Not exactly a book review, more of a synopsis of a great work of Operational Research by David Rowland. The Stress of Battle: Quantifying Human Performance in Combat is the end result of years of work by David Rowland and his team at the Ministry of Defence. Rowland was the father of historical analysis as a branch of Operational Research.
This particular work looks at a combination of field analysis experiments in the 1980s using lasers, well documented WW2 engagements and a handful of battles from other wars. Almost every page in it is packed with evidence or explanations of the complex methodology used to ensure that you could get controlled results from an otherwise messy and chaotic environment. If you are playing or designing wargames then this is one of the books that you absolutely must have on your book shelves (and have read too).
When I was reading the book I was often underlining or marking sections with post-it flags. In particular I drew the following interesting snippets from the book:
Tanks suppress defenders, but you need at least two tanks per defending MG to have any effect;
Combat degradation is about a factor of 10 compared to performance on firing ranges
Anti-tank guns focus the attention of tanks from suppressing MGs, and the bigger the anti-tank gun the more attention it diverts (unsurprisingly);
Fortifications & obstacles (i.e. properly prepared defensive positions) increase defence effectiveness by a factor of 1.65;
In defending against a 3:1 attack, the average rifleman will inflict 0.5 casualties on the attackers whereas a MG will inflict 4 casualties;
1 in 8 riflemen will cause 4 casualties, and the other 7 none;
MG equivalents for casualty causing are: 9 rifles = 1 MG; 1 medium mortar (81mm) = 3 MG;
Combat effectiveness grows with experience, improving the casualty exchange ratio;
This is just a taster of what the book contains. Really worth reading. Not only that it is fantastically well illustrated with loads of graphs, diagrams and pictures from the field exercises to illustrate the points in the text.
This is more than just an infantry officer’s memoir. Denis Forman was closely involved in the Battle School movement that transformed the British Army’s infantry training during the second world war. He then went on to serve alongside Lionel Wigram (the primary proponent and intellectual leader of the Battle School movement) in Italy. The story is as much about Lionel Wigram as it is about Denis Forman himself.
However one of the stand out pieces for me is the honest treatment of how men deal with battle. The psychological impact and how unreliable things become is often not mentioned in most memoirs, there is an unspoken need not to embarrass anyone, or bring up things better left to lie. This book manages to discuss it without shaming anyone.
Also, the appendices have copies of the reports into the lessons from the Sicily campaign drawn by Lionel Wigram. Not published at the time because they were too controversial they tell an interesting story of how the theory met reality.
Just before the war started Denis Forman graduated from Pembroke College, Cambridge in 1939. He was certain that there was going to be a war but didn’t want to commit himself to the Army until it started, so he took a short-term post with a shipping agency to avoid being sent to the Far East to make his fortune (which is where he was being directed by his elders). When war broke out he was in the Netherlands, and he returned to join the Argylls where he was promptly sent off to be an officer cadet.
His description of joining an infantry battalion and his efforts as a subaltern within it are priceless. He honestly shows how desperate the British Army was in the Summer of 1940 and how it was manning (and ‘leading’) its infantry battalions. More than enough to make you wonder about what would have happened if the Germans had invaded (although I like to believe that they probably had some very similar issues).