Americans as well as British were required for it.

In Churchill's case, as he makes perfectly clear in his history of the Second World War, at the root of all his thinking was his memory and his interpretation of the First World War; as he says:

"The fearful price we had to pay in human life and blood for the great offensives of the First World War was graven in my mind. Memories of the Somme and Passchendaele and many lesser frontal attacks upon the Germans were not to be blotted out by time and reflection."3

Or, as Lord Ismay told General Eisenhower after the war, Churchill was always "haunted by the twin horrors of the Dardanelles and Passchendaele".

Isn't it extraordinary? Always it's the memories of disaster that are graven on people's minds.

Why was it not memories of Amiens, the breaking of the Hindenburg Line and all the rest of the "100 Days' Campaign" of 1918 that actually finished the war? And why was Churchill - like so many others - completely unable to relate what he calls "the fearful price we had to pay in human life and blood for the great offensives" to what those offensives were actually doing?

Why was he not able to see, for instance, that in the Battle of the Somme in 1916 (of such dread renown) the BEF engaged no fewer than 95V2 German divisions, 43V2 of them twice, and 4 of them three times? That makes a total equivalent to 147 German divisions, and if you divide the total of British casualties - 415,000 - by 147, you get a figure of about 2,800, which represents the number of casualties inflicted by each German division in each "tour of duty".

I don't know what you think about it, but my own impression is that it was well within the powers of a 1916 German division to inflict 2,800 casualties in a period of front-line duty. It would require no help from British generals, or anyone else, to do that; the German Army in 1916 contained very nearly the last of its peace-trained soldiers and NCOs> and it was very good indeed - but never so good again. That was the meaning of the Somme.

What Churchill completely missed, because, I think, he simply could not face it (any more than Chamberlain could face the possibility that Hitler might be, quite simply, lying in his teeth at Munich) was the fact that someone was going to have to fight a lot of German divisions once more. In 1941 there were over 200 of them; in 1944 there were 325. Somebody was going to have to play the German First XI in the First Division of the League - which was what Haig's armies had been doing for most of 1916-18.

The contrast of the two wars is nowhere more vivid than here: the steadily increasing and increasingly effective part that - the British Army played on the Western Front in World War I (despite the incomprehension and opposition of the Home Government) and the rapid decline of its role and its effectiveness almost from the moment of re-entry into Europe in 1944 - indeed, earlier than that. It makes sad reading.

Churchill, we must remember, had served on the Western Front; he had been an infantry battalion commander, and he well understood what the ordeal of the infantry had been - that infantry to which Sir John Slessor paid the .tribute that I quoted at the beginning. Always,- from beginning to end, it was the infantry that bore the greatest loss — and it was the desire to avoid that loss of infantry that led Churchill and his Service chiefs into some very serious errors which became all-too-evident in 1944.

To be fair, Churchill had warned the Chiefs of Staff of the need to keep up the strength of the infantry, but unfortunately it was his own frame of mind — so well illustrated in what he said to Harry Hopkins - that had contributed to a steady weakening.

I have sometimes been heard to say- and I admit it is an exaggeration, and an unkind one at that - that the British disposition between 1939-45 was to wage war by all means except fighting. What I really mean is that in the end fighting has to be done by infantry, and whereas between 1914-18 the British infantry showed itself entirely able to face up to that and do it, in World War II it seemed to be preferable to try every expedient except hard infantry combat. Neither the Germans nor the Russians nor the Japanese shared that attitude.

The effect of it was to produce a real and damaging shortage of infantry by 1943, which became serious and permanent in 1944. By then,only 20% of the Army was infantry; its reserves were very weak indeed; and worst of all, its quality had also badly declined. A German Intelligence document which was captured in Normandy actually went so far as to say:

"The enemy is extraordinarily nervous of close combat. Whenever the enemy infantry is energetically engaged, they mostly retreat or surrender".4

Frankly, all I can say about that is, "I'm not surprised". Just look at the way we had decided to use our manpower in that war.

First, it had emerged, contrary to all prewar expectation, that the other Services, as well as the Army, would be mass Services.

Nearly a million men served in the Royal Navy from first to last: about 1J4 million served in the RAF.

On May 1 1945, the strength of the RAF stood at 1,079,835 men and women. Since, generally speaking, the educational and proficiency level of the RAF intake was above-average, one can see at once that this was a serious matter for Army recruitment. But it contains an even more significant figure: 193,313 of these men were aircrewofficers, warrant officers and sergeants; in other words, natural leaders. And to that figure for May 1945, we must add the over 100,000 casualties that the RAF had sustained, the overwhelming majority of them being the same sort of men - aircrew, natural leaders. That makes something of the order of 300,000 all told; translate that into regimental officers, company and platoon commanders, platoon sergeants, etc., who might have been available for the Army (in 1914- 18, would have been), and you begin to get the measure of the problem.

And the Army itself contributed to its own difficulties - in some cases it had no option, but others, in my view were just bad decisions.

I have said in an earlier address to you that both wars were "artillery wars", and so they were; laboriously, the Royal Artillery began in 1942 to relearn the lessons of 1917-18, and by 1944 it was both the strongest branch of the Army - 22% - and by common consent its most proficient.

Parallel with the growth of the Royal Artillery was that of the Royal Engineers; I'm afraid I can't give you a full percentage, but just as an example let me recall the number of REs present in just one engagement - the Rhine crossing, March 1945: 37,000.

The point, as you will readily appreciate, is that both these technical branches make further calls on men with educational or technical qualifications.

And so, of course did the Royal Armoured Corps and its essential offshoot, the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers.

All of these, as I see it, were necessary and legitimate developments which the war made inevitable - which does not, of course, make them any less competitors with the infantry for the best available manpower.

What I criticize is the "private armies" which sprang up everywhere in World War II, and not only diverted men who should have gone to strengthen and improve the infantry, but took them away when they had arrived there.

These "private armies" came in all shapes and sizes: in the Desert there were the Long Range Desert Group, formed by Major Ralph Bagnold in 1940, Captain David Stirling's SAS, Brigadier Campbell's "Jock Columns", and weird groups like "Popski's Private Army", raised by an enterprising Pole, Vladimir Peniakoff. In South East Asia there were General Wingate's Chindits. Most of these formations were bom out of defeat and a degree of desperation; as General Sir Francis Tuker said,

"they had become a panacea for all those soldiers who did not bother to think what they intended to do, how to do it and with what to do it".5

Also, of course, they offered an alternative (superficially attractive) to the grim business of getting down to learning the trade of battle and mastering it, as the BEF had done between 1914-18.

The most important of these special formations were the Commandos - bom out of disaster in 1940 - and the Airborne Forces, born out of sloppy thinking after the fall of Crete in 1941. The thing to notice about that event is that the Germans never tried a large-scale airborne operation again; they had discovered that such things are just not cost-effective.

As Field-Marshall Slim remarked with his usual wisdom, all those special formations were formed by attracting the best men from normal units, which naturally suffered from the lack. Their fate, he said, was usually to be

"waiting long periods to be used for short periods, or eventually being employed for something quite different from that for which they have so long and laboriously prepared".

Armies, said Slim,

"do not win wars by means of a few bodies of super-soldiers but by the average quality of their standard units...Any well-trained infantry battalion should be able to do what a commando can do; in the Fourteenth Army they could and did...Private armies...are expensive, wasteful and unnecessary".6

So you see, when one says that the quality of the British infantry in 1944 had woefully deteriorated, there were solid reasons why that was so — the infantry was scraping the bottom of the manpower barrel, and above all lacked the types who make the junior leaders who are absolutely essential.

There are several sad examples to demonstrate this; I will only mention one.

Many of you, I'm sure, will have some acquaintance with the 50th (Northumbrian) Division of World War I. Its baptism of fire was the Second Battle of Ypres, into which it was flung only four days after crossing the Channel. What an initiation! When it came out of that battle, it had lost 5,204 officers and men. And that was just a beginning.

In 1944 the 50th Division, a veteran formation from the Middle East, was designated to land on D-Day: over 1,000 men went absent without leave from their camps in the New Forest, in protest.

In November, just six months later, the division was disbanded having lost 474 officers and 6,156 other ranks - the second highest total in the 21st Army Group.

It is obvious that something had gone seriously wrong since 1918, because in that year the 50th Division had about 3,500 casualties in the March fighting, over 4,000 more in April and then the terrible experience of being in effect wiped out in May, when its losses were 7,592. Yet in September it was back in the front line, and had over 4,000 more casualties by the time of the Armistic. Its total for that year alone - 1918 -was 19,475. But then - nobody had been telling that generation foolish and demoralizing things like "Never Again"! And nobody kept taking away its best men for "private armies". I find it a sad story - one that may have a lesson for us.

Well, so much for the Navy and the Army; now what about the Air Force?

I could go on for as long again on that subject, but don't worry 1 am aware of the passing of time and I've no intention of trying to boil down 687 pages of text this afternoon. As I said, the book is due out on March 18, and those of you who want to follow up the subject will then be able to do so.

I will confine myself to one single lesson which the RAF had to relearn, having carefully wiped it out of memory after 1918. In the words of one who knew it well, Sir Maurice Dean,

"Between 1918 and 1939 the RAF forgot how to support the Army".7

It did indeed, and the Army became very acutely aware of the fact in France in 1940.

But in Africa - Egypt, Libya and East Africa - it very quickly became clear that supporting the Army was the most important thing it had to do, and stage by stage in the Desert campaigns, in Tunisia, in Sicily, in Italy, the RAF and Army together fashioned one of the most effective instruments of war that we have ever possessed - the Tactical Air Forces.

If you can imagine subtracting these from the Battle of Normandy, I think you will find that you are imagining dire defeat instead of signal victory.

How easy to sum up four years of endeavour in those few words!

But what they amount to is that, after a good deal of running around after false gods, the RAF picked up again where it had left off, and where the Royal Flying Corps had left off, and with equipment that would have amazed their fathers, the Tactical Air Forces became a major element in the victory of the Western Allies in 1945.

It was frequently a matter of doing it the hard way - but I concluded that that, after all, is what "Per Ardua" means.

But I'm afraid there is no doubt that forgetting or ignoring the lessons of 1914- 18 - the lessons, cheifly, of the Western Front - did make things a lot harder.

 

NOTES

 

1 MRAF Sir J. Slessor, The Central Blue (London, Cassell, 1956), 366.

2 AHB/11/117/3(A), The RAF in the Maritime War, vol. i, 44.

3 W.S. Churchill, The Second World War, vol. v: Closing the Ring (London, Cassell, 1952), 514.

4 For further excerpts see Richard Lamb, Montgomery in Europe 1943-1945 (London, Buchan & Enright, 1983), 106.

5 Lieut.-General Sir F. Tuker, Approach to Battle (London, Cassell, 1963), 83

6 Both extracts from F-M Sir W. Slim, Defeat into Victory (London, Cassell), 1956), 546-8.

7 Sir M. Dean, The Royal Air Force and Two World Wars (London, Cassell, 1979), 151.